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Vajrayana partially relies on various tantric techniques rooted in scriptures such as tantras and various tantric commentaries and treatises. Tantra is defined as an inner realization that functions to prevent ordinary appearances and conceptions and to accomplish the four complete purities of a Buddha (environment, body, enjoyments and deeds)."
The most important aspect of the tantric path is to 'use the result as the Path'; which means that rather than placing full enlightenment as a goal far away in the future, one identifies with the indivisible three vajras that is, the enlightened body, speech and mind of a Buddha. The practitioner focusses on and identifies with the resultant buddha-form or 'meditation deity', the yidam (Tibetan) or (Sanskrit) 'ishtadevata'.
In order to achieve this self-identification with the yidam, much symbolism, ritual and visualization is used in Buddhist tantric techniques. Tantric techniques may initially appear to consist of ritualistic nonsense; however, it should only be practiced on the basis of a thorough understanding of Buddhist philosophy and strictly following the traditions.
Secrecy is often a cornerstone of tantric Buddhism, simply to avoid harm to oneself and to others by practicing without proper guidance. Full explanation of tantric symbolism and the psychology of the practice is forbidden to the uninitiated, which can easily lead to misunderstanding and dismissal by those who have not been initiated:
Tantra is limited to persons whose compassion is so great that they cannot bear to spend unnecessary time in attaining Buddhahood, as they want to be a supreme source of help and happiness for others quickly.
Tantric techniques include:
Deity yoga (Tibetan: lha'i rnal 'byor; Sanskrit: Devata-yoga) is the fundamental Vajrayana practice, involving a sadhana practice in which the practitioner visualizes himself or herself as the meditation Buddha or yidam of the sadhana.
The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, non-dual. The yidam generally appears in a mandala and the practitioner visualizes himself or herself and their environment as the yidam and mandala of their Deity Yoga practice. This visualization method undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed, enabling the practitioner to purify spiritual obscurations (Sanskrit: klesha) and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously:
Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualisation, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skilful means and wisdom. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it".
Representations of the deity, such as a statues, paintings (Tibetan: thangka), or mandalas, are often employed as an aid to visualization in both the Generation Stage (Tibetan: Kye-rim) and the Completion Stage (Tibetan: Dzog-rim) of Anuttarayoga Tantra. The mandalas are symbolic representations of sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a yidam. In the book, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama describes a mandala: “This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity.”
All of these are available in Tibetan form, many are available in Chinese, and some are still extant in ancient Sanskrit manuscripts.
Mandalas are used as an aid in realizing the inner ground:
[E]xternal ritual and internal sadhana form an indistinguishable whole, and this unity finds its most pregnant expression in the form of the mandala, the sacred enclosure consisting of concentric squares and circles drawn on the ground and representing that adamantine plane of being on which the aspirant to Buddhahood wishes to establish himself. The unfolding of the tantric ritual depends on the mandala; and where a material mandala is not employed, the adept proceeds to construct one mentally in the course of his meditation.
The Guru or spiritual teacher, in Tibetan Buddhism generally the lama, is essential as a guide during tantric practice. Without the guru's example, blessings and grace, genuine progress is held to be impossible for all but the most keen and gifted. Many tantric texts qualify the Three Jewels of refuge thus: "Guru is Buddha, Guru is Dharma and Guru is Sangha" to reflect their importance for the disciple. In the Vajrayana the guru is considered even more compassionate and more potent than the Buddha because a direct relationship can be had with the guru. The Guru also appears in the 'Inner' refuge formulation of the Three Roots, the three foundations of tantric practice.
Guru yoga (or 'teacher practice') (Tibetan: bla ma'i rnal 'byor) is a practice that has many variations, but may be understood as a tantric devotional process where the practitioner unites their mindstream with the mindstream of the guru's Three Vajras. Guru yoga is akin to Deity yoga since the guru is engaged as the yidam, or meditational deity, a nirmanakaya manifestation of a Buddha. The process of guru yoga generally entails visualization of a refuge tree as an invocation of the lineage, with the root guru channelling the blessings of the refuge tree (and thus the entire lineage) to the practitioner. It might involve visualization of the guru above or in front of the practitioner. Guru yoga may also entail a liturgy or mantra such as the Prayer in Seven Lines (Tibetan: tshig bdun gsol 'debs), an evocation and invocation of Padmasambhava, though this is neither necessary nor mandatory.
The yoga of Clear Light focusses on accessing the luminosity of the mindstream that is seen to be its essential nature. Practices often include aspects of dream yoga, including lucid dreaming. It is one of the six yogas of Naropa.
According to the Vajrayana tradition, at certain times when a person's mind is in a transitional state, or 'bardo', the various Vajrayana techniques can be particularly effective. Some of these states include during sex, death, meditation and dreaming and at other liminal states, the bodymind is in a very subtle state which can be used by advanced practitioners to transform the mindstream. According to the Vajrayana tradition it is possible to attain enlightenment in a single lifetime by practicing certain techniques.
Death yoga (or 'death practice') is another important aspect of Tantra techniques. It is the accumulation of meditative practice that helps to prepare the practitioner for what they need to do at the time of death. At the time of death the mind is in a state (clear light) that can open the mind to enlightenment, when used very skillfully. It is said that masters like Lama Tsong Khapa used these techniques to achieve enlightenment during the death process.
There are three stages at which it is possible to do this; at the end of the death process, during the bardo (or 'in between period') and during the process of rebirth. During these stages, the mind is in a very subtle state, and an advanced practitioner can use these natural states to make significant progress on the spiritual path. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is an important commentary for this kind of traditional practice.
This Death yoga should not be confused with normal meditation on death, which is a common practice within Buddhist traditions. In most non-tantra traditions it is done to reduce attachment and desire, and not to use the death process itself as a means to practice.
Karmamudrā (Sanskrit; "action seal," erroneously: kāmamudrā or "desire seal," Tib. las-kyi phyag-rgya) is sexual practice with a physical or visualized consort. It cannot be practiced without the basis of the inner heat yoga, tummo, of which karmamudrā is an extension. This sadhana is a part of the Six Yogas of Naropa, Lamdre, Kalachakra and Anuyoga. The practice is represented in yab-yum imagery.
All traditions agree that qualified lay practitioners (including former monks who have given back their vows) can use physical consorts as the Vajrayana founders did. For example, Atisa wrote that "Those (consecrations) on which the householder may rely include everything taught in the tantras." There are different stances on whether current monks can engage in the practice. The Buddhist scholar Tripitakamala felt the overall goal of Buddhahood overrides concerns for monastic vows.