Concept of Mahayana/ Vajrayana Buddhism in Nepal Mandala

 It's present status and suggestions for improvement


-Punya Prasad Parajuli


(This is the summary of the paper presented in Newari during the 'Conference on the Buddhist Heritage of Nepal Mandal' in 1998.)

  1. Historical background

  2. Theoretical basis of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism

  3. Difference between Hindu and Buddhist tantra

  4. Vajrayana is also Buddhism

  5. Present status of Mahayana and Vajrayana in Nepal Mandala

  6. Suggestions for improvement of the status of  Mahayana


In order to prepare this working paper, Buddhist scholar and Acharya Mr. Shreedhar Rana has provided a good deal of suggestions. Views and  opinions of various Buddhist scholars, Vajracharya practitioner have been collected through interviews. As there are no persons specialising in Paramityana (Paramita vehicle) of Mahayana in Nepal Mandala, Mahayana and Vajrayana have been used in complementary terms.


Historical background

            In the past, Buddhists of Nepal Mandala went to Buddhist universities like Nalanda, Vikramshila, etc. to get education on Buddhism. Buddhist scholars of Tibet used to come to the Kathmandu Valley for study and learning. Many Buddhist scholars and practitioners had gone to Tibet to impart knowledge of Buddhism. Nepali Mahayana artists had displayed higher artistic skill in Lhasa, Shigatse, Sakya and other places of Tibet. Arniko went not only to Tibet but also China where he demonstrated his genius in the field of art and architecture.

            When Bhrikuti was married to Tibetan Emperor Srong btsam Gampo, Buddhist scholar Shilamanju accompanied her to Tibet. He propagated Buddhism there. The name of Nepalese Buddhist teachers or spiritual guides is often mentioned in the lineage history of Tibetan spiritual guides. One of these illustrious ones was Suratvajra of Taksaabahal, Kathmandu. After the destruction of Indian Buddhist Universities or monasteries, the tradition of visiting those universities in India was discontinued. Particularly, Buddhists of the Kathmandu Valley were compelled to marry and live a non- celibate life during the reign of Jayasthitimalla. This had a tremendous adverse impact on the development of Buddhism in Nepal.


Theoretical basis of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism

            Lord Buddha delivered religious sermons and instructions to the people  considering their intellectual ability and circumstances. These instructions have been included into Sravakayana, Pratyekayana and Bodhisattvayana. Sravakayana is the vehicle of the Buddhists who wish to attain Arhathood being freed from the bondage of suffering the world is subject to. In Sravakayana, Bhikshus reside in vihars and meditate. In Pratyeka Buddhayana, Bhikshus meditate in vihars and monasteries separately to attain personal salvation. The intention of  both is the same.

            Bodhisattvayana is  also known as Mahayana. Mahayana is divided into Paramitayana and Mantrayana. If Paramityana is also called Sutryana and Hetuyana Vajrayana is called Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Sahajayana, Upayayana and Phalayana because the fruit, result or outcome of the good deed or performance is taken as a means of vehicle for salvation. It is also called Hetyana because of the emphasis on Hetu (intention). Even though the base and phala (aim) of both Paramitayana and Mantrayana is the same, the means to attain the aim is different.

            Acharya Tripitaka Kamal says in the text called Vinayapradipa that even though the purpose of both Sutrayana and Mantryana is the same, Mantrayana is different from Sutryana because of the dominant role of  dispassion, availability of various means, deep meditation, appropriateness for the people with sharp intellect.

            Tantrayana has also been divided into four classes depending upon the capacity  of persons doing exercise. Tantra that gives emphasis on external activities such as bath, puja and oblation  is called  Kriyatantra. And the Tantra that gives emphasis on external as well as internal activities is called Charya Tantra. The tantra that gives more emphasis on inner  yogas with least emphasis on external activities is called yogatantra. Tantra that does not attach much importance to external activities but that gives much more importance to internal yogas is called Anutara yoga tantra. All these four tantras are practised by the Vajracharya of Nepal Mandala. Chakrasamvara, yogambara and Hevajra tantras tall under Anuttara yoga trantra. That  the right exercise or practice of tantrayana is not possible without general knowledge of all the aspects of Buddhism has been clearly mentioned by  Vinayapatala of  Hevajratantra.

            In the beginning Uposhada Vrata must be performed. After that, instructions on Dasha kriyapada (ten virtuous acts) must be given. After the completion of instructions on the philosophy of Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, yogambara and Madhyamika instruction on Mantrayana must be given. After the acquisition of all these virtues the exercise of Hevajratantra must be started.

            This shows that without the intensive study of the philosophic aspects of Sravakayana and Mahayana Buddhism, one cannot be a true practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism. This fact has been well explained in the tantras like Chakrasamvara, Mahamaya, Kalachakra, etc. It is, therefore, evident that Tantrayana can be practised by  a practitioner with sharp intellect only with the help of an expert spiritual guide. Otherwise, Tantrayana will simply degenerate into ritualism. This is virtually the fate of Vajrayana Buddhism in Nepal Mandala. Native and foreign Buddhist scholars have explained Vajrayana Buddhism simply surfacially without delving deep into theoretical aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Secrecy of Vajrayana: Lessons or instructions of Vajrayana can be imparted or explained only in special circumstances. In order to get an entry into Vajrayana, one must have been initiated by an able spiritual guide with unflinching faith in  the teachings of Lord Buddha. This act of initiation is called dekha in Nepal Mandala. Dekha is a must for the practice of any Vajrayana tantra. It is only after the initiation of dekha that one is entitled to various secrets of Vajrayana. This tradition was there in India at the time of heyday of Buddhism. This tradition is prevailing in northern parts of Nepal, in Tibet, Bhutan, etc. This is the reason why Vajrayana remains secret in Nepal Manadala.

            It is because of the explanation of Vajrayana without taking initiation that various deformities and confusions are prevalent. It is generally found that the matters of Vajrayana Buddhism have been presented in the form of symbols. The symbolic language of Vajrayana is called Sandhya. Instructions written in the Sandhya language can be explained only by the spiritual guides born and brought up in the Buddhist tradition. The explanation of the teachings of Lord Buddha by Gurus well-versed in Sanskrit language is not perfect if the Gurus  are not initiated. Wrong and misinterpretation has  resulted in various confusions. One of the most popular confusions is to say  that Vajrayana is the corrupt Buddhism influenced by the Hindu tantra.


Difference between Hindu and Buddhist tantra

            As Hinduism and Buddhism are religions which developed in one cultural  tradition, the words and terms used in both religions are common and similar.  Therefore, it is said  that the essence of both  religions is one. But, even  though the words  are same, meanings differ. An attempt is made here to give the meaning of the terms  used in Hindu and Buddhist  tantras.

            Noted Hindu tantric Shreedhar Shumsher Rana has written about the origin of tantra in his work on  Tantrism. He is of the opinion that  the word  tantra means extension. Tantra is so  called because it  acts as a medium to unite all living beings  with the Almighty or to establish the link between the two by stretching. This also means  to liberate beings by  uniting with the Absolute truth.

            This matter has been well-experienced by Acharya Shreedhar Rana in his article on Buddhism published in the magazine Buddhist Himalaya in 1992. The business of tantra is to stretch the link of the sentient beings who are  subject to Kama, anger, avarice, etc. to the absolute, unfathomable power, truth and the ultimate to liberate from the bondage of suffering. The entire Hindu  tantric  practices are based on the principle of liberating through the establishment of chain. This has been clearly mentioned in tantric  treatises.

            According to the   definition of tantra in Buddhist language, tantra is an prabandha (arrangement ) from various odd sorts. Accordingly, the very arrangement is tantra. There are  three kinds of tantra : hetu, phala  and upaya.  Herein, by the term prabandha it means issues or  progeny.

            Similarly, in Guhyak or  Guhyasamaja Tantra which is one of the important nine Buddhist texts, it has been said that tantra  means  progeny or scion. The land,  path and phala (result, reward or retribution) constitute progeny. Even though the words are the same, there is a world of differences in its meaning in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Liberating the living beings from the bondage  of sufferings by stretching the link with the boundless  eternity, or Absolute Truth is different from saying that life is a continuity of hetu (intention, purpose), upaya (means),  and   phala. The person who studies and  practises both  Hindu and Buddhist  tantras   well will be able to distinguish between the two tantras. Many  people consider Hinduism is older than Buddhism and that the Hindu tantra has exerted a great impact on Buddhist tantra. This is a wrong  view. According to popular Hindu  tantric scriptures called Rudrayamal  and Brahmayamala, sage Vashishtha went to Mahachiva  (greater China) to learn about the Tara  tantra from the Buddha in the guise of Lord Shiva. This shows  that the Hindu tantra was influenced by the Buddhist tantra.

            Let us have a look at the foundation of both the tantras. The basis of the Hindu tantra   is Advaita principle. Shiva tantra  of Kashmir is based on Shiva Advaita. But, the Shakta tantras  are  based on Shakta Advaita. As Hindu philosophy is based on the immortality of the Brahma, it is fundamentally common even though different names are given to it. In any branch of Hinduism, emphasis has been given on anitya (transitoriness), dukkha (suffering) and anatma (soul lessness). Also, in addition to this, emphasis has also been given  on erotic art, the energy of Lord Shiva, diffusion of light, etc. All these are based on the power of external truths.

            The Buddhist tantra in based on anitya,  dukkha  and anatma. Shunyata  is just the refined  verson of soullessonesss. In Anguttara Nikaya, the Pali Tripitaka text, mention has been made of the method of meditating on Prabhaswar  Sangya  of consciousness. But,  this method of  meditating Prabhaswar Sangya has not been mentioned in the Theravada text. Vajrayana meditations are based on Prabhaswar Sangya   and Shunyata.

            The Buddhist tantras are based on the condition of Chatuskoti Vinirmukta Nisprapancha of Madhyamik philosophy. The attainment of total liberated state  from the limits  of  eternal truths and state of  annihilation is the target of the practices of Buddhist  tantra. The Buddhist tantra  does not  recognise things like Ultimate Reality or Absolute Reality. In order to  realise that there is no such thing as  Absolute Reality, the Buddhist tantra is practised. In Buddhism the Absolute Truth  and Absolute Reality are two separate things.

            Similarly, if, in the Hindu tantra, emphasis is given in the recitation of mantra for the worship of deity, in Vajrayana the succession of  the origin and the succession of the   end is  exercised. The act of originating deities is the succession of origin. And the act  of taking  rest in the state of  Shunyata  aimed at the deity  originated is the succession of end. The succession of origin is Shamath dhyana. And the  exercise of the succession of the end is vipassana dhyana.  In the Buddhist tantra, deities are  considered as manifestations of their own selves. The dhyana of the Buddhist tantra is chittanupasyana, which is one of the four Smrityupasthans. But, in the Hindu tantra, deities are considered as personified objects of gods and goddesses. Thus, the Vajrayana method of viewing the deities is different from that of the Hindu tantra.

            The  Newars of  Nepal Mandala are divided into Shivamargis and Baudhamargis. The priests of  Shivamargi Newars are called Deobhaju.  The priests of Baudhamargi Newars are called  Gurubhaju  or Gubhaju. This makes it clear that in Hinduism or Shaivism, deities occupy a place of  great importance. But, in Buddhism, Gurus (Preceptors) are much more important than deities. In Hinduism, deities are considered as personified objects of  God Almighty. In Buddhism, the deities are simply a means of dhyana.


Vajrayana is also Buddhism

            Due to the increasing influence of modernisation in Nepal Mandala, many  people are abandoning their traditional Mahayana / Vajrayana Buddhism. People keeping faith in the Buddhist rituals are looked down  upon calling them ‘Mahayani’. People who have western type education and who have some faith in Theravada Buddhism consider Buddhism to be an orthodox religion like Hinduism. But if the Tripitaka  literature is studied  deeply, one will find that many matters of  Vajrayana are already there in Tripitaka. In Maratajaniya Sutta  of   Majjhima Nikaya,  it has been written that Gautam Buddha has said that Krakuchhanda suppressed Mara by employing a mantra called Naga Avalokana.  The practice of  Panchabali (sacrifice of five objects) is mentioned in the Anguttara  Nikaya. There is a practice  among Theravada  monks to recite Paritran sutras to ensure safety from Nagas and keep away  yaksas (demi-gods). Theravada monks Bhikshus are used to recite  Angulimala sutra at the time of child birth. In Sri Lanka, a certain text  called Jinapanjaraya is recited to instill the spirit of Arhat into various parts of the body.

            In the book The Buddhas’s Way of Theravada Acharya Saddhatissa has given a detailed meditation process of Varna Kasin  in the  context of describing  Shamath Dhyana.  In course of  the description of the use of mandala, it has been mentioned that the mandala looked like the one prevalent in Tibet. It is to be recalled  here that the mandalas of Tibet a very similar to the mandalas of the Kathmandu Valley. Another Theravada Acharya of Vipassana Jack Cornfield in his book  Living Buddhist Masters has written that the practice of mandala making is prevalent in Laos, too. In Laos, Vipassana teachers used to make mandala for the exercise of meditation by their disciples who have already acquired  some expertise in sadhana (mediation)

            What is to be understood in this context is that Mahayana Vajracharyas of Nepal Mandala did  not find that  their ritual activities and meditation practice were against the spirit of the scriptures of Tripitaka. Even Vajrayana practitioners observed Panchasheela.  In special days or on special occasions, they  perform uposatha vrata  and observe Panchasheel  and  Ashtasheel.  The practice of Tri-Ratna Sharan Gamana (refuge to the Buddha, Buddhism and Sangha) is compulsory at the start of any religious activity or ceremony. The Jataka  tales of Lord Buddha, Avadana stories are read out and listened to. Looking from  these various  angles, it appears that the Mahayana and Vajrayana followers of the Kathmandu Valley are very much keen followers of the teachings of the Buddha.


Present status of Mahayana and Vajrayana in Nepal Mandala

            In spite of   above theoretical considerations, looking from the practical side it appears that Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism of Nepal  Mandala is mainly dominated by ritualism. To put it squarely, the culture of the Kathmandu Valley is the culture dominated by rituals and customs. Festivals are observed  in the Kathmandu Valley in large number. As the Kathmandu Valley was a fertile land in the past, foodgrains were grown in an adequate quantity. People made income from the trading business. It is because  of all this that the Kathmandu Valley is different from other places of Nepal. The Baudhamargis of the Kathmandu Valley who find it difficult to understand the theoretical and Vajrayana  philosophic aspect of Mahayana and Buddhism have moulded their lifestyle  by observing various festivals, rituals and the like.

Newar Buddhists, the followers of Vajrayana, have to do Dasa Karmas (ten acts) in their lives. According to Pandit Badriratna Vajracharya, they are Garbhadhan (conception), Purnasawana, Simantanayana, Jatakarma (Karma in consonance with the caste), Namakaran (naming), Upanayan (in vestiture with the sacred thread), Chudakarma (the tonsure ceremony), Sheel Pradan (confernment of conduct), Vrata Mochhyan (breaking of the religious vow ), Panigraham (act of marriage), etc. These Dasa karmas are not found in the history of Vajrayana Buddhism of India, nor are they in use in Tibet. This confirms that the Dasa karmas are virtually the indigenous product of the Vajracharya of the Kathmandu Valley. The practice of these Hindu rituals must have been followed by the Vajracharyas of Nepal Mandala in places where Hindus dominated in order to keep alive Buddhism.

Similarly, the followers of Mahayana perform chaitya  puja, vihar puja, peetha (sacred places, altar) puja, Harati (Harati Mata at Swayambhu) puja, puja of Ishta Devata (ancestral deities) regularly. In Patan, the Mataya (lamp burning festival) puja is performed by visiting every stupa of the vihars, sacred places etc. Various kind of fast such as Dharmadhatu Vrata Vajradhatu Vrata, Vasundhara Vrata, Pancharakshya Vrata, etc are observed. The householder Buddhists observe fasts like Uposadha Vrata before the image of Lokesvara on the sacred occasion of the Ashtami (the eight day) accepting Ashta sheel (eight codes of conduct) in order to follow  them in harmony with the teachings of Lord Buddha. In addition to the observance of Panchasheel of Buddhism, (do not kill, do not steal, do not indulge in sexual misconduct do not lie, and do not take intoxicating drinks), there are other three Sheel (conduct). They are eight do not eat in unusual hours, keep away from singing, dancing and perfume, and do not sleep in high- seated beds.

At the start of any worship activity, Guru Mandalacharan (chief mandala) is worshipped. Guru Mandala is also worshipped while offering any charity. The worship to be done by using five objects such as pushpa (flower), dhupa (incense), aloka (light), gandha (scent), and rasa (incantation) is called panchopachar. The worship accompanied by bandana (obeisance, worship), deshana (teaching, preaching), pujana (worship), Yachana (alms-begging), anumodana(approval), adhyasan (seating), and parinamana (conclusion) is called Sapta Vidhanotara (seven rules of worship). This practice was prevalent in India. It is still continuing in the Himali region.

The festival called Gunla Dharma is observed for a whole month in the month of Srawan (July-August). During this festival images of deities of various bahas and bahis of Nepal Mandala are displayed. All the Baudhamargis visit the Swayambhu Mahachaitya regularly for a month. During the whole month Mahayana Bhikshu and Theravada monks, and nuns take part in religious discourse programmes.


Monopoly of Vajracharyas

In classical terminology Vajracharyas are those who grant Vajrayana initiation and who can explain the philosophy of Vajrayana. It is the name of a title but not the monopoly of a certain caste. But nowadays it is confined to the Vajrachatyas of Nepal Mandal. The place of Vajracharyas in the society is the highest. Every Mahayana practitioner has to receive initiation from Vajracharyas in various stages. The stage of initiation starts from Chudakarma when the children of Buddhists must become a monk for certain days. After initation as a monk, the title of Bodhisattva Samvar is granted. Then, dekha (initiation of Vajrayana) is conferred.

            There is the practice of granting dekha in almost all vihars of Nepal Mandala.So long Vajracharyas, Shakya or Tuladhar do not receive dekha, they are not allowed to enter Agam house, the place where secret Tantric worship takes place. Charyageet and dance are also displayed at the time of conferring dekha of Charasamvara. No Buddhists of castes other than Vajracharya, Shakya and Tuladhar are not entitled to initiation of Maha Mandala (Chakrasamvara dekha).

            Even though they are given the instruction about the method of dhyana (meditation), Shakyas and Tuladhars are not eligible for Acharya Abhisekh (the highest initiation). The person who has not received Acharya Abhisekh cannot confer ordination to others. That is why, the privileges of Vajracharyas cannot be transferred to other castes. Besides this, the service of Vajracharyas is indispensable for carrying homa (fire sacrifice) and rituals. It is because of the dominant role of Vajracharyas in ritualism that they are compared with Hindu Brahmins. This is unusual as no caste has such special privilege in the whole religious history of India. This special privilege is not given to any  class of people in Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim. Therefore, this caste distinction is not the ordinary characteristic of Mahayana and Vajrayana but it is only the special characteristic of Nepal Mandala.


Suggestions for improvement of the status of  Mahayana

Nepali Gurus have been conferring dekha to the Lamas of Tibet since the ancient times. Nepali Buddhists also received initiation from Tibetan Lamas especially up to the medieval period. This confirms that the Nepali Buddhists exchanged initiation with the people of other places and countries. But, recently, some rigidity can be seen among the Vajracharyas of Nepal Mandala. They do not confer Vajracharya Abhisekh to persons other than belonging to Vajracharya caste. Similarly, they do not confer Chakramvara Abhisekh to persons other than belonging to Shakya and Tuladhar castes. Therefore, there is no possibility of extending this privilege to Tibetans, nor is there the possibility of receiving the same from the Tibetan Lamas. It is because of this orthodox view that Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism of Nepal Mandala is becoming weaker. But, on the contrary, some flexibility is discernible among the non-priest Baudhamargis of Nepal Mandala more particularly among Shakyas and Tuladhars. Shakyas and Tuladhars have an ardent desire for receiving abhisekh from the Tibetan Gurus. They invite Tibetan Lamas and get worship activities done. Most of the Newars invite Theravada monks for Buddha Puja and recitations of Paritran (for wishing salvation to the departed soul).

            Vajracharyas, being confirmed Buddhists, must make the teachings and meanings of Mahayana and Vajrayana easily accessible to all by changing their attitude of caste discrimination. They must demonstrate that Mahayana and Vajrayana contained the elements or virtues of Theravada.

            At present, the term “Buddhist meditation” means Shamath and Vipassana. Meditation of gods and  goddesses, worship and Vrata are branded as Hindu. The Vajracharyas must be able to convince that the succession of origin and that of end of gods and goddesses  is nothing but Shamath and Vipassana. They must make a comparative study of the Hindu meditation process and the meditation process of Mahayana and Vajrayana in order to be able to distinguish the two. They must be able to understand the relation of Mahayana and Vajrayana with Theravada.

            Lama Gurus living at Swayambhu and Boudha are keeping alive the tradition of conferring Abhisekh uninterruptedly. They had received the initiation from Nepali Buddhists formally and they still hold Nepali Gurus in high regard. Vajracharyas of Nepal Mandala must establish rapport with Lama Gurus and try to acquire required materials from them. Vajracharyas of Nepal Mandala have preserved their scriptures. They can undertake a comparative study of their scriptures and the scriptures of Lama Gurus. But this requires a scientific study of Sanskrit language.

            Due to the ascendancy of modernisation, a tendency of looking at the Vajracharyas with hatred has been developing. For this, the title of Vajracharya has to be made honourable or dignified. There must be institutes of study to make Vajracharyas organised and well-versed in different aspects of Buddhism not limiting themselves to the caste of  Vajracharya. A system or situation must be developed so that educated as well as rich jajamans (clients) who also take pride in their culture pay to Vajracharya priests for the services rendered by them in accordance with the demand of time. If this is done so, capable youth Vajracharyas need not twitch to other professions for livelihood.

            Proper protection must be given to the persons wishing to be monks. Buddhism cannot be considered developed without the Sangha of nuns and upasakas (householder Buddhists). It is not enough that a person is made Bhikshu for four days. Favourable situation must be created for becoming Bhikshus life-long. The tradition of Upasampada (higher ordination) within the fold of Mahayana and Vajrayana must be kept alive. For this, there must not be hesitation to seek necessary co-operation from Theravada monks.

            Both Prajna and Upaya of Buddhism must be developed simultaneously. If Upaya consists in ritual activities, Prajna is their theoretical or philosophical aspect. The worship rituals that are not consistent with the principles of Buddhism do not contribute to the development of Buddhism. In the present context, emphasis on the Prajna aspect is urgently needed.