Reggie Ray is an unusually gifted meditation teacher. Combining scholarship (he has a Ph.D. in the History of Religions from the University of Chicago) with over three decades of serious spiritual practice, he is considered one of the leading teachers of Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as “Buddhist Tantra”). A professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University, here he discusses his new Sounds True audio series on the path of Tantra.
Sounds True: Some people when they hear the term “Buddhist Tantra” might think that your new audio series is about a Buddhist approach to sex. Is that what you're teaching?
Reggie Ray: The Buddhist Tantra provides methods and techniques to find wisdom and liberation within our common everyday experience, sexuality included. But Westerners have fixated on the sexual aspects of Tantra, perhaps because of our obsession with sex, an obsession based on a long history of denial and repression. In fact, the Buddhist Tantra works with every aspect of life. It works with human energy, all energy—sexual energy, neurotic energy, good energy—and how energy can be transmuted into awareness.
Sounds True: On Buddhist Tantra, you teach the philosophy and view of Tantra and you offer six guided meditations that are considered introductory practices. Why is there so much secrecy about the more advanced Tantric practices?
Reggie Ray: The thing about the Tantra is that it's working at a very subtle level with our experience. It's not so much secrecy for the sake of tradition as it is a secrecy that acknowledges that you can't make the journey until you are adequately prepared.
In the case of the Tantra, the first step is to realize the basic Buddhist idea that there is no self, no solid reference point of “I” or “me.” The more sophisticated level is that life itself is groundless. We're always trying to secure a situation and make things comfortable and reliable. We want to know who we are and where we are. We want our friends to confirm us, we want our jobs to make sense, we want a financial picture that is going to be secure in the future. All of these are mental projections; these are all things we make up. Because life, according to Buddhist Tantra, is fundamentally groundless. Which means, we can never pull things together because things are never pulled together. Life is always an unfolding, open-ended, unending process, and change is always going on.
So the Tantra is about exploring our own nonexistence, groundlessness, and vulnerability. What you do is you begin to work with the meditations and the stages that are described in the audio series, and this prepares you to enter the Tantric world itself.
Sounds True: You often quote from the lives of the mahasiddhas, the enlightened Tantric practitioners who lived in India from the 8th to the 12th century, and the sacrifices that they made in order to progress on the Tantric path. Do you believe we need to make some kind of sacrifice in order to evolve spiritually?
Reggie Ray: If you really want to achieve realization—which is what the Tantra is about—then what's being said in these stories is that a tremendous sacrifice is needed. In the lives of the mahasiddhas, the sacrifices are presented in very dramatic ways—somebody has to jump off of a building or offer a body part in order to receive teachings. But I think all of these stories are emblematic of the most fundamental sacrifice that we could ever make: to give up our image of ourselves; to be willing to live without having a self-image that we are constantly nursing and nurturing and trying to fix up. That's the fundamental sacrifice.
In order to find out about reality, in order to follow the Tantric path, and to come into the splendor of the Tantric world, we have to be willing to first of all become acquainted with the images that we carry around of ourselves all of the time—both positive and negative—and we do that through meditation. Secondly, we have to be willing to gradually let those images go, and realize that we don't need to have this constant feedback mechanism in everything that we do. It's almost as if we're constantly watching ourselves on television to see how we're doing. That's the ego's process; it's always observing itself and trying to improve the image that it sees. The Tantric way is basically saying that's the one thing we have to give up: we have to give up that completely self-absorbed, obsessive process of refining and pruning our image of ourselves so that we can think well of ourselves—or badly of ourselves, for that matter. We need to just leave that in the dust and walk into the world in a much more naked way.
And that's the sacrifice. And that's ultimately what the Buddhist Tantra is about. It's about the need to do that in order to move forward and engage in a fundamental process of transformation.