Tantra means thread, or continuity, and there are several implications of that. Enlightened awareness is seen as continuous, and therefore no situation or activity is an obstacle. Furthermore, in the tradition I’m part of, you don’t practice tantra by itself. Vajrayana (vajra means indestructible or diamond-like; yana is path or way) is presented very definitely as a continuation of Hinayana and Mahayana disciplines—disciplines which are never discarded.
This is the style I was taught by Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. It’s crucial to be specific here because it seems in meditative traditions of Buddhism you end up doing the practice you do because of a connection with a particular teacher. Certainly this is so in Vajrayana. I didn’t choose to practice tantra because I particularly liked it—the colors or visualizations or mantras. I ended up this way because I wanted to work with Trungpa Rinpoche, and he was an authentic Vajrayana master. If he had been running a car wash, I might now be asking you if you’d like your tires done.
Coming from a Zen background I experienced serious initial resistance to the complexity—the busyness—of Vajrayana. I remember despairing one night as I studied for an exam in Buddhist principles. I felt I might drown in the eight antidotes to the six obstructions, and the nine ways of resting. . . . A little late for such hesitation, however. I’d already asked to study with the man; this was simply part of the program.
For all his outrageous behavior and notorious reputation, Trungpa Rinpoche was probably the strictest of the Tibetan teachers in the West. Not in the sense of “goody-goody”, or “don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that”, but strict in that he insisted on lots of shamatha and vipassana meditation for his students, and strict in that he only gave out tantric teachings to students he’d trained for years. Time and again, Trungpa Rinpoche expressed how heavily he felt the weight of his lineage, and he spoke repeatedly of the power and danger of Vajrayana. He warned his students against playing around with tantra, or taking it too lightly. He could be quite fierce.
Tantric Buddhism employs a variety of methods—visualizations, mantra recitations, offerings—which it classifies as skillful means. These skillful means cut through self-centered preoccupation, and empower a practitioner—sometimes with extraordinary powers—to be helpful to sentient beings. Tantra is known as the path to enlightment in one lifetime. Some tantric practitioners go all the way, and attain quite a lot of so-called magical powers; these people are known as siddhas. Their life stories have been recorded to encourage others, but often they end up encouraging people to “spiritual materialism,” or desire for a kind of spiritual stardom.
Trungpa Rinpoche inspired me because he had those powers himself and yet he was derisive of this spiritual materialism. Werner Erhard hosted an event in the early 1980s at which Trungpa Rinpoche ruthlessly demonstrated his powers. The ceremony was called the Vajra Crown Ceremony, and it could only be performed by H.H. the Karmapa, head of the Kagyu School (which was the school Trungpa Rinpoche belonged to.) Erhard filled the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco with graduates of his est training. I was there as a guest.
First Erhard came on stage in a tuxedo, and delivered a short monologue. Spotlights, mikes, a standing ovation, the whole bit. Then the Karmapa and his translator were invited out and interviewed by Erhard much as if they were guests on a Buddhist version of The Johnny Carson Show: couch, swivel chairs, spotlights, applause, more of the whole bit. Profoundly benevolent and sunny, the Karmapa took no offense at any of the trappings, nor at the level of the questions: “Achi, ask the Karmapa about, um, compassion.” The Karmapa would only smile, and say something helpful.
When Karmapa retired to prepare for the ceremony, the stage was cleared except for Erhard’s chair. He announced that we would next be treated to a talk by a “special guest.” Table and chair were arranged, and soon Trungpa Rinpoche hobbled on stage. When he had seated himself, and had had a drink from the glass of clear liquid (probably sake) on the table, he began to speak. He began by describing how Buddhism had a 2,500 year history and a heritage. He repeated the words over and over, with increasing register “History, heritage, HISTORY, HERITAGE. . . .” Then he paused, “You, here, have been around about five years I believe?” A murmur ran through the crowd. What’s he getting at? “For two thousand, five hundred years Buddhism has been devoted to the practice and teaching of enlightenment. I think here, you call it It.” The murmur rose to a buzz. “Now Werner, over here, is a very . . .” Rinpoche spaced his words out slowly, leaving each one hanging until the next, “. . . very . . . good . . .” he paused for a sip from his glass, “SALESMAN!”
The audience gasped, and I along with it; the difference was that I felt thrilled, and they felt insulted.
“I wish you good luck, but remember one thing,” he went on, as an attendant filled his glass. “Don’t lose your shirts.” He picked up his glass, and toasted the audience with it. “Remember, DON’T LOSE YOUR SHIRTS!” With that he retired and the ceremony proper commenced. I remember being in awe of his nerve, and grateful that he had bluntly called the situation correctly, utterly indifferent to good manners or what people might like to hear.
Tantric tradition is quite strict, and I can only say so much about the kitchen-sink level of practice. Completely independent of the content of specific practices, their sheer physicality highlights—often in uncomfortable ways—the nature of a human mind. Vajrayanists are assigned not only a practice but usually the job of counting repetitions of that practice as well. Instead of just tracking the days (left) in a retreat, or the minutes (left) in a meditation period, you have to keep track of your accumulations. This gets tricky, particularly if you have any streak of competitiveness in you, or if you practice with someone who does. You might be surprised.
But how to keep track? You need a mala (beads) and counters. Once you begin gathering “practice materials,” further complication ensues. Is my mala a good one? A nice one? An old one? A blessed one perhaps? Is it nicer than his or hers or my wife’s? Comparative thinking has been known to make an appearance here. Some tantric practices require that you gather a number of different materials, and this costs money. Greed, acquisitiveness and poverty-mentality may rush right in.
But assume you’ve worked through obstructions: you’ve gotten proper transmissions, obtained the texts, assembled all the requisite materials for practice, and now you’re ready. Some similarly-equipped friends gather for group practice, which is very traditional, and immediately you hate the way the guy sitting next to you chants. In pure sitting practice it’s difficult to dislike the way someone practices, but in Vajrayana things are acted out and spoken. Now your neighbor chants and does ritual gestures and his style drives you nuts. It may be harsher than a ghetto blaster, but that’s tough. You’re stuck there.
Speaking of music, some Vajrayana practices, fully done, can get loud even in a solo session. The famous prostration practice, in which a person hurls him or herself on the floor several thousands of times, is a good example. Musical instruments—bells, drums and cymbals—are also sometimes used to adorn chanting. Unless you live in a practice center or a retreat situation, you have to take your neighbors into account.
Most tantric practices with which I have any familiarity are not brief affairs either. It’s not a matter of slipping them in between the shower and breakfast; they tend to run two or three hours. Gone for now are days when I could sit a couple of silent periods early in the morning and feel I had fulfilled my obligation to formal meditation. I still enjoy mornings like that but the other obligations remain.
Having said the above, I would not trade the troubles of tantric practice for anything. The fruits of vajrayana meditation are supposed to be the siddhis (powers), but someone much more accomplished than I will have to explain those. I can only say I feel honored to be doing the same kinds of practice that people like Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa did. Perhaps most inspiring of all ancestors is my own root guru. Now that he is dead, I meet him most vividly through practice. That, corny as it sounds, is reward enough.