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.
- 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.