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Vajrayana Buddhism: Definition, Beliefs & Practices

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  • 0:04 What Is Vajrayana Buddhism?
  • 1:31 Vajrayana Buddhism Beliefs
  • 2:50 Rites & Practices
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the Vajrayana, a branch of Buddhism that originated in India. Explore the main beliefs about the purpose of existence, the deities, and other aspects. Also, examine some of the features of the rites and religious practices.

What Is Vajrayana Buddhism?

When we examine religions, we often find that they might have different interpretations of the same important beliefs, thus leading to the establishment of different currents. Christianity, for example, has Catholicism, Protestantism, and an Orthodox current. Islam has Sunni and Shiite groups. The development of Buddhism also led to different interpretations.

The two major currents of Buddhism are the Theravada and the Mahayana, which developed during the early years of this religion. Vajrayana Buddhism is a form of Buddhism probably originated from the Mahayana tradition. It is based on a complex philosophical and ritual system meant to provide a path towards enlightenment. Vajrayana is sometimes referred to as Tibetan Buddhism.

The term Vajrayana roughly means ''the way of the diamond.'' The word Vajra refers to the diamond-hard thunderbolt that was used as a weapon by the Hindu god of thunder and rain, Indra. Yana refers to the way, or the spiritual vehicle, for achieving enlightenment.

Vajrayana Buddhism developed in India around the 6th or 7th century CE. Tantric ideas began to be incorporated into the teachings of Buddhist universities in Northern India, gradually leading to the development of a new tradition.

It spread from India into the Himalayas, reaching Tibet in 747 CE by the hand of an Indian monk, Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche). In Tibet, this faith grew and became the dominant form of Buddhism. It also reached other parts of China, Mongolia, and Japan.

Vajrayana Buddhism Beliefs

Vajrayana Buddhism proposes that it can provide a faster path towards enlightenment, thus reducing the need of experiencing several lifetimes before reaching illumination. It's to be practiced by every individual, not only monks.

Among the venerated deities are several Buddhas (often considered at different stages in his path towards enlightenment), female Buddhas known as Dakinis, and fierce deities seen as protectors. They also venerate many Bodhisattvas, which are important figures that achieved a very high level of enlightenment and look for the benefit of those around them.

The concept of Karma is very important and implies that every being and each action is interconnected and related to the universe. Karma defines the ethics and morality, which give compassion a central role. Suffering is considered to be caused by hanging on to things and experiences that are not permanent.

Life is seen as one stage in a cycle of births and rebirths, known as samsara. Souls are often stuck there because of ignorance and selfishness. The final stage is considered to be the nirvana, which is usually conceived as achieving the enlightenment level of a Bodhisattva.

Therefore, the biggest goal of the individual should be to become a fully awakened Bodhisattva. The ultimate gesture of compassion is to make the decision not to enter nirvana but to return to the world again with the objective of helping others reach their enlightenment.

Rites & Practices

Vajrayana Buddhism is full of symbolism and rites, mostly focused on the search for enlightenment. The rites are often meditations that include tantric practices, combining the physical and spiritual worlds. The rites often incorporate a series of loud sounds of trumpets and the strong smell of incense in order to stimulate the senses.

The temples and monasteries are considered as sacred places and the practice of pilgrimage is common. One important destination is the statue of Jowo Rinpoche, located in the city of Lhasa, in Tibet.

However, the most sacred space is generated inside the mind of the individual, through meditation. It is considered that only in such place the interaction with the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is possible.

There are a series of elements that are used as aids for meditation practices:

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