To me, one of the most tragic outcomes of a scandal such as we have seen recently (and I have seen others, too) is the swing of the pendulum to the opposite extreme: from irrational faith to irrational cynicism, from accepting everything you are told without adequate reflection to rejecting everything you are told without adequate reflection. In these extremes there is lack of discernment. As we say in Tantra, all extreme views are false views. In the center lies discernment: cool-headed, well-contemplated, assessing-all-the-evidence, fair-minded discernment. The purpose of this post is to clarify some substantial current misunderstandings in the community about the category of Tantra, what it refers to, and who is authorized to teach it.
I will delineate the facts as clearly as possible. John Friend was (and is) deeply influenced by his reading of all the following: 1000-year-old nondual Tantrik texts (in English translation), 19th-century Theosophy, and 20th-century neo-paganism (aka Wicca), as well as several 21st-century New Age teachers (e.g. Nassim Haramein). All of these were woven together in his vision of reality, a syncretistic and unique blend to be sure, in precisely the same way that all armchair philosophers embody a unique blend of all they’ve been influenced by. (“Armchair philosopher” is not derogatory, it just denotes a wide-ranging reader who isn’t a philosopher by profession.) John Friend didn’t “make up” his philosophy any more than any other syncrestist (one who amalgamates different religions or schools of thought)—and in the 21st century, we’re all syncretists to some extent.
Publicly, John taught something we can call “Anusāra philosophy”, in which the Tantrik element was more prominent, and the other elements mentioned above were present only in the sense that they influenced his interpretation of the Tantra. Unfortunately (because it created a lot of confusion), John recently chose to designate Anusāra philosophy as “Shiva-Shakti Tantra”, founding a new school only in the sense that he didn’t want to be overly tied to traditional interpretations of the Tantra. Now, this designation is confusing precisely because “Shiva-Shakti Tantra” can be used to designate the entire religious tradition from medieval India that scholars know as Śaiva Tantra or Tantric Śaivism. It was way too broad and too vague to denote John’s Anusāra philosophy—and in fact, John and I had a substantial falling out a couple of years ago when I criticized his initial paragraph-long declaration of his “Shiva-Shakti Tantra”, saying that the view it presented didn’t merit association with that name. The falling-out was substantial enough that I didn’t expect to ever teach with him again. But he re-opened talks with me some time later with such humility, gentleness, and friendliness that our connection was re-established, and from that time forward he showed openness to hearing the traditional view and sometimes emending what he taught (even the very next day) on its basis.
Let’s turn now to what is properly denoted by the word “Tantra,” and who is authorized to teach it. Tantra, as a Sanskrit word, refers to the body of teachings and practices revealed in scriptural texts called “tantras”, and authoritative oral commentary on those texts. (Authoritative oral commentary comes from anyone initiated into a lineage of teachers whose life’s work is the study and practice of Tantra in the original language.) Tantra subdivides according to religious affiliation, giving us Buddhist Tantra (aka the Vajrayāna or the Mantranāya), Vaiṣṇava Tantra (aka the Pāñcharatra) and Śaiva Tantra (aka the Mantramārga). No-one who cannot read Sanskrit has the adhikāra (authorization or entitlement) to represent the whole Tantrik tradition (in any of its versions), since virtually none of its hundreds of primary sources has been translated from Sanskrit satisfactorily. That’s a simple fact. But anyone is free to draw on inspiration from the Tantra in his or her teaching, as happens all the time in Anusāra circles. I would prefer if people were a little better educated in the original tradition before citing it, and hence the publication of my book Tantra Illuminated.
Now, I don’t mean to say that the tradition is always right, and always better than anything we can come up with now. But all scholars need to decide on their niche, and my character is such that I have cast my lot in with tradition, and I strive to present the views of the ancient masters with ever greater fidelity, eliminating as much as possible (in my own teaching) interpretations that they wouldn’t have agreed with. More than any American scholar I know of, I go with literal translations of the Sanskrit. In the literalist camp with myself I would place Christopher Tompkins, also a torchbearer for tradition, and Carlos Pomeda, who also agrees that literal translations are just as inspiring, and often even more powerful, then free renderings (though they require more explanation than the latter).
Each Tantrik religion subdivides into a number of different schools or sects. Some confusion has arisen amongst those who have noticed that what I teach and what (say) Douglas Brooks or Paul Muller teaches is not always compatible. It doesn’t need to be, because the Tantra is not an internally coherent religious dogma like the Catholic church—it allows for a lot of flexibility. In Tantra Illuminated, I present what we might call “the mainstream view,” i.e. teachings that most Tantrikas in most time-periods would agree with. But that doesn’t make other views wrong.
Let’s get down to specifics now. Of the nine schools of Śaiva Tantra (all explained in Tantra Illuminated), Douglas Brooks is initiated into the ninth school, called the Śrīvidyā. He calls what he teaches “Rajanaka Tantra” partially to indicate that it is not the mainstream view, but rather his interpretation of his teacher’s interpretation of the Śrīvidyā. His teacher, Śrī Sundaramoorthy (“Appa”) was a source of authoritative oral commentary as defined above. Paul Muller is a student of a different Tantrik school, the fifth school of Śaiva Tantra, known as the Trika. He is the foremost American scholar of the greatest master of the Trika school, Abhinavagupta (c. 975-1025). Paul’s teaching, which he calls “Svatantra” (lit., “independent”) blends the teaching of Abhinavagupta, Gurumayi, and Maharṣi Mahesh Yogī (the latter two being Paul’s direct gurus). As always, a teacher’s own life experiences and spiritual experiences are extremely influential on his presentation of his own teachers’ views, and certainly Paul and Douglas are no exception to this rule (‘cause there aren’t any exceptions).
I don’t call my teaching anything for the reasons stated above—I don’t feel qualified to do anything but represent the views of my gurus as best I can, using as my primary tool a facility for the Sanskrit language that I have somehow been gifted with. I try not to mix their views with any other religion or philosophy, mainly because they ask that we don’t do so. I see my role as helping people gain access to the words (and hopefully, some of the energy) of some the greatest spiritual masters the world has ever produced. The masters I speak of belong to both the Trika and the Krama lineages (my focus on the latter is what distinguishes my teaching from Paul’s). The synthesis of the Trika and the Krama was advocated by Abhinavagupta 1,000 years ago, so I am not innovating by drawing on both of those lineages. I smiled as I wrote the last sentence, because denying that one is innovating is so very traditional—in the writing of religious literature, the charge of originality was a grave one indeed, since it arrogates an authority to an individual that s/he doesn’t merit—truth is decided by a community, a community that chooses to practice, preserve and perpetuate a given scripture (tantra) that contains teachings and practices that work for that community.
Tantra is a scriptural tradition—and that aspect of it, in my view, needs greater emphasis if we seek a system of checks and balances to correct for too much reliance on idiosyncratic personal interpretations that may lead some astray if they take those interpretations as being “the Tantrik View”.
Please watch below for a video interview with Hareesh on his new book Tantra Illuminated.
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Creative Commons photo via Flickr by zabong
For a more complete overview on what’s been happening, please visit: Anusara Controversy: Overview and Timeline