Vajrayana Buddhism consists of a number of schools and lineages that blended Mahayana concepts with the esoteric interpretations of Hinduism’s Tantric schools. Local pre-Buddhist elements of shamanism and folk religion gave further distinctiveness to the different schools. In some places, Vajrayana (also called Tantrayana, “esoteric vehicle”) has blended with popular traditions. In the monasteries the monks and mystical adepts engage in arcane rituals open only to initiates, but the monks also minister to the public through more accessible teaching and worship. Monastic institutions have dominated much of everyday life in the Himalayan nations and, until recently, to a greater degree than elsewhere in Asia. Many of the largest and most powerful monasteries are perched high above cities and villages so that their physical setting is itself an unmistakable symbol of their centrality. Before the Chinese takeover of Tibet, as many as one out of five Tibetans were monks or nuns. Some half a dozen major monastic orders developed, of which the Dalai Lama’s Gelug-pa Order is now the best known. Vajrayana Buddhists developed their own extensive sacred scriptures, largely by way of translation of Indian Sanskrit and Chinese texts. In 108 volumes the Kanjur (“Translation of the Word”) includes monastic regulations along with philosophy. The 225-volume Tanjur (“Translation of Treatises”) includes Sutras, Tantras, and commentaries on them. Perhaps most distinctive of the various Vajrayana schools is the use of ritual symbolism and meditative techniques to achieve their spiritual objectives. Visualization techniques and highly developed forms of chanting assist the meditator toward union with the divine center. Outside Tibet and the other Himalayan nations, Vajrayana tradition exercised considerable influence on the increasingly esoteric Japanese Shingon school.
A Buddhist nun in Bangkok, Thailand asks for offerings. (Charlie Edward / Shutterstock.com.)