Tantra has so many interesting meanings.
- A “tantra” may be a spiritual practice for achieving “expansion to liberation.” (it may be a ritual or meditation);
- A “tantra” may be any practice of material transformation or spiritual alchemy;
- A “tantra” may be a mundane practice of magic, a talisman, or a totem, used for wealth, power, domination, or protection, or soothsaying;
It may be a scripture or treatise enumerating any of the above types of tantric practice. Most such writings date from 500 AD on to the present.
A “tantra” may be a strictly oral teaching of either mundane or spiritual practice. Many of these oral teachings date back several thousand years, and are reflected by sculpture, pottery, friezes, paintings, and ritual implements from as far back as 7000BC.
Tantric practice may be highly ornate, with much external ritual paraphernalia, or it may be completely inside the mind, completely internalized as visualization or awareness beginning with a specific focus.
Some tantra does involve the use of “forbidden” substances – alcohol, flesh, intoxicants – but these are used within the context of specific rigorous practices, and should not be taken as excuses for debauchery.
Some tantra involves the use of mantra (sound resonance) and yantra (visual resonance), but not all.
Some tantric schools view existence as “duality” (“I and Thou”) others as “non-duality” (“i am that I am”). Some are polytheistic, and some are monotheistic, some are not theistic at all.
There are tantric teachers (for instance, some teachers of Samaya Tantra) who will tell you there is no sex in real tantra. There are tantric teachers who will tell you tantra is only about sex. Neither group is right.
Most tantra works with “sexual” energy, but this may be on the macrocosmic level of natural, universal forces of creation and destruction, or on the interpersonal level of human sexuality (whether physical sex, or visualized “divine” intercourse), or even on the microcosmic level of the polar (male/female, solar/lunar, yang/yin) forces within the individual human body. In the most powerful practices, tantra may be all of the above.
There are practices developed only in the last 40 years, classified as “Neo-Tantra”, “Modern Tantra” or “New-Age Tantra”. Some make valuable contributions, in that they can improve physical and emotional health through loving sexuality, but they lack many of the higher spiritual benefits of traditional tantric practices, and in some ways further obscure the power and meaning of these traditional practices. But Tantra has many millennia of history of this sort of obscuration –dilution and syncretism are nothing new.
Any one of the above characterizations of tantra, taken individually, is only half-truth. I’ll explore them all intimately in forthcoming issues of Tantra Tips.