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.

I have limited experience with tantra

To bring forth new forms, you ought to have mastered the existing ones. My teachers talk about this in terms of jazz improvisation. Improv is all about breaking the rules, but you can’t usefully break rules until you have mastered them. You have to be able to play jazz standards straight before improv becomes meaningful.

I have some experience with most of the major tantric practices, but am far from having mastered any of them. So, at an experiential level, I don’t know what I’m talking about. My understanding is more intellectual than practical.

It’s possible that I’m entirely out to lunch. You should not accept anything I say just because I said it.

Tantra is not even my main practice

I mostly practice the Dzogchen sem-dé ngöndro, not tantra. (This ngöndro is a system of formless meditation, similar to Zen shikantaza and some brands of vipassana.)

Why not write about Dzogchen, then, rather than tantra?

  • Tantra is a much clearer alternative to Consensus Buddhism than Dzogchen is. Tantra is systematically opposite to Sutrayana, which Consensus Buddhism is mostly based on.
  • Tantra is much easier to understand, and much easier to explain, than Dzogchen.
  • Some understanding of tantra may be necessary as an introduction to Dzogchen, anyway.

I am a nobody

I have no Buddhist credentials. I am not a teacher, nor ordained.

I am just kibitzing

I don’t plan to turn my sketchy ideas into a workable system. I hope qualified teachers will develop approaches similar to what I suggest, but they won’t need my amateur advice.

Perhaps I can be useful in creating popular enthusiasm for such possibilities, however.

I am happy with the system I practice

I am a student in the Aro Ter lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It works for me.

Naturally, the suggestions I will make are heavily influenced by my experience with Aro. In fact, if there’s value in what I say, Aro is where it came from. If you want to learn more, that’s the first place I’d recommend looking.

Nevertheless, my suggestions may be quite different from Aro in style. The Aro system is, in its own words, “hardcore” and “eccentric.” It may not have broad appeal, or be widely accessible.

I would like to see Buddhist tantra available to millions of people. That would require a more “user friendly” presentation. Consensus Buddhism has done a fine job with user friendliness, which suggests it is possible.

There is a risk of watering-down in developing a system with mass appeal. Some compromises are almost certain, actually. My feeling is that watered-down tantra is better than none at all—for some people. And experience with watered-down systems may lead some people on to the hard stuff.

I am not a modernist

What I will suggest might mostly be described as “modernized Buddhist tantra.” Theravada and Zen were both modernized a century ago (as I have written), and Consensus Buddhism is based on those modernized forms. Due to historical accidents, tantra only began to be modernized in the 1970s and ’80s, and modernization stalled during the following two decades.

I think modernized tantra would be useful to many people, for whom a modernist world-view is non-negotiable. So, I hope that line of development restarts.

However, I am not a modernist. Some of what I have to say will offend some modernists. They insist that Buddhism must be consistent with modern ideas about rationality and ethics. I think it would be possible, and useful, to develop a tantric Buddhism that conforms to their requirements. It would be “scientific” and politically correct. As I will explain, I don’t find that particularly attractive. I don’t consider modernist principles to be Ultimate Truth.

I believe that the modern era ended in the late 20th. century. Modernism is not the best way forward, for the long run.

After finishing this series on “reinventing tantra”—and after returning to, and finishing, my historical analysis of the Consensus—I will sketch an entirely different set of possible futures. I will ask: what use can Buddh-ism have in the post-systems world, in which -isms are all inherently obsolete? In this era, culture, society, and self are shattered into kaleidoscopic fragments. What role can the jagged shards of Buddh-ism play when no one defines themselves as an -ist?

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

6 thoughts on “Why I should shut up”

  1. I am a jazz improvisor and so I feel I can make some comment on the relevant point you make above.

    It is certainly true that “faking” a standard (that is an actual term), which is to say – playing the rule-defined chords for a song, or perhaps mechanistically applying rule-defined chord progressions and scales to “improvising” on it, is one method of performing which is principally concerned with the perfection of “right harmony” and “right rhythm” in such a way that would simulate an actual improvisation. To the listener, they might hear an enlightened sounding interpretation of a song, but not realize that it was the mere indication of the proverbial music-school harmonic meat grinder.

    Alternatively, there is a state of being in which the improvisation plays the improvisor. That is how it is spoken of. I wouldn’t want to get into the neurophysiology of behavior, nor much less into the questions of free will and determinism, but if you are a free improvisor, that is your experience of it – an experience of spontaneous presence and communication.

    Finally, if these seem like utterly different and unrelated experiences, the musician that experiences some form of totality or completion, finds that these two approaches have “one taste”. Mundanely, yes – what you are able to “spontaneously” free improvise is programmed, as it were, into your fingers and dexterity through the years of faking standards. But if there weren’t the Miles Davis and John Coltrane’s of the world to freely extend the language of improvisation (from their years of faking standards), then there wouldn’t be students learning to fake those novel linguistic contrivances in their sophomoric renditions of the “thus have I heard” sounds of their inspirational examples.

    So even mundanely the two experiences engulf and interpenetrate each other so much so that together – they could be considered an utterly complete expression of Jazz entailing an inseparability of lineage, devotion and spontaneous presence.

    By all means don’t shut up. I think being nobody – if you *really* mean that, uniquely qualifies someone to talk about a yana whose base is the experience of emptiness. It’s just more likely that what comes out won’t sound like a reified modernization of tantric formulae, and might sound somewhat more like whatever a “nobody” might actually say (which only another “nobody” could recognize as the authentic expression of finding the presence awareness of that which moves in Mind)

  2. Many, if not most improvisational jazz pioneers did not in fact learn the basics, for instance that of reading music, or classical technique. They were too busy jamming and being wildly creative. I think the same can be said for the maha-siddhas.

  3. re: “Tantra is much easier to understand, and much easier to explain, than Dzogchen.”
    Not sure I agree with you on that one. I would say it’s easier to practice, than Dzogchen, but equally difficult to understand and explain.
    So why do you think it’s easier to understand and explain?

  4. @ Seng-chen, Duff — thank you very much for that about jazz improv! Unfortunately, I suffer from Severe Rhythm Deficiency Disorder, so I cannot speak about musical performance from personal experience!

    @ Mri — Tantra has an elegant intellectual structure. Dzogchen has some intellectual content, too, but much less, and the experiential prerequisites are much stiffer. With Dzogchen, there’s not much to say; and either people get it or they don’t. Mostly all you can communicate is enthusiasm—unless you are far more accomplished than me!

    I think tantra is only hard to understand because it is usually taught badly, by people who don’t understand it. (See my impolite remarks about “mediocre export Tibetanism” in the next post.) As a body of conceptual material, it has a straightforward logic, which makes perfect sense. But that is rarely explained. Western academics often do a much better job than Tibetan lamas.

  5. David, you are being contradictory in at least two points:

    (1) “I’m nobody” – somewhere else you say that you’re not qualified because you don’t want, but if you really didn’t want, you would not bother to write all this stuff (not to mention the readings you had to do to prepare yourself) and would not mention in the post “No Cosmic Justice” (at another blog of yours) that you expect that even really evil people be in paradise (an affirmation that seems to demonstrate a very big heart… Or is it just ballyhoo?)

    (2) If you don’t consider modern values the Ultimate Truth, why bothering with modernizing Tantra? For me it seems that even though humanity developed a lot of technology, we’re still in the caves regarding human behavior. For you, living in UK, it may not be obvious, but for those like me, not so lucky, who live in “Third World” countries where civilization varnish is even thinner than in the “First World”, I see that there’s not much to do to modernize Tantra.

    You give very good hints at it and the gTértöns from 19th and 20th centuries also did their jobs well. However, I think one should not try so much to twist Tantra to the point of breaking it apart. Instead, persons should be looking for ways to improve their selves and their world. Because, in the end, if here-&-now is all we’ve, the emptiness of self and the cheat-chat that we are already enlightened would do no real good.

    As Guru Rinpoche said, “my path has the highest view as the sky and the finest conduct as the finest dough”.

    So, I think you could take this endeavor in a harder way and benefit more people by engaging as a teacher!


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