The Tantric Practitioner
Journey Without Goal: The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha are extremely sacred and, in some sense, inaccessible. Tantric practitioners of the past have put tremendous energy and effort into the study of tantra. Now we are bringing tantra to North America, which is a landmark in the history of Buddhism. So we can not afford to make our own studies into supermarket merchandise. A tantric revolution took place in India many centuries ago. The wisdom of that tradition has been handed down orally from generation to generation by the great mahasiddhas, or tantric masters. Therefore, tantra is known as the ear-whispered, or secret, lineage.
However, the notion of secrecy does not imply that tantra is like a foreign language. It is not as though our parents speak two languages, but they only teach us English so that they can use Chinese or Yiddish when they want to keep a secret from us. Rather, tantra introduces us to the actuality of the phenomenal world. It is one of the most advanced, sharp, and extraordinary perceptions that has ever developed. It is unusual and eccentric; it is powerful, magical, and outrageous; but it is also extremely simple. In order to understand the phenomenon of tantra, or tantric consciousness, we should be quite clear that we are not talking about tantra as a vague spiritual process. Tantra, or vajrayana Buddhism, is extremely precise, and it is unique.
We can not afford to jumble the vajrayana into a spiritual or philosophical stew. Instead, we should discuss tantra technically, spiritually and personally—in a very exact sense—and we should discuss what the uniqueness of the tantric tradition has to offer to sentient beings. In this book we will examine tantra theoretically. We are viewing the area that we might arrive at, at some point in the future. So it is a somewhat hypothetical situation, but at the same time we still could develop an experiential connection with it. The future of Buddhism depends on continuing to discover what the Buddha experienced and on sharing such experience with others. So there is a need to identify ourselves personally with tantric experience, rather than regarding tantra as one more spiritual trip.
Fundamentally, the vajrayana comes out of a complete understanding and comprehension of both hinayana and mahayana Buddhism. The development of the three yanas—hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana—is one continuous process. In fact, the word tantra, or gyü(rgyud) in Tibetan, means “continuity.”
There is a continuous thread running through the Buddhist path, which is our personal experience and our commitment to the Buddhist teachings. Usually we think of a thread as starting somewhere. But according to the Buddhist teachings, the thread has no beginning, and therefore there is continuity. In fact, such a thread does not even exist, but at the same time, it is continuous. At this point we are not yet in a position to discuss what tantra is. Since the continuity of tantra is based on personal experience, we first need to understand the person who is having the experience.
That is, we need to know who is studying tantra: who is it, or what is it? So, to begin with, we have to go back to the beginning, and find out who is perceiving tantra, that is, who is the tantrika or tantric practitioner. We could say that some people are tantric by nature. They are inspired in their lives; they realize that some reality is taking place in the true sense, and they feel that the experience of energy is relevant to them. They may feel threatened by energy or they may feel a lack of energy, but they have a personal interest in the world: the visual world, the auditory world, the world of the senses altogether. They are interested in how things work and how things are perceived. That sense of enormous interest, that interest in perceptions, is tantric by nature. However, one problem with inspired, future tantric practitioners is that they are often too fascinated by the world of the senses.
There is something lacking: although they are inspired, they may not have made a genuine connection to the world of the senses, which presents problems in understanding true tantra. Still, they could be regarded as tantric fetuses, or potential members of the tantric family. When we begin to explore who the tantric practitioner actually is, our inquiry takes us further and further back, right to the basis of Buddhist practice, which is the hinayana teachings. From this point of view, hinayana is tantra. One of the inspiring glimpses or experiences of the hinayana practitioner is the absence of self, which is also the absence of God. When we realize that there is no individual being or personality who is perceiving external entities, the situation becomes open. We don’t have to limit things by having a conceptualized divine being, traditionally known as God. We are simply examining who we are. In examining who we are, we find, according to both the hinayana and the tantric observation, that we are nobody—rather, nonbody.
We might ask, “How is that possible? I have a name. I have a body. I eat. I sleep. I lead my life. I wear clothes.” But that is precisely the point: we misunderstand ourselves, our nonexistent selves. Because we eat, we sleep, we live and we have a name, we presume that something must be there. That common misunderstanding took place a long time ago, and it still takes place constantly, every single moment. Just because we have a name doesn’t mean we have a self.
How do we realize that? Because if we do not use such reference points as our name or our clothing, if we stop saying, “I eat, I sleep, I do such and such,” then there is a big gap. In a similar fashion, we often use reference points to show that we do not exist. We say we do not exist because of something else. We might say, “I do not exist because I am penniless.” There is something wrong with that logic, because we still have a penny to be less of.
However, this does not mean that we should try to destroy relative reference points. As an extreme example, during the 1960s some people made hysterical attempts not to exist. By destroying references and credentials such as draft cards and birth certificates, they hoped to become invisible. But creating their draft-card-less-ness was still a statement of deliberate individuality, and it was still fighting over the question of existence by struggling not to exist. In the Buddhist tradition, discovering nonexistence, or egolessness, has nothing to do with destroying relative reference points.
Whether we try to maintain such reference points or destroy them, we still have the same problem. The Buddhist approach is not to use any reference points at all—none whatsoever. Then we are not finding out whether we exist or not, but we are simply looking at ourselves directly, without any reference points—without even looking, we could say. That may be very demanding, but let it be so. Let us get to the heart of the matter. When we attempt to see ourselves without reference points, we may find ourselves in a situation of not knowing what to do. We may feel completely lost, and we may think that what we are trying to do is very strange indeed: “I can’t even begin. How can I do anything?” Then we might have an inkling of beginning at the beginning. Having to relate with the bewilderment of not knowing how to deal with ourselves without using reference points is getting closer to the truth. At the same time, we have not found the root of reality, if there is one at all.
We cannot find the beginning of the tantric thread unless we come to the conclusion that we do not exist. We might try to work out our nonexistence logically. However, the conclusion that we do not exist has to be experiential, and it also has to be beyond our stupidity and confusion. Our confusion at this point is not knowing how to begin. From that, we can start to feel the beginninglessness of the thread, and its endlessness as well. So we are getting somewhere, but we still might feel rather stupid, like jellyfish or robots. There is no sense of discovery at all, and the whole thing seems rather flat. According to the tantric tradition, the only way to find our way out of that confusion, or our way in, is by having a sense of humor about our predicament.
We are trying to find ourselves, but we are not able to do so, and we feel enormously flat and heavy and in the way. Something is being a nuisance, but we cannot put our finger on exactly what it is. Nevertheless, something, somewhere, is being a nuisance. Or is it? If we view this with humor, we begin to find that even the flatness, the lack of inspiration, the solidity, and the confusion are dancing constantly. We need to develop a sense of excitement and dance rather than just trying to feel better.
When we begin to dance with our humor, our apparent stupidity becomes somewhat uplifted. However, we do not know for sure whether we are just looking at ourselves humorously while our stupidity grows heavier all the time, or whether we might actually be able to cure ourselves. There is still something that is uncertain, completely confused, and very ambiguous. At that point, we finally could start to relate with the ambiguity. In the tantric tradition, discovering that ambiguity is called “discovering the seed syllable.”
Ambiguity is called a “seed syllable” when it becomes a starting point rather than a source of problems. When we accept uncertainty as the working base, then we begin to discover that we do not exist. We can experience and appreciate the ambiguity as the source of confusion as well as the source of humor.
The discovery of nonexistence comes from experiencing both the energy of humor and the heavy “thingness” or form of confusion. But form or thingness does not prove the existence of energy, and energy does not prove the existence of form. So there is no confirmation, just ambiguity. Therefore, we still find ourselves at a loss. However, at this point that feeling of being lost has the quality of freedom rather than the quality of confusion.
This experience of ambiguity is a personal experience rather than an analytical experience. We begin to realize that actually we do not exist. We do not exist because of our existence: that is the punchline of our ambiguity. And the world exists because of our nonexistence. We do not exist; therefore the world exists.
There is an enormous joke behind the whole thing, a big joke. We might ask, “Who is playing such a joke on us?” It is difficult to say. We do not know who it is at all. We are so uncertain that we might not even have a question mark to put at the end of our sentence.
Nevertheless, that is our purpose in studying tantra: to find out who is the questioner, who set this question up altogether, if anyone at all. The beginner’s point of view is to realize nonexistence, to understand nonexistence, and to experience nonexistence. It is very important for us to realize that sight, smell, colors, emotions, formlessness, and form are all expressions of no-beginning, nonexistence, egolessness. Such nonexistence has to be experienced personally rather than analytically or philosophically. That personal experience is extremely important.
In order for us to get into tantra properly, in order to become good tantra students, we have to go through the experience of nonexistence, however frustrating, confusing, or irritating it may seem. Otherwise, what we are doing is completely fruitless.