This article was originally published in Namaste magazine in May 2000.
An Introduction to Tantra
In recent years, there has been a notable world-wide interest in Tantra. In South Africa, numerous articles and interviews have recently appeared in the media. While this attention makes teaching a little easier, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding what Tantra is and isn’t. Hopefully, this short article will begin to clarify some of the basics.
To begin with, we need to distinguish between traditional Tantric teaching and the modern practice that bears some resemblance to it. This contemporary phenomenon, which, at its best, could be called ‘neo-Tantra’, is like comparing a stretch class at gym to Yoga. They both challenge the body, but they have different philosophies.
The modern version of what is offered as Tantra usually uses the word in a broad sense and is more about sexual healing and practical sexual techniques than the teachings that are the basis of real Tantra. In addition, most modern neo-Tantra work incorporates methods and practices from other disciplines, including traditional Taoist sexual teachings and contemporary sexual and relationship therapy. This is a valid and valuable approach to conscious sexuality and it has much to offer. It can also form the basis of later moving into the more spiritual aspects of authentic Tantra. But the two need to be clearly differentiated to make sense of what they both offer.
‘Tantra’ is a Sanskrit word that has many layers of meaning. The root tan means ‘to expand’ and, like a thread, is connected with the concept of weaving. Tantra can also stand for ‘system’, ‘ritual’ and ‘knowledge’. Tantra also means the ‘expansion of consciousness’, as well as ‘an extension of earlier teachings’.
Historically, Tantra denotes a particular style of spiritual teachings and scriptures that appeared in India around 1500 years ago, which challenged the established teachings. Earlier doctrines taught that the world was an illusory or limited state that needed in some way to be corrected or transcended. Tantra taught that ultimately the transcendent aspect of God and the manifest creation were literally one and the same thing. At that time, it implied a complete re-visioning of spiritual understanding. Even today, the real implications of this concept, not merely as intellectual concept but as personal living practice, are just as fundamental.
Traditionally, Tantra understands itself as a gospel of the ‘new age’ of darkness, the kali-yuga. According to the Hindu world view, history unfolds itself in cyclic patterns that proceed from a golden age of self-revealed spiritual truth through progressively declining ages or ‘yugas’, until we reach the present lowest yuga, which is marked by ignorance.
Tantric writings claim that they are designed specifically for spiritual seekers trapped in this ‘dark age’. They maintain that we cannot really benefit from the earlier teachings, which were applicable to those times. Tantra teaches that only those practices based on experiencing and working with shakti energy are suitable for elevating humans above their limited condition. All other teachings were considered to be ‘as powerless as a snake deprived of its poison’.
Tantra reacted against ‘hollow rituals and useless ascetic practices’. The aim of Tantric practice is to experience an authentic and enduring liberation by attaining genuine wisdom and direct insight. To attain this state is to be Enlightened and God-conscious. These aims are common to the expressed goals of other spiritual systems, but it is not in its goal, but in its method to attain that goal that Tantra differs from other orthodox teachings.
The adepts of Tantra believe that it is possible to attain genuine freedom even in the worst social and moral conditions. The early Tantric masters proposed a series of exhaustive methods, which were essential to break though the stubborn attachments to conventional relationships and worldly attitudes that most people have. These teachers sanctioned practices that went in the opposite direction of conventional morality and consensual lifestyles. Some adepts favoured going about naked and living amongst garbage dumps or in graveyards. Especially in the so-called ‘Left Hand’ path of Tantra, adepts actively pursued ‘unlawful’ practices such as ritualised sexual intercourse with different partners, eating meat and sometimes the consumption of alcohol, all things normally forbidden in traditional Indian spiritual practices.
Naturally, the religious orthodoxy condemned such practices. Nevertheless, Tantric teachings were rapidly, if cautiously, accepted within Indian society. Tantrikas were said to be extremely powerful and their reputation as capable sorcerers made the authorities and the masses alike nervous to denigrate or condemn them outright.
In order to reach the place where the actual experience and consequent transformation of consciousness occurs, it is necessary to follow certain procedures and training. Some of these practices involve the development of meditation skills, breath control and body postures, techniques to accumulate and raise energy within the body, stilling and focussing the mind and numerous other disciplines that allow the adept to enter directly into higher states of awareness for extended periods of time.
Other aspects of training involve the creation of sacred space, use of mantra as ‘words of power’, visual training in using mandalas and practical skills such as the use of scents and massage methods. In addition, practical sexual training is basic in early Left Hand Tantric work. For men, this includes the ability to control ejaculation and to release orgasmic energy without ejaculation. For women, training includes developing her body to initiate and lead sexual ritual and learning to experience different types of orgasm. For both partners, much of this work and training would be accomplished as individuals before the more advanced practices can be embarked on with an actual sexual partner.
All these presuppose the willingness to surrender oneself to arduous spiritual training and that involves finding a teacher who is willing to take the aspirant on as a student. This is followed by a lengthy period of practice until, eventually, one becomes a practitioner in one’s own right.
Through the proper training and practice, apprentices learn to accumulate energy until they have sufficient personal power to apply it to their spiritual endeavours. Tantra’s view is that the only way open to spiritual seekers is the knowledge and awakening of and mastery over the secret energies trapped in the body. The first task, then, is facing and absorbing these forces, taking the risks involved to ‘transform the poison into medicine’. The proof, for a Tantrika, is in the results it produces, and in this case, these practices result in siddhis, or powers. The siddhis, however, are not the goal, but merely a natural consequence of achieving a different existential status.
Even the overt sexual dimensions of Tantra are really about the generation of energy. As the Upanishads say, “It is not for love of woman that woman is desired by man, but rather for love of the atman”, where atman represents the awakened principle of immortality and divine light.
This does not mean that one should not experience pleasure during sexual union. It is rather that the pleasure and the energy generated by the sexual union, accepted in its own right, should in addition be directed to higher experiences of consciousness. The union itself is a sacred event that mirrors the divine union of Shiva and Shakti. Shiva represents the masculine transcendent dimension of pure consciousness. Shakti represents the feminine active power of phenomena. Together they make up all of existence. According to the principle of “as above so below”, found in Tantra and other teachings, sexual union of humans is understood as a microcosmic enactment on this material plane of the divine union of Shakti and Shiva. At the time of union, if the adept has the correct training and consciousness, those forces are drawn into and experienced directly by the Tantrika. One of Tantra’s express goals is to be present with that union in one’s being and at every level of reality.
The highest Hindu ideal of liberation, moksha, is synonymous with a thorough de-conditioning of one’s being, and implies going beyond dharma and karma, moral law and the predetermination of cause and effect. Simply put, accomplished Tantrika’s don’t play by the rules, they make the rules.
Generally speaking, Tantra stresses that such behaviour is dangerous, because if it is carried out by an ordinary person, it will likely destroy him or her. One Tantric principle states that “the Tantrika obtains liberation through the same actions that keep other men in hell”, but the prerequisite is that the adept remains detached and free from their ego’s desires. It is in this context that the destruction of conventional consensual and societal bonds are seen as a legitimate means to an end and a discipline to be followed. Only then does karma not take hold of him. Tantra is well aware that when the emotions and energies released through Tantra are experienced by someone who cannot contain them, then the sheer force of such an experience can and often does result in long-lasting disorientation and psychological damage.
This is one of the reasons why the teacher-pupil relationship is stressed in Tantra. Once on the path, it is essential to have an accomplished teacher to initiate and then guide one through the various experiences. The sincere bond between teacher and student allows for a continuous connection that in the end will result in clarity and success.
Tantra makes no issue about its radical methods of breaking down the individual’s habituated perceptions of reality. The Tantric method is to actively seek out such intense and even shattering experiences in order to achieve a higher freedom. Part of its success is to transform unconscious content into action. When passions or emotions manifest, Tantra teaches that the correct approach is to actively open into and identify with these energies until the very roots of these emotions surface. The adept should “not become separated from these powers. Rather, assume those powers and bring them to the highest degree of intensity whereby they consume themselves”.
Although this intensifying of feelings might seem similar to psychological methods that explore sexuality and attachments to family and society, Tantra also works with the deep spiritual forces that are accessed later in the journey. This is past the edges where psychology operates. Tantra is similar in this respect to a true Shamanic or Taoist path. For Tantra, the release of psycho-dynamic blockages would simply be the initial work required before genuine progress can be made. Few contemporary psycho-spiritual teachers approach this level of experience and spiritual focus, though these might include Arnold Mindell and James Hillman and their schools of thought.
Different spiritual paths correspond to different personalities and most people would be actively discouraged from following an authentic Tantric path. The total disintegration of personality that is a prerequisite of Tantric training is part of a lifestyle that affords few compromises on the journey to self-realisation. For most people, neo-Tantra teaches men and women to unblock and learn some powerful techniques and have wonderful, multi-orgasmic sex. In the process, they can learn valuable lessons in some of their personal issues. However, for Tantra, this would only be the outer passages to the inner temple of complete self-transformation on a committed spiritual journey.
If the apprentice is successful in his or her transition, then, according to Tantra, one then becomes ‘Lord of Passions’. This means more than control or suppression of passions. It means the ability to freely evoke or dispose of any passion or emotion at will. In the Tantrika’s case, the passion’s shakti, or energy, becomes part of his own powers. It is a Tantric notion that one cannot adore God without ‘becoming’ that God. The Tantrika can do as he pleases all the while remaining spiritually invulnerable.
Finally, the Tantric principle of the essential unity of bhoga and sadhana, is realised. Normally, the sadhana, the spiritual disciplines that lead to overcoming the limitations of the human condition, and bhoga, the sheer enjoyment of mundane experience, are mutually exclusive. This is true in Hinduism and in all the major religions. For Tantra, there is no such thing as a ‘world of phenomena’, of maya, illusion and, behind that, an essential, impenetrable ‘true reality’. There is only one reality, which is multidimensional. Through Tantric practice, the various dimensions of existence are progressively disclosed, until one is able to perceive directly ‘essential reality’ and the illusion of duality between man and God dissolves. Then, “nothing is forbidden to those who have achieved the condition, since they are and they know”.
For Tantra, to obtain true knowledge, one must be entirely transformed by unconditional action. The Tantric path is “as difficult as walking on a razor’s edge or riding a wild tiger”, the dangers are very real and the cost to the adept is manifest and considerable. Nonetheless, for those have the courage to rise above their fears, to address the difficulties and face the dangers, for those who sense this path as a vocation rather than merely a choice, it is a wondrous and deeply rewarding journey.
“But whilst I am still in my flesh, though it be after my skin is torn from my body, I would see God.” (Job 19:26)