A central meaning of ‘tantra’ is wholeness/continuity. Tantra is a path of wholeness understanding wholeness, a vision integrating all visions.
In the ancient cultures of Tibet, India, parts of southeast Asia and China, there flourished various wisdom traditions known as tantra. Today, tantra is sometimes associated with attempted mergings of spirituality and sex, but originally it had the meaning of ‘fundamental continuity’, or ‘the great continuum’. To study tantra was to study and engage with the continuity of life and all the known processes that compose it.
In Buddhist traditions of tantra, all aspects of knowledge intermesh to comprise a perfectly functioning integrated whole. Sense faculties, elements, cardinal directions, skandhas, paths, kaliyugas, pranas, nimittas, blisses, emptinesses, and so forth, were experienced as seamlessly inter-dependent, so much so that any single aspect only had meaning relative to the inter-activity of all the others. In tantra, no thing exists as an independent entity. It only occurs because of the relationships of uncountable other things and processes. In this sense we can say it is ’empty’ of independent selfhood. Here lies the possibility of understanding the intimate equivalence of form and emptiness (śunyatā), or knowing and ungraspable wholeness.
In today’s world it seems that generally we have lost sight of wholeness/continuity – this core vision of tantra. Instead we have created more and more categories of distinction and specialised expertise: physics, biology, chemistry, astronomy, music, art, history, religion, geography, politics, economics, medicine, homeopathy, naturopathy, psychology, neurology, sociology. A complete list would go on for pages. We have divided the world into organic and inorganic, micro and macro and nano and astro, virtual and real, secular and religious. Each, discipline proliferates with myriad subdivisions. Each has its specialized jargon; its explanation of the universe and opinions as to what is relevant or irrelevant and how life should or could proceed on this basis. The modern world has become flavoured with fragmentation and subsequent conflict. In public values and discourse, we have no modern equivalent for tantra, a path of wholeness understanding wholeness, a vision integrating all visions. This lack is contributing to a massive expansion of agony and suffering throughout the living world.
Even so called ‘holistic’ studies can support more fragmentation if they ignore or turn their backs on any facets that are contributing parts of the continuously co-creating living biosphere that we are. Original studies of tantra involved an integration of all the categories of experience and knowledge that were evident in the society of that time. There was never a university ‘department of wholeness’ that competed with architecture and social science for funding. With this in mind, a modern expression of tantra would need to invite and involve an integration of all the domains of experience and understanding that together are weaving into being the world of today’s living. A modern tantra would have to be a global tantra, taking into account the all the threads of knowledge found in all the cultures of this world. This would include their particular ways of approaching more integrated functioning, and their different understandings and methodologies for healing fragmentation and dysfunction.
In terms of such a realisation arising in a single human being, it is reasonable to query how possible this breadth of seeing/understanding would be? Yet surely we could begin to pose the question. Surely we could hold this possibility, by way of aspiration and a sense of deeply valuing such a prospect. Contemplating thus, I can’t see how we can improve on what the Buddha taught when he said that the dharma – the truth of our living – was to be questioned, explored and realised by the wise, each for themself. The conundrum of how to live well is not a task for experts. We are all participants and each participant participates. There are no exceptions. What we do affects the world. How we live and how we learn matters. No-one else can learn for us. No-one else can live for us. Forget about political parties, leaders, gurus, and charismatic personalities. In a multi-dimensional interdependent universe, an immeasurable living matrix, no single person or activity will solve for everyone else, the problems arising from fragmented living. This requires an understanding and a way of being that is freshly realised, moment to moment, in all our activities. At the same time we are doing this, we can support others as they attempt to do the same.
To end this spectre of fragmentation and to bring forth a truly modern expression of tantra, each one of us: you, me, him or her; whether young or old, healthy or ill, rich or poor, formally educated or not, each one of us, can learn to deepen our capacity to intentionally nurture the question. How might we personally contribute to bringing forth integrated living in a radically inclusive way? Each of us would benefit from recognising and validating our own individual form of holding this question – a living hwa-tou – until, as the Chan masters of old said, the ‘bundle of doubt’ or the ‘not-knowing’, begins to break up of itself, thus revealing understanding.
The greater the question, the greater the awakening. No question, no awakening. This classic Zen statement points the way in a very direct fashion. The first and most important step to healing and wholeness involves vast, wide ranging curiosity and question. Out of profound question comes, not answers, but action; not how we should live, but how we actually do live.
Perhaps the resolution of the challenge posed by climate change and its accompanying ecological breakdown, species extinctions and social upheaval will become the face of a modern tantra. May we discover the love and courageous fortitude to bring this about.