Tantra is a concept of philosophical totality. It is a teaching of deep spiritual profundity and a vehicle that facilitates enlightenment here and now regardless of circumstance, status, gender or understanding. The ordinary experience of everyday life is transformed into the enlightened expression of the mind. The world that presents itself to the senses is not in error at anytime regardless of the nature of its manifestation. All is useful. Enlightenment is not dependent upon the changing of circumstance, but rather upon the penetration of phenomena with the developed wisdom of a mind freed of the tyranny of dualistic thinking. Whereas early Buddhism presents spiritual development in terms of ‘leaving’ the familiar for the unfamiliar, tantra emphasises that it is exactly through the ‘familiar’ that enlightenment is attained. What initiates this transformation of the ordinary into enlightenment is a chosen sadhana, or ‘spiritual method’, one which can consist of virtually any method whatsoever, relevant to the karma of the practitioner. The method serves to focus the mind through developed Buddhist concepts but in such away that offers a dynamic opening of the mind to the true empty nature of phenomena. The difficulty of the chosen method acts as the spiritual force that breaks through the haze of the deluded mind. As the true nature of phenomena is empty – there is not a single place or circumstance that is not a representation of the enlightened state. Delusion separates the practitioner from the direct realisation of this truth. Reality – as emptiness – can be accessed from anywhere in phenomenal existence. Position in this context is of no consequence. It is the method – sadhana – which will vary in definition and content from practitioner to practitioner according to individual karmic requirements. The sadhana takes the practitioner through the apparent delusive mind to the empty essence beyond. Although these sadhana can be very elaborate and consist of layers of explanation, these explanations themselves exist within the world of dualistic thinking. Sadhana can be very direct and to the point and consist of little unnecessary intellectual verbage. The tantric movement appears very much to be a development from Mahayana Buddhist thought, which is itself an elaboration of Buddhist philosophy as found in the Pali Canon and the Sanskrit Agama. A careful examination of key Buddhist texts suggests that tantra, as a distinct aspect of Buddhist practice, is the product of the development of philosophy and spiritual experience over-time, and that despite how different its outer appearance may seem – when compared with other, more conservative Buddhist schools – it is in fact in many ways a logical consequence of the extension of the concept of ‘sunyata’. The school of tantra – i.e. ‘Tanrayana’ – represents a culmination of creativity within Buddhism that began with the Lord Buddha himself. The acknowledgement of the importance of the ‘depth on interpretation’ of the Buddha’s teaching is very important. Tantra is note a later distortion of Buddhist thinking and practice, but rather a sublime manifestation of the karmic consequences of the Buddha’s Turning of the Dharma Wheel in ancientIndia. The ripples emanate outwards throughout time bringing the teachings to innumerable beings afresh with each new generation. Tantra is the consequence of the Buddha’s compassionate teachings, whereby people of different mentalities and abilities were taught the Dharma according to their existential need. This process did not change the Dharma or nullify its timeless, universal truth, but rather demonstrates that wherever wisdom of this kind manifests – compassion must always be its companion and that although practice can occur in isolation, it can also occur within spiritual partnerships. Whatever the case, it is true that at the very least, the individual must acquire the teachings in one way or another that is dependent upon the efforts of other – even if those efforts appear indirect and of no obvious import. A book, for instance, must be written, published, sold and acquired, thus creating a long list of contributory stages and individuals who fulfil the work itself. A teacher must be educated – this simple requirement enlists the help of many, many others, before knowledge can be truly said to ‘belong’ to the teacher. A student who retires from the world does so because his economic and social circumstances allow him such a choice of action. Often, the practice of tantra obviously involves either the direct or indirect assistance of others and is not a movement away from the familiar structures of early Buddhism.
Tantra (तन्त्र) is a Sanskrit term that translates literally as ‘weave’ – but more specifically refers to the ‘weft’ of a loom, or the horizontal threads that are ‘weaved’ through the lengthwise warp threads. Indeed, the Sanskrit term ‘tantravaya’ refers to a ‘weaver’. The term ‘tantra’ can also be used to refer the ‘thread’ that is actually ‘weaved’, and is related to the Sanskrit term ‘tanti’ (तन्ति) which translates as a ‘cord’ traditionally used to tether calves. Furthermore, the verbal root ‘tan’ is defined as to ‘stretch’, ‘expand’ and ‘extend’. This description of a practical handicraft has become adapted to describe a specific practice that links the practitioner to his teacher, to the Buddha, and to the goal of enlightenment. There is a common ‘thread’ that weaves its way through time and space, and which also links the practitioner as existing in the deluded sphere, to that of the unconditioned enlightened sphere. Tantra as a method appears to be an elaboration of the Mahayana teaching that suggests that ‘samsara’ – the deluded world – is identical to ‘nirvana – the enlightened world. Enlightenment is immanent ‘here and now’, and that by necessity all things exist within enlightenment itself. The world is a function of enlightenment and being so is a positive manifestation even in its deluded aspect. Through the use of a spiritual method – sadhana – the practitioner can realise enlightenment and truly understand the real nature of the universe. The method (or sadhana) varies according to each practitioner, but generally speaking each distinct exercise is designed to take the spiritual seeker on an inner journey from ‘here’, to ‘there’. There can be no mistakes. The deluded physical world and its activities can not be mistaken as being representative of the enlightened world and its multitudinous functions. Delusion is delusion, and enlightenment is enlightenment. The practitioner must thoroughly examine, understand and disregard his way through the journey, sometimes in isolation, other times under the strict guidance of a teacher (guru). The tantric method weaves samsara with nirvana together through the practitioner’s mind and body. Good guidance and honesty have to go hand in hand. Tantric methods might involve any method whatsoever, and these methods may not necessarily be considered typical of the usual methods common within Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. The pathway towards enlightenment may not conform to the Four Noble Truths or the Noble Eightfold Path. This is because the Buddha’s teachings envelope beings of many and varied spiritual capacities – the tantika – or tantric practitioner approaches the quest for enlightenment with a noble and heroic mind that strives for nothing less than complete and total enlightenment – here and now. As all phenomena is essentially empty and without substance, it follows that all phenomena is equally useful for the ‘breaking through’ process. Where the tantric practitioner begins the quest is dependent upon their particular karma and state of mind. Nirvana in early and developed Buddhism is often described as being attained through a particular and precise pathway that is ‘not here’ in the everyday experience. Things have to be ‘given up’, behaviour has to be modified and a strict policy applied to worldly interaction. This still happens within tantric practice, with some practitioners living a life very much akin to that of a bhikkhu in the Theravada tradition. It is also true that due to the understanding that enlightenment underlies all phenomena, pathways that are not so one-side, particular or exclusive may be engaged. The Buddha taught that desire is the root cause of suffering and should be avoided – but it can be avoided not necessarily by abandoning the outer forms, but by instantly removing the inner conditions that give rise to it. As this is not the most efficient way to deal with desire, a careful guidance must be applied every step of the way. Outer forms of desire can be abandoned so that the mind can disengage from them and become detached, but it is conceivably possible to uproot the ‘desiring’ conditions without changing the outer circumstance themselves.
The Chinese characters chosen to represent the Sanskrit term ‘tantra’ are ‘密宗’ (mi4zong1). The ideogram ‘密’ (mi4) contains the upper particle of ‘宓’ (mi4) which represents something hidden or obscured under a roof or within a building, and the lower particle ‘山’ (shan1) represents a mount. Therefore the ideogram ‘密’ (mi4) carries the meaning of ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ – literally something is doubly hidden, once in the mountains, as well as under an obscuring roof. What is hidden is not easy to see or to find, it is intended to remain secret. The ideogram ‘宗’ (zong1) is comprised of the particle ‘宀’ (mian2), which is a roof, and the particle ‘示’ (shi4) which is a shrine or altar. The ideogram ‘宗’ (zong1) represents an altar in a building such as a shrine or temple, and is used within this context to mean a ‘religion’, ‘sect’, or ‘spiritual school’, etc. The Chinese sages and the Indian saints chose to translate the Sanskrit term ‘tantra’ as ‘密宗’ (mi4zong1). This refers specifically to a ‘secret religion’, or ‘hidden practice’. These are teachings that are considered to be of the deepest spirituality, but within the context of Buddhism in general, which emphasises compassion toward all beings, the tantric practice, by way of contrast, although no less compassionate, offers practices which are considered ‘not of the ordinary’, the specifics of which might be misunderstood by those who are not yet prepared. Tantric practices are not for the ordinary people, but only for those considered karmically ‘ready’. Tantra is the hidden religion that teaches enlightenment in the exact present. The Buddha, when advising about tantric practice often teaches that moral purity is very important and should be attained before any undertaking of the higher tantric practices. Although there may eventually be meat eating, alcohol drinking and sexual participation, these acts themselves are ‘purified’ before they are practiced, so that when these kind of manifestations occur to the yogi, there is no greed, hatred or delusion present.
The ‘thread’ of doctrine which links early Buddhism to tantric Buddhism is the teaching of ‘sunyata’, or ‘emptiness’. This notion exists in the Pali and Agama Canons, is developed by Nagarjuna to an extraordinary degree within the Mahayana, and may be viewed being as brought to fruition within Tantrayana. This allows for the concept of nirvana within early Buddhism, (which is viewed as separate and distinct from the deluded world of samsara), to be viewed within the Mahayana as being ‘identical’ with no distinction whatsoever in reality, (other than its realisation) – to being fully applied and explored within Tantrayana as an ultimate truth. Early Buddhism appears to extol a narrow path of escape from plane of existence to another, whilst developed Buddhism expands the path considerably by equating the delusive state with the enlightened state. Of course this is not just a random (and convenient) re-adjustment of Buddhist thinking, but rather a very sophisticated re-statement of Buddhist philosophy. It is often argued that the premise of developed Buddhism, far from being an intellectual re-invention, is in fact present within early Buddhism but I obscured by many other considerations, least of all is the doctrinal dispute that eventually ended in the formation of eighteen distinct Buddhist schools. From this it can be seen that there has always been a certain interpretive latitude within Buddhist thinking. Buddhism however, has never just consisted of a set of teachings that must be blindly followed. Coupled with the Buddha’s enlightened statements, there is the issue of experience with regard to the putting into practice what might be better defined as the ‘implications’ of these statements. There exists Buddhist teachings, and there exists the recorded experiences of those who have put these teachings into practice. When compared these two aspects – one theoretical, the other practical – have fed off of one another and created necessary interpretative developments. Within the tantric movement it is recognised that enlightenment is not solely dependent upon a narrow path, although this path is certainly valid. Emptiness is equally the underlying nature of both the ‘narrow’ and the ‘broad’ paths. Once this is acknowledged and understood – that is philosophically accepted as valid – then it is a logical assumption to believe that any spiritual training method, providing it has the enlightened guidance of a guru – or one who has already trodden the path – can convey the practitioner from the state of delusion to that of enlightenment. The subtle interpretation of the term ‘tantra’ confers the meaning that all is ‘weaved’ together into an all-embracing totality. The physical world of the senses, far from being a negative and hindering construct, is re-interpreted as being a highly positive vehicle for enlightened expression. The physical world is not left behind, but rather fully embraced as being existentially spiritually valuable. Through the spiritual method, (or ‘sadhana’), the reality of ‘sunyata’, (or ‘emptiness’) is directly realised. Tantra describes both the ‘method’ to the goal, and the ‘goal’ itself. In this regard, the methods employed within tantra, although extensive, are validated through a certain concept known as ‘sadhana’, and it is to this concept that we now turn.
With a teaching that routinely equates the ‘here and nowness’ of samsara with the sublime heights of nirvanic bliss, there is the ever present danger of the ego assuming an insight it does not possess. That is, once the deluded intellect learns that the ordinary state of things is in fact representative of the deepest enlightened wisdom, it assumes that it already knows this and is, as a consequence, fully enlightened. From a purely intellectual position, the tantric assertion seems to be a watered down version of the immense effort associated with other Buddhist paths. What is the point of striving and making intense effort if the reality of enlightenment is considered to be the ‘ordinariness’ of everyday life? Of course, although the danger of such an assumption is always present, it is generally countered within tantra, through the insistence upon the use of a ‘sadhana’, or spiritual ‘method’. This method often takes years to perfect. Indeed, within the tantric writings, often it is the case that the time period is around twelve years, although some times it can be even longer. The Sanskrit term ‘sadhana’ (साधन) translates as ‘directing to the goal’. It also has connections to ‘conjuring’, and ‘magic’ ritual. Through its effective application spiritual powers can be attained (siddhis), but these should only be viewed as by-products of the movement toward complete enlightenment and never achievements in themselves. However, as the tantric practitioner is on the compassionate path of the bodhisattva, these various magic powers (siddhis) are often employed for the betterment of humanity. Sadhana is designed to weave emptiness and form together into one all-embracing ‘whole’. Ritual, yoga and meditation are practices utilised within sadhana, and although more or less orthodox Buddhist practices can be employed, it is also true that meat eating, alcohol consumption and sexual practice is also used. The practitioner is initiated into the sadhana method by a guru. The guru thoroughly understands the student and is able to provide a sadhana suitable to the mentality. It is never an ad hoc affair. Timing (and insight) is crucial if the practice is to be effective and the transmission pristine and pure. The guru has to be enlightened, as this fact empowers the sadhana. Nothing is taboo in this system. If emptiness is the underlying reality of the universe, then there is no activity or state of mind that does not have it as its essence. The sadhana method assists the tantric practitioner to re-move the veil of delusion that usually prevents the immediate observation of the empty essence. Once removed, emptiness is revealed. The transmission has to be strong enough for the usual habits of mind to be uprooted through practice whilst living within the midst of the ordinary world. The ego can not be allowed to exist in its deluded state. Dualism should not persist. The power of the sadhana should enable the practitioner to put a hold on the delusive qualities of the mind, whilst building insight and concentration through practice. When the inner potential reaches a critical impasse the ego is thoroughly transcended and the mind becomes identical with its empty nature. At this stage the structure of the sadhana has achieved its objective and is dissolved into the emptiness itself.
Tantric practice is the manifestation of Buddhist tolerance and understanding taken to complete fulfilment. It offers hope to all beings as it does not operate any restrictive or exclusive measures. Although it is often the case that a guru is required in presence, it is also correct to say that many great tantrikas developed their insight and compassion whilst living in isolation on the tops of mountains or deep inside caves. Sometimes the connection with a guru is transferred from a past existence into the presence, with no requirement for a guru to exist in physical form. Other times, a practitioner might meet a guru only once in a lifetime, but spend the next twenty years applying the fruit of that spiritual encounter. Tantrism is a unique and radical philosophical development that does not allow one-sided notions of spiritual development to take centre stage. Enlightenment lies within the heart of the present moment, and all that is needed (from the tantric perspective) is the immediate perception of this truth. Enlightenment, even if it appears a ‘sudden’ event, usually is the product of many years of spiritual preparation and intense effort. The tantric method resolves insight, compassion and emptiness into the eternal present moment.
Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of tantric practice is not its generally unorthodox approach toward Buddhist practice, but rather its inclusion – as a valid spiritual practice – of the use of sexual imagery and sexual practice. Whereas within early Buddhism, any action originating from the taint of ‘desire’, such as a sexual thought or a physical, sexual act, is viewed as a delusive obscuration in the mind, within the tantric tradition, such practices are viewed as legitimate pathways toward enlightenment. Tantric art often depicts the male tantrika (daka) involved in the sexual embrace of his female tantrika partner (dakini). It is not the usual kind of sexual embrace. It generally does not feature physical sexual positions that would be recognisable as part of ordinary sexual relations, but invariable features the male sat in the buddhasana – or the full or half lotus, with the female sat on his lap with her arms and legs embracing his body – belly to belly. The penis is usually depicted as being erect and inserted within the vagina. However, despite the rather obvious use of sexual imagery, and the presentation of an almost ritualised sexual act, it is difficult to declare that this is a sexual act of the ‘ordinary’ kind. This practice and depiction can not be viewed in any way, as being the participation in a one-sided sexual act that is the product of delusion thought. The symbolism of the depiction declares a unity of nature through its distinctive constituents. Although a man and a woman can retire (separately) from the world and dedicate themselves to an isolatory practice to realise the ‘one’, tantra offers an interesting alternative. The Buddha teaches many people the path of isolated practice, but it is obvious that this is not the only path. Even within early Buddhism, lay people – male and female – realised enlightenment within the lifetime of the Buddha. These people were not monastics and did not practice in an isolatory fashion. It may be presumed that within the context of their everyday lives sexuality played a part, either within the mind, the body or both. Working upon the premise that developed Buddhism firmly has its roots within early Buddhism, it is possible that distinct lineages (unrecorded, for obvious reasons as actual teachings within the early record) survived in principle and practice until circumstances permitted their development into a fully fledged system – circa 8th to 12th century India – with regard to the eighty four Mahasiddhis, etc. There is also discussion about tantra being the product of Mahayana Buddhism influenced by Brahmanic (Hindu) practices on the grounds that Hinduism has a fully functioning tantric system, or on the contrary that it was a pure Buddhist tantra that influenced Hindu practice. Whatever the case, tantric teaching is a distinct body of knowledge and wisdom. Its sexual imagery is neither excessive nor deficient, human desire is simply considered a fact of life that can be used as a means to spiritual development. The united sexual organs of the male and female denote the unity of creation and its essence, of samsara and nirvana. In this ecstatic yoga gender loses its definitional boundary all merges into an all embracing void that contains all things. This unity displayed in sexual union is exactly the same united realised by the holy person who practices in isolation. The difference is that the latter views sexuality as a hindrance to spiritual development, whilst the former acknowledges that all phenomena – including sexuality – is ‘empty’ and a manifestation of the enlightened mind. The destination is exactly the same even if there are differences of opinion regarding the direction of the path to take.
Moral purity (sila) is a key requisite for tantric practitioners. Moral purity may be viewed as containing two distinct aspects; one being the modification of behaviour, the other of eradicating the taints of greed, hatred and delusion from the within mind. In the Chinese Buddhist school of Ch’an, the masters often say that what exists ‘beyond’ the attainment of enlightenment – that is life after the experience of enlightenment – is never to be spoken about with those not yet existing within this advanced state that is beyond all duality. This ‘advanced state’ is exactly the domain that the tantric teachings represent. Although tantra contains Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana aspects, and as a consequence can convey a practitioner from this shore to the other shore, nevertheless, its crowning glory and greatest philosophical achievement lies in its full embracing of the activities of ordinary life, and presenting these activities as a clean and pristine function of the enlightened mind. Every phenomenon is experienced afresh through tantric eyes. Although the Dharma is based upon discipline, there is nothing that does not exist in the enlightened state. As a consequence the world is transformed (through the experience of enlightenment) out of the duality that causes human suffering.