Thursday, August 12, 2010

Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy

Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy by Georg Feuerstein (1998)

This is a good introductory survey of the Tantric traditions in their numerous forms. Tantra is a style of spiritual practice common to Hinduism, Buddhism, and to some extent Jainism. There are many introductory books on Tantrism and some are rather poor as the tantric methods had a falling out as India fell under Victorian influence. This book, however, would be a very good text to familiarize with the general ideas.

Traditions covered are The Kaula School of Tantra , Kashmiri Shaivism, the Shri Vidya tradition of South India, Pratyabhijna Tantric School, non-dualist philosophy of Advaita Vedanta and Vajrayana Buddhism. The tantric methods are said to be especially useful now in the so-called Age of Degeneration. These methods employ the use of our everyday preoccupations into our spiritual practice, albeit sometimes in a very detailed and ritualistic way. The kleshas, or disturbing emotions such as desire, aversion/fear, pride, envy, and ignorance are all utilized. This is the integration of relative and ultimate reality, of samsara and nirvana, the world of bondage and liberation from it.

He mentions the Atharva Veda which is a few thousand years older than the popular tantric tradition as an historical root. Indeed the cosmology of the Vedas lays a foundation for most of the spiritual teachings of India.

He gives an interesting quote from the Vishva-Sara-Tantra comparing it to the famous magickal quote by Hermes Trismegistus - ‘as above, so below’ -- “What is here is elsewhere; what is not here is nowhere.”

The divine play of Shiva (consciousness) and Shakti (energy) is examined. Shakti is also manifestation of the Bliss of ultimate reality. In this system one’s goal is to recover one’s true nature as Being-Consciousness-Bliss (sat-chit-ananda). Shakti as Kali and the coiled serpent energy as kundalini-shakti are also detailed.

Also covered are the importance of the guru (teacher), initiation, and transformation while being in the presence of the teacher. The idea of a teacher as an energy vessel of initiation streams and the student’s devotional energy is essential in tantra and is often misunderstood. In the Hindu systems certain initiations are referred to as shakti-pata. In the Buddhist systems there are a vast array of initiations of meditational deities according to various classes of tantra.

The subtle body system of the five sheaths, the seven chakras, the nadis (channels), the various pranas (winds), and drops and the awakening of kundalini are well introduced. Here is a quote from the Kashmiri yogini Lalla from a mystical poem:

“Closing the doors and windows of my body,
I seized the thief, prana, and shut him in.
I bound him tightly inside the chamber of my heart,
And lashed him hard by the whip om.

I pulled the reins of the steed of the mind;
I compressed the life force circulating through the ten channels;
Then, indeed did the lunar particle (shashi-kala) melt and dissolve,
And the Void merged with the Void.
Concentrating on the om-sound,
I made my body like blazing coal.
Leaving behind the six crossroads,
I traveled the path of Truth.
And then I, Lalla, reached the Abode of Light.”

The significance of mantra is introduced as well as yantra, mandala, nyasa, mudra, etc. These are all contrived in order to ‘contemplate with sufficient intensity’ the inseparability of the mundane and the spiritual universes.

In Tibetan Buddhism the method is to see all form as the body of the deity, hear all speech as the mantra of the deity, and regard all that appears as the mind of the deity.

Seeing all women as the Goddess and the meditational practice of ritually worshipping a woman as the Goddess is common to several forms of tantric practice. Ritual sexual intercourse (maithuna) is a technique that has gotten much airplay among the neo-tantrics in the West. The Great Bliss is beyond ordinary pleasure and is not likely to manifest by those who crave ordinary pleasure. Yogic cultivation is mostly a gradual process developed through long regular practice.

Overall this is a good introductory text but I think there is much important information left out especially from the Vajrayana Buddhist perspective which is a much more open and available set of lineages than the Hindu tantrics in India who mainly practice in secret due to scorn they receive from the conservative orthodox Hindus who strangely enough were strongly influenced in this view by the rule of Victorian Brits. The heyday of tantric society was in Medieval India but stretched far beyond there into Tibet, China, Japan, Indonesia, Mongolia, and Central Asian Turkic and Indo-Iranian regions. Hatha yoga is a both a child and a sibling of tantra and Ayurvedic medicine is also employed in tantra. It should also be noted that tantric society was egalitarian - the Brahmanistic caste system was rejected - ritual purity was re-defined. There was a certain amount of counter-cultural defiance and behavior that appeared blasphemous.

In Vajrayana Buddhism tantra is called the resultant or fruition vehicle since all activities are approached as if we are already enlightened. Here is a quote along those lines:

“The Tantric adepts enjoy the beauty of the spiritual path because all the while they are traveling toward the sublime goal of Self-realization, or liberation, they are certain of the fact that they are always already liberated and merely have to rediscover, remember, or recognize this eternal verity. As the adept-poetes Lalla sang:

"If your desires have snapped the threads of the web of time,
You may live at home or take your abode in a forest;
Knowing that the Pure Self is all-pervading,
As you will know, so shall you be"

I am also reading Feuerstein’s monumental book “The Yoga Tradition” which is quite detailed and comprehensive.

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