June 13, 2014, Vijnana Bhairava II: That Who Seeks; That Who Knows

I was a premature baby, born six weeks before term. My lifelong pattern of bypassing the beginning was probably set that day. Here’s how I learned to ski:

My father took me to Davos Mountain in upstate New York, rented me boots and skis and out we went. By the end of the day I was making my way down the mountain without too many falls and quite enjoying myself. Walking back to the lodge we passed the beginner’s slope. I still remember my shock. “Dad,” I said, “Why didn’t you start me here?” “Try it now,” he said. And after a day on the intermediate slopes, the beginner’s run was easy…

And so too with our immersion in Vijnana Bhairava. I initially skipped us over the introductory verses, moving right into the dharanas. While the decision made sense at the time, I began to suspect the impulse was driven by this deep unconscious leapfrog pattern.  While I’m not suggesting leapfrogging is always the wrong choice, I would rather not subject Monday Night Class to my unconscious motivation.

We’ve therefore circled back to the beginning of this text. Full disclosure: I’ve always discounted these first verses as a literary device to get the text moving. Devi asks Bhairava to explain the meaning of life and after some and back and forth, the discourse begins.

What I now come to see is that these introductory verses are much more than a literary device. They are setting up the text as a dialogue between that within us that asks the question and that within us that knows the answer.

Our culture places great value on knowing. We’re conditioned to give the “right” answer and many of us feel shame when we get it “wrong.” The answer is somehow more important than the question. I will say that this comes from our fear of the unknown, from our need to “look good,” from a deep and terrifying sense that we are not okay.

The notion that knowing will protect us is a dangerous one. We all see how on its own, knowing is a static state of being. At the individual level, it keeps us stuck in tired old narratives and belief systems. At the collective level, it hardens into oppressive political, religious, cultural, etc. institutions. And what is all of that but a thrust away from what actually is… from the unpredictable, unknowable Mystery in which we are born and live our lives and die back into again and again and again…

It’s quite possible that my father who was an expert skier thought we were on the beginner’s slope. However, I doubt that very much. I think he understood the power of not knowing. I think he took a risk that day, moved by a sense that taking me out on the intermediate slope would push me through any fear-based notion I had of what it is to be a beginning skier. Ironically, by bypassing the beginner’s slope, he broke me into “beginner’s mind.”  He allowed me the experience of moving in the wide-open space that the yoga of Vijnana Bhairava is all about.

Here’s an audio clip of the June 2 class:


Here are the introductory verses. These are from The Radiance Sutras: A New Version of the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, by Lorin Roche. 



One day the Goddess sang to her lover, Bhairava:

Beloved and radiant Lord of the space before birth,
Revealer of essence
Slayer of the ignorance that binds us,

You who in play have created this universe
And permeated all forms in it with never-ending truth —
I have been wondering…

I have been listening to hymns of creation,
Enchanted by the verses,
Yet still I am curious.

What is this delight-filled universe
Into which we find ourselves born?
What is this mysterious awareness
Shimmering everywhere within it?

I have been listening to the love songs of
Form longing for formless.
What are these energies
Undulating through our bodies,
Pulsing us into action?
And this “matter” out of which our forms are made –
What are these dancing particles of condensed radiance?

The Goddess then asks,
What is this power we call Life,
Appearing as the play of flesh and breath?
How may I know this mystery and enter it more deeply?
Beloved, my attention is ensnared by a myriad of forms,
Innumerable individual entities everywhere.
Lead me into the wholeness beyond all these parts.
You who hold the mysteries in your hand –
Of will, knowledge, and action,
Reveal to me the path of illumined knowing.
Lead me into joyous union
                With the life of the universe.
Teach me that I may know it fully,
Realize it deeply,
And breathe in luminous truth.


Regular visitors to this blog know I like to bring in parallel readings to whatever text we’re wandering through. This is an excerpt from, Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, by Adyashanti, reprinted in the Summer 2014 issue of Parabola Magazine. The article is titled, The Mystery of The Resurrection. Adyashanti is writing about the version of the story as told in the Gospel of Mark.


Of course, Mark always goes for the surprise; he turns corners in his storytelling you don’t expect, and that is the beauty of  Mark. Mark doesn’t always read eloquently; he’s not a poet like the writer of John’s gospel. He’s more interested in exploring the unexpected shifts and turns of the story, and I think he does this because it opens the mind and heart to the mysteriousness of life. When we keep reading things that are unexpected, and encountering scenes that sometimes end almost before they’ve begun, it leaves us in a mysterious state of being. And I think this state of openness is where the writer of the  Gospel of Mark wanted to leave us. This is the state in which we can recognize the radiance and, when we’re open and caught off guard by the winds of spirit, we can be transformed into its shining. 


When SUNY Press reissued Jaideva Singh’s English translation of Vijnana Bhairava, they gave it the title, The Yoga of Delight, Wonder, and Astonishment. And that’s it right there. Wonder, astonishment, and delight. It’s enough to begin with contemplating the possibility of living in this space, of living in this spaciousness.

We tend to ascribe the so-called positive emotions — feelings of love, joy, contentment — to words like “delight” and “wonder.” Alas, this leaves out the other half of the experience of being human. I think it’s crucial to understand that as we practice living, breathing, perceiving, from the mysterious space between, what we might call the Heart Space, whatever is arising from our feeling-body, so-called positive or negative emotion, is held.  That’s the paradox. We are so huge we can hold it all and in that holding, as Adyashanti writes, we are transformed.

I had a glimpse of this at my very first yogic meditation retreat. In those days my musical life was focused on improvisational piano.  Much of the music that came through me was melodic and lyrical, beautiful, pleasing, acceptable. There was this whole other music that was wild and dissonant, dark, loud, crashing. There was nothing beautiful or acceptable about it. Yet when I was in this music, I felt a deep sense of power and aliveness. These were the early years of my journey. I had no way of holding what was happening to me. Mostly I kept it secret, shrouded in confusion and shame.

So here I am. It’s the third day of a euphoric experience. I’ve found my path, my practice, my guru. All is right with the world until the afternoon meditation session when I find myself lost in a maelstrom of doubt and self-loathing. Then comes the question, “What is wrong with me? I just want to make beautiful music. What is this terrible music I can’t stop playing?” And then I hear the voice.  “Your music is my music. It is the music of the Earth. It is the music of crashing waves and thunderstorms, of sun and moon, of dark and light. Let it all sing through you. Let it all be one.”


June 8, 2014, Vijnana Bhairava I

Although my blogging has come to a standstill over the last six months, Monday Night Class continues in its brick and mortar form. This Spring we began working through the Shaivite text Vijnana Bhairava (Divine Consciousness.) I first encountered this text during my years in Siddha Yoga. In those days the only available English translations were Paul Reps’ minimalist add-on at the end of  Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and Jaideva Singh’s scholarly version, Divine Consciousness, reissued by SUNY Press as The Yoga of Delight, Wonder, and Astonishment. A perfect title for this amazing work now available in a new translation, The Radiance Sutras, by Lorin Roche.

Where Singh explores the philosophical labyrinth of the text, Roche is steeped in the experiential. While  hard core scholars may be less than enthusiastic about his approach, I have to say that overall I find it inspired, respectful, and pulsating with luminosity.

Roche’s version has therefore become our main reference, fleshed out with commentary from Singh and whatever parallel readings come my way…

A few points about Vijnana Bhairava:

This is a work of Tantric Shaivism.
In this system, Bhairava is the metaphor for Divine or Supreme or Ultimate Consciousness. The text unfolds as a dialogue between Bhairava and “his” beloved, Paradevi or Bhairavi. This is a literary device. The commentaries make it clear that Bhairava and Bhairavi are one unified field.

Bhairavi is the shakti of Bhairava. Just as there is no difference between fire and its power of burning, even so there is no difference between Bhairava and Paradevi. [Singh, introduction, p. xxviii]

The entire text spans only 163 verses or sutras. Verses 1-23 prepare the ground for the experiential teachings that begin with sutra 24. These are exquisite practices [aka dharanas] designed to break the mind wide open so it rests in its true nature which is Bhairava/Bhairavi, aka the Great Heart, aka Supreme Consciousness, aka the inner Self, aka wonder, astonishment, and delight…

Around the time I decided to bring Vijnana Bhairava to class, I came across this poem. It struck me as a perfect blessing for embarking on a journey through this (or any) sacred text…

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.

-Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun), English version by Sonya Arutze

In the circular spirit that pervades Monday Night Class, i.e. no clear beginning, middle or end, I will end this post with the 24th verse in Roche’s translation. Fyi, this is actually the 47th sutra; Roche’s numbering begins with the actual dharanas.


This body is made of earth and gold,
Sky and stars, river and oceans,
Masquerading as muscle and bone,
Every substance is here:
Diamonds and silver, magical elixirs,
Ambrosia that gives visions.
Herbs that nourish and heal.
The foundation of the planet,
Immortal magnetic iron,
Circulating in the blood.
Every element in you loves the others:
Earth loves rain, sky loves sun,
Sun loves the space it shines through.
Space loves everyone equally.
In meditation, be drenched in knowing
This deep and simple truth.
Every cell is an organ of sense
Saturated with freedom.


* Regular visitors to this site may wonder why my blogging seemed to stop. This was mostly due to the all-consuming demands of my new music release, Daughter of the Mountain. Along with that however, editing class audio is extremely time-consuming. So, in order to get back to regular blogging, I’ll no longer include audio clips with each post.