Taking Enlightenment as the Path
The Hinayana and Mahayana are called 'causal vehicles' because they set in motion the processes which will cause enlightenment to happen sometime in the future. In contrast, the Vajrayana is distinctive in that enlightenment itself is the path. Hence, Vajrayana is referred to as the 'result vehicle.'
The difference in following the Vajrayana path is that rather than 'going towards it' over a period of many lifetimes, as on the other two paths, we learn to 'step into' our Buddha Nature in this life through being gradually introduced to it by our teacher. Thus, we come to experience it directly in ourselves. In order to stabilise this experience, we practice special meditation methods and eventually this experience matures into full realisation of what was there right from the beginning.
This process is expressed in the notion of 'ground, path and fruition', which forms the framework of the highest level of the Vajrayana path. The 'ground' is our Buddha Nature. The 'path' is the gradual familiarisation with this truth that follows through meditation and our conduct in life. And 'fruition' is the complete awakening of our Buddha Nature into 'Buddhahood'. Using the previous metaphor, it is as if we have realised that the treasure is buried beneath our floor, we have undergone the hard work of breaking open the ground and digging out the earth, and we have found the treasure, cleaned and polished it and recognised it as the very truth of our being.
Guru and Lineage
At the very heart of the Vajrayana path is the relationship with a spiritual teacher or 'guru'. Our teacher is the one who opens the door to the teachings and practices of the Dharma, maintained pure by an unbroken line going right back to the Buddha himself. This is the meaning of lineage, this unbroken line of spiritual teachings transmitted from teacher to student, starting with the Buddha himself teaching his disciples and then they, in turn, teaching their students, and so on, right through the centuries to us, receiving the very same spiritual teaching today. The different lineages are not separate sects. They are simply unique lines of transmission, each going back to the Buddha himself, meeting the differing needs of different people. Additionally, an authentic spiritual teacher, who carries such a lineage, should possess a stable realisation of the enlightened mind so as to be able to introduce it to his or her students when the time is right.
An analogy that conveys the relationship of lineage, spiritual teacher and our own Buddha Nature is to compare ourselves to an unlit candle and the Buddha, with his fully awakened mind, to the candle flame. Through his teachings, he lit the candle of his disciples so that they too were burning brightly with enlightenment. They in turn passed the flame on, lighting the candles of their students, who in turn passed it on to their students and on through the ages, all the while the candle flame burning just as brightly as when first lit, until it reaches us and lights our candle, so that we shine brightly on our own as well.
So it is that through this working relationship with an authentic spiritual teacher, we are introduced to the true nature of our mind. It is through him that we recognise our Buddha Nature and we realise that the treasure is hidden beneath the ordinariness of our everyday lives and we acknowledge the great value of making the effort to uncover it.
In all the texts we are advised to spend a long time looking for the right teacher. When we find him or her, we should then spend a number of years observing this person and to see if they are, in fact, the right teacher for us. In the same way, the teacher will be assessing us to determine if we are the right student. Then, once this very special bond has been established, it is vital to respect this relationship, to commit to it and to diligently follow the advice of the teacher. This can be challenging, as is well demonstrated in the lives of the great masters, such as Marpa and Milarepa. Challenged to face our own mind, with its negative tendencies and limiting patterns, we often cling fervently to these old, familiar ways, and it takes hard work to set them aside and open ourselves up to the deeper truth of who we are. The teacher helps us by reflecting back to us our Buddha Nature. First we come to recognize it in him. Then we come to recognize it in ourselves too, and eventually we come to see it in everything and everyone around us.