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Esoteric buddhism

JeroenJeroen Luminous beings are we, not this crude matterNetherlands Veteran

I was doing a little research, and I came across this Ancient History Encyclopaedia article which I thought was worth sharing:

Full disclosure, my father has a certain respect for these things, while my stepfather calls it “esoteric bullshit”. So I thought I would at least do my own reading. I thought this was an interesting quote:

The oral tradition of handing on teachings, along with initiations into certain levels of knowledge made in person by a guru, is perhaps the hallmark of esotericism.

It implies a certain elitism that you also see in Tibetan Vajrayana schools and Tantra traditions and in Zen and I believe Ch’an, that you have to have studied with a certain master in the lineage and have gotten his approval. Some parts of me rebel at that, maybe it is the scientist who believes in the free distribution of knowledge, or just the student from high school that dislikes secret clubs, or the reader of Osho who realises that priestly power structures are rarely a good thing.

It’s interesting that Theravada or Tibetan Gelugpa doesn’t seem to have an esoteric tradition... so is there really such a thing as a special empowerment that you need? Do you think it’s worth pursuing?

How do you as a Buddhist relate to the esoteric tradition?


  • To my knowledge esoteric practices are done with a teacher. So you would have to find a teacher (of esoteric practices) and ask them about what it means "empowerment".

  • ShoshinShoshin No one in particular Nowhere Special Veteran

    How do you as a Buddhist relate to the esoteric tradition?

    At the end of the day ...Dharma is Dharma & Karma is Karma...and Mind is Mind...

    Different strokes for different folks...Whatever floats one's raft...

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think The liminal space Veteran
    edited February 2019

    The Gelug tradition does have an esoteric path. If memory serves I think they refer to them as highest yoga tantra, the specific practices are Guyasamaja and Yamantaka tantras.

    Personally I've never been so dedicated and have an aversion to commitment, so was never drawn to them as they have, from what I understand, fairly comprehensive daily commitments. Also, I haven't come across a teacher that I would be able to devote myself to so fully.

    I think in general though it makes sense to me that one would need the guidance of a skilled teacher if engaging in a rigorous and subtle path. I don't really see it in such an exclusionary or elitist way as its open to anyone willing to devote themselves to it. People doing so should follow the advice given regarding checking the quality of the teacher and don't assume they are skilled or free from corruption simply because they are high up on some hierarchy. Hierarchies are useful for maintaining institutions and their quality, but they are prone to the corrupting influence of their power.

  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator

    It may imply elitism is some cases, but I see it more about making a specific commitment with regard to both a teacher and a particular practice. It's an important part of those kinds of practices themselves. I definitely think some practices are best done under guidance as one may risk going off the path or even the deep end, especially when doing intense retreats and visualization practices, etc. I'm not against them, but I have a hard time following through with things that require strict commitments, especially lifetime ones.

  • B)

    Fortunately as a practicing alchemist the deep end is my starting point ...

    ... meanwhile ... here is an example of a semi wrathful esoteric practice. You can do it, as I did, learning the Nyingma mantra by heart. Similar practices are openly available on the web. Nothing is hidden. However what is appropriate and beneficial may require attunement/resonance with a teacher.

    How do you as a Buddhist relate to the esoteric tradition?

    Relate through practice. No other way I know ...

  • personperson Don't believe everything you think The liminal space Veteran

    There are 4 levels of tantric practice. Some being available to just about anyone, involving things like mantra recitations or visualizations. Each level requires more commitment, guidance and experience to undergo.

  • adamcrossleyadamcrossley Veteran UK Veteran
    edited February 2019

    I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back.

    Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?

    from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta

    I thought this was relevant. Personally, and not to disparage those who are, I’m not committed to an esoteric practice.

  • cazcaz Veteran United Kingdom Veteran

    It is very important to study under a experienced teacher who has a valid lineage, otherwise you end up with a mish-mash of crap, wrong views and your own ignorance degenerating Buddha's wisdom teachings. Time are already degenerate enough, it is important to have humility when practicing Dharma arrogance and ignorance and pretty synonymous, Buddha Dharma is very profound and take a while to get to grips with in its entirety.

    Particularly if you are studying the union of Sutra and Tantra teachings it is so very important to do so from qualified teachers or instead of walking the path to liberation you end up walking deeper into samsara.

    @Kerome The Gelug tradition does have Tantra within it as well, However it is firmly grounded with Sutra practice as Je Tsongkhapa demonstrated how to practice them in perfect union, there is a common misunderstanding that the Gelug tradition doesn't have preliminaries where as my own teacher often says that the great preliminary practice for Tantra is the Stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim) which encompasses all of Buddha's Sutra's teachings.

  • federicafederica Seeker of the clear blue sky... Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    The Buddha was even reluctant to start teaching at all; he had to be encouraged to do so.

    I have teachers wherever I look; some who teach me Wrong Everything and others who teach me Right Everything.
    I do not for one moment consider myself to be 'degenerate'. The fact that I follow the Buddha at all, precludes such a description.
    I take things largely from 'The Horse's Mouth'. If I can't directly correlate what I am learning, specifically to what is written in Pali texts, I'm put to thought, research and contemplation.
    I follow the instructions of the Kalama Sutta. If it feels good, I do it. If I'm in ANY doubt - I don't.
    No matter whence it comes.

  • genkakugenkaku Northampton, Mass. U.S.A. Veteran

    Two small thoughts:

    1. To the best of my knowledge, my [Zen] teacher never acknowledged a successor -- i.e. someone who had attained a suitable and adequate understanding of the Dharma. Such a person might have been 'good to go' -- capable of apt teaching ... blah blah blah. Such "transmission" is part of the Zen format, but, as I say, my teacher never handed it out to the best of my understanding.
      If my understanding is correct, this is a gift from my teacher I cannot repay and for which I thank him from the bottom of my heart. Nothing esoteric, nothing exoteric ... or, less ornately, no more oooooooeeeeeeeeooooooo.
      Of course I may be as full of shit as a Christmas goose so ... you figure it out.

    2. The Hindus -- the spiritual adults on the religious block -- have a long tradition of laughter and one of their tales sounds something like this:
      Once upon a time, a student went to his/her teacher expecting to be given a mantram -- a mystical bit of text s/he would be expected to unravel over time and thus attain enlightenment. The teacher explained the secret nature of the mantram. The teacher explained that the student must keep the mantram secret. "If you were to tell this mantram to anyone else, they would automatically be enlightened," the teacher said.
      The student soaked it all up. This was serious stuff.

    And then, after being dismissed, the student ran right out to the village square and promptly told all the villagers his/her mantram.

  • JeffreyJeffrey Veteran
    edited February 2019

    Thinking about this a little I think there is a predicament in that esoteric practices are done through a teacher but how do you assess the teacher?

    I hope I don't mess up this explanation. I might have some wrong ideas so bear with me.

    Well you can't tell if they are a Buddha if you're an ordinary being. But that doesn't mean you can't assess them whatsoever via common sense and also your own intuition though both those may be obscured or imperfect or whatever.

    I think it's exceedingly rare in this world (Earth 2019) to find an enlightened teacher or even a non-returner or high level Bodhisattva.

    So via logic/reason just assume they are not near to arhant or enlightened. Are they honest and humble about that? Will they address questions?

    I think some of the esoteric teachings say that you aren't supposed to teach them unless you ARE a master. I don't recall what level mastery you are supposed to have if it is needed to be near arhat/enlightened. But some scriptures do say your teacher needs to be qualified so a bit of a paradox. Can we find a humble and honest non-enlightened teacher to guide us in esoteric teachings?

    I think yes and no. I think the reasoning for some esoteric is that although they may not be enlightened it is good they are honest. They themselves might be unenlightened but they are fulfilling a role as a dharma teacher. So the idea is that the wisdom of the Buddhas are blessing them in a sense to 'manifest' as a teacher of esoteric teachings.

    In the above (preceding paragraph) situation it is great that they are honest and admit there are limitations. Some of the esoteric teachings say the student should be highly devoted to their teacher like in the guru yoga situation. I think I myself need this clarified so I hope I'm not speaking in error. But the teacher has Buddha nature and the blessing of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas so something of the dharma is going to come through. The student I guess has devotion but they also know that they must use their own judgement to understand what they can get from the teaching but unfortunately their teacher in this world (Earth 2019) is likely not enlightened so they might just learn all they can manage and then find another teacher to teach whatever is still missing.

    So summarize the teacher might not be a Buddha/arhat so how do they teach esoteric teachings? The judgement of both teacher and student are needed to acknowledge limitations of themselves. A non-enlightened teacher might still fulfill the scriptural qualifications because they have the blessing of the Buddhas and because both teacher and student have some degree of awakening.

    Finally a word of caution again acknowledging limitations. Some esoteric teachings are self 'sealing' and relatively safe particularly if there is caution and communication I guess. I think some however there is some danger so this should be thought about. My own teacher I think has a Mahamudra perspective but I don't feel it is dangerous to me. On the other hand if I recall correctly my teacher said she doesn't teach some esoteric teachings and that if a student wants to do those practices she can't help them with those. An example is Tummo which I don't know much about other than hearing monks could melt snow with their body heat, but I conjecture that it is risky enough that you'd need a teacher that really knew what about that practice and they would need to make sure together that the student was ready for a dangerous sort of practice.

  • Thanks @Jeffrey

    Honest and humble. Good human qualities, rather than play acting esoterics ...

    Mahamudra, dzogchen and zen are taught openly. Just apply.

    You are right about quality/awake teachers. They become apparant outside the spiritual 'advanced' circus.

    Meanwhile ... we can make use of initiation, empowerment, retreats, communities, practice. Lectures, research, study, sangha, cushions, mala, altars etc ... etc ... etc ....

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