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The Differences among the Four Classes of Tantra

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Dr. Alexander Berzin

The Sarma (New Transmission Period) traditions of Tibetan BuddhismKagyu, Sakya and Gelug – divide the tantras into four classes:

The Nyingma (Old Transmission Period) divides tantra into six classes – the same first three as the Sarma traditions, but in place of anuttarayoga, has mahayoga, anuyoga and atiyoga (dzogchen).

Distinctive Features of the Four Classes of Tantra

A standard way of explaining the distinction among the four classes is in terms of the analogy of an increasing level of bliss awareness used to focus on voidness (emptiness):

    Kriya tantra – the bliss of partners looking at each other
    Charya tantra – the bliss of smiling at each other
    Yoga tantra – the bliss of hugging each other
    Anuttarayoga tantra – the bliss of being in union.

But I’ve never seen anything that actually describes that as part of the practice. That seems to be more like an analogy.

Another standard way of describing the differences is in terms of the emphasis each places in its external practices:

But that also doesn’t give us a very clear picture of the differences either. So if we look more deeply:

Kriya has a great deal of emphasis on ritual cleanliness, keeping clean. And so there’s emphasis on being vegetarian, not eating onion or garlic (these types of so-called "dark foods").

There’s ritual washing, and there’s making external purification on different parts of the body with certain type of mudras. There are special ways of gaining shamatha – a stilled and settled state of mind – by focusing on not just the visualizations, but also on the sound of the mantra without you actually reciting it, but just sort of hearing it resounding your heart.

Each Buddha-figure (yidam, "tantric deity") of course will have special individual features. So you have various healing practices to heal imbalances of elements with White Tara. You have similar types of things with Medicine Buddha and with Amitayus, a long-life deity. Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) practice helps to strengthen compassion.

Manjushri for clarity of mind and understanding, Vajrapani for powerful abilities and so on. Please bear in mind that these Buddha-figures have many forms and can be used in several classes of tantra, not just one.

Charya tantra is probably the least commonly practiced of the four classes. It will have practices quite similar to kriya. I’m not so familiar with this class of tantra practice, but from what I understand, there are extensive practices doing visualizations both with yourself as the Buddha-figure and with a Buddha-figure in front of you. The most commonly practiced Buddha-figure in charya tantra is the Abhisambodhi form of Vairochana.

In yoga tantra, there’s a Buddha-figure called Samvid (Kun-rig). Yoga tantra has a great deal of emphasis on mudras – these hand gestures – very, very elaborate. I’m not really sure of what the internal practices are, but the system is explained in terms of four levels of applying mudras. The bardo rituals for those who have died that are done in the Gelug tradition come from these practices in yoga tantra.

It was mostly these three classes of tantra that went to China and then from there to Japan and Korea and Vietnam. Although we do find in the Chinese canon translations of the Guhyasamaja Tantra and Hevajra Tantra, it doesn’t seem as though their practice was carried on in these countries.

Anuttarayoga tantra is the only tantra class that works with the subtle energy systems of the body – the chakras, the channels, the winds – and the only class of tantra that accesses and deals with the clear light level of mind, which is the mind's subtlest level.

Buddha-figures, Mandalas and Mantras

In all four classes of tantra you visualize yourself as a Buddha-figure. All four classes also have mandalas (dkyil-’khor), which are the palaces in which the Buddha-figure lives and the environment around it. All four also have multiple figures inside the mandala. As far as I know, it’s only in anuttarayoga tantra, however, that you have actual couples as Buddha-figures. I may be incorrect – because I certainly don’t know all systems – but I think in the tantras of the first three classes, there are just single figures, although there may be many of them in a mandala. All of the Buddha-figures in the mandalas have mantras you recite.


In all four classes you make extensive offerings as part of the practices. The first three classes have the outer set of offerings (phyi’i mchod-pa).

It’s only anuttarayoga tantra that has the inner (nang-mchod), secret (gsang-mchod), and offering of reality (de-kho-na-nyid mchod-pa, thusness offering).

The inner offering is of the five meats and five nectars which are transformed into nectars;

the secret offering is of blissful awareness;

and the offering of reality is of the simultaneous cognition of the two truths.

As far as I know, it’s only in the anuttarayoga class that you have the offering of tsog (tshogs), which has the transformation of meat and alcohol as you would have in the inner offering.


All four classes have retreats that you do with a certain number of mantras. And all of them will then have a fire puja (sbyin-sreg) to conclude the retreat.

This is a very elaborate ritual in which, with a special visualization, you offer many different substances into a fire. Some of these fire pujas also require reciting a large number of mantras during the fire puja itself and making a large number of offerings into the fire. Like, for instance, for the White Tara long-life retreat, which is kriya tantra, you need to say the mantra of Tara a million times, and then during the fire puja, you offer 10,000 pairs of stalks of a special grass and recite 10,000 mantras. It all has to be done all in one sitting – you can’t get up, you have to finish it – plus the whole fire ritual as well. So we shouldn’t think that kriya tantra practice is easier than anuttarayoga. It’s certainly not.


In each of these classes of tantra, there is an empowerment – a so-called "initiation" – a wang (dbang) in Tibetan. This is done usually with some type of mandala. It could either be one that is painted or drawn or a three-dimensional mandala. It’s only in the highest class of tantra, I believe, that some of the systems, for instance Chakrasamvara, have body mandalas from which the empowerment can be made. In such empowerments, the various parts of the guru’s body are visualized as the various parts of the building and the various figures inside the mandala. During the empowerment, the guru visualizes himself and you visualize the guru's body as the mandala, and the empowerment is given from the body mandala.

Empowerments have many parts, each also called an empowerment. Each class of tantra has progressively more parts:

    Kriya tantra – the first two parts of the vajra disciple empowerment (rdo-rje slob-ma' i dbang), which is the first past of the vase empowerment (bum-dbang):

namely, the water empowerment (chu-dbang) and the crown empowerment (cod-pan-gyi dbang)

    Charya tantra – all five parts of the vajra disciple empowerment: namely, in addition to the water and crown empowerments, the vajra empowerment (rdo-rje dbang), the bell empowerment (dril-bu dbang) and the name empowerment (ming-dbang)
    Yoga tantra – the complete vase empowerment: namely, both the five vajra disciple empowerments and the vajra master empowerment (rdo-rje slob-dpon-gyi dbang]])
    Anuttarayoga tantra – in addition to the complete vase empowerment, the secret empowerment (gsang-dbang), the discriminating deep awareness empowerment (shes-rab ye-shes dbang) and the fourth empowerment (bzhi'i dbang).

Subsequent Permissions (Jenangs)

Then to strengthen an empowerment, there is a jenang (rjes-snang), which means a “subsequent permission.” All the various Buddha-figures systems in each of the four tantra classes has an associated subsequent permission. They are conferred on the basis of a torma (gtor-ma), a ritual cake, which itself is generated as the Buddha-figure. Often in the West, the various teachers will give just this jenang – it’s much shorter – but some people think that that is the empowerment, and they use the word initiation loosely for both the empowerment and the subsequent permission, but these two are quite different rituals. Vows

As part of both empowerments and subsequent permissions, all four classes tantra include the taking of bodhisattva vows. But only yoga tantra and anuttarayoga tantra have tantric vows.


All four classes of tantra have self-initiations (bdag-’jug). After you’ve done the retreat and fire puja, then you can do the self-initiation by yourself, which is extremely long and complicated to do. It involves

    Self-generation – generating oneself as the mandala and Buddha-figures inside
    Front-generation – generating in front of you of the mandala from which you will receive the empowerment
    Generation of the vase – generating the mandala within the vase with which, as an instrument, the empowerment is given

The empowerment ritual itself.

Self-initiation is done by yourself. There is no teacher. That’s why it’s called "self-initiation." If you are a serious tantric practitioner, you would perform them periodically for renewing your vows by yourself. You also have to perform a self-initiation immediately before conferring an empowerment on others. So when you ask a teacher to give an empowerment, you should be aware that that means hours of ritual practice on the morning of when they give the empowerment. It’s emphasized very much that we try to do perform a self-initiation right before we die so that we die with pure vows.

When you take an empowerment, you usually have the practice commitment to do the practice, called a sadhana (sgrub-thabs) every single day for the rest of your life. If you miss a day, then if you haven’t done the retreat and fire puja, then to make that up you have to recite 100,000 Vajrasattva mantras, the 100-syllable mantra. But if you have done the retreat and fire puja, then to make up that transgression you can do the self-initiation. You don’t need to do the Vajrasattva mantra recitation practice.

Although you might get the impression that tantric practitioners are only doing anuttarayoga tantra practice, that’s not the case. Everybody does some kriya practice. But kriya tantra has a whole long path with many parts and complicated practices, and perhaps not too many practitioners do the more advanced, complicated practices. But that’s the case with anuttarayoga tantra practices as well; very few go beyond the generation stage, which entails sadhana and mantra practice.

Preliminary Practices in the Gelug Tradition

All four classes of tantra require as the foundation or basis a very firm development of the lam-rim points. Tsongkhapa puts the emphasis in terms of the three principle pathways of mindrenunciation or determination to be free, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness.

Those are absolutely prerequisite. Then there are the so-called extraordinary preliminary practices of 100,000 prostrations and Vajrasattva mantra, etc.

Gelugpa has a very extensive presentation of nine of these and not just the more commonly practiced four (prostration, mandala offering, Vajrasattva mantra recitation and guru-yoga). The nine are 100,000 repetitions of:

    Prostration, usually done while reciting the names of the 35 so-called "confession Buddhas"
    Mandala offering
    Refuge and bodhichitta, usually done together with mandala offerings, while reciting a verse that covers both. So all three are done together – mandala offering, refuge and bodhichitta – which in some other traditions might be done separately
    Vajrasattva mantra recitation

    Guru yoga, which in the Gelug tradition is usually the four-line verse of Migtsema (dMigs-brtse-ma), the Tsongkhapa verse. There’s also a five-line and a nine-line variant, but it’s usually the four-line version.

    Damtsig Dorje (Dam-tshig rdo-rje, Skt. Samayavajra) mantra recitation, which is for purifying any transgression of a close bond with your teachers
    Zachey Kadro (Za-byed mkha’-’gro), which is another type of fire puja for burning off obstacles.
    Making and offering tsa-tsa clay votive tablets
    Making [[water] bowl offerings]].

So we shouldn’t think that the Gelug tradition doesn’t have these preliminary practices. It has a lot of them, more than you find in many other traditions. But usually they’re not done as a whole event, taking a period of time out and just doing these preliminaries, but you do each one when it fits into your study and practice schedule. So you might have a break in your studies, and then you do your prostrations, or something like that. And although in theory one is supposed to do all of these preliminaries before receiving an empowerment, it is very rare in any of the Tibetan traditions that that is followed strictly. Most Tibetans will have received some sort of empowerments much earlier in their Dharma career.


Breaking Practice Commitments and Samaya

If we’re an old person and we’ve broken our samaya because we’re sick and can’t do the practice, we may die in any moment, and so we have no opportunity to purify our transgression of our samaya. And if there is no lama who is close to us at that time, nobody can help us. So that’s a very dangerous situation. Or because of sickness, if we can't just do the practice it could be the reason of transgression of samaya.

Well, that is true. It depends here what we mean by samaya (dam-tshig). We need to be careful not to confuse samaya with a practice commitment. A practice commitment is to do a sadhana recitation, to do a certain number of mantras every day, or it may be to do the retreat. A retreat in a Tibetan context certainly is not referring to a weekend residential course. That is not a retreat. A retreat means doing 100,000 – or often many, many more than just 100,000 – repetitions of a mantra, which, by the way, is not the main emphasis of the retreat; that’s just a measure of the length of the retreat. The emphasis in the retreat is the sadhana ritual and developing single-minded concentration, and when you get tired doing that, then you do the mantra. But in any case, all of these are practice commitments. And although there are long versions for a sadhana, when one is familiar with the long version you can practice a more abbreviated form, particularly if you discuss that with your teacher. Breaking Practice Commitments

When you do a retreat, for example, during the retreat you must never break the continuity of the retreat. So you can’t miss a day. And for that reason, the advice is always given that the first night of the retreat – you usually start retreats at night – you set at that time the number of mantras that is going to be the absolute minimum for each day. And so the advice is always given to only say three mantras that first night, because if you’re sick you can usually manage to do three mantras.

With the Vajrayogini empowerment, there you make a commitment – which you say to yourself (you don’t have to say it anybody else) – of how many mantras you’re going to do every day. Some people are over-enthusiastic and make a commitment to do not even just one mala (one hundred mantras), but they might even say two or three hundred, and then they’re in big, big trouble if they get sick. So my teacher always recommended to just say that you’re going to do three a day – three repetitions, not three malas. And if you want to do three malas or three hundred malas a day, you are most welcome to do that. But if you’re sick, then three is enough.

In terms of a practice commitment, if you are totally sick – let’s say you are in a coma, or something like that – obviously you haven’t broken your practice commitment, because you can’t say it. I mean, it’s not that fanatic, that: “You’re going to go to hell because you’re in a coma.” There are always exceptions. Transgressing Samaya

But when we talk about samaya, samaya means a “close bond” literally. And the most important one is the close bond with the teacher and not to reveal the private teachings to those who are unripe. So as part of an empowerment ritual, you actually promise to keep the practice private (which is what keeping secrecy about them means) and to keep a vajra and bell – not that you have to keep one in your pocket all the time – which represent voidness and blissful awareness. The close bond with the teacher means that you’re going to always respect the teacher, not despise the teacher, or get angry and yell at the teacher, say the teacher is stupid and no good, and so on. The close bond is to always be disrespectful. There’s a whole set of protocols of how you regard the tantric teacher. That’s the most important samaya.

By the way, you have to always keep in mind the advice that’s given in the Fifty Stanzas on the Guru. It’s said that one should study this text before receiving an empowerment and the teacher should teach this before giving an empowerment. It’s not done so frequently, but that’s the proper protocol. And although it says some things that are a little bit unusual – not to step on the shadow of the guru, etc. – what is most relevant in this text is that if the teacher asks you to do something unreasonable or which you’re not able to do, or if the teacher acts strangely, then you politely ask the teacher about it. You don’t hate the teacher and say they’re stupid or horrible, but you politely ask the teacher, “Could you kindly explain to me why you’re acting that way? It's not the way that is described in the texts,” or “You asked me to do this, and I’m not able to do it. This is really impossible for me. Could you explain why you asked me to do this?” Or you simply say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” but you’re polite.

The Kalachakra Tantra says that if it really gets difficult with the teacher and you didn’t examine the teacher well enough before you received the empowerment and you find the teacher really is not qualified, then just keep a polite distance, but without despising the teacher. Just keep a distance. So even if one dies or is very sick, then the dying or the getting sick is not going to be the cause of breaking that close bond with the teacher, that samaya. It’s your attitude that breaks it.

Now, the samaya, or close bond, not to reveal the hidden or secret teachings to those who are unripe, that’s not so easy to understand. If one took it in a very literal way, it would mean never teaching any of the tantra material to those who haven’t received an empowerment. That’s based on the assumption that everybody who is given an empowerment has been examined very, very well by the teacher and is qualified – the teacher has found that that student is qualified – and then the teacher gives the empowerment. But this is hardly ever done nowadays. So just because somebody has attended empowerment doesn’t mean at all that they are a qualified person for tantra practice or even that they’re interested in it (they just went because it was given). So who is ripe, who is unripe? That’s very difficult for us to know

Secondly, almost everything is publicly available now, in any case. Nothing is really secret anymore. And so, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama jokes, there are some teachings which say they should not be written down or printed, and you find not only printed versions of these teachings that have been published, but people even put at the beginning of it: “This is not to be printed or published,” which is of course extremely silly. So His Holiness says that if the information is available anyway, then it is better that it be correct information rather than misleading information.

So I think that it’s difficult really to understand how we would put this close bond into practice. I think that one guideline for it – that at least I try to follow, but it’s difficult if you make a book and put something on the internet – in terms of personal interaction is a guideline from one of the secondary tantric vows, the vow not to spend more than a week among the shravakas, the so-called listeners. The point of that is not that they are a Theravada or another type of Hinayana practitioner. That’s not the point. The point is that if they’re someone who would discourage you from working toward enlightenment on the Mahayana path of tantra, and say, “This is stupid,” and tell you, “Well, just work for liberation,” if you spent a lot of time with them, then you would get discouraged from your tantric practice

So by extension from this, the way to practice that I find helpful in terms of this samaya is to emphasize another way of translating the word secret (gsang). Secret can mean either hidden or it can mean private. And so what is at least a guideline that I try to follow is don’t publicize your tantric practice to those who would make fun of it or who wouldn’t understand. Keep it to yourself, and only discuss it with others who are also tantric practitioners. Because if you tell others who are not into tantra, they might make fun of you, they might discourage you, might tell you this is crazy. (It’s the same thing if you have thangkas, Tibetan paintings, of various figures in union or naked, and so on, and just anybody who walks into your house can see it. They might ask some very difficult questions or get a very wrong idea, especially if it’s children.) So you keep that private. Either you have a meditation room or your own room so that just anybody who walks into the house doesn’t see it.

And keeping the vajra and bell, that samaya. Although of course it’s very nice to have those ritual instruments, the main emphasis is to remember what they represent. The bell represents the discriminating awareness of voidness; and the vajra, the blissful awareness with which you understand voidness. Dying with Transgressions

If we die with various transgressions and so on, then if we have time and we have the conscious awareness, of course the self-initiation is best. If not, then we need to apply the four opponent forces:

    Admit that what we’ve done was mistaken and regret it
    Give the strong resolve or promise that in the future and in future lives, we won’t repeat it
    Reaffirm our basis, which is safe direction (refuge) and bodhichitta
    And then apply opponent forces, like Vajrasattva mantra practice.

But as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explained, although in anuttarayoga tantra we do practice that is similar to death, bardo, and rebirth – which, by the way, is unique to anuttarayoga tantra (you don’t have that in the three lower classes) – nevertheless when we’re actually dying, for most people it’s not very practical to try to do these elaborate visualizations that we have been practicing in the sadhanas. They’re too complicated, too difficult, and it might just put you into a state of stress (that: “Oh, I can’t get it exactly right!”). So whatever practice you’ve done earlier in your life, the force of that will carry on. But when you’re actually dying, the best thought is to keep bodhichitta – “May I continue to work toward enlightenment to benefit all beings” – which would then include having a precious human rebirth, meeting with the teachers, having all the opportunities to be able to continue on the path. This is a much more stable state of mind within which to die.

And obviously if we die when we are in our sleep or unconscious or we die suddenly, then whatever thoughts and state of mind we were in before that will have a big effect on our future lives. And also very important is what has been the most dominant, frequent state of mind that we’ve had during our life. Actually, one of the main meditations that are done in lam-rim in terms of the three worse states of rebirth, taking them seriously in terms of what our future lifetimes might be, is to review at the end of the day how many times and how much during the day did we have a constructive, positive state of mind and how many times did we have a negative state of mind. How many times did I have thoughts of compassion towards others? How many times did I have anger or lust or jealousy or negative thoughts about others? And for most of us, every day we will find that we have built up far more causes for a worse rebirth than for a better one. That’s actually a very effective meditation. So that’s why it’s important to try to have our most frequent thought, what we’re most accustomed to, to be constructive. And that’s very difficult because we’re far more familiar, through countless lifetimes, of having quite a negative mind.

When you’re driving in traffic, how many thoughts of love and compassion do you have for the people in the other cars? And how many nasty thoughts do you have about them and about the traffic? That gives us a good indication of where we’re going after we die.

Reciting Mantras

When we have received an empowerment and we take the commitment to recite mantras. The first part of the question is whether we can recite it in public transport or somewhere like that, not during our usual meditation session. Is it a good idea to recite mantras throughout the whole day? The second part of the question is what is the necessity to recite mantras besides following this commitment?The third part is if it's possible if we count that we recite these mantras if we do it without being mindful of the mantra – for instance, if we are thinking about something else when we recite mantras. Also, what is the best way of reciting mantras? Is it to do it with visualizations, or to do it with some special thoughts?

First of all, in general our Dharma practice should not at all be limited to when we are in the controlled environment of our place of meditation. The whole point of Dharma practice is to be able to apply it in daily life and not lead a split type of life – that on our meditation cushion we’re one way, and then in our normal, everyday life we’re completely different. So mantras we can say all the time, any time.

If we are in public, like on the metro or wherever, certainly you wouldn’t say it out loud. You don’t have to take out a rosary, a mala, in front of everybody and use it for saying mantras. But as I explained a little while ago, this type of practice should be kept private or hidden. If you absolutely have to use a mala in order to help you stay focused (because you’re moving your finger), then keep it in your pocket if you must use one when you’re in public. Right? We’re talking about a regular layperson; we’re not talking necessarily about a monk or a nun.

One doesn’t have to keep count of mantras all the time; otherwise you might as well just count rather than saying a mantra. The point of the mantra is to, on the one hand, help us to stay focused on a certain state of mind, like compassion with Chenrezig or clarity of mind with Manjushri. So certainly while doing the mantra, we try to have that state of mind that corresponds to it.

There are many, many different types of visualizations that we can learn in association with each of the mantra practices. So we can do those as well, even when we’re in public, especially when we’re just sitting in a metro or something like that. Obviously if we are doing something that’s dangerous – it's dangerous, you’re working with a power instrument, or something like that – obviously you want to stay focused and not go off into your visualization.

But you have to remember that before you are on a fairly advanced stage on the complete stage at which you are able to generate the energy winds associated with the eyes, for example, so that you have the form of the Buddha-figure with visual consciousness – before that, which would be the type of practice that all of us do, with any type of visualization that you do, with eye consciousness you see our ordinary forms of things and the visualization is with mental consciousness (so in a sense, they are superimposed on each other). You don’t lose sight of the road when you’re crossing the road.

Now, in terms of the purpose of mantra: The word mantra. Man is short for manas, which means “mind,” and tra comes from the Sanskrit verb “to save” or “to protect.” This is the way it’s usually explained. So it is to protect our mind from various types of negative thoughts. That’s on one level. So instead of having negative thoughts of disliking others, when we say the mantra of Chenrezig it keeps us mindful of love and compassion toward them. So it protects the mind.

On a very ordinary level, if we have some song or music going through our head and we can’t get it out of our head, the best way to protect the mind from that is to use that verbal energy in the mind to recite a mantra instead. Or it doesn’t even have to be singing a song in our head. It could just be uncontrollable thoughts, like worrying at night, and stuff like that. Use that verbal energy of the mind to say a mantra.

But on a deeper level, the mantra is a shaping of the breath; and by shaping the breath with the sound of the mantra, it shapes the subtle energies. And so there’s something called vajra recitation, in which one combines the breath with the sound of OM AH HUM. And with special, quite advanced practices, that is used to shape the breath, which means the subtle energy, and get it to dissolve into the central channel to then ultimately protect the mind by getting it to this subtlest, clear-light level.

Even the ordinary attainments, these special attainments, are often gained through gaining control and shaping the subtle energies, and that’s done through mantra. Special powers – you know, extrasensory powers, extraphysical powers – which are used for helping others, not just as a show of power or something like that.

So there are many usages and purposes of mantra.

Now your last question: Is there any use to reciting a mantra while another part of your mind is thinking something else? Well, it’s better than not saying a mantra at all. At least there’s something going on, even if we’re thinking of football at the same time as we’re saying OM MANI PADME HUM. But the best, of course, is to try to be focused.

There are different ways of reciting mantras – loud, soft, just in your mind, just visualizing the letters of the mantra rather than saying it in our mind or out loud. As I was giving reference to earlier, in kriya tantra there’s imagining that the letters of the mantra themselves inside your heart are giving off the sounds of the mantra as opposed to imagining that you yourself are making the sound. And then there’s meditations on the voidness of that sound of the mantra. So there are many, many different types of mantra practices.

Usually what is recommended is that you at least sort of have your lips moving with the mantra, just saying it a little bit under your breath so only you could hear it. You don’t have to make a big show of saying them out loud so that everybody hears it around you, although in some situations, you do do them out loud. And the speed depends on yourself. The point is not to leave out any syllables. If you ever hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama recite mantras, it’s faster than practically anybody I’ve ever heard in my life – the same thing for reciting a text or reciting anything – yet everything is clear.