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The Mahasiddha Tradition in Tibet
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The Mahasiddha Tradition in Tibet
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Most people in the West assume that all Lamas are necessarily monks. This is not actually the case since the Tibetan word Lama (bla-ma), used to translate the Sanskrit term "guru", means a spiritual teacher, and that may be either a monk or a layman. Nevertheless, monasticism and the life-style of the monk has always been the principal form of Buddhism institution and social organization wherever Buddhism has spread in Asia.
This Buddhist monastic culture was introduced into Tibet from India in the seventh and eighth centuries of our era, and revived again in the eleventh century after a temporary eclipse. The Indian Buddhist scholars brought with them to Tibet and exceptionally rich and profound thousand year old spiritual culture, and whereas this culture largely disappeared from India itself in the thirteenth century due to the total destruction of the great Buddhist monastic universities of Northern India by rampaging invading hordes from Afghanistan and Central Asia bent on pillage, loot, rape, and the forcible conversion of conquered native populations to the ascendant religion of Islam, much of the intellectual heritage of these universities, lost in India, was preserved in Tibet.
During these early centuries the Tibetan government sponsored one of the greatest translations projects ever undertaken in history-- translating the bulk of texts of Mahayana Buddhism from the Sanskrit language into Tibetan. But although this monastic culture of monks and monasteries has been throughout the past 2500 years the principal social institution for the preservation and the transmission of the Buddhist heritage, that there have existed other forms of Buddhist teaching and practice.

Even in the time of Shakyamuni Buddha himself, not all of his principle followers were monks. One example is the layman and merchant Vimalakirti who could defeat in debate on the subject of Shunyata or emptiness the great monk scholar Shariputra himself. Scholars such as E. Lamotte and E. Conze have speculated that the tension between the saffron robbed Elders of the monastic community and the white garbed leaders of the Buddhist lay community, was one factor in the historical development of the Mahayana. Only a century after the passing away of the Lord Buddha, at or around the council at Vaishali there was a schism between the Sthaviras or Elders and the Mahasanghikas or adherents of the Greater Assembly, which included many leaders who were not monks. Whereas the traditions preserved among the Sthaviras or elder monks evolved into the eighteen schools of Hinayana Buddhism, which asserted that in order to attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth one must first be reborn as a male and second become a monk, the Mahasanghikas held the enlightenment was open to everyone, male or female, monk or lay-person, because each individual possessed an inner disposition to enlightenment. This community of the Mahasanghikas was the matrix out of which the later Mahayana grew-- but both Sthaviras and Mahasanghikas possessed authentic traditions that went back to the historical Buddha himself, although their emphases differed. In the Mahasanghika-Mahayana tradition it was possible for the layman or the laywoman to be a full-fledged practitioner of the Buddha Dharma, and not just a second rate citizen of the Sangha in relation to the ordained clergy of the monks.

But most important historically for the development of Buddhism in Tibet was the Mahasiddha Tradition that evolved in North India in the early Medieval Period (3-13 cen. CE). Philosophically this movement was based on the insights revealed in the Mahayana Sutras and as systematized in the Madhyamaka and Chittamatrin schools of philosophy, but the methods of meditation and practice were radically different than anything seen in the monasteries. The Sanskrit term Mahasiddha means a great adept. A Siddha or adept is an individual who, through the practice of sadhana, a spiritual and psychic discipline or process of realization, attains the realization of siddhis, psychic and spiritual powers. These methods were revealed in Buddhist scriptures known as Tantras. Sometimes their source is said to be the historical Buddha, but more often it is a transhistorical aspect of the Buddha called Vajradhara who reveals the Tantra in question directly in a vision to a specific Mahasiddha. This vague and ill defined community of Mahasiddhas was the historical matrix for the revelation of the Higher Tantras, the Anuttara Tantras. They broke with the conventions of Buddhist monastic life of the time, and abandoning the monastery they practiced in the caves, the forests, and the country villages of Northern India. In complete contrast to the settled monastic establishment of their day, which concentrated the Buddhist intelligenzia in a limited number of large monastic universities, they adopted the life-style of itinerant mendicants, much the wandering Sadhus of modern India.

The form of ascesis expounded in the Tantras, unlike the Sutras and the Vinaya which taught the methods of the path of renunciation, taught the methods of transformation, where the poisons of the passions, far from being renounced were actually cultivated to their extreme, in order that their energy might be transmuted within the alchemical vessel of the physical human body into the luminous nectar of enlightened awareness. There was a deliberate and clear parallel here with alchemy-- the kleshas or passions through the alchemical process of sadhana were transmuted into Jnana (gnosis) or knowledge. Thus the things of the world that are usually renounced by the ascetic-- wine, meat, and sex-- which are seen as the fetters binding the spirit to matter and nature, especially the latter (women and sex) are not renounced in the higher Tantras but actually employed as the very means to enlightenment. But this was not an excuse or rationale to party with wine, women, and song-- it represented a highly disciplined ascetic path. And since the methods of the Tantra principally works with energy, and one of the most important and powerful energies in human experience is sex desire, a sophisticated sexual yoga developed, known as Upayamarga and as Karmamudra. Yoga practitioners took consorts or sexual partners from among the village girls, including even outcaste girls, such as Dombhis, Chandalis, etc. and lived with them in retreat or in the villages while plying humbles trades. For example, the young Brahman scholar Saraha defiled his caste status by living openly with a low caste who was an arrow-maker, yet he is considered one of the greatest poets and scholars of the Buddhist Tantric tradition. Or Naropa, once a professor and chancellor at Nalanda monastic university, abandoned his academic career to pursue the teachings of Tilopa, a wild-eyed and apparently half-mad ascetic who lived in a series of remote cremation grounds in the company of women of questionable virtue. In India generally the Anuttara Tantras were not practiced in the monasteries because their practice was incompatible with the Vinaya, the rules and vows incumbent upon a monk. At first this was also the case in Tibet.