Embodied Liberation: the goal of Tantrik Yoga

Recognition Sutra #16

This crucial sūtra describes the goal of the path of Tantrik Yoga—'embodied liberation'—and more importantly, how to attain it. In the teaching of The Recognition Sutras, it works like this: first having contemplated that your own essence-nature is the sole author of the Five Acts (Sūtra Ten and Eleven), and the mind as a result having come to rest in its natural state as Awareness (Sūtra Thirteen), and having next accessed your innate power and seen (however briefly) that everything is an expression of what you are (Sūtra Fifteen), the next step is to stabilize that realization so that it becomes your default state, not just an occasional experience. Here our author, Kshemarāja, introduces what at the time was a unique doctrine of nondual Tantra: the possibility of stabilized realization while still in the body, called the jīvanmukti state.

चिदानन्दलाभे देहादिषु चेत्यमानेष्वपि चिदैक्याम्यप्रतिपत्तिदाढ्यं जीवन्मुक्तिः ॥ १६ ॥

When one discovers this Joy of Awareness, and stabilizes the realization that Awareness is one with body, etc.—even while they are [still] perceivable—that state is jīvanmukti: ‘embodied liberation’. || 16 ||

Here the intensified, empowered, awakened Consciousness described in Chapter Fifteen is given the name cid-ānanda, the Joy of Awareness. To be crystal clear about the stages of this process, first you recognize that divine Awareness or Śiva-nature (the author of the Five Acts) is your own essence-nature, then you access your innate power (bala) by centering yourself in that essence-nature, which makes possible the ‘absorption’ of all things into yourself (i.e., the experience of unity-consciousness). It is in this second phase that the Joy aspect of your inherent being becomes apparent. Kshemarāja here clarifies that the blissful experience of the all-encompassing ‘I’, the Immersion (samāveśa) into the Whole, is also named the Joy of Awareness. This term is particularly resonant because it suggests both prakāśa and vimarśa (for which see Tantra Illuminated, pages 60–61) and unified Śiva-Śakti.

Kshemarāja explains his sūtra in these words:

When one has discovered this Joy of Awareness—i.e., the kind of Immersion in which one absorbs everything into oneself—and [then,] in the [subsequent] phase of emerging [from it], one stabilizes the realization that Awareness is one with [the various phenomena that appear, such as] body, prāṇa, blue, pleasure, etc., seeing them as extensions of that state even while they are still appearing, then that and that alone can be called ‘embodied liberation’.

The experience of unity-consciousness is delightful, but it is in the transition back to supposedly normal consciousness that the opportunity lies and the work must be done. The Tantrik tradition is particularly concerned with transitional or liminal states as vital opportunities for furthering realization. In the samāveśa experience, unity reveals itself with no effort. Then, after a short or a long time, this mystical state gives way to a more habitual mode of perception. It is this transition, called vyutthāna, which is a golden opportunity for integrating and furthering the experience. In the transition, whatever one notices—the sensations of the body, an emotion arising (such as sadness at the experience ebbing away), a thought arising (“Have I lost it?”) or an ordinary perception—should be seen as further expressions of that same unitary Awareness that a moment ago effortlessly pervaded. A gentle effort is necessary here, a firm intention to see whatever arises or whatever you notice as an expression of that same Awareness, a vibration of that same Energy, an extension of that same state. The word Kshema uses for ‘extension’ literally means ‘petal’, so the image suggested is one in which unity-consciousness is the center of the flower, and whatever arises when effortless unity-consciousness subsides should be seen as ‘petals’ of that same flower. In this way, you start to erase the false boundaries between the peak experience and ‘ordinary’ experience.

Cultivating this understanding during all transitions out of spiritual experiences or spiritual practice periods allows one to increasingly carry the flavor of the unity-experience into everyday interactions. Little by little, everything tastes more and more like Awareness. Nothing stands outside it, nothing is excluded, nothing is divorced from divine Consciousness. When this experiential realization becomes stabilized, that is, when it becomes your default state, that is what we call jīvanmukti, living liberation. ‘Default state’ means it is your baseline, your normal experience, the state you naturally come back to. It need not be constant, but it is not yet your default state when a stimulus—such as a spiritual teaching or practice—must be applied to activate it. For most people, some key saṃskāras must be healed and digested for the unity of Awareness to become their default state.

Since no one can make Immersion into unity-consciousness happen on cue, what are we to do? How are we to cultivate it?

One manifests this unity of Awareness in a consistent manner when the impression of the Immersion [experience] is strengthened by the sequence of methods that will be taught later [in Chapter Eighteen].

If you have experienced the all-encompassing ‘I’ even once, then you can move forward on this path. [But, I argue, the prerequisite to cultivating unity-consciousness (śākta-samāveśa) as your default state is cultivating centeredness in your core, your essence-nature (āṇava-samāveśa). Consistent access to cit precedes consistent access to cid-ānanda. However, as we will see, the practices of Chapter Eighteen are appropriate to both phases of the spiritual journey.] If you want an unwavering manifestation of the unity of Awareness, says Kshemarāja, then simply strengthen the impression (saṃskāra) of that experience through the methods (yuktis) he will teach in Chapter Eighteen, until that impression overwhelms the impressions of limited, dualistic, adversarial experience. (He will discuss this same process in terms of the ‘expansion of the Center’ in Chapter Seventeen.)

Finally, Kshema wishes to define jīvanmukti more specifically, seeing as how it was not yet a widespread doctrine in his time, though it later became one of the most salient contributions of Tantra to mainstream Hinduism.

‘Embodied liberation’ is [defined as] the [natural] freedom that arises for one who has recognized her own essence-nature when the entire mass of bonds melts away yet she continues to care for the prāṇas of the body.

Here we have an unusually clear statement that awakening—experiential recognition of your essence-nature—precedes liberation and does not necessarily entail it. For one to be liberated, the ‘mass of bonds’ must melt away or be driven off. According to some yogic authorities, this would sever the link to the physical body, which is why Kshema stresses that this state can coexist with full embodiment (“maintaining [all five primary and five secondary] prāṇas”). What does it mean for the mass of bonds to melt away? It means the dissolution of ignorance (skewed perspective), of attachment and aversion based in ignorance, and of compulsive self-referencing—but these dissolve (quickly or gradually) of their own accord when reality is seen, and met, as it is. It also means digestion of saṃskāras, and therefore anyone who desires embodied liberation must be willing to meet whatever is unmet in the depths of the body-mind.

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This post is an excerpt from Chapter Sixteen of my book, The Recognition Sutras

For the online course to accompany the book, go to The Sutra Project