This table compares, point by point, Sutrayana (traditional non-Tantric Buddhism) and Buddhist Tantra.
|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|
|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)|
|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|
|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:
- the exact role of renunciation in Sutra and Tantra
- whether Sutra and Tantra have the same end-point
- the role of ethics in Tantra
- whether ritual is central or peripheral
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:
- Namkhai Norbu, The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, pages 28-32.
- Chögyam Trungpa, The Lion’s Roar: An Introduction to Tantra, pages 125-160.
- Tulku Tondup’s extensive introduction to The Practice Of Dzogchen compares Dzogchen with both Sutra and Tantra, and in several places along the way discusses the relationship between those two as well. This is the most comprehensive discussion I’ve found, but the language may be challenging, and the emphasis on Dzogchen may not be relevant.
- Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pages 243-256.
For a quick, clear but incomplete summary of Sutra vs. Tantra, here’s a video with Shenphen Rinpoche (a white Geluk lama):