Four classes of Tantra in Vajrayana

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The Sarma (New Transmission Period) traditions of Tibetan Buddhism – Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug – divide the tantras into four classes:

  • Kriya tantra (bya-rgyud) – ritual deity practice
  • Charya tantra (spyod-rgyud) – behavioral deity practice
  • Yoga tantra (rnal-‘byor rgyud)– integrated deity practice
  • Anuttarayoga (bla-med rnal-‘byor rgyud) – peerlessly integrated (highest yoga) deity practice.

The Nyingma (Old Transmission Period) divides tantra into six classes – the same first three as the Sarma traditions, but in place of anuttarayoga, has mahayoga, anuyoga and atiyoga (dzogchen).

Distinctive Features of the Four Classes of Tantra

A standard way of explaining the distinction among the four classes is in terms of the analogy of an increasing level of bliss awareness used to focus on voidness (emptiness):

  • Kriya tantra – the bliss of partners looking at each other
  • Charya tantra – the bliss of smiling at each other
  • Yoga tantra – the bliss of hugging each other
  • Anuttarayoga tantra – the bliss of being in union.

But I’ve never seen anything that actually describes that as part of the practice. That seems to be more like an analogy.

Another standard way of describing the differences is in terms of the emphasis each places in its external practices:

  • Kriya tantra – external practices
  • Charya tantra – external and internal practices equally
  • Yoga tantra – internal practices
  • Anuttarayoga tantra – special internal practices.

But that also doesn’t give us a very clear picture of the differences either. So if we look more deeply:

  • Kriya tantra has a great deal of emphasis on ritual cleanliness, keeping clean. And so there’s emphasis on being vegetarian, not eating onion or garlic (these types of so-called “dark foods”). There’s ritual washing, and there’s making external purification on different parts of the body with certain type of mudras. There are special ways of gaining shamatha – a stilled and settled state of mind – by focusing on not just the visualizations, but also on the sound of the mantra without you actually reciting it, but just sort of hearing it resounding your heart.
    Each Buddha-figure (yidam, “tantric deity”) of course will have special individual features. So you have various healing practices to heal imbalances of elements with White Tara. You have similar types of things with Medicine Buddha and with Amitayus, a long-life deity. Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) practice helps to strengthen compassion. Manjushri for clarity of mind and understanding, Vajrapani for powerful abilities and so on. Please bear in mind that these Buddha-figures have many forms and can be used in several classes of tantra, not just one.
  • Charya tantra is probably the least commonly practiced of the four classes. It will have practices quite similar to kriya. I’m not so familiar with this class of tantra practice, but from what I understand, there are extensive practices doing visualizations both with yourself as the Buddha-figure and with a Buddha-figure in front of you. The most commonly practiced Buddha-figure in charya tantra is the Abhisambodhi form of Vairochana.
    In yoga tantra, there’s a Buddha-figure called Samvid (Kun-rig).
  • Yoga tantra has a great deal of emphasis on mudras – these hand gestures – very, very elaborate. I’m not really sure of what the internal practices are, but the system is explained in terms of four levels of applying mudras. The bardo rituals for those who have died that are done in the Gelug tradition come from these practices in yoga tantra.

It was mostly these three classes of tantra that went to China and then from there to Japan and Korea and Vietnam. Although we do find in the Chinese canon translations of the Guhyasamaja Tantra and Hevajra Tantra, it doesn’t seem as though their practice was carried on in these countries.

  • Anuttarayoga tantra is the only tantra class that works with the subtle energy systems of the body – the chakras, the channels, the winds – and the only class of tantra that accesses and deals with the clear light level of mind, which is the mind’s subtlest level.

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