“There are many explanations on why the Vajrayana teachings are more direct and detailed than those of the Sutrayana, and these explanations can be categorized as “very detailed,” “medium-detailed,” and “condensed.” One very detailed teaching on the distinctive and special qualities of the Vajrayana in relation to the Sutrayana was given by Buddha Shakyamuni in the Inner Tantra known as Dechok Rali in Tibetan, or the Chakrasamvara Tantra in Sanskrit. This tantra explains that the Sutrayana teachings of the Shravakayana do not include complete pith instructions on the true nature, whereas the Vajrayana includes them completely. Therefore, the Vajrayana teachings are considered to be more detailed.
We will briefly highlight some of the principal differences between the Sutrayana and Vajrayana. In total, there are fifteen differences explained in the Dechok Rali Tantra: (1) the views are different; (2) the conduct is different; (3) the methods, or styles, of concentration are different; (4) the causes are different; (5) the applications (i.e., paths) are different; (6) the achievements are different; (7) the distinctions between the bhumis and the levels of the path are different; (8) the time it takes to achieve the result is different; (9) the use and application of luxuries, circumstances, and surroundings are different; (10) the practices and meditation techniques are different; (11) the ability to fulfill the two benefits of self and other is different; (12) the visions are different; (13) the levels of hardship are different; (14) the use of conveniences is different; and (15) the accumulations are different. Now that we have listed these fifteen differences, let us briefly discuss their meaning.
You probably already know that the view of the Sutrayana is only related with emptiness. The Vajrayana, however, always describes emptiness and blissfulness as an inseparable union; thus emptiness and blissfulness are always united, along with skillful means and wisdom. So the views described in the Sutrayana and Vajrayana are slightly different.
Generally speaking, the conduct of the causal teachings, or the Sutrayana, is closely connected with acceptance and rejection. But the Vajrayana teachings don’t make the distinction between rejection and acceptance—they use everything as part of the display of wisdom. Therefore, the conduct between both teachings is different.
The various techniques of concentration discussed in both vehicles are also slightly different. The teachings of the Causal Yanas always explain the techniques of Shamatha and Vipashyana in a pretty focused way. In contrast, the Vajrayana teachings explain Shamatha and Vipashyana meditation in terms of the two stages of visualization (creation) and completion. By means of these two stages, a practitioner instantly brings the entire universe and world into the purity state of the nature; that is, he or she recognizes the essential nature of subject, object, and action. Along with this recognition, the practitioner maintains concentration (i.e., Shamatha) and discovers the innate nature, also known as the Vipashyana nature.
The Sutrayana explains that establishing good causes will bring about good results. For the most part, these teachings state that a cause is present, followed by a result that comes sometime later. But the Vajrayana explains that causes and results are really not so distant from each other: one should simply discover the transcendental nature and bring forth that realization immediately. Thus, the result is not something we have to wait a long time for—it is either discovered or not discovered, right at that moment. To state it in different terms, the nature of causes and results are the same. So by immediately recognizing this nature, one has attained the result of practice without delay.
From the Sutrayana perspective, the path is something gradually achieved, one step at a time. Thus meditation and postmeditation are kind of combined one after the other. However, the Vajrayana path views meditation and postmeditation as inseparable, seeing both as wisdom display. Whether one is engaged in visualization during formal meditation or simply perceiving everyday phenomena, everything is already in the enlightened state. Consequently, there is no substantial basis upon which to make any divisions or distinctions.
According to the perspective of the Sutrayana, the result of enlightenment is very far in the future, achieved only after three countless aeons of accumulating the merits. The Vajrayana, however, does not consider the result to be something one must wait a long time to achieve—it is right here. Therefore, a Vajrayana practitioner can discover this result in a very short time.
(7) Bhumis/Levels of the Path
The Vajrayana and Sutrayana teachings enumerate the stages and levels of the path in slightly different ways as well. For instance, the Sutrayana describes “five paths” and ten or eleven “bhumis.” Yet the Vajrayana describes thirteen and sometimes sixteen bhumis, or stages of realization. And a Vajrayana practitioner can very swiftly and easily actualize these different levels of understanding. Thus both systems differ in the way they enumerate the stages and levels of the path.
This is related to what we briefly mentioned when discussing the “result.” The Vajrayana and Sutra teachings also differ in terms of how long it takes practitioners of each system to achieve enlightenment. The Sutrayana teachings often explain that it takes three, seven, or even thirty-two countless aeons to achieve enlightenment. However, skillful practice of the Vajrayana can lead to enlightenment within a single lifetime, right before the moment of death, or in the bardo. If a practitioner somehow fails to achieve realization at one of those times, he or she can actualize enlightenment in three, six, or sixteen lifetimes. Whatever the case may be, the time frames discussed in both groups of teachings are different.
(9) Luxuries, Conditions, and Circumstances
The Sutra teachings generally stress that all luxuries should be avoided, including luxurious circumstances and conditions. From this perspective, a practitioner should keep him or herself away from luxurious circumstances. As we saw before, the Vajrayana does not emphasize this teaching; rather, it explains that luxuries can be applied to the path by means of meditation and practice, so it is not essential that one give up all kinds of luxurious things and circumstances.
(10) Practice and Meditation
Of course, the Sutra teachings emphasize meditation in which everything is in the emptiness state; in postmeditation everything is perceived as a dream, or magical display. Although the Vajrayana also teaches in this, it further explains that one should bring forth the realization of the state of the divine, enlightened mandala that is inseparable from great blissfulness. Again, for tantric practitioners there is really not a big difference between the meditation and postmeditation states—a good Vajrayana practitioner does not discriminate between both of these states at the level of experience.
(11) Fulfilling the Benefit of Self and Others
The Sutrayana teachings explain how to benefit all living beings by cultivating bodhichitta as the foundation of our practice and everyday activities. But using this method alone takes a long time to benefit all beings, since it entails a very gradual process. According to the Vajrayana, one instantly and continually maintains the visualization of oneself in the enlightened state—such as in the form of Buddha Shakyamuni—and begins to emanate many wisdom lights from one’s heart center. These lights perform countless beneficial activities on behalf of all sentient beings, benefitting them. This, in turn, results in spontaneous benefit to oneself. Actually, there is no distinction between subject and object in this context, so a Vajrayana practitioner spontaneously fulfills the benefit of self and others while simultaneously and instantly (1) pacifying, (2) increasing, (3) overpowering ego-clinging, and (4) subduing the neurotic states of duality. Therefore, the methods used to benefit oneself and others are different in the Sutrayana and Vajrayana practices.
The vision of the Sutrayana gradually develops realization through analysis and contemplation. In contrast, the vision of the Vajrayana is the heart of the Buddha’s realization, so by practicing the Secret Mantra we are immediately approaching the core of this realization. As the Dorje Tsemo Tantra states, “The nature—or vision—of the Mantra teachings is the heart of all buddhas; here we are practicing the essence of the teachings. By this means we perfectly realize the dharmadhatu state.” In other words, the vision of the Vajrayana involves immediately and directly connecting with the absolute true nature. A practitioner of the Secret Mantra brings this certainty vision into his or her mind and is instantly in the heart of the true nature, the teachings of the Buddha.
There is also a difference between the Sutrayana and Vajrayana regarding the levels of hardship involved in the practice of their respective techniques. The Sutras describe various kinds of ascetic practices that involve a great deal of hardship and strong endeavor in order to actualize the realization of the teachings. Although the Vajrayana also requires that individuals strongly endeavor on the path with courage and commitment, its ways are simpler, easier, and more open-minded, thereby quickly leading to the actualization of the realization of the teachings.
(14) Use of Conveniences
In general, the Vajrayana teachings use so many conveniences, including mandala offerings, vajra songs and dances, tsok ceremonies, and so forth. Although these techniques may look very casual and simple, or even ordinary, as skillful means practices they can be very powerful tools to transform grasping and clinging. Such practices will invoke the wisdom power of realization if done properly. Sutrayana practitioners, however, may consider these same conveniences as a hindrance to realization.
(15) Accumulation of Merit
The Sutrayana uses many techniques to accumulate merit through the practice of the six paramitas. While the Vajrayana does take these paramitas as the foundation for cultivating merit, they are practiced along with many different types of skillful means activities. Each of these activities is practiced with the view of the Vajrayana teachings. This expands the scope of the paramitas, which consequently become deeper, stronger, and wider, without too much rejection or acceptance. Practicing in this way brings forth the achievement of the paramitas more quickly and easily than the Sutrayana teachings.
These are the distinctions between the Sutrayana and Vajrayana paths which are explained in very elaborate detail in the Dechok Tantra, or Chakrasamvara Tantra.”
Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches
Opening the Wisdom Door of the Outer Tantras (pgs 45-51)
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