Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Heart Practice: Tantra as ethical practice – I

“Using the plow of truth,
sowing the seeds of love,
plucking the weeds of falsehood,
pouring the waters of patience;
they look directly into themselves
and build fences of virtue.
If they remain rooted in their good ways,
The Bliss of Siva will grow.”
Appar (seventh-century Tamil poet-saint, from Pandian, 2009, p21)

“Ethical encounters are jubilant, joyous encounters of both affectivity and liberty.”
Patricia MacCormack, Posthuman Ethics

A great deal has been written about tantra as a transgressive practice and the perceived necessity of moving beyond normative values in order to discover “freedom”. However, the idea of tantra as an ethical practice seems to me to be relatively unthought. For this post then, I want to make some preliminary reflections on the possible ethical dimensions of contemporary tantra practice.

What do I mean by ethics, in this context? Bernard Williams makes a useful distinction between “ethics” and “morality”. He proposes that ethics is the answer one might give to the general question, “How ought one to live?” How could one generally and comprehensively direct one’s life in accordance with particular principles through practices of enquiry, reflection and self-conduct? Morality however, is for Williams, concerned with a more limited field – the choice of obeying or disobeying laws, commandments and prescriptions. In a similar vein, Michel Foucault distinguishes between two inter-related “ideal types” of moral systems. The first emphasises moral codes, and the second, ethical practices. Within the former, Foucault states “the authority that enforces the code [takes] a quasi-juridical form” – which is to say that the subject refers his or her conduct to a law, or a series of laws. In the latter, what is important is the “mode of subjectivation” – the way in which a subject freely relates to him- or herself, that receives greater elaboration. In this latter ideal type, rules and codes might be minimal or rudimentary, but greater attention is paid to the methods, practices, and exercises directed at forming the self within a particular nexus of relationships.

Care of the self
I’m going to start with Foucault’s notion of “the care of the self” – for no better reason than it was Ladelle McWhorter’s reading of Foucault (in Bodies & Pleasures, briefly reviewed here) which initially caught my attention and set me reflecting on ethics in the first place – alongside of some recent reflections on the guru-student relationship – see Dialogue III and reading Daud Ali’s masterful analysis of Kama literature – see Kamasutra III.

McWhorter writes that for Foucault, “ethics” is an activity – the “work of producing patterns of personal behaviour, value systems, networks of intimate relationships, and the practices that sustain them and the rules that govern them”. 1 She continues: “Care here is understood as cultivation or development of potential, capacities, talents, and strengths. But this cultivation does not take place in relation to the dictates of some ideal of “humanity” or some code of conduct imposed on us all by the gods or in relation to some essence hidden deep inside the self. … Caring for ourselves is artistic work; it is self-stylization that is an affirmation of becoming other than we are.” 2 Care of the self is not merely a feeling or attitude – it is a set of practices which allows one to take care of oneself and others.

Foucault, in forming his concept of “the care of the self” drew heavily on his earlier work on ancient Greek ethics, where ethos was the concrete form of freedom:

“A man possessed of a splendid ethos, who could be admired and put forth as an example, was someone who practiced freedom in a certain way…Extensive work by the self on the self is required for this practice of freedom to take shape in an ethos that is good, beautiful, honorable estimable, memorable and exemplary.”
The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom p29

Foucault suggests several key features of this ethical practice of self-care. First and foremost, it requires continual self-reflection or critique – the cultivation of a particular way of life that itself, becomes a lifetime project. This introspective practice, he argues, allows for a realistic appreciation of one’s surroundings – how one is enfolded within disciplinary regimes of power – and the possibilities for changing those relationships:

“…the focus of critique is essentially the cluster of relations that bind the one to the other, or the one to the two others, power, truth and the subject. And if governmentalization is really this movement concerned with subjugating individuals in the very reality of a social practice by mechanisms of power that appeal to a truth, I will say that critique is the movement through which the subject gives itself the right to question truth concerning its power effects and to question power about its discourses of truth. Critique will be the art of voluntary inservitude, of reflective indocility.”
What is Critique?

Care of the self should not be confused with contemporary notions of “healthy living” and avoiding stress. Foucault says that “It is a matter of acts and pleasures, not of desire. It is a matter of the formation of the self through techniques of living, not of repression through prohibition and law”. 3 Care of the self is not just an “inward turn” but requires attention to the quidotian practices of everyday life and the web of relationships, practices and forms of knowledge from which our sense of selfhood emerges.

He also proposes that “Care of the Self” is distinct from the more familiar ethical maxim of “Know Thyself” which he argues, was taken up Christian asceticism and the confessional mode – which treats the self as just another object to be known. Moreover, Foucault says that “Know Thyself” was preceded by “Care of the Self”.

“There are several reasons why “know yourself” has obscured “take care of yourself.” First, there has been a profound transformation in the moral principles of Western society. We find it difficult to base rigorous morality and austere principles on the precept that we should give more care to ourselves than to anything else in the world. We are more inclined to see taking care of ourselves as an immorality, as a means of escape from all possible rules. We inherit the tradition of Christian morality which makes self-renunciation the condition for salvation. To know oneself was, paradoxically, a means of self-renunciation.”
Technologies of the Self, p228

Foucault also highlights a “Cartesian moment” in which the practices of “care of the self” are supplanted by practices of knowledge – that which is readily apparent or self-evident to the senses.

Foucault also relates “care of the self” to a concept of spirituality, which has the following key features: spirituality postulates that the subject (as such) does not have right of access to truth – access to truth requires transformation, change, and, to some extent – becoming other than he is – it requires both preparation and askesis. Moreover, such truth, once accessed, has a reciprocal impact on the subject – “The truth enlightens the subject: the truth gives beatitude to the subject.” 4 In other words, the experience of truth changes us in ways that knowledge does not. Edward McGushin provides some clarification – the “truth” that Foucault is talking about is not a particular truth about an object to be known, but rather, truth as “a fullness of being which offers itself only to those individuals who have performed the proper work on themselves.” 5

This presentation of “spirituality” differs markedly from the dominant approach to spirituality, where the self is reified as both an object to be known/discovered and becomes, at the same time, the ultimate arbiter of certainty – “inner truth”- and a marker of authenticity. For Foucault, there is no “true self” papered over by layers of trauma, conditioning, repression, etc. Rather, his interest is becoming other – “I don’t feel that it is necessary to know exactly what I am. The main interest in life and work is to become something else that you were not in the beginning.” 6 Much of Foucault’s early work is concerned with critiquing the liberal notion of the self – that which must be uncovered, made known, and liberated from repressive institutional power is, in actuality, to a large degree, a fabrication of power-knowledge relations. As McGushin explains (pxviii): “Relations of power subject individuals to identities and lead them to recognise these identities as who they truly are. Therefore the truth of the self, and the obligation to be true to oneself, cannot be accepted uncritically.”

An important element of care of the self is the concept of parrhesia – “frank speech”. Foucault talks about two interrelated modes of parrhesia. There is political parrhesia – the courageous act of speaking out; and there is ethical parrhesia – speech whose purpose is to transform both the speaker and the listener.


“For many ascetic beginnings, there are clear goals. When I first started gardening, I had a clear goal: eating fresh vegatables. When I first started dancing, I had a goal: meeting hot women. But in both cases, the disciplines I undertook changed me to the extent that the goal I started with became relatively unimportant. I disciplined myself to the dirt, and I became something new. I disciplined myself to the dance, and I became something I never imagined I could become. I strayed afield of myself. And in the process I discovered and cultivated immense capacities for pleasures I’d never dreamed of before.”
Ladelle McWhorter, Bodies and Pleasures, p187

Askesis is the Greek term from which the english “asceticism” is derived – and we tend to associate “asceticism” with practices of self-renunciation, self-denial, and withdrawal from the world. But for the Greeks, askesis indicated a much broader domain – any kind of practical training or art required both mathethis – knowledge, and askesis – practical training. This practice, as Foucault points out, is developmental – in the sense of extending one’s capacities. Askesis, is a thus a disciplinary practice. One of Foucault’s key insights in relation to disciplinary regimes is that, as much as normalising disciplinary power as constrain and shape us – producing “docile bodies” – disciplinary practices can also lead to enhanced capacities and new ways of being in the world – which can be novel, transformative, and freedom-enhancing. The challenge is “to find ways of disrupting the circulation of disciplinary power in particular contexts to reveal its contingency, and perhaps more radically, to undercut the stories which discipline likes to tell about its own benefits” (Hayes, 2007, p8). This requires vigilance – practices can easily become new forms of confinement, new forms of control “posing as ahistorical essences or natures” (McGushin, pxxv).

some conclusions (for now)
So how does all of this relate to contemporary tantra practice? Foucault’s use of Greek philosophical concepts was not done in order to advocate a nostalgic return to an ancient Greek life, but rather, to provide some tools for “thinking through” contemporary issues and challenges in a different way. As I develop this series of posts, I hope to use Foucault – and some other contemporary thinkers – to “think through” some of the challenges of contemporary tantra practice, particularly with regard to ethical issues. Nor am I suggesting that Foucalt’s work can simply be mapped or sprayed onto tantric themes uncritically. Rather, it is more of the case that I find “echoes” or “resonances” between Foucalt and the ideas of some tantric practitioners and texts. For now, a couple of minor examples will suffice.

On Kleshas
A key concept found in some forms of Tantric Buddhism, and in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the five Kleshas. 7 When I first read Foucault’s account of disciplinary power – and in particular how disciplinary power can work towards – and against – normalisation, I thought of the Kleshas. The kleshas are five-fold: Ignorance – the basic ground state of a subject, gives rise to “I-am-ness” which in turn leads to attachment, aversion, and “clinging to life”. These five “afflictions” are also designated as pancaviparyaya – “erroneous” cognitions. They can be thought of “impellers” of action, both good and bad.

Vyasa’s commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras includes a powerful metaphor, that “the river called mind flows in two directions” – towards “the good” (discrimination, salvation) or towards “evil” (worldly existence). Yoga soteriology broadly categorises all mind-activities (vrttis) according to whether they are klista-vrttis – “caused by Klesas – which thereby lead to suffering or dissatisfaction, or aklista-vrttis – modifications of mind which are not caused by Kleshas. Part of the goal of Yoga practice is to strengthen the aklista-vrttis whilst at the same time, subduing 8 (and eventually, eradicating) the klista-vrttis. Kleshas are both internal and external to us – and by far the best way to explore their workings is through our everyday relationships and activities.

Some of the practices for understanding how kleshas operate within and through us include: meditation; discrimination; pratiprasava – tracing a particular manifestion back to its source (Foucault’s genealogical method?) and the cultivation of ethical engagements such as friendliness; patience; resolve; trust 9

Kleshas can be tricky from a practice perspective. It’s easy to get into a situation whereby one is beating oneself up (or “judging” others) according to lack of progress on the untangling of one’s kleshas. It’s easy to get tangled up in “shoulds” – “I shouldn’t be so attached to video games”; “so-and-so’s attachment to alcohol indicates that he’s too bound to ‘his’ kleshas” and so forth – and “oughts” – particularly when we have a predetermined, ideal concept of what sadhana ought to be like – or where we “should” be in terms of that concept. So the very discipline which is supposedly increasing our capacities and potential freedom can quickly become an oppressive trap, with which we can judge ourselves and others. If we follow the advice of the Yoga Sutra – the way out of this “trap” is not through attempting to “suppress” attachments, aversions, etc., but to develop those qualities which counter the operation of the kleshas – friendliness, trust, compassion and so forth. These qualities, I would say, are ethical in the Foucaultian sense, as they are not prescriptive “rules” – they are modes of subjectivisation; practices of relating to oneself, and to others. 10

On “knowledge”
A second example of a “resonance” between Foucault’s work and tantric ideas I found is in an idle browsing through The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality v2:

“…what would be the value of the passion for knowledge if it resulted only in a certain amount of knowledgeableness and not, in one way or another and to the extent possible, in the knower’s straying afield of himself? There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is going to go on looking and reflecting at all.”
(my italics)

In this comment, I read (perhaps mistakenly) a critical assessment for the pursuit of knowledge as accumulation. How long have I spent looking for that one “right book” which will satisfy all my preconceptions of practice – and ended up with a huge library?

At the same time, what springs to mind is the terse, aphoristic critiques of the Kularnava Tantra:

Forgetting that the Divine Truth is within themselves, they look for it in the books, like the shepherd who searches for the goat in the well when it is already in the flock.

Verbal knowledge is of no avail for the destruction of the delusion of the world: just as darkness is not dispelled by mere talk of a lantern. The study of a person without wisdom is like a blind man looking into a mirror. It is only the men of awakened wisdom that can benefit from the Sastras.

Men famous for the qualities like learning, philanthropy and valour keep on discussing forward, backward and sideways that the Divine Truth is of this kind or that; but if they do not apprehend that Truth directly then what is the use of talking about it. Those who are foolishly thus involved in the Sastras are undoubtedly far from the Truth.

Everywhere they like to hear such things as ‘this is knowledge and this should be acquired: but O Devi! one may spend a thousand years hearing the knowledge of Sastras, yet he will never reach their end.


Neither Asramas nor philosophies or Sciences can provide the means for liberation; only the Jnana of all the Sastras can give it. And this Jnana can be received through the words of a Guru. All other ways are deceptive, oppressive; the knowledge of Truth alone is life-giving.

The Supreme knowledge of the One declared by Lord Siva, free from ritual and austerity, is to be received from the mouth of the Guru.
Kularnava Tantra, second Ullasa

These are common sentiments in tantric texts – that “knowledge from books” alone (as well as rituals, mantras, and almost any operational procedure) – without the mediation of a guru is suspect, if not downright dangerous. Abhinavagupta, for example, says that what authenticates knowledge (jnana) is threefold: scripture (Agamas or Sastras); the word of the guru; and one’s own experience. It becomes apparent then, that jnana as it is sometimes expressed in tantric texts is not just an accumulation of facts or empirical “objective” knowledge but knowledge which is dialogical 11 – or even (as tantric texts tend to a three-fold structure 12 – “trialogic”. Knowledge is a kind of activity; for it to be efficacious it has to emerge via a relationship, and be transformative – as Foucault says: straying afield from ourselves.

The Kularnava does not necessarily reject either disputation or the knowledge contained in the Sastras, but rather, it cautions the reader about how to relate to those practices – that “overthinking” them, or “argument for argument’s sake” (for example, of the kind of “points-scoring” I tend to get caught up in in debates on internet forums) is not enough, or the accumulation of knowledge – is not enough. Another verse suggests that: “Practising all the Sastras and knowing their essential Truth the intelligent should leave them like the one seeking grains leaves the husk aside.”

In a way, these verses undercut the “authority” of the Kularnava Tantra itself – reminding us, that what counts, in the long run, is the way we relate to the world around us. The “guru” may be a human person, one’s chosen devata (“the goddess”) or the myriad affordances for learning that we encounter from moment to moment.

This, for me, also raises practical ethical issues about how we transmit, or give out “practices”. In Dialogue III I discussed the idea that knowledge arises through – and within – the context of interpersonal relationships (and the intensities generated via those relationships). One of my fondest recollections of the time I spent with Vishvanath in New Zealand is us standing on a beach; he took a stick, drew a passable Sriyantra in the sand, and proceeded to talk us through the operation of the tattvas. We hadn’t gone there with the intention to do this, it just emerged out of the conversation. More recently, we were sitting outside a cafe in central London, discussing the limitations of trying to fit tantra’s immensity and amorphousness into the framework of online learning tools, and he said that for him, “nothing beats a good face-to-face conversation.” And this is a principle I tried to take forwards in my own (albeit small) engagements with sharing practices with others. Not simply to give people “techniques” and let them get on with it, but first, to have a conversation (or several) about my own relationship with a particular practice; what I’ve found effective, puzzling, or difficult, etc. The next “stage” is that we do the practice together; then afterwards, we might mutually reflect on it or just have tea and cakes, and save the reflections for later – a picnic maybe. Afterwards, there might be a write-up of the practice for individuals to explore themselves.

There is much more I could say, but I’m going to hold it there for now – and possibly loop back to some of these issues in future posts.

Daud Ali, Anand Pandian (eds) Ethical Life in South Asia (Indiana University Press, 2010)
Anindita Balslev The Notion of Kleśa and Its Bearing on the Yoga Analysis of Mind (Philosophy East and West Vol. 41, No. 1, Jan., 1991)
Michel Foucault, Paul Rabinow (ed) Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth (The New Press, 1997)
Pierre Hadot Philosophy as a way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault (Blackwell, 1995)
Cressida Hayes Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics and Normalised Bodies (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Patricia MacCormack, Posthuman Ethics: Embodiment and Cultural Theory (Ashgate, 2012)
June McDaniel Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2004).
Edward McGushin Foucault’s Askesis: An Introduction to the Philosophical Life (Northwestern University Press, 2007)
Ladelle McWhorter, Bodies & Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalisation (Indiana University Press, 1999)
Anand Pandian Crooked Stalks: Cultivating Virtue in South India (Duke University Press, 2009)
Ram Kumar Rai (transl.) Kularnava Tantra (Kush Rai, 2010)
Ian Whicher The Integrity of the Yoga Darsana: A Reconsideration of the Classical Yoga (State University of New York, 1998)


  1. Bodies & Pleasures, p194.
  2. Ibid. p195, italics in original.
  3. Subjectivity and Truth p89.
  4. Foucault’s Askesis p39.
  5. “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview with Michel Foucault,” 1988, p. 9.
  6. see A closer look at kleshas for some discussion.
  7. Sometimes the Kleshas are likened to “seeds” which over time, are “parched” of nourishment.
  8. see Restraints and Observations.
  9. The so-called “Kashmir Saivite tradition, exemplified through the works of Abhinavagupta – and greatly influential on streams such as Sri Vidya takes a rather different approach, which I hope to get around to in the future.
  10. See posts tagged dialogue for some earlier reflections on dialogic relationships.
  11. For example, jnana-iccha-kriya or “the knower, the known, the act of knowing.

One comment

  1. Andrew
    Posted July 24th 2013 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    I have never thought of spiritual self exploration in terms of ethics, yet I like your argument for the connection between this and tantric spiritual practice. There is some real food for thought here, thank you.