Struggles in tantra
In our previous discussions of tantra we have seen that tantra belongs to a trilogy of awareness techniques, that it grew from a need in people to see, feel and share who they are and that the essence of tantra prevails in spite of all the different philosophies around it as tantra is anchored in basic human instinct.
The most popular awareness technique in the East is mediation and in the West the most popular awareness technique is Yoga. Tantra as a technique has no specific fan base anywhere in the world. Tantra is a word often used in a yoga class and refers to Hindu Tantra. There is also a Buddhist stream, known as Vajrayana Buddhism but tantra can be found in all religious traditions such Jainism, Sikhism, the Tibetan Bön tradition, Daoism, the Japanese Shintō tradition, Islam and Christianity.
Within Hindu tantra, there are hundreds of branches, schools and lineages. This variety is based on the fact that tantra is treated as a philosophy and not as a technique. Some of the better known tantra institutions are Kashmir Shaivism, an umbrella term for several schools that originated in South India, the Kaula School, which views the body as a vehicle for liberation, the Shakta traditions that worship the feminine and radical “left-handed” schools like the modern-day Neo-Tantra School, which has given Tantra its reputation for sex-enhancing rituals.
A central focus of most of these schools is the idea of kundalini. This word is once again an example of how people struggle to allocate meaning to what is happening in them through natural human instinct. Humans were born with an instinct to procreate, to take care of their off-springs and to have associated in-groups and out-groups. Humans were born with the concept that a female person carries more reproductive equipment than the male person.
Reproduction instinct is real, alive and tangible in the lives of people. No one has asked their opinion or permission to hand this natural instinct to them. People are desperately trying to make sense of what their role in reproductive instinct is. It might even sound like the assumption is: if instinct is bigger than me then I have to fight it and if it is smaller than me then I have to dominate it. This brings us back to the concept of kundalini as it hands us a window of insight as to how people deal with instinct. Natural human instinct exists, this is the point of departure, awareness follows and then it is coined in concepts like kundalini.
Let’s look at how the cart is put in front of the horse when the coined philosophical concept gains more traction than what it is based upon: “Kundalini is thought to be a feminine, dynamic energy in the form of a serpent lying dormant at the base of the spine.” It should have read: “When people become aware of the procreation drive within their bodies, when they experience it while doing seated meditating with the heel under the perineum, when a overload of stimuli needs to be interpreted by the brain and the brain categorises it as a warm sensation up the spine, then a word can be used to coin this normal human experience and the word can be kundalini.”
A second aspect comes into play and that is the struggle to put a handle on the concept “feminine”. It is not enough to contrast it with the word “masculine”. This opposite pole interpretation is mind based and it is the natural function of the brain to oscillate or scan the width and breath of something new, to enable it to produce some categorical labelling. The feminine is often associated with earth, nature, instinct, reproduction, love and being. This is rightly so as life exist because of reproduction and reproduction exists because of life.
Nature is defined as the concept that selects; a selection for survival of life, for the survival of species and for the formation of normal human pairing. Women do the selection regarding men with whom they will reproduce and that equals women to nature. Women are nature and men have nature. This very human fact is still unsolved in the lives of human beings and therefore awareness techniques need to be employed to make some sense of the fact that some individuals are nature and there are others who have nature.
Ancient tantric practices focused on bringing a dormant energy to life by moving it upward, through the seven chakras centres in the body. Chakras are Chinese medical terms and demonstrates the free flow of knowledge in the ancient East when there was no border between China and India. It shows how people are eager to find intriguing labelling for any concept that exists within them, to categorise anything that is using them, the search for understanding of anything that drives them and the best example of that is procreation instinct.
It is still possible to stumble across tantra students who can’t wait to share their full kundalini awakening experiences with you. This experience became the proof of their spirituality as it hinted on a shade of enlightenment that was attained. The actual message, the simple message was that a person became aware of the procreation drive within the body and then coined it in word, in an effort to describe what was experienced.
Western yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein believes that tantra came into being as a response to a period of spiritual decline, also known as Kali Yuga, that is still in progress today. According to his theory, powerful measures were needed to counteract the many obstacles to spiritual liberation, such as greed, dishonesty, physical and emotional illness, attachment to worldly things, and complacency. Tantra’s comprehensive array of practices; such as asana and Pranayama, as well as mantra (chanting), pujas (deity worship), kriyas (cleansing practices), mudras (seals), mandalas and yantras (circular or geometric patterns used to develop concentration), all these aspects handed an opportunity to flow with life instead of fighting it. Are these listed practices tantra techniques?
Others talk about the spontaneous emergence of tantra as a response to old philosophies and practices that were no longer nurturing people in a way that was needed. The conversations around the practice of meditation handed some answers and so did the practices around yoga. The search for some form of clarity surged with the emergence of the concept of energy, especially feminine energy, a concept that still weighs heavily on the modern collective un-conscious, the need for a specific form of awareness came into being and that might have given birth to tantra.
The origin of tantra as a philosophical term and practice is still debated. Some scholars believe that it began in the Indus Valley tens of thousands of years ago but it only became researchable when the earliest yoga texts, the vedas, were written between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago. It seems like tantra did not come into common practice until the fourth century, after Patanjali’s classical yoga flourished. Tantra is still something out there, something that is somehow related to meditation and yoga. Tantra might only be a philosophy as the technique of tantra is still only vaguely defined in the minds of tantra teachers as kundalini or sex practices.
Philosophical stands and tantra
One superficial but common philosophical thread that runs through the wilderness of tantra lineages, schools and streams is the belief that everything is divine. To believe that everything is divine is actually no belief at all but a cop out to say that one doesn’t grasp something and therefore the divine is brought into existence. By taking this leap into the nothingness releases an emotion which can be interpreted as ecstasy and be verbalised as everything that exists is full of light and awareness.
The Siddha Yoga lineage, the Patanjali classical yoga (also known as ashtanga yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga) and Advaita Vedanta, oscillate between a dualist view that the divine or spiritual realm existed separately from the everyday world and a non-dualist view that perceive the world as an illusion. Basic human instinct belongs to basic human existence and has no vested interest to know the divine. Beautiful natural human instinct drives people to procreate, to take care of the off-springs and to organise groups around them. Only if awareness about this simple reality drives people to experience the divine, then it is acceptable to me.
Some people might numb the uneasiness with the human instinct by withdrawing the senses to gain freedom from the material world and access the spiritual. Others might call human instinct an illusion or see it as part of the divine whole. Somehow people started to find more delight in philosophical games about tantra than the technique of tantra itself. Even that remains a sad state as the technique of tantra came into existence to bring awareness about human instinct and how instinct washes through us.
Tantra as anything and everything we want it to be.
The word tantra has always had a broad range of meanings and therefore a broad range of teachings. It isn’t possible to talk about tantra as a single practice, philosophy, teaching or path without encountering disagreement. This word “tantra” does exist and should therefore refer to something coherent and meaningful to the user.
The word tantra came into use at a time when Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism were dominant religions in India. A core part of each of these religions were their texts or sutras and the sutra of Patanjali still continues to inspire yogis to this day. Etymologically, a sutra has the literal meaning of thread and it can be a thread of thoughts, as in a particular line of thinking or even the thread that bounds together the volumes of palm leave books.
Originally, sutras were books, while tantras were teachings that could only be transmitted directly from teacher to student. Literate students started making their own cryptic notes of the teachings which grew into guidebooks and reference manuals. These notes of the oral teachings of the teachers grew in importance and these booklets also became known as tantras. Sutras increasingly came to mean canonical scriptures at the heart of religion, while tantras were commentaries or summary versions of oral teachings associated with particular teachers.
In Western Europe, during the turn to the sixth century, the Roman Empire had fully disintegrated. Stability and prosperity made way to lifestyles inspired by local warlords. Ignorance and illiteracy reigned supreme in Europe as it was stuck in the dark ages as accumulated old knowledge was not made available. The wealth of knowledge only existed in books in libraries but were unavailable to the masses. In stark contrast, in the East, in Arab countries, in China and in India, it was a time of cultural renewal, wealth and intellectual advancement. The Kashmir valley was perfectly positioned to be the cultural and economic melting pot of the area, as well as being a host to the seats of the ancient religious traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
The difficult Buddhist concept of nothingness was re-interpreted as a universal and omnipresent consciousness as the physical world was understood as an illusion and not as a deception. The frequent use of words like physical world, consciousness, universal non-duality, the illusionary nature of our otherness and the divine called for a philosophic expansion that only awareness could bring about.
Some of these teachings began to spread throughout India and was received with open hearts by the increasingly well-off, literate and strong middle class. This prosperous middle class was by and large left out of the caste-conscious religions of Vedic origin and the monastic-male Buddhism. The well-established and scholarly religious traditions made way for vibrant and immediate teachings that taught that enlightenment was available to everyone and that it was available right now in this life and that no reincarnation was needed.
The original concept of tantra can be described as an awareness technique that hands people opportunities to share freely, to share freely all that is in them. The “share freely” essence of the word was then stretched into describing the notes that were jotted down whilst listening to what was shared freely by the teacher. The sharing freely relationship of teacher to student, the embodied mindfulness, the regular use of ritual as a means of deepening awareness, the rejection of arbitrary religious and cultural rules, the acceptance of all people (caste, nationality, language, gender), the direct unmediated access to the divine, the belief in body and the sensual experiences of the body as part of the path to the divine were all covered under the tantra umbrella.
Tantra does stand for openness, liberation and freedom and it will be beneficial to be reminded about the original concept of tantra. Tantra is an awareness technique that hands people opportunities to see, feel and share what they find as an instinctual part of their being. It is instinctual behaviour to discriminate as discrimination is the cornerstone in building an in-group against an out-group. The importance of group forming came from the natural instinct of having off-springs and the natural instinct to protect the off-springs. Should a person only live their instinct then that person is possessed by instinct but when awareness enters then that person can become a co-creator of their instinct, which changes having life into being alive.
There was no shortage of debates as to the prevalence and importance of sexuality in the philosophy, teachings and rituals of classical tantra. Comments ranged from describing the unity with the divine in the form of an orgasm to the imprisonment of Cakrabhānu, a teacher of the Krama lineage, for corrupting the Brahmin class of his town with his shameless rituals. The original use of the word tantra described a technique for awareness regarding opening up and sharing beyond the established groups, to share with the people you are with.
The temple architecture of Vajrayana Buddhism are vivid with imagery of the lingam (penis), the yoni (vulva & vagina), and deities locked in carnal embrace. Illustrations from the tantric tradition often show male and female in sexual union. To some this represents an illustration of the technique of tantra, that sexuality is the very technique. Meditation is the technique that hands people opportunities to observe all that is packed into their procreating instinct, not tantra. As tantra stands on the shoulders of yoga and yoga stands on the shoulders of meditation, the sexual procreation and bodily manifestation of natural instinct are already dealt with through practicing meditation and yoga awareness techniques. The only remaining aspect is group formation, which tantra is well equipped to shine light on.
With the arrival of Islam in India in the 1100’s, classical tantra went underground and tantric practices largely disappeared. It survived in diminished form in three key ways: Vajrayana Buddhism of the Himalayas, the Brahmanic Śri Vidya lineage of Southern India and in Hatha Yoga. To be able to survive Vajrayana Buddhism had to relinquish the all-inclusive aspects of tantra, Śri Vidya became sanitized of most rule-rejecting aspects and Hatha yoga preserved the practical teachings, the practices regarding body and mind but having had to let go of the associated philosophies. Somehow, we are still stuck with yoga being the technique part of tantra instead of practicing the own and unique techniques of tantra that do exist.
Which tantra techniques do you practice?
-Martin du Toit