The Radiance Sutras
a version of the vijnana bhairava tantra
by Lorin Roche
One day The Goddess sang to her lover Bhairava,
Beloved and radiant Lord of the space before birth,
Revealer of essence,
Slayer of the ignorance that binds us,
You, who in play have created this universe
and permeated all forms in it with never-ending truth.
I have been wondering . . .
I have been listening to the songs of creation,
I have heard the sacred sutras being sung,
and yet still I am curious.
What is this delight-filled universe
into which we find ourselves born?
. . .
The One Who is Intimate to All Beings replied,
Beloved, your questions require the answers that come
through direct living experience.
The way of experience begins with a breath
such as the breath you are breathing now.
Awakening into the luminous reality
may dawn in the momentary throb
between any two breaths.
The breath flows in and just before it turns
to flow out,
there is a flash of pure joy -
life is renewed.
Awaken into that.
As the breath is released and flows out,
there is a pulse as it turns to flow in.
In that turn, you are empty.
Enter that emptiness as the source of all life.
This little book is the Bhairava Tantra, one of the early teachings on meditation. The name, loosely translated, means “The terror and joy of realizing oneness with the Soul.” It is said to date back to the second millennium B.C. For most of that time, it was purely in the oral tradition, meaning that it was chanted and memorized. I say it is little because it is only about two thousand words in the original Sanskrit, less than half an hour of chanting. What is astonishing is that in so few words it describes the essence of many of the world's meditation techniques. I call it The Radiant Sutras because it is so luminous.
A tantra is not poetry, although it may sound that way in the original and in translation. A tantra is a manual of practices. This is what a how-to book looked like several thousand years ago - at least in one of the meditation traditions. It is a book of meditation instructions, set as a conversation between lovers.
The text feels as though it was composed by a couple, a man and a woman who sang the verses to each other as they co-composed. They lived this teaching. The techniques that are described here occurred to them naturally, as an evolution of the questions they were asking of life. As was the convention of the time, they frame the conversation as the Goddess and the God in them speaking. The conversation is about how to enter into the vibrant essence of the world with the dual balance of passion and detachment.
An early English translation of this tantra came into my hands about thirty years ago, and I have worked with the methods every day since then. It has been a love affair, and I am blessed. One day several years ago I started to write an English version and it evolved into this book.
The Bhairava Tantra is a conversation between The Goddess Who is the Creative Power of the Universe, and the God who is the Consciousness That Permeates Everywhere. For short, they call each other Devi and Bhairava, or Shakti and Shiva. They are lovers and inseparable partners, and one of their favorite places of dwelling is in the human heart.
The teaching emerges from their love-play, reminding us that we are educated from within our own hearts in the spirit of love. The secrets of how to meditate are revealed as one friend or lover would to another. What Devi and Bhairava sing to each other in this conversation are called sutras, and every sutra is an invitation to freshly appreciate what it is to be alive, to breathe, to exist and express and feel.
The conversation begins with the Goddess asking, “Beloved, tell me, how do I enter more deeply into the reality of the universe?” In reply Bhairava describes one hundred and twelve techniques for awakening into reality through everyday life experience. Each of these is a way of attending to the rhythms, pulsations and sensuousness of the divine energy flowing through us always - and out of which we are made.
Through these techniques, we are alerted to the presence of the sacred that is always permeating our bodies. All of these methods involve savoring the incredible intensity underlying the most common experiences and they work by activating the senses, extending their range further into the inner and the outer world. The basic dynamics of life such as breathing, falling asleep, waking up, walking, loving, all of these are used as gateways into alignment and enlightenment.
Each meditation is a dive deeper into life, into the underlying reality of what life is. Balance is there at every step: the unshakable serenity of the depths is used as a foundation so that we can tolerate the electrifying vastness of the universe. We are invited to cross the threshold, walk through the guardians of the gateway, face the terrors and make our way into the immense and timeless depths that are always calling us.
Many of these meditations are surprisingly informal: notice a moment of powerful emotion, or hunger, or desire, and enter into the awareness of that with total abandon, so that you go with it right into the root of the movement of the universe. When making love, put your awareness into the flame of desire flowing through the body, and become that flame. When falling asleep, pay attention to the transition from waking consciousness to unconsciousness, and catch a glimpse of what consciousness is in itself. Or go outside on a moonless night and be there for a long time, simply merging with the darkness and vastness of space. The text also describes what we think of as traditional sit-down meditation techniques, ways of savoring breath, sound and internal luminosity. The informality and intimacy with the self implied in this teaching means that meditation is not a technique imposed from outside. Rather, the techniques emerge naturally from one's relationship with the Self and with Life.
Taken as a whole, this teaching is startling in its breadth, in the huge range of human experience that it encompasses. It shatters the picture we have of what meditation is, or how meditation teachers too often present it - as a way of dissociating from the human experience and trying to rise above it. There is not a hint of the usual life-denial which permeates and distorts spirituality East and West. This tantra is about going deeply into experience, embracing it fully, without reservation. Nature is embraced as is all of human nature. Lust and passion become fires that illumine, and gusto is taken to its most refined degree possible. Meditation is presented as the nexus or meeting ground of light and matter, spirit and flesh, and the meeting is to be consummated with great joy.
You'll find here in one place many of the essential techniques that are utilized in the meditation traditions of the different cultures. If some of the experiences the sutras describe seem familiar to you as you read this book, it may be because you tend to invent your own private meditation techniques (that you probably never tell anyone). Or you may have had inexplicable realizations in the midst of some life experience. I am pretty much continually astonished at how frequently people who come for instruction in meditation already have one or more of these techniques going on spontaneously. It seems to me that it is an awakening-in-progress that gives a person the desire to study meditation. Sutras like these are there to remind us of what we already know. And they are there to remind us to go more deeply into the experience of being human.
It is likely that the same meditation techniques are invented or discovered independently around the world in different cultures, whenever people start paying attention to the subtle energies of the body. If this is true, then the Bhairava Tantra (its full name is vijnanabhairavatantra) is a syllabus of the types of techniques that could be discovered anywhere. The hundred and twelve techniques that are presented are those that are used all over the world in many different traditions. This text is part of the ancient Tantras, although how ancient that is we cannot say exactly. It was handed down through the oral tradition, which means that it was memorized and chanted for hundreds of generations.
The word tantra has interesting resonances. Its usage here is “the teaching,” and is from the Sanskrit tantram, meaning “loom.” There is the image of stretching threads in patterns across the framework of a loom - a tapestry of knowledge. The Indo-European root of the tan in tantram is ten- , to stretch. Thus tantra comes from the same root that gives English the words “attention,” “tender,” “intend,” “entertain,” “intensity,” and “tendon.” Tantra is to stretch ourselves, to extend our capacity for attention to the utmost. Tantra is also the pattern of interconnectedness that we discover when we do so.
The tra of tantra means “technique.” The same root shows up in mantra (manas=mind, + tra=skill, thus, “a tool of thought”). Each verse of a tantra is called a sutra, (there's tra again) which means “thread,” and is cognate with the English “suture,” the thread that joins together. So we are presented with images of skillfully weaving together all the elements of life - mind, body, emotions, breath, soul, individuality and infinity into one tapestry.
This a book to savor one phrase at a time, over a period of days or years or a lifetime. Each of the meditations is meant to be experienced many times under many different conditions. The language of the sutras is very brief, meant to be read over and over. Experiment with reading them out loud to yourself or to another person.
Meditation is about taking one thing and going deeper and deeper into it. Ask your body to teach you and to lead you into the realm of these experiences. If you ask, life will lead you for these are all sensory experiences, and all have to do with how life maintains life. Breath is, after all, something that we do thousands of times a day. Meditation invites us into a deeper relationship with breath, with the pulsing of our hearts and emotions. Meditation is taking a wondering, appreciative attitude toward sensing rather than taking it for granted. This manner of inquiry - wondering, posing questions to life, is an essential aspect of meditation. The attitude that this tantra advocates is simple - a completely undefended looking at and feeling into the essential activities of life: joy, sorrow, breathing, loving, walking, dancing, sleeping, exploring. Meditation is diving into your entire sensorium so fearlessly that you go beyond it into the core of your being and rest there.
Everyone has a different style of approaching meditation. Find yours as you go along. Take time also to think about your childhood quiet times, your forts and secret places. People are continually telling me “Ah, I used to do this as a child, I would lie on my back and look at the sky and just let my mind go blank.” Children and adults remembering their childhoods have told me almost every approach to meditation presented in this book.
The first few sutras and one in the middle kept me busy for a year. Your pace may be faster or slower. My recommendation to you is to learn the sutras that you are interested in by heart so that you have them always available. It might take you fifteen minutes to memorize one of these sutras. Then you will experience what it means to know it by heart - something happens in the body when you can say a sutra out loud or to yourself. There is a relaxation, an ease and confidence that comes from knowing it.
The sutras tend to lay the groundwork for each other, but there is no rule that you have to go through them in sequence. Some of the techniques will speak to you now and others will only have meaning after you have explored for awhile. Another way would be to pick one now, whatever strikes you, and practice it for three months. Give it time to work. Then read the book again and see if it is time to move on or to include another technique in addition to the one that you have been doing. The text says that if you go deeply into even one of these ways of experience, making it your own over time, you will awaken.
on to the sutras . . .