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Tantra Classification | Buddhist Iconography

1. Kriya Tantra
2. Charya Tantra
3. Yoga Tantra
4. Anuttaryoga Tantra


Subjects & Topics:
- Tantra Classification Explanation (below)
- Alternate Classification Systems
- Mahasiddha Technical Glossary
- Mandala Technical Glossary
- Confusions
- Others...

Tantra Classification: in Vajrayana Buddhism there are different ways of enumerating, cataloguing and categorising the many different texts in Tantra literature. Several different systems made their way to the Himalayas and Tibet. At the present time there are two systems in use, the Nyingma and the Sarma. The Tibetan word Nyingma literally means old traditions of Tantra and Sarma means the new traditions of Tantra. The new Tantra traditions are composed of the Kadampa, Sakya, Marpa Kagyu, Shangpa Kagyu, Pacifying of Padampa Sanggye, and the Rwa Tradition. The Gelug Tradition was not included amongst these formative traditions because it was not in direct receipt of any of the tantric traditions from India but was a later synthesis of the already mentioned traditions in Tibet.

Both traditions have three lower tantras; (1) Kriya, (2) Charya and (3) Yoga Tantra. Basic Tantric meditations such as Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Tara come from the first two lower Tantras (1 & 2). Many Vajrapani practices come from the Charya Tantra (2). Practices such as Mahavairochana and Vajrasattva come from Yoga Tantra (3). These Tantra have Generation Stage Yoga (Tib. kyerim), with various degrees of self-recognition as a deity, but do not have Perfection Stage (Tib. dzogrim) and do not teach advanced yoga practices.

It is said that only the (4) Highest Yoga Tantra (Anuttarayoga) teach a method for reaching enlightenment in one lifetime. For the Highest Yoga Tantra the Nyingma have three divisions, Maha emphasising Generation Stage, Anu emphasizing Perfection Stage, and Ati emphasising Mahasandhi (Tib. dzogchen) which is aimed at the ultimate view and reality. In Sarma the Highest Yoga Tantra is Anuttarayoga and divided into three categories of emphasis, Method-Father Tantra, Wisdom-Mother Tantra and Non-dual Tantra emphasizing equally the aspects of the Method and Wisdom Tantra.

Method Tantra is more focused on achieving the form body (rupakaya - containing the nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya) of a buddha. This is accomplished using the practices of the Illusory Body teachings. Wisdom Tantra is focused on realising the truth body (dharmakaya) of a buddha by using the actual Clear Light consciousness, a subtle consciousness within each and every living being. Both systems employ the two - Generation and Perfection Stage Yoga. Below are the titles of some of the more important of the various Tantra texts from each of the (Buddhist) four Tantra classifications.

"The [Anuttarayoga, Father] Method Tantra of the Mahayoga are the Guhyasamaja Root Tantra, the Eighteen Chapter Fundamental Tantra, the Explanatory Tantra Vajramala, Sandhivyakarana, Chaturdevi Paripriccha, Vajrajnana Samucchaya, [etc.], Vajrabhairava, [etc.].

The [Anuttarayoga, Mother] Wisdom Tantra are Chandraguhyatilaka, Chaturpita, the Explanatory Tantra Mantra Amsa, Mahamaya, Buddhakapala, Vajra Amrita, the Chakrasamvara Root Tantra, the Explanatory Tantra Abhidhana, Vajradaka, Dakarnava, Yoginisancharya, Heruka Abhyudaya, Varahi Abhidhanata, Chatur Yogini Samputa Tantra, [etc.].

The [Anuttarayoga] Non-dual Tantra are the Hevajra Root Tantra [in Two Sections], the Fundamental Tantra Mahamudra Tilaka, the Explanatory Tantra Vajrapanjara, Jnana Tilaka, Tattvapradipa, Guhyapradipa, [etc.], Vajra Arali, Rigi Arali, Shri Mahakala Abhidhanata, [etc.], the Short Kalachakra Tantra, Shekaprakriya, the Four Chapter Achala Tantra, the Lord of All Explanatory Tantra - the Samputa in ten sections together with the Fundamental Tantra, [etc.].

The Secret Mantra Yoga Tantra are the Tattvasamgraha, Vajra Shikhara, Shri Paramadya, Trailokyavijaya, [etc.], the Sarvadurgati Parishodhana Tantra, Sarvarahasyo, [etc.]."

The Secret Mantra Action Tantra [Charya] are the Maha Vairochana Abhisambodhi Tantra, Arya Manjushri Root Tantra, [etc.]. [The Performance Tantra [Kriya] are too numerous to list here. (See Kriya Tantra)].

(Extracted from a text by Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen, 1147-1216. (Collected Works) The Catalogue of Tantras of Hevajra, vol.1, page 274-3-2 to 274-4-4).

Jeff Watt 2-2006 [updated 5-2017]