The following sketch of practice is an attempt at going through several of the meditations presented in the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra (ca. 8th cen. CE), a crucial text in the śaivite non-dual tantric tradition of Kashmir (for a full translation and some commentary see Christopher Wallis’s translation). The text presents 112 unique practices, each of which could be taken in its own right and developed as an autonomous meditation. However, when combined together into a streamlined sequence (krama), these practices seem to become even more powerful, as each one easily complements and builds upon the other.
The overall goal of practice is to uncover the fundamental nature of experience as the unity of two principles (pure consciousness and nature), which are personified in the text as Bhairava (the awe-inspiring form of Śiva) and Bhairavī (the Supreme Goddess, which is Śiva’s own creative power or śakti). In more abstract terms (which are less effective in practice, but perhaps more useful for an initial intellectual grasping of this view), this is a way of recognizing that experience requires both an element of pure and empty consciousness and an element of dynamic creative force. Nonetheless, these two elements are not actually independent of one another, but inherently co-belonging to each other. Seeing this unity-of-different, or difference-within-unity is the awe-inspiring (or somehow terrifying) experience sought by the Vijñāna Bhairava (literally the ‘Consciousness of the Terrific One’, see verses 14-21).
In ordinary experience, this unity is veiled and hidden behind the surface level of phenomena, due to the fact that the creative energy naturally tends to individuation and determination (because this is what is needed in order to create anything), and then gets lost in these products, ‘forgetting’ or no longer ‘finding’ (both are meaning for avidyā, ‘ignorance’) what they are created for. The paradigmatic case of this forgetfulness is the emerging of the sense of an egoic-finite ‘self’ who claims ownership for its own existence.
However, the purpose of creation is not the actualization of this or that particular individual form, but rather the expression of the supreme blissfulness of the unity of experience itself, which requires both an empty infinite absence of all determinations, and also the full actualization of all these determinations. In ordinary experience, the background of emptiness gets lost behind the creative enthusiasm and drive of śakti, and this creative power forgets its own nature as an expression of that background, identifying itself with its own creations, and thus fragmenting and breaking itself apart (a breaking apart which is the condition of possibility for existence and experience to be come suffering, duḥkha). And yet, even this self-alienation of the creative power happens only for the sake of actually realizing the unity of experience (because it is true this self-alienation that the reality, and not just the potential possibility of the ‘other’ of pure consciousness, namely, whatever is individual and determined, can be genuinely posited). The practice presented by the Vijñāna Bhairava describes how śakti moves back from alienation to self-consciousness, and hence how the process of creation is redirected towards its ultimate purpose, namely, the unity of experience.
It goes without saying that there is always more than one way of implementing these meditative instructions. Many of them, moreover, are not in themselves an original invention of the Vijñāna Bhairava as such, but are shared by other traditions. What follows is thus nothing but an illustration of how several of the meditations included in this text could be interpreted, streamlined, and combined for the sake of realizing the unity of experience (a meditative goal that is in fact much more clearly stated and expressed in the Vijñāna Bhairava than in other traditions). More or different approaches are possible, and perhaps in some cases no approaches are in fact needed. What is presented here is nothing but an example, an experiment, a game.
Step 1: withdrawal
(verses 24-27, and 61)
Observe the breath moving along a straight line between the lower point of the heart center, and the upper point of the highest center (twelve fingers above the head).
The in-breath descends from above and condense in the heart, there is a sense of fullness and embodiment of life, as if taking birth. This can be accompanied by the silent recitation of the mantra HAṂ.
The out-breath ascends from the hearth to the upper center, where it dissolves. There is a sense of complete surrender and peace. This can be accompanied by the silent recitation of the mantra SA.
Progressively extend the time spent at each end point of this movement, filling the breath with the experience of embodiment or surrender that is proper of each of those points. The whole experience takes the dual rhythm of this alternating between two phases of creation and dissolution, embodiment and disembodiment.
After some time, the breath naturally tends to become more and more refined. The movement between the two extremes drops. Now the breath is present only in the middle line between the two, not really moving anywhere. It is felt as a subtle vibration, which is neither creating nor dissolving anything, and yet has the potential for both.
The middle line connecting the two extremes becomes like a subtle musical string, which vibrates with potentiality, and in that vibration all energy is withdrawn and condensed. The state is extremely peaceful. All determinations that characterize the usual unfolding of life-energy drop, leaving Her in a state of non-determinate full-potential.
At this point, all determination of the finite, egoic, biographical individual ‘me’ is dropped. What unfolds from now on is experienced as neither ‘mine’ nor ‘belonging to another’.
Note: verses 28-31 as potential remedies in case step 1 does not fully work because of blockages. Verses 35-39 as variations and for deepening of this step.
Verses 49-51 for deepening the observation at the two points of rest.
Verse 61 provides the general principle that underpins this practice.
Verse 64 provides further clarification on this practice.
Verses 97-99 and 131 are useful for the undermining of the sense of finite-egoic ‘me’, in case this is not done automatically by the foundational practice.
A degree of moral understanding is essential for practice to unfold, see verses 123-126 on this.
Step 2: reality
(verses 47, 43, and 58)
As the life-energy remains withdraw within the central line of the body, observe at the same time how the whole body has been emptied and hollowed from its activities and appears as an empty vessel. The body is still present, but as if all its tissues have been emptied of their activity, they are like an abandoned snake-skin, a shell of empty space.
When this perception is clear and thorough, then extend it simultaneously to the whole body and to the whole space outside of the body. All space is just spacious, open, emptiness. All activity in the universe has condensed in the middle line and its subtle vibration, the rest is an indefinite vast empty case.
At this point, the determination of space or location is dropped. Body and external space are identical, and all space is the same space, without coordinates or references. What happens here is happening everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Note: as preparation, or auxiliary practices: e.g., verses 33-34 and 48.
Contemplations of emptiness in external determinate objects: verses 59-60, and verse 92.
A possible variant for this contemplation at verses 52-57.
Restatement at v. 128.
Stage 3: consciousness
While dwelling in the contemplation of the whole universe and one’s own body as the same open, vastness of empty space, realize that this is nothing but consciousness.
At first, one realizes that the experience of empty space is experienced in consciousness, then that this consciousness is as vast and indefinitely open as the empty space that it contains, but eventually the realization comes that there is in fact no difference between that empty space and consciousness itself. Consciousness is emptiness. At this point, the determination of contents as different from consciousness drops.
There can be a further deepening of this experience. While there might be still superficial floating phenomena appearing, they appear as images seen beyond the surface of water for someone diving deep down into the waters. The light of the phenomenal world recedes as one is turning more and more towards the encompassing darkness of the empty core of consciousness. This unfolds at one’s own back—so to say—not as an object to be observed, but as an intuitive awareness of a free-falling into something that is simultaneously infinitely vast and without dimension.
When the experience of this deep vastness of emptiness as the core of consciousness consolidates, at first even the vibration of the life-energy ceases and somehow dissolve in a silence full of suspense. Then, naturally, like light at dawn, the whole emptiness shines forth as the most unutterably Beauty, so intense to be terrifying (Bhairava).
Note: verses 84-89, and v.115 as a preparatory practiced based on daily symbols of consciousness.
Verses 100 and 104-107 are parallel to this stage of practice. Cf. also v. 117
Verses 94 and 128 on the cessation of mental activities.
Stage 4: blissfulness
The absolute Beauty of emptiness becomes the fulness of blissfulness (ānanda) experienced everywhere. The whole of experience (the world and the body) are nothing but this expended field of bliss. The original silent vibration of the life-force that was initially condensed in the middle line has now exploded and it pervades equally all directions everywhere.
Then, with the in-breath this field of bliss contracts into a point at the level of the centre of the cranium, and with the out-breath this bliss pervades the body, like deathless nectar infusing a new life and identity into it. The whole body of flesh and bones is overwritten by a new body of bliss, which is felt directly as the body of Goddess Bhairavī herself, who is taking control of her own finite creature.
Note: verses 66-74 as auxiliary practices to help and unblock the feeling of blissfulness.
Stage 5: identity
(verses 109, 110, 108, 102, 133)
By recognizing herself as all-pervasive, all-doing, all-knowing, Goddess Bhairavī knows immediately, intuitively, by direct identity, that She is Bhairava, pure consciousness. The fullness of blissfulness is the same as the fullness of emptiness.
By emerging as the background of all phenomenal appearance, the pure consciousness of Bhairava directly sees by immediate identity that the whole universe shaped by Bhairavī is nothing but ripples on His surface. The infinite unfolding of the differences are nothing but the expression of His infinite emptiness.
Then, the determination between Bhairava and Bhairavī drops entirely. They embrace one another and self-recognize themselves to be the same, beyond all determinations, names and forms.
Experience is no longer established in either of these two poles. But instead of finding footing in any ‘middle’ line (as in stage 1), it now remains entirely ungrounded and without any support anywhere. Both Bhairava and Bhairavī disappear as distinct, and yet there is both the immediate appearing of an infinite fulness and its location within a specific ‘here’ (self) in which that fulness is appearing—and that location or self too appears also as one of the infinite centres in that same infinite fulness.
At this point, there is no more possibility for anything to change or move or happen, because everything is everywhere simultaneously at the same time—and it is not. Hence, time-determinations drop entirely. One second is just the same as one Aeon. One world-cycle is as long as one breath. Time disappears. As space-determination too disappeared previously (at stage 2), now experience is beyond both space and time.
Then, without reason, out of an absolute joyful freedom, determinations come back, the world takes again its ordinary appearance in time and space, like a frantic dance resuming its spinning. Everything is as usual, except that in its background remains the deep vibrating blissful sound of Bhairava and Bhairavī’s embrace. The whole world now appears as nothing but a wonderous magic show, in which they playfully hide for the sake of rediscovering themselves, again and again, just for enjoying this game of hide-and-seek.
Note: verses 135, 141-142 on the state of liberation.
Verses 127, 130, 132 as a deepening on the nature of Bhairava.