Ashram West Newsletter

14 April 2013

What is Sacred?

In our modern, secular society, that reveals itself often enough to be neither very modern nor entirely secular, the question—What is sacred?—may seem anachronistic or irrelevant. We are bombarded by many concepts of sacredness that may strike us as absurd or even evil, as when suicide bombers kill thousands in the name of their religion or when homo-aversives and homo-haters[1] justify the persecution of gay people in the name of their God. We are told we must believe the Bible, Koran, the Book of Mormon, or other texts, despite irrational content or teachings that defy science. Yet the total rejection of all claims to sacredness leaves us alone in a seemingly meaningless universe born to age, sicken, and die, eeking out whatever we can of joy or meaning that we create for ourselves. How can a rational person allow for the sacred or the numinous without sacrificing reason?

Not all claims to sacredness are equal. Some say blind faith, unquestioning acceptance of dogma or doctrine, is all that is needed to honor the sacred, while others say direct experience of the numinous is possible. The word “numinous” derives from the the Latin word “Numen” referring to that which produces an experience of awe, wonder, the touch of the “wholly other,” the Divine, or transcendent. It is this latter kind of sacredness that interests a Tantric spiritual aspirant. Any religion that demands blind faith and the rejection of reason leads inevitably to error and evil, because it is a castle built on the shifting sands of human feelings, prejudices, cultural conditioning, and changing fashions. We do not need to look far to see anachronistic religious institutions like the Roman Catholic Church rotting from within as it clings to hateful doctrines while hiding its abominable practices and defending the indefensible. Women and children inevitably suffer at the hands of men drunk on privilege and power.

Tantra, by contrast, is not an institution at all but rather a body of psychological technologies that enable the aspirant to attune the self to deeper aspects of being that reveal the Mystery that underlies our existence. The sacred can be known, and in knowing that we discover interconnection, meaning, and existence that does not depend on the persistence of any physical body or individual mind. Some faith is still needed, what Aldous Huxley called a “minimum working hypothesis,” to undertake the training needed to gain the experience of the sacred. Westerners accustomed to religions that promise “instant salvation” or an easy path may balk at the discipline that the practice of Tantra requires. The sacred can be known, but it usually remains hidden to our usual awareness. It is not enough to hear that we have a deeper or higher Self (spatial metaphors often used to try to describe the indescribable). We need to learn how to access the deeper aspects of being that reveal the Mystery sometimes called God/dess or Self.

Some persons have been raised without any concept of sacredness. They may have been taught basic moral values, how to be honest, kind, and responsible, but they may lack any concept of any reality that transcends the senses. It is certainly possible to be a good and moral person without any concept of deity, as we see among our Buddhist and some atheist friends. Yet the Buddhists teach reverence for Buddha, the body of practitioners, and the teaching itself. Tantra, which historically arose simultaneously among Buddhists and Hindus, also encourages reverence for the Teacher (Guru), one spiritual brothers and sisters, and the teaching. The primary relationship in Tantric training is the Guru-disciple relationship. The Guru speaks of the Sacred from his or her own experience and thus introduces the disciple to that Reality. The Guru teaches the disciple how to discover sacredness within and without. A personified, embodied symbol of sacredness is often employed to help the disciple being to comprehend the concept of sacredness. This symbol is usually a form of deity or an Incarnation of God/dess in human form. Again, the practitioner is not required to believe blindly in any deity, but s/he is encouraged to keep an open mind and utilize the psychological tools that can help us realize that our usual, embodied sense of self is not the totality of our Being. A divine Self, especially one with which we can easily identify, can be a stepping stone from a limited experience of self to a more all-inclusive experience of Self.

In our normal materialistic frame of mind, where all that seems real is what we can experience through our five senses, Tantra utilizes physical objects as focal points for discovering the Sacred. Icons of deities, whether statues, photos, or other artistic representations, enable us to visualize the divine vividly and thus begin to redirect awareness toward a deeper reality. At one level the image itself is not the deity yet it becomes a doorway to the experience of the Divine Reality. At a deeper level the image is known as the deity, not in a limited sense but in the sense of “That, too.” It is common for rational Westerners to question the need for any concept of deity at all. Tantra points out that our normal conception of self is a limited body-mind. It is all well and good to spout a philosophy that asserts an infinite Divine Self, but we are far from that experience in our day-to-day lives. To begin to move beyond this limited experience we employ a body-mind of a Divine Being that helps us imagine existence beyond the mundane. It may not be the last word in our practice, but it is a step beyond where we are at present.

Tantra further asserts that the Deity and the Guru are to be considered as one. This concept often stymies Westerners who immediately think of Gurus who have betrayed the trust of followers by engaging in various abuses of power or sexual misconduct. Although these examples ought to make an aspirant careful about accepting a Guru, they do not negate the need for spiritual instruction and guidance. The Guru-is-God/dess concept invites the disciple to cultivate awareness of the Divine in a human person with whom s/he can talk and interact and form a relationship. This real-world relationship helps begin the process of transforming a disciple’s material consciousness into a consciousness of the Sacred. A true Guru will by his or her words and behavior lead and inspire a disciple toward the experience of Self. As the disciple advances in practice, s/he gains experiential awareness of the true divine nature of the Guru. In later stages of practice the disciple discovers the Inner Guru.

Tantric practitioners are also encouraged to cultivate a sense of sacredness in places where the Sacred is represented and venerated, such as temples, altars, and shrines. Again, having a physical place and form as the focus of devotion helps focus the attention of the aspirant to penetrate deeper into the Mystery that underlies our existence. It is all well and good to assert that everything is sacred, but it is only by designating something special as sacred, and using that point of contact to go deeper into what sacredness truly is, that we are usually able to break through our ordinary material consciousness into an expanded spiritual consciousness. The deity in the temple or shrine should be imagined as living and conscious. This imagination through practice transforms into an experience that goes far beyond what can be imagined. Visualization and imagination are utilized as psychological tools that enable us to expand our experience of being beyond what is limited by the five senses.

Some are born with a sense of the sacred and other develop that sense through practice. It may be necessary to disentangle irrational notions of sacredness from rational ones to free oneself of harmful ideas that make one feel unworthy or shameful. Gay person especially are often burdened with familial or societal prejudices that engender the feeling of being “less-than” one’s peers. The psychologically sophisticated methods of Tantra can help gay persons especially shake off irrational judgments and limitations and develop a deep sense of the sacred both within oneself and in the world. Sacredness in ordinary life starts with persons, places, or objects that inspire us with reverence, awe, or wonder. By consciously striving to delve the depths of sacredness, we gain an increasingly full experience of what it truly means.


[1] I use these terms in place of “homophobes” because anti-gay antipathy that may be as mild as an aversion or virulent as a hatred is not clinically speaking a true phobia and therefore it is an inaccurate term.