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Defining Tantra

September 1 2005

Like most Sanskrit words, “Tantra” has many meanings. One meaning is a text: a written teaching. The ancient Tantras are handbooks written by teachers for their students. Tantras are written in the form of dialogues between Shiva and Shakti. They contain View teachings about cosmology and the nature of the Self and instructions for practice. However, you cannot get everything you need to direct your sadhana from reading the Tantras because they are often 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. But also, it is necessary to receive the teachings from someone who has practiced and realized in order to have the most success in sadhana.

Tantra also means “ritual.” Often you will see lists of Tantrik practices such as “mantra, yantra, and tantra.” Ritual is an expressive pattern. One of the key things to understand is that Reality is expressive. Most Western religions and philosophies send us off on a wild goose chase after limited knowledge and so-called truth. Traditional Tantra does not subscribe to these usual notions of truth and knowing. What we generally think of as knowledge, in Tantra is considered a core limitation or bondage as it is only based on dualistic karmic vision. Tantra’s View is that wisdom is the foundation of all of Reality. And this wisdom always exceeds anything we call knowledge.

Wisdom means being established in the natural state, which in turn means that our conduct will be in tune with Nature. So wisdom is something we express by spontaneously acting in tune with Nature. Ignorance is lack of access to self-knowlege and attachment to dualistic View. Ignorance shows up as our root sense of separation from the world.

Nature is composed of 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 oldest known meanings of Tantra is a weaving. This meaning derives from the Rg Veda. 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.