What is the Vajrayana?

The Vajrayana is literally the “Lightning Vehicle” of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word yana means “vehicle” – a means of transport capable of taking the practitioner from ordinary awareness to the experience of awakening (bodhi).  For its part, the word vajra means “lightning,” a translation that emphasizes the power and swiftness of its methods.

Although the term vajra does signify lightning, Vajras don’t typically look much like typical lightning bolts. In fact, some of the earliest images of vajras in Indian art come from Gandhara; a strangely Zeus-like figure carries the cudgel-like vajra in an important frieze in Gallery 1 (below). Eventually, the vajra took on its classical Vajrayana appearance, which you can see in the Southeast Asian galleries.

Architectural fragment showing the offering of the handful of dust and Maitreya and attendants, approx. 100-300. Pakistan. Schist. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S594.

Architectural fragment showing the offering of the handful of dust and Maitreya and attendants, approx. 100-300. Pakistan. Schist. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S594.

Look closely at a classical vajra below and you’ll notice a characteristic form at each end: a central axis surrounded by four cardinal directions. You can immediately tell that the form of the vajra and the form of the mandala echo one another – both consist of a central axis with four radiating directions. So it will be little surprise to discover that Vajrayana techniques involve a journey through the geometric meditation maps called mandalas, along with an emphasis on verbal formulae called mantras and hand gestures called “seals” (mudra). Employed together, these interwoven, multi-media meditation techniques are deemed so advanced that they can produce enlightenment “in this very life,” instead of the eons it takes through ordinary practice.

Ritual thunderbolt, approx. 800-900. Indonesia. Bronze. Gift of Walter Jared Frost, 1990.5.2.

Ritual thunderbolt, approx. 800-900. Indonesia. Bronze. Gift of Walter Jared Frost, 1990.5.2.

From a historical perspective, the Vajrayana was the last of the three great Buddhist systems to emerge; its texts were compiled only by the seventh century. On the surface, you might think that its relatively recent vintage would be a problem for the Vajrayana’s legitimacy. On the contrary, though, the Vajrayana understands itself as the most comprehensive and advanced of Buddhist systems, at least partially because its philosophy includes that of other schools.

The most important meditative technique of the Vajrayana involves visualization. In the first stage of Vajrayana meditation, practitioners build up an image of a mandala-dwelling deity – usually a form of the Buddha – in their mind’s eye. In the second stage, practitioners visualize themselves as that same Buddha. In this way, the meditative procedure or “path” explicitly involves seeing oneself as already in possession of the “goal,” namely obtaining the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. In Vajrayana thought, this procedure is therefore called “taking the goal as the path.”

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