The Ways to Liberation (Tantraloka 1 cont'd)

This post continues my translation of the Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta, the encyclopedic overview of all things Tantrik, written at the very peak of the tradition’s success (one thousand years ago). In this passage, for the first time, Abhinava introduces his key doctrine of the three Ways to Liberation. Here we begin to see this great master’s brilliant pedagogical strategy of introducing a teaching very briefly then reiterating it again and again, each time with more detail, until the student thoroughly understands.

The section follows directly on from one focused on the nature of awareness.

Thus, the all-pervasive Lord reveals his own nature [as the transindividual, all-pervasive Awareness-Ground] to a certain knower in all its fullness, and to another gradually, aspect by aspect. || 140

The highest realization for embodied beings is the revelation that one’s true nature is the one Being that is the beingness of everything (viśva-bhāva-eka-bhāva-ātma-svarūpa). The ‘lower’ form [of knowledge] is [everything] other than that, and is of manifold kinds. || 141

Note that this verse, which states the goal of the path with beautiful simplicity, is parallel to verse one of The Blossoming of Innate Awareness.

Through the Direct Method (i.e., śāmbhava-upāya) and/or through the methods that lead to it (i.e., the śākta- and āṇava-upāya), that [highest realization] is [even now] manifesting, differentiated into various wonderful modalities. || 142

Abhinava’s use of the present participle (‘manifesting’) is a little bit mysterious here, but perhaps it alludes to the fact that the truth of Being is ever before us, hidden in plain sight. Or perhaps he assumes that anyone reading the Tantrāloka is already in the awakening process, and therefore the highest realization is already unfolding for them, whether they realize it or not.

Regarding these, there are in fact many more possible methods, due to each being itself a direct means or a doorway to another, in its entirety or in one or more aspects, with intervention of other methods or the absence of such. || 143

Abhinava’s commentator Jayaratha explains this verse by saying there are six basic ways to liberation (śāmbhava, śākta, āṇava, śākta -> śāmbhava, āṇava -> śāmbhava, and āṇava -> śākta -> śāmbhava) which become twelve because each can be complete or partial, and which become 24 because each can have interposing elements or not. And there are many possible interposing elements, so actually there many more than 24 possible paths to liberation. He does not explain what the ‘interposing elements’ might be.

And the [direct] method leading to realization (i.e. śāmbhava-upāya) is not in our view a lack of knowing, but rather a subtle kind of insight, indeed the highest kind; and this we hold to be a form of the Will. || 144

Abhinava makes this statement because the Direct Method or Divine Means is said to be wholly nonconceptual, so critics might call it a lack of knowing rather than realization. But Abhinava argues that the highest (i.e. most complete and ultimate) mode of knowing is and must be nonconceptual. As for the assertion that this highest mode of knowing is equivalent to willing (icchā), that will be explained below.

But the condition of [distinguishing between] means and goal rests on a superficial form of knowledge. It is the Power of Action that is the sole cause of both bondage and liberation. || 145

Unlike in worldly life, on the spiritual path the goal is not separable from the means by which one attains it. Indeed, the language of ‘attainment’ is purely metaphorical, for the goal is simply to fully recognize and repose in one’s true nature. There cannot be a path that leads to one’s true nature, precisely because it always-already is our true nature. So the methods of the spiritual path have to do with drawing one’s attention deeper into Essence, dissolving the calcified thought-structures of the conditioned mind, and exploring the landscape of the energy-body (which is an expression of the psyche). In this process, one learns how to direct one’s innate power in different ways. It turns out that the same power by which one enters into the experience of bondage (through certain habitual mental and physical behaviors) is the very same power by which one again frees oneself: kriyā-śakti, the Power of Action inherent within Awareness. Abhinava’s commentator Jayaratha quotes a verse from an anonymous scripture on this point:

This very power of Śiva consisting of Action exists in the bound soul and is binding it; [however,] established on its own path when this (power) is known, it brings about realization. (trans. Ben Williams)

But why does Abhinava even mention the Power of Action here, when the verse before and after are discussing the Power of Will? It’s not quite clear. Next Abhinava pinpoints the key practice of the Divine Method (śāmbhava-upāya) which as stated above is the most direct ‘path’ to realization and liberation.

In the first moment (ādya) of one’s awareness [of any object of experience], the singular abode [of consciousness] free of all conceptualization is clearly manifest in direct experience. It is that which we call the Will [to perceive/experience]. || 146

Within awareness there is an innate Impulse (icchā, usually translated ‘Will’) towards experience; one might say awareness instinctively leans towards and even embraces experience. This gentle ‘embrace’ of experience (which has nothing to do with approval or preference) happens prior to thought, for which reason scholar Alexis Sanderson translates icchā as ‘precognitive urge’. Put simply, if you can just slow down enough to notice, you discover that in the first moment of awareness of anything whatsoever, there is nothing but Being, nothing but awareness vibrating in the form of that experience. That is the ‘singular abode’ (eka-dhāman), the intrinsic nature of awareness-as-such. It is free of thought or conceptualization or self-referencing. To see how it clearly manifests in direct experience, just take a moment to get centered and ask yourself this simple question which has no answer in words: “What is the quality of this moment before I have a thought about it?” No matter what is going on within and around you, if you slow down and get centered and ask this question honestly (i.e., actually wanting to discover the answer), immediately after asking it you experience pure being. The singular abode of awareness-presence is manifest clearly in direct experience.

For most people, this preconceptual moment of experience, of being, goes by so quickly that it is not even noticed, especially because our cultural conditioning does not teach us to place any value on this moment. Yet it is one of the keys to our awakening and our liberation. Through a regular meditation practice, the length of this preconceptual moment increases (from say half a second to several seconds), allowing it to reveal more of the innate vibrancy of being.

(The wording of the question that I offer above is drawn from my teacher and friend Ādyashānti, so it is quite a divine synchronicity that Abhinavagupta, when discussing the very practice that Ādya loves to offer people, uses the word ādya! Here it means ‘first’, whereas in Ādya’s name it means ‘primordial’.)

Just as a given object or state is clearly manifest to one whose senses are vibrant, without any need for figuring it out (anusandhi), in the same way for some rare souls Śiva-Essence reveals itself [in any given moment]. || 147

The ‘rare souls’ are those for whom the Divine Method is fully effective. They can discern the difference between reality-as-such (which is always indescribable and beyond the grasp of the mind) and their mental representations of reality. As such, they can experience pure Being in any moment, what Abhinava calls Śiva-Essence or Divine Selfhood.

By contrast, the Way of Insight (jñāna-upāya, = śākta-upāya) is that by which one arrives at that [same] awareness through a process of repeated contemplation of [successive] convictions based on some aspect of a [revealed] conceptualization of the nature of reality. || 148

In other words, this second Way to liberation starts from an axiomatic teaching received from scripture or from the mouth of one’s teacher. You choose a teaching (or it chooses you!) that you find compelling, intriguing, and somehow challenging all at once, and you let it initiate a process of contemplation through asking questions like “If that is true, what else must be true? What are the implications of this?” and “If this teaching is a pointer to something that I can directly experience, what is that ‘something’?” and following the ‘golden thread’ of an empowered contemplative process (supported by your teacher). This process of contemplation leads one to convictions corroborated by direct experience, and it gradually deepens until it becomes entirely nonconceptual. For this to happens, each successive conviction must be more closely wedded to direct experience.  From a neurological point of view, this is a process of thoroughly rewiring your brain such that modes of perception and experience previously unavailable to you become available. In this Way, the spiritual teachings simply lead you to experience the state from which they arose in the first place. Much more detail on this Way to liberation, including examples of the key teachings that can initiate such a powerful process of contemplation, is given in chapter four of the Tantrāloka and chapter four of the Tantrasāra.

But that spiritual practice which utilizes external ‘objects’ fashioned by the imagination [in accordance with scriptural instructions] is traditionally called the Way of Action (kriyā-upāya, = ānava-upāya). The diversity of methods in our tradition does not pertain to the final Fulfillment (apavarga, = mokṣa). || 149

Here ‘external objects’ is a figure of speech, since Abhinava refers to meditative visualizations and imaginative practices of Tantrik Yoga, such as breathing a sparkling point of light up and down the central channel, or the Fire-wheel visualization taught in chapter five. The last sentence of this verse simply means that though three Ways to liberation are taught here, they all end up in the same ‘place’, they all culminate in the same awakened and liberated state.

As it is taught in the sacred Gama-tantra, since what is called Action is not in truth different from Insight, it develops and culminates in Yoga [through the Insight that it brings about]. || 150

If the practices of Tantrik Yoga are performed correctly, they are nothing but an active way of cultivating insight without the need for any intellectual deliberation. Thus these practices are good for those who habitually overthink. Note that here Abhinava uses the word Yoga to refer to the state of being that spiritual practice leads to rather than the practice itself.

Yoga is not different from [Insight], and neither is Action [, the Gama-tantra teaches]; for the ascent of one’s understanding to Reality when the vāsanās of one’s heart-mind have been quieted is referred to as [spiritual] Action (kriyā). || 151

The word vāsanā is a near-synonym for samskāra, and is sometimes used to mean a complex network of interrelated samskāras. Note that this verse alludes to the famous definition of yoga from the Yoga-sūtra (1.2): “Yoga is the state that arises when the mental-emotional fluctuations have become still” or “Yoga is that state in which the churnings of the heart-mind have settled into stillness.” Since the Gama-tantra (a scripture now lost to us) teaches that kriyā (spiritual action) is the “ascent of one’s understanding to Reality” that is possible only when the heart-mind’s vāsanās have been resolved or “quieted”, kriyā not different from Yoga, indeed it is a form of Yoga.

The vāsanās in one’s heart-mind are born from the ‘three impurities’. The understanding inherent to Consciousness, which causes them to be resolved & brought to rest, does so by internalizing the mass of Principles (tattvas) which appear as external and give rise to [the experience of] embodiment. That activity (kriyā), by which the tattvas are dissolved into Awareness, is itself Yoga. || 151-2 ||

This profound pair of verses, which define kriyā-yoga in the Tantrik context ( = ānava-upāya) will be explained in the next blog post on Tantrāloka Chapter One.