The Meaning of Tantra

I think the best way for us to start studying Tantra in a substantive way is to look at some of the names that people use to refer to the Tantric tradition. They tell us something about what the tradition itself involves. Let’s start with the word Tantra itself. What does that mean? It turns out that this is pretty mysterious. It has several meanings and it is hard for us to know exactly which one is the one that most directly applies to the Tantric tradition.

The Thread That Holds Everything Together

The word Tantra originally referred to the warp in a piece of fabric. A Tantra is a thread that runs through a piece of cloth. You could think of Tantra as the thread in which reality is woven. Think of the world as woven with threads. What is it that holds it together? It is its Tantra, the thread that runs all the way through it.

Somewhat less poetically, but with the same meaning, we could take the word Tantra like the word Sutra to refer to the threads that hold together the leaves of a book. Sutras in India were written on palm leaves. These long leaves were capable of preserving inscriptions. On the end of the palm leave there is a hole. Through the hole there is a thread. The thread is what binds this together and it’s sometimes used to designate the texts themselves.

Tantra, like the Mahayana, is a textual tradition.

The word Tantra could also refer to a lineage of transmission that is passed from a teacher to a student in a continuous path. The Tantric tradition is concerned with the transmission of teachings from teachers to students.

And finally, Tantra could also mean power. Tantric Buddhism is concerned with ways of cultivating and passing on power.

The Vajrayana or Vehicle of the Diamond

The word Tantra has a lot of meanings, and each one of these is a clue to the identity of this tradition. Tantra it is also called the Vajrayana, or the vehicle of the diamond or the thunderbolt. The word Vajra could mean either diamond or thunderbolt. Why is it called like this? Because the Tantric tradition is meant to produce an experience of awakening that is as hard as a diamond, and as sharp as a thunderbolt.

The Mantrayana

Tantra is also quite commonly called the Mantrayana, or the vehicle of Mantras. A Mantra is a sacred chant. The word Mantra is an important Indian word. A Mantra is a series of syllables that bring about an effect simply by the utterance of the syllables themselves, not because they communicate something, simply because the words themselves have power.

Historically, the early vedic hymns were called Mantras because they too were believed to have the power to invoke the gods. The Tantric tradition uses Mantras like that, sometimes as magical charms and sometimes as tools of meditation.

Example of a Tantric Ritual

I’d like to give an example of this to have a taste of what Tantric rituals are about. The practitioner sits down, draws a circle on the ground and begins to mark out the sacred space of the circle using a lot of ritual colors often associated with bones, with death. Into the middle of the circle there is a pot with a snake inside. Why? Because snakes are associated with the control of the rain.

What you try to do in this ritual is to invoke the power of the spirits that control the rain. Then, the practitioner begins to say a mantra. If this doesn’t bring the rain, the text says that you should recite the whole ritual backwards. If that doesn’t work, then make the snakes’ heads split like grapefruit.

This is a very common kind of ritual in the Tantric tradition. Mantras aren’t only used to bring rain. Thay are also used in the quest for enlightenment.

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