Tantra has enjoyed many different forms of expression in many times and places. Various streams of Tantra have been seeding Asian countries for centuries, and Tantra is now becoming a global phenomenon.
When I was younger, it took me a long time and a lot of effort to begin to see the outlines of the diverse worlds of traditional Tantra. What I offer here is not a precise definition of Tantra, but an overview for those seeking to get oriented to the many sorts of ideas and practices that get called “Tantra.”Tantra’s diversity of expression is not mere historical accident. The accommodation of diversity is built right into Tantrik View.
No aspect of human experience is left out. Tantra uses everything life brings us—from the most mundane to the so-called “spiritual”—in order to bring about realization of the nature of the Self.
Ultimately, Tantra is about holding the experience of absolute unity and wild diversity together, not about erasing one in favor of the other.
The practices associated with Tantra such as worship of deities, mantra, yantra, puja, mandala, and hatha yoga existed long before anyone uttered the word “Tantra.” Artifacts of figures seated in yogic poses and other Tantrik images have been found that are thousands of years old. The earliest surviving evidence we have of a written tradition comes from around 500 AD in India.
What makes Tantra Tantra?
Although Tantra is actually a richly diverse, synthetic set of traditions, we can come up with a short list of the core Tantrik approaches to practice and life.
- an acceptance of the material, phenomenal world as a real, and not illusory, manifestation of consciousness (Shiva) and power (Shakti);
- a commitment to non-exclusivity of caste, class, and gender;
- the belief that the human body is our most valuable tool in seeking liberation;
- the insistence that enjoyment (bhukti) and liberation (mukti) are not mutually exclusive; and
- the understanding that any conceptual understanding of the world is ultimately limiting. We must have a direct, experiential encounter with our real nature.
Most Tantras (the written texts) consist of View teachings and instructions for practices aimed at sensitizing and opening the practitioner to a fuller relationship with the world.
The Guru-disciple relationship is so central to traditional Tantrik practice. Through a natural circumstance called “transmission,” the Guru provides the disciple with an experience of, and a beacon for realizing, unconditional continuity with everything.
The ultimate goal of Tantrik sadhana is full, conscious participation in the world process of waking up through discovering the true nature of the Self.
One Self/many selves
Most Tantrik traditions hold the View that the entirety of reality is one subjectivity. The diversity of worlds and beings is created as experiential self-expressions of that subjectivity.
This Supreme Self, a.k.a. all of reality, is personified in different ways according to the different kinds of Tantrik lineages and schools. In general, the Supreme Self may be called Shiva, some form of Shakti, Lalita Tripura Sundari, or Ganapati.
TANTRA AS DEVOTIONAL RITUAL
Traditional Tantrik practice ritualizes every aspect of life in order to place the sadhika (practitioner) in sync with the rhythms of nature.
Tantra ritualizes your life from the moment you open your eyes in the morning, throughout your whole day, as you fall asleep, while you are sleeping, and until you open your eyes again the following day.
You may practice sexual ritual. You may not. You do not have to do sexual yogas to practice Tantra. And traditional Tantra is certainly not about having better orgasms, unless your goal in this life is to realize yourself as a killer orgasm.
What’s it All about?
While often we see Tantra associated with experiences of energy and the control of energy, this is only half-way. Traditional Tantra is most focused on opening the heart to primordial wisdom and relaxing in a responsive state of uncontrived naturalness.
Traditional Tantra sadhana is about becoming immersed in and expressive of cosmic wisdom virtues such as compassion, intelligence, clarity, creativity, playfulness, and a deep appreciation for all of the manifestations of this alive, aware reality.