issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
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Tantric Treasures

Three Collections of Mystical Verse from Buddhist India
Trans. Roger R Jackson
Oxford University Press 2004, $17.95/£12.99 p/b

The three men evoked by this book are among the most compelling and mysterious characters of religious history. Known as mahasiddhas or Great Adepts, Kanha, Tilopa and my namesake Saraha lived in medieval India and excelled as practitioners of tantra. They were prepared to question everything and renounce everything, especially social and religious norms, for the sake of their spiritual vision.

This translation is clear without losing the enigmas of the verse. The siddhas twist and pulverise words to wring from them a few drops of ultimate truth, relentlessly attempting to communicate a profound silent seeing and a limitless bliss. Jackson's introduction offers many interpretations of the siddhas and the practices they espoused, without trying to 'understand' them.

Full of paradox, metaphor and symbol, often shocking and shockingly funny, these poems are fresh and pithy. They offer a glimpse of the goal, a warm-hearted chuckle and scathing dismissal of the spiritually superficial. The siddhas seem to be saying, 'if you want to practise the path, you need the right attitude, then everything is the path'. The right attitude is the Enlightened attitude, and you get this by just having it. Saraha declares, 'It's utmost great bliss: without it, you get nowhere'.

They offer many hints on meditation and emphasise seeing emptiness and compassion as the same. Again and again the siddhas encourage us to rely on authenticity in the context of freedom from attachment:

'Enjoying things,
unstained by things;
plucking a lotus,
untouched by water.
So the yogin
who flows to the root:
untroubled by things,
enjoying things.'

Most consistently, they emphasise purity and openness to the guru's superior wisdom:

'When you've thoroughly cleansed
your inmost thought,
then the guru's virtues
enter your heart.'

When this has happened, all that remains is to:

'bow down to [mind]
like a magic jewel,
it grants the things you wish.'

This book teaches us that we don't know. For the siddhas - and us if we adopt their intensity - life is a beautiful, engaging mystery. Tantric Treasures, like a streetwise Perfection of Wisdom, challenges us to let go of our comfortable certainties. Not a beginner's Dharma book, more like a sip of nectar:

'Go outside, look around,
enter the empty
and the nonempty.'

Saraha lives a life based on meditation in Birmingham