In the first discussion we saw that birth of awareness techniques, meditation, yoga and tantra came about because of the need to see through the fogginess that surrounded natural human instinct. This need for awareness created the conditions that fostered the advent of techniques to hand people opportunities to see, to feel and to share.
Humans are conscious about life in general as we have the ability to question and answer various aspects of life that prompt us to do so. We have a yearning to find the “nature” of things. Not only do we try to coin ultimate truths about the physical composition of things but we also spend time to unravel the nature of social behaviour and individual reasoning.
The quest for shortcuts and the search for off the shelf, pre-packed interpretations about life, brought us to embrace recycled airy-fairy questions and the associated airy-fairy answers instead of engaging in real efforts to dig deep. Let’s look at a beautiful example: Vasugupta, a great sage believed to have lived during the latter half of the eighth century, had a dream in which Lord Shiva appeared. Shiva instructed the sage to visit a nearby mountain called Mahadevgiri, where he would find 77 sutras / verses under a rock. When he woke up, Vasagupta went to the mountain and found the sutras.
This ancient writing, this story about Vasagupta and Shiva became the proof and inspiration to empower others to answers questions people ask about life. The intermediary between the divine and the people was already seen as a trustworthy person as Vasagupta was already revered as a sage. When this sage then enters in direct communication with the god Shiva, when Shiva hands Vasagupta the sutras, then it can be claimed that the sutras contain all that is necessary to divulge the path to samadhi, the ultimate goal in spiritual liberation.
It is important to note that stories like these were often used, as they were the most trustworthy vehicles to carry the essence of a message from one generation to the next. Equally important is the fact that the essence of the message did reach the other side in spite of the vehicle used. The real limitation is a lack of vocabulary to be able to say it as it is. Meaning and understanding are both tainted by both the presenter and the receiver of a concept. Vasagupta started teaching and people started learning about a philosophy and the powerful practice of meditation that somehow translated into a later concept and practice called tantra.
The real importance of the texts about Vasagupta is that there was a philosophy and a practice that cleared some fogginess and allowed awareness to shine through as well as the acknowledgement of two interlocking phenomena, philosophy and technique. On the one hand the question was formalised in words, some mental setting was established and to be able to make it all your own, an associated technique to practice became available.
We find that numerous and varied philosophies mushroomed from the Shiva Sutras, which then became the anchor of Kashmir Shaivism who occupied themselves with teachings around tantra. Great debates surround the origins, history and associated practices of the complex and at times controversial body of philosophy and knowledge known as tantra. It is to be expected that each and every tantra teacher will take a different aspect of the philosophy of tantra to entertain the minds of their students. We can busy ourselves with philosophy and with technique regarding tantra.
One core aspect of tantric philosophy that’s taught in the West, is the aspect of non-dualism and is explained that one’s true essence exists in every particle of the universe. True essence is then defined as the transcendental Self and pure awareness or the Divine. These are all loaded concepts that one has to look at one by one in order to remove the mystique and regain the everyday application for everyday people. This is exactly what most tantra teachers shy away from, mainly because they don’t know better and because anything wrapped in mystique is readily accepted with open arms by ill-informed people.
In modern Western philosophic discussions, a non-dualistic belief system is presented as “no separation between the material world and the spiritual realm, as all opposites are contained in the same universal consciousness”. This sentence can be interpreted that everything you do and all that you sense, ranging from pain to pleasure and anything in between, is really a manifestation of the divine and can be a means to bring you closer to your own divinity. It is further explained that in the tantra philosophy, the world isn’t something to escape from or overcome but rather beautiful and auspicious and one should rather abstain from the idea to see samadhi as a liberation from the world but to find liberation in this world.
Non-dualism commonly refers to “everything is one”. This interpretation leaves many to ask for a better explanation because the utility value of “everything is one” tends to be quite low. To be able to grasp non-duality we obviously have to look into the essence of duality. The mind is perfectly engineered to oscillate, without that function we will have no chance to be rational as everything will just be taken on face value without questioning. Without an oscillating mind we will not be able to formulate questions and we will not be able to come up with a variety of answers. Oscillation results in duality and duality is the nature of the mind. Duality isn’t the nature of the world or our existence, we only see duality because of the mind and not because it exists. When we see duality, we see the into a mirror and we see what we want to see.
The real duality we are forced to grapple with, on a moment by moment basis, is the quest to mend the gulf of separation between who I am and who I perceive I am. This is the only duality that isn’t created by the mind, this is the only duality we have to pay attention to. To assist us in this process we created techniques, awareness techniques that still serve us well after tens of thousands of years in existence. People have a natural instinct and people have a natural ability to compartmentalise concepts. When these two do not match up then we experience a duality and when they do match up then we experience spirituality. Every time the gap in this duality widens or narrows, we experience the release of emotions.
When people only take the side of natural instinct then they become only that and no experience of spirituality is possible. When people only take the side of rational mindsets then they become only that and no experience of spirituality is possible. When people take on the persona of instinct only then they develop a deep yearning for a mental understanding. When people take on the persona of mind only then they develop a deep yearning for instinctual expression. When people narrow the gap between their instinct and what they believe about their instinct then both aspects exist as true representations of who they, each aspect takes its own rightful place and doesn’t need the justification of the other.
The “all is one” concept has nothing to do with the duality in the mind. It has to do with the awareness that I am more than my instinct and that I am more than my rational mind. This is the oneness we can be aware of, an awareness that we are greater than the framed mental concepts about ourselves. That is our greatness, this is our divine, this is our birth right of being in life and this is the meaning of being alive. Instinct and mindsets become the two horses that pull the chariot of one’s own awareness about who we are, where we are and with whom we are.
In some instances, tantra as a practice is still masked in mystery because it supports the concept of oral tradition that passes on the information from teacher to initiated student. Secrecy is maintained as Hindu texts about Hindu tantra haven’t been made available to the outside world. A change was introduced when Swami Lakshmanjoo, thought by some to be the reincarnation of the famous 10th-century tantric master Abhinava Gupta, started to share some texts around 70 years ago. Swamis Muktananda and Chidvilasananda scattered their take on tantra through the Siddha Yoga tradition in the West. Translations of influential texts such as Spanda Karika, Vijnana Bhairava and the Shiva Sutras are now available in English.
Modern yogis break with the tradition to be initiated into Hindu yoga practices and to belong to a secret lineage to learn and practice tantra. It is noteworthy to highlight the fact that tantra is still seen as an extension of yoga and or meditation. The essence of the philosophy of tantra remains firmly debated to find its relevance for 21st-century everyday life. Many Western teachers are convinced that incorporating tantra into their teaching is empowering and inspiring for their Western students who are trying to live a spiritual life. I find this quite alarming as there is still no clarity regarding tantra, whether it is only a philosophy or also a technique.
What is the current tantra teaching?
Most Western spiritual teachers first teach asanas, pranayama and meditation, before they introduce tantra. Tantra is a technique but due to a lack of understanding tantra, Western teachers jump from meditation and yoga techniques to tantra philosophies. Therefore, tantra is seen as a sauce that is poured over yoga and meditation techniques to add more flavour and punch. These teachers quote ancient Hindu religious texts that gave detailed advice on how to walk, save money, cook, set a table and pick flowers with the greatest amount of joy as a guidance to maintain a spiritual practice while living in the world.
The previous example was quite feminine in nature and to cater for the masculine, an example of fighting and war makes its grand entrance. The explanation goes as follows: tantra doesn’t tell you not to fight or argue, tantra tells you to fight if you need to, to argue if you need to but do it within a context of understanding that we are all part of the same fabric.
Once again, we are presented with a philosophy and not a technique. I also wonder about what exactly tells you that you need to fight? I find this argument hard to swallow or grasp as an understanding of it as oneness is exactly the opposite of trying to kill someone in war. There is a massive confusion about fundamental concepts about life, instinct, mind, needs, awareness and techniques.
Western tantra teachers put forward the idea that a Western spiritual evolution is eminent as the comfortable living conditions in the West set people free to ask profound questions about their existence here on earth and that spiritual practice need not be austere and dry but should instead be filled with joy. Do these teachers say that tantra will guide the spiritual awakening? It is ignorant and arrogant as it loses total sight of the fact that tantra existed all over the world for tens of thousands of years. The saddest part is that no tantra technique is presented by Western tantra teachers but only second-hand and recycled philosophical tantric jargon.
Western tantra teachers often criticize Eastern spiritual traditions, especially when it comes to the concept of bliss. They regard the Eastern view on bliss as childish as one has to get beyond something in one’s spiritual life, as if the goal is to cloister oneself away from the world because it is the domain of suffering, sin and illusion. Western tantra teachers then quote tantra as a unique, powerful and meaningful philosophy that one can be part of life and experience bliss. Once again, this argument has nothing to do with the differences between Eastern and Western spiritual philosophies but only highlights the tantric anaemia amongst Western tantra teachers to make use of tantra as a technique and not only as a philosophy
Tantra teachers in the East and the West employ different philosophic approaches to their teaching as they have different audiences with different needs. There is a golden thread that runs through both in the form of the combination of yoga practices and breathing practices. We are told that yoga helps develop awareness of the subtle body and then works toward balancing the body’s energy to create more physical and mental ease, that yoga asana sequences focus on refining, balancing and stimulating the energy levels of students.
The yoga practice is normally followed with breathing practices in the form of pranayama, visualization and chanting. I quote: “Breathing becomes refined and the alchemy of the different elements creates tantra”. It is correct to put meditation, yoga and tantra in the same box as they unquestionably belong together. Meditation and yoga are seen as techniques to practice and somehow, as if by magic, tantra pops out of this marriage between meditation and yoga. It is as if tantra is not worthy to be labelled as an independent technique on its own. The problem isn’t with tantra, the problem is with the teachers who have no idea about what caused meditation, yoga and tantra to come into existence.
Let’s look at another example of the philosophy / technique approach to tantra. Anusara Yoga is presented as a philosophy of Universal Principles of Alignment as correct physical alignment in asanas allows energy to flow more freely and ultimately promotes creativity and freedom. It is presented as an approach that tries to embrace the body as the innate nature of the body is good. Once people flow with the divine in their bodies, then they will experience bliss as their hearts will be open to incorporate the love and kindness people search for. Does this concoction then give rise to tantra? My deep concern once again is that tantra becomes a by-product, a spin-off and has no status as a technique on its own.
Western tantra teachers either fabricate tantra out of their meditation and yoga practices or they bring tantra into their meditation and yoga practices to spike it with an energy injection. It might even be a bit of both. In the Kashmir Shaivite school called Spanda, they believe that “pulsation is not bound by ideas but has its own organic intelligence”. This expression of pulsation is taken by western tantra teachers to foster organic movement and breath to become the guiding force of a yoga practice. The vibrational and pulsing nature of tantra is then blended into yoga and from that very concoction, a new kind of freeform movement tantra emerges.
As we have seen, there is no clarity about what tantra is. Western tantra teachers are utterly convinced that it does exist as they feel it in the deepest of their hearts. This is good but it is also a shame that tantra can’t be employed by Western tantra teachers as a technique to take its rightful place in the family of awareness techniques. Concepts of tantra meditation and tantra yoga are too often used to mask the inability to grasp the origin and use of tantra as a technique. The lack of clarity about tantra as a technique, very sadly, give rise to the practice to choose a deity to embody tantra as a way of focusing the mind and to force some sense of clarity.
Is there a Buddha statue or painting in your yoga studio?
-Martin du Toit