Tantra and the Western World. Tantra – from its origins to the Western World
The Sanskrit word “Tantra”, basically meaning “woven material, net” could be translated in several other ways such as “consciousness amplifier” for instance. Tantra is neither a religion – such as the term is generally understood – nor a philosophy or a mystical path based upon metaphysical concepts. Tantra is an empirical instrument of the searcher on the path to spiritual accomplishment. It is a group of practical techniques (not only erotic ones) whose success is based upon the personal experience acquired in daily life. Amplifying one’s consciousness, understood as such, includes all aspects of life and within this very frame Tantra is the only discipline generating a synthesis between the seemingly opposed dimensions of sensory pleasure and Liberation. Our very hedonist desires based upon the principle of simple and immediate satisfaction are Tantra’s dynamics generating consciousness expansion until the mystical experience is reached – thus, sexual practices turn into a vehicle of spiritual progress. As Guhyasamaja Tantra mentions, “no one can achieve Liberation only through difficult and tormenting practices; Liberation may be also achieved through conscious satisfaction of all desires.”
Besides creating a bridge between sexuality and spirit, Tantra also joins two directions of the spiritual search that are separated within other spiritual schools: control and ecstasy. Vedantic yoga for instance especially insists on self-control, self-discipline, the transcending of the ego and meditating upon ourselves as facing the Divine. On the contrary, in the case of the Christian mystics, what matters most is the surrender to the Divine patiently waiting for His grace together with the annihilation of the ego. Tantra places both the Divine and the individual in their own place while the object of the pursuit is rather represented by the consciousness vibration leading us to the encounter with these two opposite poles of the subjective experience along two paths: the active and passive one. Both are walked on by the tantrist.
Let us now dedicate a few words to the history, origins and development of Tantra without pretending to thus fully cover this cultural and spiritual phenomenon such widely spread from the point of view of both its duration and its area of expansion.
The origins of tantrism go back in time approximately to the year 2000 B.C. when the Harappa population migrated in the Indus valley. This population rejoiced a highly emphasized welfare and the archeological evidence prove that they especially appreciated arts. Harappans were a matriarchal society mainly interested in daily life welfare. It is mentioned that each habitation had at least one bathroom and in the central square of their capital, Mohenjo-Daro, the dominant edifice was not a tower or a temple but a huge pool – a genuine monument of welfare. Matriarchal cultures assign women the central spot, both with regard to the profane and the religious life, the latter one being focused around the Mother goddess. The feminine image used to dominate sanctuaries. Her arms and legs spread wide open, she offered herself to adoration. The Harappans’ habit of placing a large bed in the main room of the house is also worth mentioning. This was the bed of the mistress of the house, where – in the main room, in the living room – they celebrated lovemaking.
Matriarchal societies considered religion a living experience, where the encounter with the Divine was not related to a system of dogmas and believes but constituted a personal experience. This is why Harappans’ religion is highly related to body sensations, pleasure and sexuality. The religion of patriarchal societies perceives the Divine as remote and therefore almost unreachable by the human being. The Divine is not seen as being inside the individual consciousness and for this very reason desire emerges to fill up this deep gap between the human being and the Divine with faith, rituals and intermediaries (priests) that stand as a bridge between heaven and earth.
Therefore the passage from matriarchal to the patriarchal society organization – a process that took place both in India and in Europe – fundamentally changed religious believes. While tantrism acknowledges a wide range of representations of the feminine principle, the vision of Christianity with regard to the feminine principle is divided: the woman appears either as a prostitute or as madonna in passive adoration of her male progenitor. Tantric representations of the feminine principle are both erotic and spiritual, ecstatic and intelligent, ferocious and pacifying. Women display intelligence, lucidity or passion and are be spiritually elevated. It is not necessary for them to falsely kneel with their eyes lowered, in a state of piousness and chastity, such as the fake Christian morale requires it.
Tantrism reached its peak of maximum flourishing between the 10th and the 12th century A.D. in Northern India, after which it was suppressed as the Islamic religion was later on imposed. However tantrism survived through its secret schools activating especially in the provinces of Bengal and Assam that established fruitful relations with China. There the second major school of conscious sexuality was founded – the Taoist system. On the other hand in Tibet away from the influences of other nations, it was possible for tantrism to express itself before the eyes of the world, as it merged with Buddhism and Bon, the ancient shamanic religion. Guru Padmashambhava, a famous Indian tantrist, traveled to Tibet in the 8th century A.D. where he initiated his first disciples into Vajrayana (the path of the diamond). Here he founded the Nyigmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. In the 11th century, the Tibetan translator Marpa traveled in India to study Tantra with Naropa who was one of Tilopa’s disciples. Upon his return to Tibet, he translated and taught the tantric principles to his famous disciple, Milarepa. At this period tantrism was now largely offered to the public in Tibet. Its teachings helped founding the Kagyüpa school of Tibetan tantrism. Therefore it is no wonder that in Tibet, together with male lama-s, we also find erudite, highly worshipped women.
As centuries passed certain Tibetan schools – such as the Gelugpa school – went astray form the sexual practices of the so-called “red tantrism” (or left-hand Tantra), being restricted to the study of the energetic union between the man and the woman, without emphasizing physical contact any more. This rather metaphysical version turned into the so-called “white tantrism” (or right-hand Tantra). Practically the famous Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum” is regularly translated in a rather veiled manner as “the jewel of the lotus flower”, a translation that actually is meaningless. In this case it was embarrassment that generated such an artificial interpretation that does not acknowledge the tantric origin of this mantra. Which is then the actual significance of this ancient mantra? Mani – the jewel – is the Tibetan equivalent of the Sanskrit term vajra (diamond) that is the symbol of the male sexual organ; padme is the lotus flower that symbolizes the yoni, the vagina. Therefore, “the lotus jewel” signifies no other than the sexual union, maithuna where the male and feminine principles merge either in flesh or mystically, in spirit.
The following centuries witnessed the decrease of Indian tantrism and only after the 1970 sexual revolution together with women’s emancipation in the Western world, the grounds was set for the rediscovery of the union between eroticism and spirituality. During the past decades, Tibetan lams-s brought the teachings of white tantrism in Europe and America and some of them – such as Lama Yesce, Lama Zopa or Chöpyam Trungpa Rinpoche – strived to adapt Tibetan meditations to the Western mentality. Many Indian ashrams are now open to the Western people and masters such as Osho (Rajneesh), Paramahansa Satyananda sau Yogi Bajar presented certain more intelligible reading keys for the interpretation of ancient tantric texts.
However the ancient tantric techniques proved not to be as easily accessible to modern audiences. Many tantric aspirants found understanding extremely difficult, as they did not have the necessary emotional or mental structure in order for them to be able to perceive the mysteries of tantric teachings. Many of them were in a situation similar to the one described by Margo Anand, one of the pioneers of the new red tantrism: “The first ritual – reciting the mantras – helps us focus. We look into each other’s eyes: I need neither display my fear, nor ignore his! What is the next step? Oh, I have to stop all the time in order to read the instructions. This interrupts the energy. Oh, yes, I need to breathe! I need to breathe in for 6 seconds, maintain full retention for 12 seconds and then breathe out for 6 seconds simultaneously with the other one. But he breathes in and I breathe out; we did it all wrong. And besides there is also that difficult lotus position: arms folded back holding with the big toe between the thumb and the index finger as we visualize a gradually increasing green light between the anus and the genital organs. I cannot see anything … “What a relaxation!” the man says astonished. His tantric scepter does not wish to stand erect. Through deep exhalation we eventually succeed to awaken our energy, helped by a few tricks and inappropriate caress. 20 minutes pass but no ecstasy appears. The climax is represented by a slight shiver along the spine. The exercise is exotic but not exactly a revelation.” In such a case, we need to consider the fact that it is not the technique that is mistaken; it is rather the one applying that did not understand it correctly. Tantric rituals lay special emphasis on the emotional states and the two lovers being fully open one towards the other, completely freed from any mental restrictions or prejudices. Conducted in such conditions, the ritual will go on by itself.
Nowadays, sexuality is free and women regained their place due to emancipation. Social status is different from what it was 2000 years ago. However it is still presumed that the sexual act rather belongs to the man and that it mostly satisfies the man and not the woman’s desire. This prejudice is the heritage left by the centuries of patriarchal repression exercised either upon sexuality or femininity. This prevents many women from believing that elevated lovemaking is a vehicle of spiritual growth such as it was considered within other cultures focused upon the feminine point of view. We live in an age where the approach of sexuality raises new issues: while until a few years ago, lovemaking seemed forbidden today things look as if making love is compulsory. Repression that is still not fully digested was added the bitter taste of lovemaking at all costs …
It seems that today, in the Western world, tantrism satisfies two great needs. The first is that of tracking down a spiritual itinerary that would reconnect us to the higher dimensions of our being in a very practical and experiential way. The second one is that of creating a culture of eroticism – such as there is a culture of welfare, sports, diets … Indeed we are almost all self-educated with regard to sexuality. In the world of eros traditions are few. We all generate our own experiences and keep them to ourselves. Information exchange is scarce, schools are almost inexistent. Moreover, we are bombarded with all sorts of sexual messages (words, images, etc.) especially through the media and it looks as if everything was allowed. However in reality these new messages cannot manage to truly transform the erotic universe of each individual. They all seem to be rather originating in a world of fantasies.
On the other hand, tantrism highly emphasizes the use or erotic images and the experiencing of physical sensations. Only this time they are understood and used by the one with a lucid and attentive, extremely relaxed and open mind in order to express emotions, affection, love and various forms of sensuousness. The tantric will seek to unlock his energetic potential latent inside his being, using it in order to strengthen his body and mind while staying fully aware of the whole spiritual process. The difference between a tantric ritual and an ordinary sexual act is this very union through the mergence between Shakti’s elevated, sacred energy with Shiva’s consciousness against the background of pure love’s radiant emanation.
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