“A student of tantra should be in a constant state of panic.”
~ Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
Like a stranger in a strange land, the mysterious tradition of tantric Buddhism (also referred to as vajrayana), is both an object of fascination and suspicion in the modern zeitgeist. Known as “the quick path”, vajrayana and the possibility of instant enlightenment are a seductive force, luring enthusiastic seekers with colorful rituals, deities and magic.
Vajrayana arrived on North American soil in the early 1970’s, capturing the attention of young people who were eager to explore new and exotic forms of spirituality.
Initially, many Tibetan teachers were quite reluctant to introduce vajrayana to western students—the hippie generation was certainly an explosive medium in which to plant the flag of dharma.
There are many cautionary tales of the disastrous consequences awaiting those who would naively misappropriate tantric teachings. The intensity of psychological challenges related to vajrayana practice emphasizes the need for proper motivation and preparation.
Vajrayana, founded on Mahayana principles of emptiness and compassion, employs a variety of powerful methods for revealing the nature of mind, beyond ego.
Initially, this might sound quite fantastic, but few pause to consider the consequences of a rapid undoing of one’s sense of self.
Once having begun to examine reality from the perspective of tantra, it is impossible to return to business as usual. Meditation practice becomes a 24-hour discipline as the comfort zone that separates spirituality and everyday life begins to dissolve. The lack of wiggle-room to relax with our habitual patterns is traditionally described as being like a snake stuck in a bamboo tube. There are only two directions the snake can travel, straight up or straight down.
My own immersion in vajrayana began with the writings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, an unconventional Tibetan teacher and pioneer of Buddhism in the west. Here I found a window into the tantric reality, a proclamation of fundamental sanity in a world gone mad.
I was on the outside and I wanted in. It took me several years of training to actually begin vajrayana practice. However, it did not take long to begin my own descent, into what the 16th century Christian mystic and poet St. John of the Cross described as “the dark night of the soul”.
Empowerment and doubt
The vajrayana path is based on complete trust in the lineage and the teacher—who mirrors back to the student a confidence in their innate goodness. Through devotion it is possible to see the world through the teachers eyes.
This special relationship and sacred outlook is acknowledged ceremonially through abhisheka (empowerment). During an abhisheka the student is confirmed as worthy and good, like the story of a pauper who discovers that he or she is truly a prince or a princess.
Abhisheka heightens the contrast between one’s habitual self-concept and our true nature. I remember the deep sadness I felt soon after my first empowerment with my teacher. Like an awkward teenager, I wished only to hide my feelings of inadequacy and embarrassment in the realization that I was not quite up to the task of being a vajra prince.
Instead, I felt empty.
In the west we are inclined to approach spirituality as self-improvement, however the path of meditation can have the opposite result, pulling back the curtain on the empty nature of self. Far from the bliss of love and light, the experience of egolessness is a shock—and can provoke deep feelings of dread and groundlessness.
Life is full of shocks, both big and small. Obstacles, illness and general mayhem suddenly tip our apple cart and bring into question the validity of our most cherished beliefs. There is a natural erosion of the ego boundary constantly happening.
When confronted by a sudden break in our habitual patterns we instinctively reach for what is familiar—some reference point or form of entertainment to distract us from feeling unconditioned space.
Tantric methods seek to invoke greater and greater experiences of space, slowly picking away at the fabric of our personal cocoon. Eventually, the bright light of awareness begins to penetrate the dark recesses of the mind, exposing our naughty bits, or as Jung referred to it—the shadow.
In tantra nothing in the realm of experience is rejected, not even neurosis. However, rather than indulging in the shadow, one symbolically offers it to a lineage of awake warriors. This is an important part of the preliminary practices of vajrayana, called ngondro (pronounced “nundro”, the way to enter properly).
The post-mortem self and the charnel ground
Uncertainty, despair and doubt are important features on the journey of awakening, common to all mystical and shamanistic traditions. In the past, yogis and yoginis would go to the charnel (burial) ground to meditate on death. It is the place we all fear to go, a place where the ego is dissembled and offered as cairn.
Like a refugee in search of a new homeland, the barren landscape of the vajra dark night offers little comfort. This heroic journey through the valley of death is the basis of many myths and legends. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes passing through bardos (transitionary spaces in the after-death experience).
In the bardo, ghosts and demons from the past make appearances and try to seduce you with their drama. Incredible discipline and courage are needed to hold the mind steady and navigate the bardos of death and life effectively.
At a certain point one may inevitably feel lost, neither belonging to the world of humans or the enlightened ones.
The vajrayana version of the dark night of the soul exposes the absolute poverty and fragility of ego. This is a very personal problem, yet many people suffer this affliction in quiet desperation, unaware of how to deal with the pain.
The only way to return to the light is by generating compassion for our tender state, rather than identifying with it.
Arising in the form of the deity
A key teaching of vajrayana is to return over and over again to the experience of simplicity and peace found in basic sitting meditation. Despair and struggles find their own, natural resolution in stillness. From the solitude of darkness the essence of who we are begins to dawn and radiate.
According to vajrayana, our awake nature can take many forms, represented in the numerous peaceful and wrathful tantric deities. The vajrayana practitioner doesn’t worship the deity in a theistic sense, but rather seeks to associate with and embody the enlightened principles and activity they represent.
Commonly tantric deities are visualized in the form of a 16 year-old prince or princess. These beings are fully adorned with ornaments, gold jewelry, colorful brocades and seated regally on a diamond throne. The mind is eternally youthful, wholesome and rich—but it is only when we are naked, stripped of both hubris and festering doubt, that we can fully appreciate these qualities.
The vajrayana practitioner is like an alchemist toying with the transformation of body, speech and mind. Dissolving and dissolution are painful but necessary processes for turning lead into gold.
The maturation of spirituality that results comes in glimpses, when we let go into the state of complete self-existing goodness. In these precious moments, one is reborn in the form of the deity—fearless and fully empowered.
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