Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition

Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780989761307
Publisher: Mattamayura Press
Publication date: 08/01/2013
Edition description: Second Edition, Second edition
Pages: 516
Sales rank: 177,395
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Christopher D. Wallis is a scholar-practitioner who teaches meditation, yoga darsana, Tantric philosophy, Sanskrit, and mantra-science, and offers spiritual counseling. He is the author of The Recognition Sutras. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Read an Excerpt


The Philosophy of Nondual Saiva Tantra


To step into the world of Saiva Tantra is to enter a world of magic and mystery. Mind-expanding philosophy and arcane rites, pantheons of fierce goddesses embodied in mystic syllables, energy diagrams that map the many dimensions of reality, visualizations of power centers within the body, gestures that express the purest forms of consciousness, nectarean experiences of the sheerest ecstasy, wielders of supernatural power, and concepts that challenge the fundamental norms of ordinary society: these are just some of its features. In short, it is a world that encompasses the entire range of human spiritual and religious activity, from the most elevated and sublime contemplations of our inner nature to the strangest of superstitions. (We'll be focusing on the former more than the latter.) Some people today are interested only in the high philosophy of the Tantra, others in the purely practical techniques, others are curious about the entire historical picture.

Whomever you are, to fully delve into this world, you must not only relinquish any notions of what you think Tantra is but also some of your deeply held assumptions about reality itself. Otherwise, you will never be able to truly understand this particular worldview. Any alternative worldview can function as a critique of the status quo view of reality in our society, but for it to do so in a real and productive way we must — at least temporarily — lay open to question even the fundamental principles by which we create interpretations of phenomena; in other words, we must question the very frameworks with which we create a world for ourselves to live in.

One way to initiate this process is to begin cultivating an awareness that we all live in a world of stories, or narratives. Narratives are the more or less coherent stories that we are told, and we tell ourselves, about the events and people around us in order to make sense of them. All generalizations, statements of value judgment, and verbal representations of reality constitute narratives in this sense. All narratives are false in the sense that they are necessarily distortions of reality and true in the sense that they bear some relationship to reality, one that can often tell us much about ourselves. For example, if someone says, "The San Francisco Bay Area is a great place to live," we don't usually assume that they have done a careful study of dozens of places to live, cross-referenced against a survey of ordinary people about what constitutes a great place to live. Rather, we know that they have had some specific, good experiences living in the Bay Area and have generalized these into a story.

Usually, however, we aren't so clear minded about our own stories. When you say, "I have an issue with ____," or "I'm good/bad at ____," you are selectively representing to yourself and others a complex array of past experiences in a way that reduces them to an apparently factual proclamation and implies a permanent state of affairs. Similarly, if you say to someone, "I'm happily married," you are representing and reducing a set of experiences that, if known by the person to whom you are speaking, might not necessarily be described by them as a happy marriage. However, to try to arrive at the "truth" of whether or not the marriage is in fact happy is missing the point entirely — for the only truth is the nature and content of the specific, individual experiences themselves. Everything else is a story being told about these experiences. So, what type of question does not miss the point? Perhaps one that addresses how and why we represent our experiences with a given narrative about them, and whether or not that narrative is serving us well. For each narrative about the past shapes our experience of the present. While it is true that some narratives better approximate reality than others, the primary value narratives have lies in their usefulness for helping us create the world we want to live in. When they are not doing that, their value is highly questionable.

So like everyone, you have sold yourself a set of stories about how things are and how you are. When a set of stories doesn't meet a person's deepest needs, that person eventually starts seeking new ones. This is where religion or spirituality comes in. A religion is a complex structure of narratives about reality intended to accomplish a specific goal (often labeled as "salvation" or "liberation"). A religion, then, is a metanarrative. When you engage with a spiritual tradition such as Saiva Tantra, you are inquiring into whether its narratives about reality are sufficiently compelling and effective to warrant overwriting some of your narratives with some of its. (Of course, you are also enquiring into the efficacy of its practical techniques, but these are inseparably joined to its narratives.) According to Saiva Tantra, embracing a more uplifting interpretation of reality is a necessary step on the way to complete transcendence of all narratives. Unlike the way it is seen by many religions, some branches of Tantra explicitly acknowledge that nothing that can be said in words is complete or absolute Truth. The Real cannot be adequately captured by language, and therefore all attempts to do so are approximations that have a relative utility. An approximation in language (i.e., a narrative) is useful insofar as it ultimately leads you beyond language to a desired experience of reality, which is itself a wordless, immediate state of personal revelation. If this is not your goal, then what follows can at least have an intellectual interest for you.


While we will address other Tantrik traditions in the following historical overview, this book takes as its exemplar and focal point the lineages of nondual Saiva Tantra (pronounced SHY-vuh TUN-truh), most clearly typified by the Kaula Trika lineage. Later on, as we move through the history, you will understand how this specific tradition fits into the big picture of the Tantra. To begin, though, I want to define nondual Saiva Tantra (NST for short) as clearly as possible, so you can get oriented to where we're headed and what we're going to focus on (please note in the period we are looking at, the Goddess traditions, sometimes called Sakta Tantra, were not separate from Shaivism. They were considered part of the same religion).

This definition also applies to other forms of nondual Tantra, such as Buddhist forms (though they of course use names for the Divine reality other than Siva and Sakti, such as Buddha-nature or Dharmakaya). This rather condensed definition will be explained simply now and elaborated later.

NST holds that one thing alone exists: the Divine, in various permutations. To say that God alone is real is the same as saying everything that exists is God, everything is divine. In NST, to experience this divinity in and as all things is the goal of the practice. The Divine is here taught as having two aspects, the transcendent and the immanent. The transcendent aspect is called Siva (SHEE-vuh) and personified as male divinity (sometimes, God). Though Siva is represented mythologically as having certain characteristics, Tantrikas (followers of the Tantra) understand Siva as pure Consciousness: nonpersonal, utterly transcendent of all limitations or qualities, beyond the reach of senses, speech, and mind — in short, the singular Light of Awareness that makes possible all manifestation; the quiescent and peaceful ground of all that is.

The immanent aspect of the divine ("immanent" means perceivable through the senses and the mind) is called Sakti (SHUCK-tee) and personified as female divinity (Goddess). That is, the entire manifest universe is the Goddess, and therefore ought to be reverenced as such. Now, Siva and Sakti are actually one, not two, but are represented as two because they correspond to two interdependent aspects of reality, one of which is predominant in any given moment of experience. The two different experiences of the Divine represented by Siva and Sakti are the enstatic, in which we turn within, surrender everything, and reach the quiescent and transcendent ground of our being; and the ecstatic, in which we express our divine nature in creative, dynamic, outward-going, and embodied ways. According to NST, both modes are necessary to fully know the Divine, and a harmonious balance of both is the only true spiritual liberation.

The cultivation of this state of awakened freedom originally took place in the context of a spiritual community guided by a spiritual master. (He was called a master not because he was everyone's boss but because he had completely mastered himself.) Though people were required to take initiation formally in order to have access to the guru and to the scriptures, it is important to note that initiates were not required to renounce their jobs, possessions, or family life. That is to say, the Tantra was mostly a "householder" path, and renunciates were the minority. The practitioners of Tantra were people like you and me, and they dealt with many of the same challenges of everyday life that we face today. They joined a kula, or spiritual community that rejected the significance of caste, class, and gender divisions, and they practiced a life-affirming spiritual discipline. This is part of the definition above because NST emphasizes the crucial importance of having a teacher, of proper initiation, and of the role of community. We could even say these are indispensable.

The third element of the above definition concerns the type of practice NST taught. While meditation, mantras, and ritual are central, these are also found in many other forms of Indian spirituality. What NST added was its innovative yogic techniques of the subtle body, plus the revolutionary notion that virtually anything can become a form of spiritual practice. This idea is based on the teaching that all things are manifestations of the Goddess. Therefore the body was seen not as a locus of sin and impurity, as in the pre-Tantrik tradition, but rather as a vehicle to realize divine reality. This led to a new emphasis on practices focused on the body and its energies and to the detailed mapping of the structure of the universe onto the body, which was seen as a microcosm of the whole. Likewise, the experiences of the senses were not viewed as distractions from spirituality but as opportunities to engage in divine worship. This was a more effective approach for people living in the world, for spiritual practice was no longer limited to ritual acts or ascetic renunciation. Thus this path was sometimes called "the new and easy method." NST teaches that even mundane daily actions like washing the dishes and walking the dog are opportunities for experiencing the joy that flows naturally from the holistic awareness of being in full Presence.

Again, this is just a brief and simplified summary of the attitude NST takes to the world and to practice. It is also a definition in the sense that it helps us to know what we're looking at and to differentiate it from other paths. Though NST shares many similarities with other nondual mystical paths, we honor the tradition by reserving the word Tantra for the lineage teachings that were based on the revealed scriptures called tantras.


This section serves to summarize the vision of reality that is central to the nondual Saiva Tantra and which undergirds and empowers all the practices that constitute the path. In the Indian tradition, the first and most crucial step on the spiritual path is getting oriented to the View (darsana) of the path that you will walk. The Sanskrit word darsana is often translated as "philosophy," but the connotations of that English word miss the mark. Darsana means worldview, vision of reality, and way of seeing; it is also a map of the path you will walk. We may understand the importance of View-orientation through an analogy: You might have all the right running gear, a snappy outfit and the best shoes, and you might be in great shape, but none of that will matter if you are running in the wrong direction. By contrast, if you first get properly oriented so that you are moving in the right direction, even if you go slow or have a funny walk, you'll still get there in the end. Thus, orientation to the View is crucial even for those whose interest in the Tantra is entirely practical, for practice that is not founded on and aligned with right View (sad-darsana) is said to be fruitless. Note that "right View" is also the first step of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.

Now this teaching is not very popular in the West, partially because we value not telling people what to think or believe, but also because the View teachings are not well understood. The popular opinion, then, is that yoga will do its work regardless of what viewpoint you hold, since yoga transcends the mind. This is true but to a very limited extent. It is also true that yoga can only take you so far if its attainments are being used to reinforce a skewed or misaligned view of reality. This explains why some great yogis in medieval India became sorcerers, drunk on power; and why some prominent yogis today, similarly deluded, have manipulated their students and wielded their power for personal gain. Yoga (and even more so Tantrik Yoga) gives power, and that power can magnify whatever is present: it makes a good person into a saint and a jerk into an even greater and more effective jerk. Realizing this fact, which accounts for so much otherwise disillusioning behavior in the world of yoga, we may begin to take a leaf out of ancient India's book and require students to be well-versed in right View before they are considered intermediate, let alone advanced.

Let's get clear: Having right View does not mean the ability to recite doctrine accurately. It means having marinated your mind and heart in the spiritual teachings until they illuminate your experience of reality. It means holding the teachings close until they become your beloved friends and allies, your unfailing supports. It means being able to offer them to others in your own way, through your own unique words and actions. (Note well though, being a good speaker of the View does not necessarily indicate inner attainment.) Finally, it means having seen through the pitfalls of wrong understanding that drain the teachings of their uplifting power.

Of course there is not only one right View. Each practice tradition has a range of possibilities for right View (a broader range on some issues and a narrower range on others), straying from which will take you off the path sooner or later. As a deceptively simple Chinese proverb has it, "Be careful where you're going, because you might end up there." If you stop and think about it, you'll see this makes sense. Just as wrong alignment in a yoga pose will cause damage to your body sooner or later, in the same way having an understanding which is not aligned with your real goal will be at best ineffective and at worst will take you into deep delusion. Since practice happens every day, misalignments have a slow but huge cumulative effect over time. There must be alignment of View, practice, and fruit for this path to work. If you know anyone who has practiced for years and is not a highly developed, stable, kind, clear, relaxed, and open person, it is because of a lack of alignment of these three, view, practice, and fruit. It is never too late, but the longer the misalignment has been there, the harder it can be to correct.

An objection that is sometimes raised concerning the process of learning and imbibing View teachings is that as practitioners we wish to become free of all mental constructs, so why would we add more to the already considerable load of ideas we are carrying? The ancient teachers were very much aware of this objection and clarified that we cannot leap from a flawed foundation straight into freedom from mental constructs. Right View, in alignment with our goal, is precisely that View which can empower us to first release our distorted views and then to go beyond constructed views altogether. As we proceed, you will start to understand how this is possible.


Excerpted from "Tantra Illuminated"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Christopher D. Wallis.
Excerpted by permission of Mattamayura Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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