Monday, May 25, 2009
Wand in the Lotus Part 2: Types and Stages of Tantra
I know that my next post in this particular series was supposed to be on the five schools of Tibetan Dharma, but in preparing that post I realized that I needed to say a bit about the classifications and stages of Tantra first so that when I talk about how the different schools approach this issue, you will have some idea of what I am talking about. It is also helpful for purely western magicians and mystics to see how the relationship between practitioner and divine evolves in the various classes.
But first a story.
About 2500 years ago, in the time of the Buddha, King Indrabhuti of Uddiyana (Afghanistan), saw a strange flock of yellow birds flying towards Mt Kailash in the evening. He asked his ministers about them who revealed that they were not birds at all, but the Buddha and five hundred Arhats. In the evening, they would fly to Mount Kailasa and in the moring fly to Varanasi. The king invited the Buddha to the palace and asked him to teach the Dharma, which the Buddha did, delivering a discourse on the Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path , and Monastic renunciation.
The king realized the wisdom of what he heard, but pointed out that as king, he had responsibilities. If he just left the throne, the kingdom would fall into chaos. Furthermore he would greatly disappoint his 50 wives. I will let John Reynold tell what happened next:
"The Buddha smiled and immediately transformed himself into the Guhyasamaja deity in itsmandala palace. In this guise, the Buddha explained the practice of Tantra, the path of transformation. When he transformed himself into the Yab-yum form, that is, in sexual union with his consort, he explained Karmamudra, or the sexual yoga performed with a consort, what is also known as Guhyacharya, or “secret conduct.” At this, the five hundred Arhats, all of whom were very pure monks indeed, fainted dead away from shock, and so they did not hear or recall later this portion of the Buddha’s teaching. Therefore, it is not found in the Hinayana Sutras."
Lama Vajranatha, from the new book Sadhana Practice of Wrathful Deities in Tibetan Buddhist Tantra.
Of course that is perhaps just a legend, but the Ghuyasamaja is in fact the oldest tantra, either Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain we have in writing. Originally the Tantras were practiced primarily by people that were not monks. Some wandered as homeless yogis, others worked straight jobs. Indeed many of the great Mahasiddhas are named after the mundane jobs they held: Saraha the maker of sara or arrows, Vinapa who played the Vina or guitar, and Tilopa who pressed sesame seeds or til. Eventually though as the Tantras gained fame and became popularized, Buddhist monestaries in Northern India started incorporating them into the monastic discipline. This is the way that it is still practiced today: some working as Monks, and others as householders or Ngakpas.
In basic Sutrayana meditation, there are two stages Shamatha (tib: Shinay) or calm abiding and Vipassana (tib:Lhathong), or further insight. The first stage calms the mind revealing its natural state of awareness and emptiness, the second stage works within that state to integrate it with the natural energy and the endless arsising and setting of thoughts. Tantra also works these stages, but not in the same way. Rather than absorb the mind into the breath or a symbol, Tantra absorbs the mind into a mandala of a Yidam or meditational deity. This was described to me by one lama as a “ship of meditation” as it has sights, sounds, and such associated with it. Mastering the generation of the Mandala, accumulating the recitation of the various mantras, and dissolving the mandala again to reveal the natural state of awareness is what is called Kye-rim or generation stage. After this is mastered the yogi can then embark upon Dzog-rim or completion stage where, depending upon the specific tantra being worked, one engages in various yogas that we will discuss in more depth later.
Tantras are classified in different ways. The basic classification is Inner and Outer. Outer Tantra is divided into three types: Kriya, Charya, and Yoga Tantra. In Kryia or action Tantra the emphasis is on visualizing deities in the sky out in front of you, and performing various outward actions of worship and ritual purity in hopes of drawing their blessing or chin-lop down into yourself. In Charya or Conduct Tantra, the emphasis is still on a being in front of you, but the work itself is divided between outer actions like in Kriya Tantra, and inner work of attaining Samadhi. In Yoga Tantra we begin with the being in the sky in front of us, but than draw that being down into us, transforming ourselves into that being. The emphasis is primarily on the inner meditation rather than outer actions.
In all cases the deities of outer Tantra tend to be peaceful and celestial in appearance. Today Kriya tantra is widely practiced in Tibet, as is Yoga Tantra. Charya Tantra has almost disappeared from the land of snows, but is the primary practice of Shingon, or Japanese Tantra. Lest you think that only the inner Tantras are involved in magick, I should just point out that tons of magick gets worked in these three outer Tantras. Anyone interested should get the book “Meditations on the Lower Tantras” put out by the Tibetan Library of Works and Archives. This has loads of Sadhanas for everything from wealth, to protection, to healing. The other benefit of these Tantras is that while you should have the empowerment to get the maximum benefit, you do not need the empowerment for them. Indeed my mother used Vashravanas mantra to help her in a financial jam once, and she sure as heck didn’t have an empowerment!
Inner Tantra differs from outer Tantra in several important ways. First, rather than involving peaceful and celestial deities, it typically is centered around Wrathful, Chthonic, and Sexual imagery. Secondly, rather than begin with visualizing the diety outside of ourselves, the Sadhana starts off by dissolving all outward awareness into emptiness and re-arising as a seed syllable that emanates and reabsorbs light, transforming ourselves into the central Yidam and its Mandala.
Since the different schools divide the classes of Inner Tantra differently, I think I will leave that for the next post, which will be on the five schools. For now, it is enough to say that the imagery is Thanaterotic, or sex and death. The range from Rishi wrathful, or joyously wrathful like Ghyasamaja above, to Khroda wrathful or really really wrathful. Also you need to know that the the completion stage yogas of most of the inner tantras are where the most famous aspects of Tantra come into play, such as Tummo or inner heat, and Thap-lam or sex practice.
In about a month or so we will do part 3, where I discuss the five schools and get deeper into the work of the inner Tantras.