Sutra and Tantra compared

This table compares, point by point, Sutrayana (traditional non-Tantric Buddhism) and Buddhist Tantra.

Issue Sutrayana Tantrayana
Prerequisite Revulsion for samsara Recognition of emptiness
Path/overall method Renunciation of self, emotions, and the world Transformation and liberation of energy
Result/view of enlightenment Recognition of emptiness; suffering ended by elimination of defilements Recognition of inseparability of emptiness and form (wholeness)
Character of enlightened people Saintliness, peace Nobility, heroism, mastery, adventure, play
Absolute and relative truth Emphasizes absolute truth (i.e. emptiness) Emphasizes relative truth (appearances); ultimately, rejects the distinction between the two
Absolute and relative domains Aims to someday reach the absolute domain (Nirvana as Neverland) Operates within the relative domain (the actual world; nirvana is not separate from samsara)
The actual world Inherently corrupt; provokes wrong emotions; should be abandoned Inherently sacred; provokes delight; should be enjoyed, enhanced, and engaged with
Suffering The main point Not a big deal; a source of compassionate energy
Pleasure Bad; a fetter to be avoided Good; a delight to be enjoyed
The practitioner:
Self/ego The biggest problem; illusory and/or cause of all troubles Not a problem; not separate from Buddha-nature
The body Source of mental defilements; repulsive rotting sack of shit; to be subjugated Source of delight; indispensible for compassionate action; to be celebrated
Strong emotions Five poisons to renounce: greed, anger, desire, envy, denial Five elixirs of the wisdom energies: generosity, clarity, appreciation, action, and acceptance
Sexual desire and intercourse The #1 obstacle; celibacy is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress Exceptionally useful motivation and method on the fast path to Buddhahood
Women Inherently spiritually inferior Inherently spiritually superior (or at least equal)
The practice:
Time to full enlightenment “Three countless eons,” which equals billions of years Between a moment and a lifetime, depending on individuals and circumstances
Safety Supposedly safe Potentially dangerous
Available methods Few; each suitable for everyone Vast in number and diverse in approaches, suitable for different people and situations
Thoughts Obstacles to be eliminated in meditation Essence of enlightenment, when properly apprehended
Meditation and action Separate activities Inseparable: practical, everyday activity should be constant meditation
Secrecy Not secret; can and should be taught to everyone Supposedly secret, and only to be taught to qualified people
Role of the teacher Ordinary person who gives universal, non-personal teachings Enlightened person who gives specific, personalized teaching
Ethics Mainly based on self-denial; superficially compatible with Christian morality Rejects self-denial; beyond good and evil; obviously incompatible with Christian morality
Some NON-differences:
Gods, demons, miracles Important; central in Mahayana (celestial bodhisattvas) Important, but their lack of concrete existence is emphasized
Rituals Important but not central Important but not central

Is this a caricature?

You might not recognize this “Sutrayana” as similar to the non-Tantric Buddhism you practice. It may seem like a caricature or straw man, and therefore an unfair or meaningless comparison. I’ll discuss how Sutrayana relates to actual Buddhisms, such as Theravada and Zen, in upcoming posts.

Differing views of this relationship

Everything in the table is a mainstream tantric view. (I mention this because some of what I write about tantra is unusual, eccentric, or personal.)

The view here is from the yogic Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Other Tibetan Schools have different views on a few points. Some tend to deemphasize the differences between Sutra and Tantra, and to blur the boundary. Therefore, their proponents may quibble with details, although overall there are few significant disagreements. Areas of controversy may be:

I don’t know enough about the non-Tibetan Vajaryana schools to say much about their views. However, what I have read about the exoteric (Kengyo) vs. esoteric (Mikkyo) distinction in Japanese Shingon corresponds reasonably closely to the Sutra vs. Tantra distinction I’ve presented here.

Further reading (and a video)

Systematic, point-by-point comparisons of Sutra and Tantra are rare and murky. (This seems odd. I suspect it’s because making the relationship too clear causes political problems.) The best I have found (in order of reading difficulty) are:

For a quick, clear but incomplete summary of Sutra vs. Tantra, here’s a video with Shenphen Rinpoche (a white Geluk lama):