Tantric Yoga: Safe or Dangerous?
Question: Do you think tantra is “safe” for mass practice? I would imagine it could induce states of mania or psychosis and confuse many.
The clinical definition of mania is not sleeping for seven days (hypomania is four days), experiencing heightened energy that is often directed toward a multitude of tasks that are not finished, having rapid speech that cannot be interrupted, having flight of ideas of rapidly evolving tangential thoughts, sometimes self-grandiosity, and usually accompanied by a feeling of euphoria. Mania is part of the bipolar spectrum disorders but can be drug induced or accompany psychotic episodes.
I would define safe parameters for the masses as that which requires the least experience in order to practice without risking undue harm or confusion. My sense is that concentration meditation or shamatha is relatively safe with few “side effects” whereas tantric technology can offer immense progress but may not be suitable for everyone to manage “safely.” What are your thoughts and experiences regarding this?
Kim: Thank you for asking. It is a very good and interesting question, since tantra is quite often described as a ”dangerous” path. First, we have to hit a few reset buttons, to get the basic view of samsara and the purpose of practice right.
Dharma and its various teachings are paths to liberation or enlightenment. Liberation of what? Self-delusion, duality and confusion. Teachings of dharma, through ethical guidelines and yogic practices, help us to get out from confusion. They do not take us into confusion or increase it, unless there is something very wrong with the teaching or practice. Since buddhism is very clear with what is correct and incorrect this is not really a problem in buddhism, despite of its great variety. So, by definition, practice does not increase confusion, pain or misery because when correctly applied it doesn't increase our self-based habits and patterns but decreases them. This means that through steady practice, one's mind becomes more and more liberated, or in common terms, less attached, less selfish, more alive and more spacious, that is, natural and sane. Terms such as basic sanity and basic goodness are often used as synonyms for our innate buddhanature.
The Process and Dark Nights
Fortunately, it is becoming better known that all paths include rough patches, or the so-called dark nights. We can define dark nights as periods of emotional or depressive hardship. In the world of meditation, buddhist or otherwise, dark nights are too little discussed about. Meditation practices are sold to people with peacefulness and happiness, without explaining that serenity and increased mental freedom doesn't come without hardship. There should be a warning sign on the first page of every dharma book available.
|From the first page of Garchen Rinpoche's Vajrakilaya-training manual|
Carl Jung, one of the historical key figures of Western psychology, hit the nail on the head by saying,
”One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
Jung wasn't buddhist but it is evident that he understood the basic mechanism of human liberation well.
So, the main idea of buddhist meditation is to seek and look into all and any dark corner of one's bodymind where the light of awareness doesn't yet shine. It is in these dark corners where the fuel for successful practice is hiding. However, if one doesn't have a basic understanding what it is that buddhist practice sets out to do, there is a chance of becoming more confused and overwhelmed. When learning how to drive a car, we first have to have a solid theoretical understanding about what driving is and how a car works. Without it, it is not intelligent to jump behind the wheel and hit the gas. Anyone with common sense can understand that that's potentially harmful and dangerous, and yet this is exactly what happens in the world of meditation.
It is known that unexpectedly challenging silent meditation training can trigger strong anxiety and outbursts of psychosis in people who are perfectly healthy and stable. People end up sinking down into the mud of their minds but are not told that this could happen and are offered no means for digging themselves out. Commonly, when such difficulties arise, students are simply told to continue the practice without teachers' explaining (or understanding) what is happening to them. In a sense this is correct but this is also highly insufficient on behalf of teachers. Consequentially, some people end up becoming mentally ill, instead of psychologically and spiritually illuminated. Such accounts are many.
To prevent beginners from getting into trouble, many (not all) teachers have a policy of not accepting beginners for long and intensive retreats. This is because one is required to have some familiarity with practice, some sparring experience, if you will, to do many hours of daily sitting. In Open Heart, we have a rule that if people with mental illness wish to join teachings they are required to give a detailed outline of their condition, medication and ongoing treatments beforehand. As the head teacher, I also want to have some sense of newcomers; their life situation, prior practice and social relationships, before accepting them for retreats. Open Heart-retreats are very versatile and contain recitation, musical singing, various physical exercises such as walking and dancing meditations indoors and outdoors on top of sitting meditation. At our retreats, people are also encouraged to talk with others, and eat and rest well.
It seems that it is somewhat common for people to have psychological trouble on vipassana, specifically Goenka-style, and zen buddhist retreats. There are many accounts indicating this. This also happens in tantric practice but the numbers are a lot less. I am aware of less than five people who had some sort of mental illness for an extended period of time. One of these cases was mentioned by Culadasa John Yates, a well known author and buddhist teacher, in his webcast in 2018 (sorry, no link available). He stated that, 40 years prior, his ex-girlfriend became ill with schitzophrenia when she practiced Tibetan buddhist tantric preliminary practices (tib. ngondro). He also stated that she suffers of this illness up to this day. I do not know any specifics of her case, about the type of practices she did and how severe her illness is but this is the most severe case of mental illness related to tantric practices I am aware of.
Sutric and tantric methods are very different by nature. Both emphasize practice and, should I say, deep forging but I would say that the tantric approach is much more relaxed in terms of effort because one doesn't need to generate the practice on one's own. Blessings from one's guru, lineage and the deities make the practice much easier and relaxed. As discussed above (dark nights), this doesn't mean that it's always easy, just that it is easier. That has certainly been my personal experience.
Sutric meditation retreats, incl. Goenka and zen, put a lot of emphasis on silent sitting, with limited rest and sleep, simplified vegetarian diet and have very little, if any, social interaction with others. Reason behind these features come from the sutric view of renunciation which in many ways looks exactly like asceticism. Tolerating physical pain or sitting through pain, for example, is a common instruction in zen buddhism. You don't move, even if you have great physical pains. In some training halls you get scolded or even physically hit, if you move during periods of sitting.
|Shakyamuni as an ascetic, before he found the middle way between extremes|
Looking at these features of sutric training, it seems very odd that so many of these traditional forms of sutric buddhism forget Shakyamuni Buddha's example. He didn't become awakened through ascetic practices but by taking a good care of his body, after he realised that the ascetic approach was just postponing solving his existential issues, while physically killing him.
Tantra is not based on the view of renunciation, so on tantric retreats for laypeople one can usually talk with others, get enough sleep and more options for food. Tantric retreats for professional practitioners is a different matter but that's a whole different context. Tantra is about transformation which means that one doesn't necessarily need to change one's lifestyle at all. One illuminates one's mind within the life and lifestyle one has. For this reason, I feel that tantra is much better suited for Western laypeople. It is not part of the tantric view to renounce family, work or anything else. Sutra renounces the world and keeps distance to it, tantra embraces and embodies it.
I've heard of many people who had emotional trauma come up in sutric training without receiving fitting instructions from their teachers and therefore having no way to deal with it. In Japan, I knew a zen monk with few years of monastic practice under his belt, who hit a rough patch. As the master in charge of the training (apparently) didn't have extensive enough understanding what the student was experiencing, and had no other tools in his toolbox other than the ones transmitted by the tradition, eventually, as the anxiousness grew, the monk ended up leaving the monastery and in fact, his whole career as an ordained monk. With correct know-how the monk's dark night would have been entirely manageable and possible to overcome. It is a classic example where the tradition failed the teacher, and the teacher failed the student. It is crucial to realise that the student did not fail.
That this happens in one way or the other all the time, is one of the reasons why I am a fan of the Western innovation of combining sutric methods with Western psychology. However, as I have written before, I do not think buddha dharma lacks anything. Rather, it is the fixedness of traditions and level of expertise and open-mindedness of teachers that are lacking. I say lack of open-mindedness because commonly, traditionalists do not seek answers outside of their tradition. They trust that as their lineage is historically authentic (although in many cases this has been debunked by scholars) and time-tested, it couldn't lack anything. Whether training systems can be perfected is highly questionable. Excessive self-sufficiency of buddhists is an issue. This has been discussed in this blog here: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo & Kim Katami: About Awakening
In 2017, we heard the sad news of a young American lady, who committed a suicide after a Goenka retreat, apparently because she experienced what I describe above, sutric practice without proper support. This is the only dharma practice-related suicide I've ever heard of. It is one too many but at the same time considering the amount of anxiety, depression, trauma and suicidal thoughts practitioners I have wondered why the number is not higher. Perhaps this has something to do with subtle protection coming from Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Needless to say if people went killing themselves after retreats, there wouldn't be any sort of buddhist tradition existing.
So, dark nights are periods when dark corners of the mind are revealed, and just like when cleaning a dusty storage room, in the process of cleaning, the dust momentarily fills the air and blocks one's airways. That is not a comfortable experience but it is an unavoidable part of cleaning. Since all buddhist paths are about cleaning, there is no buddhist path entirely without discomfort. The sooner one becomes comfortable with the idea that at times practice stings, the easier it becomes. Suffering and discomfort (dukkha) is typical for existentially confused mind, and so any path that aims to sort it out, must go through it, rather than around it. Buddhist meditation is not about bypassing suffering. It is about suffering voluntarily, not for the sake of enduring suffering but for the sake of releasing the root cause of suffering which is always, without exception, in selfing. To accomplish this we need to, as Mr. Jung suggests, go in the midst of darkness. That's what the path is.
I tell my students to prepare for the worst when it comes to dark nights. I once heard of a Danish practitioner who got depressed for 15 years after his awakening. It took so long to sort out itself because he had no access to suitable yogic knowhow. I recently wrote, ”What is Depression and How to Heal It”.
Types of Mental Illness
Psychosis and schitzophrenia prevent the person from distinquishing between reality and fantasy. One can still practice with these illnesses, but close supervision of both a skilled dharma teacher and doctor are required. As long as the illness persists, I do not think it is a good idea for a person with these illnesses to practice without the supervision of both professionals. Depression and anxiety do not make one lose sight of the reality and for this reason people with these predicaments, expect in severe cases, require no medical supervision, when practicing meditation.
As a tantric teacher, I have the requirement that those with any mental illness need to discuss with me before learning Open Heart Yoga, the main tantric practice of the Open Heart-system.
Yogic Take On Causes Behind Mental Illnesses
All mental illnesses are in the mind. Although there is evidence that genetics (typically associated with the physical body) play a part in some mental illnesses, these are conditions that prevail in the mind. For this reason they have to do with energetic circulation and karmic records stored in the energy body. This means that like all other states of mind, such as trance and concentration (skt. samadhi), mental illnesses have to do with the state of one's energy body. This means that, since all beings have buddhanature as their ground of being, all states of mind are momentary and are necessarily caused by life force (skt. prana, tib. lung) flowing through certain kinds of karmic records, hence creating some momentary bubble of illness.
Lifestyle without responsibilities, as often in the case of young people with no jobs, study or regular sleeping times can induce depression. One's lifestyle momentarily creates a certain kind of way how the energy circulates in the bodymind. Use of intoxicating substances, such as alcohol and various types of drugs can induce depression, anxiety and psychosis.
I have myself, for brief moments (up to 1 hour in duration), experienced psychosis caused by mixed use of alcohol and cannabis (1), physical overtraining (2) and overtraining in pranayama (3), or yogic breathing practices. In all three, the mental state was same or similar. In all of them life force circulated in same or similar manner, strangely and unnaturally, producing convincing ideas and thoughts that afterwards, when normal circulation was returned through rest, healthy food and healthy lifestyle, were seen as weird and unrational. These are examples of momentary mental illnesses caused by lifestyle.
Sometimes practitioners of buddhist meditation, both sutra and tantra, come up with psychotic illnesses that persist. In my limited understanding, these are caused by one's harmful actions in the past. In this connection it is logical for one to question if it is the practice that causes it but like stated above, correct dharma practice based on ethics, does not increase bad karma. Because our mental states are directly related to our karma, it is actually the seeds of karma, revealed through practice, that causes it. We really need to understand that practice brings stuff up. To nullify negative karma, one really needs to exercise ethics, wisdom and compassion, through whatever instructions one's teacher gives. Needless, to say students should only choose and learn from teachers who they trust and respect for these is no point learning from bad teachers. It is common for tantric teachers, including myself, to give specific advice and practices when problems arise to quicken their resolve.
That one might reveal karmic seeds that cause psychotic illness is of course an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. However, we can also look at this in the expanded timeframe longer than a single life and understand that perhaps one is fortunate to have these outbreaks as a dharma practitioner, being guided and protected by the Three Jewels, which are the common source of refuge for all buddhists, as well as Guru, who is the main refuge for tantrics. The other option would be to suffer of one's bad karma without this protection and without any guidance. That these negative karmic causes are brought into the open in the context of dharma practice, is good in the long run, although it might ruin one's plans in this life. In such situation one should find a tantric lama who has some realisation and is able to give specific instructions for sorting it out. If one has very bad karma without guidance and protection of the Guru and the Three Jewels, we could end up being insane for many lifetimes.
The history of humanity is horrible and very dark. In this samsaric realm of human beings, good people have turned into killers, murderers, rapists, robbers and tyrants. We have done extremely bad things to other people, animals and the planet. We are deluded if we think that we couldn't do what people at their worst, in deep distress have done. To see what people do to other people, all we need is today's newspaper. Dharma is a way out of this.
Going Round and Round in the Wonder Wheel of Pain
Samsara is hell of a pressure cooker, abound with immense pain and suffering. Here countless beings inflict harm on themselves and others, not even knowing the difference between honesty and lying or violence and non-harming. For this reason, for those who understand the theory of reincarnation, it is logical to expect that we, now having the extremely fortunate opportunity to practice the dharma, have in the past caused tremendous hurt and pain for others. If not because of genes, because of our past actions, we are deluded, lost and ill.
When sorting out our karma, we don't get to choose what our karma is because it is already recorded in our subconscious mind. For this reason, if by ”safety” we think of the path as something comfy without much psychological challenges, I'm sorry to say that such a buddhist path doesn't exist. Whether we choose to do the big cleaning with sutra or tantra, or combination of both approaches, is up to us. But again, whatever path we choose or don't choose, or if we choose to not practice at all, it is best to be prepared for great hardship. From there we do our practice and little by little bring the dark corners to light.
Vajrayana For The Masses?
Recently Mr. Brad Warner published a wonderful short video discussing big dharma organisations vs. small ones, in the context of abuse in buddhism. I highly recommend watching it.
I think that vajrayana or tantric vehicle, explained in common sensical, de-mystifying, down-to-earth, practice-related manner with solid basic pedagogical skills from the teacher's side, is the best option for the people of our time. The tantric study also includes sutric study and yogic psychology, so it makes a profound path. The reason why I think that tantra, combined with teachings of the natural state (skt. atiyoga, tib. dzogchen) is the best of paths, is because tantric practices accomplish more with less effort. Sutrayana is slow because the practitioner has to do so much more heavy lifting by her- or himself. Plus, I think sutra is unsuitable for laypeople because of the view of renunciation, as discussed above.
In tantra, students are empowered by the guru or guru's representative. It is because of these empowerments and one's personal practice afterwards what makes it so much more easier. By cultivating an enlightened archetype of the mind, i.e. deity or deities, the practitioner automatically and inevitably recognises the nature of mind correctly and returns to the basic state of wakefulness on daily basis. Again, I wish I didn't need to say this but I think it is questionable whether sutric practices actually enable practitioners to recognise their true being because in sutra-teachings distinction between substrate conciousness (skt. alaya vijnana, tib. kun gzhi) is almost never made. In consequence, most followers of sutrayana confuse the samsaric state of subtle dullness with the natural state of wakefulness. It is incorrect. If you cultivate a dull blank stare for a lifetime, where do you think you're heading next? Incorrect cultivation also creates karmic causes.
As an additional point, I personally think that all paths that do not discuss knowing awareness (tib. rigpa, skt. vidya) from the beginning and start with concentration practices (skt. shamatha), have it backwards. Besides, those who have their hair on fire wishing to wake up, they don't have much if any use for shamatha training.
Buddhist practitioners really need to begin to correctly distinquish between liberated (skt. nirvana) and confused (skt. samsara) states from the beginning because if they don't, they'll just make their paths unnecessarily longer, numerous lifetimes longer. For those who are seeking complete liberation, this matter is very very serious. Buddhists trust their ”time-tested” traditions way too blindly. I did too, until I started realising that most traditions and teachers don't have the full picture or methods from deluded to fully liberated state. Traditions, like everything else in the world, age and when they do, they loose their essential message and meaning.
Despite of trust towards my gurus and their teachings, I don't think tantra is suitable to be taught through big organisations. Both teachers and students need to know each other personally and have one-on-one access. That's impossible if retreats are attended by more than few dozen people, not to mention hundreds or thousands. If you never even had a chat with the lama, you are not a student, though you can be a follower of a certain system. Sure, it is possible to disseminate teachings of tantra and dzogchen in mass events but it is far fetched to say that people would really get the essential meaning that way. Tantra and dzogchen are best transmitted in intimate setting.
My answer to your first question is that, yes, tantra is suitable for masses but it is not suitable for one teacher to teach masses for other purpose than very basics which is coincidentally what is taught at mass events. A lot of beneficial points can be shared, of course. Both mahayana and vajrayana paths of sutra and tantra are aiming at full enlightenment or buddhahood, though, so this is important to keep in mind.
Hope this helps. Thanks again for asking.
-Kim Katami, 14.7.2019
Open Heart Sangha,