Buddhism

Tantrism and the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt

   The final developments of Buddhism in India involve the growth of Tantric thought in both Buddhism and Hinduism. Vedism had always based itself on magic and ritualistic magic; in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, a new form of Hinduism, Tantrism, focussed primarily on magic.

   As applied Buddhism, Tantrism focussed on the the use of the physical world. Mahayana Buddhism divided into two central schools, the Madhyamika, or "Doctrine of the Middle Position," and the Vijnanavada, or "Doctrine of Consciousness." Each of these schools believed that all of physical reality was an illusion. The only thing that existed was Void or Emptiness. The Vijnavadans believed that everything we perceived was self-generated and that all our perceptions were caused by previous perceptions in an elaborate chain of causation. This would explain why our perceptions tend to be uniform throughout our lives and why we tend to share our perceptions with others. But, in the end, it's all illusion. The world needs to be rejected as a world of illusion.

   The Tantric Buddhists, on the other hand, developed a different methodology from this insight that the world is unreal. Just because the physical world doesn't exist doesn't mean that one should reject it. On the one hand, if the physical world doesn't exist, that means that one cannot commit right or wrong. As a way of proving that one is enlightened, all sorts of forbidden acts should be engaged in: fornication, thieving, eating dung, and so forth. A similar movement occurred in England in the seventeenth century. A group of radical Protestants, called the "Ranters," took the Protestant notion of divine election to its farthest extreme. If one is saved and one knows it, that means that one can't sin no matter what one does. In fact, committing all sorts of heinous acts can serve to demonstrate one's salvation. So the ranters would fornicate in the streets and curse and do all sorts of obnoxious things in order to demonstrate their salvation. One form of Tantric Buddhism was similar to this. On the other hand, if the physical world was unreal, one could still use the physical world and one's perceptions of it as a means towards enlightenment. All activities, including sex, can be used as a meditative technique. This was called Vajrayana, or "The Vehicle of the Thunder-Bolt."

   The Vajrayanans believed that each bodhisattva had consorts or wives, called taras . These female counterparts embodied the active aspects of the bodhisattva , and so were worshipped. One learned the teachings of Tantrism from a master, and then one joined a group of others who had been trained. There one would practice the rituals learned from the master.

   For the Tantrists, the physical world was identical with the Void and human perception was identical with Nirvana . Buddhism, however, was slowly fading off of the Indian landscape; Tantrism came on the scene just as Buddhism began to slowly lose its vitality.

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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-26-96