This book has aimed to demonstrate ways in which the study of tantric Buddhism can be enriched by the insights of Durkheimian sociology and Jungian psychology. In addition, I have presented a particular reading of these theorists that has, in part, been shaped by the framework and challenges presented by the tantric Buddhist context. The central idea that I have explored in this process of mutual reflection is a conception of altered states of consciousness that is related to social and emotional being.
I have suggested that the tantric Buddhist engagement with dreams, visions, and trance states is not a peripheral activity within the tradition, but one that illuminates a number of its core tensions and concerns. Religious authority, even within the most conservative expressions of tantric Buddhism, is closely bound up with visualizations and visions of deities, gurus, and consorts. The codifying and recording of such experiences within both ritual and biographical texts suggests that their significance extends beyond the isolated individual. I have argued, rather, that their symbolic contents are generated and recognized socially, and can therefore be explored through social and psychological theories of symbols, such as Durkheim’s collective representations, and Jung’s archetypes. More precisely, I have suggested that altered states of consciousness are both the product of, and mediate, a series of polar tensions, based on a basic distinction between individuated and social aspects of being. However, rather than confining myself to an analysis of encounters between the individual and social structure, I have suggested that visions are social in a more fundamental and personal sense. They express the depth, subtlety, and complexity of the forces within the individual, and the fluctuations of emotional energy within human relationships. In other words, visions communicate. This insight has given rise to a more complex reading of both the analyses of Durkheim and Jung, and the trikaya theory within tantric Buddhism, suggesting three-dimensional models that can help the scholar to explore ways in which different aspects of social life and the person interact.
Tantric Buddhism explores a number of significant relationships, including the one between an individual and the deities with which they engage. This engagement, involving simultaneously, the body, the emotions, and consciousness, is both alchemical and transformative. The practitioner progresses from worship of Buddhas and bodhisattvas to attempts to emulate their qualities, a process culminating in becoming the deity, or, more precisely, uncovering an awareness of a sacred dimension to being.
In addition to Durkheim and Jung, I have drawn from Turner and Eliade to suggest that this awareness is closely associated with two deeply interrelated concepts, illumination and subtlety, which appear to manifest themselves as a result of exchanges of emotional energy within liminal states that lie at the crossroads between the male and female, the living and the dead, and, most importantly, the sacred and the profane. There is a degree of paradox here. For while the sacred and the profane define one another through the strength and impermeability of the boundaries between them, these boundaries (prohibitions and taboos) are erected precisely because sacred energies destroy boundaries, and in the process provide society with its lifeblood. I have therefore argued that it is the subtle body’s relationship with these collective forces that gives it its multi-dimensional character.
Illuminated with social energies, the adept experiences a collapse of the distinctions between consciousness, the body, and the emotions.