The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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The method of tantra is: Unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion. Energy is blocked by fixed meanings: when narrowed perception insists that things must only go one way. There is high-energy stuckness and low-energy stuckness: Conflict can produce a high-energy stalemate. Opposing sides pour energy into a situation, each trying to force it to go a particular way. Each imposes a fixed meaning. Because neither can see alternative possibilities, the energy has nowhere to go, and just spins in turbulent vortices. In low-energy stuckness, the possibility of change is missed, and those involved continually drain or dissipate energy from the situation. This happens when they fail to recognize any meaning, or deny it. This stuckness is depressed, stagnant, flaccid. Energy is both “internal”—the energy of emotions, bodily processes, and sensations—and “external”—the energy of groups, situations, and non-human processes. Tantra insists that there is no real boundary between “inside” and “outside,” so these are actually the same. Causality flows constantly, unobstructed, across the inside/outside “boundary.” Our perception of situations strongly affects our “internal” energy; our activity strongly affects “external” energy. However, since dividing inside and outside is habitual, it may be easiest to treat them separately. It may also be useful to concentrate on clarifying one’s internal energies before applying tantra to external situations. On the other hand, an outward orientation, toward practical action, is one of tantra’s most distinctive and valuable qualities.
Unclogging internal energies
Internal energies, such as emotions, have no inherent meaning. Biologically, though, they evolved to prompt particular patterns of action. Anger primes you for violence, for example. Often these evolved responses are unhelpful in our current environments, and so we (rightly) seek to prevent them. To do that, we often go to what seems the root of the problem—the energies themselves—rather than the unwanted behaviors, which are only a symptom.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to turn off—or even turn down—individual energies. It would be handy if we had a row of volume knobs and could adjust anger and lust up or down as needed. But our bodies don’t work that way. (From the tantric point of view, this is fortunate in the long run.)
So one strategy is to oppose a problem energy with another. For example, to stop yourself from strangling your pointy-haired boss, you might focus on your intense desire for a promotion. That cuts off the channel through which the anger might flow.
These deliberate blockages can lead to high-energy internal stalemates. Those are felt as frustration, internal division, and emotional turbulence. Generally they eventually erupt, when the opposing energies fail to balance.
Another strategy is to turn down the master volume knob on your whole being. If a particular problem energy is too strong to deal with, you can’t turn it down, but you can drain energy out the whole system.
This produces low-energy stuckness. It can appear as depression, niceness, cluelessness, and general uselessness. Many people misuse Buddhism this way, as a tool for lobotomizing themselves, because they haven’t got a better way of handling intense emotions.
These strategies are also highly self-referential. They are about me and how I control myself and fight my wrong energies. Those seem simultaneously internal and alien, like some sort of horrifying brain parasites from planet Zarquon. You sneak around scheming against yourself, keeping secrets from yourself, and building ever more complicated and devious diversions for your own energies.
The tantric alternative is to unify spaciousness with passion. Spaciousness loosens the causal links between perception and emotion, and between emotion and action. Spaciousness reveals the absence of inherent meaning in all three. Your boss’s selfishness, arrogance, and idiocy do not force you to feel anger; feeling anger does not require either expression or suppression.
Since emotions have no inherent meaning, and there is nothing actually wrong with any of them, there are no reasons to reject any. Spaciousness dissolves the fixations of passion in the high-energy strategy. It undoes the denial of passion in the low-energy strategy.
Tantra releases the energy that was bound up in fighting other energy, or that was dissipated into depression. It removes the dams and dikes and sluices you have built to divert energy from its courses. Freed from conceptual constraints, each energy manifests vividly, and they dance together as the full-spectrum rainbow of human biological potential.
This means either tantra needs to be gradual—unkinking pathways carefully over many years, only as you gain sufficient spaciousness—or it needs to be practiced in a bomb-proof container. Both approaches are available. Unclogging the energy of situations
You can unclog the energy of external situations, just like internal ones, by loosening causal links that appear fixed. Here, as a tantrika, you work with other people’s perception of meaning, their emotional responses to meanings, and their emotionally-driven actions.
The process begins with “spacious activity”: undirected exploration of a situation. The tantrika has no agenda; no hope of accomplishing anything in particular. He or she is just curious.
Then the tantrika begins to poke at things playfully, to see what happens. From observation and little nudges, he or she gets a feel for the pattern, for the ways the energetic flows balance. Over here there is an obstacle to one potential flow; over there, an energy is forced to take a circuitous route through a series of kinks in the channel. High-energy stuck situations
In a high-energy stuck situation, people have fixed ideas about what things mean. There are intense passions in conflict, and a spaciousness deficit. Here the tantrika feels for alternative possibilities that have been overlooked by the participants; for other meanings that can be found in the situation. Because the tantrika has no preconceived ideas about what should happen, his or her attitude is free of arrogance.
Then, he or she jumps into the gap. Ideally, the tantrika finds a place to stand where applying a slight force at precisely the right time and angle causes the whole structure to settle into a new, more productive arrangement, using its own energy. If you have ever played Angry Birds, you have the image of a little tap, in just the right place, setting off a chain of large rearrangements. Imagine that with flexible high-pressure hoses and nozzles and valves added. (Hey, maybe that would make a cool game…)
Alternatively, the tantrika may just shake things up, in order to bring spaciousness to rigid patterns. If a situation is completely useless, randomly blowing it up might be better than nothing. (But this works only if you can apply more force than the other participants.)
Either way, the intervention is at the level of meaning. The tantrika inserts a new interpretation—whether subtly or bluntly.
The tantrika becomes the space in which reconfiguration occurs. The tantrika’s mind expands to encompass the situation and all the energies in it, and the other actors play out their dramas inside the space he or she provides. The tantrika brings freshness, humor, and grace to the situation. If the other participants lack spaciousness, the tantrika’s activity may be incomprehensible. It might even seem a little like magic.
(I hope this doesn’t sound mystical; there’s nothing supernatural about it. It’s not exactly metaphorical, either, though, because there actually isn’t an objective boundary around individuals.) Low-energy stuck situations
In low-energy stuck situations, there is a passion deficit. Whatever energy flows into the situation is immediately dissipated, because potential meanings have been denied. Everything is flat and dull.
Here the tantrika can liberate the situation by supplying passion and meaningfulness. Again, this requires a detailed feel for the workings of the situation, and skill in intervention. The force of despair driving the dissipation of energy may be far stronger than you. Opposing it directly would fail. The tantrika reaches into spaciousness to locate a specific passion, latent in the situation, that can overcome the force of dissipation. The tantrika becomes the passion that is needed, and the situation reconfigures itself around that passion.
Creativity is central in tantric Buddhism. However, the goal is not “self-expression.” (Selves are not particularly interesting.) Nor is it to make something new just because it’s new. Nor is it about connecting with the Absolute Infinite.
In both high- and low-energy situations, the tantrika unclogs energy by increasing passion or spaciousness (or both), and by unifying the two. Energy flows freely when no passion is denied, and when no meaning is fixed.
There may seem to be a paradox here: passion naturally seeks changes; spaciousness means allowing things to be as they are. The resolution is that the tantrika works with the energies that are already present in a situation, and frees them to be as they naturally are. The aim of tantra is not to fix the world. The world is unfixable. The aim of tantra is to liberate it from imposed meanings.