Monday, February 13, 2012

The Tantric Tradition

Book Review: The Tantric Tradition  by Agehananda Bharati  (Anchor/Doubleday 1965, 1970)

This is both a good serious academic survey and a spiritual insider's account of the Tantric tradition. It is a fairly thorough account with very good comparisons of the Hindu and Buddhist Tantric systems, though the author probably knows Hindu Tantra better since he is a member of a Hindu order of monks. This book was written before more became known about Tantric Buddhism as more Tibetan lamas came to exile in the West. Nonetheless there is great information here about both Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. The author analyses the best scholarship of the time and offers some of his own ideas as well.

 Bharati notes that philosophically, tantra in both Buddhism and Hinduism is no different than non-tantric Buddhism and Hinduism. Certainly tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism builds on Mahayana Buddhism and is indeed considered by those who practice it to be a subset of Mahayana. Non-tantric Saivites also share similar philosophical positions with tantric Saivites. The difference lies in the Sadhana, or contemplative practices. So the difference between tantric and non-tantric approaches is methodological. As some of my teachers have noted – tantra is a technology, a style of practice that bypasses and may lead to quick results.

 In comparing elements of Indian philosophy he notes that all are concerned with emancipation from a state of delusion and all postulate an underlying ‘absolute’ to the phenomenal universe. Here he notes the Vedantic brahman and the Mahayana sunya, or emptiness as being similar concepts. They are both concepts used to describe (often in exclusive terms) an absoluteness beyond concepts. Bharati makes an interesting suggestion that tantrism involves experiencing the inseparability of the absolute and phenomenal worlds through sadhana. In the Madyamika philosophy of the Mahayana this is the inseparability of samsara and nirvana. He thinks that there are differences between the Hindu and Buddhist approaches but many disagree. Indeed it was said in 10th century India by the Bengali adept Atisha that the differences were so subtle as to be only detectible on higher philosophical levels. Bharati notes that:

“Hindu scholars, with no exception to my knowledge, believe in a virtual doctrinary identity of Advaita monism and Madyamika absolutism ….”

The “Advaita monism’ he mentions probably refers to the reformed “Advaita Vedanta” or non-dualism of the quasi-tantric Shankaracarya.

Methods and deities among Hindu and Buddhist tantrics overlap quite a bit and some famous practitioners are counted among both traditions. This is true of the founders of the Nath yogi ttradition such as Matsyendranath and Goraknath In some places and times such as medieval Kashmir it is hard to tell which deities were Hindu and which Buddhist as things were so thoroughly mixed. Hinduism and Buddhism usually differ on the Hindu emphasis on atma and the Buddhist emphasis on anatma. So self and non-self are basically exact opposites. Another complete reversal is the depiction of polarity. In Hindu tantra the Shakti is the active element while in Buddhist tantra the consort, or dakini is considered the passive element associated with emptiness/wisdom. Dare I say that I think there is a secretive element in these polar reversals and that perhaps all polarities are reversible. This accords with the notion of samanvaya, the reconciling of seeming contradictions on a higher philosophical level where they have no validity. Polarity and dualism are features of the phenomenal world and have no meaning in the ultimate beyond so their polarity is not ‘fixed’ even in the phenomenal world. I have been working with this idea for a while. Another Hindu-Buddhist difference is the doctrine of the three bodies of Buddha (trikaya) expounded first in the Mahayana. This does not occur in Hinduism but there are possible parallels such as in the Trika school of Kasmiri Saivism and the Vaisnava depiction of the threefold aspect of deity as ‘attraction’, ‘unrestrainability’, and ‘the purely mythological.’

Bharati includes a whole chapter on terminology and notes that terms may mean different things in the Hindu versions, the Indian Buddhist versions, and the Tibetan versions, especially regarding the so-called ‘twilight language’ – which is cryptic, esoteric, and symbolic. Terms may also have different meanings in different philosophical systems and even different meaning among the uneducated populace. Several of his explanations of the details of Buddhist terms come from the great scholar Herbert Guenther. Guenther did his utmost to try to convey the rich character of words and phrases in Tibetan and Sanskrit although with the many Tibetan speakers and translators and the many lamas who are fluent in English we get better results nowadays.

In a chapter comparing tantric literature of India and Tibet, the origins of the goddess Tara are discussed. Hindus consider her a wife of Siva and one of the ten mahavidyas (wisdom goddesses). Several scholars think she was a Buddhist goddess that the Hindus later adopted. ‘Mahacina’ Tara indicates that she was venerated beyond the Himalayas – in Tibet, Mongolia, and/or western China. Bharati thinks the Hindu Tara was a totally separate goddess – Tara meaning ‘savioress’ being a common epithet of Indian goddesses. The region of tantric influence spread from these areas north of the Himalayas westward towards Iran and southward into Cambodia and Indonesia. This has been determined by iconography and history. Unfortunately the geography given in Indian medieval history is often quite questionable. The author includes a long account from the Hindu Rudrayamala, an account which was mentioned in the Taratantra utilized by both Hindus and Buddhists. This account was written late in the 11th century – after organized Buddhism had diminished in India. Here the Brahmin sage Vasistha is advised to seek out the goddess in the lands to the north in Mahacina where the Buddhists dwell. Here he finds the Buddha who explains to him the tantric methods to worship the goddess. Other earlier accounts of this episode appear in other tantras. In some the Buddha takes wine along with the others and rather orgiastic behavior is recounted. Tara is sometimes associated with the Blue Sarasvati, Nilasarasvati. There is discussion of a tantra of Mahacina that talks about the Mahacina-method in both the Mahacintantra and the Saktisangama where Siva instructs to practice this style of the Vajrayana Buddhists in a certain way. These texts have the most info about Tibetan and Vajrayana deities pertaining to Hindus.  The largest main compilation of Buddhist tantras in India is the Sadhanamala which describes many deities and sometimes their origins. A few deities such as the Goddess Ekajati (old one tooth) are thought to have come from Tibet or Nepal to India but the other 99% are thought to be Indian in origin. Ekajati is sometimes called blue Tara in Tibet. Siva as lord of Mt. Kailash is sometimes given as equivalent to Buddha but according to Bharati this is done by the Hindus only and the Buddhists do not concede to this. But many Hindu deities occur in Buddhist tantric versions and stories.

Pilgrimage is a topic that is decidedly associated with tantra. There was pilgrimage and circumambulation before tantra but it became more widespread as a tantric practice. After Siva destroyed Daksa’s sacrifice after his wife Sati immolated herself he wandered about mad with her burnt body. After the pieces of her body fell in various places in India these spots became power places where pilgrims traveled. The Buddhists had other power places. Mt Kailash is one of the pilgrimage places shared by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Bonpos. The places of the goddess and the Buddhist pilgrimage sites are called pithas. The notion of the four pithas occurs in Buddhist and Hindu tantric works. The Hevajra Tantra circa 690 AD mentions these as 1) Jalandhara (East Punjab), 2) Oddiyana (Swat Valley of Pakistan), 3) Purnagiri (unknown current location), and 4) Kamarupa (Assam). Kamarupa is still a pilgrimage site today. The Buddhist Catuspithantantra describes the four pithas mystically as the shrine of the self, the shrine of the supreme, the shrine of yoga, and the secret esoteric shrine. The same places mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra are mentioned in the Kalika Purana. These are associated with Hindu and Vaisnava deities and also the four directions. It is quite likely as well that the four pithas represented parts of the body and in some tantras there is mention of activating them within and without through nyasa, or charging them through touching. Typically one touches the various body centers. Indeed the Indian Buddhist tantrikas often utilized a four chakra system that may correspond. The Caryapadas (Indian Buddhist Mahasiddhas from Bengal) used the twilight or intentional language intermixing geography and vajra body of wind, drops, channels, and wheels. The Yamuna and Ganges rivers referred to the right and left (solar and lunar) channels of the yogic body. Pradaksina, or clockwise circumambulation, is a very common practice that may be Vedic in origin but is practiced all over India and perhaps even more vigorously by indigenous tribal peoples. There are also more ascetic things done such as fasting while prostrating the whole pilgrimage trail from feet to hands. One such circuit done by Jains is said to take 30 hours. The three day circumambulation of Mt. Kailasa is undertaken by many pilgrims, some who also circumambulate the nearby lakes as well. Pilgrimage is a way of connecting to a sacred place and sharing energy with it in order to bring that sacredness into one’s life. Since tantra is seen in the Vajrayana as the working and transformation of energy this fits right in with the methodology.

Mantra is probably the most important tantric topic. In Tibet Tantrayana is also called ‘secret mantra’ and these words of power are often at the center of tantric practice. Mantra, though often cryptic, is not the same as the cryptic twilight language or intentional language employed by tantrikas. Dharani refers to long mnemonic formulas containing mantras or strings of mantras. In some sense any sacred utterances or recitations could be considered mantra. The Vedic hymns are called mantras. Mantra usually refers to syllables or words of power that one recites and uses as a focus for meditation. Often a mantra is formally introduced to the student through the teacher or guru in a formal ceremony called diksha or abhisheka (empowerment). There are bija mantras, so-called seed mantras usually of one syllable, deity mantras, mantras of emptiness, and heart mantras. I have also heard of and received once a mantra called an approach mantra which is a special mantra to approach the deity.

Most scholars consider that Buddhist tantra preceded Hindu tantra although when we hear or read about tantra it is often mostly Hindu tantra. The Vedic seed mantras seem to have been adopted by Buddhists at the beginning of tantrism. The author categorizes mantras into three purposes: propitiation (of a deity or power), acquisition (of something difficult to obtain or powers), and identification (introjection) – of the individual with the cosmic soul. There are also mantras for the purification of the elements (bhutasuddhi). Mantra-japa is the recitation of mantras aloud or silently usually counted with beads on a string. There is what is called pranajapa, or the continuous repetition of the mantra through one’s daily tasks. The Tibetans do practices called drupchens where mantras, usually of a specific deity, are practiced continuously day and night for a few days by groups of practitioners. One of the oldest Buddhist tantras, the Guyhasmaja Tantra is said by some Buddhists to have been composed by the great Mahayanist Asanga – which would make it even a few hundred years older than circa ~ 500-650 CE that is given. Elements of tantra have been noted in the Atharva-Veda, the youngest Veda that is full of ritual and magical formulas so some scholars see it as a precursor to the tantric tradition.

Bharati goes through the association of deities with seed mantras. Some seed mantras indicate the nature of a deity. HUM depicts a warrior mode, PHAT a fierce mode, other bijas depict various goddesses, love/desire, or maya. He notes the Buddhist mantra OM HUM PHAT being used for exorcism and to prepare the mind for ‘emptiness.’ The similar Hindu mantra AM HUNG PHAT is said to be used when chopping off the head of a sacrificial goat to Kali or Durga.

Bharati goes through various rules and conventions of mantra. Often certain mantras accompany certain ritual procedures. Sometimes one works with a personal deity form, or ista-devata (yidam in Tibetan). In Tibetan practices there are various offering mantras and mudras (gestures). OM AH HUNG is a common offering mantra in Tibetan practices, these seed syllables referring to body, speech, and mind and usually appearing on the forehead, throat, and heart respectively (although as I know from the Yungdrung Bon traditiuon the OM and AH are reversed in color and body position). Bharati lists this as an identification mantra. Many of the Hindu mantras have Buddhist parallels especially Saivite ones. Mantras of Visnu, Krsna, and Tamil deities usually do not have Buddhist versions. Hindu Sakti mantras to goddesses such as Sarasvati, the goddess of speech, usually begin with AIM as the seed mantra. Bharati offers many more examples.

The intentional language , or sandhabhasa, of the tantrikas is the next subject. Bharati mentions several explanation for it: 1) to camouflage instructions from the orthodoxy, 2) an esoteric language for initiates, 3) to entice and lure people away from orthodoxy (with sexual symboloism)- this is a rather paranoid view of modern orthodox anti-tantric Hindus, 4) as a mnemonic device (to remember instruction by analogy?), and 5) comedy – couching yogic instructions in absurdly inappropriate terminology. Eroticism, the yoga of the avadhuti, or central channel, and union with the consort, emptiness, are typical topics in the sandha language. The Dohas, or realization songs of the Indian Mahasiddhas and the Bengali text, Carya Gita, are utterly full of symbolic language. So full are they that it helps to have someone to interpret. Some of the basic terms are well known though and Bharati gives a few lists. The sandha term ‘bodhicitta’ which normally refers to the ‘mind of enlightenment’ now refers to the ‘virile semen’ generated from the union of prajna (wisdom) and upaya (skillful means/effort/method).

Initiation is very important in the tantric tradition for the ‘blessing energy’ is transferred ceremonially from guru to student. Initiation is diksha. Often the initiate formally receives a mantra in the ceremony and perhaps a sadhana to practice as well. According to Bharati the Sannyasi and Udasi orders of northern India and the Nath yogis of Nepal  mention three types of diksha: 1) yoga-diksa – initiation into a hatha or laya yoga practice, usually with no mantra given, 2) upayoga-diksa – for a particular secular purpose with a mantra given, 3) jnana-diksa – ‘initiation leading to intuitive knowledge.’

There is also a notion of Sambhavi-diksa – or initiation directly from Siva.

Bharati devotes a long section to ‘Polarity Symbolism’ with the notation that the gender symbolism is reversed in the Hindu (Saivite) and Buddhist versions. He makes some effort to determine why this is so without coming to a definite conclusion. The Shakti of Shiva is considered the active, dynamic, energetic partner. In the Vajrayana the consort or dakini is usually symbolic of wisdom or emptiness, considered the static or passive aspect, although this passivity may not be as important as Bharati and others have emphasized. The wisdom goddess in Buddhism likely comes from the Mother of Wisdom, Prajnaparmita. The name Shakti does not occur in Buddhism but as Bharati notes there are certain dakinis, often of the wrathful sort that are Shakti-like. So Bharati distinguishes two types of Buddhist tantric goddesses here. As I know from Buddhism there are deities related to the four activities of enlightened beings: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subduing. These range from peaceful to wrathful. The wrathful dakinis do not really seem to be passive even when joined with male deities and I think perhaps that the active-passive duality of male-female here is less relevant. When depicted alone they are especially in fierce aspect. Bharati does note that the yab-yum or male-female conjoined forms as the female astride the vajra or lotus-postured male seem to be predominantly Tibetan in their common depictions. In the Hindu Sakti tradition the goddess is sometimes depicted dancing on the corpse of Siva – often said to denote that: “Siva without Sakti is a corpse.”

Vajrayana depictions sometimes show a Vajrayana deity dancing on a corpse of a Hindu deity. I know of an Indian Vajrayana story of a painting of a Buddhist deity dancing on a Hindu deity and the Hindu pandit re-paints it the other way around and it keeps magically reverting back. The Vajrayanists would explain that the Hindu deities represent “worldly gods” and so are able to be and need to be overcome. Buddhist ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude with regards to Hindus may have to do with Buddha’s declaration that the Samadhis, or yogic trances, he learned from the matty-haired ascetics (possibly Saivites) were ultimately impermanent states and so he went beyond these through his technique of clear insight (vipasyana). Of course, the Hindus would scoff at such statements and note Siva as the unsurpassable god, lord of yoga, and enjoyer of the ultimate state. But gender can also be changed among the gods. Siva as the androgynous Ardanarisvara is one example where Siva and Sakti are united in one form. Visnu appearing as the seductress Mohini is another. There are rare Tibetan yab-yum thankas where male and female positions are reversed. Another famed gender change came much later in Buddhist China as the male bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara morphed into the female Kwan Yin. Bharati goes on to offer several detailed possibilities as to how these polarities developed – one being the duality of the powerful Samkhya philosophy of ancient India that separated the world into matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusa). The Buddhist yab-yum is the union of compassion (upaya, skillful means, action, method) and wisdom (prajna, emptiness, insight).  I think one interesting aspect is that in the Buddhist system when one experiences the non-dual state, integrates it, and stabilizes it – there is said to be no difference between samsara and nirvana and so all polarities fade, being remnants of the relative world – yet as part of samsara they still appear, yet under deeper realization they can become flexible and even reversible – as I speculate. The union of the two realities (samsara and nirvana) is the yuganaddha, and results in the apratisthita-nirvana, the nirvana that is not fixed. Bharati discusses the Kalachakra Tantra a bit and suggests that this deity in yab-yum form with prajna as consort suggests a more overall passive deity-form though I am not sure I follow his argument. Kalachakra was a late Buddhist tantra that probably originated west of India in modern Pakistan/Afghanistan and has been associated by some with a movement to unite Buddhists and Hindus against Muslim incursions.

In discussing tantric sadhana Bharati notes the three types of disposition of aspirant to the tantric mysteries: 1) pasu or animal – the lowest and most base, 2) vira or hero – the middling and perhaps most common, and 3) the divya or divine disposition. The Tibetans usually refer to this as lesser, middling, and greater capacities. The famous five M’s of so-called left-handed tantra are now discussed. There is occur in both Hindu and Buddhist tantra but I should note that I have never heard or read anything that mentions the term vamamarg, or ‘left-handed tantra’ in Buddhist works. But it is sometimes referred to as viracara, or the practice of the hero and this is in most Tibetan tantras. The five M’s (makaras) are meat, fish, wine, parched grain, and sexual intercourse. These are antinomial in the sense that they were taboo to orthodox Vedic Brahmins. These are sometimes depicted and represented symbolically and sometimes actually. In Buddhist Tantra they are usually utilized in the so-called higher tantras classification  - Anuttarayogatantras. Other of these types of sacraments are mentioned including hemp, ginger, and the wife of another. Apparently, hemp was used as a preliminary to many tantric rites. Bharati thinks this was mainly an aid to overcome cultural inhibitions to what was to become a rite of taboo and sexuality. Bharati gives descriptions of both Hindu and Buddhist versions of these rites. In the Hindu one given from the Rudrayamala the sage Vasistha receives instruction from Siva in the form of Buddha. The Buddhist version is a tantra of the sow-goddess Vajravarahi (Vajrayogini).

Bharati thinks that the emphasis on withholding the semen in many Buddhist tantras and the notion of releasing it in some Hindu tantras has to do with the Vedic emphasis on sacrifice. Indeed the release of semen has been known to be symbolic of sacrifice and indeed sacrifice is the central element of old Vedic tradition. Yet there was an element of retaining the semen even in Vedic India, particularly among the Vratya brotherhoods who were groups of somewhat outcaste young males prone to cattle-raiding in a sort of coming of age rite. Some scholars think these societies evolved into the tradition of forest yogis and ascetics that later became the hermit holy men that taught Buddha. The loss of semen was regarded as the loss of magico-spiritual energy. In this light I am not sure I agree with Bharati on this point. Tantra was certainly not designed to be hedonistic, though perhaps on occasion it became that way as some texts mention looser orgies after the austere and meditative rites were performed. Sexuality in tantra is typically a form of yoga that often involves a reversal of the usual flow of sexual energy and even sometimes a reversal of functions – as there are practices where the male takes in fluid through the tip of the penis through yogic bhanda (locks). In Buddhist tantra the feminine energy transforms into the Great Bliss, or mahasukha, that transcends ordinary bliss and becomes the ‘pure pleasure’ untainted by worldliness.

There are several other topics discussed: the kalas, or segments, equated with various goddesses, the Sanskrit syllables, or matrikas (fierce mothers) also equated with goddesses. He talks about the modern Hindu Renaissance where old orthodox Hinduism of uneducated Brahmins has been replaced by intellectual Swamis educated in Western languages and philosophy. He suggests that old style Hindus were more ritualistic and less intellectual though quite well trained and learned. Among the modern Hindu reformers he notes Rammohan Roy, Dayananda, Vivekananda, Shivananda, Chinmayananda, and Krishna Manon. He also suggests that the polytheistic element was more prevalant in the past and the modernizers have favored a more monotheistic approach, perhaps to accord better with their Western education. He notes that most tantras are more concerned with mantra than any other topic. As a goal of tantric practice, Bharati favors the term ‘enstasy’ coined by Mircea Eliade to describe the goals of the contemplative traditions of India. Hindu terms such as samadhi and kaivalya can refer to the spiritually integrated state sought. Siddhi, or magical accomplishment or power is often given as a tantric goal. In the Mahasiddha tradition it is often the supreme siddhi as mahamudra siddhi that is the quintessential accomplishment. Bharati does not mention this at all even though it is a famed practice among siddhas and yogis in Buddhist tantric India and Tibet. In the Tibetan mahamudra lineages derived ultimately from the 84 Indian mahasiddhas – the technique of mahamudra is said to be a form of vipasyana, or non-conceptual insight based on previous development of one’s shamata, or calm abiding meditation. Interestingly, he notes that a yogic goal in Vajrayana is to immobilize mind, breath, and seminal fluid. These may be referred to in sandha-language as the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, sangha) or the three nectars. I once had a Dzogchen teaching where the teacher emphasized the three styles of immovability: immovability of body, sensations, and mind. This may be a parallel. Indeed in yoga there is stopping of the breath (kumbhaka), control of the sperm, and in mahamudra and dzogchen there is the spontaneous stopping of thought. He also does not mention the classification of tantras given in Tibetan texts: The four-fold classification given ion the Sama (new) tradition and the six-fold given in the Nyingma (old) ttadition.

This was a good book with much to ponder although I can think of many ways of approaching the topic that the author did not. This may have much to do with the time period. Since then there has been much delineation within the tradition, particularly among Tibetan lamas. The lamas note that Buddhist tantra, or Vajrayana, is a subdivision of the Mahayana, that traditionally it is said to be based in the so-called ‘third turning of the wheel of dharma’ which is concerned with Tathagatagarbha, or Buddha Nature which refers to the inherent capacity to awaken from delusion. This in the Vajrayana format there is the consonant supposition that one is already enlightened or liberated beneath the apparent stains of delusion. Thus one sees all appearance as the body of the deity, all sound as the sound of the mantra of the deity, and all mentation as the mind of the deity. Bharati did not mention much about Jain tantra or Vaisnava tantra (which probably came later). He does talk a bit about the Sahajayana. Sahaja is sometimes defined as ‘effortless naturalness’ and refers to a quasi-tantric movement mainly of Bengal where ‘spontaneity’ was a key feature. It is related to mahamudra and the mahasiddha tradition but was also taken up by the Vaisnavas. Apparently, the modern Bengali Bauls retain some of it as a compendium tradition of Vaisnava sahajayana, Buddhistic mahasiddha elements, and Islamic Sufi love pandits and musicians. Bharati noticed the interests of Western occultists in Tantra and was rather ambivalent about it. There are now (and have been in the past) Americanized and Western versions of tantra that vary but mostly emphasize the ‘sacred sexuality’ aspect. These are mostly non-traditional with perhaps some traditional elements added. These are Neo-tantra and seem to mostly refer to Hindu traditions.

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