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Experiencing the Single Savor: Divinizing the Body and the Senses in

Tantric Buddhist Medita tion

David B. Gray
Santa Clara University

It is a great honor to be able to participate this panel, jointly sponsored by the

Mysticism and Tantric Studies groups. Since this paper deals with a Tantric Buddhist

tradition, it naturally fits within the scope of Tantric Studies. However, regarding its

suitability for the field of mysticism studies, the waters are perhaps a bit more

muddied. The category of “mysticism,” as narrowly defined by early to mid-twentieth

century authors such as Evelyn Underhill, tended to ignore Asian traditions such as

Hinduism and Buddhism, and also to downplay the body, presenting “mystical

experience” as private, ineffable, and disembodied (Kripal 2001:50-51, 68). This

Eurocentric understanding of mysticism was reinforced by contemporary scholarship

on Buddhism, which tended to be heavily laden with “Protestant presuppositions.” This

resulted in a vision of a “pure” and primary Buddhism, free of mystical tendencies,

which became gradually corrupted by mystical theologies and ritual practices.1 This

paper will explore a Buddhist tradition that is arguably strongly mystical, but which

focuses on the body as the transformable site of mystical experience. In using these

terms, I follow Jeffrey Kripal’s definition of the “mystical” as “a hidden dimension of

human consciousness in which the dichotomies of normal awareness are transcended

in an intense experience of unity or communion with a hidden reality or presence.”

(Kripal 1995:20)

As this paper invokes the problematic category of “experience,” it is necessary

to briefly address the contested status of this term. The notion that “mystical

For discussions of some of the implications of this tendency see Schopen 1991 and Cohen 2006.
experience” entails a special category of experience involving direct and unmediated

access to the absolute has received considerable criticism, notably by Steven Katz

(1978) and Robert Sharf (2000), while this notion has been defended by others, such as

Robert Forman (1990, 1999). Interestingly, Mahāyāna Buddhists seemingly straddle this

debate. With the constructionists, Mahāyāna Buddhists of the Yogācāra-Madhyamika

synthesis that came to dominate in Northern India during the time when the Buddhist

tantras were composed argued for the conditioned, and hence constructed, nature of

ordinary experience (Forman 1999:81-89). However, many Buddhists traditions, like

other traditions with strong mystical inclinations, claimed that it is possible to give rise

to direct knowledge of the absolute. Since at least the time of Dharmakīrti, many

Buddhists have also presumed a special mode of “yogic cognition” (yogajñāna), resulting

from successful meditation practice, which permits direct and unmediated experience

of ultimate reality (Steinkellner 1999). While ultimate reality is characterized by

Buddhists as acintya, inconceivable and thus indescribable, this experience has often

been described in Buddhist literature as a “luminous gnosis,” a direct apprehension of

ultimate reality as clear light (Kapstein 2004, 126-130).

In this paper I do not wish to make any special claims about the nature of

“experience” as actually apprehended by Buddhist meditators, past or present. Being

based solely upon textual sources, this essay can only address with the rhetoric of

“experience” or “self-experience” (svasaṃvedya) contained within these texts. The

exact content of any experiences that the meditative practices described in these texts

might engender is beyond the scope of this paper. However, insofar as the meditative

practices that will be described below do yield, on a regular basis, distinctive forms of
“religious experience,” I agree with Matthew Kapstein, who argued that experiences,

religious or otherwise, are not private and are thus reproducible by qualified agents.

Rather, “religious experiences, like aesthetic experiences, are thus second order

experiences, constituted by our interpretations and judgments of primary phenomenal

experiences of sound, sight, and so on, and of mental and abstract phenomena as well.”

(Kapstein 2004:287)

The tradition of meditation to which I would like to draw your attention is a

style of meditation practice found within the Buddhist Yoginītantras, which were

composed in India during the eighth and ninth centuries. Sometimes termed “body

mandala” (kāyāmaṇḍala) practices, these traditions involve the re-imagination of one’s

body, as well as the elements of one’s sensory experience, as divine. As such, these are

based upon the classic Mahāyāna belief that our experience is indeed constructed, and

that our suffering and happiness both result from this conditioning.2 These practices

are “meditation” in the classical Buddhist sense, as they entail a transformation of the

self via a process of (re)conditioning (bhāvanā) through practices involving focused

attention upon the mind-body complex.3

For this tradition, this involves the “purification” of the body, or, rather, the

radical reconceptualization of the body, from an impure vessel to a divine abode. It

entails a systematic process of “purification” by means of identification of components

A classic expression of this idea is contained in the first chapter of the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra. See Luk
2002, 13-14.
The term bhāvanā is usually translated as meditation, but this term can have a passive sense which
perhaps does not capture the active sense of the word, which implies a ‘cultivation’ or intentional re-
conditioning of the mind-body complex. See Carrithers 1983, 44.
of one’s self and environment with the deities of the maṇḍala. The Hevajra Tantra4 thus

begins its chapter on purity with the following:

All things are regarded as intrinsically pure. As a result one can speak of
their individual differentiation in terms of the deities. The six sense
powers, the six sense media, the five heaps and the five elements are
naturally pure, but they are obscured by the affliction of misknowledge
(ajñānakleśa). Their purification consists in self-experience (svasaṃvedya),
and by no other means of purification may one be released. This self-
experiencing, this bliss supreme, arises from the pure condition of the
spheres of sense. Form and so on and whatever other spheres of sense
there are, for the yogī all these appear in their purified condition, for of
Buddha nature is this world.5

This process is worked out in the sādhanas or meditation manuals. A fascinating sādhana

is Lūipa’s (Śrībhagavad-abhisamaya, one of the most important sādhanas in the

Cakrasamvara tradition. It begins with a meditation on the four divine abodes, and then

instructs the meditator to re-visualize her or his psycho-physical components as

divine, as follows:

First the lord of yogīs should meditate on the four divine abodes. Then
one should give rise to the pride of the five aggregates. [One should see]
Vairocana in the form aggregate, Vajrasūrya in the feeling aggregate,
Padmanarteśvara in the cognition aggregate, Vajrarāja in the
conditioning aggregate, and Śrī Herukavajra in all Tathāgata states.

Mohavajra is in the two eyes, Dveṣavajra is in the two ears, Īrṣyāvajra in

the two nostrils, Rāgavajra in the mouth, Mātsaryavajra in the [sense of]
touch, and Aiśvaryāvajra in all of the sense media. The earth element is
Pātanī, the water element is Māraṇī, the fire element is Ākarṣaṇī, the
wind element is Narteśvarī, and the space element is Padmajvālinī. Thus
there is purification by the deities of the aggregates, elements, and sense

The Hevajra Tantra is an important Yoginītantra, dated by David Snellgrove to the end of the eighth
century (1959, 1.14). However, its deployment of sophisticated terminology concerning the “perfecting
stage” (niṣpannakrama) of advanced Tantric Buddhist practice suggests that it was likely composed no
earlier than the ninth century. See Davidson 2002, 65, 77-78 n. 69.
This is David Snellgove’s translation of the Hevajra Tantra 1.9.1-4, with emendations by me. See David
Snellgrove, The Hevajra Tantra, vol.1, pp. 78-79 (for his translation), and vol. 2 pp. 32-33 (for his editions of
the Sanskrit and Tibetan).
My translation from the Sanskrit text edited in Sakurai 1998, 3.
As this text indicates, the process of purification involves the identification of central

components of self-experience with the deities of the maṇḍala. It equates the five sense

powers with five male deities, and the elements that constitute the sense objects as five

female deities. All sensation, symbolized as a sexual union between the respective

deities, is understood as being potentially productive of great bliss.7 This implies that

all experience, no matter how attractive or repulsive, pure or impure, in the

conventional sense, should ideally be experienced as an experiential uniformity

(ekarasa) of great bliss.

This re-imagination of one’s self and environment is understood to effect

purification through the elimination of the underlying cause of all problems, the

ignorance which manifests as attachment to self. As the Indian scholar Atīśa

Dīpaṅkaraśrījñāna wrote in his eleventh century commentary on Lūipa’s sādhana, “one

whose heaps and so forth are thus purified, is naturally purified, birthlessly, as is a

magical deity, because one has purified one’s clinging to that which is of the self.”8

What the Buddhist Tantras prescribe then is a sort of “reconstruction” process to

follow the process of the deconstruction of the self, i.e., the realization that it is devoid

of any intrinsically real, permanent entity.

If ordinary experience, as many Buddhists claimed, is characterized by

discrimination (vikalpa) and conceptual elaboration (prapañca), and thus an experience

of plurality, then the gnosis that is free of these conceptual factors, nirvikalpajñāna,

The symbolization of the contact between the sense power and sense object in terms of sexual
intercourse is not in itself a revolutionary idea peculiar to the Tantras; the sixth link in the chain of
relativity (pratītyasamutpāda) is sparśa or “contact”, referring to the contact between sense organ and
object. It was typically symbolized by a couple engaged in intercourse, and is depicted thus in the Ajanta
cave paintings, and also in written sources such as the Mūlasarvāstivādan vinaya. See Schlingloff 1988,
167-180, and also Nihom 1994, 185-86.
My translation from Atīśa Dīpaṅkaraśrījñāna, Abhisamayavibhaṅga, To. 1490, D fol. 187b.
would presumably tend toward an experience of unity. Mistaken belief in an

independently existing self is though to yield suffering, and also yields deluded

perceptions that appear to confirm this mistaken belief. This meditation practice seeks

to undermine this conditioning by imagining self and other, subject and object, as

engaged in a union, one that produces great bliss.

It thus seeks the cultivation of a particular sort of realization, the realization of

a gnosis of non-duality (advayajñāna), and the body is the site for this realization. That

is, the fundamental dichotomies of human experience, such as the dichotomy between

self and other, is to be resolved via meditative re-imagining of the body and its sensual

experience. Mark Taylor describes the body in a way that seems compatible with the

manner in which it is visualized in Tantric yogic practice, as follows:

as a result of its holey-ness or gappiness, the living body cannot be

defined in terms of the binary opposites that structure conceptual
reflection. The body is neither ‘subject nor object’....rather, the body is
the mean between extremes – the ‘milieu’ in which opposites like
interiority and exteriority, as well as subjectivity and objectivity,
intersect. Never reducible to the differences it simultaneously joins and
separates, the body is forever entre-deux. (Taylor 1987, 69)

In Tantric praxis the body the site for the blissful integration of the dualities; an

integration effected by the union enacted in its ritual and meditative practices. While

this union seemingly violates some of the basic assumption of human experience, their

view that the subject-object distinction is false may be worthy of serious consideration.

The body receives increased significance in Tantric Buddhism as the locus of

liberation, a liberation that is characterized as blissful. This bliss arises in the body

insofar as the body mediates the subject and object, integrating the two in a state

symbolized as sexual union. In the advanced tantric practices of the perfecting stage,
this integration is achieved through the unification of energies within the body.

Regarding this the Tibetan scholar Tsong Khapa wrote:

In brief, if you meditate on the perfection stage, you generate seminal

essence (bodhicitta) from the blazing and dripping of the white and red
seminal essences. That very thing is that on which the yogī relies, as well
as that which must be served, is the commitment. The object of the
engagement of that practice is the enjoyment of the six types of objects
by the six sense faculties. The object of engagement is designated vis-à-
vis the sense faculties because ultimately sense faculty and object are
inseparable. These objects, by the process of their arising as the play of
great bliss, are enjoyed and therefore cause the blazing of great bliss.
Object and subject are not perceived as isolated, but rather attain the
state of natural experiential uniformity (lhan cig skyes par ro gcig pa).9

And to achieve this bliss, it is necessary that one attends to one’s sensual experience,

and that one cultivates it through engagement with objects of desire. For example, the

Cakrasamvara Tantra’s thirty-third chapter opens with the following passage:

Furthermore, it is not the case that all are adept in all yogas, capable of
feasting to the extent of their ability on fish, flesh and so forth. One
should partake of the five foods and so forth with relish, even when they
are not present. At night one should always undertake extensive
feasting. Then the messenger should be bestowed. Placing one’s head in
her lap, she is worshipped in the fashion of the nondual hero.10 Whether
or not she is one’s mother, sister, daughter, kinswoman or wife, should
one do thus in accordance with the rite, one will be free of all bonds.11

A similar sentiment is expressed in the ninth chapter of this scripture, with concludes

in the following fashion:

The practitioner of love (kāmācāra)12 is given the fruit of all the powers of
mantra. He who is adept in mantra and mudrā knows that which was

My translation from Tsong Khapa’s bde mchog bsdus pa’i rgyud kyi rgya cher bshad pa sbas pa’i don kun gsal
ba, in the rJe yab sras gsung ‘bum, (Delhi: Ngawang Gelek Demo, 1980), vol. nya, fol. 42b.
The Tibetan scholar Tsong Khapa takes this as referring to sexual union, arguing that “the left one is the
messenger, and placing one’s head between her thighs means placing the head of the vajra in her lotus.”
My translation from Tsong Khapa’s sbas don kun gsal, fol. 175a.
My translation of Cakrasamvara Tantra 33.1-4 from my forthcoming edition.
The tenth century commentor Bhavyakīrti defined this term as follows: “kāmācāra is the enjoyment of
all objects of desire. He who conducts himself immodestly day and night is a pr a ctitioner o f l ove.” My
translation from his (Śrīcakrasamvarapañjikā-śūramanojñā, To. 1405, D fol. 18b.
extolled by the Sugata, that enjoying the enjoyable, that is food and
drink such as the caru oblations,13 with the savors and so forth (rasādyāḥ),
is the means of achieving all powers.14

This passage is understood to refer to the achievement of great bliss through union

achieved via cultivation of the body. Regarding this Tsong Khapa wrote that:

One must increase bliss in order to produce the union of bliss and
emptiness. In order to augment the ‘jasmine-like’ [semen]15 on which
one depends since it is the support of bliss, it is necessary to expand the
sense powers together with their supports by enjoying special desired
objects. As it says in the Dvikalpa, “Since camphor is the cause, eat meat
and especially drink wine.”16

For this tradition, the cultivation of bliss resulting from engagement of sensual

pleasures in the context of disciplined yogic practice is a requisite for enlightenment.

In so doing, the body plays a central role, and should not thus be neglected or punished

by ascetic practices. Rather, it must be treasured and nourished.

The Tantric attitude regarding the body can probably be summed up by the

following question and answer from the Hevajra Tantra, which asks, “Without bodily

form how should there be bliss? Of bliss one could not speak. The world is pervaded by

bliss, which pervades and is itself pervaded.”17 Bliss so conceived is a characteristic of

all life forms, suggesting a parallelism with the doctrine of Buddha-nature, the innate

potential for awakening present in all beings.18 For the these Tantric traditions, then,

In this context the caru oblation is a consecrated food offering consumed in the context of the Tantric
feast (gaṇacakra). Typically they consist of five offerings corresponding to the five sense faculties.
My translation of Cakrasamvara Tantra 9.7c-8 from my forthcoming edition.
kunda lta bu, which, like the term camphor below, are euphemisms for semen on account of their white
My translation from Tsong Khapa’s sbas don kun gsal, fol. 94b. Tsong Khapa here quotes three quarters
of HT kalpa 2 ch. 11 v. 15 (see Snellgrove, The Hevajra Tantra, vol. 2, pp. 98-99. Snellgrove does not
translate this verse.
Translated in Snellgrove, The Hevajra Tantra, vol. 1 p. 92.
This association between bliss and awakening is clearly made in the Hevajra Tantra as follows: “There is
no being that is not enlightened, if it but knows its own true nature. The denizens of hell, the pretas and
the animals, gods and men and titans, even the worms upon the dung heap, are eternally blissful in their
Awakening is bliss, and since the goal is taken as the path, bliss is accomplished

through bliss by embodied beings, who, by virtue of their bodies, are capable of

experiencing it. And, as is often the case, this ultimate achievement was also thought to

bring worldly benefits, in this case, a healthy, youthful body. The Sarvabuddhasamayoga-

ḍākinījālāsamvara Tantra promises that “this bliss which extracts the savor (rasāyāna) of

all Buddhas achieves supreme bliss and the glorious life of Vajrasattva, youthful and

free of disease.”19 This clearly points to the centrality of the body for this tradition.

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