Tantra in Sanskrit meant loom; also specifically, the warp thread that dresses the loom and gives support to the fabric formed by the moving shuttle or, in a rug, the individual knots. Without it, there can be no cloth. It can also refer to the cord used for stringing beads to make a necklace, a rosary, mala or garland. Tantric or more rarely, tantrik, is the adjectival form of tantra and it has come to mean continuous, or continuity in the sense of unbroken.
[In English, you might be familiar with "tenterhooks," as in the phrase "To be on tenterhooks," meaning to be in a state of anticipatory suspense. These hooks are the nails upon which finished cloth is stretched to maintain consistency in width.]
The earliest known Buddhist usage of the expression "tantra" can be found in the Guhyasamāja Tantra:
Here tantra refers to the continuity of Ground, Path and
Fruition (or, result.)
The word "tantra" refers to an "oral practice tradition," where there is a direct link from teacher to student. It is important to understand that a tantric connection is more than a lineage association, or an affiliation to a tradition. To belong to a certain tantric lineage means that the skills themselves are learned, practiced, mastered, and handed on with a special kind of permission.
Tantrism also has the connotation of an esoteric system in which exercises, practices and rituals are handed down directly from teacher to student by word of mouth, though often with the aid of teaching materials in the form of pamphlets and pictures. Such a manual can also be called a tantra. Any tantra is usually part of a system that was discovered, developed or established to explain, teach and initiate people into a radically different way of looking at, and acting in, the world.
The esoteric, concealed, or secret part, is often misunderstood as a reference to the intentional concealment of ancient practices. And it is true that some of these tried and true techniques sometimes rely heavily on symbolic or "twilight" language.
Also, there is little doubt that some teachers wanted to keep certain things from their competitors, and that there were times and political situations during which it was not wise to meet privately in small groups for any reason.
However, the word "esoteric" in relation to tantric information, systems, and practices, has more to so with the fact that they operate at a subconscious or subliminal level -- below the threshold of everyday awareness. Without proper explanation and careful guidance, an impatient and unprepared person could really get into trouble with some of these methods.
Attention was drawn to tantrism when some sexual aspects of it became known in the West. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, this has led to a great deal of confusion on the subject. People incorrectly tend to assume that "tantric" means something like, "about dynamic sexual technique."
In pre-tractor agricultural societies, draft animals could only work together if they were kept in unison by means of a yoke. The English word is derived from the Sanskrit yug from which we get the familiar yoga. But yoga originally meant just that -- a "yoke," the hoop or collar worn by a draught (draft) animal that can be attached to a long shaft or tied to a set of reins so that both the animal and the plough (plow) or wagon can be controlled by just one person. In fact, yoga is a way of referring to a tantric tradition.
In tantrism, the student and teacher are yoked or linked by the teachings, and by obligations and responsibilities. The individual is linked to past masters. The aspects of the teaching are linked: word with action, thought and sound, visualization and gesture, etc. Not least, the outer actions and words link to the practitioner's psychology and other characteristics and inclinations.
The connotation of the word "yoga" is "discipline" in the sense of training to learn a technique. In the ancient Indian worldview, there was little division between mental, physical and spiritual aspirations. If a person wanted to be a better fighter, they had to learn to be a better thinker and concentrator, too. And they also had to consider why they wanted to achieve their physical goals, and what use that might be in the long run. So, in yoga, the various aspects of the person are yoked to accomplish a task or a goal.
Student and teacher are yoked in a special relationship of confidence and trust. Students of the same teacher, school or lineage may consider themselves to be yoked together, too.
In the West, that comprehensive kind of training is fairly new. For example, deliberate visualization as a means of obtaining improved results in sports has only been used for about a generation. In India and later, in Tibet and in China too, the body-mind connection has been understood and practiced for thousands of years.
There are various types of yoga, any and all of which may form part of a tantric system. The physical exercises of hatha yoga are the most widely known type of yoga. Working with muscle flexibility, breathing and concentration, nowadays it is practised primarily to improve the health of the physical body and to relieve stress. Kriya yoga uses visualization, gesture and ritual worship. Karma yoga works on, and through, the perfection of the tasks of daily life.
The symbolism of sex is used in Hindu and Buddhist imagery to show inter-relatedness. Rarely does it "refer" to actual contact. In Buddhism, where images are used as visual aids, a male-female pair stands for Compassion and Wisdom, and the pairing of Knowledge with "skillful means" or, Method.
As an aspect of Hinduism, tantrism can include maithuna or sexual connection that usually has as its ultimate goal, the union of the individual soul with the Universal. Ecstasy of a sexual nature is only one of the lesser objectives, but that is how it has been most often misunderstood until recently. Sexual yoga can also be practiced with the objective of acquiring certain impressive abilities, accomplishments or siddhis. However, enhanced sexual experience is not the objective of any genuine yogic system or tantric tradition. That would go against the very foundation of a view that sees all beings as part of a greater whole that encompasses several different realms of existence; one in which beings are dependant on each other, and where experience has consequences far beyond one's own desires or immediate knowledge.
In the Shurangama Sutra the Buddha is quoted as warning that there are teachers who have been misled and continue teaching the false doctrine that the male and female organs are the means to liberation or enlightenment.
The Role of Sex
Lama Thubten Yeshe (Introduction to Tantra, 147) wrote: "There is a certain point in the mastery of the completion stage where physically embracing a consort is necessary . . . ."
There is no doubt that for most people, sexual activity provides a powerful and even sometimes, an overwhelming, experience. It is those qualities that can be used in an advanced stage of practice. Then the partner can be "used" as an activity support, or "action seal" (Skt. karma mudra.) When both partners are practitioners, then there can be further benefit.
John Powers (Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, 1995) explains:
A karma mudra (sexual partner) can also be imaginary, since one is ready for this kind of practice after having attained skill with Completion stage visualization. However, even Je Tsong Khapa who founded the Gelugpas, agreed that to attain buddhahood in one lifetime, it is necessary to use an actual consort (karma mudra) saying, "A female companion is the basis of accomplishment of liberation." That is, in order to generate an illusory body as that of a particular deity with all the qualities of existence, another person must interact with it.
Powers says further:
Powers quotes Daniel Cozort (Highest Yoga Tantra, 1986):
Also, many masters from Atisha to Kyadrubje are reported to have noted that there are few people around that can act as the Wisdom (Skt. vidya) consort, since they do not have all the required characteristics (Lessing and Wayman. Introduction to Buddhist Tantric Systems.)
Many scholars believe that tantrism, a method of psycho-spiritual advancement, developed in India before the purported arrival over 3 thousand years ago of so-called Indo-Europeans. With the pressures brought to bear on Indian religious life by the 8th-century invaders, the tantric systems were maintained in the south of the sub-continent and also in Bengal where they formed an inextricable aspect of the Goddess (Shakti) religion. Those Indian, and then later on, the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, have preserved these systems intact since ancient times.
Most people believe that the foundations for Kundalini yoga contributed to Buddhist vajrayana practices, however some scholars say that in fact, the tantric teaching originated with Buddhism and was then disseminated to mainstream Hinduism.
The Difference Between Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism
In 1977, Khyabje Trijang Rinpoche explained the distinction between Hindu and Buddhist tantrism very well. [<lamayeshe.com missing link]
Buddhist Tantric Tradition
As a method in Buddhism, the objective is enlightenment "in this very lifetime," but in both traditions, Hindu and Buddhist, it is acknowledged that the path of tantra is a risky one, indeed.
In a well-known warning given by master to student, he or she who embarks upon the tantric path may be compared to a small snake inside a hollow bamboo tube. That is, once you get in there are only two ways out -- up to enlightenment, or down to hell.
There has also been some misunderstandings about the nature and role of Buddhist teachers, generally. It is not necessary to be a celibate monk in order to mentor others on the Buddhist path. Many married people are also disciplined practitioners of meditation and other tantric techniques. Many others have partners or consorts with whom they work towards achieving the highest realization.
Buddhist tantric practitioners, ngakpas -- they are not monks -- generally do not take a consort until they are middle-aged when their meditation and other practices are stable.
There is in the Buddhist Mahayana tradition, a long and respected tradition of the enlightened teacher who, according to general social norms, may appear to be very eccentric. But that is not to say that if a teacher behaves in an improper way towards a student, he or she ought to be excused as a "crazy yogi." There is no excuse for the abuse of power or the manipulation of those who are vulnerable and trusting.
Students, too, must be careful, as it will surely result in very bad karmic consequences to cause any ordained teacher, celibate or not, to break their vows.
The word magic means "activity that the mages of Persia (and other Easter lands) were known for." They bedazzled their audiences by seeming to be able to transform one thing into another. As with other skills or arts of human beings, we can only know what they accomplished long ago once their deeds were recorded for posterity by means of the written word. It is highly likely that many ancient practices were never written down.
The 20th-century saw a revival of the European expression of this training (to practice transformation by extraordinary means) in Wicca. Wicca is a Norse word that is related to wicker [wic > vik = to bend] the product of skill, training and imagination where witheys [thin willow branches] are bent, braided or twisted to form baskets and other useful objects. The word for any work of this kind is craft, as in arts and crafts. A crafter of wicker objects was called a wicca or wicce [f. form, pron. witch.] Hence the northern European "tantric" tradition is called Witchcraft.
Of course, we know that the word witch took on another meaning entirely, so that today, people who do self-transformative practices in the European tradition are often reluctant to to use that expression.
Because of the terrible persecution inflicted upon anyone suspected of following the early European wisdom traditions, intact ancient lineages do not exist any longer. Today, the western rituals and practices stem mainly from 19th-century Britain, though there are some others. The same is true of the West African traditions that came to the West as Macumba and Vaudun (voodoo) Therefore, sadly there are very few genuine, intact tantric traditions still remaining.
A term originally applied to the spiritual activities of Siberian and some other far northern aboriginal peoples, it is used very broadly nowadays. There is such a variety that it may be that the sole common denominators are: periods of seclusion, identification of the self with the natural world or aspects of it, and drumming.
A genuine tradition, which, by definition, means "beliefs and actions handed down through the ages" or "passed down through many generations," that works to heal or otherwise benefit the welfare of the group could call their activities, "shamanist." This could also be called tantrism referring as it does, to ancient oral wisdom traditions. However, unless a lineage tradition includes practicing on behalf of other beings, it is not correct to refer to it as shamanism. The term actually has as its origin, the Sanskrit word shramanera which means a someone who has vowed to dedicate his- or herself to a path of self-knowledge in order to alleviate the suffering of others.
In the original, Buddhist, context, a shramanera is a postulant -- one who has taken beginning vows, or one who has "entered the stream." The "stream" is understood from the Mahayana perspective.
Some forms of magic involved the manipulation of various substances, but we should not forget that the terms for physical things and actions were often used as symbols for mental processes. The dross which is the physical body could be transformed into the gold that is eternal and incorruptible. In the West, this tradition is called alchemy, a word that is derived from Greek via Arabic [alkimiya' f. al = the + kimiya' f. > Gk khemia, -meia art of transmuting metals.]
Many intellectually adventuresome people tried to study alchemy from manuals and books, and since they had no guidance from genuine teachers, they were led astray by the symbolic language, the seemingly erotic drawings and references to mysterious items such as a "Philosophers' Stone." Some of them were poisoned from imbibing actual concoctions, nor realizing that the "ingredients" consisted of experiences rather than substances. Instead of achieving immortality, or at least longevity, they died an early and dreadful death. Instead of attaining the "Kingdom of Heaven," they ended up like the conscience-less "hero" of Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
In any kind of tantric tradition, also sometimes called wisdom tradition, the goal is to transmute one's "imperfections" by means of extraordinary methods. They usually include visualization, chanting and various physical movements, including breath-control.
In any of the wisdom traditions, progress is difficult enough without implicating a partner (and the further complexity of that person's involvement with you!)
Learning Tantric Buddhism
All forms of tantric practice require the transmission and supervision of a guru or teacher. The tantric tradition followed by Buddhists is, naturally, the one followed and passed on by the Buddha. The path is known as Vajrayana Buddhism.
Though Buddha Shakyamuni rejected the notion of a permanent Self, he acknowledged that there is reincarnation. However, he taught that rebirth was not inevitable, and he taught the methods that he himself had used to achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment is associated with Nirvana -- a release from the bonds of the wheel of rebirth. Though Nirvana is the End of Suffering which can be equated with Bliss, nirvana does not mean ecstasy, nor does it mean feeling blissful. It is an expression used to refer to a kind of extinction.
With Vajrayana, it is possible to achieve Nirvana in a single lifetime.
The Role of the Guru
All Buddhist Ways salute the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. Every Buddhist takes refuge in them regularly. To them, the Vajrayanist adds three others. The first of those is the Guru, the mentor or lama without whom access to extraordinary methods would not be possible.
We must have specific guidance and individual permission from a vajra guru in order to undertake Vajrayana practices, even the so-called preliminaries. It is not enough to have read about them, or to imitate another student.
The preparatory practices (Tibetan: ngondro) consist of four disciplines that require devotion and diligence. The first one consists of doing several thousand prostrations along with repetitions of the words of Refuge.
Then, there are purification prayers to be chanted and mandala offerings to be made before the student is prepared with the necessary confidence, faith and devotion.
Tricycle interview of Ani Pema Chodron, the Superior of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia concerning how she views her guru.
Dangers & Drawbacks of Tantric Practice if unprepared
Sanskrit a classical, mainly literary, Indian language that plays the role in Indian culture and Mahayana Buddhism that Latin used to do in the West.
Preliminary Practices are also preparatory: They help overcome any lack of confidence or lack of conviction in the efficacy of the tantric process. They should be explained and shown by an authorized teacher who can grant the permission and provide the support for you to begin to do them.
Tantric Practitioners in the Old Testament? The Nazirim
Some would say that a Jewish nazir was a kind of tantric yogin.
Biblical figures such as Samson (Hebrew: Shimshon) the Judge, the prophet Samuel (Shmu'el) and much later in time, John the Baptist, are described as Nazirim. A nazir (Heb: devoted one, devout) is a person (a female is a nazirah) who has taken three special vows at the main temple in Jerusalem. He may take the vows for life or for a shorter period, such as one month. He must not cut his hair, drink alcohol nor have any contact with the dead. Contrary to popular opinion, nazirim do not vow to abstain from sexual relations. According to the orthodox Jewish, or rabbinical, tradition, one cannot today be a nazir since the Temple is no longer available for the ritual.
An interesting part of the story of Shimshon's seduction by D'lilah occurs when he tries to fool her by saying that his hair is involved in his phenomenal strength. That is true, but he goes on to explain that if she uses his seven long braids as a kind of warp, then she will be able to weave a kind of binding that will imprison him. If Samson was an advanced tantric practitioner, then he is revealing the truth of existence to her. (Actually, his strength can only be compromised if the hair is cut.)