Tantra is anti-spiritual

My last two pages pointed out the good news: there are no spiritual problems.

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.

No Neverland

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.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

27 thoughts on “Tantra is anti-spiritual”

  1. I’ve always seen tantra as another run that duality takes on the separation of form and emptiness, which it turns out is impossible. The first run (sutrayana) takes form and tries to separate out the emptiness from it through the principle of renunciation. Tantra is sort of the run back to form from the ground of an experience of emptiness. So now instead of all the forms and our addictions to them being a problem, they’re all empty, and the addictions are themselves empty, and the energy is workable and becomes our direct contact with our own beginningless enlightenment. The thing is, tantra (of itself) would still be a dead end, if it’s fruit – nonduality – where not achieved. It still tries to tease apart form and emptiness, this time with impassioned curiosity about each and every form that arises from emptiness.

    I like to think of it as being asked to smoke the whole box of cigars that you were previously admonished to renounce. The end is a kind of sickness, a sickness which results in a death, a death that it is necessary to (illusorily) experience to approach the singularity of non-dual experience. Renunciation alone doesn’t kill our illusion, and I wouldn’t say that transformation alone does it either. It’s the discovery of a single taste, a cosmic blandness of practice experience that experientially tears apart the split up parts of a practitioner so much so that nothing and nobody is left.

    “Who says Tantra is dead?”

    This morning I am receiving this question I once heard asked asked about a poem I wrote as a transmission. It’s a really good “catalyst” question, meaning that rushing to answer it completely misses the point, whereas staying in the luminous space of this question eventually has it’s way with us. I think I am just getting it this morning.

    I’ve heard it said that a dzogchen practitioner is free to practice renunciation and transformation according to the instruction of their Lama. So while I find myself quite naturally and habitually inclined towards a straight regimen of tantra, I have Lamas reflecting to me the vital necessity of my practicing renunciation. This of course is very frustrating for the form-obsessed tantrika that I define myself as sometimes, but I think the Lamas know exactly what they are doing. For me, renouncing is my completion of tantra. It sort of makes sense. As long as tantra holds out on the strategy of appreciating and never renouncing, it fails to discover the “appreciation” of renunciation, and how it strangely closes some doors, but possibly opens up infinitely many others.

  2. It’s so interesting to read your account of tantra (even if it is just “David’s confused ideas”), because I realize how close my own view already is to the tantric perspective. For example, I do take the Four Noble Truths to be saying something important and true. Perhaps unusually among Theravada-minded practitioners, however, I don’t see that as in any way being a flaw in the world – I have always taken it that the flaw is in my way of relating to the world. So I have always thought that whatever work needing doing was to bring my perspective into alignment with how things are, not to try to cut myself free from the cloth of the world.

    But then again, I do think that there is some work needing doing, and from your presentation (so far), that is a misguided notion, from a tantric perspective. I’m looking forward to further installments.

  3. Enjoying learning about the tantric perspective through your blog. Another common misunderstanding seems to be that tantra is a form of sex therapy. I don’t know how that came about. Maybe more wishful thinking?
    ~ Paul

  4. ‘Tantra as a form of sex therapy’ may demonstrate that a culture gets the religion it deserves [or that is congruent with its style of confusion].

  5. @ Sengchen Dra-tsal — Thanks, that’s interesting. I too tend to make the mistake of overlooking the value of the sutrayana approach, in situations where it’s the right way to go.

    @ James — Yes, it’s possible to reinterpret the Four Noble Truths from a tantric perspective, starting by taking them as statements about experience rather than the world. (Jayarava Attwood—who is not a tantrika—has argued cogently that this was actually the original intent of the Pali scriptures, and the later Theravada interpretation is an error.)

    I do think that there is some work needing doing, and from your presentation (so far), that is a misguided notion, from a tantric perspective.

    I’m afraid I’ve given a misimpression; maybe some change is needed in my text…

    There’s always infinite work to do! Tantra is about passionate engagement with the world, connection and interaction and intervention.

    What you don’t need to do is work to become a Buddha… it’s too late for that. You already are one!

    Now that you know you are a Buddha… what would you like to engage with, as a Buddha?

    @ Resting In Awareness — This arises out of a misunderstanding of Western sexual tantra. (I’ve written a little about Western sexual tantra and its second-cousin relationship with Buddhist tantra here.)

    Tantra, of all sorts, has functional prerequisites. These aren’t arbitrary, magical, or institutional prerequisites (although those also exist). They are life-skills you have to have before the practices of tantra will work. If you don’t have them, the practices just don’t function, and are likely to cause trouble instead.

    In Buddhist tantra, those prerequisites are called “the base.” If you are not at the base, then there are practices you can do to get there. These are called “ngöndro” (which means “goes before” in Tibetan—they go before tantra).

    For Western sexual tantra, two aspects of the base are a good personal relationship and high normal sexual functioning. If you don’t have those, its practices don’t work, and will probably actually screw up your relationship and your normal sexual functioning.

    Unfortunately, many of the people who want to practice Western sexual tantra are not at its base. Their relationship has communication problems, and/or they have sexual function problems like premature ejaculation or anorgasmia. So the ngöndro is exercises that help sort those out. Those include, essentially, sex therapy.

    Newcomers to Western sexual tantra are likely to be exposed mainly to the ngöndro, because they are not at the base, and the actual practice is not accessible to them.

    Hence the misimpression that tantra is New Age sex therapy.

  6. Urk. God, that’s awful.

    I guess I potentially have a lot to say about this, but I’m sure every possible angle on it will be discussed exhaustively by the Buddhist rumor mill over the next year, so there’s probably no need.

    To address what is perhaps the direct point in your comment: yes, there’s a huge amount of magical thinking in traditional tantra; and yes it can have disastrous consequences, up to and including death.

    I hope that “reinvention” projects will, in part, involve dropping a lot of that stuff. (As in fact the 1970s-80s projects did, to some extent.)

  7. I hope that you are correct . . .but the Vajradhatu “reinvention” project of the 70s-80s was also fatal for some of the people involved. I wasn’t there in those years, but based on my experience with the community over the last dozen years my sense is that the human wreckage was vast and that only a fraction of the story has been told. The “controversial” 20% of it that is public knowledge is just a small fraction of the story.

  8. @David:
    Oh no, I think that what you’ve written is just fine. I didn’t really put out the rest of my thought. I meant to say that I feel like there is work needing doing on the perception of having a separate, independent self. But I still don’t understand tantra and its approach to things fully. Like I said, I’m looking forward to further posts in this vein! :)

  9. “Urk. God, that’s awful.

    I guess I potentially have a lot to say about this, but I’m sure every possible angle on it will be discussed exhaustively by the Buddhist rumor mill over the next year, so there’s probably no need.”

    I hope you will “something say” about “devotion”– because that seems the keystone in the Babel Tower that such a sad story exemplifies. I see a lot of very traditional defense of the rather undiscriminating understanding of the word; and I see a lot of horrified reaction to such stories that totally rejects the possibility of any authority being worthy. I’ve been close to both fires, and any shared clarity would be most welcome.

  10. Well… I’d really like to avoid the whole group of issues around teacher/student dysfunction, because it’s so emotionally charged and sensationalized, and has been argued endlessly in circles in Buddhist forums and blogs and zines.

    Alas, I don’t think I can get away with saying nothing. I do have a possible small insight, which is an analogy with the PhD student/advisor relationship in Western universities. So I will write a page about that, at least. In short, that’s a relationship that is unavoidably asymmetrical and prone to abuse; but there’s no other way of producing competent independent researchers, so we accept it, and find ways to deal with the problems as best as possible.

    My mother is on the board of her Unitarian Universalist church. She’s recently had to deal with a somewhat similar issue of sexual misconduct by a minister. She and I have talked through the issues some. The Tibetan ideology of devotion exacerbates the issue somewhat, but basically it’s all the same problems, whether it’s Unitarianism or Buddhism. Or misconduct by a PhD thesis advisor, or…

  11. Wow, we were about to embark on an adventurous discussion of the wild, sexy, modern, world of Buddhist tantra, so distinct from and pointedly contrasted with the milieu of the square, tight-assed Theravada, and already we are shying away from the “emotionally charged and sensationalized?”

    With all due respect to your mother, I wonder if she was threatened with an eternity in vajra hell for “dealing with a somewhat similar issue of sexual misconduct by a minister” in the Unitarian Universalist church.

  12. Well, the question is whether it is feasible to have a discussion that contains any light, or if it is to be all heat. Also, whether this is the time and place to do it.

    Tantra doesn’t reject intense emotions, but it doesn’t value them for their own sake, either. Having a vituperative screaming match is not tantric—it’s passionate but not spacious. It’s also just pointless and unpleasant. Having a discussion in which strong feelings are presented in an atmosphere of mutual respect—that can be a great thing. I have lots of experience of that (mostly from my graduate student days). It’s unusual to find it online, though.

    I’m not sure whether I, personally, have any light to add to the teacher/student dysfunction topic. That is, I’m not sure I have any insight beyond what is already commonly held.

    I don’t want to get into the topic now, for that reason, and because it’s off-topic here. However, it sounds like you are just bursting to say something. If you feel you just have to do that, maybe you should go ahead. In the unlikely event that I think it’s seriously problematic, I’ll remove it. (There have only been a very few cases in which I’ve deleted comments from any of my sites.) More likely I’ll suggest that we leave the topic for now, until I’ve posted a relevant page.

  13. I’ll grant that inferring tone from the comments of blog post is fraught at best. But I certainly wouldn’t characterize this as a “vituperative screaming match,” and to the extent that I can evaluate my own state of mind, I would not say that it is governed by the wanton indulgence of intense emotions.

    That said, given that by any measure the guru *is* the tantric path, I don’t see how you can dismiss discussion of the “teacher/student dysfunction ” as an unwelcome distraction.

  14. I’m very sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you had been vituperative. Not at all. Rather, my experience has been that this topic tends to lead to unproductive shouting matches, because it’s highly polarized, with both sides being (it seems to me) dug into unreasonable, extreme positions. I suspect Kate was alluding to this, and that she hopes for middle ground. As do I.

    I think that a personal teacher is indispensable for tantra; I’ve said that in several recent comments. “The guru *is* the tantric path” is a traditional way of saying that, and it’s true in some sense. However, it’s probably not a helpful way of putting it, outside of in particular contexts. (Namely, those in which a strong teacher/student relationship has already been established.)

    So I do think this is off-topic, and I suggest we postpone discussion until I write a post on the subject.

  15. No worries – I would not bother to comment if I did not believe you to be thoughtful enough to engage in an open, civil discussion, and I hope that I have contributed enough to the discussion that you can safely credit me with the wherewithal to do the same. Honestly, at this point I do not bother to attempt dialogue on the internet except in places where I have some sense that it is worthwhile. Generally speaking, although I certainly don’t always agree with you, this blog strikes me as a rare place where critical thinking about Vajrayana Buddhism is happening.

    >>probably not a helpful way of putting it, outside of in particular contexts.

    I think that is part of the problem. I don’t think that it is very helpful for there to be one way of “putting it” for the benefit of beginners and the uninitiated, and another way of putting it after “a strong teacher/student relationship has already been established.” Because there is no sense in which it is not true that the guru-disciple relationship is the crux of the vajrayana path. Unless you are proposing some sort of yet-to-be-articulated revisioning.

  16. @ David
    “. . . Thanks, that’s interesting. I too tend to make the mistake of overlooking the value of the sutrayana approach, in situations where it’s the right way to go.”

    Me too. :-)

  17. @Kate – while you wait on that hope that David says something about devotion, I thought I would share something that has been clarifying for me. I heard my teacher say that you can’t experience devotion unless you practice.

    In that sense practice *is* devotion. It’s in that way that you learn exactly where the Lama *is*. Without practice, all you can do is point to some long-haired person with robes on that lots of people admire and for which you might believe that a hugely visible display of sycophantic behavior might express enough ‘devotion’ which is (supposedly) ‘good’.

    There are outer, inner and secret experiences of devotion. The outer is just following instructions and suggestions *as if* you viewed the person providing them to possibly be an enlightened being before your very eyes. Its relevant to point out that this view is principally method, and not a question of truth. It seems to me that for practitioners that never go beyond the outer experience of devotion, that of itself might be a sign that a certain degree of practice is not being engaged in, or simply not working for that person (probably proof that the method employed is currently inappropriate).

    Beyond the outer experience, there comes the inner devotion when you are able to realize the meditational experience (yidam) that the Lama (yidam) empowers you to experience. If the outer devotion is “I practice the Lama”, the inner devotion is “the Lama practices me”. Reasonably enough, the secret devotion is when the inner and outer devotions merge, and you can go clean your toilets and experience ordinariness in its totality as a method of accomplishment.

    Or go stark raving mad. It’s legendarily an unavoidable danger of the steep free climb ascent on non dual experience. Personally that makes sense to me. Dualized being can really hold a grudge on this attempt to murder it, and might just lock your mind up in a cycle of insanity as a desperation move to save it-‘self’. I think that’s why it seems reasonable to spend many years deciding if you are really at the ground of this kind of an approach, and regretfully there are people that start the climb long before they have that certainty, and the rocks beneath them are jagged indeed . . .

  18. Hmmm…had comments to make on the article itself but would like to firstly about the comments exchange that it is possible to engage in a one-sided vituperative correpsondence productively. That possibility arises from ‘reciprocal’ one-sided good-humour. More often than not, an agreement occurs where seriousness and jocularity are dissolved in a ‘solution’ of laughter.

    Which brings me to the good news about the bad news of ‘there are no solutions’.
    The meaning of the word ‘solution’ seems to have been tied to the word ‘problem’ since Mathematics staged a coup on Science, some time back. ‘Solutions’, in this sense are to problems in the sense of ‘unsolved equations’.
    Reject this sense. Dissolve everything! ;-)

  19. Here’s a random question: is ‘spirituality’ itself a Western/Judeo-Christian/Cartesian Dualist concept that was added by Westerners to try to translate Buddhist and Daoist cosmologies into something Westerners could wrap their minds around?

    And similarly, have the 4 Noble Truths, the 8-Fold Path, the Paramitas, etc. been warped to conform to the salvational religion that colors our worldview. Seems to me that there’s a way of seeing these doctrines as ‘findings of fact’ in the subjective sciences that developed in Asia– e.g., ‘dukkha’ is not Buddhist Murphy’s Law, but an observation about how human beings tend to engage in their lives.

    Maybe all of Buddhism and Daoism are ‘not-spiritual’– but that’s one of those ‘head-explode’ things we don’t say in the West.

  20. I think that to say everyone is a Buddha is an exaguration. It might make sense to more people if it was said that everyone has the potential to be a force multiplyer for the forces of truth and justice.

  21. Resting In Awareness — Thank you very much!

    The Hammer and the Pickle — Exaggeration… Hmm… Since there is no widely-accepted definition of what a Buddha is, “everyone is a Buddha” is neither true nor false. It’s an attitude, which may be useful or harmful depending on the context. One way it may be useful is in getting you to let go of metaphysical aims. Then you could, for example, promote factual truth and this-world justice, instead.

  22. What is “widely”? In my experience the idea that Buddhas are like God lite, industrucible beings which had a beginning sometime in the very distant past but will never cease existing until they chose to cease existing, who have knowledge light years ahead of 21st century mankind, and have great powers but for one reason or another perahaps not as great as those of Allah or Jehowah, and very importantly that they are concerned with the welfare of all sentient beings, IS WIDE SPREAD.. Although I understand that my idea that such a view of a Buddha is widespread may be a confused idea of my own.
    If it is true that such a view of a Buddha is widespread then I can imagine that such an understanding might be harmful for some perhaps even many people. On the other hand
    if people were to believe that they such being actually exist and that they are being watched by them would that result in any harm? What about if people beileved that such beings may actually at times could actually aid people in deatling with the adversity, although they should not count on it? Would that harm people? Of course fate can cut both ways. But it could coldly be explained that since the Buddhas are very good with probabilities they would not save a loved one because if they did that would set in motion a chain of events that would kill 500 million people in 50 years.
    To me such an explination has the advantage of quickly expalining why bad things happen which, were beyond human control, While giving humans hope that they are not alone. That there are other sentient beings who can say I have been there and done that and have blazed a trial farther in to the wilderness.
    Of course the objection might be made by some people that unless these Buddhas deliver us clear and unambigous intstructions that are verifiable by everyone on earth they are no better
    than the wizards from Oz or from The Hobbit or from Hogwarts Academy. I think that such an objection could be answered by saying that if the Buddhas were to do that they would be robbing us of our plantary independence, damaging our longer term education and potential capabilities,
    and hogging the credit for when when things go right. If I remember something that I read correctly a Buddha never accepts credit for the things that go right and always accepts the blame for when things go wrong. So IF the Buddhas did ever mix themselves up in human affairs ti would have to be in a very ambiguous way so that they had plausible deniablity.

  23. Mmm… this sounds like a sky-gods theory of Buddhas.

    I think sky gods are bollocks. I don’t think there are any.

    My impression is that most American Buddhists would agree with that. However, many of them practice Buddhisms whose stated purpose is to turn you into a sky god.

    There’s a disconnect there.

    Of course, to anyone who genuinely believes that there are sky gods, and that someday they may become one… good luck.

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