The Tibetan tradition, known as Vajrayana, is a powerful vehicle that provides a very direct route to an understanding the mind. Yet such accelerated practice requires the guidance of a skilled teacher, one who has personally achieved a very high level of mental awareness and is therefore able to work precisely with each student.
Throughout Tibetan history awakened masters have developed unique teaching approaches, founding four primary lineages or schools. The Kagyu lineage is one of them.
Value of Vajrayana
The Tibetan Vajrayana tradition dives into a very direct exploration of the mind through meditation practice and Buddhist philosophy; practitioners are expected to be dedicated meditators and to have a high level of awareness of Buddhist philosophy. As an example, Vajrayana focuses a great deal on blissful emptiness and the true nature of the mind. While these ideas are not found anywhere in the typical summaries of Buddhism, they are in fact the more subtle, nuanced realizations that lie at the heart of the Wisdom and Practice categories of the Eightfold Path. In fact, experiencing emptiness and the true nature of the mind are the end goal: Enlightenment.
History of Vajrayana
The 8th century CE was a period of great activity and interest in Buddhism. At this time, the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen invited two Indian Buddhist masters to Tibet. Their names are well known to practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism: Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) and Shantarakshita.
King Detsen initiated the translation of many important Buddhist texts through these two masters and their students. Their combined teachings and translations contributed to the formation of the Nyingma tradition and the first great flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet.
During the 9th and 10th centuries Buddhism in Tibet suffered a decline as politics and power, in their natural way, influenced the adoption of new influences. Under the direction of King Langdarma in the 9th century, many of the Buddhist monasteries were converted back to the traditional, pre-Buddhist religion of Bon.
Buddhism flourished again in the 11th century. This began a second era of translation, including refinements of earlier terminology as well as the introduction of new translations from India. This period constituted the second founding period of Buddhism in Tibet, and it produced the three other great schools that flourish today: Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug.
Each school represents the various ways in which the Buddha’s teachings have been preserved and taught in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition over the centuries. The four schools emerged from the difference in emphasis of their founding masters, but they all share the basic teachings of the Buddha and have the same goal of enlightenment for the sake of all beings.
Kaygu Lineage and Trungam Tradition
The Kagyu lineage is referred to as the “oral lineage.” While some Tibetan schools emphasize book learning before practice, the Kagyu lineage places primary trust in a student’s ability to learn through practice and direct experience. Therefore, the relationship of the student to the teacher in the Kagyu lineage is critical to a student’s success.
The important early masters of the Kagyu lineage—Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa—systematized Buddha’s more potent teachings into one of the most effective, direct methodologies in Buddhism today for swift advancement on the path. Beginning in the 12th century, the Kagyu spiritual leadership culminated with recognition of the first Karmapa, Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa. This marked the start of spiritual guidance by an unbroken line of reincarnated realized masters that continues to this day.
The Trungram tradition is drawn from the methods of three 11th century Kagyu school founders, Milarepa and his two students, Gampopa and Rechungpa. Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche PhD, Dharmakaya’s spiritual director, is an emanation of Milarepa. The teachings of these fully realized masters were synthesized into the Trungram tradition in recent centuries, leading to one of the most highly prized methods in Buddhism today.
The Trungram Tradition introduced the three-year intensive retreats to qualified students. However, due to the hardship the retreat masters faced under the social-political environment of the Cultural Revolution, such retreats are on the verge of extinction. Therefore, one of the main missions of Dharmakaya is to save these teachings for humanity, by offering these three-year retreats at the Milarepa Center.
Tibetan Buddhism is one of the most visually rich of all Buddhist traditions. This is often a paradox to westerners: We are introduced to Buddhism as a tradition of personal exploration in which an external god does not figure. And yet in Tibetan Buddhism we are greeted with a panoply of what appear to be gods, demi-gods, saints and other spiritual figures who practitioners not only revere, but to whom they supplicate.
Moreover, Tibetan Buddhism is crowded with symbols. In addition to beings, there are mandalas, icons, diagrams, ritual scepters, bells, drums, prayer wheels, and clothing. Each convey multiple levels of meaning to practitioners.
This seems to be the exactly opposite to the other tradition well known in the west, Japanese Zen. How can that be?
First, over the centuries, Buddhism has been adopted by a wide variety of cultures throughout Asia. New teachings naturally integrated aspects of existing cultural influences. In Tibet, the pre-Buddhist religion of Bon had many Gods and manifestations of God in the material world; it was natural for Tibetans to incorporate an existing visual tradition as a way of describing the teachings.
But cultural influences are only a minor explanation. The more significant reason is the form of the teachings. Vajrayana works with the mind in a very direct way: it strikes at the intuitive, non-linear, non-rational part of our capabilities. Vajrayana very quickly moves a practitioner into mental awareness which cannot easily be expressed in words.
Poetry and art are often our way of expressing the seemingly inexpressible. The symbolism of Vajrayana Buddhism can be best seen in this way; it is the poetic expression of the ineffable. The images are points of focus for various meditation practices, guides and reminders as we move through layers of understanding, and poetic expressions of the experience of the true nature of mind—and what we may encounter along the way.