Ritual can be a gateway to spiritual flourishing. The simple power of waking up and doing something out of habit cannot be ignored. The Vajrayana school is a shining example of the power of ritual and tradition. There is a persistent strain in most Buddhist schools that the ultimate truth of reality, the Buddha’s dharma, is inexpressible in words. Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on intuition/experience, steers its students away from finding truth solely in the written word. The most ritualistic schools of Buddhism (now surviving as the Vajrayana) espouse esoteric chants and motions. The idealistic strains would have you believe that only your own thoughts are real–what use are sacred texts? But, in spite of all of these various dedications to the mercurial nature of truth, the Shingon school stands apart. Indeed, the school emphasizes the “three secrets”–of body, of speech, of mind. The school has built its foundation upon an incisive observation: the truth which the Buddha expressed surely was not the truth that existed in his mind during his Enlightenment.

The ritualistic approach to Buddhism spread throughout China and Japan. In Japan, the Shingon school considers itself to be the only Buddhist school which relies entirely upon the internal experience, free from teaching or word1 , while others are stuck in a state of analysis.  From the perspective of Shingon, the other schools are delighting in apparitions. For only Shingon, with its emphasis on the true experience of Nirvana, can lay claim to being the Dharma, and not just expressing the Dharma.

Like other Mahayana schools, the Shingon school believes Nirvana in immanent within each being, whether the being knows it or not. Nirvana, as such, is an experience each person can summon through ritual. It is not merely the extinguishment of suffering, but is a connection with a universal force. 

The emphasis on language (in particular, Sanskrit) in Vajrayana would not be unfamiliar to Indian Mimamsakas, who believed the spoken word of the Vedas to have been eternal and perfect. Sanskrit, as the holy language of so many Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jain texts, must be worth favoring.

The Vajrayana tradition also favors mandalas, which are pictorial representations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.  A common depiction in such mandala art is an array of the five Wisdom Buddhas of the five directions:  Amoghasiddhi (North), Ratnasambhava (South), Akshobhya (East), Amitabha (West), and Vairocana (Middle/Principal).


The four major lineages of Vajrayana Buddhism include Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug. Nyingma is the oldest of these and is traced to the 8th century founder Padmasambhava. The full term, “Nyingmapa,” translates to “ancient school” or “old school.” Nyingma adherents first followed teachings which were translated into Old Tibetan under the rule of King Trisong Detsen in the eighth century CE. The Kagyu lineage considers Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa among its early founders. Their works form a bulk of the Kagyu corpus. The Sakya lineage, closely bound by the Khön family lineage, upholds the Sakya Lamdre (Path and Fruit) teachings. The Gelug lineage is the newest of the four. Je Tsongkhapa, born 1357, is the school’s founder, favors sutra study before tantric practice.

The man Padmasambhava, revered as Guru Rinpoche, is considered a “second Buddha” by the Nyingma tradition, is an indispensable figure in the entire Vajrayana tradition. The Nyingma school, the “school of the ancient translations,” is considered to contain the original teachings of Padmasambhava.

1Takakusu, 1907, 142.