Monday, 14 December 2009

Sutra and Tantra in Buddhism


Sutra and Tantra
It's sometimes thought that Sutra and Tantra are two completely separate Buddhist paths, with Sutra being philosophical and tantra being 'mystical', 'esoteric' and 'devotional'. But in fact Tantra follows logically from Sutra.

Arising and reborn out of emptiness
The discussion on emptiness showed that all functioning phenomena are free from inherent existence, that is they are not definable in terms of themselves, but are dependently related to other phenomena. The same line of reasoning can be applied to our own identities, for if we search hard enough for our Self or Ego - we find it isn't there!

This may sound a bit scary to anyone unfamiliar with Buddhist philosophy, because we normally regard our sense of selfhood as something absolutely basic to our security and continued existence. Even scarier and weirder is the fact that Buddhist meditators deliberately cultivate the realisation that there is no basis for the Self or Ego. Why on earth should anyone want to deny their own identity?

Well, it isn't quite like that. The meditators are trying to clarify the basis of imputation of the Self by clearing away all the socially-conditioned and biologically-contingent accretions. Their intention is to become aware of the clear emptiness, the formless mind at the centre of the individual's existence. This realisation leads to liberation from the round of rebirth and suffering, and is the basis for embarking on the Tantric path.

Existential angst

Of course some Western philosophers, such as the 1950's existentialists, have also come to the conclusion that the individual's identity is unfindable, but they have tended to regard this as a cause of depression and angst rather than as a source of celebration. This culture of 'Existential Angst' probably occurred because the philosophers had discovered the emptiness of the self, but at that time they lacked the meditational tools to build upon it.

To Buddhists, the realisation of the emptiness of the self is a cause for celebration rather than depression, because a meditator whose mind has no unchangeable essence also has no constraints, and may choose to change the basis of imputation of the self in order to realise her ultimate potential . In other words, a Tantric practitioner who has realised her emptiness can change the basis of imputation of her Self from the biological realm to the Buddha realm. (We all have biological nature, but also Buddha seed)

Guan Yin

Meditation on the emptiness of the self
The meditation on emptiness of the Ego takes various forms, but most involve the gradual stripping away of everything and every relationship that makes us who we are.

We may start with the intellectual realisation that there is no permanent basis for our identity, by considering how the physical, mental, emotional and social bases of imputation of the Self changed as we passed through kindergarten, elementary school, adolescence, college, first job, parenthood, etc.

We then meditate by stripping everything away that determines our identity:
  • My job isn't me, if they fired me tomorrow my existence wouldn't be diminished (though my bank balance might)
  • My name isn't me. I've already changed it three times to avoid the attentions of the Inland Revenue.
  • My academic qualifications aren't me. I had forgotten half of what I'd learned within two weeks of taking the final examination.
  • My genes aren't me. I share 95% of them with chimpanzees.
  • My physical and chemical composition aren't me. The atoms that make up my body are constantly being lost and replaced (more than replaced judging by the bathroom scales). In any case they're supposed to turn over completely every 7 years.
  • My family relationships aren't me, they're constantly changing. When I was younger I had neither a spouse nor children.
  • My car isn't me. I know they say a man/woman is what he/she drives, but my car is going to end up as a pile of rust in the junkyard, hopefully before I reach the same state.
And so we continue along the via negativa - examining everything that could possibly be the root cause of what we are, including our beliefs, expectations, attachments, memes, mental processes, habits, evolutionary history, instincts, memories, childhood traumas and so on - and discarding each in turn. Eventually, when all things and all relationships have been exhausted, we become aware of the emptiness of our Self. It isn't nothingness that we become aware of, it is pure formless mind, which is empty of any defining or determining essence.

The basic principle of Tantra is that once we have realised that we are ultimately empty of fixed existence, we should also realise that we are free from any constraints to our potential.

Tantric meditators start from where meditation on Emptiness left off. Having learned that we aren't obliged to use a biological body and evolutionary-detemined instincts as the basis of imputation of the self, we can use something else, for example a Buddha.

In Tantric practice we visualise our self as an Enlightened Being. (This is a meditational practice known as 'bringing the result into the path'. It has recently been adopted by some of the more 'New Age' schools of personal development where the practitioner visualises herself actually going through the process of achieving her goal).

Green Tara

We employ rich symbolically-charged visualisations to experience ourselves arising from the state of emptiness as a Meditation Buddha, such as Tara. Meditational Buddhas are known as Yidams in Tibetan practice.

The practice of Tantric visualisations is said to hasten us along the path to enlightenment, and decrease our attachment to being reborn in the biological realms and other states of craving and suffering.

The Kadampa understanding of tantra
"...The way all four tantras work is the same:  we observe an object that would otherwise normally give rise to attachment.  When that occurs, we usually generate some sort of pleasant feeling in our mind.  We then consider how the pleasant feeling does not come from the object, but rather comes from inside our mind.  We then try to dissolve the object which gave rise to our attachment into emptiness while preserving the pleasant feeling.  When we do this, the pleasant feeling transforms into a pure feeling that is a similitude of the mind of great bliss (pure inner peace).  We then hold that mind for as long as we can, trying to stabilize it.  Once stabilized, we can then turn our attention to meditating on the emptiness of this mind of great bliss.

In all tantras, we first generate ourselves as the deity we are going to practice.  It is inappropriate to maintain our ordinary body and mind when engaging in Tantric practice, so we do so as the self-generated deity.  In action tantra, we imagine we look upon a beautiful deity.  In performance tantra, we imagine that she is looking at us in an enticing, seductive way.  In yoga tantra, we touch, kiss, etc., the deity.  And in highest yoga tantra, we engage in union with the deity.  Each of these is a higher level of attachment, and so therefore a stronger feeling of bliss, which we then realize the emptiness of in the way just described.  We cannot engage in qualified highest yoga tantra without first being able to do qualified yoga tantra.  We cannot do qualified yoga tantra without first being able to do qualified performance tantra, and so forth.  But we can’t do any of these without first being able to generate ourselves as the deity in a qualified way.  Our ability to generate ourselves in a qualified way depends upon (1) a motivation of bodhichitta, in other words a solid practice of Lamrim, (2) a solid foundation of moral discipline, in other words training in all of our vows and commitments, and (3) a clear understanding of emptiness.  So our focus at this stage should not be on trying different methods for generating bliss, rather our focus should be on Lamrim, moral discipline, the wisdom realizing emptiness, and self-generation practice."
  Read it all.


For full detailed information on Sutra and Tantra, download this eBook (in three volumes Vol 1 Sutra, Vol 2 Tantra): 

Read more at Buddhist Philosophy


- Sean Robsville


Evolution, Emptiness and Delusions of the Darwinian Mind

C J Jung, Buddhism, Tantra and Alchemy

Alchemical Symbolism, Imagery and Visualizations in Tantric Buddhism

Cauldron, Chalice and Grail Symbolism in Buddhism and Celtic Wicca

Rational Buddhism

Numinous Symbolism - Pagan, Buddhist and Christian

Existence, Impermanence and Emptiness in Buddhism

Inherent Existence in Buddhist Philosophy Sunyata - the emptiness of all things

Accepting our Evolutionary History does not Mean Rejecting Spirituality

Buddhism versus Materialism



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