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The Straight Stuff on Tantra

Oct 03, 1999 02:10 PM
by Hazarapet

There is great confusion over tantra. It is best to begin,
I think, by noting that there are two tantric traditions.

The first, and older one, is the Buddhist tantra.  The
second, and less old, is Hindu tantra.  Hindu tantra
is the one most closely associated with sexual yoga
in rare circumstances.  The Tantra HPB seems to
refer to is connected to her references to "Bodhism
as a northern school" in contrast to the relatively
corrupt Buddhism o the south.  So, we are dealing,
for the most part, with Tantric Buddhism.

The Buddhist tantra is actually not focussed on sex
or sex as means as it is an internal alchemy/yoga
that works with the transmutation of the lower to the
higher.  The first mention of Buddhist tantra is in
Central Asia (second-century CE, where Shambhala is
Shamsi i Balkh or present-day Balkh, see David Snellgrove's
two volume history of Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism,
Powers' Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, and Tucci's
The Religions of Tibet) even before it goes into India or
before Buddhism has even entered Tibet (ninth-century CE).

 To understand the basic symbolism of Buddhist Tantra,
we must turn to the surprisingly common Zoroastrian, later
Manichaean/gnostic, and early eastern Christian symbolism that
appears to reflect and express a spiritual teaching
that subsequently took these Zoroastrian, Manichaean,
gnostic, early eastern Christian, and Buddhist forms (again, refer
to Snellgrove, ibid. Leuf, Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books
of the Dead, Tucci, ibid. Rudolph, Gnosis, Klimheit, Gnosis
on the Silk Route, Russell, Zoroastrianism in Armenia, and
Manichaean Fragments from Turfan Oasis,).  In
its original form, the ancestral vesion of the Arthurian and
Graal story appears in its original form (with Germanic, Celtic,
and Christian versions being third and fourth diffusionary
versions (see Corbin, Man of Light, Bruce Lincoln, Myth,
Ritual, and Cosmology in Indo-European Antiquity and his
Priests, Warriors, and Cattle, Dumezil's Destiny of the King,
Johnson, Poetry and Speculation in the Rigveda, Griswold,
The Religion of the Rigveda, Miler, The Vision of Cosmic
Order in the Vedas, Pulhvel, The New Comparative Indo-
European Mythology).

A Zoroastrian source (repeated in a later Buddhist and
Sufi source) says this spiritual teaching comes from
before the destruction of the civilization at the pole
(there is disagreement whether north or south, the earliest
strata in Zoroastrianism says both while indicating that
the south pole was not the south pole when, so the story
goes, Ahriman attacked the earth, set it a wobbling
on its axis/equinoxes, and caused a great winter to destroy
the civilization of Yima/Yama.  This is also the fall of Yima/
Yama, who subsequently, in both Persian and Indian (Buddhist
and Hindu) traditions becomes King of the Dead.  With this fall,
humanity takes on physical bodies/chemical crusts/animal skins
(getik i tanu) to protect the higher spiritual bodies from destruction
(menok i tanu) which at the same time introduces mortality or
mortal life (gayo mar i tan) into the human order (arta, asha, rta).
This fallen physical estate later is represented as the legendary
figure Gayomart.  This fall or disaster is also involves the loss
of Yima's/Jimshid's Serving Cup/Bowl of Immortal Elixir (Ambrotas,
Ambrosia) and the separation of the solar path of immortal gods
and human ancestry (reflected in Indian Vedic and Epic materials,
Zoroastrian Avestan and Epic materials, early Roman legends,
Celtic and Germanic legends) from the lunar path of the mortal
fathers (pitars) and ancestry (Mahabharata is the battle between
the solar and lunar descendents of earlier humans).  This fall
also involved a separation of the prime lower human impulses from
their proper harmonious function with the higher or severance of the
bottom chakras with top.  Tantra is about the transformation
of this fallen situation.  In essence, a serious malfunction of
the cycles of spiritual involution and evolution have occurred
on this planet so the path, according to Tantra, is both a
restoration but also further evolution.

So, in Zoroastrianism, we are told that pre-fallen humanity
were one with their celestial twin/consort/double, which is called
in Zoroastrian sources the "Daena" (Avestan) or "Den" (Pahlavi).
She is Divine Wisdom.  Daena or Den, depending on context of
what phase of spiritual development one is speaking about is
variously translated as conscience, wisdom, illumination,
or revelation.  The basic idea is that this Daena, in ordinary
humans, is the innate divine wisdom is it undeveloped or embryonic
form.  That is, conscience is the legacy of a lost higher gnosis and
is the outline/blueprint or inner compass of the higher gnosis or
wisdom we are to regain.  In the post-mortem Judgment scene
of Zoroastrianism that takes place across the Chinvat Bridge in the
Hidden Realm of the Dead or the Kingdom of Yima, symbolically,
the Daena meets the (male) soul (urvan) either as a beautiful
maiden or ugly crone depending upon the soul's deeds in life.  In
the fully perfected soul, daena becomes what in the Persian is
Pragma (the cognate to Prajna).  This process is the movement
from the fallen realm of mortal life ruled by Yima to a higher

We find this same symbolism in eastern Christianity where the
spiritual life is partly about developing our innate inner feminine
celestial spouse or conscience (syneidesis) into its fully
manifest form as the Divine Wisdom (Sophia).  Through
Armenian and Georgian sources, this spiritual tradition gets
transmitted to Germany where the key figure representing
it is Jacob Boehme.  His way is to re-unite the lower powers
of the soul (diagrammed by Gichtel) with its higher Wisdom
in an inner marriage of the soul to its conscience/Sophia (as
brought out in the book on this subject by Boehme's follower
Gottfried Arnold).

We find this same symbolism in Buddhism.  Here,
ordinary humans contain within themselves the bodhi-seed
or potential Buddha-hood.  According to Tantric Buddhist
sources (Central Asian, Indian, Tibetan, and Japanese,
where Tantric Buddhism is called Shingon), the other
term for this bodhi-seed is conscience (Gampopa speaks
of this in his Way to Liberation as Evans Wentz and Garma
C. Chang both note).  Conscience is a feminine figure, just
as in the other traditions, that will evolve into the Buddha's
Wisdom or Prajna.  Just like the appearance of conscience
/Daena in the Zoroastrian judgment in Yima's kingdom where
there appears a fair maiden or ugly crone to the soul according
to its merits, so in the Bardo Theodol or Tibetan Book of the Dead,
a Tantric text, we find the Buddhist version of this motif where
in the Judgment Court of Yama the sentient being in the afterlife
is confronted with the projections of his own good and bad
conscience, according to karma, in the form of a lovely maiden
or ugly crone.  The spiritual path of Tantric Buddhism is to
reunite the potential Buddha with his reawakened Prajna
(conscience now evolved into Wisdom) which is his
consort.  So, putting together Tibetan symbolism, the realm
of samsara is the fallen realm of Yama (thus, the wheel of Samsara
is iconographically held within the claws of Yama or is the bowels of
Yama.  The process of spiritual transformation is to transform the
violent forces that are the energies of samsara (sort of a malfunction
of higher energies) and mortal life into the enlightened energies
of a Buddha's Wisdom.  So, the five skandhas become transformed
into the five Buddhas of the Mandala.  Each of these five Buddhas
of the Mandala have their Wisdom Consorts or Prajnas.  And all
of them, i.e. the five Buddhas of the Mandala and their Wisdoms/
Prajnas, are merely the fivefold aspects of the supreme Adi Buddha
and his Prajna Consort, Samanabhadra.

The highest Yoga Tantras of Tibet are all about accomplishing the
above described process.  But each has a slightly different focus
depending on character of the practitioner.

So, there is Ati Yoga Tantra or Dzog chen of the Nyingmapas.
This is the form of the tantra as purely an interior meditative way
that most closely resembles Zen (some scholars, western and
asian have noted that Dzog chen and Zen may be related to a
common ancestor).  Dzog chen is about the immediate transformation
of consciousness/energy into the enlightened state/process.

Then there is Kalachakra Tantra.  This has close ties to Zoroastrian
traditions.  In Zoroastrianism, the mortal soul is "urvan."  It is the
vitality/life infected and haunted by death.  Urvan is related to the
god of finite time (zurvan) of the long dominion.  By marrying itself
to the Daena, the mortal urvan begins to become animated with
the higher immortalizing energies of the fravashi (immortal-life-restoring
spirit - fravashi is cognate to the English "fresh") by which the
spiritual body is regenerated (menok i tan) into the crystalline
Diamond Body (ken i tan or Gurdjieff's Armenian kesdjian).
This is done by a yoga of time-transformation.  If we look at
time as mortals, a whole lifestyle is built up (rat race).  If we
look at time as immortals in the making according to conscience,
time becomes the vast expanse of possibility along with space.
The Buddhist Kalachakra is the equivalent to this Zoroastrian
way of time-alcemy.  Kalachakra is the alchemical yoga of
transforming the leaden darkness of rat race time into the
eternity of a Buddha's infinite field of possibility to exercise
his Wisdom/Prajna.

Then there is Mahamudra of the Kagyupas of Tibetan Buddhism
where the focus is on the transformation of the emptiness of
space into the vast plenum of the Buddha's spacious field of
Wise/Prajnic action (upaya).

So, the highest Yoga Tantras all are a transformative means
of fusing and transmuting the energies of human existence
into the energies of a Buddha's union with his Conscience
or Wisdom.  As slightly variant ways to this end, Dzog chen
focusses on transmuting consciousness/energy, Kalachakra
focusses on transmuting time/motion, and Mahamudra
focusses on transmuting space/relation.

As for the sexual symbolism of Tantra, here is what I was
taught in a Tibetan monastery.  Tantra is not a sexual method
as is now widely documented contrary to the Victorian fantansies
of those discoverers of it around the turn of the century who hoped
to find a "religiously legitimated" outlet for their repressed sexuality.
Tantra uses sexual symbolism to make the following point.  As strongly
as we are driven, attached, identified with, or one with the passionate and
violent forces that fuel the vicious round of samsara, which are depicted
in the center of the Buddhist Wheel of Samsaric life as lust, hate, greed
(the three ropes of tanha or "depairing emptiness seeking fulfillment") and
as weakly we are therefore bound to the call of conscience, so a Buddha
is driven, attached, identified with, or one with his Wisdom.  The point is
we are inwardly married to our darker passions while a Buddha is inwardly
married to his Wisdom/Conscience.  This is represented by the sexual
symbolic motif called Yabyum in Tibetan.  In the hell worlds, yabyum
depicts a sentient being terrified, repulsed, and horrified with the ghastly
and terrorizing apparition he/she is sexually bound to for one cannot
get away from one's conscience.  To conscience one is eternally wedded
for better or worse, forever.  But, in the Buddha realm, the Buddha's are
rapturously in an inner sexual embrace with their lovely conscience turned
Wisdom.  There is another teaching that one is presented in Buddhist
monasteries when the meaning of this sexual symbolism is the topic.
When one is confronted with a difficult moral decision often what makes
it difficult is the inner conflict between our desire and our knowledge of
what we ought to do.  In these situations, doing the right thing feels
like a cost or loss that we would rather not perform.  We have to
overcome our spontaneous and egocentric impulses of serving
number one in order to do what is right.  The call of conscience is
weaker than passion, here.  By contrast, the spontaneous impulses
or instincts of a Buddha are precisely to do the right thing.  There is
no inner conflict because all the energies of a Buddha are fused to his
conscience.  But what is more, his conscience has been trained into
a wisdom or consummate moral competence.  Even when we decide
to do the right thing, we may not know how or we screw it up.  A
Buddha is ethically omni-competent skill (upaya) motivated by
compassion (karuna) enlightened by wisdom (prajna).  So, the
sexual symbolism of Tantra poses two questions to anyone
who aspires to the spiritual path.  First, what in you is the stronger
force, sex/passions or one's conscience?  If the former, one is only
beginning.  Second, when you choose to do the right thing according
to one's conscience, does it (1) express the spontaneous impulses
and habits/skills of one's being or is it an effort against them, and (2),
even if you know how to avoid that wrong, do you know how to perfectly
do the good with expert skill and consummate mastery?  Are you trained
to be a wise-moral person whose ethical skills are highly developed forms
of self-mastery comparable to those of an Olympic athlete?

Grigor V. Ananikian

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