Mahayana is not an essential prerequisite for Vajrayana.
For some readers trained in Tibetan Buddhism this statement will sound warning bells. Nearly all Vajrayana teachers say that Mahayana practice—particularly cultivation of compassion, bodhicitta (“enlightenment-mind”)1—is a necessary, non-negotiable preliminary in order to stay safe practicing Tantra. Without a “base in Mahayana,”2 Tantric practice is dangerous. It risks egotistical, manic power trips, controlling, dominant behavior, explosive experiences of uncontrolled energy, psychological problems associated with delusions of grandiosity and psychic control, and a lack of personal accountability.
Mahayana (especially the cultivation of bodhicitta and good karma) formed the morality of Tibet. The Tibetan monastic system was at the heart of politics and society. Sutric Buddhism, which is Mahayana in this context, inculcated foundational social norms in Tibet, for children, families, and the whole of society. Developing Mahayana view was an essential prerequisite for Vajrayana, as the only available moral system. The approach to Vajrayana now taught in the West developed within this institutional context. Teachers and students have left unquestioned the assumption that Mahayana is indispensable.
Tibetan institutions present a staged system of prerequisites. These begin with Mahayana practices, such as the cultivation of bodhicitta and the common preliminaries—contemplating the “four thoughts that turn the mind to practice.”3 After Mahayana, there are four preparatory practices for Vajrayana, the uncommon preliminaries, which are the Tantric ngöndro: purification practice, with sādhanā ritual, mandala offering, prostrations, guru yoga. The first three Tantric preliminaries have the flavor and style of Tantric practice, but are functionally Mahayana: they lead to experience of emptiness. The fourth is the first Tantric practice.
Tibetan teachers in the West exported Buddhist ethical training in its most elaborate form, designed for dedicated monastic practice, and applied it wholesale to Western adults approaching Buddhist practice in contemporary, non-monastic circumstances. That missed the point of Mahayana’s social and spiritual role. Most Western adults approaching spiritual practice are already trained in ethical standards and behavior. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have already learned at least simple compassion and care for others, often through Christian influenced cultural upbringing. We have different cultural ethical systems that fulfill the same function as Mahayana did in Tibetan society.
Early Vajrayana in Tibet was explicitly anti-scholastic and functioned pro-socially. In the reorganization of Tibetan society after the fourteenth century, the monastic system developed by the Geluk School institutionalized Mahayana practice. The Mahayana worldview, in which the bodhisattva ideal is regarded as the peak of attainment, became the dominant, normative influence. Vajrayana was purified of its unsavory, worldly elements. In the monastic system, the pro-social orientation of its earlier manifestation was neglected in favor of arcane, institutionalized, liturgical ritual. Some of the physical yogic practices were preserved, particularly in the schools of Tibetan Buddhism that maintained a minority of non-monastic practitioners. From perspective of Mahayana, that version of Vajrayana should be reserved for extremely advanced practitioners.
Inheriting monastic attitudes, many teachers regard Vajrayana as an add-on: an extension of Mahayana. But earlier traditions in Tibet, and contemporary non-monastic traditions, respect Vajrayana as a path in its own right. When Vajrayana is approached as a stand-alone path, with a unique starting point and methodology, Mahayana is an optional, not an essential prerequisite. Any social or spiritual technology, Buddhist or not, that gets you to the base of Vajrayana, fulfills the preparatory function.
This page explains and reflects the approach that we’re taking in our community of contemporary Vajrayana practice, Evolving Ground. We regard Mahayana in its Tibetan form—that is, all of the preliminaries as presented in the Tibetan systems, including practices of cultivation of bodhicitta, the bodhisattva vows—as inessential for Vajrayana practice. They are interchangeable with other means of preparation fulfilling the same role of establishing (1) ethical maturity and (2) experience of emptiness.
Recontextualizing Mahayana does not denigrate it. It relativizes and revitalizes the system. Exporting spiritual technology from one time and place to another requires intelligent application for it to stay ‘live’—that is, to continue to function well. Rote imitation leads to dysfunctional practice. It’s common to spend decades progressing through the Tibetan preliminaries and established system without them functioning in the way intended. In the worst case, the result is abuse of power. More commonly, it’s a tragic waste of time.
Engaging diligently with Mahayana practice can be humbling, empowering, and developmental, whether or not the intention is to prepare for Tantra. Many Western students have benefitted from the worldview and practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the development of compassion, contemplative meditations, and ritual offering.
Tantric practice can be dangerous if it is approached without caution. For Sutric practice, the starting point is recognition of a common, general experience—suffering, or existential dissatisfaction. The starting point for Tantric practice is an uncommon experience, emptiness. Without grounding in experience of the nebulosity of all phenomena, the form of Tantric practice could become all-engulfing. Stories of this Tantric failure mode are sometimes used to warn people against approaching Tantra without a well-established Mahayana practice. However, all the disaster stories I’ve ever heard relate to practitioners, Western and Tibetan, with decades of practice in Tibetan establishment Buddhism. That’s not surprising, given that there haven’t been other options; but apparently the traditional preliminaries do not reliably prevent problems.
Emptiness is defined and acquired in multiple ways. The cultivation of bodhicitta, or taking the bodhisattva vows, might result in “selflessness”—an understanding of the empty nature of one’s self in relation to others. A common way to understand emptiness is as a loosening up of self-referentiality, a playfulness regarding the importance of one’s own view and opinions. Another approach is through presence of awareness. When you’re present and alert, you’re not immersed in a narrative about how things are, you’re experiencing the rising of consciousness as live in the moment. From a Christian perspective you could see how cultivating the practice of charity or the other virtues might be preparatory. Training as a teacher in an educational institution could be part of your preparation in some way, too.
In Western, individualist society, our personal backgrounds cover a wider range than ever before in human history. Development into adulthood is astonishingly different for individuals, depending on social circumstances, family, and education. We should understand approaching Vajrayana as a process best accomplished in whatever way suits an individual’s circumstances. This requires drawing on, and creating, a wider range of preparatory practices.
In Evolving Ground, we’re not confining practice and preliminaries to a specific, institutionalized, conventionally spiritual path. We’re not rejecting that option, either, but we’re broadening the scope of approach by viewing Vajrayana as a path in its own right and by taking an intelligent approach to the way that preliminaries function, including those found in Tibetan Mahayana. Some yogis want to engage primarily with silent sitting. Some deploy selected Mahayana practices, and some practice Tantric ngöndro in a traditional form.
Having more choices is good!
1.Bodhicitta is the cultivation of compassion and the desire for the liberation of all sentient beings.↩
2. The base for Tantric practice is one of the fruits, or results, of the path of Mahayana—an understanding of emptiness. Mahayana practice is an approach to that base, a preliminary that will get you to the starting point for Tantric practice.↩
3. Precious human rebirth, impermanence, karma, suffering.↩