Tantra : A Definition


Devi_Bhakta
With OmPrem's kind permission, I am reposting a private exchange we had last week, in hopes that other members might care to contribute to the discussion:

FROM OMPREM TO DEVI_BHAKTA

While we agree on the definiton of 'Shaktism', it is clear that you do not want to continue this discussion of a definition of 'Tantra' in the club forum.

My point all along has been that if a term, such as Tantra, applies to an earthly body of knowledge and practice and yet has no definition, in what sense can that term be said to have a meaning or a basis for its usage.

The definitions that your post provided were, as we agreed, meanlingless.

It seems to me that a person could go one step farther and say that the term, Tantra, is itself meaningless.

So, why then is it used. Either 'Tantra' must have a meaning and 'Tantric' practices have something in common or, 'Tantra' has no meaning and is being used as a justification for whatever a person wishes to do and can persuade others to do. (There is nothing like a title to justify otherwise unjustifiable actions - a suitable attitude in a Kali Yuga).

My own view, admittedly based on knowledge of only some 'Tantric' practices, is that what is common is a move away from the rigid asceticism and disdain for the human body that seems to characterize many other forms of practice. In 'Tantra', this reaction leads to an exultation of the human body and human emotions and a resultant exultation with nature in all of its variety and creativity. This seems to be a reaction against the other paths that see all as Maya and not deserving of real consideration. If so, it might also a misunderstanding of Maya. In this scenario, 'Tantra' would be a suitable practice for a Kali Yuga just as the 'Me too.' attitude is appropriate to a Kali Yuga.

As for those, so-called 'Tantric' practices that do not fit this model, perhaps they are only calling themselves 'Tantric' out of ignorance or in a bid for respectablitily.

OM Namah Sivaya

FROM DEVI_BHAKTA TO OMPREM

*** it is clear that you do not want to continue this discussion of a definition of 'Tantra' in the club forum. ***

That's not necessarily true. I wouldn't mind, if you think it's appropriate. I've learned the hard way that many people (present company excluded, of course ;-)) do not read what I actually write, but rather respond to what they *think* I said, regardless of what I actually said.

That's particularly dangerous in discussing Tantra. There is a reason why that "real thing" is so hidden --and this is precisely it: People find in Tantra justification for whatever it is they want to do. By calling it Tantra, as you suggest, they give themselves an air of mystery and exoticism. Tantra is a hard path; but in the popular imagination it's easy: All the "fun" stuff most religions tell you to avoid? Hey presto! Suddenly it's all "spiritual" stuff! Havea ball, and find God/dess as a bonus!

*** if a term, such as Tantra, applies to an earthly body of knowledge and practice and yet has no definition, in what sense can that term be said to have a meaning or a basis for its usage. It seems to me that ... the term, Tantra, is itself meaningless. So, why then is it used? ***

Habit, I think. Many commentators -- yes, Woodroffe included -- have observed that the term "Tantra" is at best imprecise and at worst meaningless. Woodroffe rarely uses the term, preferring to say "the Agama" in describing doctrines that are usually considered Tantric. But he noted 75 years ago that, since the word (and an assumed definition) had become part of the public vocabulary, it could not be honestly avoided. It's a buzzword, yes; but it's one that now must be dealt with on its own terms. But if I started talking about "the Agama" in the Group, at least 75 percent of the members would not have the slightest idea that I was referring to what they think of as Tantra.

*** 'Tantra' must have a meaning ... ***

It does. But, as we discussed, it is not a meaning that can be meaningfully summarized in a pat, brief definition.

Let me give you an example. There have been several cases in the U.S. Courts over the meaning of pornography -- usually arising in the context of modern art. A recent, famous case was NYC Mayor Rudy Giulliani threatening to cut off public funding to a show that contained works he considered "obscene." In fact, nobody can deny that there is a tangible difference between contemplating a Picasso nude and ogling a Playboy centerfold. But what makes one "art" and the other "pornography"?

That indefinable essence, upon reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, yielded Justice Potter Stewart's infamous non-reply: "I shall not today attempt to further define [pornography]... but I know it when I see it." (Jacobellis vs. Ohio, June 22, 1964).

Tantra is the same. I know it when I see it. And I *think* I know it when I don't. For example, not a half-hour ago I picked up a free "New Age" magazine on the muggy streets of Boston, and found an article by a woman who is a credentialed psychotherapist and for the past 17 years head of something called the Tantra Institute. She begins her lengthy presentation with this choice bit of hogwash:

"Authentic Tantra is a yogic spiritual journey that follows the path of ecstasy and teaches us to embrace our sexual experiences, deepen our relationships and embrace physical pleasure as an aspect and expression of our spiritual self."

Isn't that just wonderful? Pay her the right fee and you can experience it too. I'm especially impressed that she has the bottle to call it not just "Tantra," but "authentic" Tantra. But you know? She's telling people what they already believe, and -- more importantly -- what they really want to hear. If we protest, "Wait. that's not right! It's actually a lot of hard work! It's religious discipline, not an orgy," then we are perceived as little more than po-faced naysayers.

In fact, in the wake of one of our club discussions, I had one member, a self-styled "Tantric Guru" -- a pretty young woman from Russia who's made a tidy profit offering Tantric seminars in New York City -- demonstratively quit the club. When she got our automatic "please reconsider" notice, she fired back that she was "sick" of our "stupid, boring" discussions of Tantra. Sorry, Guru!

*** My own view, admittedly based on knowledge of only some 'Tantric' practices, is that ... ***

Your view is reasonable enough, especially from the modern Hindu perspective on Tantra. But let me recommend that you read the book I mentioned, "Tantra in Practice," to see what I'm talking about as regards the "real" Tantra.

To return to my original comparison, a federal judge may well admit defeat when asked to reduce a complicated issue (pornograhy vis a vis art) to a pithy, useful definition. But a scholar and philosopher, given five hundred pages or so, could probably enable readers to accurately assess and finesse that matter in their minds -- to "feel" the truth that is so resistant to easy definition.

Likewise, a broad survey of Tantra -- as it is practiced -- will bring the issue to life for you. We often note the difference between intellectually understanding Divine Unity and actually experiencingit to some degree. Well Tantra, you will discover, lies almost entirely in the realm of action, not words or discussion -- part of the reason it is so impossible to define is that it resists analysis like Teflon resists water. It is resolutely a matter of "Don't say it, do it."

At least that's my experience. And so, whenever I get into a debate about Tantra, I am reminded once again of the futility of discussing it -- the absurdity. ... certain concepts are best confined to private discussion, if it is discussed at all.

Hope that wasn't too long and drawn-out. I just wanted you to understand where I'm coming from on this.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

FROM OMPREM TO DEVI_BHAKTA


OM Devi Bhakta

Thanks for taking the time and effort to respond to my query.

I remember the court case you mention. As of now, I remain unconvinced of the "I know it when I see it" approach. This seems to me to leave definition entirely open to one's prejudices, biases,aspirations, karmic load and degree of egoism and self-absorption. In other words, there will be as many opinions as there are people with an opinion. Not a very satisfactory situation from my perspective.

We both know that the justice system, and particularly judges, do not operate necessarily with justice or even fairness, but more often pre- judge a situation based on personal bias. ("Don't bother me with facts or evidence, my mind is made up. Guilty as charged." One need look no farther than Judge Judy for an example of a totally out-of-control judge, who injects her personal beliefs and philosoohy of life as 'evidence')

"Don't say it, do it." also seems to me to run a close second to the above statement in terms of potentially egocentric definition.

But, I am always ready to be convinced and to learn, so I will seek out a copy of the book, 'Tantra in Practice'.

I think that the two of us are agreed about Shaktism, probably agreed about what Tantra is not, especially considering the examples that you cited, but have yet to reach a meeting of the minds on what Tantra is. That is where Tantra in Practice may be useful.

Allow me to just say that a definition of Tantra will probably not be found 'in the realm of action', but rather in the motivations for such action. I still am looking for a common thread. I hope the book you recommend will provide that.

Once again, thanks the to-the-point response. I appreciate your analysis and your sense of humour.

Highest regards

Om Namah Sivaya

FROM DEVI_BHAKTA TO OMPREM

Namaskar OmPremji:

*** Thanks for taking the time and effort to respondto my query.***

Thanks for taking the time and effort to read them. There's an old Maine joke where an old woman asks a tour boat captain why he's always talking to himself. He snaps back: "I like to talk to an intelligent man, and I like to hear an intelligent man speak!"

It's a good example of the kind of delusion we all carry sometimes, blabbing away about the things that matter to us -- even if we suspect that no one else knows or cares what we're talking about. I suppose it's even worse in my case, where I'm not even sure how intelligent what I'm saying might be. I write what seems true to me, and wait for people to either confirm or correct me. When I'm met with ominous silence, I think "either I've hit the nail right on the head -- or I've made a complete jackass of myself."

Perhaps that makes me a cynic -- indeed, like Diogenes of Sinope, I think I'm *looking* for an intelligent person who will honestly hear me out and tell me when I'm off-base, mistaken, or -- as I mentioned -- self-deluded. As when we discussed Gurus, my point was not that I did or didn't need one -- but that, not having one at the moment, what am I supposed to do? How do I advance or prepare myself in her/his absence? If the guru appears wehen the chela is ready -- how do I go about "getting ready"?

I think, as our debate continued, it became clearer to you -- and to me too, I admit -- that this (and not a general hostility toward the Guru concept) was my real issue -- and at that, you offered a fairly comprehensive answer. Like the Maine sea captain, I was extremely pleased to be "talking to an intelligent man, and hearing an intelligent man speak." Unlike the captain, however, I understood that these were answers I could never have arrived at by talking to myself. This is another question of the same kind.

*** As of now, I remain unconvinced of the "I know it when I see it" approach. ***

Oh, me too, believe me. My point was made later in the letter that Tantra, like "pornography," might require more than a quick and brief definition. Or -- if the definition *is* brief, all of the terms contained in it would have to be carefully defined. That's the case with the introductory definition of "Tantra in Practice" -- as the text weights each nuance of its meaning, the initially vapid definition takes on a new usefulness as a matrix within with to understand the various concrete examples offered. Now, I am not saying "Tantra is Practice" is *the* answer, or a flawless presentation -- anymore than I think Woodroffe is *the* answer or flawless. But I do think that both are far-better-than-average signposts along the path.

*** this seems to me to leave definition entirely open to one's prejudices, biases, aspirations, karmic load and degree of egoism and self-absorption. ***

Yes! That was what I was driving at when i mentioned the sea captain joke. If I state my views strongly, I often think, "Well, don't I sound like a pompous ass." ... But in fact (unlike poor Judge Judy ;-)) I'm perfectly open to the idea that *I'm* wrong, that my mind is simply too closed to comprehend the truth. But, at this point is my evolution, I need some convincing. I am willing to change my opinion -- but not because somebody simply says I'm wrong. They alsoneed to say *why* I'm wrong.

*** "Don't say it, do it." also seems to me to run a close second to the above statement in terms of potentially egocentric definition. ... a definition of Tantra will probably not be found 'in the realm of action', but rather in the motivations for such action. ****

Yes, I already like that formulation better than my own. Motivation is definitely a factor -- but again, it might be getting too specific. For example, there are low people, as you know, who abuse the power of Tantra as a kind of black magic. Their motivation is self-aggrandizement and/or control over (including the ability to harm) others. It's not Shaktism; it's not Hinduism -- but it is still undoubtedly Tantra, which tends to be a judgment-neutral phenomenon. The uses it is turned to are only as elevated as the people who use it. Which is another reason why I said it is a technique and not a philosophy. You don't have to be at all sattvic to make it work (although non-sattvic uses necessarily exact a high karmic price).

*** I think that the two of us are agreed about Shaktism, probably agreed about what Tantra is not ***

Yes, I agree. I'm glad to see that you understood my meaning in saying that -- as it seemed to me -- your initial definitions of Tantra seemed more like definitions of Shaktism. I simply wanted to note that, although Shaktism often takes a Tantric form, it need not do so. The Devi Gita of the Devi Bhagavata Purana,while acknowledging Tantric techniques (Kundalini Yoga, etc.) as a legitimate path to Devi, explicitly says that simple Bhakti techniques are a *better* way to Devi.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

FROM OMPREM TO DEVI BHAKTA
OM Devi Bhakta

You wrote: "I write what seems true to me, and wait for people toeither confirm or correct me. When I'm met with ominous silence, I think "either I've hit the nail right on the head -- or ...".

It seems to me that one should write what seems true without expectation - not expectation of confirmation, nor of correction, nor of reputation. If you need an indicator, the best one is the number of members (barring Yahoo glitches) and secondarily, the message traffic, although as we both know there are many who are content to read without comment. Perhaps, not necessarily the volume of traffic but the quality of the traffic, either pro or con.

You are an informed and articulate advocate. Your views and explanations are appreciated by all.

I agree to some extent that motivations based on the dominant guna do not define Tantra. Your example of tamasic motivation was a good one. However, even in that case, the person could have exercised those base goals in some other venue. There was still something positive, something that appealled to his spiritual instincts (however much blunted those instincts were) that led him to 'Tantric' practices. Perhaps, we are confusing his spiritual motivation with his baser motivations. Those spiritual motivations led him to adopt certain practices. The spiritual resonance that those practices had with him could be the type of motivation that I was interested in, the motivations that lead, if not to a definition of Tantra, at least lead to a list of salient characteristics of Tantric practice.

OM Namah Sivaya

FROM DEVI_BHAKTA TO OMPREM

Namaskar OmPrem ji!

*** It seems to me that one should write what seems true without expectation - not expectation of confirmation, nor of correction, nor of reputation.***

I really tend to agree with you. I am usually secure enough to post my opinions. As I've said of our discussions, it is nice to get confirmation when I'm on the right track or correction if I'm straying off the path. I like to learn and improve, and the only way to do that sometimes is to stick out one's neck and expose oneself to "being wrong" in public. That's fine with me -- it's a matter of substance over form. There is a certain mindset that says a moderator must come across as an "authority" on the subject of her/his Group -- but that is my philosophy. I see myself more as a facilitator -- even a custodian: Keeping things neat and polished, sweeping up with people leave a mess, tossing out the rowdies etc.

*** There was still something positive, something that appealled to his spiritual instincts (however much blunted those instincts were) that led him to 'Tantric' practices. Perhaps, we are confusing hisspiritual motivation with his baser motivations.***

Maybe. I think that's where we have to clarify our understanding. Most Tantras claim to present a technique that will take you to a certain goal if followed to the letter. There is always a warning against misuse. Just as in meditation, one should not be distracted by various interim images that may arise in the mind, but keep forging forward, the Tantric is supposed to ignore the powers that naturally accrue as one breaks down the mental barriers that artificially separate him from the Divine. To fall in love with the powers entails a backslide from the true goal of Tantra, which is undoubtedly moksha.

But the reason I say it's a technique is that it adjusts itself to whatever philosophy adopts it -- the obvious examples are various forms of Tantric Hinduism versus Tantric Buddhism. Similar techniques in the service of different spiritual perceptions. And it is said that Gnosticism could be called "Tantric Christianity" and Sufism "Tantric Islam." Likewise, to put these techniques into the service of evil intent is Black Magic. In other words -- Tantra is simply a technique for accruing and focusing Energy, like gathering and concentrating light into a laser. How you channel that energy is determined by your philosophy (call it religion, call it motivation) - - Shaktism, Shavism, Buddhism, Black Magic, whatever! The laser can be used for good (microsurgery, for example) or evil (as a deadly weapon) -- but the technique for creating it remains the same. And so it is with Tantra.

*** a list of salient characteristics of Tantric practice. ***

I agree that this would be a worthwhile endeavor. The book I mentioned is an attempt toward that end, but certainly not the last word. I tend to think the process of compiling such a list would be more valuable than the compilation itself. ...

Anyway, sorry for my slow reply to your kind letter. I've been offline most of the week, and rather than scribbling off a cursory response, and decided to wait til I had time to write a more substantial reply.

Aum Maatangyai Namahe

muktip61

My $0.02:

Many of the Western Tantra teachers ("California Tantra") are most interested in the temporal aspects than the spiritual aspects!

Around 900 AD, Abhinavagupta has codified the Principles of Tantra in his two monumental works: Tantraloka and Tantrasara. To my knowledge these have not been translated into English even though an Italina translation seems to be available.

In modern times, in addition to the excellent books by Sir John Woodruffe, which are sometimes difficult to read, there is an excellent easy to read introductory book:

"Tantra, The path of Ecstasy", Georg Feuerstein, Shambhala

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