What is Tantra? Removing the Mystique

To all outward appearances, Buddhist tantra can seem strange and mysterious as well as, perhaps, exotic and exciting. We could easily come to believe that the essence of its power lies in its inaccessibility to intellect and reason. So we could get the idea that for its very efficacy, any detailed understanding of its methods will always remain inaccessible, perhaps as some kind of divine mystery.  We could even think that the more we are able to manufacture faith in the mystery of tantra and throw ourselves into its practices, the greater our chances of emerging as an enlightened being.

Concluding his teaching this summer, at Changlochen Ling in France, of ‘The General Presentation of the Tantra Sets’ by the Sakya master Sonam Tsemo, Lama Jampa said it would be quite mistaken to maintain any such idea.

He issued a warning to beware of mystifiers. He explained that false mystification of tantra is quite a different thing from the secrecy that is necessary in the tantric system. Elements of secrecy are essential to protect tantric methods from their premature use and misuse in general, but this does not prohibit masters of Vajrayana from explaining what Buddhist tantra is and what the requirements are for its effective practice.

There is always a meaning, a point, that is accessible to understanding even though initially aspects of the path are presented in a covered way. Finally, everything is to be understood. This protects us from mystification and mystifiers. Genuine masters share the intelligence of the dharma with their students. Mystification of Vajrayana is a betrayal of the dharma. To know that all is accessible to our intelligence in the end is good for our confidence.”

His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin has offered presentations of what tantra is on a number of occasions, both in print and in teachings which can be found online: eg Melody of Dharma, issues 7,8 and 12. In his article in issue 8, His Holiness refers to misconceptions stemming from the esoteric nature of tantra. Before proceeding to clarify these, he says:

Since the time of the Buddha, the tantras were always taught secretly and selectively. For their correct understanding, they have always required the oral instructions of a qualified master; without such explanation, they can easily be misunderstood in wrong and harmful ways.

He goes on to say that he is prevented from providing explanations which are only appropriate to be given to tantric initiates, but he is able to use explanations from Sonam Tsemo’s text, as Lama Jampa has done, to explain to us what Buddhist tantra is. Another place where we can hear His Holiness present an overview of what tantra is, is from a recording of a teaching he gave in Madrid in 2016.

So, a valid message for aspiring Vajrayana disciples would be: do not abandon your intelligence and ability to use reason. However, do learn, step by step, to understand and practise the tantric methods as taught and explained by your lama and vajra master in order to cut through the dualistic conceptualisation that traps us in samsara.

Upcoming Teaching Event

There will be an excellent opportunity in late September to hear Lama Jampa give teachings on Vajrayana based on his book ‘Rain of Clarity’. So, a trip to Bristol on Saturday 30th September will be thoroughly worthwhile for any serious dharma student who wants to understand what Buddhist tantra is and the benefits of practising it.  

The Essential Requirements for the Practice of Tantra

What are the essential requirements for effective practice of tantra? From the Lama’s teaching from Sonam Tsemo’s text, they can be summarized as:

  • One must begin by taking refuge in the Three Jewels and keep the moral precepts. Then one should study the Mahayana teachings on bodhichitta, since the only correct motivation for tantric practice is to pursue one’s bodhisattva aspiration.

  • One must find a vajra master who is qualified to give initiations and be accepted as a student by a lama who is able to explain details of sadhana practice and generally give one guidance on the detail of how to progress with one’s practice of the Vajrayana.

  • One should only attempt to engage in practice derived specifically from initiations one has received and then only under the guidance of one’s lama

  • One should be careful to understand whatever tantric vows one is taking as part of an initiation and be meticulous in keeping those vows in order to protect one’s practice from unwanted consequences.

  • It is important for the Vajrayana student to have confidence that his or her lama will reveal the meaning of their practice step by step and only according to their developing level of maturity in that practice. To look outside of that teacher-disciple relationship by, for example, referring to modern attempts to explain tantra or trying to study texts that are not recommended by the lama and hence are not appropriate, will only cause harm to one’s spiritual development.