“My world will light its hundred different lamps with thy flame
and place them before the altar of thy temple.
No, I will never shut the doors of my senses.
The delights of sight and hearing and touch will bear thy delight.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali)
For anyone interested in uncovering the true nature of his or her being, some pathways exist to travel – motionlessly – from being identified to an imaginary sense of self to being established in the real, forgotten, and only self there is: consciousness. These pathways correspond to the different components of our living experience, namely thinking, feeling, and sensing. I have, in previous texts, endeavoured to explore the path of understanding, or Jñāna, that is derived from the exercice of thinking, and the path of love, or Bhakti, born out of feeling. The last pathway to explore is the one that comes through our senses, which is everything we see, hear, touch, taste or smell, everything that is seemingly outside of ourselves and that we have named by the generic term of the ‘world’. This path is best described in India through what is called ‘Tantra’, which after the two other pathways, is one that is all encompassing, that invites the world in, or in Atmananda Krishna Menon’s words brings “the universal under the individual.”
The idea behind tantra is that the world, the totality of our experience, need not be pushed away, or dreaded as an obstacle, but is also a doorway as is the exercice of thought in jñāna, or feeling and devotion in bhakti. The whole world is a possibility because although it is often experienced as an objective reality, it is also the expression or creation of a subjective presence and can therefore be used to trace back and uncover the reality of our own being. We must define what we mean by the world. In any given time or place, we experience a totality. A group of forms and experiences is presented to us and these form the totality of what exists in any given moment. What is this totality and what is it made of? What is this play of forms? Does it have a separate existence? These questions are at the core of the tantric path. If the world, the body, the feelings – our whole experience – are not what we have but what we are, then it opens up a whole new set of possibilities in understanding and accessing our true nature. “Every object is the footprint of God.” says Rupert Spira.
The tantric view has always been important in my understanding of the spiritual endeavour. I have always had some difficulty to be a person in the world. And it was my hope and tendency to find happiness outside and protected from the reach and complexity of the world. But I had an opening experience long ago, and in that ageless moment – which I have always kept in my heart as a measure of how to live a truly awakened life – I was only and totally a person in a world. But what a person! There was simplicity, courage, earthiness in that man. And what a world! Everywhere was beauty, and that beauty was Essence. We sometime experience these ineffable moments of pure beauty and perfection, especially in nature. Why is that? Is this consistent with the idea of separation? If we were a separate person looking at an external world, what chance would there be that we meet beauty in this way? This beauty is the expression of the very stuff the world – and indeed ourself – is made of, Consciousness. The world is our expression. “We are the world and the world is us”, Krishnamurti used to say. And the comprehension of the world is naturally the unveiling of our own sacred identity. I have once read: “Beauty is a symbol of the divine.”
“To one who has not yet studied Zen,
a mountain is a mountain;
when he begins to know something of Zen,
a mountain is not a mountain;
but once he thoroughly masters Zen,
a mountain is again a mountain.”
~ D.T. Suzuki
In India, the way of tantra is full of secret practices and rituals. It is rich, complex, diverse, because it is dealing with the whole world and the totality of experience. It is dealing with an infinity of practices, meditation forms and purification exercices, but also with everything that mainstream religion has pushed away, everything hidden, mundane, dangerous like bodily functions, magic, sexuality, and the awakening of kundalinī. It is as large as life is, and excludes nothing. The word ‘tantra’ literally means ‘loom, warp, weave’. Its verbal root ‘tan-’ denotes a sense of expansion. So it could be said that tantra is the interweaving of traditions and teachings, but also the development, the ‘expansion’ of consciousness – the knowing of our own being – into the whole realm of life, into every corner of experience. A little bit like the absorbing that takes place when a sponge is dipped in water. The tantric tradition flourished around the 8th century, particularly in Kashmir, and developed with the work of Abhinavagupta (975–1025). It fell into oblivion around the 14th century only to be revived in the 20th century, thanks to the work of Swami Lakshman Joo. It is known in India under the term ‘Kashmir Shaivism’.
What genius that a country which has made renouncement and the deepest states of meditation as its very signature, has also dealt, through tantra, with the very world that it has strived to push away for so long. Tantra is better understood in comparison with the more common vedantic approach of exclusion and renouncement of the world. We find presence not only in verticality, in Shiva’s yogic posture, in the inmost, remote, peaceful recesses of our mind, in transcendence, but also in horizontality, in the energy of Shakti, in the expanse and diversity of the worldly experiences of our life, in immanence. But although the natural inclination towards worldly activities in the more progressive path of Advaita Vedanta is one of exclusion, the tantric dimension is thoroughly present or implied in the religious or spiritual practices of India.
Give it a closer look, and you will see that India’s tantric approaches to the world pervade many a religious practices. God’s presence pervades the whole universe and this is to be symbolically seen and verified everywhere. In the body that has been divinised through yogic postures (asana), hand gestures (mudra), and sounds (mantra), all pointing to the presence abiding in and pervading the body. You find it in nature, which has been made sacred in so many creative ways, with animals like the cow, the monkey, the elephant, snake, tiger, eagle, and many others, all made into gods, or gods’ vehicles, religious symbols signifying god’s supreme immanence. The ritual of puja, the shape of the temples, their presence everywhere in trees, sacred groves, rocks, all concur with making you see that god’s presence is everywhere. Art is also imbued with religious significance in sculptures, paintings (mandala, yantra), in poetry, theatre, music, dance, all done with the aim of practicing presence, under the guidance of a ‘guru’. The theatre is even recognised to be a fifth Veda, where, in René Daumal’s words, ”Everyone, fool or scientist, coward or hero, miserable or great lord, would see in it his own reason for being in the harmony of the worlds and, through this door of individual emotion, would come into contact with the sacred teaching.” Because everybody, everything is enshrined with the luminous presence of god, India never tired showing it in every thing or expression, aiming to make all of life into an art, or a science (ayurveda).
“The world is nothing but the picture of your own “I” consciousness.
As if you had received a phone call telling you that you are,
and immediately the world appears.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
The painter Paul Cézanne said, “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will trigger a revolution.” In this observation resides a secret, and this secret is the open door to beauty, and to the direct, unconceptualised understanding of the world we live in. This is the most precious function of art, to point to a wholly new dimension of living. This is India’s most sacred vision of art, to make it serve a bigger purpose than itself. Rupert Spira speaks beautifully on this ultimate necessity of art: “Listen to Beethoven’s music, that’s what he was trying to do, to take us – this is the tantric path – to take us, not through the path of investigation, but take us along the path of the senses to the vast, cosmic, infinite reality. That’s why we have art in our culture, because words are so inadequate. … If we want any kind of depiction or description of reality, we should go to the poets, and the mystics, and the artists.”
There is another dimension of the artistic experience that is in line with the Tantric approach. This is contained in the emotions or feelings that we experience in front of an artistic work or performance. ‘Rasa’ is in India the aesthetic emotion felt when we come to see and feel the underlying flavour inherent in every art form. Why is it that we experience delight, transport, when feelings of sadness, or fear arise in us during an artistic representation such as a movie, or an opera? Feelings that are otherwise dreaded or rejected for their negative impact, when re-enacted without any threatening cause, are felt to be thoroughly enjoyable, to the point of being looked for. Specialists have often endeavoured to understand why. Eric Baret once wrote, “An emotion arises within me. Sooner or later, I am mature enough to free this emotion from its cause, to no longer claim to be sad or happy because of this or that, but to savor my sadness, my rage, my fear, my joy without labeling it, without attributing it to anything. That is enough. That is the ultimate art, tantric art, alchemy. The resonance of this emotion will bring me back to the primordial resonance. All emotions bring us back to this center.”
Concerning feelings, Krishnamurti would often express that, when exposed to a particular feeling like fear or violence, we project an imagined reality of non-fear, non-violence which we then try to attain. We choose non-truth over truth. He emphasised the fact that when we truly see that we are violent, fearful, when we see it completely, fully, inescapably, this very recognition frees us instantaneously from it. When we observe ourselves closely, the way we think, speak, act, behave, in other words the ‘what is’ of existence, this seems to have a profoundly liberating effect. This way of finding truth by moving towards, or embracing the world, is further expressed when he says: “It is only when one is in contact, when there is no space between the observer and the observed that one is in total relationship—with a tree for instance. One is not identified with the tree, the flower, a woman, a man or whatever it is, but when there is this complete absence of space as the observer and the observed, then there is vast space. In that space there is no conflict; in that space there is freedom.”
“The Tantric path is like devouring our experience.”
~ Rupert Spira
In the more common vedantic approach, presence is often expected to be realised away and protected from the heat and complexity of worldly activities and challenges. And this is fair enough, or even sometimes necessary. But if you believe this mere stage on the path to be the truth or the end, it might lead you to act in ways that remain limited, and miss out on the enjoyment and celebratory potential of life. The Tantric approach allows you to go all the way and to live life to its fullness, not hiding behind considering the world to be illusory. The illusory aspect contained in the world is only in its believed, assumed nature, never in its essence where it is undoubtedly real. For if one is to realise the fullness, completeness, and truth of presence, the oneness of life, how could that be consistent with considering the world as illusory? How could something absolutely real, whole and glorious engender anything that is unreal? It is only in the fullness of life, in its inherent perfection, its unlimited and undivided nature that any limited or illusory beliefs or selves can be absorbed and dissolved. Then, we can do whatever we want, including living a busy, working, family life.
So there can be completeness in action. We don’t have to choose to act or behave in a special way to favour our inmost presence or reality. The limited cannot lead us to the unlimited. It is unbound presence itself that will inform our actions and our living in and with the world, including living a life in present day mainstream society. Presence can never be exclusive, for in excluding anything lies the beginning of duality. We can only get lost in the world, or made confused by it, if we treat it as something separate and inert, or as a distant means to achieve peace or happiness. The world is our inborn playground. The world shines as the nature and expression of god’s presence, and this presence, which is also ours, is the tantric dance between Shiva and Shakti, between pure consciousness and the ten thousand things.
“The life principle is the ‘is’-ness in everything.
From this point of view, there is no such thing as dead matter.
Everything perceived is lit up by the Self, and is alive.”
~ Atmananda Krishna Menon
In its capacity to make us believe that it is separated, that it exists outside of us and has its own separate reality, the world acts as a concealing factor, and it is in that that lies the possibility to trace back our truest identity. But the world is also here to be enjoyed and is the possibility and the means for celebrating beauty, love, and our deepest understanding. So as a concealing factor, it is the agent of our suffering for it bears the flaw of our deepest and most enduring belief of separation. But as a revealing agent, when it is seen that the world is shining with a presence and substance that is also our very own, the world becomes a playground and a place where life becomes a celebration and a joy, where the pain of living, which was only the expression of the belief in our separate existence, fades away.
So let’s be interested in our home, the world, which is the very object of the tantric path. We cannot be complete without taking the world in. The totality of our experience needs to be exploited and understood, which is thinking, feeling, and sensing, the three paths of knowledge, devotion, and the senses, of Jñāna, Bhakti, and Tantra, of the mind, the body and the world. As Nisargadatta Maharaj once said in his perfectly condensed way: “The mind is the wife of the heart and the world their home – to be kept bright and happy.”
Text by Alain Joly
Painting by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Read about the two other pathways towards accessing our true nature:
Jñāna, the Song of the Self
Bhakti, the Song of Love
Guests on this page:
– J. Krishnamurti
– Rabindranath Tagore
– Rupert Spira
– Atmananda Krishna Menon
– René Daumal
– D.T. Suzuki
– Eric Baret
– ‘The First and Last Freedom’ – by J. Krishnamurti – (Rider Book)
– ‘Gitanjali or Song Offerings’ – by Rabindranath Tagore – (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
– ‘Presence‘, Vol. I & II – by Rupert Spira (Non-Duality Press)
– ‘Let the Moon be Free’ – by Eric Baret – (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform)
– Pierre Bonnard (Wikipedia)
– Tantra (Wikipedia)
– Kashmir Shaivism (Wikipedia)
– J. Krishnamurti
– Rabindranath Tagore (Wikipedia)
– Rupert Spira
– René Daumal (Wikipedia)
– D.T. Suzuki (Wikipedia)
– Atmananda Krishna Menon (Wikipedia)
– Back to Pages
2 thoughts on “Tantra, the Song of Life”
Alain – Thank you for this wonderful comprehensive piece… It expanded my awareness of the many different pathways to discover the true Essence (Rasa) of life, and living in the totality of our experience. Indeed, everything is allowed… Hard to remember that sometimes when life can be so overwhelming at times. _/\_
Thank you Christine! I’m very happy you resonate… 🙏