November 11, 2011

The Vidyadhara Vow: Reading the Small Print of the Vajrayana

A Guest Post by Lama Jhampa Thaye. Lama Jhampa's most recent post on the Tricycle Blog can be found here.

Sakya PanditaAlthough we usually think of the Vajrayana, the system of practice derived from the esoteric teachings of the Tantras, as a third vehicle beyond the Hinayana and Mahayana, it is also known sometimes as the Uncommon Mahayana, while the system based upon the practice of the six perfections taught in the Sutras is termed the Common Mahayana. The value of this perspective is its emphasis upon the common ground shared by these two systems. After all, both proceed from the same motivation to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all and share the same view of the ultimate nature of reality being emptiness. It leaves the major difference between them being their methods of spiritual practice.

On this last point, it is said that, while the Common system may allow us to achieve the final goal within three ‘incalculable’ aeons, the Uncommon one provides an opportunity to obtain supreme enlightenment within one lifetime. This is because, rather than striving to accumulate the virtues that will culminate in enlightenment at some time in the future, as is the case within the Common Mahayana, practice in Vajrayana is based upon the understanding that Buddhahood is, in a sense, already present within us. As it says in the Hevajra Tantra:

‘All beings are already Buddhas but they are temporarily obscured.’

To engage in practice of the Vajrayana a fully qualified lama (guru) is indispensable, since it is only by receiving initiations from such a master that we are empowered to practice the technique of deity yoga, through which the transformation of our ordinary body, speech and mind into those of a Buddha may be effected.

As Sakya Pandita says:

‘For one to enter the Vajrayana there is no teaching but initiation,’

Thus, in such an initiation ritual, the lama aligns us with a particular Buddha-deity and bestows upon us the authority to meditate upon it. His own qualifications for this role depend upon his own receipt of initiations from an unbroken line of transmission, his safeguarding of his vows and pledges and his mastery of Tantric practice. In addition he will not perform these activities without the permission of his own masters.

In the Vajrayana or Uncommon Mahayana it is the Vidyadhara vow that expresses the system’s characteristic disciplines in a manner analogous to the role played by the Individual Liberation and Bodhisattva vows in the other Vehicles. It was taught in the Guhyasamaja, Yamari and Kalachakra Tantras and was later expounded by various masters in India such as the adepts Nagarjuna and Virupa and in Tibet by Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147 - 1216) and Sakya Pandita ( 1182-1251).

The Vidyadhara vow is bestowed in any major initiation drawn from the Yoga or Anuttara Yoga classes of Tantras, the highest of the four classes in to which the collection of Tantras may be divided. Thus in such initiations, one not only reaffirms one’s Individual Liberation and Bodhisattva vows, but also accepts the Vidyadhara vow with its commitment to avoid the faults known as the fourteen root and eight branch downfalls.

A ‘root downfall’ is so termed because such a fault ruptures our connection with the sacred world of the Vajrayana, into which initiation permitted us to enter. It makes spiritual practice impossible and thus utterly severs the root of any accomplishment. A ‘branch downfall’, by contrast, is a less severe fault, which merely delays such accomplishment.

In initiations belonging to the Kriya and Charya classes of Tantras there is no transmission of the Vidyadhara vow but we are required to reaffirm the Individual Liberation and Bodhisattva vows, along with various pledges (samaya) relevant to that level of Tantra. Such is also the case when one receives the very frequently given ‘permission’ class of initiations , as we mentioned in our last post.

Although there is a great deal of ethical overlap between the three vows, one important distinction concerns their notions of the nature of the teacher.

As Sakya Pandita says:

‘A teacher of the Hinayana might be excellent but he is simply an ordinary individual. An excellent teacher of the Mahayana system is the jewel of the Noble Sangha. However, an excellent master of the Vajrayana is inseparable from all three Jewels.’

The importance of this perception for Tantric practitioners is reflected in the fact that the downfall of despising the lama is seen as the first of the fourteen root downfalls that destroy the Vidyadhara vow.

Furthermore, although a certain reticence in teaching the doctrine of emptiness is enjoined upon holders of the Bodhisattva vow , secrecy is of far greater importance in the Vajrayana. There the seventh root downfall is the revelation of Tantric instructions, practices and objects to those who have not received initiation. (A point perhaps for some in the Buddhist publishing industry to ponder!)

It’s also noteworthy that for a Tantric practitioner to harbor any contempt for women constitutes the fourteenth root downfall, since they are, in fact, the emblem of the perfection of wisdom. Thus, as the commentarial literature makes clear, any claim that women are unable to attain full enlightenment would constitute the fourteenth root downfall.

Unfortunately, there is, nowadays, some confusion about Tantric vows and pledges. One instance of this is the mistaken assumption entertained by those who believe that they have a Tantric master – disciple relationship with teachers from whom they have not obtained initiation. On the other hand there are many who do not realize that they do indeed have such a relationship with each master from whom they have received initiation. This is made explicit at the end of virtually all initiations, when the disciple repeats the verses promising to maintain whatever vows and pledges he has been given by that master and requesting to be accepted as a disciple.

Incidentally, one should note that mere ignorance of the fact that one has vows and pledges does not provide immunity from the severe consequences of breaking them. Of course, the benefits of keeping the Vidyadhara vow and the Tantric pledges are correspondingly great. Indeed it is said that those, who are unable to practice the deity yoga and other Tantric meditations but nevertheless maintain their vows, will be able to achieve enlightenment within sixteen lifetimes.

Over the last four decades hundreds of thousands of people in the USA alone must have taken Tantric initiations. However, I guess that many would be surprised to learn of the importance of vows in such initiations let alone that they have actually taken them. So, as some kind of antidote to this mixed- up confusion, it seems appropriate to close with the words of Sakya Pandita:

‘The Buddha has declared that, even if one practices the profound skilful path of Vajrayana, if one doesn’t possess the virtue arising from vows, enlightenment will not be obtained.’

Image: Teacher (Lama) - Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (Himalayan Art Resouces)

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Frederick S.'s picture

Thank you for this post. I vow to not drown in dogma and ritual along my way.

James Mullaney's picture

I deeply love Vajrayana. Unfortunately, when I face the situation realistically, I must confess that I am unqualified to take the Vidyadhara vow. I guess it's analagous to not attempting pole vaulting until one has achieved the necessary level of physical fitness: It would only result in a debacle (or worse.)

lianna's picture

Thank you. I am somewhat attracted to Vajrayana but some things I read about it earlier in the day put me off and your words pretty much sealed it. I'll stick to Mahayana for however many eons I have left to serve.