Buddhist Tantra defines itself partly by contrast with “Sutrayana.” “Sutrayana” is supposed to mean “all non-Tantric Buddhism.” My next post compares the two point-by-point.

The differences are stark; perhaps shocking, even. A crude summary:

  • Sutrayana says life sucks totally, so you should separate yourself from the world and try to escape into Nirvana—but that is effectively impossible.
  • Tantra says that life is often fabulous (though often horrible too), so you should enjoy and celebrate it; and enlightenment in this world is realistically feasible.

A boring, but thankfully brief, discussion of terminology

Literally, Sutrayana means “the vehicle (yana) based on the scriptures called ‘sutras’”—or ‘suttas’ in Pali. The scriptures of Tantric Buddhism are called “tantras”, not sutras.

Frequently, Sutrayana is referred to just as “Sutra” for short, when that would not be confusing. Buddhist Tantra is more formally referred to as “Tantrayana” (the vehicle of the tantras). “Vajrayana” means more-or-less the same as “Tantrayana.”

Sutra, Tantra, and actual Buddhisms

“Sutrayana” is a somewhat theoretical construct. No one would say “yes, I am a Sutrayana Buddhist!” Actual non-Tantric Buddhisms are diverse, and don’t share all the features that “Sutra” has. Still, “Sutra” is a useful starting point for understanding how other Buddhisms differ from Tantra.

We will see that, as Buddhisms have modernized over the past 150 years, they have grown increasingly similar to Tantra, and less similar to Sutra. That’s because Tantra is mostly more compatible with modern tastes, and the modern world-view, than Sutra is. Sutrayana may now even seem unrecognizable as Buddhism, to American Buddhists who are unfamiliar with traditional Asian practice.

Still, all existing non-Tantric Buddhisms retain traces—at least—of Sutrayana’s anti-world, anti-body, anti-self, anti-pleasure, anti-emotion, anti-life orientation.

We should ask now: do we want that? If not, we have an example (Tantra) of an enthusiastically affirmative Buddhist alternative. Can we draw on it in developing future Buddhisms?

Difference does not imply conflict

Throughout their history, Sutra and Tantra have had political conflicts. Proponents of each have denigrated the other. However, the fact that two things are different does not mean that one is better or worse than the other.

Yanas are “vehicles”—tools. A band saw is not better or worse than a jack plane. They are both tools that can remove bits of wood, but one or the other may be more useful on a particular job. (I developed this analogy in more depth here.)

  • Most Tibetan scholars say that Sutra and Tantra have the same ultimate purpose—attaining Buddhahood—but that one or the other is a better vehicle for particular people.
  • It is also true that no one practices Tantra exclusively. Everyone who practices Tantra also uses methods of Sutra, and selects whichever is better for particular circumstances.
  • Theravada and Mahayana are different sects of Buddhism. But Vajrayana is not a sect. There is no Tantra-only sect; every sect that includes Tantra also includes Sutra.

Some Tibetan teachers and texts say that Sutra and Tantra have different purposes. I agree. They have different prerequisites, different goals, and their methods are mostly opposite each others’.

On this view, there should be no question of “better” or “worse” at all. That would be like arguing about whether hammers or saws are better. You need to choose which to use depending on what materials you have in front of you and what you want to accomplish.

Sometimes it may even be best to think of Sutra and Tantra as totally different religions. However, they are both recognizably Buddhist. In fact, you can understand Buddhist Tantra as a necessary fulfillment of the bodhisattva approach to Sutrayana. I’ll write about that later. Also, I’ll write about the ways that Hindu Tantra is not Buddhist, and why that matters.

I do think Buddhist Tantra may be more useful, more often, for more people in America in 2013 than Sutra—and yet it is far less accessible. I want to help change that.


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

19 thoughts on “Sutrayana”

  1. A nice write-up, but I’d disagree with one set of characterizations. Rather than say that Sutrayana says accomplishing nirvana in this lifetime is “effectively impossible”, I’d just say that it is “extremely difficult”, or, at worse, “breathtakingly difficult.” And rather than saying that Vajrayana says that it is “realistically feasible”, I’d say that it is “very difficult.”

  2. My problem approaching this topics has always been trying to understand if a) Buddhism historically is largely Sutrayana-oriented, and b) Tantra largely inverts or subverts many basic Buddhist assumptions from Sutrayana, then c) what makes Tantra Buddhist?

  3. Neither Mahayana nor Vajrayana are sects. Sectarianism is a characteristic of the monotheistic mythological constellation. More aptly, Mahayana and Vajryayana are MOVEMENTS not marked by central doctrines. What’s more, they spring to life emerging as buddhism transcends inherent limitations of Indic culture. Both constitute a movement including Central Asia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. For example, until the Meiji restoration of the 1860s, all three Zens (Soto, Rinzai, and Obaku), Shin, Jodo, and Nichiren were considered to be ‘movements WITHIN vajrayana’.And no doubt the oldest extant Vajrayana is found in the Shingo and Tendai movements of Japan.

    Vajrayana emerges from bodhisttvayana. Within being steeped in the bodhisattva literature and practice, vajrayana makes far less sense. That’s something knowable only by means of long term training and actualization. Much of vajrayana teachings presuppose being steeped in the sutras.

    When ch’an emerged in China, it took pains to emphasize ‘transmission outside the sutras’ for polemic reasons: keep them dumb to follow the new movement aimed at resting authority from Indian teachers to gain a stranglehold monopoly for self-professed ‘living buddhas’ in a newly fabricated authority system called ‘lineage’. And that’s the basis of more than mere sectarianism – one buddha at a time created a monopoly. That ideology was successfully espoused by DT Suzuki, mixed with his Swedenborgian ideas, and swallowed whole hog by unsuspecting Western acolytes. Ironically, in Japan Suzuki was taken as a Western scholar, while in the West he was taken as a great Zen illuminati – in fact, he created a literary genre in English. What’s more, his publications were evenly divided between Mahayana sutras, Zen, and Shin – with the qualification that he believed the vajrayana of Shinran was the highest development in the Far East, a fact conveniently ignored in Western neo-Buddhism.

    Bernard Faure’s studies of secondary Orientalism being roots to contemporary Western Buddhist expression are worth the time and disullionment to read for clarity.

    I’d be careful about over reliance on merely one expression of vajrayana – be it Tibetan or Japanese – that’s a good way for mistaking the forest for the trees.

  4. Michael, there will be more on this in upcoming posts… The standard story is that sutrayana takes “three uncountable eons,” and an “uncountable” eon is defined as being some number of billions of years. You could find the exact number somewhere, but the upshot is that this really is quite impossible. Tantra, meanwhile, claims to be easy, quick, expedient, and so on. That claim is certainly questionable, however!

  5. Zac, I think it’s actually sometimes best to think of Sutra and Tantra as separate religions that have partly-shared historical origins. Many modern Theravadins would say that Tantra isn’t Buddhism at all. Since there’s no specific criteria for what counts as Buddhism, this is not a question of fact, or anything that could be decided by analysis or argument. What we can do is to look at what Sutra and Tantra have in common, and how they differ. I’ll be doing that in my next couple dozen posts.

    To see what Sutra and Tantra share, it’s helpful to contrast Buddhist and Hindu Tantra. Buddhist tantra is solidly rooted in emptiness and compassion (like Sutra) and Hindu Tantra isn’t. So that’s one answer to “what makes Buddhist Tantra Buddhist?”.

  6. Ken, thanks for this… your comment anticipates much of what I’ll say in the next several posts!

    I have one coming up soon that is solely about the issue of sects vs yanas, because this has been a key source of confusion for Westerners. And another one about how vajrayana emerges from bodhisattvayana—and is its necessary fulfillment—which is also an answer to Zac‘s question.

    My earlier post on the Westernization of Zen covers some of the same points you make here, particularly with regard to DT Suzuki, whose influence has been a disaster in my opinion.

    Tantra and Zen/Chan have been intertwined throughout their history, with strong mutual influence, but also taking each other as foils or opposites at times. This is fascinating stuff, but incredibly complicated, so I’m probably not going to write much about it. I do have a post coming up soon about how Zen/Chan fits into the “Sutra vs Tantra” classification. Basically, as far as I can tell, it straddles the line, combining aspects of both.

  7. David– I look forward to your future posts on the subject. re: Sutrayana, I would only say “Three aeons from when?”– because we could already be very far along that path. If we become a sotapanna, we only have 7 rebirths left, and if we can reach the four jhanas and then follow the Satipatthana Sutta, we can do it in this lifetime, which to me seems just as feasible as tantra. Then again, I should point out that the only tantra I know reasonably well is the Kalacakra Tantra, and it could be that the Generation and Completion stage there are more difficult than most– but based on my reading of the literature, I wouldn’t put the steps one must take on that path to be dramatically easier than the Sutrayana path.

  8. Yes… To clarify, what I’m explaining here is tantra’s claims about itself in relationship to sutra. Once we know what those claims are, we can ask whether they are true…

    If we become a sotapanna, we only have 7 rebirths left, and if we can reach the four jhanas and then follow the Satipatthana Sutta, we can do it in this lifetime, which to me seems just as feasible as tantra.

    Well, within traditional Theravada, this was not considered feasible at all. Before the 20th century, it was thought impossible that anyone could become a sotapanna, and no one tried. There had been arhats in the time of Gautama Buddha, but that was no longer possible, due to the increasing corruption of the world. Check out my post on the reinvention of meditation for some background on this.

    The Kalacakra Tantra was the last, most intellectualized and complex development of Indian Vajrayana. It probably is more difficult than anything else.

    It’s important to recognize that Tibetan religion is largely designed to prevent anyone from gaining enlightenment, because that that would be a threat to the theocracy. So they’ve mostly made things as difficult as possible.

    That’s not to say that tantra is, or ever was, as easy as it claimed! Buddhism is 98.7% advertising hype, and Vajrayana is among the worst offenders.

  9. words I vote to rid us of: enlightenment
    sects. yana is good, in Japanese ryu(long u) is used; it means ‘stream’
    doctrine & belief

    most of buddhism is designed to perpetuate leaders and bigger institutions.
    My master’s first student (I’m second) helped a tremendous amount – they complimented each other, and so he was sort of my ‘older brother’ – mythologist Joseph Campbell.

    I regard myself as a bodhisattva buddhism generalist, and regard the bodhisattva as the guiding mythic image informing meta-praxis (ritual, of which meditation is a key ingredient). Having said that, I’m more inclined to the vajrasattva yet don’t use it because it’s greatly unknown (kongo satsu in Japanese). I don’t look for doctrines since they have little real importance in the transformative awakening of dormant, innate ‘consciousness’.

  10. Two quick points: 1) I am familiar with your analysis of the reinvention of meditation, and agree with it (and McMahan), but at the same time, we need to ask ourselves when this “dark age” began– we certainly see Theravāda monks meditating at the time of Xuanzang, which is not all that far in time from the birth of the Indian tantras. 2) re: Kalacakra– I am sure you are right, but again, if we look at things chronologically, the period of Tibetan Buddhism seems to coincide with the period of non-meditation in Theravāda, so it seems they wash each other out.

    In other words: if we go by the texts themselves, enlightenment is quite difficult (but possible) in one lifetime for both traditions; if we go by the actual practice, we see that few in the past millennium have actually managed it. (Again, limiting myself to Kalacakra, because that’s the only literature I’ve read in any depth.)

  11. A word that came into play in the 90s is subitist for sudden awakening contrasted to Hinayana and Mahayana Long Haul many births. Subitism is dangerous. If many people wake up who’s going to make donations to temples and monks?
    Some theravada degrades the position of women to earning punya or merit (I call it sucking up to enlightenment) so they will have a future life as a male, maybe even with enough merit to become a monk! Ergo, women are disenfranchised.

    Early buddhism was the caturaryasangha – the fourfold sangha or beggars (male and female) and stable householders (male and female). Years ago someone published on the remnants of a lay bodhisattva initiation found in the Pali Canon!

    Who knows what’s been redacted from the Pali canon. Schopen discovered citations in Buddhaghosa from P canon on stupa worship, then went to Pali canon only to find it has been removed.

    Karl Potter’s book covering the spectrum of Indian spirituality distinguishes between immediate and long haul orientations to moksha, so the distinction is not unique to buddhism

  12. Regarding ‘effectively impossible’ vs ‘extremely difficult’, I believe at least one traditional formulation from a mahayana perspective prescribes ‘three incalculable aeons’. We can chuckle at the humor of enumerating the precise number of incalculable aeons, but maybe it’s better to give the benefit of the doubt and think of an ‘incalculable aeon’ as being like a class of computational complexity. Specifying more than one of a category that is unequivocally greater than one lifetime signals clear intent, like sentencing a criminal to multiple lifetime sentences to guard against future lenience in parole hearings. Incalculable aeons are what cryptographers would love to ensure when specifying (apparently) hard problems like factorization of hard numbers as prerequisites to cracking encryption.

    Vajrayana (at least in terms of this rhetorical conceit) is like technology which breaks the underlying mathematical assumptions of the cryptographic system. If quantum computers (or some other yet unknown methods) make factoring large numbers much, much. much faster, that could spell bad news for anyone whose secrets depend on the coherence of factorization-based ‘incalculable aeons’. Conversely, it could be really *good* news, for anyone sentenced to samsara for that interval.

    I think this isn’t a *terrible* way to view the relationship between mahayana and vajrayana. It’s not that vajrayana directly contradicts mahayana. But it introduces ‘more advanced technology’ which is either upsetting or exciting, depending on your perspective.

  13. One small point– “incalculable” (or “innumerable”) is actually a precise number in Indian mathematics; I want to say it is 10 to the 52nd power, but I’d have to check the sources to be sure. So, “three incalculable aeons” is a very long time indeed.

    But, as I said above: we’ve already been reborn many innumerable times, so the bigger question is: 3 incalculable aeons beginning when? Because, from a Sutrayana perspective, we might be already almost there already (having had the benefit of a precious human rebirth and having heard the dharma and all.)

  14. Regarding the precise enumeration of ‘innumerable’: fair enough, if you say so (I don’t actually know, obviously). I don’t think that changes the discussion much, though it does add to the humor (from my perspective).

    I take your point about ‘beginning’, but I see it perhaps differently. Let’s try a different analogy. Consider two methods for getting to the top of the Statue of Liberty: one is to take the stairs and walk right up. The other is to walk along the ground for a very, very, very long time. The first is a great method if you happen to be at the base of the statue — but it’s entirely inapplicable if not. There are extremely few locations on the planet from which the first method can actually be applied: it has an experientially uncommon base. In the general case, the right answer (assuming foot travel) is to walk over land toward the statue. Instructions that only apply at the base wouldn’t reasonably be included in the ‘directions’ one might find in a road atlas, or on hypothetical street signs along the way (from pretty much anywhere else). There’s no contradiction: it’s just a matter of specificity.

    If you find yourself near enough the base that the locally-relevant instructions say ‘climb’, then that might settle it. Such instructions placed far from any staircase are — in the best case — just indications of what to expect, but don’t need to be specifically accurate. (Obviously, if very confused, one might try to follow inaccurate ‘climbing’ instructions where no staircase is available — a different matter.) The closer you get to the point at which the instruction can actually be applied, the more important its accuracy becomes.

    That’s why (poetically) we don’t really need to quibble about how many zeroes there are in ‘innumerable’ — yet all systems that contain ‘zero’ use it to refer to exactly the same quantity. ‘Right here’ is very specific, whereas ‘very very very far away’ can afford to be vague.

  15. Sorry I am falling behind in replying to all these great comments! Scheduling two posts on successive days was probably a mistake, but I didn’t expect so much response to these overviews. Tomorrow’s will be more substantive.

    Ken, I would love to see the term “enlightenment” go away. It has meant too many different things, and is now just inherently confusing.

    What is your objection to the word “sects”? The word is not used so much in Buddhism, but we certainly have “lineages” and “schools” and “traditions,” and those seem to me to amount to the same thing.

    “Most of buddhism is designed to perpetuate leaders and bigger institutions”: yes, and failure to recognize this is one of the main problems with Western Buddhism currently. We need to get much more cynical.

    Yes, I get really frustrated with the contention that the Pali Canon (or any other Buddhist canon) has much of anything to do with anything. Scripture is mostly propaganda. Scholars are increasingly skeptical and cynical, and that will help.

    Michael, re “we need to ask ourselves when this “dark age” began– we certainly see Theravāda monks meditating at the time of Xuanzang, which is not all that far in time from the birth of the Indian tantras.” Yes, good point. (BTW, tantra was taught in Theravada shortly after that! and still is! more about that in an upcoming post.)

    if we go by the texts themselves, enlightenment is quite difficult (but possible) in one lifetime for both traditions; if we go by the actual practice, we see that few in the past millennium have actually managed it

    Well… I’m not sure I disagree… but what I’m presenting here is how tantra sees the sutra/tantra relationship. This definitely involves distortion of other non-tantric Buddhisms. I have a few posts on that point coming up.

    Within the tradition of “three countless eons”, I don’t think your argument that we might already have completed them is in the spirit of what was meant. What you say may be logical from a modern, mathematical perspective, but I think the point was “forget it, kid.”

  16. I dislike ‘sect’ due to connotation being misleading. The history of sectarianism in the West is one of rigidly intolerable differences. You’ve never find various Protestants sharing the same church. Much of traditional Buddhism practice in the great learning centers were done as a community, while working with specific teachings/teachers was done in the same venues – the uniting force was buddhadharma, not dividing lines of dogma. I’ve heard Wu T’ai Shan is still like that, and that Mandarin, Mongolian, and Tibetan are spoken interchangeably there as well.

    I prefer language pointing persons away from exclusive panacea dogmas. Our Asian imports are by no means free of sectarianism and cults of personality – including that bizarre Chinese ‘living Buddha’ of the Seattle area who uses traditional bodhisattva paintings with his head Photoshopped in as their’s! Yet with the cultural expectations born of Christianity’s doctrinal sectarian history, perhaps amplified by an American birth defect, Puritanism, sectarianism becomes a big trap. In the 70s it was Nichiren Sho Shu (Yen Buddhism) creating fanatics.

    From reading Cole, I’m none too pleased with lineages for that matter since they can easily become a means of validating impostures. At least 20 years ago a two volume Swiss publication, The Testimony of the Tulkus, examined tulkus – those now abroad in India, those going to the devaloka of the West. First interview was with the Dalai Lama. He made it plain he preferred a Geshe who’d won his title any day over tulkus. Tulkus in many cases were charlatans and abusive, lording it over those of astonishingly less independence.

    Pali canon is self-authenticating, and ad hominen purporting to be buddhavacana. Retro fundamentalists get sucked into to uberglauben (over-belief, a term Mike Murphy taught me decades ago), Cole’s earlier book Text as Father: Paternal Seductions in Early Mahayana Literature is another fascinating work. It can be downloaded as a pdf for free:

    Alan’s dad is/was a professor of literature. That makes Alan seemingly unique in Buddhists studies: he reads for literature, not for dogma and defining beliefs. In that work, his insights shake one loose from the intoxication of the divine spiced with hyperbolie.

    The point I add to looking at emergence of new genres of teachings is a hallmark feature of gnosticism – on going mythogenesis. The Christian Bible is said to be the revealed word of God, perfect throughout, fixed and unvarying in content and meaning. So when Nag Hammadi came along Christians – even the liberal ones – didn’t madly dash out to purchased hot off the press copies of Robinson et al translation. Many buddhists – the one’s I’d call core Awakeists – revel in each new textual discovery, not as something threatening to upset the apple cart of dogma and lineage – instead more light shed on the tradition.

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