Is the West Ready for Tantra?

by | Meditation

Tantric methods of transformation are among the most powerful means of spiritual practice ever devised. Tantra has the ability to radically transform a practitioner, and even bring about enlightenment in one lifetime. But anything that has this much power to help has a correlative power to hurt. The promise is directly proportional to the peril. If you’re properly prepared, Tantric practices can light you up. If you’re not, they will burn you up.

As a scholar-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, or the Vajrayana (synonymous with Tantric Buddhism), I have witnessed the blessing and curse of these thermonuclear practices. Practitioners who heed the guru’s admonition – the Surgeon General’s warning that these methods can be hazardous to your egoic health — will enter Tantric practice correctly, and harvest the extraordinary benefits. I have seen meditators transform beyond their wildest dreams. Those who are not prepared, who impatiently rush to the goodies, or who enter with the wrong motivation, can be damaged beyond their worst nightmares. We only have to look at the endless scandals in Buddhist and Hindu Tantric communities to see the truth of these claims. Even Tantric “masters” continue to get burned, and scorch others in the process. Tantra is sometimes called the lineage of “crazy wisdom,” but the wisdom is often lost and things just get crazy.

The exact sources and arising of Tantra are not clear, and frequently debated, but one strand argues that Tantra arose as a forest tradition, secretive in nature and highly restricted. Many developments came from householder yogis and yoginis, those who were not ascetics or monastics, but even then secrecy was inherent in much of Tantra. Not because it was an elite club with entitled membership, but because the restrictions are a skillful way to protect the impetuous practitioner, and to keep the dilettantes away. Unfortunately, many practitioners in the West dabble in meditation, and even more are impatient. Tantra is professional spirituality; it’s the impulsive amateur who is at risk. While I am modestly informed about Hindu Tantra, my tradition is Tibetan Buddhism. After thirty years of Tantric practice, including the traditional three-year retreat, I still consider myself an amateur. I share the following to help others avoid common amateurish mistakes.

Why is Tantra risky?

Tantra is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, many Tantric practices work with energy, particularly emotional energy. Depending on how we handle it, energy can electrify or electrocute. According to Tibetan Tantra, every negative emotion can be brought to the path, every poison transformed into medicine. Teachings often proclaim that the greater the klesa, or emotional upheaval, the greater the opportunity for spiritual transformation. In Trungpa Rinpoche’s inimitable words, “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news. . . The more chaos happens, I feel more possibility of creating greater peace, and when I see more aggression, more chaos, I feel more encouraged.” But that’s only if you’re equipped to ride the energy, and properly handle the chaos. Otherwise it’s just heightened klesa and chaos. It doesn’t take long to detect the heightened neurosis when you step into many Western Tantric communities.

Tantra is often called the “quick path.” Instead of driving across the continent of samsara to reach nirvana, one boards a supersonic jet. But when things go wrong at Mach 1, the journey can quickly spiral out of control and end badly. Driving may be much slower, but a flat tire is a lot safer than an airplane crash. Even Trungpa Rinpoche, who infused all his teachings with the Tantric perspective, warned, “The spiritual path is not fun – better not begin it. If you must begin, then go all the way.”

For example, the practice of tummo, or “inner fire,” in the Six Dharmas of Nāropa, ignites the fires of passion as a way to establish a more enlightened relationship to this primal energy. (Tummo means “fierce woman,” which reiterates the tenet that in Tantra the female penetrates the male.) According to Buddhist cosmology, we live in the realm of desire, or passion (one of the three realms of samsaric existence, the other two being the realm of form and the formless realm). Tummo (chandali in Sanskrit) inflames this energy as a way to transform the heat of passion into the warmth of compassion. It goes right to the heart of the energy of this realm.

But if one is not prepared, it’s easy to “flame out” with this practice. Instead of transforming your passion you inappropriately express it, leading to countless instances of sexual abuse. Instead of rising to the heart center where the energy can be appropriately transformed and expressed, it remains in the lower chakras and is inappropriately released. The energy sweeps you away, and you lose it. When done properly, tummo is anticlimactic, a real letdown for the ego. So ego readily steps in to edit the practice for its own climax.

Second, in the inner yogas of Tantra, the emphasis is on the subtle inner body. Eastern medical systems target this body for physical health, Eastern meditative systems target it for spiritual awakening. The outer gross body is an epiphenomenal expression of the subtle inner body, so by working with the subtle body and “penetrating the vital points,” dramatic effects manifest in the physical body, along with the correlative gross levels of mind that are supported by that body. Things are intentionally being stirred up and cremated in the fires of awareness, and the results can be unsettling. It’s a cosmic form of “stir-fry.”

Tantra is powerful because it goes directly to the essence of how we go from lifetime-to-lifetime (and moment-to-moment) in samsara. You’re unraveling karmic DNA. Anytime you deal with something so germinative you better be careful. Mipham Rinpoche says, “This is why tantra is considered dangerous, because when you unravel it, you have billions and billions of lifetimes accumulated in this very intense little situation. When you do tantric practice of the tsok [inner yogic] method, you actually unravel that. And that is why you have to have a stable mind. You have to have some stability to understand what is going on, otherwise you can go crazy.”1

The contemplative psychiatrist Jack Engler famously warned, “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.” Without a stable grounding in the relative self – and an understanding that growth transcends but includes the ego — instead of enlightenment you risk madness. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing similarly admonished, “The mystic swims in the same ocean where the psychotic drowns.” Some potential Tantric practitioners would do well to engage in psychotherapy before diving into the fluidity (emptiness) of the Tantric path. In The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, Rob Preece writes,

Eastern teachers are often unaware of how much emotional wounding we suffer. They usually assume we have well-established, strong egos, and speak of abandoning or surrendering the ego . . . However, this teaching requires the students to have a healthy ego and sense of self-worth that has become a solid center of identity. When the occasional Westerner becomes psychologically unstable through practicing Tantra, Eastern teachers often don’t know how to deal with it. . . Tantra requires a vessel that will remain stable and be able to contain the process.2

The inner yogas release the atomic energy contained in the subtle body, and the results can be explosive. Mipham adds this warning: “It is meddling in an old, big, snake trap. So you might get bitten at any time. It’s a very intense way of purifying.” In Hindu language, you’re working with kundalinī-shakti, or “serpent power,” which lies sleeping in a state of potency at the base of the spine. Be careful what you wake up, especially when it’s cosmic feminine energy, or shakti. The fierce woman doesn’t suffer fools. Gopi Krishna, a contemporary kundalinī “victim,” describes his experience:

Suddenly, with a roar like that of a waterfall, I felt a stream of liquid light entering my brain through the spinal cord. Entirely unprepared for such a development, I was completely taken by surprise; but regaining self-control instantaneously, I remained sitting in the same posture, keeping my mind on the point of concentration. The illumination grew brighter and brighter, the roaring louder, I experienced a rocking sensation and then felt myself slipping out of my body entirely enveloped in a halo of light.3

On one level, with the inner Tantric yogas you’re going through the death process while you’re still alive. You’re accessing, releasing (dying to), and cremating kalpas (eons) of karmic obscuration. If the inner winds (lung, prana) that are penetrated and released flow into the wrong channels, psychological instability or insanity can follow. A host of sok lung, or “wind disorders,” await the unprepared practitioner. When we practiced the inner yogas in my three-year retreat, I witnessed these windstorms first hand, and how easy it is to get blown away. When these winds are released properly, they fan the flames of purification. When they’re not, they erupt into a host of inflammatory issues.
Whenever we reject experience and say “no” to life, these “nots” download as knots in the subtle body, tying up and trapping the wind energy. Tantric inner yoga unties these knots, and all hell can break loose before heaven breaks loose. If you aren’t prepared to say “Yes!” when all this rejected material comes up, you will reject the experience yet again, and it will be thrown forcefully back into your body. Chögyam Trunpga said, “Meditation isn’t a sedative. It’s a laxative.” And there is no more potent laxative than Tantra yoga. What to you do with all that crap when it comes up? Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche says,

The person who selected the quick and potentially dangerous path [of Tantra], because they are proceeding through the path at such a rate, and because they are therefore purifying their karma at such a rate, would indeed experience more upheaval. Because of this, every time they undergo an incidence of upheaval, their path would accelerate even more.4

Third, a number of Tibetan Tantric practices are classified as “forceful methods of liberation.” These include tummo, phowa (ejection of consciousness), trul khor or yantra yoga (forceful physical movements that break loose the karmic knots), and dark retreat (the penultimate thögal practice to prepare for death). Anytime forceful methods are engaged, you have to be careful.

Fourth, and closely connected to the above, many Tantric practices have metrics of accomplishment. Tummo (you either ignite the inner fire or not), phowa (you either have the physical signs or not), dark retreat (you achieve the visions or not), dream yoga (you attain lucidity in your dreams or not), luminosity yoga (you either attain lucidity in deep dreamless sleep or not), all have these markers of accomplishment. Impatient Westerners often push too hard to attain these signs, especially during long retreat, and get into trouble. They forget Milarepa’s caution: “Hasten slowly.”

Fifth, the essence of Tantra, particularly emphasized in Buddhism, is devotion. If you don’t have devotion and practice the Vajrayana, you are a Tantric practitioner in name only. Devotion engages the most powerful force in the world, which is love, for the purposes of transformation. Devotion is the rocket fuel in Tantra, and it can blast you into the highest realms of awakening. It also acts as a form of protection during Tantric (sādhana) practice.

Devotion involves surrender. When engaged properly, you’re surrendering your ego. In classic guru yoga, you learn how to open and surrender to the wisdom of the guru. It’s easy to slip into the near enemy of “idiot surrender,” where you lose your critical faculties and surrender your intelligence. The Tantric texts assert that every action of the guru should be perceived as perfect, and that the guru should be viewed as the Buddha incarnate. In some Tantric communities, to question the guru is to virtually guarantee expulsion, or ensure your status as a pariah. But in this day and age, I believe it is important for teachers to accept good questioning, and for students to feel comfortable asking the tough questions. Author Scott Edelstein says,

Part of our job as students is to give our teachers the right amount of power. This means allowing them to influence us, perhaps quite deeply—but not allowing them to brainwash us, control us, or make us smaller or less human. In practice, this means subjecting everything a teacher says to our own careful scrutiny. As you attend to a teacher’s words and actions, do they seem right to your heart, your gut, and your head, or do they feel off the mark? Do they emphasize that the teacher is every bit as human as you, or do they imply that the teacher is more or better than human? Does the teacher consistently serve your (and other students’) best interests, or do they appear to serve or gratify themselves?… Scrutiny isn’t an insult to any teacher. On the contrary, it’s a way to take them—and yourself—seriously. The more insightful a teacher is, the more your scrutiny will validate what they say and the deeper their teaching will sink in.5

The poet Rilke wrote, “Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” But is the being truly greater? Is your ego really being defeated, or just manipulated? What if the guru takes advantage of your opening and vulnerability? What if you forget that the ultimate guru is not out there, but in your heart? All manner of projection, transference, and counter-transference takes place in spirituality communities in general, and Tantric communities in particular. Even when the guru is genuine, plastering the teacher with your projections often leads to profound disappointment. A nuanced rendering of the promise and peril of the guru-disciple relationship is beyond our scope, but how does one reconcile a more modern, critical, and psychologically sensitive view with the more traditional authoritarian (and often patriarchal) view? Does it have to be either/or, or is there room for both views? Suffice it to say that the guru-disciple relationship is a real hornet’s nest when it comes to Tantra, where the honey is right next to the sting.

Sixth, Tantra requires strict adherence to samaya, or Tantric vows. When the vows are appropriately given and properly maintained, they foster an indestructible bond between guru and disciple that is essential for Tantric practice. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche warns, “The danger in the vajrayana path lies in if it becomes corrupted by a corruption of samaya on the part of the practitioner.” Akin to marriage vows, if you break them serious consequences ensue. Instead of finding yourself in divorce court, you can find yourself taking rebirth in hell. Two of the most important vows are swearing to keep Tantric practices secret, and promising to never disparage the guru. But these vows can easily turn into a trap if the guru actually needs to be challenged.

These are some of the main reasons that Tantra is prescription strength spirituality. When “taken as directed,” and dispensed by a legitimate master, this medicine is profoundly curative. When these safeguards are not in place, the medication turns to venom.

How do you prepare?

Some Westerner’s feel that traditional rules and regulations don’t apply in the modern world, or certainly don’t apply to them. Everybody wants to be the exception, and many impulsive practitioners eagerly break the speed limit on the spiritual path. But Tantric methods abide by the maxim that the preliminaries are more important than the main practice. Instead of abiding by these time-tested regulations, they dismiss them. Then the Tantric methods don’t work, or they get wounded by the practices.

In Tibetan Buddhism, three vehicles or yanas frame the path: the Hinayana (“narrow” or “individual” vehicle, an admittedly controversial term when it’s translated as “lesser”); the Mahayana (“wider” or “universal” vehicle), and the Vajrayana (“diamond” or “adamantine” vehicle – what professor Robert Thurman translates as “apocalyptic” vehicle.) If you play by the rules and obey the speed limits, each of these vehicles transports you safely into the next vehicle, with each successive vehicle operating at higher and higher speeds (at least from Mahayana and Vajrayana views, because more and more is included on the path). Each higher yana also transcends but includes its predecessor. In other words, the Mahayana transcends the Hinayana while simultaneously including it; the Vajrayana transcends both the Hinayana and the Mahyana while embracing them both. A common problem with modern practitioners is a transcend but exclude mentality. An entitled or exceptionalist attitude that is a harbinger for disaster.

The Hinayana is itself framed by the triśikşā, or “three trainings”: śīla, morality and ethics that restrain the activity of body and speech; samādhi, or right concentration, which encompasses meditations that tame the mind; and prajñā, training in higher wisdom that leads to insight into the nature of reality. If you don’t have the basis of morality on your spiritual path, good luck with your meditation. And you can forget about discovering the nature of reality.

The Mahayana includes the three trainings, but goes further by introducing the critical role of bodhichitta, the aspiration to attain awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings. With the Mahayana, you’re no longer walking the path for yourself. You’ve transcended the individual or narrow vehicle. Now you’re engaging the wider and more universal path to help others. Many practitioners forget that the Vajrayana is actually a subset of the Mahayana. Vajrayana has the same view as the Mahayana, but adds more skillful means.

The Vajrayana, or Tantra, therefore includes not only the three trainings, but bodhichitta, while also adding its own rules and regulations as embodied in the samaya vows. Paraphrasing Trungpa Rinpoche, engaging in the Vajrayana without bodhicitta is like being in an ultra-modern house with every conceivable electrical gadget – but no hook up. So nothing works. Or even worse, these methods backfire. For example, instead of transcending the ego you inflate it. You fall into the trap of spiritual materialism.

What to do?

Does this mean we shouldn’t touch Tantra? Not at all. It means we should approach it properly. When we’re dealing with so much power, we do so with caution. Context, or “set and setting,” and the structures and medium of transmission are critical. Sanskrit scholar Ben Williams adds,

This includes the checks and balances of tradition, and the reality of decontextualized teachings being shared at new levels in a globalized spiritual marketplace, often mediated through online platforms. This is opposed to training with spiritual adepts and a community of peers for many years in-person, and serving that tradition (a huge part of strengthening the container and purifying one’s selfish motivations). There are also important cultural and historical questions swimming around in the background, related to the transposition of Indo-Tibetan religious cultures in Western socio-cultural environments, and all that is lost in translation in the process.6

We should approach Tantra with the respect it deserves, and the preparation it demands. Understand the risk-reward ratio, and abide by the regulatory agencies that were created to protect practitioners. Read the fine print in the Tantric contract, and understand the repercussions of this level of commitment. Be patient. Let your karma unfold without pressing that unfolding. Remember what the Taoist tradition cautions, “He who speaks does not know; he who knows does not speak.” Secrecy generates potency. Then check your motivation. Why do you really want to practice Tantra?

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1Vajrayana 1996 transcript, by Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche, p 74. It’s also said that memories of these past lives can flash before you when doing the inner wind yogas.
2The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, by Rob Preece, p 21.
3Kundalini: Evolutionary Energy in Man, by Gopi Krishna, p 12-13. Itzhak Bentov, in his underground classic, Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the Mechanics of Consciousness, devotes a chapter to “The Physio-Kundalini Syndrome,” see p 212-233. See also The Kundalini Experience: Psychosis or Transcendence, by the psychiatrist Lee Sannella. For a general overview of these issues, see Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crises, edited by Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof. See also “The Dark Night Project” by neuroscientist Willoughby Britton et al, www.brown.edu/research/labs/britton/research/varieties-contemplative-experience
4Pointing Out the Dharmakaya, by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, transcript of talk given at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, in 2000, p 82.
5Scott Edelstein, in Buddhadharma magazine, Summer 2011, p 15.
6Personal correspondence.