^Back To Top

Introduction to Tantra

Introduction to Tantra
Lama Shenpen Rinpoche / Vienna, Austria
Today's topic is an introduction to Tantra. It is extremely important to make a few things clear about the Tantra approach since it is nowa-days a very wide-spread approach, but because of its depth, it leads to many misunderstandings.
Tantrayana is quicker than Sutrayana 
Somehow it is understandable that Tantra has spread so much in the West because usually westerners like quick, instantaneous things. There is instant coffee, instant soup, instant noodles, ... Thus, it is normal that nowadays people are seeking for instantaneous Enlightenment! Even though, clearly, it is not possible to reach enlightenment as quick as an instant coffee, but there are quicker ways than some others. 
Within the Sutrayana it is said that in order to reach Enlightenment, it takes eons (kalpas), namely three. This may not mean much too you, but it is a long time. I think I have read somewhere that a small Kalpa is 84.000 years - I don't know how long can be a big one (a mahakalpa), and here we are talking about three. On the other hand, it is claimed, that within the Tantrayana it is possible to reach enlightenment in one lifetime... which makes quite some difference.
The Sutra approach most of the time is to consider that the main root of the Samsara are the wrong views, desire/attachment. The Sutrayana therefore asks to treat pleasure and desire as a poison. The approach of the Tantra is to say that some toxic plant could also be a very good medicine. The Tantra approach is to try to see where is the strongest energy within ourselves. Tantra will try to find this strongest source of energy, whereever it is, and to use this energy toward the goal. If we analyse a little bit our life, and if we analyse by what our mind is usually disturbed, it is clear that desire is our strongest energy. So, the Tantra will try to approach that big source of energy and will try to transform it.
About using energies 
There can be a kind of apparent contradiction between what the Tantras say and what is usually admitted, because most of the religions, including Sutrayana Buddhism, preach to refrain from desires. Most of the time we can hear about rejecting all good times and refraining from every kind of pleasurable sensations and to see the body as a source of all poisons. While the Tantra will rather tend to analyse what is behind the pleasure, behind the desire, and will try to use it for its goal. Somehow the Tantrayana says that there is nothing bad about the pleasure by itself, but the source of the problems is coming from the grasping we usually have towards the pleasure. The main problem comes from the attachment we can develop, but not from the pleasure it Self.
We have to clearly understand at this point that the main motivation and the main basis for Tantra is Bodhicitta, the Awakening Mind. Even though the Tantric Path is known to be the quickest path and is known to bring quick results, we should not understand it the way that we can skip the usual preliminaries. It does not mean either that there is no need of any discipline or any patience. For whoever has not done enough preliminaries, enough purifications and enough accumulation of m erits, the Tantrayana may be a difficult path instead of being the quickest one. For somebody who has not developed Bodhicitta well enough, the Tantrayana will be an empty path. The only good result we can get out of the tantric path is coming from the strong Bodhicitta motivation. To be clear, when we are talking about 'Bodhicitta', it is meant as the 'Awakening Mind' and not only in a frequent translation as ' Compassion'.
The core idea of the Awakening Mind is to become aware of the Suffering of all sentient beings without exception, and this with a sense of Equanimity which means that we hold all sentient equally dear. Bodhicitta is also something which goes together with non-attachment, in order to reach that state of equanimity. That's why some people might have thought sometimes that this is close to 'indifference', while it is of course completely the opposite; suddenly one's mind starts to care about each single Sentient being in exactly the same way as we would care for the dearest person we have. As a prerequisite to Tantra, we have to meditate on our motivation and analyse it well enough.
If we are looking at our daily life, and our past and actual way to react, we can easily see that we seek for happiness outside of ourselves. And so far, every time that we have been seeking outside of ourselves for an ultimate happiness, we have failed. We could have found some instant, some moment of happiness, but most of the time, there is more a feeling of insatisfaction. We do not get all that we expect from outside. The tantric path teaches that we all contain within ourselves all the energies that we need, and that we all do contain the male and female energies within ourselves. Most of the time, a male being seeks for the female energy outside of himself, and a female being seeks for the male energy outside of herself; and it brings much more insatisfaction than ultimate pleasure. Nevertheless, we spend a huge amount of energy and time into this external search, and the Tantra somehow seeks to use that strong energy in order to transform it. It does not mean at all that to practice Tantra is to indulge into pleasure! It is taught that it is much more the way how we are usually looking at the desires which is disturbing the clear perception we could have of the reality. It is the amount of projections which we all the time create and superpose on reality that brings us a lot of insatisfaction. We could therefore say that our insatisfaction is our 'syndrome of lack'. We lack a type of energy, we lack a type of experience which we therefore seek outside.
Types of Tantra 
Within the Tantra we talk about four tantric classes: Kriya, Charya, Yoga, and Maha-Anuttarayoga: 
Kriya Tantra - Purification - (bya gyu):
It emphasizes rituals as very important. We see ourselves as being deluded, while the deity is worshipped as having all the power to impart to us.
Charya Tantra - Action - (chu gyu):
There is a more balanced emphazise on both meditative states and ritual observances. The Deity is seen as closer to us, and is understood to be no different from one's own Buddha-nature, or the nature of mind.
Anuyoga Tantra - Union - (jesu naljor gyu):
The practitionner relies less and less on relative truth and aims more toward absolute truth. From here, one must have taken absolutely the Bodhisattva Vows.
Its is explain how defilements and delusions can be transformed into wisdom, and therefore the delusions are an important material we have to deal with  instead of abandonning - as it can give rise to insight and wisdom if dealt in a proper way. 
Maha-anuttarayoga - Supreme Union - (la-me chenpo'i gyu):
It is the most difficult one to practice. From here, one must take the Tantric vows, and undertake some daily commitments (Samaya). The practitionner deal direclty with his/her conflicting emotions and delusions. 
We could as well divide the Highest Tantra in three, according to the 'poison' it will directly focus on. The Three poisons (kleshas) being: Ignorance, Passion and Aggression. Though we shouldn't think one Tantra "lacks" anything, it is only a matter of emphasis.
Father Tantra: practicing utilizing mainly aggression as the path, focusing on the Emptiness aspect of Buddhanature. Like Guhyasamaja and Yamantanka, as well as the practices of the illusory body and of dream yoga.
Mother Tantra: utilize mainly passion as the path, focusing on the luminosity aspect of Buddhanature. It includes Chakrasamvara, tummo (heat generation), and Clear light yoga.
Non-dual Tantra: practicing equally passion and anger - counteracting Ignorance - with equal focus on the luminosity and Emptiness aspects of Buddhanature. Include Kalachakra, Hevajra and the yoga of Bardo.
Union Tantra (AnuttarayogaTantra) 
So, from this point there are a few misunderstandings in the West, when we talk about "Union" Tantra, and the misunderstanding is even stronger when people look at some Thangka paintings, the traditional esoteric paintings. There are clearly some people who mixed a little bit Tantra paintings with kamasutra representations. But Tantra paintings, when you see a male and female Buddha in union, have to be understood from a symbolic point of view. As it is said that the male energy represented on such a thangka is the great Bliss, and the female energy symbolized in such paintings is non-dual Wisdom, Emptiness. This has to be clear, because we can hear a lot of quite strange things sometimes, and we can read in some magazines some very weird Tantra training. But Tantra is by no way indulging into pleasure, Tantra is a way to use desire. It is compared sometimes to termites in the wood. Because the termites are actually using the wood, but at the same time, they are destroying the support. In the same way we could say that the tantric path uses the desire in order to reach the non-dual Wisdom, and once this non-dual Wisdom is realized, in return it burns the source of it, it destroys the desire by itself.
The Tantra path is a way to transform our daily perception. It tries to fight against the usual underestimation that we tend to have about ourselves. It tries to strengthen one's motivation into the practice. It tells you that you have some desire and that you think you might not understand exactly what is Emptiness and such things, but still deep inside yourself you have the Buddha nature which is able to understand and which is able to transcend everything. The main mistake is to see our environment on an ordinary basis, to see it as all mistaken. Thus, Tantra is a step by step training for the transformation of our perceptions.
The three bases 
We can say that in order to progress on the tantric path, we need to develop what we call the three main bases. The first is Renunciation; the second is Bodhi citta; and the third is Emptiness. We could say the these three bases are the same as developed in the Sutrayana. But the renunciation will be seen not as rejecting the source of pleasure, but as working on our perceptions and on our attachment to pleasure.
When we talk about the illusory aspect of all phenomena around us, we tend to make the comparison with a dream. And we try to train ourselves in order to be able to see the various phenomena that we are encountering as unreal as a dream perception can be. Within the practice often you will meet autovisualization of ourselves as the Deity, as the Buddha. And it is emphasis on the fact that our deep, our transcendental nature is of the nature of a Buddha.
Divine pride 
What is tried to be achieved is an identification with the Deity, with an archetype. And this archetype is the one of a Buddha, of somebody having full Enlightenment. Surely at the beginning of such a practice, we are doing it a bit artificially, but step by step we will deepen our belief in the autovisualization. And slowly, we will believe strongly that while doing this autovisualization, we are the Deity. And we are reaching now to a concept which is important in Tantra, which is 'divine pride'.
Here again, it seems to be a little bit contradictory with what we usually hear about the practice, because it is often said that we should throw away any kind of pride from our consciousness. And here it seems that I am saying you should be proud. But the main difference is that most of the time the pride we generate is a pride towards the grasping of a self-identity, while in the Tantra, when we talk about divine pride, it is because we become proud to be the Buddha, to be the Deity, with all his/her qualities, not forgetting the point that your main, ground motivation is Bodhicitta. Thus, you are not developing a pride in order to gain something for your little self, but you develop the pride to be the Buddha, to be a fully enlightened being for the sake of all sentient beings, for being able to help.
The abrupt path 
And at the same time, you will understand why, when we talk about Tantra, we call it as well the quickest path, but we may also call it an 'abrupt path', because an abrupt path will lead you quicker to the goal of the path, but if you fall, then the fall is also harder. Thus, the tantric path is indeed able to help us to reach the goal quicker, but if we do not follow with a very strong autodiscipline, precisely listening the advice of a fully qualified Master, then it may end in a disaster.
When we are talking about using the power of desire, we can give here a kind of example. It is like when you see one person, one being which your mind describes as extremely beautiful and desirable, this launches in your mind a lot of desire toward that appearance. In front of such appearance and with the same amount of desire, the practice would be to mentally transform such an object into a rainbow. So, somehow you remain with that type of very strong energy, but you don't have anymore the first object of your desire, of your attachment. And keeping that same energy through a meditation, you transform that energy into a blissful state of mind. 
By repeating such exercise a bit more developed, the mind will reach a much clearer state of bliss.
The qualified master 
Two things are fundamental in order to practice Tantra: the first is to find the right teacher, the right guide, which will embody all the qualities of the Buddhas, and the second thing is that you get from that qualified teacher a tantric Initiation. The Initiation is fundamental in the sense that it brings a contact between our consciousness and an unbroken lineage of transmission from the Buddha to our consciousness. It is somehow to be considered as an activation of our inner qualities. An Initiation does not bring anything into your mind else than a blessing to awaken you own Buddha qualities. An Initiation is not to be seen just as a ritual, as a sum of mouvements and funny phrases, but it has to be experienced from inside. One has to exactly follow the different steps of that Initiation and to keep always a clear identification of the master with the Deity from whom we receive the Initiation. 
We could easily say that a mere intellectual understanding of the different steps of an Initiation is not enough at all, it really has to be something which we 'live' from inside, that we go through from inside, that we experience from inside. Why from inside? Because within ourselves there are some specific components which have to be activated, which have to be switched on through the power of the Initiation and through the power of our visualisations. Within our physical body we have something more subtle which we call the ' Vajra body', which is composed of thousands of channels and subtle energies. In the ordinary time, all our energies are flowing here and there in different channels, everywhere else than in the central channel - while, if we would be able to concentrate and focus and dissolve all these disturbed winds/energies into that central channel, then we could experience a State of Great Bliss. So we have to search for the methods that will help to concentrate, to control and to bring those energies into the central channel. The realization that can be experienced once all winds are dissolved into the central channel is Emptiness.
Realization of emptiness 
So we can see from now that there are two main ways to realize emptiness: it would be the analytical way through following step by step a scholastic text which depict exactly what is and what is not, and the second way is to operate control over the inner winds of our body and to engage them into the central channel.
We should not oppose one way to another; these are two ways which have been taught by the Buddha and which correspond to different types of beings. We could say briefly that on one side there are people who have low desire and low attachment and who are very methodic in their way to learn, and for them the Sutra Path would be more appropriate. And on the other side, there are other people who feel quite 'wild' inside and have difficulties to control their desires, who have very strong desires, and for those, according to the strengths of their desires, they might fit into one of the four tantric classes.
The Tantra path is dedicated to those minds who do not have a very low self-estimation. This is clearly a method which is opposed to a low self-estimation, opposed to discouragement as well.
Identification visualization 
Within the Tantra, among the first practices, there is an autovisualization as the Deity, and at some point, the Deity, by visualization, dissolves into what is called the 'Clear Light'. At that moment, one's mind has to be as identified as much as possible to that clear light. Without any doubt about the reality of what is experienced. It is clear from one point that the experience at that moment is not the experience of Clear Light, but the goal is a less solid misconception. Once your mind is dissolved into this clear space, there is less chance to find a "I". If your mind can really dissolve into that clear light, and identify itself with that clear light, then we can say that the mind is approaching the concept of emptiness.
At this point, you might say somehow: "Eh, Shenphen! There are so many deep descriptions by Nagarjuna and many others about the different steps to reach emptiness, that it might not be possible that by such easy meditation we might understand it!" 
We could answer, that, here, it is not a question of study, but of action and of experience. The main goal here is to decrease the amount of misconceptions, to decrease the power of self-grasping, in order to make our consciousness as subtle as possible. From the Tantrayana point of view, we could say that the strict intellectual approach is more an obstacle than a help. The main point here is to be able to identify your mind with the qualities of the Buddha; you should not think that you are doing this in a fake way, but you really develop the divine pride that your consciousness has reached a state of a Buddha's consciousness. It is a state that seeks stopping the babbling of the mind and to decrease the usual expectations. It is necessary for that to do not generate any tension on an expected result, but just to be the Deity, the Buddha's consciousness, and to let go everything else. And once your mind is within that state of bliss, then you look at all the appearances as coming from that emptiness.
Q. When those energies are going to the central channel, what happens to them?
A. They dissolve into the central channel, they disappear into the central channel, they do not exist in the same way within the central channel as they do outside. This stops the babbling of the mind which is maintained and produced by all the different winds in the other channels. By focussing all those winds into the central channel, it stops the babbling of the mind and allows the mind to have a much deeper, subtle, state. [.....
The moment of death 
The tantric path seems also to put an emphasis on death. We can see how most of the time we do react ourselves when we only hear the word "death" - because it is a socially loaded word. Whereas from the Vajrayana point of view, the moment of death is a very important moment. 
Usually, our mind is completely uncontrolled at the moment we engage into the death process; our mind is like leaves in the wind. You will go from one vision to another vision without any control over this process. At one moment, all the gross conceptions are disappearing, and the mind is going to face the moment of Clear Light in death. But because we are not prepared to face the Clear Light which is the expression of the subtlest states, we become full of fear and try to flee this Clear Light. So, somehow we cannot benefit from being in touch with that subtlest state of mind; because we have not been prepared at all to face it. Thus, we generate some fear and escape from it. 
Whereas, on the tantric path, the emphasis will be on the capability to be able to control the mind so that when once one will be facing the Clear Light one will be able to meditate upon the Clear Light (to be able to catch that moment and to focus on it, to remain longer in that experience). Thus, most of the practices of the tantric path will be to help us during the life to learn to operate a control on the mind at the time to face the Clear Light. We will try different methods explained in the tantric path, concentrate all energies into the central channel in order to experience the Clear Light - which is not the Clear Light of the moment of death, since we are not dying, but which will be very similar to the one we face at the moment of death. The Clear Light that one can experience during the life is called the 'Clear Light daughter', while the Clear Light experienced at the moment of death is called the 'Clear Light mother'. Thus, a lot of attention will be directed towards a better understanding and a better control of the whole process leading to face the Clear Light. And since it is a process which we experience at the time of death, since this is as well a process which we are experiencing at the moment of sleep, it is surely a process which we might be able to experience consciously within one's practice. Clearly, according to the tantric path, the experience of Emptiness is not something which is so far away, since it is an experience which we all have already had, but in an uncontrolled way. 
But usually, we have such a low estimation of ourselves that when we approach a subject such as Emptiness, we feel quite discouraged and we cannot think one second that it will be soon possible to achieve such realization. But if through the practice of the tantric path you are able to overcome that low estimation mind mainly through visualizing yourself as the Deity while developing this kind of divine pride, then your mind will understand that this realization is indeed possible. 
There a four tantric classes. If you join the tantrayana, you may first join the Kriyatantra, for example, and then eventually progress through the different classes according to your inner transformation.
Question: What is the difference between Tantrayana and Vajrayana?
Answer: It is the same.
Question: On the one hand one should rely on a teacher, but at the same time it is said one shall not rely on outer phenomena; isn't this contradictory?
Answer: One can rely on a teacher mainly because the teacher is seen as the embodiment of the qualities of a Buddha. And when we say not to rely on what appears, then it means not to rely on all the projections which we are attributing to the outer phenomena. But since we need guidance, once we have checked carefully the qualities of a master, when we have have understood how compassionate and knowledgeable he is, then we may start to rely on such a qualified guide.
Question: If one sometimes has the feeling that one cannot have confidence in the teacher?
Answer: Then we may not yet have found the right teacher. In order to follow the tantric path, one must really find a qualified teacher, we are not referring to any teacher, somebody like me who is just giving a lecture or an introduction to something, but really a qualified person who has followed the path which he is teaching and who has gained a clear realization and understanding of what is taught. For that we have to follow a teacher long enough in order to be able to understand whether he represents all necessary qualities for a teacher on the tantric path. Thus, one should not rely easily on a teacher to get advised from him on the tantric path; one has to be sure about it; and that can take time. But it does not matter how much time it takes, since it is important to find a really qualified per son.
Question: Is your explanation more suitable for a Western mind? Because there are examples in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, from the Kagyu lineage, where disciples found their teachers more easily, where they had a kind of sudden feeling 'This is my master!', and remained with them in spite of the many troubles they had to endure.
Answer: I do believe that it applies to every situation, whatever mind, whatever lineage. On the one hand, it is still possible that after a few years of looking for a teacher, listening many teachings, finally you may find yourself in front of one specific teacher with whom there is an immediate recognition. But we have to be sure that this understanding is coming from a pure intuition and is not just a projection because somebody has a kind of charisma, or talks well, or gives details which we like. We have to be sure about what we do feel towards this person. Someone can have a very good charisma and talk very well, and yet may not have any inner realization, of Emptiness or of Bodhichitta. So, we have to be sure that the person we believe in and we feel good with has the necessary background to become a real guide. Because he/she is not only a guide for common things in daily life, it's specifically about the tantric path, somebody giving details on the tantric path, and those details have also to be adapted to the disciple; thus one really has to check well. It is said that once we have found our teacher, we have to follow him; even, as you said, if we find some obstacles, even if the teacher seems to be a little bit tough or show anger to us. If he is giving us some obstacles, we have nevertheless to follow, since he is the essence of the Buddhas. So, in order to be sure of that, I think it is better to spend some time, as much time as necessary to be sure that this is the right teacher. Because once we decide that this person will be our teacher, if you go to see that person and ask him/her to be your teacher, and if there is a reciprocal agreement, then, if you subsequently break this engagement, this is considered a very negative action. And we know from Milarepa's life story that a teacher can be very tough; but on the other hand, as far as I understood the story, Marpa never asked for anything which went against the Buddhadharma. He asked him many things which were very hard or tough for himself, but he never manifested things which are against the Buddhadharma. And this is one point to keep in mind, because His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that: when you chose to follow someone as a master, if you later see that this master obviously acts against the Buddhadharma, then you can put the qualities of the teacher in doubt. It is not me who said that, but His Holiness. Of course when I say that, I measure the weight of it, and when I say that you have to be sure that the teacher is acting against the Buddhadharma, it means that you have to be sure. It should not be just a feeling, or something that you have heard, or a misunderstanding about his activities. But if it appears clearly that the teacher asks you to kill someone, or that you act in a negative way for others, you must be careful about such orders.
Question: If one does not find a teacher, but there is a teacher who has already passed away, for whom one has great respect, reads all his books, and so on, can this teacher be one's teacher?
Answer: This is difficult, because while we are progressing on the path, we may meet some difficulties and have some questions, and then we need the appropriate answer. The appropriate advise is difficult to get from a book.
Question: And what about a Yidam being one's teacher? Can one practice the yidam as a teacher?
Answer: When we do the Guru yoga or the practice of a yidam, we see our teacher as the essence of the Buddha that we are practising. We see clearly that all the deepest realizati ons come from the devotion which we generate towards our guru. 
If one sees one's guru as a simple man, then one will receive the blessing of a simple man. If one sees one's guru as a bodhisattva, then one will receive the blessing of a bodhisattva. If one sees one's guru as a Buddha, then one will receive the blessing as if given from a Buddha. Answer: 
But only in some rare case the Yidam (as N?ljorma, or Manjushri, etc) can be our teacher! Because this implies that one has already reached a very high state of realization, able to perceive the Deity clearly and have a direct relationship with. 
Question: Concerning what you were explaining about the central channel and moving energies: This is also done in Qi Gong practice, but without the ethical background about Bodhichitta, and so on. Therefore I have a question: Can one be practised without the other or inhowfar are these things different.
Answer: From my understanding, this is not done in Qi Gong. It is visualised concentrating some energy in the so called central channel, but I have never read any precise descriptions from Qi Gong or Reiki and so on; the real way somehow to dissolve the energies into the central channel in a true and effective way, well detailled and described. 
I am not a Qi Gong specialist, this is clear, but what I could read and hear about it is that they do some visualization, concentrating different energies in a "centralized" way, in order to have an appeased mind. But here stop the similarities with the tantric practice, because in the tantric practice we define exactly how to do it; not only how to visualize it, but to focus the mind on one of the specific chakras, describing exactly the place where the winds have to flow into the central channel and all those kinds of details, which, to my understanding, are not described in Qi Gong. When in Qi Gong we see the concentration of the vital energy in one spot of the body, we could see a parallel to the (Tibetan) 'tummo' (tib.: gtum mo) or the (Indian) kundalini practices, but even though there is a similarity, it ends there; there is no further description on how to awake this energy, and how to channel it into the central channel. Nevertheless, if somebody is doing Qi Gong generating the strong feeling or belief that some energy will move and that some energy will get concentrated and will produce something, it may in some cases really produce some experience. But since there is no background of Bodhichitta and no background of how to maintain and channel it, it will be a brief experience.
Therefore, if we want to engage into a deep and profound practice, we have to follow a traditional one, not existing since few years, and having a long lineage of practitionner who have acheive Enlightenment! We cannot become a Buddha by buying a trainning, we cannot channel those spiritual energies in few days. As we cannot become a healer after two, three weekends of reiki.
It all depends what you want to acheive. It depends of your strengh and your motivation. Sure the Tantric Path, as any other traditional spiritual ways, require efforts and assiduity. We cannot buy Buddahood as a piece of cake, nor as a training!
We may end the evening here.
Thank you :-)


Words of Wisdom

"The nature of mind is clear light, defilements are only adventitious."
- Dharmakirti

Copyright 2024  Buddhist Congregation Dharmaling