Mutual Enrichment: Meditation in Tantra and Christianity
Lecture given at the Australian Meditation Conference,
Australian Catholic University
21 July 2108
Mindfulness develops attentiveness in every way. It breaks down the silo effect which keeps different traditions apart.
This paper investigates the possibilities of mutual enrichment between Tantra and Christianity.
It uses the process called ‘comparative theology’, developed by Frank Clooney of Harvard University where one tradition understands itself more fully by learning from another. This topic will be treated fully in the session at 5 pm in this same theatre today entitled ‘Meditation Traditions across Religions’. This process does not confuse. It does not suppress; it does not equate; it does not exploit; it does not ignore the unique quality of another tradition. It is a process of self-discovery through discovering the other. It is a noteworthy method of interfaith dialogue.
Thus, I propose that Christian meditation can discover itself more fully by learning from Tantric meditation and vice versa.
Am I qualified to broach this subject? I am Associate Professor at the University of Divinity where I lecture in meditation. I am also Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University with a special focus on interfaith. My doctoral studies are in Kashmir Shaivism, which is now acknowledged as one of the great Indian traditions. I have written books and articles with special reference to its Kula tradition which is considered to be the most tantric.
Tantra can be defined as the union of opposites, male and female and more broadly the union of licit and illicit, good and evil, spirit and matter, heaven and earth, time and eternity, pleasure and horror. Where the intellect seeks to categorize, tantra seeks to unite. Tantra is paradoxical. Mental constructs collapse as a result of the paradox, and the spirit enters into a new dimension, finding fulness of consciousness and ultimate bliss.
The principal figure of Kashmir Shaivism is Abhinavagupta (c. 975-1025). In his encyclopaedic work, the Tantrāloka, he reviews all the tantras of his day and interprets them from a non-dual perspective. In chapter 29 of that work, he presents the Kula ritual which he prefers to all others.
The Kula tantric tradition must not be confused with what Hugh Urban calls “the late-capitalist aesthetic”. He says
“… instead of the ideal of unity, order, or harmony, the late-capitalist aesthetic is one of physical intensity, shock value, immediate gratification, and ecstatic experience”
The Kula tantric tradition shows a steady progress from order to spontaneity, from licit to illicit, from worship of the god to worship of the goddess. The goddess, in her freedom and lack of constraint, destroys all carefully elaborated plans and takes her devotee into her own joy. She provides a spiritualty of pleasure, not the mundane and superficial pleasures of food and drink, but a lasting pleasure that does not cloy, a bliss that is perceived to be the very essence of things.
The Kula perspective is vast. I can make only a few points regarding its views on consciousness and relationship. These can be illustrated in the person of Chandan who lived in West Bengal, an old man when I met him, unassuming in his appearance but remarkable in his knowledge.
At the age of fourteen, when boys were often given in marriage, Chandan refused. Intoxicated with God, he went in search of a guru and was eventually welcomed by a tantric practitioner, a ‘Bhairava’, and his consort, a ‘Bhairavī’, who lived in a cremation ground in Kolkata.
After teaching Chandan many things, the Bhairava told him to withdraw to a secluded place near the temple of Kapilas in Odisha, to perform austerities. This he did. At the direction of the goddess he eventually went to live the life of a sannyāsīin a village of milkmen where he stayed for over 40 years.
Chandan spent his day in contemplation of his guru and of Kālī, the fearsome goddess. He spoke with intelligence and verve, accompanying his words with dramatic gestures which were natural and unaffected, interspersing his comments by singing quotations from the sacred texts. He had no ritual practice or any other formal sort of practice. He said it is Kālī who guides to the ultimate stage, she who is in fact present at the beginning.
Chandan said there are three levels of consciousness. The paśu– the person who is more concerned with objectivity, with things and acts, and does not seek to channel his reactions. For example, he or she is focused on the sexual emission which is short-lived. By contrast the vīra– the ‘heroic person’ – is focused on the interior senses. He has control over his emotions. For example, he can withhold the emission and remain in the state of bliss (ānanda) for long periods of time. The vīrais still involved with ego. However, he begins to realize his true self. He understands that he is not the limited self but is really the god Śiva. This realization constitutes the crucial moment of transition to divyabhava,the ‘divine state’, where the sense of self-centered ego disappears.
This state does not eliminate the other states but contains them and constitutes the goal to which they are tending. Thus, the sexual emotions are present in this ‘divine state’, but without the limitations of the earlier states.
A whole new consciousness begins to operate. The practitioner is no longer the agent, occupied in doing things; he or she becomes the witness, involved in everything but not tied to anything. The pleasure he experiences is intense and delicate, permanent and independent of any stimulus. There is nothing but bliss, not a sensation of bliss which might imply a distinction between the experience and the experiencer. There is simply bliss without distinction. He finds that he is no longer dependent on circumstance or situations or even a sexual partner but brings the same mind to bear in all the situations of daily life, in the good times as in the bad, in pleasure as in pain. He is ‘liberated while still alive’. The mind has been fully expanded. He is the accomplished tantric.
All the religious traditions, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu etc. use sexual imagery to describe the highest states of mysticism. This imagery is not meaningless. It is not an attempt to satisfy the monk’s unfulfilled desires. On the contrary, the divine state is the source and goal of sexual activity, its beginning and end. The highest mystical state constitutes the summit of sexual experience.
The Kula tradition sees the highest ultimate Reality as consisting of the god and the goddess, Śiva and Śakti in sexual union. All things are an expression of their intercourse. This highest mystical state is that of the god Śiva who is in intercourse with all aspects of reality. These are called śaktis. In Tantrāloka 29.79,Abhinavagupta describes the accomplished tantric as follows:
“… having by his own nature become the … lord of the kula, he should satiate the many śaktis by pairing [with them], …”
Jayaratha, his learned commentator, re-affirms the point by quoting a verse which reads:
“His śaktis are the whole universe.”.
Therefore, every circumstance is a state of intercourse.
His every word is a mantra; his every act is a sacrifice. He has the mind of Bhairava. Such is the tantric ideal.
How can any of this relate to Christianity? In what way can the Kula tantric meditation tradition open up elements in Christian meditation? And again, in what way can Christianity reveal aspects of tantric meditation that already exist within tantra? I propose for your consideration that the contribution of Christianity is to develop the dimension of personal relationship and freedom within the tantric meditation. The contribution of Kula tantra is to develop the spirituality of pleasure within Christianity.
The Latin word persona, originally referred to the mask which actors wore to indicate their role. Christianity gives the term an altogether new meaning. In fact the idea of the person is “one of the contributions to human thought made possible and provided by the Christian faith.”
There can be various reactions to the presence of another person. ‘Hell is other people’is one of the most famous statements of the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. He asserts, as a major theme of his work, that there cannot be both intimacy and freedom. One person cannot relate to another person without destroying their freedom. Either I oppress or I am oppressed. We cannot both be free.
Fear, retaliation, withdrawal, fight or flight: there are many reactions to the presence of another person. Another response again is to interpret oneself and the other as a collection of characteristics without substance. Since human beings do not essentially exist, they can be fundamentally ignored and dismissed. Others are viewed non-judgmentally but neither are they valued. In all these cases, there is no interpersonal relationship, only rejection or indifference.
Most often the concern in tantric meditation is consciousness, as in in the quotation given by Jayaratha, the learned commentator of the Tantrāloka,
“The perfect expression of sexual desire, as it is called, is not to be performed for the sake of enjoyment. [It is to be performed] for the sake of considering one’s own consciousness: is the mind steady or fluctuating?”
However, there is another approach altogether. To meet is to be surprised, to perceive the value of the other, to welcome and to acknowledge, to affirm and to empower the other. To encounter also means becoming vulnerable towards the other person. It requires confidence in oneself and confidence in the other. Encounter is very different from mere awareness. It is not just a matter of camaraderie or friendliness. It is a highly creative moment of ultimate significance.
One of the contributions of Christianityto tantric meditation is to develop this experience of mutual presence. The idea of mutual presence lies at the very heart of Christianity, with its doctrine of one God in three Persons, not in three individuals or three functions. Christianityis neither tri-theistic or monistic. In the Trinitarian view, God exists as ‘we’,three Persons, not three individuals or functions, who are present to each other. God is a communion.
In the Gospel of St John, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me”. (Jn 14:10) And again “I am, not alone, because the Father is with me.” (Jn 16:32)
The sense of the self implies the sense of the other. Emile Benveniste (1902-1976), the noted linguist, makes the point.
“Consciousness of self is possible only if it is experienced in contrast. I use the form ‘I’ only in addressing someone who will be the ‘you’ of my address. . . . the form ‘I’ posits another person . . . [neither ‘I’ nor ‘you’] is conceivable without the other. . .”
The ‘I’ is inconceivable without the ‘you’. However, it is not possible comprehensively to define the other, despite the attempts throughout history to do so. There is simple awareness.
Much more could be said on this topic but we need to move on.
The sense of mutual presence is not entirely absent from Kashmir Shaivism. In his commentary on ParātrīṃśikāAbhinavagupta examines the command ‘Listen’ (śṛṇu) which Śiva addresses to Śakti, his consort. He studies the pronouns, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’, ‘you’, and ‘I’. The ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘it’ are the objects of the universe. However, when the objects are addressed they are transformed. The ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’ cease to be impersonal and become the personal ‘you’.
We have all experienced this transition. When we are ignored or ‘given the cold shoulder’ we feel diminished and reduced to the state of an object. When we are greeted, we feel affirmed and freed.
The act of addressing the other person is, therefore, fundamentally important in the process. However, it is when a person becomes fully aware of their own Self and their infinite autonomy, that they become fully capable of addressing the other. They transform the object which then becomes a co-subject: ‘it’ becomes ‘you’. This is because they recognise that in fact the object is already endowed with subjectivity. As Teilhard de Chardin states, consciousness is everywhere, even in inanimate stones. This self-awareness enables a person to perceive the essence of the other. Abhinavagupta states,
“Adverting, by means of wonder at [his own] undivided ‘I’, to the [other] person’s [tasya] sense of wonder and freedom at [his] undivided ‘I’ … he addresses [him]: he designates [him] with the invocation ‘you’, with the ‘second person’.”
Having realized their own autonomy [svātantrya], they now recognize the autonomy of the other. It is one and the same autonomy that they share. They stand in amazement. They are able to say to the other person, ‘you are my very self’. This amazement takes them out of time.
The sense of this ‘I’ must be carefully understood. The megalomaniac thinks their limited ego is the universal Self. On the other hand, the self-depreciating person sees their individual ego as limited and confined to time and place. The enlightened person understands that they are essentially the universal Self and that their limited ego is a true manifestation of the supreme Self, and therefore has infinite worth.
Christianity draws our attention more closely to Abhinavagupta’s unusual commentary on the command ‘Listen’ and highlights its importance. Christian revelation, for its part, is not first and foremost a series of doctrines but the fact that the Infinite speaks to the finite and thereby transforms the finite.
I have spoken of inter-personal presence. A person is fully constituted as a person when they are free. Any constraint on their freedom means a lessening of their personhood. If their freedom is removed, they are reduced to the state of an object; they lose their subjecthood.
Freedom is the hall-mark of the Christian. St Paul explicitly teaches that Christians do not follow the ancient Law (Gal 5:18) but follow the leading of the Spirit (Rm 8:2).
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3.17) They “are subject to no one else’s scrutiny” (I Cor 2:15).
It is easier to function under the constraints of obligation than to act consistently in a state of freedom, free from wilfulness and fancy, free from craving and resentment. St James, in a remarkable phrase, speaks of “looking steadily at the law of freedom” (Jm 1:25). Christian freedom makes others free; all creation seeks that freedom (Rm 8:21).
It is freedom from but also freedom for. It is freedom from all the negativities, in myself and in others, a freedom that gives the clarity of vision to see the freedom of others and to welcome it. Those who are free communicate their freedom, infectiously so to speak. They are assured and confident. They empower and are empowered.They wish to be free with those who are free.Freedom inspires freedom, which grows exponentially as a result.
In the mutual recognition of freedom, the perception of an even greater freedom arises, an eternal and universal freedom in which they bathe.
In a letter to Sigmund Freud, dated 1927, Romain Rolland, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, coined the phrase “oceanic feeling” to refer to the sensation of being one with the universe. According to Rolland, this feeling is the source of all the religious energy that permeates the various religious systems, and one may justifiably call oneself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one renounces every belief. Freud discusses the feeling in two of his books, and dismisses it as a fragmentary vestige of the kind of consciousness possessed by an infant who has not yet differentiated himself or herself from other people and things.
The experience of encounter leads to more than a feeling of oceanic existence; it leads also to a sense of oceanic freedom, an eternal freedom which persists even in the face of those who seek to suppress and disempower. Indeed, it is the experience of the One who is supremely free.
This point is made by Martin Buber (1878-1965) in his famous book I-Thou. He notes that “this awareness of the ‘you’, namely of the other human person, gives a fleeting glimpse of the eternal ‘You’, who is called ‘God’. The human being reveals the Invisible.”He also warns of the individualistic mentality that reduces the other to an object (Cassidy, 2006, p. 880).
Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995) states that the person facing me is the most fundamental experience I can undergo. The other is transcendent and yet present, with claims that demand a response. Levinas proclaims the primacy of love that leads beyond a world fashioned by individualist concerns (Cassidy, 2006, pp. 877-879).
I propose that the Christian emphasis on presence and freedom is the major contribution that Christian awareness can give to tantric meditation practice. The pleasure that is experienced in the presence of the other is unsurpassable. I propose also that the spirituality of pleasure is a major contribution that the Kula tantric tradition of Kashmir Shaivism can make to Christianity.
Of course, pleasure is not absent from Christianity. The Christian traditionattaches great importance to the paśuand vīrastages, but it attaches special importance to the divyabhavastage. Indeed, the highest form of spiritual awareness is usually described in terms of sexual union, as we have noted. The Song of Songsin the Old Testament, for example, uses sexually explicit love poetry to describe the relationship of God and his People. The New Testament often presents Jesus Christ as the bridegroom. Gregory of Nyssa, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Beguines, and St John of the Cross are but a few of the many who have developed the link between the highest states and sexuality.
The state of mind enriched by both tantra and Christianity could be described as follows.
To hear the divine word means being transformed into the divine. Those who know their divinization start to look on reality in a new way. Their look is powerful. In their enlightenment they bring all beings into union so that there is one Self. There is a giving of self to self. Others cease to be other and they become one’s very self.
This is accomplished with a great sense of energy. Indeed, the divinized persons experience pleasure in having that energy and in sharing it, each transforming and freeing the other in tranquility and humility. They recognize each other’s freedom and this gives great pleasure. They are present to each other. They perceive the light of the other and allow their own light to be perceived. It is a communion of light, which involves the whole person. It is an experience of complementarity. They are destined to each other and find fulfilment in each other. They take pleasure in each other, not just spiritually but also bodily. They share body and soul, body and blood in a way that is eternal, free from time or circumstance.
Furthermore, as they are taken up into each other’s pleasure, it increases exponentially as delight increases the capacity for delight, taking them into levels of joy they had never imagined, right into the realm of divine bliss.
This is because, I propose, the human society is founded on the communion of the Three divine Persons, which is central to Christianity. By experiencing communion with each other, humans have an inkling of the communion that is God. They taste an infinite bliss and know it is their destiny as well. They truly see each other at last and glimpse the One who is called Holy.In coming into each other’s presence, they become aware of the infinitely Personal One who is called by many names in the many traditions.
They also experience intense pleasure in seeing that all things proceed from them and are destined to them. To put it in Kula tantric terms, the ever-changing universe is in fact the dancing movement of the goddess Kālī. The god Śiva enjoys her dance. The Christian too enjoys the changes of nature and sees them as gifts, gift upon gift, given for his enjoyment. The Giver is in the gift. The Giver and the receiver become one in the gift.
There is a spirituality of pleasure. Is there a spirituality of pain? One response can be to endure it stoically. But is that all? Can any good come out of it?
Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz, wrote on her diary:
“Since I no longer wish to possess anything and have become free, everything belongs to me, and my interior wealth is now immense …”
The real victory over pain is to turn it into an advantage, but that is another subject for another day.
I have spoken of the point of view that arises when the tantric spirituality of universal bliss and the Christian spirituality of communion and freedom have enriched and revealed each other. Meditation develops this essential point of view. However, the few moments spent in meditation, in whatever way it is conducted, are a sort of training session so that the basic outlook of the heart functions in every circumstance. I propose that this enriched position is not just awareness but mutual presence, not just sensation but perception of freedom, not just peacefulness but ecstasy as well.
« Les traditions du Kula sont certes les plus « tantriques » … » André Padoux. p. 148.
Hugh B. Urban. Tantra. Sex, Secrecy Politics and Power in the Study of Religions.Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. p. 255.
Joseph Ratzinger. ‘Concerning the notion of person in theology’. Communio17 (1990) 439-454. p. 439.
Ratzinger. ‘Concerning the notion of person in theology’. p. 453.
Émile Benveniste. ‘De la subjectivité dans le langage’. In Émile Benveniste. Problèmes de linguistique générale. Paris: Gallimard, 1966. Vol. 1, p. 260.
John R. Dupuche. ‘Person-to-Person: vivaraṇa of Abhinavagupta on ParātriṃśikāVerses 3-4’. Indo-Iranian Journal44 (2001)1–16.