Tantrik philosophy for the layperson: What is the cause of liberation?

The great Tantrik scholar-sage Abhinavagupta (Kashmīr Valley, c. 1000 CE) gave us a most extraordinary definition of spiritual liberation—the goal of all yoga—in his masterwork “Light on the Tantras” (Tantrāloka), a definition that stripped it of its religious and intellectual trappings:

Liberation (mokṣa) is not different from the Self as it is in its real nature, infinitely free. It is neither an insignificant trifle nor something to make a big deal about. Thus a separate name for it is not even needed. ||  1.31

In other words, since liberation (in other contexts also called ‘awakeness’ or ‘awareness’, Skt. bodha) is your already-existent true nature, we shouldn't really have a technical term for it (like ‘enlightenment’), for that risks making it into an object, a thing-to-be-attained, distant from ourselves. In reality, it is already who You really are. So how does one discover and fully access one’s true nature? Through humbly realizing one’s view of reality is woefully incomplete: 

To begin with, in our [Tantrik] system, it is declared in all the scriptures that incomplete view (ajñāna) is the cause of the cycle of suffering, and full insight (jñāna) the sole cause of liberation. || 1.22 

This is the lynchpin of Abhinavagupta's whole philosophy. Since the only ‘problem’ is ignorance (which he defines both as believing what is untrue and not seeing what is true), the only cause of liberation is INSIGHT into the true nature of reality. But this insight (jñāna) is not a thought; it is nonverbal, nonconceptual (nirvikalpa) clear seeing. That insight is the only thing that must be sought after, he tells us: all other forms of religious activity are simply ways to pass the time, like toys for children. (But Abhinava taught that even ritual activity could be a way of cultivating insight, though it usually isn't.)

How do we know that Abhinava is not talking about any form of conceptual, verbalizable knowledge when he uses the word jñāna? Because he says:

[Our root-scripture,] the Mālinīvijayottara, refutes vain speculation concerning which form of intellectual knowledge might liberate, [since all of it is] subsequent to the activation of the cycle of suffering (saṃsāra) [and so cannot address its cause]; it states simply that when there is an absence of these [mistaken beliefs about the nature of self and reality], there is liberation. || 1.24

So by removing ignorance—both in the sense of firmly held beliefs that are out of alignment with reality, and an inability to see what is true—insight automatically arises. How could it be otherwise, if the insight we are talking about is nonconceptual direct seeing of the nature of reality? Our focus should be on expanding our view of things to be more all-encompassing (Abhinava would have loved the “Blind Men and the Elephant” story), as well as dissolving mental constructs that prevent us from seeing clearly (vikalpas; he discusses this in-depth elsewhere in his work). Note how different both approaches are to the usual religious agenda of thinking the ‘right’ thoughts (call it dogma, belief, or doctrine, it’s the same). He goes on to define liberating insight in this way:

That which reveals an ever-fuller awareness of the reality-to-be-known, together with the principles (tattva) [that constitute it], is what I call ‘true insight,’ (jñāna) which [naturally] becomes ever more all-encompassing, and brings to cessation the various cycles of suffering. || 1.32

In summary, the nondual Tantrik path presents us with a radical proposition: that we are already liberated beings, and our only problem (ever) is lack of awareness or misplaced attention. If that last phrase puzzles you, consider this:

We are conditioned to pay more attention to what is both peripheral and ephemeral (all that which can be named), and less attention to what is real and abiding (that which cannot be named, and therefore is given no value by culture). For example, by paying attention to our identity constructs (“I am an American”, “I am a Hindu”, “I am good person”, “I am all messed up inside”, etc. etc.), we give them energy (the power of consciousness!), which makes them ‘grow’ disproportionately in our awareness, which makes us give them more energy, until we are convinced of their reality. We forget that they are nothing but thoughts, thoughts which might bear a relationship to a tiny fragment of reality, but which are powerless to actually describe or stand in for reality, which eternally escapes our narratives about it. However, if we learn to give more attention to awareness itself rather than what we are aware of, its timeless stillness and wholeness gradually become more and more deeply felt. Awareness is the changeless background of all thoughts, the ‘sky’ in which the various forms of ‘weather’—thoughts, feelings, etc.—come and go. As you slowly learn to give a little more attention to the sky than you do to the weather, you will realize directly what Abhinava is talking about: that you already ARE liberated, in your real nature. The fact that you are currently using that freedom to strengthen your ‘stories’ until they appear real and binding only proves his point. You are so free, you are free to be bound.

Since awareness isn’t a thing, a phenomenon, or an experience, it is changeless. As a great meditation master put it: “Thoughts come and go. Feelings come and go. Experiences come and go. Find out what it is that remains.” When you see all of reality from the perspective of the changeless ground of your being, THAT is true ‘insight’ in Abhinavagupta’s sense of the word.

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“Awareness is a pure emptiness pregnant with the possibility of everything.” — a teaching from the Krama lineage

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These four verses can be seen in their original context here.

POSTSCRIPT: Of course, that problem of misplaced attention on belief structures is not so minor, because it directly leads to all acts of cruelty in the world. Human beings hurt and kill each other because they pay attention to and believe the thoughts in their heads (especially their identity-constructs). It is the direct cause of all strife. How could there be Hindu-Muslim violence (for example) without belief in the thoughts "I am a Hindu" and "I am a Muslim"? 

And lest you think this an anti-intellectual philosophy: you don't have to believe a thought is reality in order to use it as a tool. Like any other tool, it is a way of interacting with reality. You can use a hammer to kill or to build a shelter, or you can just let it lie there. Every thought is the same. THOUGHTS ARE TOOLS, NOT TRUTHS.

Note: here are the Sanskrit verses I translate above (please note that Abhinava's Sanskrit is highly elliptical and specialized, and can only be translated correctly by someone intimate with his thought, as I've learned the hard way):


स्वतन्त्रात्मातिरिक्तस् तु तुच्छो ऽतुच्छो ऽपि कश्चन ।
न मोक्षो नाम तन् नास्य पृथङ्नामापि गृह्यते॥ ३१

svatantrātmātiriktas tu tuccho 'tuccho 'pi kaścana /
na mokṣo nāma tan nāsya pṛthaṅnāmāpi gṛhyate // 1.31

इह तावत् समस्तेषु शास्त्रेषु परिगीयते ।
अज्ञानं संसृतेर् हेतुर् ज्ञानं मोक्षैककारणम् ॥ २२

iha tāvat samasteṣu śāstreṣu parigīyate /
ajñānaṃ saṃsṛter hetur jñānaṃ mokṣaika-kāraṇam // 1.22

विशेषेणेन बुद्धिस्थे संसारोत्तरकालिके।
सम्भावनां निरस्यैतदभावे मोक्षम् अब्रवीत्॥ २४

viśeṣeṇena buddhi-sthe saṃsārottara-kālike /
sambhāvanāṃ nirasyaitadabhāve mokṣam abravīt // 1.24

यत् तु ज्ञेयसतत्त्वस्य पूर्णपूर्णप्रथात्मकम्।
तद् उत्तरोत्तरं ज्ञानं तत् तत् संसारशान्तिदम्॥ ३२

yat tu jñeya-sa-tattvasya pūrṇa-pūrṇa-prathātmakam /
tad uttarottaraṃ jñānaṃ tat tat saṃsāra-śānti-dam // 1.32