Tantras In Buddhism

The Buddhist Tantras are a varied group of Indian and Tibetan texts which outline unique views and practices of the Buddhist tantra religious systems.


Buddhist Tantric texts began appearing in the Gupta Empire period though there are texts with elements associated with Tantra that can be seen as early as the third century. By the eighth century Tantra was a dominant force in North India and the number of texts increased with numerous Tantric pandits writing commentaries.

The earliest known datable Buddhist Tantra is possibly the Guhyasamāja Tantra which is dated to the fifth century by Alex Wayman (but to the eighth by Japanese scholars). Another early Tantra is the Mahavairocana Tantra, which was mentioned and collected by the Chinese pilgrim Wu-xing (無行) c. 680 CE.

According to Tibetologist Alex Wayman, the Buddhist Tantras arose from “a previous lore reaching back into the Vedic literature and amalgamating this tradition with various Buddhist tenets”. Some of the material is also similar to content in the Yoga Upanishads. Buddhist Tantric traditions were variously influenced by Śaiva and Pancharatra Hindu traditions, local god/goddess cults, Yaksha or nāga rites as well as drawing on pre-existing Mahāyāna Buddhist ideas and practices.

Many early Buddhist Tantric texts, later termed “action Tantras” (kriyā tantra), are mostly collections of magical mantras or phrases for mostly worldly ends called mantrakalpas (mantra manuals) and they do not call themselves Tantras. Later Tantric texts from the eighth century onward (termed variously Yogatantra, Mahayoga, and Yogini Tantras) advocated union with a deity (deity yoga), sacred sounds (mantras), techniques for manipulation of the subtle body and other secret methods with which to achieve swift Buddhahood. Some Tantras contain antinomian and transgressive practices such as ingesting alcohol and other forbidden substances as well as sexual rituals. Some of the unique themes and ideas found in the Buddhist Tantras is the revaluation of the body and its use in attaining great bliss (mahasukha), a revaluation of the role of women and female deities and a revaluation of negative mental states, which can be used in the service of liberation as the Hevajra Tantra says “the world is bound by passion, also by passion it is released”.

Buddhist Tantra quickly spread out of India into nearby countries like Tibet and Nepal in the eighth century, as well as to Southeast Asia. Buddhist Tantra arrived in China during the Tang Dynasty (where it was known as Tangmi) and was brought to Japan by Kukai (774–835), where it is known as Shingon. It remains the main Buddhist tradition in Nepal, Mongolia and Tibet where it is known as Vajrayana.

There are between 1500 and 2000 surviving Indian Buddhist Tantric texts in the original Sanskrit, and over two thousand more Tantras solely survive in translation (mostly Tibetan or Chinese).  In the Tibetan canons, there are 450 Tantras in the Kanjur collection and 2400 in the Tengyur.

Guhyasamaja (left), Raktayamari (right), Folio from a Dharani (Protective or Empowering Spells)

Guhyasamaja (left), Raktayamari (right), Folio from a Dharani (Protective or Empowering Spells)

Tibetan categorization

Tantric texts were brought to Tibet in two historical periods, the 8th century and the 11th century. The ancient translation school, or Nyingma and the later New translation schools organize Tantras into different categories.

Ancient Translation School

The Nyingma tantra collection is known as the Nyingma Gyubum and has six tantra categories:

  • Three Outer Tantras:
    • Kriyayoga
    • Charyayoga
    • Yogatantra
  • Three Inner Tantras, which correspond to the Anuttarayogatantra:
    • Mahayoga
    • Anuyoga
    • Atiyoga (Tib. Dzogchen), further divided into three classes:
      • Mental SemDe
      • Spatial LongDe
      • Esoteric Instructional MenNgagDe

New Translation Schools

The Sarma or New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Sakya, and Kagyu) divide the Tantras into four categories:

List of Buddhist Tantric texts

Many Tantric texts have titles other than ‘Tantra‘, including Dharani, Kalpa, Rajñi, stotradoha and sutra. The Major Tantras also accumulated secondary literature, such as ‘Explanatory Tantras’ (vyākhyātantra), commentaries and sadhana literature. Major Buddhist Tantric texts include:

Dzogchen text from Dunhuang, 9th century

Dzogchen text from Dunhuang, 9th century

  • Guhyasamāja Tantra, Father Tantra class, (c. 5th – 8th century)
  • Mahavairocana Tantra, Charya Tantra class, (7th century)
  • Vajrapãṇyabhiṣeka Tantra
  • Vajrasekhara Sutra
  • Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra, Yogatantra class, (7th century)
  • Hevajra Tantra, Mother class, (8th century)
  • Cakrasaṃvara Tantra a.k.a. Sri-Heruka-bhidhana, Mother class (8th century)
  • Guhyagarbha tantra, Mother class
  • Sarvabuddha Samayoga, Mother class
  • Vajramrta Tantra, Mother class
  • Vajrapañjara Tantra, Mother class
  • Vajrabhairava Tantra or Yamantaka Tantra, Father class, (8th century)
  • Mañjuśrī-mūla-kalpa (8th century)
  • Shurangama Sutra (8th century)
  • Shurangama Mantra
  • Susiddhikara Sutra (8th century)
  • Sarva-tathāgata-tattva-saṅgraha-sūtra (8th century)
  • Kurukullā Tantra
  • Mahākāla Tantra
  • Samvarodaya Tantra
  • Vajrapatala Tantra
  • Sri-Vajriimrta-tantra
  • Mañjuśrīnāmasamgīti, Nondual class
  • Mahachinacara Tantra
  • Mayajala Tantra
  • The Eighteen Texts of the Mind Series (Semde) (9th century)
    • Kulayarāja Tantra – “The All Creating King”
  • Kalachakra Tantra, Nondual class (mid-11th century)
  • Seven texts of Space series (11th-14th centuries)
    • Mahāvarntaprasaranirajatantranāma – “Samantabhadra’s Royal Tantra of All-Inclusive Vastness”
  • Seventeen Tantras of Menngagde, Dzogchen (11th-14th centuries)
  • Saṃvara Tantra
  • Mahamaya Tantra
  • Vajrayogini Tantra
  • Sarvarahasya Tantra
  • Sri-Paramadya-Tantra
  • Nīlakaṇṭha Dhāraṇī or Mahākaruṇā Dhāraṇī, popularly known as the ‘Great Compassion Mantra’
  • Chandamaharosana Tantra
  • Prajnopaya-viniscaya Siddhi
  • Naro Chos-Drug
  • Nigu Chos-Drug
  • Mila Gnubum
  • Sutra of Secret Bliss (Tachikawa-ryu, c.1114)
  • Kalika Purana
  • Padma Kathang Sanglingma
  • Bardo Thödol (1326–1386)
  • Nyingtig Yabshi
  • Seven Treasures
  • Padma Kathang Sheldrakma
  • Longchen Nyingthig
  • Yuthok Nyingthig
  • Rinchen Terzö Chenmo

Tantric authors

As Buddhist Tantra became more widely practiced in the middle of the seventh century, pandits at mainstream Buddhist scholastic institutions began to adopt the practices and write sadhanas and commentaries on Vajrayana praxis. Benoytosh Bhattacharyya notes that there are two main chronological lists of prominent Tantric authors, the first from Taranatha’s works and the second from Kazi Dawasamdup’s introduction to the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra.

Taranatha’s list:

  1. Padmavajra (c.693), author of the Guhyasiddhi
  2. Anangavajra (c.705), author of the Prajñopāyaviniścayasiddhi
  3. Indrabhuti (c.717), author of the Jñānasiddhi
  4. Bhagavati Laksmi (c.729), female author of the Advayasiddhi
  5. Lilavajra (c.741)
  6. Darikapa (c.753)
  7. Sahajayogini (c.765)
  8. Dombi Heruka (c.777)

Kazi Dawasamdup’s list:

  1. Saraha aka Rahulabhadra (c. 633)
  2. Nagarjuna (author of the Pañcakrama c. 645, not to be confused with the Madhyamika philosopher)
  3. Sabaripa (c.657)
  4. Luipa (c.669)
  5. Vajraghanta (c.681)
  6. Kacchapa (c.693)
  7. Jalandharipa (c.705)
  8. Krsnacarya (c.717)
  9. Guhya (c.729)
  10. Vijayapa (c.741)
  11. Tilopa
  12. Naropa

Other Indian tantric authors include:

  • Buddhaguhya, wrote a commentary on the Mahavairocana Tantra
  • Vimalamitra, 8th century, wrote commentaries on the Guhyagarbha tantra
  • Padmasambhava
  • Śāntarakṣita (725–788), whose authorship of the Tantric work Tattvasiddhi is attributed by various authors, but this is debated by scholars such as Ernst Steinkellner.
  • Vilāsavajra, 8-9th century author of the Namamantrarthavalokini, a commentary on the Mañjuśrīnāmasamgīti.
  • Buddhajñāna, 8-9th century author of the Śrīherukasādhanavṛtti
  • Aryadeva, author of the Lamp that Integrates the Practices (Caryamelapakapradipa), a commentary on the Guhyasamāja Tantra, not to be confused with the Madhyamaka philosopher of the same name
  • Candrakirti, 9th century author of the Pradipoddyotana, not to be confused with the Madhyamaka philosopher of the same name
  • Sakyamitra, commentator on the Guhyasamāja Tantra
  • Nagabodhi, commentator on the Guhyasamāja Tantra
  • Bhavyakīrti, 10th century author of a commentary on the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra, the Śrīcakrasamvarapañjikā-śūramanojñā-nāma.
  • Sraddhakaravarman, commentator on the Guhyasamāja
  • Bhavabhaṭṭa, 10th century author of the Śrīcakrasaṁvarapañjikā, a Cakrasamvāratantra commentary
  • Jayabhadra, Cakrasamvāratantra commentator
  • Durjayacandra, Cakrasamvāratantra commentator
  • Vajrapani, Cakrasamvāratantra commentator
  • Tathagataraksita, Cakrasamvāratantra commentator
  • Bhavabadra, Cakrasamvāratantra commentator
  • Viravajra, Cakrasamvāratantra commentator
  • Manibhadra, Cakrasamvāratantra commentator
  • Śraddhākaravarma, Guhyasamāja commentator
  • Prasantajnana, Guhyasamāja commentator
  • Vimalagupta, Guhyasamāja commentator
  • Cilupa, Guhyasamāja commentator
  • Vajrahasa, Guhyasamāja commentator
  • Santipa
  • Kāṇha, author of the Yogaratnamālā on the Hevajra Tantra
  • Bhadrapāda, author of the Śrīhevajravyākhyākhyāvivaraṇa, on the Hevajra Tantra
  • Vajragarbha, author of the Ṣaṭsāhasrikā-Hevajra-ṭīkā
  • Ratnakīrti, 11th century
  • Ratnākaraśānti, wrote the Muktāvalī, a commentary on the Hevajra
  • Pundarika, a commentator of the Kalachakra tantra
  • Sucandra, Kalacakra commentary in sixty thousand stanzas
  • Yogaratnamālā, author of a commentary on the Hevajra Tantra
  • Abhayakaragupta, 11th-early 12th century CE.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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