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Making Sense of Tantra

Alexander Berzin, 2002

Part I: Basic Questions and Doubts about Tantra

3 The Use of Ritual in Tantra Practice

Although tantra practice is extremely advanced, many Westerners receive tantra empowerments without proper preparation and begin tantra practice without deep understanding. Most, at first, see only the surface features of tantra, such as its emphasis on ritual, its profusion of Buddha-figures, and its use of imagery suggestive of sex and violence. Many find these features intriguing, problematic, or, in any case, confusing. To benefit more fully from their initial practice, such Westerners need to understand and appreciate the significance and purpose of these aspects at least on a superficial level. Once they have overcome their initial fascination, objection, or bewilderment, they may slowly examine the deeper levels that the surface conceals.

Western and Asian Forms of Creativity

Tantra practice entails ringing handbells and twirling one's hands with gestures (Skt. mudras), while chanting texts – often in Tibetan without translation – and imagining oneself as a Buddha-figure. Some people find such practice captivating and magical since they can lose themselves in exotic worlds of fantasy. Others have problems with it. Working in an integrated fashion with one's body, voice, and imagination like this is a creative artistic process, yet there seems to be a contradiction. Tantra practice is highly structured and ritualistic, without apparent improvisation. For example, one imagines one's body to have specific postures, colors, and numbers of limbs, with specific objects held in each hand and under each foot. One imagines one's speech in the form of mantras – set phrases consisting of Sanskrit words and syllables. Even one's manner of helping others follows a standard pattern: one emanates lights of specific colors and figures having particular forms. Many Westerners would like to develop themselves spiritually through exploring and strengthening their creativity, but stylized practice of rituals seems antithetical to imaginativeness. Their compatibility, however, becomes evident when one understands the difference between the Western and Asian concepts of creativity.

Being creative in a contemporary Western sense requires producing something new and unique - whether a work of art or a solution to a problem. Invention is the unquestioned highway to progress. Being creative may also constitute part of a conscious or unconscious quest for ideal beauty, which the ancient Greeks equated with goodness and truth. Moreover, most Westerners regard creativity as an expression of their individuality. Thus, for many, following the prescribed models of ancient rituals as a method for spiritual self-development does not seem creative; it seems restrictive.

Most traditional Asian cultures, for instance that of Tibet, view creativity from a different perspective. Being creative has two major facets: giving life to classical forms and fitting them harmoniously within varying contexts. Consider, for example, Tibetan art. All paintings of Buddha-figures follow grids that indicate the size, shape, position, and color of each element according to fixed proportions and conventions. The first aspect of creativity lies in the feeling the artists convey through the expression of the faces, the delicacy of the lines, the fineness of detail, the brightness and hue of the colors, and the use of shading. Thus, some paintings of Buddha-figures are more vivid and alive than are others, despite all drawings of the same figure having identical forms and proportions. The second aspect of Asian-style creativity lies in the artists' choice of backgrounds and manner of placing the figures to create harmonious, organic compositions.

Tantra practice with Buddha-figures is an imaginative method of self-development that is creative and artistic in a traditional Asian, not a contemporary Western way. Thus, imagining oneself as a Buddha-figure helping others differs significantly from visualizing oneself as a superhero or superheroine, finding ingenious elegant solutions to challenges in a noble quest for truth and justice. Instead, one tries to fit harmoniously into the set structures of ritual practice, to bring them creatively to life, and to follow their forms in varying situations to correct personal and social imbalances.

Creativity and Individuality in Tantra Practice

Another factor possibly contributing to a seeming contradiction between practicing tantra ritual and being creative is a difference in contemporary Western and traditional Asian views of individuality and the role it plays in self-development. According to Western egalitarian thought, everyone is equal, but each of us has something unique within us – whether we call it a genetic code or a soul – that by its own power makes us special. Once we have "found ourselves," the goal of self-development is to realize our unique creative potentials as individuals so that we may use them fully to make our particular contributions to society. Thus, contemporary Western artists, nearly without exception, sign their works and seek public acclaim for their creative self-expressions. Tibetan artists, by contrast, usually remain anonymous.

From the Buddhist viewpoint, we all have the same potentials of Buddha-nature. We are individuals, yet nothing exists within us that, by its own power, makes us unique. Our individuality derives from the enormous multiplicity of external and internal causes and conditions that affect us in the past, present, and future. The benefit we may bring to society comes from creatively using our potentials within the context of the interdependent nature of life.

Realizing our Buddha-natures, then, differs greatly from finding and expressing our true selves. Since everyone has the same qualities of Buddha-nature, there is nothing special about anyone. There is nothing unique to find or express. To develop ourselves, we simply try to use our universal working materials – our bodies, communicative abilities, minds, and hearts – in skillful ways to match the ever-changing situations we meet, as anyone can. Moreover, we advance toward Buddhahood by imagining ourselves helping others in hidden anonymous manners – through exerting an enlightening influence and inspiring others who are facing difficulties – rather than by picturing ourselves prominently in the foreground, jumping to the rescue.

The extensive use in tantra of ritual practice with Buddha-figures makes sense, then, only within the context of realizing the potentials of Buddha-nature with traditional Asian-style creativity. One brings life to the structure of Buddha-potentials while blending harmoniously with society and the environment and remaining in the background.

The Benefits of Tantra Ritual for Busy Westerners

Although contemporary Westerners may question the relevance of practicing tantra rituals in the classic Tibetan manner as a method for spiritually developing themselves, they may gain many provisional benefits. For example, numerous Westerners lead lives filled with unrelenting pressure to be unique and special and to get ahead. They need continually to develop new ideas and improved products, sell them, and compete with others. Sometimes the tension of having to prove themselves and, ultimately their worth, leads to feelings of alienation and isolation. When the demands for Western productiveness and ingenuity become too stressful, practicing Asian-style creativity in a daily tantra ritual may provide a healthy balance. Fitting oneself harmoniously into the structure of a ritual may help reinforce a feeling of fitting comfortably into family, friendships, society, and culture. Moreover, even if one's daily routine is repetitive and one's job seems dull, one may learn to give them new life through putting vivid expression each day into a tantra ritual.

Further, many Westerners hectically run from one activity or appointment to the next. Each day they use the telephone, email, and the Internet innumerable times, listen to music, watch television, and operate a bewildering array of complex machines and electronic devices. Their lives often feel fragmented, with family, business, social, and recreational needs pulling them in different directions. Tantra practice may help such people to weave together the seemingly discordant aspects of their busy lives. The integration occurs because of harmoniously combining numerous constructive emotions and attitudes and expressing them as an integrated whole in simultaneous physical, verbal, and visualized ways. Doing this in daily meditation reinforces the recognition and conviction that one is by nature an integrated person. Gradually, a feeling of wholeness comes to pervade the entire day.

Moreover, because daily tantra practice is structured and repetitive, it may also provide such people with a stabilizing factor. No matter how frantic each day may seem, daily creation of the peaceful mental and emotional space of a tantra ritual makes their lives flow with stable streams of continuity. Because they discover ever-deeper levels of meaning as they meet the challenge of intertwining the elements of the ritual, they avoid finding the repetition boring. In addition, tantra ritual gives a structure around which to develop discipline that might otherwise be difficult to gain. The discipline acquired in daily repetition of a structured ritual may also help people bring discipline and order into their seemingly chaotic lives.

Tantra Ritual as a Venue for Expressing Emotions

Many contemporary Westerners feel deep respect for someone or something, or gratitude for the joys of life. Yet, if they lack comfortable forms with which to express their uplifting emotions, they may find their feelings so amorphous that they fail to gain spiritual sustenance from them. Tantra ritual may provide such people with forms within which to express their positive emotions. For example, pressing one's palms together – a ritualized expression of respect and gratitude shared by tantra and Western religions – does not constrict uplifting feelings. Rather, it provides a commonly accepted well-traveled channel for these feelings to flow from one's heart and acts as an appropriate container for them. Moreover, because tantra ritual has holistic forms of expression of emotions that integrate physical, verbal, and visualized channels, its continued practice may help emotionally constricted people to overcome alienation from their feelings.

Sometimes uplifting emotions find spontaneous expression in impromptu forms. It would be tedious, however, if one needed to find an innovative way of expressing one's feelings each time they arose in order for their expression to be heartfelt and sincere. Asian-style creativity in expressing emotions may offer the balance. When uplifting feelings arise, one may spontaneously and creatively give life to ritual forms of expressing them that harmoniously fit the emotions into one's life. If, however, one feels nothing, then to go through the motions of a tantra ritual becomes merely performing an empty ritual. Therefore, tantra rituals include meditating on specific points that help one to generate or access sincere feelings.

Concluding Remarks

Participating in the rituals of traditional Western religions also provides many of the benefits offered by tantra ritual practice. Many Westerners, however, find that the ceremonies and rituals of their religions of birth lack vitality for them. Since such people have fewer negative associations with tantra rituals, practicing them may afford a more neutral avenue for spiritual development. Many discover that the Asian-style creativity they learn with tantra ritual helps them to find and to put new life into the traditional faiths of their ancestors.