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Buddhadharma : Spring 2008
buddhadharma| 71 |spring 2008 and violence—in a word, esoteric. thus, despite the shelf-loads of books on tibetan Buddhism and tantra that have appeared in recent decades, the foundational texts of the tradition remain little studied and rarely translated. Until now the only major highest Yoga tantra edited and translated into english in its entirety has been the Hevajra (first by david snellgrove in 1959, later by G.W. farrow and i. Menon). in recent decades, portions of the Guhyasamaja, Candamaharosana, Samvarodaya, and Kalachakra tantras have been translated— but only portions. With the publication of david Gray’s The Cakrasamvara Tantra, we finally have a second complete eng- lish translation of a seminal highest Yoga tantra; Gray’s critical edition, based on surviving sanskrit and tibetan texts, is soon to follow. of these late, advanced tantric sys- tems, the chakrasamvara, which is sub- categorized as a “yogini” or “mother” tantra, is arguably the most influential and widespread. it generated a huge lit- erary corpus in both india and tibet; was prominent in the esoteric constellation of the sakya, kagyu, and Geluk orders of tibetan Buddhism; produced a rich mythology, cosmology, and sacred geog- raphy; and served as a source for the well- known practice traditions related to the heruka body-mandala, Vajrayogini, the six Yogas of naropa, and Mahamudra. By making the basic chakrasamvara text available to readers of english, Gray is providing us with a key to understand- ing one of the most sophisticated of all Buddhist practice systems in its “origi- nal” form. But a reader who approaches the root tantra expecting a flood of illu- mination is bound to be disappointed, for reasons that have nothing to with Gray’s impeccable scholarship and serviceably literal translation, and everything to do with the fact that tantras are texts that are not meant to be understood—at least by the uninitiated. the tantra itself—which is variously known as the Chakrasamvara Tantra, the Discourse of Sri Heruka (Sriherukabhid- hana), or the Condensed Samvara Tantra (Laghusamvaratantra), and was probably composed in northeast india in the lat- ter part of the eighth century, perhaps as an appendix to an earlier tantra that has been lost—actually takes up less than a quarter of Gray’s book. read in isolation, it makes almost no sense, and the sense it does convey is often deeply troubling, at least to a conventional sensibility. indeed, the central concern of its fifty-one chap- ters seems to be the attainment of magical power through a variety of techniques, including the construction of external and internal mandalas, the mastery of a variety of mantras and spells, and the sacramental consumption of sexual fluids emitted during ritual intercourse. there are long descriptions of different kinds of yoginis and dakinis and the ways of worshipping them, repeated assertions of the control of various forces to be gained through tantric practice, and convoluted discussions of the symbolism of various sacred syllables. this is typical of high- est Yoga tantras, but what is surprising in the Chakrasamvara (unlike, say, in the Hevajra) is the almost complete absence of an explicitly Buddhist framework and terminology. the Buddha is barely mentioned; there are no significant invo- cations of core Mahayana concepts like emptiness, compassion, or skillful means; and advanced tantric notions such as the subtle body and great bliss are either scarcely evident or ignored altogether. in short, the Chakrasamvara, on its own, is tantra in its rawest form, and likely was as unpalatable to a traditional Buddhist as it may be to a modern one. Yet from the very beginning it received an extraordinary amount of attention from commentators, and over time it was invested with more traditional Mahayana ideas and ideals, linked with more systematic forms of tantric thought and practice, and used as the inspira- tion for a wide range of approaches to Buddhist enlightenment. in other words, like other highest Yoga tantras, it was domesticated and placed in the service of Buddhist institutional and spiritual goals, such that when a contemporary practitio- ner invokes Vajrayogini or sits in formless Mahamudra meditation, she probably has little inkling of just how strange the root of her practice really is. fortunately, david Gray has read widely and deeply in the sanskrit and tibetan literature on chakrasamvara, and does not leave the reader alone with the root text. drawing on multiple indian and tibetan sources, he provides extraor- dinarily detailed footnotes, which at least begin to clarify some of the tantra’s obscurities. As Gray himself notes, “the text was ... written so as to require com- mentary,” and by providing detailed quo- tations and explanations of commentarial passages that insert the Chakrasamvara back into a more familiar Buddhist and tantric framework, he begins to show us how the text has been imagined and rei- magined—whatever the original “autho- rial intention” may have been. Gray also has written a superlative 150-page introduction, which explains the tantra as a literary, religious, and social doc- ument. in addition to useful discussions of the date, provenance, and literary context of the Chakrasamvara, the introduction dis- cusses a number of topics of more general interest, including the heruka/chakrasam- vara origin myth, which is clearly a counter- narrative to hindu tales of siva; the many ways in which hindu tantric influences are evident in the text; the complex symbol- ism of the tantra’s “triple-wheel” mandala of body, speech, and mind; the text’s atti- tude toward women and gender; and the centrality of sexual practices and sexual substances. With respect to gender, Gray finds that the Chakrasamvara, like most tantric lit- erature, is distinctly androcentric and tends to view female figures primarily as a means to the male adept’s ends. And the sexual practices—later explanations not- withstanding—involve ritual intercourse, ejaculation by the male, and his sacra- mental ingestion of a mixture of male and female fluids produced by intercourse. for Gray, the Chakrasamvara is a complex, ambiguous, and often deeply transgressive text, which succeeds in its aim of discom- fiting the uninitiated, even as it instructs those with ears to hear. overall, Gray’s The Cakrasamvara Tantra is a landmark in the study of tantric Buddhism, ranking with such classics as snellgrove’s study and transla- tion of the Hevajra Tantra and his Indo- Tibetan Buddhism, stephan Beyer’s The Cult of Tara, and ronald davidson’s Indian Esoteric Buddhism. though its scholarly apparatus and arcane central text will challenge all but the most deter- mined reader, surely it is worth the time and energy of any serious student of the tantras to pick up Gray’s book and gaze for a moment—not through the dark- ened glass of later tradition, but face-to- face—upon the real and unsettling source of so much that is beautiful and great in tibetan and inner-Asian Buddhism.