What is tantra?

“It is very important to be able to differentiate clearly between the essence of tantra and the cultural forms in which it is currently wrapped.”

Lama Yeshe

Tantra (which etymologically means “an instrument for expansion”) is a very broad concept. In fact, the essential tantra goes beyond the various tantric traditions. As a set of principles, it can include not only the schools of thought and practice that we find in South Asian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, and those that are explicitly regarded as “tantric,” but also other philosophies and doctrines that express these principles. For instance, we may even identify tantric principles in Plato’s philosophy!

The tantric principle is practiced by anyone who maintains that all that exists in the universe is inherently and potentially spiritual. Therefore, instead of transcending the material universe, we can use it as a springboard for transcendence, by making use of all its different fundamental components, such as body, senses, pleasure, desire, beauty, emotion, gross and subtle nervous systems, and so on.

Shai maintains that the essential tantra is the spirituality of the twenty-first century, because it is the only system that effectively combines matter and spirit. The ancient idea of rejecting the world, or affirming only the pure spirit in separation from the material world, can no longer make sense to our modern mind. In our era, we should bring this dualistic perception to an end. Tantra works directly with material energies, affirms the physical universe as essentially spiritual, and therefore does not reject the world but embraces it.

Tantra naturally resonates with our modern mentality. The concept of transformation of energy sits easily with our scientifically oriented mind, and the powerful energies of desire and will that are so prevalent in the modern world are great burning materials for tantra, since it does not fear or suppress desire, but uses it as the fuel that propels us to our highest self-realization. The fearless ability to work so effectively with explosive and highly potent materials, such as desire and will, makes the spiritual tantric path much quicker; our results-oriented modern mind can thus be more easily satisfied. Plus, we can no longer accept the guilt and shame induced by religious concepts that cause us to deny and restrict our humanity and our base experiences and energies; nowadays, we justifiably suspect that all these energies should be included in our path.

In other words, tantra is the only spirituality that genuinely unites East and West, ancient and modern, in that it embraces the material universe and our simplest human energies. What we find in us right now—body, senses, passions, desires—is our natural and obvious starting point.

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The ten central principles of tantra

1. All the energies we find within us and outside us are inherently spiritual

Since matter is essentially spirit, every energy in the universe—including our so-called lower urges or muddy emotions—is spiritual by nature. Therefore, we must not fear or suppress any energy, as long as we know how to use it. Nothing should be rejected or renounced, and everything can be transformed.

2. All the energies within us and outside us can be transformed

Since all energies are inherently spiritual, they are also potentially transformative. Hence, the very principle of transformation—changing the form of something into another form—is tantric. Tantra seeks to transform every experience, no matter how “unholy” it may appear, into the path of fulfillment. At the far edges of every energy one finds the greatest light. Whereas other systems advocate either renouncing or transcending lower energies, in tantra we always transform existing energies. All our energies, gross and subtle, are harnessed to accomplish the greatest of all transformations.

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3. Desire is a powerful, positive, and useful energy

The basic energy we use is desires and wants; these are forms of positive energy that should be directed and used. Desire, being the energy behind all human activities and the building block of human life, is not to be eliminated or neutralized, but redirected for transcendence. Of course, without proper tantric knowledge, desire can be the source of our suffering, as the Buddha taught in his main teaching. But tantra tells us that as long as we don’t make use of the energy of desire, our spiritual practice remains limited.

So, instead of avoiding desire, we recognize the powerful energy aroused by our desires as an indispensable source for our spiritual path. Just as some herbalists can turn poisonous plants into powerful medicine, we can manipulate the energy of desire and even anger to our advantage. The same desirous energy that ordinarily propels us from one unsatisfactory situation to another is transmuted through alchemy into a transcendental experience of bliss and wisdom. We harness the energy of desire in such a way that it eventually destroys the very cause of our dissatisfaction: our fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. In tantra, the experience of the bliss that arises from desire expands the mind so that we overcome all our limitations and achieve pure and expansive mental clarity.

Although tantra is definitely not what has been narrowly accepted in the West as a method of sexual transformation, this alchemy does include, among other aspects, the transformation of sexual desire into infinite sexual energy.

4. Pleasure transforms into bliss

In tantra, enlightenment is not neutral or indifferent, but the ultimate condition of pleasure. We replace lower pleasure with higher pleasure through the skillful use of desirous energy, building up the experience of true pleasure toward everlasting bliss and joy of full illumination. Our experience of ordinary pleasure can be used as the resource for attaining the supremely pleasurable experience of totality: enlightenment.

Unlike many religious approaches, tantra does not reject the pleasurable parts of life and never oppresses or denies human nature. It has nothing to do with the religious taboo of guilt and shame that causes believers to feel uncomfortable whenever they experience even a small amount of pleasure. Understanding that renunciation is just another form of attachment, tantra encourages us to allow ourselves to feel truly and fully happy without attachment or guilt. It says that it is much more effective for human beings to enjoy themselves and to channel the energy of their enjoyments into a quick and powerful path to enlightenment.

As human beings, we have the capacity to enjoy limitless, blissful happiness, while remaining free of delusions. What is wrong is only the confused way in which we grasp onto pleasures, and thus turn them into a source of dissatisfaction. Without grasping, without compulsively searching, we could enjoy ourselves as much as we want. If anything, the problem is that our pleasure is too small, too minimal! So tantra is not only about taking advantage of ordinary pleasurable experiences. It also shows us how to activate a deeper, more intense, and more satisfying experience of bliss than is ordinarily available through our physical senses.

However, this can confuse immature minds, which may believe that tantra is a way to indulge our uncontrolled appetites. This is not so: tantra is a way of utilizing desire and understanding how to prevent it from becoming dissatisfaction. We unify pleasure with light, bliss, and wisdom.

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5. In transcendence, you don’t just leave behind, but also include

In tantra, transcendence also means inclusion. Energies of a lower state—such as ego or sexuality—do not disappear, but either become refined, take a different form, or find their place in a different context of a greater whole. In all cases, nothing is destroyed.

6. Enlightenment takes place not by going beyond the form, but through the form

Instead of a denial of form, tantra holds that form can be an expression of reality, and therefore that intense meditation on certain forms can lead us to transcendence. For this reason, tantra abundantly uses symbols and visualizations to remind us of our essential, formless nature.

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7. The body is a gateway

The body, as our most immediate form, is essentially and potentially spiritual, and it contains spiritual structures and energies. Each of us possesses two bodies, the physical and the subtle, and both are spiritually significant for transformation, while the activation of the subtle body, which contains channels, chakras, and kundalini, is the fastest way to enlightenment.

8. The goal of transformation is the marriage of all opposites

In tantra, all pairs of opposites and extremes—emptiness and form, bliss and emptiness, masculine and feminine, up and down—desire to merge into one another and become one. These are, in fact, not opposites but complementary halves, two faces of the same reality, ultimately designed to collapse into one another. All concepts and mental divisions are blended until they melt into greater unity.

Just like in the physical world, seemingly contrasting energies become attracted to one another, make love, marry, and eventually give birth to a new being that is the sum total of the two components, but is also beyond it. This imagery is meaningful in tantra, since the apparent world is perceived as a set of symbols, a reflection and extension of inner phenomena.

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9. A marriage of feminine and masculine should take place inside us

Of all the pairs of opposites, the most significant is the masculine and the feminine. Since each one of us is a union of all universal energy, within each of us there is an unlimited source of both male and female energies. We wish to appropriate these energies when they appear outside of us only because we feel that we miss these qualities. In our deeper reality, we are complete, and completion takes place in inner marriage. Tantra teaches us this essential wholeness.

10. It is important to perceive oneself not as a limited being, but already as a god or goddess

When we embark on the spiritual path, we usually have the identity of a seeker; a simple human longing for divinity or transcendence. In tantra, which is a faster path, we begin from the end: we visualize ourselves as if we were a fully enlightened Buddha; as if we were already gods and goddesses. In this way, there is no waiting, and the future is now.

Tantra tells us that we hold onto a very limited and limiting view of who we are and what we can become. The result of this view is that our self-image remains oppressively low and negative, and we feel quite inadequate and hopeless. Tantra challenges this unreasonably low opinion of human potential by showing us how to view ourselves and all others as transcendentally beautiful—as no less than gods and goddesses.

In this way, we dissolve the ordinary conceptions of ourselves, and then, from the empty space into which we have dissolved these concepts, we arise in the glorious, light body of a deity. The more we train to see ourselves as such a deity, the less bound we will feel by life’s ordinary disappointments and frustrations. In addition, this divine self-visualization empowers us to create for ourselves pure surroundings in which our deepest nature can be expressed.

If we identify ourselves as being fundamentally pure, strong, and capable, we will actually develop these qualities. But if we continue to think of ourselves as dull and foolish, that is what we will become. We already, at this moment, have the profound qualities of such a divine manifestation within us. Through this practice, we can more fully recognize and cultivate these qualities, rather than remaining miserably trapped within the limiting projections of a self-pitying attitude. The image of being broken and damaged is released from the mind and replaced by an image of radiance and vitality. This is why tantra is such a quick and powerful method for achieving the fulfillment of our tremendous potential: we start from the top, and all that is left is to close the gap.

It is common for people who take a religious path to feel that there is an unbridgeable gap between themselves, down here in the “mud,” and some higher being, way up in the sky somewhere. Although we all have a fundamentally pure nature, it is not easy to get in touch with it. In this way, we bring to the surface the inner divine qualities that have always existed within the depth of our being. This is tantra’s wise solution to the problem of self-acceptance!

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