Sunday, July 19, 2015

academic paper - Vajrayana: the mystical, the magical and the forbidden

Vajrayana: The Mystical, the Magical, and the Forbidden

“But now, I will speak of those among the twice-born laymen, virtuous in the Dharma, who, through their persistent employment of mantras and tantras, will be engaged in the functions of the state.
There will be in the whole world at a calamitous time, the best of the twice-born, and his name will be pronounced with a Va.
Wealthy and completely familiar with the Vedas, let him wander all of this earth—girdled by three oceans—for the purpose of polemical eloquence.
He will love to fight with those non-Buddhist partisans [tirthika].
Yet he always keeps the bodhisattva visualized before him, and recites the six-letter mantra, restrained in speech.
Thus, he will be a prince bearing the song of Mañjusri because of his motivation for the welfare of beings.
Indeed, celebrated for his accumulated performance of rituals, his intellect is superb.
There will be Jaya and the famous Sujaya, and also Subhamata. They will be from a well-placed family, along with the righteous, ennobled, excellent Madhava. There will be Madhu and Sumadhu as well.
There will be Siddha and thus *Madadahana (Destroyer of Pride).
There will be Raghava the Sudra, and those born among the Sakas.
They will all in this life recite mantras of the prince Mañjusri, with their speech restrained.
They will all be esoteric meditators, learned and intelligent.
They will be present among councilors of state [mantrin] for they will be completely based in the activities of government.”
Mañjusrimulakalpa, LI.955a–963b. Translation R.M. Davidson
Europeans decided in the last century that Theravada Buddhism was the pure form of Buddhism and puritan practitioners and scholars alike perpetuate this myth today. Yet Vajrayana Buddhism despite the hype and the fanfare is just another path of Buddhism, in fact it is the esoteric path, the mystical path of a tradition that does not easily concede to having a mystical path. My interest in investigating tantric Buddhism arose out of my exploration in world religions of the esoteric, the magical, and the forbidden. Vajrayana contains all of these elements and I will explore more in detail each of these components focusing on the discourse of the tantras, and showing how Vajrayana has evolved into the religion it is today. Mysticism is a complex and multifaceted topic, an active topic of investigation in religious studies in the last century. I am intrigued by the topic of mysticism and I explore the topic in relation to Vajrayana practices. I will show that Vajrayana can indeed be called a mystical path. I am particularly interested in the aspects of magic, pleasure and mystical transcendence that I explore throughout this essay. This paper is an attempt to describe the mystical and the surprising elements of a path to Enlightment, a path that claims is the quickest path to Buddhahood.
The mystical
The practice of Tantra that we are exploring, with the choreographed performance of mudras and recitation of mantras under the careful guidance of the guru, is in fact a path to attaining a mystical experience. “Mysticism is a modern comparative category that has been used in a wide variety of ways to locate, describe and evaluate individuals’ experience of communion, union and identity with the sacred” states Kripal, and he clarifies: “in the words of the French philosopher George Bataille, it is death and sensual rapture that speak most effectively and accurately of the human experience of becoming one with the greater whole.” (p 327). And so Krippel proposes that “it is to death and eroticism that we must turn in order to investigate mysticism”, and in that aspect Vajrayana is indeed exemplifying these aspects of the mystical experience that the path proposes to elicit.
Vajrayana was of course not developed to fit the modern definition of mysticism. Vajrayana was developed in India as a distinct path around the middle of the first millennium and the Vajrayana tradition developed from the Mahayana tradition originally, between the 3rd and 7th century. Nagajurna and Asanga played a major role in its development (“the Vajrayana tradition is unanimous in calling Nagajurna and Asanga its founders”  Della Santina p.236) and “the overwhelming majority of esoteric Buddhist literature was written in the space of about four hundred years, from the mid-seventh to the mid-eleventh centuries. This is true of the siddha documents as well, for they appear on the scene only a few decades after the mature synthesis is clearly evident. Buddhist siddha presence was already attested in both Buddhist and non-Buddhist literature by 720–730 c.e., and in the third quarter of the eighth century extraordinary evidence emerges for authority being granted to the most radical of the new forms of literature—the yogini tantras.” (Davidson, p118)
As is the Mahayana tradition, Vajrayana is divided into two paths, the practice of the perfections (Paramitayana) and the practice of the Vajrayana (Mantrayana). Both traditions share the same starting point (the experience of suffering) and the same goal (Buddhahood). The difference is in the methodology: Vajrayana promises a short path, and also warns against severe danger and that one should only enter the path with an impure heart, without kindness, love and compassion (madness, suicides, demon attacks, karmic consequences etc.). “It is likely that these canonical tantras were quite as much studied in the great Indian Buddhist monasteries as were the sutras, and thus the Tibetans took as granted what was then already an Indian Buddhist assumption, that there were in general two approaches toward Buddhahood, the slower but surer way as taught in the Mahayana sutras, i.e. the way of the Bodhisattva, and the risky way as taught in the tantras, which could result in Buddhahood in this very life, but which employed methods which only those of strong faculties should dare to use.” (Snellgrove, p 118)
Vajrayana evolved from the Mahayana traditions and texts. So the preliminaries in terms of the practice are share by both traditions. These are (1) the taking of refuge, (2) contemplation of suffering, (3) the law of karma, (4) death and impermanence, (5) the opportune and fortunate nature of the human situation, (6) cultivation of love and compassion, (7) production of the enlightenment thought, and (8) cultivation of one-pointedness, or concentration, and penetrative insight. The main difference comes in the way of taking refuge. Whereas in the Mahayana tradition there are the three objects of refuge – the Enlightened One, his teaching, and the Noble Assembly of the irreversible Bodhisattvas or Bodhisattvas who have attained the seventh stage of the Bodhisattva path and are therefore not liable to relapse, in the Vajrayana there is also the fourth refuge – the preceptor (the guru or lama). In certain traditions within the Vajrayana fold, there may be as many as six objects of refuge, the two additional ones being the tutelary deities and the dakinis. The tutelary deities are the special esoteric forms of the Buddha who are any one of the major tantric deities – Hevajra, Chakrasamvara, Heruka – meditation upon whom is a complete path to enlightenment. The dakinis are female deities who are symbolic or representative of insubstantiality. “In the Vajrayana pantheon, the dakinis occupy a position in some ways analogous to that of the Noble Assembly, being the special tantric or Vajrayana forms of the Sangha. Although in certain traditions and contexts we do have references to these six objects of refuge, it is far more common to find the four objects of refuge, that is, the preceptor and the Triple Gem.” (Della Santina, p 281 - 283)
In many ways, as mentioned previously, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana are the two components of the same tradition, differing only in their methodologies. There is a clear differentiation in the way the taking of the refuge is practiced. In the Vajrayana tradition the fourth object of refuge is the guru, or lama. The guru functions as a means of concentrating and harnessing the power of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in such a way as to make that power effective and immediately applicable to the disciple’s own needs. The guru is the object of adoration and attention in the physical world and is due the outmost respect.
In the story of Marpa, one of the more famous Tibetans who journeyed to India in order to receive the Vajrayana teaching from Naropa. Marpa made three journeys to India and studied at length with Naropa. It is said that on one occasion, when the manifestation of a tutelary deity appeared before him, Marpa made the mistake of bowing to the appearance of the deity rather than to his preceptor, Naropa. The karmic consequences of this lapse were that Marpa later lost his sons to accidents and had no descendants to whom he could pass on the teachings he had received.”
In Tantric Buddhism it is common practice to manipulate these subtle forms of energy in and around the body to produce repeatable results that are also controlled; more a form of magical practice than a form of mystical exploration. Mystics can be thought of as translators of the superhuman realm and they are selected to provide guidance and they are the ones that are in fact selecting and choosing to be the mediators between those two planes of existence. In that sense the guru serves the role of the mystic a priori.
The taking refuge involves visualization of the four objects of refuge either separately or together. Using the visualization of the object of refuge then the disciple will recite a refuge formula 100,000 times. Before serious practice can be entertained there are three more important preliminary practices (ngon-dro, or going-before). The second preliminary is the ‘confession’ to the Buddha Vajrasattva that will attribute four powers for purification and restoration: the power of the shrine, the power of transcendence, the power of habitual anecdote, and the power of restoration. The third preliminary is the guru yoga and is aimed at establishing a close bond between the guru and the disciple. The term yoga means ‘yoking togeher’, connecting, or indentifying. This association leads to the formation of the lineage. The fourth preliminary is the offering of the mandala, a sacred symbolic or magic circle. The mandala is a symbolic representation of the sacred cosmology.
The magical
The point of the practice of Tantra is not the attainment of siddhi magical powers and yet this is part of the promise of the path, involving the traditions concerning the Tantric Adepts known as the Siddhas (perfected ones). It is the nature of the practice of tantra practice to fix one’s attention to the breath, or to an object of adoration, like a Bodhisattva or a deity. It is common to perform mudras or other bodily postures to support the mind’s focus, or the creative visualization of the deities. The promise is to attain enlightment when one only purifies themselves. In an example regarding the path of enlightment of a yaksini condemned to be tortured in a cemetery and then suffering, two dakinis who took pity on her “encouraged the yaksini to seek the attainments of the Tantric divinities through five practices which they asked the [84 Mahasiddhas that were in the astral planes] to impart to her: master Khagardha’s abbreviated rites of Lord Acala; Kanapira’s rites of the Mother of Wisdom; Dombipa’s rites which combine the tantric divinities Cakrasamvara and Hevarja; Caloka’s rites of Amtayus, the Buddha of longevity; and Naropa’s instructions on the hundred-syllable mantra of purification and repentance.[…] the two dakinis [promised] that all those who have gone before have realized the attainments. If you have not is because you failed to purify you own continuum of being.” (Kapstein, p 64-66) And so the path of the siddhas promises attainment if the adept, even being a yaksini in this case, follows the guidance of the guru, the two dakinis imparting the wisdom of the siddhas in this case.  It is also a part of the path to be engulfed in secrets, as the adept must adhere to the appropriate Tantric vows and enjoy the result through the power of secrets.
Central in the practice is the mandala, literally meaning circle. The mandala is the ordered arrangement in which the deities are placed around a center. It is defined as 'that which grasps the essence'. The mandala of a particular Buddha may be a small circle containing his symbol, or the assembly of all the deities of his Family. It can also be a ritual diagram of other shapes. There are five Buddhas (Ashobkhya, Vairocana, Ratnasaqibbava, Amitacha  and Amoghasiddhi) that are heading five Buddha families. Mandalas of the five Buddha families are used to support the meditation practices in the Buddhist conceptual framework for understanding, interconnecting, and orienting the five different energies attributed to the psychological types into an integrated whole. In Buddhist meditation, each of the five Buddhas in the mandala can be considered as a manifestation of a particular aspect of enlightenment in its purest and most natural form. Also, the Five Elements (space, fire, water, earth, and wind/air) and five dominant colours (white, red, blue, yellow, and green) are associated with the five presiding Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, respectively (Guyasamäja Tantra). This is associated with the transformation of energies of awareness into their enlightened aspects during spiritual practice. The mandala can be thought of as the magic circle that delineates what is inside what is outside, the magical and the ordinary, the mundane and the super mundane.
Buddhist mantras are “spells”; that is, they are carefully structured verbal utterances that are recited in conjunction with ritual practices to produce a desired magical effect. A mantra is a short formula that generally has three purposes. It is an aid to concentration (focusing on one’s own breath, an image of the Buddha, a blue flower, or an idea as an object on which to concentrate one’s mind, so one can use the sound of a mantra). It is an aid to memory. When one recites the mantra, Om mani padme hum, for example, one remembers not only the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara but also skillful means and wisdom, and the necessity of uniting them. Third, a mantra has the power to enhance one’s spiritual development, in that the repeated use of mantras by meditation masters over many centuries has charged these mantras with a particular potency. The word mantra is composed of two parts: man comes from the term manas, which means ‘mind,’ and tra from tranam, ‘to protect.’ Mantra therefore means ‘something that protects the mind.’ In general, it also means the esoteric or secret vehicle. (Della Santina p233)
A particular aspect of Vajrayana are the wrathful deities, which are in fact benevolent deities and yet are fierce in their appearance and resemble demons in their visual depictions. In the Vajrayana path, more than any other path of Buddhism, the veneration of the deities is an integral part of the practice. And whereas we would expect that the peaceful deities would be the focus, in fact it is the extraordinary power of tantric fierce deities that seem to be coveted. Veneration of the fierce, the wrathful deities comes through “symbols and rites of transformation that elevate the dark angel from the unconscious, potentially demonic state into a healthy conscious relationship”. (Preece, p 185) Tantra proposes to transform rather than suppress these dark forces of the psyche. “The Tantric Wrathful Deity, when understood and related to skillfully, has the necessary qualities to be a catalyst of transformation.” (p186) One such Fierce or Wrathful Deity is Yamantaka. He embodies the power to transform the destructive, aggressive aspects of the Shadow. His domain is the underworld; he lives in charnel grounds and is lord of all the fearsome protectors. Archetypically he is the personification of the dark angel. He has the power to destroy ignorance and ego-grasping as the power of evil and the various emotions that arise from it. As the manifestation of the wisdom of the Dharmakaya he embodies the power of wisdom to overcome the Shadow’s demonic side not by repression but by absorbing its forces and transmuting them into power. His nature is the wisdom of the indestructible bliss and emptiness – one of the meanings of the Sanskrit word Vajra. Two verses of a Tibetan text named The Wheel of the Sharp Weapons in praise of Yamantaka show the attack on ego-grasping as the source of all evils in this world:
Frantically running through life’s tangled jungle,
We are chased by sharp weapons of wrong we have done
Returning upon us; we are out of control.
This sly deadly villain – the selfishness in us,
Deceiving ourselves and all others as well.
Capture him, capture him, fierce Yamantaka,
Summon the enemy, bring him forth now.
Trample him, trample him dance on the head
Of this treacherous concept of selfish concern.
Tear out the heart of this self-centered butcher
Who slaughters our chance to gain final release
(p 190) These verses show the attachment to the selfishness that causes so much trouble, and Yamantaka attacks our ignorance and stupidity with all his fierce qualities.
Vajrayana is also sometimes referred to as Mantrayana due to the numerous practices involving the recitation of mantras, most for 108 times and some for 100,000 times as is the case for the initiation mantras. Some mantras that are addressed to Heruka show the interaction and the qualities attributed. In exploring how to generate the body mandala through a fierce deity some lines stand out:
                Om to you with a fearsome face and bared fangs HUM HUM PHAT
This line reveals Heruka’s pre-eminent qualities of abandonment and realization. His four bared fangs indicate that he has completely abandoned the four maras, and his wrathful four faces indicate that he has profound realizations of the four doors to liberation. In this mantra the practitioner then is requesting that Heruka bestows the attainment of these abandonments and realizations.
                Om to you who holds an axe, an uplifted noose, a spear and a Khatanga HUM HUM PHAT
This line reveals Heruka’s deeds of benefiting others through wrathful actions. Our of compassion he benefits countless living beings with wrathful aspects, such as twelve armed Heruka holding an axe, an uplifting noose, a spear, a Khatanga. In this mantra the practitioner then is requesting that Heruka bestows the attainment of Buddhahood.
                Om to you who wear the tiger skin garment HUM HUM PHAT
This line reveals that if the human beings of this world sincerely rely upon Heruka with strong faith, Heruka will bestow powerful blessings upon them to pacify anger and conflicts. To indicate this he wears the tiger skin to impart the power of the beast he has conquered. In this mantra the practitioner then is requesting that Heruka bestows his blessings to pacify anger and achieve outer and inner peace.
Om to you Vajrayogini who remain as the Vajra seat with controlling eyes unconquered by others. HUM HUM PHAT
This line now addresses Vajrayogini who appears as the wrathful fierce deity to subdue the pride of worldly Gods such as Brahma and Idra. (Gyatso, p 135)
This brief excerpt gives an insight to the level and the mode of interaction with the wrathful deities as one is reciting the mantras. These are all aspects of the practice that closely resembles a magic ritual as well. It seems though that the aspects of the wrathful deities are addressing the parts of the human nature that are equally wrathful and so balance is restored.

The forbidden
In the spirit of balancing the light and the dark, to transform and transcend the darkness, Vajrayana indeed encompasses some aspects that would justify its reputation as a disputable path including some elements of the macabre and the erotic that would raise the eyebrows of the most open minded observers. I am in the third part of the essay address these notions that make Vajrayana so interesting because instead of turning away from those aspects of the human psyche that are disturbing, the philosophy and alleged practices embrace them. This does in fact though raise the question of whether Vajrayana is so divergent a path to Buddhism that even in a tradition that evolves, and where change is the expected way of the evolution the sangha, Vajrayana is in fact so far outside the field of normative Buddhism that it can hardly be considered a path of continuity in the dharma.
Tantric Buddhist discourse was a process for forming religious identity in a Tantric Buddhist tradition during the early medieval period. This tradition, which gave rise to the Buddhist Yogini tantras, developed in dependence upon a non-Buddhist tradition. The Mahavairocanaabhisambodhi Tantra, an early and important Tantric Buddhist text likely composed during the mid-seventh century in India, contains aspects that would certainly be considered controversial and heretic. I am including an example of the description of cannibalism, the heart eating practices. “The Indian master Subhakarasimha and his Chinese disciple Yixing addressed this lacuna in their massive Chinese Mahavairocana-abhisambodhi Sutra Commentary, which they composed in the early eighth century in Chang-an. In this work they relate a fascinating myth concerning the revelation of the dakini mantra, which occurs as follows:
Next is the dakini-mantra. There are those in the world who are well-versed in this technique, and are practitioners of Isvara’s esoteric lore (vidya), who are able to know when a person’s life is about to end. They know of this six months in advance, and then knowing it they immediately apply the spell to extract a person’s heart and eat it. It turns out that within the human body there is a concretion, which is thus called human concretion. It is like the concretion found in cattle. One who is able to eat it attains the greatest powers (siddhi), [such as] circling the world in one day, obtaining anything that one desires, and being able to control people in various ways. If they have an enemy, they can use this spell to punish him, causing extreme sickness and suffering. However, this method cannot kill people. Should they follow this self-devised method, they know when a person is to die six months in advance. Knowing this, they use this spell to extract his heart. Although they take his heart, there is [another] procedure, [whereby] they must replace his heart with something else. [Thereby] this person’s life does not [prematurely] end. When he reaches his time of natural death, then [the heart simulacrum] malfunctions. Their chief was the yaksa Mahevara, who worldly people say is the ultimate [god]. He upbraided them, saying: “Since you alone always devour people, now I will eat you!” Then he swallowed them, but did not allow them to die. Once they had submitted, he released them, completely forbidding them to [eat] flesh. They spoke to the Buddha saying, “We presently eat flesh to survive. How can we sustain ourselves now?” The Buddha said, “I will permit you to eat the hearts of dead people.”
(Gray, p47). In this extreme example of a magical ritual for cannibalism, probably the attempt to integrate Saivist practices to Vajrayana rituals, shows how the mantras are used, how the magical powers of the siddhis are claimed and how incredibly different this practices are from the ones in the Pali canon. This is why over the centuries practitioners started differentiating between white and red Tantra, or “right-handed” and “left-handed”. In that sense the tainted view of Vajrayana from the European scholars can be justified. Certainly in the development of the path some of the early Saivist influences were extreme. These texts are still conserved today in Tibet where predominantly Tantric Buddhism is practiced, yet the actual rituals are probably forgotten, and are certainly not practiced.
Some other macabre rituals are still surprising. In exploring death, McDaniel (2000) explored the tantric ritual of feeding skulls to honor the Goddess Kali, in West Bengal. Skulls are thought to bring protective energy (sakri) and support the sadhu in his efforts. Often painted red, sometimes using menstrual blood, and they are relics that mediate to the supernatural realm (alaurika) and call for the Goddess Kali. The sadhu takes his power (sakti) from the skulls to strengthen him in his quest. Skulls awaken the Goddess and bring her presence to the ritual practices. The skulls are selected carefully, with preference to people who died young or with violence. “The dead object becomes the vessel for a living presence through ritual. The souls from the skulls are like the Tantric consort or uttara sadhika, in that they assist in ritual practice” (p 77).
 “Right handed” philosophical views have emerged from the “left handed” preexisting Tantric practices, some of a sexual nature. At the root of the practice of Tantra is the Mandala, often centered on a yantra, as in sri yantra, a way to control one’s conceptual reality through a “mesocosmic” device. It is the nature of this grid or template, together with the chosen medium of this process of divine embodiment that differentiates one form of Tantra from another. “The template [can be] the body of a naked maiden, and the medium her sexual or menstruating discharge” (White, p 11). It is in that sense that Tantra venerates the female body. In later traditions the maiden was replaced by the deity and the medium could be the sound or the subtle energetic body of the practitioner. Today the mandala, containing hidden the sri yantra, is the object of focus often displayed in erotic tantric art.
Sexual discourse becomes dominant in the fourth category of Supreme Yoga Tantras (anuttarayoga-tantra). These are the tantras where the four main consecrations consist of ritualized performance of the sexual act of union, and as for the place of their promulgation, it is usually announced in the opening verse: “Thus have I heard: at one time the Lord reposed in the vaginas of the Payra-maidens — the heart of the Body, Speech and Mind of all Buddhas.” It is important to note that in order to reconcile these tantras with the pure path some concessions were necessary. For example in this fourth category the Lord Buddha is seldom named specifically as Sakyamuni, but the connection exists in so far as he embodies all Buddhas, in this case “through his hypostasis as the Buddha Imperturbable (Aksobhya), with whom such great tantric Lords as Heruka, Hevajra and Candamaharosana are identified. But while it need not be disputed that Sakyamuni had taught strict celibacy, certainly in his first turning of the Wheel, it could be argued that his own activities as a Bodhisattva, not least of all his life in the harem and his marriage, prepared him for the act of renunciation leading to final enlightenment. Commentators on Supreme Yoga Tantras have devised a modified version of the account of his enlightenment, as described in the Yoga Tantra “Symposium of Truth“ and elsewhere, introducing a feminine partner on the scene in the form of “the daughter of the gods Tilottama,” thus justifying in his name the use of sexual yoga.” (Snellgrove, p121) The innovation in the Yogacara is that whereas before the practice was reserved to the Bikhus and arahats, it was now open to laymen practitioners. This too is stated clearly in the Hevajra Tantra:
Those things by which evil men are bound, others turn into means and gain thereby release from the bonds of existence. By passion the world is bound, by passion too it is released, but by heretical Buddhists this practice of reversals is not known.
The same doctrine had already been asserted in Asanga’s Mahayanasutralarnkara (“Adornment of Mahayana Sutras”) and so dates as far back as the 5th century.
“Already by the fifth century when Asanga was writing, these techniques of sexual yoga were being used in reputable Buddhist circles, and that Asanga himself accepted such a practice as valid.” The natural power of the breath, inhaling and exhaling, was certainly accepted as an essential force to be controlled in Buddhist as well as Hindu yoga. Why therefore not the natural power of the sexual force? There need be nothing surprising about this at all. Sexual relationship had long since been ritualized (see the Br had-dr any aka Upanisad, VI.4) as a form of yoga and within the terms of Mahayana theories, there need be no objection to it by Buddhist yoginis (p 126)”. Of course sexual intercourse was unsuitable for celibate monks but Asanga was not writing only monks. As I remarked earlier the path of Vajrayana included laypeople. In Asanga’s Mahayanasutralamkara the following passage refers specifically to copulation (maithuna) in a list of “reversals,” and the deliberate retention of semen. Since it may be misleading to quote one verse out of context, Snellgrove gives the translation of the whole set of verses from the Guhyasamdja Tantra dealing with the subject of reversal (pardvrtti). “Once it is established that sexual yoga was already regarded by Asaga as an acceptable yogic practice, it becomes far easier to understand how tantric treatises, despite their apparent contradiction of previous Buddhist teachings, were so readily canonized in the following centuries.
The self-control of the Early Disciples surpasses that of a worldly person, but this disposition of an Early Disciple is surpassed by the Lone Buddhas. [38]
However this does not approach even fractionally the self-control of a Bodhisattva. It does not approach even fractionally the self-control of the Tathagatas. [39]
The self-control of the Buddhas is said to be immeasurable and inconceivable with regard to the person involved, the place, the manner and the occasion. [40]
Supreme self-control is achieved in the reversal of the five sense-organs with regard to the universal operation of all of them, associated with the manifestation of twelve hundred good qualities. [41]
Supreme self-control is achieved in the reversal of mental activity with the consequent self-control with regard to knowledge which is free of discriminating thought and thus totally immaculate. [42]
Supreme self-control is achieved in the reversal of appearances and their (imagined) significance in a (Buddha-)realm that is thus purified for the blissful vision just as desired. [43]
Supreme self-control is achieved in the reversal of discriminating thought resulting in the nonobstruction at all times of all knowledge and acts. [44]
Supreme self-control is obtained in the reversal of substrata resulting in that imperturbable state of the Buddhas, nirvana without any substratum. [45]
Supreme self-control is obtained in the reversal of sexual intercourse in the blissful Buddha-poise and the untrammeled vision of one’s spouse. [46]
Supreme self-control is obtained in the reversal of spatial perceptions resulting in the supernatural production of thought-forms and in material manifestation in phenomenal spheres (gati). [47]
(In the matter of self-control in the reversal of spatial perceptions the results are two: the supernatural production of thought-forms whereby one becomes of the very essence of space (gaganagarbha) and material manifestations in phenomenal spheres because one moves as one pleases and because of one's control over space.) Thus with regard to this immeasurable and supreme (power of) reversal this self-control is said to be immeasurable in the immaculate state of the Buddhas since (great) acts are performed spontaneously (lit. without mental reflection). [48]
There need be little doubt over the meaning of these verses. The return to the phenomenal world (verse 47) after experiencing the “blissful Buddha-poise” (verse 46) corresponds with the arrangement of the tantric states of Symbols and Joys" (Snellgrove, p127-128)
Tantra is a living example of what Kripal suggests we turn to in order to better understand mysticism: death and eroticism. Tantric philosophy and practice embody both the macabre and the erotic in a bid to transcend the limits of this reality and in an accelerated path guide the practitioner to the subtle realms of the mystical. As Kripal argued that  “much like the sexual body in contemporary gender theory, even the mystical body displays the intricacies of human culture and the marks of human language” and that “we hear of many essences and many minds, but seldom do we hear of actual skin, of genitals and sexual fluids, of fingers and toes, or of faces and smiles and groans” I took the bid to explore a place where in fact the mandala of the body is used, the medium of the transient nature of humanity is explored and worshiped and transcendence and magic meet in the service of the sannyasi. The ultimate goal of both those who “know” and who “do” will be to enlighten and in the process to liberate all other creatures from suffering existence. The path is that of the mystical, the magical Tantra. And so Tantra, in that sense, meets the scholarly definitions of the vehicle to produce the mystical experience.
Whereas it is possible that in its inception the path of Vajrayana was a syncretist amalgam of Saivism and Buddhism, Vajrayana today is the only path in Buddhism that can be considered to make a serious bid for the mystical side of spiritual development. I am not sure whether this is what Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha had in mind when he was creating the path to Buddhahood all these centuries ago. Then again I am not sure that Theravada, or any other Hinayana or Mahayana path for that matter, were what he had in mind either. As the centuries passed Buddhism, that by design is not a static path, has evolved so far from where its origins were that today no one can be sure of what was the path that was started. In fact if we believe the Pali Canon, the life of the Sangha was shortened to 500 years because of the inclusion of women which would mean that we could not even talk of Buddhism today as the pure path as given to the people by the Sakyamuni. That path according to the canon has ended some two millennia ago. Today we can look at Vajrayana Buddhism as it stands and recognize that this path has evolved over centuries to its present form. It is certainly a pure form of Buddhism in the sense that the tantric rituals, whatever their Saivistic influence in the beginning were converted to orthodox Buddhist use. “The Tibetans, who were the full inheritors of whole Indian Buddhist tradition in the various forms in which it existed in India up to the thirteenth century, followed their Indian masters in treating the tantras, to which they were introduced, as authoritative Buddhist works, canonically valid as Buddha Word, just as much as were the Mahayana sutras” (Snellgrove, p118). Today Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhism a it is often referred to, is the religion of mostly the people of Tibet, and has gained worldwide attention since the Dalai Lama took his people out of his country to protect them against the Chinese oppression. In fact interestingly enough because some 100,000 Buddhists from Tibet took refuge in India, today Vajrayana is the most serious Buddhist movement in the land of its origins.
In this essay I explored Vajrayana Buddhism, its history and development, its distinguishing features, its peculiarities and its unique and sometimes disturbing aspects in an effort to understand whether it deserves the reputation of being an impure form of Buddhism. I have argued that it is a path whose traditions are rooted in Buddhism, whose ultimate goal is Buddhahood, who despite its divergence maintains most aspects of the Dharma and the Sangha. So in that sense I believe that Vajrayana deserves to be called a path of Buddhism, as much in fact as any path that is today practiced. I also explored the mystical aspects of the path, the ones that link to death of the psyche and union with the divine. I investigated three aspects of the secret in relation to the erotic and the macabre using Vajrayana and yoga as my canvas. What I attempted show is that the tantric controversial practices are aimed at eliciting the elusive mystical experience to their practitioners and that considering Vajrayana as a mystical path is justified as it in fact contains so many aspects of the trans mundane, in the sacred union with the outer world. This path is an accelerated path to Buddhahood and its secrets and dangers may in fact constitute its appeal.


Della Santina, Peter The Tree of Enlighment: An introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism (1997) Chico Dharma Study Foundation
Fremantle, Francesca Guyasamäja Tantra (1971) London.
Gray, David B. “Eating the Heart of the Brahmin: Representations of Alterity and the Formation of Identity in Tantric Buddhist Discourse” History of Religions, Vol. 45, No. 1 (August 2005), pp. 45-69. The University of Chicago Press
Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang Essence of Vajrayana: the Highest Yoga Tantra Practice of Heruka Body Mandala (2000) Janendra Prakash Jain, Motilal Banarsidass, India
James, William (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature, Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion Delivered at Edinburgh in 1901–1902 Longmans Green Co.
Kapstein, Matthew I. “King Kunji’s Banquet” in Tantra in Practice, (2000) edited by White, David Gordon, Princeton University Press.
Kripal, Jeffrey J.  “Mysticism” in The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion (2006) edited by Robert A. Segal. Blackwell Publishing
McDaniel, June “Interviews with a Tantric Kali Priest: Feeding Skulls in the Town of Sacrifice” in Tantra in Practice, (2000) edited by White, David Gordon, Princeton University Press.
Preece, Rob The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra (2006) Snow Lion Publications, NY
Snellgrove, David Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan Sucessors  (1987) Boston: Shambhala Publications
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
White, David Gordon “Tantra in Practice: Mapping a Tradition” in Tantra in Practice, (2000) edited by White, David Gordon, Princeton University Press.

No comments: