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What is tantric meditation? Is it part of Tibetan Buddhism (including Nyingma)?

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Christopher Martin

There is no such thing as ‘tantric meditationper se; rather there are tantric contemplative schools, both in Buddhism and Hinduism, which have various meditative techniques associated with them and which are usually not associated with other contemplative schools.

Most people asking about tantrism will be referring to Buddhist tantrism, which seems to have survived better into the modern world than contemporaneous Hindu tantric schools. The various schools of Tibetan Buddhism are probably the best surviving examples of tantrism - including the Nyingma school, which is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism (the others being the Kagyu or Kargyu, the Shakya, and the Gelug - this latter being the most conservative and

least ‘tantric’ of the four). Tantra is not actually the preferred name for this branch of Buddhism - Vajrayana is generally preferred, which means ‘the Vajra vehicle’. From a scholarly perspective, it’s better to leave ‘Vajra’ untranslated as it has various meanings - for example, a mythical phallus-shaped weapon, indestructible, adamantine, thunderbolt, to name just a few possible translations.

Vajrayana Buddhism tends to include all of the meditative practices of earlier schools of Buddhism - the Mahayana and Hinayana schools - but has distinctive practices of its own. (Note: it’s not in vogue to refer to the earliest schools of Buddhism as ‘Hinayana’ as the term is pejorative, meaning ‘lesser vehicle’. The popular workaround is to call the earliest

schools Theravada, but this is even more deeply problematic as Theravada is but the modern surviving descendant of only one of the early Buddhist schools, and to use it synonymously with Hinayana is absurd. I would propose adopting a term like ‘proto-Buddhist’ or ‘Ur-Buddhist’, but at the moment I don’t have the ear of the scholarly world. End note.) The

practices in common to all Buddhist schools are samatha (it’s the same in both Pali and Sanskrit) and vipassana (vipashyana in Sanskrit). I’ll start with those and then move on to the distinctively tantric or Vajrayana practices.

Samatha has various translations: ‘quiescence’, or ‘tranquillity’, for example. My favorite translation is that of the eminent scholar Edward Conze: ‘calming down’. An ordinary human mind has thoughts racing a million miles a minute. ‘Calming down’ meditation proceeds by choosing an object (such as the sensation of the breath in the nostrils) and

focusing so intently on that object that the racing thoughts of the mind calm down. The culmination of samatha training occurs when the attention can become so absorbed on the object of attention that thoughts still entirely. When thoughts still entirely, one has achieved ‘access concentration’, which may then lead to states of absorption in which not only are the thoughts stilled, some or all of the sensory apparatus may also be ‘tuned out’ of consciousness.

Vipassana, which is often translated as ‘mindfulness’ - even though my personal opinion is that this is a dreadful and horribly misleading translation given that the Pali sati and the Sanskrit smrti are also translated as mindfulness - is the other form of meditation common to all Buddhist schools. The literal - and in my opinion better - translation of

vipassana is ‘insight’. As with any term which has been used by people for 2,500 years (compare terms of Western philosophy such as substance and essence to see how they have fared), vipassana can refer to various meditative practices which have absolutely nothing in common with one another. Vipassana can be used to refer to a sort of analytic thinking

process by which the meditator (so-called, as I would argue that what I’m describing should not be called meditation at all!) thinks through the arguments of certain Buddhist doctrines and arrives at the conclusion that the dogma is correct. Vipassana can also be used to refer to any meditation on changing rather than fixed objects - such as what I prefer to

call ‘introspection’ which is meditation on constantly changing thoughts and feelings, or meditation on bodily sensations such as what is popular in vipassana retreats tracing their origin to Goenka’s teachings. Or vipassana can refer to

insight’ into the direct nature of things - which is to say, it can mean the same thing as anatta or nonduality. You can probably easily see why I’m not a fan of using words with a 2,500 year history in my own philosophy - they’re a trainwreck of meaning.

Meditations that are specific to tantric or Vajrayana schools are the following. 1) Deity yoga. This is visualization meditation in which a meditative deity (yidam) is vividly visualized. In more advanced forms of deity of yoga, very complex scenes with moving parts are visualized. (My own suspicion regarding the effectiveness of this form of meditation

is that the visualization of a complex scene with moving parts requires a very broad scope of attention. My own idea is that learning to play the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach on the piano at a high level provides a similar benefit in terms of attentional scope.) Deity yoga often involves visualizing oneself as the deity; the line of reasoning behind this is

very similar to the popular Christian concept of ‘What would Jesus do?’. 2) Guru yoga. This is basically deity yoga wherein the guru is substituted for the deity. If your guru is actually really cool, great! If not…well, the possibilities for exploitation, including sexual exploitation, are tremendous. 3) Subtle body yoga. Deity yoga and guru yoga are

normally part of the ‘development’ or ‘generation’ stage (the 7th of the 9 vehicles in Tibetan Vajryana) whereas subtle body yoga constitutes the ‘completion’ stage, the 8th yana just prior to the highest yana (the 9th) which is nondual. I know less about subtle body yoga than any other form of meditation because a) I’ve never been trained in it, and b) it

appears to be less easy to understand than other forms of meditation, including deity yoga and guru yoga. I have, however, read a decent amount about tummo, which is a subtle body practice. Although the very notion of a ‘subtle body’ seems non-empirical, pseudoscientific, and superstitious, I suspect that subtle body yoga is quite legitimate and involves both

attentional practices drawing awareness to aspects of the nervous system which are there to be noticed but are not particularly obvious, as well as yogic practices which are non-attentional in nature and involve producing certain effects in the body. By way of example, tummo appears to involve visualization of a heat source (e.g. a fire visualized within the

body), breathing techniques which raise body temperature (not dissimilar from techniques like that of Wim Hof), and isometric muscular exercises which also raise body temperature. I am not certain what exactly tummo contributes to ‘enlightenment’ as such, but it is definitely a practical form of yoga for someone meditating in a cold cave high in the Himalayas during the winter.

4) There is also the famous or infamous sexual yoga or ‘tantric sex’ in which the bliss of sexual coitus is to be used as a path to enlightenment. There is quite a lot of mystery surrounding the origins of this practice and its early use, but I have read Dzogchen texts dating from (I think) the 14th century in which sexual yoga is described in a Dzogchen context in a very straightforward way without any mystery.

The highestyana’ in tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism is not exclusive to Vajrayana: it is simply nondual practice, called Dzogchen by the Nyingma school and Mahamudra by the kagyu/kargyu school. It seems fairly obvious to me that nondual practice has been associated with certain usages of vipassana from the beginning of Buddhism, and it is equally obvious

that nondual practice is a feature of Hindu contemplative thought from at least as early as the Upanishads. In Vajrayana schools, nondual practice is regarded as the highest or greatest vehicle for obvious reasons: stability in nonduality is the basis of liberation from emotional suffering, and nondual practice cannot occur without the fundamental ‘breakthrough

(trekcho in Tibetan) first occurring. Once the breakthrough to nonduality happens, the practice is first to simply to sustain the nondual mode of experience through attention as much as possible, such that one trains to be in nonduality more and more often, and then to be able to still the mind (samatha) within the nondual mode without having any particular

object of meditation. Mahamudra and Dzogchen practice have what I’ve just described in common, but Dzogchen includes a further practice called togal in which visions or hallucinations are cultivated. I have difficulty interpreting accounts of some of the ‘visions’ in togal. The first of the four ‘visions’ seems to be run of the mill psychedelic hallucinatory

stuff, and a sufficiently advanced meditator can induce acid-like or psilocybin mushroom-like hallucinations at will (believe me, it’s really cool to be able to do this). The subsequent ‘visions’ of togal seem more like what happens on a Cherokee vision quest or on Ayahuasca, and I don’t have any personal experience with these types of experiences and can’t comment on them.

It turned out to be a bit of a lengthy answer, but I think I’ve covered the major bases of what meditative practices set apart tantra/Vajrayana from other contemplative schools. Naturally, there’s a great deal of further nuance to be found with further reading.