The Definition of the Word Tantra
Buddha’s teachings include both sutras and tantras. The sutras present the basic themes of practice for gaining liberation from uncontrollably recurring problems (Skt. samsara) and, beyond that, to reach the enlightened state of a Buddha, with the ability to help others as much as is possible. The themes include methods for developing ethical self-discipline, concentration, love, compassion, and a correct understanding of how things actually exist. The tantras present advanced practices based on the sutras. The Sanskrit word tantra means the warp of a loom or the strands of a braid. Like the strings of a warp, the tantra practices serve as a structure for intertwining the sutra themes to weave a tapestry of enlightenment. Moreover, tantra combines physical, verbal, and mental expressions of each practice, which braid together creating a holistic path of development. Because one cannot integrate and practice simultaneously all the sutra themes without previously training in each individually, tantra practice is extremely advanced. The root of the word tantra means to stretch or to continue without a break. Emphasizing this connotation, the Tibetan scholars translated the term as gyu (rgyud), which means an unbroken continuity. Here, the reference is to continuity over time, as in a succession of moments of a movie, rather than to continuity through space, as in a succession of segments of pavement. Moreover, the successions discussed in tantra resemble eternal movies: they have neither beginnings nor ends. Two movies are never the same, and even two copies of the identical movie can never be the same roll of film. Similarly, everlasting successions always maintain their individualists. Furthermore, the frames of movies play one at a time, with everything changing from frame to frame. In the same manner, moments in everlasting successions are ephemeral, with only one moment occurring at a time and without anything solid enduring throughout the successions.
Mental Continuums as Tantras
The most outstanding example of an everlasting succession is the mental continuum (mind-stream), the everlasting succession of moments of an individual mind. Mind, in Buddhism, refers to an individual, subjective, mere experiencing of something and not to a physical or immaterial object that either does the experiencing or is the tool someone uses to experience things. Further, a mental continuum is not a flow of experiences that accumulate such that one person has more experience than does another. A mental continuum comprises simply an unbroken succession of moments of mental functioning – the mere experiencing of things. The things experienced include sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts, sleep, and even death. Mere implies that the experiencing of them need not be deliberate, emotionally moving, or even conscious. Further, the experiencing of something is always individual and subjective. Two people may experience seeing the same movie, but their experiencing of it would not be the same – onemay like it; the other may not. How they experience the movie depends on many interrelated factors, such as their moods, their health, their companions, and even their seats. Individual beings are those with mental continuums. Each moment of their existence, they experience something. They act with intention – even if not conceptually planned – and subjectively experience the immediate and long-term effects of what they do. Thus, the mental continuums of individual beings – their experiencing of things – changes from moment to moment, as do they, and their mental continuums go on from one lifetime to the next, with neither a beginning nor an end. Buddhism accepts as fact not only that mental continuums last eternally, but also that they lack absolute starts, whether from the work of a creator, from matter/energy, or from nothing. Individual beings, and thus mental continuums, interact with one another, but remain distinct, even in Buddhahood. Although Shakyamuni Buddha and Maitreya Buddha are equivalent in their attainments of enlightenment, they are not the same person. Each has unique connections with different beings, which accounts for the fact that some individuals can meet and benefit from a particular Buddha and not from another. Movies maintain their individualities without requiring or containing innate fixed markers, such as their titles, ever-present as part of each moment, giving the films individual identities solely by their own powers. Movies sustain individual identities by depending merely on interwoven changing factors, such as a sensible sequencing of frames. Likewise, everlasting mental continuums go on without innate fixed markers, such as souls, selves, or personalities, that remain unaffected and unchanging during one lifetime and from one lifetime to the next and which, by their own powers, give them individual identities. To sustain their individual identities, mental continuums depend merely on interwoven changing factors, such as sensible sequences of experiencing things according to principles of behavioral cause and effect (Skt. karma). Even on a more general level, mental continuums lack inherently fixed identities such as human, mosquito, male, or female. Depending on their actions, individual beings appear in different forms in each lifetime – sometimes with more suffering and problems, sometimes with less.