What Does The Term Tantra Mean & How Can We Begin To Understand It?

A student writes:

I find myself recognising that I don’t understand the use of Tantras as a term…

Lama Shenpen Responds:

Tantra is much talked about in Tibetan Buddhism but is notoriously difficult to define.  Lots of things are said about it but when you look at what is called tantra in practice – well it doesn’t conform to what is said about it. No wonder people are confused!

For example it is supposed to be secret but it is given in public, it is said to be for those with special qualities but anyone who walks in the door is told they are now practisng tantra, it is supposed to involve a close spiritual relationship between student and teacher but people are told they are practising tantra without any such contact and the list goes on.

The term is in danger of being rendered meaningless.  Many of the ways it is defined do not define it at all – the same definition could be applied to the Mahayana and even the Pali suttas.


I hear the term secret instructions and I think I have some understanding of upadesha*, as special instructions, pointing out, where the one to one relationship between teacher and student is essential…

Lama Shenpen:

Yes and in Tantra (also referred to as Vajrayana) special practices are involved where it is essential to have instruction from an experienced teacher.  Also some practices are transgressional of convention (especially of Indian conventions around purity and so on) so they had to be practised in secret.  And ultimately they are self secret because if you haven’t got to the right level of experience and realisation you cannot understand them anyway.


…And that student-teacher relationship is necessary in order for the teacher to establish if the student is touching on some connection with Buddhajnana**, however fleeting?  And does some form of transmission sometimes take place in these meetings?

Lama Shenpen:

Yes – and these Mahamudra pointing out the nature of mind ‘meetings’ or encounters with teachers would be classified and defined in the same way as ‘secret teachings’ in Tantra/ Vajrayana


A lot is said about the secret aspect of tantra, and yet how it is possible to access some of these teachings in the modern age?

Lama Shenpen:

Good question.  Lots of people out there ‘advertise’ that they are giving secret tantric teachings – which is kind of ironical isn’t it? Yet if the genuine ones do not advertise then it’s a wonder that anyone finds them – but maybe that is the point – if the suitable students and genuine teachers are around in the world they will meet through the auspicious connections made in past lives – tendrel…..that is why the principles of tendrel and samaya are so important.


But without the right setting or instruction then their real meaning is not passed on, and there is the possibility of some misunderstanding.  Is this setting what is meant by empowerment/abhisheka?

Lama Shenpen:

Yes – in a way it is – if the setting is right the abhisheka will happen and it doesn’t have to have a particular form but then again formal abhishekas have very particular and elaborate forms and that is important too.


I am unclear if tantric teachings refer to specific practices – I find a kind of special mystery being alluded to here. And at this point I get confused about what tantric practices are – perhaps the word exotic might be more suitable?

Lama Shenpen:

A lot of what is referred to as tantric is not connected to specific practices but actually there are many, many specific practices that are classified as tantric – even though we are often given them without our committing ourselves or even understanding what tantra is.

I think in many people’s mind tantra sounds exotic. Partly because it uses sexual imagery and has practices relating to sexual union and partly because its associated with magic.  Many tantric practices involve ritual magic.


I so far have not been drawn to the sadhana practices, and wonder how much these other (if there are other) practices are all in the same area of an approach to practice.

Lama Shenpen:

Mostly they connect to sadhana  practice and the various elements that sadhana practice involves – but then go on to specific yogic practices working with the subtle energies of the body.  The foundation for all of it though is what you are learning in the Living the Awakened Heart training – and there is enough there for the rest of our lives – it is vital to really prepare the ground well for tantric practice and that is what LAH does.


What are tantric practices and how necessary are they?

Lama Shenpen:

Certain Tantric practices can speed up your path and some can go so badly wrong you end up in the lower realms for eons. So the most important thing is to prepare the ground well and that is what you are doing.  The speed only happens when the student is ready and has the right kind of faith and connection. So let’s trust pranidhanas, samaya and tendrel – there is no need to worry that you are missing out on something vital. With the right tendrel when the vital thing is needed it will manifest.


I think may questions may all look a bit jumbled – I find all of this rather confusing!

Lama Shenpen:

Your question is not jumbled – what you are asking about is jumbled and confusing – so well done you to be able to formulate clear questions about it! I hope this helps.


*Upadesha (Sanskrit, Tib.  mengak), meaning special oral instruction.  Upadesha refers to oral meditation instructions particularly those associated with linking into the true nature of Reality, that are given live to the student based on the experience and realisation of the teacher.  This contrasts with teachings that are given by rote or from texts.  

**Buddhajnana – Buddhajnana is the non-dual ultimate nature of Reality as realised by the Buddhas.

Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Heart Training is a structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training

If you would like to make an offering in appreciation of Lama Shenpen’s teaching and wish to support her activity, please do so here.

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