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The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra with Rob Preece

Rob Preece

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Author and pyschotherapist Rob Preece shares his extensive knowledge on the sensitive topic of Buddhist tantra, the importance of the body in Buddhist practice, how exercise and nature relate to tantric practices, the role of sex in Vajrayana Buddhism, and how we embrace our different dimensions of gender in meditation and  everyday life.

Rob Preece is the author of many books bridging the Tibetan Buddhist tradition with Western psychology, including The Psychology of Buddhist TantraThe Wisdom of ImperfectionThe Courage to Feel, Preparing for TantraFeeling Wisdom, and Tasting the Essence of Tantra

As a working psychotherapist, Rob merges Jungian and Buddhist approaches to the mind with his patients. For the past 40 years, Rob has also led many meditation retreats in Europe and the United States. As a father of two sons, experienced thangka painter, and a keen gardener, he tries to ground Buddhist practice in a creative, practical lifestyle.

[00:01:31] Scott Snibbe: Rob, it’s an honor to have you on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. I’ve done retreats with you, and I was very deeply moved by your book, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra. So welcome, thanks for your time today.

[00:01:34] Rob Preece: Thank you.

What is Buddhist tantra?

person in field with open arms, buddhist tantra

[00:01:35] Scott Snibbe: We don’t talk about this topic much on this podcast because it is more of a beginner’s instruction on the earlier stages of the Buddhist path, but people are of course, very curious even about this word tantra. So to start out, I wonder if you could just explain what is Buddhist tantra?

[00:01:54] Rob Preece: Yeah, I guess one way of understanding—it’s the context of it, if you like—is that a lot of spiritual traditions or religions have within them a kind of mystical or esoteric path. In Islam and Sufi Islam, in Judaism it’s Kabbalah, and there are mystical traditions in the Christian world as well.

So we could see tantra as being the mystical, traditional, the esoteric tradition within the Buddhist world as well; it fits that sort of territory. Unfortunately, the name tantra doesn’t give us many clues as to what it’s about because you could translate the word tantra as “weave.” What does that mean?

One could see it as a weaving of practices that are threaded together, or a matrix of practices that work together. The Tibetan word is usually “gyu” which means continuity. And again, that doesn’t give us too many clues, does it? But the idea of tantra as a continuum of transmission of a process, a transmission of an experience that is being handed down or has been handed down for hundreds of years. And we connect into that lineage of transmission when we begin to practice tantra. So there is a sense in which this word “gyu” or continuity can work for us. So as I say, the name doesn’t tell us an awful lot, really.

One way of getting a sense of where tantra fits for us, within the Buddhist world, is if we consider that our constitution is made up of three aspects. Our physical body, our mind, and our emotional life could be seen as three constituent parts of our nature. And each of these we could see as being relatively disturbed or not always very healthy. But they each have the potential to be transformed and refined into their pure nature, so that our physical body can be refined, our mind can be refined and the emotional body—which is to do with the energy in our nature—the energy body, the subtle body can also be refined.

And when they are refined, they become the three bodies of a Buddha or the three kayas of a Buddha.

So we could see tantra as the Buddhist approach to transforming our body, speech, and mind into their pure nature, into their Buddha potential, into their Buddha nature.

And all the different practices that are involved in tantra are aimed at transforming these three. Does that begin to answer that question about what tantra is?

[00:04:35] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, absolutely and you talk about an energy body and I wonder for your average person—who that phrase may not make sense to them—is there a way to explain that in a way that that an ordinary person might understand and relate to?


[00:04:51] Rob Preece: Yeah, it’s not easy to point to it, but I think in many ways in the West, we’re actually much more familiar with it. We might surprise ourselves in the sense of being familiar with it. So for example, if you go to an acupuncturist, then the acupuncture process is working with the energy body, it’s dealing with the energetic nature of our nervous system.

If we do something like qigong or yoga, then they’ll often talk about chi or prana as part of what’s being moved or changed within those practices. We may be very familiar with it in a different form. In the tantric tradition it’s often called “lung” but that’s pretty much the same as prana.

And I suppose we could see this as a subtle vitality in our nervous system that is not easy to measure in the Western scientific sense. But one of the things that we start to discover is that there is a link between the body and mind and the sort of intermediary ground, which is often seen as the energy body. It’s almost like this psychosomatic link between the physical body and mind, the energy body. The way we most would be familiar with it is that it’s often called the emotional body.

One of the primary symptoms or manifestations of the energy body is our emotional life.

So when we experience strong emotions, there is an energetic component to it. If I feel fear or anger, we feel it in the body as a vibration in the body, which is very strong, and that’s connected to the energy body. So the subtlety of the energy body can be really quite refined or it can be quite gross, quite strong.

It’s where we start to recognize that we have an energetic nature. The word energy is overused, so it’s difficult to know quite what to use instead. But as I said, prana is one term for it, chi, ki, lung in Tibetan. It’s quite an important sort of central feature of tantric practice.

[00:06:59] Scott Snibbe: I looked it up the other day because I was talking to Dr. Thubten Jinpa, and we were talking about science and physics, so I actually looked up the word energy because I think people get really a little bit woo-woo when you say the word energy.

But in physics energy just means movement, it’s actually the movement.

When you look at this from other spiritual traditions, the Chinese qigong tradition, chi is the same word, energy—and if you don’t have any chi, you’re dead in a sense, it’s life—it’s the mystery of movement and life.

Is that a way to think of it?

[00:07:34] Rob Preece: Yeah, in that sense, maybe sometimes using the word vitality. It’s interesting that the metaphor that’s used for the energy body is a horse and its rider. It’s called lung-ta, where the horse is like the movement of the energy and the rider is consciousness sitting on the horse. So as one moves, the other moves.

Yeah, the movement of the energetic process and that nature affects the mind. If your energy is very aggravated, the mind is going to be busy.

[00:08:03] Scott Snibbe: As a side note, when you see the Tibetan prayer flags, they’re often the horse with the rider, that’s symbolizing the riding on the winds, right?

Tibetan prayer flag horse

[00:08:11] Rob Preece: Yeah, exactly.

[00:08:12] Scott Snibbe: I think that’s nice for people to know because sometimes, you just look at the prayer flags, but they have some very deep symbolism in there.

[00:08:20] Rob Preece: Exactly and there’s the wind blowing through the prayer flag, which is kind of blowing the energy of the wind horse here.

Psychological life interwoven with Buddhist tantra

The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra book

[00:08:42] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, so you’re a psychologist and you’re also an expert in Buddhist tantra. And you wrote this book, The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, so you’ve done a wonderful job in your life connecting these two.

Can you talk about how they relate, psychology and tantra?

[00:08:45] Rob Preece: Yeah and first of all, I’m a psychotherapist. Something that I wouldn’t want to do is to ever separate our spirituality and our psychological life. To me, they’re part of the weave, they’re interwoven, very much in relationship with each other. 

When I began to practice within the Tibetan tradition, many years ago, I tended to practice in a way that didn’t really recognize the significance of practice in relationship to my emotional and psychological life. It was as though I was doing something that was a little bit split from it, separate.

As a consequence, I don’t think I was really addressing a lot of my own psychological, emotional stuff. It meant that I could put a bit of veneer of practice and study and Buddhist understanding and all of that sort of veneer of spirituality, over the top of a psychological life that wasn’t being addressed.

And I began to feel really uncomfortable with that. It’s not that tantric practice couldn’t address it. It’s that the approach that I had—and maybe this is the approach many of us initially have in the West—didn’t bring those two things together very well. Part of my journey that I’ve been on over the last 30, 40, 50 years—I’ve been involved in this for 50 years now—has been to try and bring together those two worlds so that we don’t avoid or in some ways overlook our emotional, psychological life. But in some ways, use our practice as a means of transforming it. So really bringing those two worlds together.

I think that requires looking at the way we practice in the West slightly differently to the way the Tibetans do. I’m not a Tibetan and I think our Western emotional life, psychological life, is much more complex—and speaking personally—much more emotionally wounded, than your average Tibetan.

The environment that we grew up in is complex and it has a huge impact. So when we come into relationship with a practice, like Buddhism generally and tantric practice in particular, if it’s not meeting or touching that process in ourselves, then something’s missing. And I began to really sense that in my own practice.

Then I started to see that I needed to reorientate how I practice so that the various aspects of my own process that needed to be worked with—transformed, or however we want to describe it—were really being met. And it meant making adjustments as to how I practiced and making sure that was much more on a felt level and a more embodied level.

Because initially my practice was very much in my head and had lots of exotic, deity practices, but not really connected to my physical presence and to my emotional life in my body. So bringing it into a more embodied way of practice felt very important.

Then I think discovering sort of subtleties of how we can adjust practices to meet our own psychological needs has been a sort of journey over many years. And it’s not something that automatically happens when we meet the tantric tradition. It requires a certain amount of guidance to begin to discover how to work with that.

Accepting yourself

[00:12:15] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it really is this paradox of your potential versus your current reality. And on the earlier stages of the path, I think it’s hard enough for people just to see that potential. On the earlier stages of the path, you say that my fundamental nature is good and I have the potential to keep improving those naturally good aspects of my mind and let go of the disturbing ones, potentially toward infinity, towards complete perfection.

Then in the tantric perspective, it’s even closer, because you sometimes try to imagine what you would be like—maybe that moment is quite close—to picture yourself having those qualities already. So how do you toe that fine line of accepting what you’re going through, accepting your emotions, your current state, your current level of delusions, with the aspiration and even that vision of yourself as perfectible and potentially a perfect expression of everything good?

[00:13:14] Rob Preece: Yeah, I guess it’s here also that we have two different perspectives, even within Buddhism, in the sense that within one context of Buddhist practice, it’s a lot about if you’re assessing what is wholesome and what’s beneficial and what’s not, overcoming what is unwholesome and cultivating what is wholesome.

This path of cultivation is quite basic, isn’t it? The implication of that though is that some things in us are not acceptable and some things are; we’re splitting ourselves a bit.

With the tantric approach, nothing is unacceptable in the sense that all of what we are—whether it’s our good qualities, our struggles, our emotional difficulties—they all go into that transformational pot to cook and transform.

The reason for that is that what we’re sort of recognizing in this approach is that in essence, everything can be refined into its true nature, into its pure nature. Even a strong emotion, if we can understand how to be with it in a certain way, it begins to transform into its clear, open nature, rather than its contracted knotted, emotional nature. It actually becomes freed, so we don’t try to get rid of it.

We’re trying to recognize if I can relate to it in a different way that begins to open up and transform. So who we are is, in a way, as we need to be right now; we bring that into the transformational process and it enables the clean, clear aspects of our nature to come through, which is already there, it’s just temporarily obscured a bit.

[00:15:00] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that’s very optimistic and inspiring.

[00:15:03] Rob Preece: Maybe that optimism is important from the point of view, it means that we can do this; this is something that is possible for us. It’s not some distant future; maybe it’s something that is there in our nature right now. I think that’s very empowering actually.

Transforming anger

[00:15:18] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s a very powerful idea that we can transform even the strongest emotions. It is very attractive in this tradition that everything can be the basis for practice and growth. But could you give examples with especially strong negative emotions, like anger or fear? How do we transform those from the tantric perspective?

[00:15:39] Rob Preece: That’s the obvious question. Something like anger, we can see within a certain context of Buddhism that we don’t want to have anger around. From a tantric point of view, we’re really starting to see that anger is energy in a certain state, with a certain kind of momentum to it, or a certain engagement of a certain energy.

And that actually behind that is often something which needs to be given a channel for transformation and also to come back to what’s the root of it. So we’re seeing it when it was a symptom, rather than as a root, and a symptom where our energy has been distorted in some way and is coming out as anger.

So if we begin to backtrack on that energy, coming back to its roots, what we’ll probably start to discover is there’s something in us that hasn’t freely been expressed or been able to move through. And because it’s not been free to move through, it’s gotten into a knot and come out as anger.

I experience that personally, what I often discover is that there is something in me that either needs to be heard or I need to be able to express, to voice some kind of truth. Something in my deeper nature that needs to be allowed to find voice or find the expression. So once we can find that, in a sense, we’ve got to the root of something. That means it doesn’t need to come out as anger. I can voice it or I can express it in a different way. That’s one way of seeing it.

Another way of seeing it is that within the tantric approach, what we’re again saying is that these stronger emotional conditions, or states, are energy that’s compacted in a certain way that needs a channel for transformation. And that’s a really core principle within tantric practice, whatever the energy is that’s there, if we can find the natural channel for its movement, expression, transformation, then it gets liberated from that kind of knotted up state. And there are lots of different ways that one could do that. One could do that through physical expression. If I’ve got anger in me that’s all kind of bottled up, go for a run, get it through the body. Find a way of it through the body. 

In a sense, that’s tantric practice. There’s a principle there that’s at work in tantra, which is, can I find a natural channel to help this transform? And with a strong emotion like anger, that’s significant. With some of the other emotions, it often is about actually giving them space to be free, to move through, like pain, grief, sadness, fear, instead of contracting into them, to actually give them that free space to allow the energy to move through. And it becomes liberated, as we said.

[00:19:00] Scott Snibbe: I think it’s really beautiful what you said, because running or exercise, for many people, that’s their spirituality, yoga, running, exercise, surfing, whatever. But for you to express that as the connection to tantra, I think is very powerful and also empowering for people who find that that is their way of having spiritual practice.

surfing as spiritual practice

I’ve talked to a couple of Buddhists who are environmental activists recently. And the commonality between a couple of them was that they actually said they did not meditate much, but that their meditation was being out in the environment, being out in the world, connecting to nature.

[00:19:36] Rob Preece: I think if we took that further, when we understand how this process of our nature works, and the energetic process of it works, then a lot of our creative life is in a sense tantric practice. So it could be dance, it could be movement, it could be some creative expression.

What we’re enabling is a kind of fluidity of our whole being to be transformed through those creative processes, in a sense that’s at the heart of tantra. It doesn’t have to be some exotic, deity practice; it’s how we work with our nature in a creative way.

[00:20:13] Scott Snibbe: I’ve been reading Robert Thurman’s new book, The Wisdom of Bliss, and he renames joyful effort as creative effort. He says that’s the fundamental aspect of our expression, to find that creativity.

[00:20:25] Rob Preece: Yeah, absolutely. And the difficulty for us quite often is that we freeze it, we block it, we limit it, we restrict it. We know from a Buddhist point of view that suffering arises because of that contracted frozen state. If I can free it in a creative way, then we’re living a very different way of being.

The importance of the physical body

[00:20:50] Scott Snibbe: In the tantric practice, it’s very important to have a body, which sounds silly to say. But I think for a lot of us think of spiritual practice as completely airy, mental, and so on. But strangely, at this kind of most elevated form of practice, having a body is the most important requirement to start.

Can you talk a little bit more about that, the importance of the body and how we use it?

[00:21:17] Rob Preece: Absolutely, what I was saying right at the beginning about seeing tantra as a relationship to mind, energy body, physical body, it’s the interrelationship between these three; that is how we transform. And if we’re not in the body, then we’re not going to be in relationship to the energetic process.

So we can do lots of stuff in the mind, but we’re not really fully transforming because it’s about actually enabling something to come through and be embodied and expressed; that is at the heart of our spirituality actually. You know, opening to a certain quality of awareness, letting the energy, the dynamic of that, the movement of that, come through our physical body and to be expressed and manifest.

We could see that as being at the heart of our spiritual practice as Buddhists, and the danger is that we miss the body in that. In the West, we can be a bit disembodied and that’s part of our wounding, emotionally. And so to actually bring it back into the body becomes a healing process, but it also means that we can start to manifest, we can actually embody and express something of our spirituality in the world, for the welfare of others.

Tantra for beginners

[00:22:35] Scott Snibbe: You started to touch on this by talking about even exercise as a tantric practice, but to ask specifically for a non-Buddhist or a beginning meditator, are there aspects of Vajrayana tantric practice that are accessible and useful to them?

[00:22:53] Rob Preece: I think some of the understanding that we’ve been talking about how the energy works in the body and how that’s connected to our emotional life is really useful. And certainly for the people that are already engaged in something like qigong or Tai Chi or whatever, then it’s not a big step to move towards some elements of tantric practice because they’ll be familiar with the basic ingredients.

So I guess we come to a place where to step into certain kinds of tantric practice requires a particular introduction. So we’re familiar perhaps with all these different deity practices. As soon as we move into that kind of territory, we’re stepping into a zone where it requires a little guidance, a bit more preparation to begin to explore that.

It doesn’t mean to say that people that are relatively new to it can’t do it, because there are stepping stones into it that gradually can take us towards a deeper relationship to that way of practice, but it does require quite skillful entry into that world. We’re really then starting to talk about a lineage of practices that have come from thousands of years and they have specific ways of working that we need to begin to be introduced to.

It’s not that they’re dangerous or that they’re super complicated necessarily, but it’s something about the subtlety, the nuances of how we begin to practice those things, that really requires some guidance. It does help to have some knowledge of Buddhist teachings, Buddhist understanding, to know where they sit, but people can be gradually moved towards that.

[00:24:41] Scott Snibbe: If it’s healthy and safe to talk about it, can you talk a little bit about what happens when you cross over that boundary to some of those practices, like how tantra relates to how we see ourselves? I think you say this in your books that you need to have a healthy relationship to pleasure, for example. You have to have a positive attitude toward yourself, a healthy love for yourself.

So can you talk about that, of how you see yourself, what’s required just to enter tantra and also how tantra changes how you might see yourself?

[00:25:12] Rob Preece: Yeah, I think something you may be touching on is where in The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, I taught something about having a stable sense of self. I do think that it really helps to have done some personal work on ourselves a bit, in order to have a relatively stable sense of identity, stable sense of self.

Because as soon as we start to step into the process of tantric practice, we’re starting to stir things up a bit, we’re starting to move things and activate things that we need to be able to integrate and bring into our experience in a healthy way, rather than it knocking us out of sync with ourselves. We don’t want it to disturb us; we want it to be something that enables us to healthily grow and transform. It is helpful to have some sense of psychological stability, to some degree.

But having said that—and this was something that Lama Yeshe, my teacher used to say—sometimes we may have a relatively poor quality sense of self. I may feel like I’m rubbish, I’m not very capable or whatever. Low self-esteem can be something that many of us suffer from and what he used to say is, If I feel like a mess inside, then I emanate “mess.” On the other hand, if I have a deeper relationship to my kind of essential goodness or my essential nature, then that’s what I begin to emanate.

We could say that one of the things that happens with our exploration in tantric practice is that through the deity practices in particular, we begin to access a connection to the source of our innate goodness, our innate health, our Buddha nature, through these deities. And as we begin to access that, we can bring it more into our reality in the present.

And as we bring that more into our reality, it is that that we can then begin to emanate, rather than “I’m a mess” emanating, so it’s as though it enables us to have a deeper sense of confidence in our nature. Actually, we have this quality in ourselves, which we need to really honor and value and have a sense of appreciation for.

Deities in the Buddhist perspective

buddhist deities

[00:27:31] Scott Snibbe: When we use this term deity, I think it’s very confusing to a lot of people. I think a lot of people know or have heard that of all the religions Buddhism is the one that doesn’t believe in a God, that it’s a path of personal development. But then when you really start looking at it, it seems there’s a lot of gods in Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism, they’re all over the place. If you go into a Tibetan Buddhist center, you can hear 20 names of different “deities” or “gods.”

So could you explain what that means? What is a deity from a Buddhist perspective?

[00:28:03] Rob Preece: Yeah, and I think we’d probably need to say deity rather than god.

[00:28:06] Scott Snibbe: Yeah. 

[00:28:07] Rob Preece: It’s interesting, if we consider someone like his holiness, the Dalai Lama, he’s often said to be the embodiment of the deity Chenrezig. Now, it is interesting sometimes if you speak to the sort of Tibetans that haven’t had much education, they will often see Chenrezig as a God, some sort of outer being that the Dalai Lama is an embodiment of.

As soon as we begin to study more deeply, the understanding of how all this works within Buddhism, we started to recognize that Chenrezig isn’t a god out there, but is actually the growing manifestation of a quality that we have in our nature right now. There may be echoes of that in others that have achieved it out there, but we’re really starting to wake up something that is already there in our being.

So the deities in that sense are a kind of manifestation or an emanation of our true nature. All those different faces, different manifestations, they have a certain functionality to them and we could choose one or two of them as being particularly congruent with something that’s important to us. And we begin to wake that up as an expression of our Buddha nature.

I think one thing that’s quite important is that it’s not that they symbolize our Buddha nature; they are an expression of it, they’re a manifestation of it. There’s a subtle difference in that. They may be symbolic, it’s true. And they are archetypal, but they’re not a symbol of it. They are an emanation of it that is symbolic, that has symbolic qualities, does that make sense?

The relationship between psychological and deity archetypes in tantra

[00:29:50] Scott Snibbe: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And you write about this in your book of the relationship between archetypes, Jungian archetypes in particular, and tantric deities which I think resonates with a lot of people. For example, there’s a kind of archetypal mother that is something beyond the kind of mundane mother, but it’s a vector that you can move towards.

mother carrying child

Can you talk about that, the relationship between psychological archetypes and the deity archetypes in tantra?

[00:30:22] Rob Preece: Yes, Jung was interesting. He said something once about in the East, they don’t consider things like fantasy and imagination in the same way that we do in the West because they’ve turned it into a religion. And I think what he meant by that was that, when we think of archetypal images, there’s the archetype and the archetypal image, the archetype is the kind of root of it.

When it comes into an image form, it gives us a means of connecting to the root and the root is some deeper quality in our nature.

Jung used the idea of the collective unconscious. In our Buddhist language, we’re talking about the root being our Buddha nature. And when that comes into expression, it will do so in ways that we might understand as being archetypal. So they bring with them a certain potency or a certain kind of charge of energy that we could see as archetypal in its nature; it has a certain power to it. The source of those is our innate nature and that’s not so different to Jung’s collective unconscious.

[00:31:25] Scott Snibbe: I actually talk to people about this a lot because in some ways our current Western culture has become so literal, in a lot of ways we’ve lost the ability to understand visual metaphor in particular. And when I’ve tried to explain this concept to people, sometimes I say, I don’t think Michelangelo thought God was a big strong guy with his finger pointing, but because we have bodies, images with bodies particularly connect well with us and help us. So I don’t think anybody, 500 or 1,000 years ago looking at an image like that, thought God looks like that.

[00:32:03] Rob Preece: I think it’s interesting. We still have in our culture, places where that world is very active and it’s in the film industry.

[00:32:12] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, Marvel movies.

[00:32:13] Rob Preece: In the tantric tradition, there are one or two deities that could be Marvel comic superheroes.

[00:32:19] Scott Snibbe: Absolutely, yeah.

[00:32:20] Rob Preece: One could see a kind of archetypal connection there. Why are we so enthralled by them? Why are we so drawn to them? Because it touches something in our nature, which is actually quite deep.

[00:32:33] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and why do people want to put on the costumes and feel like that character, right? That connects directly to tantra.

[00:32:39] Rob Preece: Yeah, it does.

Pleasure, sex, and attachment

[00:32:40] Scott Snibbe: Can you talk a little bit about pleasure? Because on the Buddhist path, there’s very different attitudes towards pleasure and the different stages where at the earliest stages, it’s a little scary and it just leads to attachment.

Then in the middle, you can use it in the Mahayana, the loving compassion path, as a way of sharing. And so having nicer feelings around pleasure, that you can share it, but then Vajrayana, it’s even something different.

So can you talk about that, what’s the place of pleasure in this path?

[00:33:11] Rob Preece: Yeah, just to quote something that Lama Yeshe once said was the difficulty for us in the West is that we don’t know how to enjoy ourselves and that we turn our pleasures into caca, he used to say. And I think what he was implying by that is that our disposition towards what is pleasurable, either of the senses or in terms of internal processes, is that we get very contracted into them, we get drawn into them in such a way that we grasp after them and turn them into something very solid.

That’s what he meant by “we turn it into caca.” We end up with something which is actually not really pleasurable because we’ve gone into a knotted up, contracted place around it, rather than recognizing whatever we might enjoy. If we can be in relationship to it with a sense of openness, spaciousness that allows it to be transitory, allows it to be empty, and recognizes that this is just the play of awareness, bringing certain experiences that awaken pleasurable sensation and feeling.

If we can allow that and allow that to be part of our open awareness experience, rather than getting all caught in it and contracting into it, then we learn to experience pleasure in a very different way. It starts to awaken a quality of joy, quality of bliss, which becomes part of our open awareness, our wisdom, rather than consumer culture.

[00:34:47] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that paradox that when we let go of our attachment, we actually might enjoy things a lot more.

[00:34:54] Rob Preece: Yeah exactly, that principle is there within the whole notion of tantra and how we open to the senses in a different way and can enjoy life fully because we’re not getting caught in that contractive, grasping place. We’re allowing it to be transitory, empty, spacious, open. And that requires practice, that’s not instantaneous; it’s something that we discover and find a way towards.

[00:35:24] Scott Snibbe: Something else we see on this dimension of pleasure is that in a lot of this tantric imagery, you see sexual imagery, very clearly naked deities are making love. Like it’s quite obvious, it’s not hidden at all, it’s quite obvious. And when you hear about tantra in non-Buddhist perspectives, it’s often seen as a kind of way to enhance your love making and so on.

So can you talk about the Buddhist tantra and what is the role of sex and sexual imagery in that practice?

[00:35:50] Rob Preece: Yeah, I think when we start to consider that, we come back really to the energy body again, and the recognition that there is a dimension of our energy system, our energetic nervous system, that has these components of male, female energy. And irrespective of our gender and irrespective of our sexual orientation from a tantric point of view, we have male, female energies in our nervous system.

As they begin to awaken, they start to obviously generate certain kinda of arousal, certain sort of experiences. The most familiar way that we express this is through sexual intercourse or sexual expression. Within the tantric approach, what we’re recognizing is that there is an internal dynamic of these energies that awakens them and transforms them into a kind of blissful awareness.

So sexuality is part of tantric practice, not necessarily as explicitly as we sometimes imagine; if you Google tantra, all sorts of things come up. So it’s not quite as explicit, but it’s not to deny the fact that it is our nature.

We have sexual energy in our nature. That actually is part of the awakening. It’s part of the transformation that we begin to experience.

I think one of the things that I found very liberating in that, because maybe growing up in a Christian culture, there was a slight sense for me, that sexuality and spirituality were very separate.

When I first went to India and Nepal, I first encountered the deity Vajradhara, who is a blue figure, seated, embracing a consort. I suddenly learned that this is a symbol or expression or an emanation of our Buddha nature. So that suddenly I was given the message that my innate nature is Buddha quality is a union of male and female energy. They’re not hiding the fact that it’s a sexual union. But it has different levels of understanding within that.

buddhist deity Vajradhara

But it’s something about recognizing that this is our intrinsic nature. That was incredibly liberating. It meant that in a sense,

I could allow my sexuality to be part of that journey, rather than something that I should push away because it’s bad or it’s unclean or impure or something.

At the core of our sexual energy is this union of those qualities that gets awakened, that we awaken within the tantric path.

Masculine and feminine energies

[00:38:27] Scott Snibbe: This discussion of genders is very active in culture right now and also the idea of being able to choose your gender freely. Can you talk a little bit more from the Buddhist perspective? I think it’s quite nice how old this tradition is and how much it talks about embracing both the masculine and feminine. But it’s strange because on the one hand, it’s a little dangerous to even talk about qualities as masculine and feminine. But then on the other hand, we have a greater freedom than ever to let people choose to be masculine or feminine. 

So could you talk about what are the masculine and feminine energies that as you said, from a tantric perspective we’re trying to awaken both of them inside of us?

[00:39:07] Rob Preece: You’re right, this is a very interesting time in terms of how we identify with male, female energies and so on. And we each have our own orientation to that. A lot of that is what we choose to identify with and how we bring that into our life, which we’re all free to do in whatever way we wish. I suppose, within the tantric perspective of it, irrespective of our outer gender orientation or expression, there’s something about the physical body that has these two components.

And it’s the relationship between those two components that is what’s being primarily addressed. Now, whether it be gay, straight, or non binary, those energies are still going to be there in the the nervous system, because it’s part of our human condition. How we choose to embody them and how they come into our outer expression is very individual. There’s no doubt about that. 

So perhaps the simplest way that we understand male, female energy—and we don’t even need to use those labels, we can put other labels on. If we took the polarity that we give the word “male” to, the disposition within that energy orientation towards form, towards shape, towards manifestation, towards direction, the forming process. The other polarity is the movement towards spacious, open, empty.

We often say the masculine moves us towards manifestation of form. The feminine moves us towards emptiness. That is the interplay of those two as a dynamic in our nature that can come out in all sorts of different ways, different expressions.

So maybe we just take the labels off and we have these two polarities, two dynamics in our nature that are in a constant play: form and emptiness. We’re back to the heart Sutra.

[00:41:02] Scott Snibbe: Could you try to unpack those two words of form and emptiness? What those might mean? It’s easy to use those words, but how would we explain what form and emptiness are? I know we could spend many hours on that, but briefly.

[00:41:23] Rob Preece: So we’re familiar with the sense of how in our life, the form of the things that we engage with and the things we create and things we do, we bring into manifestation. In a way they couldn’t come into manifestation if they were very fixed and static, something about fluidity of form, of how it shapes, reshapes, which is a continual creative process.

Form is not solid, form is something that this cup comes into being or something I might create comes into being as a process shapes something in a particular way, so that movement towards formal manifestation. The only way that can be possible is that what is forming is also constantly changing. It has no solid, substantial nature, it’s always in flux; it’s always changing.

But if we take that back, we recognize it has no enduring substance, even though it creates form, even though we can create form. Actually what enables that form is the fact that it has no enduring substance or substantial nature. It’s constantly changing and is empty of any solid, rigid form. So creativity for me is the constant play of the space and openness and there’s the potential to bring something into form. But if I make it too solid, then I lose something. Music is a good example of that, form and space.

guitarist black and white

[00:43:07] Scott Snibbe: Right, it was Miles Davis who said, it’s actually the space between the notes that’s more important than actual notes.

[00:43:14] Rob Preece: Absolutely, yeah and the play between those two gives us the beauty of our life actually.

Tantric meditation

[00:43:21] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, that was a wonderful explanation of form and emptiness and to see those as masculine and feminine, as so utterly intertwined and interdependent. Because for anyone who’s read the Heart Sutra it’s amazing, but quite contradictory. On the surface it says, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. And you’re like what is it? But I think you just explained and unpacked that in a very beautiful way and then connecting it to gender and our bodies. What a beautiful way to explain that concept, thank you.

So you’ve agreed to guide us through a meditation that’s appropriate for beginners in some way to get a taste of tantra, that we’re going to release next week after this episode. Could you tell us a little bit about that meditation?

[00:44:07] Rob Preece: Yeah, so let’s do a very simple meditation where we invite into our awareness the presence of one of these deity forms, that is a reflection of our own Buddha nature. It’s the deity Tara, Green Tara, a female figure seated on a lotus and the moon disk, and she’s green. She’s dressed in silk robes and her quality is a quality of the expression of compassion, manifesting in the world in order to support sentient beings.

green tara deity tibetan buddhism

So she’s an expression of our own potential compassionate, wisdom energy coming into a form, that we can start to have a relationship with. This sort of pure essence of our compassion and wisdom in this female aspect. In my ordinary sense of me, I can start to have a relationship with, even though she’s a presence of light but she’s an emanation of our Buddha quality. We start to have a dialogue between me and our Buddha quality.

As part of that, we can request help in certain ways. We might make certain prayers. One of the things that we use a lot in the tantric tradition is mantra. So with this practice, what I will do is I’ll explain the generation of the presence of time, and then I’ll chant the mantra. And as I chant the mantra, it’s as though we’re receiving her, the light energy blessing coming into us, supporting us with her compassion. And then when the mantra stops, we just rest quietly. And then she comes into the heart.

[00:45:54] Scott Snibbe: This Tara is one of the most, or maybe in some cases the most, popular practice for a lot of in Tibetan tradition. And it’s also associated with kind of power and removing obstacles and so on.

[00:46:06] Rob Preece: She’s often seen as the deity that has a kind of swiftness to her that if you need help, she’s there. A lot of times when mothers are giving birth, we invite Tara to support the process of a mother giving birth, to help it go smoothly.

[00:46:23] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and for people who aren’t familiar with this it may be interesting to hear, that this feminine archetype is actually the one of power and removing obstacles and so on.

[00:46:33] Rob Preece: She has a dynamic that is very powerful.

[00:46:35] Scott Snibbe: Well, Rob, thank you so much for this conversation. It was very clear and beautiful the way you explain these ideas. So I really appreciate your time.

[00:46:45] Rob Preece: You’re welcome. 

[00:47:46] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for my conversation with Rob Preece on The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra. If you’d like to learn more, here is the link to Rob’s website where you can find links to all his books.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
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