This post presents the first part of Chapter Five of Abhinavagupta's Tantrasāra (“The Essence of the Tantras”), titled “Illumination of the Individual/Embodied Method (ānava-upāya)” (note: chapter titles may not be original to Abhinavagupta). Chapter Five is significantly longer than the previous chapters, and so it will be presented in multiple posts.
I've been working on this text for over sixteen years, and finally have reached a translation that I'm satisfied with. Like Chapter Four, Chapter Five requires explanation, and that explanation will appear in the forthcoming book version of my translation. In this post, all the words that follow are those of the great master Abhinavagupta (translated by Christopher Wallis—all rights reserved). Enjoy!
TANTRASARA - THE ESSENCE OF THE TANTRAS
CHAPTER FIVE: ILLUMINATION OF THE EMBODIED METHOD (āṇava-upāya)
When one’s conceptualization of the nature of reality has the capacity to become refined & perfected all by itself, without the need for any other methods, then, dispensing with the dualistic practices of those initiates still bound [by limited View], through the grace of Pure Wisdom (śuddhavidyā) that conceptualization becomes an expression of the Highest Divinity’s Power [of Insight]. When this process is taken up & relied upon as one’s primary method, it causes the manifestation of Empowered Realization (śākta-jñāna). This has been explained in Chapter Four.
But when —as is most commonly the case— one’s conceptualization requires another method for the sake of its refinement & perfection, then, relying on those supports that have a specifically defined & limited nature—such as the imagination (buddhi), vital energy (prāṇa), the body, ritual vessels, and so on—one enters [fully] into one’s individuated expression [of Divinity], thereby causing Individuated Realization (āṇava-jñāna) to manifest.
In this Embodied Method there are five basic practices. (1) The practice based on imagination (buddhi) is meditative visualization (dhyāna). The practice based on the vital energy (prāṇa) is of two kinds, being more and less subtle. Of these two, the slightly less subtle one is (2) the practice of uccāra, consisting of the movements of the five vital winds (prāṇa-vāyus). (3) The subtler version of this practice, which I will explain, is alluded to by the word ‘phoneme’ in our source text. (4) The practice based on the body consists of particular poses, denoted by the word karaṇa. (5) ‘Ritual vessels and so on’ refers to external objects utilized in the various kinds of pūjā: the vase, the platform, the liṅga or image, and so on—all of which will be discussed in due course.
(1) Meditative visualization (dhyāna)
Of these, first I will teach the most suitable & delightful way of engaging the faculty of the imagination, the meditative visualization I received from my sadguru Śambhunātha.
[Overview of the practice.] Above it was taught that the highest reality is the self-revealing Light of Consciousness that inheres within all the principles of being (tattvas). In this practice, one meditates on that very reality within the fundamental awareness that is one’s own Heart, then meditates there on the fusion of Moon, Sun, and Fire [i.e., the three primary channels], understanding them to be the cognized, the act of cognition, and the cognizer respectively. Meditate in this way [in conjunction with breath-retention] until the ‘Fire of Mahābhairava’ arises [in the heart], its nature inflamed by the ‘wind’ of this meditation.
[First one must select an external sense-object to work with, whether visual, aural, etc.] Then, [once one feels the Fire in the heart,] one should imagine Mahābhairava as a wheel of fire with twelve flaming spokes, then imagine that wheel issuing forth from one or another of the apertures of the body (eye, ear, etc., corresponding to the object of contemplation) and coming to rest on the external perceptible object.
While the Fire-wheel rests on the object, first one contemplates it as permeated with the energy of Emission in the form of lunar light; then illumined with the energy of Stasis in the form of solar light; then dissolved again with the Fire-light of the phase of Resorption.
Then one should meditate on it as merged with the Absolute ground of the cycle of cognition (the Nameless), one’s own ultimate identity (anuttarātmatā). Thus, the Wheel becomes totally filled and complete with the nondual reality of all ‘external’ things.
Then one should meditate on the subtle impression (vāsanā) that remains of the object of one’s contemplation, doing the same to it with the Wheel [as above]. As the Wheel dissolves the vāsanā of the object, it slows its rotation until it comes to a stop; meditate on the motionless Wheel as the absolute stillness between the cycles of cognition.
One who practices this meditative visualization repeatedly discovers that the cycle of Emission, Stasis, and Resorption is in truth nothing but the natural expression of one’s own consciousness, and furthermore discovers that the highest reality of that consciousness is its free & independent exercise of these powers of Emission and so on. One who fully realizes this immediately becomes Bhairava. And, through repeated practice, one may actualize all desired powers & attainments, as well as liberation.
Summary verses for the Fire-wheel dhyāna:
Having internalized the Trinity of knower, knowing, and known, one should meditate on it as the self-luminous Reality that is the essence of all, abiding within the radiant abode of bliss in the heart. ||
One should meditate on that all-pervasive divine Reality as the Lord of the Wheel—with rays of light that are the twelve great Powers—flowing forth from an opening of the body toward an external object, becoming its Emission, Stasis, Reabsorption, and [the Nameless ground of that cycle]. ||
The yogī should contemplate the totality of external objects and their internal impressions as absorbed into that Wheel, which then comes to rest in himself as its ground. Thus proceeds the illumination of one’s true nature. ||
~ [TO BE CONTINUED] ~
Abhinavagupta’s summary verse for chapter five:
When one’s conceptualization of reality does not reach perfect fullness spontaneously, it may be refined and purified through Method. Such Methods are manifold in our system; in the spheres of thought, prāṇa, the body, and external things, the Method is understood as the Individual/Embodied one. There is absolutely no difference among all these methods [i.e. the Divine, Empowered, or Embodied Methods] in terms of their practice [yielding] the [same] supreme result [i.e., liberation]. ||
 Pure Wisdom is tattva #5, and as part of the ‘Pure Universe’ constitutes an aspect of Parameśvara’s absolute being; it is also the abode of the mantra-beings aka gods and angels. For more on this topic, see the Tattva section of Tantra Illuminated and Chapter Three of The Recognition Sutras.
 The Latter Triumph of the Garlanded Goddess (Mālinī-vijayottara) 2.21.
 Note that these three (cognized, act of cognition, and cognizer) also correspond to the udāna, prāṇa and apāna vital energies respectively, as well as withdrawal, stasis, and emission, as per Abhinava’s commentator Jayaratha. Jayaratha also tells us that kumbhaka in the heart region is needed to awaken the Fire of Mahābhairava, and he tells us that the epistemological aspect of the meditation should be invoked only after the Fire arises, and this indeed seems clear from the corresponding Tantrāloka passage.