Friday, December 31, 2010

Sutra and Tantra

               In another forum I recently was asked, what exactly was the difference between Sutra and Tantra ? I wrote the following response. It seemed like a worthy question so I am reprinting my response here.
                  The word Sutra is Sanskrit and literally means a thread or line that holds things together. Sutta is the Pali translation of the Sanskrit word Sutra. Sanskrit originally meant “refined speech” and is the historical language the Indo-Aryan peoples. It was the primary liturgical Language of both Hinduism and Buddhism. That is to say all the original religious texts of both were written in Sanskrit. So in Buddhism, the sutra refers mostly to canonical scriptures, many of which are regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha. A Sutra is usually a scriptural narrative, especially a text traditionally regarded as a discourse of the Buddha.
           Pali is a literary language of the Prakrit language family. When the canonical texts of Buddhism were written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE they were translated from Sanskrit to Pali. According to traditional Sri Lankan chronicles (such as the Dipavamsa), Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the 2nd century BCE by Venerable Mahinda, the son of the Indian Emperor Ashoka, during the reign of Sri Lanka's King Devanampiya Tissa. During this time, a sapling of the Bodhi Tree was brought to Sri Lanka and the first monasteries were established under the sponsorship of the Sri Lankan king.
         When the Turkic Muslims invaded India they literally wiped Buddhism off the face of India. They burned the Buddhist texts in India, therefore the majority of remaining Buddhist scripture was preserved in what is called the Pali Cannon. Later Large volumes of Buddhist sutras were found in both Tibet and China. The Pali Cannon are the only texts recognized by Theravada Buddhism as canonical.
           Tantra in Sanskrit meant loom; also specifically, the warp thread that dresses the loom and gives support to the fabric formed by the moving shuttle or, in a rug, the individual knots. Without it, there can be no cloth. It can also refer to the cord used for stringing beads to make a necklace, a rosary, mala. Tantric or more rarely, tantrik, is the adjectival form of tantra and it has come to mean continuous, or continuity in the sense of unbroken.
                    Tantrism refers to a specific approach or type of practice which has the connotation of an esoteric system in which exercises, practices and rituals are handed down directly from teacher to student by word of mouth, though often with the aid of teaching materials in the form of pamphlets and pictures. Such a manual can also be called a tantra. Any tantra is usually part of a system that was discovered, developed or established to explain, teach and initiate people into a radically different way of looking at, and acting in, the world. The esoteric, concealed, or secret part is often misunderstood as a reference to the intentional concealment of ancient practices.
                The form of Tantric practice most familure to western students today is Vajrayana, a form brought to the west primarily by the Tibetans. Vajrayana Buddhism is also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tantrayāna, Mantrayāna, Secret Mantra, Esoteric Buddhism and the Diamond Vehicle. Be aware that there are also tantric forms of Hinduism. So in English today Tantras are defined as a scripture taught by the Buddha describing the Vajrayana practices.
                  According to Vajrayana scriptures Vajrayana refers to one of three routes to enlightenment, the other two being Hinayana and Mahayana. (Hinayana being a insulting term (smaller vehicle) they apply to Theravadin Buddhism). Sutra practice called Sūtrayāna, (Sanskrit) in the Indo-Tibetan three-fold classification of yanas, is the yana (mode of practice) that leads to the realization of emptiness. It consists of Hinayana and Mahayana. The other two yanas, according to this classification, are Tantrayana and Dzogchen, which together constitute Vajrayana. Of course the Vajrayana folks see themselves as more advanced since they employ methods they believe can lead to Buddha hood in a single lifetime of practice. Some of which are Deity yoga, Four complete purities and Guru yoga. These forms usually require an initiation called an empowerment ceremony.
  Zen is considered a form of  Mahayana, Sūtrayāna in this classification system.

Monday, December 20, 2010


                This has been a month of ceremony at my Zendo. We had Shukke Tokudo Ceremony (ordination ceremony) and Zaike Tokudo Ceremony (discipleship ceremony) along with our usual weekly ceremonies. If there is one thing that all Buddhist seem to have in common it is their seeming love of rituals and ceremony.

       Just so we are clear a ceremony is an event of ritual significance, performed on a special occasion. A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers.
     As some of you know I practiced Vajrayana Buddhism before I came to practice Zen. With all respect and no insult to them my old Tibetan teachers loved ceremony and could put on a ritual at the drop of the preverbal hat. Until I actually joined a Zen group I had thought they would be real low on the ceremony meter.
         I guess my idea of how Zen was practiced was shaped by the Books and stories I had read. I saw Zen as shedding all paper and all standardized practice. You know what I mean, the Zen master who appears out of no where, says something both profound and confusing and then disappears over the hill in a cloud of dust.
         So I was surprised when I found that they were generally speaking as fond of ceremony as the next school of Buddhism. Earlier this year I read a wonderful book called “Soto Zen In Medieval Japan” by William M. Bodiford. I am by the way, after reading several things written by him, beginning to believe Mr. Bodiford is the greatest Soto Zen scholar the English speaking world has ever produced, just so you know.
        Historically speaking if Mr. Bodiford is correct ceremony and rituals were very much what Soto Zen was all about after the third generation of the Soto Zen School in Japan. Rituals for weddings and funerals paid the monks rent for centuries. Rich patrons paid monks to do blessing rituals for their relatives both living and dead. The monks would chant and pray for Granny two times a day and the grand children would fork over the land or the cash you needed.
         In fact it appears that for many years teaching someone how all the rituals were performed was how the early Soto Zen Masters “made” Dharma heirs and transferred their lineage. Bodiford claims that one great master asserted knowing the rituals is the complete essence of Zen. That the ceremonies Dogen brought from China were the sum total of his gift to Buddhism. I don’t think anyone can doubt the importance Dogen placed on ceremony; however I really doubt that he himself believed that the ceremonies he taught were all there was to his Zen.
         In Japan today Soto Zen still seems awash in ritual and ceremony. In the Temples and Monasteries It appears to me that the Zen monks of today’s Japan do as many ceremonies as anyone else in Buddhism.
         In America I think explaining Buddhist ceremony especially to the kind of people Zen attracts is often a hard sell. Unlike Buddhist of the past most Americans who come to Zen today reject the idea that ceremonies are a valid form of magic that can have a real influence upon them in this world and the next. The most common stated reason I encountered early on was that performing and even watching and listing to a ritual gained you merit.
           I have heard my teacher explain the meaning and significance of ceremony and for the life of me I just seemed to hear noise. This happens to me sometimes when explanations, true or not, just don’t make any sense to me. I mean no disrespect to him, it's just sometimes I just don't get it.
          Of course there is the standard fall back position that ceremony and ritual in Buddhism are upaya, which is Sanskrit for "skillful means." If they are upaya that would of course imply that performing or watching them somehow is of a spiritual benefit to the practitioner on his way towards enlightenment, or a relaxing sit, whichever comes first?

           Dogen said, “To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” I suppose that treating the ritual or the ceremony the same way you treat kinhin (walking meditation) might make that verse apply to ceremony.
          On the whole my experience with the ceremonies conducted this month was an enjoyable one. But I do have a concern to express here.
           We seldom have a talk on how to experience a ceremony. I know I have heard it said to do a ceremony like you do zazen, but my real worry is that zazen is becoming a ceremony in and of itself. I see people grasping for the proper posture and sitting as ridge as a post, looking good and fearful of even scratching their nose, because we all know how the ceremony is performed, how it should look and what it should sound like.

          So I really have no problem with ceremony in zen, its zazen as ceremony that worries me.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


“The universe exists because of the karma of the beings who wish to live in it.” - HHDL

       The glaciers feeding the Indus River are melting at an unprecedented rate due to global warming. The Indus provides a major agricultural irrigation source for both India and Pakistan. Both countries are putting extreme pressure on the river by over extraction of water for agriculture. If the Indus dry’s up this will not only decimate crops in both countries but will endanger freshwater fish populations which is also another important food source for both countries. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and a long history of animosity. This is just one possible scenario for the end of civilization, at least on the Indian sub content.

       Of course the Indus is not the only major river system in danger of drying up. Among those rivers considered in immediate danger are the Yangtze, the Salween and the Ganges. In serious danger are also: Danube, that flows in Europe, African Nile and Rio Grande, flowing in South America.

       In recent years, locally, we have seen Alabama and Georgia become entangled in a major legal battle over water. The two states endured a 4 year drought that had them at each others throats. In Australia their so called drought has lasted almost ten years. Mongolia’s recent five year drought has just ended. All across the world fresh water is being polluted and its sources destroyed through the stupidity of man.

      Many people may doubt that our Karma created this world, but the time is fast approaching when no one can debate the sad fact that we are destroying it with our own hands. Of course what that really means is we are simply making this world uninhabitable for human beings. No matter what we do the planet will continue, it is only ours selves we are really destroying.

        Water has always seemed magical to me. It flows; it rises as steam and clouds and falls as white silky snow or pouring rain. Water is a universal solvent that forms and sculpts rock like an artist’s unseen hand. Since our bodies are 98% Water you might even say we are water in walking form.

It was our beginning, when it leaves here so will we.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


There are no unique events. Nothing in the universe ever happens just once.