Tantrism originally referred to esoteric practices, practices that ordinary laypeople would not pursue. Tantric practices were what the shaman needed to attain and interpret visions, or Tibetan monks and Indian sadhus for visualization, internal generation of heat (tummo) or chod, or even what religious Taoists needed in order to perfect martial arts.
The concept of tantrism in this light may be tentatively extended to western and scriptural traditions as ascetic practices such as fasting, vigils, prayer cycles, even self-flagellation. They are not good equivalents, but at any rate, the separation from the consciousness of laypeople is the functioning principle.
But tantrism also came to be identified with the “left hand.” Proponents of the left hand have identified the left (versus right) as the feminine, the realm of Shakti. Always men, they introduced contraries, opposites or perverse counterparts to the esoteric practices cited (incompletely) above. Their practices are deliberate in opposing collective wisdom traditions with practices that oppose them, such as use of alcohol, meat-eating, and formulaic sex. Whatever the anthropological origins, it seems more probable to have arisen from late contrivances (certainly as late as 5th-century C.E. India).
Not that a body of theory was ever needed to justify left hand practices. In the Western world these are the chief focus of prurient interest, of public voyeurism, of obsession with scandal. And predictably but not exclusively, religious authorities are the center of such scandals in the USA: Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Rajneesh ashram, the San Francisco Zen Center sex scandal, the Krishna Consciousness murder plots, the sexual scandals of Catholic clergy and high-profile evangelical Christian preachers … the list in the USA alone goes on and on.
The West has always enjoyed the presence of the devil more than the presence of godliness. Having Milton, Marlowe, and Goethe pioneer versions of Satan as elements of tragedy or chaos began the long media career of a personified left hand. Today the popular mind demands the necessity of scandal, ably presented non-stop by books and media. How much better has the Western world refined the left hand versus the contrived and labored naughtiness of Asian tantrism.
But the artificial separation of right hand and left hand, while readily echoed in nature and the universe, is not a fruitful source for beginning a spiritual path. It is the veil that blinds us, the obdurate appearance that binds. Bleak enough are the opposites we perceive in life: black and white, day and night, life and death.
Subtlety emerges only when we realize not the dichotomy but the interdependence: ignorance and knowledge, wisdom and foolishness, ying and yang, being and nothingness. Who will draw the line between one and the other?
Only with interdependence of our supposed opposites does the true challenge emerge of sufficiently disengaging from things to allow a perspective. Perspective allows for appreciation, for a creative response, for a reconciling of appearance and reality, of permanence and evanescence.
The path of Gautama Buddha is held in such esteem as a biography because it dips deeply into all of these tempestuous experiences of pleasure, power, disillusionment, extremes of asceticism, and — finally — a breakthrough. The breakthrough is just the parting of foliage to reveal the path, the very beginning of the path. From there we need not look back.
Tantrism as esoteric practice was a carefully developed science of sorts, with counterparts in the West. The left hand emerged not to rectify some lack of balance but to play the role of the imp of the perverse, to justify those who scorned a path that was not based on their notion of bodily sensation.
Putting on false robes is emblematic of false tantrism. The brothel-haunting Ikkyu, 14-century Japanese poet, donned black robes to celebrate the rite of sex. Followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh/Osho, the Indian “sex guru,” as he was called, donned saffron robes to play at sadhus.
It seems more honest to just admit the desire to pursue pleasures of the left hand without hypocrisy than to dress it up in the veil of esotericism and alternative wisdom. The left hand is a path from which it is difficult to return, for there isn’t much time and the sun is already dipping into the horizon.