What is Tibetan Buddhism?
Tibetan Buddhism derives from the confluence of Buddhism and yoga which started to arrive in Tibet from India briefly around the late eighth century and then more steadily from the thirteenth century onwards. Indian Buddhism around that time had incorporated both Hindu yogic and tantric practices along with the classical teachings of the historical Buddha who lived around 500 BCE. It acknowledged that there were two paths to enlightenment (complete transcendence of identification with the personal ego). One path was that taught in the sutras according to the historical teachings. The heart of sutra practice was based on morality, concentration, and wisdom (not identifying with the personal ego). The other path, which has become the cornerstone of Tibetan variations, was tantric. This practice blended the sutra teachings with techniques adapted from Hindu systems of yoga and tantra.
Tantric systems transform the basic human passions of desire and aversion for the purpose of spiritual development. Rather than denying such primal urges, tantra purifies them into wholesome and helpful forces. It is very much like trying to deal with a wild horse charging towards you. One-way is denial: put up your hands and shout out, "stop, stop!" Probably you will be bowled over by the animal. Another, cleverer, approach is to step aside and then jump on its back as it charges past you. In such a case, you have a chance to start coaxing it to move in certain directions, and over time you may be able to direct it into a stable. Truthfully, one needs some skill in both self-control and acceptance if one is to be successful with tantric work.
Tibetan Tantra (also known as the Vajrayana) incorporates the major aspects of both the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist teachings. It is basically an esoteric extension on these themes. Hinayana and Mahayana are two schools of Buddhist practice that have basically similar goals and techniques but somewhat differing philosophies. For instance, Theravadin Buddhism (known for its Vipassana meditation) is a Hinayana teaching and Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana teaching. Tantra itself has various schools, which can be grouped by the relative emphasis they place on working with exoteric and esoteric practices.
The tantric path includes the following steps:
Lamrim: (literally, stages of the path) these are indispensable topics for reflection and contemplation and also the meditations and activities that should naturally follow on from them. The Lamrim embodies the necessary prerequisites for tantra. It is set out as a progressive set of steps.
Common Preliminary Tantric Practices
These are the beginning activities that are unique to the Vajranan path.
Generation Stage of Tantra
These are preparatory practices that utilize imagination and much visualization. They prepare the psychological and psychic groundwork for the spiritual energy that will be developed and harnessed in the following completion stage practices.
Completion Stage of Tantra
These are very advanced meditations that primarily utilize subtle energies known as winds (prana and chi are some other names for this energy). These winds normally circulate throughout the psychic nervous system. When they are collected into a central place they provide great stability and clarity for the meditator. The normal collection point is commonly known as a chakra. It corresponds to a node or plexus in the psychic nervous system and acts as a link between the psychic, or astral, level of existence and our normal level of experience.
Tibetan yoga employs a simplified version of the metaphysical structure that is used in Hindu yoga. According to the Tibetan scheme there are three realms to consider in spiritual practice. These correspond to the Emanation Body (this world), the Enjoyment Body (the astral dimension), and the Truth Body (a dimension that is much deeper--that is, much more subtle--than the astral).
Meditation on emptiness is integral throughout this practice. A simple way to understand emptiness is as follows. In the physical world, the personal ego has a relative span and will cease when the body does. So relative to it, the soul, or Enjoyment Body, is much more important since it will continue on after death. Thus saying the ego or self is empty means it is better to ground awareness in the soul and experience the ego as a garment, rather than only experiencing the ego and having no real connection with the soul. Thus emptiness is a statement about priority--we should consider the bigger context of our experience in order to live more wisely and wholesomely.
The same principle of emptiness applies as progressively higher levels of reality are experienced. Hence, when the Enjoyment Body, or soul, becomes a living reality for the meditator, she or he continues to take it as relatively real and keeps grounding awareness in the encircling context. The context, or deeper level, for the soul is the Truth Body (which is just a more subtle version of the soul). So as a meditator realizes the Truth Body, the Enjoyment Body becomes the new object for meditation on emptiness.
To recapitulate the entire process: at the beginning we have a body and mind (the personal ego or self). Next an astral body (Enjoyment Body) is developed and it is as if the physical body and personal ego have become the "body" and the astral body has become the "mind". Next a very subtle body (Truth Body) is developed and the final result is that the astral body becomes the "body" and the Truth Body becomes the "mind". At each stage of this sequence, the "body" is subjectively experienced as being empty by the "mind".
What is the experience of emptiness like? At the beginning level of physical body and mind, emptiness means that one does not identify with any experience whatsoever. Any sight, sound, or other sense is recognized and honored for what it is, but it is not clung to. Similarly, all thoughts and feelings are also taken in this way--as being real and valuable, but not as being in one's possession so that one does not cling to the experience of them. It is as if all experiences, whether external (in the world "out there") or internal (inner thoughts, hopes, feelings, and desires), are viewed as clouds passing by. The reality is the sky, which the clouds float by in. And if the sky is noticed, it too is taken as just another cloud wafting by. The result of this amazing relation to one's experience is an enormous sense of relief, peace, and clarity. At first it seems that one will die if one doesn't cling to experience, but after awhile it becomes apparent that one continues to live on anyway. We are more than just the experiences that we engage in.
The same process applies at progressively more subtle levels of experience. The contents of experience become more and more amazing and wonderful (to our normal way of thinking) but the most skilful way of relating to them still remains the practice of mindfulness (emptiness meditation). So once a yogi creates an astral body and can experience reality at that level, he or she works at non-identification with the astral body. And similarly, once a Truth Body exists, meditation on its emptiness continues as well.
This is also a very advanced teaching whose end result is the same as for the tantric path. Its techniques and emphasis are a bit different. Primarily, Dzogchen underscores direct perception of the fundamental nature of reality. So instead of working to create higher energy bodies such as the astral body, it seeks to ground awareness directly back into the Truth Body. And as mentioned above, this Body reaches the limits of human experience and expression so that its subjective experience is one of all-encompassing emptiness. That is, there is nothing more to be said about this level with the common tools of human experience--words and emotions. The main practice is similar to Zen meditation and consists of holding a constant perceptual openness to all experience. For such practice to lead to more subtle insight, however, a Dzogchen practitioner needs to receive empowerments (transmission of spiritual energy) from a qualified teacher. These act somewhat as a self-correcting guidance system to help a meditator to gradually open to the deeper dimensions of reality. Some Dzogchen meditations are similar to tantric visualization and energetic practices. The basic prerequisites for Dzogchen are similar to Tantra.
Tibetan Buddhism in Relation to Other Buddhist Traditions
The three yanas (vehicles, or schools) of Buddhism teach a similar approach to enlightenment. It consists of morality, concentration, and wisdom. They differ in the emphasis placed on these areas and also on the level of reality that is primarily worked with. The main goal and result of each school is moving beyond identification with the personal ego. The resulting wisdom, or enlightenment, is experienced at various levels of reality--from the physical-astral interface for Vipassana and Zen, to the astral-very deep interface for Tantra and Dzogchen.
The Sutra and Vajrayana teachings place great emphasis on building a proper moral basis upon which to build the insights of emptiness. In contrast, both Zen and Dzogchen place most of their focus upon directly working to develop the wisdom of emptiness. In practice, both the Gradual and Fast Paths have strengths and weaknesses. The gradual approach guarantees a steady mind and heart when one begins to experience very deep states of meditation. This is extremely useful as the power of the subconscious mind that can be unleashed in such states is enormous and can lead to psychological imbalance if one is not basically well rounded by such a stage of practice. The drawback, of course, is that it takes a long time to really begin to purify one's mind and heart. Many great masters have spent their entire lives with the purification and transformation of mind and heart as their chief practice.
The fast approach provides the quickest means to experience awareness beyond that normally associated with the ego. Its drawback is the potential fragility of the ego to withstand such rapid and deep-reaching change--the very thing gradual paths strive to guard against.
An analogous situation holds for the exoteric and esoteric schools. Exoteric traditions are more solid and balanced since they mostly work with the perceptions and energies of the physical plane. So even though it is not uncommon to be visited with various astral experiences during advanced stages of Zen or Vipassana meditation, the emphasis of such schools is to continue grounding back to this earth--to the sights, sounds, tastes and thoughts that comprise ordinary experience. The drawback is that the primal energies that underpin the physical world are only indirectly addressed.
Esoteric traditions, on the other hand, determine to apply themselves directly to the forces that underlie ordinary existence. They reach for the essential nature of the experience of living which manifests as subtle energy and consciousness. The drawback is that similar to reaching too far, too fast, into the psyche as for the fast traditions, esoteric work can reach too far, too fast into subtler fields of energy. This can manifest variously as, for instance, unwanted communication with other beings, energetic imbalances of the body and mind, and uncontrolled effects on the environment and other beings.
The confluence of Buddhism and other mystical teachings in the West is resulting in a blending of these various approaches to spirituality. It is likely that, along with the aforementioned paths, a blending of them which puts emphasis somewhere in between along both axes of the above table will develop as a useful approach for those who wish to remain in a regular lifestyle.