Tantra Illuminated by Christopher D Wallis Book Review April 2018
Posted On April 10, 2018
Tantra Illuminated Christopher D. Wallis
Below is a short summary of the book with key quotes.
Christopher Wallis is an academic scholar and spiritual practitioner. He has three degrees in Religion and Classics, Sanskrit and Classical Indian Religions from different universities, enabling him to translate original texts and put them into context. This 500 page long book is well structured and easy to read, with complex philosophical ideas explained in a clear and accessible way.
This book is the first of its kind to be written for a general audience. It concerns itself with the subject of Classical Tantra (8th -12th centuries). It is this Tantra that is the “real” or original Tantra, and is closely associated with the dominant religion at that time in India of Shaivism.
“Your true nature is free and blissful”
Although many people have now heard of Tantra in the West, almost no one knows of its origins and development. Modern “neotantra” bears almost no resemblance to the original tradition. Hatha-yoga, the basis for modern yoga, originally grew out of Shaiva Tantra, yet even many scholars don’t know this. The first certain evidence we have of Tantra dates back just over 1,500 years ago. We can now say with certainty that it “was a spiritual movement that arose within the religion of Shaivism and from there passed into Buddhism and Vaishnavism, propagating throughout the Indian subcontinent and into East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia”. Much of the early history of Tantra is clouded in mystery and speculation.
“Reality is One, and every experience is an experience of God”
The meaning of the word Tantra is “spreads wisdom that saves”, other translations are “theory”, “doctrine” or simply “book.” Tantra tends to refer to those divine texts which began appearing around 6th century, and continued for another thousand years. Disciples tended to follow one specific tantra, each being a more-or-less complete system of spiritual practice. Although the dictionary also gives the translation of Tantra as “loom” or “weave” these words have different meanings which were never used in the original Tantrik texts. In the original Tantrik texts, sex per se is virtually absent. Original Tantra was more concerned with daily deity worship, the use of mantras and mandalas, and following a guru after going through an initiation ceremony.
“Mind-created suffering is entirely a product of ignorance, of not seeing things as they really are”
There are two main streams in Classical Tantra, the left-current and right-current paths. The right-current path emphasised the worship of Shiva without Shakti and did not wish to challenge the social norms of the time. It was called Shaiva Siddhanta, meaning “established doctrine” or “orthodoxy”. The right-current paths tended to be more dualistic, meaning that they believed that God, the manifest universe, and the individual soul were eternally separate forms of reality. They believed “that impurity was an actual psychic substance that mars the soul”.
“You cannot be more beautiful or more perfect than you already are in this moment”
The left-current paths were less institutionalised and emphasised the worship of female deities. They challenged the traditional order of the day, especially by empowering women and practising transgressive rituals. The left-current paths were non-dualistic, and this book primarily looks at non-dualistic Shaiva Tantra (NST). The non-dualistic view holds that “all that exists, throughout all time and beyond, is one infinite divine Consciousness, free and blissful”. In other words, the only thing that exists is God, and therefore everything is divine. In this philosophy, because we can never be separate from God, our true natures are also free and blissful. The only thing we can do is forget this and see ourselves as something different, and this self-concealment causes us mental suffering.
“Believing that we are incomplete and imperfect and separate from God is the most untrue thing that we could possibly believe“
When we move in the direction of self-revelation, we experience more peace and bliss. The reason why the Divine conceals its true nature is to create many different and differentiated forms. One is never ‘better’ than another, all forms are simply in different stages of concealment or revelation of their true nature. The more wise we are, the more we are self-aware of our true nature. The more ignorant we are, the more we are experiencing self-concealment. There must be both so that the Divine can differentiate itself into different forms and create the illusion that there are separate forms, rather than one unified field of Consciousness. In the Classical Tantrik view, it is our misidentification with our true nature that causes us mental suffering, and it is us and no one else who is responsible for it. It holds that everything is a blessing, that “mistakes” are really opportunities and that there are never any problems, unless we label them so.
“Most, if not all, ‘mistakes’ become advantages when regarded as growth opportunities”
Some of the mental suffering arises because we identify with a constricted self-image using “I am…” statements, identifying with our economic status, our body, our thoughts or our energy levels (“I am poor”, “I am thin”, “I am happy” or “I am tired”). In NST, once these statements are transcended, we become the experience (rather than the thought) of “I am blissfully free self-aware Consciousness”, which can be summed up by the phrase purno’ham, meaning “I am complete and perfect”.
“Everything is a blessing”
In NST, the Divine is constantly performing one of these five Acts: Creating, Maintaining something that has been created, Retracting (back of those things which have been created), Concealing/ Forgetting (its true nature), and Self-Revealing (its true nature). Other ways of understanding the philosophy are through learning about the 36 tattvas, or “levels of reality” and the 3 main impurities. These impurities can cause us to see differences but not the underlying unity, or to cause us to erroneously believe that we need to gain or eliminate something outside of ourselves in order to be fulfilled.
“‘Good’ and ‘evil’ are conceptual structures that people overlay onto reality; they are not inherent in reality itself”
There are nine main sects of Shaiva Tantra, which were spread over a vast geographical area comprising of today’s India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and Bangladesh, as well as parts of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. It particularly flourished in Kashmir in the north of India, giving rise to the body of writings now known as “Kashmir Shaivism”.
“You – and no one else – are responsible for your suffering, and your view of things creates it”
It is difficult to practice Classical Tantra today, because most of the scriptures have not been translated into English from Sanskrit, because of the difficulty of finding a guru, because most of the lineages no longer exist and because Tantra was uniquely suited to a different culture and time period.
“There is no problem, and there has never been any problem – other than the fact you think there’s a problem”
The current mis-association of Tantra as something which is “all about sex” may have originated with teachers such as Pierre Bernard starting in 1905 and followed by Alastair Crowley. They lacked access to the original sources and introduced a much distorted version to the West. In original Tantra, those sexual rituals which did exist concerned themselves not with pleasure but with confronting the practitioner with a transgressive ritual which would have challenged the social norms at the time. When the word Tantra gets used in the context of modern workshops concerning themselves with sexuality and spirituality, generally there is no connection to the original tradition.