The bad news is that there are no spiritual solutions.
Spirituality tries to sell you the idea that everything will be peachy-keen forever, if only you apply an all-purpose spiritual solution. Somehow, that is supposed to solve all practical problems, as well as the big hairy cosmic one.
Tantra thinks that’s twaddle.
Spirituality claims that the mundane world is total garbage. There’s nothing worth having here; it causes nothing but misery in the long run. You should abandon it.
Spirituality claims there’s some kind of heaven, or nirvana, or transcendent reality, or domain of emptiness, that is all-good. You should move on to that spiritual plane. That’s salvation. That’s the solution to everything.
Tantra is about this everyday, concrete world, just as it appears. It is not interested in escapist fantasies about Neverland.
This world is where we are. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it. It’s real, it’s workable, it’s enjoyable, and it needs our help.
Your problem is not dukkha
Some Buddhisms suggest that “all existence is marked by suffering.” That’s the #1 big fat spiritual problem.
Most people don’t think “suffering” is their problem. That’s awfully vague, general, and abstract. Real people have specific problems, like car trouble, sick children, or being dumped by a lover.
It takes a lot of fancy Buddhist rhetoric to get anyone to pay attention to “suffering” instead.
One difficulty is that “all is suffering” is obviously false. So, if you push on Buddhists a bit, they’ll admit that it’s not exactly suffering, it’s “dukkha,” which is something else, that they can’t quite translate.
Well, let’s be generous, and agree that everything is “marked by dukkha,” whatever that means. So what?
The Four Noble Truths aren’t either true, or false. They are a way of approaching things; an attitude. If you adopt this attitude, you’ll follow the Eightfold Path as the solution to all problems. You’ll reject everyday, practical concerns as mere samsara.
The Eightfold Path is a pretty good thing. It doesn’t help much with car trouble, sick children, or being dumped by a lover, however. Even if there is such a thing as “the end of all suffering”—which seems unlikely—it won’t fix squealing brake pads.
Any classification lumps some things together, and splits other things apart. A classification is useful if, for some purpose, all the lumped things can be treated the same way.
The Four Noble Truths lump too many things together. They ignore too many important distinctions. They lead you away from practical solutions to practical problems.
Tantra cares about specifics. It is fascinated with the everyday world, with all its complexity and detail; brake pads and mononucleosis and broken engagements. It’s about good old samsara, not Neverland Nirvana.
No global fix
So what is tantra’s solution, then?
It hasn’t got one.
There isn’t one.
Reality can’t be fixed, because it has no fundamental flaw. There’s just things we like, and things we don’t like, and ways we can respond to them.
Spirituality promises a total explanation of everything. Tantra rejects that. Things often happen for no particular reason. There is no ultimate “why.” Not everything can be understood; and that’s fine.
Tantra offers no guarantees. There is no reliable recipe for happiness, goodness, or peace of mind. No total, ultimate salvation is possible.
What tantra does provide is relative methods for dealing with relative circumstances. I think they’re pretty nifty…
Religion for geeks
Tantra is unusual—possibly unique—in avoiding both eternalism (fantasies of metaphysical salvation) and nihilistic pessimism.
I think this makes tantra the ideal religion for geeks (like me.) Geeks refuse to believe in things we have no evidence for. We’re usually dismissive of spirituality, because its metaphysical claims are either false or meaningless.
The problem with rejecting spirituality is that often the only alternative seems to be nihilism: the idea that everything is meaningless. That leads to rage, depression, and sterile intellectualization.
Tantra has a cogent answer to nihilism, and upholds purpose, meaning, and value. At the same time, it has a practical, realistic, engineer-like outlook, without fanciful metaphysics.
Relating this to tradition
Traditionally, one of the distinctive features of tantra is its claim that samsara and nirvana are inseparable, or the same. That implies that there is no escape from one into the other. I’ll write more about tantra’s attitude to samsara and nirvana in a later post.
Traditionally, tantra is concerned with the world of manifestation, or form, and the relative truth; in contrast with sutrayana, which is concerned with emptiness and absolute truth. “Form” roughly corresponds to “the mundane world” and “absolute truth” with Neverland.
When living in a Buddhist theocracy—as tantrikas almost always have—it’s dangerous to point out the limitations of the Four Noble Truths. Offhand, I don’t recall a traditional text that does. Chögyam Trungpa has an account similar to mine in Crazy Wisdom, pp. 119-20, however.
I will have much more to say about tantra’s approach to “suffering” in an upcoming page about charnel ground.
Tantra is often thought of now in the West as the most metaphysical branch of Buddhism—replete with mystical magic, squillions of spooks, and astral adventures. This is a historical misunderstanding. I’ll sort that out in another upcoming page.