Introduction to Tasting the Essence of Tantra
When we meet Tibetan Buddhism we inevitably see that the Tibetan tradition is permeated by possibly the most complex and elaborate aspect of Buddhism, namely the practice of tantra or Vajrayana. The tradition of tantra emerged in India before, during and after the time of the Buddha. In the years that followed his passing the Buddhist form of tantra travelled into parts of Indonesia, Japan, Nepal, China and eventually Tibet where it became well established. In the enclosed mountains of Tibet, it flourished and became shaped, such that Tibetan culture, Tibetan Buddhism and tantra are inextricably interwoven. The Tibetans have created an extraordinarily rich and profound literary, artistic and musical masterpiece with highly experienced and deeply realised masters.
The term tantra in sanskrit is often translated as weave.One could understand this as the weave or play of reality or perhaps the weave of many practices. In Tibetan, the word gyu,generally translated as continuity, gives a very different connotation. We could see this to imply the underlying continuity of our innate nature. It can also imply the continuity of a lineage and transmission that has been passed down for hundreds of years. Another name for tantra is vajrayana sometimes translated as the diamond vehicle. Here the meaning of vajrarelates to what is indestructible and pure in our nature and yana means vehicle or vessel as a way of moving along a path.
While it is no simple matter to understand the meaning of the word tantra or vajrayana, it is, I feel, through actual practice rather than intellectual knowledge that we begin to gain a taste of its meaning and effectiveness. At the heart of tantra is the liberation of our innate pure nature, our buddha-nature, from the veil of obscurations that are an expression of our ignorance and confusion. Tantra recognises that rather than trying to get rid of aspects of ourselves that are not acceptable, all that we are can transform and be purified into its natural innate potential in the process of awakening. This is an alchemical process that particularly orientates around the use of deity practices. These are an expression of our innate nature that act as a catalyst or vehicle for transformation. The practice of tantra is a powerful and profound path that has been cultivated with great expertise by the Tibetans and remains a living lineage of experience to this day.
As the tantric tradition comes to the West it’s important to consider how it can be integrated into Western psyche and Western life so that we might experience its full potential.Many of us find this approach to Buddhism both fascinating and awe inspiring, but also extremely complex and sometimes confusing. For some people, the connection to tantra may be immediate and natural as though there is a deep-rooted resonance with the tradition. One might consider that this was a past life connection, although we cannot necessarily know. Others may feel a powerful attraction and yet need some means of bridging the profound nature of this Eastern tradition with our Western mind. Unfortunately, there are also times when people can be overwhelmed by its elaborate richness and the apparent need for so much study, and as a result feel somewhat alienated. This is a tradition that is undoubtedly not for everyone and those that prefer simplicity may struggle with it.
We can be very enthusiastic and have genuine desire to practise but may be surprised at the complexity we encounter. It is challenging to bring tantric practice into a busy, demanding and often stressful Western life, where it is hard to find time and space to devote to meditation. It is not surprising then that there can be times when we lose our way and our inspiration and wonder what we are doing.
There are aspects of tantra that many of us find immediately inspirational such as the relationship to the archetypal forms of deities. They will often fascinate us even though we may not always understand their actual meaning. Many of us feel a very natural connection to the nature of the energy-body that is so central to tantra, because we have encountered it through practices such as qigong, tai chi, acupuncture and so on. There is also within tantra a relationship to the sacred, expressed in a rich and creative way that responds to what many of us long for to restore something absent in our secular world. At the heart of tantra is the recognition that this is not something external we have to find but is all within our nature and can awaken if given the right conditions.
Through my own practice and work over many years as a meditation teacher and mentor of Western practitioners, it is clear that tantric practice can touch us very deeply if we learn to work with it skilfully. This does not mean we can instantly find the depth of connection that is possible unless we receive careful guidance in meditation. This is why the teacher is so important in this tradition. Today there is so much information available such that we can gain a huge amount of knowledge. But intellectual study alone will not bring experience. It is through the deeper process of meditation that we begin to wake up to our natural potential. In my own studies, there was a lot of opportunity to receive commentaries on the sadhanapractices of various deities. These are the texts describing the often complex and detailed rituals, visualisations and prayers composed to ‘accomplish’ the deity. It was not always easy, however, to find someone who could teach me to meditate deeply within this process. This tended to mean my practice was at first primarily the recitation of these sadhanas, until I received some very specific guidance from my primary teacher, Lama Thubten Yeshe, and one of my retreat teachers, Gen Jhampa Wangdu. They began to explain a way of meditation that radically changed what I was doing.
In my own journey there have been periods when I felt my practice become dry and mechanical. I have spoken with friends who said they have felt the same and yet have faithfully continued. When this happened it usually meant I had lost the connection to what is at the heart of my practice. I needed to look at how I was practising and find ways to restore my connection to the ‘juice’ in my practice. Lama Yeshe would often emphasise that tantric practice is not about adopting Tibetan culture, nor about intellectual knowledge, it is about truly gaining a taste of what the essence of tantra is. He felt this is through the process of meditation.
It is important that we feel the effect of practice. This can then be something we integrate into our life because it is transforming us. For this to happen we need to learn how to meditate in a way that will truly touch us. A way of practice that genuinely addresses our psychological issues and therefore enables our own personal transformation. Otherwise we may put a veneer of so called spiritual practice over deeper emotional problems that never get resolved.A central principal in what I am writing here is my belief that we cannot and must not separate the spiritual and psychological process.
In my work I sometimes encounter those with deep meditation experiences on one level and yet relatively serious psychological difficulties on another. In the process of teaching and mentoring I have found that people respond to an approach to meditation that addresses our particular Western emotional and psychological nature. The guidance I received from Lama Yeshe has been my greatest inspiration in this. He seemed to really understand what makes the Westerner tick. What was crucial in his approach was that he held to the essence of the tradition of tantra, while seeing how meditation practice can be creatively shaped to suit our individual emotional and psychological makeup. In this he was also instrumental encouraging my own integration of Western psychology and Buddhism.
Since Lama Yeshe’s death, I have been engaged in teaching Buddhist tantra to fellow Westerners andhave found it of great value to have a bridge of understanding that meets our psychological nature. It has been the work of C.G.Jung and his exploration of the world of the archetypes and the unconscious that has provided this bridge. In my own relationship to the tantric tradition I have hugely benefited from his insight and understanding. By some coincidence at the age of 21 I simultaneously encountered the Tibetan tradition and the work of Jung. As a result, I have always seen my practice of tantra through two subtly different lenses. One through the profound teachings I have received from my Tibetan teachers, the other reflected in my studies of Jung’s work. It is the combination of these two perspectives that is now integral to how I teach others some of the rich and beautiful practices within the tantric tradition.
In 1999 when The Alchemical Buddhawas published (republished in 2006 as The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra)it was the culmination of many years exploring the psychological nature of tantric practice. Since that time, I have increasingly felt the need to take that work further and go more deeply into the way in which wemeditate within tantric practice in the West. In this book, therefore, I wish todescribe a way of meditation that Lama Yeshe initiated. A way of relating to the essential core within the process of tantra that helps bring about a real taste of its potential for transformation.
As the Tibetan tradition comes to the West it is clear that our psychological background is very different to the Tibetans. We grow up and live in a busy, over-stimulating, competitive, often insecure world where the level of impact upon our emotional and psychological health can be very great. If tantric practice is to be effective,this emotional or psychological wounding must be addressed. To facilitate this both in my own practice and with those I teach, it has been necessary to cultivate a deeper capacity for meditation both in relationship to emotional process and the body. As a psychotherapist this is a very natural way to work and is central to the principle of tantric process.Bringing the practice of tantra into the body is in my experience crucial for this process to be effective.
It is here, however, that our Western psychological nature can come up against difficulty in relation to the traditional way in which tantra has been practiced. Tibetan teachers have great reverence for the creation and recitation of often complicated and detailed visualisation practices called sadhanas. As tantra has evolved in Tibet, certain lamas have composed beautiful, poetic texts full of devotional prayers and detailed visualisations that suit large groups of monks or nuns that gather to chant together. Increasingly as Tibetan lamas introduce these practices to Westerners they see that their complexity does not always suit us. The recitation of detailed and often lengthy texts does not lend itself to a depth of meditation that really touches us and can exacerbate a tendency for manyof us to be out of touch with our body. As a result, our practice remains disembodied and in the head.
The body is central to tantra, because a relationship to its subtle energetic nature, enables the gradual clearing of what obstructs the awakening of our innate ‘wisdom energy’. In the process of this clearing, our emotional life, intimately tied to the energy-body, is also gradually healed. To facilitate this, we need to restore our relationship to the body. We need to develop a capacity of quiet stillness in meditation and perhaps more crucially to become aware of our felt-senseand its underlying energy. It is from this place that we can receive the depth of transformation that is possible with tantric practice.
I am indebted to Lama Yeshe for introducing this fact to me in how he taught, even though I may not have fully grasped the implications for some years. To create a good ground in which tantric practice can ripen, we need to quieten our conceptual mind to cultivate an awareness of our body and its energy. Otherwise when we become involved in the recitation of detailedsadhanas,the danger is that we perpetuate a busy mind and disembodied awareness. As Lama Yeshe would often say, at some point “we need to drop the concepts and just meditate”. It was for this reason that he introduced the practice of mahamudra,meditation in the nature of mind, at an earlier stage in practice than might traditionally be taught. This thenbecomes integral to tantric practice rather than separate from it.
It is with this in mind that in Part One I will explore how we can embark upon deity practices that emphasise an embodied meditative process. For this I will look at how tantric practice can, from the beginning, be brought more specifically into the body and its energetic nature. I will also show how the practice of mahamudra provides a context or ground of meditation that helps us feel and digest the effect of deity practice. I will introduce a way of practice that is less complex, to enable a more spacious and more embodied, deeper settling in meditation. Following Lama Yeshe’s lead, I will also look at how tantric practice can be shaped to be more directly relevant to our individual psychological and emotional needs, while holding to the essential principles of the tradition.I will explore the particular ingredients of practice that can truly touch and transform our Western psychological nature.
In Part Two I will look at the inner psychological journey of depth that can unfold within or perhaps beneath the path of practice. From my own journey and that of many I have taught and mentored, I have seen that tantric practice can bring out deep, sometimes painful psychological material, in a way that is often not explained in traditional teachings. I want to explore howour Western psychological understanding of what we call the unconscious can shed light on what is actually unfolding in tantric practice. This will clarify how tantric practise can be a valuable way of relating to our inner process and heal psychological difficulties, when practised skilfully.
In Part Three I look at one of the key elements of the way tantra is taught, namely the emphasis on the relationship between teacher and student. In this I wish to explore the significance of the role of the guide in practice, but also the way in which this role can be developed to orient towards what I am going to call a more person-centred approach. This is to emphasise that our individual process needs to be central to how we integrate tantra.
As Tibetan Buddhism arrives in the West increasingly there are people who make intensive study of the technicalities of deity practice, particularly exploring the traditional texts and commentaries. Today many of these commentarieshave been translated and are available to Western practitioners. In this book, however, it is not my intention to approach the subject in this way. I am not a scholar and make no pretensions to be so. Rather I am a meditator and wish to write from a place of how meditation practice touches me and what enables a greater depth of experience in myself and my students. I am, however, also a psychotherapist and as such have wanted to emphasise what can be most relevant to our psychological nature and our inner process.
To do this I will refer to the tradition of oral teachings I have received from some of my teachers, in particular H.H. Dalai Lama, Song Rinpoche, Lama Thubten Yeshe, Lama Zopa Rinpoche and my retreat guide Ven. Gen Jhampa Wangdu. I also wish to draw upon my own relationship to practice developed particularly within the context of meditation retreat, where tantric practices really come alive. It is in the context of retreat that we begin to discover what many of our difficulties with practice as Westerners can be, but also how to resolve them. I will also draw on the conversations I have had with many of my older peers who have practised intensively for many years and have spoken of the extraordinary benefits of practice but also of their struggles and problems. Finally, I will turn to years of teaching and entering into a dialogue with those I teach around how they experience these practices; what helps and what does not. I hope in the course of this exploration that the reader will begin to gain a sense of what is possible as we approach the tantric tradition from a more embodied place of creativity and exploration. Through this we can gain a taste of the extraordinary quality of this rich and profound path. This hopefully will make it accessible to those who have an interest in developing their practice as well as those who, as long-term practitioners, have encountered obstacles in their practice.
What I am exploring here holds closely to the essential nature of the Vajrayana or tantric tradition as shown to me by my teachers and attempts to get to the heart of what this way of embodied meditation is about. I have a profound love for this path and feel that it is only through understanding the essence of tantra that we will genuinely integrate it into our experience and enable practice to come alive.This was at the heart of what I learned from Lama Thubten Yeshe and his extraordinary capacity to understand Westerners.Following his example, I have needed to explore what enables us to gain experience and recognise what may not be not helpful. This is not about cherry picking those things we like and getting rid of what we don’t. This also does not mean we throw away the tradition. It is about exploring how wecan be genuinely touched and transformed by this incredibly valuable resource. I suspect this is something that may have happened in Nepal, Tibet and China, perhaps it is now our turn in the West to take up the challenge. This is a time of discovery, of learning from our mistakes and gradually bringing out the gold from the alchemical process.