Tag Archive: Abhinavagupta

Abhinavagupta (X-Rated or Not?)

As I get deeper into studying tantric philosophy I have taken the time to pause and reflect on how that philosophy originated and grew and who were the people offering and practicing the teachings.  The tantric teachings I have received and offer are completely chaste.  Put “tantra” into your favorite search engine, though, and you will see that people tend to think it is about intimate physical connection (my first euphemism).  What is tantra?  Is it one or the other?  Is it something one can have without the other?

To help me think through and contemplate the issue, I read David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body. I followed this with Lilian Silburn’s Kundalinia–Energy of the Depths.”  What seems fairly evident–if you want the details, I invite you to read the books yourself (and also on sri vidya, Douglas Renfrew Brooks’ The Secret of the Three Cities)–is that despite the inclusion of those not twice born and women in the rituals, the community of tantrikas was no less sexist than more traditional society.  The role of women in the secret rituals, as I have read it described, is one that would be wholly unacceptable to me in terms of equality, gender neutrality, and respect for women as human beings and not as archtypes and means to an end for male practitioners.

I did not get into the depths of knowing the historical details before I had been strongly drawn to the metaphysics of Kashmir Shaivism, which has been an integral part of my yoga studies.  As I think about how a feminist, pacifist can find the universal teachings while still acknowledging the historical and social context in other texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, it seemed given tantra’s rap in today’s society, I should see what my answer is for the tantric teachings as well.  In thinking about the issue, I contemplated how I see the teachings in and out of the historical context (as you can see from the link to Swami Lakshmanjoo, the philosophical teachings are presented today without a hint the secret rituals).

I also asked the following, among other questions:  How important is it for the student to take the teacher for the whole of the teachings and his or her human strengths and weaknesses?  Is it ok to just really believe in one aspect of the teachings?  Can we pick and choose what to learn and still be faithful to the lineage? Can we love and respect someone fully even if we disagree with his or her way or life and/or way of participating in society?  Is extraordinary grace and genius enough to make what might otherwise trouble or even appall us seem irrelevant? Is it easier to come to terms with this issue for those teachers from different time periods or cultures and thus for whom our own choices or “modern thinking” might not have been available?

I think that the Wikipedia entry for Abhinavagupta, which mentions that the community would have engaged in secret (my spam-avoidance euphemism) ritual, but avers that “[w]e can only speculate about whether he was physically chaste, and either answer to this question is not very meaningful in the context of his life and teachings” gets it half right.  It seems to me that it would be meaningful when looking at his life, but not of import in the modern receipt of the teachings.  I think, for me, the very resonance of the philosophy and the practices with which I am familiar are not less meaningful for the historical concomitance of the hidden practices.



Airport Delay (and “Unreasonable Happiness”)

I am sitting in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International airport waiting for the plane that should already be carrying me home to finish being repaired. After having done a full hour of practice this morning in my room, having a last delicious breakfast at the retreat center, and enjoyed the two-hour ride with friends to the airport, I find myself perfectly happy to sit in the airport. I am warm and well-fed. I have bought a novel to read on the plane — Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” — and put aside a philosophy handout to write. The handout, a translation of the beginning of Abhinavagupta’s “Tantrasara” that was given to us by Paul Muller-Ortega to support our meditation practices, teaches us to seek the power of bliss through the practices, this bliss being true knowledge and true freedom. The more we practice, the more we can draw on this power and abide in a state of true happiness. Paul Muller-Ortega sometimes says that we want to be “unreasonably happy.” As I sit here feeling perfectly content after my weekend of practice and community and watching others in the airport get progressively grumpier with the delay, I feel unreasonably happy. I also feel fully motivated to practice and study ever more deeply so that I can abide ever more steadily and this glorious unreason.


New Spinach (and Udyamo Bhairava)

The fifth sutra in Abhinavagupta’s Siva Sutras, is “udyamo bhairava” — the great upsurge of consciousness.  When we are open and aware, we can witness this upsurge, the very pulsing of life energy in all that is in and around us, from the springing up of thought in our minds to the burgeoning of spring.  The more we practice and live attentively, the more we will see the joy in this upwelling.

When I go out into the garden on the early spring days to see what needs to be cut back, what is volunteering, and what is coming up from fall plantings, I approach with great openness.  When we plant in the fall, we do not know with any certainty what kind of winter we will have.  Although the long-range forecast was for colder than normal with precipitation near normal (which translates into more than average snow), who could have expected three mammoth snow storms?

I plant with hope and some expectation, but am ready for the loss of some perennials, the failure of some seeds to germinate, and the unexpected pleasure of experiments working or welcome volunteers.  This steady planting without specific expectation, with openness to discovery, with joy and attention to the miraculousness of what rises up in the spring, is a very tangible example of what I read in the yoga philosophy.  It is how I, I believe, we most optimally would approach asana and meditation, as well as all aspects of our daily being.

Below:  new spinach coming up in a container from seeds I planted around Thanksgiving from an expiring packet.


Yoga for Householders

Paul Muller-Ortega, who teaches philosophy and meditation from similar roots to those that inform Anusara yoga, spoke yesterday of the differences between the path of the renunciate and the path of the householder.  He strongly stated that neither path was better.  What he suggested, though, was that a householder will better flourish practicing yoga designed for the householder rather than attempting to practice renunciate techniques, while still staying in the householder path.

What does this mean?  I think it means that we become unhappy and conflicted if we try attempt the practices of the path of complete non-attachment and transcendence of body and mind while we are still very much staying in society and responsible for family, work, and citizenship.  The tantric, householder path, including that of the Shaivite tradition of Kashmir and Abhinavagupta, offers practices that enable one to live liberated in society, instead of suggesting that the only way to true liberation is to reject and transcend work, family, and community.  In yoga terms, the householder path is one that realizes moksha (liberation), through ardha (physical and material well-being), kama (love/relationship), and dharma (right work/path) rather than by transcending them.

Taking the householder path does not mean just indulging.  It still requires sensitivity, dedication, discrimination, and alignment.  I think it may be even harder than renunciation.  I know it is easier for me to just stay alone and practice, for example, than to bring yoga off my mat to how I work, consume, relate to others, and participate in society.  The householder path, though, is the one for me.