Mysticism, the Erotic and the Macabre
Mysticism is a complex and multifaceted topic, an active topic of investigation in religious studies in the last decades. With the two main schools of perennialists and constructivists offering points of study and approach that are still subjects of debate, it is hard to establish what constitutes mysticism in practice. I was intrigued by the specific topic that Jeffrey J. Krepal chooses to explore “Exactly as if it were female orgasm: The Mystical and the Erotic” and I explore the topic in relation to the philosophical school of Tantra practices. I investigate these ideas in relation to the erotic and the macabre using Vajrayana and yoga as my canvas. I am particularly interested in the aspects of magic, pleasure and mystical transcendence.
Mysticism is one of these words in religious science that are still attached to working definitions since it is the subject of intense debate of what would constitute a mystical experience. The two schools that are prevalent in the study of mysticism today offer similar yet distinctly separate definitions that aim at removing the ambiguity around the term. Mysticism, Kripal states is a term that appeared in the 20th century in the sense that we understand it today in religious studies. “The term ‘mysticism,’ comes from the Greek μυω, meaning “to conceal.” In the Hellenistic world, ‘mystical’ referred to “secret” religious rituals. In early Christianity the term came to refer to “hidden” allegorical interpretations of Scriptures and to hidden presences, such as that of Jesus at the Eucharist.” In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, mysticism is defined as “a constellation of distinctive practices, discourses, texts, institutions, traditions, and experiences aimed at human transformation, variously defined in different traditions”. The term mysticism started appearing in the scholarship of those known as the perennialists philosophers, such as William James, Evelyn Underhill, Joseph Marechal, William Johnson, James Pratt, Micrea Eliade, W.T. Stace, Steven Katz, and Robert Forman amongst others. In that school mystical experiences are defined as representing ‘an immediate direct contact with a variously defined absolute principle. After that direct contact the experience is interpreted according to the tradition’s language and beliefs.”
In the beginning of the last century the term appeared and evolved in definition. The first notable attempt was delivered by James in 1902 in lectures 16 and 17 he proposes four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical: 1. Ineffability 2. Noetic Quality 3. Transiency and 4. Passivity. James notes that “although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.” It is thus noteworthy that 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 what James would hope to end up as a passive mystical experience.
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 pactice 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 Kapstein imparts 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.” (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.
“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” (p 321) 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 better understand mysticism.
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, 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” (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.
In conclusion, 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.
James, William “The Variety of Religious Experiences” (1902) Religious Classics.
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.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, www.plato.stanford.edu
White, David Gordon “Tantra in Practice: Mapping a Tradition” in Tantra in Practice, (2000) edited by White, David Gordon, Princeton University Press.