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Lions Roar : January 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN jANUAry 2011 30 believe had roots in much more ancient shamanic practices. emerging simultaneously in both hindu and Buddhist schools of yoga, tantra served as a potent counterpose to the ascetic view that had begun to dominate both of those traditions. The teachings of all the great yogis—including the Buddha— were unified around a common goal: to see reality clearly and thereby arrive at inner freedom. But in their zeal to break free of painful clinging to an impermanent world, many yogic lineag- es—both Buddhist and hindu—had calcified around a rejection not just of the body, but of everything associated with it: sexual- ity, women, family life, the earth, incarnation itself. according to one Buddhist text, “This body is a combination of aggregates, elements, and sense-media, which are comparable to murderers, poisonous snakes, and an empty town, respective- ly. Therefore, you should be revulsed by such a body. you should despair of it.” a hindu yogic treatise echoed this sentiment: “Venerable, in this ill-smelling, unsubstantial body—which is nothing but a conglomerate of bone, skin, sinew, muscle, mar- row, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind, bile, and phlegm—what good is the enjoyment of desires?” from this perspective, intimate relationships were dangerous not only because they inflamed desire but because they could ensnare the practitioner in family life, leaving no time to medi- tate. as one hindu text asks: “how can a person who is attached to family life, with his senses uncontrolled and bound by strong ties of affection, liberate himself?” or, as Buddhist monks were warned, “It is better that you enter the mouth of a hideous cobra or a pit of blazing coals than enter a woman.” Like most contemporary yoginis, I’m far from being an ascetic monk. my practice has always been woven into the freeform dance of a modern Western woman’s life: writing, teaching, mar- rying, divorcing, raising a child. If I look closely, however, I can sometimes see echoes of the ascetic view reverberating in my own practice. It’s there whenever I think that my human body, with all of its yearnings and fears—and by extension, my em- bodied, relational life in the world—is somehow in the way of my spiritual practice. I once picked up a book on relationships titled We’d Have a Great Relationship if It Weren’t for You. If I’m not careful, that attitude can creep into my spiritual practice: I’d be a great yogini if it weren’t for that funky vertebra, that bungled romance, that plastic container of furry pasta rotting in the back of the fridge. If I didn’t have to take my son to the orthodontist and empty the compost and get a mammogram and treat the fungus that’s kill- ing my backyard oaks. That’s the view that tantric practices were designed to shatter. Tantra was a grassroots movement whose earliest adepts were not monks but householders, often from the lowest castes of Indian society—fishermen, wine sellers, washerwomen, and cow herders, people whose days were dipped in the grittiest details of the physi- cal world. To the tantrika, this ever-changing world of ocean, wine, soap suds, and manure was a manifestation of the eternal, form- less absolute, and, hence, was not an obstacle to awakening, but a vehicle for it. and so, by extension, was human flesh. In their celebration of all aspects of birth and death—wheth- er ecstatic or horrific—tantrikas shattered societal convention and ritualized taboos: drinking alcohol, eating meat, having sex unsanctioned by marriage, wandering naked in garbage heaps and charnel grounds. “o friend, understand: the body is like the ocean, rich with hidden treasures,” sang the sixteenth-century hindu mystic mirabai. “open your innermost chamber and light its lamp.” In a similar vein, a Buddhist tantric text instructed, “To renounce the sense objects is to torture oneself by asceticism— don’t do it! When you see form, look! Similarly, listen to sounds, inhale scents, taste delicious flavors, feel textures.” The Buddhist monk Saraha abandoned his monastic vows and found a woman, an arrow maker, to be his consort and tantric teacher. he advised: “Without meditating, without renouncing the world, stay at home in the company of your mate. perfect knowledge can only be attained while one is enjoying the plea- sures of the senses.” according to this worldview, women’s bodies were not to be avoided, but to be worshiped, as illustrated by this quote from the seventeenth-century Yoni Tantra, which honors the female reproductive organs: “meditate as being absorbed in the yoni cakra, with yoni on the tongue, yoni in the mind, yoni in the ears, and yoni in the eyes. all sadhana is vain unless with the yoni.” (I asked my friend Loriliai Biernacki, a Sanskrit profes- sor at the University of Colorado who has translated numerous tantric texts, if I could call the Yoni Tantra a seventeenth-century version of The Vagina Monologues, but she said that wasn’t ex- actly an accurate textual representation.) It was as part of the fertile brew of tantric ideas and practices that hatha yoga emerged—the systematic art of using the body as a tool for liberation. matsyendra, the semi-legendary founder of hatha yoga, is said to have been swallowed by a giant fish and taken to the bottom of the ocean, where he overheard the god Shiva giv- ing secret yogic teachings to his consort parvati in their underwa- ter palace. other stories say that matsyendra was a disciple of the great Buddhist tantrika Laksminkara, a princess who abandoned I’d be a great yogini if it weren’t for that funky vertebra, that bungled romance, that plastic container of furry pasta rotting in the back of the fridge—this is the view that tantric practices are designed to shatter.