Basics of Buddhism

Patrick Lambelet


In the most straightforward sense, Buddhism is the corpus of doctrines and practices based on the teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha, who is believed to have been born in northeastern India and to have lived until the age of eighty, sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. The name Śākyamuni means “sage of the Śākya clan,” and he was also known as Gautama Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, or simply Buddha—the Awakened One.

Historically, Buddhism has roots in the movement of the śramaṇas, or wandering ascetics, who rejected certain aspects of the dominant Brahmanical religious traditions, such as the caste system. Little historical or archaeological evidence exists regarding the Buddha, but he is said to have taught for forty-five years after attaining the state of awakening (Skt. and Pali bodhi).

The teachings of the Buddha center on the doctrine of the four noble truths, which sets out the means for attaining a state of liberation from all types of dissatisfaction and suffering. These four truths are literally “truths for āryas,” i.e. nobles or superiors—those who have attained an elevated spiritual state by directly perceiving ultimate reality. They are:

  1. The truth of suffering (Skt. duḥkha satya; Pali dukkha saccã)
  2. The truth of an origin of suffering (Skt. samudaya satya; Pali samudaya saccã)
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering (Skt. nirodha satya; Pali nirodha saccã)
  4. The truth of the path to liberation from suffering (Skt. mārga-satya; Pali magga saccã)

Many aspects of the Buddhist teachings were responses to, and often rejections of, fundamental doctrines of the Brahmanical religions. Whereas Brahmanical teachings spoke of the ātman (self, or soul) as an enduring, inherent, and permanent reality, the Buddhist teachings denied the existence of such a self, propounding instead the notion of anātman, or “non-self.” The Buddha’s teachings state that the very notion of the existence of such a self is a type of ignorance (Skt. avidya; Pali avijja) that is at the root of suffering. This ignorance is to be abandoned through practice of the path (often described as the eightfold noble path; Skt. āryāṣṭāṅgamārga; Pali ariyo aṭṭhaṅgiko maggo), which leads to the abandonment, or cessation, of suffering.

Buddhism also has a detailed mode of presenting the teaching of karma (“action”) and reincarnation. While Brahmanical traditions placed varying degrees of emphasis on the importance of karma, in Buddhism it became central to the discourse on attaining liberation (Skt. mokṣa or nirvāṇa; Pali vimoksha or nibbana). Only by following strict moral discipline could one hope to achieve freedom from the cycle of conditioned existence (saṃsāra), and thus from uncontrolled rebirth in the various realms of existence.

After the Buddha’s passing, or parinirvāṇa (Pali parinibbāna), divergent interpretations of his teachings led to the development of different sub-schools. Later scholars, especially followers of the Mahāyāna schools, classified the teachings into “Lesser Vehicle” (Hīnayāna) and “Greater Vehicle” (Mahāyāna) systems, basing this distinction on the emphasis on either individual liberation or the attainment of buddhahood for the benefit of all beings (modern scholars often choose to refer to the Hīnayāna teachings in less pejorative terms, as either Nikāya or Theravāda Buddhism). However, the relationship and historical development of these ideas is complex and the subject of much controversy; divisions into Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna are entirely rejected by some Buddhist schools, who hold that the only authentic Buddhist teachings are those in the earlier Pali canon, with some rejecting the Mahāyāna altogether as authentic Buddhist teachings. This is further complicated by the fact that the earlier Pali sūtras were not gathered into a canon until several centuries after the Buddha’s passing, and may have originally included some “Mahāyāna” teachings.  

Buddhism thrived in India until around the twelfth century CE, but the Buddhist teachings spread throughout Asia, to Sri Lanka, Bengal, Thailand, Burma, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan, taking on different forms as they were assimilated into each respective culture. The various types of Buddhism include Theravāda, Vajrayāna, Tiantai, Pure Land, Chan, and Zen, each of which have numerous sects and lineages.

To speak of Buddhism as a single, coherent tradition is thus misleading, and even application of the terms “Buddhism” or “religion” can be problematic. We need to recall that “Buddhism” includes a vast and complex range of beliefs, practices, and social relations, and that the term “religion” often excludes aspects of Buddhist thought that might be seen as philosophical or even psychological. Buddhism is thus often seen as a “science of mind,” rather than a religion per se.

In recent decades, Buddhist teachings have found an ever stronger foothold in traditionally non-Buddhist countries in Europe and the United States, with numerous new converts and adherents. This has brought challenges to a tradition that for the most part developed independently from both Western Judeo-Christian values and modern, secular scientific and philosophical ideas, but has also stimulated rich cross-cultural and interdisciplinary dialogues. Buddhism’s appeal in the West is largely due to the perceived compatibility between its pragmatic, non-theistic approach and modern scientific thought, a relationship that has been championed by prominent Buddhist teachers such as the fourteenth Dalai Lama as well as numerous scholars and scientists. As this relationship evolves, it remains to be seen what will become of Buddhist teachings and practices that are of a more “religious” or culturally specific nature.


One of the most prevalent assumptions about Buddhism is that it is mainly based on the practice of meditation. Historically, however, meditation is one of many elements that make up the various Buddhist traditions. Furthermore, Buddhist meditative practices include a broad and diverse range of techniques.

The English term meditation (derived from the Latin meditatio, meaning to reflect or contemplate) may be used to translate any of a number of different terms, from languages such as Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, or Chinese, which have a far broader range of meanings than is often understood. For instance, the Sanskrit dhyāna (Pali jhāna; Tib. bsam gtan), from which the terms Chan and Zen are derived, may carry the sense most often associated with meditation, of non-conceptual states of deep absorption; the term samādhi (Tib. ting nge ‘dzin), meditative stabilization or concentration, explicitly involves the development of concentration; and the term bhāvanā (Tib. sgom) indicates a process of mental habituation or familiarization, which is not necessarily limited to stilling the mind or cultivating concentration. Thus, meditation can also include more “conceptual” practices, such as the four brahmavihāras (Tib. tshangs gnas bzhi), or four immeasurables, in which one cultivates love, compassion, joy, equanimity.

Broadly speaking, meditative practices can be divided into those aimed at the development of mental stillness and concentration (Pali shamatha; Skt. śamatha; Tib. zhi gnas) and those used to cultivate wisdom, or higher insight into reality (vipassanā / vipaśyanā / lhag mthong). In the practice of vipassanā (which has become particularly prominent in modern Theravāda traditions and is a principal source of contemporary mindfulness movements), the main focus is on developing understanding of the three “seals” of Buddhism: impermanence (Pali anicca; Skt. anitya), suffering (dukkha; duḥkha), and non-self (anatta; anātman). The practice of śamatha (Pali samatha; Tib. zhi gnas) aims principally at the development of mental stillness or single-pointed concentration, leading to advanced states of samādhi. According to some traditions, śamatha is a prerequisite for vipaśyanā. Although one or the other of these aspects may be emphasized in particular contexts, the final aim is to cultivate a liberative path that is a union of both concentration and insight. The distinctions between śamatha and vipaśyanā are less emphasized in some traditions, such as Chan or Zen, with their stress on direct experience and the avoidance of conceptual categories.

In the Tibetan traditions, meditative practices such as mahāmudrā and dzogchen, principally (but not exclusively) associated with the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, vary in the extent to which they highlight śamatha and vipaśyanā, mainly speaking in terms of direct experience of the nature of mind, pristine awareness (rig pa), buddha nature, or the dharmakāya. (Some scholars have noted similarities between the “non-conceptual” approaches of Zen and dzogchen/mahāmudrā.) The Gelug tradition is distinctive in its highlighting meditation on the gradual path (lam rim), in which higher states of meditative attainment are necessarily preceded by conceptual realization of topics such as death, impermanence, the nature of cause and effect, and so forth. Such realization is achieved by way of alternation between analytical meditation (dpyad sgom) and stabilizing meditation (‘jog sgom), and can also involve visualization practices.

In all of the Tibetan lineages, Vajrayāna practices and meditation play a central role. Vajrayāna or Tantrayāna practices are seen as more advanced than the more open s ūtra practices (such as lam rim), incorporating techniques such as deity visualization, mantra recitation, and meditations on the subtle inner energies. Dzogchen and mahāmudrā practices are often considered to be part of the Vajrayāna.


The topic of mind occupies a fundamental and complex role in the many forms of Buddhist thought and practice. In Buddhism it is generally asserted that mind, and not a creator deity, is the root and creator of the entire cycle of conditioned existence known as saṃsāra, although interpretations of what this means vary widely. Canonical Pali texts such as the Dhammapada and Indian śāstras such as Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa emphasize the interrelation between mind and action (karma), which leads to all the effects we experience, both pleasant and unpleasant. The Mahāyāna thinker Candrakīrti’s Madhyamakāvatāra states that “This very mind is what creates the extreme diversity found in the universe of sentient beings and in their environments.” The focus of Buddhist practice, then, is on disciplining, purifying, and ultimately liberating the mind.

It is virtually impossible to establish an equivalency in meaning between English or European terms and any of the myriad terms in Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, etc. Just a few of the Sanskrit terms often translated as “mind” (or “awareness,” “cognition,” “consciousness,” etc.) include citta (Tib. sems), vitti (Tib. rig), buddhi (Tib. blo), and vijñāna (Tib. rnam shes), all of which can convey a broad range of meanings in different contexts.

Many scholars have noted that Buddhism, with its emphasis on knowledge and discipline of the mind, seems to have much in common with disciplines such as psychology and neuroscience. However, while contemporary scientific and neuroscientific discourses regarding the mind tend to focus on the brain, neural correlates, or chemical processes, the classical Buddhist view of mind has a dualistic orientation, seeing it as totally non-material. A standard explanation of mind given in Buddhist texts is “that which is clear and knowing,” differentiating it from what is material, obstructive, and non-sentient. Mind is not, however, considered to have a singular, static nature. Consciousness is seen as an ever-transforming and flowing continuity rather than as a fixed entity, and six types of consciousness (visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental) can be posited in dependence on six respective objects. In this classification, a distinction is made between a primary mind (citta; sems), referring to the basic state of knowing that knows the mere entity of an object, and mental factors (caitta; sems byung), such as faith, anger, or belief, which apprehend and act upon specific features of their respective objects. Buddhist texts enumerate and classify a large number of mental factors according to types, such as virtuous, non-virtuous, and so forth.

A more nuanced view of mind, and one perhaps more closely aligned with contemporary scientific thought, can be found in some systems of tantra, which present several levels of mind, differentiated in terms of their subtlety. The ordinary sense consciousnesses are the grossest levels of mind, while the subtlest level, the clear light (Skt. prabhāsvara; Tib. ‘od gsal), is inseparable from the subtlest level of wind-energy (prāṇa; rlung). The clear light mind is said to become manifest only on certain occasions, such as the time of death or deep sleep, or through intensive meditative practice, including yogic techniques that focus on and manipulate the subtle wind-energies.

Indo-Tibetan meditative systems such as the Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen traditions primarily emphasize meditation on the nature of mind, often speaking in terms of the tathāgatagarbha, or Buddha nature, as the primordial essence of mind to be realized through meditation. Similar practices can be found in the Zen and Chan traditions. More conceptually oriented practices, such as the Tibetan traditions of lam rim (graduated path) meditation and blo sbyong (mind training), employ reasoning and analysis in order to systematically cultivate qualities such as compassion, wisdom, and renunciation.


One of the primary and most defining elements of Buddhist thought is that of enlightenment (Pali/Skt. bodhi; Tib. byang chub), or awakening. The term bodhi derives from the root budh, meaning to awaken or recover consciousness, here signifying awakening, or being liberated, from ignorance. Definitions and descriptions of enlightenment vary greatly among different traditions, stimulating numerous philosophical debates and questions about the nature of religious experience and practice.

Typically, enlightenment refers to the awakened state that the historical Buddha attained after a long period of meditation under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya, but the nature of this state is the source of a great deal of interpretation and debate. Indian Mahāyāna śāstras such as the Abhisamayālaṃkāra (Ornament of Clear Realization), attributed to the scholar-saint Asaṅga, set forth complex and detailed expositions of the various Buddhist paths and their results. According to such explanations there are three principal types of “enlightenment”: that of listeners (Pali sāvaka; Skt. śrāvaka; Tib. nyan thos); that of self-buddhas, or solitary realizers (Pali paccekabuddha; Skt. pratyekabuddha; Tib. rang sangs rgyas); and that of buddhas (Tib. sangs rgyas). Śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, both followers of the Hīnayāna (“lesser vehicle”), are motivated by powerful renunciation and seek principally to abandon the afflictions (kleśas), leading to liberation from saṃsāra, the attainment of nirvāṇa (Pali nibbāna), and the state of an arhat (Pali arahant; Tib. dgra bcom pa). In this state, they have achieved their own peace but do not work explicitly to liberate all other sentient beings. The traditional Theravāda account of nirvāṇa (Pali nibbāna) is that once the afflictions have been exhausted, one passes beyond suffering like a flame that is exhausted due to its fuel being consumed.

Golden Buddha statue in Bodhgaya, India, 2007Golden Buddha statue in Bodhgaya, India, 2007
© Paul O'Connor

Bodhisattvas, on the other hand, are those who, motivated by bodhicitta, a powerful sense of compassion and responsibility for others’ welfare, strive for the state of complete enlightenment (sambodhi) in order to liberate all sentient beings from saṃsāra. According to these Mahāyāna systems, the Hīnayāna (as the name suggests) is an inferior path since it is based on the mere desire for one’s own liberation rather than the awakening of all beings. From a Mahāyāna perspective, then, the true, final, unsurpassed enlightenment is buddhahood. There is rigorous debate about whether or not practitioners of the lesser vehicle will eventually attain the final state of buddhahood, as well as whether there are beings who will never attain enlightenment due to having created heavy negative karma.

The notion of enlightenment varies according to different traditions. Whereas the Indo-Tibetan emphasis tends to be on enlightenment as the final and irreversible result of the Buddhist path—that is, the state of an arhat or a buddha—the Zen tradition uses terms such as satori and kensho to signify experiential realizations of ultimate reality or buddha nature along the path, which may be called “enlightenment experiences” but are distinct from the state of a fully awakened buddha. Similarly, in Chan the emphasis tends to be on the process of discovery of or insight into one’s own buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha) rather than on attaining it by way of a path. Similar tendencies can be seen in the Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā traditions.

While the Theravāda teachings also generally accept the three types of enlightenment mentioned above, considering a Buddha’s enlightenment to be the highest spiritual goal, they especially emphasize the attainments of the states of four types of noble beings (Pali ariya; Skt. arya), who have abandoned progressively greater levels of afflictions: the stream-enterers (Pali sotāpanna; Skt. srotāpanna), once-returners (Pali sakadāgāmi; Skt. sakṛdāgāmin), non-returners (Pali anāgāmi; Skt. anāgāmin), and arhats (Pali arahant), those who have attained the final state of nibbāna (Skt. nirvāṇa). These four beings strive towards either the śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha types of “enlightenment,” the state of a buddha being considered extremely rare.

Principal Buddhist Traditions

Although it is common to speak of Buddhism as a single religious tradition, there are in fact many schools and sects of Buddhism, often with more differentiating them than uniting them. The notion of Buddhism as a single Asian tradition is actually a relatively recent idea, and even the term “Buddhism” was likely coined by Western scholars in the nineteenth century. While we can accurately speak of all these traditions as emerging from a single root—a religious tradition based on the teachings of the historical Śākyamuni Buddha—as they have spread through different cultures, they have developed significantly different styles, doctrines, rituals, and ethical norms.

Perhaps the broadest and most common way of distinguishing Buddhist traditions is to speak of Hīnayāna and Mahāyāna (literally “small vehicle” and “great vehicle”), although this distinction is made from the point of view of Mahāyāna scholars, and Hīnayāna is widely considered a pejorative term. Hīnayāna refers to traditions in which the main objective is to attain nirvāṇa, or personal release from suffering, while Mahāyāna refers to those in which the main goal is to attain full awakening, or buddhahood (Pali sammāsaṃbodhi; Skt. samyaksaṃbodhi)—a fully perfected state in which one continues to work in order to free all beings from saṃsāra, without withdrawing into a personal state of peace. All of these schools adhere to core doctrines such as the four noble truths, the three seals, or marks, of Buddhism (impermanence, suffering, and non-self), and the eightfold noble path. The Mahāyāna schools, while acknowledging the importance of these doctrines, generally differ in their additional emphasis on the cultivation of the mind of enlightenment (Skt. bodhicitta), which is the mind that seeks the state of buddhahood on the basis of having generated great compassion (Skt. mahākaruṇā).

While Mahāyāna thinkers frequently use the term Hīnayāna, schools following this tradition are also referred to by modern scholars as Theravāda (the way of the elders), Nikāya Buddhism (indicating their relation to the earliest Buddhist schools), or Śrāvakayāna (vehicle of the listeners). Some modern scholars assert that the Theravāda school was just one of a number of early non-Mahāyāna schools. However, there are examples of “Mahāyāna” themes in Theravāda scriptures, such as the bodhisattva ideal to attain the fully enlightened state of a Buddha through the practice of the ten perfections (Skt. pāramitā; Pali pāramī), as well as historical and contemporary accounts of Theravāda practitioners who follow the bodhisattva path based on Pali scriptures. Such practitioners could thus not be strictly considered “Hīnayāna,” and it seems the Hīnayāna/Mahāyāna distinction is not as rigid as it is often assumed. The Theravāda schools claim to be mainly based on the Pali suttas (Skt. sūtras), and are prevalent in southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, as well as in smaller groups in other countries, such as China, Vietnam, and Nepal. The Theravāda traditions divide the Buddha’s teachings into three categories, or “baskets” (Pali tipiṭaka; Skt. tripiṭaka): the suttās, or the Buddha’s discourses; vinaya, or texts on ethical discipline and conduct; and the abhidhamma texts, which categorize the various types of phenomena (dhamma) that comprise reality.

Although adherents of Mahāyāna schools assert that their teachings originate with the historical Buddha, the earliest known Indian Mahāyāna texts originate several centuries after the time of the Buddha. Mahāyāna teachings are characterized by emphasis on the ideal of the bodhisattva path, the wish to attain complete enlightenment (samyaksaṃbodhi), and the practice of the six perfections (pāramitā): generosity (dāna pāramitā), ethics (śīla-pāramitā), patience (kṣānti-pāramitā), joyous effort (vīrya-pāramitā), concentration (dhyāna-pāramitā), and wisdom (prajñā-pāramitā). Many consider the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) sūtras to be the earliest and most important foundational Mahāyāna texts. According to Mahāyāna scholars, the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras principally and explicitly teach the doctrine of emptiness (Skt. śūnyatā) and dependent origination, while implicitly teaching the paths and grounds to attain enlightenment.

The Mahāyāna gave rise to two major schools of philosophical thought: Madhyamaka (Middle Way school), which teaches the lack of true existence, or self-nature (svabhāva) of all phenomena (dharma), and Yogācāra (practitioners of yoga; also known as Vijñānavāda or Cittamātra ,proponents of cognition or “mind-only”), which teaches the total lack of any reality apart from the mind. Principal exponents of the Madhyamaka include Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, and Candrakīrti, while major Yogācāra thinkers include Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. Another important doctrine is the teaching on tathāgatagarbha (Buddha nature, or Buddha essence), the notion that all sentient beings possess a fundamentally pure and enlightened nature.

The Mahāyāna teachings spread widely, eventually taking root in countries including China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Nepal, and Mongolia. Some of the principal Mahāyāna schools include Tibetan, Chan, Zen, Tiantai, Tendai, Shingon, Nichiren, and Pure Land Buddhism. The degree to which these schools emphasize teachings such as the four noble truths varies. For instance, Pure Land practice consists mainly of devotion to the Buddha Amitābha with the goal of attaining rebirth in his “pure land.”

The Vajrayāna teachings, which are prevalent in Tibetan, Japanese, and Chinese traditions, are generally considered to be an esoteric sub-division of the Mahāyāna schools, and not a separate category from the Hīnayāna or Mahāyāna. Vajrayāna teachings are characterized by their emphasis on ritual practices aimed at attaining buddhahood through complex visualization techniques, recitation of mantras, and use of ritual substances. 


The Vajrayāna (rdo rje theg pa), or Vajra Vehicle (vajra meaning diamond or thunderbolt), is a branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism incorporating a wide range of esoteric ritual practices and forms of meditation centered on visualization and devotion to tantric deities. Synonyms for the Vajrayāna include Tantrayāna (Tantra Vehicle) and Mantrayāna (Mantra Vehicle). Although it is sometimes considered as a third branch of Buddhism, distinct from the two main divisions into Hīnayāna (or Theravāda) and Mahāyāna, the Vajrayāna is in fact a sub-division of the Mahāyāna, or the bodhisattva vehicle.

The Mahāyāna sūtra vehicle (Sūtrayāna, or common vehicle) and the esoteric Vajrayāna are both based on the same motivation, the altruistic wish to attain enlightenment for the sake of all beings (Skt. bodhicitta; Tib. byang chub sems). Likewise, the factor of wisdom cultivated in the two vehicles is considered to be the same, in that the practitioner must realize the emptiness of true existence of all phenomena in order to abandon the afflictions and attain liberation from cyclic existence. The difference lies in the methods practitioners use to reach the goal of enlightenment: while the sūtra vehicle is based entirely on common Mahāyāna practices such as the six perfections (pāramitā), the Vajrayāna utilizes the special techniques of “deity yoga” (Tib. lha’i rnal ‘byor), which incorporate complex visualizations of deities and mandalas and recitation of mantras, as well as practices aimed at developing control over the inner wind-energies and subtle elements in order to utilize the subtlest levels of mind to realize the ultimate nature of reality.

Whereas in the sūtra path one mainly seeks to abandon the afflictions, such as attachment, hatred, and ignorance, the tantra path is said to harness the very energy of those afflictions in the path to enlightenment, in a type of alchemical transmutation. The Vajrayāna is also known as the resultant vehicle, because it involves practitioners’ identification with the resultant state—a fully enlightened deity, or a buddha, such as Mañjuśrī, Yamāntaka, Kālacakra, or Tārā—as a means to awaken their inner potential for enlightenment, or Buddha nature (tathāgathagarbha). This involves the practice of “divine pride,” identification of oneself as a deity, as well as seeing one’s environment and resources transformed into the deity’s pure realm. While both the sūtra and tantra paths teach the union of method and wisdom to attain the form body (rupakāya) and truth body (dharmakāya) of a buddha, the tantric vehicle is distinctive in its teaching that one attains the enlightened result by “rehearsing” it at the time of the path. Entrance to the tantric path is gained through the bestowal of empowerment (Skt. abhiṣekha; Tib. dbang) by a suitably qualified tantric master. The path of tantra involves great emphasis on devotion to one’s spiritual guide, in which the disciple practices seeing the guru as inseparable from the meditational deity (Tib. yi dam), as well as the assumption of various types of special vows in the higher classes of tantra.

Historically, the traditional viewpoint is that the tantras of the Vajrayāna were taught by Buddha Śākyamuni manifesting in the forms of various deities, but the historical origins of the Vajrayāna teachings are difficult to state precisely. There was certainly a great deal of cross-influence between the Hindu Śaiva and Buddhist tantric traditions, although this relationship is complex and multi-layered. What is certain is that a great deal of the Buddhist tantras were brought to Tibet and translated into Tibetan by Tibetan scholars and translators. The translations from the earlier period of this transmission, from the time of Padmasambhāva (ca. 8th century), came to be known as the Old Translations (rnying ma), forming the basis of the Nyingma tradition, and the later translations, following the translations of Rinchen Zangpo (10th century onward), formed the basis of the New Translation (gsar ma) schools such as the Gelug (dge lugs), Sakya (sa skya), and Kagyu (bka' brgyud) schools, as well as the Jonang (jo nang) school.

There are hundreds of different tantras and various systems of categorizing them into different classes. The Sarma schools divide them into four classes: action (kriyā), performance (carya), yoga, and unexcelled yoga (anuttarayoga tantra). The unexcelled yoga tantra class is characterized by the practice of the two “stages”: the generation stage (Tib. bskyed rim) and the completion stage (Tib. rdzogs rim). The Nyingma tradition designates the lower three classes of tantra as “outer tantras,” and in accordance with their teachings on Dzogchen (rdzogs chen; the Great Perfection), teaches three “inner tantras”: Mahāyoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga.

Vajrayāna teachings and practices are central in all the Tibetan schools. Although these teachings are mostly associated with the Tibetan traditions, there are also important tantric lineages in other schools of Buddhism, such as the Japanese Shingon sect, which arrived in Japan by way of the Chinese tradition and emphasizes practice related to the Tathāgata Mahāvairocana.


Patrick Lambelet has been studying Tibetan Buddhism since 1995. His principal teacher was Geshe Jampa Gyatso, and he has studied with teachers from all the principal Tibetan traditions. He completed the seven-year FPMT Masters Program in Buddhist Studies of Sutra and Tantra at Lama Tzong Khapa Institute in Italy and has taught many courses on Buddhist theory and practice. He earned an MA in religious studies at the University of Chicago and is currently pursuing a PhD in Buddhist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

© & Patrick Lambelet
© Image: Paul O'Connor, Golden Buddha statue in Bodhgaya, 2007, Bodhgaya, India.