Guest post: Dionysus and Tantra

by Adam.

I am a Buddhist, or at least that is what I tell people when someone inevitably asks me about the mala wrapped around my wrist.  It’s not quite true, but its truer than most answers I might give.  Jesus exists somewhere in my cosmology, and there are clear links to Shaivism and the cult of Maha Devi in my practice, so maybe I’m a little Hindu too.  But really, I’m Pagan.  And that’s where this story- about the link between the mystery traditions of the East and the West- begins.  While my story will seem to wander a bit, to India and back again, I promise that it begins and ends with Dionysus and the Orphic Mysteries.

When I was twelve I picked up a book of Greek mythology, and while I read all of it, I fell in love with Dionysus.  The earliest myth I read about him was the Tyrrhenian Pirates, and somehow I identified with him from the very beginning.  The other gods were nifty, but Dionysus was my god.  When I finally abandoned Christianity at the age of eighteen, it was naturally to Dionysus I turned.  I practiced like most pagans, but really I never had any significant experiences.  I saw energy, and did magick (which worked, mostly), but the gods, and Dionysus, didn’t speak to me.

When I was 21 I saw my first deity.  I met someone who had intense spiritual experiences, and around him I saw and heard the Goddess, and realized she was more real than I could have hoped.  She was present, a voice in my head, but one whose words were being heard by someone else at the same time.  Whatever recourse I might have had to the notion that “it was all in my head” was inconveniently out of reach.  When I prayed to Her, she responded.  When I gave offerings, She was there.  When I did magick, She empowered it.

So I became a devotee of Hekate.  I did a little ritual in which I swore myself to her if only she would teach, protect, and guide me.  I gave her an offering of my own blood to seal the deal.  I got up from the altar a little disappointed that nothing “cool” happened, and laid down to sleep.  As I started falling asleep the world suddenly erupted in this rose colored light, and it was like I was floating in that light, washing over me and through me, and I lost all sense of time and space.  I awoke directly from that experience, feeling as if I hadn’t slept at all, that it had only been a few minutes of that intense rose colored light.  But it was nearly eight hours later, morning, and somehow that experience had lasted the whole night.  After that I saw and heard her in my head, and she was a constant presence to me.  And only then, after that, did Dionysus speak to me in the same way that She did (the irony of having wanted that kind of experience with him only to have it happen now wasn’t lost on me).  More than that, I saw my then-boyfriend possessed by him.  I saw the stars in his eyes, I knew him, and he definitely knew me.

The Goddess always held me back from him.  My infatuation with him didn’t go away, and he was always around.  But I wasn’t permitted to worship him in the way that I did Her.  It was like a war inside myself, because I identified with him so strongly.  Interestingly, she didn’t forbid me from working with anyone else (so long as She was number one)- just him.

A few years later, She made a point of showing me visions of herself manifesting as Kali and other goddesses.  She wanted me to see that her “Greek” identity was not her only identity.  She wasn’t “all” goddesses per se, but to me She was a definite set of Goddesses that were all expressions of the same mindstream.  She was stuck with what I was already familiar with- for example, I didn’t realize she was also Prajnaparamita, the embodiment of Wisdom in tantric Buddhism, until much later when I started to study Buddhism in more depth and recognized her energy.  This is UPG, but my experience since then has borne it out.

In 2002, through a series of intense visions and dreams, she lead me to re-make my vows to her in a different form than I had originally done:  I was to take an oath to her in 5 parts, an oath which was my oath to her and also her oath to me that I would be given these things, led to their attainment.  I later realized (years later) she had led me to take the Buddhist precepts as my oaths, without my really knowing it.

The 5 oaths I took before Hekate were these:

1) Freedom from Falsehood

2) Obedience to my Mistress

3) Mastery over the Mysteries

4) Indifference to enduring pain

5) Selflessness

I ritualized this with a pentagram drawn with salt on my altar, with 5 river stones at each point to symbolize each oath.  Within two years, my understanding of these oaths would become radically different.  When I took them, I didn’t know Hekate would appear to me and demand that I go to India, or that despite the improbability of that, everything I would need to actually go to India would spontaneously and “coincidentally” appear within a day of that, and that She would lead me to McCleod Ganj, and the Tibetan community there.  Or that when I saw the Dalai Lama with my own eyes I would see an infinite void of Golden Light within him, and recognize that his religion and my own were actually one and the same.

The oath to obtain Freedom from Falsehood was an oath to realize Buddha-mind.  In Buddhism, all mind, all self, all words and concepts used to define the mind and the self within the mind, are all false, illusion that we exist and that things exist when in fact they don’t (interdependent origination, emptiness, key Buddhist concepts).  Obedience to Her was my path to this, for She was my Guru.  And since She took this as her oath to me as well, it meant that obedience to Her will, on this path, was also a gift from her to me.

Mastery over the Mysteries was coming to know and embody the knowledge of the tantras and the sutras.  And Indifference to pain and Selflessness were about achieving the Goals of Enlightenment, and becoming a being who existed not for himself but for others.  While I did not fully understand at the time what these oaths meant, I swore them all the same.  It was the best thing I ever did.  There was more to my oath, which I wrote and recited as she dictated to me:

I will endure what ordeals may come on my path to enduring life.  I will forgive all transgressions committed against me.  I will inscribe in my Will the power to give mercy, to understand the suffering of all who cross my path.  I will be an agent of healing and empowerment in this universe, to help the weak and teach the ignorant.  I will enter the Temple as Her Priest, as her servant, and I will do Her Will.  I am bound by these tenets as long as I live.  

Shortly after India, I asked Hekate to help me attain Enlightenment.  (Small request, eh?)  A lot like the first time, She responded when I was in that twilight space between wakefulness and sleep.  She came to me with wolfsbane in her hand, and bid me to eat it.  I did, knowing full well that I would die.  And I did, at least in that vision.  I felt it.  Every moment of it.  Like the inverse of an orgasm, a closing in of blackness, a tightening of the chest, until whatever I was let go, more explosion than release, and I was no more.  I died, and as I did so, I dissolved away, and then there was that same Golden light that isn’t light, and it was everything, and nothing, and infinite.  It was spaciousness, an infinity that had no distance, and no time.  I woke up still in my body (relieved to find I hadn’t actually died-I honestly wasn’t sure before then that I hadn’t), and it was still there.  It infused my every perception of myself and the world around me for hours.  Everything was an illusion, like the colors of oil swirling in a rain puddle, and this great lucid emptiness was at the heart of every being, and the union of that truth with my own sense of self and other was the experience of love for every other being.  And then I just stopped experiencing that.  And I was myself again, and nothing I did could get me back to that experience.  I later learned, through my study of Tantric Buddhist practice, that this was called “Drawing the Future Fruit into the Present Path.”  It is a tantric form of magic, in which the student is set on the path to Liberation by taking advantage of the layers of being which exist beyond time and space.  The student is manifested as an already-awakened Buddha beyond time, and that experience is rooted in an experience within time.  The result is that a “destiny” is written- because the experience of that Buddhahood has manifested in my present, time now has not choice but to chart my path forward to make that experience possible.  Even if it takes thousands of years and many lifetimes, it is now inevitable that I must obtain that state, in order to make it possible that I have experienced it at that moment.  While lamas rarely talk about this openly, you can see an example of the discussion of this “beyond time” in the first paragraph here.  This is the actual method of initiation into Tibetan Buddhist practice; the initiate receives the “Four Empowerments” which link the practitioner’s mind, speech, body, and becoming (these four being linked to particular chakras) to that of an Enlightened being.  If they follow through on the practice, at some point they have a visionary experience like this, and thus obtain “stream-entry“.  So they receive an initiation, and later through meditative practice the “real” initiation will happen because of it, and once it does, the very being of the universe (for each of us is our own version of the universe- our “Spirit”) has bound them onto their path.  That is why in tantric Buddhist systems practitioners are warned not to begin a tantric path of practice and then abandon it- the consequences can be very bad (imagine that you set the universe to push you down a path, and then suddenly change your mind and now are at odds with everything the universe is trying to do to you- the dissonance can be catastrophic; once such a path is forged in your Spirit, it cannot be unforged … although it can be changed).

It was on this path, this fusion of Hellenic Polytheism and the tantric, shamanistic tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, that Hekate brought me back around to Dionysus.  To understand how, I have to begin with the idea of a tantric deity (called a yidam).  “Tantra” in the Buddhist context has little in common with how “tantra” is understood in Hindu contexts (or also then, how most Westerners use the word tantra).  When I was in India, I visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Dharamsala and noticed that on the sign at the gate it said it was the “Gyuto Tantric Monastery.” I was confused to see the word “tantric” in this context, knowing little about Tibetan Buddhism at the time.  A nun there finally explained it to me:  tantra was the art of meditatively embodying an Enlightened Deity.

In annutara yoga tantra, the meditator visualizes themselves as the deity of the mandala.  The deity (called a yidam) has specific attributes, symbols, appearing as garments or objects held in the hand.  Some are “yab-yum,” which means they appear as male and female engaged in copulation.  The symbolism is crucial, because that union, rather than being about sex, is instead a representation of the union of the experience of Emptiness and of Bliss, the ecstatic experience of that infinite spaciousness that is Clear Light, as the pervading ground of an illusory reality.  The objects in their hands are tools for obtaining that state, or for alleviating the suffering of sentient beings.  The meditation is a spell which the meditator is casting upon themselves through repeated visualization.  Once the spell is fully formed- so deeply realized that the meditator is convinced in meditation that they are the deity (this is called “vajra pride,” and despite the rushed enthusiasm of inexperienced practitioners, really takes years to accomplish fully, although some very profound experiences often happen early on), then they undertake the “transformation” phase of the annutara tantra yoga in which the practitioner utilizes specific techniques to transform their energy structures to fully embody the Enlightened deity of the mandala.  The transformation path can be difficult or simple, depending on the methods used.

Fundamental to these tantric practices is the Guru Yoga, in which one serves their master, obeys, and maintains certain commitments or oaths in relation to the master.  The point of this is that it is a bond through which flows the energy of the master.  This matters because you cannot simply adopt the image of a tantric deity, meditate with it, and obtain Enlightenment.  The tantric deity, as it exists in any way that can be communicated by ordinary means, is just an image.  One needs to be tapped into the energy that animates the tantric deity, the energy that actually allows it to be a vehicle of Liberation.  That is why in Tibetan Buddhism, in order to be introduced to the practice of any of the tantric deities, one must be initiated by a recognized guru in the lineage.  Because the guru has obtained similar empowerment from his or her own guru, going back in a lineage all the way to Vajradhara Buddha himself (the Lightning Bearer is what that name means- imagine that!), so long as all of the gurus in that lineage are authentic practitioners who have kept their Samaya (their oaths of practice), then the energy stream flows to you uninterrupted, and so long as you keep your oaths, then all of the tantric meditation practices will work for you (because you will be aided by the energies of the Enlightened masters who came before you).  Without that lineage of empowerment, you are essentially throwing your own energy at an image, and reinventing the wheel with it.  Given how difficult it is to reach the genuine experience of Enlightenment, it is next to impossible for an unenlightened person to cast such a spell on their own and actually achieve anything with it (although hurting themselves in the process is definitely possible).

It is, fortunately for us, possible to obtain such Empowerments from authentic dharma masters who are gods and goddesses.  The personal expressions of Hekate and Dionysus are, in my experience, both exactly that.  Of course, because my own entry into practice did not come from a Tibetan lama, but through the Goddess, my experience and practice both seem suspect to traditional Tibetan sanghas (Buddhist communities).

There are other methods of tantric practice that operate on similar principles.  For example, some forms of the generation stage yoga (the visualization stage) involve visualizing the deity in front of oneself, and engaging in the practice of surrender to the deity.  This is much closer to the traditional theistic practice of those who worship the gods, but differs in that one’s understanding of the nature of the deity, and the nature of that bond, is different.  Rather than seeing the deity as only being a personal being, like a monarch or other being to whom we swear service, the practitioner understands the deity is both personal and also a part of themselves at the same time- that the deity is an expression of one’s own Enlightened potential, given shape in a particular way.  This is a special kind of meditation, one made more richly experienced by embodying it through a lived experience of service to the deity.  But the point is the same- the transformation through that surrender of one’s own energies, so that eventually one becomes an extension of the Enlightened deity themselves (and so become Enlightened yourself).  In this method the visualization stage and the transformation stage blend into one another.

Dionysus is both a personal being, a realized adept of a tantric practice, and through his mythology, is also his own version of the yidam of that tantric practice.  I am suggesting that you can interact with Dionysus both as a personal deity (a Dharma protector, and guru, who can give you initiation and empowerment) and as the yidam of a tantric practice system.

I came to this not starting with Dionysus, but starting with tantric deities I encountered in my practice.  Through my practice I was lead to adopt a number of practices, which eventually started showing themselves to be parts of a bigger whole.  Vajrakilaya Buddha is a yidam often depicted as a phurba, or kila dagger.  The secret of his practice is that he bends the weight of one’s own kleshas (spiritual and mental defilements) against themselves, resulting in their purification and eventual Liberation.  When depicted as a being holding a Phurba, he is standing on the ego.  As a phurba, the point of the dagger is impaling a figure that represents one’s ego (its more than that, but for now “ego” will do as an explanation).  In other words, Vajrakilaya Buddha is represented as subduing himself, and in so doing, he arises as a Buddha.  Historically, he was also manifested as a dharmapala (Dharma protector thoughtform), in order to defend the practitioner from harm.  The method he used was the same:  the greed, anger, or other defilements of whoever posed a threat was turned against them, became their undoing.  Sound familiar?  Like every time Dionysus felt a need to protect himself, his followers, or to punish anyone?

Another yidam I was lead to work with is Chakrasamvara, the Lord of Bliss.  His essence is sexual energy, the transformation of sexuality into a spell of Liberation.  Key to that is karmamudra, the use of sexual acts as a magical binding bringing Liberation, which while it can be done with a sexual partner, is better done by manifesting oneself as one’s own sexual partner.  This is done spiritually, in meditation.  While traditionally that means seeing oneself as both the male and female partner, being gay, I found that difficult.  For me, in meditation, my union became with myself, and I suddenly found, in a spontaneous vision, I was Prosymnos, and the phallus carved from the Fig tree was my way of joining with myself eternally, uniting the masculine and feminine within me as a binding of Emptiness and Bliss, Wisdom and Compassion.  And like Vajrakilaya, who subdues himself in order to become himself, I found Prosymnos in his grave because through that union the ego of the ordinary man is subdued, and the god allowed to emerge in his place.  I saw the Greek myth as another way for the same tantric system of practice to be expressed.

I also found that Chakrasamvara and Vajrakilaya joined to create a special, hybrid yidam, called Kharamukha Samvara, the Donkey-headed Lord of Bliss.  (See here.) Kharamukha Samvara embodies the tantric principle more clearly than any other deity.  That is, that the path to Liberation is not away from one’s defilements, but through them.  In order to become Enlightened, one must obtain desireless desire, like Aizen Myo and Kurukulle, who both represent the transformation of sexual desire into Enlightenment.  Kharamukha represents the manifestation of Enlightenment through the ordinary, through crass reality.  The Donkey image, in Tibetan iconography as well as the Greek, represents what is crude, what is obscene, what is ordinary.  It is the representation of the well-known Buddhist adage that Nirvana and Samsara are not separate, but rather one and the same.  Being Enlightened isn’t an escape from the world of suffering, its a shift in perspective.  Being a version of Chakrasamvara, Kharamukha is further an embodiment of using pleasure as a path to Liberation.

So why does the Donkey appear in Dionysian imagery?  Apollo is part of this too.  If you remember that parts of the yidam’s image are actually elements of a spell- the empowerment of which comes through the guru-disciple relationship, then you need to know certain peculiar images common in Buddhist iconography have special meanings, which until recently were generally secret.  In fact, tantric practitioners deliberately disguised their teachings whenever they appeared in writing, using a code some have called the “twilight language,” in which they appear to be discussing one thing (often something obscene, actually) and are really speaking in code for experiences only understood by tantric meditators.  Those who have not had the experiences cannot decode the meaning, because they are most often experiences that defy ordinary language.  The symbolism in the art, however, is often easier to decode because it is more obvious.

For example, most tantric deities are depicted wearing the skin of an elephant, and often, human skin.  That is, like the Silence of the Lambs, they are wearing some poor human’s skin as a garment.  What?  How awful!  But.  It represents the stripping away of ego, of the identity, as a superficial mask hiding one’s true nature as the primordial Emptiness/Spaciousness that undergirds reality (the “void” if you will, although that word suggests “nothingness” which is still a dualistic concept, and so fails to really capture what is being point to here).  The image of the human skin means one has stripped away the identity and seen the real essence of reality, and so become a Buddha.

Then there is Marsyas the satyr who challenged Apollo to the musical duel, with the winner getting to “do whatever he wanted with the loser” – Marsyas of course wanted to sex up some Apollo.  But when Marsyas lost the duel (or didn’t lose depending on how you interpret the story), and Apollo punished him by having him flayed alive. . . well from a tantric perspective, that doesn’t mean Apollo killed him.  It means Marsyas, through loosing, had given Apollo complete power over him.  Apollo used that to Liberate Marsyas, symbolized by being flayed alive.  Midas, who judged the contest, initially thought Marsyas was better.  Why did Apollo “curse” him with Donkey ears?  Because he gave him initiation into Kharamukha Samvara’s practice, and so showed that in reality his music was superior because it conveyed the energies of Liberation.  For him, the Donkey ears represent the birth of Bodhicitta (Buddha mind, the desire for Liberation in order to benefit sentient beings) in his being, the moment when the understanding of Enlightenment, and the desire to obtain that state for selfless reasons, was first born in him.

In Buddhism music is a symbol of the great seal of Liberation- usually represented by the Bell and the Vajra (lightning bolt).  The Bell, turned upside down, symbolizes primordial Emptiness/Spaciousness (the void), and when rung, the sound is the apparent reality (usually understood as “Om”) that appears like swirling colors of oil in a puddle of water.  The Vajra, or lightning bolt, represents the power of the Buddhas, but it is also synonymous with the _sound_ of the Bell.  It is the power of the universe itself.  So an instrument, consecrated in this tantric system, becomes a representation of Enlightenment itself when played.  Marsyas probably was the better musician in a mundane sense.  But Apollo’s music brought Enlightenment.

This same relationship between Apollo and Dionysus appears with Orpheus, when in meditation, Orpheus discovers that somehow Apollo is the supreme god, instead of Dionysus.  Curious, eh, to discuss Apollo in any terms like supreme (I mean, its not Zeus!)?  But in tantric practice, the experience of primordial Emptiness directly, which can only be done through tummo (inner fire) practice and other techniques, or at the moment of death, is called the “Clear Light.”  [You can read about this in the 6 Yogas of Naropa, although I would discourage you from trying those practices without guidance and appropriate years of preparation].  It is the supreme foundation of reality, the ultimate truth, the true center of every soul in which we are not only all one, but revealed to not really even exist except as illusions.  I believe the Greek mystics symbolically referred to this as Apollo or Helios, and that is why Apollo could be referred to as superior to Dionysus- if “Apollo” secretly is code for the inexpressible ground of all existence, then “Apollo,” at least on the context of the mystery tradition, is superior to everything and everyone.  So what does it mean that Dionysus is enraged and his maenads tear Orpheus limb from limb?

There are layers here to unpack, but it is related to the Chod practice, in which the practitioner meditates on offering up the flesh of their body (all of it, not just parts) in offering to demons that original within and without the practitioner.  The meditator, through ultimate selflessness, tames those god-demons into service, and Liberates them by consecrating their own flesh with the energies of Liberation.  This is a practice developed and taught by Machig Labdron, a female saint, in Tibet, but also by other gurus (the best explanation of this practice, for me, was here).  The when doesn’t matter, because tantric practitioners of sufficient realization begin operating in a way that can transcend time (I’m sure that may be a controversial statement, but for now I’m just going to ask you to accept it).  So don’t get wrapped up in when in history something happened- rather I’m saying that in the space beyond time, what I like to call the “Eternal Present,” all of these energies are connected a manifest in our history, our timeline, in wonderful ways.

The personal Dionysus is connected to this practice.  The Titans who tore Zagreus limb from limb are, as I see it, a representation of the Chod practitioner giving himself in offering to the demons in order to tame them.  The practice serves two purposes:  First, to embody compassion and generosity to such an extreme that all attachment to ego, to self, and to one’s own body, are transcended.  Second, in so doing, to achieve total Enlightenment for one’s self.  That means that for someone in Dionysus’ lineage, practicing tantric meditation using the energies the God has given them, that when the moment comes to obtain Liberation, it comes through a version of this practice.  They are torn limb from limb, only to find that everything they thought they were was Emptiness.  In other words, to the eyes of a tantric Buddhist practitioner, Dionysus brought Orpheus into Buddhahood.

Another link here is the ritual practice of calling the God down into a bull, before ritually slaughtering and eating the meat of the same bull.  This is another manifestation of the Chod practice, but the God is the practitioner, and we are the god-demons being tamed into Enlightenment through the God’s benevolent practice of selflessness.

Once it became clear to me in my own practice that what I was really doing was practicing this Dionysian tantric practice, and that what I was finding in my studies of Tibetan systems were, essentially, some of the “ingredients” that went into the construction of that Dionysian system, I simply embraced the Dionysian system directly.

Within it there are many different ways to practice.  Following the Kharamukha path, the practice can be understood in White and Grey terms, where the White path is a traditional path of purification (vegetarianism, non-violence, sexual abstinence- all of which some Orphic groups were attributed with in antiquity, and which are the typical characteristics of Buddhist monastic communities), and the Grey path is the path of ordinary life, where one’s desires and pleasures are brought under control as part of one’s spiritual practice (rather than allowed to run wild, so to speak).  The “Black” path exists, but is the very thing Dionysus saves you from- the path of sin and evil, slavery to ego and desire.  That is the meaning (as I see it) of the Destructive Ones in the mythology (the women who killed their own children, and were turned into bats for failing to worship Dionysus).  The whole idea of the Grey path is that through surrender to Dionysus, and his yidam, your energies, your desires, even when given free reign in the deepest intoxication, become purified so that they are harmless to yourself and to others.  They become a form of spiritual practice in which surrender to your own impulses, through Dionysus, becomes surrender to Enlightenment, compassion, wisdom.  However, in order for that to work, especially with the Grey path, one’s commitment to Dionysus and the oaths (the Samaya) by which He initiated you into practice is essential- the commitment to cultivating selflessness (even if you haven’t quite managed it yet) being central to all forms of Buddhist practice (that is the one commitment that any path to Enlightenment must make).

Most tantric systems use rituals (called “sadhanas”) in which the practitioner repeatedly casts spells on themselves through their ritual words and actions, and call upon deities to help them realize those spells, the outcome of which is meant to be Enlightenment and power to benefit other sentient beings, or to alleviate their suffering.  Most initiatory rites are the same- they symbolically implicate you in a path that results in your transformation.  In Buddhist practice, one repeats those rituals/sadhanas as a primary form of practice.  But they are most effective when coupled with meditation, because the ritual is itself only a spell directing the transformative process, which can only be actualized through meditative practice.  This is akin to the principle that casting a spell to get a new job actually requires submitting job applications- the sadhana sets in place the spell to transform you, but you have to actually do the work to allow that transformation to take place.

The actual realization of those spells comes through meditative practice.  I call it practice because “meditation” has become synonymous with mind-awareness or insight meditation, and what I mean here is something more than a mental gymnastics.  While meditation might be relaxing, practice is not.  In tantric systems, one reason why students are not initiated until they have done the Ngondro stages (the “preliminary” stages) is because they need enough experience with mind meditation to understand that what they need to grasp, in order to transform, is not the images their mind presents them.  Whatever you experience internally is, from the point of view of a tantric meditator, only an image reflecting on the surface of the water.  Like Galadriel’s water-mirror in Lord of the Rings, your mind is not what you need to work with- its what you need to get beyond.  The stone stand that the water-mirror rests on, that is your energy body, your actual being.  And it cannot be “seen” or experienced in your mind in any way- whatever you experience in your mind is always only a representation of what actually is.  You can perceive your true body- but what appears in the mirror is only your mind attempting to express what it has perceived.  That expression is always distorted.  Trusting to much in the images that appear in your mind can lead the practitioner astray easily- because each image is only an interpretation of what is actually happening.  Those images are not all bad, however.  One benefit of being part of a tantric tradition is that a particular lineage can provide a coherent set of imagery that corresponds to the same spiritual events- so that when two practitioners from the same tantric tradition experience a common image, it will mean that they are having mostly the same experience.  Mythology is such a common language, equipping your water-mirrors with ways to understand and communicate common spiritual experiences that otherwise would be exist for each of us in our own idiosyncratic mental languages.

When Buddhists say “everything is really just Mind”- they don’t mean the little “mind” that appears in the water-mirror- they mean the big Mind that contains the stone pedestal holding the water-mirror.  The best way, for those not experienced enough in meditation to directly grasp that layer of reality, is to use ecstasy to access it.  Meditators using mantras, like the 100 syllable mantra for purification, when they really start to have success with them it’s because they reach a state in which they are swaying, completely lost to an altered state of consciousness.  The most profound transformations often feel like dying- using a particular mantra, a particular transformative energy, they reach a peak where the mantra is completely in control, where you are sweating, lost, intense, and you push through and are gone.  Light.  Movement.  Falling.  Flying.  Then you come back to yourself, and you are not the same person you were.  The mantra becomes everything, and the ordinary mind is suspended and stops impeding access to the true Mind, making that ecstatic and transformative moment possible.  Wild dancing, driving music, these are all methods of harnessing the transformative power of the God and allowing it to transform you, even without having a good grasp of meditation as practice.

But if that’s not for you, Dionysus has provided.  I have also long felt that the Pure Land Buddhist traditions, in which Amida Buddha grants the faithful rebirth in his Pure Land, where they have bodies of golden light and obtain Enlightenment without fail in his paradise, are directly linked with Christianity and other forms of Salvationist religion.  And I think that is exactly the meaning of the ritual done by and for the dead in the Orphic tradition, by which upon entering the Underworld, they speak the ritual words and bypass the ordinary experience of death, going instead to a blessed state with Dionysus, to his Pure Land, where their Liberation is assured.  Thus the saying, “Few are the mystics, many are the thyrsus bearers” (few who can follow the meditative path themselves, many those who depend on Dionysus to save them through his own power).  And so “Soter” becomes one of the Dionysian epithets.  The path to Enlightenment, for Dionysus, is meant to be joyous, raucous, beautiful, sensual, full of life and engagement with life.  It is not meant to be a path of withdrawal from the world, as it is for so many Buddhist practitioners.  The Dionysian system, as I see it, allows you to practice as you can, to progress in common ways or in your own ways, while still holding the same ultimate ideals as the saints and yogis.  It presents the path to Enlightenment not as a path of burden and sacrifice, but as a path of joyousness in ourselves and in one another.

I will leave you with this.  If it is true that Dionysus is the god of tantric system of practice that brings Enlightenment in a way that Buddhists would understand it, and that instead of pretty Tibetan mandalas they used stories as their meditative spells, then consider the Tyrrhenian Pirates I so loved as a child.  Dionysus the god is kidnapped aboard a ship of pirates.   The helmsman recognizes something about the god, and when the pirates want to rape the young god and sell him into slavery or ransom (thinking him some prince), the helmsman refuses and urges them all to stop and release the boy.  The helmsman is allegory for bodhiccitta- he sees the true nature of the god, while the pirates only see the mundane flesh.  The helmsman is that part of the practitioner that sees the potential for Liberation, and sees its great virtue, unlike the pirates which are those parts of yourself that only crave, desire, and are trapped in the world of sensory pleasures.  When they come after the boy anyway, He suddenly transforms into a Lion (in Buddhism, the symbol of Fearlessness through Liberation), and grape vines and ivies run up the mast and over the ship, and suddenly there are bears and tigers and wild animals roaring fiercely all over the ship.  The crew become terrified, and jump overboard- when they come into contact with the waters (the waters of Emptiness), they are transformed into Dolphins.  The dolphins are the symbol, in this tantra, of having purified elements of samsaric life through realization of Emptiness and Bliss- the are joyfulness, traversing the waters of samsara without being touched by it.  Following the Kharamukha principle, the dolphins travel in the world, but transcend it.  The helmsman guides the ship to shore, and becomes the first priest of this new god.

The whole story is an allegory for the process of tantric transformation from within.  The ship is your own mind, the helmsman and the pirates only parts of yourself.  The God is that potential within you to become a liberated being, a Buddha.  To meditate on the myth of the Tyrrhenian Pirates, to ritualize it, is to cast it as a spell upon yourself, setting yourself on the path to Enlightenment.



  1. Thank you for this article! I have dabbled in tantrism and zen buddhism but also consider myself Pagan and a devotee of Bacchus and Hekate. This is an excellent comparison of the eastern/western tantric traditions!

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