Tantra & the Two Truths

The readings on Tantra seem particularly antithetical to what we have learned so far, particularly the idea that “the problem lies not in desire per se, but rather in a misdirection of the energy of desire towards objects that lead to suffering and bondange” (Powers, 259). Everything else we have discussed has talked about all desire–even the desire to reach Buddhahood–as fundamentally the same at attachment, which is unhelpful on the path. Looking over past readings, however, it is helpful to use phenomenological approach to the two natures and particularly the idea of non-duality (instead of emptiness) in trying to understand how Tantra fits with other parts of Buddhism.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about emptiness, this idea that nothing is truly existent. As Duckworth notes, however, that is not always the best way to understand ultimate reality. In a phenomenological understanding of the two truths, ultimate understanding is “the unity of appearance and emptiness not bifurcated into a dichotomous structure” (521). Emptiness requires us to break objects into distinct parts, the real and the empty. In order to become a Buddha, we must completely leave this way of understanding because “…the false presumption of duality cannot be negated by this kind of reason alone, but involves a restructuring, to destructuring, of the way of relating to the lived-world, in which duality no longer structures experience” (524). So, when we talk about not being able to see conventional and ultimate reality at the same time, what we really mean is not really recognizing them as two separate things, even though the idea that they can’t exist at the same time would seem to imply a distinction. It’s a completely different plane of understanding, in which there are no objects to exist or not exist.

When focusing primarily on this understanding of ultimate truth, tantric meditation practices make more sense. Tantra works because, instead of focusing on releasing attachment from essentially empty objects, it focuses on the idea that “nothing in itself is pure or impure, good or bad, mundane or transcendent; things only appear to us in these way because of preconceived ideas” (Powers 261) and gets rid of constructions of duality altogether. Thinking about it in terms of removing one’s conceptions of duality makes it possible to “redirect this energy [of desire]… so that desire itself becomes a means to overcome desire” (Powers 260). This idea does not make sense when your end result is the nonexistence of desire and attachment, but it is useful when you seek the lack of a concept of desire in the first place. This also translates to the idea of visualizing oneself as a buddha because, from the standpoint of nonduality, “there is no fundamental difference between ordinary beings and fully awakened buddhas” (Powers 272).

While I struggle to understand Tantra in the context of emptiness, its usefulness for the end of dualistic thinking is clear. Tantra is compatible with and works towards a phenomenological understanding of ultimate truth.

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