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Defining Tantra

September 1 2005

Like most Sanskrit words, “Tantra” has many meanings. One meaning is a text: a written Tantra. Three of the key Tantras are the Mahanirvana Tantra, the Kularnava Tantra, and the Vijnanabhairava Tantra. The there are many others, the majority not translated into English.

Tantras are in the form of dialogues between Shiva and Shakti. They contain cosmological concepts, classifications of gurus and disciples, other philosophical discussion, and instructions for practice. However, you cannot get everything you need to direct your sadhana from reading the Tantras because they are written in what is called “twilight” language. At dusk, you can see, but not clearly. The details are obscured.

Just so in the Tantras. Without initiation and instruction from a qualified teacher, the full import of the text is obscured. This is done on purpose to prevent people from injuring themselves.

Tantra also means “ritual.” Often you will see lists of Tantric practices such as “mantra, yantra, and tantra.” Ritual is an expressive pattern. One of the key things to understand is that the Tantrik cosmos is expressive. Most Western religions and philosophies send us off on a wild goose chase after knowledge and truth. The Tantrik View does not subscribe to these usual notions of truth and knowing. What we generally think of as knowledge, in Tantra is considered the core limitation or bondage. So-called knowing always puts a limit on Reality. Tantra’s View is limitless. Reality is always larger than anything we call knowledge.

You do read about knowledge and ignorance in Tantric texts. But these words have a different meaning. Knowledge means being established in non-dual experience, which in turn means that our conduct will be in tune with Nature. So knowledge is something we express by spontaneously acting in tune with Nature. Ignorance is our very limitation to a dualistic View. Ignorance is our root sense of separation from the world.

Nature is nothing but expressive patterns. Ritual is appropriate, expressive participation in Nature. We would not say that a musical composition is true or false. We would not claim to “know” a piece of music. We would participate in it by listening, enjoying, tapping our feet, dancing, and at the most accomplished level, by playing instruments and making music ourselves. This pretty much describes the course that one follows as a Tantrik practitioner. In order to play music, you need practical knowledge of how music works and of your instrument (you). This is ritual knowledge.

One of the most widely known meanings of Tantra is a weaving. A weaving is a homology for the Tantrik View of the cosmos as one whole cloth with every thread in contact with every other thread. The concept of a weaving expresses the Tantrik paradox that we are, at the same time, “threads” and the whole cloth. We have individual experience, but our individual experience only arises within the context of the whole cosmos. Another way of thinking about this is through the example of the wave and the ocean. A wave doesn’t take shape, make decisions, and act on its own as an individual. It is an expression of the whole ocean. We can only say where a wave begins and ends by making an arbitrary boundary. Yet in some sense that is hard to define, it is indeed individuated.

“Tantra” is a condensation of other concepts. This is the norm for Sanskrit. Words are collapsible and expandable. “Tantra” expands into “tanoti”: to expand; and “trayati”: to liberate. We expand our energy and our sense of self to become unbound or liberated.

“Tantra” also expands into the sloka “Tanayate jnanam anena iti Tantra.” Notice that the first syllable of the sloka is “tan” and the final syllable is “tra.” The sloka defines Tantra as that by which knowledge is disseminated or the method of disseminating knowledge. Here again, knowledge means to be established in non-duality. Only from this state of expanded Self can we return to play in the world of duality without fixation and compulsion.

Just in this eensy-weensy little post, a crucial point has been demonstrated: you cannot practice Tantra safely, or expect the full fruit of the practice, without a qualified teacher. For instance, most Westerners reading the words “knowledge” and “ignorance” in a Tantric text will interpret them in the wrong way. You might think, “Big deal. They are just words.” But think again. If a student, or an unqualified teacher, misunderstands Tantra as a road to Truth and Knowledge, the whole practice will be skewed. You will sit down to do your sadhana with an incorrect orientation. This will be wasted effort.

OM Shanti, Shambhavi