varajana image

The Himalayan region encompasses Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and Kashmir. Vajrayana Buddhism, which is practiced there is the most expanded and esoteric form of Buddhist practice. Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is the esoteric offshoot of the more general Mahayana Buddhism. In Mahayana practice, spiritual realisation is achieved by cultivating ethical perfection gradually over innumerable lifetimes. By contrast, Vajrayana focuses on attaining perfection rapidly, within a single life, and under the careful guidance of a teacher (guru or lama).

Vajrayana literally means ‘adamantine (or impenetrable) path’, a reference to the indestructible nature of Buddhahood. Vajrayana Buddhism features a bewildering array of deities and teaches that every sentient being is potentially a Buddha but that human ignorance clouds this potential. The goal of an enlightened mind (bodhicitta) is achieved through complex rituals and transformative yogic meditations. which develop the ideals of wisdom (prajna) and compassion (upaya). In the Tibetan tradition works of art are created as aids to these rituals or meditative visualisations. A work of art is thus a means and support to an experience of Buddhahood; it is intended not simply to be ‘looked at’ but ‘entered into’. One artform unique in this regard is the thangka or ‘portable icon’. Other distinctive visual forms of the Vajrayana tradition include mandalas (literally a ‘circle’, or sacred diagram), iconographic sculptures and ritual objects and implements.

Won’t it be Grand?
An itinerant translator and lama visualizes her wish list for the unfolding of Vajrayana in the West.
Sarah Harding

© Shelley and Donald Rubin FoundationPredictions are great fun because no one can say for sure that you’re wrong. Not yet. With that freedom, I would rather err on the side of raging optimism. Buddhists know that, in whatever direction the mind is pointed, sooner or later it will go there. With that thought, I behold the future glory of Vajrayana in America.Vajrayana Buddhism, as it has come to us from Himalayan countries, will never be isolated from its foundation and context of basic Buddhist values. The idea of being separate or superior to other forms of Buddhism will be dashed by the realization that Vajrayana is those other forms. Thus, for instance, the transmutation of neurosis into wisdom that characterizes Vajrayana practices could not possibly work without the deep internal transformations brought on by the realization of selflessness and compassion that are considered the domain of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

Our pluralistic education and exposure to global variety will help us truly appreciate the insistent Buddhist injunction to respect all spiritual approaches. We could really believe that there are 84,000 different teachings precisely suited for that many different temperaments. This is a great advantage that we in the West have. With an informed worldview, we will not only respect other paths, we will leave the intersectarian quibbling and power politics of Tibetan Buddhism far behind. Appreciation of the living lineages will grow in direct proportion to the shedding of sectarian prejudice.

The merit-based donation system of the Buddhist countries will manifest here as genuine concern that everyone have equal access to the teachings. At the same time, the logistics of Tibetan dharma centers, teachers’ tours, lectures, Buddhist conferences, and so on, wih be managed in a practical way that fits into economic realities of this culture. The excuse that Westerners only value what they pay (a lot) for will be replaced by simple arithmetic coupled with generous concern for everyone.

The glaring whiteness of the convert Buddhist groups in America will prompt us to join the search for all the causes and conditions of exclusivity (see above, for one), and we will take a proactive stance to redress it.

Our local religion of consumerism and the outstanding marketing potential of Vajrayana imagery and paraphernalia will lend itself to sacred outlook rather than jaded secularization. It will be almost impossible not to keep the Vajrayana commitment to see pute Buddha realms and Buddhas everywhere: in car commercials, on power bars, and on T-shirts tightly enwrapping the surgically correct starlets on MTV. Thus will we transmute such neurosis into wisdom!

The relationship between teacher and student has a special intensity and function in the Vajrayana. This will be taken out of the realm of rock star worship, blind faith, or childish regression and into the realm of mature, ttusting relationships that are contained by mutual covenant (samaya). If this relationship continues to be with Asian teachers, then cross-cultural values and behavioral issues will be approached with respect and honesty instead of either denial or indignation. Rather than standing in the shadow (in all senses) of the lamas, matute students will absorb their light and shine with it.

© Shelley and Donald Rubin FoundationThe growing voice of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender practitioners in the community will challenge limiting dualistic ideas, such as the notion that the fabric of the universe consists of masculine and feminine. Then we can work with the bottom-line dualism, that of self and other, while appreciating the magnificent display of the phenomenal world in all its forms. Vajrayana techniques, such as those aimed at purifying desire, will be reevaluated in this light in terms of effectiveness and applicability.

The benefits of Buddhist practice will be available in many different circumstances and forms: relaxation techniques in the workplace, successful diamond trade, marriage mediation, and doing the laundry. This is the famous popularization of Buddhism, or “dumbing down” as some have called it, even though Vajrayana was the “popular” religion of Tibet. Along with this traditional role as medicine for whatever ails us, the dharma will never lose its grand view and function as the path that opens up to complete awakening. The conflict in the newly-dug trenches of Vajrayana “traditionalists” vs. “American” Buddhists will become a total non-issue when we realize that we are on the same side, with 84,000 different, wonderful variations.The brilliant use of creative imagination in Vajrayana visualizations will expand to include imagery that will have a deep cultural and psychic context for us while still maintaining the connection with transcendent forms and principles of awakening.

Buddhist studies in universities and practice in dharma centers will join forces. Monastic and yogic practitioner-scholars and educated renunciates will be the model.

So many would-be Napoleons, actors, and relatives of important people will be recognized as tulkus that pretty soon everyone will be recognized. The tulku institution will become irrelevant in the West, and we will understand that everyone has Buddha-nature waiting to be discovered.

An integrated spiritual practice will develop that includes, for example, some of the yogas and pranaexercises of Vajrayana that were traditionally reserved for advanced practice; as well as psychological work developed in the West; and intellectual pursuits. Ignoring body, intellect, and psyche won’t work.

People will cultivate some kind (any kind) of compassion before worrying about idiot compassion.

Vajrayana Buddhism as we have inherited it will be subject to careful feminist scrutiny and purged of old and foreign prejudices. Brought up to date with our current insight into the problems of sexism, it will join our slow evolution toward a sanity of the sexes. And Western translators of Tibetan texts will finally relinquish gender-exclusive language!

Won’t it be grand?

Sarah Harding completed the three-year retreat under the Tibetan master Kalu Rinpoche in 1980. She is a translator of Tibetan texts, teacher, lama, and mother, and is currently teaching Buddhist Studies at Naropa University in Colorado.

Images: Vajravarahi Fire Deity Mandala; The White Lord With Six Hands © Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, courtesy of