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.