This Interview is by Tashi Grady Powers, founder of the Enlightening Times Postmodern Online Journal and The Enlightening Times Magazine In Print since 1994 in Charlottesville, Virginia
David Germano teaches at UVA in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. His position is Professor of Tibetan and Himalayan Traditions. He teaches Tibetan language and also Tibetan literature, which is often Tantric in nature. His graduate seminars focus on Tibetan Tantric Buddhist traditions because this is the main field where he has his own specialized research. As well this complements what other people are doing in the department. He is translating and studying the Tantric tradition of the Nygima Tzokchen texts.
I met David Germano in Charlottesville for the hard copy of the Enlightening Times in the mid 90′s and find this conversation timeless, so we have added it to the online experience of our enlightening times…
Tashi: What is that you teach that grabs the student most in terms of how the subject of Tantra translates into contemporary society?
David: The conversations between myself and my students these days revolve around three issues: embodiment, the aesthetic use of language and the issues of self-identity. Looking at the role of embodiment, and how this plays out in our own way of thinking it does seem that many contemporary movements privilege the human mind and its capacity for language as well as the preeminent place where knowledge takes place. So we interject a Tantric perspective, to instead, at least for a moment, valorize the human body and our embodiment in a very diverse sense of what the human body might be. There is in part our physical body but then there is the body of our feelings, our emotions and our moodedness that tend to get suppressed or marginalized when we privilege the mind and language for the place where human knowledge takes place.
We look at Tantra as a way of interjecting a more bodily based epistemology. What capacity do our bodies have for knowledge? What capacities do our bodies have for morality or for ethics? Just to get away from thinking all this stuff has to play itself out in self-conscious linguistic capacities. How might our body have things to say? Many people see the body as this empty cipher where other things play out their moves and our bodies have no capacity to interject their voices into the situation. So we look at what does this mean in very concrete day to day terms?
Tantra doesn’t add much to that? It gives us techniques to realize this emptiness in a more powerful way. That is not generally how I look at Tantra however, because the type of language that Tantra is using to express itself however is saying different things. It is coming out of and building upon previous and contemporary Buddhist movements of at any given time. I think it really is pursuing different models of truth and so different things are coming up that weren’t coming up before. I think Tantric Nygima scholars through the ages were pursuing serious competing types of themes through the medium of Tantric language, this more poetic aphoristic type of language. They aren’t saying any one way is the only truth! They put forth Tantric texts as an alternate way to pursue, through language, the issues of trying to come to term with our own identity.
Secondly we often look at the issue of different types of use of language, in particular poetic types of language. Buddhist Tantra seems to me to be to be associated with an interjection of the body in a very value positive way into the mainstream of Buddhist thinking and discourse and practices. You also have an interjection of aesthetics. Language itself in the primary Tantras is a language that seems to have more concern for aesthetic issues. It is more poetic in nature, often more aphoristic. It values the piling up of homologies and of seeking the playful connection of the piling up of things. Often in some Buddhist Tantra traditions you get the suggestion then that Tantra as a whole is a practice; A way that more powerfully implements a truth stated elsewhere in more appropriate linguistic format, which talks about emptiness and uses more analytic modes of looking at our experience.
So the third thing we talk about in our classes a lot and that I see as very important to Buddhist Tantra is the issue of how Tantra construes self-identity. This is definitely linked to the previous two issues. We discuss how notions of “selfness” and notions of “otherness” play out. A most striking thing we see in Buddhist Tantras is the subject of the “Great Self.” Supposedly Buddhism is often infamous for this kind of rejection of the self. They’ll talk about the “Great Self” in the Tibetan language, or they’ll talk about Divine Pride for example and this is usually a pejorative term, but in the Tantric context it becomes something positive. If you look at Tantric meditative practices we can see why they might be effecatious, or assuming they do something to change your experience of yourself, how might they do so?
I usually start out by looking at the preeminent way in which a Buddhist culture identifies “self.” However we might fill in that space called the “Buddha” it is always a place of immense authority in Buddhist culture. Within all life there is Buddha nature and yet you really have no sense of it, other than perhaps a vague sense within you, but basically it is a complete ”otherness” because we have no idea what this Buddha might be. We are told it is there. This immense source of authority is within us and yet we experience it as a complete otherness to begin with. We are told that because it is the Buddha, this is somehow our ultimate self-identity, the deepest sense of ourself, or that ultimately authoritative aspect of ourself. So we discuss this premise that we should be seeking to unfold this vast identity yet is completely other to us because we have simply no idea of what it might be.
Tashi: So how do you think that your students or modern people could be assisted by what we have discerned from Tantra? One of the things that we talk about so much in the ET is how the 60′s and the 70′s and the spiritual revolution which we are all still integrating in the 90′s into a part of their living spirituality. What do you see that people take to heart from Tantra.
David: Since I teach at a University there are two different things, I am not encouraging them to go off and do spiritual practices, I am a teacher. So in terms of some value we might we retrieve in terms of what is going on with our experiences right now, I tend to pursue with students by coming back to our daily experiences and sometimes our extraordinary experiences with people dying. with sexuality, with dreams, how we communicate with one another.
For example we might ask what is the mandala principle? A mandala in a Tibetan means a periphery and a center which dictates the periphery around him or her which can be a very troubling thing. Is a mandala static or is it moving. There is very big issue in Buddhist thought and Buddhist practice. Should we for example pursue Tantric practice as taking someone else’s dreams, nightmares or whatever? They are still someone else’s forms so should we impose them upon our own imagination, which would be a static mandala. If I bring in my suitcase I give it to you, you stick it in your mind, you give it to someone else. Or rather is a mandala something that is kind of changing form over time, that is actually changing, that would actually have a place for your past, for your memories, for your feelings, for your body of experiences to actually come into being? This is a very big issue that is the source of a lot of tension and conflict in Tantric Buddhist culture in Tibet. We can look at this issue right now in our own lives. In that way Tantric thought immediately yields contemporary benefit.
Tashi: Well I think that is very fascinating to Westerns because they are so Guruphobic, so authority-phobic.
David: That’s right and so what does the Mandala tell us about our experience of authority? We often get into these stalemates like cross-fire on CNN where we have this antagonistic debate that happens where two polarized people just scream at each other over and over. By interjecting a Tantric perspective which is so foreign to our mainstream cultural zone often it can shake up false polarizations that emerge and cause us to begin thinking again. Simply by the Tantric perspective I think you have a powerful voice of otherness that inserts itself into some of the dialogue and can displace the assumption that this is the only way we can express a conflict.
The issue of authority is a very good example because these issues were very common in Tibet. A lot of conflict and blood was shed over the whole notion of what constitutes authority and what constitutes being the periphery. What would be a Tantric take on that? Well there are many Tantric takes on that because the Mandala is a place where contested different visions of what Tantra might be. There is no Tantric take, no Tantric perspective on women, on authority. There are many different takes. I don’t think Tantra actually exists. But in terms of what the Tzokchen tradition would say, which is the tradition that I have been doing most of my work on recently, I think they have a very complex picture of what the mandelic picture might be and it is very clearly a moving principle. I don’t think it is a very static picture where the text projects a homogenous narrative structuring of our experience. It is a very coercive thing almost. If we take the mandala as a principle of Tibetan society, again we have the Guru coercively saying, okay Tashi you are there, you are not over there, that is your place right over there and you are going to stay there. David you are over here and coercively determining all of us in this manner. Instead what happens when the Tzokchen tradition of Tantra is looking at this they see the mandala as a place that is moving. The way this occurs is through the practice of visualization that they do which are these very simple element yoga visualizations that tend to have a lot of dynamism. What you find is that you stare into a fire or a waterfall or whatever, the message that is being communicated is our relationship to exteriority or to an other, or a partner is not a passive other. It is an other that is moving. It is not an other that we can predict. We cannot say where that fire is going to go or what sound is going to be next. Fire has so many different sounds that happen. It is not simply a passive waiting acquiescent figure that just sits there It is not one that we passively yield ourselves to it, or we appropriate it and it remains rather passive. Instead we have these moving mobile forms that are telling us something quite different. That the kind of ultimate goal is not to develop a partnership between two passive sides or a passive and a dominant side but that rather outside there are moving mobile kinds of forms and we simply need to enter into a dialogue with it.
Tashi: You said that you don’t know that Tantra is anything? What do you mean?
David: Well there all a lot of Tibetan ways to articulate what is the nature of Tantra? How might we weave together all these heterogeneous things and say that they are somehow Tantra. We have this Tantra seminar that is being developed at the American Academy’s of Religions annual conference. Last year we had this meeting where we were talking about coming up with definitions of Tantra. People put forward all these definitions of Tantra. They were all different and no one was even the slightest bit happy with any of them, so I am not saying don’t talk about Tantra or don’t try to come up with something very traditional like the Buddhist notion of talking about continuity. There is the ground, the path and the fruit and Tantra is what evokes the continuity, that acts like a thread throughout all of these. I could come up with mine, embodiment, aesthetics and using the Buddha as preeminent image for otherness. That could be my take. But where it all comes from historically is such a controversial subject. Everyone has a different take, academically.
Tashi: Well I think Westerns for the most part think it just mean sex. Which is such a joke.
David: Yeah, it’s not about the G-spot. [