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Clerical Versus Shamanic Buddhism

I have rarely seen academic books that address the split in Vajrayana Buddhism which is described in the later sadhana sections of this site. However I recently ran across an older text which is clear and well written, and addresses the theological and social tensions between these two styles of Vajrayana Buddhism based on field research.

A book by the anthropologist Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans, Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, (1993: Smithsonian Institution Press) surveys Buddhism in different regions of Tibet, from the ninth through the twentieth centuries. The author describes the two major orientations as clerical and shamanic Buddhism.

Clerical Buddhism is scholarly, monastic, and disciplined. The scholar-monk studies texts, or engages in philosophical debate. It has become the dominant form of Tibetan Buddhism, especially through the teaching of the Gelugpa School. Its emphasis is upon reaching enlightenment through emptying the mind of thoughts and attachments.

Shamanic Vajrayana, on the other hand, focuses on Tantric Yoga. It is centered around communication with an alternate form of reality (that of Tantric deities) contacted via altered states of consciousness. The practitioner works with the Sambhogakaya and tantric mandalas. This form of Buddhism accepts new revelations through termas, written by visionary lamas. The Sambhogakaya is held to be more fundamental than the world of everyday experience. Deities like Vajra Yogini (Dorge Neljorma) may appear in visions, give teachings, and aid the practitioner towards enlightenment or towards more pragmatic goals.

Samuel compares the beings of the Sambhogakaya with the Dreaming or Dreamtime beings of the Australian Aborigines, understood to exist on a different plane of reality that interpenetrates our ordinary reality. He calls yidams or patron deities the central symbols of tantric meditation (p. 163), and notes that they may be understood as existing internally or externally.

While the more shamanic forms of Vajrayana emphasize the importance of the practitioner's contact with the deities of the Sambhogakaya, and more clerical forms reserve such contact for a small group of advanced lamas who have had extensive non-tantric preparation, both groups accept their existence (pp. 22-23). The question is: Who is allowed access to these deities? Both groups emphasize the importance of initiation and empowerment, but to different degrees. But even the most pedantic of the clerical Gelugpas must note that TsongK'apa, scholarly founder of the Gelugpa order, had revelations from Bodhisattvas.

Yidams are spiritual beings who exist in the Sambhogakaya realm. They are encountered by pure vision (dagnang), which is considered to be truer than the impure vision of daily life (p. 164). They may act as protectors, but in a different sense than worldly (local or village) deities, for they represent aspects of Buddhahood.

Tibetan folk religion includes a wide variety of supernatural practitioners : the clairvoyant mindung who does mirror gazing, the delog who returns from the dead to warn people of the hell worlds, the babdrung or visionary bards, who sing epic songs based on visions, and the pawo who takes spirit journeys. There are also oracle-priests or spirit mediums who work at monasteries (gompas), and the Nechung Oracle who is traditionally associated with the Dalai Lama, who still consults him on important matters.

The shamanic aspect of Vajrayana is a major source of innovation within the tradition. It is especially important within the terma tradition. A terma is a new source of teaching or lineage, generally revealed by men or women who are tertons. Termas are most well-known in the Nyingma tradition, but are found in all branches of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Termas have been a major area of disagreement between Nyingma and Gelugpa lamas, with many fights over their legitimacy. There have been many tertons over time. Tulku Thondup lists 278 tertons from the eleventh to the twentieth centuries (p. 295).

Most tertons are male, some are monks, and many do tantric practices with consorts (p. 296). The termas themselves are in coded or symbolic language, and must be translated or explained.

Samuel mentions several types of termas. The two major types are 'earth termas', which are physical objects that are found by tertons, and mind or 'pure vision' termas, which are found in visionary experience.

Their function is to introduce new material to the tradition: philosophical, literary, prophetic, or ritual (p. 301). Samuel notes that terma 'cycles' or series of termas and commentaries often include many sadhanas (ritual or meditative techniques) bringing scope for change and innovation to Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.

Samuel's book gives a useful cultural context for the yidams and sadhanas described later at this site.

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Introduction | Methodology - Participant/Observer | The Bodhi Tree Sadhanas | Vajra Dakini Discussion | Vajra Dakini Commentary | Vajra Dakini Sadhanas | Vajra Yogini Commentary | Maitreya Sadhanas | Vajradhara Speaks About Yidams | Lost Sadhanas Conclusion


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