Passionate connections

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.

Buddhist Romanticism

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.

McMahan writes:

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

“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.


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

43 thoughts on “Passionate connections”

  1. The fundamental problem with Tantra, as always, is that it is a guru-centric system. No gurus, no system of practice (or no lineage and no empowerment, rather). Looking around, I’m not seeing a lot of tantric teachers. How do you propose that the problem gets solved?

    In contrast, Vipassana (which is Theravadan) and Zen, for example, have worked around this pretty well by training up many many teachers and focusing on shamatha and vipassana practice, which is fairly straightforward to teach and doesn’t require much space, accoutrements, etc. in order to learn. I can go to just about any major American city and find a Zen group, often with a fully recognized (and trained) teacher. I know from personal experience that this isn’t the case for Vajrayana.

  2. Hmm. Yes, that’s definitely a real problem. If it were the worst problem with Tantra, I’d say we were in really good shape, however! :-)

    I don’t see an in-principle difficulty with this. (Do you?) The scarcity of teachers of tantra seems like an accident, due partly to Tibetan/Japanese cultural issues, and partly to lack of demand. I think you are somewhat unusual in the persistence with which you’ve pursued the matter. I hope to help create greater demand by increasing understanding and awareness… Maybe that’s just making things worse, though!

    The further reaches of tantra probably do require a teacher who has trained full-time for many years. But there’s quite a lot that can be taught by those with less experience. Not all the practices are complicated, and not all the concepts difficult.

    Tibet didn’t have a category of “assistant teachers” or “paraprofessional Lamas” (as far as I know). However, many Tibetan Buddhist groups have created such positions in the West.

  3. Yes… I hope I haven’t said that I think Tantra is a better approach, outright. I think it’s a better approach overall, for some people. For any particular person, it will probably appeal in some ways and repel in others. As will every system, probably.

    Tantra has pointy bits—it’s the vajra approach, and a vajra has spikes. You need to approach it with some care. It’s not for everyone; it’s not comfortable. It requires more commitment than American Zen or vipassana. (But much less commitment, actually, than those required in Asia 50 years ago.)

  4. It seems that in Tantric Hinduism, there are so-called “householder” practices that don’t require a guru. This might be true for Vajrayana as well. For example, Green Tara practice may be guided but it’s something that those with no experience can jump into.

  5. “Engaged Buddhism”. Right – that’s exactly the problem.

    The most functional vehicle for all the social/political/environment engagement would be Vajrayana. It’s not BETTER. Not objectively, or anything. But it is what would work.

    If Engaged Buddhism is founded in Theravada or Mahayana, then it can’t function appropriately, as least theoretically.

    Social/political/environmental activism and engagement require people to do many different, and sometimes dangerous and complicated, activities all at the same time. Many of these activities — whether someone is going through the political/judicial systems, engaging in civil disobedience, doing neighborhood organizing, or whatever — would be the antithesis of an ideal environment for either renunciative Buddhism or lovey-dovey-we’re-all-one-connectedness Buddhism.

    Tantra theoretically THRIVES in chaotic, dangerous environments.

    The world is becoming less stable; more precarious.

    Tantra is, at least theoretically, what is appropriate for where we are headed . . . I think.

    Thank you, David, for posting again.

  6. @ Chris — Good point. Yes, there are many such practices that in Tibet were taught by parents to children, or knowledgeable lay people to others. On the other hand, they don’t necessarily have the functions that I find most valuable in tantra. On the third hand, though, they’re at least similar in form, and probably a useful starting point, even if they are not the main event.

    @ View & Veracity — You have a good point that Vajrayana’s social structure and pragmatic attitude could make it more effective as a basis for activism. Petteri Sulonen argues that we should be suspicious of any religion-based do-good project, however. What do you think of that?

  7. Vajrayana *is* Mahayana

    Well… this isn’t a fact; it’s one way of looking at it. It’s the way you look at Vajrayana from the perspective of Mahayana: as a collection of esoteric methods for accomplishing the aims of Mahayana. Many people teach it that way.

    But from the perspective of the Inner Tantras, Vajrayana is a separate yana, and is not a division or extension of Mahayana. Many people teach it that way, and it’s the view I prefer. According to that description, Vajrayana has a different base, a different path, and a different result. From this perspective, they are nearly opposites:

    • The base for Mahayana is revulsion for samsara. The base for Vajrayana is being comfortable with emptiness; and from that point of view samsara is just fine.
    • The path of Mahayana is renunciation (according to Vajrayana, anyway). Vajrayana is about enjoyment and involvement, so it points in the opposite direction from renunciation. Its path is the unclogging of energy (a/k/a “transformation”), which is not discussed in Mahayana.
    • The result of Mahayana is the realization of emptiness. That is the base for Vajrayana (which is why practicing Mahayana first may be a good idea). The result for Vajrayana is the non-duality of bliss, clarity, and emptiness (or, at least, that’s one formulation of it).

    “Mahayana” covers an extraordinary diversity of systems, so this may not apply to specific ones. It might be a caricature. I think it’s a pretty reasonable description of Mahayana in India at the time Tantra formed, and a pretty reasonable description of Mahayana in Tibet up to the present. It might not cover Zen, for example (much less Pure Land Buddhisms).

    On the other hand, Zen describes itself as “a special transmission outside the sutras”, and I gather there’s been significant influence on it from tantra. So maybe it isn’t exactly Mahayana any longer.

    On the third hand, one definitely wouldn’t say that Vajrayana was Zen…

  8. I’ve read a fair amount of the literature, Tibetan and otherwise, and been around plenty of teachers and I’ve never heard Vajrayana as being described as separate from the Mahayana. Yes, it is its own yana but it is within the Mahayana path of the Bodhisattvas. It is a series of methods within the Mahayana. I’ve heard this from Tibetan teachers, such as Thrangu Rinpoche, as well as others. Additionally, outside of Tibet, you will find Shingon and Tendai, for example, presented as tantric vehicles within the overall Mahayana tradition.

    What teachers specifically speak about it as something other than this?

    As to your bulleted list above, I know that the contents of that don’t really apply to Chinese Zen or any of the Zen schools derived from it, nor a number of the other Chinese schools. Limiting your discussion to Buddhism in India is a kind of straw man, though I don’t think you’re doing it as sophistry as I assume genuine intent on your part (as I know you). :-)

  9. Reblogged this on Beyond Meds and commented:
    I’ve “reblogged” from this David Chapman’s blog before. It consistently hits the nail on the head for me. And sometimes articulates things that are only beginning to bubble forth in me. I love that it helps inform my own understanding of the nature of reality. (click through on the

  10. @Al Jingong Billings
    Re: “The fundamental problem with Tantra, as always, is that it is a guru-centric system”
    Just the other day, I heard a teacher with Kagyu background saying Zen was ‘too focused on the teacher’. I assumed he was referring to Rinzai Zen and it’s focus on Koan training. I think it’s hard to make generalizations, because no two practitioners and no two teachers are the same.

  11. It isn’t a generalization, Marie. You *cannot* practice Tantra without training by a guru who can transmit empowerments. No teacher, no training, period. You can’t learn tantra from a book and, by its own rules, you can’t learn it from someone who hasn’t been blessed in such a way to teach it. If that Kagyu teacher is teaching tantra to members of the public, they’ve spent years being trained, probably gone on a three year retreat, and then been given official recognition as a lama before they were ever allowed to instruct others in tantra.

    In comparison, one can learn vipassana, shamatha, or other forms of meditation from people who are simply decent meditation practitioners. You can go to any decent sized city and find a meditation teacher. Can you do the same for tantra? I know, for a fact, that you can’t. Empowered tantric teachers are few and far between and ones that will work as the guru of an individual person are even rarer, once you find one at all.

  12. @David
    Yeah – I’m not saying there should be religion-based do-gooding.

    Religions should make sane people.

    Sane people naturally would do what they could for those other people, animals, and places to whom they felt empathetically (I hate the word “empathically”; we don’t say “sympathically”) connected.

    I’m saying that the LAST people a newbie like me would expect to see getting MORE INVOLVED in the (oh so wicked and entangling) world are people who have entered into a system which is founded upon staying away from worldly entanglements.

    Like there’s this fire raging all around, and people are getting sucked into the inferno because the back-draft or thermal undertow or whatever is so strong . . . so naturally, coming up with the strategy of “Run away from the fire!” is a good first step.

    But if you make a system out of all the ways one could and should run away from the fire, then it seems either ODD or GREAT to innovate to “Let’s get involved with this fire. Let’s work with it to improve the situation for everyone.”

    ODD if you are not at all prepared.

    GREAT if you are.

    Are these Engaged Buddhists properly equipped to go into these situations and not forget that they are practitioners? When an “extractor” is putting a tree-sitter in a pain/submission hold, or breaking their thumbs in order to get them out of a tree; or a bunch of Buddhist “Fracktivists” are getting pepper sprayed and having their ribs broken by batons, are these Buddhists still practicing Renunciation from hatred, anger, etc.?

    Could one enter into violent situations and hold one’s vows?

    It seems to me that one should have proper training before trying to work with a raging fire.

    Forest fire fighters make firebreaks by SETTING fires. They fight fire with fire – smartly AND tenaciously. Tantra, right?

    A bunch of people who have been running away suddenly deciding to turn around and charge, unprepared, back into the blaze would not help. It would probably only add to the flames.

    Even if they tried to adopt a Transformative technique like fighting fire with precisely placed fire of one’s own, most would probably not have the training or intuition to properly apply fire breaks – and they just might end up starting EVEN MORE FIRES.

    I want the people who are good at fighting fires to do so with all their might/cleverness, and I want the people who are not good at fighting fires to get the hell out of the way and quit joy-riding the firetruck all over town trying to impress the kids with the dalmatian, damn it :-)

  13. Hi Al,

    Unfortunately, I’m in Britain for a couple months and therefore 6000 miles from my books, so I can’t give as good an answer as I’d like. Based on the little research I’ve been able to do, there seems to be an ambiguity in the term “Mahayana” that I was not aware of. On one interpretation, you are quite right.

    What I can say definitely is that the Nyingma teach Tantra as being separate from Bodhisattvayana, the bodhisattva path. In many places, that is equated with Mahayana. However, in other places, “Mahayana” is indeed used to include Tantra as well. (That surprises me, because it makes little sense, and because I hadn’t noticed this in my reading of Nyingma sources before.)

    A concise discussion of Mahayana as non-tantric is in, for example, Namkhai Norbu’s Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State. On page xiii of the Introduction, which lays out the yanas, Mahayana, “the vehicle of the bodhisattvas,” is the third yana. The tantric yanas are the fourth through ninth, and are clearly not included in Mahayana. His Chapter Two, pp. 15ff, contrasts in detail the paths of renunciation (which he identifies as Hinayana and Mahayana) with the paths of transformation (Tantrayana).

    The most important thing, in my opinion, is that the Inner Tantric scriptures explicitly contrast themselves with the bodhisattva path; they describe themselves as separate from, superior to, and often opposed to it. Many go out of their way to stomp and spit on everything Mahayana holds sacred. For example, they recommend systematically violating all the Mahayana ethical principles. “Bodhicitta” in these tantras means “semen.” They are big on cannibalism, murder, and indiscriminate sex. This probably wasn’t meant seriously, but it does draw a sharp rhetorical contrast with Mahayana.

    A source I have here on my laptop is Nathaniel Garson’s PhD thesis, Penetrating the Secret Essence Tantra: Context and Philosophy in the Mahayoga System of rNying-ma Tantra.

    Garson discusses an authoritative explanation of the yanas by Lochen Dharmashri. (This was also the basis of the yana discussion in the introduction to the Namkhai Norbu book and in Düdjom Rinpoche’s encyclopedia, which shows its high repute among the Nyingma.) Lochen Dharmashri explains that Tantra has fundamentally different principles from Sutra (= Hinayana + Mahayana, according to Namkhai Norbu), and explains why it is superior (in his opinion). If you read this bit, “Sutra vs. Tantra”, Garson’s pp. 93 ff., you’ll recognize quite a few of the themes I’m writing about here. The following section, “Inner versus Outer Tantra” gets into Mahayoga.

    The Secret Essence Tantra (the most important Mahayoga text) enumerates five yanas (vehicles):

    … the vehicle of Gods and Humans [= Hinduism], the vehicle of the Hearers [Shravakayana], the vehicle of the Solitary Realizers [= Pratyekabuddhayana, or Hinayana more-or-less], the Vehicle of the Bodhisattvas [Mahayana], and the Highest Vehicle [Tantra]…. As for all of those, they are the [teachings about] subjects and objects [in Hinduism], inner and outer dependent arisings, that the subject is mistakenly imputed [anatman], the incontrovertibility of the cause and effect of actions [karma in Mahayana], and so forth. The final teaching was that [we are] not stained by the cause and effect of actions; we will not be stained, and there is no staining. (Garson p. 68)

    Note that the Highest Vehicle is separate from the Vehicle of the Bodhisattvas. This is usual throughout Inner/Highest Tantra.

    Note also that the distinguishing feature of the Highest Vehicle is a rejection of karmic ethics (“not stained by the cause and effect of actions”). This is explained by Lochen Dharmashri, with contrast to bodhisattvayana, on Garson’s p. 70.

    This discussion in terms of karma is not the only way of sharply distinguishing Mahayana and Tantra. It does, however, explain why tantra is sometimes taught as being part of Mahayana.

    The Geluk School was founded on the principle that tantra is extremely dangerous and has to be kept under tight control. To whom is it dangerous? To be a bit cynical, mainly it is dangerous to the monastic bureaucratic theocracy. Tantra empowers individuals, which is the last thing an oppressive bureaucracy wants. On the other hand, the bureaucrats didn’t want to ban tantra altogether, because they wanted to be able to deploy its power for their own ends.

    If tantra were super-advanced Mahayana, then only the most elite monks would be qualified to practice it; and this is what the Gelukpas say. Also, if it super-advanced Mahayana, then its ethics must be compatible with Mahayana ethics, no matter what the scriptures actually say.

    Due to the overwhelming political dominance of the Gelukpas, even some Nyingma Lamas will go along with this, at least in public. (Generally, the Nyingmas are the least willing to knuckle under to Gelukpa orthodoxy.) Lamas of the other two schools seem mainly to do a polite waffle and fudge the issue, to avoid trouble.

    There are other reasons to teach tantra as part of Mahayana. (1) Tantra emerged out of Mahayana, gradually. (2) Outer Tantra (which includes the scriptures on which Shingon is based) is largely compatible with Mahayana. There’s no clear break, so there’s no particular reason to separate it, except in retrospect. (3) For many or most people, it is useful to practice Mahayana in some depth before going seriously into Tantra.

    On this basis, however, one might as well say that Mahayana is part of Hinayana. According to myth, at least, Mahayana emerged gradually out of Hinayana [not Theravada, which is a later development]. There’s no single development you can point at that clearly separates the two. For many people, it is useful to practice Hinayana (as that is explained by Tibetans) before going on to Mahayana.

    No one argues that Mahayana is part of Hinayana, so why argue that Tantra is part of Mahayana?

    OK, now, for a dose of confusion, we turn to Garson’s page 77. Following Lochen Dharmashri, he writes:

    The broadest division of Buddhist paths, into Sutra and Tantra. Sutra is also known as the Causal Vehicle, or the Definition Vehicle, while Tantra is called the Resultant Vehicle, or the Vajra Vehicle.

    Within the Causal Vehicle there is a further division into two: the Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana) and the Great Vehicle (Mahayana). The Lesser Vehicle only realizes the truth of an individual’s liberation, while the Great Vehicle acts as a door to inconceivable liberation for all. However, because Tantra is also included within the Great Vehicle, the Sutra version of the Great Vehicle, which is the third of the nine vehicles, is here called the Bodhisattva Vehicle. Since the Bodhisattva Vehicle does not realize the same meaning as the Vajra Vehicle, Lochen Dharmashri claims it does not realize reality, indicating Sutra’s inferiority to Tantra. The fact that he makes this claim is telling in that he is describing an irreparable rift in view between Sutra and Tantra, which prevents Sutra practitioners from achieving the highest form of enlightenment without first proceeding onto the Tantric path. He thus presents the following hierarchy:

    1. Sutra Vehicle
      1. Lesser Vehicle
        1. Hearer Vehicle
        2. Solitary Realizer Vehicle
      2. Sutra Great Vehicle (= Bodhisattva Vehicle)
    2. Tantra Great Vehicle

    (This table, including the equation of Sutra Great Vehicle with Bodhisattva Vehicle, is in Garson’s text.)

    Garson doesn’t explain why Lochen Dharmashri made this odd overlapping classification. There’s no explanation of what “Mahayana” is, or why it lumps Bodhisattvayana with Tantrayana, after pointing out in detail how they are fundamentally dissimilar. All of this is in passing, without context, and seems to contradict the rest of Lochen Dharmashri’s discussion.

    Lochen Dharmashri was writing around 1700, which is already well into the period of Geluk political dominance (established by the Fifth Dalai Lama, 1617–1682). My guess is that this passage was a nod to the Geluk classification. To check that, one would need to look at how “Mahayana” was used in earlier Nyingma texts (and, indeed, in pre-Geluk texts of the other non-Geluk Schools).

    So, anyway, where does that leave us?

    I’d suggest that the word “Mahayana” covers such a lot of different things that it’s pretty much meaningless. I now intend to avoid using it, when possible. It seems better to use more specific terms. “Bodhisattvayana” is less ambiguous, and may be a better choice in many contexts.

  14. @Al – I totally agree with you that Tantra requires transmission from a qualified teacher, otherwise, how else would you have a sense of the practice you’re attempting to enter into? And the ideal model for practicing tantra, requires you getting face-time with your teacher, and trusting that person enough to allow them ‘mess with you’, perhaps in a similar way that a Zen teacher might ‘mess with you’ – disassembling the conceptual frameworks and emotional patterns that are holding you back. That’s the ideal.
    My Kagyu friend does not teach tantra. I think he actually prefers the vipassana model, where the teacher doesn’t really mess with you that much. But even in the ‘vipassana model’, I have met exceptions to the rule. Some vipassana teachers just might mess with you too … there are many different types of teachers and many different types of students.
    At the deeper levels of practice, the frameworks of how we tend to think about the different traditions start to fall apart …

  15. David, there is also the issue that the Tibetan understanding of Tantra is distinct from that of other parts of Asia. You’re basically falling into a Tibetan understanding of these things (which, hey, is fine, after all, you practice their form of Buddhism). It is certainly not how Kukai, to my knowledge, wrote about these things or taught them in forming the Shingon school or how you see tantra presented in China, where it was never considered a distinct school (or Korea, as far as I know).

    The materials that I have generally hewn to consider tantra to be a special development of the Mahayana school. This makes sense historically, ignoring the internal rhetoric of various tantras. It is a development from within Mahayana (and a borrowing from non-Buddhist tantra) if you look at how it developed over time in India.

    Of course, most vajrayana practitioners read neither actual tantras nor sutras in my experience so you’ve got a leg up there.

  16. Right. I know very little about Shingon. I gather it’s based on what the Tibetans call Kriya Tantra and Yoga Tantra, which they classify as Outer Tantra, and which is much more consistent with Bodhisattvayana than Mahayoga.

    And, most Tibetans would agree with you that Tantra is part of Mahayana. So, basically, you are right and I am wrong. :-) There are some exceptions, though (Namkhai Norbu being the one that most influenced my understanding about this).

  17. I get overwhelmed reading the thoughts and discussions interesting as they all are. I am not one who is much into dharma and tantras. All I do is meditate and I think that is what Budda did a lot too. It is my humble opinion that maybe the key is that we should not be so obsessed with the

    great need to understand and to organize things into labels and put them neatly into a bento box. Give up, let go of our need to understand. At the end of the day and as our spiritual walk goes on we will know that we need to let go of many things including the dharma and the tantras because they are sign boards pointing the direction that we should head. After heading onwards we do not need the signboard anymore. Let go of everything means EVERYTHING including the tantras and teachings. All knowedge is not from the head but from the heart. Only then can you be free. Truly free.

    It is correct that there is a feeling of interconnectedness in all things. Interconnectedness is a very stable state free from time and space and involves many realms and dimensions. There are many energies that interact with each other. The true essence of a human is a form of energy. I have felt this in meditation. There is this vast open space and a tree of lots of consciousness or sentient beings joined together as one. All the energies the yin and yang become one whole. There is no more self. There is nothing but everything. All understanding and knowledge will fall into place you will understand. In the emptiness and silence is everything eventhough theres nothing. Meditate and see for yourself. One day may you find your way home :)) it’s easy and simpler than you can imagine!

    PS There is much that is wrong with the world. It’s going to die. But that is another story. And perspective.

  18. @David
    “Many go out of their way to stomp and spit on everything Mahayana holds sacred. For example, they recommend systematically violating all the Mahayana ethical principles.”

    That’s hilarious. :-)

  19. Yes… It’s hard to know what to make of it. If you take it seriously, it would be horrifying, and wouldn’t really make any sense. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to be straightforwardly a joke. For the past thousand years, tantrikas have been scratching their heads and worrying about it.

    I think that WTF is probably the point. It defies all attempts at sense-making, so you have to just let it be as it is and enjoy the contradictions.

    Ronald Davidson, in his book on early tantra, says that it’s impossible to parody the tantric scriptures. The way you parody something is to exaggerate it until it becomes absurd. But the tantric scriptures are already totally over-the-top; they are more extreme and outrageous than anything anyone else has ever written. You could say they are self-parodying except that they are also clearly meant to be serious in some sense.

  20. @ Al– it’s my understanding that very few living lamas allow their students to visualize them during guru yoga: it is the whole lineage, embodying Padmasambhava, that is being evoked– the whole stream, not the personality of your teacher. The idea is that if your teacher is really capable, he or she has become transparent to the lineage. And that it is possible for the student to become likewise transparent.

  21. (1) Ooops, I thought you’d start this series with the outline and a new “You are Here” sign. But this post does not include that outline with a new “You are here” or a “You are still here”. In a series, it is always good to know where you are in the outline.


    You said, “David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, a major influence on this blog series,”

    Have you met or written to David.McMahan to date. I would think a get-together between you too would be fun.


    You said, “Tantra has much more to say about all that. But, isn’t it just obvious?”

    From what I have read of your flavor of “Tantra”, it all sounds very healthy and agrees with what I have come to see as accurate. But I think, as you stated, “isn’t it just obvious?”. And you say it is obvious to me because I am a Modern. But my questions are “Can moderns nurture the tantric psychological principles without engaging Buddhist trantric doctrines or practices.” “Can Westerners, without Buddhist trappings, even do this better than Tantrist Western Buddhists who often fall into the trappings of “being a Buddhist”. Or put simply, “Great theory, but does it work?”

  22. (1) We’re still where we were as of the last post. And we’ll continue to be there until after tomorrow’s post, wherein I announce that the pointer is moving down one line…

    (2) Haven’t had any contact with David McMahan. Would be fun, but not sure where to start.

    (3) Sorry, I meant “Isn’t it just obvious?” as something that someone might raise as an objection. Like: “why are you wasting my time with this nonsense—everyone already knows this.”

    Can moderns nurture the tantric psychological principles without engaging Buddhist trantric doctrines or practices?

    That’s one good question. Another is “can we find ways to formulate [some] tantric doctrines and practices that are workable for us?”

    Can Westerners, without Buddhist trappings, even do this better than Tantrist Western Buddhists who often fall into the trappings of “being a Buddhist”.

    I hope so!

    (Also: I mostly don’t mind the trappings, so long as they don’t become a rigid identity… but that is quite common…)

    Great theory, but does it work?

    It seems to work for some people. But, of course, it’s easy to fool yourself about such things. So some empirical confirmation would be nice.

  23. Sabio, you say:
    “But my questions are ‘Can moderns nurture the tantric psychological principles without engaging Buddhist trantric doctrines or practices.'”

    I question the use of “tantric” and “psychological” together. What makes you think there is any such thing as “tantric psychological principles?” It is a common fallacy of many Western Buddhists to try to turn the Dharma into simply a form of psychology. While it works in some cases, I question the value of that overall.

  24. If you strip Tantra utterly and completeley naked, what is left? What is it’s heart/core practice?

    If the eye is not on that ball anymore, but is into the flamboyant display of color, form, sound, smell and feeling either due to clinging to tradition or fear of losing the outer props, how subtle they may be ie. holographic visualizations etc. one just might lose the track of what is what.

    Countless tantric and Dzogchen practices have vanished this way when teachers were bound by tradition and lineal continuity, they lost the core experience, and couldn’t transmit it to new generation, who lost interest as they sensed they were offered the husks only.

    It is a fine balance between the two, not compromising the essence, but not giving in to samaya breakage either.

    So, what is the essence of all tantric practices? What would be the barebones vanilla version that could survive through ages, cultures, turmoils, where instruments, implements, adornments, couture and robes would end up gathering dust and occasional interest in the long forgotten section of Tantra in the museum of religion? (as it seems to happen as we speak…)

    I see one theme coming up time after time, regardless whether we speak about Theravada, Mahayana, Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Sutra, Zen, Chan or Dzogchen. ;)

    What do you think it is? What are the core practices, heart essences, the one or two things you would take to a trip to Mars as the last resort to save authentic buddhist experience and practice from extintion and annihilation? Guru? Yidam? Dakini? Mantra?

    Curious to hear opinions.

  25. Hmm. This reveals an interesting difference between sutra and tantra. Sutra seeks stripped-down simplicity of essence, whereas tantra revels in complexity and colorful details.

    “The flamboyant display of color, form, sound, smell and feeling” is tantra. Tantra is this, now, whatever this is.

    The practices of tantra just reveal this, now. So, there is no essential practice (in my view). We could, in principle, lose them all, and start over by asking: what reveals the spaciousness and passion of experience, as it is now? And there won’t be any one answer to that; there are endless methods for unblocking the energy of experience to reveal the flamboyant display of color, form, sound, smell and feeling.

    I’ve been arguing for an abstract central principle to tantra (“unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion”), but that’s probably actually my Dzogchen bias showing. Perhaps it’s contrary to the spirit of tantra, which on the whole tends to be pro-complexity, pro-details, and anti-coherence, anti-logic.

  26. Hi David.

    Your second sentence could be said about Dzogchen too, don’t you think? Well, it doesn’t necessarily seek a barebones essence, but it is still there. Very prominently, I would say.

    Let’s put it this way, let’s use Dzogchen as an example, as you seem a bit more familiar with that. If Dzogchen practices were stripped off the actual transmitted and actualized experience of Rigpa, what would remain? Would future generations be able to experience the nature of Mind by practising them just by reading instructions of a practice or watching a video of some physical exercises? Countless Dzogchen gTermas have gotten lost in this way, and my suspicion is that, in some degree in Tantra too. I am not so convinced that simply immersing ones self into the sense fields necessitates the experience of now and here without actual understanding and experience.

    Otherwise it would mean that it could be arrived at without any help from a realised teacher, and this seems to against the grain of your critique of concensus buddhism.

    Are you familiar with Abhidharma teachings? That and Dzogchen view are a killer combo. As it explains with adequate precision how we get entangled in the first place of not being here and now. The key is equanimity, letting go, letting be.

    My hunch is, that there are essentially just two (+1) buddhist methods, regardless of the vehicle or school, that spring up every single time, one just needs to know what one is looking for. They correspond to form and emptiness respectively, and the third one is combing these two, essentially it is just one practice really. I may be wrong with this, but I am willing to bet money on it with my present understanding. Trekchod and Togal are in my opinion, and this is based on my very limited understanding of these advanced practises, not that different from shiné and lhatong, or samatha and vipassana, or generation and fruition stages of Tantric visualization. Or the Father and Mother Tantras, form and emptiness anyone?, (+1) which are the non dual Tantras. Or arriving at Rigpa from the emptiness of Dzogchen or the form of Mahamudra…Ultimately there is only one practice, or shall we say non-practice. I see a pattern here, but I am open to hear from you and your readers, as I might learn something.

    I shall leave this here for now. Thanks for your patience.

  27. Hmm. This raises potentially many points… But, not to get lost in detail :-), it seems that your main one is that the key practices are to realize emptiness, form, and their non-duality. I would not disagree with that. On the other hand, there are many different ways of doing each of those things. But then, maybe those different ways can be seen ultimately to be the the same. Maybe leaving that tension as it is, is the best policy…

  28. Ahh the tension… I agree with you here. Nevetheless, if one wanted to understand one’s mind, best is to simply sit and observe it! This is my next move and I wholeheartedly advocate it to one and all. Have a lovely rainy day!

  29. Okay, in theory tantra would be a great alternative, but I think that tantra would fall prey to the same problems as Consensus buddhism, because I theorize that the root problem with Consensus Buddhism is that Westerners are looking for salvation from an exotic other rather than engaging in an honest cultural dialogue that is rooted in their own traditions. Of course, maybe I’m hypocritical, because I would get rather irate if someone suggested I needed to stop studying kung fu and tai chi…

    Anyway, it’s widely unknown that there are Western paths towards nondualistic awareness. The best example I know of is “The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis: Commentary on the First Three Chapters” by David Chaim Smith, where he shows how Genesis can be read in a completely nondualistic way, as a meditation manual which requires no reference to any creator deity … (and, it goes without saying, the serpent may not be such a bad guy in this interpretation.) Take something like this as a foundation, and add to this the many practices we can derive from hermeticism, alchemy, theurgy, and goetia (in the original sense of Greek shamanism), and you end up with something pretty close to a Western version of tantra. Obviously, we want to avoid dualist, monotheist or eternalist perspectives, which often appear, but I think as the book I referenced demonstrates, it is possible to move beyond such thinking.

  30. By Western I am referring primarily to practices derived from the Greco-Roman paganism of Late Antiquity, or the esoteric strands of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and various derivations, including alchemy and traditions of magic that have survived. There are also the African Traditional Religions such as voodoo, kimbanda, etc. By Eastern, I am thinking primarily of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism.

    Personally I was raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, so the mythological framework of the Bible is very familiar to me, as is the framework of Greco-Roman mythology since these myths are so embedded in European and American literature.

    Just to clarify my idea a little, it’s not really about East versus West, per se. Rather, my hypothesis is that for the typical person, working with myths that are deeply embedded in your unconscious will tend to be more powerful than working with those derived from a culture which one isn’t familiar with. I believe you could create a nondualist tantric system from the base of almost any exoteric religion, without in any way implying saying that “all religions are the same” or any kind of nonsense like that.

    I am not suggesting that I can prove this, but my personal experiences at least seem to confirm it. I explored Buddhism for a while, but in the end I decided that to liberate myself from my particular upbringing, the path needed to be tantric and antinomian, but, in a way that based on my own cultural heritage and particular experiences.

    Of course, maybe I’m just to lazy to learn sanskrit… ;-)

  31. Whereas I and many many others have nothing but negative associations with Abrahamic religion and its scriptures (and its “God”). The reason a lot of us wound up Buddhist, Neopagan, etc. in the first place was because of an antipathy towards our cultural traditions of the last thousand or so years.

  32. “I and many many others have nothing but negative associations with Abrahamic religion”… Me too! That is exactly the power of these practices. Remember, this is in the context of a discussion that refers to antinomianism and tantra, and to work with this particular material involves breaking a double taboo, on the one hand, by dealing with materials I may find intellectually somewhat distasteful, and on the other hand, by using those materials in ways that will surely send me “straight to hell,” as one of my relatives might say, and as my deep unconscious probably still believes due to my upbringing.

    When I first left home for college, I did turn towards Buddhism, but I started to wonder if running away could actually be a kind of trap that was inhibiting my progress, and also wonder if a lot of the sparkle of Buddhism had everything to do with its novelty, and my imaginary ideas of what it was, that were not based on its real historical context (something which I have learned a lot about from David Chapman–thanks!).

  33. Interesting site, I look forward to checking it out. I actually have a fair amount of common ground with some pagans, I do work with Greek deities, and entities derived from traditional witchcraft, alongside angels and numerous other entities, but I would consider my framework to be more some type of animism than explicitly pagan; and that animism is only functional, not a belief system about the ultimate nature of reality. I definitely use Buddhist texts as inspiration, especially the heart sutra and some tantric texts, but I don’t engage in any particular Buddhist religious activities.

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