Tantra's Ineluctable Logic?
Buddhist wisdom is simply wisdom. It isn’t necessarily any the more wise for being Buddhist. I know my Buddhist friends may not like me saying that, but I’m not all so sure how Buddhist they are to begin with... anyway I have observed how Buddhists do require conversion to Buddhism time and time again. There is a commonplace wisdom that wisdom comes with age, an expression I passionately detested when I was younger (along the same lines: “When you’re older you’ll understand...”).
Today I’d venture there is some truth in it. For instance I’ve seen that young people just don’t know that failure is success. They only see the failure, and don’t appreciate the opportunity it nearly always presents them. When you get a present, you ought to be saying ‘Thank you!’ Seeing how badly they take defeat always looks so-o-oh pathetic you almost want to feel sorry for the bastards. When people concede defeat (or put themselves at risk) in order to help another person, they become so much bigger for that, they come out winners, don’t they? Young people fail to recognize these simple wisdoms over and over again until they’re too old to benefit from them anymore. So then they might think they have to express their well thought-out thoughts to the young people, young people who just won’t buy it whether they’re getting charged for it or not.
Listen children! Failure keeps us growing and prevents us from getting stuck. Period, full stop. Stop your whining. The one who loses the argument is the one who learns the most, is indeed the successful one. These are things we either know from experience or don’t know at all... Not that anybody really ever grows up all that much. That’s why reincarnation, if it didn’t exist, would have to be invented. We always have a lot further to go than one life can normally allow time for.
An older person I know, one even older than yours truly, was recently asked what he would like to teach young people, and the first thing that he thought of was this, “There is no such thing as a wrong thought.” I’ll admit I was a little taken aback by that, perhaps out of a knee-jerk moralistic impulse (I’m an occasional victim, I’ll confess), but I could also see the tantric logic in it. The serpent in the primordial garden convinced us with the help of a drugged apple — to follow an interesting reading of Genesis — that there is a difference between the good thoughts and the bad thoughts, that there’s something godlike about knowing this. Ever since then we’ve been filled with inner turmoil, tortured by indecision about what would be the right thing to do (and the right thing to think).
The real problem isn’t this so much as that we’ve placed ourselves at the mercy of our thoughts, whether good or bad, and act impulsively or even unconsciously most of the time... it’s a problem of awareness and awakening, the rules be damned. We’re here to live, not to be managed or observed or judged. We don’t meditate in order to force ourselves to listen to the mini-fascist in our own minds... Or do we? ‘You kids behave, and watch those thoughts, they’ll get you into a world of trouble,’ we tell them out of the selfish and probably futile hope they won’t bother us while we’re up to our important adult business. Who tells them to release their grips on those hooks they’ve got sticking into them? Who tells them to jump over those walls they've had built around them or they built around themselves? Who helps them see the bigger and more meaningful connections between what they’ve got inside and what’s going on outside? Who tells them that real ethics have to come spontaneously out of an awakened goodness inside and not imposed by some dull authority outside? Dull authorities make us dull fellows who need to be told what we ought to find of interest instead of finding out on our own.
Well, true, I hear you... just as bad are the fate-focussed people who think life is a computer game full of insurmountable obstacles and insist on living it like it is one, as if there were no question our aims are the only ones there are, but at the same time aims that will probably never be achieved, or at least not achieved enough. This attitude itself is a big part of what gets in our way. We can’t stop and reflect, let alone admit that we’re on a fast flight to nowhere of significance. That’s why tantric logic is a life requirement, as crazy and radical as it may sometimes seem to some.
No doubt I’ll be criticized for appending these dangerous ideas from Āryadeva, the tantric teacher of the 7th century or so, in a set of verses called Treatise on Mind Purification. It’s a book without an outline, moving from subject to subject kind of like our minds are always doing whether we notice or not. But these particular verses do share a common theme, if you can detect it. I’ll call it tantric logic to put a name to its many faces. As much as it might seem counter-intuitive, it’s a whole lot more important than going to those hundred places before you die. And just between friends, it isn’t about justifying the selfish actions of your cheating heart. Don’t even go that way. It’s in that direction that the bigger dangers lie.
“Water in the ear can be removed by water,
a thorn can be removed with a thorn.
Just so the wise know how to remove
desire with desire.
Just as the laundryman uses dirt
to purify a dirty garment,
a wise person also uses
dirt to clean dirt itself.
As the dust motes on a mirror
when wiped help make it clean,
so, to rely on the wise,
faults are overcome by faults.
If a metal ball is put in water
it sinks to the bottom,
but if it is shaped into the right vessel,
it not only doesn’t sink, it holds up others.
In some way a mind that is the right vessel,
through the workings of wisdom and means,
gets disentangled while acting on impulse
and disentangles others as well.
When a confused consciousness uses it
desire is the chains themselves.
When wise persons use it
desire brings them all the way to freedom.
All the world knows
that milk cures poisonings,
but if a snake drinks it
its poison is multiplied.
The swan knows how to sip out the milk
from a mixture of water and milk.
The wise person, while acting in the
poisoned sensory realms, is freed.
If done according to procedures,
even poison can be made into the acqua vitae,
while children who don’t know how to eat
butter or molasses can be poisoned by them.
Yet to someone who cleanses their own mind
with the appropriate measures
its unthinkable, unimaginable
pure nature shines bright.
Even the smallest flame,
making use of the butter, wick, etc.,
clear, pure and steady
dispels the most obdurate darkness.
The Banyan seed though small
under the right conditions
will grow into a giant tree
with roots, branches and flowers.
When mustard is mixed with mineral powders
a different color is produced.
In a similar way the wise know the Dharma Realm
through the workings of wisdom and means.
Butter and honey in equal proportions
can be a harmful combination,
but when taken in the right way,
it can be the best nutritional program.
Putting mercury in copper
makes it perfectly golden.
Just so the application of true Total Knowledge
makes mental complexes into something worthwhile.”
§ § §
When I made this partial translation back in around 1990, I was staying in Nepal and had access to a classic work of Indian Tibetology, an edition by P. B. Patel of the Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa of Āryadeva: Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts, Visva‑Bharati Research Publications (Santiniketan 1949). I wish I had it now, since it served as the basis for the translation you just saw. In times since those days in Kathmandu two other translations have appeared, and I will very soon supply references to try and help those who might find the exercise of comparison fun or curious. For Wedemeyer’s version of these particular verses, see his pages 365ff; and for Varghese’s, pages 236ff.
- Christian Wedemeyer, Vajrayāna and Its Doubles: A Critical Historiography, Exposition, and Translation of the Tantric Works of Āryadeva, doctoral dissertation, Columbia University (New York, April 1999).
- Mathew Varghese, Principles of Buddhist Tantra: A Discourse on Cittaviśuddhi‑prakaraṇa of Āryadeva, Munshiram Manoharlal (New Delhi 2008).
- If you have the Dergé Tanjur handy, you can see the Tibetan text here: Cittaviśuddhiprakaraṇa (Sems-kyi sgrib-pa rnam-par sbyong-ba zhes bya-ba’i rab-tu byed-pa). Tôh. no. 1804. Dergé Tanjur, tantra (rgyud) section, vol. NGI, folios 106v.7‑112r.3. Translated by Jñānākara and Tshul-khrims-rgyal-ba in around the early- to mid-11th century.
§ § §
Somebody nice nicely sent me a nice copy of the Patel edition, so I'll type in my Tibetan version of Patel's Tibetan version for those who may want it (leaving off Patel's notes), starting at verse 37 on p. 24 and ending with verse 51 on p. 27 (perhaps I'll put in Patel's Sanskrit later on):
One PS: I notice the yung in verse 49 is in the Sanskrit version haridrā, and that means curcuma, or turmeric if you prefer (so the ‘mustard’ translation is not accurate), while for the rdo-thal [mineral powder] of the Tibetan, the Sanskrit has cūrṇa, which ought to mean chalk or [mineral] lime. So I’m not 100% the chemistry experiment here is identical to Sa-paṇ’s. Only 90% maybe.
Another PS: A. Annapoorani, K.R. Anilakumar, Farhath Khanum, N. Anjaneya Murthy & A.S. Bawa, "Studies on the Physicochemical Characteristics of Heated Honey, Honey Mixed with Ghee and Their Food Consumption Pattern by Rats," Ayu: An International Quarterly Journal of Research in Ayurveda, vol. 31, no. 2 (April 2010), pp. 141-146. It's yogurt Tibetans say should only be eaten uncooked, and about this rule our tandoori cooks seem to know nothing.
Yet another PS: Vijaya Deshpande, "Transmutation of Base-Metals into Gold as Described in the Text Rasārṇavakalpa and Its Comparison with the Parallel Chinese Methods," Indian Journal of History of Sciences, vol. 19, no. 2 (1984), pp. 186-192.