Verfasst von: Enrico Kosmus | 23. Januar 2021

Comparison of Sutra and Tantra

The Buddha’s teachings are divided into two broad categories – the approach based on the sutras and the other based on the tantras. While the Hinayana sutras focus on those words of the Buddha that he spoke publicly and refers to the obvious and relative in the mind training. This section is practiced through contemplations on the precious human birth, on impermanence and death, on the insufficiency of all conditioned phenomena, and on the unavoidable connection between actions and their results. While this categorie may be done in detail over a long period of time in most Mahayana schools, in the Vajrayana schools this is done in ngöndro as a daily practice or practice over a manageable period of time.

The Mahayana sutras describe the ultimate meaning from the viewpoint of the awakened state of mind. Therefore, many of these sutras are metaphysical and some aspects of their depictions are symbolic or can only be understood in a state of deep contemplation. Similarly, the Tantras, which are visionary scriptures taught by the Buddha – not so much as a historical person, but as an enlightened state – also set forth the ultimate nature of mind and its spontaneous manifestations. Because these scriptures may seem confusing to people who are fixated on the thingness of the world, understanding them often requires interpretation by people who have experienced these states in deep meditation.

In the sutra vehicle, the development to Buddhahood is described in five paths and ten stages. To go through this development, the sutra approach requires a long period of time; some scriptures speak of three endless ages. In this approach, the relative and ultimate enlightenment mind is seen as the cause of development, and the recognition of the true mode of existence of phenomena – the lack of intrinsic nature – is experienced gradually.

The approach of the Tantrayana includes the same passage, but this is contained within a single meditation session in which the tantric methods – the skillful means – are practiced. The gradual path of Sutrayana is contained in a single session of Vajrayana, although not always in the same order.

Five paths as a path of development

Nevertheless, both the Sutra approach and that of Tantra are complete, encompassing the five paths and ten bodhisattva stages. However, both approaches have different time sequences. These are the path of accumulation (theg chen tshogs lam), the path of connection (theg chen sbyor lam), the path of seeing (theg chen mthong lam), the path of meditation (theg chen sgom lam), and the path of no more learning (theg chen mi slob lam). Let us now consider the five paths in comparison of sutra and tantra.

Path of Accumulation

The first path of accumulation is to accumulate constructive potential, called merit. This is done by making offerings to the Three Jewels and also practicing the other paramitas with sentient beings. The focus is on taking refuge in the Three Jewels and the sentient beings. By accumulating more and more wholesome potential in this way, one develops greater freedom and thus progresses on this path.

Like any practice in Vajrayana, one begins here with taking refuge and bringing forth the highest state of mind – bodhicitta. In addition, this is often followed by a practice of the Seven Branches for the accumulation of merit. This meditates on the path of accumulation in Vajrayana.

Path of Connection

The Path of Connection consists of four stages: 1) warmth (drod); 2) summit (rtse mo); 3) patience (bzod pa); and 4) supreme (worldly) dharma (chos mchog). These four stages of development are also referred to as the „four aspects of investigation.“

The first sign of success in meditative practice is called „warmth“ and describes an approach like a fire, whereby one feels its warmth. This refers to a first approach to insight, which is later realized. It is an approach to the flame-like wisdom of the path of insight by possessing concentration simultaneously with discriminating cognition. The gross disturbing feelings are dissolved by the warmth.

By „summit“ is meant great effort required for the realization of insight, and by this, according to Patrul Rinpoche, is meant „the summit of all sources of worldly activity.“ Once the summit has been reached, the root of wholesomeness cannot be severed by wrong views. This zealous pursuit is no longer hindered by laziness or distraction, giving „patience.“ While these hindering conditions may well still arise in this section, one is no longer trapped by them. One can no longer fall into lower realms. „Highest (worldly) Dharma“ is the name given to the fourth stage because it represents the highest spiritual realization within samsaric existence. One has not yet attained liberation, but through persistence in worldly meditation now approaches the next path, where an insight into the emptiness of all phenomena arises.

Full of perseverance, in Vajrayana one practices the various elements of the stages of visualization and their resolution. The visualization practice, that is, the bringing forth of the meditation deity and mandala, has the function of promoting meditative concentration, deepening mental tranquility, and eliminating the disturbing feelings and false concepts of identity in the mind stream. This corresponds to the path of connection.

Path of Seeing

The Path of Seeing lasts for 16 moments of consciousness (mthong lam skad cig bcu drug), encompassing the Four Noble Truths. This stage is also the entering of the first bodhisattva stage, „Perfect Joy,“ and one develops direct insight into the emptiness of non-conceptual wisdom. In the process, the seven enlightenment limbs of mindfulness, zeal, joy, bodily and mental pliability, collection, and equanimity are developed. In this way, one arrives at the first bodhisattva stage and practices the paramita of perfect generosity. A bodhisattva can be reborn at this stage as the ruler of this world.

In Vajrayana, the bringing forth of the meditation deity and mandala begins with an emptiness mantra, which can sometimes be divided into three to four aspects. In doing so, one allows the mind to rest in unaffected awareness and realizes the emptiness of all phenomena. One thereby creates the basis for insight into the emptiness of non-conceptual wisdom.

Path of Meditation

The path of meditation extends from the 2nd to the 10th Bodhisattva stage. Since there are obscurations to be cleared at each level, tireless meditation is the appropriate means to do so. At this level, one meditates on the truth realized on the path of seeing. This begins with the Noble Eightfold Path and continues through the Paramitas, beginning with perfect ethical discipline, to perfect Supreme Realization. As a result, one passes through the stages of a world ruler to a ruler of the god realms.

In the end, the unshakable state of meditation – varja-like immersion – is attained, freeing one from the subtlest veils.

In the Vajrayana, after the dissolution of ordinary appearances into the state of emptiness, one visualizes the construction of mandala and deity, which is usually done through a seed syllable. From this, light radiates and makes offerings to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, returning and radiating again for the benefit of the beings of the six realms. After that, self-transformation into the meditation deity takes place. In this way, attachment to the ordinary body is eliminated. Through the three seed syllables OM, AH and HUM in the three places, light emanates from the commitment being – which is oneself – and invites the beings of primordial wisdom – the enlightened basic awareness – these become inseparable. Now that one understands oneself as an awakened being and the world as pure Buddha-land, the basis for the 10th Bodhisattva stage is given. Thus, the entire path of meditation is contained in this stage of bringing forth (tib., skye rim).

Then, again, light emanates and invites the empowerment beings in the form of the five buddhas yab-yum. These grant empowerment, they merge and become the ruler of the Buddha family above the apex. This corresponds to the end of the 10th stage and vajra-like immersion.

Path of no-more-learning

By attaining Buddhahood, the Dharmakaya is realized and after this attainment, a Buddha appears in innumerable form bodies (Rupakaya) for the benefit of beings, that is, he turns the wheel of teaching. After a Buddha has given all the teachings, his body of manifestation (Nirmanakaya) dissolves into the Dharmakaya. In this way, he shows the impermanence of all conditional phenomena. And due to his compassion and his previously sworn bodhisattva vows, he re-appears in forms of sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya to benefit the sentient beings.

In Vajrayana, after the empowerment comes the stage of reciting the mantra. The first stage is that of approach, where one experiences oneself once again as a meditational deity – as an enlightened being – by means of visualization and recitation. The second stage of meditation is that of accomplishment. In this, light radiates to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions, making offerings and receiving their blessings. Again, light emanates and purifies the veils of the beings of the six realms, establish them in the state of perfect Buddhahood. This corresponds to the appearance of a Buddha after awakening and bringing about the welfare of beings. In this context, the four Buddha activities of pacifying, multiplying, magnetizing, and powerful liberating are also performed.

After the recitation and performance of the activities, the world and content, i.e. mandala and meditation deity, dissolve gradually. Usually this is done in three steps. This corresponds to the dissolution of nirmanakaya into sambhogakaya and further into dharmakaya. Subsequently, from this state of abiding in emptiness, one again appears as a meditation deity in the activity form and with this view and understanding dedicates oneself to the welfare of the sentient beings.

While in the Sutrayana approach these stages are passed through gradually and slowly, in the Vajrayana the entire process is internalized in one session. When properly applied, i.e., through empowerment, transmission, and pointing-out teachings, thus Buddhahood can be realized in one lifetime.

Based on the teachings of the enlightened and sages, summarized by the Ngak’chang Rangdrol Dorje (Enrico Kosmus, 2017). May it be of use and inspire practitioners in their practice! SARWA MANGALAM.


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