Tantric practices – The esoteric South Asian traditions
Tantra are the esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that developed in South Asia from the middle of the 1st millennium CE onwards.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Tantra in the Indian tradition
- 2 - Hindu & Buddhist tantric practices
- 2.1 - Dakini
- 2.2 - Shakti
- 2.3 - Snow Lion
- 2.4 - Siddhi
- 2.5 - Samadhi
- 2.6 - Yidam
- 2.7 - Mahamudra
- 2.8 - Prayer wheel
- 2.9 - Prayer flag
- 2.10 - Kundalini
- 2.11 - Kapala
- 2.12 - Sand mandala
- 2.13 - Rainbow body
- 2.14 - Anuyoga
- 2.15 - Subtle body
- 2.16 - Tummo
- 2.17 - Chöd
- 2.18 - Mahayoga
- 2.19 - Japa
- 2.20 - Dream yoga
- 2.21 - Phowa
- 2.22 - Six Dharmas of Naropa
- 2.23 - Esoteric transmission
- 2.24 - Deity yoga
- 2.25 - Bardo yoga
- 2.26 - Kum Nye
- 2.27 - Pointing-out instruction
- 2.28 - Ashtamangala
- 2.29 - Guru yoga
- 2.30 - Gankyil
- 2.31 - Trikona
- 2.32 - Three Jewels and Three Roots
- 2.33 - Yab-Yum
- 2.34 - Tibetan tantric practice
- 2.35 - Trul khor
- 2.36 - Tsalung
- 2.37 - Daigensuihō
- 2.38 - Shaktipat
- 2.39 - Karmamudrā
- 2.40 - Tantric sex
- 2.41 - Refuge in Buddhism
- 2.42 - Lung (Tibetan Buddhism)
- 2.43 - Prostration (Buddhism)
- 2.44 - Ganachakra
- 2.45 - Maithuna
- 2.46 - Vidyadhara (Buddhism)
- 2.47 - Vamachara
- 2.48 - Venus Butterfly
- 2.49 - Naradevi Temple
- 2.50 - Tattva (Shaivism)
- 2.51 - Kaula (Hinduism)
- 2.52 - Shava sadhana
- 2.53 - Nigamananda Paramahansa
- 2.54 - Sex magic
- 2.55 - Sathya Sai Baba
- 2.56 - Dakṣiṇācāra
- 2.57 - Herambasuta
- 2.58 - Sagan (ceremony)
- 2.59 - Panchamakara
- 2.60 - Nyasa (ritual)
- 2.61 - Prakāśa
Tantra in the Indian tradition
The term tantra, in the Indian traditions, also means any systematic broadly applicable text, theory, system, method, instrument, technique or practice.
A key feature of these traditions is the use of mantras, and thus they are commonly referred to as Mantramārga (“Path of Mantra”) in Hinduism or Mantrayāna (“Mantra Vehicle”) and Guhyamantra (“Secret Mantra”) in Buddhism.
One of the main elements of the Tantric literature is ritual. Rather than one coherent system, Tantra is an accumulation of practices and ideas from different sources.
The tantric traditions are a confluence of a variety of different factors and components. These elements include: mandalas, mantras, internal yogic practices, fierce male and female deities, cremation ground symbolism, as well as concepts from Indian Philosophy.
Hindu & Buddhist tantric practices
There is no consensus among scholars as to which elements are characteristic for Tantra, nor is there any text that contains all those elements furthermore most of those elements can also be found in non-Tantric traditions.
Because of the wide range of communities covered by the term, it is problematic to describe tantric practices definitively.
However, there are sets of practices and elements which are shared by numerous tantric traditions, and thus a family resemblance relationship can be established among them.
This is a list of well-known practices from Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions.
The concept of the ḍākinī differs depending on the context and the tradition.
A ḍākinī in Hinduism is a demon and in Buddhism is a type of female spirit.
In Japan it is difficult to trace the exact origins of the Japanese Dakiniten cult but it flourished mainly via the network of Inari worship and vice versa.
In Hinduism, especially Shaktism, Shakti is the primordial cosmic energy, and represents the dynamic forces that are thought to move through the universe.
This energy is thought of as creative, sustaining, as well as destructive, and is sometimes referred to as auspicious source energy.
The Snow Lion, sometimes also Snowlion, is a celestial animal of Tibet. It is the emblem of Tibet, representing the snowy mountain ranges and glaciers of Tibet, and may also symbolize power and strength, and fearlessness and joy, east and the earth element. It is one of the Four Dignities. It ranges over the mountains, and is commonly pictured as being white with a turquoise mane.
Siddhis are spiritual, paranormal, supernatural, or otherwise magical powers, abilities, and attainments that are the products of spiritual advancement through sādhanās such as meditation and yoga. The term ṛddhi is often used interchangeably in Buddhism.
Samādhi, also called samāpatti, in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and yogic schools refers to a state of meditative consciousness.
In the Yogic traditions, and the Buddhist commentarial tradition on which the Burmese Vipassana movement and the Thai Forest tradition rely, it is a meditative absorption or trance, attained by the practice of dhyāna.
In the oldest Buddhist suttas, on which several contemporary western Theravada teachers rely, it refers to the development of a luminous mind which is equanimous and mindful.
Yidam is a type of deity associated with tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism said to be manifestations of Buddhahood or enlightened mind
Mahāmudrā literally means “great seal” or “great imprint” and refers to the fact that “all phenomena inevitably are stamped by the fact of wisdom and emptiness inseparable”.
A prayer wheel is a cylindrical wheel on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Newari language of Nepal, on the outside of the wheel. Also sometimes depicted are Dakinis, Protectors and very often the 8 auspicious symbols Ashtamangala. At the core of the cylinder is a “Life Tree” often made of wood or metal with certain mantras written on or wrapped around it. Many thousands of mantras are then wrapped around this life tree. The Mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is most commonly used, but other mantras may be used as well. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition based on the lineage texts regarding prayer wheels, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.
A prayer flag is a colorful rectangular cloth, often found strung along trails and peaks high in the Himalayas. They are used to bless the surrounding countryside and for other purposes. Prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bon. In Bon, shamanistic Bonpo used primary-colored plain flags in Tibet. Traditional prayer flags include woodblock-printed text and images.
Kundalini, in Hinduism refers to a form of divine energy said to be located at the base of the spine (muladhara). It was originally an important concept in Śaiva Tantra, where it was seen as a force or power associated with the divine feminine, which when cultivated and awakened through tantric practice, could lead to spiritual liberation. Kuṇḍalinī is associated with Paradevi or Adi Parashakti, the supreme being in Shaktism, as well as with the goddesses Bhairavi and Kubjika. The term along with practices associated with it, was adopted into Hatha yoga in the 11th century and other forms of Hinduism as well as modern spirituality and New age thought.
A kapala or skullcup is a cup made from a human skull and used as a ritual implement (bowl) in both Hindu Tantra and Buddhist Tantra (Vajrayana). Especially in Tibet, they are often carved or elaborately mounted with precious metals and jewels.
Sand Mandala is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from coloured sand. A sand mandala is ritualistically dismantled once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.
In Dzogchen, rainbow body (Tibetan: འཇའ་ལུས་, Wylie: ‘ja’ lus , Jalü or Jalus) is a level of realization. This may or may not be accompanied by the ‘rainbow body phenomenon’. The rainbow body phenomenon is a religious topic which has been treated fairly seriously for centuries, including in the modern era. Other Vajrayana teachings also mention rainbow body phenomena.
Anuyoga is the designation of the second of the three Inner Tantras according to the ninefold division of practice used by the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. As with the other yanas, Anuyoga represents both a scriptural division as well as a specific emphasis of both view and practice.
A subtle body is one of a series of psycho-spiritual constituents of living beings, according to various esoteric, occult, and mystical teachings. According to such beliefs each subtle body corresponds to a subtle plane of existence, in a hierarchy or great chain of being that culminates in the physical form.
Tummo is the fierce goddess of heat and passion in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Tummo is found in the Mahasiddha Krishnacarya and the Hevajra Tantra texts.
Chöd, is a spiritual practice found primarily in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Also known as “Cutting Through the Ego,”, the practices are based on the Prajñāpāramitā or “Perfection of Wisdom” sutras, which expound the “emptiness” concept of Buddhist philosophy.
Mahāyoga is the designation of the first of the three Inner Tantras according to the ninefold division of practice used by the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Japa is the meditative repetition of a mantra or a divine name.
It is a practice found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism.
The mantra or name may be spoken softly, enough for the practitioner to hear it, or it may be spoken within the reciter’s mind.
Japa may be performed while sitting in a meditation posture, while performing other activities, or as part of formal worship in group settings.
The mantra or name may be spoken softly, loud enough for the practitioner to hear it, or it may be recited silently within the practitioner’s mind.
Dream Yoga or Milam —the Yoga of the Dream State—is a suite of advanced tantric sadhana of the entwined Mantrayana lineages of Dzogchen. Dream Yoga are tantric processes and techniques within the trance Bardos of Dream and Sleep Six Yogas of Naropa. In the tradition of the tantra, Dream Yoga method is usually passed on by a qualified teacher to his/her students after necessary initiation. Various Tibetan lamas are unanimous that it is more of a passing of an enlightened experience rather than any textual information.
Phowa is a Vajrayāna Buddhist meditation practice. It may be described as “the practice of conscious dying”, “transference of consciousness at the time of death”, “mindstream transference”, or “enlightenment without meditation”.
Six Dharmas of Naropa
The Six Dharmas of Nāropa, also called the Six Yogas of Nāropa, are a set of advanced Tibetan Buddhist tantric practices and a meditation sādhanā compiled in and around the time of the Indian monk and mystic Nāropa and conveyed to his student Marpa Lotsawa.
The six dharmas were intended in part to help in the attainment of Buddhahood in an accelerated manner.
In Vajrayāna Buddhism, esoteric transmission is the transmission of certain teachings directly from teacher to student during an empowerment (abhiṣeka) in a ritual space containing the mandala of the deity. Many techniques are also commonly said to be secret, but some Vajrayana teachers have responded that secrecy itself is not important and only a side-effect of the reality that the techniques have no validity outside the teacher-student lineage.
Deity yoga is a practice of Vajrayana Buddhism involving identification with a chosen deity through visualisations and rituals, and the realisation of emptiness. According to the Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa, deity yoga is what separates Buddhist Tantra practice from the practice of other Buddhist schools.
Bardo yoga deals with navigating the bardo state in between death and rebirth.
It is one of the Six Dharmas of Naropa, a set of advanced Tibetan Buddhist tantric practices compiled by the Indian mahasiddhas Tilopa and Nāropa and passed on to the Tibetan translator-yogi Marpa Lotsawa.
Kum Nye and sKu-mNyé are a wide variety of Tibetan religious and medical body practices. The two terms are different spellings in the Latin alphabet of the same Tibetan phrase, which literally means “massage of the subtle body”. Some systems of sku mnye are vaguely similar to Yoga, T’ai chi, Qigong, or therapeutic massage. “Kum Nye”, Ku Nye, and Kunye are also used to transcribe the Tibetan phrases dku mnye and bsku mnye, which are pronounced identically to sku mnye. dKu mnye and bsku mnye manipulate the physical body, rather than the subtle (energetic) one.
The pointing-out instruction is the direct introduction to the nature of mind in the Tibetan Buddhist lineages of Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen. In these traditions, a “root guru” gives the “pointing-out instruction” in such a way that the disciple successfully recognizes the “nature of mind.”
The Ashtamangala are a sacred suite of Eight Auspicious Signs endemic to a number of religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. The symbols or “symbolic attributes” are yidam and teaching tools. Not only do these attributes point to qualities of enlightened mindstream, but they are the investiture that ornaments these enlightened “qualities”. Many cultural enumerations and variations of the Ashtamangala are extant.Groupings of eight auspicious symbols were originally used in India at ceremonies such as an investiture or coronation of a king. An early grouping of symbols included: throne, swastika, handprint, hooked knot, vase of jewels, water libation flask, pair of fishes, lidded bowl. In Buddhism, these eight symbols of good fortune represent the offerings made by the gods to Shakyamuni Buddha immediately after he gained enlightenment.
In Vajrayana, guru yoga is a tantric devotional practice in which the practitioner unites their mindstream with the mindstream of the body, speech, and mind of their guru. Guru yoga is akin to deity yoga since the guru is visualized in the same manner as with a meditational deity. The process of guru yoga may entail visualization of a refuge tree as an invocation of the lineage, with the ‘root guru’ channeling the blessings of the entire lineage to the practitioner. The guru may be visualized as above the meditator, in front of them, or in their heart. Guru yoga may also include a liturgy, prayer, or mantra, such as the “Seven Line Prayer” of Padmasambhava, or the “Migtsema”.
The Gankyil or “wheel of joy” is a symbol and ritual tool used in Tibetan and East Asian Buddhism. It is composed of three swirling and interconnected blades.
Trikona is a Sanskrit word which signifies a triangle and is one of the widely used mythical geometric symbol.
It is used to assist in meditation, and in different yantras.
Different positions of trikona (triangle) are believed to impart different types of properties and attributes to the symbol.
When trikonas are united in such a way that they form a six-pointed star, they represent creative activity from which the cosmos springs forth.
When a circle surrounds a hexagonal figure, it is symbolic of revolving time, in which purusha and prakriti manifest themselves in the form of creation.
The hexagon is also used in Shakti cult.
When the trikonas are represented in a disjointed manner and separated from each other, they symbolize the cession of time and the cosmos ceases to exist.
Three Jewels and Three Roots
In Buddhism, the Three Jewels, Triple Gem, or Three Refuges are the supports in which a Buddhist takes refuge by means of a prayer or recitation at the beginning of the day or of a practice session.
Yab-yum is a common symbol in the Buddhist art of India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet. It represents the primordial union of wisdom and compassion, depicted as a male deity in union with his female consort. The male figure represents compassion and skillful means, while the female partner represents insight.
Tibetan tantric practice
Tibetan tantric practice, also known as “the practice of secret mantra”, and “tantric techniques”, refers to the main tantric practices in Tibetan Buddhism. The great Rime scholar Jamgön Kongtrül refers to this as “the Process of Meditation in the Indestructible Way of Secret Mantra” and also as “the way of mantra,” “way of method” and “the secret way” in his Treasury of Knowledge. These Vajrayāna Buddhist practices are mainly drawn from the Buddhist tantras and are generally not found in “common” Mahayana. These practices are seen by Tibetan Buddhists as the fastest and most powerful path to Buddhahood.
Tsa lung Trul khor, known in short as Trul khor “magical instrument” or “magic circle” is a Vajrayana discipline which includes pranayama and body postures (asanas). From the perspective of Dzogchen, the mind is merely vāyu “breath” in the body. Thus working with vāyu and the body is paramount, while meditation on the other hand is considered contrived and conceptual.
Tsalung are special yogic exercises. The exercises are used in the Bon tradition and the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Trul khor employs the tsa lung and they constitute the internal yantra or sacred architecture of this yoga’s Sanskrit name, yantra yoga. Tsa lung are also employed in completion stage practices.
The Daigensuihō (大元帥法), or the Great Rite of Āṭavaka, is one of the great rites of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism. Its name is also sometimes pronounced Daigen no hō. The ritual is performed with Āṭavaka in the role of honzon, and it may be considered a military curse.
Shaktipat or Śaktipāta refers in Hinduism to the transmission of spiritual energy upon one person by another. Shaktipat can be transmitted with a sacred word or mantra, or by a look, thought or touch – the last usually to the ajna chakra or agya chakra or third eye of the recipient.
Karmamudrā is a Vajrayana Buddhist technique of sexual practice with a physical or visualized consort. When the consort is a visualised one they are known as the jnanamudra.
Tantric sex or sexual yoga refers to a wide range of practices carried on in Hindu and Buddhist tantra to exercise sexuality in a ritualized or yogic context, often associated with antinomian or impure elements, like consumption of alcohol, and offerings of impure substances like meat to fierce deities. In particular, sexual fluids have been viewed as “power substances” and used ritualistically, either externally or internally.
Refuge in Buddhism
In Buddhism, refuge or taking refuge refers to a religious practice, which often includes a prayer or recitation performed at the beginning of the day or of a practice session. In Sutrayana, refuge is taken in the Three Jewels which are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Lung (Tibetan Buddhism)
Lung means wind or breath. It is a key concept in the Vajrayana traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and has a variety of meanings. Lung is a concept that Is particularly important to understandings of the subtle body and the Three Vajras. Traditional Tibetan medicine practitioner Dr Tamdin Sither Bradley provides a summary:The general description of rLung is that it is a subtle flow of energy and out of the five elements it is most closely connected with air. However it is not simply the air which we breathe or the wind in our stomachs, it goes much deeper than that. rLung is like a horse and the mind is the rider, if there is something wrong with the horse the rider will not be able to ride properly. Its description is that it is rough, light, cool, thin, hard, movable. The general function of rLung is to help growth, movement of the body, exhalation and inhalation and to aid the function of mind, speech and body. rLung helps to separate in our stomachs what we eat into nutrients and waste products. However its most important function is to carry the movements of mind, speech and body. The nature of rLung is both hot and cold.
A prostration is a gesture used in Buddhist practice to show reverence to the Triple Gem and other objects of veneration.
A ganacakra is also known as tsog, ganapuja, cakrapuja or ganacakrapuja. It is a generic term for various tantric assemblies or feasts, in which practitioners meet to chant mantra, enact mudra, make votive offerings and practice various tantric rituals as part of a sādhanā, or spiritual practice. The ganachakra often comprises a sacramental meal and festivities such as dancing; the feast generally consisting of materials that were considered forbidden or taboo in medieval India, where the tantric movement arose. As a tantric practice, forms of gaṇacakra are practiced today in Hinduism, Bön and Vajrayāna Buddhism.
Maithuna is a Sanskrit term for sexual intercourse within Tantric sex, or alternatively to the specific lack of sexual fluids generated, while mithuna is a couple participating in such a ritual. It is the most important of the five makara and constitutes the main part of the grand ritual of Tantra variously known as Panchamakara, Panchatattva, and Tattva Chakra. Maithuna means the union of opposing forces, underlining the nonduality between human and divine, as well as worldly enjoyment (kama) and spiritual liberation (moksha).
Vidyadhara is the word in Buddhist literature for a person having the great knowledge (vidya) of mantras and other esoteric knowledge of occult practices such as recitation of spells, samatha, and alchemy. A realized master on one of the four stages on the tantric path of Mahayoga. Another Buddhist definition is: Bearer of the profound method, the knowledge which is the wisdom of deity, mantra and great bliss.
Vāmācāra is a Sanskrit term meaning “left-handed attainment” and is synonymous with “Left-Hand Path” or “Left-path”. It is used to describe a particular mode of worship or sadhana that is not only “heterodox” to standard Vedic injunction, but extreme in comparison to the status quo.
The Venus Butterfly is a term used for various sexual techniques, one of which was the subject of the 1988 book The One Hour Orgasm. It was first publicly mentioned in a 1986 episode of the American television drama L.A. Law, although a technique of the same name appears in the book The Sensuous Woman, which was first published in 1969.
Naradevi Temple, also called Swetakaali Temple, is a Hindu temple located in an older part of Kathmandu, Nepal. It is believed that occult and tantric rituals are performed in the temple and there is a female energy in the temple. The goddess housed in the temple, Sweta Kali is believed to receive human sacrifice in the ancient times. The goddess is also referred as Neta Ajima by the Newar community. The goddess is also considered to be the mother of the goddess Kumari Chandeswori Bhagwati.
The tattvas in Indian philosophy are elements or principles of reality. Tattvas are the basic concepts to understand the nature of absolute, the souls and the universe in Samkhya and Shaivite philosophies. Samkhya philosophy lists 25 tattvas while later Shaivite philosophies extend the number to 36.
Kaula, also known as Kula, and, is a religious tradition in Shaktism and tantric Shaivism characterised by distinctive rituals and symbolism connected with the worship of Shakti. It flourished in India primarily in the first millennium AD.
Swami Nigamananda Paramahansa is Sadguru, Hindu yogi, guru and mystic well known in Eastern India. He is associated with the shakti cult and viewed as a perfect spiritual master of tantra, gyan, yoga and prema or bhakti. His followers idealized him as their worshipped and beloved thakura.
Sex magic is any type of sexual activity used in magical, ritualistic or otherwise religious and spiritual pursuits. One practice of sex magic is using sexual arousal or orgasm with visualization of a desired result. A premise posited by sex magicians is the concept that sexual energy is a potent force that can be harnessed to transcend one’s normally perceived reality.
Sathya Sai Baba
Sathya Sai Baba was an Indian guru. At the age of fourteen he claimed that he was the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, and left his home to serve his devotees.
The term Dakshinachara is a technical term used to refer to Tantric sects that do not engage in heterodox practices. In contrast, Vamachara is used to describe particular tantric practices that are considered heterodox according to usual Hindu social norms.
Herambasuta, was a Tantric exponent who belonged to the left-hand path Ganapatya sect. The tenth century work Śaṅkaravijaya attributed to certain Ānandagiri mentions the cult of Ucchiṣṭa Gaṇapati led by Herambasuta. The name of the group derives from Ucchiṣṭa, leftovers, possibly, in reference to the foods left over at the end of the ritual to the deity or, more likely in a Tantric context to the foods deliberately left in the mouth in order to render them ritually impure. According to the scripture mentioned above, Herambasuta held many unorthodox views, and the worship included Pancña Makāra.
Sagun is a Nepalese ceremony which involves ritualized presentation of auspicious food to a person to invoke good fortune and show respect. It is a highly revered ceremony in Newar society of the Kathmandu Valley. The food items served are boiled egg, smoked fish, meat, lentil cake and rice wine which represent Tantric concepts.
Panchamakara or Panchatattva, also known as the Five Ms, is the Tantric term for the five transgressive substances used in a Tantric practice. These are madya (alcohol), māṃsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudrā, and maithuna.
Nyasa is a concept in Hinduism. It involves touching various parts of the body while chanting specific portions of a mantra. This imposition of mantras upon the body is considered as the assigning or locating of divinity inside one’s own body. For example, nyasa is part of the equipment of a sculptor as a sādhaka and yogi.
Prakāśa is a concept of Kashmir Shaivism translated by various authors as “light”, “splendour”, “light of consciousness”, “luminous and undifferentiated consciousness” or “primordial light beyond all manifestations”. Fellow Tantric practitioners Tibetan Buddhists practice Clear Light yoga based on a similar concept.