What is Tantra?
The first thing most people hear about Tantra is that it is some kind of transcendent sexual practice or experience. Images of sleek young people slipping into lotus-strewn baths by candlelight come to mind.
The Internet leads the way in providing confusing and contradictory definitions, and your local bookstore follows close behind: it only takes a little digging to realize that the word ‘tantra’ also refers to ancient texts, called Tantras, that articulate an extensive body of spiritual practices and philosophical teachings. Moreover, the word can refer to the spiritual reform movement that gave rise to those texts, and to the culture that lived those practices.
The sex section of the bookstore has books on Tantra filled with sexual positions intermingled with erotic art from India. The eastern philosophy section has books that describe Tantra as a style of meditation or a form of yoga. The sexual books make scant reference to Tantra as a holistic spiritual practice, and the philosophy books will often spend half the introduction debunking “tantric sex.” (Sometimes called neo-tantra, or most condescendingly: California Tantra.)
With some authorities expounding Tantra as sacred sexuality, and others dismissing or even denying a sexual component to Tantra, where is the truth?
Some argue that the word Tantra has come to have two different meanings: one a historical spiritual practice and system of non-dual philosophy, and the other a contemporary fusion of eastern and western esoteric sexual practices.
Having trained and (more importantly) experienced on both sides of this apparent divide, I eventually took a different approach. I sought a common heart at the center of both appearances of Tantra in our current era.
Sought and found.
Tantra is an embodied practice of personal liberation.
Tantra is a Practice
First and foremost, Tantra is a practice. There is an immense depth of philosophical context for this practice, but a fundamental principle of all tantra is that there is no knowledge but that of personal experience. The philosophies of classical tantra essentially invalidate themselves, other than as maps to the breadth and depth of human capability. They themselves require the reader not to mistake the map for the terrain.
At its heart, then, Tantra is not so much a teaching as it is a “subjective science” of self-awakening. The stories, wisdom, metaphysics, philosophies, and other teachings that make classical Tantra such a rich (and far more than simply sexual) tradition are all examples of this science in action, and suggestions for personal experiments to undertake.
This notion that Tantra is experiential rather than didactic is common across classical lineages of Tantra as well as contemporary, Western, and sexual Tantric schools.
Tantra is Personal
Before we dive into what ‘liberation’ means in this context, let’s be clear about what it is not. This is a personal, spiritual liberation and not a social or political movement. Of course, individual Tantric practitioners may be deeply involved in social justice issues, and there are certain ways in which personal liberation tends to lead individuals toward seeking cruder forms of freedom for all beings in this world. But Tantra itself has nothing to say on matters of political struggle, other than to observe that ideas are mental constructs that at best form an approximate model of reality; they are not reality. In fact, this sticky tangle of thought-forms is part of what Tantra liberates us from.
And, again, this is common across lineages and systems of Tantra.
Tantra Brings Liberation
The sanskrit word for liberation is mokṣa, pronounced ‘moksha.’ In all teachings of Tantra I have encountered, classical and contemporary, the principle of liberation is essential — liberation from inhibitions, from shame, from guilt, and more deeply still: liberation from the artificial constraints on our fullest experience of what we are, whether that be social norms, or other patterns imprinted on us by parents and peers.
In earliest writings, the ultimate liberation of a being into its full capabilities came from the deep union of Shiva and Shakti (depicted at left in contemporary, western style).
This union of Shiva and Shakti was philosophically a profound understanding that all reality is in its essence a perfect union of consciousness (infinite, eternal, omniscient, embodied by Shiva), and energy/matter (infinite, eternal, omnipotent, embodied by Shakti).
But this was also the union of masculine and feminine energies within us, and rituals both personal (meditative) and interpersonal (including sexual) were part of the path to this union. With the falling away of gender identities as an example of the dissolution of all egoic structures during transcendent experiences, Tantra became known as something of a spiritual shortcut. Abhorrent to some (even in classical times), and fraught with risk (“The Tantric path is lined with the bodies of saints and sages,” says one teacher), Tantra brought antinomian practices and rituals that broke all the taboos of society in order to shatter the prison that mental and social constructs build over the human spirit.
You may think that this sounds like any other religion, but while Tantra is a practice of personal liberation, the nature of this practice is what makes Tantra particularly fascinating in the study of spiritual teachings and so particularly powerful even today.
Tantra is Embodied
Unlike many spiritual teachings, Tantric practice is emphatically an embodied practice. While many religions teach that the body and the pleasures of this world are distractions to the spiritual being, Tantra teaches that the body and the pleasures (and the pains) of this world are, in fact, the very shortest path.
And, it turns out, there is almost no experience at once so embodied or so direct a path to the transcendent as sexuality.
Although the ‘scriptures’ of Tantra, the Tantras themselves, are not rich with sexual teachings, there are a number of indications that sexuality was a significant part of it. We know that there were tantric communities that came into legal trouble with prevailing society because of their sexual rituals that (and this was the really shocking part) mingled members of different castes. We know from imagery and iconography that the union of Shiva and Shakti (and various manifestations and permutations of that mythic language) was specifically a sexual union. Lingam (penis) and yoni (vulva/vagina) imagery and ritual instruments were prevalent and persist in those parts of India and the Himalayas that kept the tantric traditions the longest.
Consider the image of Chinnamasta (left), a central tantric figure: she is standing on a couple in erotic embrace, holding her own severed head while her blood fountains into her own mouth and those of her two attendants. A snake is draped across her shoulders (a symbol of the fully awakened power of Shakti — kundalini). The severed head represents the removal of the ego, that most tangled of all thought-forms that creates the ultimate confusion around what we are, and the most challenging prison around the possibility of our liberation. The fountain of blood represents that nectar of life that flows abundantly when the ego is at last released. And sexuality, the couple beneath her feet, nestled in the lotus flower, represents the purified ground for this awakening. (These are just a few of the symbols present in this image.)
Gruesome? Yes. Gruesome is as common in Tantra as sexy is. Maybe more so.
Clearly, there is a rich tradition of sexuality as an essential part of Tantra. But, it probably didn’t look a whole lot like some of those Tantra books in the human sexuality shelves at your bookstore. It wasn’t about pleasure, or about intimacy… or… could it have been that too?
Tantra is Inclusive
Here’s the thing: Tantra offered a path to true liberation and awakening to the reality of what we are. But even historically, not everyone chose to walk that full path. In fact, like most instances of spirituality throughout human history, the more common approach was to figure out how to bend spiritual teachings to everyday needs. And Tantra very explicitly supported that approach!
Unlike the religious traditions of its day (Buddhism, Jainism, and various Vedic religions), Tantra threw open its teachings, wisdom, and practices to all: All genders (women were especially honored in Tantra), all language groups, all religions (Tantra was seen as a style of spiritual practice, not a separate religion), all races, and all castes. And, obviously, not everyone was on a path of advanced spiritual awakening. In classical forms, Tantra was a science that, as sciences continue to do, generated a ‘technology’ of practical liberation. Liberation from artificial constraints in order to become the best merchant, partner, parent, lover, teacher, or even sorcerer.
The tantric sexuality of today can be seen as another application of tantric technologies: embodiment, mindfulness, breath, the exploration and integration of prana into sexuality.
And, importantly, our culture lacks a healthy, spiritual, joyful, liberated, and sacred approach to sexuality, so all these books, schools, teachers, practitioners, healers, and websites that teach Tantra as sexuality are not only doing a profound service to our culture, they are inviting the curious into an even richer spiritual ecosystem than intimacy itself.
(Of course, tantric sexuality draws on western traditions as well, but that is nothing new to Tantra, which drew liberally from the religions, practices, and philosophical traditions of its time. It was as inclusive in its willingness to seek out wisdom in new traditions as it was inclusive in bringing liberation, both practical and transcendent, to all.)
With this inclusive a vision, can it ever be said: “That’s not really Tantra.” There is no governing body of Tantra, no “Tantra police.” Tantra itself tends to be uninterested in using language or thought structures to taxonomically divide the world. Classical lineages of Tantra covered a very broad range of metaphysical opinions and varieties of practice. My conclusion is that the division of practice into “Tantra” and “Not-Tantra” is best left as an exercise to the individual.
The Single Heart of Tantra
My approach has become “Yes, And.” When I named my own teaching of Tantra, I went to the heart: Mokṣa. It is still an evolving community, teaching, and school, but once found, the heart will forever be the heart: the embodied practice of personal liberation.
Whether as a spiritual path to enlightenment or a better-living through greater-consciousness pragmatism, all are welcome. Some bring a curiosity about the sexual aspects of Tantra, which I joyfully teach and use in a healing capacity on a daily basis. Others bring a desperate desire for escape from the suffering of the mind, and there too, the body will liberate each of us.
And I know this is real, because it is here, in the heart of tantra, that I discovered my own liberation.