Tantras are writings that appeared in India in about the seventh century and form the scriptural basis for Tibetan Buddhism (and the Vajrayana tradition). They were passed on from master to disciple and display an emphasis on ritual, mantras and visualizations.
Tibetan Tantra ( also known as the Vajrayana ) incorporates the major aspects of both the Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist teachings. It is basically an esoteric extension on these themes. Hinayana and Mahayana are two schools of Buddhist practice that have basically similar goals and techniques but somewhat differing philosophies. For instance, Theravadin Buddhism ( known for its Vipassana meditation ) is a Hinayana teaching and Zen Buddhism is a Mahayana teaching. Tantra itself has various schools which can be grouped by the relative emphasis they place on working with exoteric and esoteric practices.
The tantric path includes the following steps:
Lamrim ( literally, stages of the path ) These are indispensable topics for reflection and contemplation and also the meditations and activities that should naturally follow on from them. The Lamrim embodies the necessary prerequisites for tantra. It is set out as a progressive set of steps.
Relying Upon a Spiritual Guide ( learning from someone already on the path )
The Preciousness of Human Life ( the importance of using life for something valuable )
Death and Impermanence ( uncertainty of death and the unsatisfactory nature of this world )
The Danger of being Reborn in a Lower Realm
Taking Refuge from Samsara ( the cycle of endless grasping and eventual disappointment )
Karma ( the law of cause and effect which works in this world as well as at esoteric levels )
Developing Renunciation for Samsara ( integrating spiritual understanding and values )
Developing Equanimity ( accepting, and seeing past, both good and bad experience )
Recognizing that all Beings are as Precious as our Mothers ( the beginnings of bodhichitta )
Remembering the Kindness of Others
Equalizing Self and Others ( realising that we all want, and deserve, to be happy )
The Disadvantage of Self-Cherishing
The Advantage of Cherishing Others ( loosening the hold of ego through caring )
Exchanging Self with Others ( this is the core practice for developing bodhichitta--it involves developing the wish to voluntarily take on others' problems and freely give them one's own happiness in exchange. A sketch of the technique is as follows: breathe in others' woes as black smoke--let it settle into the heart, then breathe out all one's own happiness as white light--let it expand to fill all the cosmos. A practitioner should imagine and rejoice at the effect of both the in- and out-breath. For, on the in-breath, the reality and weight of all the problems in this world sink into the heart and help to dissolve the ego. Likewise, the out-breath brings relief and joy to all others. )
Developing Great Compassion
Taking Responsibility to Relieve Others' Burdens ( "exchanging self with others" in action )
Sharing One's Own Good Fortune with Others
Bodhichitta ( the desire to attain full enlightenment for the sake of all beings )
Tranquil Abiding ( developing advanced stages of concentration )
Superior Seeing ( developing emptiness--that is, non-identification with the personal ego )
Common Preliminary Tantric Practices These are the beginning activities that are unique to the Vajrayana path.
Prostrations ( physical prostration, visualisation and prayer for taking refuge )
Vajrasattva Meditation ( visualisation and mantra recitation for purification )
Mandala Offering ( visualisation and prayer for developing surrender and gaining merit )
Guru Yoga ( visualisation, mantra recitation and prayer for developing devotion and receiving blessings )
Generation Stage of Tantra These are preparatory practices that utilise imagination and much visualisation. They prepare the psychological and psychic groundwork for the spiritual energy that will be developed and harnessed in the following completion stage practices.
Beginning Meditation ( visualisation of oneself as a deity in the centre of a mandala full of other deities )
Subtle Meditation ( visualisation of a body mandala which corresponds to points on the subtle nervous system )
Completion Stage of Tantra These are very advanced meditations that primarily utilise subtle energies known as winds ( prana and chi are some other names for this energy ). These winds normally circulate throughout the psychic nervous system. When they are collected into a central place they provide great stability and clarity for the meditator. The normal collection point is commonly known as a chakra. It corresponds to a node or plexus in the psychic nervous system and acts as a link between the psychic, or astral, level of existence and our normal level of experience.
Tibetan yoga employs a simplified version of the metaphysical structure that is used in Hindu yoga. According to the Tibetan scheme there are three realms to consider in spiritual practice. These correspond to the Emanation Body ( this world ), the Enjoyment Body ( the astral dimension ), and the Truth Body ( a dimension that is much deeper--that is, much more subtle--than the astral ).
Isolated Body, Speech, and Mind ( progressive isolation of consciousness from this level of reality )
Illusory Body ( development of an astral body. Consciousness now is based in the astral not the physical )
Clear Light ( development of a very subtle consciousness at the Truth Body level )
Union or Full Enlightenment ( linking the Truth Body consciousness to the Enjoyment, or astral, Body )
Meditation on emptiness is integral throughout this practice. A simple way to understand emptiness is as follows. In the physical world, the personal ego has a relative span and will cease when the body does. So relative to it, the soul, or Enjoyment Body, is much more important since it will continue on after death. Thus saying the ego or self is empty means it is better to ground awareness in the soul and experience the ego as a garment, rather than only experiencing the ego and having no real connection with the soul. Thus emptiness is a statement about priority--we should consider the bigger context of our experience in order to live more wisely and wholesomely.
The same principle of emptiness applies as progressively higher levels of reality are experienced. Hence, when the Enjoyment Body, or soul, becomes a living reality for the meditator, she or he continues to take it as relatively real and keeps grounding awareness in the encircling context. The context, or deeper level, for the soul is the Truth Body ( which is just a more subtle version of the soul ). So as a meditator realises the Truth Body, the Enjoyment Body becomes the new object for meditation on emptiness.
To recapitulate the entire process: at the beginning we have a body and mind (the personal ego or self ). Next an astral body ( Enjoyment Body ) is developed and it is as if the physical body and personal ego have become the "body" and the astral body has become the "mind". Next a very subtle body ( Truth Body ) is developed and the final result is that the astral body becomes the "body" and the Truth Body becomes the "mind". At each stage of this sequence, the "body" is subjectively experienced as being empty by the "mind".
What is the experience of emptiness like? At the beginning level of physical body and mind, emptiness means that one does not identify with any experience whatsoever. Any sight, sound, or other sense is recognised and honoured for what it is, but it is not clung to. Similarly, all thoughts and feelings are also taken in this way--as being real and valuable, but not as being in one's possession so that one does not cling to the experience of them. It is as if all experiences, whether external ( in the world "out there" ) or internal ( inner thoughts, hopes, feelings, and desires ), are viewed as clouds passing by. The reality is the sky which the clouds float by in. And if the sky is noticed, it too is taken as just another cloud wafting by. The result of this amazing relation to one's experience is an enormous sense of relief, peace, and clarity. At first it seems that one will die if one doesn't cling to experience, but after awhile it becomes apparent that one continues to live on anyway. We are more than just the experiences that we engage in.
The same process applies at progressively more subtle levels of experience. The contents of experience become more and more amazing and wonderful ( to our normal way of thinking ) but the most skilful way of relating to them still remains the practice of mindfulness ( emptiness meditation ). So once a yogi creates an astral body and can experience reality at that level, he or she works at non-identification with the astral body. And similarly, once a Truth Body exists, meditation on its emptiness continues as well.