Free-flowing energy

I mean “energy” in an everyday, non-spiritual sense. I mean “energy” in the way you speak of:

  • Having a low-energy day because you’re tired or bored
  • The electric energy of a club on Saturday night
  • The tense energy in your office just before job cuts are announced
  • The chaotic energy of waves in a storm

“Spiritual” people often use “energy” to mean something supernatural and special, and make strange claims about it. That could cause confusion; but I haven’t found a good alternative word.

“Energy” is the immediate potential for change. It powers passion, action, and connections.

The union of passion and spaciousness releases energy; and energy unbound intensifies passion and widens spaciousness. Tantra increases all three, and they reinforce each other.

This can be uncomfortable. You may feel that your emotions are already too strong, and that the world is already too complex and confusing. More of both might be the last thing you want.

However, this is exactly the choice between tantra and sutra (mainstream Buddhism):

  • Do you want to face your peculiar self squarely? Do you want to experience your spiky feelings fully, not flinching? Do you want to throw yourself into the world, with all its vivid fascinations, its unpredictable agonies and ecstasies, acting as best you can and accepting the consequences?
  • Or would you rather be a nice no-one-in-particular? Would you rather suppress your unruly passions? Would you rather shut off the firehose of energy? Would you rather find peace by retreating into a bland, safe space, inhibiting your impulses to get involved?

Fortunately, this is not a one-time choice. It is possible to take both approaches at different times, depending on your ability to cope with more and less intense circumstances. You can practice both tantra and sutra—but you cannot practice both at the same time. The choice is exclusive, because they do point in opposite directions.

You begin tantra by practicing in a sandbox: a relatively safe environment in which you can intensify passionate energy and free it with spaciousness. There are specific methods for intensification and unclogging while sitting quietly on a cushion, for instance.

The aim is to experience emotions unreservedly, as brilliant multi-colored biological energy that has no inherent implications. When the psycho-physical energy of the emotions is liberated from concepts, you can feel them without suppression, analysis, judgment, fixation, or needing to inflict them on others. (More on that in upcoming pages.)

These techniques are often misunderstood as the centerpiece of tantra; but they are just exercises, like playing scales when you are learning a musical instrument. They prepare you for the actual performance, which is the activity of everyday life.

Tantric exercises produce “unconditional confidence.” That is not confidence in something in particular, but in the workability of all circumstances. It is not the certainty that things will come out well, but that you will face up to difficulties without recoiling. Unconditional confidence is not aggressive or self-aggrandizing. It is daring: the willingness to take unconventional action. Here “willingness” is passion; “unconventional” is spaciousness; “action” is energy.

Energy and the trikaya

Passion, energy, and spaciousness correspond to the trikaya: nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya respectively.

The trikaya originally appeared in sutra. But in sutra, they are an abstract, speculative theory about the nature of sky gods. According to tantra, you are always already enlightened, so you have the trikaya yourself. That means they have to be a practical explanation of actual aspects of your experience. So the trikaya are much more important in tantra than in sutra.

Tantra is particularly concerned with the sambhogakaya—energy—because that is neglected by non-tantric Buddhism.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

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