Human beings naturally care passionately about the specifics of our situations.
The tantric attitude is that there are no wrong emotions. A whole person has a full 360-degree spectrum of passions, rejecting none. All feelings are fine as they are.
Furthermore, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the world. Abandoning it for some “spiritual realm” is not an option. So caring about it is only right.
Passions take you out of yourself; they are about other people, situations, and things. That “aboutness” prompts you to connect with the world. We want to change things; there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the universe, but specific circumstances can be improved. It is active connections that makes the world “workable.”
Connections are created, maintained, and ended by effective, accurate activity. Passion drives effectiveness; spaciousness provides accuracy.
As a connection deepens, it passes through stages of appreciation, communication, interaction, involvement, and intervention.
Connections go both ways. Specific, concrete, messy, practical reality makes claims on us. It calls us into action—like it or not. Connection implies commitment, collaboration, and responsiveness.
Tantra has much more to say about all that. But, some might object: isn’t this just obvious?
Is tantra different?
Everything I have said so far may sound familiar. It may sound like common sense. It may sound just like other brands of Buddhism you know. So what’s the big deal?
The short answer is that passionate, active connection was rejected by most traditional Buddhisms. However, it’s so highly valued in the secular West that Consensus Buddhism—based on Theravada and Zen—has tried to incorporate it.
This seems to me an uneasy fit. I’ll suggest that tantra may be a better starting point for modern Buddhism, because its fundamental values are closer to modern ones.
Theravada: connection is bondage
Thanissaro Bikkhu’s “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism” provides key insights:
Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha’s teachings but from … Western psychology, through which the Buddha’s words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the Dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture…
For humanistic psychology … religious experience is a direct feeling, rather than the discovery of objective truths. The essential feeling is a oneness overcoming all inner and outer divisions.
However, [according to] the Dharma … the ultimate religious experience, Awakening, is something else entirely. It is described, not in terms of feeling, but of knowledge: skillful mastery of the principles of causality underlying actions and their results, followed by direct knowledge of the dimension beyond causality where all suffering stops.
Humanistic psychology maintains that … the enlightened person is marked by an enlarged, fluid sense of self, unencumbered by moral rigidity. Guided primarily by what feels right in the context of interconnectedness, one negotiates with ease — like a dancer — the roles and rhythms of life.
Traditional Dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. The Dharma teaches that … the awakened person … is incapable of transgressing the basic principles of morality. Such a person … knows from direct experience the total release from time and space [i.e. “the world”] that will happen at death.
David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, a major influence on this blog series, points out that:
The Pali suttas [the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism] arose out of an ascetic milieu that viewed family, reproduction, physical pleasures, material success, and worldly life as ultimately futile, disappointing, and binding… Far from being celebrated as a wondrous web of interconnected life, [the world] is repeatedly referred to as a “mass of suffering.” … Pali literature encourages the disengagement from all entanglements in this web. (p. 154; emphasis in original)
Connection in Mahayana
Thanissaro is a Theravadin, and therefore does not discuss the Mahayana scriptures. McMahan discusses some that do give Buddhist grounds for valuing interconnection positively. These seem to have had little influence in India, whose Mahayana was largely anti-world. However, they were important in China, where connections with family, state, and nature were highly valued.
Primary among these sutras is the Avatamsaka, which describes Indra’s Net: a magical web that connects every being in the universe with every other one. Buddhist modernizers have often retold this story as the scriptural foundation for their ideas about interconnection.
However, the Avatamsaka concept of interconnection is mystical and passive. Everything is uniformly connected to everything else by unexplained magic that has no practical consequences. This is quite different from the specific, active connections created in tantra. Further, as McMahan notes, Mahayana “cannot be interpreted as wholly world-affirming” (p. 159). It values withdrawal and recommends eliminating “negative” emotions.
Compassion vs. passions
Here it will be useful to contrast compassion, the highest value of Mahayana, with passion, which is valued in Tantra.
Compassion is a nice emotion. In Mahayana, you are supposed to cultivate nice emotions and get rid of the nasty ones. Tantra celebrates all emotions. Compassion has no special status.
Compassion is about having good intentions. Tantra is not interested in that. Good intentions pave the road to mediocrity, self-righteousness, and irrelevance. Tantra cares about effective action, not socially-acceptable sentiments.
Compassion is weak. Mahayana sends the bodhisattva—translated as “awakened warrior” in Tibetan—into battle armed only with the paramitas. In the war against samara, the paramitas are a nerf gun. Tantra is about power and mastery, and has numerous methods for accomplishing change.
Compassion is about the magical fantasy of “saving all sentient beings”—in some distant metaphysical future. Tantra is about reality now.
The paramitas are moralistic. They are about what you ought to feel. I find the Mahayana ethical framework tiresomely pious and prissy.
Tantra is ethically neutral. Its methods are not inherently good or bad; they may have good or bad effects.
Effective action is often not nice. It may face opposition. The word “intervention” might be off-putting; it might sound “un-Buddhist.” It may be blunt; even violent and destructive.
That does not mean tantric Buddhists should be amoral. It means you need to get your ethics from somewhere else. Traditionally, tantrikas took theirs from Mahayana. Personally, I prefer contemporary Western secular ethics.
Thanissaro and McMahan both argue that modern Buddhism’s pro-world, pro-emotions, pro-connection values come not from traditional Buddhist sources, but from the Romantic movement of the 1800s. Romanticism was a rebellion against the rationalism of the European Enlightenment, and the “disenchantment of the world” in the wake of technological understanding. Although the movement is largely forgotten, its ideas remain extremely influential, for example via therapeutic psychology and the New Age.
Thus interdependence in this [Romantic] iteration assumes a significance nearly opposite that of the early Pali account. Far from a chain of causes and effects binding beings to rebirth in a world of suffering, today’s interdependence implies a sacred matrix of mutual communality… (p. 172)
…the historian must ask whether this Buddhism-inspired articulation of interdependence—in its contemporary forms, with its infusion of western ideas and practices and its sometimes radical reinterpretation of traditional doctrines—is really Buddhist. (p. 177)
Although I was initially skeptical, the more I’ve read about Romanticism, the more I’m convinced that Thanissaro and McMahan are right. Much of what is now considered “Buddhism” is actually recycled early-1800s German academic philosophy.
Still, the Romantic concept of connection, like the Mahayana one, is mystical and uniform, and therefore passive. “All is One,” so specifics are irrelevant. The goal is to experience the Oneness and groove on it, not to do anything useful.
“Engaged Buddhism” is a modern response to the problem of Mahayana passivity. It reinterprets Indra’s Net in terms of economics and ecology. This is a positive step: those are specific, real connections, not uniform imaginary ones. Engaged Buddhism also says that compassion demands action, promoting economic justice and ecological awareness.
Still, I find Engaged Buddhism fatally flawed. First, Buddhism has almost nothing to say about economics or ecology. If you want to know about those, read an economics or ecology textbook; you won’t learn anything from Buddhist texts. Engaged Buddhism has to constantly invent “what the Buddha would have said” about them.
Second, Engaged Buddhism inherits Mahayana’s weakness. Engaged Buddhism is all about having good intentions; it mainly fails to take effective action.
Petteri Sulonen has written a brilliant analysis of this failure. I’ll have more to say about the ineffectuality of Mahayana when I write about the early history of tantra. Tantra originally developed as a response to that limitation. But Sulonen nails the present version of the problem.
Tantra as a source for modern Buddhisms
My one criticism of McMahan’s book is that he doesn’t know much about tantra. He often says that something-or-other is not found in traditional Buddhism, so it must be a modern Western innovation. Usually he’s right, but some of these things are found in traditional Buddhist tantra.
Tantra has had a significant influence on mainstream Western Buddhism—the “Consensus”—mainly via Chögyam Trungpa’s work in the 1970s and ’80s. To the extent that Consensus Buddhism values passionate connection, it may be as much due to tantra as Romanticism. Since the Consensus is anti-tantra, the history of this inheritance is as hidden as the Romantic one.
I suggest that tantra’s central values are closer to those of the contemporary West than Mahayana’s—and especially Theravada’s. Tantra’s values may even be closer, for practical Westerners, than Romanticism.
Romanticism (and its descendant, the psychotherapeutic world-view) consider that emotions are inherently meaningful, and superior to reason as a path of understanding. This can produce pathological inwardness, and wallowing in feelings, which leads nowhere.
Tantra values emotions as tools, but does not consider them inherently meaningful. It leads out, not in.
Unlike Romanticism, and much current spirituality, tantra is not anti-rational. Unlike certain other Western trends, it doesn’t worship reason, either. Tantra sees reasoning, too, as useful tool, not an end in itself.