What is the difference between sutras and tantras?

A student writes:

What is the difference between sutras and tantras?

Lama Shenpen responds:

Thank you for your question. The simple answer is sutras are one kind of textual source and tantras are another. The sutras that are the early discourses of the Buddha are accepted by all Buddhists as Buddha word.  Mahayana* sutras are only accepted by Mahayanists who regard them as revelations from the Buddha. Tantras are another kind of literature altogether and figure all sorts of strange stories that we would probably class as mythology but Tantric Buddhists regard them as revelations and to be emanating from the Buddha too. 

The Buddha appears in various different forms in the tantras hence all the imagery of the deity mandalas.  Mostly the tantras themselves are not studied. Instead devotees of the tantras practice sadhanas based on the tantras and there are elaborate liturgies and techniques – yogic and/or magical – that can bring about swift and powerful results but need to be carefully handled or they lead to increasing samsaric tendencies rather than destroying them. That is why the tantras are said to be dangerous and are supposed to be kept secret.

In Tibetan Buddhism these days generally speaking there is not much difference between Mahayanist and Tantric practice because only those aspects that are not dangerous are made public.  Whether it is the Mahayana sutra tradition or the Vajrayana tantric tradition, the key to their effectiveness in terms of liberation is right view, and in terms of benefitting others, Bodhichitta.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

*Mahayana – the great vehicle, the Buddhist teachings which lead to complete and perfect Buddhahood.  Some sutras say that it is the only Buddha vehicle, with all the Buddhist teachings subsumed within it that all eventually lead to the same goal.  Some Buddhist traditions suggest that there are lesser vehicles that lead to lesser goal.

You may also be interested in Lama Shenpen’s previous discussion with a student on the term tantra here.

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