Uncovering the Lessons of The VBT – Part 1

Welcome to the Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra: Part One

Let us begin with a short, simple Introduction

The Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra (VBT) is a text of the Śaiva Tantrik tradition, also known as Tantric Shaivism or ‘Kashmīr Shaivism’, and it appeared around the middle of the ninth Century, so maybe about 850 CE. The VBT is a text of the Trika lineage, specifically of the Kaula Trika, which means the more transgressive, more non-dualistic version of the Trika lineage, which traces itself back to a female founder. The Trika comes in Kaula and non-Kaula varieties. (You will be familiar with these terms if you have read Tantra Illuminated.) The regular Trika was founded by the sage Tryambaka, who probably lived near Nasik in western India, and the Kaula Trika was founded by his daughter, whose name is sadly lost in the mists of time.

What does the title Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra mean? The full translation is: the scripture (tantra) of Bhairava (the awesome, intense, fierce or frightening form of Śiva), who is (according to this text) nothing but intensified awareness–especially awareness fully conjoined with its innate power of insight. Vijñāna means both consciousness and insight in this text. So, the simple translation of the title is “The Scripture of the Bhairava Who is Consciousness.” The word vijñāna refers to your consciousness—the aspect of your being that is present in all experiences from the subjective, first-person point of view, of course.

The Vijñāna-bhairava-tantra (VBT) has been translated several times, under several titles. It was first translated into a European language (French) by Lilian Silburn in 1961. Just before this, in 1957, American poet Paul Reps published a free English rendering of the 112 techniques of the VBT (under the title ‘Centering’) in his book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Reps had sat with Swami Lakshmanjoo in Kashmīr a few years before and studied the text with him. Even though Reps’ version is not at all a translation, it was influential, forming the basis of Rajneesh’s Book of Secrets and Roche’s The Radiance Sutras (neither of which are, in any sense, translations of the VBT). The first English translation done on the basis of the Sanskrit original was by Jaideva Singh, and appeared in 1979, under the title Vijñānabhairava, or, Divine Consciousness : A Treasury of 112 Types of Yoga.

We have more than a dozen translations of this text, so why produce yet another one? Well, mainly because none of those translations is actually satisfactory. The main reason for this is that even though a few of the published translations are by competent Sanskritists, they don’t provide us with any clear or comprehensible instructions on how to actually do any of the 112 techniques taught by the VBT. What we are interested in here is getting a clear exposition of the practices and step-by-step instructions on how to do these practices. 

And this is where we run into a problem, because the text is intentionally elliptical, meaning it is intentionally vague sometimes, or omits necessary information.  An ‘elliptical’ text does not give you all the information needed to fully understand or do the practice. Many scriptures in Tantrik traditions are intentionally elliptical in this way, because their authors expected that the text would be explained by a competent scholar-practitioner of the tradition (called an ācārya) or by a guru. I am more of the former, not so much the latter; and it does take about twelve years of full-time education in this tradition to actually understand what this text (and others like it) is really saying. The reason it takes so long is that one must read a wide range of Tantrik sources to correctly interpret any one of them. One needs to read broadly as well as deeply, so that when the text alludes to a practice that you know from other sources, you can recognise that fact and then go and look at those related, complementary, or parallel sources to decode the meaning of the practice in question. 

There are many examples of this in the text (e.g., verses 54-57). Sometimes the practice is perfectly clear, but more often it is not, so you need to have knowledge of a wide variety of parallel sources. This is something that is still not well understood, especially in the United States, where scholars sometimes just focus on one Sanskrit text for years, thinking “I will unpack every meaning of every Sanskrit word,” and they study the dictionaries and all the different meanings—but that is not enough! You really need to look at parallel sources and read a bunch of Tantrik texts to be able to interpret each practice. After many years, I have come to understand almost all the practices in the VBT, and I have done many of these practices over the years, though some I did not do because I did not fully understand them yet. 

So that is the backstory, the context. Now I want to explain a little bit more about what is going on in this text. The first thing we notice is that it is a dialogue: a dialogue between Śiva and Śakti, here going by the names Bhairava and Bhairavī respectively. Bhairava is a name for the fierce or intense form of Śiva (Shiva). When Bhairava is understood anthropomorphically, as a specific deity among other deities, then he is pictured with fangs, completely naked, adorned only with a living serpent as a belt. He wanders around, disguised as a naked beggar, he eats and drinks out of a bowl made from a human cranium, and he is accompanied by a dog. In the West, a dog is “man’s best friend,” but in traditional India, a dog is an impure, outcast sort of creature that Bhairava befriends because he himself is a marginal, liminal figure who stands outside of the norms of society and challenges them in various ways with transgressive ideas and practices. 

But Bhairava in this text is understood to mean Consciousness: specifically, spacious, open, empty, pure intensified awareness. We see the word Bhairava used in this way over and over in the text, not referring to a mythological being but rather this spacious, open, transparent consciousness, which we could also call radiant emptiness. Bhairava also refers to the experience that that unparticularized open awareness actually pervades everything, and constitutes the very ground of being (see v. 130). 

We see very clearly that in this text, Bhairava is not seen as a deity among other deities, a member of a polytheistic pantheon, but rather represents this fundamental Awareness; and Bhairavī is his consort, his other half. Bhairavī is the same word as Bhairava but in the feminine. So, what is Bhairavī signifying here? Well, a key verse of the entire text (v.15) explains that Bhairavī is pūrṇa-bharitā, the state of complete fullness, the overflowing fullness that is an intensification of pure being/presence. Bhairavī is when that open, spacious, pure Consciousness of Bhairava intensifies or has a quality of intense immediacy and a quality of fullness, full to overflowing, permeated by the innate bliss of one’s true nature. If Bhairava is the pure emptiness of spacious awareness, Bhairavī is its fullness.

We will learn more about this as we go along. Some people come to Śakti through Śiva, but most people come to Śiva through Śakti (as taught in v. 20). The text teaches that we can go into an experience of pure intensity (and it gives many examples of that, e.g. v. 101), and then that intensity can be a gateway to reposing in pure Consciousness, pure presence, pure being itself. Others more easily enter into that transcendent space of pure presence and then they need to access the Śakti side of it too: that intensification, the immediacy of being, brimming over with the bliss of one’s inner nature (antaḥsvānubhavānandā). The text as a default assumes that we have to reach Śiva through Śakti, and that it is easier to access the intensity of Śakti, whether in an intense sexual experience (verses 68 and 69) or in an experience of merging the sense fields, i.e. being super focused on the sensual environment and then merging those sense fields into unity (v. 32). The text will give many more examples, even unusual or unexpected ones, such as when the text recommends piercing one’s flesh (v. 93). The intensity of that experience, if you know how to access it correctly, leads you right into the spacious open pure presence and aliveness and being-ness, and that is Bhairava conjoined with Bhairavī. There are many other examples, even some that seem silly, such as: “Spin around and around in the middle of a field until you are dizzy, and then at a certain moment, just spontaneously fall down and look up at the sky.” The text offers us these daily life, almost quotidian practices so that we can experience this sublime state anywhere, any time, in everyday life. 

The text has actually become famous for those kind of practices precisely because they are atypical for the tradition. We do not find them in very many sources at all. Out of our hundreds of primary sources, such daily-life practices are in only a handful. Another such text is the Svabodhodaya-mañjarī, which is a kind of sequel to the VBT, and which you can read in full here. This text has an interesting mix of easy-to-understand practices and extremely subtle yogic practices that are quite difficult to master, just like the VBT. I further discuss the wide variety of practices in the VBT in my introduction to the text, found in the blog post entitled “Will the Real Vijñāna-bhairava Please Stand Up.”

Welcome and enjoy!

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