Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
“The Canonical Tantras of the New Schools”
by Tadeusz Skorupski
From Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, pp.95-110.

The Different Tantra Categories

The tantric texts themselves do not provide any specific information with regard to the categories or divisions in which they are to be placed, but they were eventually classified in several different ways, not so much in terms of their literary nature, but rather with regard to the various teachings and spiritual methods advocated for different spiritual adepts or with regard to different Buddha families. One of the common characteristics of all tantric texts is that they focus on one particular deity or groups of deities and incorporate a body of ritual and meditative instructions necessary to achieve spiritual realization in conjunction with those deities. A particular tantric tradition that follows a specific tantra or a group of related tantric texts and practices is often referred to as a tantric cycle. There is no clear evidence from Indian sources that the tantric texts were originally classified or grouped in any particular manner. They seem to have been written or compiled in a haphazard manner in different places by individuals or groups of yogins who made use of the appropriate mythological and literary lore, and of the various yogic practices that were available to them. In Tibet itself, one of the most widely recognized classifications of the tantras accepted by the New Schools is that into four classes. This classification is based on the deliberately stratified levels of spiritual and yogic practices that relate to particular deities and aim to assist the practitioner according to his or her spiritual disposition and aptitude. The four classes of tantras are named in ascending order of importance as Action or Ritual (kriyā, bya), Performance (caryā, spyod), Yoga (yoga, rnal 'byor), and Highest Yoga (anuttara, bla na med pa). Although there exists evidence that the tantric literature evolved in stages and in different religious centers, and that it contains certain common characteristics—for instance[page 100] ritual—and although the differentiations among the tantras are rather subtle and refined, this classification does serve as a useful point of reference.

In the works of the Action Tantra, the focus is on a wide range of externally performed ritual activities, more so than on internal spiritual exercises. The texts of this class provide instructions on various ritualized activities that are often accompanied by symbols and diagrams. They are predominantly concerned with the worship of deities, offerings and praises, the procurement of worldly and spiritual benefits, the appeasement of diseases and demonic powers, the blessing of images, and the consecrations of their adepts. They also contain instructions for painting deities. The longest text in this class is the "Ordinance of Mañjuśrī" (Mañjuśrīmūla-kalpa [or -tantra], 'Jam dpal gyi rtsa ba'i rgyud). Its structure and content contain literary and historical indications that it was compiled over a period of several centuries, with its oldest sections belonging probably to the earliest tantric period. In many ways, it represents a transition between the Mahāyāna sūtras and the tantras. It contains a mine of information on ritual, the production of images, astrology and some historical events. It also contains long sections that are concerned with Brahmanic deities and magical formulas.

Among the texts included in the Performance Tantra, which focuses on ritual activities in balance with meditative practices, the "Perfect Enlightenment of Mahāvairocana" (Mahāvairocanābhisambodhi, rNam par snang mdzad chen po mngon par rdzogs par byang chub pa) is the longest and most important. It is generally considered to be the root text of this class. It provides a fairly coherent and comprehensive exposition of tantric practices in relationship to a set of deities, with Vairocana as the central deity.

The Yoga Tantra texts, which represent an advanced and perfected system of tantric teachings, are predominantly oriented towards meditative and yogic practices. Ritual instructions are also present, but they are not considered essential for the attainment of spiritual perfection. Here, it is a particular set of internal—but also externally ritualized—meditational practices and consecrations that occupy the central position. Within this class, the "Compendium of the Essence of All the Tathagātas" (Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha, De bzhin gshegs pa thams cad kyi de kho na nyid bsdus pa) is the longest and most comprehensive. It comprises a[page 101] whole range of expositions concerned with the various sets of mystic circles (maṇḍala, dkyil 'khor), consecrations and instructions on the stages leading towards enlightenment.

The Highest Yoga Tantra attaches the greatest importance to the control and purification of the mind (citta, sems) as the chief agent of all human activities. Among this class, there are several important texts which are particularly valued and followed in Tibet. They are the "Secret Assembly" (Guhyasamāja, gSang ba 'dus pa), the "Hail Vajra" (Hevajra, Kye'i rdo rje), the "Wheel of Time" (Kālacakra, Dus kyi 'khor lo), the group of texts centered on the deity rDo rje 'jigs byed (Vajrabhairava), and the texts belonging to the 'Khor lo sdom pa (Cakrasaṃvara) cycle of which the principal text is the "Short Saṃvara" (Laghusaṃvara, bDe mchog nyung ngu).9 In fact, it is this Tantra class that is recognized among Tibetan new schools as setting forth the most adventurous and efficacious path towards spiritual perfection.

Among the four classes of Tantras, the Action, Performance and Yoga Tantras are also referred to jointly as the lower Tantras. However, it should be remembered that each Tantra category claims superiority for itself in the sense of providing a distinct and complete body of teachings and practices adequate, and indeed unique, for the attainment of the perfect state of enlightenment.

Taking into account the doctrinal elements, literary presentation and the nature of the presiding deities, it is also possible to divide the tantras into two major categories, namely those related to the Mahāyāna discourses and those with strong non-Buddhist associations. Since in some tantras the literary presentation clearly resembles and overlaps with the later Mahāyāna texts, it is reasonable to assume that such tantric texts, especially those belonging to the first three classes of tantras, came into existence in the same or similar religious milieu. It is also among the Mahāyāna texts that some of the earliest literary evidence for the existence of tantric works is to be found. The names of the buddhas and bodhisattvas in such texts are manifestly Buddhist and similar to those in the Mahāyāna discourses. There is, of course, a progressive assimilation of non-Buddhist Indian deities into the Buddhist pantheon, but in a conspicuously subservient role. Among the second category, in particular among the texts belonging to the Highest Yoga Tantra, the non-Buddhist setting and elements predominate. Here, the mythological and literary elements betray strong[page 103] associations with the Śaivite tantric texts and practices. The buddhas in such texts have little in common with Śākyamuni or his hypostases. They are usually fierce and awe-inspiring manifestations, variously referred to as bDe mchog (Śaṃbara), rDo rje mkha' 'gro (Vajraḍāka), Sangs rgyas thod pa (Buddhakapāla) or 'Jigs byed (Bhairava) and are usually accompanied by attendants of equally terrifying appearances.


[9] At the end of each chapter in the Tibetan version this tantra is called dPal heruka'i nges par brjod pa. At the beginning of this tantra it is said: "Next I shall explain the secret. This will be done in a succinct rather than extensive manner." Perhaps this statement is meant to explain the term "short" (laghu) as part of its title.

Note Citation for Page

Tadeusz Skorupski, “The Canonical Tantras of the New Schools, ” in Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, , ed. José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996), .

Bibliographic Citation

Skorupski, Tadeusz. “The Canonical Tantras of the New Schools. ” in Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, . Edited by José Ignacio Cabezón and Roger R. Jackson, 95-110. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1996.