Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

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An Introduction to Sera’s Colleges
by José Ignacio Cabezón
January 30, 2006
Section 1 of 4

Tantric Colleges

Tantra (sometimes referred to as Vajrayāna [Dorjé Tekpardo rje theg pa]) is the esoteric, or secret, “vehicle” of Buddhism, an extraordinary form of Mahāyāna Buddhism that, because of its unique techniques (tapthabs), claims to speed up the process of enlightenment, making it accessible to adepts within a single lifetime. The practice of Tantra begins with empowerment or initiation (wangdbang) from a qualified master. In an empowerment the master will, through the process of visualization, lead the student into the palace (maṇḍala), of a specific deity. Inside the palace students are blessed by the deity/master in different ways that are said to “ripen” their minds. This ripening process is believed to be what gives students the permission to engage in tantric meditations on that specific deity.

Young monks learn to chant at the Lower Tantric College. Hunsur, India; early 1980s.

These meditations are usually enacted ritually. “Ritual” in this context refers to the chanted visualization practices wherein the words of the ritual – sung to special melodies, and accompanied by a variety of musical instruments, hand gestures, and so forth – are meant to elicit images within the mind in a scripted series of generated images that are meant to create for the meditator an enlightened or pure world to replace the world of ordinary appearances in which human beings normally live. In a typical tantric ritual, meditators visualize themselves as having the enlightened body, speech and mind of the deity that is the focus of their practice. Tantric rites can be performed for the attainment of both mundane goals (wealth, long-life, the destruction of interferences), and supramundane goals (enlightenment for the benefit of others). But it is the latter of these – the transformation, or transmutation, of the body, speech and mind into those of an enlightened being – that is considered the chief reason for engaging in the practice of Tantra.

The tantric colleges of the GelukDge lugs tradition were ritual colleges, with “ritual” being understood in the way that it has just been explained. Occasional teachings might be given about the theory or practice of Tantra, but the chief mission of the tantric colleges was to preserve TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s tantric tradition through the enactment of ritual: that is, through the memorization and practice of ritual texts.

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An Introduction to Sera's Colleges, by José Ignacio Cabezón