There are no spiritual problems

Nothing is fundamentally wrong with the world.

That is tantra’s main claim about the nature of reality.

Maybe it sounds like good news: “Cool, man! Everything is great! No problem! Don’t worry, be happy!”

But that is not believable; and it is not the attitude of tantra. There are problems, and everything is not OK. We need to deal with that.

To make sense of this seeming contradiction, I distinguish between practical problems, and problems that could be called “spiritual,” “existential,” “cosmic,” or “fundamental.”

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The power of an attitude

“You know what we need, Hobbes? We need an attitude.”
—Calvin & Hobbes

What I find most valuable in Buddhist tantra is an attitude. It’s the attitude I’ll call “spacious passion.” Over the next dozen pages, I’ll explain that attitude, with its applications and implications.

But here, even before telling you what spacious passion is, I want to answer an objection:

An attitude?? What good is an “attitude”? And what’s it got to do with Buddhist tantra? I thought tantra was supposed to be about mystical rituals and esoteric doctrines, not an attitude.

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Diversity, generalization, and authenticity

Buddhist tantra is extraordinarily diverse. Its 1400-year history, spanning most of Asia, includes many radically different, contradictory approaches. There is probably nothing they all have in common. It is impossible to generalize about tantra. Anything you might say will turn out to have an exception somewhere, or somewhen.

In my overview, I will often write “tantra is X,” or “tantra says Y,” or “tantric practice does Z.” As generalizations, these will always be false.

What I mean is: “It seems to me that tantra can be X, say Y, or do Z—and I think that’s a good thing. That is the approach to tantra I favor.”

I will often also explain tantra by contrasting it with other forms of Buddhism. Then I will say “tantra is not X”; and what I mean is “tantra doesn’t have to be X, and X is not part of the approach I favor.”

To write the long versions of these out, each time, would become cumbersome. So, I’ll substitute the simpler versions. But, please bear in mind that these are shorthand.

This is risky. If you are not familiar with other presentations of Buddhist tantra, you may get a seriously skewed, narrow perspective. If you find what I have to say interesting, you certainly should read other authors to get a broader view.

If you do already know something about tantra, it may seem that I make absurd, sweeping statements, probably based on ignorance and arrogance. Perhaps you can give me the benefit of the doubt by mentally reattaching the qualifiers: “it seems possible to me that tantra could…”

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“Now you something say”

In the 1970s and ’80s, several brilliant innovators presented Buddhist tantra in the West for the first time. They taught from personal experience, not ancient texts. They explained tantra in plain modern language, not academic jargon or bad translations from Medieval Tibetan. Their talks were warm, humorous, interactive, and frequently referred to popular culture and everyday Western life.

Among these were Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshé, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, and Ngakpa Chögyam. To prepare to write about tantra, I recently re-read a dozen of their books. I was awed anew, although I had gone through each of them several times before.

I certainly have nothing new to say; nothing to add to those presentations. And yet, in upcoming posts, I will re-present Buddhist tantra again.

Why reinvent the wheel? Why not just say “tantra is cool, go read those books”?

Every presentation of tantra needs to be highly specific to its time and place. The themes of Sutrayana—mainstream Buddhism—are eternal. Emptiness is unchanging. Absolute truth is the same everywhere. But tantra is about form; about manifest appearances; about concrete experiences; about relative truth. Tantra needs to be continually reinterpreted so it makes sense in a continually changing world.

My judgement is that the world has changed hugely since the 1980s—in ways that may not be obvious. So, books from the first flowering of Buddhist tantra in the West may no longer communicate. Especially, they may not seem compelling to people who were born in the ’70s and later, who came of age in the ’90s and later.

On this page, I’ll describe three ways the world has changed, and why they imply that a new presentation of tantra is necessary:

  • Consensus Buddhism, which began around 1990, is now taken for granted as defining Buddhism overall. Tantra needs to be explained relative to the Consensus.
  • Almost nothing was known about Tibetan Buddhism in the West before the 1970s. Mediocre export Tibetanism is now widely misunderstood as defining Buddhist tantra.
  • The 1980s were perhaps the last decade of the Modern era. Modernity has ended. That means the end of some fundamental assumptions that Western Buddhist audiences once took for granted.

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Why I should shut up

I have rashly promised to sketch possibilities for future tantric Buddhisms. This page explains why that’s probably a bad idea. The next one explains why I’m going ahead anyway.

The short version:

  • I am the wrong person to do this. I’m completely unqualified, and I am just kibitzing. I have neither the ability nor the wish to make such possibilities real.

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