The Power of Buddhist Tantra

Gaylon Ferguson on how tantric view and practice help us turn confusion into clarity and wisdom.

By Gaylon Ferguson

“Chromatic Resonator III,” (detail) 2012. Painting by Jeffrey Simmons. Watercolor on paper, 15×10″. Private collection Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery, Inc.

Ancient stories tell of a wise king asking Buddha Shakyamuni for dharma teachings and practices that do not require renouncing the world: “I cannot leave my family and royal responsibilities to become a monastic practitioner. Is there another path to liberation for someone like myself?”

According to legend, the compassionate Buddha responded by teaching the famous Kalachakra Tantra, evoking a complex, colorful symbolic mandala transmitting enlightenment itself. Returning home, the monarch led an awakened life in the world. This story shows us the transformative power of tantric Buddhist teachings for complete awakening in any situation.

What is the source of this renowned spiritual power? How is it possible to attain liberation from confused and confusing entanglements while actively engaging everyday life? Tantric Buddhist practice often involves reciting mantras, visualizing deities, while performing ritual gestures in elaborate ceremonies. Are these esoteric techniques the basis of tantra’s potency? Is there some magical efficacy in simply engaging these sacred activities?

Some teachers suggest that it’s not the actions themselves but our genuine devotion and faith that are truly transformative. We see things not as they are but as we are. If we cleanse the doors of perception, we can see what is otherwise hidden.

The Power of Tantric View

Many teachers suggest that the diverse skillful means tantra comprises are only powerful because of the potent understanding that comes with the tantric view. Without it, all our gestures and recitations are incomplete. Practicing without such insight is ultimately empty of meaning, like reading aloud words written in a language one doesn’t understand. In order to move toward a felt sense of its transformative power, we need to contemplate the inner perspective of the tantric approach.

Words from a classic, tenth-century Sanskrit text, the Hevajra Tantra, lead us in:

“The things that bind us can actually be the source of liberation.” In Traleg Kyabgon’s helpful commentary: “The very things that afflict and torment us can be the source of our emancipation. Although strong emotions have the unmistakable and harmful effect of clouding our judgment and compelling us to act irrationally, …tantric practitioners can transform the very emotions that harm us into transcendental wisdoms that can free us.”

Such transformation is possible because of the innate nature of all our emotions. The view of tantra is that everything everywhere is—already—wakefulness itself. From this deeper perspective, what we ordinarily call “desire,” “anger,” “pride,” and “jealousy” are all temporarily confused forms of natural wakefulness. Tantra is based on strong confidence that confusion can dawn as wisdom. As the Indian tantric teacher Tilopa explained in an instruction-song of realization (doha), conflicting emotions liberate themselves “like a snake uncoiling itself.”

Basically, the view of tantra is all-pervading sacredness. Whatever we see, hear, taste, touch, or think is, in its essence, unconditionally free of concepts and projections. This complete freedom is without beginning or end, it does not arise or decay, so it is called vajra, meaning indestructible suchness. Vajrayana—the “indestructible vehicle” carrying us all to enlightenment—is another name for the path of Buddhist tantra.

Vajrayana view has been expressed through the arts of painting, sculpture, dance, and poetry. Spanish poet Garcia Lorca wrote: “Verde, te quiero verde.” “Green, I love you green.” The leaf that we see, the eye that sees, and this seeing itself are all vividly as they are, beyond all names and concepts. “Seeing is forgetting the name of what one sees.” This fresh, direct experience of ourselves and others, all beings, animate and inanimate, is called “sacred outlook” (tag nang, literally, “pure perception”). The view of sacred outlook sees a sacred world. This is the heart-essence of tantra and a source of its great power.

Pure perception is introduced experientially by a qualified Vajrayana teacher to committed tantric practitioners through direct transmission of what are called “pointing-out instructions” introducing practitioners to the true nature of mind,” and then again in a ceremony of empowerment called abhisheka. Here there is a genuine “meeting of minds” of students and teachers with the same essential nature, like water being poured into water. The power of tantra arises through its skillful tapping into the richness of our true nature, unleashing the temporarily restricted flow.

Tantric Images of Powerful Great Beings

Is this a merely theoretical or philosophical possibility? Are there any historical examples of beings who fully actualized this innate potential?

We have images and stories of awakened students of the Buddha who became elders and arhats in the early monastic communities. We also have many representations of great bodhisattvas—compassionate figures who embodied the generosity of the Mahayana way of life. Similarly, examples of realized ones from the tantric tradition appear in magical stories of the enlightened activities of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. A siddha is a person who has attained powers called siddhi. Sometimes these are supernatural abilities like flying through the air or walking on water, but the greatest power is complete realization or enlightenment. These stories of famous “great siddhas” (mahasiddha) show women and men from various backgrounds (an arrow-maker and a princess, a monk and a king) doing rigorous spiritual practice or sadhana under the guidance of tantric teachers. Their spiritual journeys culminated in realizing true nature in one lifetime and are told to us as inspiring examples of human potential: Being human, we too could awaken in this life. Our original nature is the same as these great, powerful beings who, just like us, stepped onto the path seeking liberation from confusion. The compassionate activities of these tantric saints benefited countless beings, establishing dharma lineages of transmission that continue to this day.

The Power of the Names

The diverse powers of the tantric path are suggested by its many Sanskrit names. “Tantra” means “continuity,” so the ongoing practice of tantrayana reveals the underlying presence of wisdom in all situations. Sometimes we discover sparks of this wisdom in a difficult budget meeting at work. Other times we feel the loving warmth of sharing a simple meal with family at home. Whether we are walking in a city park or standing by the ocean, gathered in movie theaters or cheering in sports arenas, wisdom is here in the continuous display of vivid sights, sounds, movement, and feelings within and around us. This wisdom-nature is here at the beginning of any activity or resting, in the middle of any engagement or retreat, at the end of our day and the end of a life. Becoming a tantric practitioner (a tantrika) means committing to the discipline of tantrayana, the path of recognizing the continuity of wisdom in all situations.

We see things not as they are but as we are. If we cleanse the doors of perception, we can see what is otherwise hidden.

This path is also called mantrayana. As Vajrayana teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche explained: “Mantra is the means or method of tantra or mantrayana.” A mantra is a syllable or utterance charged with the power of true nature. Mantric sounds are said to be onomatopoetic: Just as words from a poem in which leaves rustle evoke the actual sound of leaves moving, sacred syllables like Om and Ah and Hum carry the powerful wisdom-energies of awakened body, speech, and mind.

Tantric practitioners visualize themselves as peaceful and wrathful awakened beings, while reciting mantras and making ritual hand gestures called mudra. These are all part of the extraordinary skillful means of the tantric path. The Sanskrit word upaya means “skillful means,” so this path is also named upayayana, the vehicle of especially potent methods of liberation.

One identifies with one’s own enlightened nature by self-visualization, chanting praises and verses of offering to the brilliance of basic purity. All of this enacts sacred outlook within the confidence or “vajra pride” that awakened wisdom is our true nature. Vajra dharma reminds us: this is not pretending. We are not imagining dogs as lions; genuine Vajrayana practice realizes lions as lions already. Visualizing and reciting mantras are experience-based methods for remembering the view of vajra pride, inspiring unshakeable confidence in sacred world.

Ground, Path, Fruition Tantra

Spiritual paths, like classic stories, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The basis of the tantric journey is called the ground. The practice methods and experiences are the path. The resultant realization is the fruition. Ground tantra continues as path tantra culminating as fruition tantra. Let’s consider the power of each of these dimensions.

Ground tantra is the spacious source of everything that arises in our world, both confused and wise aspects. All phenomena are upsurges in vivid, colorful display, like the waves of a vast ocean. For an authentic practitioner of Buddhist tantra, all forms, all sounds, all thoughts and emotions are the wakeful, energetic play of sacred world.

The power of the ground is that everything, without exception, is included, beyond the narrowness of our habitual biases. This has practical implications for our practice. Since everything arises from originally wakeful nature, everything is workable. The best and worst moments of our lives, times of great inspiration, times of despair: everything can be brought to the path. Everything is the path. The real challenge is recognizing this. The essential energies of our diverse life experiences can be liberated on the spot. Our hopes and fears, neurotic upheavals and hesitant contractions can all be fuel for the flame of awakening.

This is the power of the path. It’s as though the ground rises up to meet itself, true nature recognizing true nature. In the Zen teachings of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, “it is wisdom which is seeking wisdom.” Here, ground tantra appears as a strong drive toward realizing things as they are through the unfolding of path tantra. According to these teachings of nonduality, it is tantra which realizes tantra.

Fruition tantra celebrates the inherent freedom experientially realized in walking this path. Ordinarily, a path begins in one place, and moves across space, ending in another, different place. Walking the tantric path, we discover the end is also the beginning. The word phala means fruit, so another name for this approach is phalayana, the fruition vehicle. The result is realizing the ground where we always already are.

The fruition, the path, and the original ground all have the same flavor, sometimes called “one taste.” This is not so much a path to freedom as the exploration of a path of freedom. We begin in openness, continue by discovering openness even in obstacles, and celebrate finding further openness as the path continues to unfold underneath our feet. Here the path is the goal is the ground—one continuous awakening.

Completion Stage, Mindfulness-awareness, One Yana

To complete a period of Vajrayana visualization or “creation stage” practice, one stops reciting the mantra and dissolves the felt image back into the original ground of emptiness out of which the form arose. This begins what is called the “completion stage” of practice, letting go and simply resting in original nature. Tantric texts emphasize that these two stages are, as Trungpa Rinpoche put it, “not fundamentally different.” Visualizing form-emptiness and resting in the completion stage of emptiness-emptiness “should not be seen as two things.” This is another example of tantric practice as skillful means for realizing the innate power of nonduality.

The openness meditation of this completion stage is similar to mindfulness-awareness practice, the union of resting and insight. Just as on the path of mindfulness, we are directly engaging our bodies, feelings, thoughts, and sense perceptions. In their collaborative book The Dawn of Tantra, Herbert Guenther and Chögyam Trungpa emphasized the essential continuity of diverse paths of buddhadharma. Our fixations on body, speech, and mind can be gradually released through the stages of loving-kindness (metta), mindfulness, cultivating compassion, and other liberating practices. In the resulting great space of freedom, compassionate action arises naturally in response to the needs of others. As has been said, we “care for whatever needs our care.”

Trungpa Rinpoche concludes an early chapter of this pioneering book with a surprising assertion: “Looked at in this way, the whole of the practice of Buddhism can be regarded as tantra.” Then, he adds: “although all Buddhists outside the historical tradition of tantra might not agree with this.” From this all-inclusive perspective, the potency of tantra is simply the power of wakefulness itself.

Gaylon Ferguson

Gaylon Ferguson, PhD, was core faculty in Religious and Interdisciplinary Studies for fifteen years at Naropa University. He has led mindfulness retreats since 1976 and is the author of Welcoming Beginner’s Mind (2024), Natural Wakefulness, and Natural Bravery.