Buddhist Tantra defines itself partly by contrast with “Sutrayana.” “Sutrayana” is supposed to mean “all non-Tantric Buddhism.” The next page 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.” An SUV is not better or worse than a two-seat sports car. One or the other may be more appropriate, depending on what sort of journey you intend to take. Sutrayana and Tantrayana have different purposes. They have different prerequisites, different goals, and their methods are mostly opposite each others’.
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 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.