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A Survey of the Paths of Tibetan Buddhism
»» Introduction to the Tantras

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Tổng quan về các pháp môn trong Phật giáo Tây Tạng - Giới thiệu về các Tantra

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There is an explanation of the evolution of the Tantras from a historical point view, according to which the Buddha taught the different Tantras at certain times and so forth. However, I think that the Tantric teaching could also have come about as a result of individuals having achieved high realizations and having been able to explore the physical elements and the potential within the body to its fullest extent. As a result of this, they might have had high realizations and visions and so may have received tantric teachings. Therefore, when we think about tantric teachings we should not have this rigid view of a particular historical time.

In the fundamental tantra of Kalachakra, the Buddha himself says that when he gave the second turning of the wheel of dharma at Vulture's Peak, he also gave a different system of tantric teachings at the place called Dhanyakataka. There is a difference of opinion among Tibetan scholars concerning the evolution of the tantric teachings, including the Kalachakra Tantra. One system maintains that the Buddha gave the tantric teachings on the full moon day one year after his complete enlightenment; whereas a second system maintains that he gave the tantric teachings one month prior to his parinirvana.

The second view seems to be more consistent because the Kalachakra tantra itself says that just as the Buddha gave the second turning of the wheel of the dharma at Vulture's Peak, he gave tantric teachings at Dhanyakataka. It seems that among the lower sets of tantra there are a few which the Buddha taught in his normal form as a fully ordained monk or Bhikshu, but in general, when he taught most of the tantras, he assumed the form of the principal deity of the particular tantra.

The practice of tantra can be undertaken when a person has a gained a firm foundation in the path presented in the sutra system. This consists of a correct view of emptiness, as it was explained in the second turning of the wheel, and a realization of the altruistic aspiration to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings, based on love and compassion, together with the practices of the six perfections. So only after you have laid a proper foundation in the common paths can you undertake the practice of tantra as an additional factor.

The greatest profundities can be found in Highest Yoga Tantra. This is where you can come to understand the term, 'Buddha-nature' or 'essence of Buddhahood', in other words, the uncontaminated awareness explained in the Sublime Continuum. The deepest meaning of this can only be understood in the Highest Yoga Tantra.

Irrespective of whether we maintain that the Sublime Continuum itself deals with Buddha nature in its fullest form, it is very clear that the ultimate intent of Buddhahood is the fundamental innate mind of clear light as explained in the Highest Yoga Tantra.

What is so unique and profound about Highest Yoga tantra is that it explains and outlines methods for not only realizing spiritual progress on the path on the level of the gross mind, but also explains techniques and methods for utilizing the subtlest level of the mind, the fundamental innate mind of clear light. When you are able to transform the fundamental innate mind of clear light into the entity of the path, you are equipped with a very powerful instrument.

Usually, in practising single-pointed meditation, we are functioning on a gross mental level and so require a strong degree of mindfulness and alertness to prevent our concentration from being distracted. If there were a technique or method by which we could do away with the distractions associated with these gross levels of mind, there would be no need for such rigorous vigilance and mindfulness. Highest Yoga Tantra explains methods by which you can dissolve and withdraw all the gross levels of mind and bring your mind to a level at which there is no possibility of distractions arising.

In addition, the method for bringing that fundamental innate mind of clear light, the subtlest level of mind, into the entity of the path according to Highest Yoga Tantra, is to dissolve or withdraw the gross levels of mind and the energies that propel them. There are three major ways of doing this. One is by means of wind yoga, another is through experiencing the four types of bliss, and the third is through meditation on non-conceptuality.

Here, it should be remembered that although these are different methods, we can achieve these feats by means of any of these three techniques. We should be aware that these feats can be achieved not only by one method, but through a collection of many different methods. For example, if we generate a virtuous thought today, although this virtuous thought can serve as a cause for attaining omniscience in the future, this does not mean that this virtuous thought alone is the cause of omniscience.

A text called the Sacred Words of Manjushri, composed by the Indian master Buddhajnana, mentions that because of the physical structure of our bodies and the elements that we possess as human beings inhabiting this planet, even on an ordinary level, there are certain occasions when we experience the subtle level of clear light, naturally. These occur during sleep, yawning, fainting and sexual climax.

This shows that we have within ourselves a certain potential which we can explore further. And among these four states, the best opportunity for further development is during sexual intercourse.

Although I am using this ordinary term, sexual climax, it does not imply the ordinary sexual act. The reference here is to the experience of entering into union with a consort of the opposite sex, by means of which the elements at the crown are melted, and through the power of meditation the process is also reversed.

A prerequisite of such a practise is that you should be able to protect yourself from the fault of seminal emission. According to the explanation of the Kalachakra Tantra in particular, such emission is said to be very damaging to your practice. Therefore, because you should not experience emission even in dreams, the tantras describe differ-ent techniques for overcoming this fault.

This contrasts with the Vinaya explanation, which sets out the code of discipline for Buddhist monks, in which exception is made for emission in dreams, because it is beyond your control, whereas in tantra it is considered an offence. The experience of melting the mind of enlightenment is brought about by ordinary afflicted desire, so the practitioner must be able to generate it.

The point is that due to the force of desire, you are able to melt the elements within your body. Consequently, when you experience the non-conceptual state, you should be able to direct your attention to meditation on emptiness. So, when you experience a non-conceptual state as a result of the elements melting within your body, if you are able to generate that understanding into a realization of emptiness, you will have achieved the feat of transforming a disturbing emotion, desire, into the wisdom realiz-ing emptiness.

When you are able to employ this non-conceptual blissful mind in realizing emptiness, the result is a powerful wisdom that serves as an antidote to counteract and eliminate disturbing emotions. Therefore, it is a case of wisdom derived from disturbing emotions counteracting and eliminating them, just as insects born from wood consume it.

This is the significance of the Buddha's assuming the form of a meditational deity, the principal deity of the mandala, and entering into union with the consort when he taught the tantric path. Therefore, in the course of their practice, practitioners generate themselves on an imaginary level into such deities in union with a consort.

Another unique and profound feature of tantra concerns the process for attaining the twofold body of the Buddha, the form body and the truth body. According to the sutra system, the practitioner works to attain the form and the truth bodies of a Buddha as a result of cultivating the altruistic aspiration for enlightenment. However, the body of the Buddha does not come about without causes and conditions and these causes and conditions must be commensurate their effects. That is to say, cause and effect should have similar aspects.

The sutra systems speak of the causes of the Buddha's form body in terms of a unique mental body attained by highly evolved Bodhisattvas, which, serving as the substantial cause of the Buddha's body, eventually becomes the form body of the Buddha. This is also mentioned in the writings of the low vehicle. Although they do not describe a complete method for actualizing the omniscient state, they do speak of certain types of practices which are geared towards achieving the major and minor marks of the Buddha.

Highest Yoga Tantra, on the other hand, outlines the unique causes and methods for actualizing both the truth body and the form body of a Buddha.

In order to undertake the practice of a method which serves as the principal or substantial cause for attaining the form body of the Buddha, the practitioner of tantra should first ripen his mental faculties. In other words, he should rehearse this unique cause. The importance of deity yoga, which employs imagination in meditation, is that the practitioner generates himself or herself into the aspect of a deity.

Texts such as the explanatory tantra called the Vajrapanjara Tantra and related Indian commentaries point out that attainment of the Buddha's truth body requires meditation and practice of a path that has features similar to the resultant truth body. This refers to meditation on emptiness through direct perception in which all dualistic appearances and conceptual elaborations have been withdrawn. Similarly, in order to attain the form body of the Buddha one should also cultivate a path that has similar features to the resultant form body. Engaging in a path that has similar features to the resultant state of Buddhahood, particularly the form body, is of indispensable significance and power. The tantras present a path that has features, technically called the four complete purities, similar to the resultant state in four ways: the complete purity of enlightenment, the complete purity of the body, the complete purity of the resources, and the complete purity of activities.

All great vehicle systems assert that in order to achieve the resultant state, which is the union of the two bodies, it is essential to engage in a path in which there is a union of method and wisdom. However, the union of wisdom and method according to the sutra system is not a complete union. Although it refers to wisdom in terms of the wisdom realizing emptiness and method in the terms of the practice of the six perfection such as giving, ethics and so forth, the union of method and wisdom here refers only to the practice of wisdom realizing emptiness being complemented by a factor of method such as the mind of enlightenment, and the practice of the mind of enlightenment and aspects of method being complemented and supported by a factor of wisdom such as the realization of emptiness. In other words, they maintain that it is not possible for both factors of the path, the wisdom factor and the method factor, to be present within one entity of consciousness.

Such a form of practice is a relative union of method and wisdom. The practise of wisdom is not isolated from factors of method, nor is the practise of method isolated from factors of wisdom, yet it is not a complete form of union of method and wisdom. Tantra alone can serve as the ultimate cause or path for realizing the resultant state of Buddhahood, in which there is a complete unity between the form body and the truth body.

The question is what form of practice or path is possible where method and wisdom are inseparably united. In the practise of tantra, it is deity yoga in which the divine form of a deity is visualized in a single moment of consciousness, while at the same time there is mindfulness of its empty nature, its emptiness. There, within one entity of consciousness, is meditation on both the deity as well as apprehension of emptiness. Therefore, such a moment of consciousness is a factor of both method and wisdom.

Also, when we try to cultivate divine pride or the sense of identity as a divine being in the practice of deity yoga, we try to overcome the feeling and perception of ordinariness. I think this helps us to make the potential of Buddhahood within ourselves more manifest.

To attain a firm pride of being a deity requires a stable visualization of the form and appearance of the deity. Normally, because of our natural tendency and consequent notion of self we have an innate feeling of 'I' and self based upon our body and mind. If we similarly cultivate a strong perception of our own appearance as a deity, we will also be able to cultivate divine pride, the sense of identity as a deity, by focusing on the divine body.

In order to actualize the omniscient mind within ourselves, we need to develop the substantial cause for such a mind, which is not just any form of consciousness, but a consciousness with an enduring continuity. That is to say, the mind whose emptiness we realize in order to actualize omniscience should be a special type of mind which, in terms of its continuity, is permanent. Contaminated states of mind, such as disturbing emotions and so forth, are adventitious. Therefore, they are occasional. They arise at a certain moment, but they disappear. So, although they are disadvantageous, they do not endure, whereas the mind whose nature we realize when we become omniscient should be permanent in terms of its continuity not adventitious.

This means, that we should be able to realize the empty nature of the purified mind, the mind that has never been polluted by the influence of disturbing emotions.

Now, from the point of view of emptiness itself, although there is no difference between the emptiness of external phenomena, such as a sprout, and the emptiness of a deity, such as oneself generated into a deity like Vairochana, from the point of view of the subjects qualified by emptiness there is a difference.

The importance of deity yoga is that it is the special type of wisdom that realizes the emptiness of this deity that eventually serves as the substantial cause for the omniscient mind of Buddhahood. Deity yoga, therefore, is a union of clarity, which is the visualization of the deity, and the profound, which is the realization of emptiness.

Now, according to the sutra system the Buddha never approved the generation of disturbing emotions for one's own welfare, or from the point of view of one's own realization of the path. But there are occasions mentioned in the sutras, where a Bodhisattva, who finds that the application of certain disturbing emotions is useful and beneficial for the purpose of others, is given such approval.

The Buddha said that although excrement is dirty in the town, it is helpful when used as fertilizer in a field. The Bodhisattva's special use of delusions can similarly be of benefit to others.

While, according to the sutras system, the Buddha never approved a Bodhisattva's generating anger or hatred, we often find that for us ordinary people, hatred or anger, being very strong emotional forces; actually help us to get things done.

In the tantras we find that the Buddha has made an exception for the generation of hatred, because we find here techniques and methods for using hatred and anger for positive purposes. However, we must be aware that even when utilizing hatred and anger for positive purposes, the fundamental motive should be the altruistic thought of achieving enlightenment for the benefit of others. When it is induced by such a motive, circumstantial anger or hatred is condoned. The significance of the wrathful aspect of some deities can be understood in this context.

So, these are just some of the differences between the sutra system and the tantric system or, as we might say, the superior features of the tantric path.

The Four Classes of Tantra

The tantric system is divided into four classes, as stated in the explanatory tantra Vajrapanjara. As we discussed above, it is only in the Highest Yoga Tantra that the most profound and unique features of tantra come to their fulfilment, therefore, we should view the lower tantras as steps leading up to Highest Yoga Tantra. Although the explanation of ways of taking desire into the path is a common feature of all four tantras, the levels of desire differ. In the first class of tantras, Action Tantra, the method for taking desire into the path is to glance at the consort. In the subsequent classes of tantra, the methods include laughter, holding hands or embracing and union.

The four classes of tantras are termed according to their functions and different modes of purification. In the lowest class of tantra mudras or hand gestures are regarded as more important than the inner yoga, so it is called Action Tantra.

The second class, in which there is equal emphasis on both aspects, is called Performance Tantra. The third, Yoga Tantra, is where inner yoga is emphasized more than external activities. The fourth class is called Highest Yoga Tantra because it not only emphasizes the importance of inner yoga, but there is no tantra superior to it.

The explanation of the Nyingma Great Perfection School speaks of nine vehicles. The first three refer to the Hearer (Shravaka), Solitary Realizer (Pratyekabuddha) and Bodhisattva vehicles which constitute the sutra system. The second three are called the external vehicles, comprising Action Tantra, Performance Tantra and Yoga Tantra, since they emphasize the practice of external activities, although they also deal with the practitioner's outer and inner conduct. Finally, there are the three inner tantras, which are referred to in the Great Perfection terminology as Mahayoga, Annuyoga and Atiyoga.These three inner vehicles are termed the methods or vehicles for gaining control, because they contain methods for making manifest the subtlest levels of mind and energy. By these means a practitioner can place his or her mind in a deep state beyond the discriminations of good or bad, clear or dirty, which enables him or her to transcend such worldly conventions.


The form of the empowerment or initiation ceremony is quite uniform among the three lower tantras. In Highest Yoga Tantra, however, because of the wide diversity amongst the tantras belonging to this category, there are also different initiations, which serve as ripening factors for the particular tantra to which they belong.

Different types of empowerment are necessary for specific classes of tantras. For example, in the case of Action Tantra, two types of initiations are indispensable: the water empowerment and the crown empowerment. In Performance Tantra, the five wisdom empowerments are indispensable and in Highest Yoga Tantra, all four empowerments, vase, secret, wisdom-knowledge and word initiations are essential.

Nevertheless, many different terms are used in different traditions. In the tradition of the old transmission or Nyingma School, for example, the Vajramaster initiation is called the 'initiation of illusion' and the disciple initiation is called the 'beneficial empowerment' and so forth. There is also an 'all-encompassing Vajra initiation'. In the Great Perfection the fourth initiation itself is further divided into four, the initiation with elaboration and so on.

The term 'initiation', Abhishem in Sanskrit, has many different connotations in different contexts. In a broad sense, initiation may be explained as a ripening factor, or as a causal initiation, and then in terms of the path, which is the actual path of release, and finally, initiation of the resultant state, which is the purified result. The Great Perfection also mentions one more type of initiation, the initiation of the basis. This refers to the clear light which serves as a basis and enables other initiations to take place. If a person were to lack the basic faculty of the fundamental innate mind of clear light, it would be impossible for the subsequent empowerments to occur.

In the case of an external phenomenon like a vase or a sprout, we cannot talk of a ripening factor, path, and resultant state and so on. It is only on the basis of an individual who possesses this kind of faculty within that one can speak of a ripening factor and a path that leads to an eventual resultant state. Thus, broadly speaking there are four initiations.

Preparations for Empowerment

To conduct a ceremony of empowerment one requires a mandala, which is the inestimable mansion or divine residence of the deity. There are different types of mandalas: mandalas created by concentration, painted mandalas, sand mandalas and also in Highest Yoga Tantra, body mandalas based on the body of the Guru, and mandalas of the conventional mind of enlightenment.

Amongst all of these the sand mandala is principal, because it is the only one in preparation of which all the rituals concerning consecration of the site, the strings etc., can be conducted. It also incorporates the performance of ritual dance, which includes various hand gestures and steps.

There are different types of ritual dance. One is conducted when consecrating the site where the mandala is to be built. Another is performed after the completion of the mandala, as an offering to the mandala deities. In addition, there is another type of ceremonial dance called Cham, which is associated with activities for overcoming obstacles.

Many small monasteries are expert in performing these ritual dances, but we might question their understanding of the symbolism and significance behind them. Most people consider their performance as a spectacle, a kind of theatrical show. This is a reflection of the sad fact that the tantras are degenerating. I have read in Indian history that one of the factors for the degeneration of tantra and the Buddhist doctrine in India was the excessive proliferation of tantric practices. If a practitioner lacks the basic foundations which are prerequisites for tantric practice, then tantric techniques and meditation may prove to be more harmful than beneficial. That is why tantric practices are called 'secret'.

We should bear in mind that even in tantric writings the monastic vows of individual liberation are highly praised. The fundamental tantra of Kalachakra, which is king of all Highest Yoga Tantras, mentions that of the varieties of vajra masters conducting teachings and ceremonies, fully ordained monks are the highest, novices are middling and the laymen are the lowest.

Moreover, in the course of receiving an initiation there are different types of vows to be taken. Bodhisattva vows can be taken in the presence of an image of the Buddha, without a guru in human form. Individual liberation vows and tantric vows on the other hand must be taken from a living person in the form of a guru.

If you are to make successful progress in the tantric path, it is essential that you receive the inspiration and blessings of the uninterrupted lineage originating with Buddha Vajradhara from your own guru, in order to arouse the latent potential within your mind to actualize the resultant state of Buddhahood. This is achieved by the empowerment ceremony. Therefore, in the practice of tantra, the guru is very important.

Since the guru plays such an important role in the practice of tantra, many tantric texts have outlined the qualifications of a tantric master.

The person giving an initiation should be properly qualified. So before we take initiation, it is important to examine whether the guru has these qualifications. It is said that even if it takes twelve years to determine whether the master possesses the right qualifications, you should take the time to do it.

A qualified vajra master is a person who guards his or her three doors of body, speech and mind from negative actions, a person who is gentle and well-versed in the three trainings of ethics, concentration and wisdom. In addition, he or she should possess the two sets, inner and outer, of ten principles. The 50 Verses on the Guru describes a person who lacks compassion and is full of spite, is governed by strong forces of attachment and hatred and, having no knowledge of the three trainings, boasts of the little knowledge he has, as unqualified to be a tantric master.

But, just as the tantric master should possess certain qualifications, so should the disciples. The current tendency to attend any initiation given by any lama, without prior investigation, and having taken initiation, then to speak against the lama is not good.

On the part of the gurus, it is also important to give teachings in accordance with the general structure of the Buddhist path, taking the general framework of the Buddhist path as the rule by which you determine the integrity of your teachings.

The point is that the teacher should not arrogantly feel that within the close circle of his disciples, he is almighty and can do whatever he wants. There is a saying in Tibetan, 'Even though you may rival the deities in terms of realization, your lifestyle should conform to the ways of others'.

Maintaining the Vows

Once you have taken the initiation, you have a great responsibility to observe the pledges and vows. In the Action and Performance Tantras, although Bodhisattva vows are required, there is no need to take the tantric vows. Any tantra that includes a vajra master initiation requires the disciples to observe the tantric vows as well.

If you are paying particular attention to observing practices of the three lower tantras it is important to maintain a vegetarian diet. Although it was reasonable for Tibetans to eat meat in Tibet, because of the climatic conditions and the scarcity of vegetables, in countries where there are vegetables in abundance, it is far better to avoid or reduce your consumption of meat. Particularly when you invite many people to a party, it is good if you can provide vegetarian food.

There is a story of a nomad who visited Lhasa and was surprised to see people eating vegetables. He said, 'People in Lhasa will never starve, they can eat anything green.'

The Buddhist position with regard to diet, even as it is presented in monastic discipline, with the exception of the flesh of certain specific animals, is that there is no general prohibition of meat. Monks in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand eat meat.

In the scriptural collections of the Bodhisattvas, eating meat is generally prohibited. However, the prohibition is not very strict. In his text called Heart of the Middle Way, Bhaviveka deals with the question of vegetarianism in the Buddhist way of life, and concludes that since the animal is already dead when its meat is eaten, it is not directly affected. What is prohibited is eating meat which you know or suspect has been killed for you.

In the three lower classes of tantra, eating meat is strictly prohibited. But in the Highest Yoga Tantra, practitioners are recommended to partake of the five meats and five nectars. The perfect practitioner of Highest Yoga Tantra is someone who is able to transform the five meats and five nectars into purified substances through the power of meditation, and is then able to utilize them to enhance the body's energy. But if someone tried to justify eating meat by claiming to be a Highest Yoga Tantra practitioner, when they came to eat the five meats and nectars they could not be choosy, relishing some and rejecting the others in disgust.

Women and Buddhism

I think it is also appropriate for me to say something about feminism and women's rights within Buddhism.

In the case of the monastic way of life, although male and female practitioners are afforded equal opportunities in the Discipline texts to take the monastic vows, we find that fully ordained monks are treated as superior in terms of being objects of respect and veneration. From this point of view, we might say that there is some discrimination.

Also in the writings of the low vehicle, we find that a Bodhisattva on the highest level of path who is sure to gain enlightenment in that lifetime is said to be a male. We find a similar explanation in the great vehicle sutras, that a Bodhisattva on the highest level of path, who will definitely achieve enlightenment in the same lifetime, is a male abiding in the Blissful Pure Land (5ukhavati). This is also true of the three lower classes of tantra, but the explanation in Highest Yoga Tantra is different.

In Highest Yoga Tantra, even the first step of receiving empowerment is possible only on the basis of the presence of a complete assembly of male and female deities. The Buddhas of the five families must be accompanied by their consorts.

The female role is strongly emphasized in Highest Yoga Tantra. To despise a woman is a transgression of one of the root tantric vows, although no corresponding transgression is mentioned in relation to male practitioners. Also, in the actual practice of meditating on mandala deities, the deity concerned is often female, such as Vajra Yogini or Nairat maya.

In addition, tantra speaks of the point in the completion stage when the practitioner is advised to seek a consort, as an impetus for further realization of the path. In such cases of union, if the realization of one of the partners is more advanced, he or she is able to bring about the release, or actualization of the resultant state, of both practitioners.

Therefore, it is explained in Highest Yoga Tantra, that a practitioner can become totally enlightened in this lifetime as a female. This is explicitly and clearly stated in tantras such as Guhyasamaja.

The basic point is that in tantra and particularly in Highest Yoga Tantra, what practitioners are engaged in is a method of exploring and developing the latent potency within themselves. That is, the fundamental innate mind of clear light and from that point of view, since males and females possess that faculty equally, there is no difference whatsoever in their ability to attain the resultant state.

So, the Buddhist position on the question of discrimination between the sexes is that from the ultimate point of view, that of Highest Yoga Tantra, there is no distinction at all.

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