The Tantric Tradition

Tantra is named after texts, called Tantras, that present its esoteric teachings and practices. Its roots may go back to even before 2500 B.C.E., to the time of the magic and fertility cults of pre-Aryan India. In the most general terms, this early Tantric tradition in India emphasized the power of ritual, meditative visualization, and esoteric practices to unite male and female energies in a way that is spiritually liberating. At the time Tantra began to influence the Buddhist community in India, perhaps sometime just prior to the sixth century C.E., it was well established in certain Saivite sects of Hinduism. ...
In that Saivite setting, Tantra included physical postures of body and hands called mudras, the use of magical phrases called mantras, the invoking and visualization of deities, breathing exercises, the movement of subtle forms of energy through psychic channels in the body, and the cultivation of sensual bliss through sexual rituals. [BIBE (Second Edition), 154-6]

In the context of Buddhism, Tantra refers to a set of scriptures consisting primarily of esoteric ritual manuals. ... Vajrayana adherents view these techniques to be so powerful and efficacious that they enable a disciple to attain complete Buddhahood in one lifetime instead of the countless lifetimes of incremental refinement entailed in traversing the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva Path outlined in Mahayana Buddhism. ... Tantric Buddhism is sometimes called esoteric Buddhism due to the necessity of receiving initiation (abhiseka) from a qualified master (called in Tibetan a guru or lama) to be empowered to invoke a particular Tantric deity. Additionally, Tantric Buddhism is esoteric because of the prevalence of symbolic language in Tantric scriptures that requires elucidation by a guru steeped in the relevant oral commentarial tradition. ... Given the complexity of Tantric ritual, a central feature of Vajrayana Buddhism is the importance of the guru-disciple relationship, without which a Tantric disciple cannot gain understanding and contemplative realization. Disciples cultivate devotion for their guru, perceiving him or her as a fully enlightened Buddha from whom the blessings of their spiritual lineage flow.
Mandalas, Mantras & Mudras
A disciple of Tantric Buddhism receives initiation into the mandala of a particular Buddha. Mandalas are two- or three-dimensional circular diagrams of the realm that particular deity and his or her subsidiary deities inhabit. ... By visualizing the mandala, the practitioner concentrates on the enlightened attitudes, understandings, and virtues that are symbolized by the deity and his or her realm, which can help her to realize these within herself. ... Another essential feature of Tantric practice is reciting mantras or oral incantations associated with a particular deity while visualizing that deity in his or her mandala. ... When Tibetans translated Indian Buddhist scriptures into Tibetan, they left the mantras in Sanskrit because the efficacy of mantra is not in the meaning of the words but rather their sound. By reciting the sound frequencies of a deity’s mantra, the practitioner invokes the enlightened qualities of that deity and deepens his connection to the deity with the goal of becoming inseparable from him or her. The most popular mantra in Tibet is that of Tibet’s patron saint, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara, from whom Tibetans understand the Dalai Lama to be an emanation. Avalokitesvara’s six-syllable mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” resounds from the lips of many Tibetans not only in the midst of dedicated meditation sessions but also in the course of performing daily activities, sometimes with one hand fingering the beads of the (rosary), which they use to count the number of mantra recitations they accumulate. ... While the pracititioner’s mind meditates on a mandala and speech recites a mantra, she positions her body and hands in a particular posture called a mudra that is identical with that of the deity she is visualizing. Through identifying these three aspects of her being -- body, speech, and mind -- with the Tantric deity her guru has empowered her to invoke, the practitioner cultivates the enlightened qualities of that deity in herself. [BIBE, 182-4]

Tantra is sometimes referred to as “training in the effect” that one is trying to achieve. Like an architect pays attentive detail to crafting a blueprint of a building he plans to construct, the Tantric practitioner cultivates a visual, aural, and somatic experience of herself as an enlightened Buddha surrounded by a pure realm to gradually embody that awakened state. By not only visualizing a Buddha in his pure realm, but by performing a meditation practice called deity yoga in which the practitioner visualizes herself as that Buddha, replete with divine raiment and accoutrements, the Tantric practitioner gains familiarity with the freedom and joy of the enlightened state, thus enabling her to realize that state within herself more quickly. ... Vajrayana Buddhism expresses this state as the blissful union of wisdom (Skt. prajna, Tib. sherap) and compassion (Skt. karuna, Tib. nyingje). Compassion is sometimes called skillful means (Skt. upaya, Tib. tap), referring to the methods whereby one seeks enlightenment for oneself and others. ... What emerges more strongly in Vajrayana than in earlier forms of Buddhism is a depiction of Buddhahood as the union of compassion and wisdom using symbolism involving gender complementarity in which compassion is male and wisdom female. Vajrayana Buddhist iconography depicts these male and female qualities in the form of yab yum deities, or male and female Tantric deities in sexual union. ... Along the central axis of the body lies a series of wheels (Skt. cakra; Tib. khorlo), or nexuses of capillary-like channels that emanate outward throughout the body. In ordinary beings who have not yet realized Awakening, the channels that coalesce around each of the cakras are knotted together, obstructing the smooth flow of wind and vital nuclei. Tantric practices involving specific forms of sexuality are one of many techniques advanced practitioners use to loosen the channel knots and restore the flow of vital energy throughout the body, resulting in phsyical health, longevity, and spiritual realization. However, subtle body practices do not necessarily contradict celibate monasticism because the majority of Tibetan Tantric practitioners perform them as Tantric visualizations and not literal sexual encounters with another person. [BIBE, 184-6]

... And my body is colored white; I have four heads and twelve arms; my right foot is stretched out, trampling upon the breast of the red Lady Night-of-Time; and my left foot is slightly bent, trampling upon the forehead of the blue Creator-of-Terror. My head in front is white, my head on the left is green, my head in the rear is red, and my head on the right is yellow, and each of my faces has three eyes.
       I have matted and piled hair, marked with a jewel, a crossed vajra, and a crescent moon; on each of my heads is a diadem of five dried human skulls; and I have made a necklace of fifty dripping human heads. I am adorned with the six signs of ferocity: wheel and earrings and necklace and bracelets and girdle and ashes of the dead. ...
And my body has become the world, and my whole body is filled with the mandala.
       And I grasp the ego of the unchanging body and speech and mind of all Those Who Have Come: OM AH HUM! I am the very self whose essence is the diamond of the body and speech and mind of all the gods and goddesses! OM! All events are diamond pure, diamond pure am I!
… And every time my breath goes out, the divine hosts of the Blessed Cakrasamvara radiate forth on the tips of beams of light, to purify the world of inanimate objects into a divine palace, and the beings of the world of animate objects into a divine mandala like themselves. And then my breath gathers them all back into me; and this happens over and over again as I breathe. ...
The vowels and consonants issue forth from my right nostril, with five-colored beams of light; and on the tips of these beams of light there radiate forth the deities of the mandala; they purify the entire Triple World and render it into the essence of their divine body and speech and mind.
       And the whole world is made equal to these gods and goddesses, whose deity is forever innate; and the world is gathered back into me with the vowels and consonants; they enter through my left nostril and reach the level of my navel. ...
And the cemeteries are gathered into the gates; and the gates into the central lotus, and the lotus into me, the Lord at the center of the mandala: and I am gathered into the Father and Mother at my navel.
       And the Father and Mother melt into light and transform once more into the moon and its syllable HUM.
       And the moon dissolves into the HUM, and the U-vowel into the HA, and the HA into the head-stroke, and the head-stroke into the crescent, and the crescent into the dot; and the dot dissolves into Pure Sound.
       And my mind is bound to the Pure Sound, and as it grows fainter and fainter I enter into the inconceivability which imposes no constructs upon reality.
       And then there arises the Pure Sound, and from that there arises the syllable HUM, and from the syllable HUM the mandala instantaneously appears again: and I am the god himself in the world. [The Experience of Buddhism, 213-5]