Unification of the Twelve Yanas

Yutang Lin


About two years ago I heard a heavenly voice saying in Chinese, "Reorganize the twelve yanas." At that time I still had projects of translating the Chinese Sutras, the Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Bodhisattva Earth Treasure, together with my works on these Sutras into English, hence I did not work on the instruction right away. However, I never forgot it. Recently I had finished those translation projects already, so I started to study works that are related to this topic. Then I pondered over the principle and direction to do this work. As a result, I had written an article on this topic in Chinese. In the evening of the day when that work was done I began to translate it into English. And this is the translation.


Recent development of scientific technology is moving on a large scale at a rapid pace; it certainly inspires admiration and a sense of wonder in people. Nevertheless, hardship and suffering of sentient beings have not been universally reduced; in some areas the difficult situations have even become worsen or more enhanced due to technological developments. Thus it is clear that happiness and technological development are not necessarily synchronized. Human knowledge is confined within the sphere of deduction based on data that are verifiable through sensual experiences, and hence it could not probe into spheres that are beyond sensual experiences. Therefore, in order to comprehend thoroughly the real situation of the universe and to possess the wisdom to handle suitably various problems of human life we need to look for approaches that are outside human cognition.

Dharma is the teaching of beings that have attained oneness with the reality of the universe. Only through practicing in accordance with the Dharma could one thoroughly comprehend reality, and furthermore, possess the wisdom and ability to ease sentient beings' predicaments. Dharma has gone through evolution in time and propagation over vast and distant areas, and thus has taken shape of multi-layer teachings. All these teachings are pedagogical devices to suit beings of various propensities in variegated situations, and they all share the same goal of guiding beings toward the right and full enlightenment. Consequently, all sorts of Buddhist teachings should not be regarded as the same as ordinary human knowledge, nor should they be subjugated to the evaluation or interpretation of current scientific views. In order to attain enlightenment we need to rely only on the Dharma and practice accordingly, without engaging in cognitive study and discussions. Only in this way can one thoroughly appreciate the real benefits of the Dharma.

Main Text

What Buddha attained and realized was just the auto-appearance of original purity that is indescribable because it is free from duality and hence beyond the reach of words, and further it is beyond the sphere of sensual experiences and hence inexpressible.

Since it is a matter that all sentient beings have originally, therefore any sentient being could comprehend it and thereby return to the original state. When opportunity and conditions of a given sentient being is suitable it is possible for the sentient being to attain enlightenment without outside help or through the kind blessing and guidance of some enlightened being to facilitate the return to original purity. This is the reason why there are Chan anecdotes that are beyond grasping and without handles.

Original purity is not something that ordinary worldlings, who are drown in deviated views and deluded activities, could comprehend, not to mention to realize it. In enlightenment all are in limitless oneness; from the great compassion that arises automatically from this oneness there arises intolerance to the deluded state and its consequent sufferings of sentient beings, and hence naturally all sorts of salvation activities will come forth. In responses to various propensities of sentient beings and variegated situations there naturally arose and developed pedagogical devices of multiple levels so that suitable but gradual guidance and propagation on the path toward original state could be achieved. Therefore, Dharma having gone through long-term evolution and widespread propagation consists now of many lineage branches with multi-layer teachings and practices.

The Nyingma School of Tantric Buddhism classified Buddhist teachings into a graded system of twelve yanas. This kind of classification, were it examined from the point of view of worldly historical evolution, would be full of disputes even on the determination of which teachings were taught personally by Buddha and which were unauthentic as being added upon by later generations of Buddhists. And there could hardly be a unified comprehension of the whole system through that approach.

In this essay, based on the traditional classification, I will first mention briefly the main teachings and practices of these twelve yanas. Next, I will explain the graded evolution from lower yanas to higher yanas. Then I will bring out the fundamental philosophical principle that runs through all twelve yanas, and explain how it is applied and adjusted in the various yanas. Thus it would become transparent that the twelve yanas indeed form a unified and congruent system of teachings. Based on such a unified and harmonious comprehension a practitioner would know clearly as to which right view and appropriate practices to choose as he or she advances on the path to enlightenment.

The construction of a system of twelve yanas is purely theoretical. The real situation and propensity of each individual practitioner could not be an exact match of a certain level therein. Therefore, while we follow the graded steps of the twelve yanas as a reference scheme, we should not demand or expect artificial compliance. As to adjusting the variance between theory and real situation, if one has an authentic Guru to rely on for guidance, then it is more likely that mistakes and deviations could be avoided and that a suitable shortcut might be indicated.

I. Classification of the Twelve Yanas

  1. Sravakayana
  2. Pratyekabuddhayana
  3. Bodhisattvayana
  4. Kriyayoga
  5. Charyayoga, or Upayoga
  6. Yogatantra
  7. Mahayoga
  8. Anuyoga
  9. Atiyoga, or Mahasandhiyoga; in Tibetan, Dzogpa Chenpo
  10. Semde
  11. Longde
  12. Mengagde

Among the system of twelve yanas the first two yanas belong to Hinayana, while the yanas from the third one upwards all belong to Mahayana. The first three yanas belong to exoteric teachings, while the remaining ones belong to esoteric teachings of Vajrayana. However, all esoteric yanas of Vajrayana embrace the exoteric teachings as their fundamental roots. The fourth to sixth yanas comprise the Lower Three Tantras of Vajrayana; they are called Three Outer Tantras in Nyingma system. The seventh to ninth yanas comprise the Anuttarayoga Tantra of Vajrayana; they are called Three Inner Tantras in Nyingma system. From the ninth yana upwards they belong to the special teachings of Nyingma called Dzogpa Chenpo, Great Perfection. Indeed, the tenth to twelfth yanas constitute a subtle division of the ninth yana.

II. Brief Indication of Main Contents of Each Yana

The main contents of each yana indicated below are based on traditional Nyingma teachings.


It teaches the insight that persons are intrinsically selfless. (Note: I am using intrinsic selflessness instead of the usual terminology of "no self" or "non-self." This new terminology seems to be more in line with the view and expression of original purity.) It aims at the tranquility of Nirvana. It abides by the silas of individual liberation. It trains in concentration stability and the contemplation of the Four Noble Truths. Its attainment consists of four levels with Arhat as the ultimate one.


It comprehends the insights that persons are intrinsically selfless and that things in general are also intrinsically selfless, and yet it still considers that there are ultimately indivisible elements that are solid. It relies on individual efforts alone to reach the attainment of Pratyekabuddha. It abides by the silas of individual liberation. It trains in concentration stability and the contemplation of the Four Noble Truths as well as of the Twelve Links in the Chain of Interdependent Causation, both in its successive order and in its reverse order. Its ultimate attainment is no different from Arhat.


It teaches that all things are intrinsically selfless. It aims at leading all sentient beings to attain ultimate Buddhahood. It trains mainly in the Six Paramitas. It contemplates the intrinsic selfless nature of persons as well as of things. It goes through training in the Thirty-seven Bodhi Branches to complete the sequential course of views, training, practices and fruition. Its attainment is Buddhahood with complete Dharmakaya (Formless-body) and Form-bodies.


A practitioner practices attending to the needs of Buddha in order to receive blessings in the form of various spiritual achievements. It emphasizes on strict observation of tedious ritual details. It trains in six branches of visualization associated with chanting of mantras so as to purify body, mind, sentient beings and environment. Within this life one would attain common accomplishments. Within sixteen lives one would attain Buddhahood complete with three bodies and wisdom complete with five aspects.

5.Charyayoga or Upayoga

A practitioner regards Buddhas as friends or siblings. It trains in chanting and visualization of form and of formlessness (Sunyata). It emphasizes maintaining the cleanliness of both body and mind. Within this life one would attain various accomplishments. Within seven lives one would attain Buddhahood complete with three bodies and wisdom complete with five aspects.


It emphasizes visualization. It trains in visualization with five classes of actualization. One visualizes oneself as the Yidam. Within this life one would attain various meritorious realization. Within three lives one would attain perfect Buddhahood.

7.Mahayoga (Development Stage)

It trains in visualization of gradual development of mandala and Yidam. It trains in the practice of wind (breathing) and channels to attain realization of Sunyata Light.

8.Anuyoga (Perfection Stage)

It trains in visualization of instant appearance of mandala and Yidam. It trains in the practice of wind (breathing), channels, essence drops, Tummo, blazing and dripping, and sexual union to attain the harmonization of four levels of joys and four levels of Sunyata.

9.Atiyoga or Mahasandhiyoga (in Tibetan, Dzogpa Chenpo)

It teaches the view that all are originally pure. Its view, practice, action and fruit are inseparable. All are naturally self-arising and self-appearing.

Atiyoga is further divided in its subtlety as the following three yanas:


All are appearances of Mind. Mind is the original awareness that is Sunyata Light. It employs non-dual Mind-only to transcend all duality.


View all things as originally pure, i.e., free from the pollution of dualistic views, and hence all things are liberated as they originally are. It employs original purity to transcend possible grasping to Mind. All things are naturally self-arising and self-appearing.


Wisdom light of original awareness is naturally omnipresent and eternal, transcending the framework of time and space and all dualistic distinctions, and therefrom all sorts of Buddha bodies and salvation activities naturally and unceasingly arise. Through practicing Thregchod, Cutting Through, realize all are originally pure in the unification of original awareness and Sunyata, and ultimately attain Rainbow Body that is invisible. In addition, through practicing Thodgal, Direct Approach, realize the unification of Sunyata and Form as self-arising and self-appearing, and ultimately attain Light Body that is invisible or visible to other beings at will. The starting point for practices in this yana is already the experience of self-arising of original awareness as Sunyata Light.

III. Graded Sequential Order of the Yanas

From the point of view of the twelve yanas classification as a system, the yanas form a stairway that begins with Sravakayana at the bottom and leads upward yana by yana till the topmost Mengagde. The teachings of each yana above have some refinement that makes them superior or more complete than the teachings of the yanas below. In this section I will give some clarification to illustrate this point of view. Nevertheless, at this point I also would like to emphasize that, indeed all twelve yanas are based on the same reality and are stemming from basic views and principles that run through the whole system. It is only because that, in order to provide suitable guidance to match variance in propensity of the recipients, teachings at various levels are needed to yield desirable pedagogical results. Once this is understood, the practical value of each yana in providing salvation guidance is all the same, and due to their appropriate function in providing suitable teachings as guidance, they should all be esteemed with equal respect.

In Sravakayana the emphasis is on comprehension of intrinsic selflessness of persons and diligent personal practice to achieve individual liberation. In Pratyekabuddhayana the basic views and practices are no different from those of Sravakayana, but it emphasizes that each individual could, without learning teachings of enlightened beings, comprehend truth through careful observation of causal connections. In these two yanas once a practitioner comprehends the intrinsic selflessness of persons, a feeling of compassion for others' deluded grasping to a notion of self would naturally arise and lead to salvation teaching activities. Therefore, it is not the case, as some traditional criticism would have it, that these are merely "self-help" teachings.

Bodhisattvayana emphasizes instead that the central view should be expanded to the salvation of all sentient beings; through devotion to altruistic services one cultivates departure from self-centeredness, and thereby gradually merges into intrinsic selflessness. In fact, without the ability to self-discipline and self-control, how could one readily abide by the vast and abstract ideal of "salvation of all sentient beings"? Therefore, the practices of Bodhisattvayana must be rooted on cultivation of individual propensity and activities. Thus we can see that the traditional distinction of Hinayana and Mahayana could not separate a practitioner's practices and activities into two exclusively separate categories. In fact, there is a need and necessity to harmonize these two yanas.

As to the philosophy of intrinsic selflessness Bodhisattvayana is indeed more thorough; it directly points out that all things are intrinsically selfless. However, to those who could not readily comprehend this idea the approach to limit the scope of discussion to only persons so as to make it easier to clarify and guide is obviously rather reasonable.

The teachings of the first three yanas are meant for people to start practices from the level of ordinary humans. Practitioners of such yanas would often have to engage in the quest for ultimate liberation for many lifetimes just to make some advancement. In Bodhisattvayana practitioners keep in contact with the multitude in order to benefit them with Dharma guidance; consequently, many kinds of connections and situations would arise to easily delay the crucial juncture of attaining enlightenment. In order to help practitioners that have wholeheartedly devoted their efforts to the quest to attain enlightenment sooner the teachings and arrangements of the later Tantric yanas were instituted to provide the experiences of realization as models for imitation. Nevertheless, such "grade-skipping" practices are not within the capability of ordinary folks. Therefore, all Tantric practices need to be preceded by receiving blessing through "initiations or empowerments" so that the practitioner would have possessed the seed of wisdom that would grow into real Dharma fruits. Only through having received such direct blessing that stems from merits of fruitful attainment could the Tantric practices really grow and mature.

This is a very important fundamental condition that one could not do without it. Many people mistakenly think that it is enough to have books or Dharma texts, then one can start practicing on one's own and engaging in a kind of "building a cart behind closed doors." (This is a Chinese proverb meaning to create without consulting experiences.) In fact, to practice any Tantric teaching basically one need to take refuge in and follow an authentic Guru that has the virtuous attainments, only then could realizations be expected. Otherwise, it would be like "steaming sand as cooking rice" (again, a Chinese proverb), one would be fussy blindly and getting nowhere.

The Lower Three Tantras of Vajrayana, Kriyayoga, Charyayoga and Yogatantra, trains one gradually through the processes of attending to Buddhas, befriending Buddhas, up to visualization of oneself as Yidam. The emphasis of their practices gradually shift from external formal compliance to ritual details and requirements to inner concentration stability and visualization.

The Anuttarayoga Tantra of Vajrayana was uniquely sustained in Tibetan Buddhism. It begins with Mahayoga of the Development Stage that trains in visualization of gradual development of mandala and Yidam. It also trains in the practice of wind (breathing) and channels in a Yidam's body. It is followed by Anuyoga of the Perfection Stage that trains in visualization of instant appearance of mandala and Yidam. It trains in the practice of wind (breathing), channels, essence drops, Tummo, blazing and dripping, and sexual union. For advanced practitioners there are also practices of Powa (transference of consciousness), Dream State, Sleep Light, etc.

The Atiyoga above them is commonly called, "Great Perfection" (in Tibetan, Dzogpa Chenpo). It is based on the view that all things are originally pure. Thus, there are no dualistic distinctions, and the usual classifications of view, practice, action and fruit are fused away. All things are naturally self-arising and self-appearing. The teachings of this yana may be further distinguished and classified into three yanas. They are: Semde that teaches all things as appearances of Mind-only and thereby transcends all duality, Longde that teaches all things as originally pure and thereby transcends duality that is based on making distinctions, and Mengagde that dispenses with rational comprehension but attains direct experience of original purity as Sunyata Light through the blessing of enlightened Guru.

Great Perfection is not just a mental comprehension of the truth of original purity of all things. It is rooted in the direct experience of Clear Light of original awareness that is inseparable from Sunyata Light and is omnipresent and eternal. Through practicing Thregchod, Cutting Through, the practitioner realizes that all are originally pure in the unification of original awareness and Sunyata, and ultimately attain Rainbow Body that is invisible. In addition, through practicing Thodgal, Direct Approach, the practitioner realizes the unification of Sunyata and Form as self-arising and self-appearing, and ultimately attain Light Body that is invisible or visible to other beings at will. As to the starting point for practices in this yana, the experience of self-arising of original awareness as Sunyata Light, except those beings that are reincarnations of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas or those that have received the special blessing from virtuous Guru through their complete dedication of body and mind, for most practitioners it would be possible to realize it only as a result of diligent practice through trainings in Development Stage and Perfection Stage that transform practitioners' body and mind.

IV. The Unifying Philosophic Principle

Philosophic principles of Buddhist teachings are rooted in the experiences of enlightenment. Out of indescribable experiences teachings that seem to be graspable are skillfully developed only to serve as pedagogical devices so that sentient beings that are lost in their grasping to forms may be guided. All these teachings are ultimately and in reality not to be grasped. However, as pedagogical conveniences they may be accepted as transient principles and be observed.

Within the system of twelve yanas the highest view that all things are originally pure serves as the unifying philosophic principle. To those that have had the direct experience of universal prevalence of Clear Light of original awareness, this amounts to describable absolute truth. Nevertheless, this principle would be too abstract to be comprehensible to most remaining sentient beings. Therefore, in the next lower yanas of Anuttarayoga Tantra this philosophic principle is substituted by other expressions in the form of inseparability of Clear Light and Sunyata, inseparability of Compassion and Sunyata, and inseparability of Joy and Sunyata; these are just another way of saying that the Clear Light, Compassion and Joy as experienced in the attainment of those yanas are all pure originally. (Sunyata means intrinsic selflessness. In intrinsic selflessness there is no dualistic distinctions, and hence all return to the original oneness that is limitless and originally pure.)

In the remaining lower yanas this principle is expressed through the guise of intrinsic selflessness. This is because in theory original purity and intrinsic selflessness are congruent and mutually implied each other, while in reality most practitioners could not experience the self-arising of Clear Light of original awareness.

At this juncture I offer the following basic and significant observation: for a basic principle to serve as a unifying principle of all Buddhist teachings it simply need to adopt a monism that transcends duality. For example, in Semde all are appearances of "Mind-only." This Mind is not the mind that is dualistic to matter, but a philosophic concept encompassing everything and is conventionally referred to as "Mind." The lack of characteristics of Sunyata, Blank Essence, is also not the same as the emptiness of non-existence that is dualistic to existence, but only the lack of particulars, like a blank sheet. Thus the concept of Sunyata could serve to explain the function of wondrous applications without falling into the vain trap of insubstantial emptiness. Similarly, I often used the notion of "limitless oneness" to explain Dharma. The harmonization in this oneness transcends duality because it is limitless, and thus this notion could serve as a unifying principle for Buddhist teachings.

V. Unification of the Twelve Yanas

Once it is understood that the construction of the twelve yanas are all based on experiences of the same reality, that there is an unifying principle that runs through the whole system as its fundamental philosophy, and that the various diversities that existed among the yanas are merely due to pedagogical considerations so as to suitably guide sentient beings of various propensities under diverse situations onto the path of enlightenment, then the so-called twelve yanas are indeed no different from a single and only Buddhayana. Just as in worldly education system, from kindergarten to graduate school the degree of differences may be likened to heaven and earth, and yet they all form a unified and orderly graded sequence of learning. Similarly, the twelve yanas of Dharma also constitute a complete system of conversion and salvation to guide Buddha's sons and daughters all the way until they all become Buddhas.

Dedication of Merits

May all those who come across and receive this teaching comprehend perfectly the universal harmony of the whole system of Dharma, and thereby become able to advance on the practice path at all levels without hindrances, and thus soon attain Great Perfection!

Written in Chinese on December 19, 2003
English translation completed on Christmas Eve of 2003
El Cerrito, California

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