So where’s the sorcery in the tantric practices?
This is something that we often hear, with Lama Sherab. And something that still keeps astonishing us. I mean, we keep teaching tummo, liberation rituals, dream yoga, etc… how is that not sorcery?
But we should not be. There’s this problem.
The definition of sorcery itself.
So, let’s try to approach it from two sides: from the western-influenced side and from the tantras themselves.
Sorcery, or magic (you can add a ‘k’ if you’d like) is, of course, very important to western styles of occultism. It can have a lot of definitions, from the Fraserian or Freudian (that regard it as a neurotic misapprehension of nature) to the Crowleyian (“the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”, just replace Will with desire) to the modern anthropological ones in, say, Tambiah, which identify magic with values of education as an object of education in protestant authors, like Tylor. We’ll come back to this later.
But for the moment, let’s try to bring a simple definition, based on Crowley, whose influence has been enormous. If magic(k) is a science and an art of causing changes according to your desire, usually it we can see it as a general thing. While the practitioner does not easily understand the desire (Will), any change will not be magic(k). But if he or she does, any change (say, a diet) is a magic(k)al operation.
In that milieu, we can define sorcery as a sub-set of magic(k)al operations, which use a particular spell to effect the change, i.e. a ritual with some symbolic resonance. Thus, while if your genuine desire is to be more attractive and you commit to a diet , it can be seen as a magic(k)al act, a spell with candles which produces it will be the sorcerous route. You probably will have to diet, though, but the spell provides the impetus of the working.
So let’s go back to our anthropological discussion. The problem for us Buddhists here is that this reveals an underlying issue: that magic(k) is a kind of hack, something that lies outside the natural order of things. Almost like a different force, something that transcends the limits of nature. There’s a lot of history in the worship of saints for magic spells, and this is because the saint provides a link for the power of, say, the Christian deity.
The Christians hold their god to be transcendent, usually it is not part of the natural laws. Thus, by invoking the Christian god, the sorcerer can sidestep the usual limitations of the human condition. There’s plenty of grimoires where the binding of spirits is done in the deity's name, borrowing its authority and the power to bind and compel the spirit. In tantra, there are even similar operations.
But there’s a crucial distinction.
There’s no transcendent being in Buddhism.
The Devas (deities) are all subjected to the same laws as Samsara that humans. There is no hack, no force coming outside of reality.
So what’s the power behind the Buddhist sorcery?
A better understanding of reality itself.
Buddhist sorcery does not break reality. It uses the same reality, in increasingly skilful ways, to bring about change. It uses wisdom, interdependence, nonattachment, all the usual Buddhist virtues to change Samsara.
So, in order to work Buddhist sorcery, one does not seek to hack reality, but to refine one’s understanding of it.
The result is that, in Buddhist terms, there are no miracles. There’s just skilful or unskilful acts. Sure, maybe someone can produce an effect through lighting an offering to a Buddha or Bodhisattva, but it depends on the meditation and devotion of the person and the karmic link forged between them and the figure they petition to. There’s no power living itself in the magic words.
That’s why this idea of true names, or naming something to control it, doesn’t really apply to Buddhism. Because the idea of the true naming of something regards an ultimate authority, a transcendent god who names things. Thing have power in connection: to a Guru, to a lineage, but not by themselves.
That’s the first hurdle, the switch between a monotheistic view of magic and a Buddhist one. But now, let’s see what the tantras say.
The view of the tantras
Now, this would be easier if I could just find A single view. But the tantras don’t have one. They have several.
The reason for this is that different people have different needs. So, a lot of tantras exist. In those tantras, you can find things we could call sorcery like divinations, rituals for rain, binding of spirits, etc. But not all tantras are the same.
Some tantras have this idea of the deity almost like an external being. Never quite there, but almost. They have rituals where you purify yourself, where you fast and wash, where you draw mandalas in cow dung and create effigies. They usually categorize these tantras on the Kriya, Ubhaya/Carya levels.
Other tantras treat you indivisible from the deity and are more focused on rituals that we would call yogic, dealing with the cakras, with dream yoga and so on. These are usually called Yoga, Mahayoga or Anuttaratantrayoga. They do not have as many rituals for sorcery but they have a lot of rituals to understand the nature of reality faster.
Remember what we said earlier: Buddhist sorcery is predicated in the understanding of reality. Since these last tantras tend to focus on getting an experiential understanding faster, they do not need to include all the spells and rituals that the other tantra group has.
Let’s say that you need a ritual done to increase knowledge: you could use one verbatim from the first group of tantras or, with the later tantras, you could learn one from a teacher with dream yoga and do it in the same dream.
So people who want to learn sorcery right now could focus on the first group of tantras while those who are more concerned with liberation right now would use the second and, as a side benefit, will learn how to do sorcery in a free-form way later on, by relying on their experiential understanding of reality.
This sounds great, but there’s a problem, a problem that comes from the time of Buton Rimpoche, on the 14th century C.E. He noted that, since those tantras that deal with enlightenment now are held to be higher and more complex, people wanted the higher teachings despite not even having the time or inclination to put them in practice.
This is strange, being that in most sadhanas there is a full set of sorcery than can be worked on, regardless of the level of it. So, people were signing up for complex mandalas, with a focus on liberation and ignoring the sorcery-oriented works they had… and then either not practicing them or trying to use the higher teachings immediately.
This you can see right now, centuries after Buton described it. People who do not consider themselves Buddhist but occultist with an interest in sorcery will jump to take tummo or dream yoga workshops, which will not give them the result they want. They don’t put the effort in visualizing and remembering the generation stage of higher tantras but want to use tummo with candle spells.
You can’t light a candle with inner heat.
Their time would be a lot better spent learning the lower tantras, which usually have straightforward spells like: to bind the nagas in your area in order to harass someone, do X on a tablet made of bark Y and chant this mantra Z times.
So, what are we doing about this?
This is how we focus on solving this issue:
We are focusing all the Path levels on basic understanding of the Four Seals and interdependence. This will help you bridge the gap between a monotheistic view of magic and a Buddhist one.
We are also delimiting the P-2 and P-3 around this distinction. P-1 is the intro, P-2 is the sorcery level. Here you will learn how to do all the tantrakarman (ritual actions) within a sadhana. P-3 is the enlightenment level. Here you will learn the completion stage of the higher tantras to further the understanding of reality. This should help with the different tantra levels.
So, if you’re mainly interested in spells and ready-made sorcery, you can stop at P-2 level (once we finish the main curricula there, we will have further teachings on that level). But it is my hope that you will take P-3 in the future, to truly understand interdependence and how magic is produced in a Buddhist context.
Hope this helps and please contact me with any questions!