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Transcript of Exploring Nondual Shaiva Tantra, with Christopher Wallis

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Michael Taft: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for meta-modern mutants interested in meditation, hardcore Dharma, neuroscience, the Ministry for the Future, predictive processing, Vajrayana, nonduality, awakening, and much, much more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast, and in this episode, I’m speaking with Christopher Wallis. Christopher Wallis, also known as Hareesh, is a Sanskritist and scholar-practitioner of classical Tantra, with thirty years of experience. He was initiated by a traditional Indian guru at the age of 16 and received education at yoga ashrams both in India and the West. He holds several degrees, including an MPhil in classical Indian religions from Oxford, and a PhD in Sanskrit from UC Berkeley. Hareesh is the author of Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition, and also of The Recognition Sutras, a translation, and commentary on a 1000-year-old masterpiece on experiential recognition of oneself as a direct expression of universal divine consciousness. And now, without further ado, I give you the episode that I call “Exploring Nondual Shaiva Tantra, with Christopher Wallis,” aka Hareesh.

Michael Taft: Hareesh, Welcome to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast.

Christopher Wallis: Thank you.

MT: I’m so glad to have you here. Of course, most people probably if they know of you will know you by your English name, which is Christopher Wallis. But I’m, of course going to call you Hareesh for this interview. 

So I first found out about your work hearing through various students and fellow practitioners and so on a little bit about it. But eventually, I got my hands on a copy of Tantra Illuminated, which was an amazing experience, really a cool book. But then I saw you had another one called The Recognition Sutras. And it was like, Well, I like Christopher Wallis’s books so let’s try this out. And I got a copy of The Recognition Sutras and it quite literally blew my mind. I had no idea such a text existed. From Tantra Illuminated, I had heard of it, and I knew that there were Nondual Shaiva Tantra traditions. But still, I was unprepared for just how amazing that is. 

So I’m just going to throw it out there and say, can you give a personal background of what Nondual Shaiva Tantra is and what The Recognition Sutras are? Or the text is? I know, that’s a large topic, but can you sort of orient us to what we’re talking about here?

CW: Yeah, so I will summarize it this way: Tantra is a spiritual movement, which began in the five hundreds or the sixth century, in our Western calendar, and spread throughout all of South Asia, initially, as well as later East Asia and Southeast Asia. And I call it a spiritual movement because Tantra itself is not a religion, but rather a way of doing religion, one might say. So all the major religions in South Asia at that time developed a tantric component, that is to say, Tantra first appeared within the religion called Shaivism, which is the religion of Shiva and Shakti, now subsumed into Hinduism, and that’s been true for the last seven or eight hundred years. And then it propagated from there into Buddhism and Vaishnavism, and so on. 

So all of these religions instantiated the Tantric component. Meaning to say, one could be a practitioner of these religions in a non-Tantric mode or in a Tantric mode. So just to be clear, one could be a Buddhist or a Tantric Buddhist, and the difference there involved taking a sort of higher level of initiation that gave one access to teachings and practices, that were beyond the common core of religion. And what’s interesting is that the Tantric practices have much the same form in whichever religious tradition they appear. So even though Buddhism and Shaivism, for example, have many different doctrines, and philosophies, the Tantric practices themselves are sometimes even almost identical in these two different religious contexts. And that’s why it’s appropriate to think of Tantra as a spiritual movement that spread through these various religions.

MT: Let me just interrupt for a moment and say, as you know, I have a background in Hindu Tantrism, and did a lot of practices in that style. And I was shocked, honestly, I was used to doing all those practices in Sanskrit and, and going through the order of practices and so on. And when I got involved in Vajrayana, so Buddhist Tantra, I already understood everything they were doing, at least on the ritual level, maybe the philosophy behind it is different, but the practices were virtually identical. I was just shocked.

CW: Exactly. And over time, some of those similarities became a little bit less obvious. There were certain divergences in the last seven 800 years. But at the period Tantra was flourishing–which was about the year 800 to 1200 of our calendar when it was maximally influential. Then yeah, we see the same exact ritual technologies, not only ritual, but in terms of the inner yogas, the inner practices of visualization and deity yoga and all this sort of thing were really identical, but with different names and forms, right? So, of course, a Buddhist is invoking Vairocana, or Akshobhya, or a Buddhist Bodhisattva, and a Shaiva is invoking Shiva under various Tantric names, or the goddess, you know, so the names and forms are different, but the exact practice, the ritual technology, we might say whether inner or outer, was the same. 

So it’s fascinating, and Tantric studies is a fairly new field. It’s been flourishing in academic circles for the last 50 years. And the results of that research is also making its way little by little to the practitioner context, which is important because a lot of Vajrayana practitioners, for example, didn’t even realize that there was this common ritual syntax as scholars sometimes call it. And that many of these Tantric practices, if not most, actually derived from the Shaiva tradition, to use the correct Sanskrit adjective.

So, Nondual Shaiva Tantra is something that emerged in the mid-9th century. That is to say, a form of Tantric practice that was embedded in a nondual philosophy. And this developed over time until it became really quite a sophisticated vision of reality, in which all these deities that you work with in Tantric practice were not seen anymore as supernatural persons that one could transact with, but rather as icons of essence. Where each of the deities instantiated some aspect of our universal essence nature, that is to say, of the nature of consciousness itself. So the deities were understood to express aspects of that consciousness by which all conscious beings are conscious, that consciousness which instantiates as the awareness of each and every sentient being. 

So Nondual Shaiva Tantra eventually developed into a form which some scholars say is even atheistic in the sense that there is no God separate from this consciousness. But this consciousness is understood to be trans-individual, and therefore, different from how people would ordinarily conceive of consciousness. Because the ordinary perspective, you know, it’s my consciousness versus your consciousness. And here we’re understanding that there is one trans-individual consciousness. The metaphor is sometimes used, that all things are seen by the light of the sun, even if it’s at some remove, right, because if a lamp is lit, the fuel of that lamp is the stored energy of the sun. And so in fact, all illumination is that same fundamental energy, and that’s used as a kind of analogy for this vision of reality, in which consciousness is singular. 

And yet we still invoke these deities because we don’t know ourselves in our true nature or in our deepest nature. And the deities serve to indicate to us in various ways, something about the vastness, the power, the depth of that consciousness, which we are, and which gets overlooked insofar as we’re identified with the bodymind or other sort of adventitious features of embodied experience. 

So, Nondual Shaiva Tantra then ended up being quite influential all the way down to the present day, even if the source of the influence is no longer remembered. So in modern yoga, for example, people will invoke concepts that they don’t realize originally come from this tradition of Nondual Shaiva Tantra: concepts of oneness; or the universality of consciousness; or the notion that the body is the temple of the deity. This is a teaching found in this tradition.

MT: Yeah, let’s just pause there for a moment, because of course, we’re calling this Nondual Shaiva Tantra, and these days that would be lumped together in the general category of Hinduism. But we have another big nondual tradition lumped together in Hinduism, which is, of course, Advaita Vedanta. And both of these are “Hinduism.” And both of these are nondual, but of course, they’re very different. And I’m just curious if, in a brief way, you can help us to disambiguate these two forms of nondual practice.

CW: Yeah, and this is a complex question because of the fact that Advaita Vedanta, over the last eight hundred years, absorbed a lot of Tantric influence. So the form of Vedanta that people engage with, at least in India–setting aside for the moment the sometimes called Neo Advaita of Western practitioners. Indian Advaita Vedanta is deeply influenced by Tantra as it appears today and has for hundreds of years. And that obscures the fundamental differences between these two forms of nonduality. 

And a thousand years ago, those differences were stark because Advaita Vedanta posited a singular absolute consciousness called Brahman, which did not have any Shakti. That is to say, it did not have any dynamism. It didn’t do anything, it was a pure witness, right? So this is the way that the Tantrikas criticized it, they’d say, Oh, your notion of consciousness is devoid of Shakti, whereas, in the Tantric conception of consciousness, it has inherent powers, energies, or potencies called Shaktis, such as the Power of Bliss, the Power of Knowing, the Power of Will, the Power of Acting, and so on. 

And so according to Tantra then, the One Consciousness actually does transform itself into the substance of each and every experience. And this is a dynamic process by which it contracts into the form of an experience, and then expands once again into its full potential, and then contracts into the form of the next experience, even though this oscillation or spanda is not fully perceptible to most conscious agents without deep reflection. Whereas in the Vedantic view, there is no activity in consciousness, and the perception that there is activity is an illusion. So, therefore, the world is not real. It’s an appearance, much like a mirage in a desert or mistaking a rope for a snake, there actually is no snake and there never was a snake. It’s just a cognitive error. Whereas in Tantra, the world is real. It’s a real transformation of consciousness. It’s nothing but consciousness, and yet it’s a real transformation of consciousness.

So in this way, Tantrikas venerated diversity, and Vedantans dismissed diversity, which is a pretty stark contrast that had real-world implications, because Tantrikas were non-renunciate, because they were world-embracing in their attitude because everything in the world is a form of the One and deserves to be venerated as such. And for Vedantans, the One never actually becomes anything other than its transcendent, absolute nature.

So it’s actually a bit hard to explain because for the Tantrikas, in the process by which consciousness transforms itself into the substance of any experience, it never actually loses its transcendent character. It doesn’t become less divine by transforming itself into the substance of experience. But it does create these possibilities for misunderstanding. So even though everything that appears within experience is simply a different vibration of the same One, because of diversity, we can mistake it for being something separate. 

So there’s some commonalities, but also some distinct differences that like I say, have mostly been obscured. So if you talk to a modern practitioner in India, of Vedanta, they are also reading Tantric texts, but calling them Vedantic texts, for example, the Soundarya Lahari. They claim was written by the founder of Advaita Vedanta, and they claim it for themselves, even though in fact, it wasn’t written by Shankaracharya. It is a Tantric text. That’s just one example of what we might call the Tantrikisation of Vedanta. 

MT: It’s so interesting, there’s actually quite a long thread, we could go on there. And maybe we’ll do it later in this talk. But thank you for making that distinction. So, Nondual Shaiva Tantra isn’t Advaita and especially early on, they’re very different. So now you were about to tell us about this particular text from the Nondual Shaiva Tantra tradition, The Recognition Sutras.

CW: Yes, The Recognition Sutras. In Sanskrit, the title is Pratyabhijñā-hṛdaya, which literally means the Heart of the Teachings on Recognition. It’s a text that teaches this exact Tantric nondual doctrine that I was just indicating, and it does use the word Advaita. Or it’s close synonym, Advaya in Sanscrit. And in fact, when this tradition names itself, you know what we are calling Nondual Shaiva Tantra it calls itself Parameshwar Advaya-Vada, which means the way of the supreme nonduality of divinity. Okay, Parameshwar Advaya, which means Advaita, Vada. And what they mean by that expression is something very interesting that instead of this nondual view that excludes duality and says duality is wrong, this is a nondual view that includes duality, as a valid level of experience, though, not an absolute one. So the difference here is that this nondual tradition validates practice in a dualistic mode, as a kind of stepping stone for many people to a truer or more all-encompassing nondual awareness. 

So if we put this in everyday language that everyone can understand, if you experience that the One universal consciousness is something bigger, wider, or deeper than yourself, because you’re still identified as a bodymind most of the time, then it makes sense to venerate that as a higher power, to use a common phrase, until you realize that that is, in fact, what you are in your deepest nature. So in other words, in this nondual tradition, you’re not supposed to fake it till you make it and pretend to an experience that you don’t yet have. And that actually, the worship of this higher power can lead to the realization that you yourself are that, in stages that are carefully prescribed in that tradition. That you start to recognize that your own consciousness has the exact same capacities and potencies of this supposed higher power, that you’ve been venerating as something beyond yourself. And so the sense of limited or separate self dissolves into that greater context, which you realize is what you have, in fact, been all along. 

So that’s why it’s the way of higher nonduality, a nonduality that includes duality and various levels of duality within itself, subsumes them, as well as ultimately transcends them. 

So this doctrine is explained at length in this text, which we call The Recognition Sutras because it consists of twenty sutras, with commentary by the author of the original sutras. So it is one whole text, and to take the sutras out of that context is wrong, and some authors have done that. But really, they have to be taken in light of the commentary on the sutras composed by the author of the sutras. So he composed it all as one singular text. And even though it’s incredibly profound, this text is actually a summary of even more abstruse philosophy. 

So you know, there’s a tradition in Nondual Shaiva Tantra called the Recognition School, the school on how to recognize yourself as the deity that you were previously worshipping, as if almost separate. So Pratyabhijñā means recognition, the recognition of your consciousness as the universal consciousness. So this summary is actually far easier to read than the vast body of work that it is based on, and, importantly, includes practices. So in the translation I’ve done, The Recognition Sutras, if you make it to chapter 18. That’s where you get all these wonderful practices. And this is sort of counterintuitive for some modern readers who want practices more upfront, but in the traditional view, you have to understand the context in which these practices make sense. And so the view is laid out first and then comes the practice towards the end of this sublime text. 

And by the way, this text was composed in the Kashmir Valley 1000 years ago, and many people consider it a part of the literature called Kashmir Shaivism. And Kashmir Shaivism, is a bit of a misnomer, because it implies a tradition that was specifically endemic to Kashmir, when in fact, this tradition was absolutely pan-Indian, not confined to Kashmir at all. But the name Kashmir Shaivism came about in the 20th century, to denote the really amazing works of literature written by masters of Nondual Shaiva Tantra who happened to live in Kashmir. But they themselves very much knew that they were commenting on and elaborating a pan-Indian Tantric tradition that we call Shaiva Tantra.

MT: It’s also fascinating that these texts almost didn’t make it down to the modern day. It’s a pretty fascinating story how they even came to know of them. Can you share a little bit of that with us?

CW: Yeah, it’s interesting, because it seems that Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism, in particular, survived the colonial period much better, when in fact, Tantric Buddhism, like the rest of Buddhism was wiped out in India with the Muslim conquests. And the reason people know of Tantric Buddhism under the name Tibetan Buddhism today is because it got exported to Tibet, and other regions as well, before those conquests. So it’s important to understand that the Tantric Buddhism that we know in its Tibetan form, existed in almost identical forms in India prior to that, and of course, the Tibetans know this because they know that their texts in Tibetan are nearly all translations of Sanskrit originals, though, of course, they added their own commentaries in Tibetan as well. 

So just as Tantric Buddhism was flourishing in India, so was Tantric Shaivism. And when the Muslim conquest came, Tantric Buddhism was no more in India. It was wiped out more easily because it was more institutionalized, you could say, and Shaiva Tantra was a bit more grassroots. The practice context for Shaiva Tantra was primarily not institutions, but homes of householders like the (24:19) Kula would gather in the home of the guru or some other senior practitioner. And not only in these institutional contexts. 

So Shaiva Tantra survived the Muslim conquests, but in an attenuated form, and continued to be attenuated over time because in the context of Muslim rule, previously disparate groups that we now call Hindu sort of glommed together into the construction we call Hinduism. It’s an organic construction, right? That really came together only in the last 800 years. 

And of course, this is a whole can of worms because people in India get very upset at Westerners saying this because they want to say, well Hinduism is 1000s of years old. And of course, the component parts of Hinduism are 1000s of years old, many of them, but the notion of a Hindu identity, which is common to Vedic Brahmins and Vaishnavas and Shaivas, that only came about under Muslim rule. 

So, the point is, though, that this process of attenuation continued until the Tantric tradition was fragmented, where to sort of simplify it, the philosophy of Tantra survived primarily in Kashmir and a couple of other places. Some of the yogic practices of Tantra survived in some other regions like Rajasthan. And the ritual practices of Tantra survived primarily in the deep south of India, like Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and other places. And some of the sexual practices of Tantra survived only in Eastern India, Bengal and Assam. 

And so the tradition fragmented because all of these components I’ve just mentioned, philosophy and yoga and ritual and embodied or sexual practices were all part of one tradition, but survived in different regions, and gave rise to these misperceptions that now we understand it was one tradition. And it’s when we bring these disparate elements back together again, that we see the true power of the Tantric revelation. 

And someone might say, But don’t we see it in Tibetan Buddhism as well? Well, Yes, and no, because Tibetan Buddhism is a highly monasticised, and institutionalized version of Tantra, which doesn’t preserve all of these elements, in fact. 

So each question you ask is, you know, potentially, I could go on for an hour, but they’re trying to get these order responses. But yeah, these texts did survive. There’s a continuous tradition, even if it barely survived, right? Still, there’s a continuous tradition of study of The Recognition Sutras and a number of other texts all the way down to the present day. Though, as the great Tantric scholar Alexa Sanderson says the tradition passed through the eye of a needle, where it really almost died out about 100 years ago, and ever since has been slowly sort of making a comeback in this new global context.

MT: Good. So you’ve been mentioning the similarities between Nondual Shaiva Tantra and Vajrayana Buddhism. And we talked about the ritual similarity, or we could almost call it the technique similarities, and so on. But what do you see as some of the major differences, like important differences? Probably most of the people listening to this are involved in some Buddhist tradition or another. And as you may have seen, I’ve been talking about Vajrayana-style stuff, or Vajrayana practices, i.e. Buddhist Tantra practices, on the program recently quite a bit. So what are some really important things that are different about these practices or traditions?

CW: Well, that’s an interesting question, because it kind of depends which lineages you’re looking at; which lineages of Shaiva Tantra, and which lineages of Buddhist Tantra because in some cases, it’s hard to find any significant differences. In other cases, you can. So the diversity is really from lineage to lineage rather than between these two very similar Tantric traditions. However, if we’re just painting in quite broad strokes, one big difference that often obtains is the role of bhakti or devotionalism, because in Shaiva Tantra it very much has a place. Again, even though it’s a radically nondual tradition, at least in some lineages, still, the role of devotion was honored and emphasized because as I said, when you’re experiencing yourself as an individual bodymind, you experience that your own ultimate nature is somehow something higher than oneself, right, even if in other modes of practice or nondual, mystical states, that difference completely evaporates. So somebody might move between these different poles of experience for quite some time before they finally get established in continuous nondual awareness. 

And so, we see, for example, a great authority in the sphere of Shaiva Tantra: the great master Utpaladeva wrote radically nondual philosophy in which again, he strongly asserted that what you’re calling divinity or god or Shiva or whatever name you put is absolutely nothing but your own true nature, that there isn’t any real distinction there. And yet the very same author wrote devotional poetry to Shiva. So this seems to be a paradox. But from his own perspective, it wasn’t. And he even says in his poetry, things like, to paraphrase: Oh Shiva, let me continue to have this experience of apparent separation from you so that I can taste the sweetness of this total love and devotion of me for you, and you for me, even though I know that you are me, and I am you.

So that is a feature that is not entirely absent from Vajrayana. But devotional modes of expression are much less frequent in the Vajrayana tradition, we could say. Even though of course, Vajrayanists do perform rituals as if a separation or difference of self and deity were real, on some level. So you know, that’s one difference. 

But when we’re looking at the philosophy, there can be no noticeable difference, especially if we’re comparing certain lineages. So if we’re comparing the teachings of Dzogchen, for example, with the teachings of the  Krama lineage, some of which appear in The Recognition Sutras, then it’s hard to see any real difference in the view at all. We could say there’s difference in the practice, of course, because the institutionalization of Tantric Buddhism in the Tibetan context, means that you have to go through these stages of practice that are very strict. Meaning everyone has to do the preliminary practices before they get access to the subsequent initiation that allows them to do different practices and so on. Whereas in the Shaiva context, all the same preliminaries are there, but somebody who has sufficient aptitude could skip certain steps or stages or preliminaries, you know, they don’t necessarily have to do 1 million repetitions of whatever mantra or 100,000 prostrations or whatever. Because in Shaiva Tantra, it’s recognized that the purpose of these practices is to bring about a certain understanding or state of consciousness or experience. And if that’s already there, then there’s no point in doing the practices that serve to bring that about. 

So this is not, of course, something that you can determine for yourself. But rather you need a guru. Traditionally, your guru says, Okay, you can skip this step because I can see you already have the insight or the non-conceptual awareness that this step is meant to bring about. And so maybe that also happens in Vajrayana. But as far as I’ve seen, it’s much more rigid, I suppose, in terms of the stages of practice that one has to go through.

MT: Yes. And interestingly, traditions like Dzogchen and Mahamudra that come from these deep Tantric roots talk about the same stories of their earlier incarnations of these lineages, took place in villages in a non-monastic setting and a much more fluid practice situation where the teacher is giving the student exactly what they need, rather than following like a prescribed route of practice, just as you’re describing. So I think they recognize that early on, it looked more like what you’re saying the situation was in Nondual Shaiva Tantra, so interesting. 

This to me is fascinating, if you’re in Dzogchen, or Mahamudra, or Vajrayana in general, or even Mahayana Buddhism, let alone Vajrayana Buddhism, the absolutely central core concept that must be realized is emptiness, right? Together, of course, with compassion, but emptiness plays this absolutely central role in everything. And yet, we don’t see too much talk about emptiness in Nondual Shaiva Tantra, at least not using that word. And so I’m curious how does Nondual Shaiva Tantra sort of approach that same understanding? Since these two are so similar Buddhist Tantra and nondual Shaiva Tantra, I assume that they’re talking about it in a different way, and yet still addressing the same idea.

CW: Yeah, well, in fact, what you just said is not true. (Laughter) Meaning to say that the use of the term emptiness, that in the Krama lineage—which is also known as Mahartha, Mahanaya—has many names. This is the most radically nondual lineage of Shaiva Tantra. And it’s really the most fascinating historically speaking, as well, for all sorts of reasons. But in the Krama lineage, you do have language of emptiness; shunya, shunyata, Mahāśūnya, constantly.

MT: I didn’t see a lot of that in The Recognition Sutras

CW: Right. Because The Recognition Sutras is weaving together teachings from multiple lineages, primarily the Trika and the Krama. And so the Krama is there as a kind of esoteric core of the teaching. But he’s also, you know, writing for an audience that is not necessarily fully initiated into those teachings. So it’s not totally apparent, but if you read Krama sources on their own, then the emphasis on shunyata is constant and you can even read some passages that you would think if a Vajrayana person read them he would be like, Oh, this is probably from Vajrayana Tantra. 

So what’s the difference? This is important because, well, again, sometimes maybe there is no difference, but sometimes there appears to be a difference in that these Shaiva Tantrikas criticized the Buddhists as those who venerate the void as absolute, whereas we Shaiva Tantrikas, they say, are those who recognize that the ultimate realization is that of the full void, that of the emptiness which is simultaneously full, or the fullness which is simultaneously empty. And so, from the perspective of Shaiva Tantra, you experience this radical void of pure consciousness, which is absolutely empty of all particularity, empty of all qualities, et cetera, et cetera. But then you’re supposed to go beyond that, to the ultimate realization, which is that same void, but now realized as pregnant with infinite possibility. And the term pregnant is sometimes even used when there’s a goddess-worshipping context in the background. 

And so the way Kṣemarāja puts it in The Recognition Sutras is that we should realize this emptiness as simultaneously, absolutely full, absolutely empty, both, and neither vibrating in absolute simultaneity. And so the language there is almost reminiscent of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Path. Because, you know, it’s, he says both and neither, because he doesn’t want you to understand it merely as a coincidence of apparent opposites. That it is, in fact, the true nature of reality completely escapes the mind, and is completely non-conceptual. But when we enter into the mind and try to articulate what’s been realized, then we must use this paradoxical language of the emptiness which is full and the fullness which is empty. And of course, here the fullness in question is this sense of sublime presence that spills over into any and all experience whatsoever. Now, maybe you can tell me are there teachings on the Vajrayana side, that echo this? That somehow say that the real nature of emptiness is also perfect fullness? Do you see that kind of language somewhere there?

MT: I’m not sure about the language of perfect fullness. But the idea that–to speak in a very rough way, very crude way–that the void or emptiness is giving birth to the entire universe, and that the form of the world is not in any way separate from this pristine purity of the transcendental void. That’s the central teaching. And in fact, we can call that the primordial purity and things like that, the void aspect, but another word for it is sugatagarbha, which you know, perfectly well, means a womb. So giving birth is a central image. And the idea that form and emptiness are not in any way separate is, of course, central. So I think that if I’m not running roughshod over the differences in language, I think these are very similar understandings.

CW: Yeah, absolutely. The point, at least from the Shaiva Tantra perspective, is that the masters of the tradition don’t want practitioners to imagine that the ultimate reality to be realized is wholly transcendent.

MT: Exactly. 

CW: Yeah. So if you have Mahāśūnya, as your ultimate thing, you can imagine that as the void which transcends all embodied experience. And of course, it does, but it also instantiates as all embodied experience, and so there’s this invitation to experience the luminous void, right, in a deep samadhi state where there’s no sensory experience as per normal, that if you realize that that void, that emptiness is, in fact, luminous, not with literal light, but with the potentiality to become anything, then when you enter back into sensual experience, you have the possibility of recognizing that all that you’re experiencing is that very luminous void appearing as form.

MT: That’s right, and this is a central teaching in Vajrayana. And what to me is so exciting about these deep nondual traditions. They’re not transcendent only. If you get into, for example, early Buddhism or if you get into Advaita Vedanta, they are strictly transcendent. The world is a bad thing, it’s a delusion, and you want to only hang out in that transcendent Mahāśūnya. Yeah, right. Like that’s the end goal. Whereas these Tantric traditions are like, No, you take it further, just as in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, take it further and see that the world is this exuberant, completely energized expression of that void and is not separate from it in any way. So rather than rejecting the world and going into some kind of transcendent monkhood, we reengage with experience, reengage with everything, reengage with the exquisite brocade of creation. Which leads me to what I think is so interesting, also, with these nondual Shaiva Tantra practitioners and historical figures is that they’re very involved with art and literature. And in fact, they write treatises, on aesthetics, and so on. The actual stuff of creation and expression is centrally interesting, at least as I understand it.

CW: Absolutely. And before getting into that a little bit deeper, let me just also mention that, you know, if we’re talking about shunyata, or emptiness, also in the purely philosophical sense of denoting a doctrine of interdependence, of course, in the philosophy of Buddhism, emptiness and Pratītyasamutpāda are intimately linked, that everything is empty of its own inherent essence, because it only exists in relation to all the phenomena that it’s interdependent with. And if we’re talking about that version of the word emptiness, which is of course, not unrelated to other usages, but if we’re talking about that version, that too appears in these Shaiva Tantra teachings, especially again, of the Krama lineage, where they say exactly as the Buddhists say, they say nothing has its own independent essence, even though other Hindus, and this is of course, again, the problem with the designation Hindu, because others that are put in the Hindu basket, say the opposite, that each thing has its own essence, that there’s a cow-ness that all cows share, and so on. But these Shaiva Tantrikas of the nondual stream were saying that everything has only one essence and that is consciousness, not independent essences. But everything also expresses a different aspect of that one, due to how it’s embedded in all the various interrelationships and causes and conditions. 

So the very reason that an object appears as an object and appears to have a different quality from some other object is not because it has a different essence but because its position in the matrix of relationships is different. But the whole matrix of relationships itself is emanating from this timeless space of pure awareness, that emanates, holds, and reabsorbs all phenomena. 

So that also relates to what you were just saying about being engaged in the aesthetic world, in the sensual world. Because in this higher realization, you don’t need to enter into a transcendent state to experience the transcendent. You actually experience the transcendent in every sensual experience. So for the Shaiva Tantrikas, that’s the ultimate; to be engaged in sensual experience and savor the uniqueness of each sensual experience, while one hundred percent feeling the truth of the fact that what exactly you’re experiencing, in that moment, is the Supreme Absolute manifest as that. 

So when we use language like Supreme Absolute, it sounds so removed, but indirect experience, there’s no contradiction. Whatever you touch, taste, smell, hear, feel, think about, sense, is the One appearing in that form. So the revelation of the simultaneous universality and particularity is sort of where it’s at, for the proponents of this tradition. And that’s why you don’t need to renounce the world and so on. Even though of course, you do need to do practices that help you to take a step back from the various misunderstandings that get triggered when you don’t yet experience the underlying transcendence. So it’s sort of like, and maybe this is similar in Vajrayana, but it’s sort of like you learn how to experience the transcendent, and then learn how to experience the transcendent in the imminent. So it’s sort of very broadly speaking, a two-stage process: transcendence followed by the experience of the pervasion of the transcendent in all that was previously transcended. If that makes sense.

MT: It makes perfect sense. This is an important point that one form of nondualism we were describing, what I in my own colloquial language, called Nondual 1, is still true, the transcendent sense of the void, or pure consciousness or whatever it is something that we can contact, and in fact, is required, in order to recognize what I would call Nondual 2, which is this imminent quality that you’re describing. For most people, not everyone, but for most people, it’s going to be a two-stage process. First letting go of a naive grasping around the form world first, before we can then re-engage with the world of form in this radically transformed way. So I think it makes sense. Again, it’s not seen that way often, or always…

CW: You know, we’re crystallizing something very important here because that is the most important critique that these nondual Tantric traditions have of other forms of South Asian spirituality is that followers of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra or earlier Buddhism or early Advaita Vedanta, they just take the one step to the transcendent, absolute, and then that’s their goal to just stay there, transcended. And the Tantrikas are taking the second step of the total collapsing of the distinction without losing the relevant features of each that is to say, the experience of the total oneness of the transcendent and imminent, but not by reducing either to the other, but by experiencing simultaneously that the whole is in every part is one way to put it. But of course, whatever way we put it, it doesn’t capture it perfectly, because this is simply beyond the categories that the mind can deal with.

 MT: Very good. So let’s come on back to this aesthetic feature, the engagement with the creation, that’s such a signature for these Nondual Shaiva Tantra traditions.

CW: Absolutely. Yeah. The greatest Tantric master in Shaivism, or the one who history has more or less decided was the greatest Tantric master, was this figure Abhinavagupta, who lived in Kashmir 1000 years ago. And he’s famous for not only writing voluminous works on Tantric philosophy, ritual, and practice, but also for writing voluminous works on aesthetics, poetry, dance, and drama. And in fact, in the world of Sanskrit studies, many scholars know him primarily in that domain. And these are often seen by scholars as separate domains. But of course, for Abhinavagupta and some of his associates, they were not separate domains at all. And this brings us to a really important point, which is that the whole–from this Shaiva Tantra perspective anyway–the whole point of having the realization, that we’ve been talking about in somewhat philosophical terms, is that it makes accessible to the practitioner the direct experience of a kind of sublime beauty in all things. 

And the way I like to explain this, as you know, in the Tantric tradition, when we say everything is God, and we do have that expression on the Shaiva side of the Tantric tradition, specifically Na Shivam Vidyate Kvachit, nothing exists which is not God. But the problem is when Westerners hear this, they think we’re saying everything is good because the Western conception of God is so much associated with the good. And, of course, that would be a crazy thing to say that everything is good, war is good, and so on, but that’s not what they’re saying. And so what do they mean, when they say everything is God? Well, they mean that, of course, that everything is a form of consciousness, as we’ve been saying. But they also mean that there’s the possibility for the experience of sublime beauty, anywhere and everywhere. And that this is not easy to have until you have nondual realization. And then you find that beauty exists in forms that you’ve never suspected, that there’s a beauty in decay and death, as well as in birth and growth. That we can actually experience aesthetic rapture in virtually any experience of everyday life, however mundane or however challenging. 

And so this is the meeting point of this aesthetic philosophy and this spiritual philosophy in this tradition. And so in the aesthetic works, they’re called Alankara Shastra in Sanskrit you get this teaching that Abhinavagupta was a big fan of, of nine different forms of beauty. The so-called Navarasas, the nine rasas where rasa means aesthetic savor, nine ways to savor beauty, right? Because rasa is related to words that mean yummy taste, juiciness, and things like that sweetness also, but here it means aesthetic savor. 

But what’s interesting about this teaching of the nine rasas is that it includes categories that are counterintuitive to Westerners, or most of them anyway. Because there’s the aesthetic savor possible in romantic modes of experience, and of poetry and dance and drama, and so on. And there’s also the aesthetic savor possible in the experience of fear,

MT: The terror rasa.

CW: Yeah, exactly. Now, I want to be very clear, though, because almost everyone who talks about the subject or tries to talk about it, confuses and conflates rasas with emotional states, and they are not. So the underlying emotional state is called the bhava. But the rasa is the experience of beauty, in association with that emotional state. So in other words, if the artist transforms terror into art, then we will experience some of that fear through the art but in a transfigured way. So it’s the experience of aesthetic savor, this ability to savor the beautiful within the frightening or within the romantic or within the heroic or within the comedic or within even the most surprising of all the rasas perhaps, is the disgusting. That which repels us can be experienced as a form of the fascination that consciousness has of itself appearing in that form. 

So this contemplation of the nine rasas can be a very nondual contemplation that there’s this possible experience of astonishing, well, beauty maybe isn’t quite the right word because it’s more like aesthetic rapture, camatkāra, in Sanskrit, the fascination that consciousness has with itself appearing in that form. And that fascination has an element of what we might call love. And that’s important, because it’s not that we like frightening experiences or disgusting experiences, but in a way, we love them. And this theory is actually proven by even all our modern art forms, right? Because if you’re going to the movies, or if you’re looking at modern art of various kinds, then you see, oh, wow, all these rasas are to be found there. And we as humans love to be frightened in an aesthetic way. Not that all horror movies are aesthetic. Some are just, you know, they’re not art by any standard that I could think of, but some are, right? 

And Abhinavagupta makes that distinction. He says it’s only true art if it elevates you into this sublime state, which is cathartic, which is expansive. But that elevation can take place on the basis of any of these underlying emotions. So I would actually argue far from a distinction of aesthetic and spiritual philosophy that we need the one to understand the other. And to understand what this tradition means when it says, Nothing exists which is not God. And by the way, in the Sanskrit phrase there, the word that means God can also mean blessing, right? So nothing exists which is not potentially a blessing if you’re able to find the beauty in it. And that makes much more sense than trying to assert that actually, everything’s really good to know. 

So we’re not supposed to superimpose a positive story onto suffering, we’re supposed to find the beauty in suffering. And indeed, we know that’s possible, because so much great art and poetry has come out of suffering. And the teaching here is you don’t have to be a poet, to find the beauty in suffering, you might need to be a poet to articulate it. But you don’t need to be a poet to find it and experience it. And I think that’s a very, very powerful teaching. And maybe that’s one that is unique to Shiva Tantra. I don’t know if there’s anything comparable in Buddhist Tantra. I haven’t seen it at least.

MT: There definitely is, although I don’t think it takes such a prominent place. But you’ve ignited my curiosity in one way, which is, do you know of any, let’s say, poetry from this era, from the Abhinavagupta or Kṣemarāja eras that speaks to people in the modern West, that you could recommend? That isn’t just so removed, that it can only be enjoyed with great effort at adapting it and translating it not just linguistically, but culturally?

CW: Absolutely. So there’s Utpaladeva’s poetry, all these various hymns he wrote were collected into a form called The Shivastotravali: The Garland of Hymns to Shiva. There’s a couple of good translations of that out there. But even more would be the poetry which is not yet published in good translations, but which is coming and people are working on it, myself and other scholars like Ben Williams and Hamza Stainton are working on this. And we hope to bring these out more. This poetry again from this Krama lineage I keep mentioning because I come to see it as the crown jewel of Shaiva Tantra, even though it also contains much material that might be disturbing, in certain ways to some practitioners. And we can cover that if you want. 

But the Krama has this sublime poetry, which weaves together devotion and spiritual or philosophical insight. And in this sense, the poetry is almost unique because it’s very rich in spiritual insight and reference to philosophical concepts. But it’s not heady poetry, it’s very evocative and beautiful and devotional at the same time. So you know, eventually, I want to bring out a book with multiple translators involved called Tantric Hymns of Enlightenment, which presents this poetry of the Krama lineage. So bits and pieces of it are already out there, here and there in the public sphere, but not collected yet and readily accessible. So that’s another big topic to get into. And I wish there were good translations of all these materials already available, but just to know it’s there and more of that will be coming out.

MT: And I just have to ask, what is it that we might find disturbing in some of these poems?

CW: Not in the poems, but in the lineage which produced them. So the Nondual Krama lineage is also the most radically transgressive of all the Shaiva Tantric lineages. And those things go hand in hand from the perspective of Shaivism and I know from Buddhism as well in some forms, that the more nondual you are, the more willing you are to transgress social norms. And that all makes sense, but also the Krama included kind of quasi-shamanic practices. Now, some authorities interpret these in terms of entirely interior modes of consciousness exploring itself. But this is a kind of interiorization of practices that certainly were done at one point anyway, quasi-shamanic practices of intense practice for many, many hours and invoking yoginis and dakinis and making blood offerings, often from one’s own body, you know, cutting open the left arm to make a blood offering to the yoginis so that you can become one of their gang as it were, and receive their blessings and realize that these yoginis express potencies of consciousness which exist within you as well. And these yoginis appear in these theriomorphic forms, these part animal, part human forms. And I’m just scratching the surface of this kind of amazing, weird, and wild aspect of the tradition which certainly has these shamanic roots, which deals in beneficial possession, which some forms of Buddhist Tantra do as well.

MT: This is samavesha, not just simply avesha. Am I correct?

CW: More the other way around, avesha refers to a possession and samavesha refers to a mystical experience of immersion. The distinction is not quite so clear-cut. That’s basically the distinction. 

MT: Interesting. This leads to another topic earlier, you mentioned how Tantrism is a movement that appears more or less at the same time in a bunch of different religions. It’s a form that appears and this begs the question was the form pre-existing in, say, ritual magic or shamanic practices of underclasses in India or something? And so I want to ask that question. Do you have any sense or does scholarship have any good sense of where this Tantric mode came from in the first place?

CW: Yeah, this was a question that preoccupied a number of scholars for decades, and what Sanderson finally was able to show–you have to read some hundreds of pages to review all the evidence and grasp the argument–but he was able to show that Tantra emerged organically within Shaivism and then propagated very quickly to Buddhism and to other religious traditions. But that it is a kind of logical and organic outgrowth or further development, I should say, of some themes and trends that were already there in Shaivism, including these practices with shamanic roots. So there’s these proto-tantric practitioners called Kapalicas

MT: The skull carriers. 

CW: Exactly. They flourished, especially around year 600, and for a little while after that, too. Yeah, they carried skull bowls, they would eat and drink out of skull bowls. They were ascetics, though they were not householders. Right, and that’s, of course, a big difference. When Tantra developed, it developed as a householder, primarily a householder tradition. But these proto-Tantrikas called Kapalikas–and they went by other names as well–their practices certainly had some of these quasi-tribal quasi-shamanic roots. And interestingly, the features of those Kapalikas, and they were one hundred percent, you know, Shaiva, but all of those features migrated into Tantric Buddhism as well. So, the wearing of the bone ornaments comes from these Kapalikas, and a number of other features that a lot of people think, are very much particular to Tibetan Buddhism. But they actually come from this very early form of Shaivism. That’s not yet Tantric, but as proto-Tantric, and did include some form of sexual ritual or consort practice. It didn’t yet have this sophisticated nondual philosophy, it didn’t yet have key factors of Tantric practice, like deity yoga. So it’s not yet Tantric. There’s a lot more that could be said about that. 

But Buddhists who are sort of dogmatically committed to their vision of Buddhism really get uncomfortable and even upset when this argument is presented that the Tantric practice they hold so dear was originally borrowed by Buddhists from Shaivas. But the evidence is really abundant. And it’s not to say that they just copied–I mean, they certainly did copy some practices–but they re-instantiated those practices in a Buddhist mode. They made them into very much Buddhist versions of those practices over time, you know, so one could argue that they were open-minded enough to realize, hey, what these Shaivas are doing over here seems to be working. Let’s give it a try too. 

But we know from the historical record that Tantra moved through the Buddhist sphere in India very rapidly because we have records of two different Chinese pilgrims who came to India only two generations apart. The first one doesn’t mention Tantra in the early six hundreds and then the second one in the late six hundreds says, oh, all the monasteries in India are doing these mandala initiations, they’re doing these Tantric teachings, they have these Tantric mantras. And, you know, he’s like, Wow, what’s this new thing? And this is just in the space of 50 years, almost every major monastery in India started practicing Tantra. And this is not just monasteries, but that’s where we have records.

MT: Excellent. So Hareesh, Christopher Wallis, where can people learn more about your work?

CW: Yeah. You know, even though our conversation has been very philosophical, and historical, in some ways, I just want to mention that, for me, all of that is so fascinating, but none of it would have value if it wasn’t for the power of practice. And as a teacher, you know, I can sometimes teach in academic modes, but I’m most interested in teaching in these practitioner contexts. What’s most exciting for me is seeing people have these realizations in an embodied and nonconceptual way. Just when you talk about them in words, of course, it’s gonna sound terribly conceptual and philosophical. But as you know, the direct experience is not heady at all. It’s not in the intellect. It’s in awareness, becoming aware of itself. And the embodied experience of that. That’s where the real juice is, you know. 

So I just want to mention for whoever’s listening that my teaching when I’m working with practitioners is actually quite practical, I think my students would say, and so if anyone’s interested in exploring Nondual Shaiva Tantra as a practice, not just a philosophy, then I have lots of resources and tools for people. Mainly on my website, tantrailluminated.org, which has a learning portal, we call it, that introduces you to all these courses and teachings, including practice teachings that go fairly in-depth. So I would say, you know, I have a number of projects and books in the works and different websites also. But that one tantrailluminated.org is the main place for delving into these teachings.

MT: Beyond the books, the little bit of your material that I’ve encountered on the web has been really, really high quality and very cool. So I would highly recommend that. All right. So that’s it for today. Thanks for coming on the Deconstructing Yourself podcast, Hareesh. Really, really appreciate you taking the time.

CW: And I appreciate your podcast so much. I’ve listened to maybe a dozen episodes. And I think it’s a fantastic cut above the usual in the podcast world. And I hope we can talk more because I know there’s many, many other topics we can explore and common interests that we have and you know, might even be interesting to explore our practice history a little bit respectively, for example, among many other topics.

MT: Absolutely. Let’s make a date for that.