Question:  Is tantric practice needed for Buddhahood?
Answer: Broadly, Buddhist tantric practice refers to skilful means to Buddhahood via identification with a fully enlightened being. It is thus also called ‘deity yoga’ (though Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are transcend all deities). Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism) practitioners often say it is needed for Buddhahood, while general Mahayana Pure Land practitioners usually do not emphasise it at all. The first case is so because tantric practices are emphasised in the Vajrayana teachings, while in the second case of general Mahayana Pure Land practice, tantric elements are already embedded within, even if seldom highlighted.
Nianfo (practice of mindfulness of the name of Amitabha Buddha – ‘Amituofo’) at its deepest level is to use this mindfulness to cultivate identification of one’s Buddha-nature with that of Amituofo. One’s entire body is used only to focus on Nianfo via speech, as powered by the mind with the Three Provisions. This is how all body, speech and mind identify with Amituofo, presenting the essence of deity yoga. Here, the esoteric and exoteric paths become intertwined. Amituofo’s name is after all, as taught by Sakyamuni Buddha, also an unsurpassable mantra, as it is capable of leading to Buddhahood.
Of course, it is not easy to practise the above perfectly such that one becomes exactly like Amituofo in this lifetime. This is why we should all aspire for birth to reach Amituofo’s Pure Land, to further and perfect our practice. It is there that we will master mindfulness of Buddha to become Buddhas too. Since this can be done perfectly via Amituofo’s Pure Land, the Pure Land Patriarchs classify Nianfo practice to be a complete path; not a partial path. In Pure Land, as we advance in stages, we will be able to cultivate to perceive the increasingly refined forms of Amituofo – his manifestation, reward and Dharma bodies, eventually able to merge with Amituofo’s Dharmakaya, which is connected to all other Buddhas.
Sutras such as the Amitabha Sutra are also explicit in stating that we can cultivate all the way in Amituofo’s Pure Land to manifest as the highest-ranking, and of course, non-backsliding Bodhisattvas, such as Avalokiteshvara (Guanshiyin) Bodhisattva. From there, we are able to manifest Buddhahood in the immediate next life upon departing from Pure Land. One’s Buddhahood is always manifested outside an existing Buddha’s Pure Land, as there cannot be two Buddhas in one Pure Land, just as there are no two principals in one school, also for a clear sense of host versus guests, teacher versus students.
Question:  Is it that human form is needed to practise tantra?
Answer: Buddhahood is also manifested elsewhere to guide and teach beings in defiled lands, as an expression of perfect Bodhicitta. This body that manifests will appear as human flesh and bone, born from the womb, so as to show how a human can become a Buddha. It can thus be said that the final stages of tantric practice is as if perfected then, even though one is in fact ready to be a Buddha when in Amituofo’s Pure Land, only demonstrating this later. According to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, his teacher Trijang Rinpoche taught that it is possible to practise Tantra to become enlightened in Amituofo’s Pure Land.
Question:  Should we plant some tantric seeds (of affinity) within this lifetime via empowerment?
Answer: As explained above, deepened Nianfo practice already plants these seeds firmly, which will fully ripen via further cultivation in this life, and when Amituofo’s Pure Land is reached.
Question:  Will taking Amituofo empowerment help practice to reach his Pure Land?
Answer: Since tantric elements are embedded within Nianfo practice already, it is not a must to undertake tantric empowerment (initiation) for practice to reach Pure Land. One can simply practise Nianfo more sincerely and diligently. However, if one is inclined towards tantric methods, this might be useful.
Question:  Will this require change of practice?
Answer: Any empowerment received should have some regular practice commitments to adhere to. That said, regular Nianfo practice by itself, although streamlined and simple as the Main Practice (正行), is already clearly adequate to reach Pure Land, as proven in history practically, though one can choose to have other Supportive Practices (助行) too.
Question:  Will this conflict with the teaching of ‘wholeheartedness without being scattered’ in Nianfo practice?
Answer: In the Mahayana tradition, the Pure Land Patriarchs remind us time and again to take Nianfo as one’s wholehearted Main Practice, and to use other practices as Supportive Practices. This is because Nianfo is the most skilful of means to reach Amituofo’s Pure Land. If even this most easy of methods is not mastered, all other methods are surely more challenging by default. Yet, if Nianfo is mastered, reach of Pure Land is assured, and naturally, the rest of the path to Buddhahood.
Question:  If Amituofo’s Pure Land is reached without prior tantric practices, can they be practised thereafter?
Answer: Yes, as it is clear in Amituofo’s vows, that ALL Dharma teachings can be mastered within and via his Pure Land. It should be noted too, that Amituofo’s Pure Land is the easiest Pure Land to enter, while it facilitates entering of any other pure or defiled land through it, with the greatest of ease. If one instead aims to reach any other Pure Land that is more difficult to enter, one might fail to enter any Pure Land as a result.
Question:  Where will a tantric practitioner who does not reach a Pure Land go?
Answer: One will simply be reborn according to the nature of one’s last thought. Again, this is why we should master the easiest method to enter Amituofo’s Pure Land, which offers the swiftest path to Buddhahood, as it is without any backsliding at all. Even though it is often said that the tantric path is the fastest path to Buddhahood, it is so only for already very skilled practitioners. This is why ALL Buddhas urge seeking birth in Amituofo’s Pure Land the most, including Sakyamuni Buddha – because this is the truly fastest path to Buddhahood for the vast majority who are not great practitioners yet. Even perfection of tantric practice is best facilitated through reaching Amituofo’s Pure Land, especially in this Dharma-Ending Age, when most will become increasingly inferior practitioners.
Question:  Are there differences in cultivating Bodhicitta, for one who has reached Amituofo’s Pure Land while residing there, versus one who returns to this Saha world?
Answer: This is a false dichotomy, an unnecessary division of choice. Although Bodhicitta in the normal sense is not a must to enter Amituofo’s Pure Land, if we are very concerned about Bodhicitta, we should simply do our best to cultivate Bodhicitta now. This strengthens our practice to enter Amituofo’s Pure Land for a higher grade of Bodhisattva birth for faster spiritual advancement. There, our Bodhicitta will be fully cultivated, due to being able to see, via Amituofo’s empowerment, all beings in suffering clearly, to give rise to irreversible great compassion. In fact, such Bodhicitta is tremendously stronger than that of one remaining in this Saha World, who fails to see the scope of suffering in all the six realms clearly to be inspired sufficiently. Bodhicitta given rise to in this Saha World without going to Pure Land is liable to backslide due to being disheartened or distracted too, thus delaying progress towards Buddhahood indefinitely.
Advanced tantric teachings need instructions by highly qualified teachers with utmost morality, compassion and wisdom, who are in turn authenticated by other highly qualified teachers. Otherwise, there is potential for misunderstanding and abuse of the teacher-student relationship. (The most skilful teacher whom we can have total trust in is a Buddha – Amituofo, as in his Pure Land, whom we can most easily meet to learn from.)
Contrary to popular misconception, most tantric practices are NOT ‘sexual’ at all, while true tantric practices are NEVER really ‘sexual’ as there is never ejaculation in action; mostly involving visualisations symbolic of qualities and energies. Many tantric masters are celibate monastics too. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama personally said that he does NOT know anyone who is capable of ‘sexual’ tantric practice today. This should be clear warning to NEVER trust anyone who claims to be a ‘sexual’ tantric teacher or practitioner.
Guru Rinpoche & Lama Tsongkhapa’s Exhortation To Reach Amituofo’s Pure Land