Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism (and vice versa)

Western Buddhists commonly equate “Vajrayana” with “Tibetan Buddhism.” This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. Most of Vajrayana is not Tibetan
  2. Most of Tibetan Buddhism is not Vajrayana

This is not controversial. Every scholar, Tibetan and Western, agrees. Still, it’s a widespread confusion.

This matters for what Buddhism can be in the 21st century. In the 1970s, Tibetan pioneers like Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshé, and Chögyam Trungpa developed modern presentations of Vajrayana. Around 1990, the Tibetan power structure put a stop to that.

Tibetans may legitimately choose to block modernization of Tibetan Buddhism—especially when that is attempted by non-Tibetans. It is their religion, and cultural appropriation can be harmful.

Tibetans have no right, and (I hope) no motivation or ability, to block modernization of Vajrayana. It was never their property.

Vajrayana is Indian, not Tibetan

Vajrayana (Buddhist Tantra) began in India, and most of its main developments happened there. There is no historical doubt about this; see for instance The Origins of Yoga and Tantra.

There’s an old idea that Vajrayana is a mixture of Indian Bodhisattvayana with a Tibetan shamanic religion called Bön. According to this story, Bön is primitive devil worship, which was given a fake respectability by smearing a little Buddhism on it, and that’s Vajrayana. This slander is still repeated by people who don’t want to admit Vajrayana is Buddhist. It was debunked by Western historians decades ago, and has zero credibility. There was some influence of Bön on Tibetan Buddhism, but it was relatively slight. The major tantric doctrines and ritual forms all come from India.

Vajrayana in twenty other countries

During the Indian Pala Dynasty, from the late 700s to the early 1100s, Vajrayana spread from India to every Buddhist country. For details, follow the links:

The Vajrayana of all these countries was non-Tibetan.

From Tibet, Vajrayana spread to neighboring countries: south to Bhutan and Sikkim, west to Kalmykia (the only Buddhist nation in Europe), and north to Mongolia, Tuva and Buryatia. These countries could all be said to still practice “Tibetan Buddhism.” However, that may make no more sense than describing the religion of Black South African Presbyterians as “British Christianity.”

Nepal has both Tibetan-influenced Vajrayana and Newar Buddhism. That is a tantra-only (single yana) sect that came directly from India, and is significantly different from the Tibetan brands.

Tibetan Buddhism is mostly not Vajrayana

Vajrayana is the prestige teaching within Tibetan Buddhism. And, Tibet did preserve a wider array of tantric teachings than any other culture. However, although it is the fanciest yana, it is not the main one in terms of numbers. Vajrayana was mainly reserved for the social elite.

The vast majority of Tibetans, including nearly all monks, practiced the “worldly yanas,” whose aim is better material conditions in this life or future lives. (See Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies.)

A small fraction of monks practiced Sutrayana. Most sects required many years of Sutrayana practice before beginning Vajrayana; and even then permitted entry only to a few people (usually from high-caste families).

In recent centuries, Tibetans have blurred the distinction between Sutrayana and Vajrayana. They have sutrified tantra—trying to make it compatible with monastic renunciation—because laypeople will pay to support monks but not non-monastic tantrikas. Also, monks are easier to control than independent tantrikas, who are a potential political threat.

Tibetans have also tantrified sutra, by having renunciate monks perform rituals that resemble tantric practices. This creates lucrative fund-raising events, but I doubt it has much religious value.

“Vajrayana is not suitable”

Shamar Rinpoche is the second-most-powerful lama in the second-most-powerful Tibetan sect. In this letter, he explains why he does not teach Vajrayana:

Vajrayana is not really suitable for most people in both the West and in Asia, including Tibet… Since sex is taught as the main core of tantric practice in the West and this does not benefit anyone, what is generally practiced as Tantra in the West is based on a big misunderstanding.

I assume good intentions, but this is dramatically duplicitous. Sex is not taught as the main tantric practice in the West. Tantric sexual practice does benefit some people; his own tradition claims it is absolutely necessary for final enlightenment.

He advocates and teaches “Bodhisattvayana with a high level of meditation” instead. However, the letter says that renunciation is “suitable for very few people” in modern times. Renunciation is the engine of Bodhisattvayana, so what the letter recommends is not Bodhisattvayana as traditionally taught.

It is, in fact, Consensus Buddhism: wishy-washy “it’s nice to be nice” ethics, plus basic meditation.

He is probably right that this is the best thing for many Westerners. However, non-renunciate Bodhisattvayana has no precedent in Tibet.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

18 thoughts on “Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism (and vice versa)”

  1. I don’t see how Newar Buddhism could be described as “tantra-only (single yana).” Kapstein: The status of Mahayana-Vajrayana texts as they evolved in the early modern Newar tradition is expressed in the set of Nine Texts (Navadharma or Nava Grantha) arranged in the dharma mandala and used in the vrata rituals (discussed in chaps. 4 and 5): Prajñaparamita, Saddharmapundarika, Lalitavistara, Subvarnaprabhasa, Lamkavatara, Dashabhumika, Gandhavyuha, Samadhiraja, Guhyasamaja Tantra . . .the vast cumulative tradition
    of Mahayana-Vajrayana ritual remains one of the most distinctive characteristics of Newar culture.” Popular Buddhist Texts from Nepal pgs 15-18

    That is where we got many if not most of the Sanskrit editions we have for Mahayana texts.

  2. Hi, Greg — I know little about Newar Buddhism, so I may be quite wrong… However, my understanding is that it has no path of renunciation and therefore no Sutrayana as a practice.

  3. I’m not sure it’s fair to say In recent centuries, Tibetans have blurred the distinction between Sutrayana and Vajrayana— it seems to me that this has been going on from at least the time of Tsongkhapa, which, put another way, is about half of the time that Buddhist tantra has been around.

  4. Michael — That’s true! It does go back a long way. Some historians think all the way back, and that non-monastic tantra in India was fictional.

    But I was thinking of the three centuries of Gelukpa hegemony starting from the Fifth Dalai Lama. Before that, the Gelukpa weren’t all that numerous, and—more important—they couldn’t dictate modes of practice to the other Schools.

    (And then again, maybe I consider Tsongkhapa recent because my heart’s in the Dark Age :-) )

  5. Excellent, again! Best of all, it clarifies different uses of the mind instead of presenting a bland, tasteless, undesirable soup.

    BTW: “World Yana” — may I ask where you got that phrase (reminded me of the Prosperity Gospel in a sense): “Adhymatic Yana” or “Samsaric Yanas” or ….?

  6. Thanks, Sabio!

    The phrase “worldly yana” most often refers to the yana that aims at better rebirth—which is similar analogous to Christianity in terms of concern with better circumstances in life after death. However, sometimes there’s said to be two worldly yanas, and the “lower” one of the two is about better circumstances in one’s current life, which is indeed similar to the Prosperity Gospel. (To complicate matters, there’s a different system of two worldly yanas in which both are about future lives.)

    These are rarely discussed. I’m not sure why. The best treatment is in Samuel’s Civilized Shamans but I don’t remember whether he uses the term.

  7. Hi, maybe you mean to include this by your reference link to The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century, but Kashmirian Shaivism is also non-dual and tantric, though Hindu rather than Buddhist.

  8. as Lord Buddha said, Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intend to throwing it at someone else, you are the one who get burned” so here in your case(David Chapman) that someone must be Tibetan or Tibetan Buddhism. I hope one day you will find a true moment to take a peaceful breath and stay in silence. try to look after your monkey like mind, it is thousand times faster than speed of light, collect all the rubbish THINGS from every garbage then start to contaminate others. The point is not how others appear to you rather how you perceive or conceptualize about them. it is nothing but projection of your own mind. you are nothing but collection of habitual predilections.

    well, I don’t think that you are qualified to judge about Tibetan Buddhism, firstly you are not a Tibetan, Secondly you are not a monk and thirdly you don’t seemed practice Buddha Dharma at all. may be you are a scholar who read dozens of books and got to say thousand lines like parrot but that doesn’t make you to discern what true spirituality is.

    Another things is that we are not saying vajrayana tradition is not from India, it is from Indian Buddhis masters, such as, Padma Sambava, Naropa, Niguma, Vairocana and Virupa. from them the transmission purely continued in Tibet. it is because of sincerity and determination of Tibetan people all these great teachings are still available for anyone even today. Buddhism was completely razed to dust in India since 12th century during the muslim invasion. Mughal empire covered from afghanisan in the north to bengal in the east, from kashmir to beyond the vindhya mountain in south india. many indian Buddhist scholars from Bengal fled to Tibet and sought refugee. Buddhism in Tibet developed independently and became diversified into a number of lineages. No country preserve Buddhism as Tibet did.

  9. Keep up your studies. Vajrayana is a difficult subject, both to follow and to learn the history. As you begin to learn about it, look at Tsongkhapa and the works that followed. Notice that in Kagyu and Geluk the path is from open to secret, these are not two paths. Notice that Atisha referred to Sutra and Tantra as a single path. Then study the notion that between these schools you woul have the majority of Tibetan practitioners, including monks and nuns. Therefore, you realize that it is true that the majority of Tibetans are on the path of Vajrayana, which is synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism, as opposed to Theravada or Chan.

    Keep studying, you will enjoy it more as you learn more.

  10. Well, what to say. I agree with the comment above: please study the subject more in debth, before you rush to conclusions. For instance, you write, that the Shamarpa advice modern people not to renounce the world. I would like to see a citation of that, because in fact: this is not what Shamarpa advices. In the text, that you do refer to, Shamar Rinpoche advice most people not to take upon themselves the various wows of monks and nuns, because it might prove to make life more difficult, rather than easier. But in various other texts, he sternly advice us all, that we have to renouce the World in order to achieve enlightenment, though for most of us, it should not be done in a formal way. Check out his papers here:

  11. @Saraha, your comment speaks also for me.
    No one is claiming that Vajrayana is limited to Tibetan Buddhism, but I also want to clarify that within the Tibetan tradition, Vajrayana is synonymous with it. I think there was some ambiguity in coming across your post, that Saraha and I am noting? I am a Tibetan Buddhist and a member of the Karma Kagyu community. Many “skillful means” are available to Buddhist practitioner’s, whether their interest is in Tibetan, Japanese, or any other recognized form. The subject is so profound, who could fail to find interest! As long as the tradition belongs to an unbroken lineage and avoids un-Buddhist speech and behavior, they are all pathways toward enlightenment. Sarva mangallam! _()_

  12. Tibetan and Vajrayana Buddhism are quite different.
    I don’t know about western countries, but from what I have seen, most are well known as Vajrayana and Tibetan.
    And what do you mean by “Vajrayana is reserved for social elite”.

  13. your picture looks a lot like one of the two new karmapas. I can only assume you are the Karmapa moonlighting through a secret identity from which you can vent what you really believe. seriously, my name is chaffin and they say we were all one group back before our last name was reduced to being written down. that makes he some kind of blood kin to one of the karmapas! wow. this blog was very interesting and I know what you’re saying is true. I liked it. take care.

  14. I think Vajrayana Buddhism evolved out of India in around 6th Century BC rather than Tibet. One of the main goal of this practice of Buddhism is to become a Bodhisattva. The practitioner of the Vajrayana Buddhism takes his or her innate Buddha nature as the means of practice. Since we, as humans already have an enlightened mind, Vajrayana Buddhism helps us, the humans, to see the world in terms of ultimate truths.

  15. There is so much inaccuracy in this, for anyone who is interested in doing their own research, have a look at and a book by the Buddhist scholar, Lama Jampa Thaye, ‘Wisdom in Exile’. Or perhaps look at the website for Sakya Trizin, head of the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism – there are four main Tibetan Buddhist traditions, Gelug (Dali Lama), Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma.

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