Did the historical Buddha teach Vajrayana Tantra

Buddha in Theravada, Mahayana and Tantra: The same?

Buddha's life is not an easy subject. The reason it is not an easy subject is because there are different versions of the Buddha's life. One can then ask, "Are they all talking about the same person?" As I have said, it is not an easy answer to give.

We have a version in the Pali Canon, it is the canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition. It is not a whole report, but different parts of different texts have been put together and then the whole picture emerges. And later on, Buddhist literature developed and added a great deal to the Buddha's history.

Then we have a version of Mahayana, which explains very clearly who is Buddha, what is Buddha. In the Theravada version they speak of a historical figure. So one speaks of a person who lived. There are also different, very different versions of time. But one that is generally represented is 566 to 485 BC. And he became enlightened in his life and he died and then ultimately his continuum ended. That was then the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. But according to the Mahayana version, that was only part of the story described in the Pali Canon. And in this version it is that Buddha had been enlightened many lifetimes before and then finally came to earth in the form of Shakyamuni Buddha and then laid out all the acts of how to become enlightened. And after death it is not that his continuum has come to an end, but that it continues forever, and he manifests himself in other areas for the benefit of all living beings, where he then teaches and teaches.

Then there is another version of the Buddha in the tantra scriptures. And in this version Buddha appears in many different forms at the same time, and many figures are so-called meditation deities, and who have different colors, different numbers of heads and legs, which all represent different aspects of Buddhist realization, symbolize. And so Buddha appeared in these forms and taught Tantra, where he simultaneously appeared as a human being and, for example, on Vulture Peak, the Vulture Mountain, taught the sutras. where he taught sutras. These are the major versions.

But there are also lower, smaller, different versions, then we are a bit perplexed: Who was the Buddha really? Most of all, we need to understand Buddhist principles so that we can make sense of them. Each version of life teaches just like Buddha taught different aspects of Buddhist teaching. In other words, it is like this: a Buddha does not exist independently of any context. We have the whole context in the context of the Theravada tradition, all of which are written in Pali. And a Buddha who is described there will then be like that who teaches what is described in these sources. Therefore it does not fit together with the type of Buddha that is described in the Theravada tradition, then this Buddha also explained the general Mahayana parts or also explained tantra parts, that does not fit into the concept, the type of Buddha who taught is in Theravada.

And if we look at Mahayana Parts, there is a description of a Buddha teaching Mahayana and not the historical Buddha. What I mean by historical Buddha is the person Buddha, who has achieved enlightenment in this life and then died and then ultimately there is no longer a continuum, so Mahayana did not teach this type of Buddha. The same is also in tantra. We don't need to repeat the whole analogy, so it's the same in tantra.

It is a fundamentally Buddhist principle that nothing exists independently, regardless of context, regardless of context. How something is described, how something is explained, how something exists, exists in relation to the context, in relation to the context.

Now with this topic, the life of the Buddha, I don't want to just provide information, just relay information, you could do all of this by simply presenting and relaying facts upon facts. That was a particular presentation in a particular context, just as we speak of Buddha in a particular context. But I can present the same material in other contexts as well. That would have to be seen in context, what is the point, the benefit of that. Because all the facts and information can be found in books or on my website, it is not necessary for me to repeat them here. As for the meaning and use now, there are again different categories or different uses, different types, Buddhist teaching loves to categorize everything and to make different classifications, especially logical classifications, categorizations. We can see what use this material has in relation to everyday life. Or what use does it have for the spiritual path. So we now limit it to the first sub-category: Why did we come here, what benefits do we want to draw from it? So what use is the material here, the information for our everyday life? And if that is okay with you, then I will not wait for the answer according to the Tibetan didactic method, but simply move on.

So let's first look at the life of Buddha Shakyamuni. Why did I introduce these different contexts, Buddha in different contexts, right at the beginning, because I want to avoid these problematic topics: Did Buddha now teach Mahayana, did he teach Tantra? That these don't show up. There are many debates about this within the Buddhist world as well. Nothing was written in the Buddha's time. Everything was passed on orally, passed on. And the great Indian scholar Shantideva answered this question in his great work Entering the behavior of a bodhisattva. He just said that all these objections that Theravadas make to Mahayana teachings, he could also present them the other way around: “You say it was transmitted orally… So, the Theravadas accuse the Mahayana direction that this is not really taught by the Buddha , that was not narrated from the Buddha. But then he just says back: “But your tradition is also an oral tradition. So if yours is authentic, ours is also authentic. Ours was also transmitted orally, if yours is an authentic tradition, ours is also an authentic tradition. ”The context can be seen differently. The Buddha in the context of Theravada, he just taught Theravada teachings. The Buddha in the context of Mahayana is the version that taught the Mahayana teachings. That is the end of the discussion, why is it debating? They are just different contexts.

What can we learn from this from the general life of the Buddha, which is presented in all different directions, in the Theravada tradition, the Hinayana represents what is taught in the Mahayana tradition, the Sutra and Tantra directions.

First of all, when did Buddha live? At a certain time he lived in a certain society, so to be seen again in context. The society in which the Buddha lived at that time already had certain religious ideas, certain principles, and these he had addressed. There were certain subject areas that were present in all Indian ways of thinking and have evolved. Buddha gave his own explanations about these. Certain fundamentals like rebirth from karma, rebirth from what you do, that was a fundamental concept in Indian culture that all but one advocated. And everyone speaks more or less about how one can achieve liberation from the cycle of existence, how one can be liberated, and more or less everyone speaks about knowledge, about reality, the knowledge in order to be able to achieve liberation. Buddha himself was dissatisfied with the answers of the different philosophical directions, the different religions at that time, and he thought about it and thought about it and meditated, practiced and he realized that what he said the truth was. then more or less figured it out. It is important to understand this relation to the Indian way of thinking, not only for the life of Buddha but also for the teachings of Buddhism. All topics in Buddhism are also discussed in all the other philosophical systems, religions, Hindu religions as well as Jainism, another Indian religion. The Buddha is in dialogue with all the other systems.

At the time when the Buddha lived, it was a very difficult time in India. Things changed very quickly. There were different kingdoms. Business people got bigger and bigger. The farmers alone were no longer there, but also business people. Businessmen got richer and richer and rivals to kings. In response, the kings became more and more autocratic. On the edge there were also some republics that had dealt a little differently, with general thoughts about the people. In such a smaller republic, it is where Buddha was born. That influenced the Buddha's thoughts very much. He built a monastic organization not hierarchically, resolutions, changes had to be more or less decided by consensus, that is, not hierarchically. So that was again a reaction to the autocracy at the time.

At that time there were also the Vedic religions, where there were rituals, priests, and so on. Whether we are talking about the republics or the kingdoms, everyone followed this religion. But then there was also a reaction to this religion: the Shramans. It was the ones who wandered around, more or less the ones who left society behind. The Shramaneren went into the woods, meditated there, and took care of their own spiritual development there. So Buddha was not alone in this movement back then. There were very many different schools of shramans.

What have we learned from it now? What do we learn from it, if we want to follow a spiritual path, that we have to be a little independent, that we withdraw from society at least for a while. When we have found something that we see as reality, we don't pass it on hierarchically, but more democratically. These are aspects of the Buddha's life that we can learn from.

Why is a biography written at all? In the Buddhist context, it is not the facts that are so important, but a biography is written to teach something, to get certain points across. So that biographies of great people are described so that certain points can be taught by the doctrine. Often something is added to make the point come across better. The life of a great religious person should inspire, that is the goal of a biography. What often seems unbelievable to us in the West, such as from the life of the Buddha, that an elephant with six tusks appeared to the Buddha's mother in a dream. Or that Buddha was born from his mother's side, or that he took seven steps at birth, that is not the essential thing here, but what history can convey to us, what we can be taught through this history. The facts themselves are not that important. Then it is also very easy to understand that a great deal has been added to the Buddha's life story.

If we look at the life of the Buddha composed of different parts, what his followers have made, all different parts put together on the one hand, and if we then look at the Indo-Tibetan view, both have their value. One cannot say one thing is more or less valid. One thing we can also learn from the Buddhist mindset is that there are many different levels, different points of view, all of which are valid. That there is not just one single truth: that is how it was, and that is the right one, and nothing else.

It is very nicely illustrated in the Buddhist scriptures with a liquid. The same liquid appears to people as water, to hunger beings as pus, to gods as nectar. What's right now? Everything is equally correct, is equally true, because it is only valid together in the context.

That is when the topic comes to mind, in a family situation, when the question is asked, that is, the father has his version and tells how it looks, the mother another, the child another. And all are equally valid, these are the experiences of each individual person. They are all equally correct. The views of the different family members are all equally valid. This is a Buddhist view. So there are very different types.

Buddha himself was born into a privileged wealthy family. Whether he was a prince can now be seen in different ways, there are different versions, in any case he was born in a wealthy privileged family and enjoyed all the advantages. He was well educated, married, had a son. He had good career prospects. He would have succeeded his father so that he could rule the little republic. But he had given up and joined the Shramaneren. He was someone who had left society behind. But it is not fair to look at it from the western point of view, to say: ah, he was someone who left the family behind, did not take care of the son, the wife, etc., just let them down . But we have to remind ourselves again, India at that time, so extended family, there were grandparents and other family members who were there. It is not that the Buddha left the woman and his child in the lurch, unsupervised, and that they were starving to death. Buddha was also born into the warrior caste. If you were born into the warrior caste, it is the norm to leave home when you go to war. So Buddha more or less went to war, took up the inner struggle against ignorance and mental plagues.

What can we learn from it? That the search for truth, to free oneself from suffering, regardless of emotional or mental suffering, is more important than having any good position. More important to find solutions to social problems or to personal problems such as anger, anger, jealousy, attachment is much more important than any personal power and money. Here the Buddha gives a good example that it is more important.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, it is not for everyone to follow the path 100% of the time to lead a spiritual life. But it should be 50 to 50 because it is important. Buddha then left the palace with a carriage and then saw the suffering that he had not seen before, where he was previously blind to illness, old age, death, he perceived these sufferings. This image of going out with the chariot was later taken over from the Bhagavad Gita. But it doesn't matter if it's been adopted. It just makes a good story, illustrates it well.

We have now come to Jung's explanations of the symbols. So Buddha was blinded by wealth and well-being, so he could not see suffering. Only when he has ridden out in the chariot did he begin a spiritual journey and then perceive the suffering. Then he does meditations, does ascetic practices, but also discovered there that this is not the right thing to do.

And that is also an important Buddhist insight: one should not go too far into the extremes. Then he gave up asceticism. And then he got yoghurt from a beautiful young girl. Then he broke the fast. That again symbolizes compassion very nicely, where you then also get your… So yoghurt, milk is connected with the cow, in Indian with the cow, and that also with the mother, that implies compassion, that brings us away from them own ascetic practices, from self-hostage to more universal responsibility.

Then Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree, the sacred tree, let's leave all the symbols aside for now. But then, while he was sitting under that tree, Mara came along. Mara is representative of the obstacles, of the temptations. The name Mara comes from Sanskrit and means death. What is very helpful, which is also to be understood here, is that Buddha, even Buddha before enlightenment, encountered obstacles, even before such a great positive event, before enlightenment, he experienced obstacles. And what should we expect for ourselves if that is the case even there ?! Buddha was a very advanced spiritual person by then. Even then, with this great advanced spirituality, obstacles arise there even stronger. What should we then expect, we as normal people, then we shouldn't be discouraged. Regardless of whether we are following a spiritual path or not, it is still very clear that we too encounter difficulties and obstacles that hold us back or prevent us from realizing our own goals.What is very strange, the more positive we want to realize, the stronger the obstacles, the difficulties that arise. When we have a longer life, the older we get, we find that this is very true. What this teaches us is not to get discouraged. We have to fight our way through like a warrior with strength. There is a reason why Buddha comes from the warrior caste, so an inner fight against delusions, against fears.

After enlightenment, the Buddha hesitated to teach, to teach. But he was asked to. Because he thought: nobody understands that anyway. What can we learn from it again? Even if it is difficult to say something to others, to teach something, etc., but out of compassion it is tried as best as possible to do it, no matter how difficult it may be.

And many then followed the Buddha. A monastic institution also emerged. At first there was no rule, but then society began to have problems. And in order to avoid problems with society, rules of discipline were established, called Vinaya. They are not laws that have to be obeyed because I said so, but rather certain rules. They arose after certain problems emerged. These rules were then created to avoid problems. E.g. in society, not that society thinks that e.g. the monks are greedy, that society does not think that monks are greedy, which was common with the Shramaneras at that time, it was nothing new. because it was the tradition back then that the Shramaneras would beg for food. Not that you ask for more, want more, but only eat what you get. The rules were then made for this. The monks and nuns, they go around and the people give them what they want to give them, they couldn't ask.

At first there was also hesitation to accept women into the order, because society might then think: Yes, there are women and men who go into the forest together, and they do all sorts of things, some things in the forest. But after the women were accepted in the order, there were certain rules. And these rules were there to protect them from misconceptions, that society would not have wrong ideas about women. Everything is very practical. So a nun and a monk could never be alone. There always had to be a nun, someone else there. These are very practical examples. That teaches us a lot. You can't sit next to each other on the same bed, for example. And things like that.

This teaches us on the one hand that Buddha rejected all the glory of society in order to find the truth, but on the other hand he did not want to offend society either, or that it would, for example, get wrong ideas. Even if you disagree with the principles of society about its values, you don't want to alienate them. This indicates very well to be diplomatic (politicians should perhaps learn something from it, possibly they do) not to offend, not to cause suspicion, even if unfounded, or the like, even if one does not agree with social values . On the one hand, things were rejected by society by Buddha, but on the other hand, he was very careful that society did not develop a wrong idea. Not even that he insulted society itself, which is very important for today and what we can now learn from it. Maybe politicians should take a closer look, it would be important how to deal more diplomatically.

What I also find very interesting: the Buddha had a cousin, called Devadatta, who always caused problems, he didn't like the Buddha at all, he hated him. In the Pali Canon, if you look there, there are a lot of problem makers who created a lot of problems that the Buddha didn't like. What I always say to my students: that, if not all of them loved Buddha, what should we expect. It is very clear that not everyone likes us. We should just be realistic. It is very clear that if people did not like even Buddha, it is very clear that there are people who do not like us. So we should be realistic and not be discouraged, not get depressed because of it.

Then Buddha passed away. Buddha died. Which is very interesting, Ananda, one of the high school students, he could have asked him not to die, but he didn't. He did not take advantage of the opportunity. What does this teach us? That a Buddha only teaches, instructs and remains in the world when asked, when asked. So a Buddha, if you don't ask him to teach, then he won't teach, and he won't stay around us either. This is very important to us. Again, this is a very good indication, so if others do not need our help, we should not impose ourselves on them, there are many others who need us.

We can look at the life of the Buddha with the historical facts, he did that at that time and he did that at that time. This also has its validity in the context of Western science. But here it is also difficult to say with certainty that it happened in that year, that it was at that time, but it also has its importance, its validity. Or we can look at this: What can we learn from it. We can also think of it as a story, a legend. If we look at all the symbols, what do they mean for us? If we look at that with Jung's analysis, for example, what does that mean.

And if we look at this from the Mahayana point of view, it is that the Buddha has already attained enlightenment many lives before, and then will ultimately continue to teach for the benefit of living beings. What does this teach us? While we do not accept the doctrine of rebirth, which probably most do not, what we do now is the result of generations before us. And that we then look further into the future, see further generations after us, that we think big, far.

So when we look at the tantra presentation, it's pretty awesome. It is very extraordinary, on one side Buddha appears and teaches philosophy on the other side at the same time he appears in a figure with four heads, each face teaching something different simultaneously. So it is the different Buddhist aspects that all fit together, they are all from the same source, it is now not the historical source, one can say from the same source, from the same idea.

The basic principles of Buddhist teaching are represented by the figure with the four heads, Theravada, Mahayana, Tantra ... Everything represents something, the four, the basic teaching of the four noble truths is represented by the four heads.

That was the brief description of the life of the Buddha. There is no more time to go into this in more detail. That is the train I would like to have now during this seminar. Not just giving the facts, there are also various representations of the various facts, etc., but: what can we learn, what is the purpose, the practical application of that. In this way we learn to appreciate all these representations more. This is my approach, and I want to convey this approach.


There are three versions of the Buddha's life story: the representation of Theravada and the Mahayana representation of Sutra and Tantra. There is debate as to whether these representations are contradicting each other, but using logic we can demonstrate that each was created in a specific context. The various representations serve to inspire and teach us. Examination of the life story of the Buddha shows that he lived in a society in which a certain belief system explained certain topics of how one can achieve liberation from suffering. The Buddha did not satisfy this system and sought truth that would be taught in a non-hierarchical system. He left the comfortable surroundings of his family and home and set out to take on the inner struggle with the emotions that cause suffering. This could not be gained through ascetic practices, but through compassion for universal suffering. The Buddha encountered great obstacles, but they did not stop him, and after he had achieved enlightenment, he complied with the request to teach out of compassion. For the followers of the Buddha, monasteries for monks and nuns were established with rules that were in accordance with society.

Audio recording of the seminar