Commentary on Wayman's
Yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra
by Rev. Ming Zhen Shakya, and Rev. Yin Shan Shakya
April 30, 2004
In his indispensable book, The Serpent Power, in the section Practice (Yoga: Laya-Krama), Sir John Woodroffe makes a peculiar footnoted admission. Commenting on the line, “The practitioner should now wait outside the veil...” which appears in one of the Samaya-Agama teachings he has quoted in the text, Woodroffe wonders, “This, as well as some other details of this description, I do not follow. Who is waiting outside the veil? The Jiva is, on the case stated, within; and, if there be a veil, what is it?”
The Guhyasamaja Tantra (GST) at its fourth and highest level of interpretation has an answer to the question that Woodroffe, at this relatively early point in his spiritual career, had not yet discovered for himself.
Robert Graves, in the foreword to the 1960 edition of his indispensable book, The Greek Myths, also makes a startling admission: “I no longer believe that when his [Dionysus] Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of traveling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence, summarized in my What Food the Centaurs Ate, suggests that Satyrs (goat-totem tribesman), Centaurs (horse-totem tribesmen), and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, Amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength.” He also allows for the ingestion of other varieties of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
The Guhyasamaja Tantra (GST) at a lesser level of interpretation, supplies information which would have helped Graves to reach a more timely understanding of the Maenads’ conduct and also of the Greek mystery religions’ secret rituals.
The GST claims to reveal and instruct in matters concerning “the secret and the greater secret.” Graves would have benefited to be privy to the great secret, Woodroffe to the greater.
Of the eighteen or so chapters of the GST’s original 4th century writing, Professor Alex Wayman confines his reporting to the text and commentaries on two chapters, 6 and 12, and the mnemonic Forty Arcane Verses. He explains, “These two chapters are selected for translation because they are the most important in terms of commentarial literature for stating explicitly the steps of yoga underlying the entire Guhyasamajatantra.”
In most Eastern theologies the world of the spirit and the material world are accounted for by thirty-six tattvas or principles of existence: five spiritual, one of conversion, and thirty material. If we begin by the usual chakra designations of earth (solidity), water (liquidity), fire (formativity), air (aeriality), and space (etheriality), we continue up through the capacities of human activity (procreating, digestion and elimination, moving, handling, and communicating); then through the various sensory objects (odor-as-such, flavor, color, feel, and sound-as-such); and then through the corresponding sensory powers of perceiving these objects (smelling, tasting, seeing, feeling-by-touch, and hearing). These are preceded by three psychical or mental states (imagination, ego-awareness, and judgment); which are preceded by the source of response (tranquility-passion-torpidity); the limited individual spirit; and its fivefold envelopments - birth and death, knowledge, desires, time, and location. All these are brought into existence by the power of Maya, the sixth tattva, by which the divine word is converted into material existence.
Above this are all five of the higher states of consciousness or spiritual encounters (meditation, samadhi, satori, and the indivisible pair - visionary androgyny).
The Guhyasamaja Tantra concerns itself with the acquisition of these upper levels of spiritual experience. Ascendancy begins with the huge category of Tattva Five. In this level are included the more or less standard applications of chakra theory and practice. Information is given about each chakra and the Dhyani Buddha and consort who govern it - their various attributes and functions, the mandalas, mantras, mudras, and methods of entering the meditative state. Good and bad behavioral qualities (“vrittis”) associated with each chakra are listed and the meditator seeks, accordingly, to enhance or diminish them. Into this category go all the various means of meditation... Breath control: Hatha Yoga; Platonic Ideal Forms; Kundalini or Laya Yoga; Scripture study; Karma Yoga; and all the visual creations which comprise a technique known in the west as Active Imagination - those heavenly settings and dramas in which the awed meditator places himself.
To push through, i.e., to deepen concentration into meditation and then into samadhi, in any of these methods delivers the meditator to Tattva 4, the orgasmic ecstasy of of visionless Divine Union, a state of Sunyata.
Tattva Three is the sudden extinction of ego and the non-sexual ecstasy of Satori’s pristine clarity.
Tattvas 1 and 2 are well represented in the GST. This is the stupendous experience of Divine Marriage, the Union of Opposites, the transsexual identity or “Spiritual Androgyny” experienced only during a pure and effortless glide into a many years’ long, exquisitely rapturous spiritual opera. Tattvas 1 and 2 are the original Bodhisattva couple seen either as Avalokitesvara/Guan Yin, Shiva and Shakti, Samantabhadra both as Warrior and as Courtesan; or as any Dhyani Buddha and his consort. Every religion accounts for this event. Later, in our discussion of Sir John Woodroffe’s confusion about being inside and outside the drama, we’ll consider the experience in more detail.
In its own hyperbolic way, the GST limns the activities of an inner circle of monks who possess varying degrees of spiritual attainment.
Because the document’s subject matter is esoteric, its language stilted, and the flow of information so frequently disrupted, a word needs to be said about the condition of many old scriptures in the Orient. Usually, these documents were written on thin wooden slats which, as fascicles, were bound together rather like a two-ring loose-leaf book. Each slat had two holes; but instead of being secured with metal rings, leather laces were used. Unfortunately, the leather would rot and break and the slats scatter like so many playing cards. Particularly when fingering had worn off page numbers, correct reassembly was by no means a certainty. We can never be sure that the order of the passages we are given is the one originally intended. Professor Wayman calls our attention to the possibility of sequence errors by showing how groups of verses that appear to be concerned with later “completion” are interspersed with those concerned with earlier “generation.”
Obviously exacerbating the problem of scriptural integrity, documents were hand written and then hand copied - often by persons who did not necessarily have the required ability to reproduce or even understand the original. But of all the detrimental actions, the most destructive was the common practice of copying. Scribes would enter the text in order to explain passages or references which they thought would not be understood by the people to whom the text was being delivered. With each transcription, accretions swelled the text and skewed its meaning, often into unintelligibility. Since students could only rarely possess an actual copy of a text, mnemonic devices such as numbered groupings and repetition were built into the transcriptions. Documents that had to be translated into another language suffered further linguistic indignities. When we consider that even the Bible, despite the preservation of its original text and its scrupulous translations, cannot forge consensus on a line as fundamental as the Sixth Commandment, we can glimpse the enormous problem. Is the divine law, “Thou shalt not kill!” or is it “Thou shalt not murder!” There is an enormous difference between these prohibitions. Anyone can appreciate that Buddhist documents, none of which was written until almost four hundred years after the Buddha’s death, do not yield easily to scholarly exegesis. Uniformity is not a word we can ever use to describe Buddhist teachings.
The GST’s reputation for antinomian excess seems well deserved. This lunatic idea that “since there’s no such thing as good or evil we might as well do evil” or “since none of this really exists, we might as well enjoy the illusion” or even an ecclesiastical version of Wilde’s “The best way to conquer temptation is to yield to it” have no place on any spiritual path. We can try to ignore the aberrant behaviors outlined in the GST, but the words glare back at us. Having sexual intercourse with female relatives of every kind - from one’s mother to one’s daughter - is clearly recommended in some places in the text. Perhaps this is bizarre metaphor or an expression of speech in vogue at that time. Or maybe it means exactly what it says.
The issue has ancillary considerations. The moment we concede that such activity occurred, we also dispel the notion that the GST governed monastic conduct. Monasteries are not communes, and although the GST seems intended to describe monastic practice and the rigor of the devotional schedule seems to obviate family life, the participation of women of all ages suggests that the society was not, at least completely, cloistered. In fact, a catalog of ancient secret hand signals and gestures to be used in public to convey information about scheduled events is still published and in use today among town-dwelling practitioners. Indications are that there was much less philosophical separation between left- and right-hand practitioners fifteen hundred years ago than there is now.
Scholars insist that Buddhist tantric practice preceded Hindu versions by several hundred years. Without involving ourselves in a “chicken or egg” controversy, it is sufficient to note that Buddhist Tantric forms of worship so dominated the Buddhist landscape that Buddhism in its entirety was deemed worthy of extermination a thousand years ago by the invading Muslims. And if Hindu practitioners could not claim paternity they at least adopted the methodologies. Even as late as the mid-eighteen hundreds roving bands of Hindu tantrics were a scourge in India. Men of every caste would gather the women in their household and guard them closely whenever these itinerant worshippers came to town. India’s great saint, Sri Ramakrishna, was asked to condemn the tantrics publicly. He refused, and his luminous response still guides us in our judgment. “When a man turns to God,” he said, “he turns from wherever he happens to be at moment he makes that decision. He may begin his journey towards God while he is yet living in the most abject circumstance. Should we dismiss from the Path all those who are behind us in righteousness and inferior to us in morality? If we did that, would you not dismiss me?”
The GST outlines two specific techniques that deserve special attention. One is the “matrika” (little mothers) meditation by which the letters of the alphabet are assigned to various body parts. The meditator sinks deeper into a meditative trance as he intones the letter and ritualistically touches the respective parts of his body.
The meditation most closely associated with the GST, however, is a mandala meditation. After Lord Vajradhara, Master of the supreme Triple Diamond of divine body, speech, and mind pronounces the secret mantra (magical incantation) of all the Tathagatas, the meditator imagines the five Dhyani Buddhas and all their respective attributes, functions, associations, mantras, colors, and so on. He arranges the mandala so that one is in the center, as the hub of a wheel. Positioned around this center are the other Buddhas in the four compass-direction points. The meditator places himself in the in the center of the wheel and sees himself as if absorbed into the body of the Buddha which occupies that hub. From that locus and identity, he contemplates not only the attributes, functions, associations, mantra, and colors of his own identity, but he cycles through all of the attributes, functions, etc., of each of the other Buddhas from the point of view of the central deity. When he completes one cycle, he switches places, i.e., he moves the central Buddha to one of the directional Buddhas and puts that Buddha in the hub position. He then repeats the exercise until he has occupied the body, speech, and mind of all the Dhyani Buddhas. Other divine persons may be placed in the mandala’s field and they will interact with the meditator in similarly dramatic ways. The assumption of divine identity represents “upaya” the method or means of exercising power. He will later perform a similar active imagination regimen by assuming the identities of the various consorts in an exercise of “prajna,” the exercise of wisdom.
Given the liturgical depths plumbed in the GST’s lines, we are justified in including all these efforts among the many-splendored 5th Tattva category. The variety of methods given above, however, by no means exhausts Tattva 5.
What then, are the great and the greater secrets that the GST purports to reveal?
The GST leaves little doubt that the “great” secret involves the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms that have been fed to a person or, more likely, an animal, probably a ruminant, such as a deer. Mushrooms, as a group, contain a variety of poisons: Amanitin, Gyromitrin, Orellanine, Muscarine, Ibotenic Acid, Muscimol, Psilocybin, Coprine. Nothing in their handling can be left to chance; and certainly instruction in the identification and preparation of mushrooms could have been taken no less seriously then as it is now. Mycologists often paraphrase Chuck Yeager’s remark about test pilots: “There are old mushroom gatherers and there are bold mushroom gatherers; but there are no old, bold mushroom gatherers.”
Generally speaking, hallucinogenic mushrooms, being toxic in various ways and degrees, can often be safely consumed after they have been processed either by cooking or by passing through surrogate digestive tracts. Ruminant animals, with their multiple stomachs, can eat them without harm. The animal eats the mushroom which enters the first stomach in which it is partially digested. This stage may be sufficient to detoxify it sufficiently for human consumption. As with all other vegetation the animal consumes, the bolus or cud of partially digested mushroom is than regurgitated up into the animal’s mouth where it is thoroughly masticated. Depending on the mushroom, the bolus may be removed from the deer or other ruminant’s mouth and consumed by the congregants; or else it may simply be allowed to return to the deer’s digestive tract. The hallucinogenic effects will then be obtained by eating deer scat (the pellets of excrement) or by drinking the deer’s urine. The celebrant also saves his own urine for later consumption. At this point the detoxification process is sufficient to insure safe consumption that provides for visionary experiences without producing the Maenads’ notorious frenzies.
Additionally, certain mushrooms, raw or roasted or boiled, can be eaten by one man who then becomes the visionary font. One man may eat one mushroom and supply a dozen men with sufficient urine to accomplish their vision quest. Coprophilia being what it is, it should not seem surprising to learn that, especially under the rapturous influence of his urine, this “special” fellow might contribute more than beverage to the ritual feast. As he personates the god; urine equates to nectar and excrement to ambrosia.
The GST mentions the consumption of three other animals: elephant, horse and dog. It is unlikely that these names refer to real animals. To be sure, dog meat is sold in markets throughout the Orient and the ancient Chinese did regard elephant trunk as a delicacy. This kind of epicurean excess, however, was surely unknown in monastic life even during the periods in which the rich, having been excused from taxation if they “took up the cloth,” ate sumptuously in their “monastic” domiciles. (The eating of meat by Buddhist clerics was not, in fact, proscribed during many periods of Chinese history.)
Mushrooms are often prosaically named. The Agaricus arvensis is called the Horse mushroom, and Stropharia cubensis is called the Dog mushroom, and a variety of other fungi have large, flat, fan shapes that gain them the name “Elephant Ears.” The animals’ names may very well refer to these fungi. As to the dog reference, canines, being carnivores, avoid eating fungi of all kinds; however, squirrels have been known to survive eating toxic mushrooms, and foxes that have killed and eaten a squirrel that has consumed toxic mushrooms often succumb to the transferred poison. It is possible that a dog could be fed the mushrooms and then its flesh, laced with partially detoxified substances, eaten in a ritualistic meal.
No account that I have ever read of mushroom intoxication includes the experience of Tattva 1&2’s Divine Marriage. In addition, since no one can possibly induce what is by definition spontaneous - such as the sudden and startling self-extinction of dazzlingly brief Satori - mushroom ecstasy and any degree of ego-obliteration experienced during the deliberate ingestion of a hallucinogenic substance cannot reasonably qualify as Tattva 3. The erotic experiences and the divine encounters of Tattva 4 are reported, however. We know from the accounts of those who use these intoxicants that care must be taken to create and preserve a proper setting immediately prior to ingesting the hallucinogenic substance. The person who consumes the substance tends to assume dramatically the identity of any character to whom he has been vividly exposed. This, of course, is a perfect approach to Tanka paintings and mandalas of all sorts and, without doubt, accounts for the ease with which participants in the ritual can experience “divinity.” LSD and a variety of chemically induced states, hypnosis, many oxygen-deprived “near-death-experiences,” dream encounters, and so on, all are valid to the individual who experiences them. No one can deride or diminish their impact. But no one can say that they are categorically identical to those spiritual experiences which have been obtained in traditionally sober ways, through prayer, meditation, epiphany, and so on.
In Shamanism, (p.223) Mircea Eliade says, “Intoxication by mushrooms also produces contact with the spirits, but in a passive and crude way. But, as we have said, this shamanic technique appears to be late and derivative. Intoxication is a mechanical and corrupt method of reproducing ‘ecstasy,’ of being ‘carried out of oneself.’ It tries to imitate a model that is earlier and that belongs to another plane of reference.”
To a man who seeks Union with God, his union must be direct, and at all times and everywhere available. There must be no barrier, no condition. The degree to which a man is able to access spiritual states spontaneously, or with only the slightest effort of recall, is what separates a novice from a journeyman and a journeyman from a master.
We also note that in the GST the blue lotus makes its ceremonial appearance. The blue lotus, preeminent among symbols found in Egyptian pyramid art, is unlike ordinary water lilies. Containing nuciferine, a hypnotic compound chemically related to Viagra, it is a potent aphrodisiac.
What then of the Greater Secret that puzzled Sir John Woodroffe?
Visions, because the ego has been transcended and we are able to perceive “events” directly - without the ego’s filtering screen - are always more real to us than anything we can imagine in normal “waking” consciousness. Astonishingly, when we enter the visionary life of Tattvas 1 and 2 we notice a curious similarity among the visionary encounters of all the world’s mystics. This delirious but otherwise entirely sober encounter including its satisfying aftermath seems almost to have been dictated by a divine scriptwriter, as if it were a genetic program.
The discovery that was as yet unknown to Woodroffe at the time of his inquiry is essential to experiential “knowing;” and without it the mystical life’s core event can only be the subject of opinions which do not mitigate and cannot solve the problem of ignorance.
The observer waits on one side of the veil, the participant on the other. We must first note that the word is “veil,” not wall. Not an opaque but a translucent barrier. Not abyss and not one-way mirror, but a veil: a screen or film through which we may see from both sides, though perhaps not with equal clarity.
Often we hear of a different model, a proscenium arch above a stage and seats in a theater. But invariably the problem remains: it is simply beyond the inexperienced person’s ability to comprehend that he is a person in the audience who, as himself, silently watches himself, as another person of the opposite sex, perform upon the stage; and that he is that other person as well. This is how we may exist on both sides of the veil; and this simultaneous positioning constitutes an event called Divine Marriage, the Union of Opposites, the Rebis Experience, the fusion with an androgynous Bodhisattva, or simply, the attainment of the Paired Tattvas 1 and 2.
When a male attains an identity with Shakti, his lover is Shiva or any divine or “royal” surrogate; and when a female attains an identity with Shiva, her lover is Shakti or any divine or "royal" surrogate. The Opus is the same and the Opera’s plot is universally identical, as are the dramatis personae, regardless of the cultural diversities within which their names are designated.
This duality - vibrant actress and male observer - which occupies both sides of the veil, is the greater secret of the Guhyasamaja Tantra. The secret of the acquisition of Tattvas 1 and 2 can also be regarded in Jungian terms: The man in the audience, assuming he has integrated his own Anima - a goddess who can subsume his ego identity for the purposes of the divine drama - is the female lead in that stage play that continues whenever he is in the meditative state. It is she who lives while he keeps his own vigil. Like the constellation Pisces, a cord passes between these two sexually opposed individuals, and the agonies and ecstasies felt by the one upon the stage are transmitted directly to the one in the audience. He feels what she feels in total empathy.
Again, the “royal” drama can take place only when he is in the meditative state in which, by definition, his ego is not present. Once the meditation ends, he is his old self again and nobody on the planet has a clue about the performance that he has both seen and participated in. The admonition Plato extends to anyone who would leave the dreary life of the Cave and see the brilliant sun outside holds true: If he returns to the Cave and tries to tell people what he has experienced outside that hearth and shadow world, he will be judged insane.
Furthermore, he can see the same play night after night and for as long as his ego is not present there is no entity within him to grow bored with the repetition. Once he has attained this high level of spiritual experience, he becomes, while deep in the most delirious and erotic meditation imaginable, the lovely Tara or any female by any other name that occurs to him. His royal lovers will be Lords of the Chakras or any other appealingly aristocratic person. The list is endless.
Spiritual androgyny is not bisexuality, homosexuality, or heterosexuality - terms which describe the individual’s conscious sexual orientation. A man in his own ego identity knows which sexual partners he prefers in his material-world, samsaric existence. But, by definition, his ego is not present in the meditative state. His ego has been transcended. He is not there. In his daily life he will not affect feminine ways. He will not even dream in a feminine persona.
And that is how any person, male or female, may be on both sides of the veil.
This is the fourth and highest level of understanding of the Guhyasamaja Tantra, a scripture that leaves nothing out. The succession of exalted lovers, the conception of the Divine Child, the wretched Dark Night of the Spirit with all its sado-masochistic activity, and the final deliverance of the Divine Child who will grow into an adult and then, replacing the anima, will subsume the watcher’s identity.
Given the years that the entire Tushita drama plays out within the mind’s theater, this sacred place truly becomes, to the fortunate meditator, a paradisiacal Refuge in which he may repose at will.
It is a solitary adventure. The need for buddy-system attendants or fellow participants required of those who imbibe dangerous substances is precisely opposite to the need for solitude felt by one who masters these meditation forms on his own. (It is for this reason that the spiritual bride or groom is treated so well in oriental monasteries. So that there will be no intrusions, the person so blessed by this Union is granted three years of solitude in a private apartment, cloistered within the monastery complex.)
It must also be noted that contrary to some popular opinions a female is by far the more fortunate mystic since she requires no lengthy period of physical training. For women, the ecstasy that attends these experiences is not truncated by the exigencies of ejaculation and the harsh adrenaline surge that her male counterpart suffers, post coitus. Most of the effort that comprises the discipline of the path is expended by the male meditator in acquiring control over those groin muscles that can prevent the premature climax and therefore ‘tragic’ denouement of his own erotic drama.
Finally, it is perhaps necessary to dispel the notion that the Spiritual events described in the Guhyasamaja Tantra are in any way unique to Buddhism. Everywhere and in all religious traditions mystics strive for the androgynous goal. Ordinary religious persons of every creed may have other objectives; but for the mystic, this is the goal. Sir John Woodroffe would later note in his Shakta SÅdhana, “Kali Tantra says, ‘Having thus meditated, the SÅdhaka should worship Devi with the notion, So’ham’. (I am she.) KubjikÅ Tantra says: ‘A SÅdhaka should meditate upon himself as one and the same with Her.’ The Same teaching is to be found throughout the ShÅstra: Nila Tantra directing the SÅdhaka to think of himself as one with TÅrini’.”
W.Y. Evans-Wentz in his Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, in the section Yoga of the Psychic Heat, instructions to monks, (Chapter 1:13) “Then imagine thyself to be the Divine Devotee Vajra-Yogini...”
Because Christianity is more populous, we find a correspondingly higher number of mystics. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Stuart D. Shoemaker’s translation, when Jesus is asked about the qualifications for entering the Kingdom, he says, “When...you will make the male and woman one alone, so that the female becomes male and the male becomes female, and when you make a vision in the place of an eye...then you will enter the kingdom.”
In Judaism, Isaac Myer writes in The Qabbalah, regarding Jewish Messianic eschatology, “It is through the [female] Shekhinah that humans can experience the Divine. The passivity of the Shekhinah is often emphasized (equated with its feminity), as the recipient of forces from the higher Sefirot. The Shekhinah is often portrayed as a bride or princess whose male lover is the composite of the nine upper Sefirot, represented by the prince-bridgroom Tiferet. The erotic and romantic phrases of the Song of Songs and Prophetic imagery is evoked to represent the longing of the male and female elements of the Godhead.”
In Catholicism, we have, among the works of other great mystics, the exquisite poetry of Saint John of the Cross. In his Noche Oscura, he relates how in the “stilled” state of meditation he ascends the “secret ladder” in “disguise” to meet his male lover, who, he says, “lays his face upon my flowering breast...”
In Islam we find the glorious Divan of Shams of Tabriz, love poetry written actually by Jalal-uddin Rumi to his long dead spiritual lover Shams.
Our personal favorite is Richard of Saint Victor, a 13th Century Scot who went to Paris to study with another great mystic, Hugh of Saint Victor. Richard’s account of the mystical opera can be found in his De Quatuor Gradibus Violentae Charitatis, translated, however inadequately, as “Four Degrees of Violent Love.”
A scholar and a mystic are seldom the same person. Still, given the daunting obstacles with which Alex Wayman was confronted when he began his investigation of this tantric scripture, he has done a marvelous job in calling attention to precisely those parts of the work that most elucidate its secret meanings and can guide the reader into hidden places.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts