Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art
Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

IN AN INVESTIGATION of language in Buddhism, no area is more perplexing than that of the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet. The philosophic texts often seem obscure and convoluted, and ritual Tantric texts employ enigmatic terms and phrases that are sometimes shocking to conventional sensibilities. Western interpreters, often scholars who have no Tantric training, offer explanations that may appear prurient, dismissive, or even contemptuous.

The Hevajra-tantra, a text particularly popular in the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, begins with the traditional formula “Thus have I heard,” signifying the authentic teachings of the Buddha from the sutras. But this is followed by a startling assertion: “At one time the Blessed One dwelt in bliss (literally, in the womb) of the Vajra Lady, who is the body, speech, and mind of all the Buddhas.” In the Vajrayana, accounts of the Buddha’s enlightenment sometimes include his sexually uniting with the young maid Sujata, who brought him milk-rice to eat as he engaged in meditation under the Bodhi tree. And the Tantric interpretation of the epithet Bhagavat is “one who unites with the womb.” How are we to understand such presentations?

The Tantras are the sacred ritual texts of the Vajrayana, and together with the sutras, or didactic teaching texts, they serve as the matrix of Tibetan Buddhism. Both sutra (Tibetan,do) and tantra (gyu) have the meaning of “thread” or “continuity” and refer to the threads of a weaving—the sutra providing the woof or crosswise threads while the tantra is the warp, the more subtle and pervasive lengthwise threads. Sutra represents the apparent and exoteric teachings that can be expressed in words, while tantra is the inexpressible, symbolic and pervasive undercurrent of the dharma. Tantra, then, is the irrepressible intrinsic awareness that pervades both clarity and confusion.

We are generally more familiar with the sutra teachings, originally drawn from the public discourses of the Buddha and the great commentators of India. In Tibet, they were employed as both the philosophic view taken to refine one’s mind as well as the approximate articulation of the true nature of reality. In contrast, Tantra refers to the ritual practice or meditative experience that accomplishes that view, quickly and powerfully awakening our intrinsic awareness to its full potential, both empty and luminous. Tantras are said to express the actual awakening of the Buddha, while sutras are how this is explained logically.

The recorded texts of the Tantras are written in what is called “twilight language” (sandha-bhasha, or gongpe-ke), an opaque language that expresses meaning that cannot be accurately expressed in words. It is a language indecipherable by conceptual mind that points, with the help of a teacher, to that intimate inner terrain. The core insight of Tantra, the nonduality of intrinsic awareness, suggests that there is nothing to be rejected in human life. The very obstacles and poisons that we would rather eliminate provide the gateway for the greatest spiritual growth. Twilight language ensures that we do not sabotage our realization with our intellect, and that we go directly to this intrinsic awareness. The insights and methods of Tantra are direct and powerful. They are secret not because they are shameful, obscure, or cultish—but because they must be experienced to be known. A casual relationship with Tantra—one that misuses the powerful methods of Tantric meditation for self-centered purposes—could cause disastrous consequences. A traditional analogy used to illustrate this is to liken it to mistakenly grabbing a poisonous snake by the tail instead of behind the head.

The Hevajra-tantra describes twilight language as a “secret language, that great convention of the yoginis, which the shravakas and others cannot unriddle.” The shravakas are considered the Buddhists of lower vehicles, who have a conceptual approach to the dharma. Why is this called a convention of the yoginis? It relates to the esoteric tradition of the feminine principle in Tantra, in which the genuine intuitive wisdom of Tantric teachings is considered feminine, and is guarded by esoteric Tantric goddesses called dakinis, sometimes also referred to as yoginis. They are beings, visionary and actual, who embody intrinsic awareness, promote it when auspicious circumstances prevail, and protect it when obstacles are present. Tantric language is also called “dakini code” because of this protection.

Awareness of the inner meaning of Tantra is symbolized as feminine because its analogs are the domain of women in conventional societies. Conceptual knowledge is the province of men in patriarchy—objective, empirical, and dualistic. Women’s domains are intuitive and embodied wisdom, personal and intimate, nondual awareness from the inside out. The wombs of dakinis embrace emptiness, and their dance displays the limitless space, bliss, and freedom associated with realization of emptiness. Dakini in Tibetan is khandroma, she who moves, dances, and enjoys space or emptiness. She is the preeminent symbol of Tantric wisdom.

From the Tibetan perspective, Vajrayana texts are merely the outer instruments that hold the ground for the tacit meaning carried in the oral tradition. Without the blessings of the protector dakinis, the reader can understand nothing of this inner meaning; with their blessing, the meaning can unfold in a fresh, intuitive way. That blessing is available to the reader when a genuine connection with a Vajrayana guru has been maintained through devotion and practice. Dakinis are vigilant about the integrity of Vajrayana teachings, and if the lineage of oral instructions is lost, they withdraw their blessings and keep the vibrant power of the teachings within their care for a future time, when they might be rediscovered. The blessings of the dakinis are said to be their “warm breath” (trölung), fresh, immediate, personal as a whisper.

The feminine imagery is also associated with realization itself, as we saw in the earlier passage from the Hevajra-tantra. The Buddha’s enlightenment is described as his union with the indestructible lady, the unconditioned wisdom or intrinsic awareness at the heart of experience. The Vajra Lady (vajrayoshana) is the embodied and dynamic dakini of nondual awareness in Tantric language, a vivid and dynamic experience of the enlightened inherent potential, esoterically referred to as a womb or vulva (bhaga), the source of spiritual vitality of all beings. Having awakened in this way, the Buddha enjoyed himself enormously, and in this enjoyment he rejected nothing of human experience—for that is the meaning of complete enlightenment.

Immediately after his enlightenment, the Buddha dwelt in bliss for many weeks, convinced that it was impossible to communicate this experience to others. Compassionately, he decided to teach, and he did so in an ever-evolving series of refined methods, concerned that his students would mistake the words for their meaning. In his most subtle communication, he communicated directly, mind-to-mind, and then symbolically, through gesture and esoteric language. The Tibetan tradition cherishes Vajrayana language as the evocative, fresh, and intuitive expression of a living oral transmission traced back to the Buddha.