Reinventing Buddhist Tantra

A conversation has begun about what post-Consensus Buddhisms could be. I will join in by suggesting renewed Buddhist Tantra as a possibility. Tantra aims in a direction many people want to go—quite a different direction from mainstream Buddhism. So its goal is inspiring; and its path can be exhilarating.

That might seem unlikely. “Isn’t Tibetan Buddhism incredibly conservative? What about all those gods and demons and miracles and Medieval superstitions? And prostrating to lamas, and rituals and robes and thrones and crowns? And hours and hours of chanting gibberish in Tibetan? This is exactly the stuff we want to leave behind—hardly the way forward for Western Buddhism!”

Mostly, yes, vintage-1959 Tibetan Buddhism is the only Buddhist Tantra that is available; and I agree that it’s culture-bound and anachronistic.

Yet I think new Tantric Buddhisms could be particularly relevant to life in the 21st century.

This page previews upcoming posts that will sketch possibilities that might look entirely unlike what has come before.

I say “Buddhisms,” plural, because I don’t want the new, better alternative to Consensus Buddhism. What I want is space for many alternatives to develop. Some may sprout from Tantra; others from other roots.

I say “sketching possibilities” because I do not have a worked-out alternative to offer. I can only wave toward directions that look promising. I hope others will explore further, and that new forms may emerge collaboratively.

Why I should shut up, and why I won’t

There are several excellent reasons for me not to write about this. In short, I am totally unqualified.

However, most of what I have to say, no one else seems to be saying. If I don’t say it, perhaps no one will. I feel responsible for 3% of Buddhism, so I’ll go ahead and say it anyway. And I’ll put a big red warning up front that I may be completely out to lunch.

Fortunately, since I have no credentials, no one will listen unless what I say makes sense. So probably no great harm can come of it.

I expect someone will try to shut me up by yelling “That’s not really Buddhism!” or “That’s not authentic Vajrayana!” I find these objections meaningless, and will ignore them. What matters is whether something works, not whether or not it is “really” or “authentically” Buddhism.

A Tantric attitude

For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.

You may find that you already have this attitude. Many Westerners do—although it’s difficult to maintain consistently.

At first this explanation might seem anti-climactic. “That’s all you think Tantra is about? Big deal!”

The excitement starts when you realize there is a whole religion built on this attitude. There is a system for putting the vision into practice, for intensifying and developing it, for making everything you do consistent with it.

The innumerable, brilliant techniques of Tantra flow logically from this attitude. But, if you understand and fully embrace the attitude, then no specific methods are necessary. Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.

The intricate symbolism and subtle philosophy of Tantra express and embellish the fundamental theme of spacious passion. They point out its implications and use and value. Again, the forms are limitless. Some are culturally-specific, which implies that—if necessary—it should be possible to develop Western symbolism that accurately reflects the same themes.

The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.

Nobility

If spacious passion is the path, what is the goal?

Tantric texts often describe the ideal as “nobility” or “heroism.” That, to me, is a worthy objective.

Nobility is about this life, in this world. It is concrete, conceivable, believable, and obviously valuable. Many stories about Enlightenment seem to me to be none of those. Nobility is a destination that needs no metaphysical speculation.

Nobility is a way of being. It’s something that can be seen from the outside. “Enlightenment” is often imagined to be a purely inner quality of mind. I don’t care so much about that.

As a way of being, nobility has both inner and outer aspects, which are actually not separate. Unlike some conceptions of enlightenment, it is definitely not an experience. “Enlightenment experiences” seem over-rated to me. They can only be of value if they result in a lasting change in your way of being. Nobility inherently includes action. As far as I’m concerned, action is where the action is. If you want an experience, you can take drugs; they’re a lot less work.

Nobility, or heroism, contrasts with mainstream Buddhist ideals of saintliness, holiness, detachment, and purity. A hero is nothing like a saint. For one thing, a hero is useful, and a saint isn’t. Who you gonna call?

Tantric history

The posts up to this point in the outline sketch what I hope are inspiring (if vague) possibilities. Before getting into specifics, we have some unpleasant medicine to take: a political history of Buddhist Tantra. Some history is needed in order to understand why Buddhist Tantra is the way it is now, and how it could be different. Unfortunately, some of it is tiresome and ugly: dead people behaving badly. In any case, I hope to show that:

  • Tantra has innovated radically through most of its history. This means that there have been many different Tantric Buddhisms. So, there are diverse starting points available for future Tantric Buddhisms, which we can draw on according to taste and need. Further, this shows that Buddhist Tantra is not inherently conservative, and that further development is historically legitimate.
  • Tantra has been in political conflict with mainstream Buddhism throughout its history. This is as true now as ever. Future Tantric Buddhisms will face the same conflict—although Western tolerance and freedom of religion should lessen the impact.
  • The ruling class has always seen Tantra as a powerful weapon. They have sought to monopolize it as a tool in their power struggles. They have tried to restrict access (denying it to potential opponents), and have controlled Tantric adepts as resources for their own use. This continues up to the present, and explains part of why Buddhist Tantra is so difficult to get into.
  • There was a wave of promising Tantric innovation in the West in the 1980s.
  • It was suppressed, successfully, in the 1990s and 2000s by a coalition of politically-conservative Tibetans and politically-correct Americans.
  • That coalition is losing its grip, and new Tantric initiatives are emerging now.

I will provide a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. (Hint: Tibetan history is more fun with spaceships and ray guns.)

Tantric denials

To open up space for what Tantra could be, I need to explain what it isn’t.

In each of these, you can read “is not necessarily.” Tantra could be each of these things, in some versions. Not the kinds of Tantra that appeal to me, though.

An automotive engineering approach

Now we get down to nuts and bolts.

Tantra is a yana, which means “vehicle” in Sanskrit. It is possible to “reinvent” a vehicle. Revolutionary cars like the Model T Ford, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Citroen DS, and the Mazda Miata each introduced many new technologies and design concepts.

All of them had four wheels, an engine, headlights, seats, and a windshield, however. There are some things a car has to have, in order to function as a car.

A vehicle with two wheels is not a car. How about three wheels? People have tried that, but they’re tippy. Five wheels? Forget it.

A car without an engine doesn’t go. If a vehicle is going to take you somewhere, you need a source of energy to turn the wheels. An electric motor? Faddish now, and doesn’t work well. Maybe in the future. [I wrote this before the Tesla Model S existed!]

Hey, wouldn’t it be great to power a car with earthworms? That would be so organic and ecological.

The point is, “reinvention” can’t mean arbitrary make-overs that seem really cool. You can’t put wings on a car and expect it to fly. There are things you can change, and things you can’t. This has nothing to do with sacred tradition, or what it says in holy books, or what powerful priests will allow. It has everything to do with engineering.

If you want to reinvent Tantra, you need to understand how it works. What makes it go? What factors affect its energetic efficiency? How do you minimize drag? How do the safety belts function in a crash?

I will sketch my understanding of the fundamental principles and functions of Buddhist Tantra. If I’ve got it right, any future Tantra will need to conform to that general design. But this also points out areas that are open for experimentation, variation, and adaptation.

The Consensus and Tantra

I’ll write several posts on the Consensus’ complex relationship with Tantra.

For somewhat accidental, historical reasons, the Consensus mainly rejected it. However, it did incorporate certain aspects.

I suggest that most potential Western Buddhists would find the Tantric attitude attractive—and would not find the fundamental attitude of mainstream Asian Buddhism attractive—if both were explained accurately. This has led to some major obfuscation.

Meanwhile, because Westerners do want what Tantra has to offer, Consensus Buddhism has had to adopt vaguely similar practices and concepts from psychotherapy, the New Age, Hinduism, and elsewhere. This has not gone well.

Reinventing Buddhist ritual

Ritual is often said to be the defining feature of Buddhist Tantra. This is wrong. All pre-modern forms of Buddhism involved extensive ritual. Also, I suspect an entirely ritual-free Buddhist Tantra would be possible.

Possible, but not desirable. Many Western Buddhists reject ritual; but not—I think—for good reasons. In fact, it is only religious ritual they reject. Non-religious ritual is a vital aspect of every Westerner’s daily life.

So first, I will try to pull out the reasons for this rejection; and I will suggest that they are mostly confused.

We should reject religious rituals if they are boring and don’t work. And mostly that’s how they are. I’ll suggest reasons why.

Buddhism needs new rituals. Rituals that are exciting, fascinating, overwhelming. Rituals that leave you ecstatic, transported, inspired to practice. A great concert or theatrical performance can do that—just not in a religious context. We should expect Buddhism to provide the same high; as it did in the past, and still sometimes can. When it doesn’t, something is missing.

Fortunately, ritual is an aspect of Buddhism that is particularly open to innovation. Leaders have always felt free to create new rituals, even at times when Buddhism was highly conservative about doctrine.

Tantra has a handful of fundamental types of ritual, each with a defined function. For each, there is a primordial structure or underlying grammar. Within that framework, endless exuberant elaboration is possible, expressing the Tantric attitude and aims, in all artistic modes—music, dance, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture, costumery, and so on. An understanding of the basic forms, plus the principles and function of ritual in general, can be a starting point for creativity.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

72 thoughts on “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra”

  1. This piece has the feel of something very personal that was just dieing to come out. I have the distinct impression that this is what you’ve been waiting to write about all along, and the tasks you’ve set yourself sure look like fun!
    Having practiced a lot of Tibetan Tantra in the past I am curious to see what you will have to say about taking the boring monotony out of tantric ritual. I developed a rather strong allergy to Buddhist ritual after doing too many retreats with the NKT and FPMT back in the day.
    When you talk about making rituals ecstatic, exhilarating, it made me think of many shamanic rituals that I’ve been involved in, including rites of passage ceremonies, which are highly trans-formative when done properly. Although seemingly magical, their function is to shake us out of our inner status-quo and connect us to raw experience the body.
    http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.com/

  2. My only dabbling in the world of Buddhist tantra (if it even can be called that) was taking a few classes at the local Shambhala Buddhist center in my city. As much as I appreciated the aesthetics of the facility, the basic practice (shamatha-vipashyana) and the emphasis on creativity, I felt the need to terminate my association with Shambhala. I found their uncritical devotion to both Chogyam Trungpa and his son “Sakyong” Mipham to be extremely creepy. The people seemed, frankly, robotic: everything had to fit the standard Shambhala language and absolutely no mention could be made of the well-publicized scandals surrounding Trungpa or his first appointed successor. Committed Shambhalians strike me as very sincere and highly educated people who have left their brains at the door in return for the wonderstruck bliss of the so-called “Kingdom of Shambhala.” Please, David, don’t tell me this is what you have in mind when you talk about modern Buddhist tantra. Guru-devotion in all it’s myriad manifestations: No thanks!

    Interested to hear more, however…

    Best,
    Bradley

  3. Hi Bradley,

    Shambhala was my introduction to Buddhist tantra, too, and I had a good experience with it. However, that was during the interregnum between the death of Thomas Rich (a/k/a Ösel Tenzin, Trungpa Rinpoche’s successor) and the time when Sakyong Mipham took control. When I was there, Shambhala was guru-less, and the assorted scandals were discussed openly. It’s been thirteen years since I’ve done a Shambhala program, and I gather things have changed a lot.

    The issue of gurus in general, and the Trungpa/Rich scandals in particular, were at the center of the formation of Consensus Buddhism (notably at the 1993 Dharamsala conference). I’ll cover that in an upcoming post.

    The topic is somewhat difficult to discuss because, particularly in the late 1990s, it became highly polarized. Some traditionalists insisted that the institution of the guru was sacred and inviolable and could not be modified in any way whatsoever. Some modernists insisted that any power asymmetry between teachers and students was antithetical to Western values and completely unacceptable.

    I find both of those positions quite silly. On the one hand, some aspects of particular guru-disciple models are clearly cultural, not essential to Vajrayana. It ought to be possible to discuss which those are without authority figures shutting down debate before it arises. On the other hand, power asymmetry between teachers and students is nearly universal in the West. Sometimes Western school teachers and university professors abuse their students in various ways, and we accept some risk of that because there’s no other way to learn some things.

    Usually I find “middle ways” to be weak compromises, but this is a case in which it seems obvious that there are intermediate possibilities that can include a decent risk/benefit balance. Both of the extreme positions were mainly fear-driven reactions to each others’ extremism, rather than to reality.

    I hope, and believe, that the reactivity and self-righteous emotionalism, which characterized the debate a decade ago, have cooled.

    Best,

    David

  4. Wow, brilliant post!! Very helpful. Thank you.
    This was a titillating introduction for your next 30 – 40 posts.
    Stop meditating and write, will ya? :-)

    As other commentors have said, this is fantastic book material. I think, after this is all done (in a few years), you should hire an editor to organize all of these posts into a web book or a book series. I envision a title like: “The Promise and Curse of Tantra”.

    Waiting with baited breath for more — please be careful during your mountain climbs, we need you!

  5. I have been thinking about mountain climbing as well.

    I don’t think you can improve on this!
    6hr love play
    6hr meditation
    6hr work/socialization
    6hr relaxation

    I forget where this came from, maybe Drukpa Kunley

    Hug some emptiness today…lol

  6. @ Sabio — Tantra isn’t my usual practice (as I’ll readily admit in my next post), so I’ll be concentrating on it for the next few weeks. Should be interesting.

    I’m skeptical that this stuff is worth a book, but we’ll see maybe.

    @ Thunder — “Nice work if you can get it”! When I retired, several years ago, I planned to keep a schedule that looked something like that. It hasn’t worked out that way. It’s more like:

    1hr argue with American Express about a billing error
    3hrs answer Buddhism-related emails and web comments
    1hr distracted by LOLcats
    1hr install critical software security update for sangha web site
    2hrs visit numerous stores trying to find a pair of jeans that actually fits; give up
    1hr make dinner and clean up
    1hr talk to foreign girlfriend by Skype
    2hrs start working on income tax return
    1hr read depressing book about Tibetan politics in preparation for upcoming post
    3min start practicing Tantric sadhana, realize I’m utterly exhausted and it’s pointless, go to bed

    Not every day is like that; but the point is that for Tantra to be useful, we have to be realistic about what is feasible. Even without a job, or children to care for, I have limited time for practice.

    Tantra was originally devised for princes, who had a huge support structure of people to argue with American Express and shop for jeans on their behalf. It needs modification to be useful for regular folks. Fortunately, some of the necessary work on that was done in Tibet, among the non-aristocratic, non-monastic ngakpa community. So we have a pretty decent idea of how to make it work without a big support structure. Still, Tibetan ngakpas didn’t have anything like the intense demands of contemporary Western life. Further adaptation is required.

  7. Thanks for the response, David. My understanding is that much has changed in the Shambhala world since the Sakyong took over. There’s a website about this change from a critical point of view at http://www.radiofreeshambhala.org. Worth a look if you’re interested.

    Since I was not around for the “good ‘ol days” of pre-Rich, pre-Sakyong Shambhala I cannot pass any judgment as to the organization back then. However, in reading through Trungpa’s books I cannot help but conclude that he engaged in a lot of mystical thinking and played a lot of games with his devotees. That’s not to say there isn’t value to his teachings: I think there is. I’m just not willing to believe him (or anyone else, for that matter) hook, line and sinker. And that’s the problem with guru-based systems: they don’t leave (enough? any?) room for doubt and critical thinking. Can there be a modern tantra without gurus? Could it still be called tantra?

    One last thing: In your response to Sabio above you say you need to be “enlightened” to practice Dzogchen. What exactly do you mean by “enlightened”?

    Thanks,
    Bradley

  8. @ David: Without speaking about yourself in particular, how would a teacher decide, in general, when the practice of Dzogchen sem-de ngondro would be preferable to Tantra for a given person. Just an example would be helpful. Likewise, what type of mind would be better not practicing Tantra or Dzogchen sdn?

  9. Very funny David ! still only 13hr and 3 min used up
    OK here is one adaptable solution. Realistic and feasible
    Your own personal live in consort Goddess who plays as a devoted monogamous wife in disguise.

    1. 1hr argue with American Express about a billing error-( Goddess fixes this in 5 minutes)
    3hrs answer Buddhism-related emails and web comments-reduce to 1 1/2 hrs
    1hr distracted by LOLcats
    1hr install critical software security update for sangha web site
    2hrs visit numerous stores trying to find a pair of jeans that actually fits; -(Goddess sews patches so you’re a Patched jean Thunderbolt)…lol
    1hr make dinner and clean up-( Split chores with Goddess)
    1hr talk to foreign girlfriend by Skype-(no need any more with in house Goddess)
    2hrs start working on income tax return-(hire accountant)
    1hr read depressing book about Tibetan politics in preparation for upcoming post
    3min start practicing Tantric sadhana, realize I’m utterly exhausted and it’s pointless, go to bed-(after one hour in bed with Goddess you will be unable to fall unconscious and can play with the cats, do security and read but no girlfriend or Goddess turns into she devil…lol Ten armed Black Kali . Your own personal tormenter but some dissolve ego the hard way)…lol
    2. I do understand your predicament for after your vehicle analogy I blew 1-2 hr contemplating, searching, and looking at used Morgans. What a beautiful car but I don’t need it.

    http://www.morgancars-usa.com/usedcars.html

    They had me going with the ISIS and Aero stuff…lol

  10. @ Bradley — Yes, I check in on Radio Free Shambhala occasionally. Sad.

    I’m firmly opposed to any system of teaching that does not leave plenty of room for doubt and critical thinking.

    The 1990s debate set up two straw-man alternatives: either we adopt “the guru model”, or we adopt “the spiritual friend model”. But these were both cartoons; neither is workable, and (as far as I can tell) neither has much to do with what actually happened in Asia. Anyway, even if they did, my theme here is “reinventing”. We’re not stuck with tradition.

    In fact, Western Buddhist teachers are experimenting with all kinds of different models. Two Western Vajrayana teachers have recorded extremely interesting podcasts about this: Hokai Sobol and Ken McLeod. (Probably others as well, but I listened to both those recently and was impressed.)

    So: “Can there be a modern tantra without gurus?” This is unanswerable because there’s no specific definition for “guru”. It basically just means “teacher” in India. (A teacher of non-spiritual music is a “guru”, for instance.) Can there be tantra without teachers? I’m pretty sure not. How wide is the range of workable teacher-student relationships? We can probably only find out by experiment.

    Re “to practice Dzogchen, you have to be enlightened”: sorry, yes, that’s imprecise. You need to be in the state of rigpa, which can loosely be translated “enlightenment” but has a technical meaning within Dzogchen.

    @ Sabio — I’m not a teacher, and mostly can’t speculate about what they’d say. Perhaps I should refuse to answer this altogether; but I can say a little from personal experience and book learning instead.

    To practice Tantra, you have to have some experiential familiarity with emptiness. For example, if you practice deity yoga, you have to experience both yourself and the yidam as empty. If you don’t have this, there are several ways you can get it. One is via formless meditation practice, such as shikantaza, Mahamudra, some kinds of vipassana, or the sem-dé ngöndro. Another is via the Tantric ngöndro.

    Formless meditation is a “dry” practice. It can lead to depression, alienation, boredom, etc. If you somehow have the motivation to push through that, then persevering may be the right move. Generally, when that happens, I think it’s better to move to a practice that is immediately rewarding.

    Practicing tantra is not dry—it’s like a pitcher of margaritas. (If you find tantric practice dry, something has gone wrong. I’ll have a whole post on that, because it’s a common problem.) If you drink margaritas all day, every day, you’ll probably start hallucinating and stuff. You’ll lose contact with reality. The formal practices of Tantra also do that, so unless you have a specific reason for wanting to be in outer space, and a support structure that keeps you fed while you dance with imaginary god/desses, there’s limits to how much of that you’ll want to do.

    Since tantra has the potential to tip you into psychosis, it’s not a good practice for people who are at risk of that. It’s demanding, so it’s not for wimps or the lazy. The same are probably true for formless meditation, but it might be easier to approach casually. Formless meditation is better avoided if you are at risk of depression.

    Other than that, I guess it’s mostly a matter of what seems right given the state your mind is in at the time. With experience, you build up knowledge of yourself, and what effects different practices have, and with that you can select the right one for the right situation.

    Also, obviously, if you do have a teacher, this is exactly the sort of question they are for!

    @ Thunder — Yes, I adore Morgans. Their Aero 8 has been #1 on my physical-object-lust list since it came out ten years ago. Not practical for me, unfortunately!

  11. @ David:
    So though you don’t practice Tantra now, how long did you practice it as your primary method until you found it was not the best fit for you? If I may ask.

  12. @ Matthew O’Connell — Your recent comments got put in the “spam” box by WordPress; I’ve just rescued them. There were 276 comments in the spam box, and I only looked at the first few dozen, so I apologize to anyone else whose comments may have disappeared.

    I practiced Neopaganism before I became a Buddhist, and that influences my take on Tantra. Also, the Nyingma ngakpa tradition (in which I practice) is often described as “shamanic”. NKT and FPMT are both Gelukpa or offshoots of Gelukpa, which is arguably the least shamanic of the Tibetan schools. You should come over to the dark side :-)

    @ Sabio — about ten minutes :-) That’s not true, but it was 15 years ago and my memory is hazy. My best practice experiences have all been intensely tantric. If you want mind-blowing ecstasy and cosmic revelations and divine visions and stuff, tantra is definitely the way to go. I’m a boring homebody so mostly I stick to the plodding safe approach. [← claim not necessarily to be taken at face value]

  13. @ Sabio — obviously, I was evading your question. On reflection, my guess is that you are actually asking “if tantra doesn’t work for me, how long should I give it before giving up and trying something else?” And I can’t answer that. It’s going to depend on a diagnosis of why it isn’t working, and an examination of what your goals are, and a look at what other alternatives you’ve already tried, and what other alternatives are realistically available, and how much motivation you have, and so on. All of which is entirely individual. These are things one needs to work out one-on-one with a qualified teacher.

  14. I found your above post very interesting, lucid and creative – in many ways – the writing style is like a tantric practice which is designed to assist the ‘break-out’ from old habitual tendencies. In the postmodern age, it seems that new and unpredictable ‘freedoms’ are emerging from beneath the established social structures, and taking everyone by surprise – particularly governments who are having to pass new laws to limit (and control) such freedoms. Perhaps this new state of socio-economic development in the outer world, allows for a similar ‘mirroring’ development to occur in the inner world. This, I believe, is the essence of tantric practice.

  15. @ David,
    Yes, that helps, David. Thanks. I guess I have become clearer about my ponderings as we talk. Maybe these are really what I am wondering:

    (1) Hmmm, David is concerned about Tantra being shut out of the picture, but he doesn’t do it. I wonder if he feels what he does is also trying to be shut down by the Consensus and why or why not?

    (2) Did David leave Tantra because it had components that consensus people criticize or other reasons?

    (3) Does David still use a mix of techniques, some that are Tantric? [seems you have said, “Yes”]

    (4) Will David write not only about Tantric methods, but also about his best-fit methods as an option in future Buddhisms or does he feel they already have a safe home and only Tantric methods are being quieted?

    I understand how personal teachers can answer questions, but you are writing us and so I thought I’d ask you. And I realize that you prefer not to talk about your personal practice so I will understand if you leave these alone.

  16. I’m enjoying the ambition of this planned series of posts.

    For anyone that might not have heard it, I will enter into the mix the definition of the tantra-yana as it is expressed by Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen.

    They define tantra as the yana (method) whose ground is *emptiness*, whose path is *transformation* and whose result is *nonduality*.

    Above you give the ‘experience’ a hard time in contrast with ‘action’, but it is I think helpful to realize that tantra requires *experience* with emptiness. Sure, there is hardly a better way to have experience than action, but experience can include the “taste” of moments when no action is taking place, and when we are confronted with the ambiguity of existence (proven by our characterizations of our actions) and non-existence (whatever it is we are when we can’t characterize ourself in any way).

    I don’t think it’s surprising that yanas begin with an *experience* aspect, because in general they have an emptinesss – form – wisdom pattern, they start with an experience, where the practitioner finds themselves, then they employ a view and methods (form) to produce a result (wisdom).

    So tantra requires the experience of emptiness. In “Wearing the Body of Visions” this is discussed at some length to clarify that this base requirement doesn’t make a sequence out of the yanas. Since sutra-yana has a base of *the experience of unsatisfactoriness*, the method of *renunciation* and the result of *the realization of emptiness*, one might conclude that in order to practice tantra, one would have to take the sutric path to completion, to arrive at the experience of emptiness that is required for the tantric path. Here Rinpoche is clear to explain that this is certainly one way of gaining that experience, but that the experience of emptiness is actually “sparkling through” our dualistic experience, the unsatisfactoriness, the wisdom bliss, it’s there to be accessed all the time. If anything, the advantage gained by some “preliminary” sutra-yana experience is the stabilization of our experience of emptiness, so that instead of just “sparkling through” (in very brief epiphanies) it is a more stable and reliable quality (if one can use those terms) of our experience of emptiness.

    Transformation as the path, springs from that experience of emptiness, and unlike the sutra-yana (what you grant as being the dominant voice of the 97% of the consensus) rather than renounce, the tantrika is now in unconditioned and spontaneous liberty to relate to those very same objects of desire, appreciation, repulsion, aversion, indifference – but all from the context of, or as I enjoy when it is said – “in the dimension of” the experience of emptiness. So as has been commented, empptiness is not some sort of bland base from which all these things have a single taste and are the energetic color of gray, no each transformed “poison” (as the sutric path saw it) now becomes an experience of our nondual nature, an experience of the long-ku (sphere of energy) in which (and I often like quoting the law of thermodynamic here for allusionary reference) energy is neither created no destroyed, only *transformed* . . . So all these emptiness-based experiences of the non-dual energy of our being are “trainings” in accomplishing the realization of the nondual state, and the tantra-yana becomes the path for swiftly getting there, across those annoyingly vast perceptions of distance between that which I am at this very moment, and the “enlightened” me, over *there*, just beyond that cliff.

    Anyway, I am looking forward to your treatment of this material, as I find it interesting when someone can personalize the teachings for themself, a skill I don’t demonstrate that much of an aptitude for I admit. I hope you don’t mind my interjection of this assembly of views here, and that hopefully it stimulates you to draw the verbal or conceptual razors that you want to across this “conventional” view towards the slant that you are experiencing as most potentially useful to the west, as it dabbles perilously near the dreaded “consensus” buddhism.

  17. @ redmetta — I try to make my writing vivid and entertaining, because the subject matter is inherently dull :-) Occasionally, clarity suffers. I’m glad you enjoy it, anyway.

    @ Sabio — It’s not that I don’t practice Tantra, or that I ever abandoned it. It’s just that in terms of formal practice, it’s typically 10-15% of my time. While writing about it, I feel a responsibility to bring that up to >50%.

    I’m writing about Tantra because I think it’s a good starting point for future Buddhisms, rather than because it has been suppressed. However, it’s important to understand how and why it is suppressed, partly because that explains what it is like, and partly in order to combat future suppression. Also it’s the answer to the question “if this is so great, why isn’t it the most popular form of Buddhism in the West today?”

    I’m writing about Tantra rather than Dzogchen because (1) it’s much easier to explain; (2) it’s a much clearer alternative to Consensus Buddhism, because it’s systematically opposite; and (3) Tantra is probably suitable for many more people than Dzogchen.

    There’s no organized opposition to Dzogchen among Westerners, as far as I know. There certainly is strong organized opposition among Tibetans, which (over centuries) has come very close to snuffing it altogether.

    I’ve written a little about Dzogchen over on Approaching Aro, and that’s probably where I’d write more if I do. It’s extremely difficult. Either you write about Dzogchen, which is a lot of boring history and conceptual claptrap; or else you cut to the chase and actually write Dzogchen, which somewhat requires being a Buddha.

    @ Sengchen Dra-tsal — Yes to all that. And, my dissing of experience was probably put too strongly. I’m reacting to the common idea that a mental experience is itself the final goal. My suspicion is that this originates in German Romanticism, not Buddhism, and got mixed into Zen in the early 20th century, and then into Theravada, and will need heavy weaponry to eradicate.

  18. 25 years ago, a friend of mine was a graduate student at the Stanford psych department. Once she said “I want to show you something” and led me through a maze of corridors down into a basement, and then a sub-basement. I wondered slightly if something more than “showing” was on the agenda, but she seemed very serious. Finally we reached a gloomy corridor dead-end where a lot of old files were stored, and she stopped. I was baffled. She said: “This is where they did the prison experiment.” And I was like: “WHAAAAHHH!” I had read about the prison experiment, of course, and I knew it happened at Stanford, but it was an abstract fact from ancient history. It was a hypothetical textbook monstrosity, like brain-eating zombies, except supposedly real. And suddenly it was revealed that this reality was that reality, and two worlds shifted to coincide. Hulking filing cabinets radiated the malevolence of nameless lurking evil, while the buzzing of the dim fluorescent lights suggested the distant worship of insectoid Elder Gods. It was seriously creepy, and I wanted to leave as soon as possible.

    I’d say that the place could use an exorcism, but maybe some spooks are better left in place, as a reminder.

    Anyway, without more context, I didn’t see much use in the distinction between little and big heroes in the article you linked. However, it linked to this, which was mildly interesting, and linked in turn to this. In which Zimbardo, who ran the prison experiment, is now trying to invert it—to produce heroes rather than Nazis.

  19. Man, David– that’s a heroic bit of research you did, in itself. I don’t think I’d have drilled down to discover the personnel and their link to that disturbing experiment. Seems a very interesting attempt at redemption on the part of PZ.

  20. Hi David — let me second (or seventh or whatever) your other commenters and agree that this does seem like a breakout post. Looking forward to your future expansions on this theme and attempts to eff the ineffable.

    From another old housemate: what happens when you put wings on a car ((pictures!)

  21. Hi David,

    I’ve been following along what you’ve been saying on consensus Buddhism and it’s great stuff. I have a minor quip about what you’re saying about Buddhism in the West and how it doesn’t meet the needs of Westerners – often you use language such as “Buddhism doesn’t meet what Westerners wants”, or sum such… and often add that Tantra is suitable because it appeals to Westerners “as we are”, with our interests in sensual experiences and so on.

    What I wonder if is you’re missing the point in that all unenlightened beings are characterised by ignorance and wrong views. Of course, we are entirely deluded, and our obsession with sensory experience is a reflection of this. It’s not Buddhism that needs to change to suit Westerners, it’s that Westerners need to change their desires and what they THINK they want, in order to begin to understand and attain the realisations and truths of non-self in order to end the rounds of rebirth. That is a core concept of all Buddhisms that cannot be denied – ending the rounds of rebirth, either now or in the future, is the ultimate goal, and ending the craving of sense pleasures is the method to get there (if you’re going for more than Smaller Scope level of practice).

    I think it’s very dangerous that we as Westerners tend to (in this modern and/or post-modern era) direct our spiritual seeking by /what it is we think we want/, when I think the very impulses themselves are what we need to question and contemplate whether they are in fact misguided or based on delusions/illusions.

    Just my 2 cents.

  22. Hi, Zac,

    Thank you very much for this! It’s perfect for illustrating how dramatically different Buddhist Tantra is from Sutrayana (i.e. mainstream Buddhism). Everything you say is perfectly correct as Sutra—and directly contradicted by Tantra.

    Of course, we are entirely deluded

    The Tantric view is that no one is entirely deluded. In fact, we are all always already enlightened. So wisdom and confusion are always intertwined. They are not the same, but cannot be separated. They are manifestations of the same underlying energy. (In Tantric terms, the energy of the Buddha Buddha Family, or space element.)

    Experientially, this means that we all have flashes, at least, of clarity; and the enlightened state is never distant, alien, or supernatural.

    our obsession with sensory experience is a reflection of this [delusion]

    According to Tantra, our obsession with sensory experience is a reflection of our primordial enlightenment. (It is a manifestation of the energy of the Padma Buddha Family, or fire element.)

    Lust is both an intrinsic aspect of Buddhahood and a critical tool on the path to Buddhahood. There is absolutely nothing wrong with desire, and intensifying it is part of the Tantric method.

    Of course, it can lead to various practical problems, which need to be dealt with intelligently.

    It’s not Buddhism that needs to change to suit Westerners

    Quite so. Rather, Westerners (and everyone else) need to select the type of Buddhism that will be the best fit for them. My suggestion is that Tantra (which requires no fundamental revision) may be more suitable for many Westerners than Sutra.

    it’s that Westerners need to change their desires and what they THINK they want

    I’m not sure this is even possible (much less necessary). Desires seem pretty well immutable to me, and not a problem. The Tantric view is that our emotions are fine just as they are. If anything needs to change, it is habits of perception.

    in order to end the rounds of rebirth

    This is a non-goal of Tantra. Actually, it is an anti-goal. Tantrikas consider that the Bodhisattva vow requires one to choose to be reborn, for the benefit of others.

    Relatedly, samsara and nirvana are inseparable. There is nowhere else to go, except here.

    That is a core concept of all Buddhisms that cannot be denied – ending the rounds of rebirth, either now or in the future, is the ultimate goal, and ending the craving of sense pleasures is the method to get there

    All Buddhisms except Vajrayana. And maybe Zen, but I’m not qualified to say that. And maybe other Buddhisms that I don’t know about, or that don’t come to mind…

    I need to qualify all of the above by saying that this is the view of the scriptures of Inner Tantra, and the view of the early commentaries. Outer Tantra is somewhat closer to Sutra.

    And, Tibetans, in the past few hundred years, developed various forms of “public Tantra” that mix it with Sutra for mass consumption. The reasons for doing this were economic and political, not religious, and the result is a mess. Unfortunately, this unappetizing dog’s breakfast is what is mostly taught as “Tibetan Buddhism” nowadays. I’ll explain that in detail when I go through the political history of Tantra.

    Thanks again for a clear and accurate statement of the view of the Other Leading Brand!

    David

  23. Zac,
    Dvids comments make what i am about to say pehaps redundent. I want to say them anyways.
    Zac,
    I desire peace and justice. Does that mean that I will never cease being reborn?

  24. *,
    In answer to your question I pose another question.
    Are conflict and injustice infinite?
    If that is the case then you will never cease being reborn.

  25. During the game the goal posts got moved.
    You started your journey thinking that it would lead to ending your cylcle of rebirth.
    Then as you approached the goal posts the goal shifts. It now becomes ending OUR
    cycle of rebirths. Who are WE anyways?

  26. Hi again David,

    Okay, I’m starting to understand a bit more now. I started out in Theravada for a few years but in the past 6 months I’ve started flirting with Tibetan Buddhism as I find the teachings fresh, inspiring and speak very clearly to me as a Westerner in the West. Tantra has intrigued me but again I find problems with how it conflicts with Sutrayana.

    Basically, when I came to Buddhism, I wanted to get as close to the source teachings of Siddhartha Gautama himself. I initially dismissed everything post-Tripitaka as not the Buddha’s own teachings; in short, fan fiction. Only recently have I started to lighten up on this viewpoint and begin to consider myself more of a Mahayana Buddhist, inspired by Santideva, Nagarjuna’s madhyamaka philosophy and the bodhisattva ideal, and I feel refreshed in the imagery and symbolism of the bodhisattvas and Vajra deities which appeals to the ritual approaches I used to employ in the western hermetic occultism of my youth. It no longer matters to me that these things weren’t taught by the Buddha – I feel they conform to the spirit of what he was teaching and either a) extrapolate in ways he didn’t explicitly but can be argued are implicit in his teachings, or b) are innovations that speak to the dispositions of particular kinds of people and thus are potentially the most helpful for them.

    However, I can’t seem to unite point b) with how contradictory to the Buddha’s teachings Tantra seems to be. I definitely don’t believe the Buddha taught Tantra and I have a strong feeling (whether it is well informed or not is another question) that if he were alive, he would denounce it. It is not from Hinduism, having more to do with Vedanta or esoteric Hinduism than Buddhism (as far as I can tell)? The samsara/nirvana being two sides of the same coin thing smells suspiciously of Vedantic atman/brahman talk, and their union or non-separation to begin with. That’s why I’m concerned with this appeal to Tantra as the most suitable path for Westerners – might it actually not be able to be considered Buddhism?

    I am not familiar with these Inner Tantra ideas you are talking about – most of what I have read seems to be this bastardised sutra-conforming version you are talking about. Any suggestions on reading material to get more of an idea on the opposite variety?

  27. Hi, Zac,

    Excellent questions. (Love the fanfic analogy.)

    I believe that, as a matter of objective history, Siddhartha Gautama did not teach tantra. Actually, as a matter of objective history, there’s no evidence that he existed at all; and if he did, we have no clear idea of what he taught. Western scholars say that large parts of the Tripitaka—particularly Abhidharma—could not possibly have been produced until hundreds of years after he supposedly lived. But which parts, if any, are accurate records, we have no coherent basis for deciding.

    Some Tantric scriptures say that Gautama taught tantra. That might be useful as visionary history. But we do know roughly how Tantra emerged out of the Buddhism of the A.D. 600s, which is about 1200 years after he was supposed to have lived. So I don’t think that flies as objective history.

    Personally, I don’t think it matters what Gautama taught. I see no reason to suppose that he was omniscient, or had greater insight than other Buddhas who came later. (The Tantric view is that there have been many flesh-and-blood Buddhas since, although there is little agreement about which they were.)

    Tantra does contradict Sutra. Throughout Tantra’s history, people have wanted to gloss over that, and either sweep the contradictions under the rug or try to reconcile them. This has, in my opinion, always had bad results.

    It is possible to practice both Tantra and Sutra—and I do—but you can’t practice both at the same time. It doesn’t work (in my opinion) to muddle them up. You have to accept that they contradict, and use them both as tools, for different purposes.

    Buddhist Tantra does seem to have borrowed extensively from Hinduism. However, it claims to have transformed the Hindu elements to they conform with the Buddhist philosophical view. Also, what it borrowed was mainly ritual forms and mythology.

    It is true that Buddhist Tantra sometime veers toward monist eternalism, like the Hindu atman-brahman idea. However, it got that from Mahayana Buddhist sources—Yogacara and Tathagatagarbha—not Hinduism.

    I’m absolutely opposed to monist eternalism. I denounce it whenever I can, have written a lot about why it’s a bad thing, and plan to write much more.

    So, naturally, I believe that Buddhist Tantra does not require or imply Hindu-ish nondualism, nor atman nor brahman. That is also the view of the Tantras themselves, and of the Tantric Buddhist commentaries. However, Hindus generally disagree, and insist that the Buddhist view really is monist eternalism. So, of course, do some Theravadins. Arguments about this tend to be difficult and unproductive.

    Relatedly, many Theravadins (not all) consider “Buddhist” Tantra to be non-Buddhist. This argument is definitely unproductive, since there’s no clear, widely-accepted definition for “Buddhism”. Unfortunately, also, some Tibetan Buddhists respond by saying “everything in Tantra is perfectly compatible with the Tripitaka”, which is utter nonsense. Theravadins are justified in getting annoyed at that point.

    I recommend Lama Yeshe’s Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire as the best starting point.

    The other authors I would recommend are Chögyam Trungpa and my teacher Ngakpa Chögyam. I’d suggest starting with Lama Yeshe’s book, though, because the language is very matter-of-fact and familiar. The other two write about Tantra partly in its own voice, which is hugely valuable once you’ve gotten into it, but can be pretty weird at the beginning. If you want to follow up on that, ask again and I’ll suggest specific titles.

    David

  28. Hi David,

    Quite a few things to respond to! I hope you don’t mind me doing so, and I hope my thoughts are useful and not just distracting chatter… but I’m young (an undergrad), so please forgive if I’m not up to speed. I’m doing my best to “catch up” on all this history and /untangle the threads/ (haha, gotta love double entendres).

    Re: Historical Buddha – I’ve not done a systematic historical search, as that guy you linked to has done, but my initial thoughts on the matter are this. There surely /must/ have been a historical figure that expounded the core ideas of what we associate with the Gautama character. Otherwise, where did the ideas come from? Surely not a group of people sitting around who then decided to do all of this. Otherwise, why the Three Jewels? Why the Buddha? Why the early Sangha that clearly didn’t do much practice in the first hundred years, but perfectly preserved in oral format verse upon verse upon verse of words from this Buddha guy?

    Of course, all the mythical details of his life and supernatural elements could clearly have been exagerated, added, or a form of visionary history, as you suggest. No problem there. But, as with Jesus, I can’t believe there is not a historical figure behind the mythic when you have such strong fervour from direct disciples in the generations after his death.

    Also, what about Mahavira? Given that it’s understood he was contemporaneous (I think?), is he similarly fictitous? Do they not reaffirm each other’s likely historical existence when we consider that their disciples debated one another?

    “Tantra does contradict Sutra. Throughout Tantra’s history, people have wanted to gloss over that, and either sweep the contradictions under the rug or try to reconcile them. This has, in my opinion, always had bad results.”

    I’d be interested in hearing more about how you see this in modern Tibetan Buddhism, such as that propounded by the FPMT. How does this seem to work? I know you’ve said the consensus leaders seem to be downplaying Tantra, but it’s obviously still an important part of the Gelugpa as well as the other schools, so is there a conspiracy of silence around this because Westerners “aren’t prepared” to hear the full deal? Do they practice Sutrayana in public and Tantra in private? Is there an exoteric and an esoteric face going on here?

    I’ve read Lama Yeshe’s book actually, one of the few books on Tantra I’ve read… I was struck then as I am now at how different, indeed contradictory it seemed to the Dhamma I learned from the Theravada. I don’t see how the shift from Sutra to Tantra can occur or even switch around depending on circumstances/need, because engaging in Tantric desire is surely going to destroy the non-attachment that you’ve spent working so hard for in Sutrayana?

    I’ve read Chögyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and loved it as something a bit fresh and different from what I was used to reading… and then I read about his life. I felt the same shock as when I read about Milarepa, and this is a character revered for how enlightened he was. Yet I can’t help but feel, how the heck can enlightened beings engage in such /tanha/ when Gautama taught that /tanha/ is what becomes extinct upon enlightenment?

    I guess I’m experiencing what you aptly call “yana shock”… and I suppose the argument is that all the yanas /get you there/, but having not had much direct experience of progress towards the /there/ myself, I guess I’m flapping around in the dark…

    And maybe it’s a shame I started out in Theravada, because now I feel like a deeply ingrained Catholic that wants to go a little further afield, but forever feels the guilt of the orthodoxy implanted in the back of my brain…

    Anyway, sorry to rant on. This has all been coming to a head in my own studies and practice and so I am glad to have had a catalyst to prompt me to think about it more and try to concrete it in words somehow. For that, many thanks, good sir!

  29. Hi, Zac,

    I know only a very little about early Buddhism, and the more I say the more likely it is that I’ll say something completely false. However…

    My understanding is that there is no strong evidence that Buddhism existed before the 1st century. The only two forms of evidence are the Pali “history”, which is clearly propaganda (although also perhaps partly true), and the supposedly-Ashokan epigraphy, which contains almost no information and may be of dubious provenance. Apparently, there is no independent record of Buddhism having existed.

    So, as far as I know, the whole early history could be fiction. In particular, we have no reason (apart from scripture) to believe that there even was an early Sangha, much less that it was fervent, perfectly preserved oral history, etc.

    “Where did the ideas come from?” A priori, they might have come from many different sources. Actually, it seems to be uncontroversial among Western scholars that they did! Different parts of the Tripitaka were composed over several centuries by many different people in different places with different agendas.

    What scholars don’t agree on is which are the “core” bits that “really do” accurately reflect the teachings of Gautama. I don’t know of a reason for the answer not to be “none.”

    I read recently two semi-popular attempts to sort this out, by Stephen Batchelor and Richard Gombrich. I found them both totally unconvincing. Neither has any sort of rigorous method; they just attribute to Gautama the bits they like and assert that the other bits were later accretions.

    About Mahavira I know zilch. As far as I know there is no independent evidence that their direct disciples debated each other (or, indeed, that Gautama had direct disciples). If there is, then most of what I wrote above is wrong. Which is quite likely because I haven’t read about this stuff seriously.

    I know little about the FPMT. My impression is that Lama Zopa has not emulated Lama Yeshe’s straight-up Tantric style, and that he follows a much more typical Geluk approach of subordinating Tantra to Sutra.

    is there a conspiracy of silence around this because Westerners “aren’t prepared” to hear the full deal? Do they practice Sutrayana in public and Tantra in private? Is there an exoteric and an esoteric face going on here?

    Yes, right on, exactly. In fact they are perfectly open and explicit about this, and there are plausible religious reasons for this secrecy. (What is not spoken of is the non-religious reasons, which have to do with power and money.)

    I don’t see how the shift from Sutra to Tantra can occur or even switch around depending on circumstances/need, because engaging in Tantric desire is surely going to destroy the non-attachment that you’ve spent working so hard for in Sutrayana?

    What one preserves from Sutra is spaciousness, or absence of neediness. That’s more-or-less the same thing as non-attachment, although with maybe a different spin.

    That spaciousness is a prerequisite to Tantra. Not in the sense of a bureaucratic requirement, but in the sense that you can’t do calculus unless you’ve got algebra pretty well under control.

    Tantric desire has to be empty desire. You have to be able to laugh at it. You have to be freed up enough that it doesn’t run you.

    A Tantrika falls back on Sutra when desire (or the other wisdom energies) become solid and fixed—in other words, when they return to being kleshas rather than wisdoms. At that point you say “oops! time to practice lojong” (or some other Sutric approach). You go back to basics and say “I can’t handle this situation at a Tantric level—I need to step back to avoid getting in over my head.”

    Yet I can’t help but feel, how the heck can enlightened beings engage in such /tanha/ when Gautama taught that /tanha/ is what becomes extinct upon enlightenment?

    Mmm… I’m not sure tanha is a useful concept in the Tantric context. But, the idea is that the kleshas are not extinguished, at all, in enlightenment. They are intensified—but since they are united with emptiness, they manifest as the five wisdoms. A Tantric Buddha displays vajra greed, vajra rage, vajra lust, vajra paranoia, and vajra idiocy. Which are, respectively, elegance, clarity, discrimination, accomplishment, and equanimity. (If this sounds intriguing, I’d recommend Ngakpa Chögyam’s Spectrum of Ecstasy: Embracing the Five Wisdom Emotions of Vajrayana Buddhism. Speaking of double entendres, wisdom in Tantra is symbolically female, so the five wisdoms are portrayed as goddesses, and when one speaks of “embracing the wisdoms”, well…)

    This is not, by the way, to suggest that everything Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche did was an expression of enlightenment.

    Yana shock” sounds like a good description! It seems that you are sufficiently intrigued by Tantra that it’s worth continuing to grapple with; but it’s best to take it slowly enough that you don’t die of a heart attack, like the unfortunate Arhats.

    I had very negative feelings about Tantra for a long time. It was shocking and repellent. It took several years of gradual exposure before I started to think “yes, I want to do this”. (And I still have mixed feelings!)

    I see Tantra as a step forward from Bodhisattvayana that becomes necessary at a certain point. If you practice Bodhisattvayana seriously, you become impatient. You think “this is all very well but it is going to take 84,000 kalpas before I get anywhere with it. In the fight against samsara, I want a bazooka, not a popgun.” Bazookas are dangerous and unpleasantly loud and smelly, but they get the job done.

    David

  30. Ah. This is interesting, regarding Mahavira (the putative founder of Jainism). While I know very little about early Buddhism, Jayarava knows a great deal, and I find his judgement on such matters excellent.

    He’s just today posted a piece in which he writes:

    The Jains, according to their own traditions, which are confirmed by modern scholarship, lost the texts that might parallel the Pāli suttas. Our idea about early Jainism are a reconstruction, partly based on the Pāli suttas which contain glimpses of the Jains. Early Jainism, then, is far more doubtful that early Buddhism, and we should know by now that early Buddhism is quite uncertain.

    So that seems to be the answer as far as evidence for the existence of Gautama Buddha in the Jain tradition: there is none.

  31. Hi David,

    I love your sites and have been poking around them. I think this might be the right place to ask the question, since it is a thread about the practise of tantra in the West. I’m wondering about the yidams used in tantric practice. I don’t think I’m wrong to think that they are “Buddhized” Tibetan gods/spirits (if I am wrong, then stop me), so it would make sense that they are used by Tibetans – they have a mythic resonance for them. They leave me cold, however. I’m wondering whether you have thought about, or know of anyone who has, the possiblity of “Buddhizing” or “tantrifying” (pardon the terms!) Western gods/spirits/myth?. I think it would be a more appealing practise for myself if I were dealing with athena and aries, etc. – or am I missing something? What do you think?

  32. Hi James,

    Glad you like the sites…

    The yidams of Tibetan Buddhism have a complex mixture of Indian and Tibetan features. But, some aspects of Indian culture have been thoroughly incorporated into Tibetan culture. So, yes, they are more familiar to Tibetans than to Westerners.

    On the other hand, visualizing yourself as having bright blue skin and four arms and three heads is probably no easier for Tibetans (or Medieval Indians) than for us. That’s just inherently alien to human embodied experience.

    Some people do advocate recycling Western deities as yidams. I just finished re-reading Lama Yeshé’s Introduction to Tantra, where he suggests that possibility in passing. Shinzen Young, a current Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) teacher, apparently takes the Virgin Mary as his yidam.

    I haven’t talked with anyone who practices that way, so I don’t know how it works out. I’m wary of the idea, though. It seems like it would be difficult to separate the Western deities from the metaphysical systems they originated in. Can you really have Mary without salvation?

    Athena and Aries might be less problematic, since the metaphysical system they are part of is dead. Maybe they are metaphysically neutral.

    The advantage of the traditional yidams is that their iconography ties in with Buddhist metaphysics. For example, the three different heads may function to transform the three kleshas, and the four arms hold weapons that destroy the four philosophical extremes. Also, their alienness and impossibility may be useful in itself. To practice a yidam is to make a great leap, which is actually the point.

    It’s possible that the Tibetan yidams would be more appealing if you got to know them better. My main yidam is Yeshé Tsogyel, a naked teenage girl who is notably generous, ferocious, horny, sardonic, and open-minded. I like her a lot :-)

  33. Hi David,

    Thanks for the response. I share your reticence to adopt Christian figures into a yidam pratices. I agree about the metaphysics, but they also seem to be lacking those emotional dimensions that make yidam practise what it is (or what I take it to be). I think the Greek pantheon, say, might work better that way (then again, it may not). I was just interested to hear what you had to say about that. I am presently in a weird place with my Buddhist practise, because I do not accept the consensus view for all the reasons you have spoken about, but I cannot find myself wanting to say that all desire is bad and that the best solution too life is to abandon it. This has always struck me as being one step away from suicide (drop the ‘trapped in rebirth’ and the recipe is there). I want life to be joyous! So tantra seems the way to go (this correlates well with some of my philosophical interests, too: Spinoza, Nietzsche). Like I said, though, super hard to resonate with these yidams, though (maybe more study under someone qualified is the way to go). So right now I’m hanging out in the ‘Hardcore Dharma’ crowd, but interested in tantra.

    As for Tsogyel, she sounds like a girl I’d like to meet! ;)

  34. James, and David,

    Regarding Western/European gods and Tantra… I have some thoughts…

    I have been a part of Western occultism, especially a certain scene in London, for a number of years now, and I have found it lacking in terms of the larger philosophical questions – it’s all well and good being able to manipulate the world with magick, but so what? To what ultimate end? There are some ultimate spiritual goals mentioned, and somewhat lauded as the “aim”, but I find these to be severely vague and people who I have met who are spoken of as advanced spiritual adepts struck me as nowhere near the level of being a decent human being, let alone spiritually “enlightened”. Even the humblest of novice monks can outshine these so-called occult adepts.
    There’s lots of talk of finding your True Will and achieving union with your Holy Guardian Angel, but these things seemed like prize gems in an otherwise plentiful box of the ego’s toys, just another pretty adornment in the life of selfish people of the literary or failed musician kind. Magick and occult beliefs in general tend to feed into the underlying egoism that is already there in the individual.

    However, it was by way of magick that I started making links with Buddhism – the illusory, malleable-like appearance of reality, and the self. When I moved into Vajrayana from Theravada, I started seeing lots of links with Western magick and ritual – shared tools and techniques, if not goals or values.

    This is something I wish to explore more. Wherever the Dharma went, it used the archetypal forms of the local peoples to connect with their collective mind. If it results in benefits for those people, and does not serve to merely pay lip service to the Dharma but assists in bringing them into the practice of the path, then I believe it is skilful means. There is undoubtedly powerful conditioning and reverence in the minds of those who connect with cultural/regional forms of religious significance.

    Sam Webster has been doing some of this work in the liminal space between Buddhist Tantra, Vajrayana and Western Occultism (albeit specifically Aleister Crowley’s system of Thelema, and the principle, synchretic deity of that current, Ra-Hoor-Khuit). He has written a small text called “Tantric Thelema” ( http://www.concrescent.net/book/tantric-thelema ) – it is mostly rituals combining Vajrayana structures with the idea of working with the Thelemic deity as a Yidam, but the opening few (short) chapters outline a kind of “Buddhism for Western pagans/occultists”, suggesting that bringing in the larger /telos/ of compassion, Liberation and the Bodhisattva ideal can infuse paganism/occultism with a more worthy cause to direct it’s means. (I can assure you, all he is saying is predominantly falling on deaf, uninterested ears.)

    While I do not care for the Thelemic current in the slightest, what he is doing may be a good starting point for other Westerners who are either familiar with Western occultism / neo-paganism, or would like to find some way of bringing the Vajrayana into a European / Western cultural, mythic context. If you’re interested, much of the material in the start of the book can be found online as his “pagan dharma” essays (here: http://hermetic.com/webster/ ).

    I personally am very comfortable with the Vajra-deities, and have come to adore their beauty, archetypal power and intricate symbolic significance. I think there is also something to be said (very powerfully) in favour of using them, as they are “bespoke” for the purpose and goals we are trying to achieve – they are literally like visual programs encoded for achieving the fruits of the path.

    However, I can appreciate that for some, it is very difficult to connect with the distinctly Indian-Asian aesthetic. That’s why I think, perhaps, there might be a lot to be said for working together to bring the Dharma into a European Pagan context. I wonder if, like Ra-Hoor-Khuit, other pagan deities of the West could be appropriated as Dharma protectors. That’s certainly what happened to the Tibetan deities and spirits when the Dharma arrived there, no?

    I would love to see more Greek, Roman and Egyptian deities in the beautiful Vajrayana-style depiction Webster worked on for the cover of his book with the artist Kat Lunoe. Their myths and samsaric dramas attest to the fact that the European gods clearly also suffer from impermanence, suffering and non-self, even if they do abide in the god realms. Imagine the splendour of a tantric Anubis of death and impermanence, psychopomp between the bardos, or a wrathful Athena who has turned her military intelligence towards the destruction of ignorance and the three poisons. Or perhaps a Hermetic, Mercurial Manjushri (Hermanjushri?).

    If infused with the subtleties of Vajrayana iconography and it’s finer, detailed symbols, I am sure Western gods can be adorned with dorjes and bells amongst other things (Jupiter’s lightning bolt as Vajra? Why not?). It would just take a good artist learned in Tibetan art to take up the challenge.

    There are so many ideas from this point. Very exciting…

  35. After all, in John Blofeld’s ‘The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet’, he offers an interesting account of the abbot of Samye Ling monastery in Scotland just after it’s construction, when he heard there was an old druidic stone circle not too far away. He said something to the affect of, “Well, perhaps I shall go and meditate there and ask if the spirit of the place would like to come and be a Dharma protector for the monastery.” An interesting little tid-bit.

  36. @ James — Yes, it sounds like tantra might be a good fit for your temperament. The difficulty is finding a way in, I suppose? I hope my writing may do a little to help make tantra more accessible. Unfortunately I’ve had no time to write in several months (so my repeated promises of “more coming, real soon now” are increasingly embarrassing).

    I’m curious how you find the Hardcore/Pragmatic folks on desire, renunciation, and joy. I like some aspects of their approach, but I find their Theravada framework emotionally opaque. (I.e. I “can’t relate to it”.) Do they seem to retain an anti-enjoyment bias from that tradition? (I haven’t noticed that, exactly, but it would explain what I find it unappealing if that’s what is going on.)

    Spinoza is on my “really ought to read someday” list. Nietzsche is a major influence on me, obviously.

  37. @ Zac — Thanks, this is very interesting. I came to Buddhism via Wiccan Paganism, and have a little knowledge of Thelema as well. I knew Sam Webster slightly when I was involved with Berkeley NROOGD a gazillion years ago.

    Al Jigen Billings (@openbuddha) has a perhaps similar project at pagandharma.org. [The site seems to be down now—I’m not sure if that is transient or permanent.]

    I’m afraid that my experience of Western occultists is similar to yours. However, to be fair, Buddhists are not always exemplary people, either. I am fond of saying that, on average, the Mormons I have known have been much better people than the Buddhists I have known. That sometimes makes me wonder whether I’m practicing the right religion.

    There definitely are similarities between Buddhist tantric methods and Western Pagan/occult ones. (This is partly because the Western stuff was influenced by mainly-Hindu tantra that came back from India with British colonial officers in the 1800s and early 1900s.)

    As you and Sam Webster note, the goals are quite different, though. So… which coopts which if you blend them? Or is a hybrid vigor possible? I don’t know… I’m always in favor of experimental research, although this isn’t a direction I would pursue myself. I like your vision of Athena as a wrathful yidam, though!

  38. @Zac: Thanks for your in-depth response and the links you have provided. They are exremely interesting reading. I was thinking that, depending on their particular mythologies, they could work that way. Aries, for instance, is also a god of war, but unlike Athena, he’s the god of the darker sides of war (bloodlust and destruction) – I thought that would actually make him a perfect ‘wrathful’ yidam. I would need to know about how the practices work though, before I could even begin contemplating Buddhizing other figures.

    @David: I really do appreciate your writing, it does make tantra more accessible – in fact, before reading your sites, I always rejected it out of hand (seemed too weird beforehand). The Hardcore Dharma scene has an interesting sort of relationship to ordinary life, desire, etc. None of its prominent practitioners are monastics, as I’m sure you’re aware. They definitely don’t take the classical Theravada approach to desire (i.e. that it is the problem and that it can actually be done away with). Indeed, some are quite vocally opposed to the notion. Daniel Ingram even talks a little about harnessing the defilements in practise, but for the most part that scene is pure Theravada with a “don’t worry, you’ll still get angry, upset, horny, etc.” attitude. As for Spinoza, I can’t recommend him enough, though in several ways he is not compatible with Buddhism. What appeals to me about him is his attitude that everything is alright the way it is, we just have to see that. Then again, I worry about that making one apathetic about things one ought not to be.

    Difficult stuff, awakening.

  39. @Zac: Interesting.

    My own background before Buddhism has been in (neo)shamanism and chaos magic. Nowadays, I practice Vajrayana in the Aro gTér lineage. Yeshe Tsogyel is certainly one hot dakini <3 <3 <3.

    I cannot go into any details, but I ended up as a Vajrayana practitioner after I had completed an type of a operation which Thelemites call Knowledge and Communication of the Holy Guardian Angel. Suddenly just some weird coincidences happened, and I found my teacher a bit later. HGA disappeared and yidams appeared.

    I do not practice anymore any of my old occult practices, and I happily focus completely to Vajrayana. However, there are some questions remaining. I live in a strange little country called Finland and I still maintain contact with Finnish pagans/heathens. Finland has very peculiar old nature religion, which is distantly related to Siberian shamanic traditions (http://www.taivaannaula.org/finnish_paganism.php). It is very little related to the Indo-European religions, which are naturally more familiar to most western people. Although I do not actually practice it, I value Finnish paganism in the sense that it is a huge element in my cultural heritage.

    I often wonder, how I could best communicate with the Finnish pagans when having slightly spiritual conversation. I have some sense of what they are talking about in experiential level – but I maintain the view of Vajrayana. How could I find the most communicative words and expressions? Could some elements of the old Finish nature religion be assimilated into Tantra? (Väinämöinen as a yidam? Tapio as a dharma protector?)

    I have no answers, but it is sometimes fun to speculate.

  40. @David – Just an idle aside, but following the mention of Mahavira (above) did you know that there is (or at least, was) tantra in Jainism? I was tentatively starting to look at this area in the context on an MPhil with Dr William Johnson (student of Gombrich, and Jain specialist) when I carelessly became a Buddhist. I’ve often wondered what Jain tantra might contain.

  41. I think I had read that there was tantra in Jainism, but no more detail than that. A comparative study might be interesting partly because Jainism’s values are more aligned with Buddhism’s than Hinduism’s are.

    There’s also intriguing possible links with Sufism, Kabbalah, Taoism, Nestorian Christianity, and who knows what all else. “More Research Is Needed.”

    I have recently read several credible-sounding sources who say that there was, and still is, tantra in Theravada. That might be useful in legitimizing tantra for certain people. It may also provide a distinctive style and interpretation of tantra, appropriate for some modern audiences for whom the Tibetan style doesn’t work. I want to learn more about this, but haven’t had time to follow up.

    If anyone knows more about this, I’d love to hear. (I know a little about the Dhammakaya Movement; my impression is that this is not the “Theravada tantra” that is referred to, but maybe it is.)

  42. That is an interesting thing about Nestorian Christianity. I have always wondered why Christianity has been so renunciative about the world in practise. Of course, there’s good reason to believe that Jesus (whatever his actual ontological status) was a renunciate, but even thinking about Augustine, I know that he argues at length that there is nothing wrong with the world – that the world as God made it is good. For Augustine, it’s that our perceptions about the world are wrong (that is, we see it in terms of what it can do for us, not as something beautiful God made). So I have always seen some room for a tantric approach there.

    Unless it is done and the Church does a better job of keeping it secret than other organizations (which wouldn’t surprise me in the least).

  43. We’ve sadly inherited a rather facile mapping of buddhisms (plural), one confounded by local myths being taken at face value as historical accounts, adaptation of local myth by Western colonial Orientalists as history (e.g., Theravada, a marginal tradition in India as Sthaivaravada, mistaken as ur-budddhismus), and then the divisions along nationalistic lines amplifying mistakes of 19th century colonial Orientalists. Then further mucking up the mess already made with those special agents of Western imperialism out to demonstrate the inferiority of savage or near so buddhist teachings as justification for foreign rule and certainly for invasive missionaries – nearly all of our interpretation of Japanese Buddhism is fouled as the work of American colonialist missionaries – they compiled dictionaries, translated sutras and ritual manuals, interpreting whole traditions without the slightest modicum of undergoing training.
    This is serious business. 19th century Orientalists inherited close to 20 centuries of Western Churchianity’s persecution of the Gnostic heresy, and a subset called the Naturalistic Heresy. Such persecution was so effective, and the perpetuation of Catholic dogmatism into the Protestsant movement, our Orientalists were entirely ignorant of gnosis, suffering from what I call the Gnosis Deficiency Disorder!
    If you’ve read the Allure of Gnosis, it includes Professor Conze’s paper on Buddhism and gnosis, one I made sure was included. Conze was the greatest 20th century Prajnaparamita scholar, and I was one of his students. That volume includes a badly edited article by myself on the same topic. Gnosticism, including post-Latin Renaissance gnostic movements, are akin to but by not means as sophisticated as bodhisattva buddhism.
    The major deficit Western students face as obstacle is that of contemporary movements acting as the Roman Church for long did. Until the Protestant Reformation, and amplified by Guttenberg’s publication of Bible, priests along had access to scripture – they read Latin, no one else did. Laymen were tacitly forbidden to read scripture, creating a monopoly and condition of priviledge. For Western Buddhists, reading sutras is not mainstream: instead you’re admonished to read books of commentaries and homoliess by experts and gurus.

    I was educated the old fashioned way, in a time when translations were scant and the annual volume of academic and popular publications less then a month’s worth today. We were a closer knit group, in part because the secularism of watered down/dumbed down Western neo-Buddhism had yet to occur save for Theravada Fundamentalists. My training began with learning by heart to recite from memory sutras in Sanskrit and Japanese pronunciation of classical Chinese. Once memorized, lessons began – including language lessons.

    Those who don’t read buddhist originals and have training in living traditions overseas are fed pablum. You get misinterpretations telling you how 19th and 20th century Christians failed to understand gnosis-driven buddhism. You get sectarianism. You get Western neo-Buddhism’s Big Three – “Theravada, Tibetan, and Zen” learning anything else is second class or not the real deal. In other words, you get what in Japanese is described as “gaijin no bukkyo” – the buddhism of aliens who don’t understand that they don’t understand’

    Both mahayana and vajrayana are pervasive movements, with deep roots in Central Asia and the Persian Plane, of an emerging buddhism being tempered with various forms of gnosticism run out of the Mediterranean by Catholic persecution, some Zoroastrianism, some mystical Islam (all elements in Padmasambhava’s work since he was a Central Asian Turk, not an Indian monk). If you take into account the Dunhuang caves of Western China, on the border of the great silk road deserts, just witness the evolution of artistic styles, including mandalas – elsewhere the liturgical voice and musical instrument expression is found.

    Alan Cole’s recent Fathering the Father is based on findings of a hidden library sealed over at Dunhuang for a thousand or more years, a virtual time capsule of otherwise lost materials. Cole’s book deals with the invention of ch’an/Zen as a genre for polemical power aimed at ridding China of teachers from India, supplanting them with Chinese masters. But not just any master. The ch’an invention included fabrication of lineage – there’s no lineage in Indian Buddhism, merely awakening. Along with lineage was invented a cult of ‘living buddhas’. And you only need one living buddha at a time, and the emperor should lavishly support that living buddha to the exclusion of all other teachers and teachings. Richard Baker’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is such a polemic tract aimed at establishing unwavering authority upon the death of Suzuki roshi (Suzuki is a strange case, 2nd rate at best among Japanese, but elevated to a saintly pedestal as Baker used to him to jack himself up – didn’t last long since SFZC fired him within a decade. Those of use who studied with Conze understood that Baker’s parents understood his ‘original face’ since they’d aptly named him Dick).

    We’ve inherited the zen and lineage paradigms as gold standards. Earliest known Tibetan texts are also found at Dunhuang, predating the official starting date of Buddhism in Tibet and a scant 400 years – Tibetan revisionism discovered! And who was the originator of dzog.chen and ch’an? Why, that literary character invention Bodhidharma, supposed an Indian monk by described as a Central Asian whose mixed ancestry would include Celtic DNA.

    It’s time to reboot our comprehension of buddhism, and not reboot to an app driven system.

  44. Hello Ken, I found your comment absolutely fascinating. I am an undergrad currently writing my dissertation on the modernisation of Buddhist traditions and I would love to hear more. You seem to have really done your research on this. Do you know of any sources I can use/reference/cite to show that what we have in the West as Buddhism today is an entirely reinterpreted invention? I am working with “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” by David L. McMahan but I’d love some other sources too if anyone is aware of any.

    The flipside of this is that I am a Vajrayana practitioner experiencing a “disenchantment” of my tradition as I come to read and learn more about the history of Buddhism as presented in the West. I’m trying to understand what I practice as “Buddhist philosophy” and how that relates to what is really there in the sources. Any help would be appreciated!

  45. Zac: I’ve been at it for more than 50 years. In November 1972 received lifetime teaching certification as a Kyoshi (Teachings Master) in Kyoto, Japan, in a nearly 900 year old post-monastic tradition co-founded by a couple.
    Don’t know McMahan’s book & it sounds engaging.

    I’ve written elsewhere about the need for post-modern interpretation of Buddhism: most all we have today is rooted in modernity, and imposition of Western religious concepts that just don’t fit Buddhism.
    The history of Buddhism presented in the West is a travesty. As a grad student, I’d suggest drilling down in both the voluminous publications of Gregory Schopen and works of Bernard Faure for starters. Bob Scharf has done some great works as well. And Alan Cole’s recent Fathering the Father is a must read for liberative deconstruction.

  46. Ken, thank you very much for your long and interesting comment! I agree with nearly everything you say there, so I won’t reply in detail.

    It’s long been guessed that Chan influenced Dzogchen, which is somewhat true, but mainly Dzogchen comes out of Tantra. Since Zen is better known than Tantra in the West, Dzogchen usually gets misinterpreted as “fancy Tibetan Zen” (and/or “the Buddhist version of Advaita Vedanta”), thereby losing its most important features. I have a post about Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen written and queued for publication Real Soon Now.

    Sam van Schaik has been doing a lot of interesting work on sorting out the relationship between Chan and Dzogchen based on the Dunhuang manuscripts. His most recent blog post on that is here, but there’s also a full-length academic paper that you can find on the web somewhere. As far as I know, no one ever alleged that Bodhidharma originated Dzogchen (but I could be mistaken!). The emic story is that Garab Dorje was its human originator, and it was propagated to Tibet by Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra, and others. Etically, the current thinking is that it developed during the Tibetan “Dark Age.”

    Thanks for the pointer to Fathering Your Father: The Zen of Fabrication in Tang Buddhism—I didn’t know about that, and have put it on my reading list. I think that a skeptical, historical approach to Buddhism is critical at this point, and critically lacking in “Consensus Buddhism.”

    For a somewhat similar (though less explicitly debunking) approach to the relationship between factual history, myth, and propaganda in Buddhist Tantra, see Geoffrey Samuel’s excellent The Origins of Yoga and Tantra.

  47. Zac, I’ve written quite a lot about the dubious modern/Western reinvention of Buddhism. Most of my posts have “Further Reading” sections with pointers to relevant academic literature.

    You could start with my posts on “Protestant Buddhism” and “A New World Religion,” which has extensive references. The several posts after that, on the re-making of Zen and Theravada, are probably relevant to your project, and have lots of citations.

    I’d second Ken’s recommendation of Robert Sharf’s work. It’s been a major influence on my personal re-thinking of Buddhism.

  48. David, your blog here is simply wonderful. A breath of fresh air – with younger generations finally arising to meet the challenge of authentic, authorative interpretation head on.

    I was flabber ghasted with discovery of your blog yesterday. Totally unexpected and a blessed relief. Both by temperment and training (the old fashion way, in Japan), there’s been no dividing line between practice and independent scholarship – that’s how many buddhist teachers live, especially in a culture such as Kyoto. yet having witnessed emergence of conventional Western neo-Buddhism in recent decades, I’ve been aghast by the casual dismissal of the very verve shaping buddhism as a liberative movement. In other words, I’ve taken to beating wide circles around buddhist groups, deepening and applying dharma in my own way.

    Thus discovery of your site is marvellous. More folks like myself out there, albeit considerably younger. Nearly 70 I’ve had growing concern about what to do with my library and flle drawers full of papers – with the feeling that traditional buddhist arts and scholarship was too marginal to Western buddhism. So what to do with a collection? Usually hiers hold garage sales or sell collections off to used book stores!

    I’m running on memory about Bodhidharma since I have no idea of a source noted long ago. It could be in Guenther’s book on Padmasambhava but I’m not going to make that as a claim. The name is bodhidharma[matha] as I recall. My sense of vajrayana is not as an exclusively Tibetan development, rather more likely from that loss realm of Central Asia and the Persian plane. As an aside at a buddhist studies conference in Honolulu in 1995 a young Japanese scholar told me considerable research effort is underway in Iran due to translations from Sanskrit to Persian of otherwise lost Skt materials. We’re utterly in the dark about that. Then there are those lost cities with lost temples that Sir Ariel Stein excavated a century ago, then recovered with sand to protect from further erosion. An important key to mahayana/vajrayana development lies in monumental architecture and paintings, etc. Schopen’s article in The History of Religions, around 1990, on Buddhist Studies and the Cult of the Book is another piece needing inclusion in post-modern hermeneutics.
    In the case of Tibet, something akin to archaeological excavation as textual criticism looking at layers and strata of development is really needed rather than just looking for doctrines, Same with myth and metaphor.

    Thank you so very much for developing this incredible site.

    Just for fun, here’s an interpretation of trikaya without a single Skt word: http://transevolutionaryfitness.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/body-by-play-physical-culture-2-0-in-practice/

  49. Ken, thank you very much for your kind words about the site!

    considerable research effort is underway in Iran due to translations from Sanskrit to Persian of otherwise lost Skt materials.

    Fascinating! I have actually wondered before about the extent to which Buddhism penetrated Persia before Islam, and how that may have affected Buddhism elsewhere. Maybe someday we’ll know.

    important key to mahayana/vajrayana development lies in monumental architecture and paintings, etc.

    Yes… I’ve just been reading today about Vajrayana stupas and epigraphy in Sri Lanka…

    In the case of Tibet, something akin to archaeological excavation as textual criticism looking at layers and strata of development is really needed rather than just looking for doctrines

    You bet! I’ve been following the academic output on this pretty closely. Many things that made no sense when viewed as doctrine are now comprehensible as historical responses to political events.

  50. Boredom is just another form of aversion. Wanting them “to work” for you is also aversion. New rituals will bore people too. It’s not the rituals that are the problem.

  51. Hey,

    I’m a religious studies student who has specialized mostly in Christianity. I’m taking some courses that touch heavily on Tantra now.

    Anyways, this thought popped into my head and I thought I would run it by some people who are hopefully more knowledgeable than me to see if it even comes close to the mark.

    I read one ethnography of the Aghoris (Hindu, not Buddhist, I know, but tantric), and a moderate strain (for householders) had taken up working with lepers, both as a kind of social service and spiritual path. So, this got me to thinking: a major part of Tantra seems to be confronting and overcoming dichotomies of the sacred/profane and overcoming aversion to what is hateful, disgusting, etc. All kinds of taboos around purity, sexuality, and caste are confronted. Is there an analogy here to some kinds of leftist activism? The first activists who championed causes like LGBT rights, needle exchanges and AIDS activism were all in their way working with populations who were popularly viewed in their time as being unclean, disgusting, degenerate, or the closest thing to “ritually impure” that secular society allows. So, could there be a kind of Tantric social practice that focused on working with the marginal, the outcast? Here, prisoners, the mentally ill, or other neglected causes or shunned types would be an obvious choice. Have I missed the point on Tantra, or is this an avenue that could lead somewhere?

  52. Hi J.,

    Thank you for a thought-provoking comment!

    I think you are on a right track here. I’ll point you at some things that may be relevant.

    working with lepers, both as a kind of social service and spiritual path

    Yes, Buddhist tantrikas do this too. This is particularly a true of chödpas: people who practice “chöd,” cutting through fear. See e.g. this page (which spells chöd “gÇod.”) I’m not finding a more-relevant web page easily, but working specifically with lepers is definitely an aspect of chöd. Both—as you say—as social service and as a spiritual practice.

    a major part of Tantra seems to be confronting and overcoming dichotomies of the sacred/profane

    Yes: “No holiness, vastness!

    and overcoming aversion to what is hateful, disgusting, etc.

    I think that’s key to tantra; see “Disgust as Buddhist practice.”

    The first activists who championed causes like LGBT rights, needle exchanges and AIDS activism were all in their way working with populations who were popularly viewed in their time as being unclean, disgusting, degenerate, or the closest thing to “ritually impure” that secular society allows.

    That’s a very interesting analogy… Early in the AIDS epidemic, sharing a meal with someone who was out as HIV+ could be squicky and scary. (I don’t know, maybe it still is for some people!) I hung out with some of the most ritually-impure gay sub-groups back then, and there was a distinctly tantric flavor to their own worldview and celebrations, as well.

    See “The Buddha and the necrophiliac witch,” in which I re-tell the story of Citrasena, an outsider tantric Buddha:

    Citrasena is an outsider: a black woman, an anarchist, a pervert. Her power comes from her otherness; from her willingness to go where no respectable person would dare… She wears spiked black leather and has a tongue piercing. She reads vile adult comic books. Sex with her is memorable, but not many people would want to repeat it.

    There’s a bit of Citrasena in me—and in everyone. But can a necrophiliac witch be as noble as Gautama? Or do transgressive outsiders just cause trouble?

    So, could there be a kind of Tantric social practice that focused on working with the marginal, the outcast? Here, prisoners, the mentally ill, or other neglected causes or shunned types would be an obvious choice.

    Yes. In fact, many Western tantrikas do such work, and do see it as part of their spiritual practice. However, other than the connection with chöd, I don’t know that this has ever been codified or formalized as tantra.

    Many Modern Buddhists who are not explicitly tantric also do such work, and see it as part of the spiritual practice. As I’ve written elsewhere, I think that most modern Buddhism is quasi-tantric in many of its attitudes. I mentioned social justice activism specifically as an example in that post.

    Have I missed the point on Tantra, or is this an avenue that could lead somewhere?

    I think this is definitely worth pursuing. Please feel free to ask follow-up questions.

  53. A particularly extreme version of this practice, I thought, might include working in an institutional environment where one had to play a supportive, therapeutic role to those whose crimes were, by any imagination, beyond the pale. Like being a counselor or prison chaplain to violent sex offenders. In this way, the adept would have to take up a discipline few are called to in their daily lives: extending real empathy and compassion towards human monsters.

    Can you recommend any scholarly sources on the Chödpa leper connection? I have found an absence of sources on those considered ritually impure in Tibetan Buddhism, and, although I gather from some sources (like the life of Gelongma Palmo) that leprosy and other diseases constituted a kind of ritual impurity, most of the scholarly articles I find refer to it in the Hindu context.

  54. Yes, I like the suggestion in your first paragraph. In a tantric context, this would count as deliberately entering a charnel ground (see my post on charnel practice) in order to transform it. That’s definitely recommended in tantric theory. (For those who have the capacity. If one doesn’t, it’s likely to be harmful for all concerned.) I’ve had non-Buddhist therapist friends who have worked as psychotherapists in institutions for the criminally insane; it does indeed seem a powerful exercise in extending empathy and compassion towards human monsters [your excellent wording]. Possibly relevant: my essay “We are all monsters.”

    I did a quick search on Buddhist tantra and lepers, and found several dozen mentions. Spot checking them, however, all were brief, and I’m not sure they’d be helpful. In general, spending time with lepers and magically curing them is a stock element in hagiographies; but this gives no significant insight into what the actual social practice was. Examples chosen at random:

    Chekawa knew mind training to be the essence of the Dharma, but he thought few would be capable of receiving it, so initially he was reluctant to teach it. Then, out of compassion, he taught some lepers who had been forsaken by the doctors and had abandoned any hope of finding happiness in life. As a result of the practice, they were cured of their leprosy and gained great realization. Before long, many more patients came to him, and the instructions soon became known as “Chekawa’s leprosy Dharma.” In time, he saw that the teaching could benefit others on a vast scale, and he began to impart them more widely, teaching vast assemblies. So it was that he became a great master of these instructions and an incomparable bodhisattva. (Rabjampa, To Dispel The Misery of the World)

    Yeshe Tsogyel sometimes also pursued her practice within society. In addition to her long sojourns at the royal court, she performed many services for suffering humanity: “I gave my body to ravenous carnivores, I fed the hungry, I clothed the destitute and cold, I gave medicine to the sick, I gave wealth to the poverty-stricken, I gave refuge to the forlorn, and I gave my sexual parts to the lustful.” All but the last are traditional acts of a male bodhisattva. Giving oneself sexually seems to be the special provenance of female bodhisattvas. In Yeshe Tsogyel’s case this was a leper whose wife had left him and whose place Yeshe agreed to take. (Young, Courtesans and Tantric Consorts)

    Kusali, a monk living in thirty-six vows, came by and saw this leper. The woman asked him, “Please carry me to the other side of the river. Please take me there.” When Kusali saw the woman, he generated unbelievable compassion for her. Even though he was a monk and even though she was a leper oozing pus and blood, without any hesitation and with incredible compassion he lifted the woman onto his back. When he reached the middle of the river, she then appeared to him as Vajravarahi, not as an ordinary woman any more. She then took Kusali, in that same body, to Dakpa Khachö, the pure land of Vajrayogini, where he became enlightened. (Zopa, Kadampa Teachings)

    From the biography of Machig Labdrön, who founded chöd:

    Whereas previously she had only kept company with abbots, masters, and monastics, never with lay people, after this realization she kept company with lepers and beggars—a sign that she had cut through craving for friends. Before, she had always stayed in monasteries and mountain retreats, but afterward she would stay anywhere, even in lepers’ houses and by the roadside—a sign of having severed the craving for pleasant places. (Harding’s translation)

    This passage, in context, is a theoretical muddle. The particular confusion is one that is nearly universal in Tibetan Buddhism; it’s an instance of “yana slip,” or mixing up different, incompatible theoretical frameworks. One could spend time in the company of lepers:

    • In hopes that it would make you holy and you’d have a better rebirth [the yana of gods and men]
    • As proof of successful renunciation (the perspective of this passage) [hinayana]
    • Out of pity for lepers’ suffering (as with Chekawa, Yeshe Tsogyel, and Kusali) [bodhisattvayana]
    • In order to relieve their suffering through practical, magical means (Chekawa) [outer tantra]
    • In order to share the energy of their suffering because it’s inherently powerful [inner tantra]

    Chöd does deliberately muddle all these things up. Or, put more charitably, it gives you tools to practice in all these ways simultaneously.

    Anyway… For this and other reasons, I’m pretty sure emic accounts are not going to give useful insights into what the concrete social practice of working with lepers (and other marginal social groups such as beggars) was or is. You’d need an etic, ethnographic account. I don’t know of one—but I’m not an actual scholar in this area, and there may be one.

    Oh, one other thing. The sources I looked at confirm that leprosy did constitute religious ritual impurity. For instance, lepers were explicitly disbarred from becoming monks.

  55. Hey David, just discovered your site and am thoroughly excited in checking it out. My interest in Tantra has been stoked lately, but knowing that a lot of teachings are secretive, I was wondering if you had any recommendations book-wise that go into some of the techniques. Thanks in advance, and look forward to reading you!

  56. Hey David,

    Thanks for the link. Also checked out your Imperfect Buddha podcast and enjoyed that as well.

    My interest in Tantra came via Rob Burbea, author of “Seeing that Frees.” I’m a part of a pretty hardcore, DIY dharma group which is definitely beyond the Kegan stage 3 Consensus Buddhism, and one person receives tantra instructions from his teachers. Given what he’s described to me and having tried it out, as well as using Tantra as a framework of seeing (as you describe in one of your articles) I’m greatly drawn to this modality. That said, as a modern person I’m very hesitant to go the traditional Vajrayana route for reasons you’ve described in the blog, though it seems like the only option I’ll have. Given that I’m practicing Mahamudra and gaining a lot from it that’s a pretty deep well, but trajectory wise Tantra seems inevitable.

    Given all of that, what would you suggest?

  57. That sounds good!

    The reason you can’t learn tantric methods from books is that they are embodied skills. It would be like trying to learn gymnastics from books. Books might not be completely useless, but it’s unlikely you’d get much from them. You need a personal teacher, who can give you feedback and demonstrations and specific advice for your obstacles and interests.

    (Tantra isn’t really secret, btw; that’s a myth. Almost all tantric practices are described in texts that are publicly available in English translation. But, you have to already know how to do the practice before the description makes sense.)

    Books on Vajrayana can be valuable as inspiration, and as explanation of the way-of-seeing. I recommended some here. Among them, Wearing the Body of Visions is the most practice-oriented. But, I don’t think you could get far just by reading it.

    Unfortunately, almost all Vajrayana teachers are locked into systems that are repellent and/or inaccessible for people with a contemporary Western world-view and values. Currently, there is no really good solution to this problem.

    However, this post suggests some Vajrayana teachers whose world-view is relatively modern, and some modern Buddhist teachers who incorporate some tantric elements in their curriculum.

    The Aro member’s program is one plausible entry point. It does not require any of the traditional tantric commitments or rigamarole, and does give basic tantric instruction one-on-one, over the internet, with a qualified mentor.

  58. Your gymnastics analogy makes sense; as a martial artist I’d say the same!

    I’ll take a look at your recommendations, as my practice has tantra-inspired elements (in the limited sense that I understand it) – having sources of inspiration might serve my purpose well enough.

    I’ve also loosened up immensely around religion due to insights from practice, so I’d don’t feel that overly concerned about checking a Vajrayana school out if it feels right.

    Thanks for all of your help and for the work you do to promote Tantra – it’s greatly appreciated!

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