Principles of Western Esoteric Tantra
The core image at the centre of Tantra is the Lovers. Not the uncertainty of the Lovers in the Tarot deck, rather, in this version is the feeling/idea/experience that greatness is achieved through the gift given to the beloved, the gift of the self. The goal of the lovers is sacrifice and their discipline is seduction. Here we shall be talking about sacrifice. Sacrifice not as a destructive act but as a creative act, a mutual act to the benefit of all participants. In the Warrior’s version, one person sacrifices for the benefit, empowerment, of the other (or others) and to his or her own detriment and possibly destruction, the priestly religions. The Warrior’s version of sacrifice is not often given willfully but as the result of losing a power struggle. When given willfully, it can be based on ignorance. Ideally, the Lovers’ make sacrifices for each other with an open realistic understanding and appreciation of the gifts given.
To achieve greatness and discipline the Lovers must operate from an awareness of the big picture, of both their partner’s, and their own, desires and needs. They must have the self-understanding and strength to be able to honestly communicate and negotiate mutual fulfilment. There is an acceptance and an acknowledgment of difference and separateness, whilst being able to identify with the larger possibilities of the relationship. The art of the Lovers lies in the space between them, in the communication, the sensations and the connections that allow them to step across the thresholds of their individualities to meet and create - to make love.
"To make love …" in the biggest meanings of those words - to make a marriage, not just to have sex. It is passé or conservative to speak of marriage as the highest state that two people can share, but in Tantra we are talking about a spiritual act or connection confirmed by the lifestyle shared by the people involved. It is a lot more than the intimacies shared in the special and sacred rituals of the bedroom. It is a real and symbolic union that raises the participants to their highest potential, the realization of the Goddess and God within.
There are many ways to marry. It does not have to take any particular form. It does not have to be legal. It does not have to last a lifetime. It does not have to be between members of the opposite sex or be monogamous. But it does have a quality of emotional depth, commitments to helping each other fulfill their heart’s desires and to step beyond the limitations of history (personal and cultural). To say Tantra is about sacred sex is true, but to focus on only that aspect of it, is to limit yourself and your life. Tantra is just as much about sacred celibacy, the intimacy of friendship and the overcoming of the conflicts and challenges of achieving your business goals too.
Sex and celibacy are also part of a Warrior’s arsenal. They can be part of a power struggle. They can be weapons for the Warrior’s control of himself, and also an avenue into controlling the psyche of others. The Warrior’s art is conquest. Conquest is achieved by exploiting weaknesses to overcome strengths. Most people believe that the things they hate about themselves are their weaknesses and learn to protect them from being discovered and exploited by others. They feel safe about what they feel are their strengths and, in our society, their desires. The two most powerful ways to align your strengths are to face something fearful or something you desire, or love. Although most of us are conditioned to dissipate our power when confronted by either or both situations, and so do not experience the full flush of our power.
Defeat is the disempowering of an enemy. A more sophisticated definition of (or desire for) conquest is that given in the novel ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ – it is for the defeated to willingly align themselves with the conqueror’s goals. Fear does not achieve this kind of alignment. When people are moved by intimidation they give only that little amount of themselves they can get away with to protect themselves. When a person is moved by desire they will give themselves as completely as they are capable, this is the discovery at the heart of the power politics of modern democracies. This understanding is missing from military dictatorships run by Warriors, whether they are the modern ones or the ancient monarchies that inspire such nostalgia. The central organizing force of modern Western European-based cultures is seduction, whilst for most other cultures in the world it is fear.
Our media, our politics, our private lives are all founded around the chase for our desires. Seduction is the use of our desires to move us to fulfill someone else’s goals. The goal of advertising is to discover your desires and frame their product as the fulfilment of them. The hermitage is the Warrior’s version of fighting the weaknesses represented by desire. They seek total conquest, the abolition of feelings – fear, anger, ambition, lust, love and other desires and emotions are an enemy to defeat. To take an example from the centre of popular culture James Bond, the consummate Warrior hero, uses sex and desire as weapons he deploys as easily as he uses the gun and the fist.
This is the ‘right hand’ path of Tantra. It is the Christian and Buddhist monastery, the yogi’s forest retreat and ashram and the other Warrior-based mystery schools and cults. What is interesting about these systems is that left to their own devices they become structures where the only discipline left is power - obedience to the institution, to your ‘spiritual superiors’, as the only mystical device, as the only acceptable expression of sacred devotion. Devotion and obedience are very powerful ways to exceed yourself and as a doorway into the mystic. But a God of fear, with the rhetoric of love to rationalize him, is the same dynamic of an abusive spouse: "I love you that is why you must obey me …" "I’m doing this to you for your own good, it is God’s will. It’s his message to you through me that you must obey".
The Warrior’s way teaches the conquest of weakness. The Warrior’s use of Tantra is to this end, a way to overcome that which we most desire and the dangers it represents. Although a valid ‘use’ for its techniques, this is as much an underestimation and misunderstanding of the core of Tantra as believing that it is only about great sex.
Tantra is one of many paths of Love. Some Sufis, some mystical Christians, some Daoists (this the spelling for ‘Taoists’ the Chinese now prefer) and many Pagans have all come to it. But the problem is that a mystic’s messages are picked up by politicians and used for the fulfilment of their desire to feel an effect on the world, as a means of fulfilling their Warrior’s impulses.
So, what is the path of Love in all its meanings? The problem is that we are trying to talk about an approach to identity, to the defining of the self, the point of view behind the experience, words, thoughts and feelings. All the sentences, activities, games, techniques, symbols and rituals can be the same and yet their meanings are different. In the pages on Submission and Surrender, Sacrifice and Bahkti we will look at devotion. Obedience and discipline are demonstrations of how apparently Warrior’s techniques can be put to a Lover’s use and vice versa.
The greatest challenge for Lovers is that they must also be Warriors, but without letting the Warrior win them over, leaving them undefeated. It is the challenge Jesus, the Christ, gave us - to stand in a place where the enemy’s integrity is respected whilst not participating in his game. It is Warriors who need the simplicity of a singular point of view, one predominant sense, the right is absolute and secure, the wrong is always wrong, boundaries as clearly defined as in the light of midday. The metaphor, myth, of marriage is the counter to this approach.
Marriage is central to the cosmology of Tantra. The Warrior’s myths have battle as its central symbol. An example is Christianity. The world according the New Testament, and its Western interpretation, is the product of the battle between good and evil, between God and the devil. It is a simple image, a goal-oriented image, an image of power and heroism – very attractive. Battle is clear cut, life or death, fear and courage, righteousness on your side. Charisma. Marriage on the other hand is mundane, messy, emotional and complex. Conflict is part of its reality.
Conflict is actually necessary to a solid relationship. It is a sign that real communication is taking place and that each person has a strong sense of their unique point of view, and they are sharing it. The conflict, however, must remain the servant of the search for knowledge and understanding of the partners and be a small part of the totality of the relationship. There can be no goal for the marriage itself, apart from its own survival. The goal of marriage is life - life for its participants, an every day, moment to moment, achievement. The goals of battle are death, death of the enemy and death of itself, the conflict and its reasons for being. The goals of battle are in its future. The goals of marriage are now.
This marriage is the real thing. It is who we are, within, and how we relate to the world.
The Lovers (the partners in the marriage) stand above and beyond and yet within and below the singularity of the moment. Right and wrong are pieces in a dynamic jigsaw whose only absolute is change. The ‘left-hand path’ of Tantra participates in the fluid awkward complex world of human emotion, at the dangerous powerful edge of the internal darkness so many seek to escape. It is a dissenting voice against the puritan perfectionism of the Warrior, yet in India Tantrika Saddhus (hermits) wrestle to prove their spiritual strength. Enlightenment remains their goal, but it is not an escapist wisdom that takes you out of the world, it is a wisdom that embraces all that makes us utterly and passionately human in the world.
It recognizes that we must sit in the sensuous moment experiencing our uniqueness whilst in the very same moment being aware of its fluid nature. It is life held at the threshold of possibilities, emotions thoroughly felt but not necessarily acted on. This is the metaphoric aspect of the sexual disciplines. Sublimation, rather than repression, leads to an experience of largeness, of infinity. All experiences – emotions, sensations and thoughts – are elements in a total self, in relationship to and as part of the universe. It is the self as a construction of its relationships. This is where the definition of the word Tantra comes in – a network or web. The inner and the outer of our experience are interconnected through the bodily gateways, the senses and orifices, and through history (or karma). Marriage is the most powerful image for the complexities of this interconnectedness.
Many will disagree, but it suggests that the essential soul, separate from the world of the everyday world, so central to many religious, mystical and philosophical traditions is a blockage to the experience of our unification with the universe. If the self, soul, our individuality as we experience it is an aggregate of our history mixed with our sensuality - the focal point of our eyes, the sense of a single body given us by touch through our skin, a marriage of all these with the internal chemistry of the emotions – then we are already irreversibly one with the universe. The Warrior wants continuity, unity, a pure essence, a truth to defend. In the social or national setting she defends cultural and historic simplicities. In the metaphysical and psychological realm the soul/self/ego becomes that ideological centre to defend against the enemies of purity, perfection, knowledge, bliss, freedom or whatever she thinks is real or whatever her goals are. To let go of that continuity is to be freed of the Warrior and her limitations but not her power.
It is almost as if enlightenment is the death of the soul. How else, as so many traditions say, could they suggest we can be free from being reborn, free from history, from karma.
Many esoteric Tantric exercises are meditations on death and dissolution. Life fulfilled by embracing the other, its opposite, therefore death, is the centre of both Tantra and Daoism. Death is the gateway at the end of life, the edge of being, as such it is one of our ways of sensing the infinite. Those who seek an escape from death are narrowing themselves to the smallness of this incarnation and the histories and ideologies that formed it. Death is the unignorable face of reality. These exercises are about overcoming the fear of death, not, as so many traditions seek, about escaping death itself (though some use them this way).
Many Warrior religious traditions seek to manipulate our fear of death, and its counterpoint our wish for longevity, to their own ends. Charlatans, often in good faith – acting from their own honestly held beliefs – seek to take advantage of our grief, fears and desires in the hope of avoiding or fulfilling their own. The Warrior who realizes that his greatest weapon is truth comes to know death’s profundity. After he realizes the futility of conquering death itself, he is forced into self-reflection and must step outside the limitations of the Warrior’s way and so the esoteric teachings of the Warrior meet those of the Lovers – embracing the other, the enemy, is the final conquest and so the battle ends and love begins.
Other than death, there are other senses that help us to meet the infinite. The vulnerability of true love is one of the strongest alternatives and is the reason it is the key symbol and reality of Tantra and figures so strongly in mystical poetry and imagery from most traditions. The Warrior’s way is to lock it down with ritual, marriage in its traditional forms - as opposed to its role as an avenue to freedom, as a face to face meeting with infinity. This is the source of the French expression for orgasm - ‘the little death’. It is the most powerful experience of bliss any of us will have. It is beyond the limitations of words, techniques, rituals and games. It is when our inner power meets ‘Grace’ in action, the randomness of history, destiny and, again, infinity. Success is a marriage, your willful choice to the larger world of opportunities. Yet when we face the Goddess or God of Love the beauty is so bright it leaves us blinded to the mundane world of morals, of fear, of the warrior’s will. We are left only with awe, pure and overwhelming.
In the ‘left hand’ of Tantra the Saddhus practice stepping out of history, its moral strictures, its fear created social structures. They break every taboo, and like the secret societies of the fetish underground of Western European-based cultures, they seem extreme and masochistic. They confront the safe civilized world of relative wealth, of secure knowledge and comfortable living. Their passionate pursuit of Godhead, of sensational extreme beyond the mundane mediocrity of everyday living is mirrored in the brief rebellions of youth and the romantic intensity of first love. Our society expects us to grow into the maturity of responsible living, of a work-a-day death supported by emotional numbness, a gray depression (not black enough to want to commit suicide), to keep you and our society safe from your power.
In both India and the West the role of these ‘extremists’ is complex. They are both attractive and fearful. They act as a mythic opposition, an enemy, consolidating the social and moral structures that have evolved out of the Warrior’s fear and desire for control. This is expressed in the media as mass murderer who are shown as a fetishist. They also promise freedom from the networks of expectations and responsibilities and point to a power to fulfill dreams and fantasies, the attractiveness of going beyond the boundaries
Tantra helps to develop a deep understanding of the way desire works within us taking us to a profound sense of power and identity, helping Warriors to go beyond their narrow function to freedom and wisdom. This is when they become the peaceful, spiritual, the thoughtful outsider, the ‘Tantric Warrior’.
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