Tree, Isabella - The Economist - Extract from Radical Tantra
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Extract from Radical Tantra - Isabella Tree | November/December 2015 [The Economist]
Tantra – the concept that flies in the face of most mainstream religions. Christianity, Judaism and Islam all describe the sins of the flesh, viewing the body, with its limitations and brutish impulses, as one of mankind’s greatest obstacles to the divine. Conventionally the religious seeker is taught to be ashamed of him- or herself; to believe that heaven is not naturally expressed in flesh and blood, but in the world of the spirit; that only by overcoming earthly desires can they hope to reach God. Tantra turns all that on its head and makes the body itself the tool of enlightenment….
It was an assault on the tyrannies of patriarchy, the caste system and notions of ritual purity. Tantra inverted the spiritual hegemony of India, wrestling it from the immaculate hands of the Brahmin elite and thrusting it into the filthy, bloodied hands of butchers, prostitutes and untouchables. It was underpinned by a powerful conviction: that social pride and belief in one’s inherited virtue were the biggest obstacles on the path to spiritual release. The tantric practitioner, therefore, had to commit to acts that destroyed any vestiges of social status or self-esteem……………….
It was to try to gain some understanding of the real Tantra that I ventured out one sunny morning in the company of Professor Mukunda Raj Aryal, one of Nepal’s foremost tantric experts…… Professor Mukunda Raj Aryal, a retired lecturer from the Department of Culture at Tribhuvan University, is consulted by leading scholars on the subject. He could explain the basic concepts, he said, but the inner teachings were taboo. True knowledge requires a dedicated guru and conditions of utmost secrecy – prerequisites that most Western seekers of enlightenment tend to ignore.
“Tantra is not something you can learn from a manual,” he said. “All earthly fears must be overcome. The ego must be harnessed and tamed. These things can only be learnt under the guidance of a tantric master………………..
“The tantrika needs to practice things that are deliberately polluting in Indian culture, that he or she would normally consider repulsive. If they are vegetarian, they eat meat. They drink alcohol. They eat with their left hand – the hand that is normally reserved for wiping away excrement. In Tantra these are all called “vamachari” – left-handed practices. A tantrika has sex with his wife when she is menstruating, or drinks her menstrual blood, or his own semen. If he is high caste, he has relations with someone of a lower caste, or an untouchable, or even an animal, like a dog.
“Sex is important in Tantra because the sexual urge is the most powerful of the body’s impulses. There is nothing stronger than the desire to unite oneself physically with another. It is the overpowering instinct for unity, for the male to return to the female, for the female to unite with the male, to enter a state that is beyond all boundaries. …………….
“Consider, if you will, the phenomenon of orgasm. For a brief moment, at the point of climax, the mind becomes empty of thoughts. It is like a moment of meditation. The ego is extinguished by an experience of supreme bliss. And yet all too soon that moment has vanished – we are left feeling disappointed, dissatisfied, wanting more. Am I right?”
I nodded uncomfortably, reluctantly admitting myself into the bedroom of his first person plural.
“This is the moment the practice of Tantra aims to expand. The tantrika regains this moment through sexual activity but gradually he – or she – must learn, through meditation and control of their desire, to reach that same experience without releasing energy or becoming the slave of lust.”
Mastering the art of orgasm without ejaculation is an act of self-discipline involving the awakening of the kundalini, the serpent of female energy lying dormant, coiled eight times at the base of the spine, blocking the opening of the genital organ with her mouth. When the kundalini is aroused it can be channelled up the body through the chakras – psychic energy centres ranged between the perineum and the brain – piercing them like a shaft of brilliant light.
Experienced tantric masters, the professor explained, can raise their kundalini up through these chakras, experiencing different states of awareness, right up to the highest head chakra. From there, they can channel the female shakti energy through the top of the skull so it can unite with Shiva, the male aspect of Pure Consciousness pervading the whole universe, thereby opening the 1,000-petalled lotus of the sahasrara chakra and flooding the being with indescribable bliss.
In Buddhist terms, he said, the attainment of mahasukha, the great bliss, is achieved by the same resolution of polarity; through reuniting the cosmic aspects of male and female.
While Hindu temples openly exhibit erotic scenes, tantric Buddhists have their own images – sacred paintings or bronze statues of a god and goddess united in cosmic bliss – that are, traditionally, meant to be kept away from the eyes of the uninitiated in protected shrines. Seeing them without due preparation is thought to be dangerous and misleading.
As the professor talked, I trained my lens on the faces of the little human figures cavorting above us. Their expressions were not, as one might expect, contorted with desire or slavishly pornographic. They were, instead, remarkably tranquil. Homely, familiar and yogically entangled though they were, the figures of these tiny mortals had been captured in a moment of sublime stillness. They were indeed, their serene faces seemed to imply, on their way to a higher state of bliss.
“The goddesses you see there are generating shakti, the creative desire which arises when the kundalini is awakened. We only see images like this on the outside of a temple. Inside, the inner shrine is very simple, totally unadorned, like the seed embedded in the womb. The inside of a temple represents the internal state where this energy is directed; where the mind becomes free of struggle, where there is stillness, where Shakti finds union with Shiva. So ‘tantric sex’, as you Westerners call it, is not about surrendering oneself to the sensation of pleasure, it is about learning how to direct it; about uniting the body with the vast expanse of the mind.”
“Eventually,” he said, “the tantrika becomes so skilled in his practice he can insert the tip of his tongue into a woman’s vagina and recite sacred mantras without losing himself to his arousal. Ultimately he or she can excite these energies without a partner, without even moving. A state of transcendent ecstasy can be reached through mantras and visualisations alone.”
“Even today, a number of people in authority are initiated in Tantra. But the true purpose is to gain powers to help other people, to reach a state of egolessness and compassion.”
“When we look at these acts of physical ecstasy, we can both be aroused by them, but you do not see what I see. Within each scene is a message that only tantrikas can read. See how the arms and the legs go out at strange angles; sometimes the people are upside-down and standing on their heads.” He laughed. “I think if you or I were to try these positions we would end up in hospital. This is not something we should be trying at home. These are symbols, a secret code.”
“I suppose you can’t tell me what any of them mean?”
“How much time do you have?” he asked. “And how do I know you will not misuse the information? It is tempting, once one has power, to use it for the wrong reasons. If I give you a loaded gun”, he said, with a cowboy flourish of his hand, “and you shoot everyone here, am I not responsible? That is why the tantrika must be supremely self-disciplined.”