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Approaching texts

Sometimes, when I look at tantric texts, I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s description of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a “fairy story” rather than a “driving manual”. If you look at the majority of magical “how-to” books written these days, they are often presented as “manuals” – “here’s an explanation of this concept” – followed by “here’s how you do it” possibly followed by some discussion of the author’s own experience. Some authors will assume a shared language, whilst others will take great pain to explain what they mean by a particular term or concept. There is a general assumption though, that the reader may be unfamiliar with what the author is writing about and so good authors take that into account and explain stuff, to varying degrees. So there’s a degree of expectancy amongst occult practitioners that written material will, on the most part, be accessible, and, to varying degrees, familiar.

Tantric texts are not like this. Although to some extent a great deal of them are manuals – digests of rituals and similar practices, they are not written for “beginners” in the same way Western occult books are. Some are almost incomprehensible to an outsider unless there is a commentary present – either one done by a student of the person(s) who wrote the text, or by a knowledgable translator. Even then it can be difficult to extract potentially useful information because texts sometimes reference other texts, (which often aren’t available) or give only partial descriptions of practices – assuming that the user knows what they are talking about.

Here, for example is a passage from the Subhagodaya – this is a short instructional text dealing with the worship of the goddess Lalita in her Supreme form expressed as as Yantra:

“He should collectively worship according to the precepts and injunctions of the Vidya. On the outside of the chakras the highest worshippers should meditate and worship the collective Yoginis, (These are) the Patient Ones, the Hidden Ones, the More Hidden Ones, the Ones Concealed by Tradition, the in-Group Ones, the Ones without Origin, the Secret Ones, the Ones who are Very Secret, and the Highly Secret Ones. He should meditate on these 9 kinds of Yoginis with their names and attributions, Tripura, Lady Tripura, The Beautiful One, the Indweller, the Auspicious One, the Garlanded One, The Perfected One, and The Mother, followed by Mahatripurasundari, This 9 fold Vidya attribution which gives Enjoyment and Liberation is to be hidden and kept very secret. ”

This is about as clear as it gets. Obviously, if the reader is familiar with the practice of Yantra-magic and its theory, it’s going to make sense, but to someone who isn’t, its not going to be much use. If I, for example, wanted to perform the ritual practice contained within the Subhagodaya, I would probably begin by asking amongst the fellow initiates I’m in contact with if any of them had performed the practice, and ask them to take me through it. This is the best way to learn. Otherwise, I’d have to work it out for myself – which would be a longer process.

I think there’s a tendency nowadays to view esoteric knowledge as a commodity – we want and expect it to be easily available. Of course, one can have access to all kinds of texts, thanks to the internet, but whether or not it will be meaningful to us is quite another matter. It’s relatively easy to build up a vast collection of texts, (i’ve done this myself, over the years) but in order to work with them, you have to spend time trying to understand them (and how they relate to each other) and do the practice, because until you do the practice. much of what is in the texts will remain incomprehensible. Also, there’s a kind of expectancy that once we have a text (a source of knowledge) that we will be able to understand it ourselves – without relying on “external authorities” – I’ve met a lot of people who’ve become interested in magic and seem to have the expectation that all they need to proceed is “the right books” and they don’t need anyone else. I remember doing a lecture on Tantra at Treadwells a few years ago and someone asking me if I thought having a guru was a requirement for tantra – and I replied that as far as I was concerned, I wouldn’t have made the progress I felt I had were it not for the relationship I’d had with the person who I often fondly referred to as my guru. Whilst I think people are right to be suspicious of those who set themselves up as authorities, I do feel that what’s worked best for me has been learning from other people, as well as any other source, so again, that’s the approach I take with tantra.