What’s the next step in America’s spiritual (r)evolution?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on May 18, 2010
get elephant's newsletter

Some believe Tantra is the next step in America’s spiritual ®evolution. But why?

One common vision held by all schools of Tantra is the notion that everything is Divine. This spiritual realization—that every form, particle or atom of this universe has an inherent capacity to reveal the Divine; that everything is, at its core sacred; that is the essence of Tantra.

Another fundamental aspect of Tantra is that we must engage in a sustained spiritual effort (sadhana) in order to realize this inherent Divinity.

In other words, in order to experience sacredness in everyday life, we must practice spirituality—yoga, meditation, study, prayer and chanting—diligently.

Daily spiritual practice is essential in achieving results on the path of Tantra.

But, what about all those claims that spiritual realization is easy and will arise without much effort? What about those spiritual giants—saints such as Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi—whose spiritual awakenings occurred spontaneously, seemingly effortlessly, and very early in life? Can’t that happen to anyone?

Yes, it can. But it depends, in part, on our past-life karma. According to Tantra, those who are able to fully realize their own Divinity so suddenly and profoundly as these saints, they do so because of the accumulated merits acquired during previous lifetimes of spiritual practice.

In short, it is due to our accumulated good karma.

Tantra also signifies a spirituality that is vigorous and fearless, a spirituality that encourages and enables us to overcome limitations, phobias, worries and egotistical tendencies head-on.

This vigorous approach to spirituality is directly linked to another fundamental aspect of Tantra, namely the arousal of the kundalini force, which rests like a coiled serpent at the base of the spine.

When this dormant spiritual energy is awakened through mantra meditation, breathing exercises and yoga, it starts to rise through the seven chakras, or psycho-spiritual energy centers located along the spine.

Gradually, our consciousness expands, and ultimately this inner, transformational process results in full-blown spiritual enlightenment.

Hence, the Tantric path is signified by the proper use of energy, and Tantric yogis will not shy away from struggle, not even  the use of force, if necessary for survival or the protection of self or loved ones.

In other words, the Tantric interpretation of ahimsa (often incorrectly translated as non-violence) is a little different than Gandhi’s interpretation.

For the Tantric understands that all dualities, all conflicts and opposites, all forms and energies are different expressions of God that ultimately dissolve in a state of nondual unity and peace.

Tantra is thus slightly different from the other major school of Indian yoga philosophy, namely the Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya.

Both Tantrics and Vedantists are nondualists—they both believe in the Oneness of existence—however, where the Tantrics see the world as Divine, the Vedantists see it as an illusion.

It is perhaps this holistic and practical attitude—that Divinity is everywhere and that sacredness can be realized anywhere—that makes Tantra so appealing to contemporary spiritual seekers. Indeed, according to several prominent yoga teachers quoted in Yoga Journal, Tantra is the “next step in America’s spiritual evolution


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


18 Responses to “What’s the next step in America’s spiritual (r)evolution?”

  1. Ramesh says:

    Great, Linda-Sama, but I was not able to open the link…

  2. Carol Horton says:

    As the word seems to be commonly used, yes, I think that the best of what I experience in the American yoga world could be called "Tantric": body-positive, world-affirming, committed to fusing spirituality and everyday life.
    But, I think that these same values are rooted in our own tradition of alternative spirituality: think, for example, of Walt Whitman. And, really, I think that this tradition is more directly relevant to what's happening than Tantra per se.
    Plus, it bothers me that we homogenize Indian history and culture — easily assuming that "Tantra" is more or less the same as, the world view expressed through Yoga Journal. Clearly, that's not the case.
    I'm interested in both the similarities AND differences between American spirituality & Indian Tantra — and really, the differences can be more enlightening, because they show that there's many alternatives beyond the culture that we know.
    BTW, I'm glad to have discovered Linda's blog — seems really interesting!

  3. Ramesh says:

    I basically agree with everything you are saying above. Yoga in the west has been largely homogenized to mean physical exercises, although that is changing rapidly, and that next level of change is tantric in spirit as it includes meditation, chanting (kirtan), ayurveda, yoga philosophy, etc. Secondly, many yogis in the west have not been exposed to the traditions of yoga and tantra in India, and I think that is important, because there is much confusion about yoga's roots among Americans and what its deep inner potential is for personal and social transfromation. So, we may also use the word Tantra both to mean the specific Indian-based path of yogic spirituality as well as the universal culture that is body/mind/spirit based and inclusive of spirituality as well as activism, for example. Andrew Harvey's sacred activism is, to me, an example of the tantric esprit, the wedding of spirituality and social consciousness.

  4. Ramesh and I just had a lengthy debate about this topic starting with my first comment on Can orgasm lead to Enlightenment? and the ensuing exchange. That first comment is exactly what I would write in response to this blog, too, so I'll just repeat it here.

    As I say in the comment, I love what Ramesh is bringing to us here and admire his deep experience with Tantra. I only get upset with Ramesh when he claims that his is the only legitimate way to look at Yoga. Then I must protest, because it just ain't so, folks. No one has the one true path. Here's what I wrote on the other blog:

    Hi, Ramesh. I'm so happy you're writing for Elephant now. You add a unique highly informed voice to our wonderful group of writers.

    I can't speak for the practices of Tantra, but if we're talking about the Yoga of the "big three" ancient texts (Yoga Sutra, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita) I personally believe Yoga does not necessarily need to be about a long struggle with lots of specialized practices of progressive achievement, the way you describe Tantra.

    Yoga can be, in fact, the ordinary everyday realization of the wonder of the universe, and the fact that each of us is an integral part of that wonder. We just have to turn around and pay attention. No struggle necessary, only calm, relaxed realization of our true nature. It's readily available in every minute of every day of our lives. I believe this is what the ancient texts say, and I'm quite certain that's the core teaching of Ramana Maharshi.

    This doesn't mean that I'm against specialized practices like the Tantra you love. That's exactly the right path for some people. But the last thing many seekers need, including myself, needs is another big struggle to add to our lives. We look to the opposite from Yoga–a release from struggle–an utterly relaxed realization of our natural universal wonder, what some call divinity.

    The ancient texts are full of references to the fact that this can be the result of a relatively sudden waking up to reality. And it happens to all people in all cultures on all paths when they relax and pay attention. (I don't mean to equate this with the extreme altered states of consciousness that are reportedly achievable with the long practice of Tantra–that's a different goal, and, like I said, only right for some people.)

    So I don't disagree with anything you wrote about Tantra. But I personally perceive and practice Yoga with a completely different state of mind.

    Bob Weisenberg

    P.S. Would welcome your involvement in Gita Talk to further discuss this issue.

  5. Tantra is yoga, Bob. There would be no yoga as we know it if it was not for Tantra. As I have said before, most Indian sages worthy of their robes agree with this, because they understand that yoga and tantra are basically synonymous. Your famous Krishna was a tantric in the best sense of the word. BUT I have never said nor do I claim that I present the only legitimate way to look at yoga. I use concepts like yoga and tantra as we use the word science, in abroad sense. There is not just one way to practice science, nor is there just one way to practice, interpret or present Tantra and yoga. Tantra/yoga is a transformational practice, a way of being, a lifestyle, and manifests itself in a myriad ways. I have said this before, but for some reason, you keep insisting that I have can only look at yoga through one lens only.
    Tantra does not represent specialized practices within yoga. Tantra represents the basic practices within yoga.
    Rather, it would be more accurate to say that your favorite spiritual practice, the study of sacred texts, is a rather narrow and specialized practice. In fact, it represents only one aspect of the ten yama and niyamas, which represents only two levels of Patanjali's eightfold path, which is just another word for Tantra, or Raja Yoga, or Kundalini Yoga.
    That said, I only use this for the sake of logical argument and not in any way to reduce your rich spiritual life to one narrow level.
    So Tantra is not some specialized form of yoga, Tantra, the way I and many others use the term, is yoga. In spite of what other yoga scholars claim, I have come to conclude that tantra represents a historical and cultural and spiritual transformational movement that goes to the heart of what we know as yoga and so many other names: shaivism, vedanta, asthanga yoga, kundalini yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, jinana yoga and so on…. all of these forms of yoga have one thing in common they are yogic as well as tantric, because these two concepts, tantra and yoga are like two sides of one paper, you cannot have one side without the other.
    Yoga is the goal, union, spiritual oneness, ecstasy. Tantra is the way, the practice to that union.
    If you are already living in that union at all times Bob, which I doubt, you are indeed there and there is no need to make any effort, you have arrived. But if you are not there at all times, you need to practice, you need to remind yourself, you need to reorient yourself. That is tantra, which is to say: the science or practice or art of self transformation.
    The way people use yoga in the west is rather narrow. We use the word yoga to refer to the practice of asanas mostly, which is just one narrow aspect of yoga. If people said they practice hatha yoga, it would be more accurate. But yoga is a very broad term. And so is tantra. But if we compare yoga or tantra to all the other cultural specific spiritual paths on this planet, then these terms are very specialized, very specific. So, it depends on your perspective.

  6. integralhack says:

    Another great post, Ramesh. What I note is that Tantra seems to be the original "integral core" of spiritual/energy practice in Buddhism and Yoga.

    This would make it the essential Perennial Philosophy as well. The "big next" step in Tantra, as I see it, is interpretation in a context appropriate for our world. Start writing that book if you haven't already! 😉

  7. Hi, hack. Regarding your book suggestion, I haven't provoked Ramesh for a couple of days, so how about this?

    I've already written an introductory book, appropriate for our world, incorporating all the key ideas of Tantra. It's my eBook Yoga Demystified.

    Why do I claim Tantric heritage for this book? Because my two primary Yoga mentors are steeped in Tantra philosophy, although I don't know how pure their practice is by Ramesh's standards. One is Rod Stryker and the other is Stephen Cope. Everything I write about Yoga is heavily influenced by their teachings.

    Now I'm going to go hide where I'm safe from Ramesh's bricks!

    Bob Weisenberg

  8. integralhack says:

    LOL. I'll let Ramesh field that one. But I'm a Stephen Cope fan too, as you probably know.

  9. I have have heard of both of these teachers, Bob. If I am not mistaken Stryker used to teach at the Himalayan Institute and Cope was a student at the Bihar school of Yoga. So, yes, both institutions are steeped in Tantric practice. It is often said in our circles that Tantra is 95 percent practice and 5 percent theory. So the proof is in the pudding if a teacher is a Tantric or not. His or her practices and lifestyle will reveal the answer.

  10. Good observation. That is exactly my point: tantra is the core practice of all yoga. Wilber understood that much, as well, and many others. Those who claim that yoga hails from the Vedic past has missed the boat entirely. Yoga and Tantra are basically synonymous. Philosophically Yoga (union) is the goal and Tantra (to move from bondage to liberation) the path to that goal.
    I am working on a book about Tantra. Whether it is THAT book, time will tell….

  11. When I finish my book, I'll have time to read yours, Bob, then we can compare notes. Unless you insist that some parts of it may be appropriate as source/note material?

  12. Integralhack, one thing to note is that Shankara, the founder of Advaita Vedanta was a great Tantric yogi, he was indeed known as such, so Vedanta is yet just another version on Tantra, as different teachers will emphasize and interpret nonduality differently. My teacher, Anandamurti, rather than emphasizing advaita (nondualism), he emphasized advaitadvaitaadvaita. That is, nondual, dualistic, nondualism. In other words, even though the ultimate reality is nondual oneness, he thinks it is important to highlight the two truths of reality and see the oneness in both–the absolute and the relative, the dual and the nondual. If nondualism only is emphasized, one may shun he world, but integral awareness embraces both the nondual and the dual. And thus having such a worldview is important. It makes a difference in how we conduct our lives and in how integral we are. His dictum was: subjective approach (inner practice) with objective adjustment (outer practice).

  13. I would be honored if you would read my eBook and give me feedback, Ramesh.

    Don't understand you question–you mean unless parts of my book may be source/note material for yours? No, I'm sure not. It's very short, only 87 pages and much of it in verse. So it doesn't take long to read.

    Mine is a basic introduction for people new to Yoga philosophy, or, I'm finding, experienced Yoga teachers who never really absorbed the philosophy beyond the Yoga Sutra, even though they were probably exposed to it briefly during teacher training.

    While the philosophy is deeply Tantric, at least as far as Stryker and Cope are Tantric, the language is plain English for easy understanding. This is the kind of book that might draw people into studying with someone like yourself for the practice.

    When is your book going to be done and what's the title?

    Bob Weisenberg

  14. Carin says:

    Perhaps the next step is the evolution and integration of non-dual psychology which incorporates the dismantling of thoughts and limited feelings via Koan instructions, and hence the overcoming of attachments and aversions using the deconstructive methods of Jinana Yoga. The invitation to methodically deconstruct the mind brings out the awareness and flow (rasa) of deepest bhakti even more so. The attachment towards knowing, wanting to know, being right, being smart, having the right view, knowing more than others, limits our spiritual flow in sadhana and sets us apart from the union we have available all the time. Kiirtan practices of course does that too but kiirtan in combination with non-dual deconstructive methods becomes even more powerful when the ancient wisdom traditions are integrated methodically. Tantra, may remain controversial for some time to come, as there is such strong attachment towards the outer "attraction factor" these days, and there is still less inclination to seek internally for the highest and deepest union. Hence, we still seek outside as a result and that seeking usually seems to end up in nothing but drama and suffering. Perhaps ultimately we have let go of the attachment to our understanding of tantra and the notion of what tantra really is, or is NOT, in order go deeper and beyond what is presented out there as a mere concept of grasping attachments and aversions. All we can do is to share the deeper version of tantra as presented here and feel the subtle inference and the inspiration within, as the realization of highest tantra is not something outside of us. Thank you Ramesh for sharing this with us. Very interesting topic to share.

  15. […] and desire to surrender has been answered once again with this new information and the start of a new/different yogic direction. *Originally formatted and posted at […]