The Fundamental Teaching Of Tantric Buddhism

What is the fundamental teaching of the Tantras? Buddhist Tantra was based on what I would call a radical extension of the doctrine of emptiness, understood as an assertion of non-duality. Think of Tantra as simply a radical extension of the idea of non-duality. It is about overcoming duality. How does the Tantra do this? In a way that for us is quite striking.

The Wrathful Buddha

First of all, the Buddha was pictured in the Tantric tradition not as a serene and calm figure but as someone who is full of passion and wrath. He got skulls around his neck, he holds weapons in his hands. He has a wild look in his eyes and he is trampling on demons.

Why is the Buddha described in this way? Tantric texts tell us that poisonous emotions like passion and wrath can be removed not by denying them, but by cultivating them and transmuting them into an experience of awakening.

This understanding of non-duality is represented beautifully by the image of a woman using a thorn to remove a thorn on the wall of one of the great Tantric monuments in India, the great temple of Khajuraho. This is an extraordinary place to visit if you have the chance to do it.

Awakening as Sexual Union

Tantric Buddhism also uses another extraordinary image for us to express this understanding of non-duality. This is the image of awakening as the union of male and female. These figures are known for us as Yab-Yum. The term Yab-Yum comes from a Tibetan word that means male and female, or mother and father. People often ask when they see these images for the first time, wether they were meant to be taken literally, suggesting that sexual union is a form of Buddhahood.

It turns out that this question is difficult to answer because the texts are difficult to interpret. There is no question in some situations though, that ritual sexual union plays a role in Tantric meditation. It is more common, however, that these images function as symbolic representations of the consciousness during meditation transcending all duality.

The Contrasting Pairs

If you put these together, you can see that the Tantric tradition symbolizes the union of opposites in a series of contrasting pairs. Compassion and wisdom are the ideals in the Mahayana tradition. In Tantra, compassion is visualized as male, wisdom as female. These two are united in Tantric ritual and symbolism.

One very common pair of ritual implements that are used is the pair of the Vajra and bell. The Vajra is a short metal weapon that is the symbol of masculine energy. The bell represents the female aspect of the personality.

These two objects are manipulated as part of the ritual in very beautiful ways. It’s almost as if the monks where dancing with their hands representing the relationship between these two aspects of the personality.

There are other pairs too. In the mantras, the consonants are male, the vowels female. In the cosmos, the moon is male, the sun female. In the mind, the subject is male, the object female. In Tantric physiology it is understood that there are two veins that run down through the spine. The left vein is male, the right is female.

This system of pairs wasn’t just used in Tantric ritual and art, it was also used in the practice of Tantric meditation.

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