Wikipedia includes this (unreferenced) sentence:

According to the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, Mahāyāna practitioners have the choice of two practice paths: the path of perfection (Sanskrit: pāramitāyāna) or the path of tantra (Sanskrit: tantrayāna), which is the Vajrayāna.

Would you say a bit more about that (for someone who hasn't been taught Mahāyāna practice or Tibetan Buddhism)?

For example, some related questions include:

  • Is the quoted sentence more-or-less true?
  • Is this a good high-level view of (introduction to, or taxonomy of) Tibetan Buddhism?
  • What are pāramitāyāna and tantrayāna:

    • What is the goal of each?
    • What is the purpose of each (do they tend toward the goal)?
    • What (or how) is the practice of each (how, for example, is the purpose implemented)?
  • To what extent is it true that "practitioners have the choice"? On what basis should or do they choose (e.g. which practice path is suited for, or available to, what practitioners)?
  • chris this seems REALLY broad. I think you should break it up into several questions, to include: 1) Is the quoted sentence more-or-less true?To what extent is it true that "practitioners have the choice"? On what basis should or do they choose (e.g. which practice path is suited for, or available to, what practitioners)? 2) What are pāramitāyāna - goal, purpose, practice 3) tantrayāna: - goal, purpose, practice
    – Ryan
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 18:38
  • Im saying all that knowing nothing at all about any of what you asked; I just get the impression that a thorough answer to any of that would be fairly comprehensive and lengthy, and it may serve the site better overall to break it up.
    – Ryan
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 18:39
  • 1
    @Ryan Yes. Theoretically we're allowed to ask questions which are "too broad" as long as we're willing to get some shallow (high-level, introductory, not very detailed) answers -- I don't know whether I should, in this case. Answering my questions might take (at least) 10 sentences; answering your four questions might be at least 4 paragraphs. So yes, it could be quite long. Maybe someone who knows the subject would know how to summarize it (or be willing to answer at some length). Maybe people will close this as too broad and I should ask on Meta how to rework it e.g. into multiple questions.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 18:55
  • I'm sort of simply asking for an explanation of one (quoted) sentence though; that (one sentence) is what this question is based on. I am inclined to agree with you (your suggestion that this question is too dense); however IMO I also tend to write too much, and I'm not sure it's appropriate to write/expand/elaborate four different questions out of one sentence.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 18:58
  • 1
    @ChrisW one thing not mentioned, but not enough to be a stand alone answer, is that most Vajrayana practitioners also practice paramitayana.
    – hellyale
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 16:50

3 Answers 3


I don't know much about "official" stance on these, but from what I gather, the main difference between the two is that:

  • "paramitayana" is when you work within a framework of progressive self-improvement,
  • while "tantrayana" is when you work within a framework of the target state.

Meaning, with "paramitayana" you first hear about the obstacles, then you identify the obstacles in your behavior, then you work on distancing and ridding yourself of them. You hear about paramitas (perfections), then you reflect on your imperfections, then you work on removing them.

While with "tantrayana" you are given a simplified image or prototype of the Enlightened Mind to emulate, and you act it until it becomes your second nature. Depending on the student, and the lineage or school, an image you're given may be either be anthropomorphic or completely abstract. In some cases you're given a role model e.g. Avalokiteshvara that represents an aspect of the enlightened mind, and your main job is to imitate that, and in general to permeate your life with the mood/energy of the prototype. In more interesting cases, you could be given some abstract quality to imitate - like the quality of wind or space etc. Or if you are a difficult student you could be given the task of fulfilling some practical objective that would require you to manifest certain quality - to give a naive example if you have fear problems you could be asked to get into an actual fight etc. The common theme here is that you learn to generate the target qualities directly, bypassing instruction about obstacles.

With "paramitayana", you are here and your goal is there, and there are obstacles between you and the goal. With tantra, especially the higher levels, you are already "there" in Rome and now your job is to be like a roman.

Is the quoted sentence more-or-less true?

Well, all of these attempts to describe the Path are simplifications and generalizations. In actual practice people don't progress through levels one-by-one and more often than not don't follow one "yana" after the other either. Real people are much more complicated than the "low capacity / middling capacity / high capacity" model. So yeah, in general you and/or your mentor could be leaning towards conceptual or experiential mode of instruction but usually some elements of both will be present.

To what extent is it true that "practitioners have the choice"? On what basis should or do they choose (e.g. which practice path is suited for, or available to, what practitioners)?

This is not entirely clear to me either. On one hand there maybe an element of fate - what kind of mentor you will encounter and get along with. On the other hand, there seems to be some affinity between types of students and certain teaching methods, whether due to predominance of particular types of obstacles/obscurations in the student's character or because of the past lives influence or most probably both (these two being of the same nature anyway). If anyone does have a choice here, I suppose it would be more appropriate to say that's the mentor, rather than the student.


The quote is more or less true. The position that Tibetan Buddhism distinguishes between pāramitāyāna and tantrayāna is accurate. Pāramitāyāna is most often translated 'perfection vehicle' or 'sutra vehicle' while tantrayāna is usually translated as 'tantra vehicle' or 'secret mantra vehicle'.

In the Middle Length Lam-Rim, Tsongkhapa says:

[Atisha] held numerous lineages of masters such as the two lineages of the common vehicle and of the great vehicle, with regard to which there are the two – (1) the perfection and (2) secret mantra [vehicles]. In the perfection vehicle he held three lineages: the lineages of the view and of conduct, the latter of which has the lineage from Maitreya and the lineage from Manjugosha. In the secret mantra he had received five types of transmission as well as numerous lineages such as the lineage of teaching systems,[tenets] the lineage of blessings, and the lineage of various instructions.

In this context, 'common vehicle' refer to:

a lineage common to the Hinayana and Mahayana

As Geshe Jampa Gyatso phrases it in his commentary to Tsonkghapa's Middle-Length Lam Rim. These refer to the teachings and practices 'common to beings of small capacity' (wishing for a precious human rebirth) as well as those 'common to beings of middling capacity' (wishing for abiding-nirvana, individual liberation). One might say that, of these two, only the linage common to beings of middling capacity is a fully qualified path, because a path is found in the continuum of a practitioner generating effortless, renounciation, that is 'a mind of definite emergence from samsara'.

'Great vehicle' refers to the practices exclusive to 'beings of great capacities' (those wishing for perfect buddhahood, that is non-abiding nirvana, freedom from both afflictive and knowledge-obscurations). The entrance to the Mahayana path is effortless renounciation + uncontrived bodhicitta (whether it be aspirational or engaged).

Within this category of teachings [of the great vehicle] you have indeed the two 'vehicles' or 'lineages':

  1. Perfection vehicle
  2. Secret mantra vehicle

As Geshe Jampa Gyatso writes:

The lineage of the Mahayana has two: (1) the perfection vehicle and (2) the vajra vehicle. In the perfection vehicle there is also two: (1) the lineage of the view and (2) the lineage of the conduct or the lineage of the vast. One lineage was passed on from Buddha Shakyamuni to Maitreya, to Asanga, to Vasubandhu, to Arya Vimuktisena, and so forth. The other was passed from Buddha Shakyamuni to Manjushri and so forth. In the secret mantra lineage there are five lineages. There is also the lineage of tenets, the lineage of blessings, and the lineage of instructions. As both 'vehicles' are Mahayana, they serve the same purpose: causing one to achieve enlightenment in order [for him] to benefit all sentient beings. Prasangika-Madhyamika claim that one has to come to practice tantrayana/secret mantra vehicle to achieve full enlightenment (and could not get pass the tenth bhumi without it). This is merely because the secret mantra vehicle purifies one's mind all the way through.

The perfection vehicle includes what we call 'the linage of the view and that of the conduct' or 'the profound and the vast' or 'wisdom and method' or 'the view of dependent-arising and great compassion'. It is so significant that, as Geluk students, teachers often say to us "if anyone asks you what Buddhism is all about, answer that it is about the view and the conduct: the meaning of dependent arising on one side, great compassion on the other".

Furthermore, we claim that a path is entered upon generating definite emergence. That a path of the perfection vehicle is entered upon generating bohdicitta as well (because it is a Mahayana path), and that the tantra path is entered upon generating renounciation + bodhicitta (becaus it is a Mahayana path) + realization of emptiness (whether it be inferential or direct, although this is a subject of debate). It does not mean you can not engage in tantric practices such as, say, Medicine Buddha Puja, or Guru Yoga, and so forth before having realized emptiness. On the contrary, we claim that engaging in those will get you plant the seeds you need to come to be able to actually practice tantra. You can not practice it unless you had a transmission or at least a permission from a qualified teacher, though.

There are four degrees of Tantra, but I will not go into that. This being said, Tantra has to do with understanding that one's aggregates are created by karma, it is playing with 'pure view' and the notion the behind the veil of the two obscurations, phenomena are naturally pure (as in 'abiding in natural nirvana'), and it encourages us to 'take the result as the path' as the Sayka emphasize very much (they call it Lam-Ré). This 'taking the result as the path' can take the aspect of self-generation visualizations (you generate yourself in the aspect of this or that deity manifesting from emptiness).

There are differences in tenets between tantra and sutras as well. The notion of 'subtle wind that goes from one life to the next' is hardly a notion of the perfection vehicle.

  • Since these are graduated steps on the path, the following paths need to include the practices and realisations of the preceding paths. The intermediate path requires realisation of the lesser path and the great beings path of sutrayana requires both the lesser being path and the intermediate beings path. Commented May 16, 2018 at 6:27
  • The Tantra path is part of the great beings path and is not an 'OR' with respect to to sutra path. It is only having gained a sutra understanding of the six paramitas that one can enter the tantrayana. Your answer is great however I think it needs a clarification that one cannot skip the sutra path and go straight to tantra. Commented May 16, 2018 at 6:27

The answers above are great, but I want to address two sub-questions specifically.

  1. Is this a good high-level view of (introduction to, or taxonomy of) Tibetan Buddhism?

It is important to note that Tibetan Buddhism is not mutually inclusive with the Mahayana. That is, "Tibetan Buddhism" are just those forms of Buddhism which trace their lineage from the Sanskrit tradition of Buddhism in India as opposed to the Pali.

Within Tibetan Buddhism you can find fully formed paths other than the Mahayana (Bodhisattvas vehicle) including the Hearers vehicle and the Solitary Realizers vehicle.

  1. To what extent is it true that "practitioners have the choice"? On what basis should or do they choose (e.g. which practice path is suited for, or available to, what practitioners)?

Teachers or lamas in Tibetan Buddhism are supposed to teach students according to their capacity. Of course, unless the teacher is a highly realized being it might not be possible to correctly measure a students capacity in all cases. That said, it is my understanding that teachers should strive to do this to the best of their ability.

For instance, it is considered a very grave transgression to teach emptiness to dharma students who are not ready for this teaching. Why? Because it can be harmful to themselves and others by causing the student to misunderstand emptiness and believe that it doesn't matter whether we conduct ourselves virtuously or not... etc.

Now, it is also best if students take some responsibility and do some self-diagnosis to decide what they are capable of in the same way students are encouraged to really check for themselves about the qualities of the teacher.

I hope this helps to prevent misunderstandings and encourage beneficial dharma practice. For more, I highly recommend reading Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions.

  • What does "you can find fully formed paths" mean (e.g. does it mean that doctrine acknowledges that these paths exist elsewhere, or does it mean that these paths are ... taught)? And, how do teachers assess whether a student is ready for the "emptiness" teaching (e.g. is it mostly academic and curriculum-based, like in grade school I'm ready to start Year 4 after I've been tested on the Year 3 curriculum)?
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 16, 2018 at 15:49
  • It means that the Sanskrit tradition contains all the teachings/teachers/lineages/vinaya/vows/etc necessary for a being to progress from knowing no dharma to achieving the attainments of a Hearer as opposed to a Bodhisattva. I'm not a teacher, but I can tell you that the center I go to is based on the lamrim, a graduated path and that not all students study or are encouraged to study the highest teachings @ChrisW Although it is fair to say that everyone is encouraged to develop altruistic intentions
    – user13375
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 6:54

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