Three Ways to Freedom

The Tantrik analysis of spiritual practice.

One of the key teachings of classical Śaiva Tantra, which influenced much of the subsequent tradition, was that of the three upāyas, or Skillful Means to Liberation. These are three different modes of cultivating liberative awareness; though they are distinct, they all lead to the same goal, that of samāveśa, or continuous immersion into divine Reality.

The goal can be reached, says Abhinavagupta's Light on Tantra, through The Divine Means (śāmbhava-upāya), the method of accessing Divine Consciousness by means of non-conceptual intuition; through The Empowered Means (śākta-upāya), the method that emphasizes working with the energy of beliefs or thought-constructs, and the feelings they produce; or through The Embodied Means (āṇava-upāya), the method that works with the physical body and subtle body through various kinds of yogic practices. More commonly, the goal is reached through practice in all three upāyas, simultaneously or sequentially. In fact, the Tantrik tradition argues that no spiritual path can be complete that emphasizes one upāya to the virtual exclusion of the other two.  

This might explain why many religions do not succeed in producing spiritual awakening: they focus almost exclusively on the rituals and 'good works' of āṇava-upāya (e.g., Catholicism, mainstream Hinduism, or popular Buddhism); or on the centrality of salvific beliefs and positivistic thinking of śākta-upāya (e.g., Protestant Christianity, Vedānta, or the New Age movement); or on non-conceptual modes to shift awareness out of conditioned thought and into direct perception (e.g., some forms of Zen). But rather than use the teaching on the upāyas to critique religion, it is more effective to use it to increase the effectiveness of one's individual spiritual practice, whatever tradition one practices within.

Here is a table with which we can more quickly come to grips with this schema (note refinements that have been made over the version that appears in Tantra Illuminated):

Since Tantrik practice seeks nothing less than a total integration of the disparate parts of our being—i.e., the realization of ourselves as an undivided, unitary mass of awakened consciousness—it makes sense that the tradition discusses Tantrik sādhana as something that must function on all three levels: body (including the 'energy body'), heart-mind, and spirit. Even if we primarily pursue one of the three modalities, it must necessarily come to entail the other two in order to achieve its aim. Thus, as we progress in practice, these three distinct aspects of our being (body-mind-spirit) start to seem less and less distinct, until, as Abhinavagupta says, the nectar of blissful self-awareness floods and overflows the internal dams that divide us, dissolving all distinctions. Then you become an undivided self: you experience yourself as one unified whole, a mass of blissfully self-aware Consciousness (chidānanda-ghana), spontaneously responding with the whole of your being to the whole of each moment of experience.

For more on the three upāyas, see pages 349-403 of Tantra Illuminated. To briefly summarize the discussion found in my book, 'The Divine Means' consists primarily of:

  • learning how to open to Grace;
  • nonconceptual moment-to-moment awareness of your inner state; and
  • internalization of the nonconceptual essence of mantras. 

'The Empowered Means' largely focuses on undermining false or disempowering mental constructs by cultivating views on reality that are profoundly empowering due to being more aligned with the nature of things (vikalpa-saṃskāra). This work ultimately leads to an ability to dissolve mental constructs altogether; in other words, The Empowered Means naturally leads to The Divine Means. Finally, 'The Embodied Means' primarily consists of yoga, in all the forms that are known today (as well as some forms that are not common knowledge). The Embodied Means ultimately leads to increased softness and flexibility in one's opinions and mental constructs; in other words, it naturally leads you toward The Empowered Means. If it doesn't, then according to the Tantrik View, you're doing it wrong. :)

Finally, we should note that the root teaching here is 'do what works, and do everything that works' — upāya could also be translated as 'effective method' or, more precisely, 'situationally-sensitive methodology'. No teacher is effective without an instinctive grasp of upāya, for upāya always takes the principle of 'for whom, and when?' into account. In other words, a given teaching or practice, however true or effective, is right for a certain person at a certain stage of development, and ceases to be true or effective for another person at another stage of development. When an educational system does not grasp this principle, it severely undermines its avowed goals, as a former American public school teacher recently pointed out, in a heartfelt cry that may be summarized as, "What is education without upāya?"