In the late 1950s, a missionary in West Africa persuaded two tribal chieftains to accompany him to the region’s largest city. Never having been more than ten miles from their village, the two were almost overwhelmed by the unfamiliar sights and sounds. Man-made structures more than eight feet high were outside of their experience, so they were astonished by the tall buildings. But having built their own dwellings, they easily understood that one story could be placed on another, and another on that. Similarly, the missionary’s jeep was the only vehicle they had ever seen, so the traffic was dizzying—but there was nothing in the rush and roar of trucks and jitneys that collided with their view of reality.
The three men wended their way through the crowded streets to the city’s main hotel. While the missionary was checking the party in, his guests noticed a door opening in the opposite wall to reveal a metal grate with a tiny room behind it. The man seated inside folded the grate back to admit four men, who then turned and faced the front. Next the seated man pulled the metal grate over the opening, and the door closed. A few minutes passed while the tribesmen continued to take in the sights of the lobby. Then the door to the tiny room opened again. The man seated inside again pulled back the metal grate and out stepped—not the four men who had entered, but two women and two little girls! What black art was this that had reduced healthy men to women and girls? Sickened and terrified, the tribesmen made for the street, bent on reaching home and safety as quickly as possible. The missionary raced after them, and once he understood what was frightening them, he tried to explain what they had seen. But both men had seen the same horrifying metamorphosis and were not to be persuaded they had seen something else.
The problem of “seeing” lies at the center of the misunderstanding that swirls around tantra. Like the tribesmen watching the elevator, we cannot comprehend what we are seeing when we look at tantra unless we enlarge our view of reality, because the tantric vision is radically different from ours. Accomplished tantrics see the world and everything in it as an indivisible whole—as a tangible manifestation of the Divine Mother. This is neither a metaphor nor a philosophical premise but a living, breathing reality. Where we see duality—young and old, right and wrong, male and female, pure and impure—a tantric adept sees One. The Divine Mother is not in the world; she is the world. Indeed, she is the entire universe, and to see any difference between the individual self and her or between her and any natural force or cosmic influence is misperception.
The problem of “seeing” lies at the center of the misunderstanding that swirls around tantra.
Most of us have heard this before, so there is a natural tendency to react to this information with a reflexive “I know,” without taking it in. But unless we can actually experience the world as a vibrant, seamless manifestation of the Divine Mother—if only for a moment—there is no meaningful way to “know” what tantric masters see nor to understand what they do. As long as this unitary tantric vision of reality is a matter of intellectual understanding only, it will continue to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misused. And if we take our dualistic vision of reality and paper it over with a simplistic philosophical formula (“Everything is sacred; nothing is profane”), then presto! we have the exploitative sexual practices that have so sensationalized (and misrepresented) tantra in the West. This further complicates the challenge of “seeing” tantra—we have to be able to separate the popular view of tantra as an amalgam of black magic and sexual practices from the ancient and elegant philosophy of tantra that skillfully demonstrates how to use the objects of the world as a means for spiritual unfoldment.
The ancient view of tantra is veiled in mystery, and the only way to penetrate this veil is to patiently cultivate the ability to see the universe the way the tantric masters do. How is someone who is grounded—as we all are in the West—in a thoroughly dualistic view of the world to cultivate unitary vision? How do we see what we do not know how to see? The tantric vision springs from a variety of sources—knowledge of the scriptures, contact with tantric adepts, visits to tantric shrines, and a systematic course of disciplined practice, among others. The dilemma is that it is difficult to assimilate one in isolation from the rest.
So how to begin? Translation of the scriptures is not the answer in itself. Few of the key scriptures are available in translation, and the accuracy and usefulness of the existing translations rest with the skill and understanding of the translator—which is impossible to discern without a subtle understanding of tantra. And even if you do stumble upon a good translation you will not be able to glean practices from it, for it is an inviolable principle among the adepts that none of the more potent practices is ever set down in its entirety. A crucial piece is always missing, one that can be supplied only by a master who will consent to teach it only to a fully qualified aspirant.
So leaving aside for a moment the all-important question of how to become a qualified student, how is one to find a master? One time-honored way is to make a pilgrimage to places where they are likely to be found—the famous shrine to the Divine Mother at Kamakhya, for example. Unless we know what to look for, however, all we may see in the hills of Kamakhya are animals being sacrificed and an occasional group of seemingly intoxicated people. Or worse, we may find ourselves attracted to the practitioners of black magic and sorcery, who are often to be found at such places, because they match our illusions about how a tantric master looks and acts.
Prepared students will have few such illusions—which brings us back to the question of preparation. As with all forms of yoga, the key is practice. But which practices and where to find them? One solution is to resort to the scriptures with the conviction that even an incomplete practice is better than no practice at all. But which scriptures? Without the skill to see beyond the apparent contradictions among various texts (many of which extol what they present as the ultimate method) it is impossible to select a practice and undertake it with the full faith and conviction necessary to see it through. For that we need a teacher. Without the ability to distinguish genuine from fake, a tantric practitioner from a tantric pretender, there is no way to begin to find our way from the realm of duality through the mist of misunderstanding that veils the true tantric vision from our eyes.
What is required is an entry point—a map of the territory and some clues about where to look, how to see, and how to soften our gaze so that the appearance of duality begins to melt away. For me, the portal—the doorway to the experience of living tantra—was through the book Tantra Unveiled by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. In it I found an understanding of the tantric vision, inspiration, and an open invitation to practice—if I could open myself to seeing in a radically new way.
Source: Tantra Unveiled by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait