Wholeness, connection, and meditation: Competing visions

For many Westerners, Buddhism is mainly about wholeness and connection.

Modern life is atomizing and alienating:

  • Multiple social roles demand that you be several different people in different places. Some of those partial-selves are false fronts; others seem natural. If your personality is quite different at work and at home, and yet both are comfortable, which is the real you?
  • Identity is based on cultural concepts. Modern societies contain many cultures that co-exist uneasily. Everyone owes partial allegiance to several conflicting systems. You end up internalizing these conflicts, so you are divided against yourself.
  • The modern social, economic, and technological order artificially separates us from each other, from nature, and even from our own everyday experience.

This fragmentation and isolation seems unhealthy, unnatural, unsustainable. Many of us turn to spirituality or religion for answers.

For modern Buddhists, meditation is meant to bring healing wholeness and connectedness. The Buddhist worldview is meant to explain how wholeness and connectedness are lost and regained.

Yet this is not what most forms of Buddhism promised, before the 20th century. Quite the opposite…

Three contradictory visions; one Consensus

“Consensus” Buddhism incorporates three quite different ways of approaching wholeness and connection: no-self renunciation, monist mysticism, and tantra. These appear to be radically contradictory, and unreconcilable.

Can the Consensus successfully synthesize them into a single, unified religion? I’ll suggest that, no, attempts to combine these approaches will always fail, with specific, predictable bad results. What, then, is the motivation for merging them?

First, let’s take a quick look at wholeness and connection in the three approaches.

1. No-self and world-renunciation

  • Mind is only parts (skandhas); the illusion of a whole self is the fundamental cause of all suffering.
  • Connections bind us to an unclean world. Attachments and entanglements are bad things, not good ones.
  • The self should be disassembled through insight meditation (vipassana); connections should be broken by withdrawing from sense-pleasures and worldly involvements.
  • That neuters the negative emotions (kleshas), which lead to negative actions (karma).
  • Enlightenment is the disintegration of the self-concept, the elimination of desire, and the severing of all ties to the world.

This is not at all the approach to wholeness and connection most Western Buddhists are looking for!

But, it is the Asian Buddhism mainstream: the approach of the Theravada scriptures, and of many branches of Mahayana. It is where the Consensus Buddhist teachers began, with modernized Theravada in the 1970s.

However, because renunciation takes you in the opposite direction from the way most Westerners want to go, Consensus teachers have supplemented it with other approaches.

2. Monist mysticism

  • Only the ego, or false self, is divided. This division is the fundamental cause of suffering, and of negative emotions and actions.
  • The True Self is inherently whole; perfectly unified, without parts.
  • All is One; everything is totally connected; all apparent distinctions are illusion.
  • These ultimate truths can be realized through internalizing meditation—going deeply into the Self—which gets rid of the ego.
  • Enlightenment is the elimination of the false self, and the realization of the unity of the True Self with the Whole Universe, which is God.

This is the approach of Advaita Vedanta, a branch of Hinduism. It is also the approach of German Romantic Idealism. That’s an early-1800s metaphysical spirituality that remains hugely influential in the West despite few remembering its history.

The monist approach has been explicitly condemned by nearly all Buddhist schools, throughout the history of Buddhism, up to the 20th century.

It has, however, become popular in Western Buddhism in the past few decades. Westerners want wholeness and connection, and monism claims to provide perfect wholeness and total connection.

Why not mix some monism into Buddhism to give the customers what they want? Because monism can’t deliver. In fact, it produces the exact opposite results to what it promises.

Regarding wholeness:

  • The stereotype of “spiritual” people (such as New Agers) is based in fact: monist practices make you scatter-brained. Monists are always following their latest “divine intuition” or “message from the universe,” hopping from one unrealistic path to another. They rarely have enough stability to get anything done.
  • Monism’s insistence on a unitary Higher Self makes it impossible to find workable compromises among conflicting motivations. Those compromises are unromantic hard work, but are the effective path to personal wholeness.
  • In other words, monism produces not personal unity, but mental dissociation into a jumble of fantasies.

And as for connection:

  • Monism promises “total connection with the Absolute Infinite” (or with “the whole universe,” as though that were a single thing). But meaningful connections can only be made with specific, finite beings in this here-and-now world.
  • To achieve unity, internalizing meditation deliberately cuts you off from everyday reality, which is supposedly a distraction and not spiritual enough.
  • You are supposed to “turn inward,” to find a “profound inner experience” that connects you with the divine reality. This is nonsensical. Experiences are not connections; connections aren’t inside you; you can’t connect yourself with all things by cutting yourself off from them.
  • In practice, monists’ relationships with other people, and with their physical environment, usually become godawful messes. Monist practice makes you self-obsessed, unreliable, and unwilling to deal with mundane practicalities.

3. Buddhist Tantra

  • The self is empty form: complicated, constantly changing, and creative.
  • Personal wholeness comes from incorporating and transforming the kleshas. You accept everything that arises in mind, rather than rejecting distasteful stuff as “not me.” Emptiness means mind has no essential nature, so nothing there needs to be a problem.
  • You are connected to some, particular, diverse things, in different, specific ways.
  • These connections are the source of power, delight, and wisdom—as well as unavoidable pain.
  • Wholeness and connections are sustained through tantric practices.
  • Enlightenment is complete transformation.

Explained this way, Tantric Buddhism seems much more what Westerners want. Tantra says wholeness and connection are good things, unlike the no-self renunciate approach. And, the metaphysical claims of tantra are far more reasonable than those of monism.

Yet tantra has had little influence on Consensus Buddhism. Why is it not more popular?

Mixing up contradictory approaches causes trouble

All three approaches have fed into Consensus Buddhism. However, it has not reconciled their contradictions. These conflicts lead to specific, predictable patterns of trouble:

  • The main practice of Consensus Buddhism is vipassana. This method is meant to shatter the self and break connections. Western Buddhists mostly want and expect the opposite results. Using the wrong tool for the job may produce disappointment, or even serious psychological breakdown.
  • Mixing up bits of explanation from contradictory systems made Consensus Buddhism conceptually incoherent. To fix the parts of the story that no longer make sense, teachers substitute non-Buddhist Western concepts. Even if those concepts were valid, at some point there is no longer any point in pretending that they are teaching Buddhism.
  • Westerners want transformation. Buddhism has methods for that, in tantra. Unfortunately, they are politically unacceptable. Instead, Consensus Buddhism substitutes other transformational practices, taken from psychotherapy, the New Age, and Hinduism. These are discordant with Buddhism, and aren’t helpful in pursuing Buddhist goals.

Silencing disagreement

Consensus Buddhism has not merely failed to reconcile these contradictions. It has not even tried. In fact, it has deliberately suppressed the discussions that might have led to clarifying them.

The contradictions have been recognized and discussed within Buddhism for thousands of years. These discussions have often been heated. That is not “nice.”

Consensus Buddhism often dismisses genuine religious differences as:

  • Pointless academic arguments about esoteric philosophical minutiae that make no difference to ordinary Buddhists.
  • Political power struggles disguised as debates about doctrine.
  • Cultural misunderstandings with no practical substance.

Using these excuses, the Consensus has swept contradictions under a blanket of silence. Dissenting voices have been ostracized as “aggressive.” (This is one of several reasons I use the word “Consensus” for mainstream Western Buddhism.)

We need to reopen these questions, not suppress them in the name of tolerance. It is possible to argue about them constructively and respectfully. But even vicious dispute might be better than pretending that incompatible approaches can be combined.

Previous syntheses

In papering over its contradictions, Consensus Buddhism has borrowed rhetoric from two earlier attempts at synthesis. These are the 20th century export-Zen combination of no-self and monism, and the Gelukpa combination of renunciation and tantra.

Combining no-self and monism

Most Zen in the West descends from the New Buddhism of D. T. Suzuki, and/or the Sanbo Kyodan approach of the Harada-Yasutani lineage. (I wrote about these in a previous post, “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy.”)

Both of these New Zens were explicitly created as export products for Westerners. Both explicitly incorporate Western monist mysticism. Both explicitly state that their “Zen” is not specifically Buddhist. Both are rejected by mainstream Japanese Zen teachers.

The Suzuki/Harada/Yasutani approach claims that no-self and True Self are the same thing; that various Buddhist concepts (such as Buddha, nirvana, or emptiness) are the same as the impersonal God (or “Absolute”) of Western monism; and that the goal of Zen meditation is to realize the unity of the True Self with this Absolute.

“New Zen” was one of the two main sources for Consensus Buddhism (together with modernized Theravada). Its Japanese origin provides a cover of apparent authenticity, which allows continuing import of dubious Western religious and philosophical ideas into Buddhism.

I find this combination absurd and actively harmful. More about that below.

Combining renunciation and tantra

The Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism practices tantra in a renunciate framework. Roughly, it combines renunciate goals with tantric methods. It describes Tantra as an arcane, dangerous collection of adjunct rituals for deepening renunciation, suitable only for monks who have completed many years of preliminary intellectual study.

The Dalai Lama comes from the Gelukpa school. He was directly involved in founding Consensus Buddhism, sponsoring the early-1990s conferences where the Consensus was organized. His take on tantra has formed the Consensus view of the subject.

The Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I belong) rejects the Gelukpa approach. It sees renunciation and tantra both as valid paths. However, they have different goals, and their methods cannot be merged because their fundamental principles are so different. Tantra can be pursued independently from renunciation; it does not require extensive intellectual preparation; and it is especially suitable for non-monks.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the most influential teacher of Buddhist tantra in the West. The 1980s sex and drug scandals around him were one of the main factors leading to the founding of the Consensus (at the Dalai Lama’s conferences).

These scandals discredited tantra for many Westerners. They were a convenient pretext to impose the conservative Gelukpa view that tantra should be reserved for a few special people, and neutered with elaborate moralistic safeguards.

Because the Consensus adopted this attitude, tantric practices are effectively unavailable in Western Buddhism. Tantra’s influence is limited to esoteric concepts, and the general idea that Buddhism promotes personal transformation. The Consensus has continued to use various maneuvers to suppress tantric practice, and to silence debate about its suitability for Westerners.

I’ll discuss this recent history in detail in a later post.

Process note

On average, it takes me three days of full-time work to produce each web page. Early in this series, I was able to write a new post every few days, because I was working on it full time. Unfortunately, other responsibilities make that impossible for now. In hope that I may finish the series someday, I have decided to drop several big pieces of it.

I had planned to write a full page about what went so wrong in export Zen, and how. That turns out to be a big, difficult topic. There is some basis for monist ideas in the Mahayana scriptures. Sorting out exactly how Sanbo Kyodan distorted Buddhism would be a lot of work, and not of interest to many people. In fact, personally, I don’t care in the least whether monism is traditional or untraditional in Buddhism, so I’m dropping that question.

What matters is not that monism is un-Buddhist, but that it is harmful: it causes unnecessary suffering. It leads people in exactly the wrong direction, away from effective methods for establishing wholeness and connection, and instead into day-dream fantasies of magical invulnerability, omnipotence, and immortality.

It’s important to explain this clearly. However, my tentative plan is to do that on my Meaningness book site. Monism is not a central failing of Consensus Buddhism, so it’s not critical to debunk it here. On the other hand, I had already planned to do that in the Meaningness book before I began this blog on the Consensus.

What I want to do here next is to explain how and why tantra has been excluded from Western Buddhism, and what we can do about it. I will advocate a renewed, reinvented tantra that may better address 21st century spiritual concerns than the Consensus approach can.


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

85 thoughts on “Wholeness, connection, and meditation: Competing visions”

  1. The rhetoric of wholeness is not foreign to Dzogchen. There is even a book entitled “Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon, and the Logic of the Nonconceptual” by Anne Carolyn Klein, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. In the introduction they write “Open awareness is the heart of all Dzogchen practice, Bon or Buddhist. Authenticity explores the nature of this authentic and reflexive awareness (ranggi rig pa’i tshad ma, svasamvedana-pramana) identifying it as primordial wisdom’s recognition of itself as unbounded wholeness.”

    Klein is both a Dzogchen lama and an academic, so I don’t think she can be dismissed as a careless interpolater.

  2. Fyi, the term she translates as “wholeness” is “thig le nyag gcig.”

    Here is more on her choice:

    “For this and other reasons that will gradually become dearer in our discussion, we do not translate thig le as “drop” or “semen,” which are commonly used in other contexts to render this term, nor do we want to render nyaggcig as “one” or “singular” since its significance is not numerical but holistic. In this we are supported by a variety of commentators on the term. Karmay 1988:118 n.55 notes the sense ofthig kin Nyingma Dzogchen as “without amplification.” He understands it to refer to the “Primordial Basis” and equates thig le chen po with thig le nyag gcig. According to the noted Nyingma Dzogchen lama and scholar Turku Thondup, the term thig le nyag gcig in Nyingma Dzogchen signifies Body of Dharma (chos sku, dharmakaya) or great bliss. Further, its roundness, innocent of edges, symbolizes freedom from extremes. Khenpo Palden Sharab, among the most respected Nyingma Dzogchen scholars today, notes that the term thig le nyag gcig is found in Long chen Rabjampa, especially Treasury of the Dharmadhatu, to be synonymous with dbyings, rang ‘grol, and spros pa dang ‘grel ba. Oral commentary to Klein, July, 1989).”

  3. Hi, Greg — Absolutely! Dzogchen comes out of tantra, historically. I wrote in the post about tantra valuing wholeness positively.

    My point is not that Western Buddhists are wrong to want wholeness and connection. Rather, that (if we actually are Buddhists) we ought to use Buddhist tools to enhance and sustain them. The renunciate Buddhist practices are not meant to do that, so they are the wrong tools for the job. Monism is non-Buddhist and doesn’t work, so it is the wrong tool for the job.

    Vajrayana (Tantra and Dzogchen) has the right tools… So why aren’t we using them? That’s the topic of the next several posts.

  4. I don’t think I would agree that the stated goal of vipassana is “to shatter the self and break connections.” It is to realize that every experience is marked by the three characteristics, impermanence (anicca); suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha); non-self (anatta). So, supposedly, one cannot find a self to shatter.

  5. Hi David, thanks for a great post again. I have little experience with consensus western buddhism as I don’t have a sangha here in Australia.

    I do however through various new age friends and festivals have had some doings with self-proclaimed Tantric practitioners (mostly western) and would love to here your views (if any) on whether such a thing as Consensus Western Tantra exists.

    Personally, my practice being more of the renunciation/non-attachment side of things, I’ve found most of the Tantra practitioners I’ve met in Australia to be highly dodgy. Of course, none of them have a Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana Tantra background but for most people the end result is that Tantra = sleazy old hippy guy wanting to give you a yoni massage.

    It seems to me that from a completely biased, personal experience and unresearched perspective, that is Consensus Western Tantra. I’d be interested to find out how real Tantra practitioners are going to overcome this rather unfortunate perception.

    Actually, come to think of it, I’ve encountered many more of these “yoni-tantric” types than I have “nice” buddhists although I guess that the latter category tends to be much less in one’s face.

  6. PS: BTW, I should have added that if Consensus Western Buddhist practice is as you say it is, then I agree that it is not going to deliver what it promises to. Also, it does behove Buddhists to point this out as not-Buddhism.

  7. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for an interesting comment!

    I talk about “Western Buddhism” because that’s what people do here in America. I’m starting to think what Americans mean by “Western Buddhism” is “American Buddhism”, and many things don’t generalize further.

    I use the word “Consensus” to suggest suppression of dissent—there is an artificial “consensus” mainstream in white American Buddhism that has defined itself as the only morally correct way of being Buddhist.

    I haven’t seen anything parallel in Western sexual tantra. Maybe I’m not close enough to it, but as far as I know there is no dissent to suppress, and no one with enough power to do so.

    For most people involved with Western sexual tantra, it has almost nothing in common with Buddhist tantra (Vajrayana).

    This does cause a perception problem, since for most Americans “tantra” means “silly hippie sex stuff”. I’ve written about that in my piece on “Tantra, sex, and romance novels.”

    The standard approach in Tibetan Buddhism is to condemn Western sexual tantra as an abomination. I hope there’s better alternatives than that…

    “Tantra” is the word we’ve got, and I think we’re stuck with it. Like “queer” and other hateful epithets, the best approach is probably to say it loud and proud: “Yeah, I’m a tantrika—what are you? A cabbage or something?”

    Apart from that, I don’t want “tantra” to sound respectable. That’s the “nice” Gelukpa approach. Tantra is not nice, and can’t be made nice.

    Tantra is about accepting everything as OK, even sleazy old hippie guys trying to get laid…

  8. Quote: “Tantra” is the word we’ve got, and I think we’re stuck with it.

    I do often cringe a little when I see how Buddhist is used but I’m not about to let the word go. I am fortunate that I can attach a modifier (atheist) which I assume is understood by others in the way I want it to be understood.

    Anyway, I read your link – great post on tantra. I love the vampire approach. If you ignore the Buffy-verse cop-out of having some demon from Hell being the animating force, it’s a pretty powerful question and immediately accessible in a way questions about self and non-self isn’t.

    What animates the undead? What if you were turned undead, how would it be different? What if you are actually undead now and don’t know it?

    Well, at least there’s not a word of Pali in sight. (not that I mind Pali seeing as Malay (which I am fluent in) actually has many Pali words with pretty much the same meanings.

  9. Hi David,

    I do not think vipaśyanā is the central practice of Buddhism here in the UK, I think it is dhyāna – which is precisely integrating and unifies the disparate elements of our personality. I also think you’ve underplayed the role of meditations like mettabhāvanā and tonglen. Again the point is to forge a sense of connectedness – our movement teaches two practices to everyone: mindfulness of breathing (with dhyāna as its immediate objective) and mettabhāvanā (for emotional positivity and empathy). Generally speaking we do not teach vipaśyanā practices to people unless they are well established in these practices. Since tonglen is popular in Shambala I would have thought it should register on your US radar. In our movement, which is one of the three largest (with NKT and Soka Gakkai) in the UK we emphasise friendship and community as spiritual practices. So it seems to me that our approaches are somewhat different on the two continents.

    Our movement in India has a very different focus. The drive to become Buddhist there is to escape social oppression and deprivation, which is different from most Western Buddhists. Consequently the emphases are quite different.

    Ultimately you are right, we present Buddhism as a means for radical transformation. But this transformation proceeds in stages, and in the Triratna presentation psychological integration and saṅgha are at the forefront.

    You seemed to have missed out the influence of tathāgatagarbha in Buddhism. This is an important aspect of all Japanese Buddhism, including Shingon (Japanese Tantra). One hears about (so called) Buddha Nature across the spectrum of Mahāyāna Buddhist groups.

    I think overall I’m not convinced by your concept of consensus Buddhism. It doesn’t ring any bells for me, but then I suppose I’m hardly mainstream, eh. I’m not influenced by the people you do mention as being involved in the construction of it, but I wonder who else was there. I think perhaps this view might be a bit US-centric. Have you written more about this “consensus” elsewhere? It’s not that clear who was involved, and what the consensus consists in.


  10. Hi Jayarava,

    Yes, OK, I think I will need to be much more careful about the phrase “Western Buddhism”. My Aro siblings in the UK also report that the Consensus does not operate there. And David Brazier, one of the few UK representatives at the Garrison Buddhist teachers conference, the most recent meeting of the Consensus as an organization, described it as an indoctrination in specifically-American left-liberal politics, with almost no Buddhist content. There are surprisingly large differences between US and UK culture (as my English girlfriend and I are continually amused to rediscover).

    The chronological approach I’ve taken in this series means that I can’t actually explain in detail what the Consensus is until I get close to the end, because it’s a relatively recent development (founded in 1993). That’s a problem for readers. If I were to revise the series, I would do some things differently, and one is to give a better preview. (But, I’m doing the research as I go along, so that’s not feasible yet.)

    To be specific, the Consensus is centered on the Insight Meditation Society (led by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and a few others); Lama Surya Das; Tricycle magazine; and the informal network of Sanbo Kyodan-derived Zen teachers (mainly in Maezumi Roshi’s lineage). I gather that none of these have direct, organizational influence in the UK.

    I do think that they have probably shaped Buddhist discourse in the UK to a greater extent than you may realize. For example, most people who come into Aro Ling, our shopfront centre in Bristol, England, are monists, and think that “Buddhism” just means “monism with extra incense”. The honest thing to say to them is “Oh, I’m sorry—that’s Hinduism. There’s a Vedanta centre down the road—they can help you with that.”

    Tathagatagarbha: yes, I planned to write about this in detail, in the posts on monism I’ve decided to drop (or at least postpone). The tathagatagarbha literature was the starting point for all Buddhist Tantra (Tibetan as well as Shingon), and is influential in much of Mahayana, notably Zen. The 20th century Zen monists justify their True Self ideas with reference to it.

    There’s also a monist tendency in Yogacara, which also strongly influenced Zen and Tantra. If you want to posit a Buddhist Absolute, Yogacara is the place to go for support.

    As for tathagatagarbha, the question is how Buddha Nature should be interpreted. In fact, that’s one of the main points of doctrinal analysis and dispute in both Zen and Tibet. As far as my research has taken me, there is exactly one scripture that asserts that Buddha Nature is the True Self, namely the (Mahayana) Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Although that is accepted as canonical by everyone outside Theravada, it is so anomalous that it needs to be ignored or explained away. As far as I know, every other tathagatagarbha text asserts that Buddha Nature is not a self, or any other sort of entity. It’s explained instead as a potential, or in some other non-substantial way.

    But since the scriptures are vague and contradictory, there’s been massive scope for interpretation and elaboration, and most of two thousand years to do it in, so this gets hideously complicated, and I decided that this was not the place and time to sort it out. I find this sort of thing interesting, but probably hardly anyone else does. And trying to get a grip on the diverse Tibetan interpretations of the Indian doctrines has been quite difficult enough without throwing in the quite different Chinese (and, later, Japanese) interpretations of the same scriptures…

  11. @ Greg — After some consideration, I think I’ll stand by what I wrote about the goals of vipassana.

    Since the self is an illusion, to destroy the illusion of self is to destroy the self; these are the same, by substitution of equals.

    I used the word “shatter” partly because descriptions of enlightenment experiences in 20th century Theravada make extensive use of metaphors of violence; and partly because the process involves the analytical and experiential decomposition of “self” into the skandhas.

    As for breaking connections, the Satipatthana Sutta, for example, repeats in each subsection the formula “Thus he remains independent, unsustained by (not clinging to) anything in the world.” My reading of the Sutta is that this is supposed to be the specific function of the practice. (The header of the Sutta says it is “for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the destruction of suffering and grief, for reaching the right path, for the attainment of Nibbana”, a more general goal.)

  12. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. To trot out the old example, if you take a rope for a snake and then realize your mistake, you wouldn’t say you destroyed a snake. You could say you destroyed an illusion of snake, perhaps, but I wouldn’t equate that with destroying a snake.

  13. I’m a little bit uneasy with the notion that any of what you described is “not Buddhism”. “Monism” or a “True Self” might be incorrect views, though I’m inclined to think that they are more verbal confusion than anything else. But Buddhism is praxis and the question to be asked is, What type of Eightfold Noble Path is a practicioner asked to walk–will it, in other words, lead to the “conclusion of suffering”?

    This is not just an abstract philosophical question to be answered by looking at metaphysical views, since most of the people in question [including us] are not likely to become either an arhat or a buddha in this life. Our future will be far less circumscribed by our personal metaphysics of the moment than it will be shaped by our ordinary conduct. And it is our future that matters most in a world whose ultimate principles are those of death and impermanence. If we don’t truly believe this, any Buddhism can be little more than an entertaining hobby.

    On those grounds, this is a matter to be broached with a certain amount of self-skepticism and self-criticism. I, for one, do think that the path my teachers propose will lead to the conclusion of suffering, but since I haven’t achieved it yet, I’m in no position to make definitive and final judgments on the matter.

    I also think that your opposition of the Gelug point of view to the Nyingma one is far too overdrawn. As far as my small reading goes, the standards of personal conduct implied in the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind are not all that different no matter which branch of Tibetan Buddhism your karma has led you to. At least they don’t seem to me to be expressed by Longchenpa or Patrul Rinpoche in way that I’m not familiar with. And I have seldom met a lama of any kind who regards them [or some equivalent of them] as dispensable preliminaries to the successful practice of Tantra.

    I’m downright bewildered at the notion of American Buddhism being “excluded” from Tantra. The most cursory surfing of the Web simply refutes this. Of course, since Tantra, and particularly the Higher Yoga tantras, have been largely preserved only by the Tibetans, you’re not going to find it in a Zen lineage or a Theravadin one. To study Tantra, you have to study with the people who practice it. And the opportunity for anyone in the world to do this is far greater than it ever has been in the last 2,500 years.

    Participation in Buddhism, any Buddhism, is truly the religion for those who already are prepared to believe that “life is suffering”, and would like to do something about it. In my time I’ve seen a lot of purple-and-turquoise-and-quartz-crystal foolishness hanging around the Dharma, and have even indulged in a little of it myself. But when you get right down to it, the hard work of practicing Buddhism [and not any version of its metaphysics] is sufficient to wean you from it. At least I have found it so.

  14. Yes — monism is non-Buddhist and wrong metaphysics, but neither is important. What matters is that it causes suffering.

    I’ve had close friends who have practiced monism, and observed many more acquaintances casually. Monism leads them to devalue and neglect life as it is, and to pour all their emotional energy into finding their Higher Self or True Mission or Ultimate Truth. Most of the time, those things seem frustratingly elusive, and they are often depressed. Yet, unfortunately, they have hope. They persist in searching for non-existent spiritual entities, imagining that if only they could find them, everything would be wonderful. Meanwhile, they fail to take the actions that would actually improve their lives.

    I don’t follow your paragraph about the Four Thoughts. How are they relevant? Yes, they are presented in much the same way in all Tibetan schools. But they are not a tantric teaching. And, in fact, the formal content of even tantra is not very different in the different schools. What is different is style and attitude and social roles. (Although those vary a lot within schools, as well as between them; contrasting Gelukpa and Nyingma without qualification is simplistic.)

    Regarding “bewildered at the notion of American Buddhism being “excluded” from Tantra”, we have a problem of definitions. For some, “American Buddhism” means whatever Buddhism happens in America; for others, it means a distinctively American form of Buddhism, parallel with “Tibetan Buddhism”. Tantra is available in the first sense and unavailable in the second.

    I coined “Consensus Buddhism” partly to disambiguate this; it means pretty much the same thing as “American Buddhism” in the second sense.

  15. “Monism leads them to devalue and neglect life as it is, and to pour all their emotional energy into finding their Higher Self or True Mission or Ultimate Truth. Most of the time, those things seem frustratingly elusive, and they are often depressed. Yet, unfortunately, they have hope. They persist in searching for non-existent spiritual entities, imagining that if only they could find them, everything would be wonderful. Meanwhile, they fail to take the actions that would actually improve their lives.”

    It strikes me that this is the trajectory of the addicted gambler– the Big Payoff will take care of everything, so all resources that could address life challenges in a mundane way: paying the rent, buying food, and shoes, showing up for work awake and sober– are spent on the long shot hope of solving them ‘for once and for all.’

  16. @David: “I’ve had close friends who have practiced monism, and observed many more acquaintances casually. Monism leads them to devalue and neglect life as it is, and to pour all their emotional energy into finding their Higher Self or True Mission or Ultimate Truth. Most of the time, those things seem frustratingly elusive, and they are often depressed. Yet, unfortunately, they have hope. They persist in searching for non-existent spiritual entities, imagining that if only they could find them, everything would be wonderful. Meanwhile, they fail to take the actions that would actually improve their lives.”

    But isn’t this a risk with any kind of spiritual practice really? I mean, especially if there is no close enough connection with a teacher to actually get proper feedback (or something equivalent). If there is a practice, but no integration of the effects of the practice to the life that is actually lived, how can it be anything more that self-absorbed pursuit of some metaphysical understanding?

    I have to admit that you observation of monists sound true to me – but I find that particular problem to be challenge to other kind of practitioners as well, not just with monists. For example, certain forms of western ceremonial magic can either be mental masturbation in your parents basement, or profound symbolic activity for communication and transformation. (I think this can apply to Tantra too.)

  17. @David

    What matters is that it causes suffering.

    What doesn’t? That’s the starting point. All that stuff that will “improve their lives” breaks down or dries up in the end, too. It really does. You can suffer just as much seeking something that “is there” as you can seeking for something that “isn’t there”. I’ve often heard the lamas speak of the state that is “beyond both hope and fear”. Insofar as such a thing is possible, it doesn’t come from either “right choices” or “wrong” ones. It comes from ceasing to overestimate the importance of the choices, and ceasing to try to insure a future that is, and always will be, only partially under your control.

    The beginning of wisdom is disillusionment. In that sense “wrong” choices are more useful than “right” ones in the sense that they disillusion you earlier and give you more time to respond to that fact. Respond how? By questioning the whole notion that lives can be “improved” in any fundamental way from outside. People who make the “wrong” choices have to learn to give up hope. But those who make the “right” ones have to learn to give up fear. Neither is easy to do. Those things are really the obstacles to happiness, not the circumstances [any circumstances] that we work ourselves into and through along the way.

    “Do no harm to self or others. Learn to control your mind.” To even hear this you have to have some basic intuition that mind is the problem, not things. And its the same problem, monist or not, right choices or wrong.

  18. As to the Four Thoughts, I’m writing away from books like Words Of My Perfect Teacher, but, in my memory at least, Patrul Rinpoche says much the same thing about them as the Kagudpas, that they are an essential [if ordinary] foundation to any Buddhist practice, Tantric or not. They are the starting point for the development of renunciation.

    No matter what practices you do, without renunciation, you cannot truly get beyond “hope” for some kind of external magic pill, spell, or monetary fortune to make it all better and “fear” that somebody or something will take it away from you. Hope is driven by craving, fear and disappointed hope drive aggression, and the whole confused process stems from ignorance.

    These things are in your mind, not your environment, and the Four Thoughts are the analytical meditation that makes clear that the environment is radically inadequate to sustaining your happiness. This has implications for your personal conduct [which was my point] in the sense that without abandoning the conduct that feeds hope and fear, you cannot even begin to cut through the basic confusion and ignorance.

    Now it may be that, as Atiyoga tells us, that all of this is beside the point from the vantage point of Rigpa and all of the above is irrelevant to the primordial purity of things as they are, but few, if any, can achieve the vantage point of Rigpa without them. And it is very easy to fool yourself that you have achieved the vantage point of Rigpa in your personal conduct when you are actually still driven by hope and fear; trammeled by craving, aggression, and ignorance; and your personal conduct is making things worse.

    Insofar as any of the Buddhist yanas are trying to make a moral point, this is it. Insofar as renunciation leads to giving up “things” and curbing “behaviors”, it is to stop you making your situation worse.

    How much renunciation do any of us need? It is my personal belief that the minimum is being utterly convinced that using the Dharma to work with your mind is the only thing that will help you, and any of us must renounce at least as many things and as much conduct as will sustain that conviction. How much is not the same for everybody, but the overwhelming majority of us need to renounce at least some of it before we can get any serious mileage out of any practice.

  19. As to a “truly American” Buddhism, I doubt that it is necessary or even possible. I will be perfectly candid and say that when I started I was driven by an excessive amount of Asiaphillia–fantasies of kung-fu, Ikebana, and the free life of a nomad in a yurt. But I grew out of it. You do if you seriously engage the practice. But in growing out of it, I didn’t become more American, I became more Buddhist. The Dharma, in all its forms, really is beyond that. Suffering is universal, and the path to the end of suffering is universal. It is inconvenient that so much Tantra is locked up in Tibetan, but, in the end, most of it is locked up in “self-secrecy” even for ordinary Tibetans, and we all need a Root Guru to show us the nature of our mind:

    Too close to see. Too deep to fathom. Too simple to accept. Too good to believe.

    And, slowly but surely, American practicioners of Tantra are maturing, taking on the task of resident lama in their hometown dharma center, translating Tibetan far better than those whose cradle speech is Tibetan, and whose study of English is tangential to their study of Dharma, and even taking on the role of Retreat Master in group lama retreats. At least they are doing so in my lineage–and they are largely younger than me and my fellow pioneers–who are steadily getting too busy using Buddhism to be old with, to be ill with, and to die with to train in retreat.

    After all, I’m part of one of the older Tibetan establishments [1975] and we’re only on our 5th 3 year group lama retreat cycle. Beyond that, only one or two of us have been able to go solo. The retreatants are not turning into erzatz Tibetans, they are turning into tantrikas. And so, in a more muted way, are the lay sangha.

    And Asiaphillia among our newer center members is getting rarer and rarer.

  20. @ David:

    For me, this post immensely clarifies several of your previous posts. So if you compile these someday, I’d suggest some version of this post be put right up front. Your writing here helped me crystalize some understandings I have had over the years. Indeed, it inspired me to write a post today. Thank you.

    My question:

    When criticizing Monism you said,

    It leads people in exactly the wrong direction, away from effective methods for establishing wholeness and connection…

    But, as my post says, I am not convinced that the ability to use several personas (“divided selves”) during my day or life is necessarily a negative thing which demands wholeness or connection. I don’t see a problem, but just a phenomena.

    My various personas are most helpful to me. I am at ease with their different manifestations as long as I participate in them.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

  21. @ Kate — Yes, I think that’s a strong analogy. I have a nearly-completed page for the Meaningness book describing my experiences gambling in a Nevada casino. (The things I do for research!) Gambling gave me a lot of insight into eternalism (with which monism is closely related). The addicted gambler ascribes cosmic and personal meaning to entirely meaningless events.

    @ Sky Serpent — Yes, any spiritual practice might have similar bad results. Perhaps it really does matter that monism is wrong metaphysics—because that means bad results are inevitable. If Buddhist metaphysics are right, then there is the possibility of good results.

    Re “certain forms of western ceremonial magic can either be mental masturbation in your parents basement, or profound symbolic activity for communication and transformation”—I have a nearly-completed page for Buddhism for Vampires on “black magic” that makes exactly that point. (I do wish my nearly-completed pages would turn into entirely-completed ones automagically. The last 10% of the writing often takes a year. Maybe I need to invoke literary demons as helpers.)

    @ Karmakshanti — I think I understand your point about the Four Thoughts now. The question is whether or not it’s possible to practice tantra straight-up, or only within a sutric container. Is that right? I’ll write a whole post on that later, so maybe detailed discussion of the topic is better postponed until then.

    Regarding your 4:07 comment about “American Buddhism”. I agree with all of that; and I am very glad to hear about the development of your sangha. Aro likewise has just promoted a new generation of not-ethnically-Tibetan Lamas; the youngest are in their early 30s. Tantra may survive in America.

    “A new, distinctively American Buddhism, which synthesizes all the Asian Buddhisms and leaves out their cultural baggage” is not my idea, and certainly not something I’m advocating. It’s what I’m arguing against; what I call “Consensus Buddhism”.

    You and I have been lucky. It is extremely easy in America to get sucked into the Consensus, and extremely difficult to get access to tantra. That is what I want to help change.

    Part of the problem is that there are not many people willing to practice in the partly-traditional styles in which you and I do. I will advocate a less-traditional approach, which may be more accessible to more people.

    @ Sabio — Glad I make sense sometimes! Again the problem is that I write too damn slowly. I know where I am going and have a detailed outline, but I can’t communicate the whole thing at once, and it dribbles out over years (and across multiple web sites). (Yup, it’s definitely time to call up the demons!)

    Luckily, you are stealing my punchline. At the end of this series, I am going to suggest that wholeness and connection are absolute, existential problems, demanding ultimate solutions, only for modern people. They don’t even arise as problems for traditional people (which is why traditional Buddhism does not offer solutions for them).

    My punchline is that, because the modern era ended 30 years ago, these are again not ultimate problems. For those of us who have left modernism behind, they are relative, practical problems, which demand on-going management, not final solutions.

    For us, a fragmented personality is just a fact of life, which can be dealt with more-or-less skillfully. Vipassana (and related methods) are useful for revealing the operation of the many selves. Ultimate integration is a non-goal; practical compromises among mutually hostile self-fragments is a basic life-skill. Tantric methods are useful in developing those.

    For us, connectivity is a given; existential alienation is an incomprehensible mental disorder we read about in quaint old books, and might as well be characteristic of Amazonian tribespeople. Again, the ability to form, sustain, and dissolve connections is a valuable relative skill. Tantric methods are highly relevant here also.

    This approach rests on an analysis of the the way culture, society, and self-construction have changed since the 1980s. Mostly the Baby Boom generation has not gone through those changes; and that’s my diagnosis of “Boomeritis Buddhism”.

    When I was in graduate school, one of the best bits of writing advice I got was “write the introduction last, because you won’t know what it has to say until you are finished.” It’s really true. Unfortunately it worked only in the forgotten world in which people wrote “books”, which were a sort of lobotomized web site that was released all at once in final form and then could never be changed. What a dumb idea that was.

  22. Hallo David

    I’m a little bit lost. Maybe this blog gets more and more a Tibetan-buddhist blog.
    So an easy question: I see some ressemblance between what you are writing the last days (more than before) and the three vihicles (triyana) model
    There are – as far as I know – several of such models and I mean the one of Hinayan (Theravada), Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tantrayana). What I don’t like in that models is that the ones who formulate it, are always living at the good end of the hierarchy, never define their own yana as ‘only’ an upaya.
    Where am I right and where am I wrong?


  23. @ Joop
    I think I understand your objection. Here is a diagram I made of what you are aptly calling “The Yana Hierarchy”.

    Over the years I have seen several different religious groups make schema that laid out the hierarchy of religions. In Christianity and Islam, it is easy: Heaven (us ->right) or Hell (them-> wrong). But even the religions who don’t make such dichotomous classifications, have themselves always at the top. You are right — that is always suspicious.

  24. Thanks Sabio
    Now I understand again a bit better how Tibetan buddhists think.
    Of course these schemes are only constructions in the brains of people.
    What is the empirical value of such schemes: is it an theory (of reality) that can be tested by data ? I’m afraid not. It’s not scholarship but mideology.

    Indeed ‘hinayana’has nothing tot do with ‘Theravada’ because there exist Theravadins and there don’t exist hinayanist (except those in the brains of some people).
    One example to show how bizar it can be: the term “pratyeka yana”
    A Pratyeka Buddha has been totrally liberated without knowing the Dhamma/dharma tought by teachers (like Gautama Buddha), but on his/her own power.
    So it’s theoretically impossible that someone intents to get a Pratyeka Buddha because he/she doesn’t know what it means, being such a Buddha (because that knowledge is a part of the Dhamma/Dharma)
    So a prayeka yana cannot exist (and has never existed)

    This all has only to do partly with the blog about the blogs of David, included the one about ‘wholeness’, which I like but don’t understand in its consequences.
    I like for example the critics on monism, sometimes called rebrahmanisation of Buddhism
    A big problem in my eyes connected with the wish of wholeness and connection is the wish that life is beautiful and meaningful, that suffering (dhukkha) can be denied with positieve thinking.
    And, I agree, many modern Theravada teachers do like that positive thinking too.

    My question remains: what is the relation between the triyana model and how this blog will end on some teleological way ?


  25. Hi, Joop,

    This is funny—I didn’t think about the triyana model when writing this, at all! But there is an obvious parallel. I certainly should have thought of it.

    Most Tibetan Buddhists consider tantra to be Absolute Truth, and to be the highest yana. I think both those judgements are wrong.

    I do consider tantra to be merely upaya (“method”). (I wrote about that here and here.) I don’t think any of it is true; all the gods, demons, miracles, magic, saints and heroes are pure mythology. It’s a mythology that can be useful to some people, and probably worse than useless for others.

    I don’t think any version of Buddhism is superior to any other. What matters is “personal fit“: finding methods that function well for you. Different methods work for different people.

    I did not know the phrase “rebrahmanisation of Buddhism” before. That’s a very accurate description. Thank you!

    A big problem in my eyes connected with the wish of wholeness and connection is the wish that life is beautiful and meaningful, that suffering (dhukkha) can be denied with positieve thinking.

    Yes. Monism usually tries to wish suffering out of existence, by pretending not to see it. Monism has to do that, because it doesn’t have any effective methods. Monism mostly consists, in practice, of trying to convince yourself that everything is magically OK when it obviously isn’t. Maintaining the pretense of “everything is wonderful” makes it impossible to take any effective action, because that would mean admitting you want to change things.

    One other thing about the triyana model:

    Although the Tathagatagarbha and Yogacara trends in Mahayana tend toward monism, Mahayana is not inherently monist. It has rarely fallen into full-blown monism. Mahayana is very diverse. The Madhyamaka philosophy of Mahayana is a powerful weapon for defeating monism.

    Tathagatagarbha and Yogacara have also strongly influenced tantra, which can also have monist tendencies. Zhentong is the strongest expression of monism in Tibetan Buddhism. I see Zhentong as valuable upaya in the context of some tantric practices, but dangerously misleading if taken literally as metaphysics.


  26. @David – I find it interesting that the basis for your attack on monism is the perceived lack of efficacy of the practice. That, as you see it, monism does not delivery on what it promises. That it causes suffering. In short, that it doesn’t work as advertised. Notwithstanding whether or not monism is guilty as charged based on your small sample size, in my opinion, this is a direction the discussion very much needs to move it as far as all spiritual practices go, Buddhism included.

    Personally, I have been greatly encouraged the last couple of years to see the topic of efficacy/results enter the discussion, where previously it was a verboten subject entirely. This discussion is still verboten in what you would call Consensus Buddhist circles (and indeed still seems to provoke apoplexy there when mentioned), but it has emerged in discussions online, at least.

    Traditionally, the goal of nearly all Buddhist practice has been the complete cessation of suffering through the realization of either nirvana or completely Buddhahood (samyaksambodhi). But these goals don’t jibe well with the Modernized Buddhism which is supposedly Secular and Completely Compatible with Science. So in practice, the goals tend to be reformulated without acknowledgement thereof, or else they go unmentioned entirely.

    This state of affairs is very comfortable for a number of vested interests. When people are unclear what the point is of practice in any given a Buddhist tradition, they have no way to ascertain whether or not practice is leading to realization or any other benefit that would make it worth the time. But the many enriching themselves have no lack of metric as to whether or not it’s worth it.

    In the twelve years or so years I’ve been heavily involved in Buddhist scenes, I’ve seen a lot of ordinary practitioners who don’t seem to be benefiting at all, and indeed seem to suffer more than they otherwise would have, and more than a couple lamas, roshis and jet-set dharma teachers materially and sexually enriching themselves shamelessly.

  27. Hi, Greg,

    All important points, I think!

    I’m an engineer, so my immediate instinct is to ask: “Does it work? How well? Can we measure it? When does it work or not work, and why?” If we get answers to those questions, we can incrementally improve it. Yayz!

    Unfortunately, those answers are still mostly unavailable; but there are smart people doing some of the right experiments, and I expect we’ll know a lot more in 10-20 years than we do now. And that will be very good.

    Asking hard questions about goals is also important. Informally, in both Asia and the West, Buddhism is mostly presented as “good for you” and/or “holy”. I want to ask: good how? And say: I am against holiness, so if that’s where Buddhism goes I want no part of it. Formally, Buddhism’s goals are extremely abstract, obscure, and speculative, and there are radically divergent stories about them, so I put a big question mark next to those theories.

    I’ve seen a lot of ordinary practitioners who don’t seem to be benefiting at all, and indeed seem to suffer more than they otherwise would have, and more than a couple lamas, roshis and jet-set dharma teachers materially and sexually enriching themselves shamelessly.

    Strong agreement there. It’s discouraging, sometimes.


  28. @ Greg & David

    I must say that the question of results seems to me a little puzzling at this late date. There are essentially two kinds of results: worldly benefits that come to ordinary people who don’t do a whole lot of practice and spiritual benefits that come to those who do a whole lot of practice. By “a whole lot” I mean years of intensive, relatively undistracted, long-term work with the Mind. Real work and not just touchy-feely-drifty. I have yet to meet any Buddhist doing that kind of real work who I would consider to be “suffering” in the way you and David are speaking of it,

    So the first question to ask before we speak of “results” is how much of what kind of practice are you doing, and how consistently have you kept up with it? If you are not practicing with any degree of regularity not much is going to happen inside you.

    In Asia people understand this, and what most seek are worldly benefits–good health, long life, beautiful children, protection from danger, and enough money to survive. For 2500 years they have consistently and voluntarily supported millions of people doing the intensive practice [who obviously can’t support themselves while they do it]. Most of these Asians I’ve met are quite satisfied that they get the worldly benefits they ask for, and a large majority must have been satisfied of it for the past 125 generations or Buddhism wouldn’t be here at all.

    Are they different than us? Certainly. How? They ask for the benefits. They make petitionary prayers directly to yidams like Green Tara or Kuan Yin, they sponsor specific pujas by the monks for such benefits. Or they ask their own lamas for practices, such as Medicine Buddha or Green Tara that have the collateral worldly benefits they believe themselves to need. And they practice them diligently because they expect the results.

    So the next question to ask of our suffering Westerners before we speak of results is: Did you ask for them? Largely, Westerners simply don’t ask. How often do you hear of patrons asking for and sponsoring specific pujas from their Buddhist teachers in the West? Not very. And if you do hear of it being done, odds on the people doing the asking are ethnically Chinese.

    Now, of course, right here we run smack into the obdurate mind-set that the only possible explanation for such positive “results” is “coincidence”. And the 125 generations of Patron/Practicioner relations is a mere monument to human gullibility.

    And, therefore, the only people who could actually testify to the results are automatically barred from doing so.

    Well, gee.

    Let’s turn back to the inner results for the moment:

    but there are smart people doing some of the right experiments, and I expect we’ll know a lot more in 10-20 years

    Just out of curiosity, is there anything more to these experiments than people looking more carefully and systematically at what areas of the brain light up when?

    Now, without wishing to give offence, I must say that I seldom find or recognize the Mahayana attitudes, motivation, and practices that I’ve been taught when the Mahayana is referred to in these posts. And for that reason I think that the difference between working with the Mind and working with the brain is chronically and constantly confused when we speak of “results”. They really are not at all the same thing.

    Consider a Mahayana practice such as tonglen: you imagine yourself taking away all the pain, suffering, and problems of as many people as you can and pulling them into your heart in the form of black gunk. Then you simply imagine that the gunk completely disappears. Then you imagine that you give every joyous thing and feeling you have or ever will have goes back out to those same people in the form of white light and that they become permanently and completely joyous and happy. You do this by “riding the breath”–black gunk in with the inbreath, white light out with the outbreath. And you try to keep doing this as you are going about your ordinary day.

    Now the “results” of this are not the magical realization of what you have been imagining. The results are a permanent change in your mental habits and overall attitude toward all the other people you meet. You get in the habit of thinking about their welfare and happiness rather than your own. And that is the Mahayana attitude that you are trying to cultivate. This is not “coincidental” in any way, any more than practicing your golf swing gets you in the habit of hitting the ball farther and straighter.

    Most of the “results” of the Mahayana are permanent changes in outlook and attitude toward other people, a change of Mind that I doubt is likely to be accessed by looking at the brain. The only way to access it is through human testimony, your testimony about how your attitude has changed, and other people’s testimony about how your behavior has changed. And the habit of always discounting human testimony in favor of “experiments” is out of place if you want to see the real “results”.

    And, once again, for the change to happen you have to do the practice regularly and routinely.

    the goal of nearly all Buddhist practice has been the complete cessation of suffering through the realization of either nirvana or completely Buddhahood

    So what do you need to convince yourself that this has happened? Yogis flying seven talas high above the trees to the sound of a thousand invisible damarus?

    If you study or listen to the genuine teachings, and, particularly, the genuine Mahayana teachings, you will find the not unreasonable observation that Buddhas are rare because becoming a Buddha is difficult. You will also find very careful descriptions of the incremental changes in the Mind and in your attitudes that are necessary before you can even start working on “becoming a Buddha”. You will also find the not unreasonable observation that even these changes take a good deal of hard work and becoming a Buddha takes even harder work.

    Frankly, not many Western Buddhists work that hard.

    If the only way to convince you that a building is being built is the whole building in situ, none of the evidence from the architect’s drawings, the code inspector’s sign off, the bill of lading for the materials, or any manifestation of the actual construction process will make any difference. The only “right” experiment will be to walk to the address and see if there is whole building on it.

  29. Hi Karmakshanti,

    Our differing predispositions make communication difficult. You express puzzlement at what I write; I am equally puzzled by what you write.

    I encourage you to create your own blog. Your long, sometimes didactic comments on my blog might be better placed as posts on yours. Then you might find your own audience, whose predispositions are similar to yours, and who would better appreciate your views.

    Consider a Mahayana practice such as tonglen

    I practice tonglen. It’s excellent and I recommend it (although not for everyone).

    is there anything more to these experiments than people looking more carefully and systematically at what areas of the brain light up when?

    Sure; many are based on psychometrics. But what is wrong with looking at the brain?

    For example, I have a vague memory that someone did an experiment that found that practicing tonglen (or maybe it was metta bhavana) actually increased the size of the part of the brain that is involved in empathy. [This memory may be completely false; if anyone knows, please comment.] Supposing that is true, it’s pretty good evidence that tonglen works.

    The problem with testimony is that people testify to all sorts of things that are plainly false. Lots of people testify to having been abducted by little grey aliens in spaceships who subjected them to sadistic sexual scientific experiments. Other people testify to having been saved by Jesus Christ. Or to being Jesus Christ. Or to having their thoughts controlled by the CIA. Or to talking to the ghosts of their dead spouses, or to priests from Atlantis. Or to having their cancer cured by homeopathic remedies.

    Testimony by itself is totally worthless.

    The only “right” experiment will be to walk to the address and see if there is whole building on it.

    But if (as you say) it is extremely difficult to become a Buddha, and we have no good reason to suppose that anyone ever has been one, then why would anyone bother to follow the path?

    I am following the path. I think there there is some reason to suppose it is possible. I’d try harder if there were really good evidence.

  30. I apologize for my comments being out of place and will certainly cease to trouble you with them.

    Best Wishes

  31. Hey, I don’t mean to discourage you altogether!

    I’m serious about encouraging you to create your own blog. You write well, and have a distinctive, coherent view that will appeal to a particular audience. Finding your own readers will be a more satisfying experience for you, and more useful for them.

    Some of your comments here are interesting, and on-point, and welcome.

    Others seem to use the comment space as an opportunity to present substantial essays on topics that are not always directly relevant. I’m suggesting that you think a little more about whether your comments are concise and responsive. If not, post them on your blog, or as a new thread in a Buddhist forum. And, you can leave a brief blog comment that says “This is an interesting point, which served as a jumping-off point for a piece I just wrote” and include the URL.

    (I’m teaching what I need to learn, here… I sometimes make the same mistake, of posting long off-topic essays in comments on other people’s blogs.)


  32. @Karmakshanti – I appreciate your comments and I feel like this is a conversation we need to be having. However . . .

    I must object to the assumptions you seem to be making about me. Why do you assume that David and I have done very little practice – because we have dissenting opinions?

    As I mentioned in an earlier thread, I’ve been quite intensively involved with Buddhist practice, almost entirely in Kagyu & Nyingma traditions, for about 12 years. Yes, I’ve worked full-time over those years, but given that constraint I would say that one could fairly characterize it as “intensive, relatively undistracted, long-term work with the Mind.” Certainly I would say that made it the top priority in my life, to the exclusion of much else. I don’t need to be told what tonglen is, having spent hundreds of hours practicing it, when I wasn’t completing a ngondro and sadhana practice. Consistent, orthodox practice, with an awful lot of petitionary prayers to yidams, along with probably thousands of hours of shedra curriculum study.

    All this is only to say that, even by your standards, I should seem to be qualified to have an opinion.

    And my verdict is still out, quite frankly. I find that most people in my position, having devoted so much time, energy, and life to practice, are no longer willing to even consider the possibility that it all doesn’t seem to have benefited any sentient beings terribly much so far in any way that I can discern, and to wonder if it ever will.

    I’d be genuinely curious to know – what (in straightforward terms) is the upside that you are so emphatically defending?

  33. David

    I think we agree.
    You said: “The Madhyamaka philosophy of Mahayana is a powerful weapon for defeating monism”.
    Yes; and I can add to that: the ANATTA principle of the Pali Canon is a powerful weapon for defeating monism too.


  34. the ANATTA principle of the Pali Canon is a powerful weapon for defeating monism too.

    Yes. Also, as Jayarava pointed out recently, the (Pali) Lokayatika Sutta includes an explicit denial of monism by the Buddha.

  35. i don’t really see a whole lot of contradiction. to me all three state the same. if everything is not whole then everything is whole too… it’s the same. 2 sides for the same coin. buddhism can talk about the truth in a 100 different ways and they can be all contradicting on a logical level. but what must not be forgotten is that what one is trying to grasp or reach through buddhism exceeds logic and buddhism itself. (when you see a buddha on the road kill him…. ) so in a way not only is it fine that there are different ideas on how to approach it but its actually better otherwise you would become attached to one way… which is exactly what buddhism wants to teach you… don’t become attached.

  36. @ ron
    I have been meaning to write a post debunking the “pointing at the moon” and the “kill the buddha” anti-intellectual, confounding ploys used by far too many Buddhists. Thanks for motivating me again.

  37. Hi rox,

    It’s hard to know exactly what “whole” means. So maybe it’s easier to see the contradictions in the case of connectivity.

    Renunciation: Connections are bad; destroy them all.
    Monism: Connections are good; get connected to everything in the universe.
    Tantra: Connections are varied; use them skillfully.

    It is true that logic is a limited tool, and that it is possible to misuse it. It is also true that nearly all Buddhisms have considered it a valuable one, and most have considered it indispensable.

    It is monism, not Buddhism, that insists that logic generally leads you astray, and that the Ultimate Truth must be grasped intuitively. Historically, this “intuition over logic” idea comes from the German Romantics, and was imported into Buddhism mainly in the early 20th century by New Zen.

    Monism has several reasons for rejecting logic. First, it denies all distinctions; everything is the same, because All is One. Logic insists that chalk and cheese are different. Second, the claims of monism are obviously false, and to get people to accept them you have to persuade them to lobotomize themselves.

    Monism says that “ultimately, all religions are the same.” That’s a very nice, appealing idea, because it means there’s no need for disputes between religions (which can become appallingly violent), and because it saves you from the difficult responsibility of making a choice of religion, by sorting out what works and what doesn’t.

    In the case of Buddhism, this means you don’t have to figure out whether tantra or renunciation is the right path for you, and it also lets people mix monism into Buddhisms where it doesn’t belong.

    Worst, this a strategy for political domination. Once you have accepted that “all religions are the same”, then monism convinces you that, in fact, they are all really (“essentially”) monism, beneath the illusory differences. “All religions lead to the same truth, the truth of mystical experience, that the false self is an illusion, and the true self is divine and is the entire universe.”

    In other words, monism is the One True Religion. The apparent tolerance is a false front for an assertion of total superiority.

    This is the strategy of the American Buddhist Consensus. It pretends to be inclusive, because it’s got Zen guys and Theravada guys and Tibetan guys. (And gals, and even, whoo hoo, four black people.) It asserts that the differences between Buddhisms are minor and inessential and should be ignored, in the name of tolerance. Having done that, it can pretend to speak for all Buddhists. But the “Consensus” view it presents, supposedly shared by all, is a highly particular one, invented only in the 1980s-90s by a handful of guys with a particular political agenda.

    Its rhetoric of inclusion is, again, a false front. The Consensus it excludes and marginalizes anyone who disagrees with its claims. It has to suppress tantra (which is profoundly different), and it suppresses anyone who objects to monism. And it suppresses anyone who insists that the differences between the different Buddhisms are important, so that (for instance) Pali-based Theravada and New Zen radically contradict each other, and that we need to do the hard work of figuring out which what’s right or wrong in them.

    (You can see that the four shots of espresso I just consumed have kicked in here!)


  38. David, I applaud you for responding so thoroughly to a comment that hardly seemed to warrant it.

    However, I’m not sure that Buddhism does not insist that ultimate truth must *ultimately* be grasped intuitively. Even Buddhist logicians such as Dharmakirti insist that true realization comes with yogic direct perception (yogipratyaksha), a yogic direct valid cognition that is free of conceptuality (kalpanapodha). One could fairly gloss that as “intuitive.” Of course, logic is seen as an expediter of this process, not an encumbrance.

  39. Hi, Greg,

    It’s the coffee talking :-) .

    But actually I’ve been torn between writing next about tantra, or about the history and nature of the Consensus. I did a poll on Twitter, and the unanimous vote was for tantra. But I still wanted to get some denunciation off my chest :-)

    On your second point, I’m not sure. My concern would be that glossing yogic modes of pramana as “intuition” would allow people to draw conclusions based on Western ideas about “intuition” that do not apply. Yogic direct perception and cognition are non-ordinary mental abilities, which can be developed only with extensive meditation, whereas “intuition” is something everyone does all the time.

  40. I read this presentation as a thinly veiled re-encoding of the three yana structure of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen.

    The “no self and world renunciation” reads like the method of sutra, for which your lack of appreciation is palpable, not that I can say I much disagree. Still, I am led to understand by my teacher that as method, there is a base of unsatisfactoriness and a goal of the experience of emptiness for which sutra is in fact the perfect method . . .

    The less opaquely titled “buddhist tantra” reads (logically enough) like the method of tantra, for which you would seem to be setting up a “winning” argument for. I love Tantra too, but personally am very suspicious of a love for Tantra that comes wedded to a distaste for Sutra, as should any scheme be highly suspicious if it attempts to separate emptiness from form. Yes I know that because Tantra’s base is emptiness, this separation is not implied (in the method itself), but it is most definitely implied in the intention of the practitioner that prefers one to the other, and as my teacher says – there is no such thing as a practice separate from a practitioner . . .

    Your third category “monist mysticism” shares some philosophical similarities to dzogchen (as the term itself translates as “utter totality”) but returning to the point about intention, it doesn’t matter what the method looks like on the outside, if the intention comes from a monist eternalist view, then this “great completion” that is sought is nothing more than a renunciation of duality (and therefore is in fact the method of Sutra from the perspective of “spiritual materialism”). Nonduality simply isn’t nonduality if it’s the imagined and prayed for opposite of duality.

    Dzogchen men-ngak-dé actually makes a poor comparison to the other methods, because Sutra and Tantra both move, as it were, from a base to a “different” result, whereas Dzogchen is the method whose base and result are the same. Yeah . . . that method doesn’t lend itself to blog posting so well and the comparison and review of methods, or the synthesis of presumably better or improved methods. It’s a little too perfect for that kind of analysis.

    I did enjoy reading this article and a lot of the interesting commentary it stimulated.

  41. Hi Sabio (in spanish that means “wise” I think). Actually, I have three teachers. Pema Chödrön was my first teacher, her teacher Dzigar Kongtrül Rinpoche, and today I consider Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen my root teachers, although I do so from outside the structure of apprenticeship. You can call me Sergio, you can call my “the great lion imbued with the radiance of sound”, but whatever you call me won’t prove that I exist, that I posted on this forum, that you ever heard me. I know they have IP addresses, but really those references don’t define me, even if they locate my computer on the internet at a given point in time.

  42. @ Great Lion
    As for what defines us: I am fine with everything I have done, said and thought as defining me, or nothing defining me. “Defining” is done so we can work with each other — short of that (agreeing with you), it is often played up far too much, isn’t it? Smile. (yes, both in Portuguese and Spanish, “Sabio” apparently means “knowledgable” but I intended it to be the diminutive of Knowledge. “He who knows little”.)

  43. Hi Sengchen,

    I read this presentation as a thinly veiled re-encoding of the three yana structure of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen.

    That’s interesting… an earlier commenter on this thread saw it as a re-encoding of a totally different three-yana classification (hina/maha/vajra).

    Sutra/Tantra/Dzogchen is more nearly right.

    Dzogchen does not to correspond to monism, though. In terms of the broad classification in my post, it would get squeezed into Tantra, although that isn’t quite accurate, for the reasons you gave.

    Your paragraph about practicing “Dzogchen” with monist intent is right on target. “Dzogchen” is easy to sell in the West these days, but most of what is taught as “Dzogchen” is much more like Advaita Vedanta. In fact, this is often made explicit by those selling it, and frequently they have had far more training in Advaita than in Dzogchen. People like Lama Surya Das and Ken Wilber deliberately mush the two together. This is potentially catastrophic, as it may make actual Dzogchen invisible. Unfortunately, Dzogchen is much harder to understand than Advaita.

    Dzogchen’s view does draw on Shantarakshita’s synthesis of Yogacara and Madhyamaka, and Yogacara has All-is-One tendencies. (Off-topic advertisement: Shantarakshita is a major character in my Buddhist vampire novel, although he’s only been mentioned in passing so far.) As an outgrowth of Tantra, Dzogchen also draws on Tathagatagarbha, which has True Self tendencies. For these reasons, Dzogchen has been denounced, mainly by Gelukpas, as “really just Yogacara” or “really Hindu Advaita Vedanta” (which is full-on monism). Therefore, in defense, Nyingma theorist have had to explain the difference between Dzogchen and those other systems. So we have detailed accounts of the non-monism of Dzogchen.

    I have nothing against renunciation (or Sutrayana). I think monism is both non-Buddhist and harmful. Renunciation is unambiguously Buddhist, and apparently works well for many people. Different yanas are suitable for different personality types.

    My point in this post is that most Westerners who think of themselves as Buddhists, or are attracted to Buddhism, or who might benefit from Buddhism, have zero interest in renunciation. And, in fact mainstream American Buddhism (the “Consensus”) is non-renunciate in its practical teachings and ultimate goals, although it retains a renunciate theoretical framework, and a renunciate primary practice (vipassana).

    That leaves it conceptually incoherent, and without effective practices to support its actual, transformational goals.

    These gaps are generally filled with non-Buddhist pieces, most of them monist.

    I will suggest in the next few posts that Tantra would be a better starting point for an innovative Western Buddhism than Sutra/renunciation has been.


  44. @ David,
    Few questions:

    (1) Dodging Dzogchen Monism
    You said:

    So we have detailed accounts of the non-monism of Dzogchen.

    Do you have particular sources in mind?

    (2) Taxonomies
    You said:

    an earlier commenter on this thread saw it as a re-encoding of a totally different three-yana classification (hina/maha/vajra).

    I think I was that culprit. My diagram here shows how the 9-yana and the two different 3-yana taxonomies overlap. I think I got this from Aro material. Am I mistaken about the layout?

    (3)Your Yana is Cool
    From my naive perspective, I see the 9-yana classification as a way to say, “Look, different methods match different temperaments. So, sure, your method is fine [though we don’t think it is best for all your folks], and we use it at times too.”
    But isn’t it possible that monistic methods are fine too for certain temperaments with certain needs even given its pitfalls? And perhaps the only reason it is not on this yana scheme is because Nyingma folks didn’t have a viable Buddhist version of Monism to accomadate in their “Let’s all be friends” scheme when it was devoloped?

  45. (1) Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty is definitive, but unreadable. It’s possible that Chögyal Namkhai Norbu has written about this; I don’t remember. If so, that would be readable. Otherwise, there’s probably nothing that is accessible without a pretty good understanding of the whole of Tibetan academic philosophy.

    Unfortunately, there are no accessible English-langauge books about Dzogchen that I can recommend other than those by Ngakpa Chögyam and by Namkhai Norbu. Everything else I’ve read is either highly academic or misleading (or in some cases both).

    (2) No, it was the comment from Joop Romeijn I had in mind.

    (3) That’s a generous interpretation of the nine-yana classification. Alternatively, you can view it as Nyingma propaganda. It may be used to suggest that only the Nyingma have anuyoga and Dzogchen, and that they are superior to Anuttaratantrayoga, which is the highest vehicle of the sarma schools.

    Yogacara plus Tathagatagarbha can be the basis for a monist Buddhism. In Tibet, Zhentong was arguably that, but it was explicitly rejected by nearly everyone. (It’s been revived recently.) Since Zhentong was around, the Nyingma theorists would have included it in their classifications if they considered it valid.

    But isn’t it possible that monistic methods are fine too for certain temperaments with certain needs even given its pitfalls?

    I don’t know. I’m skeptical. Theoretically, yes. I don’t see any concrete reason to think so. Do you?

    The only case I can think of, off-hand, is if you are suicidal and the only escape from killing yourself is to believe that you are already magically saved from suffering. In the short term, monist belief might work for that. But since it has no workable methods, the fact that you continue to suffer will soon return to obviousness. You’d be better off with dualist eternalism, which at least gives you some sort of path, and an external deity to hang your hopes on.

  46. (1) Thanx. If you call it “unreadable” — I’m not going to try and tackle it.

    (2) Oh, OK.

    (3) I would have said, “Nyingma propaganda” but you bring out the worse side of me and thus I tried to be generous and soft. I promise not to do it again.

    Yes, I imagine if people’s only choice is depressive nihilism or subservient dualism then perhaps the grandeur of monism may be a better choice depending how they buffer it. For I really doubt that anyone embraces a philosophy consistently or even enthusiastically but instead it often serves as mere clothing to their everyday doings — which is often a good thing because some philosophies would be horrific if acted out consistently.

    But given how you see the “incompleteness” of other views, I have always wondered about how absolutely “dangerous” you see monism. Mind you, as you know, I am far from being a monist fan. I have wondered if it is because it is the near enemy of the philosophy you agree with. And thus being near, being a bit more enraging?

  47. how absolutely “dangerous” you see monism

    Well, I have known lots of monists, and I can’t remember any who didn’t seem to have been harmed by it (to greater or lesser degrees). I certainly can’t think of anyone who seems to have been helped; anyone who became saner or more ethical or more effective as a result of monist practice. (This is just a subjective impression, and empirical work would be good.)

    What do you think? Probably when you were a homeopath, many/most of your colleagues and clients were monists.

    Nearly all non-monists (both Christians and atheists/materialists) write off monists as idiots, and therefore not worth arguing with, not worth trying to understand, and not worth trying to save. That has led to underestimating the threat and the damage done, in my view.

    I really doubt that anyone embraces a philosophy consistently or even enthusiastically but instead it often serves as mere clothing to their everyday doings

    Yes… but for most Western monists, monism is a deliberate choice (where dualist eternalism is the default). That means it’s likely to have more effect on their lives than being born into wishy-washy Christianity does, for instance.

    Re: “near enemy”: yes, that’s quite possible.

  48. Hmmm, can’t say I have a good data set of folks I knew pre and post their Monistic shift. And we know we certainly can’t trust self-reports. But your point about being “a deliberate choice where dualist eternalism is the the default”, is interesting. I find that many Monists find the “Everything is One” idea is just code for “I want to be spiritual but I can’t believe all the exclusivists out there who tell us they know the truth. So All-is-One makes that all go away. Good, now I can still feel warm and fuzzy about the Universe and my fate without believing any of that complicated, divisive doctrine stuff.” I really don’t think it goes very deep in most folks.

    Believe it or not, a lot of Homeopath folks are Christians, but yes, many were sloppy monists. You are often around Dzogchen-ophiles who love Homeopathy and force fit everything in simple 5-elements categories. I think that illustrates what a smorgasbord of ideas, otherwise intelligent people can comfortably jumble together. The web of our beliefs are complex and inconsistent. Few of us really care about consistency, that is not why we tie ideas into our nests in the first place.

  49. I guess each of us chooses which ‘near enemy’ we find most threatening. I find new age monism mostly kind of silly– and I suspect what makes it that way is what Emerson called ‘a foolish consistency:’ folks trying to wrangle all their experience into conformity with ‘peak experiences.’

    To me, the possibility of ‘transcendent wisdom’ is more obscured by scientific materialism. The kind of determination to be consistent that reduces everything to matter and mechanical processes. [With some latitude for the amusement value of the odd, aberration of ‘peak experiences’] It is much more widely accepted, for one thing– it’s not just consensus Buddhism, it’s consensus worldview.

    The one thing none of these ‘extreme views’ seems to be willing to allow is the Dzogchen directive: ‘Leave it as it is.’

  50. ps: The subtitle of Namkhai Norbu’s *The Crystal and the Way of Light* is *Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen*– and appendix I has an excellent summary of the 9 Yanas as subgroups of the Sutrayana/Mahayana/Vajrayana classification system.

  51. I hope I don’t sound contentious in speaking up for the proverbial ‘ugly stepchild’ of your explorations, but my sense is that she’s related to visionary experience/transmission– for all her silly gauzy purple robes and fey flittering about. The trouble with the strictly rational, resolutely non-woo approach is that it can devolve into a non-wow approach, whereby those glimpses of a vaster reality ‘than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio’ are stamped out.

  52. Yes, I agree that “the trouble with the strictly rational, resolutely non-woo approach is that it can devolve into a non-wow approach, whereby those glimpses of a vaster reality ‘than is dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio’ are stamped out.”

    I have an upcoming post tentatively titled “Never mind the rationality, pass the cool stuff!” in which I suggest that the “rational Buddhism” approach (recently spearheaded by Stephen Batchelor) is boring. It may have various other virtues (and perhaps other faults), but for me its dullness is fatal.

  53. One of my introductions to Buddhism, a couple of decades ago was “Buddhism without Beliefs”– of which I remember little but the title. Those words were quite liberating, at the time, because I knew myself to be uninterested in a ‘belief system’; I was interested in the nature of reality.

    Unfortunately, from that point of helpful clarity, things seem to have slid downhill for the author– as they always do in the quest to make life and oneself perfectly logically consistent. Now he’s denying everything outside the remit of rationality– transmission/inspiration crucially among them– and thus cutting himself, and his adherents, off from what probably called him to Buddhism in the first place. Inspiration and a sense of appreciative openness of mind are certainly what interested ME in Buddhism.

  54. A question about renunciation. From my simple Theravadin-mind a clear distinction should be made between monks (bhikkhus) and laypersons. For a monk renunciation is an ideal, in fact a prescription. But for a layman or laywoman life is – from this perspective – less ideal. raising a family, earning money is not renunciation. A layperson has not to abstain totally from sexual activities, only from inappropriate ones. Better (in thus perspective) is it to get a monk. Or is that to simple ?

    And about Stepeh Batchelor; I like his books. This thread is not about him but he can not be called a “rational Buddhist”.
    His ‘buddhist carreer’ is interesting: starting as a Tibetan-buddhist, then a (Korean-)Zen monk and know more interested in the Pali Canon.


  55. Hi, Joop,

    Yes, in most traditional Theravada, it is said that lay people cannot practice renunciation, and cannot progress on the path of purification and insight. So the path for lay people is to accumulate merit instead.

    Starting in the 20th century, modern (non-traditional) Theravada teaches that lay people can practice renunciation to a limited extent, which has limited benefit. Connected with this, some teachers began teaching vipassana to lay people.

    Still it is taught that it is better to be a monk. Also, lay people should practice renunciation as much as they can. For example, Ajahn Maha Bua taught that lay people should not have sex except when required to make babies.

    There may be exceptions and complications. I am not a Theravada teacher, so if you really want to know, you should ask one!


  56. @David
    Though I am familiar with the material renunciations is Theravada, I had thought you were also referring to the “renunciatory” meditative practices. Am I mistaken? For example, letting go of emotions — to not pursue or explore anger, love, passion or fear. All those are to be renunciated. I always looked at renunciation as a pervasive principle: mental, physical, emotional ….

  57. So, wait, David, I am confused.
    This post seemed to me to say:

    Modern life causes a perception of fragmented selfs (psychological states). modern Buddhism offers three different approaches to this psychological dilemma.
    (a) No-self and World-renunciation: “the self should be disassembled through insight meditation; connections should be broken by withdrawing from sense-pleasures and worldly involvements.
    (b) Monist mysticism
    (c) Buddhist Tantra

    The emphasis shows where I thought you were clearly telling us that the renunciation effort was at a psychological level too. Perhaps I should not have identified that renunciate effort as Theravada, but instead as the Vipassana model.

  58. Yes… Sorry, I’m confused by your confusion and not sure what exactly your question is. It sounds like you see a contradiction somewhere?

    My previous answer probably went astray. The point I was making was that I know only a little about Theravada. My original post was about renunciation in general, and my understanding of that is based much more in Tibetan Sutrayana than in Theravada.

    However, vipassana is, unquestionably, intimately connected with renunciation. For instance, when it was revived/rediscovered/reinvented in the early 20th century, it was practiced only by extreme ascetics.

    Joseph Goldstein, one of the principal leaders of the “American vipassana movement”, has recently talked about the problem that the whole path as he would like to teach and practice it is renunciate, yet that doesn’t seem to function in America, even for him.

    [Irrelevant note: in other contexts, vipashyana, which is the Sanskrit version of the same word, may be a non-renunciate practice. The Tibetan equivalent is lhathong. In Dzogchen, lhathong is seen as a quasi-tantric practice, and therefore emphatically non-renunciate.]

  59. So I heard your post saying:

    Western Buddhism uses three approaches to working on our many-selves (“partial-selves”). (1) Renunciation (2) Monism (3) Tantra. Unfortunately there is an effort by covert-exclusive meetings to build a consensus which suppresses the Tantra approach. But I believe Monism is outright dangerous and Renunciation does not fit well or work well in the modern West. Indeed, I think Tantra offers a great deal of hope for the survival of a workable Buddhism and it is a shame it is being silenced.

    And what I heard you saying was that these three approaches were mental approaches, not primarily lifestyle approaches (though the two are obviously inseparable). Indeed, you tell us that Buddhism gets self-destructively eclectic in substituting New Age ideology, Hinduism and psychotherapy into their message to make up for their failures.

    So, maybe all the readers know exactly what you are pointing at, or maybe some are like me and are curious for the specifics that can help someone approaching any given X-Buddhism (as Glenn Wallis would say) and figure out which mental practices are (1) Renunciate (2) Monistic (3) Tantric (4) Bad Combos (5) New Age (6) Hindu (7) Psychotherapy.

    But I guess in future posts you will tell us more about Tantra so we know it when we see it. Or we can hear suppression when it rings out. I wager many readers may not have concrete, practical examples of Tantric meditation practice to help them understand your post’s abstractions.

    I wonder if my confusion is any more clear! (smile)

  60. About renunciation again. as used in Theravada.
    Of course renunciation is about emotions (greed, hatred) too but the practice will start with ethical wholesome behavior (but many Western teachers don’t like to talk about ethics)
    A text of Bhikkhu Bodhi, the well-known scholar-monk (and so a kind of teacher)
    I quote the first part of it:

    “Like a bird in flight borne by its two wings, the practice of Dhamma is sustained by two contrasting qualities whose balanced development is essential to straight and steady progress. These two qualities are renunciation and compassion. As a doctrine of renunciation the Dhamma points out that the path to liberation is a personal course of training that centers on the gradual control and mastery of desire, the root cause of suffering. As a teaching of compassion the Dhamma bids us to avoid harming others, to act for their welfare, and to help realize the Buddha’s own great resolve to offer the world the way to the Deathless.
    Considered in isolation, renunciation and compassion have inverse logics that at times seem to point us in opposite directions. The one steers us to greater solitude aimed at personal purification, the other to increased involvement with others issuing in beneficent action. Yet, despite their differences, renunciation and compassion nurture each other in dynamic interplay throughout the practice of the path, from its elementary steps of moral discipline to its culmination in liberating wisdom.”
    The rest in http://www.vipassana.com/resources/bodhi/balanced_way.php

    Perhaps, David (and Sabio), we can say it in this way: in Western Theravada-practicing, especially when reduced to doing vipassana (aka insight-meditation) there is no balance between renunciation and compassion anymore. It’s too much compassion and too little renunciation now, it’s too much ‘feel-good-buddhism’.


  61. @ Joop

    Maybe I am showing my barren modernistic bias here. I see Buddhism as offering mental technologies. So to work with a given mind, having many different techniques and different applications would seem the best approach to effectively treating the patient (the practitioner). Meditation as therapy is probably another sterile modernistic view, but I find it useful.

    So when talking in broad categories like “tantra” or “renunciation” I think we can loose fact of two points: (1) there are many different practices that fall under each of these words and even they have different effects. (2) a technique that is therapeutic for one person, may be toxic to another.

    So one of my objections to some of the Buddhisms I see is the “one-size-fits-all” approach. And further, is the insulting, self-righteous intellectualization of such a mistaken method.

    I think David’s emphasis to keep variety alive, and realize that some techniques may being intentionally suppressed, is important. Perhaps we should imagine a bird with dozens of wings.

    BTW, I wonder if anyone knows the origin of the two-wings-of-a-bird analogy. Matthieu Ricard, a Nyingma practitioner, in his book “Why Meditate?”, uses the wing analogy using: Compassion & Wisdom (p87).

  62. @ Sabio [12:05] – I’m still not sure I understand your original point. As you say, meditation and activity (“mental and lifestyle approaches”) are inseparable in Buddhism. That is true in tantra as well as renunciative approaches.

    The meditation methods that go along with renunciate activity are those that aim at realization of no-self (anatta, anatman, emptiness/shunyata).

    Tantric meditation methods are those that aim at realization of the non-duality of emptiness and form. So, tantric methods start with emptiness and add form back in. For example, in yidam practice, from a basis of emptiness, you add in the deity, while retaining its empty nature. In the Dzogchen interpretation of lhathong, you start from non-thought and add thought back in, while retaining awareness of the empty space in which thought arises.

    @ Joop – Thanks for the Bikkhu Bodhi quote! I really admire him as a strong voice for Theravada tradition against the Consensus dilution. Yes, American Theravada has almost entirely dropped renunciation, which is the central principle of Theravada, and that makes it incoherent.

    @ Sabio [11:01] – To see Buddhism as only mental technologies would be to lose some important parts of what it has to offer, I think.

    I suspect that Americans like to view it that way because the activity aspects of traditional, renunciate Buddhisms are unacceptable to Americans. They are politically/ethically unacceptable due to their traditionalism and their inseparability from their Asian cultures. They are personally unattractive because Americans don’t want to give up their attachments.

    My suggestion would be that the traditional and culturally-specific aspects can simply be dropped; and that tantra is an effective Buddhist path that does not require abandoning attachments.

    I agree with your two points that there are huge numbers of practices within Buddhism, each of which may be useful or toxic depending on the person, and that every classification scheme does some violence to specifics.

    On the other hand, I think the renunciation vs. tantra distinction is one that is little-understood in the West (partly because it has been deliberately obscured for political reasons), and that it may be critical in finding a new way forward.

  63. Hi, David. I just wanted to point out that Advaita, properly understood, isn’t monistic. It hasn’t been monistic at least since Shankara and arguably since the pre-Buddhist Upanishads. That is to say, it has been monistic only metaphorically, not formally.

    Shankara: “It is not even one and how can it be two.”

    Murti: “”In the Madhyamika, Vijnanavada, and Vedanta systems, the Absolute is non-conceptual and non-empirical.”

  64. I haven’t read all the comments on this, which I will do. However, I wanted to say that, while I read and enjoyed “Three Pillars of Zen” and “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and began practice trying out Zen and the Thai Forest Tradition, it was, amusingly enough, taking a seminar on Buddhism in college that converted me to Vajrayana, and immediately turned me off to Buddhism for a time, thanks to Pema Chodron’s inane work (admittedly, she has one or two good ones, but they’re early in her career, and everything after feels like its rehashing the same stuff). When I ignored the consensus, and took a look at Trungpa Rinpoche, however, I found it made a hell of a lot more sense in a Western context than HHDL’s tradition. I’ve avoided Geshe Kelsang Gyatso until now because of the Consensus’ disgust with him because he disagrees with HHDL, but now I’m seriously considering taking a look at his work. Also, for any who are interested, Vajrayana Dhana books can be found at http://www.lamayeshe.com. I have a few, and have flipped through them but have not had a chance to go in depth yet.

  65. About Advaita Vedanta

    Unfortunately, almost all of the above points about what is Vedanta are not correct. I value your blog highly and even recommended it at the shiningworld forum (a Vedanta forum) but your post is – politely expressed – not correct. Inpolitely, utter rubbish. No fault on your side, there is much misinterpretation between Buddhists and Vedantins even though both would not exist as we know them without each other.

    1.) Vedanta is not a branch of hinduism, if at all, it is more correct to say that Hinduism is based on Vedanta. Furthermore, if at all, it is also more correct to say that „Buddhism“ is based on Vedanta. Buddhism is based on Vedanta because its original purpose was to critique Vedanta.

    2.) The true self is not perfectly unified, it is beyond wholeness, unification or parts.

    3.) All is not one.
    The true self is not the realization of the unity of the true self with the whole universe. The true self is beyond the whole universe. It is independent of the universe. The universe appears in the true self. The universe is the true self, but the true self is independent of the universe.

    4.) The true self is nonduality. Nonduality implies that everything is of one nature but this nature is independent of the objects. In duality the subject depends on the objects. I – subject – need an object – food – to realize that I am different from the object food. In nonduality there is onyl the subject (not to be confused with Ego or mind -> the ego, mind and intellect are objects too, appearing in the true self). The object in duality disappears in nonduality.

    5.) In Vedanta enlightenment is defined as the realization that I am not the doer and that I am free of my addictions. Enlightenment is the realization of my true nature as nonduality. In nonduality there is no doer and no addictions. Once this is realized there is freedom. Freedom from the limited individual seeing himself as a separate being in a huge blank universe.

    6.) “These ultimate truths can be realized through internalizing meditation“
    Vedanta ridicules experiences as something always changing and never lasting. It sees experience – if at all – as a help as long as the experiences are correctly interpreted. Vedanta is a means of knowledge.
    With the help of a proper means of knowledge the realization that I am free of the doer and free of addictions is unavoidable. However, to realize this a certain set of qualifications are required to study Vedanta. Vedanta is not considered to be a means of knowledge for beginners. Meditation, calmness and a well educated mind are few of the qualifications necessary to be able to study and understand Vedanta.
    Vedanta is the sanskrit term for end of knowledge. Vedanta can be studied without any experiences at all. It is beyond experiences. Experiences can be seen as a help, however sometimes they are even considered harmful depending on the ability of the person to interpret them.

  66. In Vedanta we are already considered to be free. We are all by nature already nondual. The identification with the ego, intellect and mind causes separation with the world. Once this identification with the ego, etc. is looked through, freedom is enjoyed. Once we have realized that we are not the ego, etc. we have done everything which needed to be done. The use of the terms true self, awareness and consciousness are considered to be pointers. Once they are understood they can be discarded as unnecessary.

    In Vedanta there are no enlightened beings. However, there are also no non-enlightened beings. We are all nondual by nature. Once this has been understood by the help of a proper means of knowledge (there are certainly many more than just Vedanta, although Vedanta is a very eloquent, easy to master and enjoyable means of knowledge).

    If any misunderstandings need to be solved, I am happy to be of service: georgvedantin@gmail.com

    All the best from Bavaria, Germany.

  67. Thank you! Other people have also suggested that I’ve misunderstood Vedanta (based on having read only Western distortions of it).

    What would you recommend reading, in English, that would be more accurate?

  68. In general I recommend reading James Swartz resources. He is American translating these ancient texts from Indian English into modern western english, so to say. He likes your writing and I suppose you’d like his.
    Let me know if you want to know something specific, in that case I will forward the message to James (he is currently writing an article based on the information provided on your blog) or I give you more appropriate readings, so far take a look at the following:

    Here are some excerpts which you might find of interest concerning your endeavor of creating a proper “spiritualality” for the 21st century:

    Notice the following in the text below:
    1.) Experiential enlightenment has been the dominant view in the west since the 20th century. Vedanta considers mystical, meditation and other experiences as unnecessary because this is a nondual reality in which the distinction of a subject vs. object which is necessary for experience (-> I (subject) experience (the object) X,Y,Z)) is created by ignorance.

    2.) Neo-Advaita is the consensus buddhism version of Vedanta. A “morally- and politically correct” western movement from about the time of the 1970/80s, destroying the ancient wisdom by using twitter-like messages such as “All is one” or “this is it”. This neo-advaita is slowly running out of popularity because too many people realize it is not a proper means for enlightenment. (Some of Neo-Advaita’s popularity is based on its Buddhist sutrayana critique (-> Buddhist sutrayana in their view consists of: meditate till your knees explode, don’t drink alcohol, no sex, no fun, don’t smile, etc.)

    3.) I personally find many similarities between your writings on Tantra and Vedanta. Both (generally talking) embrace the world as it is, they don’t want to hide from it, etc.. Keep in mind that Vedanta is also not a politically correct teaching. It highly critiques those things which are utterly crazy, such as modern food obsessions, hiding our personality, acting holy, etc.
    Maybe there is some deeper connection between Vedanta and Tantra.

    “In approximately the last one hundred years Vedanta has suffered an apparent change, largely as a result of the teachings of Vivekananda around the turn of the twentieth century. Its basic function as a means of self-knowledge became confused with the doctrines of Yoga because Vivekananda, who had a profound influence on the West’s understanding of Vedanta (probably unintentionally), reduced it to “jnana” (knowledge) yoga, one of the many branches of Yoga. In fact, Yoga has traditionally been considered a subset of Vedanta, its purpose being to aid in the preparation of the mind to receive the teachings of non-duality. Before Yoga sullied the pure teachings of Vedanta enlightenment was considered to be the removal of ignorance about the nature of the self. But with the ascendancy of the Yoga teachings enlightenment came to be considered a “permanent experience of the self” in contrast to the mundane experiences of everyday life, which it obviously can’t be if this is a non-dual reality as the Upanishads claim. It can’t be a permanent experience, first because there is no such thing as a permanent experience, and second because it can’t be an experience in a non-dual reality, because the subject-object distinction necessary for experience is missing in a non-dual reality. If this is true then the quest for a permanent enlightenment experience is pointless and what is needed, as traditional Vedanta says, is the knowledge of reality since the craving for experience, including the experience of the self, is maya, the consequence of seeing oneself as a doer who is separate from reality. Or to put it another way, trying to get out of maya experientially is not ever going to happen, because maya is unreal. How can one be “in maya” in the first place if maya is only an apparent reality? The only way out of maya is to see that maya, the belief in duality, is only in the mind and to destroy it with the knowledge of reality. In any case, the experiential notion of enlightenment has been the dominant view for the last one hundred years, although it goes back to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This Vedantic evolution has been labeled “Modern” Vedanta, an oxymoron if ever there was one.

    By and large the wave of “export gurus” that inundated the West in the sixties peddled Modern Vedanta with considerable success. Then in the eighties the Western spiritual world became reacquainted with Ramana Maharshi, a sage in the Vedic tradition who had achieved international recognition around the middle of the twentieth century but who had been all but forgotten since his death in the fifties. Ramana was not a traditional Vedantic sage but he realized the non-dual nature of the self and taught both Vedanta and Yoga. Self-inquiry, which many Neo-Adviatins believe to be his invention, is as old as the Vedas itself. The rediscovery of Ramana roughly coincided with the rise of “Neo-Advaita.” Neo-Advaita is basically a “satsang”-based “movement” that has very little in common with either traditional Vedanta or Modern Vedanta or even its inspiration Ramana – except for the doctrine of non-duality.

    I have recently been informed that in spite of the fact that no new Vedantas are required, we have entered the “post-Neo-Advaita” period. Presumably, Westerners have seen enough of Neo-Advaita and are now waiting for the next permutation of the Upanishadic teachings that by their nature never change.” source: http://www.shiningworld.com/site/satsang/index.php type in search button “what is vedanta”

    Further reading include:
    What is Advaita Vedanta? Experience and Knowledge: http://www.shiningworld.com/site/index.php/publications/articles?id=71&Itemid=214

  69. Thanks! My understanding of Vedanta is probably badly distorted by exposure to the Neo- version.

    From other things I’ve read recently, it seems that the various modernizations of Hinduism over the past 150 years are quite parallel to the various modernizations of Buddhism, with similar problems.

  70. Not your fault!
    Yes, modernizations of Vedanta are actually very similar although – in my understanding – less fragmented as the buddhist versions. This might be because there is no coherent teaching in buddhism which has survived during the colonialization of other Asian countries (including Zen, Theravada, etc.).
    The general focus of modernizations is the emphasis on experiences. The idea that an instant experience is solving everything, including the problem of “reaching” enlightenment was the perfect message for Westerners who are used to get things instantly. No process, no work, no painful experiences for the instant teachings… For a light-hearted Western spiritual person this is a perfect sell. A good starter for this – for Vedanta as well as Buddhism – is Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the world religion conference (or so) in Chicago, in the year 1893.

    In general, I had the feeling you might find some interest in the writings of James Swartz.

    I might want to add that in your search for a “21st century spirituality” or whatever you want to call it you sooner or later had to come across Vedanta. Not because Vedanta is the only true teaching but rather because its core nondual message is so old (its principal ideas reach back at least 3500 years, maybe more, maybe less -> who knows it really?). Based on this we can – to some extent – claim that it is the source for almost all nondual teachings (including Buddhism, Tantra, Yoga, Hinduism, etc.). This does not mean that it is the only true teaching for everybody but at least it is helpful source if your goal is to find the essential nondual teaching.

    Just my two cents :)

    p.s. if I can be of any service, please feel free to contact me. I am very grateful for your knowledge on buddhist history!

  71. I mean of course, I am extremely grateful for your service of providing all these highly interesting and important information regarding the different branchs of “buddhism”. Thank you for that :)

  72. David – I read this some time ago but one of your points kept rattling around my brain so I had to come and re-read it and see what it was that had me contemplating it. I’d be pretty interested to hear what you make of the following, if you have the time.

    It was with regards to “True Self” and the use of “Internalising Meditation” – coupled with the deep hope on my part to avoid morphing into a “scatter-brained” monist in drag.

    Your writing on monism has clarified my thinking on the subject – or at least mad eye far more aware of potential effects on one’s practice/involvement in the world.

    I am wondering what ‘internalising meditation’ is, in your opinion, and if you have any examples other than advaita vedanta (which I have very little familiarity with).

    One example of a set of practices which I have a sneaky suspicion might fall into this category – is some of the ‘somatic protocols’ of Reggie Ray. Reggie is a wonderful teacher, and I have received a lot from his teachings personally. That said – in the name of burning the buddha statue – Reggie openly makes references to ‘True Self’. Now – I’m unsure whether Reggie is using the term ‘True Self’ to refer to some monist unifying principle, or whether it is more a reference to ‘Nature of Mind’. Reggie is a deeply practiced Vajrayana teacher, as I know you’re well aware. How do we (the royal we) – as neither scholars nor expert meditators – relate to teachers who whilst clearly being authorised to teach Vajrayana, may be teaching something with elements of monism or new-ageyness.

    The following practice – known in the dharma ocean community as yin breathing – is not at all secret, so I feel free to share it here (although it could arguably be open/self-secret). Reggie has given this teaching, and many other like it, publicly via live stream. Here is a brief overview, I’d be interested whether this would count as ‘internalising meditation’. If it sounds interesting to anyone I’d point you in their direction, although I am in no way promoting it. I’m just playing devil’s advocate.

    The ‘space in the lower belly’ is equated with the dharmakaya. Reggie has given pointing-out, publicly, on the live stream several times, using ‘gates’ in the lower belly. From a technical point of view – I’d be interested what you make of this, David.

    Get a comfortable posture. Lie down on a soft floor (a blanket on the floor or yoga mat can work well). Perhaps use a cushion or a towel to raise your head slightly. You can turn off the lights and/or use a blindfold – lack of light stimulation is calming. Also, you can raise your knees as roughly a 45 degree angle, with a band or strap above your knees to gently keep them together, keeping your feet planted flat on the ground and slightly wider than your knees. This is designed to relax the psoas muscles, pelvic floor etc. If you have a very relaxed pelvic floor and legs, then by all means leave your legs flat on the ground as usual. Place your arms either by your side or gently over your lower belly, below your navel.
    We first complete 12 sets of lower belly breaths. This is where we take a medium to full in-breath into our lower belly, and then completely breathe out, squeezing out as much air as possible. Place your attention in the lower belly, and concentrate on slowly squeezing out the air. If you feel comfortable you can exert quite a lot of pressure on the out-breath. You can also continue to ‘squeeze out air’, even when all the physical air has gone, for a moment or two, if you feel comfortable doing so. You may feel tingling sensations in your body, this is completely normal and can be quite pleasurable. Relax in those sensations and enjoy them.
    After the twelve ‘clearing-breaths’, relax your muscles, sink into the floor. Let yourself breathe naturally. If you notice any tension, just relax it and sink into the floor. Let your breathing settle into its natural rhythm.
    Now we will begin the YB technique. Place your attention in your lower belly, whilst you breathe naturally, try to pick a spot roughly three/four inches below your navel – for women this is roughly where the womb is. Imagine a small space in the middle of your body in this area, roughly the size of a tennis ball and the shape of an egg on it’s side (sort of!). We are going to breathe into this space, and let the space expand slightly as we breathe in, and contract slightly as we breathe out.
    So completely relaxing any tension, as slowly as you like, breathe into this space in the lower belly. Let your attention rest in this small expanding and contracting space. You don’t need to concentrate on the feelings of your breathing at the nose/mouth – it is more important to relax and absorb our attention into this area of space. You can breathe very gently into the space, the primary focus is relaxation and down-regulation of our stress-hormones.
    If we become distracted by thoughts or sounds, we can ‘breathe them in’ to the space in the lower belly, and let them ‘dissolve in that feeling of spaciousness’.
    If we notice any physical tension, we can relax that on the out-breath, letting the tension flow into the ground, and placing our attention in the feeling of spaciousness as our body breathes out.
    Let go of any ideas, thoughts, or concepts, and just dissolve your attention into that space in the lower belly. As you continue to let go into that feeling of spaciousness, any emotional turmoil will begin to calm, your heart rate will begin to slow, and a deep feeling of relaxation and peace will begin to pervade your body – continue to let go and enjoy these feelings.
    Dissolve and distractions on an in-breath, let go of any tensions on an out-breath. Relax, let go into the space in the lower belly. If you do this for long enough you might fall asleep, this isn’t a problem in my opinion.
    At a certain point, when we breathe in and let the ‘balloon’ inflate in the lower belly, we can actually let go if the idea of the balloon and just rest in the space itself, the spaciousness in the lower belly. Notice how the spaciousness in the lower belly feels completely peaceful, empty and open. Even though we can still feel the aliveness of our body around this space. We can let that sense of spaciousness grow in the lower body, if we feel comfortable and like we can ‘taste’/sense the spaciousness.
    Rest in that space, it feels like home. If you are familiar with this practice – you can begin to ‘look into’ the spaciousness and ask questions such as ‘what is here when there is no problem to solve’ – as a way of directing our awareness towards the feeling of utter peace and well being.

    [At roughly 1:13:00 of the following video, Reggie teaches a similar practice to YB, although slightly different, which includes a similar ‘looking’ step as mentioned at step 11 of the instruction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii9AeQJjz9Q%5D

    Q1. Do these sort of practices represent another “unrealistic path“, in your view?
    (Would practices such as ‘formless meditation’ fall into the category of ‘internalising’?)

    Q2. How does the concept of ‘buddha nature’, ’nature of heart/mind’, ‘tamal ghyi shepa’, ‘indestructible heart essence’, etc, – relate to the notion of ‘True Self’?
    (I think they are so often taught as being equated. I have also heard well respected teachers such as Shinzen Young use these terms somewhat interchangeably i.e.: No-Self, True-Self, Flow-Self, The-Source, Dharmakaya, etc.)

    If you do manage to reply – thank you in advance. I really appreciate your view on things, they’re definitely making me pay closer attention to the philosophical underpinnings to practice, and how practices reflect those views.

    Kind regards


  73. Hi Jack,

    These are excellent questions.

    Monism and the True Self idea are harmful because they take genuine, accurate insights about the everyday world, and turn them into metaphysical absolutes about Cosmic Truth. If the underlying insights are taught as “here are some useful ways of looking, and some helpful practices based on them,” then that is beneficial. Monism is right that there is no sharp self/other boundary. True Self is right that we humans are something larger and more interesting than we usually suppose.

    So, paying close attention to somatic experience is highly valuable. You can learn things about yourself that way that are not available otherwise. When learning to do that, it can be helpful to shut out other sensory input, and stray thinking, in order to focus on tactile and kinesthetic sensations. The breathing practice you describe sounds excellent to me. (I’ve done similar but not quite identical ones.)

    This sort of practice becomes harmful (in my view) only if the aim is to detach more and more from the world, and to retreat into Pure Consciousness. Some meditation systems do attempt this. Supposedly some adepts succeed to the extent that they have no sensory experience at all; you can hammer nails into them and they don’t notice. (This is extremely holy, apparently.)

    In formless meditation, you may initially shut out some sensory input (by staring at a blank wall, for instance) in order to make it easier not to have your attention pulled around. Doing that, you come to experience awareness-itself, as distinct from the specific contents of awareness. In the systems I respect, this is a preliminary to being able to experience awareness-itself in ordinary circumstances, like writing blog comments, without having your attention pulled around. Similar practices seem harmful to me if the aim is to achieve Cosmic Consciousness, in which you are blissfully disengaged from mundane reality.

    Mostly I like Reggie Ray’s teaching a lot, based on the little I know about it. I’ve recommended him when people ask about teachers of modern Vajrayana. However, I do think you are right that he verges on monism (well spotted!). I do think this could be misleading or even harmful for some students who are already prone to monist distortions. If one understands why monism is wrong, then one can probably take the valuable aspects of what he teaches and ignore the mistaken metaphysics.

    How does the concept of ‘buddha nature’, ’nature of heart/mind’, ‘tamal ghyi shepa’, ‘indestructible heart essence’, etc, – relate to the notion of ‘True Self’? (I think they are so often taught as being equated. I have also heard well respected teachers such as Shinzen Young use these terms somewhat interchangeably i.e.: No-Self, True-Self, Flow-Self, The-Source, Dharmakaya, etc.)

    This question has been the central issue in Buddhist philosophy for about 1500 years! How do we reconcile anatman, or the absence/emptiness of any True Self, with various concepts of the enlightened self, such as Buddha Nature? Every Buddhist lineage has its own complicated explanation for how these two incompatible ideas can be made to fit together. Most philosophical debates within Buddhism boil down to people pointing out that other people’s stories about this don’t work. Which is not difficult, because none of the stories work. There is a real contradiction, and it can’t be papered over with complex intellectual obfuscation.

    I’ve written about this here, albeit in a somewhat flip way. Zen and Tantra mostly try to have their cake (an enlightened True Self) and eat it too (emptiness/no-self). Because they contain this fundamental contradiction, they are somewhat conceptually incoherent. That leads them to tend to veer into various sorts of metaphysical extremism. They are always tempted to absolutize valid experiential intuitions into Cosmic Truths.

    Cosmic Truths, revealed by sky gods, cannot be argued with—they are sacred mysteries that make no sense only because we unenlightened beings are not holy enough to understand them. This is a way of forcing people to stop pointing out that the Enlightened Emperor has no clothes. In other words, since the contradiction between emptiness and Buddha Nature cannot be resolved by philosophical analysis, it is simply asserted not to exist, on the authority of mythical omniscient gods. This worked well in a medieval society. It’s disappointing that prominent American convert Buddhist teachers are still doing it. At some level, they must know this is dishonest.

    A common rejoinder is that “this mystery is resolved in meditation—if you have the experience then there is no doubt!” To some extent, this is correct, because both no-self and True Self are genuine intuitions based on genuine experiences. In meditation, you may find that the self/other boundary dissolves. Experientially, you become the entire universe. You realize that this is the way everything has always been. Separation was always an illusion. And, all this is quite accurate, in some sense. It’s not just a fantasy or error of perception.

    The problem comes when this experiential insight gets turned into metaphysics—because it doesn’t work as metaphysics. The actual insight can’t be captured accurately in words (or hasn’t been so far, anyway!). Some Zen texts point this out, as is well known. “The words are merely a finger pointing at the moon” and so forth.

    The words are both helpful and misleading, depending on how they are understood. Part of the job of a skilled teacher is to work with this dynamic—emphasizing either the provisional truth or relative error inherent in concepts of enlightenment, depending on whether students are more likely to fall into nihilistic despair or eternalistic absolutism.

    Apparently the morning coffee has kicked in. More of an answer than you probably wanted!

  74. Certainly not more than I wanted – thank you David, thoroughly appreciated.

    “..Monism and the True Self idea are harmful because they take genuine, accurate insights about the everyday world, and turn them into metaphysical absolutes about Cosmic Truth…”

    So it is the epistemological leap – or deriving a metaphysical stance from experience that is harmful? This makes good to me, if you agree with that (oversimplified?) statement of mine.

    “…The breathing practice you describe sounds excellent to me…”

    I’m glad, as it seems to me at least to be a good representation of what Reggie is doing currently. What you say about being aware of potential metaphysical pot-holes feels to me to a sensible approach – I can certainly see how people inclined a certain way may me sent down certain rabbit holes. (Not that I’m completely impervious to iffy stances, particularly when influenced by a respectable/inspiring individual.)

    “This sort of practice becomes harmful (in my view) only if the aim is to detach more and more from the world, and to retreat into Pure Consciousness.”

    Yeah I think whatever proximity Reggie runs to monism, he certainly never makes the suggestion that ‘the world’ is in any way less ’sacred’ than meditation experiences and awareness practices. He repeatedly mentions the ‘scared outlook’ of vajrayana, and how important the ‘grittiness’ of our everyday lives is. Perhaps this acts as a type of safety valve for those who might like to retreat into a super spiritual consciousness tripette.

    “…If one understands why monism is wrong, then one can probably take the valuable aspects of what he teaches and ignore the mistaken metaphysics…”

    I agree with this – although I do wonder if this would become tiresome over the long term, with relevance to relating to tantra in the modern world. How many compromises are acceptable – I suppose many are necessary given the current situation.

    “…This question has been the central issue in Buddhist philosophy for about 1500 years!…”

    Always happy to strike a collective nerve.

    “…Zen and Tantra mostly try to have their cake (an enlightened True Self) and eat it too (emptiness/no-self). Because they contain this fundamental contradiction, they are somewhat conceptually incoherent…”

    Does Dzogchen present the same fundamental contradiction in your opinion?

    “…Cosmic Truths, revealed by sky gods, cannot be argued with—they are sacred mysteries that make no sense only because we unenlightened beings are not holy enough to understand them. This is a way of forcing people to stop pointing out that the Enlightened Emperor has no clothes….”

    Any solution to this – or do we just have to accept the nebulosity and tell our wise overlords that their silly answers don’t cut the mustard in as pleasant a way as possible?

    “…The problem comes when this experiential insight gets turned into metaphysics—because it doesn’t work as metaphysics…”

    And here we are, back the the precipice of the great epistemological leap.

    “Apparently the morning coffee has kicked in….”

    The moment of that kick is ever faithful – makes me wonder why no-one has ever formulated a deity around coffee. Maybe I should look into that, could work out well for my taxes.

    Thanks again David.

  75. it is deriving a metaphysical stance from experience that is harmful?

    I think so.

    Does Dzogchen present the same fundamental contradiction in your opinion?

    I want to say no, but Dzogchen is internally diverse, and the texts are often extremely obscure, so it’s hard to be definite. Ju Mipham’s Beacon of Certainty is the peak of Dzogchen philosophy (most people would say, and I agree). I think this book does resolve the emptiness-vs.-tathagatagarbha contradiction, essentially by rejecting both of them (at least when taken as metaphysical absolutes). I’m not certain others would agree. It’s perhaps the most difficult book I’ve ever read.

    tell our wise overlords that their silly answers don’t cut the mustard in as pleasant a way as possible?

    Well, of course that’s an individual and contextual choice. I do think it would be helpful for more people to say “you can’t have no-self and True Self, that makes no sense; your explanation makes no sense either; you are mostly just arguing from transcendental authority, plus playing word games to obscure the contradiction.” But there is a time and a place for that!

  76. Excellent post and discussion. Many thanks!

    Seems to me that Alfred North Whitehead’s Process Philosophy could shed light on a lot of these issues. This philosophy is based on Process/Becoming rather than Substance/Being and thus essentially incorporates Dependent Arising and No Self from the ground up. Many sources on Process Philosophy are much more accessible than arcane texts such as Mipham’s “Beacon of certainty”, methinks, and modern science is embraced rather than woo-woo.

    The article “Whitehead’s Even More Dangerous Idea” by Peter Farleigh is a good introduction.

    Are you familiar with these ideas, David?

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