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.”

Spiritual problems would require magical solutions

Many religions start with the idea that there is some hideous problem with all of existence.

The problem might not be obvious. The job of the religion is to convince you that:

  • you’ve got this problem (and so does everyone)
  • it is really, really bad—much worse than it appears
  • it affects everything in the whole universe, so there’s no escaping it
  • it’s so vast and awful and incomprehensible that there’s no practical way of solving it
  • so you’d better buy our brand of magic instead.

For example:

  • After you die, demons will torture you forever, because someone ate a magic apple.
  • All of existence is pervaded by impermanence, suffering, and non-self.
  • Life is inherently meaningless, so it is impossible to act.

(These are, of course, the cosmic defects proposed by Christianity, Buddhism, and existentialism.)

According to tantra, there are no such problems.

Impermanence, suffering, and non-self are called “the Three Marks of Existence” in mainstream Buddhism, which makes a big fuss about them. Tantra refuses to regard them as existential problems, or as any other sort of big deal.

A spiritual problem, according to religions that believe in them, requires a spiritual solution. But there are none. This belief diverts your energy into attempting to solve an imaginary spiritual problem, and away from practical solutions to real, practical problems.

Suffering does not make the world wrong

If the universe were about us, the world would be wrong. We don’t like suffering, and there’s quite a bit of it going around.

If there were a God, the world would be wrong. If someone designed the world, he did a piss-poor job. We should fire him. Or maybe he’s a bastard, and we should kill him.

If the world were supposed to be some way it is not, it would be wrong. But “supposed” supposes a supposer. According to whose criteria could the world be judged?

There is no God; the world was not designed; it was not meant to be some way; there is no cosmic plan to compare it against.

Therefore, there can be no fundamental problem with it. We have no grounds for complaint.

Stuff happens, mostly for no particular reason. Some of it, we like; some of it, we don’t.

Mainstream Buddhism calls experiences we don’t like “suffering,” and thinks that’s a cosmic problem. It means the world is wrong and should be abandoned.

According to tantra, the Three Marks of Existence are actually the “Three Doors of Liberation”: impermanence provides delightful entertainment; suffering gives the energy to act; non-self is simply how you are.

Spacious passion relishes real difficulties

The attitude of tantra is spacious passion.

Spaciousness implies that you are open to everything in the world. You don’t get finicky about “this aspect is spiritually bad; it’s impure, so I’ll avoid it.”

Spaciousness implies that you allow everything in the world to be as it is. You don’t think “this is wrong, it should be some other way.” You accept all outcomes—including disasters—as just how things are.

Passion is the desire to actively connect with everything. You are interested in everything, eager to learn, and eager to intervene. Passion is the desire to create and enjoy. Passion drives projects, and also just tinkering with reality to see what happens.

Everyday reality is workable

There are no spiritual problems; but there are real problems. Small ones like dirty dishes in the sink, and big ones like global warming.

Spaciousness and passion both lead you to regard all situations as workable. Nothing is cosmically awful; practical problems do not prove the world is wrong.

“Workable” does not guarantee that there is a solution. “Nothing is fundamentally wrong with the world” does not mean that everything can be fixed, or that life can be made perfect. Catastrophe is always possible. Death is always certain.

Passion and spaciousness together imply that you care deeply about the world, that you urgently want to fix problems, that you always do your best—and you are unruffled when you fail.

Having this realistic attitude produces a kind of fearlessness—a key attribute for tantrikas. It is not the idiot fearlessness—produced by spirituality—of being sure that things will magically come out well in the end, because God loves you. It is the fearlessness of knowing that the world is neither good nor bad; that it is not your enemy; that events are often random; that you will do your best; and so outcomes have no spiritual meaning.

A tantrika recognizes that experience is a mixture of pleasure and pain, and has no problem with that. It is simply how things are.

Problems are not a problem. A problem is a species of opportunity: a chance to act to make things better than they would be otherwise. The world is full of opportunities. It is rich with resources for improvisation, for creativity, for caring, for connection.

Enjoy the sacred world

According to mainstream Buddhism, it is critical to avoid indulging in sense pleasures. Those tie you to the world, and the world is bad.

According to tantra, the world is fantastic. According to tantra, tantrikas should enjoy sensual pleasures as thoroughly and often as possible. There is no problem with that—if it has no negative practical consequences.

According to tantra, it is possible to enjoy everything.

Nothing in the world can be objectively bad, because there is no external standard to measure it against. “Good” and “bad” are judgements based only on what you happen to like and dislike. Tantra trains you to suspend such judgement.

According to mainstream Buddhism, mundane reality is utterly impure and defiled. The sacred is found only elsewhere.

According to tantra, everything in the world is sacred. Enjoyment should be inseparable from reverence.

Relating this to tradition

This page is a reinterpretation of some major tantric doctrines:

  • Mundane reality is actually a Buddha field, or Pure Land—a heaven, more-or-less
  • Samsara is actually nirvana
  • Tantrikas should thoroughly enjoy the sense pleasures it provides
  • Tantrikas are constantly drawn into action by compassion
  • Reality is uncreated; there is no God

Since these points are central to tantric Buddhism, I’ll return to them in later pages in this series.


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

27 thoughts on “There are no spiritual problems”

  1. “…and you are unruffled when you fail.” How about expressing your anger/frustration? There are a lot of “spiritual people” who can’t express it outwardly, leading to some kind of fake “compassionate attitude”. Why can’t we just get mad, angry, frustrated?

  2. I have failed alot in my life. I have understood my failure as a sign of my incompetence.
    If I am incompetent I am incapable. If I am incapable I can’t.
    On another subject altogether, one that I imagine that you will clarify latter, the idea that it is possible to enjoy everything, is the battle cry of the Hells Angles, the Banditos, the Costra Nostra,
    and every serial killer.

  3. I await, with relish [but hold the ketchup and mayo!], your response to the questions immediately above.

    For myself, I find it curious: the propensity of homo-purportedly-sapiens to see how far a proposition can be blown up before it breaks. An ‘extreme’ can be made of anything; I don’t know why Vajrayana only lists four! Maybe there were fewer, and simpler, sophists in olden times.

  4. It seems to me that Tantra as an attitude and idea gives space to the possibility of embracing the paradoxical and twin nature of experience and existence as a source of tension for dynamic engagement and living. To create a 21st century, mutable Tantra would mean embracing the full potential of the moment we are currently living in, both individually and collectively. Part of a ‘new’ Tantric path would need to include methods for creating the space, artificial perhaps at first, to stimulate such unimpeeded expression within the confines of clear rules of engagement. Some shamanic paths currently offer such ventures. Experimenting with outrageous living within a framework which understands the need for an acknowledgement of the sacred could give rise to a more unabashed and potentially awakened expression. Without a clear understanding of the temptation for self-indulgence, an experimental Tantric group could end up in anarchy. A self-regulating group which follows key tenets for avoiding self-indulgence could be an alternative to the traditional guru-apprentice model that is so open to misuse. The tantric ideal is so far outside the status quo and rules of social normalisation that providing a space and a context for noble rebellion in front of acknowledging others would be essential whatever the flavour of the approach and intent of the group. As far as a I can tell, Tantra works best when we play at it with others. The problem with unimpeeded living is that it tends to emerge within the confines of our limited sense of being. Within a group dynamic there is greater potential for the right form of provocation. Perhaps some experimental theatrical groups and psycho-pomp ventures have dabbled in the realm of tantra? Without a context grounded within ‘no-self’ and ‘total dedication to simplicity’ and unlimited kindness there is so much potential for self-indulgence. I am happy to get onboard any attempt at creating a 21st century Tantra. I will bring along many, many years of shamanic experience and ‘expertise’. I’ve heard several teachers comment on the realisation of no-self as the recognition that we are not separate from others; most recently David Loy (whom I respect). Well, damn it, I would call these people out as species discriminate, we are not separate from the Earth full-stop, that includes the animals, the plants, the rocks, the elements, and the rest. It doesn’t mean that ‘we are all one’ but that we are intimately linked to all forms of all things on this planet. That is a major key to embracing an unimpeeded and full expression of our spontaneous humanity.

  5. Sorry, I’ll add one more thought/opinion. I still find Buddhism on the whole, in all its manifestations, world denying. It is clean, polite, removed from the carnal, from the mud, stone and rain. I am both a long-term Buddhist and Shamanic teacher and practitioner and although I had no intention of diverting my attention from Buddhism back in the day, my body cried out for connection with the physical plane and Buddhists halls were way too polite, sanitized and middle-class for me. I didn’t give up on them, but had to supplement my meditation experience with something more daring; a rather unusual shamanic path. A 21st century Tantra ought to make explicit not just that there is not a real, external problem as you describe above, but that the Earth is a a realm of pure potential, a ripe field of potential, a source of unlimited energy, magnetism, attraction, repulsion, revulsion, risk, and therefore, a dynamic field of charged attraction to play with, and be respected, and merge our being with in grace, rich, felt sadness, pleasure, amusement, curiosity, fierceness and aliveness. I’d suggest getting a stable group of daring individuals with a competent knowledge of the awakened state to come together and pave the way. There’s no time like the present :)

  6. David, You make much of the alleged difference between Tantra and your straw man of “Consensus Buddhism,” but I see nothing here that wouldn’t be fully compatible with the current state of American Zen. I personally concur with the beliefs and attitudes expressed in this post — and I can’t picture my Zen teachers disagreeing either.

  7. A fellow practitioner of mine who is a nurse recently took a job in hospice care. I think in Buddhism a place like this is where the rubber meets the road. You not only get to see all the varieties of physical discomfort and mental anguish that natural death has to offer, you also get to see all the varieties of grief, frustration, greed, fear, and jealousy play themselves out between and among all the survivors. Further, you get to see the self-defensive callousness many of us grow from the stress of constantly having to work with the grieving, the dying, and the dead. Finally, you get to strain your body with hours of standing, occasional hard physical labor, and constant screwing around with your biological clock by rotating shift work. Dying is 24/7 occupation, after all. And you don’t get paid all that much for doing it. But, truly, there is no particular problem there to fix.

    A place like that needs as much Spacious Passion as is in stock this week, I’d say. If you have a lot of it, you’ll probably be using it. If you don’t, you’ll probably wish you did, if you’ve even heard of such a thing. You can think of it as a sitcom in the hospice.

    The world may be fine just as it is, warts and all, it may be sacred as it is, warts and all. But who among us stands ready to test it in the hospice? And how seriously can we trust the strength and assurance of anyone’s Sacred Outlook, our own or our Dharma siblings’, if we’ve never tested it under similar conditions. Not mine, certainly.

    There are genuine tulkus, ones so accomplished that Spacious Passion and Sacred Outlook aren’t even part of the question, ones for whom all names and forms are beside the point. I am a follower of one of them. There are profound lamas who, through work, time, and effort have developed Spacious Passion and Sacred Outlook. I am a student of one of them. But not me, certainly.

    As far as I can tell, there is nothing particularly a cosmic problem about an ordinary, rather grimy, hospice with clean and lightly scented chairs in its visitors’ lobby. It is, however, a very useful solution to a much more mundane problem of dying by the roadside. But I need more training before I can actually think of either of these as an “opportunity”, and much more training before I can honestly say so.

    That training is all there is to the Dharma, really. That and a fruitful and workable attitude toward your teachers, your fellow students, and yourself. Whatever works to give you that training, then do it.

  8. Wow, thank you all for your thoughtful comments!

    @Sherab Dorje — yes, there’s definitely nothing wrong with anger! That’s a main theme of my next page. Tantra deliberately intensifies anger—in a controlled context. Getting to know and accept your own anger, thoroughly, is indeed the antidote to a lot of self-righteous passive aggression, which is indeed common in Buddhist circles.

    On the other hand, some expressions of anger are harmful. Tantra doesn’t license you to harm others in the name of your own emotional freedom.

    @Curt — the perception of failure is painful. No one likes it. A sense that you are a failure, rather than that you have failed at some particular things, suggests measuring against some standard or other. Tantra discourages and dissolves such standards. An ego-ideal is unhelpful. You are fine as you are. (My next post will say more about that.)

    Regarding your other point, I’ll probably address questions of tantra and ethics eventually. My take is that tantra is amoral. It is often attacked as being immoral—i.e. anti-ethical. Some tantric authorities defend it by arguing that it is actually totally moral, and ethics is a big part of it. I don’t agree. I think it it has no moral content. It doesn’t say “you can do whatever you like” and it doesn’t say “you must follow these ethical rules”. It just hasn’t got anything to say about ethics one way or another. So you have to get your ethics from somewhere else. (Bodhisattvayana, maybe.)

    This isn’t a problem unless you think every religious system ought to emphasize ethics.

    @Matthew O’Connell — you seem to understand tantra very well. Your second comment above describes some key tantric attitudes brilliantly. Does that come from study and practice, or insight and analogy from shamanism?

    Tantric Buddhism is sometimes described as “shamanic”—especially the yogic wings of Nyingma and Bön. If you have not read much about tantra and want to learn more, I’d recommend Ngakpa Chögyam’s books; he is the most shamanic of the authors I’ve mentioned.

    Tantra, like all forms of Buddhism, is a group activity. That is, the sangha is one of the three jewels. Tantra adds, to the three jewels, three other objects of refuge, the “three roots”, of which the lama—the teacher—is the most important. One key role of the lama is to cut through self-indulgence, self-delusion, and assorted other self-centered neuroses.

    This is somewhat problematic in a Western context. It also puts me in an awkward position, because I’m not a lama and don’t intend to become one. I can’t say “great, I’ll help lead a new movement anyway”, because I do think the role of the lama is critical. That makes it unclear what use my writing can be.

    @Seth — Sorry, I’m not sure why WordPress gave you that preposterous username!

    As far as I know, everyone who has seriously studied and practiced both Zen and tantra has found that they are quite different.

    Of course, there are also commonalities. Both are rooted in the Tathagatagarbha (“Buddha nature”) literature, and this particular post discusses that particular aspect of tantra. Although my current post may seem like familiar material, I hope some of what I say later will seem strange (and perhaps offensive, crazy, and evil). We do worship demons, drink human blood, and have kinky sex, after all! :-)

    … I said that mostly just to pull your chain, although it’s also a fact. The real point is that both the goals and methods of tantra are quite different from anything found in other Buddhisms.

    I have some book knowledge of the differences between Zen and tantra, but I have no Zen practice experience, so there’s limits to what I can say; and this is probably not the place to say it, anyway. If you are interested, better-qualified people than me have written much.

    One of the main activities of Consensus Buddhism is to create the false impression of a consensus, i.e. that all forms of Buddhism are the same except for minor details. I think it would be hard to find a Western academic Buddhologist, a Japanese Zen priest, or a Tibetan lama who would agree that Zen and tantra are not very different.

    @Karmakshanti — Thanks for that! Yup, I suspect my own half-assed Buddhist training would come up short measured against such a situation.

  9. In reply to your question; it’s a combination of both. I read most of Trungpa’s books in my late teens and remember them being fundamental in my understanding of Buddhism at the time. The shamanic practices I continue to follow provide a context for breaking out of mundane appearances. They echo some of the potential that is described in Trungpa’s books. Shamanism in this way is primarily concerned with; energy, alignment, personal power, freedom.
    There is no intellectual heritage as far as the vast majority of shamanic paths are concerned, although as you pointed out Bon is labelled as shamanism and so is Shinto for that matter and they have a rich textual history; they are quite unique in what falls under the banner of shamanism. Much of what is taken for shamanism has a whisper of ‘spacious passion’ but often it gets diverted into ritualism or superstition. I wonder if the fear of uncontrollable individuals is what causes institutions to suppress wild creativity. There’s a history of this not just in Buddhism, but in the demonisation of so-called witches in Europe by the Church and the general suppression of shamanic cults and communities all of the over-world: Russia in the 201th century is one such example that is well documented.
    I think the potential for understanding ‘tantra very well’ as you kindly pointed out is that such a way of being is literally not confined to a path or particular context. So, although I had dabbled in Buddhist Tantra over the years, I cannot say that in practicing it, as it was presented by the Gelugpas, with whom I have had most experience, it gave rise to much in the way of dynamic change or awakening. I think this was mostly due to the relationship dynamic between either the old Tibetan, who spoke no English (I met many of them), or the Western teacher, who was at least in my eyes busy keeping up appearances and playing the role of a good western lama. Perhaps I was simply unfortunate and didn’t meet the right teachers at the time, who knows. What can say is that spending two nights on a mountain top fasting produced far more tangible results than a two-day Avalokitishvara fasting retreat, because it was visceral, confrontational and something real was at risk.
    The shamanic path I follow has an unusual heritage and like Aro-Ter has had its authenticity challenged by members of the status-quo. It has however a knack for providing context for radical change and opening and the plus side is that it doesn’t rely on a lama. I would actually say that much of its ceremonial and therefore contextual establishment for change is similar to elements of Western magic, although I know very little about it outside of my recent reading of ‘Postmodern Magic’ which has lead me to this conclusion. I am wondering if this might mirror some of the practices of Tantra, much of which lean towards the creation of and interaction with a sacred image and series of symbolic actions, movements and sounds?
    I am not sure if this mirrors any understanding you have of Tantra, but my experience within the shamanic field has been one of constantly meeting the edge of what is known and felt and diving into the space in between. There is often a sort of bypassing of symbols in order to arrive at naked experience, but that is always based on losing the boundaries between what you experience and an intimacy with the world around you. The form of the ceremony provides a context for understanding the unfolding events that occur within the ceremonial space, which is considered and lived as sacred. The path unfolds in the context of ongoing ceremonies designed to break down barriers of separation from experience, the elements and forms of matter and life on this planet. Humans are not considered as superior to the other worlds of the Earth, which perhaps differentiates it from more shamanically inclined Buddhist traditions such as Nyingmapa. What is interesting for me personally is not the path in and of itself, but the fact that such activity works.
    By the way, I am a dedicated Buddhist meditator too and I find the two streams flow nicely together. Recent work with a western teacher has deepened the results of my shamanic work and deepened profoundly the ability to bridge the experiences gained form ceremony into daily living. As for your writing here, it is quite clearly an exploration of possibilities and that is a worthy direction, which as you will have noticed, many of us are happy to take with you, even if just at the level of discourse and theory.

  10. I’m not quite sure I understand your point about fundamental wrongness.

    “If the world were supposed to be some way it is not, it would be wrong. But “supposed” supposes a supposer. According to whose criteria could the world be judged?”

    There is an obvious answer: mine.

    This is what existentialists seem to be getting at. Let’s say Emile the Existentialist already has some expectations how the world ought to be. (Presumably, we all do.) Doesn’t matter how he got them. He might believe that there are no other expectations around, (like say Jehovah’s), but that doesn’t leave him with none – he still has his own values. And if the universe inherently doesn’t fulfill those, e.g. because he doesn’t want there to be any suffering ever, then it seems to me that it would be appropriate for him to say that the universe is fundamentally broken. I’m not sure how you can reject universal values, and still coherently criticize Emile here.

    In other words, “The universe ought to be like X because I say so.” seems like a perfectly acceptable position, one grounded in the fact that we do actually have values and expectations about the world. You can make arguments that there are *stronger* values out there that override ours, but I don’t see why Emile should reject his and consider the universe merely True Neutral, not actively malevolent, if it utterly neglects his values.

    (Note: I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, I’m just trying to figure out what your exact argument actually is, and what it is you are rejecting.)

    “There is no God; the world was not designed; it was not meant to be some way; there is no cosmic plan to compare it against.

    Therefore, there can be no fundamental problem with it. We have no grounds for complaint.”

    I get that you’re only presenting the tantric position in this post, not actually arguing for it, but that strikes me as a weird position to take. (If you do make an argument in an upcoming post, I’ll wait, of course.)

    Evolution clearly is trying its hardest to optimize the universe, and at least on our planet, it achieved some major results. This planet is massively designed by selection pressures, which follow criteria directly built into the universal law. These selection targets exists in all worlds, under all circumstances, with or without agents around, and there are things that are definitely, objectively (in any sense of the word) good or bad at achieving them.

    That absolutely looks like a cosmic plan to me. It may not be very successful (only one planet as far as we know has life at all), and we (or something else) might have different plans, but that’s still design.

    Unless you’re trying to say that it’s not agentic design, but Theravada Buddhism (which you explicitly reject) and its conception of suffering and karma aren’t agentic either.

    I could understand “there’s design, but it’s shitty and being upset about it won’t help” and “there’s a plan, but it can’t be done, so let’s eat cookies”, but I don’t understand “there’s no design”.

    (Side-note: Y U NO threaded comments?!)

  11. @Matthew O’Connell — All very interesting, thank you.

    You mentioned Gelukpa teachers. I will write a lot about the Gelukpa in my history of tantra, later in this series. I’m afraid it may make me sound like a partisan Nyingma bigot, so I should say first that there are some Gelukpa teachers I greatly admire; I recommend Lama Yeshé’s book as the best single introduction to tantra, for instance, and he was a Gelukpa.

    That said, the Geluk approach is to extract some methods from tantra and to use them, under carefully controlled conditions, to accomplish sutric goals within a sutric framework. (They say that explicitly; this is not just my characterization.) This approach may work very well for some people, if they are (a) timid and (b) have sutric goals.

    It is also explicit that the point of this is to neuter tantra and to bring it firmly under control of the monastic bureaucratic theocracy. So this was exactly a case of the institutional suppression you write about.

    So, if you had had any interesting results from practicing with a Geluk teacher, he would not have been doing his job. I think this ought to be made rather more explicit up front.

    Everything in your paragraph beginning “I am not sure if this mirrors” is consistent with my understanding of Nyingma yogic tantra. Two minor points, maybe: (1) the ritual space is explicitly sacred, but so is everything; the ceremony just points that out. Probably that’s true in your system also. (2) Humans are superior only in the sense of having greater scope for certain kinds of action. If you fail to engage in such action, you are not interestingly different from any other animal.

  12. @David – I think one of the biggest problems with the “Zen and Tantra are different” material, is that it’s nearly always written from -one- side. What I mean is, you find an accomplished Lama who knows a little about zen, or a zen teacher who’s read some about Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps there’s even been some superficial practice of one or the other… and -that- is where you find your differences… In the superficialities.

    So far, as a zen teacher, the only real item I’ve found to disagree with is this notion that tantra is some how incompatible with Zen (which, by the way still maintains a number of Vajrayana practices in both Japan and Korea).


  13. @muflax — Thank you very much for this. I’m told that the greatest fault in my writing is a tendency to make big vague generalizations, without support, so it’s very helpful to have someone asking “what exactly do you mean here? and is it true?”

    The distinction I’m trying to make is between concrete practical problems and big vague complaints about the fundamental nature of the universe.

    To be concrete, my pet peeve at the moment is that there is no decent twitter client for the Mac. They all suck. How can that be?! This is definitely wrong, and someone needs to fix it.

    Everyone has innumerable complaints of this sort. And there the matter rests, until some clever evil person goes meta on the thing and bundles all the complaints together in some sort of abstract theory—a philosophy or religion—that says the whole universe is wrong. This is not, I think, an idea that would occur to 99.99% of human beings on their own. You have to sell it to them (or force it on them).

    In other words, my complaint is not about “the universe” or “existence” or “samsara”, it’s about Mac twitter clients. To reason from “Mac twitter clients suck” to “the whole universe is actively malevolent” is a bit of a leap.

    So there’s a distinction here between “I want X, Y, and Z in my life” and “the universe is supposed to be A, B, and C”. The first is concrete, and is a matter merely of personal preference; the second is abstract and has moral content.

    Emile Existentialist may assert that “the universe is supposed to be A, B, and C”, but what basis does he have? What is “supposed” supposed to mean? Existentialism tried to develop an answer in terms of “authenticity” (to which they gave a non-standard meaning), and is generally considered to have failed.

    I think it does matter where Emile got his criteria from (and existentialists would agree, if I understand them right). In point of fact, he got them by reading existentialism… which is a wrong spiritual system, in my opinion.

    On the second point, about design. Yes, I’m just presenting a tantric view here. Since tantra is a traditional, pre-modern system, there are no arguments; it’s all “The Buddha was having sex with some goddess, surrounded by a retinue of assorted witches, demons, and other mythological creatures, and then he said…”

    I wouldn’t call evolution a design process, but that’s just a matter of word meanings, so let’s set it aside. The question is whether you can judge the universe as wrong for having failed to live up to the cosmic plan. (For example: “God intended life to be eternal and blissful, but then there was this snake and apple thing, so it isn’t.”)

    To the extent that life is the product of evolution, it has perfectly met the criteria of the process. It’s exactly the “right” outcome for evolution. Because every outcome is the right outcome for that process. Evolution is inherently chaotic (in the physical dynamics sense); whatever happens, happens, and that’s (by definition) the current optimum. Evolution has no teleology and no definable global optimum.

    Threaded comments: they suck. So do flat comments. This is proof that God hates us, the universe is wrong, and we should all move to the astral plane, where software always works right.

  14. @Myo Gak Kun Sunim — Thank you very much for that. Clearly, you are unusually qualified to comment on the relationship between Zen and tantra! Perhaps as I write more, you can comment on what I say about the relationship between Consensus Buddhism and tantra. (The Consensus is Zennish in some ways, but probably different in others.)

    Interesting to hear that Zen incorporates some Japanese Vajrayana. To the extent that it does, it will be unsurprising if it is similar to Tibetan tantra!

    @Namgyal Dorje — Oof. A tempest in a teapot!

  15. @David

    Completely agree about the pragmatic thing. “Be concrete about your despair” is definitely an important point. (And one I only got way too recently.)

    But about values, why is Emile not allowed to impose his values on the world? Say Emile notices he has a bunch of specific problems, like “I want some ice cream right now”, “why is my Emacs so slow” and “publish faster, GRRM!”. He then goes meta on this, and finds some more abstract descriptions, which those problems are instances of. Like “food should be tasty”, “software should be fast” and “60-year old overweight authors shouldn’t write long-running fantasy series”. (Emile can keep going more meta, of course, but let’s stop here.)

    Saying that those more abstract problems are his values, and describe how the universe ought to be, seems to me like a perfectly acceptable thing to say. And if it turns out that some of those values can’t be fulfilled (because software will always suck, due to Wirth’s law etc.), then well yeah, the universe is broken. (“Join my club and wear one of those funny hats” is still a non-sequitur, of course.)

    (And as far as I’m concerned, this kind of meta process is completely natural, and the obvious thing to notice. It even says so in the gospel of muflax, saying 16: “TOKSHI said, go meta.” But maybe I’m weird.)

    As to where those values come from, unless you’re making a claim about different values being more important, why does it matter? Emile cares, and that seems quite sufficient to me. It being “just” his “personal preference” seems to me like a “that’s not a proper authority, my god / guru / dear leader / etc. says what you should want!” kind of move. Which is fine as far as arguments go, but you don’t seem to be trying to argue in favor of *more* important values, but that Emile shouldn’t impose his preferences on the Whole World. I don’t get why not.

    “I want fast software” -> “software should always be fast” -> “due to how the universe works, software can’t always be fast” -> “the universe sucks”.

    “I want tasty food” -> “the universe doesn’t care if I get tasty food” -> “the universe is malevolent”. (Because utter neglect, and so tolerating substantial harm, is just as much an evil thing as actively causing harm.)

    Those seem to me like perfectly valid (though not necessarily correct) arguments. (I reject the second, but because I think the universe necessarily couldn’t be different, not because it wouldn’t be evil if it could.)

    But maybe I’m overthinking this, and you’re not actually trying to make a general argument either way, but just “look, try fixing your shit for a change instead of whining about how the whole universe hates you, it might just work”. (Which I should do more myself, yeah.)

    Also, I disagree about evolution not having goals. It’s an hill-climbing algorithm, so it’s definitely optimizing *towards* certain states. If you could look at all of design-space, you’d see certain spots evolution is trying to reach. Those are its goals, and we’re definitely not there yet. (For example, because not all the matter has been turned into replicators and replicator accessories yet.) Having (maybe) multiple optimal states, and working on them in parallel, and being utterly impartial about *which* replicator wins, isn’t the same as not caring about victory at all.

    I’m not trying to argue semantics, but it’s not just chaotic soup. It’s more like, “there are niches and they must be filled!” If there are any unexploited niches left, that’s not a good state of affairs, as far as natural selection is concerned.

    If a large amount of states of the world all eventually converge to the same local optimum (i.e. hill-climbing) due to selection pressure, then calling those optima “goals” and the process “teleological” is fairly accurate, I think.

    But beyond words, thinking of the process more like a monomaniacal nerd-god, screaming “More beetles! This needs more beetles!”, than a “lol whatever” process like 4chan, is closer to reality. Evolution is definitely on the Lawful, not the Chaotic side of the spectrum. It’s just that it supplies weapons to all sides, so to speak, and is completely impartial as long as *someone* wins, that it certainly looks quite Chaotic to us.

    It’s like we’re the Neutral Yugoloths in the Blood War, and we notice that no matter the battle, *someone* is always paying us to work on either side, and thus we conclude it’s all just a bunch of Chaotic Tanar’ri, fighting for the fight’s sake, with no goals in mind. But that’d be wrong, and we’d miss the scheming Lawful Baatezu everywhere, whose plans we can’t fathom because there are so many, and they work against each other as well. But the Blood War is still trying to achieve something, though it might not be working.

    (And now my pseudo-intellectual facade crumbles as I keep using D&D metaphors.)

  16. “As for your writing here, it is quite clearly an exploration of possibilities and that is a worthy direction, which as you will have noticed, many of us are happy to take with you, even if just at the level of discourse and theory.”

    Yeah. I second that.

  17. @David re: “the astral plane where software works right”
    Isn’t that the seventh realm? Steve Jobs is probably up there now, looking down at us, compassionately … He would not be laughing, because that realm is even higher than the god realm.

  18. @muflax:
    To say that the world literally is “designed” because it is orderly and regular is reification of a mere metaphor. Only human beings design things (I’m ignoring borderline cases of our fellow primates), because design requires intention and, as far as I can see, there is no serious evidence of intention by a designer in the mere presence of order and regular pattern (no matter how apt or how complicated) in the natural world.

    It seems to me that Emile the Existentialist and his values is simply a specific case that develops from the general confusion in David’s essays between the qualities of the world and the interior life of the beings in it. Consider the provocative title of this essay. There’s a fine contemporary expression: I have a problem with that. Despite verbal ambiguity, this expression is exactly the same in meaning as: X is a problem. “Problems” are things that people possess and not the things in the world that people attach them to. In the case of “spiritual problems” the near universal use of these words quite clearly means an emotional conflict inside an individual and not the exterior events that trigger it.

    So David’s title is false. There are spiritual problems. And there will be as long as anyone is willing to step up and say, “I have spiritual problem with that.”

    This is the core of my major disagreement with David. The recurrent theme of these essays is:

    Religion is Snake Oil, therefore priests, ministers, Sutrayana monks ect. are Snake Oil salesmen.

    In either it’s milder version (which is David’s actual stance) or in the most rhetorically bellicose one above, it cannot be sustained as a principle if there really are spiritual problems. Religion, any religion, is the collective response to the fact that human beings actually do have spiritual problems. Buddhism, any Buddhism, is the religion that most clearly addresses the fact that the “problem” is the inner emotional response of the individual and not some metaphysical failure in the world at large. And this is what links all “Buddhisms” together. When the Buddha said, “Life is Suffering,” he clearly was not talking about the exterior world (clouds do not suffer, rivers do not suffer) but about the response of “sentient beings” to the world.

    It is precisely this that makes Buddhist Tantra Buddhist. And it is this that David’s presentation of Tantra has so far failed to plainly state. If this is not made clear, then the critics of Tantra are right: there is no way to differentiate Tantra from mere self-centered amoral hedonism. Buddhist Tantra is not “amoral”. The realized and revered Buddhist tantrikas of the past (of all lineages) in no way abandon the core concepts of Buddhist morality: karma, cause, and effect. But what they do is teach tantric “skillful means” as a shorter (but more dangerous) path to “realization” and the consequent resolution of an individual’s spiritual problems. What is, of course, implied in this is that the “pleasure” the Tantrika takes in the world, and particularly in the skillful means he is using, is incidental to their resolution of the common spiritual problem.

    TIlopa states the matter explicitly, “The problem is not pleasure, but ego-centered fixation on pleasure.”

    Tantrikas also engage in “tantric conduct” which is mostly what David has described above. If they have achieved “realization” that all experience is “of one taste”, this is a demonstration of that fact. But since you or I have not achieved this we have no way of knowing whether or not the conduct proceeds from amoral hedonism instead of realization. This is the common motif in life stories of Tantric Masters: Tilopa the yogi sits by the river cooking fish for dinner, some ordinary laypersons happen by and start berating him for his “immoral” diet. Tilopa then points at the fish and they return to life and jump back in the river, and the laypeople see that Tilopa has achieved realization.

    Is this story literally true? I wasn’t there so I don’t know. But the point of the story remains the same and similar stories appear over and over in the literature because the point is crucial–until we are “realized” ourselves, we just can’t know.

    I actually agree with David that the Tantric teachings are likely to have the most appeal for Western students of the future (as they actually do now) . But unless Tantra maintains its moral continuity with the other forms of Buddhism, it will bring no real benefit or resolution of real and individual spiritual problems.

  19. Sorry to be slow to reply; I’ve gotten a little behind.

    The usual analysis of the failure of existentialism is that the source of values matters, and its account doesn’t work. Existentialism rightly observes that meaning is not intrinsic in the external world—not objective. It then wrongly concludes that meaning must be subjective—failing to recognize that there are third options. Then it asks, so where do the subjective meanings come from? By and large, you take them over from your tribe without thinking. This can be a bad thing. So existentialism says: “Don’t do that! You have to create your own meanings!” But there is actually no way to do that. So that was a dead end.

    Now let’s take Emile. He has a genuine desire: I want ice cream, now! This might be a problem for him, but not a spiritual one. Then he applies some sort of complicated ideology, and concludes that (after sufficient abstraction) it’s a manifestation of a spiritual problem, such as nihilism. But he’s wrong. He just wants ice cream.

    In many Buddhist countries, there’s a condition called koro, in which the sufferer believes his penis is rapidly shrinking into his body and will soon disappear permanently. This is a dire circumstance, and much folk medicine and magical ritual is devoted to treating it.

    However, penises don’t actually do that. The sufferer thinks he has a medical problem, but what he actually has is a wrong idea about how penises work, which he got from his culture. Europeans don’t have this wrong idea in their culture, so they don’t “get” koro.

    Emile thinks he has a spiritual problem, but what he actually has is a wrong idea about how meanings work, which he got from his culture. In most countries (before recently anyway) no one had that wrong idea, so no one suffered from nihilism.

    the general confusion in David’s essays between the qualities of the world and the interior life of the beings in it.

    This is an interesting observation, which might be correct—although I don’t regard it as a confusion. I think the solution to the problem of meaningness lies in recognizing that meanings are neither subjective nor objective; neither internal nor external. Rather, they arise as a dynamic interactive process between those two.

    Eventually I hope to give a worked-out explanation of that. In the mean time… doesn’t it seem rather Buddhist to break down an artificial subject/object dichotomy?

  20. Alright, I now get what you’re going for. I’m definitely looking forward to a more specific explanation how you think meaning actually *does* work! (Not to bug you or anything, I know how it is. Just excited.)

  21. There is a stream that runs through the village of El Halten. I have followed this stream out of town before in both directions for several kilometers. When you go north there was not much to see except trees and the stream running through the trees.
    Today I decided that I was going to follow the stream still farther out of town. […] I decided well I saw what I came here to see I better head back now. I turned around and started to retrace my steps. I had taken 6 or 8 when I heard a voice say, Wer ist Kartengeber, (Whose turn is it to deal). The wind blowing through the trees sure made my mind high.

  22. Hi, In memory of John Brown,

    I’ve deleted most of your last comment. It has no clear relevance to the subject here.

    Can I suggest that you post such things on your own blog?

    I don’t want to discourage you from posting relevant, thought-through comments here; those are always welcome.

    Thoughts that are not directly relevant are better posted elsewhere. Also, readers will benefit from your making points briefly and clearly, rather than in long, unstructured stream-of-consciousness rambles.

    Thanks and best wishes,


  23. Koro does Exist
    I work in urology and hear the complaint of a shrinking penis once a week. Americans suffer Koro. And I imagine Europeans do too. Well, not the imaginary sort, of course. For all practical purposes, penises can shrink. That is, as men get fatter and fatter their lower abdomen and groin grows out around the penis. The penis become a turtle head tucked into the shell of fat. So on looking just the tip of the penis will be visible on obese people.

    So, David, do the the experiment — gain 80 pounds and tell us you no longer believe in Koro.

    What is more amazing, is that patients have wonder bizarre stories for exactly why their penises shrank — and none of them is “I got fat”. They are almost shocked when I tell them, “It is because you are obese — your fat his swallowing up your penis. But if you loose 100 pounds, your penis will magically lengthen to its original size.” (I try to be a bit more tactful)

  24. Isn’t koro supposed to be extremely rapid, though? A slightly different syndrome.

    I love that there are any number of explanations other than “I got fat,” though. Our capacity for self-delusion is astonishing.

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