A Tibetan Tantra
This Chapter is an admirably understanding review (reprinted from The Theosophist of July 1919) by Mr. Johan Van Manen, the Tibetan scholar. It was written on the seventh volume of Tantrik Texts which contains the first Tibetan Tantra to be published. The Tantra which was selected for the series was the Shricakra-Sambhara, because the Editor happened to have manuscripts of this and other works of the same school.
All lovers of Indian philosophy are familiar with the magnificent series of works on the Tantra which, under the general editorship of "Arthur Avalon," have seen the light within the last few years. Some, 15 volumes, either texts, translations, or studies, have hitherto been published, and the titles of a number of further works are announced as in preparation or in the press. Just now a new volume has been added to the series, constituting Vol. VII of the "Texts," and this book is undoubtedly one of the most interesting of all those hitherto issued.
Up till now the series has only dealt with works and thoughts originally written down in Sanskrit; this new volume goes further afield and brings us the text and translation of a Tibetan work, dealing with the same subject the whole series is intended to study. Tibetan Tantrism is undoubtedly a development of its Indian prototype, and at a further stage of our knowledge of the whole subject, the historical development of this school of thought will be, no doubt, studied minutely.
Though this present volume brings valuable material towards such an historical study, our knowledge of the Tantra under this aspect is as yet far too limited to enable us to say much about this side of the questions raised by its publication or to find a place for it in the present review of the work. What is more urgent now is to examine this book as it stands, to try to define the general trend of its contents, and to attempt to value it generally in terms of modern speech and thought.
In our discussion of the book, therefore, we shall not concern ourselves with questions of technical scholarship at all, but attempt to go to the heart of the subject in such a manner as might be of interest to any intelligent man attracted towards philosophical and religious thought. And it is perhaps easier to do so with the present work than with many others in the series to which it belongs, for more than these others this work makes an appeal to the intellect direct, and proves very human and logical, so as to evoke a response in even such readers as are not prepared by a detailed knowledge of system and terminology, to disentangle an elaborate outer form from the inner substance. It is true that here also, every page and almost every line bristles with names and terms, but the thought connecting such terms is clear, and these, serving much the purposes of algebraical notations in mathematical formulae, can be easily filled in by any reader with values derived from his own religious and philosophical experience.
The Tantras have, often, not been kindly spoken of. It has been said that they have hitherto played, in Indology, the part of a jungle which everybody is anxious to avoid. Still stronger, a great historian is quoted as having said that it would be "the unfortunate lot of some future scholar to wade through the disgusting details of drunkenness and debauchery which were regarded as an essential part of their religion by a large section of the Indian community not long ago"
And Grünwedel, speaking especially of the Tibetan Tantras (Mythology, p. 106), from the immense literature of which as yet nothing had been translated, says: "To work out these things will be, indeed, a sacrficium intellectus, but they are, after all, no more stupid than the Brahmanas on which so much labor has been spent." But here we have the first translation into a European language of one of these Tantrik texts; and far from being obscene or stupid, it strikes us as a work of singular beauty and nobility, and as a creation of religious art, almost unique in its lofty grandeur. It is so totally unlike any religious document we are acquainted with, that it is almost inconceivable that this is only a brief specimen, a first specimen, made accessible to the general public, of a vast literature of which the extent (as existing in Tibet) cannot yet even be measured.
Yet, in saying that the nature of our book is unique, we do not mean to imply that close analogies cannot be found for it in the religious literatures and practices of the world. Such an aloofness would be rather suspicious, for real religious experience is, of course, universal, and, proceeding from the same elements in the human heart, and aspiring to the same ends, must always show kinship in manifestation. Yet this Tibetan product has a distinctive style of its own, which singles it out in appearance as clearly, let us say, as the specific character of Assyrian or Egyptian art is different from that of other styles.
When we now proceed to examine the document before us, at the outset a verdict of one of the critics of Tantrism comes to our mind, to the effect that the Tantra is perhaps the most elaborate system of auto-suggestion in the world. This dictum was intended as a condemnation; but though accepting the verdict as correct, we ourselves are not inclined to accept, together with it, the implied conclusion. Auto-suggestion is the establishment of mental states and moods from within, instead of as a result of impressions received from without. Evidently there must be two kinds of this auto-suggestion, a true and a false one.
The true one is that which produces states of consciousness corresponding to those which may be produced by realities in the outer world, and the false one is that which produces states of consciousness not corresponding to reactions to any reality without. In the ordinary way the consciousness of man is shaped in response to impressions from without, and so ultimately rests on sensation, but theoretically there is nothing impossible in the theory that these "modifications of the thinking principle" should be brought about by the creative will and rest rather on imagination and intuition than on sensation.
This theory has not only been philosophically and scientifically discussed, but also practically applied in many a school of mysticism or Yoga. If I remember well, there is a most interesting book by a German (non-mystic) Professor, Staudenmeyer, dealing with this subject, under the title of Magic as an Experimental Science (in German), and the same idea seems also to underlie Steiner's theory of what he calls "imaginative clairvoyance".
In Christian mysticism this has been fully worked out by de Loyola in his "Spiritual Exercises" as applied to the Passion of the Christ. In what is now-a-days called New Thought, this principle is largely applied in various manners. In our book we find it applied in terms of Tantrik Buddhism with a fullness and detail surpassing all other examples of this type of meditation. In order to present the idea in such a way that it may look plausible in itself, we have first to sketch out the rationale underlying any such system. This is easily done.
We can conceive of this universe as an immense ocean of consciousness or intelligence in which the separate organisms, human beings included, live and move and have their being. If we conceive of this mass of consciousness as subject to laws, analogous to those of gravity, and at the same time as being fluidic in nature, then the mechanism of all intellectual activity might well be thought of, in one of its aspects, as hydraulic in character. Let any organism, fit to be a bearer of consciousness, only open itself for the reception of it, and the hydraulic pressure of the surrounding sea of consciousness will make it flow in, in such a form as the construction of the organism assumes. The wave and the sea, the pot and the water, are frequent symbols in the East, used to indicate the relation between the all-consciousness and the individual consciousness. If the human brain is the pot sunk in the ocean of divine consciousness, the form of that pot will determine the form which the all-consciousness will assume within that brain.
Now imagination, or auto-suggestion, may determine that form. Through guess, intuition, speculation, tradition, authority, or whatever the determinant factor may be, any such form may be chosen. The man may create any form, and then, by expectancy, stillness, passivity, love, aspiration or whatever term we choose, draw the cosmic consciousness within him, only determining its form for himself, but impersonally receiving the power which is not from himself, but from without. The process is like the preparation of a mold in which molten metal is to be cast, with this difference, that the metal cast into the mold is not self-active and alive, and not ever-present and pressing on every side, as the living consciousness is which constitutes our universe.
We may take an illustration from the mechanical universe. This universe is one seething mass of forces in constant interplay. The forces are there and at work all the time, but only become objectified when caught in suitable receivers. The wind-force, if not caught by the arms of the windmill, the forces of stream or waterfall, if not similarly gathered in a proper mechanism, disperse themselves in space and are not focused in and translated into objective units of action.
So with the vibrations sent along the wire, in telegraphic or telephonic communication, or with the other vibrations sent wirelessly. In a universe peopled with intelligences, higher beings, gods, a whole hierarchy of entities, from the highest power and perfection to such as belong to our own limited class, constant streams of intelligence and consciousness must continuously flash through space and fill existence.
Now it seems, theoretically indeed, very probable, assuming that consciousness is one and akin in essence, that the mechanical phenomenon of sympathetic vibration may be applied to that consciousness as well as to what are regarded as merely mechanical vibrations. So, putting all the above reasonings together, it is at least a plausible theory that man, by a process of auto-suggestion, may so modify the organs of his consciousness, and likewise attune his individual consciousness in such a way, as to become able to enter into a sympathetic relation with the forces of cosmic consciousness ordinarily manifesting outside him and remaining unperceived, passing him as it were, instead of being caught and harnessed. And this is not only a theory, but more than that -- a definite statement given as the result of experience by mystics and meditators of all times and climes.
Now we may ask: how has this method been applied in our present work? A careful analysis of its contents makes us discover several interesting characteristics. First of all we have to remember that our text presupposes a familiarity with the religious conceptions, names, personalities and philosphical principles of Northern Buddhism, which are all freely used in the composition. What is strange and foreign in them to the Western reader is so only because he moves in unfamiliar surroundings.
But the character of the composition is one which might be compared to such analogous Western productions (with great differences, however) as the Passion Play at Oberammergau or the mediaeval mystery-plays. Only, in some of the latter the historical element predominates, whilst in the Tibetan composition the mythological element (for want of a better word) forms the basis and substance. In other words, in this ritual of meditation the Gods, Powers and Principles are the actors, and not, historical or symbolical personages of religious tradition. Secondly the play is enacted in the mind, inwardly, instead of on the scene, outwardly. The actors are not persons, but conceptions.
First, the meditator has to swing up his consciousness to a certain pitch of intensity, steadiness, quiet, determination and expectancy. Having tuned it to the required pitch, he fixes it on a simple center of attention which is to serve as a starting-point or gate through which his imagination shall well up as the water of a fountain comes forth through the opening of the water-pipe. From this central point the mental pictures come forth. They are placed round the central conception.
From simple to complex in orderly progression the imaginative structure is elaborated. The chief Gods appear successively, followed by the minor deities. Spaces, regions, directions are carefully determined. Attributes, colors, symbols, sounds are all minutely prescribed and deftly worked in, and explications carefully given. A miniature world is evolved, seething with elemental forces working in the universe as cosmic forces and in man as forces of body and spirit.
Most of the quantities on this elaborate notation are taken from the body of indigenous religious teaching and mythology. Some are so universal and transparent that the non-Tibetan reader can appreciate them even without a knowledge of the religious technical terms of Tibet. But anyhow, an attentive reading and re-reading reveals something, even to the outsider, of the force of this symbological structure, and makes him intuitively feel that here we are assisting in the unfolding of a grand spiritual drama, sweeping up the mind to heights of exaltation and nobility.
As to the terminological side of the text, the Editor's abundant notes prove as valuable as useful. They may disturb the elevated unity of the whole at first, but after some assiduous familiarizing, lead to fuller and deeper comprehension. Even a single reading is sufficient to gain the impression that a stately and solemn mental drama is enacted before us with an inherent impressiveness which would attach, for instance to a Christian, to the performance of a ritual in which all the more primary biblical persons, human and superhuman, were introduced, in suitable ways, as actors. And the superlative cleverness of this structure! Starting from a single basic note, this is developed into a chord, which again expands into a melody, which is then elaborately harmonized.
Indeed the meditation is in its essence both music and ritual. The initial motives are developed, repeated, elaborated, and new ones introduced. These again are treated in the same way. A symphony is evolved and brought to a powerful climax, and then again this full world of sound, form, meaning, color, power is withdrawn, limited, taken back into itself, folded up and dissolved, turned inwards again and finally returned into utter stillness and rest, into that tranquil void from which it was originally evoked and which is its eternal mother. I do not know of any literature which in its nature is so absolutely symphonic, so directly akin to music, as this sample of a Tibetan meditational exercise.
And curiously enough, it makes us think of another manifestation of Indian religious art, for in words this document is akin to the Indian temple decoration, especially the South Indian gopura, which in its endless repetitions and elaborations seems indeed instinct with the same spirit which has given birth to this scheme of imagination taught in these Tantras. Only, in stone or plaster, the mythological host is sterile and immovable, whilst, as created in the living mind, the similar structure partakes of the life of the mind within and without. The sculptural embodiment is, therefore, serviceable to the less evolved mind. The Tantra is for the religious thinker who possesses power.
But we said that our meditational structure was also akin to ritual. What we mean by this is that all the figures and images evoked in the mind in this meditation are, after all, only meant, as the words, vestures and gestures in a ritual, to suggest feelings, to provoke states of consciousness, and to furnish (if the simile be not thought too pathetic) pegs to hang ideas upon.
Like as a fine piece of music, or a play, can only be well rendered when rehearsed over and over again, and practiced so that the form side of the production becomes almost mechanical, and all power in the production can be devoted to the infusion of inspiration, so can this meditation only be perfectly performed after untold practice and devotion. It would be a totally mistaken idea to read this book as a mere piece of literature, once to go through it to see what it contains, and then to let it go. Just as the masterpieces of music can be heard hundreds of times, just as the great rituals of the world grow in power on the individual in the measure with which he becomes familiar with them and altogether identifies himself with the most infinitely small minutiae of their form and constitution, so this meditation ritual is one which only by repetition can be mastered and perfected. Like the great productions of art or nature, it has to "grow" on the individual.
This meditational exercise is not for the small, nor for the flippant, nor for those in a hurry. It is inherently an esoteric thing, one of those teachings belonging to the regions of "quiet" and "tranquillity" and "rest" of Taoistic philosophy. To the ignorant it must be jabber, and so it is truly esoteric, hiding itself by its own nature within itself, though seemingly open and accessible to all. But in connection with this meditation we do not think of pupils who read it once or twice, or ten times, or a hundred, but of austere thinkers who work on it as a life-work through laborious years of strenuous endeavor.
For, what must be done to make this meditation into a reality? Every concept in it must be vivified and drenched with life and power. Every god in it must be made into a living god, every power manipulated in it made into a potency. The whole structure must be made vibrant with forces capable of entering into sympathetic relation with the greater cosmic forces in the universe, created in imitation on a lower scale within the individual meditator himself.
To the religious mind the universe is filled with the thoughts of the gods, with the powers of great intelligences and consciousnesses, radiating eternally through space and really constituting the world that is. "The world is only a thought in the mind of God." It must take years of strenuous practice even to build up the power to visualize and correctly produce as an internal drama this meditation given in our book. To endow it with life and to put power into this life is an achievement that no small mind, no weak devotee, can hope to perform. So this meditation is a solemn ritual, like the Roman Catholic Mass; only it is performed in the mind instead of in the church, and the mystery it celebrates is an individual and not a general sacrament.
In what we have said above we have tried to give some outlines of the chief characteristics of this remarkable work, now brought within the reach of the general reading public, and especially of benefit to those among them interested in the study of comparative religion along broad lines. We owe, indeed, a debt of gratitude to Arthur Avalon, whose enthusiasm for and insight into the Indian religious and philosophical mind have unearthed this particular gem for us. We may be particularly grateful that his enthusiasm has not set itself a limit, so as to prevent him from dealing with other than Sanskrit lore alone, and from looking for treasure even beyond the Himalayas.
In this connection we may mention that it is his intention to maintain this catholic attitude, for he is now taking steps to incorporate also an important Japanese work on the Vajrayana in his Tantrik series. As far as this first Tibetan text is concerned, the choice has been decidedly happy, and he has been no less fortunate in having been able to secure a competent collaborator to undertake the philological portion of the work, the translating and editing labor. The result of thus associating himself with a capable indigenous scholar to produce the work, has been a great success, a production of practical value which will undoubtedly not diminish in all essentials for a long time to come. For not only is this particular work in and for itself of interest, with a great beauty of its own; it has another value in quite other directions than those connected with the study of meditation or of religious artistic creation.
The work furnishes a most important key to a new way of understanding many phases and productions of Indian philosophy. The projection of the paraphernalia of Hindu mythology inwards into the mind as instruments of meditation, the internalizing of what we find in the Puranas or the Epic externalized as mythology, has seemed to me to throw fresh and illuminating light on Indian symbology. To give an illustration: In this Tantra we find an elaborate manipulation of weapons, shields, armor, as instruments for the protection of the consciousness.
Now all these implements figure, for instance, largely and elaborately in such a work as the Ahirbudhnya Samhita, of which Dr. Schrader has given us a splendid summary in his work, Introduction to the Pañcaratra. But in the Pañcaratra all these implements are only attributes of the gods. In our text we find a hint as to how all these external mythological data can also be applied to and understood as internal workings of the human consciousness, and in this light Indian mythology assumes a new and richer significance. I do not want to do more here than hint at the point involved, but no doubt any student of Hindu mythology who is also interested in Hindu modes of thought, in the Hindu Psyche, will at once see how fruitful this idea can be.
One of the riddles of Indian thought is that its symbology is kinetic and not static, and eludes the objective formality of Western thought. That is why every Hindu god is another, who is again another, who is once more another. Did not Kipling say something about "Kali who is Parvati, who is Sitala, who is worshipped against the small-pox"? So also almost every philosophical principle is an "aspect" of another principle, but never a clear-cut, well-circumscribed, independent thing by itself. Our text goes far towards giving a hint as to how all these gods and principles, which in the Puranas and other writings appear as extra-human elements, may perhaps also be interpreted as aspects of the human mind (and even human body) and become a psychological mythology instead of a cosmic one.
The idea is not absolutely new, but has been put forward by mystics before. The Cherubinic Wanderer sang that it would be of no avail to anyone, even if the Christ were born a hundred times over in Bethlehem, if he were not born within the man himself. It has been said of the Bhagavad-Gita that it is in one sense the drama of the soul, and that meditation on it, transplanting the field of Kurukshetra within the human consciousness, may lead to a direct realization of all that is taught in that book, and to a vision of all the glories depicted therein. That idea is the same as that which is the basis of our text.
Its message is: "Create a universe within, in order to be able to hear the echoes of the universe without, which is one with that within, in essence." If seers, occultists, meditators really exist, they may be able to outline the way and method by which they themselves have attained. So it was with de Loyola and his "Spiritual Exercises," and there is no reason why it should not be the same with the book we are discussing here.
As to how far we have here a result of practical experience, or only an ingenious theory, a great "attempt," as it were, we will not and cannot decide. To make statements about this needs previous experiment, and we have only read the book from the outside, not lived its contents from within. But however this may be, even such an outer reading is sufficient to reveal to us the grandeur of the conception put before us, and to enable us to feel the symphonic splendor of the creation as a work of religio-philosophic art; and that alone is enough to enable us to judge the work as a masterpiece and a document of first-class value in the field of religious and mystical literature.
The form is very un-Western indeed and in many ways utterly unfamiliar and perhaps bewildering. But the harmony of thought, the greatness of the fundamental conceptions, the sublimity of endeavor embodied in it, are clear; and these qualities are certainly enough to gain for it admirers and friends -- perhaps here and there a disciple -- even in our times so badly prepared to hear this Tibetan echo from that other world, which in many ways we in the West make it our strenuous business to forget and to discount.