I recently had the opportunity to interview Mark Dyczkowski , one of the world’s foremost authorities on Tantra and Kashmiri Shaivsim.
Both a scholar and a practitioner, he has a Ph.D. from Oxford and was initiated by the renowned Indian teacher Swami Laksmanjoo. Mark has completed the first English translation and commentary on the Tantraloka, written in the 11th century by the great Tantric teacher Abhinavagupta, and will be teaching an ongoing course on that text starting July 30, 2012. The opening sessions will be presented by Sacred Space Yoga Sanctuary at Rudramandir in Berkeley, California, and CDs of the lessons will be available online.
Ellen: Mark, you have been studying Indian philosophy since you were a young man. How did you initially get involved in that field?
Mark: My interest in India was at first curiosity, seeing the beauty of the culture, but I also found that its wisdom fulfilled the basic spiritual need everyone has to be peaceful and happy. I arrived in Delhi in 1969, as a teenager in search of a guru and spent several months living in an ashram. Seeing my intense interest, the Mahatmas there suggested I stay in India to attend university, so I enrolled in Banaras University for my undergraduate and master’s work, focusing on Indian studies, religion, and Sanskrit.
By 1974 I finished my studies in India and went on to Oxford University to earn a PhD. My doctoral dissertation was later published under the title The Doctrine of Vibration–a text that is now used by both lay scholars and academicians world-wide. In the years since then, I have been focused on the study of Kashmiri Shaivism and, specifically, I have devoted the past thirty years to the Tantric tradition that gave rise to the Tantraloka. I consider this text to be the height of that tradition.
Ellen: Can you give us an overview of what Kashmiri Shaivism is?
Mark: Kashmir Shaivism explains that reality is understood to be just One, and that reality is Lord Shiva. He is the pure conscious nature that manifests as all things. Like a light that shines and illumines everything, the light of consciousness shines, illuminating its own infinite manifestations. This shining of Lord Shiva is eternal, unending, undivided, and in all ways unconditioned. What we live and experience in our daily lives, in every moment, is part of that immense consciousness. He shines, manifests, and is everything and everybody—all that happens in our lives, as well as the means by which we perceive it all.
The essence of the entire teaching is that anything we do for our spiritual development is ultimately to achieve the recognition that there is only that one reality and it is who we are: we are that Lord Shiva who is shining and manifesting as all things. I have always felt that what the Tantrics were teaching was very much in consonance with what one would aspire to experience in one’s own life. And the way it was all expressed was also wonderfully beautiful.
Ellen: Of all the Tantric texts, why devote 30 years to the Tantraloka? What is its importance and how does it fit into the larger scope of Kashmiri Shaivism?
Mark: In the beginning of the 1970s, we knew practically nothing about the history of Shaivism. It was largely due to the inspiration of Professor Alexis Sanderson, my mentor at Oxford, that the historical study of Shaivism began. The wealth of knowledge gathered in this field in the past forty years is largely due to his efforts and those of his students who, like me, have edited and studied unpublished Tantras. Of course there are other scholars in this field, but Sanderson really spearheaded a huge effort.
The inspiration and the basis for this historical inquiry are the actual works of Kashmiri Shaivites, the most extensive of which are by Abhinavagupta, who wrote the Tantraloka. He was the one who built up what he called “Anuttara Trika,” and he did that by referring to and integrating many Tantras and other works, drawn from varied Shaiva Tantric traditions. The main manual—you might say the Bible of Anuttara Trika—is the Tantraloka, and secondary to that is the Paratrishikavivarana. The Tantraloka is one of the last great classics in Sanskrit that had not been fully and authoritatively translated into English before now.
Trika Tantra is part of the Bhairava tradition, which is one of the main branches of Shaivism. Trika focuses on the worship of the three Goddesses who represent Shiva’s power. Abhinavagupta quotes from many of these Trika Tantras, which had been revealed in the 400-500 year span before his time. Anuttara Trika was considered by him to be the highest form of Trika. It was a synthesis of all the main aspects of the Trika tradition plus that of the Shaiva Agamas.
Ellen: You are a practitioner as well as a scholar, so can you tell us something about what you’ve gained from the inner practices found in the study of scripture?
Mark: Kashmiri Shaivism teaches that the light of consciousness, which shines as everything, also has a Divine power. That power is not only Its freedom to shine as all things but also to know Itself as that light of consciousness, and as every single individual thing It manifests from within Itself. This light of consciousness is essentially Lord Shiva’s Self-awareness, because He knows Himself as all things that manifest externally, as all the perceptions through which they are known, and as all the perceivers who know all the things that manifest within consciousness. All practice is therefore centered on developing the recognition of the spiritual self-awareness that is inherent in us as perceivers and as Shiva’s agents.
In that sense, my practice is quite like anybody else’s, in that it is based upon trying to remember, recollect, and be aware of Lord Shiva’s infinite being within myself and in all things. I have practices that my teacher Swami Laksmanjoo gave me, which I also try to maintain in the course of my daily life. This has given me a sense, that God is everywhere and is the basis of my existence, and that I should learn to trust that infinite intelligence. Ultimately, I hope I will discover my own true nature, the revelation that God is not different from myself.
Ellen: For Westerners who have a spiritual practice but may not be too familiar with the classical Kashmiri Shaivite texts, what is the importance of studying something like the Tantraloka?
Mark: It’s not necessary for everyone to study in the way that I have done, but it is necessary to have some understanding of the path and how to develop yourself spiritually. And at the same time, we all need some inspiration, a way to keep reminding ourselves of the importance and the value of what we’re doing. We need to be reminded that the concerns and worries, the hopes and joys of our daily life, are just a small part of who we really are.
A little bit of study is something that everybody does, on any path. So the Tantraloka, like the Bible or Koran, is there to give us a source of daily inspiration. It gives us advice on how and why to practice, and some glimmer of what we are ultimately destined to achieve through assiduous practice and, above all, by Lord Shiva’s grace.
Ellen: Starting late July, you will be offering an ongoing immersion in the Tantraloka. How and why did you form an association with Swami Khecaranatha the spiritual director of Sacred Space Yoga Sanctuary?
Mark: I met Swami Khecaranatha when he came to meet me in Varanasi two years ago—and it’s largely been his inspiration, hard work, and good wishes that have set up this program. As I pointed out in the forward I wrote for his book, Depth Over Time, Swami Khecaranatha is an authentic practitioner and teacher of Anuttara Trika, which is one of the reasons that I am happy to be working with him. I hope that in the coming years, this relationship will enable us to bring Tantraloka and Kashmiri Shaivism to more and more people. This should be possible through the immersions and through the talks that will be posted on the internet.
I like to see this as part of a process that Lord Shiva himself is initiating and sustaining to reveal Himself in the world more concretely, and to revive the teachings of the Kashmiri Shaiva masters that are so profound and extensive. These teachings have always been an inspiration for the great masters of Tantrism who followed Abhinavagupta, as his words have been the means through which the masters have understood their own tradition.
From this perspective, a great revival of Kashmiri Shaivism is happening through the acts and initiatives of many people, great and small, all over the world. I find it to be an astonishing revival of a tradition, which, when I began to learn about it forty years ago, was known to barely a dozen people outside Kashmir. What a wonderful opportunity for the average person, who now has the good fortune to have access to these teachings.
Ellen Jefferds is a student-teacher at Sacred Space Yoga Sanctuary in Berkeley, California. She is the editor of Depth Over Time: Kundalini MahaYoga, A Path of Transformation and Liberation, a book written by her teacher, Swami Khecarnatha.
For more information about Mark Dcyzkowski’s Tantraloka program, please visit Tantraloka.org. You can also call Sacred Space Yoga Sanctuary, at 510-486-8700.
Editor Tanya L. Markul