| HOME | BOOKS | ESSAYS |
| MASTERS OF MAHAMUDRA | MAHAMUDRA |
The Eighty-four Mahasiddhas and the Path of Tantra
Introduction to Masters of Mahamudra, SUNY, 1984
The evolution of Tantra into the dominant spiritual power in Indian life coincided with the growth of a terrible, destructive menace on India's north-west frontier. At the beginning of the eighth century, when Arab power was supreme from Morocco to Sindh, in India the numerous inheritors of imperial Gupta glory were engaged in internecine conflicts, and Indian culture was in a state of decay. The old dispensation was vitiated, society taking refuge in inflexible caste rules and regulations; and as form and procedure governed social life, so ritual dominated religion and scholasticism the academics. There was no vital, united society to meet the threat of the fanatical Islamic armies who wreaked burning, pillage and massacre, and who were a new kind of enemy, compelling Islam or the sword. As a stream of Buddhist refugees brought tales of the destruction of Buddhist Central Asia to India, Tantra was increasing its influence, particularly in Oddiyana, the front-line state, and also in eastern India, where a new power, the Buddhist Pala Dynasty, was emerging. Was it coincidence that India took refuge in Tantra with its uncompromising non-dualist metaphysics, its school of spontaneous liberation, and its fierce flesh-eating, blood-drinking deities, during a period of incipient doom? Is it a further coincidence that, after rejecting Tantra for centuries, the West finds it increasingly acceptable as the notion of mankind's extinction become credible?
Nearly four centuries passed between AD 711, when Sindh (S. Pakistan) was conquered, and the end of the twelfth century when the Buddha's Tree of Enlightenment was finally desecrated by Turkish soldiers. Some critics maintain that the final blossoming of pure Hindu civilization between the eighth and twelfth century was the most magnificent achievement of India's cultural history. During that period Tibet embraced Buddhist Tantra and the main part of the Buddhist tantric canon was translated into the Tibetan language, thus saving it from incineration in the great Indian libraries. Java was colonized and the great stupa at Borobodur was built. Although most of the artistic achievement at home was destroyed by the Muslims, the scripture of the Pala Empire (Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam), the ruins of the great academics built by the Pala Emperors, and the temples of Khajuraho, bear witness to the genius of tantric art. "Tantra" describes the ethos of Indian culture of this time; the men who embodied that ethos and the aims and ideals of the culture, the generators and directors of the creative energy that converted the people and transformed society, the guides and exemplars on the path of Tantra, these men were called siddhas. The eighty-four siddhas, whose lives and practices are described in these legends, were the siddhas who practiced the Buddhist Tantra, as opposed to the Tantra of devotees of Siva (saivas) or the Tantra of the worshippers of the Great Mother (saktas).
The number eighty-four is a "whole" or "perfect" number. Thus the eighty-four siddhas can be seen as archetypes representing the thousands of exemplars and adepts of the tantric way. The siddhas were remarkable for the diversity of their family backgrounds and the dissimilarity of their social roles. They were found in every reach of the social structure: kings and ministers, priests and yogins, poets and musicians, craftsmen and farmers, housewives and whores. However, the greatest names amongst the eighty- four - Tilopa, Naropa, Saraha, Luipa, Ghantapa, Dombipa, etc., - were sadhu siddhas, mendicant yogins living with the people on a grass-roots level of society, teaching more by psychic vibration, posture and attitude - mantra, mudra and tantra3 - than by sermonizing. Some of these siddhas were iconoclasts, dissenters and anti-establishment rebels fulfilling the necessary function of destroying the rigidity of old and intractable customs and habits, so that spontaneity and new vitality could flourish. Obsessive caste rules and regulations in society, and religious ritual as an end in itself, were undermined by the siddhas' exemplary free-living. The irrelevance of scholastic hairsplitting in an academic language, together with a host of social and religious evils, were exposed in the poets' wonderful mystical songs written in the vernacular tongues, They taught existential involvement rather than metaphysical speculation, and they taught the ideal of living in the world but not of it rather than ascetic self mutilation or monastic renunciation, The siddhas are characterized by a lack of external uniformity and formal discipline.
Under the generous patronage of the Pala Emperors in the eastern Indian empire, where the majority of the siddhas lived, the revolution became the establishment. The great academies of Vikramasila and Somapuri were built, and the ancient monastic establishment at Nalanda was extensively enlarged. The militancy of the siddha-poets decrying empty ritualism, charlatanism, specious philosophizing, scholasticism, hypocrisy and the caste system is less apparent during Naropa's period in the eleventh century. The attitudes and precepts of Tantra became more socially acceptable after generations of siddhas in positions of temporal power had influenced people and events on many levels. From the beginning, Tantra's flexibility permitted initiates like Lilapa to retain their secular status, wealth and pleasure, and this principle of tolerance and inclusiveness was a significant factor in the appeal of the doctrine; as the millennium approached the increasing hedonism could be used as a path to spiritual liberation. However, the ideal of spiritual anarchism, the attitude that precluded attachment to religious forms, prevailed, and in its esoteric, yogic form, Tantra remained the preserve of initiates into the lineage, and no institutionalism compromised their spirit of existential freedom.
Tantra took centuries to come out if its closet. Its history up to the era of the siddhas can only be conjecture, but it appears that originally, in the guise of fertility cults, it belonged to the pre-Aryan, tribal worshippers of the Mother Goddess, and later, also, to the low castes and out-castes of Hindu society. A corpus of sympathetic and imitative magic for a variety of mundane purposes such as healing became part of the various tantric cults. Then over the centuries, as they became "sanskritized" and more sophisticated, these cults assimilated brahmanical deities, their rituals and the principles of mantra. Later still, Upanishadic philosophy, Patanjali's Yoga-sutras and principles of mahayana Buddhist philosophy were assimilated, and a crucial transformation was accomplished - a body of ritual magic became a soteriological system with liberation from human suffering as its aim. Whether the Kapalikas, or a similar sect of primitive saiva Tantra, or heretical Buddhist monks, formed the first lineage of Tantra as we know it, is not known, but in the fourth or fifth century, a need arose for order and consistency in the system, and this could only be achieved by committing to palm leaf manuscript what until then had been purely oral transmission. The Manjusrimulakalpa contained a body of mahayana lore and also the basic father-tantra mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas; but the Guhyasamaja-tantra is considered to be the first of the root-tantras describing yoga techniques as well as the mandalas, mantras and rites associated with the propitiation of a particular deity and his retinue, in this case Guhyasamaja. This tantra was probably compiled in the sixth or seventh century, not reaching its final form until Indrabhuti "revealed" it in the eighth century. The eighth and ninth centuries saw the revelation of most of the major tantras, particularly the mother-tantras, incorporating many elements from the sakta, Goddess-worshipping cults.
When the scriptural tantras were written down, Tantra could no longer be kept secret. There were many reasons for secrecy, perhaps the most important being the need to avoid the hostile propaganda of brahmin orthodoxy. One of Tantra's appeals was its catholic tolerance in initiating members of all castes and both sexes, a practice that militated against the priestly supremacy of the brahmins. Practices such as meat-eating, drinking liquor, and in some sakta-influenced tantras, sexual intercourse between untouchables and twice-born initiates, were abhorrent to the brahmins. One of the achievements of the siddhas was to make Buddhist Tantra socially acceptable, but although the exoteric forms of Tantra comprised the religion of the masses, the orthodox have retained their hostility until this day. In the same way that Buddhism had attracted India's greatest minds to its past forms, amongst the siddhas were men with the ability to write great commentaries on the tantras, in the process interpreting ambiguity in terms consistent with mahayana ethics and principles, excising all traces of gross practices that carried a stigma.
Before describing the yogas and the teaching of these spiritual adventurers and multi-facetted adepts called siddhas, it will be helpful to define several Sanskrit words that remain untranslated throughout the work, words that have no English equivalents. The first word is siddha itself. Literally a siddha is a practitioner of Tantra who is successful in attaining the goal of his meditation. This achievement is known as siddhi. Siddhi is two-fold: magical power (mundane), and the Buddha's enlightenment (ultimate). Thus siddha could be rendered "saint," "magus," "magician," "adept;" but these words are feeble, failing to evoke the originality of the siddhas' tantric life-style. For the uninitiated Indian the word siddha evokes magical power above all; if a yogin can walk through walls, fly in the sky, heal the sick, turn water into wine, or even levitate and read minds, he deserves the title siddha. If that same yogin has a crazy glint in his eye, smears himself with ashes, moves himself or others to tears with his song, calms street mongrels by his presence, tears a faithful woman from her family, wears a vajra - a symbol of immutability - in his yard-long hair-knot, eats from a skull-bowl, talks with the birds, sleeps with lepers, upbraids demagogues for moral laxity, or performs with conviction any act contrary to convention while demonstrating a "higher" reality, then he is doubly a siddha. Common people impressed by appearances have no conception of the siddha's esoteric aim - Mahamudra - and cannot know that a siddha may also be an inconspicuous peasant, an office worker, a king, a monk, a servant or a tramp.
The Sanskrit word sadhana can be translated as "spiritual discipline." It can also be rendered "psycho-experimental techniques of personality transcendence and ecstasy," or "the activity of an integrated body, speech and mind motivated by the Bodhisattva Vow." More specifically, sadhana is "the yogin's practice of his Guru's precepts," or "an initiate's meditation liturgy." Obviously, then, sadhana is a vital concept for a tantrika (a practitioner of Tantra). In fact, sadhana is his whole life, and to the degree that his life is not integrated into his sadhana he breaks the pledge he swore at the time of his initiation, which was based on his intention to selflessly devote his entire being to the non-dual, gnostic enlightenment experience and to others. The Tibetan form of the word sadhana (T. sgrub thabs) simply means "the method of accomplishing [success]." The forms of the mahasiddhas' sadhanas are as varied as their personalities, although in the limited sense of sadhana most of their meditation techniques belong to what is known as the creative and fulfillment modes of meditation.
The invariable goal of these siddhas' sadhanas is mahamudrasiddhi. Siddhi has already been defined as "power," and power is of two types: mundane and ultimate, ordinary and supreme. The latter is synonymous with mahamudra-siddhi, which is nothing less than the Buddha's enlightenment. The easiest way of dealing with the vague and overworked word "enlightenment" is to define it as the attainment of the ultimate mystical experience of the oneness of all things, the non-dual cognition of ultimate reality, clear light, gnostic awareness - the dissolution of the individuated personality in the universal mind. The Buddha's enlightenment is specifically defined as coincident with a vast, empathetic, self-sacrificial, social sensibility - love, in fact. That is mahamudra-siddhi. The mahayana explains "Buddha" in terms of three "bodies" or rather three modes of being: being as empty space and awareness, being as instructive visionary enjoyment, and being as compassionate apparition; a fourth mode of being is spontaneous being, integrating the other three, and this can be called Mahamudra - the Great Seal, Magnificent Symbol, Sublime Stance, Absolute Reality. While the term Mahamudra is usually found embedded in highly abstruse metaphysical jargon, in the mother-tantra it is synonymous with an essential symbol for ultimate reality, the vulva, and it is useful to bear that meaning in mind. Mahamudra-siddhi is invariably accompanied by mundane siddhi, though not vice versa, and mundane siddhi is conventionally defined as attainment of the eight great siddhis, the six extra-sensory powers and the four transformative modes of action.
The great powers, are enumerated differently in the various traditions, sometimes as seven, sometimes as eight. The siddhis that Nagabodhi attained from Nagarjuna in these legends were the power to pass through matter, power to wield the enchanted sword of awareness, the powers of creation and annihilation (materialization and de-materialization), the powers to dispense the pill of third eye vision and the eye-salve of omniscience, the power of speedwalking, and power to perform the alchemy of immortality. The language of this list may be interpreted literally or figuratively, according to faith and understanding. Thus the power to walk through walls can be explained literally as a siddha's magical feat to induce faith in the credulous, or figuratively to demonstrate, for instance, the nature of reality as a dream, an illusion, an hallucination, where all things are experienced as light and space. All these siddhis must be understood in the light of the basic precept "all is mind;" for the siddha there is no body/mind, matter/spirit duality. Lastly, what makes these siddhis great is their use as technical aids to mahamudra-siddhi in sadhana, though it is stretching a point to include the Lama's vaunted power of speed-walking in the above list.
The six extra-sensory powers are mental powers of the same order as the great siddhis but they are couched in psychological terminology. Thought reading and memory of past lives need no explanation; clairaudience is "the divine ear" by which all languages including those of birds and animals can be understood, from near and far; clairvoyance, "the divine eye," as astral vision, especially implying intuition of another's suffering; ability to perform miracles includes manipulation of the elements, flight, and walking on water, and so on; finally, ability to arrest and extinguish emotivity, which leads to nirvana. These, again, are all powers that can be used to expedite mahamudra-siddhi for oneself or others. Fleeting knowledge of such powers as clairaudience and thought-reading is accessible to beginners in concentration meditation, for instance; but to evoke such powers at will during post-meditation experience, however, is an actual sign of success in sadhana.
The transformative modes of action - pacification, enrichment, control and destruction -employ the eight great siddhis, the extrasensory powers and every possible skillful means to calm the mind, one's own or another's, endow it with enriching qualities, control or manipulate it for beneficial purpose, or eliminate it. The means of effecting these four techniques of altering consciousness should arise spontaneously out of a siddha's realization, for he is powerless if action depends upon discursive thought. The immediate intuition and accomplishment of these four modes are represented by four Dakinis, who must be propitiated.
Samsara has herein usually been left untranslated. "Wheel of life," "round of rebirth," "cycle of confusion," "transmigratory existence," are succinct phrases that are adequate, but poor in connotation. Exoterically, samsara is the frustrating cycle of rebirth through the human realm, heaven and hell, and the animal and spirit realms, determined by one's own previous actions, or karma. Esoterically, samsara is the whirligig of mind, toned by various and successive complex emotional states, conditioned by thought, described in terms of the penetrating psychology of the six realms. In psychological terms, samsara is "anxiety," which all will admit to more or less, although only acute anxiety is recognized as a state that should be treated - by a priest, a psychiatrist, or an analyst. Psychosis, paranoia and delusions of grandeur, schizophrenia and neurosis, are all terms germane to description of the realms of samsara; according to Buddhist analysis, all of humanity is to some degree psychotic, or at best alienated, until release is attained. Whether viewed in terms of transmigration, the unsatisfactory human condition, anxiety or neurosis, samsara is what all people sometimes, and some people always, wish to escape. Buddhism is primarily concerned with techniques of escape from samsara to nirvana; where the word "release" or "liberation" is used in a Buddhist context, it always refers to release from samsara. The siddhas developed their own methods of release, which can be characterized as quick, democratic, demanding and dangerous. And nirvana? Nirvana is a continuum of emptiness.
The literal meaning of the word Tantra is rarely implied in common usage. It means "thread," "continuity" or "warp and woof." It refers to the one essential, immutable and continuous element in life, and that is emptiness or "such-ness," the ultimate, indeterminate, existential reality inherent in ordinary consciousness. "Tantra" is used herein to indicate the ethos of a way of life determined by a body of practices described in a canon of texts which themselves are called tantras. Since only the self-evident and sensational elements of Tantra - ritualism, sex and magic - are widely known, the common associations of the term are unbalanced and misleading. Of the four classes of Buddhist Tantra (there is no space here to deal with the similar but different Hindu Tantra), the two lower levels are predominantly ritualistic and to a large extent concerned with attainment of temporal goals and magical powers. The higher levels of Tantra do involve ritual meditation, but in the supreme Tantra (anuttarayoga-tantra) which leads to mahamudra-siddhi, ritualism per se is rejected. The eighty-four paradigms of tantric practice given in these legends describe non-ritualistic meditation. Although sex is renounced in orthodox Buddhism, in Tantra it is accepted as a valid means by which Mahamudra can be attained. The delusion that all tantric yoga is sexual yoga is fostered by the tantras' frequent use of sexual analogy, metaphor and symbol to describe psychic processes.
To understand the metaphysical content of the siddhas' teaching it is useful to look at the scriptural tantras. All tantric literature is based upon what are known as the root-tantras. Each of these texts deals with practices associated with a particular deity. Thus the deities Guhyasamaja, Cakrasamvara, Hevajra, Mahamaya and Yamari, as the most important deities associated with the siddhas, each pertain to a root-tantra that describes a mandala in terms of a divine entourage of psychic powers that comprise the Guru's mind, the creative and fulfillment modes of meditation, subsidiary rites (fire sacrifice, extensive feasts and offerings), detailed description of symbology and ingredients for symbolic offerings, and other sections specific to the individual tantra, Lack of definitions and explanations necessitated the vast commentarial literature that grew up subsequently. But the root-tantras and their commentaries are practical manuals, and nowhere do we find a structured metaphysical model of mind and the universe, or an analysis of the soteriological functions of tantra-yoga. Metaphysical definitions must be deduced from the tantras' symbology and mandalas, and so on.
In a non-dual philosophy absolute reality is everyday experience, which is unutterable: thus the siddhas' disdain of speculative metaphysics. Nevertheless, this ineffable absolute, represented as yantras, mandalas and deities, was their obsession, and the dynamo generating superhuman power, energy and realization. They had no concept of it and no knowledge of it; it cannot be conceived and the temporal mind cannot comprehend it. It is indefinable, indeterminable and without location. Tathata is perhaps the most evocative word for it. It means "that-ness" or "such-ness," "the absolute specific," the universe in a grain of sand. It is the ungraspable essence that our poets and musicians have sought, and their intuition of it makes them western tantrikas. It has no cause and no root, and is therefore said to be "unborn" or "pure potential." It is the cosmic totality and a sesame seed; a seed or an egg is often used to symbolize it. But anything that is said about it is simply poetry - with a connotation of self-indulgence - or it is for didactic purposes, calculated to make an aspirant recognize it. Most people only experience a flash of it or a vague intimation. Since reality is utterly indeterminable, there is no truth in any concept of absolute truth whatsoever, and the relative phenomena that are inseparable from it are a lie, until they are recognized as reality (see 19).
Paradoxes appear constantly in the tantras. They function as Zen koans, concepts used to destroy all conceptual thought. Conceptual knowledge is one of the twin veils that occlude reality; whereas paradox is the most apposite expression of it. One statement of the paradox that is only resolved existentially appears constantly in the siddhas' songs of realization (at the head of each legend). If the siddhas' experience is a continuum of space, if all things are emptiness (sunyata), if there is only clear light, where are sensual objects, the material universe? This paradox is answered by the single most important formula in mahayana metaphysics, "emptiness is form and form is emptiness." Emptiness is nothing if not form, and the absolute specific is certainly not nothing; when all things dissolve into space and are seen as space, substance remains as a rainbow, or better, as a hologram. The very attractive mahayana proposition that nothing exists outside the sensual and mental realms, affirms that absolute reality is to be found within the common light of day, that emptiness is form. Constant peak experience of the absolute specific implies non-dual perception, union of subject/object, knower/known, self/other. This ultimate tantric mystery is Mahamudra, and the sexual analogy of lovers achieving a sense of complete oneness while still in their own separate bodies is probably the best, if not the only, image capable of expressing this paradoxical mystery.
Attainment of this union in Mahamudra, entails elimination of the barriers between oneself and other people. Suddenly the social field opens up as the siddha empathizes totally with his fellow beings, and since he has attained the powers of mind-reading and prescience (as a direct result of uniting self and other) he is capable of guiding them in their sadhanas. And also, simultaneously with the attainment of the ultimate mystical experience, the siddha is imbued with compassion ("suffering together"), and automatically he acts spontaneously to fulfill the Bodhisattva Vow, which is the commitment to serve others without prejudice in whatever way necessary. Loving kindness, sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity, the four boundless states of mind, constitute a preparatory meditation that cultivates the feeling of oneness with all beings; the Mahamudra union generates these social virtues, and feelings such as love induce that union. The siddhas of the legends were renowned for their spontaneous effusion of emotion, whether it was for a beautiful woman or a starving puppy, and the songs of the siddhacaryas are full of profound sentiments of love for woman.
The dual elements of the Mahamudra union are skillful means and perfect insight, the first being the male co-ordinate and the second the female. Thus the Guru embodies the skillful means necessary to achieve the pure pleasure of enlightenment, and the Dakini brings perfect insight and wisdom, the pure awareness and the ecstasy. Contrary to Hindu Tantra, as a rule these poles are not characterized as passive and active; stasis lies in se, alienation (failure to recognize union), while dynamic energy ("being in love") is the result of union. Means and insight, comprising the radical duality, are interpreted differently in different sadhanas, and also at different levels of progress and for different ends. In general, however, skillful means is designated "compassion" and perfect insight "emptiness." Compassion in this context is not to be defined as pity, or even as divine love; compassion here is the Bodhisattva's sensibility responding spontaneously to the demands of the outer world with an immense variety of skillful means. These means are expressed by the entire pantheon of tantric deities, particularly the wrathful deities that represent conformations of psychic forces transmuting negative energies into the elixir of pure pleasure, These deities' faces are represented as masks in the Tibetans' painted scrolls to indicate that there is no attachment to the violent emotions that the faces depict. Acting out of compassion the siddha emanates a fierce form of anger, for example, to destroy fear; and detachment from that emotion makes him invulnerable - a vajra siddha, or vajracarya as they say in Nepal.
The co-ordinate of male compassion is female emptiness. The complete definition of perfect insight, to repeat a vital definition, is "penetrating insight into the nature of all things as emptiness," and, therefore, perfect insight and emptiness relate as similar aspects of the one indeterminate absolute, or to rephrase it, emptiness has the cognitive capacity of pure, non-dual awareness spontaneously self-aware of its "unborn" manifestations. When compassion and emptiness unite, whatever the specific manifest form of the siddha's skillful means, it is rendered self-aware, empty and absolutely specific: this is the Dakini's blessing.
These metaphysical concepts must be understood with Saraha's maxim in mind: there is no truth in any concept of truth. Yet as functional thought-forms they are fine tools by which the siddhas' legends and precepts can be interpreted, Compositions of them can also be enjoyed as finely spun webs of metaphysical speculation, for their complexity, internal logic, refinement of definition, and proximity to existential reality, has rarely been equalled elsewhere. These tantric formulae embody the accumulated wisdom of two millennia of Indian experiment in the laboratory of the mind. Tantra was the final blossoming of the yoga of knowledge (jnana-yoga); since the twelfth century most Indian spiritual movements, influenced by Islam, have been cults of faith and devotion (bhakti-yoga). The Muslims' iconoclastic zeal, horror at finding sex and god confounded, and their militant intent to eradicate Buddhist centers of learning - the monastic academies - resulted in the annihilation of the higher Buddhist Tantra in India, although the Tibetans inherited much of it; the lower tantra lived on in folk tradition and Hindu Tantra.
Even from this metaphysical analysis it should be clear that the siddhas enjoyed their sadhana. The psychological types who needed a simple life took to the road, but they lacked the radical ascetic intent that led some of their contemporaries, the pasupata saiva yogins, for example, to torment their bodies or minds in destructive self-abnegation (tapasya). The siddhas practiced purification, of course, but guilt was eradicated by initiation, and sin was only failure to practice meditation and any tendency to take an extreme view. Life was an audio-visual spectacular, a dance of ephemeral energy configurations that some called Mahamaya, the female personification of Magnificent Illusion. "Live as a child lives," "the world is full of natural happiness. Dance, sing and enjoy it!" "Enjoy the pleasures of your senses, but" and here was the crunch which distinguished the siddha from the neurotic sensualist, "don't be attached to them. While drawing water, don't get wet."
Thus enjoyment was both the result of sadhana and also the means. Amongst the eighty-four siddhas there were many individuals whose object of meditation was sensually delightful, like flowers, bird-song, music, and also sexual intercourse. The result of sadhana is pure pleasure, and this, as its adjective implies, is quantitatively different from the heightened sensation of sensual experience. Pure pleasure is the feeling tone of the Buddha's mode of being as empty space, and it is essential to grasp the nature of this ultimate plane of being and its relation to the two relative planes. The ultimate existential mode of experience that is emptiness, the dharmakaya is all-inclusive, and the words which characterize it are expressive of the inexpressible, an inconceivable non-duality: pure awareness, emptiness, pure pleasure, all-pervasive space, and clear light. The relative modes of visionary enjoyment, the sambhogakaya and apparitional incarnation, the nirmanakaya, are the duality that unites as the ultimate Mahamudra mode. The male co-ordinate of skillful means corresponds to the mode of visionary enjoyment and discriminating esthetic delight, where guidance is found in the form of ubiquitous, divine archetypes and symbolic indications; the essential nature of this mode of being is radiant light. The female coordinate of perfect insight corresponds to the mode of apparitional incarnation in which the Dakini dances her magical display with tantalizing brilliance; in her essential nature she is manifest compassion. These three modes may also be visualized as interpenetrating spheres, or as the center, the radius and the circumference of a mandala. That is the doctrine of the Buddha's three modes of being, and it is essential to an understanding of the siddhas' metaphysics.
Now, possessing the equipment necessary to read and understand the instruction and gain more than superficial pleasure from the legends as mystical fables, we will look at the legends' structure and at the actual meditation practice of the siddhas. In general, the structural pattern of the legends is diagnosis, prescription and cure. We find a sick man aware of his sickness, disgusted with his life. He is contrite and willing to do whatever is necessary to effect a cure. A Guru inevitably appears, and after the disciple requests instruction, the Guru grants initiation and precepts; the meditation guidance is usually given in terms of the creative and fulfillment modes of meditation. The disciple performs his sadhana and attains mahamudra-siddhi, and in the process the original disease is cured. The siddha achieves Buddhahood in his lifetime, and in his own body he attains the Dakini's Paradise.
Without exception the legends stress the importance of the Guru. The Guru should not be viewed simply as an extraordinary human being with certain special knowledge to be transmitted, although this will be the preconception that the supplicant brings with him. It is essential, incidentally, that the disciple approaches the Guru as a supplicant; for, bound by his own tantric commitment, the Guru can only give precepts to those who approach him with respect, and who request initiation and instruction at a propitious moment and an appropriate juncture. But initiation radically alters the Guru/disciple relationship, destroying all the initiate's preconceptions. The heart of the initiation is the Guru's revelation of himself as the Buddha and the initiate's experience of identity with this Guru/Buddha. Thereafter, the initiate's basic practice is to reproduce this ultimate experience of oneness and to assimilate it fully into his everyday life. Identifying the Guru/Buddha's body with all human beings and all appearances whatsoever, and his speech with all human speech and all sound whatsoever, and his mind with all-pervasive, pure, non-dual awareness, he effectively identifies himself with the Guru. So, although the initiate will always retain respect for the human individual in whom the Buddha manifested at initiation, gradually his notion of the Guru expands to include all beings without exception, including himself. The siddha is a man with such a vision.
Many siddhas had incarnate Dakini Gurus, and many more had no human Guru at all. The root-tantras can be classified as father, mother or non-dual tantras: father-tantras stress the creative mode of meditation and skillful means; mother-tantras emphasize fulfillment meditation and perfect insight; and non-dual tantras treat both equally. Mother- or yogini-tantra was very popular amongst the siddhas - the names of Cakrasamvara and Hevajra appear most often in the legends - and thus the Dakini, generally in the form of Vajra Varahi, Cakrasamvara's consort, appears frequently in their mindscape. Sometimes a Wisdom Dakini appears in the realm of visionary enjoyment (sambhogakaya) to initiate a yogin at the propitious moment. If his capacity for creative imagination is sufficiently developed he sees her in a vision before him, otherwise he may hear a voice or simply see her and hear her in his mind's eye - the result is the same. Sometimes the Dakini is embodied; the mundane or worldly Dakini often appears as a whore or a dancing girl to the itinerant yogin - in Tibet and Nepal, and perhaps India, drinking establishments and brothels were identical, and the hostess would be the madam. This identification of woman with the Dakini shows the thorough-going non-duality of Tantra - every woman was the Dakini; even though she may lack experiential recognition of it and never have heard the name, still she is the tantrika's Dakini: even without beauty and intelligence, every woman is an immaculate, entrancing Dakini, the embodiment of wisdom. For one siddha the Dakini was his mother, and for another she was a young girl. The Dakini Guru is clearly most capable of empowering a yogin to practice the fulfillment mode of meditation by uniting with him as insight to his skillful means, and this happens frequently. Other siddhas were initiated by Bodhisattvas - Manjusri, Lokesvara or Tara - some appearing in divine form in the sphere of visionary enjoyment (sambhogakaya) and others as incarnate emanations (nirmanakaya).
Very frequently in the legends the Guru meets his disciple in a cremation ground. Cremation grounds are replete with all kinds of symbolic meaning. First, it is the death-bed of the ego; unconsciously we make our way there walking the streets in a pall of angst, loneliness and self-hatred. It is the obvious place to meet one's Guru. The tantric yogin celebrates the cremation ground as an ideal place to meditate upon the precious human body, the transitory nature of existence, upon death and karmic retribution, and upon emptiness itself. It is also a good place to keep warm on bitter winter nights. Thus Guru and disciple meet in empathy. And here the initiate dies to the world of confusion and is reborn into the world of light. jackals and hyenas lurk in the shadows, shrieking and howling, crows and vultures wheel overhead hoping, like the jackals, to taste human flesh. While the funeral pyres crackle and flame as the sparks fly upwards, the Dakini in the gut cakra ignites and melts concrete thought-patterns and all the rigidity of the head center which, in the form of the elixir of immortality, drips down into the Dakini's skull-cup. All phenomenal appearances take on an ethereal radiance, and sentient beings seem like apparitional phantoms in ecstasies of delight in the fertile ambience of sepulchral scenery. Further, here in the cremation ground the initiate can find the appurtenances of the yogin's life-style: a skull to use as a cup, a femur for a thigh-bone trumpet, human bones for a necklace, coronet, bracelets, and so forth. just as bones are the infrastructure of the human body, so emptiness pervades reality. Thus the siddhas of the legends were initiated and instructed in the cremation ground.
It is clear that the initiation is not merely a formal rite showing the disciple a carrot and welcoming him into the club. The initiation, which is also an empowerment, should ideally reveal the Buddha-nature, the nature of mind, the indeterminate absolute; and the specific qualities of the deity into whose map~ala the initiate is led must also be disclosed. This implies an extremely sensitive recipient, and a very perspicacious and powerful transmitter. Most of the siddhas who had no previous meditation experience before they met their Gurus were experiencing an acute sense of loss , a spiritual vacuum brought about by extreme pain, mental or physical, and they were thus ripe for a radical change in mind (Greek: metanoia). At the bottom of the pit of samsaric suffering there is a point of recognition of one's own limitations and delusions that previously were such an integral part of the mind that they could not be viewed objectively and accepted for what they were, and coincident with this humbling recognition is a new sense of fresh potential and high expectation of the precious human body. Thus a rebound out of the pit is incipient in hell itself, and it is the Guru's function to deflect the rebound away from the trap of rebirth into another realm and off the wheel of life altogether. In The Tibetan Book of the Dead such "traps" are described as different colored lights that attract the consciousness of beings, according to their karmic propensities, in between death and rebirth. Further, remorse and contrition are essential elements in the pre-initiation syndrome, as they are in the Christian experience of "meeting Christ" and "rebirth.". The greater the sense of revulsion, shame, self-hatred and nihilistic distress, the more receptive the initiate is likely to be, and the more radical the "turning around in the seat of consciousness." The Guru must always arrive on the scene at the propitious moment, and if he is indeed the Guru he will.
Following initiation comes instruction, which may have only a tenuous connection to the specific content of the initiation. But the Guru's instruction is more than conveyance of concepts to be put into practice. First, in the flush of the mystical experience of initiation the Guru/Buddha's word is essentially empty sound and pure pleasure; pure awareness of this constitutes the most important aspect of "secret teaching". Second, listening to the Guru's instruction with an open mind, symbolic overtones can usually be heard, and this level of guidance, transcending concepts, is direct and penetrating. Danger, however, lies in interpreting these symbolic indications through the filter of a deluded mind, rather than allowing intuition to assimilate them immediately. Third, the precepts enshrining specific meditation instruction is what is to be practiced as sadhana. Most of the siddhas' practices can be subsumed under the heads of creative and fulfillment modes, but Tantra, defined in contra-distinction to hinayana and mahayana is "the path of multiple means," and in this phrase lies an ocean of possibilities.
Interpreting "multiple means" broadly, Tantra or vajrayana (the path of practice where the vajra, or thunderbolt, is symbolic of ultimate, empty reality) includes the practices of hinayana (the lesser path), such as one pointed concentration (samatha), guarding the doors of the senses (vipasyana), a strict personal discipline, and much more; the practices of mahayana, the Bodhisattva's path, such as meditation on emptiness, contemplation of the four boundless states of mind, arousal of the bodhicitta of compassion, and so forth, together with the vast variety of tantric practices. These tantric practices primarily include, for example, visualization of deities and recitation of mantra, physical yoga and manipulation of prana (breath), complex alchemical rites, formless meditation, and pilgrimage. But Tantra is also the path of multiple means because it employs the entire gamut of human activity as the basis of meditation, as the siddhas' sadhanas demonstrate. The king meditates on his throne, the farmer in his fields, the lecher meditates in bed, and the widower in the cremation ground. Further, the yogin sitting in contemplation may be confronted by horrible neurotic confusion and startlingly perverse concepts: any and every mind-state whatsoever is the means to its own transformation. Thus the infinite variety of imperfect human personalities is also the multiplicity of means to attain mahamudra-siddhi.
It is useful here to introduce the metaphor of alchemy to explain the mechanics of tantric meditation. The yogin is an alchemist who must transmute the base metal of a confused mind into the gold of pure awareness. The quality of the base metal in the yogin's possession is irrelevant. His philosopher's stone that turns all into gold is full awareness of a homeopathic dose of the poison that caused the original confusion. If lust is the dominant mind-poison, then meditation upon a controlled experience of desire, in the light of the Guru's initiation and instruction, shows him the emptiness of all desire, and realizing the ultimate nature of his mind he realizes the ultimate nature of the entire universe, and thus attains mahamudra-siddhi.
The panacea, then, is the nature of neurotic personality, and the principle of the cure is "like cures like" (similia similibus curantor - the axiom of homeopathy). This innovative and considerably dangerous technique was justified by the Buddha's prophecy that his doctrine would endure for five hundred years in its pure form, five hundred in a modified form, and that thereafter, in the kaliyuga, the age of strife, the black or iron age, man would be unable to follow the discipline, or find the compassion, to practice the ways of either the hinayana arhat or the mahayana Bodhisattva, and the way of the siddha would be revealed. In the kaliyuga the impatient disciple wants results immediately, unwilling to wait for literally aeons of successive rebirths before attaining nirvana. The time-consuming practice on the lesser paths is the process of purifying the mind, eradicating vice and passion and cultivating virtue and clarity. One basic principle of Tantra is that good and evil, virtue and vice, and pleasure and pain, are equally delusive when there is still clinging to the good and pleasant and rejection of the vicious and ugly; but everything is of equal value as raw material in the process of transmutation. The danger that an initiate will abuse this precept, asserting in justification of hedonism and immorality the rationale that vice and passion have the same ultimate quality as virtue and clarity, is minimized by the initiate's sworn obedience to his Guru and by the commitments he pledges to his Guru at initiation. These commitments are called samayas, and for the initiate to break his samayas is to throw himself, with his Guru, into hell. Risking the danger of the tantric path is justified by the proven efficacy of tantric techniques. Proof enough is the existence of a pure lineage that today is still transmitting the precepts which transform ordinary consciousness into a siddha's awareness.
In this alchemical meditation - rasayana - what in other systems of meditation are treated as obstacles are friendly helpers on the path. Neurotic attitudes and frustrating features of the environment are the means by which such conditions are transcended. Lusts, attachments, deceits, fascinations and fixations are the meat of meditation, and the uninvited guest, irritating impingement of sound, paranoid delusion and mental chatter, all assist the yogin in becoming a siddha. Still, those siddhas who became most renowned - Luipa, Saraha, Tilopa, Naropa, Virupa and Nagarjuna - who initiated lineages that, through Tibet, are still alive today, were renunciate yogins who abandoned home and family ties, their palaces and academies, security and comfort, fame and wealth, and the institutional fabric of existence, to practice in conditions of deprivation. All eighty-four performed the same alchemical meditations, but those who removed the principal and proximate causes of gross and acute fascination and attachment, and the strongest agencies of the mind's structuring and conditioning, achieved most. The value of renunciation is manifold, but with regard to the friendly helpers mentioned above, they are most helpful if they come one at a time allowing sufficient attention to be given to each. Further, homeopathy and homeopathic doses are most effective in a pure environment with a sensitive psycho-organism.
The Legends of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas, as a compendium of the various psycho-experimental techniques that constitute sadhana, is virtually unique. The meaning of "the path of multiple means" becomes clear, and the terminology of the creative and fulfillment techniques, which most siddhas practiced, is defined. In creative meditation the yogin begins by identifying with the field of emptiness; out of emptiness arises a seed-syllable that is the quintessential euphonic corollary of the form of the principal deity of the mandala to be created. Employing the faculty of creative visualization, out of the seed-syllable arises the deity and his entourage of divine beings and their consorts visualized within a palace surrounded by symmetrical walls and gates. Then, by means of mudra, mantra and samadhi, these three, the deities of the mandala are realized; through symbolic gestures of the hands, recitation of the creative mantra of the deity and visualization of the deities' forms, in a samadhi of identification with the Guru's mind, the yogin vitalizes the psychic functions that the deities, their crowns, ornaments and emblems, etc., represent. Further, this basic process of visualization and recitation culminates in the emanation of lights from the yogin's head, throat and heart centers to the corresponding centers in the Guru-Buddha in the sky above, to be reabsorbed with the vitalizing power of the Buddha's three modes of being. In this way the yogin is identified with the deity; and insofar as the deity, replete with symbolic representations of the Buddha's awareness and qualities, is a statement of non-dual absolute reality, at this point there is no distinction between the mandala, the Guru's Body, Speech and Mind, and the yogin's experience . Further elaboration of the visualization includes offerings to the deity, rites of confession, restoration of the samaya pledges, praise and adoration, and other similar functions. Finally, the vision is dissolved back into the emptiness out of which it arose. Creative meditation induces realization of the nature of relative truth: all phenomenal appearances are illusion; what appear to be concrete isolates are functions of our sensory apparatus; there is no essential soul or ens that persists independent of the psycho-physical conglomerate; the universe is a system of interdependent relationships.
Fulfillment meditation includes "higher" techniques of meditation, which result in understanding of ultimate truth. But since relative and ultimate truth are two sides of the same coin, creative and fulfillment stages both lead to the same goal. Fundamentally, fulfillment meditation techniques entail the perception of emptiness in form, or the dissolution of form into emptiness: the dissolution of the creative stage vision into emptiness is technically a fulfillment stage practice. Examples of fulfillment mode yogas are dream yoga, the yoga of the mystic heat, Mahamudra meditation, the yoga of the apparitional body, the yoga of resurrection, clear light meditation, and the yoga of uniting skillful means and perfect insight to create the seed-essence of pure pleasure. The system of visualization vital in fulfillment meditation is that of the subtle body. This imaginary subtle body consists of psychic nerves - nadi, their focal points or energy centers - cakras; the energy that runs in the nerves - prana; and the essence of prana, known as "seed-essence" or bindu. A central channel, or nerve, runs from the sexual center to the fontanelle, and the left, rasana, and right, lalana, channels run parallel joining the central channel, the avadhuti, at the gut center. Converging from all parts of the body like physical veins, subsidiary nerves enter the central channel at the five focal points of psychic energy - the sexual, gut, heart, throat and head centers. Visualization of this system allows the yogin to manipulate the energies relating to the various centers for different mundane purposes, but the highest aim is to inject all energy into the central channel and up to the head center where ultimate liberation is achieved. The key to this system relates right and left channels to skillful means (male) and perfect insight (female) respectively, and the central channel to their union - Mahamudra. In an important sexual yoga, with or without a sexual partner, red and white seed-essence, bodhicittas, are mixed in the sexual center to rise up the central channel as kundalini. This is the yoga of uniting pure pleasure and emptiness.
Many legends state that the Guru's precepts instruct in both creative and fulfillment modes of meditation, but in the verse of instruction, which is like a jewel in the plain narrative setting of the legend, it is unclear how the instruction relates to the different modes. In such cases assume that "creative" and "fulfillment" modes indicate principles of meditation, the first that "emptiness is form" and the second that "all things are emptiness." For example, the skull-cup symbolizes the first principle, and its emptiness the second. Since creative meditation employs the extroversive energy of desire and procreation and relates to the father-tantra, while fulfillment employs the introversive energy of aversion and the death-wish and relates to the mother-tantra, the "creative mode" indicates radial energy, and the "fulfillment mode" focal energy. Further, insofar as virtually all Buddhist meditation is derived from the two fundamental techniques that the Buddha Sakyamuni taught - extroversive insight meditation, and introversive concentration meditation"' -the "creative mode" signifies predominant use of the former principle and the "fulfillment mode" of the latter, Mahamudra is attained by uniting creative and fulfillment modes: by practicing simultaneous meditation upon form and emptiness; by practicing insight and concentration techniques simultaneously; by fusing centripetal and centrifugal energies; by uniting skillful means and perfect insight. Thus male and female principles, realized by creative and fulfillment modes respectively, are united.
To complete this practical exposition of the anuttarayoga-tantra by means of the triadic structure of vision, meditation and action,s' something more should be said of action, the siddha's existential praxis. The nature of this praxis is rarely analyzed because it has no specific form. Generally, in legend and song, it is described in terms of the eight great siddhis and through metaphor and symbol, but only to motivate and inspire the neophyte. When the Guru does include it as a subject of instruction, as in the siddhas' dohas, the siddha's behavior is characterized as unlimited and spontaneous, selfless and compassionate. After the initiate's experiential realization of pure awareness and emptiness in a mystical experience of union has determined constant, involuntary emanation of compassionate action, there are no restraints whatsoever upon the scope of the siddha's activity. With the experientially based conviction that the relative world is all vanity, and that any mundane ambition is a futile waste of the opportunity afforded by this precious human body to attain spiritual liberation, together with a realization of the unity of self and others and the resultant benign empathy, the siddha cannot but act for the benefit of himself and others simultaneously. Thus insofar as the Bodhisattva Vow permeates his being, the siddha is driven to action uninhibited by any social or moral norm. The effusion of selfless love and the constant awareness of what is necessary override, and eventually eliminate, the conditioned restraints that inhibit manifestation of the full potential of human activity.
The Bodhisattva Vow, or rather the experience of oneness with all sentient beings that determines the quality of a siddha's action, is not to be considered the cause of his activity, nor are his actions to be seen as a function of ordinary karmic cause and effect. On the contrary, stressing the siddha's freedom from the effects of past karma his behavior is characterized as "spontaneous" (free of any connotation of impulsiveness). "Spontaneous action" can be conceived as a mode of the integrated physical, verbal and mental capacities of the psycho-organism operating in total responsiveness to the situation of which it is the central and principal part. Metaphorically, it is a case of the tail wagging the dog; the Guru/siddha responds immediately to the ultimate needs of his circle (his mandala) despite the obfuscations of self-interest, desire or ambition uppermost in his disciples' consciousness, The siddha has no choice but to respond selflessly to the stimulus provided by the highest function of interaction with his disciples, the function of release from human limitations. Thus he acts to liberate the people he encounters from the confines of their emotional and mental prisons. Since the siddha's personal karma has no place in determining the nature of his action, and because his action is a reflex of beings seeking their own salvation, it is styled "no-action", a concept that the Taoist expresses as wu wei. Further, insofar as the siddha acts spontaneously, free of thought or effort, totally absorbed in awareness of the moment, his action is said to be unmotivated and aimless .As the siddha contemplates the river's flow with an intrinsic but detached awareness, his actions make no ripples - that is the Buddha's Karma. Ego-motivated action is an attempt to divert the river's flow for personal or social advantage, and such action creates a concatenation of cause and effect that eventually returns to impinge positively or negatively upon its perpetrator - that is karma. The siddha's action is in such harmony with the natural flow that he may appear to be the agent of a supernatural authority, or he himself may be identified as that authority with the elements at his command. He may be perceived as a magician who can order the stars and set the planets in their courses, or at the very least he may be seen as the conductor of nature's symphony.
It is pertinent at this point to stress that the siddha's vision does not itself induce a siddha's actions. Intuition that the phenomenal world as we perceive it is a lie, that moral and social values are mind-created and therefore purely utilitarian, that "truth" is relative to hypothetical, metaphysical criteria, are insights that must be based in perpetual experiential identification with empty awareness through a twenty-four-hour-a-day meditation practice. Only then does "action" become "non-action". Meditation is the bridge between vision and action.
If the siddha's action is concomitant with Mahamudra, what then of his craziness, his flaunting of social convention and his uninhibited emotivity? To a large extent those very prejudices, preconceptions and other limitations of his critic's blinkered vision which the siddha rejoices to see eradicated, determine the perception of him as crazy. For instance, when the critic interprets the siddha's act, or gesture, as a crazy irrelevancy, as the non-sequitur of a madman, it is probable that he is failing to intuit the level of response upon which the siddha is operating, and that his discursive analysis is precluding the soteriological effect in his own mind through which those open to the siddha's transmission of meaning by symbolical action or gesture benefit. Similarly, when a moralist of the Confucian type castigates a siddha for violating social conventions such as the rules of pure eating, or for immoral behavior such as sexual transgression, from the Buddha's point of view there is less virtue in the moralist's inflexible social and moral prescriptions than in the siddha's "sinful" attempts to induce awareness, with all the social and moral benefits that accrue, wherein enlightenment is the ultimate goal. Thus on the short-cut path of Tantra, disregard of social and moral discipline is the corollary of the compassionate skillful means employed by the adept to eradicate obstacles to liberation.
Although the siddha's activity should not, therefore, be perceived as "crazy" on account of transgression of moral and social parameters, according to Maitripa uncontrolled emotivity as a result of inadequate training is authentic divine madness.
The thought-free yogin is like a child,
Like a bee in a flower garden tasting every bloom,
Like a lion roaring in the jungle,
And like the wind blowing where it listeth.
If his mind is trained in attention and discretion
His behavior is immaculate;
If there are no checks upon his mind's effusion
The yogin behaves like a divine madman .
Certainly, after the siddha's enlightening experience of ego-loss and the irrevocable identification with empty awareness, there is no possibility of modifying his behavior patterns: spontaneity is the siddha's mode. But from Maitripa's experience, if the neophyte is trained to discipline the emotions, and discretion and prudence are cultivated before Mahamudra meditation bears fruit, then the effusion of emotion can be utilized rather than the yogin being a creature of it. While the dance, or persona, of the crazy, thoughtfree yogin should be part of every siddha's repertoire, as it was in the case of the famous Tibetan siddha Drukpa Kunley for example, exclusive reliance upon this didactic style with its social limitations and lack of flexibility, would appear to be the mode of a siddha of lesser attainment. But within the tradition there is no distinction made between the Mahamudra attainment of a Nagarjuna (16) and a Mekopa (43). Finally, tangential to this topic, Maitripa's verses indicate the fine line, or the lack of any boundary at all, between Mahamudra and madness. But for Maitripa and all the siddhas on Tantra's short-cut path to the Buddha's enlightenment, commitment was so complete, doubt in the efficacy of the path and access to the goal so inconceivable, that the dangers involved were considered in much the same way as we approach the danger to life when crossing a busy highway.
All the siddhas who attained mahamudra-siddhi, the active expression of which has been discussed above, "finally attained ultimate liberation in the Dakini's Paradise." In some legends however, the final line stating that the siddha attained the Dakini's Paradise "in his own body" introduces some ambiguity. It can be inferred that his body dissolved into light and his demise (parinirvana) was a magical spiralling into the empyreum. Alternatively, the statement could be a recapitulation of his life since his enlightenment; in his ultimate mystical experience he attained the pure land where his existence was felt to be a constant dance with the Dakiniss, who represent the empty awareness of his pleasure. Further, the phrase rendered as "Dakini's Paradise" N 47 is ambiguous in itself and could be translated simply as "sky" or "space." For the Mahasiddha Padmasambhava, the Dakini's Paradise was his homeland of Orgyen (0ddiyana, the Swat Valley), which was also conceived as a Dharmakaya Buddhafield. The majority of the siddhas who did not attain the Dakini's Paradise were those who only accomplished mundane siddhi~ and, attaining immortality, or extraordinary longevity, remained on earth working for humanity. These were the nath siddhas, who were to become recognized as the progenitors of the great hathayoga tradition of saiva-tantra. The belief that they are still alive today is shared by millions of contemporary Hindus, who will probably direct the enquirer to the Kumaon district in the Himalayas to find Goraksa (9), Caurangi (10) and the other immortals, still meditating in secluded caves.
The legends convey the lore of eighth-twelfth century India and also the timeless ethos of Hindu spirituality. But their psychological core has a universal appeal and application that transcends culture, religion and race. Aspects of Tantra can be found in the mysticism of every culture, and the systematic formulation of mysticism (insofar as mysticism can be systematized) that is Tantra is touching responsive chords in contemporary western society. The western mystical mind that is potentially responsive to the tantric message of the siddhas is likely to show a strong repugnance to materialistic attitudes, the social and professional rat-race, and the tedium of repetitive routine. As to a suitable predisposition, he or she may be suffering nervous anxiety, about to undergo a psychological breakdown or to enter analysis, or may be a perfectly healthy poet, craftsman or contemplative; but the mind should already be free of emotional and conceptual constraints that hinder faith in the irrational and trust in the Guru. The potential initiate should be intelligent enough to grasp simple metaphysical concepts and sufficiently introverted and self-disciplined to sit in contemplation. If he has no knowledge of the sanctity of sex he should at least be free of prudish or prurient attitudes; and also, if he has contempt for scholasticism and pedantry, and a healthy disrespect for intellectual analysis, and if he has some disdain for secular authority, institutional discipline, social convention and sacred cows, his attitude is congruous with that of the progenitors of the lineage. The image of the empty bucket, right-end up, free of leaks, demonstrates the nature of mind that is then ready for the Guru's teaching.
A major obstacle on the path of Tantra (which is viewed by its adherents as a middle path) that particularly afflicts the western mind deeply conditioned by a rational and scientific education, is a rooted belief in the law of the excluded middle. This law of reasoning that insists upon a categorical positive or negative answer to any question, ignoring the middle ground, is of crucial importance in the technological world, but it is a radical impediment to development of gnostic vision. It entails taking an "extreme" stance, when according to madhyamika metaphysics mahamudra-siddhi is only accessible when all extreme thought patterns have been eradicated, or to be less extreme, when such thought patterns have become dominated by a vision that experientially reflects reality never as this or that, never as the negation of this or that, never as a synthesis of this and that, and never as an absence of this and that. Reality, in fact, is the excluded middle: it is indeterminable. In Europe it was heresy to think in these terms during the political domination of the Church, when many thousands of men and women were martyred for daring to conceive non-dualistic metaphysical doctrines that expedited union with the divine.
However, what is lacking in conventional education and Cartesian, mainstream cultural thought patterns in the West, can be more than outweighed by actual gnostic experience achieved fortuitously, or by use of psychedelic substances. Many religious cultures, including the Indian but excluding the Tibetan, use psychotropic drugs as initiatory keys and as aids in psychoexperimental techniques of release from samsara and alleviation of neural disorders, and in the West psychedelics have played an important part in fomenting interest in the tantric path. Social acceptance of human sexuality as a means to an end besides reproduction is another contemporary phenomenon conducive to a mind-set receptive to Tantra. However the fact that only one of the siddhas made a chemical preparation his sadhana (Vyali, 84) and only one used sexuality as the principal means to his enlightenment (Babhaha, 39), places psychedelic chemicals and sex in clear perspective in the Buddhist Tantra. Even casual association with Tibetan Lamas, the contemporary bearers of the siddha tradition, makes it difficult to avoid the inference that although psychedelics and sexual freedom may be important indicators of our liberation from the anti-mystical, and therefore anti-tantric, straight-jacket of Judao-Christian thought and ethics, they are not passports to the Buddha's enlightenment.
Although a Westerner may possess the requisite receptivity, attitudes and experience conducive to optimal potentiation of tantric precepts, he must find a Guru to instruct him. He may find that a divine Bodhisattva or a divine Dakini appears to him propitiously, but the instruction received from such an agency can only be very simple and direct unless much preliminary work on the mind has been completed and unless a very strong working relationship is established with the divine agency. A mundane dakini may grant informal initiation and succinct, sensitive advice, but where is the Western Dakini who can give practical guidance based upon a thorough understanding of the tantras and experiential knowledge of techniques? The principal bearers of the siddhas' tradition today are Tibetan Lamas, who through our good fortune are now seeking refuge in hospitable countries around the globe, due to the destruction of their theocracy in Tibet, and because they find they can fulfill a need where they settle. The Tibetan school that has retained the siddhas' ethos as well as the transmission of an uncorrupted though modified teaching tradition, is the Kahgyu school. To this school belongs the Tibetan classic The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, which expresses the siddhas' teaching as interpreted by Milarepa and his Guru Marpa who received instruction from Naropa and Kukkuripa in the eleventh century. There are several competent Lamas in the West today who have received Milarepa's transmission through the lineage of the late Sixteenth Gyelwa Karmapa. The Sakya school has transmitted the Mahamudra teaching of the siddha Virupa, in particular. The Nyingma school bases its doctrines upon the Mahasiddha Padmasambhava's precepts. There is hardly an Indian-originated Tibetan lineage that does not include a name found amongst the eighty-four mahasiddhas. Although the cultural impact of Tibet over a thousand years must have altered the tenor of the Indian tradition, since in general the Tibetan schools are characterized by an overwhelming reluctance to question Indian doctrines, departure from the Tantra of the siddhas has been minimal.
The Lamas will teach the siddhas' sadhanas, but very few will initiate an untutored western aspirant and grant him precepts spontaneously. Very few can jump the cultural chasm, diagnose an individual's problem and prescribe the cure. Most will insist upon a lengthy period of preparation in the disciplines of hinayana and mahayana, and, also, essential preparatory tantric meditation practice. However, the siddhas' tradition is by no means dead, and the next generation in the West can enjoy the fruit of this generation of Lamas' work. Since need, ability and aspiration are present in a favorable environment, there is no reason why countless American and European siddhas should not flourish in a latter-day blossoming of the tantric tradition transposed to the West.
|HOME | BOOKS | ESSAYS |
|MASTERS OF MAHAMUDRA | MAHAMUDRA