Monthly Archives: March 2014

Tantric Buddhism

The esoteric teachings, secret initiations and erotic imagery associated with Buddhist tantra have fueled no end of interest. But tantra may not be what you think it is.

What Is Tantra?

Countless practices of several Asian religions have been lumped together by western scholars under the heading “tantra.” The only commonality among these practices is the use of ritual or sacramental action to channel divine energies. The earliest tantra probably grew out of the Hindu-Vedic tradition. Buddhist tantra developed independently of Hindu for many centuries, however, and they are barely related now in spite of a surface resemblance.

Even if we limit our study to Buddhist tantra, we are still looking at a vast range of practices and multiple definitions. Very broadly, most Buddhist tantra is a means to enlightenment through identity with tantric deities. It is sometimes also called “deity-yoga.”

It’s important to understand that these deities are not “believed in” as external spirits to be worshiped. Rather, they are archetypes representing the tantric practitioner’s own deepest nature.

Mahayana and Vajrayana

One sometimes hears of three “yanas” (vehicles) of Buddhism — Hinayana (“small vehicle”), Mahayana(“great vehicle”) and Vajrayana (“diamond vehicle”), with tantra being the distinguishing feature of Vajrayana. Sorting the many schools and sects of Buddhism into these three categories is not helpful to understanding Buddhism, however. The Vajrayana sects are founded solidly on Mahayana philosophies and doctrines; tantra is a method by which the teachings are actualized. Vajrayana is best understood as an extension of Mahayana.

Further, although Buddhist tantra is most often associated with the Vajrayana sects of Tibetan Buddhism, it is by no means limited to Tibetan Buddhism. To a greater or lesser degree, elements of tantra can be found in many Mahayana schools, especially in Japan. Japanese ZenPure Land, Tendai and Nichiren Buddhism, for example, all have strong veins of tantra running through them. Japanese Shingon Buddhism is thoroughly tantric.

Origins of Buddhist Tantra

As with many other aspects of Buddhism, myth and history don’t always find their way to the same ball park.

Vajrayana Buddhists say tantric practices were expounded by the historical Buddha. A king approached the Buddha and explained that his responsibilities did not allow him to abandon his people and become a monk. Yet in his privileged position he was surrounded by temptations and pleasures. How could he realize enlightenment? The Buddha responded by teaching the king tantric practices that would transform pleasures into transcendent realization.

Many historians speculate that tantra was developed by Mahayana teachers in India very early in the first millennia CE, possibly as a way to reach those who weren’t responding to teachings from the sutras.  (I personally strongly disagree with this because the Buddha taught Tantra hundreds of years before the First Millennia CE.  I believe that evidence strongly supports the understanding that Tantra existed BEFORE Buddhism and long before Hinduism.

Wherever it came from, by the 7th century CE tantric Buddhism was fully systemized in northern India. This was significant to the development of Tibetan Buddhism. The first Buddhist teachers in Tibet, beginning in the 8th century with the arrival of Padmasambhava, were tantric teachers from northern India.

By contrast, Buddhism reached China about the year 1. Mahayana Buddhist sects that emerged in China, such as Pure Land and Zen, also incorporate tantric practices, but these are not nearly as elaborate as in Tibetan tantra.

Sutra Versus Tantra

Vajrayana teachers compare what they call the gradualcausal or sutra path of Buddhism to the speedier tantra path. By “sutra” path, they mean following the Precepts, developing meditative concentration and studying sutras to develop seeds, or causes, of enlightenment. In this way enlightenment will be realized in the future. Tantra, on the other hand, is a means to bring this future result into the present moment by realizing oneself as an enlightened being.

The Pleasure Principle

I’ve already defined Buddhist tantra as “a means to enlightenment through identity with tantric deities.” This is a definition that works for most tantric practices in Mahayana and Vajrayana.

Vajrayana Buddhism also defines tantra as a means to channel the energy of desire and transform the experience of pleasure into realization of enlightenment. According to the late Lama Thubten Yeshe,

“The same desirous energy that ordinarily propels us from one unsatisfactory situation is transmuted, through the alchemy of tantra, into a transcendental experience of bliss and wisdom. The practitioner focuses the penetrating brilliance of this blissful wisdom so that it cuts like a laser beam through all false projections of this and that and pierces the very heart of reality.” (Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality [1987], p. 37)

Behind Closed Doors

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the practitioner is initiated into incremental levels of esoteric teachings under the guidance of a guru. Upper-level rituals and teachings are not made public. This esotericism, combined with the sexual nature of much Vajrayana art, has led to much winking and nudging about upper-level tantra.

Vajrayana teachers say most of the practices of Buddhist tantra are not sexual, and what is mostly involves visualizations. Many tantric masters are celibate. It’s likely nothing goes on in upper-level tantra that couldn’t be shown to schoolchildren. I believe the reason for the secretiveness is that the teachings could easily be misunderstood or misused by people who are not being properly guided by an authentic teacher.

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What is “Tantra”?

Q.  What is Tantra?  I have heard it has something to do with Sacred Sexuality.

A.  Allow me to set the record straight once and for all:  Tantra is often associated with sacred sex. The ancient Sanskrit word tantra literally means “warp and woof” or “continuation” and refers to non-duality, interwovenenss, or oneness through the union of opposites.

Tantra is an ancient, esoteric Indian spiritual tradition, common to both Hinduism and Buddhism, dating back to before the time of Christ–and even the Buddha, who lived in the sixth century B.C.E. Buddha is said to have transmitted Tantric teachings to his disciples. Both Hindu and Buddhist Tantric traditions emphasize the cultivation of enlightened consciousness, divine oneness, and the burning off of blockages and defilements that cover and inhibit the inner radiance of our own original nature or innate state of perfection. Classic Tantric Buddhist texts, such as an ancient, anonymous manual called “The Union of the Sun and Moon,” reveal how to utilize the right and left psychic energy channels (nadis)–which, in yogic physiology, embody the masculine (solar) and feminine (lunar) energies within our own bodies. As a result, we can become more integrated, awaken our inner energy, and thus experience wholeness.

In Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, the term refers to various kinds of texts (medical, astrological Tantras, etc.) and more generally to the systems of meditation of our tradition. There are four classes of these esoteric texts and treatises, and they form the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. Thus Vajrayana Buddhism is also known in Tibetan as Tantrayana, or the Tantric vehicle to enlightenment.

 Today the term Tantra is sometimes misunderstood or even misused in the West.  Made out to be synonymous with eroticism and licentiousness, there are myriad books and websites claiming to help students harness the Tantric teachings as a means to great sex and financial success. There are even commercial relationship workshops promising better sex through sensual Tantric training.

But TRUE Tantric practices involve no sex, and Tantric yoga is best practiced under the guidance of an experienced and qualified teacher or Lama.

Of course, sexuality is a healthy part of life, and the sexual drive is one of the most powerful energies in us. Although Western religions seem to have lost touch with the wisdom of the body and the sacred dimension of sexual energy, Tantric adepts through millennia have worked to find ways in which to integrate that energy into spiritual practice, and turn this powerful force into rocket-fuel-like propellant on the path of spiritual ecstasy and transcendence. In ancient India, this became the practice known as sacred sex, practiced with a certain amount of ritual and using specific ritual sexual practices, including maithuna–coupling with minimal movement, and holding of or even abstaining from orgasm in order to increase self-control and to purify desire.

This practice–given the right intention, training, guidance, concentration, and conditions–can sublimate and transmute sexual drive into higher, more spiritual aspirations. Through practices known as seminal retention, “melting and blazing,” the “all-consuming fire of total embrace,” “mystic heat,” and so forth, advanced practitioners have been able to redirect the release of energy upward through the body, opening all the chakras in continuous waves of full-body, orgasm-like bliss and consciousness. Quite a contrast–in purpose and experience–to the more typical, brief, downward-releasing sexual climax, usually followed by dullness and sleep.

This transformation of energy is Tantra’s capacity for developing samadhi (concentrative absorption), expanding consciousness, and opening into meditation. More than 1,000 years ago, the yogis of Bengal and Orissa in India developed this spiritual art, and a few still practice it in an underground fashion, as do the Tantric yogis and lamas of Tibetan Buddhism, where it still continues in the fullest form today.

Many Tantric practices, as I mentioned, do not involve a literal union of two people, though they are based in the symbolic synthesis of male and female, solar and lunar, compassion and wisdom. One such fundamental aspect of Tantric practice is Tantric medicine, an ancient methodology for healing both body and soul. Working with the so-called “subtle” body, which includes the various “sheaths” or dimensions of our being from corporeality on up, Tantric medicine employs diet, fasting, breath and energy practices, initiations, visualizations, mantras, mudras (ritual gestures), and yoga, along with a knowledge of the body’s chakras and subtle energy (prana) channels to remove blockages and correct damage. By purifying the body along with the energy, the mind, and the spirit, this process can strengthen the immune system and prevent disease and mental imbalance and instability, and promote longevity, vitality, and spiritual and emotional development.

Tantric medicine can be found today in the Indian Ayurveda tradition as well as in the Buddhist treatises known as the Medical Tantras in the Tibetan tradition. Tibetans say that Buddha appeared in the form of the healing Buddha, or “Bhaishajya-guru Buddha,” who symbolizes the healing or perfecting quality of dharma, and taught the Five Medical Tantras to qualified disciples, from which all of Tibetan medicine is derived.

In the universe of Tibetan Buddhism, the continuum of Tantric spiritual development is seen as having three categories: ground, path, and fruition. The ground is the practitioner, the path is the path of meditation, which purifies this ground, and the fruition is the blissful, unified state that arises as an effect of Tantric practice. So forget IPOs and hot sex. When the body and mind become aligned and peaceful, as with Tantric medicine, that’s fruition in the true sense of the word.


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SANSKRIT PRIME – the Proto-Indo-European Mother Tongue – Pronunciation of Sanskrit

Pronuncing Sanskrit

Sanskrit is a very beautiful language, and holds within its vibrations a sacred energy that will greatly empower your spiritual growth. It is easy to pronounce once you learn a few basic rules.

a – Short “a” as in “cut.” ṛ – Trilled “r” followed by a short “I” as in “ri.”
ā – Long “a” as in “lot.” ṝ – Pronounced as above, but longer.
i – As in “king,” a sound between “lick” and “keen.” ḷ – L followed by a short “i” as in “li.”
ī – Hard “e” as in “keen.”
u – Short u as in “cook.”
ū – Long u as in “shoot.”

e – As in “bay.” o – As in “low.”
ai –As in “eye.” au – As in “ouch.”

Vowels with a line on top are pronounced twice as long as short vowels, and they are stressed syllables in a word.


Gutturals (made with the tip of the tongue at the back of the throat): k, kh, g, gh, ṅ.
Palatals (made with the tongue at the palate): c, ch, j, jh, ñ.
Cerebrals (made with the tip of the tongue behind the palate): ṭ, ṭh, ḍ, ḍh, ṇ.
Dentals (made with the tip of the tongue behind the teeth): t, th, d, dh, n.
Labials (made with the lips): p, ph, b, bh, m.
Semivowels: y, r, l, v.
Spirants: ś, ṣ, s, h.
Other: ḥ, ṃ.

Aspirated Letters:
All consonants with an “h” after them are aspirated and pronounced separate from each other; ex. “gh” as in “dog house.”

c – A “ch” as in “chopper.”

ṅ – A “ng” as in “song;” ex. aliṅgana, pronounced “aling-gana,” not “alin-gana.”
ñ – A “nya.”
ṇ – A “n” with the tip of the tongue on the back of the throat.

ś – An “sh” as in “shoe.”
ṣ – An “sh” with the tip of the tongue on the upper back part of the throat.

Other Consonants:
ḥ – A soft “h” that softly repeats the sound of the vowel before it, but is usually left as just a soft “h.”
ṃ – A deeper, nasalized, longer and more resonant “m.”

Consonant Combinations:
Consonant combinations pronounced separately; ex. “th” pronounced like “hot house.”
jñ – A “nya;” ex. prajñā, pronounced “pra-nya.”

’ – An elision of a vowel that is unpronounced, like a contraction; ex. “can’t.” Syllable Stresses:
In a two syllable word, the first syllable is usually stressed; ex. bali.
In a three syllable word, the second syllable is usually stressed; ex. baliṅgta
In a four syllable word, the second syllable is usually stressed; ex. narteśvara.
If a word has a long vowel in it, the long vowel is stressed; ex. mudrā.
If a word has two or more long vowels in it, all the long vowels are stressed; ex. Mahāmudrā.

All words in Sanskrit are pronounced with a slight nasal tone.


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