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Taoism & Tantra

Flow & Continuity In Taoist Practice


Though the term “tantra” is most commonly associated with esoteric schools of Buddhist and Hindu practice, it can be useful also as a lens through which to explore Taoist notions of flow and continuity, as manifest within the realm of the ten-thousand things (i.e. phenomena of the world as it appears).

Hindu & Buddhist Tantra

Though there are numerous varieties of Hindu tantra -- associated with various practice lineages as well as independent practitioners/teachers -- all tend to share in: (1) a view of the fundamental identity of the microcosm and the macrocosm (or, in the language of Taoism, of the ten-thousand-things and the Tao); and the corollary understanding that it’s quite possible to access the “supra-mundane” through a skillful and intimate engagement with the “mundane”; (2) the activation of life-force energy (prana, qi, kundalini) -- a vibratory realm which mediates form and formlessness -- as an integral aspect of spiritual practice; and (3) a perception of the creative energy (Shakti) of the manifest world being nothing other than a joyful expression of Divine Consciousness (Shiva).

The view of Buddhist tantra -- similar in some ways, and different in others, from that of Hindu tantra -- is summarized here by Lama Yeshe:

“ ... each one of us is a union of all universal energy. Everything that we need in order to be complete is within us right at this very moment. It is simply a matter of being able to recognize it. This is the tantric approach.”

Flow, Continuity & Patterns Of Consciousness In Taoist Practice

In Taoism, the relationship between the One and the many -- between Tao and the ten-thousand things -- is represented visually via the Yin-Yang Symbol, in which opposites are seen to arise in mutual dependence, each containing the essence of the other, and to exist in a state of continuous transformation, one into the other. This dynamic defines a manifest world which consists not of discrete “entities,” but rather of patterns of consciousness (i.e. perception/discrimination) within a larger Awareness (aka Tao, Buddha Nature, the One).

The practice of Chinese Medicine, for instance, is based upon an understanding of Element and Organ Systems which are perceived/defined according to their patterns of functional relationship. In the same way that Yin and Yang are mutually-arising, so it is that each of the five elements -- and its corresponding organ -- exist only in dependence upon the other four elements/organs. These relationships are mediated, at the level of the human body, via the flow of qi through the meridian system, and the harmonious functioning of the Five Shen.

Each particular element/organ system includes also a vast range of correspondences, to phenomena both “internal” and “external,” both “personal” and “collective” -- e.g. sense organs, emotions, colors, planets, seasons, sounds, odors, flavors, musical notes, etc. In this way, the entire universe is (symbolically and in reality) contained within the elements/organs defining a human bodymind.

While in a western medical paradigm the word “organ” points to a more-or-less discrete entity (in mechanical interaction with other discrete entities), in the Chinese medical paradigm the word “organ” points to a functionally-related system of correspondences. In other words, there are no organs a la separate entities, just flow and change manifesting within particular, ever-shifting parameters; similar to how water flows within the more-slowly-flowing banks of a river.

Continuity Of Mindstreams In Tibetan Tantra

As Alexander Berzin points out in his excellent essay Making Sense Of Tantra, the Sanskrit word tantra [whose linguistic roots are: tanoti = stretch, extend, expand; and trayati = liberation] referred originally to the warp of a loom or the strands of a braid. As such, it

“... means to stretch or to continue without a break. Emphasizing this connotation, the Tibetan scholars translated the term as gyu (rgyud), which means an unbroken continuity. Here, the reference is to continuity over time, as in a succession of moments of a movie, rather than to continuity through space, as in a succession of segments of pavement. Moreover, the successions discussed in tantra resemble eternal movies: they have neither beginnings nor ends.”

In Tibetan tantra, the “continuity” being referred to is usually the continuity of mind, a kind of patterned flow whose shape reflects the intricacies of cause-and-effect, and whose dynamic quality is captured within the term “mindstream.” When we think of movement through time, typically what we’re assuming is some kind of discrete entity which moves or “continues,” as a discrete entity, through time. The continuity of Tibetan tantra, however, is something quite different: It is patterned movement without an entity. It is a “mere experiencing” without an experiencer, either in the sense of a physical or immaterial object that does the experiencing, or of a tool/vehicle someone uses to experience things.

The important point here is that mental continuums (as defined within Tibetan tantra) lack inherently fixed identities; their pattern/structure depends simply upon interwoven changing factors (the “karmic landscape,” if you will). Once again, the metaphor of water flowing through the banks of a river, is apt: the banks offer a structure or pattern to the flow, yet themselves are continuously undergoing transformation. The two are in a relationship of tangled hierarchy.

From Delusion To Wisdom -- From Entities To Flowing Continuities

In a deluded state of mind, the many phenomena of the world are perceived as separate entities, which occupy space and travel, as separate entities, through time. Once delusion has transformed into wisdom, the so-called phenomenal (or “relative”) world is perceived as a kaleidoscopic display of patterns of functional relationships, arising within the fabric of space-time (as its most foundational “pattern of functional relationship”). This transformation of perception allows for nuanced and potent response-ability -- the flowing responsiveness of Presence known as a Buddha, an Immortal, a Sage: a being to whom the self/world appears in alignment with how it is.

Such a being is neither subject to nor exempt from the laws of cause-and-effect -- both of which positions imply a some “one” to be drawn into or to stand apart from the elemental dance. Rather the continuity of their mindstream has been purified to such an extent that they are no longer in ignorance of the true nature of the phenomenal world and its movements; inseparable from the One, Tao, Buddha-Nature.

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