Lecture 4: Vajranyana Buddhism
Course: Essentials of Buddhism
We now come to the third and final branch of modern day Buddhism. We have explored Therevada, the universal Buddhism, the ancient Buddhism, the way of the elders. We have discussed this massive expansion of lay Buddhism and Mahayana, which brings up the bodhisattva.
Finally we come to Vajranyana or “the thunderbolt vehicle.” Some scholars do not like to see Vajranyana as a separate vehicle of Buddhism. Instead, they just simply see it as yet another expansion of the basic Mahayana ideal. In that sense, I think it is true you could argue that you have essentially two forms of Buddhism, an ancient form of Buddhism and the more popular lay Buddhism of Mahayana. There are a number of reasons why other scholars, including myself, should not believe that this is a proper way of looking at the Buddhist structure. A couple of reasons for this: First of all, Vajranyana returns in many ways back to the monastic deal; and the emphasis on monasticism is much stronger than what you find in Mahayana. Secondly, there are many, many ways they distance themselves from key Mahayana doctrines. So that becomes, very, very important because they will not accept some of the doctrines that we examined in Mahayana. Thirdly, they themselves like to use the language that the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma a third time.
We talked about how the first Therevadans believe the first branch of Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma as taught in those two early sermons. Mahayana of course believed that he taught secret teachings in the second sermon. The fact that the Vajranyana Buddhists believe that it has happened a third time, that opens the door I think for looking at this as a separate vehicle, especially since the most prominent expression of Vajranyana Buddhism is Tibetan Buddhism. It has its own history. Tibetan Buddhism had its own ways that adapted to and responded to and in many ways, syncretized with the indigenous religion of the Bon religion of Tibet. That in fact came out in some very different kinds of ideas. Because of this and other reasons, I think it is clear that Vajranyana should be viewed as a third branch of Buddhism. What does the word, “Vajranyana” mean? We already learned the suffix, this concluding phrase “yana” is the word for “vehicle,” so this Mahayana, “big vehicle.” Vajranyana means “thunderbolt vehicle.” This thunderbolt reveals this idea of this flash of power, this emphasis on magical power.
In Buddhism, in fact in the Eastern religions in general, there is a belief in what is called “tantrism” or “tantras.” This is an umbrella term to describe religious activities that release spiritual power. This belief that there are magical formulas and power that can be released becomes very, very central to this version of Buddhism. It is not something that you find as prominent in Mahayana. Vajranyana Buddhists will develop what they call “mandala.” A mandala is a depiction of the whole universe in kind of small replica drawings that they draw that represent the universe. They will manipulate these drawings and use them for meditation, etc. in order to get into some contact with the metaphysic of the universe. They develop various mantras which they believe release spiritual power. Because of this devoting of cosmic forces, etc., is why it is called the “thunderbolt vehicle” or Vajranyana Buddism.
In the Vajranyana world, they also developed some different ideas of the Buddha. Some of this is in seed form in Mahayana, but they develop much more pronouncement. For example, they argue that everything is Buddha. This is more than just saying that there is a Buddha nature down inside of us. This is simply arguing that everything that we see, all that exists is in fact, Buddha. It is just that Buddha has not yet been realized or recognized as Buddha. This is even an expansion of the three bodies of Buddha idea.
They also believe in the transcending of dualities in a way that we do not find in Mahayana. For example, in both Therevada and Mahayana, you have the basic idea that a person is traveling through samsara, through the wheel of suffering, the wheel of life, ultimately leading to the point of nirvana, or release from suffering, entering into nothingness. The Vajranyana Buddhists would argue that in fact, this is something that cannot be sustained philosophically because Buddhism always transcends all of these dualities. That is part of what the middle way is all about. It is neither this or this, or some other, it is everything, it is both. They argue that samsara is nirvana, there is no distinction between the world of samsara and the world of nirvana. That is something that is very different than Mahayana beliefs.
Finally, they also take a little step beyond the bohdisattva idea by believing that these enlightened beings actually are born on earth and live on earth and actually teach us on earth. Many of you have heard, for example, of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is nothing more than a Buddha, they believe, who is actually living on earth to teach the Dharma in the current age. This is not like the Therevada , who lived back in the 6th century B.C. as one Buddha; or even the Mahayana, who looked back on multiple transcendent beings to dwell in some transcendent realm of samsara like Amitabha Buddha. This is a belief that Buddha always dwells among us; not just at certain times in history or at one time in history; but someone who dwells with us all of the time. This is where the Tibetan Buddhists particularly have accepted the idea of these lamas who live and walk among us.
As our example of Vajranyana Buddhism, we will first focus on Tibetan Buddhism. But I think within the larger framework of our study, we should remember how in Therevada we focused on the three jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, the Songha; then we went to Mahayana. So the three insights, about the secret teachings, the idea of the expansion of the Buddha, the multiplied Buddha, etc. Finally with Vajranyana, the three fires. This first fire of Vajranyana Buddhism is the veneration of the Lama. This is the veneration of sacred teachers who dwell among us and teach the Buddhist Dharma. The belief in shamanism: Shamanism is the belief that one can actually have conversations with the dead and be able to have communication with the unseen world. Then of course the third fire, at which we looked already, this belief in Tantrism and mysticism. This is part of why it is called the thunderbolt vehicle.
All of these things are found present in Tibetan Buddhism. Going back in history a little bit, ancient Tibet had a religion known as “the Bon religion.” It flourished with a number of mystical and tantric practices. This is why I think a lot of this was brought over into Buddhism. By the 6th century A.D. Tibet was a unified country with strong military presence and it was surrounded by countries at that time heavily influenced by Buddhism. But Tibetans were not inclined to accept Buddhism. They had their own shamanistic, ritualistic religion which had sacrificial rituals, magicians and local deities, etc. But under King Songtsen Gampo who lived 617 to 649, the resistance to Buddhism began to change. Gampo made his capital in Lhasa in Tibet and married into political alliances, one with the emperor, one with the king of Nepal; and both of his wives were obliged to accept Buddhism. This in turn influenced Gampo.
This then set the stage for Buddhist influence in Tibet and India. Chinese scholars were invited to Tibet to translate key Buddhist works into Tibetan. Because Tibet was receiving Buddhism very late, they were exposed to a wide variety of texts that we have already given some hint of in terms of the expanding canon of the Buddhist text. In this text they learn about a number of things which they listened to and eventually they adapted to. One of the doctrines that we mentioned was this idea of the living Buddha who walks among them. They had always believed in this kind of idea; and they believe that these lamas had the ability to reach the mystical transcendence and abolish all distinctions such as nirvana and samsara. So they believe these Buddhas have actually walked in Tibet.
Let me give you a couple of examples of some of the more famous Buddhas who have walked in their midst. One is called “Padmasambhava.” This is a very famous Tibetan Buddha who they believe entered Tibet in the 8th century and he challenged the indigenous deities to a test of magical power and he proved victorious. He had extravagant powers of magic and unbelievable wisdom. They believed that he was the bridge that really defeated Bon and was able to bring many of the vestiges of the Bon religion into a now Tibetan form of Buddhism.
There was another bodhisattva that walked among them, an enlightened Buddha known as Atisha who at age 29 renounced his throne and became a monk. They believe he was able to understand all of the levels and paths of Buddhism. They believe that he traveled in the distant lands, teaching these things and spreading the truths of Buddhism. They believe that one of the bodhisattva of wisdom, one named Manjushri was reborn in Tibet as a tsongkhapa in the 14th century. They believe that after many years of meditative retreats, he achieved perfect enlightenment at 41 years old and he promoted monasticism in Tibet. So this is why the monastic ideal gets rebirthed on this third vehicle.
There are many, many of these type figures within Tibetan Buddhism. This is where I think we have to recognize that it becomes something quite different. The Tibetans go through quite a series of magical powers and meditation to find out who the next lama will be and how this person is determined. You may have seen some of the movies that are based on this that have come out, that play on this idea of the search for the Dalai Lama.
What we actually have, looking back over all of this, is three major schools or structures of modern day Buddhism: Therevada, Mahayana and Vajranyana. We have seen that even though we have three separate schools, that Mahayana Buddhism represents the largest form of Buddhism, about 80% of all Buddhists. Also we have seen how these different forms of Buddhism have multiple subschools, particularly focused on the Mahayana tradition with different, not just schools, but categories of schools that focus on invocation or meditation or on rational philosophy or in many ways some kind of blend of all of these. So this becomes I think an overview that will help us to capture the gist of the structure of modern day Buddhism.
Now that we have covered the three-vehicle structure of modern Buddhism, you have a good overview of the general structure of the Buddhist religion. Of course, if you would like to have a more in-depth survey, then the full course is available on BiblicalTraining.org.
Visually Experiencing Buddhism in the World
Before we look at the Christian response to Buddhism, I would like to just say one other thing that might be helpful to you in terms of visually experiencing Buddhism while walking in the temples or seeing it in various countries, a couple of points that may be helpful to you. First of all, you will notice that the Buddhist statues are actually a wide range of figures which would include both depictions of Siddhartha Gautama in some cases if you are in Southeast Asia, to more likely depictions of bodhisattva. So many times what people will point to as a Buddha is actually a bodhisattva that is part of the invocational Buddhism of that period of that area. You will also notice big differences in terms of a Buddha and how they are depicted in India where I work. You often see statues of the Buddha in more of an emaciated state, their ribs showing. They look like they are in that earlier ascetic period before the Buddha received his enlightenment. As you travel east, you will see the Buddha as a much larger figure, much heavier, large stomach and a very different kind of figure. This represents somewhat symbolically the changes that Buddhism undertook, from being a version of ascetic religion, all the way to the happy, kind of lay, popular religion of popular Buddhism in the Far East.
Another thing you will notice when you look at Buddhist statues in temples are a couple of things. One is, they are usually in a seated position with their legs crossed. This is a position known as “the lotus position.” It is often part of the meditative technique. So if you were to for example, study Zen Buddhism, you would learn how to sit in this particular position. You will also notice that normally the Buddhist statues, the bodhisattva statues that you will see, the person is often in the lotus position and is seated in a very erect form, a very straight form. This is again part of the posturing which is very, very dominant in the meditative strand of Buddhism. You would have to align your body up along a certain axis and it is very, very important to sit in the proper way. The other thing that you will notice is that there are different hand gestures which are found in the Buddhist statues. The hand gestures are known as “mudras” and this represents different kinds of ways that the Buddhists depict the bodhisattva in their various iconographic depictions.
For example, you will see (hard to do on a tape), but the idea behind this is that you can picture, for example, someone with their last three fingers raised and their forefinger and their thumb touching. That is a very, very prominent mudra, or hand gesture that you see in Buddhist statues. That is a mudra of teaching. That means that whenever the Buddha is in that position with his forefinger and thumb touching, that is when he is turning the wheel of Dharma. That is when teaching is happening. It is a Buddha statue that depicts one who teaches. You often see, for example, the right hand kind of raised with the fingers in kind of an arched position, the thumb and the fingers not touching. That would be a gesture of renunciation. That means he renounces the world. You often see another example, the Buddha with his hands on his lap, overlapping one another and his palms upward and his two thumbs touching each other. That particular gesture or mudra is reserved for meditation. Everyone knows, when you meet an Indian, they put their hands together and bow slightly, and they say, “namaskara,: it is a form of greeting. That is actually a prayer mudra where you pray. Just as in the West they will put their hands together in that fashion for prayer traditionally, even in the Western world.
These are the kinds of things you might want to be aware of, that when you actually visibly see Buddhism, you will notice a real difference in how the statues look and some of the positions; and these all do carry meaning for Buddhists.
A Christian Response to Buddhism
At this point it is our privilege to think about what all of this means for a Christian response to Buddhism. It is very important to recognize the importance of developing specific apologetics in order to respond to real questions that Buddhists have and the belief that people who do not believe the Gospel are always cynical or angry, just want to argue with one another. I think there are times where people really do have genuine questions that deserve genuine answers. So it is very, very important to think about how we might be more effective in penetrating the Buddhist heart.
I commend to you a number of wonderful books which have been written. I want to give a special thanks to David Lim who has written and edited several books that will help us to reach Buddhists more effectively for Christ. Let me just mention a few of these books for your consideration. One book is entitled, “Sharing Jesus Effectively in the Buddhist World.” It is edited by David Lim, Steve Spaulding and Paul De Neui. They are all editors of this book, which is put out by William Carey Library in Pasadena, California. David Lim has a Ph.D. in New Testament Theology. He is a Chinese born Filipino. He has spent much of his career in Southeast Asia heading the Chinese Ministries International in the Philippines and he has been involved in the work. The other two are also involved in studies of Buddhism and practical ministry in the Buddhist world. These are books that would be very helpful for people who actually have spent time in the Buddhist world and this is about sharing Jesus effectively in the Buddhist world. Another book by David Lim and Steve Spaulding is titled, “Sharing Jesus in the Buddhist World.” Again, this is also a collection of articles from people from around the world who work with Buddhists, sharing Jesus holistically with the Buddhist world. These are books that are edited with a wide range of authors that have experience in different kinds of ministry and outreach to the Buddhist world.
Only with reading all of these can you really get a feel for the breadth of the kind of ministries going on to reach Buddhists for Jesus Christ. Another very helpful book that I have read and enjoyed was published in 1989 by Dawn Press. It is a difficult book to get a copy of. I found a used copy. It is entitled, “Buddhist Priests Choose Christ.” The value of this book and I think from any book, it is important to ask yourself, “Who is writing this book?” If a Christian is writing the book, they are giving you their experience as an outsider who is working with Buddhists. They have a lot of value because they understand our background, our frame of reference, etc. To actually have testimonies of Buddhist priests who have come to Christ is very valuable because then you get an inside view. You get people who grew up in Buddhism, who know Buddhism, who served at the highest levels of Buddhist religious activity, who have come to Christ. It is a very rare kind of experience to have. They explain in this book and they give their testimony, what it is that really struck them about the Christian faith and what drew them to Jesus Christ.
Another book which I think in some ways brings both of these worlds together in terms of perspectives on reaching Buddhists is a marvelous book by Paul Williams, entitled, “The Unexpected Way.” Paul Williams is widely regarded as one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable Buddhist scholars in the world. He is the one who wrote the textbook that we use in the full course at Gordon Conwell on Buddhism, which I teach. His book on Mahayana Buddhism looks at the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism and it is written by Paul Williams. He did a number of books and articles on Buddhism. At some point in Paul Williams’ career, a few years ago, Paul came into a personal relationship with Christ and he converted from Buddhism to Christianity. He wasn’t just a scholar of Buddhism, he was a Western person who had become a scholar of Buddhism and then followed as a practicing Buddhist, only to at some point come to Christianity. His insight into Buddhism is remarkable and his book which charts his conversion and why he became a Christian is entitled, “The Unexpected Way.” It is a delightful book and one that you should read.
Another book I would recommend is one called, “The Cross and the Bodhi Tree.” This is, again, a Buddhist who has come to Christ and is comparing what he found in Buddhism with what he found in Our Lord Jesus Christ.
We don’t have time to go through all of the insights of these books, or others that have written about this or experienced fruitfulness in the Buddhist world. I do want to underscore a few things that might be helpful in terms of what you might want to emphasize in reaching out to Buddhists.
First of all, you should really not ever forget the full power and beauty of the historicity of the Christian Faith. This is the great fact of Christianity, is that it is an historical faith. It is not some religious ideas. It is about real events in history, God breaking through in the incarnation, God stepping into human history, God walking in our midst in Jesus Christ. God died on the cross, on the real rugged cross for our sins. Jesus Christ historically rising from the dead on the third day, ascending to heaven and in real history returning to vindicate his saints. These are all points of real history.
Buddhism in contrast exists on the plain of supra history. Their sages all kind of transcend history. Their multiplication of Buddhist stories and Buddha events and this doctrine of skillful means, which basically allows you to use almost anything to get someone to the end of the road, is so immense that no historiography as clearly defined by any normal process, could be possible within the Buddhist structure. The only way to resolve the dramatic contradictions in Buddhist doctrines and so-called historical stories is to abandon the real nature of history. You also remember that even top branches of Buddhism downplay the historicity of Buddhism. Especially we saw this with Mahayana. Mahayana is not particularly interested in the historical Buddha; but they believe that the teachings of Buddha far transcend the historical Buddha. This of course is quite impossible with Christianity, where Jesus Christ is the central message of the Christian Faith. All of the teaching of the New Testament points to Jesus Christ. All of our devotion points to Jesus Christ. Our worship is to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is Christianity.
The Zen Buddhists in contrast have one of their paradoxical sayings that they say because their followers think more deeply is the following: “If you should meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him.” That is a very remarkable statement. “If you meet the Buddha on the road, you should kill him.” What does this mean? This means that the truths of Buddhism transcend the nature of Buddha as an historical person. That is why you can freely kill the Buddha. The historical Buddha does not matter to them anymore. What matters is the teaching that was released. Once the wheel of Dharma had been turned once or twice or three times, then the teaching has now been put out into the world. The Buddha then of course becomes dispensable, unimportant, even irrelevant. This of course is impossible in Christianity, which roots everything in the real history of Jesus Christ. We would never say that Jesus is worthless, what matters is his teaching. Some liberal scholars have tried this, to say that all that really matters is the truths and the Sermon on the Mount, whatever. That has never been an orthodox Christian view. The Christian view is that Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord and these are real historical events.
When you read the testimonies of Buddhists who have come to Christ, this is something they bring up quite often. For example, one of the testimonies in the book, “Buddhist Priests Choose Christ” you have a man named Comitani who says, quoting: “The fact of God’s wonderful mercy deeply touched my seeking soul. Although leaders of Buddhism might speak about mercy, it was not an historical event.” I will repeat that: “It was not an historical event, but only a probability, whereas the Cross of Jesus is a solid certainty,” He argues and goes on to say: “when God’s dear Son took the punishment for our terrible sins, Buddhism has no real savior or real redeemer, only a seeker after truth like ourselves, to offer the weary world. I began to wonder, was it because enlightenment cannot be found at the feet of my blessed Buddha?” This was a reflection by a Buddhist priest, who found in Christ the historicity of the Christian Faith, the historicity of Jesus Christ. Even Paul Williams, great scholar, says in one part of his book, “The Unexpected Way” on page 134: “No other religion or spiritual teaching has anything so dramatic or convincing as the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. A resurrection seems plausible 2,000 years later to support its claims. Buddhist sometimes talks about the wonders their spiritual heroes and heroines have done and can do; but nowhere is there a case clearly and plausibly demonstrated as a resurrection; and that, it seems to me, is a fact (page 134, Paul Williams).”
What we see in Buddhism is a real dramatic emphasis on the historicity of Jesus Christ. Another point that is often brought out is the role of suffering in Buddhism and in Christianity. In Buddhism suffering of course is key to the whole Buddhist thought. The first noble truth in the most seminal vision of Buddhist, thought by the Buddha when he first issues his first sermon, was that all of life is suffering. The problem is that suffering is normative in Buddhism, it is the normal experience of everyone; and therefore there is no way to really think about suffering in any other way, other than how it is throught of in Buddhism, which is in all of life. There is no difference between a person who is in need of mercy, who is starving or homeless, than someone who lives in an opulent palace, they are all sufferers. There is no appreciation for the vicarious suffering in Christianity where Jesus Christ suffers for you. He suffers to deliver us from suffering, that we might come to know Him as our Lord and Savior. The whole context of suffering is very, very different in Buddhism and in Christianity.
Buddhism also has a real inability to actually appreciate the created world that we live in. Because there is no first cause in Buddhism, then there is no proper way to talk about history or about creation itself. There is no telos to which all history is going. There is no framework for how we understand human history. Creation is an illusion. Creation is like a dream, is one of the metaphors they often use for creation. It is something that we impose upon our mind; it is not something that actually exists. Whereas in the Gospel we realize that Jesus Christ is in fact the creator of the world. It was through Christ that the world was created, we are told in Colossians 1. We know that the creation was declared to be good and that creation is a real creation; that someday creation will be recreated in the New Jerusalem. That creates a very different kind of setting. In Buddhism, because there is no creation, there is no history, there is no substance to your own existence; then of course there is only emptiness or nothingness. Whereas in Christianity creation is good. This calls us to go forth as explorers, as scientists, as those who give ourselves with confidence to the world that we live in. These are some examples that we have of real differences in Christianity and Buddhism.
Another thing I have found in reading some of the Buddhist priests’ testimonies is that they were never able to really understand what Christians actually taught about Jesus. Because Buddhists do not have a proper view of God, there is no category of ultimate reality like there is even in Hinduism. Then there are no categories for God in Buddhist thought. With their philosophical leaders, spiritual leaders, prophets, even mega teachers, there is no proper view of God. So naturally Buddhists, when they hear about Jesus Christ, put him in the spiritual teacher category. He is not an ultimate being or God, he is simply a spiritual teacher. Naturally they believe, we have our teachers, they have their teachers. We follow our teachers, they follow their teachers. So actually realizing that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, even though Buddhism has all of these bodhisattvas, none of them are in fact God in human flesh, God walking in our midst. These are simply spiritual teachers that walk in our midst. Therefore, it is very, very important to introduce the whole concept of God to Buddhists, because they do not really have that.
This brings up also the same problem they have with the nature of self. Once Buddhists convince themselves to extinguish all desire, that comes through the extinguishing of the self. The realization of self in Buddhism of course cannot affirm the possibility of the “I” as far as the self. So the “I” in Buddhism is nothing but just the flux of contingent continuity bound together by the temporary laws of karma. There is not even an atman nor a soul which transmigrates or reincarnates from body to body; but only the release of karmic energy, which due to ignorance becomes embodied once more in those 12 links we saw in the doctrine of pratityasamutpada.
Whereas in Christianity we have a fundamental value of self; that God so loved the world, that he gave his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us, for you, for me, that we might be adopted into the family of God. That is a radical thought for Buddhism. When Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” or “I have been crucified with Christ” he is referring to the crucifixion of the “I” as the sinful nature, as the nature in opposition to God; but not to obliterate the “I” or going to nothingness or emptiness; but rather to see our truest fulfillment found in and through Jesus Christ.
These are some really, real differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Even the concept of desire has to be revisited because in Buddhism the whole of human suffering is rooted in desires. It is not just evil desires, all desire is bad. This creates again, passivity. This creates a world that we are not called to go into and explore. In the Christian worldview, we are to engage the world. We simply do not believe that all desires are bad. As Paul Williams says in his book, “If the Pope desires that the world has better healthcare, how can one say that is a bad thing? How could one say that one should extinguish that desire?” Surely there are horrible desires and there are false desires. But Buddhism does not make a distinction. All desire is bad because Buddhism transcends these kinds of dualities. So if all cravings or desires are wrong, then how can we even have a desire for enlightenment? How can we have a desire to complete the eight-fold path? The whole thing becomes contradictory in the larger picture.
These are a number of points that are made in these various books and many, many other examples and illustrations of how people have effectively reached Buddhists for Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I think especially in America we are experiencing our own special challenges for the Buddhist influence in America. I think that we are seeing a collapse of meaning in America. We are seeing distrust in the larger meta narrative explanations of creation, fall, redemption, final glorification that the Christian faith offers. Post-modernism plays upon the idea that what really matters is not any grand narrative that gives meaning to the whole universe; but simply one’s personal journey, one’s personal existential journey, your own narrative is all that matters. There is no grand narrative. There is a distrust of history except for your own personal narrative, your personal history. You can imagine how this plays in very powerfully to the Buddhist worldview. So Buddhism has become very, very popular in the West because of this longing for something that would fit into this world. I can expect that we will see as time develops more and more Buddhist influence coming into America, many of the Buddhist strands that come into America, especially invocational Buddhism with Amitabha Buddhist Societies in the West as well as the meditative Buddhism with D.T. Suzuki who promoted Zen in the West. All of these forms of Buddhism which have come to the West do not make any demands on you. You can practice it when you want to. You can not practice it. You can take a break. It does not really bring any ethical demands on someone else. It really does play quite well into a society that can continue on along a certain selfish path and yet be spiritually fulfilled at some level that is offered by Buddhism.
I believe that this reinforces the need for Christians to effectively engage with not only Buddhists, but in the Buddhist worldview, responding to it effectively, that we might become more effective in our Christian outreach to Buddhists around the world, to the end that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be discovered by Buddhists and appreciated by them; and that they will come to know Christ as their Lord and Savior. Thank you.