A Brief Presentation of the Nine Vehicles

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Alak Zenkar Rinpoche

Guru Padmasambhava

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A Brief Presentation of the Nine Vehicles

by Alak Zenkar Rinpoche Thubten Nyima

Our teacher, the fourth guide of this fortunate aeon, the incomparable lord of sages, Śākyamuni, gave infinite teachings as means to enter the Dharma of the causal and resultant vehicles, in accordance with the particular temperaments, spiritual faculties and attitudes of disciples. Nevertheless, they may all be included within the three vehicles, which, in turn, may be further subdivided into nine successive stages.

As The General Sūtra says:[1]

The ultimate definitive vehicle
Certainly appears as three in number:
The vehicles of leading from the origin, Vedic-like asceticism,
And powerful transformative methods.

And The Immaculate Confession Tantra says:

The samayas of the nine successive vehicles—
Three vehicles related to the three piṭakas of characteristics,
The outer three of kriyā yoga and so on, related to tantras of asceticism,
And the inner three yogas related to tantras of skilful methods.

Thus the classification of ‘nine successive vehicles,’ which is found in the Nyingma Early Translation tradition, is made up of:

  • three outer vehicles of leading from the origin [of suffering] or those related to the three piṭakas of characteristics,
  • three inner vehicles of Vedic-like asceticism[2] or those of the three outer classes of tantra, and
  • three secret vehicles of powerful transformative methods or those of the three inner classes of tantra.

Let us elaborate a little on the meaning of these, first of all by considering what is meant by the term ‘vehicle’ or yāna. It is said in The Condensed Sūtra:[3]

This vehicle is the supreme of vehicles for reaching
The vast sky-like palace of happiness and bliss.
Riding in this all beings will reach nirvāṇa.

This refers to the literal meaning of the Sanskrit term yāna, a vehicle or means of conveyance, since it is that which carries us along the paths and bhūmis, bringing us ever greater enlightened qualities.

I. The Three Outer Vehicles Leading from the Origin

The three causal vehicles of characteristics are: the śrāvaka vehicle, pratyekabuddha vehicle and bodhisattva vehicle.

Why are these three called ‘vehicles leading from the origin’? It is because they lead us along the path to the result of liberation from samsara by abandoning all the actions and kleśas which are the cause or ‘origin’ [of suffering].

1. The Śrāvaka Vehicle

Generally speaking, the Sanskrit word ‘śrāvaka’ has both the meaning of listening and of hearing, so [the Tibetan translation nyenthö literally means] ‘listener-hearer.’ Alternatively, the term can be understood to mean ‘listening and proclaiming,’ in the sense that the śrāvakas rely on masters and then proclaim to others all the words their teachers have spoken.

The initial entry point, the view, the meditation, the conduct and the results of the śrāvaka vehicle will now be explained below.

i. Entry Point

The śrāvakas are motivated by a feeling of renunciation, the wish to escape from all the realms of samsara by themselves alone. With this motivation, they receive one of the seven sets of pratimokṣa vows, those of a male or female lay practitioner, novice monk or nun, probationary nun, or fully ordained monk or nun, and having received these vows, they practise moral restraint, keeping their vows unimpaired, repairing any impairments that do occur, and so on.

ii. View

As the basis of their path, they determine their view by focusing upon all phenomena included within the five aggregates and realizing that they are devoid of any personal self. They do not understand that all material and conscious phenomena are devoid of true reality, and, asserting a truly real partless particle in perceived objects and an indivisible moment of consciousness, they fail to realize the absence of phenomenal identity.

iii. Meditation

In terms of the path, they practise both śamatha and vipaśyanā meditation. They realize the state of śamatha by abandoning obstacles and cultivating factors conducive to samādhi, according to the nine stages of resting the mind and so on, and generate the wisdom of vipaśyanā by meditating on the sixteen aspects of the four truths.

iv. Conduct

They keep to the twelve ascetic practices[4] that avoid the two extreme forms of lifestyle, over-indulgence in sense pleasures[5] and excessive self-punishment.

v. Results

They attain any one of eight levels of fruition, corresponding to the degree to which they have abandoned the kleshas of the three realms. There are eight levels because the four results of stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner and arhat are each divided into the two stages known as the emerging and the established.

2. The Pratyekabuddha Vehicle

Pratyekabuddhas, or ‘self-awakened’ are so-called because, having a more profound depth of wisdom than the śrāvakas, they manifest their own awakening through the power of their own wisdom, without needing to rely on other masters.

Let us elaborate slightly by presenting the initial entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results of the pratyekabuddha vehicle:

i. Entry Point

As with the entry point to the śrāvaka vehicle, the pratyekabuddhas take up any one of the seven sets of pratimokṣa vows and then keep them unimpaired.

ii. View

When it comes to the basis of their path, how they determine the view, they realize the absence of a personal self completely, but only realize half the absence of phenomenal identity, because although they realize that the partless particles of perceived objects are not real, they still believe in the true existence of indivisible moments of consciousness.

iii. Meditation

When it comes to their path, and their practice of meditation, the uncommon approach of the pratyekabuddhas is to meditate on how the twelve links of interdependent origination arise in their progressive sequence and how they cease in the reverse order.

iv. Conduct

Like the śrāvakas, they keep to the twelve rules of ascetic practice.

v. Results

As their fruition, those with sharper faculties attain the level of a rhinoceros-like pratyekabuddha arhat and those with duller faculties become parrot-like[6] pratyekabuddha arhats.

Moreover, they reach their final existence as a result of three specific aspiration prayers. They pray that their last existence may be in a world without buddhas and śrāvakas, that they may attain awakening by themselves, without relying on any teacher, and that they may teach the Dharma silently through physical gestures.

3. The Bodhisattva Vehicle

The bodhisattva vehicle is the part of the mahāyāna that belongs to the vehicle of characteristics. It is called the vehicle of bodhisattvas because once it has been entered it has the power to lead someone to great enlightenment, because its domain of experience is vast, in terms of its extensive skilful methods and its profound wisdom, because it brings about benefit and happiness, in the higher realms in the short term, and ultimately at the stage of definitive good, and because it carries one to greater and greater qualities as one progresses along the paths and stages. It is called a vehicle of characteristics because it has all the characteristics of a path that is a direct cause for bringing about the ultimate fruition, the level of buddhahood.

I will now a give a brief outline of its initial entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results.

i. Entry Point

The bodhisattvas practise on the basis of their wish to benefit others. They are motivated by bodhicitta, which has as its focus all sentient beings and is characterized by the wish to establish them all at the level of perfect buddhahood, free from the causes and effects of suffering and endowed with all the causes and effects of happiness. With this motivation, they take the bodhisattva vows of aspiration and application in the proper way, through the ritual of either the tradition of Profound View or Vast Conduct. They then observe the points of discipline concerning what should be adopted and abandoned, and heal and purify any impairments.

ii. View

Concerning the basis of their path, how they determine the view, if we speak in terms of philosophical tenets, the approach of Mind Only is to assert that outer objects are not real and all phenomena are but the inner mind, and to claim that the self-aware, self-knowing consciousness devoid of dualistic perception is truly real. The approach of the Middle Way is to realize that all phenomena appear in the manner of dependent origination, but are in reality emptiness, beyond the eight extremes of conceptual elaboration.[7] Through these approaches, on the basis of the explanation of the two levels of reality, they realize completely the absence of any personal self or phenomenal identity.

iii. Meditation

Concerning their path and how they practise meditation, the bodhisattvas realize and train in developing their familiarity with the indivisibility of the two levels of reality, and, on the basis of the yogic meditation that unites śamatha and vipaśyanā, meditate sequentially on the thirty-seven factors of enlightenment while on the path of training.

iv. Conduct

They practise the six transcendent perfections for their own benefit and the four means of attraction for the sake of others.

v. Results

They attain the level of buddhahood, which is the ultimate attainment in terms of both abandonment and realization since it means abandoning all that has to be eliminated, the two obscurations including habitual traces, and realizing everything that must be realized, included within the knowledge of all that there is and the knowledge of its nature. They accomplish the two types of dharmakāya for their own benefit and the two types of rūpakāya for the benefit of others.

II. The Three Inner Vehicles of Vedic-like Asceticism

These are the three outer classes of tantra: the vehicle of kriyā tantra, the vehicle of caryā tantra and the vehicle of yoga tantra.

You might wonder why are these called ‘vehicles of Vedic-like asceticism.’ It is because the three outer classes of tantra stress aspects of ascetic conduct, such as ritual purification and cleanliness, and in this respect they are similar to the Vedic tradition of the brahmins.

4. The Vehicle of Kriyā Tantra

The kriyā tantras, or ‘action’ tantras, are so-called because they are concerned mainly with external conduct, the practices of ritual purification and cleanliness and so on.

The entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results of this vehicle are as follows:

i. Entry Point

The initial point of entry to the path of secret mantra vajrayana is ripening empowerment, so here one receives the water empowerment, which establishes the potential for ripening into the dharmakaya, and the crown empowerment, which establishes the potential for ripening into the rūpakāya. Then one keeps the general samayas of the kriyā yoga as they are explained in the particular texts themselves.

ii. View

In terms of determining the view, the basis of the path, one realizes that the ground of purification, the nature of mind itself, is the wisdom of empty clarity, and is ultimately beyond all extremes of elaboration, such as existing, not existing, appearing or being empty. Then one views the aspects of relative appearance, which are what must be purified, as the characteristics of the completely pure deity.

iii. Meditation

As for the path and the way of practising meditation, it centres around the four realities: 1) the reality of oneself, and 2) the reality of the deity, which is practised by means of the six aspects of the deity,[8] by visualizing oneself as the samaya form and then invoking the wisdom being into the space in front, considering oneself as a servant and the deity as one’s master. One then focuses upon 3) the reality of the mantra recitation which is the sound, and on the mind and the ground, and meditates upon 4) the reality of concentration, which consists of remaining in the ‘flame,’ continuation of sound and culmination of sound.

iv. Conduct

One performs the three kinds of ritual purification,[9] changes the three types of clothing,[10] adopts a diet of the three white foods[11] and practices ritual fasting and mantra recitation.

v. Results

In the short term, one becomes a desire realm vidyādhara, and ultimately one attains awakening as Vajradhara of one of the three buddha families: of the family of enlightened body, Vairocana, of the family of enlightened speech, Amitābha, or of the family of enlightened mind, Akṣobhya.

5. The Vehicle of Caryā Tantra

The vehicle of caryā or ‘conduct’ tantra is so-called because it places an equal emphasis on the outer actions of body and speech and the inner cultivation of samādhi. It is also called the ‘tantra of both’ (ubhaya tantra) because its view conforms with that of yoga tantra, while its conduct is similar to that of kriyā.

I will now say a little about its entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results.

i. Entry Point

One is matured by means of the five empowerments, which include the empowerments of the vajra, bell and name in addition to the water and crown empowerments, and then maintains the samayas of caryā tantra, as described in the particular texts themselves.

ii. View

The view is determined in the same way as in the yoga tantra, so it will be explained below.

iii. Meditation

One visualizes oneself as the samaya being and visualizes the wisdom deity, who is regarded as a friend, in front of oneself, and then practises the conceptual meditations on the syllable, mudrā and form of the deity, and the non-conceptual meditation on absolute bodhicitta by means of entering, remaining and arising.[12]

iv. Conduct

The conduct here is the same as in kriyā tantra.

v. Results

In the short term, one attains the common accomplishments and ultimately one reaches the level of a vajradhara of the four buddha families, i.e., the three mentioned earlier plus the ratna family.

6. The Vehicle of Yoga Tantra

The vehicle of yoga tantra is so-called because it emphasizes the inner yogic meditation upon reality, combining skilful means and wisdom.

Its entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results are as follows:

i. Entry Point

Having been matured through the eleven empowerments—the five empowerments of the disciples (water, crown, vajra, bell and name) as well as the six empowerments of the master (the empowerment of irreversibility, empowerment of seeing secret reality, authorization, prophecy, confirmation and praising encouragement)—one keeps the samayas as described in the particular texts.

ii. View

The ground, the way in which the view is established, is as follows. Ultimately, all phenomena are realised to be clear light, beyond conceptual elaboration. Through the blessing of this, the relative is seen as the deities of the vajradhātu.

iii. Meditation

One meditates on the yoga of skilful means, visualizing oneself as the deity by means of the five aspects of awakening and the four miraculous things,[13] and summons the wisdom being, who then dissolves into oneself, and is sealed by means of the four mudrās, and so on. There is also the yoga of wisdom, in which one rests in a state in which ultimate non-conceptual wisdom is inseparable from the relative appearance of the deity of the vajradhātu.

iv. Conduct

One practises ritual purification and cleanliness simply as a support.

v. Results

As a worldly attainment, one becomes a celestial vidyādhara, and as the supermundane accomplishment, one attains enlightenment in Ghanavyūha, as one of the five buddha families (in addition to the four families previously mentioned, there is also Amoghasiddhi’s buddha family of enlightened activity).

III. The Three Secret Vehicles of Powerful Transformative Methods

These are the three inner classes of tantra: the vehicle of mahāyoga, the vehicle of anuyoga and the vehicle of atiyoga.

You might wonder why are these are called ‘vehicles of powerful transformative methods.’ It is because they include powerful methods for transforming all phenomena into great purity and equalness.

7. The Vehicle of Tantra Mahāyoga

The vehicle of mahāyoga, or ‘great yoga,’ is so-called because it is superior to ordinary yoga tantra since all phenomena are realized to be a magical display in which appearance and emptiness are indivisible.

Once again, I will briefly describe its point of entry, view, meditation, action and results.

i. Entry Point

Once one’s mind has been matured through receiving the ten outer benefiting empowerments, the five inner enabling empowerments and the three secret profound empowerments, one keeps the samayas as they are described in the texts.

ii. View

By means of extraordinary lines of reasoning, one establishes and then realizes the indivisibility of the [two] higher levels of reality, according to which the cause for the appearance of the essential nature, the seven riches of the absolute,[14] is spontaneously present within the pure awareness that is beyond conceptual elaboration, and all relative phenomena naturally appear as the mandala of deities of the three seats.[15]

iii. Meditation

When it comes to the path and the practice of meditation, the main emphasis is on the generation stage. In the practice of generation stage yoga, one sets up the practice through the three samādhis, ensures that the three of purifying, perfecting and ripening are complete within the visualization, and, once the visualization is complete, seals it with the instruction on the four nails securing the life-force. In the practice of the completion stage yoga, one activates the vital points of the vajra body, its subtle energies, essences, luminosity and so on.

iv. Conduct

One maintains elaborate, unelaborate and extremely unelaborate conduct.

v. Results

In the short term one reaches the four vidyādhara levels, which are the results belonging to the path, and finally one gains the ultimate fruition, and reaches the level of the Vajradhara of unity.[16]

8. The Vehicle of Scriptural Transmission Anuyoga

The vehicle of anuyoga, or ‘following yoga’, is so-called because it mainly teaches the path of passionately pursuing (or ‘following’) wisdom, in the realization that all phenomena are the creative expression of the indivisible unity of absolute space and primordial wisdom.

Once again, let us say a little about its point of entry, view, meditation, conduct and results:

i. Entry Point

One’s mind is matured through the thirty-six empowerments in which the four rivers—outer, inner, accomplishing and secret—are complete, and one keeps the samayas as described in the texts.

ii. View

Through logical reasoning one determines that which is to be known, the fact that all phenomena are characterized as being the three mandalas in their fundamental nature, and realizes that this is so.

iii. Meditation

Meditation practice here consists of two paths. On the path of liberation one practises the non-conceptual samādhi of simply resting in a state that accords with the essence of reality itself, and the conceptual samādhi of deity practice, in which one visualizes the mandala of supporting palace and supported deities simply by reciting the mantra of generation. On the path of skilful means one generates the wisdom of bliss and emptiness through the practices of the upper and lower gateways.

iv. Conduct

One practises the conduct that is beyond adopting or abandoning in the recognition that all perceptions are but the display of the wisdom of great bliss.

v. Results

At the culmination of Anuyoga’s own uncommon five yogas, which are essentially its five paths,[17] and the ten stages[18] that are included within these five, one attains the level of Samantabhadra.

9. The Vehicle of Pith Instruction Atiyoga

The vehicle of Atiyoga, or ‘utmost yoga,’ is so-called because it is the highest of all vehicles. It involves the realization that all phenomena are nothing other than the appearances of the naturally arising primordial wisdom which has always been beyond arising and ceasing.

The following is a brief explanation of the entry point, view, meditation, conduct and results of this vehicle.

i. Entry Point

One’s mind is matured through the four ‘expressive power of awareness’ empowerments (rigpé tsal wang), and one keeps the samayas as explained in the texts.

ii. View

The view is definitively established by looking directly into the naturally arising wisdom in which the three kāyas are inseparable: the empty essence of naked awareness beyond the ordinary mind is the dharmakāya, its cognizant nature is the sambhogakāya, and its all-pervasive compassionate energy is the nirmāṇakāya.

iii. Meditation

The meditation consists of the approach of cutting through resistance to primordial purity (kadak trekchö), through which the lazy can reach liberation without effort, and the approach of the direct realization of spontaneous presence (lhundrup tögal), through which the diligent can reach liberation with exertion.

iv. Conduct

The conduct is free from hope and fear and adopting and abandoning, because all that appears manifests as the display of reality itself.

v. Results

Perfecting the four visions of the path, one gains the supreme kāya, the rainbow body of great transference, and attains the level of glorious Samantabhadra, the thirteenth bhūmi known as ‘Unexcelled Wisdom’ (yeshe lama).

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2005, revised 2016 (with thanks to Han Kop).

An earlier version of this translation was published in Kyabje Zenkar Rinpoche & Pema Lungtok Gyatso Rinpoche, The Nine Gradual Vehicles: Two Complementary Presentations. Brussels: Wisdom Treasury, 2015.


Tibetan Edition Used

Thub bstan nyi ma. Theg dgu'i rnam gzhag mdor bsdus. [s.l.], [s.n.], [n.d.]

Secondary Sources

Dudjom Rinpoche. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991.

Kyabje Zenkar Rinpoche & Pema Lungtok Gyatso Rinpoche, The Nine Gradual Vehicles: Two Complementary Presentations. Brussels: Wisdom Treasury, 2015.

Version: 2.1-20220830

  1. The General Sūtra of the Gathering of All Intentions ('dus pa mdo), the central scripture of Anuyoga.  ↩

  2. An alternative translation sometimes given is ‘the inner vehicle of gaining awareness through austerities’ but that would not accord with Zenkar Rinpoche’s explanation given later in this text.  ↩

  3. i.e., The Condensed Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.  ↩

  4. According to The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, vol. 2, p. 169: 1) Wearing clothes found in a dust heap, 2) owning only three robes, 3) wearing felt or woollen clothes, 4) begging for food, 5) eating one’s meal at a single sitting, 6) restricting the quantity of food, 7) staying in isolation, 8) sitting under trees, 9) sitting in exposed places, 10) sitting in charnel grounds, 11) sitting even during sleep, and 12) staying wherever one happens to be.  ↩

  5. This is rather a free translation of 'dod pa bsod nyams kyi mtha'  ↩

  6. They are called ‘parrot-like’ because they remain together in groups, unlike the ‘rhinoceros-like’ pratyekabuddha arhats who stay by themselves.  ↩

  7. The eight extremes of conceptual elaboration are: ceasing, arising, being non-existent, being permanent, coming, going, being multiple and being single.  ↩

  8. The aspects of emptiness, syllable, sound, form, mudrā and characteristics.  ↩

  9. Purification of the body by washing, purification of downfalls and purification of thoughts.  ↩

  10. Changes one’s outer clothing means to put on clean clothes, changing one’s inner clothing means to guard one’s vows, and changing one’s secret clothing means to visualize the deity.  ↩

  11. Curd, milk and butter.  ↩

  12. ‘Entering’ refers to the realization that all phenomena are beyond arising, ‘remaining’ means to abide once the non-conceptual nature has manifest and ‘arising’ means developing intense compassion for all beings who do not realize this.  ↩

  13. i.e., samādhi, blessings, empowerment and offering.  ↩

  14. Enlightened body, speech, mind, qualities and activity, plus absolute space and primordial wisdom.  ↩

  15. The aggregates (skandha) and elements (dhātu) are the seats of the male and female buddhas, the sense faculties and their objects are the seats of the male and female bodhisattvas, and the limbs are seats of the male and female wrathful ones.  ↩

  16. ‘Unity’ here means the unity of dharmakāya and rūpakāya.  ↩

  17. 1) The yoga of the aspiring spiritual warrior on the path of accumulation, 2) the yoga revealing the great enlightened family on the path of joining, 3) the yoga of great assurance on the path of seeing, 4) the yoga of receiving great prophecy on the path of meditation, and 5) the yoga of perfecting the great creative power on the ultimate path.  ↩

  18. 1) The stage of uncertain transformation, 2) the stage of stable foundation, 3) the stage of significant purification, 4) the stage of continuous training, 5) the stage of supportive merit, 6) the stage of special progress through stability, 7) the stage bringing focus on the result once the path of seeing has arisen through clear light, 8) the stage of steadfast remaining, 9) the stage of expanding reality, and 10) the stage of riding on perfection.  ↩

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