The Tantras

We have now come to the end of our story. In the course of one millennium the many potentialities inherent in the Buddha’s Dhrma had been actualized one after the other. By about A .D 500 or 600 the lotus of this Dhrma had unfolded all its petals. When looking back on the narrative of the last 270 pages, the reader will realize that throughout we had to deal with one and the same doctrine, and that the differences were no more than the facets of a diamond which light up as and when it is turned this way or that. After roughly 1000 BE no new facets have been discovered and the next, Tantric, phase of Buddhism is not a straightforward continuation of the philosophical doctrines we have expounded here, but has its beginnings elsewhere.

From the very start there had been two kinds of ‘Buddhism’. There was the Buddhism of the monks who meditated on the four Truths, the three marks, the perverted views, and such topics, and who aspired to achieve mystical union and final deliverance through yogic practices. And there was the Buddhism of the laymen and kings who aimed at a better rebirth, and relied on the observance of the moral rules, on generosity, and on a ‘faith’ which was acted out in rituals centering round the relics of the Tathagata and the worship of Stupas. 1 In the course of time the laymen become more and more predominant, and, although the basic terms and concepts of the monastic philosophical tradition were often used to embellish the utterances of the Tantras, Tantric thought itself 2 descends directly from the lay Buddhism which for many centuries ran parallel to monastic Buddhism.

First of all, the Buddhist thought which we have described here was the rationalization of experiences gained in the course of meditations which are comparatively rational, and could be described fairly adequately within the compass of less than two hundred pages in my Buddhist Meditation. Now, with the Tantras, an entirely new set of meditations comes to the fore, which no one has yet described in intelligible terms. Their rational content is negligible, and they are almost entirely concerned with concepts which pertain to the magical tradition of mankind. It is possible, though not very likely, that someone will some day compose a handbook of these meditations and tell us what exactly they are. Then, and only then, would we have a superimposed on these practices.

Secondly, the original documents in which any study of Tantric thought must be based, are written in a code which no one has yet been able to break. Their language is not only cryptic and designed to conceal rather than reveal their meaning; they are deliberately so constructed that they remain a dead letter in the absence of the holy guru whose oral teachings are held to be absolutely indispensable for the explanation of these texts.* To be a member of a Trantric confraternity means to do and to be something. Any ‘thought’ there may be is quite secondary and interchangeable.

Thirdly, these doctrines are essentially esoteric, or secret (guhya). This means what is says. Esoteric knowledge can-and this is a quite impassable barrier-under no circumstances be transmitted to an indiscriminate multitude. An interminable literature is addresses to a credulous public which expects to buy these secrets for a few shillings in a bookshop. A plumber from Plymouth who posed as a Tibetan doctor wrote a positive best-seller, and an aura of fraudulence and deceit vitiates the works of everyone who pretends to speak from the inside. In this field certainly those who know do not say and

*so far only full-length Tantra to have been treated scientifically by a really competent scholar is the Hevajra (ed. and trsl. By D.L. Snellgrove, 1959). Though I have read every line of it and diligently studied the commentaries, it has taught me very little. Celebrated though this Tantra may be, it turns out to be a work of slight literary merit, composed by members of the lower classes who knew Sanskrit only imperfectly. Its construction is positively chaotic, and each topic is dropped almost as soon as it has been raised. The primitive swing and vigour of the original, naturally lost in the English version, will often stir the modern reader, but the contents will rarely edify him. This Tantra attempts in fact to combine the lofty Madhyamika-Yogacara philosophy with the magical and orgiastic rites current in Indian villages living on the level of the Old Stone Age. That was certainly worth doing at the time, but the result can scarcely convey an immediate message to people living in our own extremely artificial and urbanized social environment. Though a document of great historical importance, this text contains little that can at present be readily assimilated.

those who say do not know. There are two, and only two alternatives. Either the author of a book of this kind has not been initiated into a Tantra; then what he says is not first-hand knowledge. Or he has been initiated. Then, if he were to divulge the secrets to all and sundry just to make a little profit or to increases his reputation, he has broken the trust placed in him and is morally so depraved as not to be worth listening to.

The ‘mystery religions’ of classical antiquity have also been a singularly unpromising subject for scientific research, and should act as a warning to explore of the secrets of the Tantra. It will be sufficient to consider just one publication, ‘The Mysteries’, in which thirteen leading experts in 1955 explained in 476 pages what was known by then. These religions, as is well known, worked on the assumption that spiritual truth should be reserved for the initiates who are ripe for it, and that, conversely, it should be concealed from the profane. This does not, of course, prevent the profane from trying to puzzle out what was never meant for them, and the above volume is filled with manifold learned speculations about the Greek mysteries of Eleusis, Orpheus, etc, the ‘mysteries’ of ancient Egypt which turn out never to have existed, the mysteries of Mithras and the Gnostics, and so on. It is gratifying to find that the precautions which the ancient mystagogues took against the profanization of sacred things have proved fairly effective, and that eager investigators of modern times are quite at sea. The authors never tire of complaining that the texts are ‘all too brief’, that ‘many regrettable gaps remain to be filled’, that ‘we have by far the most information concerning what interests us least’ and that ‘we shall never know’ what the initiates saw. In their zest for truth they also accuse their colleagues of ‘totally false assumptions’, ‘scientific nonsense’, ‘inventions based on no evidence whatever’, and so on. Theirs is not an attitude conducive to spiritual rebirth. There is something both indecent and ridiculous about the end-product is not the public discussion of the esoteric in words which can be generally understood. The effect of these investigations is that of a prolonged striptease, with the vital difference, however, that the end-product is not the feminine body in all its glory, but a few tattered remains of some ancient stuffed doll. Just as some people who are at a loss what to do with their lives climb mountains for the sole reason that ‘they are there’ so others must needs probe into everything just because it has happened. At present people are not trained to appreciate the difference between forbidden and permitted knowledge, or even between fruitful and barren information. But at least they ought to be aware that some problems are soluble, and others not. The insatiable curiosity of the learned ants who have invaded the deserted sanctum can do no more than carry away a few specks of gravel. ‘The kid has fallen into the milk!’

Finally, the monastic thought of the first millennium can be easily detached from the mythology of Hinduism, which enters into it merely by way of adornment. It was the product of monks who turned their backs not only on the world around them and on their social environment,* but who also, without rejecting the mythological ideas and magical practices of that environment, treated them as like so many superstitions which did not greatly affect the issue of salvation. With the Tantras the tribal imaginations of the Hindu race re-assert themselves, and without a profound knowledge of the Vedas and the Brahmanas it is quite impossible to understand the significance of many of the mythological figures who occur here, there and everywhere.

It is for these reasons that an attempt to describe the thought of the Tantra must not only occupy hundreds and hundreds of pages, but is also likely to remain a travesty of the actual facts. While insisting that the magical teachings of the Tantras are quite beyond our reach, by way of conclusion I want, however, to briefly comment on the psychological interest of some of the Tantric precepts. To some extent they deal with the repercussions of the traditional Buddhist practices on the unconscious mind which they irritate and on the occult force which they activate. In the long run our mental health will, of course, greatly benefit from Buddhist methods of living and contemplation. In the short run the reverse often happens. The stresses of a deliberately unnatural mode of living, which sets out to thwart all instincts and natural inclinations, may well bring latent neurotic tendencies to the fore. Spiritual progress requires long periods of solitude. Social isolation begets anxiety, which is the fear of nothing in particular, all the more intense, heart-rending and bowel-shaking for its inability to find anything tangible to be afraid of. The constant curb imposed on our egoistic inclinations and desires must cause a sense of frustration with all its attendant mental disturbances, particularly because the resulting anger should not be ‘sublimated’ into religious fanaticism or the zealous persecution of others, nor the resulting depression stifled by drugs or alcohol. What is more,

* Ils sont le fait de docteurs travaillant en cellule, loin des bruits de la foule incapable de saisir la portee des travaux executes et discutes entre clercs. Lamotte HBI 686.

Self-restraint must bring with it a severe conflict between the conscious and the unconscious minds, because the conscious effort to suppress an instinctual urge intensifies it in the Unconscious. Finally, a number of unsuspected forces, both occult and spiritual, are awakened, slowly or suddenly. Without the help of a really competent spiritual guide we may frequently be at a loss how to handle them.

These psychic disturbances were well known to medieval contemplatives under the name accidia , the dullness and sourness of a mind thoroughly bored, and Hakuin spoke of them as the ‘Zen sickness’ 3 . The complacency of people who never exert any pressure upon themselves is started, and secretly gratified, by the spiritual, mental and physical disorders of those who really attempt to do something. These disturbances, like the ‘Dark Night of the Spirit’, are not signs of failure, as the untutored worldling is apt to suppose, but signs growth-the creaking of the rheumatic joints foretelling their eventual mobility. Nevertheless, a great deal of suffering and waste of time could be avoided if we knew how to dispel these disorders. In the great days of the Dharma people took these troubles in their stride and dealt with them just anyhow by rule-of-thumb methods no longer known or accessible to us. One thousand years after the Buddha’s Nirvana, when social conditions became increasingly adverse to the spiritual life, they began to present a real problem, and the Tantras were to some extent evolved to cope with them by special methods which help the practitioner to regain his innate radiance and calm.

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