The transmission of Tantra: an interview with Hareesh (Part 1 of 3)

An interview with Christopher (Hareesh) Wallis by Ilya Zhuravlev for publication in Russian in Wild Yogi magazine . . . Berkeley, California, August 2011

Ilya: Could you tell me briefly about your new book “Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition”.

Hareesh: The book has an Introduction, which explains the definition of “tantra.” This is a very difficult complex issue, so the introduction addresses different ways of defining it. Then Part 1 of the book, which is 1/3 of the total book, covers the philosophy of nondual Śaiva Tantra -- the vision of reality according to nondual Śaiva Tantra, explained in detail. Then 1/3 of the book is history, talking about the main two streams of tantra -- right and left, nondual (vāmāchāra) & dual (dakshināchāra) etc. The right-hand stream is in agreement with the Veda and orthodox brahminical conduct, the left-hand is not. Many of their differences are described there, in fact there is a diagram in my book, illustrating these differences between the right and left currents. On the left there is a greater emphasis on nondualism, worship of the feminine, inclusion of women, transgression of social norms, mortuary symbolism (skulls, cremation grounds etc.) and charismatic gurus, meaning gurus that can initiate with just a look or thought (‘transmission’). On the right there is an absence of all these. It should not be understood so cut and dried as just two streams, but rather should be viewed as a spectrum, because there are fewer of these features in some groups; with the Krama having all these taken to the extreme, Krama being the most extreme group of the left-hand groups. The Śaiva Siddhānta, on the other hand, is in total agreement with the Veda, they will do nothing to offend traditional Brāhmins.


I: But actually all of them are based on the Āgamas?   

H: Yes, that’s right. So, when I say that they are in agreement with the Veda, I just mean that the Siddhānta followers will not offend the traditional Brāhmins and they will follow the practice that is non-offensive to Vaidikas (Vedic practitioners), but their practice is also coming from the Āgamas and includes yoga, a detailed yoga, none of which is present in the Vedas.

So, going back to the book contents -- Part 2 is a history section, 1/3 of the book. There’s a lot on the Krama lineage, because it is not that well known and yet is very important, much more important than previously suspected. And then Part 3, the final 1/3 of the book, covers the theory of practice: what is shaktipāta, dīkshā, the role of the guru, theory of ritual, structure of Tantrik ritual etc. And then the Conclusion is on how do we practice tantra in the modern world, and more to the point, what are the problems involved in doing so?


I: This is all very interesting indeed, because with a certain effort we can find the scriptures and translate them, though their usage of Sanskrit may be different from conventional due to the fact that many tantric authors used an allegorical language, the so-called ‘twilight language’. It means that in case the translator doesn’t know the context, translation could not be done properly.

H: This is especially true for mantras -- mantras are written in a special code. Here’s an interesting question: can we go back to an ancient scripture and find the practice and start practicing it? There must be a transmission of the practice for it to really work, a transmission mediated by a master practitioner. It is the same with mantra -- for a mantra to work for you you have to receive it from somebody for whom it has worked or for whom it is working. In other words, if a mantra is alive for me and I have attained some mantra-siddhi, some result from the mantra, and then I transmit this mantra to a person in a practice environment, it can work for that person as well. If you get it out of a book then it's just words, except for on a rare occasion for some people -- they are so ripe, so ready that the mantra comes alive for them spontaneously. We see this happen sometimes -- somebody opens a book and the mantra almost jumps out of the page; the mantra comes alive, it starts to vibrate in the body. In this case the person can use this mantra, because the person didn`t get from a book but actually from Shiva, the books was just the means. But you can’t start doing the practice based on an intellectual interest, there has to be a transmission; but if you pick up an ancient scripture and your heart really responds to some practice you can start doing it. But there has to be a vibration in your being, this is my belief. So, you can have two sources for transmission -- one is guru, or teacher, who is living the teachings, and the other is scripture if it comes alive, that’s the key - it really has to come alive for you, it can’t be just in your head.


I: But in the modern western world it`s not that easy to find a person who can give a transmission, it’s much easier to go to the library and even to study Sanskrit in order to read scriptures.

H: That`s true, but that will not work. In fact, I will argue that you can`t get anything out of the book or scripture if you haven’t already had some meeting with a real teacher. For example, in my case I met a powerful teacher when I was young and I received transmission.


I: At this point, could you tell us a little more about your background, perhaps starting from you childhood?

H: My parents started practicing traditional forms of meditation when I was 7 years old. Many hippies of the ’60s and ’70s were interested in meditation and I’m lucky that my parents found a path that was an authentic, traditional path. They studied with Baba Muktānanda, and when I was 16 years old I met Gurumayī Chidvilāsānandā of Siddha Yoga. As you know she releases videos and publishes books, but in her āshram it’s a fairly traditional ashram environment; she gives training in mantra and yoga and I lived in her āshram for three years. When I first met her I had a powerful inner awakening, which is called shaktipāta, that changed me from the inside. So when I was 24, I had never gone to college, never gone to any university, I decided I loved these teachings so much, I want to study them full time and that’s what I did. That was 14 years ago, and then I also started teaching (with the permission of my guru). So I’m one of those people, I had a practice background that was relatively superficial, of course I meditated and everything, but compared to what I know now, it was quite superficial. The spiritual tradition of Siddha Yoga has many beautiful teachings, but they couldn’t teach the practices of Tantra, but only quoted the Tantric scriptures; meaning they knew some of the doctrines of Shaivism, but not the actual practices. For practices they just said: repeat Om Namah Shivāya, match it to your breath, very simple instructions, which was great, but I also wanted to know about the secret practices. They didn’t teach those and they didn`t know them either. So I went to study with scholars who were also practitioners, like Paul Muller-Ortega, who was a devotee of Maharshi Mahesh Yogi of TM (Transcendental Meditation) and also of Gurumayī Chidvilāsānandā, but he was really devoted to Abhinavagupta and he received a kind of transmission from Abhinavagupta and this is the part some people are skeptical about. But I believe it is possible to receive transmission from an ancient master if you are lucky. So, both myself and my teacher Paul had an experience of reading Abhinavagupta in Sanskrit and receiving what felt like a transmission from him. If Abhinavagupta is a Mahāsiddha he is not bound by time and space, so we can receive living transmission from him. This is my experience, or how I interpret my experience. So, I’ve studied Abhinavagupta very closely and he provides a lot of guidance in practice too, he is not just a philosopher, as many people think of him; most of the Tantrāloka is on ritual and also a lot on yoga, it’s just that the part of Tantrāloka that gets quoted are the first few chapters, that’s philosophy, because in Tantra (as in most Indian traditions) first you have to lay out the view of reality and then you get practices. Most of the Tantrāloka is practice, but people would never know that because it is not translated, but that will change in the next few years.


I: I heard some people’s opinions that Kashmir Shaivism lineage stopped with the death of Swami Lakshman Joo, because he didn’t give guru dīkshā [abhisheka] to anybody.

H: I agree with that.

I: Really? I think that maybe he wasn’t the only one but merely the most famous in the West.

H: Yes, but you see the thing is Shaivism is gone in Kashmir now. I’ve been there and the last families who know something about this tradition have moved to Delhi. So, the tradition is gone in Kashmir but only recently during the last 10-20 years. Still, it continues in other ways: those who studied with Lakshman Joo closely, like John Hughes, Bettina Baumer, and Alexis Sanderson, and also masters like Swami Satyānanda in Bihar and others in Tamil Nādu and Bengal who continued other lineages of the tradition. Kashmir was not the only place that nondual Tantra flourished, it just had the most famous lineages. So the end of "Kashmir Shaivism" is not the end of nondual Tantra.


I: Do you think the end of Shaivism in Kashmir is due to the Civil War?

H: Well, Muslims have put pressure on them [the Kashmiri Brahmins] for 700 years now, so the number of Kashmiri Shaiva Brahmins has been declining slowly since 1300. So, there is a historical process that has been going on for 700 years and just now it comes to an end in the last 20 years. So, first of all I would like to say that we should stop using the term Kashmir Shaivism; this Shaivism in not the product of Kashmir, it was a pan-Indian tradition. More than India, it was also found in Nepāl, Java, Bali, Cambodia and other kingdoms. Kashmir Shaivism only means the writings of the great Kashmir masters of this tradition, but the Trika itself was also practiced even in Tamil Nādu and in Mahārāshtra, so it’s not just Kashmiri. But as far as we know Swami Lakshman Joo was the last guru of the Trika per se. He didn’t give the abhisheka, he didn’t create a successor, but he did give a transmission to Mark Dyczkowski, Bettina Baumer, Rameshwar Jha and others. Many people received powerful transmission from him that continued his work, even though there is no successor. Meanwhile Shaivism also survives in other forms -- it survives in some versions of Śrīvidyā in the far South and so on. I think that if people start to understand that there is no separate religion of Shaktism -- yes there are some forms of Kālī worship in Bengal that are exclusively Shākta, but the thing is that if you want to separate Shaiva and Shākta, then Abhinavagupta himself is more Shākta than Shaiva, he only uses the name Shiva when he is speaking to uninitiated people, to his initiates he is a goddess worshipper, he worships Parā Devi, Parā Vāk [the Supreme Goddess, the Supreme Word] and in his secret inner practice he was a worshipper of Kālī. So, the point is that in his actual practice and worship Abhinavagupta worshipped only the Goddess. So, it’s a completely incorrect myth to call him just a Shaiva or to say that Kashmir is Shaiva and Tamil Nadu is Shākta, because the tradition is a Shākta-Shaiva tradition and always was. It was always part of the same thing.


I: What are the earliest scriptures describing the system of subtle anatomy -- system of chakras, nādīs, which was adopted and described in such writing like Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā and some Yoga Upanishads -- Yoga Kundalinī Upanishad, Amrita Nadu Upanishad etc. For example the system of chakras – the most known text is 19-th century translation of Shat-Chakra Nirupana by Arthur Avalon (Sir John Woodroffe).

H: Yes, this is a very important subject and there is a section in the book about this. So, the chakras in ancient times were also called ādhāras or sthānas (as in Mulādhāra) -- ādhāra means a focal point of meditation and they go by other names as well. The earliest documented chakra systems date from perhaps the eighth century. They were systems of five or six chakras.


I: But if we take such text like Siddha Siddhānta Paddhati it describes chakras and ādhāras as separate concepts, where ādhāras are points in a body for concentration and chakras like we know.

H: Yes, but in ancient times they were not different, they were just synonyms. So, this subtle body physiology was developed completely within Tantra. Of course we have a couple of fleeting references from other earlier sources, like in Yoga Sūtras we have an idea of nādī, chakra and we have a kurma-nādī, which must mean the central channel, but Patañjali makes no explanation of this and just refers to them in passing: one possible chakra, one possible nādī; a few references in early Upanishads, but just tiny ones. Maybe there was an oral tradition, we don’t know for sure, but what we do know is that the complete systematic descriptions of the energy body comes only in Tantra. So, we find it in a number of early sources, Abhinavagupta also gives a system of 5 chakras.


I: That is interesting because Tibetan Tantra also uses 5 chakras and not 7.

H: In classical Tantra 5 is always the number. Why? Because of the Pancha-Mahābhūtas. For the Tantrikas the later chakra system used now in the West is crazy, because you run out of elements at the throat -- you get to the throat and that’s Space, and then what? Space must be at the crown of the head -- this is chid-ākāsha, the sky of consciousness, so you can’t have space at the throat level. This is the classical Tantra view - you must have 5 primary chakras, though you could have many chakras -- 28 chakras is fine, but 5 primary chakras. So the five are the Triangle, also known as yoginī-vaktra, the mouth of the yoginī near the base of the body, later would be called mulādhāra, so this is where Earth element is installed. Water at the "kanda" (lower abdomen) and then fire is in the heart in this system, which makes a lot of sense and here [at the heart] is the sprout of flame. This sprout of flame is the beginning of kundalinī in the Śaiva Siddhānta system. In the Kaula Trika, there are two kundalinīs - the lower kundalinī and the upper kundalinī, where lower kundalinī is the sexual energy. So, it says that lower kundalinī must be raised but upper kundalinī must be lowered. In fact in most authentic practice lineages this was preserved. Very important that transcendental energy must ground down into embodiment and primal sexual energy must rise up and they usually meet in the heart. And that’s why they have this flame, which is called the sprout of flame, that is born from that meeting. The heart lotus opens, the sprout of flame arises.

This is not the only system in classical Tantra, we have multiple systems. So, for example in the Siddhānta texts there are no lower chakras, because they didn’t want to work with the sexual energy, and so their 5 chakras are: heart, throat, palate, third eye and crown. So, there are several different systems -- originally all had 5 main chakras, the other chakras being less important. Of course, these are places where you focus your energy in meditation. What do you focus there? Prāna, visualisation, mantra -- when those three come together that makes yoga in the classical Tantrik system. So, you vibrate a mantra, bringing the prāna there and visualising some element, colour, etc. Very important for us is the Kubjikā Tantras, because they present the chakra system that influenced Hatha Yoga and postclassical Hindu Tantra.

A couple of scholars have shown now, it’s not widespread knowledge yet, that Hatha Yoga almost definitely comes out of a south Indian Tantric lineage called Shāmbhavānanda lineage. These people worshipped Kubjikā’s consort Navātma-bhairava, they also worshipped Shrīvidyā [Lalitā]. They focused on bodily practice especially, which eventually passed over into Hatha Yoga. How do we know this? Well, we have many sites, one of them is in Mahārāshtra, where we find the Nāth Siddhas and the Mahāsiddhas, painted on the walls, and we also find Kubjikā and Lalitā in the same caves, in the same practice environments. We also have a newly translated very important scripture, called Matsyendra Samhitā, dated 1300, which claims to be the teaching that Goraksha received from Matsyendra. What are the mantras given in this text? They are the mantras of Kubjikā and Shrīvidyā. So, this is a key text in the transition from Tantra to Hatha Yoga. Then in the Hatha Yoga system we get practices that originated in this tantric environment and often they present 7 (6+1) chakra system that later gets popularised in the West. And so we have this big problem now, because westerners think this is THE chakra system, they don’t realise this is only one of many possible systems and there are even living lineages that teach this later system, because it was transmitted from Tantra and Hatha Yoga and down to the modern times. So, what’s been lost is the diversity of knowledge. That’s where westerners get confused. Westerners are very dogmatic compared to ancient Indians . . . modern Indians are often very dogmatic too. By dogmatic I mean that they want to know which one is "true" -- 7 chakra system, 5 chakra system or some other? They are all true, depending on what the practice you are doing is. When it comes to subtle body, there are many ways to work with it. So, in the Tantras they present more than one chakra system, more than one map, which is not a problem, because each one is appropriate to a given practice. They question is what practice do you want to do? It is very simple and straightforward, but the confusion arises because there is lack of lineage, westerners look at all these sources and they seem to be in conflict, but each guru traditionally presents what the disciple needs for their practice and there is no conflict.

Continued in PART TWO