The Dharma of Tibet presents and categorises the teachings in different ways, which are known as vehicles7. A vehicle is that which allows you to move from one place to another. It is a means of travelling. The Nyingma Tradition describes nine yanas of the teachings8.
From the point of view of Dzogchen9, each vehicle is a complete path because it has a base (a place to begin), a path (methods of practice which take you from the base to the result), and a fruit (the results of practice), but in reality the vehicles are rarely practised in isolation. Practitioners embrace aspects of all or many of the vehicles. The nine vehicles of the Nyingma Tradition are: the Shravakayana10, the Pratyékabuddhayana11, and the Bodhisattvayana12; plus the six Tantric vehicles, divided into Outer and Inner Tantra.
Shravakayana, Pratyékabuddhayana and Bodhisattvayana can be classified as Sutrayana12. The first five Tantras are classified as Secret Mantrayana14, and the sixth, Atiyoga, is classified as Dzogchen. ‘Vajrayana’ is the term employed for all the six Tantras. Kriya Tantra, Upa or Carya Tantra, and Yoga Tantra are the three Outer Tantras. Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga are the three Inner Tantras.
The experience of the nine vehicles relates directly to the personal process of emerging spiritual awareness from the earliest stage of interest, but this is often obscured by the sense in which they are misunderstood to be separately codified religious approaches.
Let me give an example of the process of emerging awareness, in terms of my own experience. When I first became interested in Buddhism, I read a great deal. I was fascinated by the ideas and methods that I studied, but I did little more than read for a couple of years.
I read the words, but did not identify their relevance in terms of applying them to my own life circumstances. This was Shravakayana. I was hearing or reading about Dharma but only engaging with it in an intellectual or philosophical manner, rather than feeling it had relevance in my life.
Then something prompted me to actually try out the methods and receive teachings directly from a Lama. Through experiences of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in my life, I was prompted to move my intellectual interest in Buddhism to another stage. I had developed some confidence that Dharma could provide methods by which I could travel the path to happiness. It was my experience of pain and suffering which prompted my actions. I wanted to end my pain and suffering, so I began the path of the solitary realiser – Pratyékabuddhayana. I started to practise for my own benefit, in the hope of improving my situation.
However, once I started to practise with a greater degree of commitment, I began to see the benefits in my life, and the changes in my state of mind. Conscious of this, I become increasingly aware that there were many other beings around me who were also finding their experience of life painful and unsatisfying. At this point I understood that I could not disconnect myself from others, and that it was not actually possible to be truly happy when others around me were so obviously unhappy. In this way I naturally began to move toward some experience of the mind of bodhicitta15, and to enter the path of Bodhisattvayana.
This development in my view made me want to live my life in a manner that would do as little harm to others as possible and, hopefully, would benefit them in some way.
The six levels of Tantra can also be viewed in terms of how they reflect human psychological development from infancy to adulthood.
Dharma is a natural system. It is not fabricated. The spacious nature of the mind can be discovered through the methods of Dharma. The methods themselves have spontaneously arisen as a response to the expression of confusion and pain of beings. The practices of Dharma were not created through someone having had an idea about how to solve a problem. They arise as a natural, realised response. When we are thirsty we drink – we do not have to fabricate a reason for drinking when we are thirsty: drinking is simply a natural response. Dharma arises through the needs of beings. Dharma reflects every nuance of human experience.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche said of this,
Dharma is limitless because dualistic confusion is limitless. Dharma is non-dual response to the confusion of beings. For every question there is a teaching response. For every style of incomprehension there exists a possibility for a new expression of Dharma. This is why there is no final comprehensive book of Dharma. Naturally everything can be succinctly expressed – but that which is succinctly expressed does not always allow the transmission of understanding to everyone. It is not the fault of Dharma that people do not understand – rather it is the richness of Dharma as an infinite well which allows explanation to become exponential via the exegesis of a realised Master.
Although Tantra is advanced view, method, and behaviour, we can make analogies with developmental psychology and also with the experience of approaching the spiritual path. Everything within Dharma speaks of everything else and when Dharma is understood, then everything else begins to speak about Dharma.
The Aro gTér16 speaks in terms of three vehicles—Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen—rather than the nine yanas classification system. This perspective is common to the Dzogchen teachings in which the Aro gTér is based. From the perspective of the nine yanas of the Nyingma tradition, Dzogchen can also be understood as the highest of the inner Tantras, Atiyoga Tantra.
From the Dzogchen perspective, Sutrayana and Vajrayana roughly equate with Sutra and Tantra, with the most subtle of Vajrayana teachings forming a separate vehicle as Dzogchen.
9. Dzogchen (rDzogs pa chen po) (Tibetan): mahasandhi (Sanskrit).
10. Shravakayana (Sanskrit): Nyan Thopa’i Thegpa (nyan-thos-pa’i theg-pa) (Tibetan) – Hearers; those who listen but don’t engage in practice.
11. Pratyekabudhayana (Sanskrit): Rang Gyalwa’i Thegpa (rang rgyal-ba’i theg-pa) (Tibetan) – Solitary realisers; those who practice for their own benefit.
12. Bodhisattvayana (Sanskrit): Chang-chub Sempa’i Thegpa (byang-chub sems-dpa’i theg-pa) (Tibetan) – Those who vow to work for the realisation of all beings through developing active-compassion.
13. Sutrayana (Sanskrit): practice based on the Sutras of Shakyamuni Buddha; known in the New Translation Schools as the Hinayana and Mahayana. The path of renunciation.
14. Mantrayana (Sanskrit): Sangwa Gyüd-kyi Thegpa (gSang ba rGyud kyi theg pa) (Tibetan)
15. Bodhicitta (Sanskrit): chang-chub sem (byang chub sems) (Tibetan) – loving kindness, active compassion; the wish for all beings to be happy.
16. The Aro gTér is a cycle of teachings revealed by Khyungchen Aro Lingma (1886–1923).