This article is adapted from a podcast excerpt of Buddhist Tantra, an audio course by Dr. Reggie Ray, produced by Sounds True. Dr. Reginald “Reggie” Ray is the Director of Dharma Ocean, dedicated to the evolution and flowering of the somatic teachings of the Practicing Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
When we consider spirituality, we think of extraordinary people who seem to have accomplished the things that we’re working on. Many are held up as saints and exemplars in terms of their lives and their achievements. In some traditions, these people are spoken of as superhuman. This is found in all developed religions, but from the Buddhist Tantric perspective, those who achieved realization did not begin life as extraordinary beings—they were ordinary people—not special, as you find in institutional religion. Within Buddhist Tantra it’s important to realize that everybody is on the same level—everybody’s working with the same things.
The stories of the men and women who established the Buddhist Tantra tradition in India illustrate this point. In Sanskrit, they are called “Mahasiddhas“, meaning “great” (Sanskrit: maha) “accomplished” (Sanskrit: siddha) beings. In earlier Buddhist traditions, the great realized saints were mostly men. But within the Tantric tradition, men and women practitioners worked with each other, achieving realization and living together as compatriots on the path.
Roughly half the Siddhas were marginalized, low caste people, meaning that they occupied the bottom rungs of Indian society; poverty stricken with minimal legal rights. They were despised and considered polluted and defiled, and were often beggars and menial workers. The other half were upper caste people, but because of their Tantric practice, became outcasts. Within the Tantric tradition, part of the training was practicing in cremation grounds, which was utterly defiling. The Siddhas would eat meals with people of lower caste, which again is considered defiled— you could lose your caste status. And often upper caste Siddhas would marry people of lower caste—that’s the absolute worst. When you do that, you’re finished. So the Siddhas are quite different from other upper caste Buddhist professional practitioners who were respected within society, living within the monastic institutions as paragons of virtue. The Siddhas lived outside the boundaries of conventional society. They intentionally put themselves in the margins between the worlds. Why? Because the whole point of Buddhist Tantra is to make some kind of journey to a level of being that underlies the egoic personality, mask, or persona. The Siddhas felt it was necessary to step out of the rigid world of society, intentionally putting themselves on the margins.
What all these Siddhas had in common was that there was some aspect of life that wasn’t working, like a person who wakes up one day and realizes that if they continue on the present course they may become rich and develop social respect—they may gain all of the goals of the American dream—but they will have missed the basic challenge of their life. Some begin to suspect that they could accomplish everything that is set out and wind up at the end of their life empty handed.
This characterizes these Siddhas who lived between the eighth and 12th century in North and South India. They lived long ago and far away, but strangely enough, their problem is our problem—the fear of missing out and failing to develop whatever it is in us calling out to be experienced. Many of us are terrified that we could have a tremendously successful life, but in the end, realize that it was all meaningless.
The Siddhis looked in a spiritual direction outside the framework of society. Within their culture were renowned teachers in monasteries and nunneries. Someone could go there and study with great scholars and dialecticians and theologians and be supported in some sense. Many took this option, but the Siddhas, because of the radical limitations and imperfections and pain, not just in their lives but in the lives of human beings as such, realized their existential issues were not going to be solved by becoming a monastic person. So they set off looking for other kinds of masters who lived outside society in the remote jungles, learning the things you discover when you meditate in a serious way.
For example, the great Indian Buddhist scholar Naropa lived in the 11th century. He was a monastic official who had proved himself through scholarship, finally becoming an abbot of Nalanda University in North India. People came from all over the Buddhist world to study there. Here’s a person who was at the top of the heap, held in great esteem by his society. He was basically doing his thing as a successful, important person, but one day a shadow suddenly fell over him. It was not a normal shadow; there was a strange, eerie feeling about it. The landscape became dark and he felt a cold wind as if a door had opened into another world. He turned around and saw a woman looking at him very intently. But this was no ordinary human woman—she had a presence of tremendous emptiness and openness. A terrifying space showed out of her eyes and Naropa felt he was losing his sanity. At that moment, Naropa’s life as he had known it was over.
The interesting thing about the world outside our conventional world is that it’s compassionate and always willing to speak in a human voice. So this woman engaged him. Now, mind you, she was six or seven feet off the ground. She said, “You’re a great scholar, aren’t you? Do you understand the words and logic of what you read?” Naropa said, “Yes, that’s my job. I’m good at that.” And she was happy and she laughed and danced. Up until this moment, she had been a terrifying specter because she was a very old woman, ancient, like the earth or stars. Her eyes were blazing with light and she was toothless—a very strange kind of an apparition. But when she laughed, Naropa felt momentarily relieved.
Then she asked, “Do you understand what these words are pointing to in your own experience?” And Naropa wasn’t going to say he didn’t understand—part of the whole persona of being a scholar is having an answer for everything. It’s hard to find scholars who will admit to you that they don’t know. It’s part of their training and the pecking order in the scholarly world, and the people who are most convincing always have an answer, even if it’s totally insane—these are the ones that rise to the top.
So Naropa, being a scholar, said, “Yes, I understand the meaning.” At this, the woman started crying and wailing. And when empty, endless space cries and wails, it is a terrifying experience. Naropa realized that he could not play his game with this woman, and asked her what he should do. At that moment, Naropa actually gave something back to this experience. We may have similar experiences, but we don’t do anything with them, or we run to a psychiatrist and get medication. In our culture, such an experience is regarded as insanity, and you better get treatment or you’re hopeless. We need to conventionalize you. You need to be domesticated.
In Naropa’s case, he was able to respond to the demise of his world. And he asked this woman, called a “dakini” in Sanskrit, “What should I do?” She said, “You don’t know anything about reality. You have to start your learning all over again.” Naropa asked, “How can I do that?” The dakini pointed east into the trackless jungle, the wilderness, and said, “You need to go there. You need to find my brother who is a Siddha.” She didn’t tell Naropa her brother’s name or where he was living or how to find him.
So here is an important theme of the Siddhas’ lives, the search for the teacher. With institutionalized, organized religion, it’s easy to find an authority, whether it’s the priest or the rabbi or the Buddhist scholar or whatever. But because the Tantra is dealing with the realm of reality outside conventional institutions, you don’t know where you’re going to find your teacher or how they will present themselves. For the Siddhas, it was often a long-term search with many failures and missteps. But they knew they must find an authentic Tantric teacher—they had to resolve to stay with the journey and not turn on a TV or pick up a newspaper or go on vacation to tune out the angst of their fundamental existential situation.
In Naropa’s case, he wandered the jungles for months asking, “Have you seen the dakini’s brother?” He met many people but none were the one he was searching for. Eventually, he comes to a monastery deep in the jungle. The monks said, “You are obviously a wandering practitioner. Would you care to have lunch with us?” And he said, “Yes, I would like to have lunch.” He was invited in and they shut the door from the inside as was customary at that time. When lunch was served, if you’re in, fine—if you’re out, tough. You had to be on time. So they locked the doors from the inside and started serving lunch. And suddenly, out of thin air, a filthy beggar with long hair, crawling with lice, appeared out of nowhere and started frying live fish over the fire. Within the Buddhist context, that’s a terrible thing because you’re not supposed to kill living beings. But equally important, if anybody found out that kind of thing was going on, they wouldn’t support the monastery and it would be finished. So the monks were horrified; they beat this beggar, then opened the door and threw him out. And somehow Naropa realized this was the person he was looking for. Maybe he got a feeling that was similar to the feeling he got from the old woman who initially appeared to him. And sure enough, it was his teacher Tilopa.
This illustrates a very important theme for Buddhist Tantra and the kind of spirituality it represents, which is that often, within the most despised and socially unacceptable aspects of our lives and experience, the true teacher is found. The door that is the most unlikely is exactly the door that we need to find and step through.
In Buddhist Tantra, the process of spirituality is going down into our being, into the depths of our pain, suffering, and confusion. In meditation, we sit and look and watch and open and experience what happens when we’re not preoccupied and distracted with a million things. Gradually we find ourselves going down—sometimes it becomes very dark—and we find the door. That is the gift of Naropa’s story; that he found the door in the most unlikely beggar, a despicable, despised person who was thrown out of a rundown, rat-infested monastery in the jungles of North India.
Often we think of the Tantric teacher as someone on some throne dispensing teachings from above. But in the tradition of the Siddhas, the Tantric teacher understands the nature of reality when all of your preconceptions are stripped away; your hopes for how wonderful it all could be and your fears about what a nightmare it could actually be.
Through meditation, when we unburden ourselves of ego’s coverings and defenses, reality shows itself in a way that is incredibly intense and brilliant. The Tantric teacher is the person who embodies that, and all they want to do is share that with somebody else—their question is, who can I share this experience of reality with? The Tantric journey is with the teacher who leads others into that naked, liberated, boundless experience of life.
All the tantric meditation practices are ways of leading us to accept and receive the teacher’s experience so it can be experienced by us. That experience is liberation—not escaping from the world, or entering some other kind of reality, but finding the root and the essence of this world that we live in, which most people spend their lives avoiding. And this is what the teacher brings to us.
One of the things that my own teacher said was, “When you practice Vajrayana [Buddhist Tantra], never forget that this tradition is alive only because countless generations of people, beginning with these Siddhas, sacrificed their hopes and their dreams for a genuine experience of what the world is. And because of their sacrifice, this tradition is available for those who want it”.
Dharma Ocean is a non-profit global educational organization that focuses on somatic meditation as the way to help students – of any secular or religious discipline, by teaching them the importance of embodiment in both meditation and their daily lives as taught in the “practicing lineage” of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The foundation was established in 2005 by scholar, author, and teacher Dr. Reggie Ray, and is located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Southern Colorado.