top of page
  • Writer's picturenigelwellings

Evolution of Mindfulness 4.

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

Sex and Violence – Tantra 2.

Now for something quite different. From its first tentative emergence sometime during the second century until its full fruiting in the ninth century Tantric Buddhism went in stages through a profound transformation that saw it change from simply being prayers for well being into (according to its own press) the most powerful and efficient vehicle for awakening. Why wait aeons traversing the way of the Bodhisattva when as a tantric yogi you can do it in one lifetime?

Tantra comes of age

But it did not achieve this status in one go nor is it entirely clear just how it happened. Today the medieval Tantrism of India exists in small pockets in Mongolia, Korea, China, Japan and fully in Tibet – and since the Tibetan diaspora also in the West. Indian Tantrism came intact into Tibet in two principle waves. The first from the late 700’s and the second from the early 1000’s – the time of our Norman invasion. This first wave is now called Nyingmapa – the school of the ancients – and the second wave is now represented by three further schools, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelug. Because of these two separate waves the tantric teachings each teach are slightly different and are arranged in hierarchies of efficacy that differ at the higher end. However this need not concern us here and we are for simplicities sake just going to look at the one I am more personally familiar with, the Nyingma nine vehicle system. It arranges the entire spectrum of Indian Buddhism – the earliest teachings first, then the Māhayāna and then six levels of Tantras:

The Sutra System

1. Śrāvakayāna, the Vehicle of the Listeners – for those the Māhayāna now terms ‘Hinayāna’ – the lesser vehicle.

2. Pratyekabuddhayāna, the Vehicle of the Solitary Buddhas, those who become realised alone – also considered Hinayāna.

3. Bodhisattvayāna, The Māhayāna vehicle for those who seek or attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.

Outer Tantras

4. Kriyā, Action Tantra – magical rituals that aid and protect using mantras and early maṇḍalas. This is a very large group with over 450 Tantras.

5. Carya, Practice Tantra – in which meditations begins to appear. This is a small group which really represents the cross over between Kriyā and Yogatantra.

6. Yoga, Union Tantra – meditation on the five buddha families and the beginning of some sexual symbolism.

Inner Tantras

7. Māhayoga, Great Yoga – in which sexual and violent symbolism finds full expression. Complex visualisations of maṇḍalas in which one is identified with the deity in sexual union and the use of mantras. This is also a very large class of Tantras and contains the important Guhyagarbha Tantra, The Tantra of the Secret Quintessence.

8. Anuyoga, Further Yoga – which places great emphasis on the transformation of the subtle or energy body through yoga and breathing alongside earlier styles of practices.

9. Atiyoga (Dzogchen) Ultimate Yoga; The Great Perfection – the pinnacle of the teachings that introduces directly the non-dual awareness that is the nature of mind. A ‘doing nothing’ practice.

The thing to get hold of here is that we are seeing a complete change in Buddhist meditation methods. So far it has really just been about placing our attention on an object of meditation and staying with it as the mind calms and insight emerges. It’s really simple and accessible. This method persists through early Buddhism into the new Māhayāna and continues to be practiced right up until today. But by the mid. seventh century and the appearance of Yoga Tantras a new way of practicing was gaining traction as a superior, faster, more powerful way that eventually became called the Vajrayāna – the adamantine vehicle, superior to all.


So how does this practice work? If we stay with Yoga/Mahāyoga/Anuyoga style meditations the basic idea is that the three poisons of ignorance, grasping and hatred, and all the emotions that are associated with these, may be transformed into wisdoms that are indivisible aspects of our awakened, Buddha Nature. So for instance desire is transformed into discernment. This is achieved through the transformation of our vision from impure to pure by visualising ourselves first in the presence of, and then later as identical to, a deity that symbolises an aspect of the awakened mind. So for instance Avalokiteśvara, the embodiment of compassion, or Mañjuśrī, the embodiment of wisdom. We also transform sound and so each deity has his or her own mantra which we repeat innumerable times and is the sound or energy of what the deity embodies. Though complicated sounding what is actually being said here is the familiar idea that freedom from suffering comes from knowing how things really are. Here, how things really are, is emptiness expressing itself and this expression symbolised by the different forms of the male and female deities. Seeing it as such is to have a pure experience unclouded by emotional and cognitive obscurations. Essentially the message is unchanged – the ultimate truth is the matrix of ever changing interconnections that is shot through with awareness.

With this in mind a typical session of tantric practice – called a sādhana – consists of initial prayers that take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and the aspirations of a bodhisattva – for instance, “May I be a bridge, a boat, a ship for all those crossing the stormy seas of saṃsāra”. These are then followed by the often lengthy descriptions of the deity and their qualities and requests for the realisation they may bestow. Next comes the sounding of a ‘seed syllable’ such as “A” or “Hung” or, in the case of Mañjuśrī, “DHIH”, and from emptiness before us manifests the deity seated or standing upon a lotus pad and the sun and the moon. We then maintain the visualisation while reciting the mantra. So staying with Mañjuśrī, he is golden-red in colour and is depicted as a male bodhisattva wielding a flaming sword in his right hand and a scripture, the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, in his left, together representing the realisation of transcendent wisdom which cuts through ignorance. His mantra is OM AH RA PA TSA NA DHI. This part of the practice is called the ‘generation stage’ – where one generates the deity – and is followed by the ‘completion or perfection stage’ where the visualisation is dissolved back into emptiness and the practitioner rests in the union of space and clarity that is the nature of Mañjuśrī and also the nature of ones own awakened mind. This is then followed by prayers dedicating the merit, the good karma, acquired for the wellbeing of all sentient beings and with this the sādhana is complete.

What I have presented here is a very simple form – we could say just the bare bones of a tantric practice. By the late eighth century the tantric sādhana’s had become hugely elaborate, visualising an enormous pantheon of often ferocious looking deities frequently dancing in sexual union. Waving weapons and skull cups full of menstrual blood and semen, eyes rolling, mouths gaping, covered in the skins of animals and flayed heretics they sport necklaces of dried and fresh heads. Before them, heaps of offerings made of the most disgusting and repugnant things for a largely vegetarian society concerned with ritual purity. These terrifying figures were almost entirely borrowed from Hindu tantric yogis who shared much in common with their Buddhist colleagues. One idea is that the whole of North Indian culture was by this time in serious danger from growing Muslim incursions – armies that annexed kingdoms and burnt monasteries and their libraries, dispersing or killing the monks. Hindu tantric practice was a magical weapon that Hindu kings attempted to use for their protection and this was also taken up by Buddhist yogis who then put an entirely Buddhist twist on it. There may be physical enemies at the gates but the true enemy was ones own deluded mind.

The characteristics of Tantrism

This type of tantric practice and the Buddhist culture around it has a collection of typical characteristics:

  • The centrality of the guru. Obviously Buddhism had always had teachers – spiritual friends – who taught students. Here this is geared up as entrance into Tantric practice requires initiation from one who has realised the power of the practice themselves. In India these were called ‘mahāsiddha’ – those holding great spiritual power – and in Tibet, ‘Lama’s’ – spiritual preceptor, or ‘Vajra Masters’ – master of the Vajrayāna. Accounts of these Guru/student relationships abound and are full of mystery, shock and transformation – highly entertaining. In the Nyingmapa tradition Guru Padmasambhava is the archetype of the Guru and for the later Kagyu tradition – renowned for its devotion – it is the Indians Tilopa and Nāropā and then in Tibet Marpa and the nettle eating Milarepa and his students in turn. All names worth looking up for the fun of it.

  • Tantric practice is esoteric – a hidden and restricted practice. Because of this practitioners are held within their tantric vows to keep the practice secret and commit themselves to its practice. To break these vows – the samaya – has the most terrible karmic consequences. For a list of these horrors see:

  • The use of maṇḍalas. A maṇḍalas is a pictorial or three dimensional representation of the world of pure – enlightened – vision. Typically it is portrayed as a sequence of enclosing squares and circles with four ‘gates’ opening into the centre in which rest the images of the ‘five buddhas families’ or other expressions of enlightened energy. This is a huge subject including a bewildering array of peaceful and wrathful gods, goddesses, protectors and assorted sprites and faeries but generally speaking each deity represents an element of the enlightened mind. An interesting observation of the maṇḍala is that it closely resembles the structure of the medieval Indian court within the palace walls. King at the centre, surrounded by principle courtiers and going further out minor officials and retainers. Or alternatively a kingdom surrounded by satellite states. Given that kings employed Tantric practitioners for their magical prowess this connection between the spiritual and political may not be surprising.

  • Extraordinary symbolic thinking – analogical thinking. The quickest glance at any piece of Tantric iconography will reveal the vast complexity of its imagery. Everything means something.

  • The re-evaluation of women. The Buddha had been quite good about women, creating an order of nuns despite misgivings and protecting them with rules that prevented them being used as skivvies by the monks. However this status gradually declined until, in some ways, it was reclaimed within tantricism. Female deities – the wisdom expression of Buddha Nature – abound in late tantrism. Iconographically they are seen copulating with their male – skilful means – partners but they also stand alone. And quite literally women also became the consorts of tantric practitioners, often having the status of practitioners themselves.

  • And with women also the re-evaluation of the body. Later tantrism – Anuyoga – places great emphasis on the transformation of the energy body which is seen as an inner maṇḍala consisting of hard to define channels of energy punctuated by ‘nodules’ or ‘essences’ – tsa, lung and tiglé. Early Buddhism is rather ambivalent about the body – emphasising its transitory and unsatisfactory nature, however in tantrism it becomes the abode of the divine. An interesting possibility here is that these teaching originated in China – home of acupuncture – and travelled to South India with the mercury trade where they were incorporated by worshippers of the Hindu god Shiva who then exported them to the North. Chinese Daoists used mercury to prolong life and had a system concerning channels of energy that ran through the body and which could be influenced through meditation, physical exercises and the breath.

  • Re-evaluation of destructive mental states. This has already been touched on. Early Buddhism is all about becoming mindful of unwholesome mental factors such as the three poisons and skilfully stepping away. Here the story changes to the transformation of the afflicting emotions by the recognition of their empty essence. We no longer try to get rid of them, rather, riding on their powerful impulse, we recognise their true empty nature and become free. This of course leads to some shocking examples where behaviours normally frowned upon are performed by ‘crazy wisdom’ gurus and tantric yogis as expressions of their enlightenment. Examples we are generally cool about just as long as they are historical and not in the present.

  • Which leads to antinomian acts. Actions that break the taboos of society. Tantric practitioners, before they became sanitise by the monastic orthodoxy, must have been holy shockers. Hanging out in cemeteries and charnel grounds, long dreadlocks, virtually naked except for human bone ornaments, having sex in public, consecrating the practice with semen and menstrual blood, making offerings of forbidden meats, human organs and shit and piss – they were not someone to take home and meet the parents. However, as I said above, this needs to be understood symbolically and the biggest meaning in all this is that if all is already the dimension or field of awakened mind then there can be no pure and impure, no holy or profane. All is simply awareness. This sexy, dirty stuff is just trying to point this out.

So what happened next?

In India the wildness of Tantric practice made it impossible to practice within the monastery as it required breaking the monastic rules. The story of Nāropā – a great monastic scholar who relinquishes his vows to follow the teachings of the mahāsiddha Tilopa, who appears on the surface to be a crazed psychopath – demonstrates just this. Buddhism from the very beginning had encompassed a spectrum of meditational means, embracing the monks held in close community and those more extreme personalities that craved severe austerities and a life of meditation in the forest. Now Buddhism found expression both within the cloister and within the homes of lay Tantric practitioners, often of low caste origins and dubious employment.

This model was imported into Tibet with the first wave of teachings. Śāntarakṣita initiating the first monastery at Samye and Guru Padmasambhava, Vairochana and Vimalamitra collectively introducing Tantrism – particularly Māhayoga and Dzogchen. After a relatively short time the political tide turned in Tibet and the Dharma was no longer flavour of the month at court and consequently Samye and other monastic institutions felt the bite of deep austerity. However the Tantric lay community continued to flourish and keep the light burning until the second infusion around two hundred years later. With the second infusion came a new form of tantrism, one that had begun to moderate tantric practice in ways so that monks could practice it – the sex and violence became enacted symbolically, done only within the imagination. It hadn’t exactly cleaned up its act and there were still many who retired into retreats high in the mountains and took consorts but in the monasteries, the monks, sitting in neat rows, fully dressed, blowing trumpets and banging drums, without a woman in sight, could now practice the Vajrayāna. And so it is today. When we enter Tibetan Buddhism and the Vajrayāna we do not suddenly become wild yogis (however attractive this may be) but rather more modestly start by contemplating our precious human rebirth, the truth of impermanence and change, the workings of karma and the suffering of birth, old age, sickness and death.


I think on the surface tantrism must represent the largest change to Buddhist meditation. When it was first discovered by Western scholars they were so disapproving they could not even consider it real Buddhism but regarded it as something debased and a monstrosity. They named it “Lamaism” as if it were an entirely different philosophy or religion. The wrathful deities of the Māhayoga Tantras and fierce Dharma ‘protectors’ were seen as devils and demons and they shocked Christian sensibilities. However, after some time, once new generations of translator/practitioners had understood it more clearly they realised that for all the razzmatazz Vajrayāna was still Māhayāna but with rather a lot of bells and whistles. The more extreme aspects of the practices remained unavailable to the uninitiated and entrance to them required a daunting approach via preliminary practices that include 100,000 prostrations just for a start. This was no free-for-all or orgy. And the central ideas on emptiness and the ideal of the bodhisattva remained the same. It was still about compassion and wisdom. Wisdom and skilful means. Different meditative tools for sure but still realising the same awakening.

But what of mindfulness, what had happened to this? In a way nothing. It still remained as a wholesome mental factor, that along with others, was necessary to cultivate as part of the path. To practice a tantric sādhana mindfulness, clearly knowing and concentration, samādhi, are all absolutely required and the acquisition of these skills became part of the a graduated path to awakening that the Vajrayāna takes. Further more, within the tantric sādhana, the initial generation of the visualisation of the deity was associated with the calm abiding of shamatha and the completion or perfection stage, during which the practitioner rests in emptiness as the insight, vipaśyanā, aspect. Finally it must not be forgotten that within this evolution of Buddhist practice the understanding of mindfulness had also been changing. Once thought an occasional wholesome mental factor that may or may not be present it had been identified as something deeper, more intrinsic that was available all the time but must be recognised. From here it was only a short hop and a jump to begin to link it to consciousness and then to a new understanding of consciousness – we could say awareness – that was synonymous with the awakened mind, Buddha Nature. Mindfulness was the dim echo of or the precursor to the non-dual awareness of a perfectly realised Buddha.


Peter Harvey, 2012, An Introduction to Buddhism, Second Edition: Teachings, History and Practices, Cambridge University Press.

Paul Williams & Antony Tribe, 2000, Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, Routledge.

15 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page