The Berzin Archives

The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

Switch to the Text Version of this page. Jump to main navigation.

Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > Making Sense of Tantra > 2 The Authenticity of the Tantras

Making Sense of Tantra

Alexander Berzin, 2002

Part I: Basic Questions and Doubts about Tantra

2 The Authenticity of the Tantras

The Source of the Tantras

Tantra practice requires conviction in the authenticity of the tantras, correct understanding of their procedures and theory, and certainty of their validity as methods leading to enlightenment. According to the Tibetan tradition, Shakyamuni Buddha himself is the source of the tantras. Many scholars, however, both Western and Buddhist, have disputed this point. By Western scientific standards, however, none of the texts ascribed to Buddha – neither the sutras nor the tantras – can pass the test for authenticity. The question is whether this is crucial to tantra practitioners or other criteria are more relevant to them.

The Tibetans explain that Shakyamuni Buddha taught three vehicles or pathways of practice that lead to the highest spiritual goals. The modest vehicle, Hinayana, leads to liberation, while the vast vehicle, Mahayana, leads to enlightenment. Although Hinayana is a pejorative term appearing only in Mahayana texts, we shall use it here without negative connotation as the widely accepted general term for the eighteen pre-Mahayana Buddhist schools. Tantrayana, the tantra vehicle – also called Vajrayana, the diamond-strong vehicle – is a subdivision of Mahayana. Hinayana transmits only sutras, while Mahayana transmits both sutras and tantras.

No one recorded Buddha's discourses or instructive dialogues when he held them two and a half thousand years ago, since Indian custom at the time limited the use of writing to business and military affairs. The year after Buddha passed away, however, five hundred of his followers gathered in a council at which three of his main disciples recounted different portions of his words. Subsequently, different groups of monks took responsibility to memorize and periodically to recite specific sections of them. The responsibility passed from one generation of disciples to the next. These words became the Hinayana sutras. Their claim to authenticity rests exclusively on faith that the three original disciples had perfect recall and that those at the council who corroborated their accounts all remembered the same words. These two provisions are impossible to establish scientifically.

Even if the original transmission were free of corruption, many outstanding disciples in subsequent generations lacked flawless memories. Within a hundred years after Buddha passed away, disagreements arose over many of the Hinayana sutras. Eventually, eighteen schools emerged, each with its own version of what Buddha said. The schools even disagreed as to how many of Buddha's discourses and dialogues were recited at the first council. According to some versions, several of Buddha's disciples were unable to attend and orally transmitted exclusively to their own students the teachings that they recalled. The most outstanding examples are the texts concerning special topics of knowledge (Skt. abhidharma). For many years, subsequent generations recited them outside the officially sanctioned meetings and only later councils added them to the Hinayana collection.

The first written scriptures appeared four centuries after Buddha, in the middle of the first century BCE. They were the Hinayana sutras from the Theravada school, the line of elders. Gradually, the sutras from the other seventeen Hinayana schools also emerged in written form. Although the Theravada version was the first to appear in writing and although Theravada is the only Hinayana school that survives intact today, these two facts are inconclusive to prove that the Theravada sutras are the authentic words of Buddha.

The Theravada sutras are in the Pali language, while the other seventeen versions are in assorted Indian languages such as Sanskrit and the local dialect of Magadha, the region where Buddha lived. It cannot be established, however, that Shakyamuni taught in only one or all of these Indian tongues. Thus, no version of the Hinayana sutras can claim authenticity on the grounds of language.

Moreover, Buddha advised his disciples to transmit his teachings in whatever forms would be intelligible. He did not wish his followers to freeze his words into a sacred archaic language like that of the ancient Indian scriptures, the Vedas. Consistent with this guideline, different portions of Buddha's Hinayana teachings first appeared in writing in divers Indian languages and in dissimilar styles of composition and grammar to suit the times. The Mahayana sutras and tantras also exhibit a wide diversity of style and language. From a traditional Buddhist viewpoint, diversity of language proves authenticity rather than refutes it.

According to the Tibetan tradition, before Buddha's teachings were put into writing, disciples recited the Hinayana sutras openly at large monastic gatherings, the Mahayana sutras in small private groups, and the tantras in extreme secrecy. The Mahayana sutras first surfaced in the early second century CE, and the tantras began to emerge perhaps as soon as a century later, although any precise dating is impossible. As noted above, according to several Hinayana traditions, private circles orally transmitted even some of the most famous Hinayana texts before the major monastic assemblies accepted them into the corpus of what they openly recited. Therefore, the absence of a text from the first council's agenda does not disprove its authenticity.

Moreover, the participants of the tantra recitation sessions swore vows of secrecy not to reveal the tantras to the uninitiated. Therefore, it is not surprising that personal accounts of the tantra meetings have not appeared. Thus, it is difficult to prove or disprove the prewritten transmission of the tantras and the occurrence of the secret meetings. Moreover, even if one accepts a prewritten oral transmission of the tantras, it is impossible to establish how and when such transmission began, as is the case with the Hinayana scriptures missing from the first council.

As the Indian master Shantideva argued in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior (Skt. Bodhicaryavatara) any line of reasoning presented to prove or discredit the authenticity of the Mahayana texts applies equally to the Hinayana scriptures. Therefore, the authenticity of the tantras must rely on criteria other than linguistic factors and the date of initial redaction.

Different Views of Shakyamuni Buddha as a Teacher

A major source of confusion in trying to ascertain the source of the tantras seems to be that Western Buddhologists, Hinayana scholars, and Mahayana authorities each regard Shakyamuni Buddha differently. Buddhologists accept Shakyamuni as a historical figure and a great teacher, but do not consider him as having possessed superhuman powers, as having instructed even nonhumans, and as having continued to teach after his death. Although Hinayana scholars grant that Shakyamuni Buddha had extraordinary powers and could teach all beings, they place little emphasis on these qualities. Moreover, they say that Shakyamuni's passing away marked the end of his teaching activities.

Mahayana scholars of both the sutras and tantras explain that Shakyamuni became a Buddha many eons ago and merely exhibited the stages for becoming enlightened during his lifetime as Prince Siddhartha. He has continued to appear in various manifestations and to teach ever since, using a wide assortment of paranormal abilities. They cite The Lotus Sutra, in which Shakyamuni proclaimed that he would manifest in the future as spiritual masters, whose teachings and commentaries would be as authentic as were his own words. Moreover, Mahayana scholars accept that Buddhas can manifest in several forms and places simultaneously, with each emanation teaching a different topic. For example, while appearing as Shakyamuni propounding The Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutras at Vultures' Peak in northern India, Buddha also manifested in southern India as Kalachakra and set forth the four classes of tantras at Dhanyakataka Stupa.

The Mahayana vision of how Buddhas teach extends beyond personally instructing disciples. Shakyamuni, for example, also inspired other Buddhas and bodhisattvas (those fully dedicated to achieving enlightenment and to helping others) to teach on his behalf, such as when Avalokiteshvara expounded The Heart Sutra in Buddha's presence. He also allowed others to teach his intended meaning, such as Vimalakirti in The Sutra Instructing about Vimalakirti.

Further, in later times, Shakyamuni and other Buddhas and bodhisattvas permitted to teach on his behalf appeared in pure visions to highly advanced disciples and revealed further sutra and tantra teachings. For example, Manjushri revealed Parting from the Four Types of Clinging to Sachen Kunga-nyingpo, the founder of the Tibetan Sakya tradition, and Vajradhara repeatedly appeared to masters in India and Tibet and revealed further tantras. Moreover, Buddhas and bodhisattvas transported disciples to other realms in order to instruct them. For instance, Maitreya led the Indian master Asanga to his pure land and transmitted to him there his Five Texts.

Because the audience for Buddha's teachings consisted of a variety of beings, not only humans, some of them safeguarded material for later, more conducive times. For example, the half-human half-serpent nagas preserved The Prajnaparamita Sutras in their subterranean kingdom beneath a lake until the Indian master Nagarjuna came to retrieve them. Jnana Dakini, a supranormal female adept, kept The Vajrabhairava Tantra in Oddiyana until the Indian master Lalitavajra journeyed there on the advice of a pure vision of Manjushri. Moreover, both Indian and Tibetan masters hid scriptures for safekeeping in physical locations or implanted them as potentials in special disciples' minds. Later generations of masters uncovered them as treasure-texts (terma, gter-ma). Asanga, for example, buried Maitreya's Furthest Everlasting Continuum, and the Indian master Maitripa unearthed it many centuries later. Padmasambhava concealed innumerable tantra texts in Tibet, which subsequent Nyingma masters discovered in the recesses of temples or in their own minds.

When the Tibetan tradition asserts Shakyamuni as the source of the tantras, it means Buddha as described in common by the Mahayana sutra and tantra traditions. If potential tantra practitioners approach the issue of authenticity from the stance of accepting merely the descriptions of the Buddhologists or the Hinayana scholars, then naturally such a Buddha could not have taught the tantras. This is irrelevant, however, to such people. Tantra practitioners do not aim to become the type of Buddhas that Buddhologists and Hinayana scholars describe. Through tantra practice, they aim to become Buddhas as depicted in the Mahayana sutra and tantra teachings. Since they accept Shakyamuni as having been such a Buddha, they certainly accept that he taught the tantras in all the miraculous ways in which tradition relates.

The Relation between Buddhist and Hindu Tantra

Tantra literature began to appear in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions of India in approximately the third century CE. Precise dates, however, are unavailable and the two traditions undoubtedly predated the appearance of their texts. Although the philosophical and ethical contexts differ, nevertheless devotional practices, yoga exercises, and numerous aspects of earlier matriarchal, tribal, and outcaste customs are prominent in each. For example, both systems include visualization of multiarmed, multifaced figures, manipulation of subtle energies through energy-nodes (Skt. chakras), veneration of women, use of bone ornaments and musical instruments, imagery from cremation grounds and slaughterhouses, and transformation of unclean bodily products. Thus, it is difficult to prove that one was the source of a specific feature in the other. One can merely say that the two were contemporaneous movements. Moreover, since Buddhist and Hindu tantra practitioners often frequented the same sacred places, each group probably influenced the other.

Buddhologists and traditional Tantrayana scholars agree that the history of Buddhism chronicles the adaptation of basic Buddhist themes to varying cultural milieus, but they differ in their explanations of the process. Buddhologists do not accept that Buddha taught the tantras. They posit that later masters developed a tantra form of Buddhism and composed its texts to accord with the spirit of the times in India. Traditional Tantrayana scholars, on the other hand, assert that Buddha's supramundane powers enabled him to foresee cultural developments and that he personally taught tantra to suit people of the future. Thus, "when the times were ripe," those who secretly transmitted the tantras – orally or buried in their mental continuums – made them available to receptive practitioners. Alternatively, Buddha revealed the tantras in pure visions to the highly accomplished masters who first recorded them. The explication of each scholarly group accords with its particular view of Buddha and the general Buddhist principle of teaching with skillful means.

The Clear Light Continuum as the Deepest Source of the Tantras

In An Illuminating Lamp, the Indian master Chandrakirti explained that statements in the highest tantra texts have several levels of meaning, only some of which may be valid for specific groups. For example, some levels are valid exclusively for practitioners of highest tantra and some are acceptable as well to followers of the so-called lower Buddhist teachings. Moreover, statements with shared meanings may have both literal and nonliteral levels of interpretation or they may have only one or the other. They have literal meanings if they accord with the experience of the groups that accept them; they have nonliteral meanings if they refer to deeper levels of significance.

Let us apply Chandrakirti's analysis to the statement that Shakyamuni Buddha taught the tantras through extraordinary means such as revelation. Some Buddhologists may accept the statement as having a nonliteral deeper level of meaning, but they would reject a face value interpretation, since revelation is outside the realm of their personal experience. The statement, however, does accord with the experience of numerous masters of the Mahayana sutras, since both they and many tantric masters have received Buddhist teachings through revelation. Thus, followers of both the Mahayana sutras and the tantras accept that the statement has a literal meaning.

Chandrakirti further elaborated that the nonliteral meanings of highest tantra statements point to an ultimate level of meaning concerning the clear light continuum. Numerous tantra texts state that Buddha taught their contents while assuming the form of Samantabhadra, Vajradhara, or the Adibuddha (primordial Buddha) Kalachakra – three Buddha-figures that represent the clear light continuum. Thus, the ultimate nonliteral meaning of the statements is that the deepest source of the tantra teachings is a Buddha's enlightening clear light continuum.

According to the highest tantra explanation of Buddha-nature, especially that of the Nyingma tradition, the refined portion of each person's clear light continuum innately possesses all enlightening qualities. Therefore, just as the confusion accompanying the unrefined portion in each individual may give rise to the misleading teachings of a charlatan, the refined portion may become the source of further Buddha-teachings. Thus, even when someone's clear light continuum is slightly less than totally refined and still flowing as a pathway tantra, if appropriate internal and external conditions are present, its refined portion may spontaneously give rise to new tantra teachings. Before "the times are ripe" and a spontaneous arising occurs, the teachings pass down in a hidden fashion, from one lifetime to the next, as part of the unrealized potentials of the person's clear light continuum. If the person in whom the spontaneous arising occurs accepts the shared Mahayana conceptual framework of revelation, he or she is likely to describe and subjectively experience the phenomenon in terms of this framework. The description and experience will be valid for that person.

Consider, on the other hand, the case of Buddhologists who accept the propositions of transpersonal psychology, for example the assertion that embedded in the potentials of each person's unconscious are the keys for achieving self-realization. Mental blocks, symbolized in myth by subterraneous dragon-like creatures such as nagas, guard and keep them submerged. The methods for self-realization remain concealed in the unconscious until an individual reaches a sufficient level of spiritual development and "the times are ripe" for their revelation. Because such Buddhologists consider the unconscious as an equivalent for the clear light continuum, they can accept a shared level of meaning with tantra practitioners concerning the statement that Buddha taught the tantras, although they soundly reject its literal meaning. They could accept that Buddha is the source of tantra teachings only in the sense that Buddha represents the unconscious. In other words, the tantra teachings come from the unconscious of the various masters in whose minds they spontaneously arise.

The Criteria for Establishing the Authenticity of the Tantras

The main criterion for establishing a teaching as authentically Buddhist is its unbroken lineage tracing back to Buddha – whether one describes Buddha according to classic Buddhology, transpersonal psychology, or the Hinayana, general Mahayana, or highest Tantrayana views. Anyone, however, may claim to have received tantra transmission from Buddha in a pure vision or to have found a buried treasure-text in the ground or in his or her mind. Therefore, other criteria are required to establish the authenticity of the tantras in general and of any of its texts.

In the Sutra of the Great Final Release from All Sorrows (Mahaparinirvana Sutra), Shakyamuni discussed the case in which someone might claim to possess an authentic teaching outside of what he himself had indicated. Buddha prescribed that his followers may accept it as authentic if, and only if, it accords with the contents of the rest of his teachings.

Elaborating on this in A Commentary on [Dignaga's "Compendium of] Validly Cognizing Minds, the Indian master Dharmakirti proposed two decisive criteria for authenticity of a Buddhist text. Buddha taught an enormous variety of subjects, but only those themes that repeatedly appear throughout his teachings indicate what Buddha actually intended. These themes include taking safe direction (refuge), understanding the laws of behavioral cause and effect, developing higher ethical discipline, concentration, and discriminating awareness of how things actually exist, and generating love and compassion for all. A text is an authentic Buddhist teaching if it accords with these major themes. The second criterion for authenticity is that correct implementation of its instructions by qualified practitioners must bring about the same results as Buddha repeatedly indicated elsewhere. Proper practice must lead to achieving the ultimate goals of liberation or enlightenment and the provisional goals of spiritual attainment along the way.

The presence of an interweaving of Buddha's major themes and the experience and accomplishments of past and present masters affirm the authenticity of the tantras by these two criteria. These criteria also establish the validity of the tantras, because their correct practice produces their stated results. Moreover, by properly following the tantra instructions, one may prove their authenticity and validity directly oneself.

The Four Sealing Points for Labeling an Outlook as Based on Enlightening Words

As an elaboration of Dharmakirti's first criterion for authenticity, Maitreya referred, in The Furthest Everlasting Continuum, to four sealing points for labeling a view as based on the enlightening words of a Buddha. If a body of teachings contains the four, it carries the seal of authenticity as a Buddhist teaching because its philosophical view accords with the intent of Buddha's words. (1) All affected (conditioned) phenomena are nonstatic (impermanent). (2) All phenomena tainted (contaminated) by confusion entail problems (suffering). (3) All phenomena lack nonimputed identities. (4) A total release from all troubles (Skt. nirvana) is a total pacification.

The Buddhist tantric view conforms to the four sealing points. (1) Everything affected by causes and conditions changes from moment to moment. Even with the attainment of enlightenment through the tantra methods, compassion continues to move a Buddha to benefit others in ever-changing ways. (2) As a method for attaining enlightenment, the highest class of tantra harnesses the energy of disturbing emotions such as longing desire. This method, however, completely rids the practitioner of disturbing emotions and the confusion behind them. One needs to rid oneself of them forever because all tainted phenomena bring on problems. (3) After harnessing the energy underlying disturbing emotions such as longing desire, one uses it to access one's clear light continuum. This is the level of mind most conducive for the nonconceptual realization that all phenomena lack nonimputed identities. (4) From this realization of voidness or total absence, one pacifies and thus rids oneself of further successions of moments of the various levels of confusion, their habits, and the problems they bring. The attainment of this total pacification is a total release from all troubles. Thus, the tantric view qualifies as authentically Buddhist.

Developing Firm Conviction in the Authenticity of the Tantras

To put one's heart fully into tantra practice as a method for achieving liberation and enlightenment, one needs to focus on tantra with firm conviction (mopa, mos-pa) that it is an authentic Buddhist teaching. The ability to focus in this manner grows from believing a fact to be true (daypa, dad-pa). The Indian master Vasubandhu, in A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge, and his brother Asanga, in An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge, clarified the meaning of these two mental factors or actions that occur while focusing on a fact. Neither of the mental actions refers to focusing with blind faith on something that may or may not be true and which one does not understand.

Believing a fact about something to be true encompasses three aspects. (1) Clearheadedly believing a fact is the mental action that is clear about a fact and which clears the mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes toward its object. For example, when one clearheadedly believes tantra to be a Buddhist teaching, one is clear that tantra uses disturbing emotions, such as longing desire, as a method to rid oneself of disturbing emotions forever. Believing this fact clears the mind of longing desire to experience pleasure through tantra as an end in itself. Thus, clearheadedly believing a fact about something derives from understanding correct information about it.

(2) Believing a fact based on reason is the mental action of considering a fact about something to be true, based on thinking about reasons that prove it. For example, one may be certain that a teaching derives from a source only when one correctly identifies that source. According to the tantras, only Buddha as described in the tantras delivered these teachings. The texts do not assert that Buddha as understood by Hinayana scholars or Western Buddhologists taught them. Moreover, the tantras contain the major themes that Buddha repeatedly taught elsewhere, especially the four sealing points that attest that its philosophical view is based on Buddha's words. Understanding these reasons, one can confidently believe that the tantras are authentically Buddhist.

(3) Believing a fact with an aspiration concerning it is the mental action of considering true both a fact about something and one's ability to achieve the goal of an aspiration one consequently holds about the object. Based on the former two aspects of believing as true the fact that tantra is an authentic Buddhist teaching, one may also believe as true the fact that I may achieve enlightenment through its methods and that I shall therefore strive to practice them correctly.

When one strongly believes, in all three ways, that tantra is authentically Buddhist, one develops firm conviction in this fact. Being firmly convinced of a fact is the mental action that focuses on a fact that one has validly ascertained to be like this and not like that. It makes one's belief so firm that others' arguments and opinions will not dissuade one. Firm conviction grows from long-term familiarity with the consequences that follow from believing a fact, namely from seeing the benefits one derives from correct tantra practice. Even before beginning tantra practice, however, one needs firm conviction in their validity. Therefore, the preparation ceremony of tantra empowerments (initiations) includes in its first steps an explanation of tantra by the conferring master in order to reaffirm the potential disciples' unyielding conviction.