Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra – a glimpse

by Jim Fraser

Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra – a glimpse into the higher yoga

By mutual esteem and friendship an invitation was extended by Swami Veda to Professor Bettina Bäumer to deliver a ten day course on the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama.  Professor Bäumer is a renowned Sanskrit scholar and disciple of the last master in the tradition of Kashmir Śaivism, Swami Lakshman Joo.  The scene was thus set in October 2014 for an authoritative introduction to a Tantra which reads preposterously to the ignorant and is prized by those looking for clarity and depth in meditation.

The course was in effect a continuation of the Śiva Sūtras course with Swami Veda in 2010.  During that course Swami Veda introduced Professor Bäumer who came to visit one day.  Perhaps it was then that the original arrangement was discussed.  This is perhaps further confirmed by the preparatory reading list which recommended Swami Veda’s recordings of Meditations from the Tantras, his recordings of the Śiva Sūtras course, his recent book Kundalini Stilled or Stirred together with recommended readings of Swami Rama mentioned in the Kundalini book.  A remark was added to the list suggesting that ‘if you start studying now, you may complete the prerequisites in the right time.’  That was seven months before the course.

In the Śiva Sūtras course Swami Veda emphasised the practicality of meditation.  The study should not be academic or a philosophical game but a serious spiritual practice.  Swami returned again and again to this theme.  The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra is a meditative tool more so than the Śiva Sūtras so it is the perfect continuation.

The course began with Professor Bäumer explaining how the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra has come down to us.  It was first published in 1918 in the Kashmir Series of Texts and Studies from a birch bark manuscript.  There have been subsequent French and English translations.  The recommended text consisted of a translation of the text by Professor Bäumer with a commentary by Swami Lakshman Joo edited from a recording.

Professor Bäumer suggested that the motive for attending was in itself an indication of Śakti Pāta.  In this way Professor Bäumer appealed to the wider teaching of the guru mind which is fundamental to the teaching of HYT.  So right after a discussion of sources the mind is opened to the highest expectations.  Indeed the Tantra is part of the highest exposition of non-dual yoga whereby Vedanta, Yoga and Sānkhya are understood to hold philosophical positions inferior to the light of para that can be shed by the realisation of Śiva through Śakti.

There are two key terms, prakāśa and vimarśa: the pure light of consciousness identified with Śiva and self-awareness of consciousness identified with Śakti.  The purpose of the Tantra is to explain how these two aspects are actually one.  The light of consciousness and self-awareness are not distinct, if they were then there would be dualism and not completeness.

The Tantra opens with a plea by Devī to Śiva to explain the true nature of Bhairava.  She cites several aspects of the teaching of the Trika school which puzzle her. What really consists of the energies of the collections of letters?  How do they reside in the nine-fold division of the mantras?  How does ascent of the mantra become an obstruction?  What is the nature of the Energy of the vowel-less mantra within the movement of the cakras?  And so on.   Śiva explains that the practices she mentions are all composite and thus cannot reach to non-duality which is the true state of Bhairava.  ‘All this is but a phantom for frightening children, or a sweet given by the mother to attract the child.  These descriptions are only meant of the spiritual advancement of the unenlightened.’ (Verse 13)    Śiva explains further: ‘This state of Bhairava … is the supreme state, which is known as the highest Goddess in transcendental form.’ (Verse 17)  And: ‘Just as the parts of space are known by the light of a lamp or the rays of the sun, in the same way, O Dear one, Śiva is known through Śakti.’ (Verse 21)  This is the prakāśa of Śiva and the vimarśa of Śakti.  In Verse 24 Śiva starts to explain the practices. They consist essentially of raising and directing the energy of Śakti so to arrive at a fuller state of consciousness.  Śakti may be asking her dearest Śiva for the answers to her questions not recognising that she is the very agent of that knowledge.  In the very last verse (163) Devī embraces Śiva thus poetically attaining completion, through herself Śakti comes to be complete with Śiva and Śiva with Śakti.

Each day four and a quarter hours were set by for meditation to bring peace and to give time to attempt the practices. The practices are usually called dhāranās by translators though the Tantra does not use that term.  The Tantra calls them ‘undistracted instructions – nistaraňga upadeśa,’ which lead the mind to an undistracted state.  So by practising these it is possible, with the proper guidance, to develop a subjective dimension of consciousness which countermands the habit and presumption of objectivity which characterises worldly knowledge and experience.  The time spent in meditation gave time for reflection as well as practice.  In discussions with other students it was clear that the course inspired open thinking.  So along with the raising of Śakti there were interesting thoughts.  Verse 124 invites thoughts of Robbie Burns, ‘The reality of Bhairava is present everywhere, even in the common people.’ So the poetic universality of Burns:

Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense an Worth o’er a’ the earth,
Thall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For ‘a that and a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That man to man the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Verse 99 controverts the thrust of Western philosophy since Descartes: ‘All knowledge is without a cause, without a support and deceptive.’  In Descartes’ Fifth Meditation we read: ‘And thus I recognise very clearly that the certainty and truth of all knowledge depends on the sole knowledge of the true God…’  Descartes makes the argument that certain knowledge of the world and thought of the world depends on the certainty of God’s existence.  The poet of the Tantra states that Śiva would do no such thing.  Thus we find two ways of thinking about the nature of knowledge and existence, each to its own side of the globe

We talk of the common ground between yoga and quantum physics as if somehow a new thought may appear to join the two sides of the globe.  There is nothing new here.  Each development in cosmology has had a parallel in the art, culture and philosophy which lies within its cosmic perspective.  Life and art seemed simpler within the dogmatic worldview of Aristotle than in the more individualistic and materialistic worldview in tune with Newtonian thought.  Now in the West we cannot think out rationally what has been created rationally so the West looks East.  Already Western culture has appropriated yoga as a means to interpret advances in the sciences as these play out in western culture.  But all this is just but froth.  The dreams of buddhi beguiled by its own sattvic propensities.  In meditation these thoughts need to be put aside, or else we continue to dream and have the audacity to claim we are in touch with reality.

In the commentary to Verse 146 Swami Lakshman Joo states that ‘Meditation means when your intellectual awareness becomes one-pointed and attached to formlessness.  Not only formlessness but supportlessness.’  Then you are in centre of awareness.  The subtitle of the recommended book ‘the practice of centring awareness,’ sums up the practices – steadiness of consciousness without limit.  The ‘centre’ refers to the non-dual philosophical realisation whereby the ‘centre’ is everywhere and nowhere. It is not centring on an object or the body or the intellect but transcendent of these.  In Verse 61 we read: ‘Meditating on the knowledge of two things or states one should rest in the middle.  By abandoning both simultaneously, the Reality shines forth in the centre.’  Any two objects to hand can be concentrated on until you learn to find the supporting awareness which is the true support of these objects.  Then enter into that awareness and you are in the ‘centre’, which is the state transcendent of the actual objects employed. Then learn to consolidate this awareness.           

So how do the practices work? 

Basically there are three levels of practice: ānavopāya, śāktopāya, śāmbhavopāya.  These three levels correspond to the levels of practice and awareness in Trika philosophy, aparā, para-para, para.    Aparā is the most mundane state so the corresponding ānavopāya practice requires the most support.  A further correspondence links ānavopāya to the 5th of the 36 tattvas in Kashmir Śaivism, Suddha-Vidya, where the power of action, kriya, comes forth.  So in ānavopāya practice there is dependence on the physical actions of breath concentration and mantra.  The word derives from anu, individual consciousness so it is at the level of individuation (bheda) and activity (kriya).

Śāktopāya practice is on a superior level corresponding to para-para.  It is the way of energy (Śakti) and is at the level of difference in non-difference, (bhedābheda).   It corresponds to the 4th tattva, Isvara, the way of knowledge (jnāna).

Śāmbhavopāya is the foremost level of practice.  It corresponds to Sadāśiva, the 3rd tattva.  The names derive from Śambu, a name of Śiva.  It is at the level of non-difference (abheda) and of will (iccha).

The commentary to Verse 133 (‘All this universe is without reality, like a magic show for what reality is there in a magic show?  By firmly thinking in this way, one obtains peace.’)  Swami Lakshman Joo’s commentary illuminates the difference between the upāyas: ‘This is the technique of śāmbhava.  When there is nothingness it is śāmbhava.  When there is nothing, but there is some support for the time being, this is śāktopāya.  When it is supported all around up to the end, then it is ānavopāya.’

The very first practice in Verse 24 is ānavopāya as it consists of breath concentration on two points, 12 finger breadths (dvādaśānta) beyond the nostrils which the exhalation reaches and the heart together with a mantra.  The commentary states ‘You have to take the breath from the heart to dvādaśānta and take it from dvādaśānta to the heart again and recite prāna and jīva, that is hamsah.’  In this way a state of fullness is found.  Once the mind is used to the practice then the mind’s own reflexivity does become aware of expansion beyond these points.  It is simple enough to retrieve once known. 

The dhāranās are not set in any order corresponding to the levels. They are quite mixed up.

The second dhāranā: ‘Oh Bhairavī, by focusing one’s awareness on the two voids (at the end) of the internal and external breath, thereby the glorious form of Bhairava is revealed through Bhairavī.’  Because there is only the requirement of concentration and not a mantra this dhāranā is śāktopāya.  The commentary states ‘It is only awareness that functions here.’  Whereas in the first, awareness arises as a result of practice, Śāktopāya is the direct experience of Śakti.  There is an additional observation to make here.  Śiva says to Devī in Verse 13 referring to the usual yogic practices ‘All this is nothing but a phantom for frightening children…’  In the practice of this dhāranā there is no complicated meditation routine or ritual.  The practice goes direct to the power and the result is a quiet expansion.  Once realised the practice needn’t be done for hours on end, a moment can be enough to bring silence and expansion and thus the effects of the concentrations can be used to enhance daily life.

Śāmbhavopāya is supportless.  So we see in Verse 91 ‘Fix your awareness with a free mind on any support at the end of the visarga of a letter with visarga and you will be in contact with the eternal Brahman.’  Now here we find a statement which a reader may be quite flippant towards if he has not been properly introduced to the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra.  What the practice entails is stopping the utterance of a sound so its śakti or energy is not released.  There is nothing more to the practice except expansion.  The śāmbhava level cannot be easily attained and depends not just on practice but on the grace of the guru. Indeed, input from the guru is required at every level.  None of these practices should be seen as attainable without a sustaining tradition.         

The practices themselves vary: there are practices on the breath, on words uttered or not uttered, on the cakras, on the body, on voids in the body, on voids in the mind, on sounds, on music, on silence, on space, on the sky, on the point between mental or physical objects, on consciousness itself.  With more work, not just on this text but the other texts of Kashmir Śaivism, it is possible to develop a high embrace of yogic understanding. 

In the course the Tantra was taught traditionally as time would allow, each verse was chanted, the language explained and then the commentary discussed.  Prior to the mid-morning meditation we were treated to recordings of the most beautiful Kashmiri songs which flowed into meditation.  Professor Bäumer led us along carefully so that the Tantra spoke for itself in each of us. Leaving the ashram and all along the long travel back home there was an accompanying silence.  This was a credit to the power of the teaching and of the teacher.

The stay at the ashram was memorable too because it was Diwali and the entire ashram was dressed with little clay and oil lamps. The entire place sparkled with light, bright clothes and smiles.

Swami Lakshman Joo - Vijñāna Bhairava: the practice of centring awareness / commentary by Swami Lakshman Joo / verses translated from Sanskrit by Bettina Bāumer. 2nd rev ed. Varanasi: Indica Books, 2007.

Editor's note: 

The Vijñāna Bhairava study with Dr. Bettina Bäumer was recorded.  Those who attended the seminar may purchase the recordings; please write to AHYMSIN Publishers at [email protected]

Photos by Manuel Tama, Sadhana Magazine`s photographer.  



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