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Awareness through Visualization and Sound in Tantric and Buddhist Traditions (2005)

In the process of reaching an elevated state of consciousness, the practitioner discovers that by correctly stimulating the senses a new level of awareness can be attained. In Sir John Woodroffe Tantric Yoga text The Serpent Power and in the Tibetan Buddhist’ Trainings in Compassion the student is encouraged to simultaneously use imagination and sound to stimulate the senses. This way, visual images, awareness of the physical body, and auditory perception develop into a powerful tool that heightens consciousness.

The use of sound is emphasized heavily in both texts because of its immeasurable benefits in the process of developing awareness. For instance, in the Tibetan Buddhist text, sound is the main focus of practice as the meditator recites a mantra, "OM MANI PADME HUM" (Trainings, 69). It is so important that it is considered the "ladder that leads to the higher realms" (Trainings, 73) implies that without its use, a higher state of consciousness is unattainable. Sound is so fundamental that this mantra even manifests spontaneously in certain children that recite it "without ever learning it from anyone" (Trainings, 63). Viewed from a Buddhist context, it is no surprise that mantra is valued greatly, since in the tradition it is thought that it helps develop quiescence, an important pillar to develop mindfulness.

From the Tantric Yoga perspective, sound manifests uniquely at each of the six chakras, or centers of consciousness, through a monosyllabic sound known as the bija mantra. These centers represent stages of awareness, progressing from the gross physical level to the more subtle and etheric. Conversely, the chakras that are mostly associated with the physical world are connected with earthly sounds, while the higher chakras are linked to the syllable OM.

Even though sound is not considered to be the main focus of the practice, it is used as an aid to keep steady concentration and maintain physical awareness, two important foundations of the practice of Yoga. Traveling through an etheric medium, sound by itself leads to a meditative state where subtle planes of awareness can be reached. The power of sound lies in its ability to even shake a "sleeper to wake him up" (Serpent, 97) from the profound realms of illusions. Interestingly, as awareness develops, sound is thought to inevitably manifest in the practitioner as she starts hearing energy currents in various forms and strengths (Serpent, 219), which may lead to a more profound stage of meditation.

However, in both traditions the power of sound is complemented by the use of visual imagination and awareness of the physical body. For instance, during the meditation for compassion, the practitioner visualizes Avalokiteshvara, a deity that symbolizes wisdom and compassion. Guided by a very detailed description, the meditator reproduces a mental image of the deity in the crown of his head: a sentient being full of happiness, and beauty that is surrounded by rays of colored light. Ultimately, the meditator can choose to slowly bring Avalokiteshvara to his heart in order to nourish it and help him develop compassion (Trainings, 33). Similarly, while reciting each of the elements of the Tibetan Buddhist mantra, the practitioner should focus on a particular color and a distinctive Buddha that represents that syllable (Trainings, 70).

In the Serpent Power, imagination is guided internally towards details of each particular energy center. Thus, each vortex of "etheric matter" (Serpent, 7) is described using the image of a lotus flower with a characteristic number of petals, but also a color, a letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, a deity and a symbol. In addition, the subtle anatomy described by the chakra model corresponds to exact locations in the physical body. Thus, to meditate in a chakra, the individual places their awareness in that location by reproducing a tactile sensation while holding in the mind the image of the chakra and the elements that represent it.

Even though a particular methodology using sound and imagination is being used to polish the awareness, both of these texts are coherent with the doctrines of the broader religious traditions in which they are rooted: namely Tibetan Buddhism and Tantric Yoga. Even though Trainings in Compassion focuses in the development of compassion, for this to be possible several steps must occur first. More precisely, one must first acknowledge one’s own suffering, then recognize the suffering of others, and finally surrender the ego to legitimately help others out of their state of suffering. Also, the text emphasizes the need to be present in the current moment, even if that implies experiencing directly pain and suffering. Moreover, the text also mentions the Buddhist concept of emptiness and impermanence. The author explains that all images are simply one’s mind (Trainings, 88): what is outside of the practitioner is simply a reflection of what lies inside. Knowing this, one can eliminate the duality of subject and object and understand the ultimate truth as explained in Tibetan Buddhism.

Interestingly, the Serpent Power merges concepts from Yoga and Indian tantric traditions. It is based in the same principles as Yoga: the practice of asanas and exercises to aid in the movement of prana and development of concentration (dhyana). Likewise, it emphasizes on the duality that exists in all things, a characteristic of tantra. Thus Shiva (conciousness) and Shakti (power) must coexist in an intricate relation in the same way that heaven and earth interact. Moreover, the text points out the well known yogic fact that engaging in the pleasures derived from the senses is not conducive to development. This can be found when Woodroffe suggests that "concentration on the lower centers associated with the passions may, so far from rousing, quiet them" (Serpent, 13).

Finally, it is interesting to note certain commonalities among the two texts, which in turn shows the universality of the teachings. For instance, both of them place careful attention to the area of the crown of the head. On one hand, Tantric Yoga locates the highest energy center at this point in a one thousand petal lotus (Serpent, 419) where the strong Kundalini energy is intuitively drawn to in order to develop the uppermost state of consciousness. On the other hand, Avalokiteshvara comes to existence in the crown of the practitioner’s head, where a "white eight petal lotus with anthers" (Trainings, 65) is to be found. Moreover, the both use the image of the full moon to describe this center: it is "resplendent as in a clear sky" (Serpent, 428) and as a "stainless full moon disc […] shinning like a pearl" (Trainings, 65). Also, both texts seem to find significance in the number of petals in the lotus flower and their color. As Woodruff explains, the number of straight line radiations from the lotus "determines the number of petals" (Serpent, 7) and thus it is simply an arbitrary convention. All of these apparent coincidences among texts from different traditions point the reader to believe that there is a truth that lies beneath the words, and is invited to explore these realms in the path towards insight.

Whether developing compassion towards sentient beings, or raising Kundalini energy to reach an elevated state of consciousness, controlling the senses is crucial to gain access to the powers of the mind and ultimately gain insight of the nature of reality. By stimulating the senses using visualization, focusing attention in particular regions of the body, and hearing the mantras as well as the sounds that lie within, the practitioner carefully nourishes the seed of awareness that one day may bloom into a beautiful thousand petal lotus flower that can grow among chaos and paves the way to enlightenment.

Kongtrul, Jamgon, et al. Trainings in Compassion: Manuals on the Meditation of Avalokiteshvara. Trans. Tyler Dewar. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004.
Woodroffe, Sir John. The Serpent Power. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1974.