Spacious passion: road map

Several pages ago, I suggested that the attitude of “spacious passion” is the most valuable feature of Buddhist tantra. Over the next few, I will explain what that phrase means.


It is only due to an unfortunate accident that I’m presenting this material in blog form. I’m afraid that its structure gets lost, as a result. (Especially because I only occasionally get time to write, with long gaps.) To help orient you, here’s a road map to Reinventing Buddhist Tantra:

  1. What Buddhist tantra is
    1. Base: the attitude of spacious passion ← You are here
    2. Path: unclogging energy
    3. Result: nobility
  2. What Buddhist tantra is not: dispelling misconceptions and distinguishing from other Buddhisms
  3. Buddhist tantra: a history of innovation
  4. Future tantra: modernity and after

All this is nested into my discussion of Consensus Buddhism. These two topics converge toward the end of the tantric history section. That’s because, since the early 1970s, Consensus Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism have been intimately connected, both as mutual influences and as opponents.

Like other Buddhisms, tantra is described in terms of base, path, and result. The base is its prerequisites; the path is the methods; the result is the goal.

In tantra, the base, path, and result are ultimately the same. To accept the attitude of spacious passion is the base; maintaining spacious passion is the path; enjoying and deploying spacious passion is the goal. For the sake of clarity, however, it’s usual to describe the base, path, and result differently.

Here’s a summary of the next few pages, completing the discussion of the base, and starting into the path:

  • Passions—strong emotions—connect us with what matters.
  • Connections consist of appreciation, communication, interaction, involvement, and intervention. (They do not imply that everything is One.)
  • Connections run in both directions. Connection implies commitment, collaboration, and responsiveness.
  • Spaciousness is freedom from fixed meanings.
  • Curiosity is spacious perception.
  • Energy drives passionate connections.
  • Energy produces outrageous confidence.
  • Unclogging energy by uniting passion with spaciousness is the method of tantra.
  • Tantra unclogs both the “internal” energy of emotions and the “external” energy of situations.

I’ve finished the “base” section, and queued it to appear automatically over the next few days.

Relating this to other Buddhisms

If you are familiar with Mahayana Buddhism, it may have occurred to you that “passion” and “spaciousness” sound suspiciously similar to “compassion” and “emptiness.”

Vajrayana (Buddhist tantra) can be understood as an extension of Mahayana. There are many different things called “tantra,” and that’s one valid approach. It makes Mahayana the core, with Vajrayana a collection of optional accessories. Many Tibetans teach tantra that way.

However, for the type of tantra I advocate, this is misleading. You will miss the point if you think it is more of the same with extra bells and whistles.

It is only because the fundamental principles of tantra are quite different that I consider it a valuable alternative for Buddhism in the West in the 21st century.

Understanding how compassion and emptiness relate to passion and spaciousness is one way of understanding how tantra differs from Mahayana. I’ll cover that in a section at the end of each of the next few pages.

Tantra is also unique, among Buddhisms, in giving a central role to energy.

Passionate space

As far as I know, the exact phrase “spacious passion” was coined by Ngakpa Chögyam. He discusses it in Wearing the Body of Visions, pp. 101-103. This is a fundamental theme of all Inner Tantra, though, especially in Anuyoga, where the union of space and passion is central.

Ngakma Nor’dzin used the term as the title of her book Spacious Passion, which presents themes of Sutra in a Dzogchen framework. Her use is compatible with mine here, but the subject matter is different.

Ngakpa Chögyam’s full formulation is “spacious passion in passionate space.” That is an expression of the sexual dynamics of tantra, in which space is feminine and passion is masculine, but each reflects and contains the other. When one speaks of the union of passion and space producing electric energy, and of passion being in space, all double entendres are intentional. (Mostly, in tantra, if there is any possibility that something could be understood as a sexual allusion, it should be.)

Explaining “spacious passion in passionate space” is beyond the scope of this blog. The whole book Entering the Heart of the Sun & Moon is devoted to explaining it with fantastic subtlety. Sun & Moon is an advanced and difficult text, but greatly rewarding if you work at it.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

14 thoughts on “Spacious passion: road map”

  1. Excellent outline method — especially the “You are Here” sign!
    Superb intro: clearly telling us about differences makes things easier for me to understand. I find many Buddhist writers talk about Buddhism as if there is only one type and ignore the differences which is obviously wrong.

    This happens in economics too. If you read an economic text, many will speak about economic principles as if they are common sense and held by all. Again the differences between economic schools is often not made explicit. I think that in both Buddhism and Economics, teachers and writers are afraid to be clear that they hold just one of many particular flavors of Buddhism/Economics. Maybe because they know their listeners are after the one unifying package.


    Like other Buddhisms, tantra is described in terms of base, path, and result.

    Am I mistaken, but I thought that using the base-path-result classification was a Tibetan thing and perhaps specifically Nyingma. No?

  2. I thought that using the base-path-result classification was a Tibetan thing and perhaps specifically Nyingma. No?

    Gosh, how interesting! It had never occurred to me to wonder, so I didn’t know.

    I’ve just done some googling, and it appears that you may be right—but I still don’t know for sure.

    If anyone does know, I’d be interested to hear!

  3. Hi David

    Thanks for this splendid post series about reinventing Tantra. You have all the right to take a much deserved rest, thought I hope that you continue (and finish) them in the near future. It would be a pity otherwise.

    While that day comes, I want to ask you if you could write about a very important issue, that I think it’s a ‘must do’ in a series like this: What went wrong and specially why the first modernized version of Tantra collapsed. (I think the, in your own words, ‘Chögyam Trungpa deblace’ played an important role here, but surely there were another factors, which I’m unaware of, at play). Maybe ‘Buddhist tantra: a history of innovation’ or ‘Future tantra: modernity and after’ would be good sections for placing it.

    Up to this point you have blamed the Consensus and the Tibetan hierarchy for its suppression, and although they may (I don’t know) deserve the lion’s share, I think it’s a very poor explanation and, above all, a bad ‘academic’ practice just looking for the causes outside the subject and not within the subject itself. Besides, if something as the new, modernized ‘Tantra aircraft’ is going to take off again in the future, it’s indispensable to know (or try to figure out at least) what exactly failed in the old one that made it crash. Bad weather and human errors may have helped but they cannot be an excuse.

    Anyway, relax, take your time and read you soon. (Meanwhile I think I’ll take a look at your vampire novel, thought I’m not very kind of the genre, it seems that is another good source to know about Tantra and its history).

    Best wishes.

  4. Hi,

    Thank you very much for the comment!

    I may come back to this series, but after working on it for a year I had still not quite finished the introductory overview. I do not have much time to write, and other projects seem more important. However, I’d like to continue it if I get much more time for writing someday.

    I did plan to write about the recent history—the 1970s up to the present. That is important, and maybe some day I will get to it.

    Do you have have thoughts about what internal problems may have caused modernized tantra to fail?

    I would say that the social aspects of Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision (“Enlightened Society”) were probably unworkable; but I don’t think that contributed to the failure in the late 80s. It might have been a serious problem later, but the Ösel Tendzin disaster came first.

    When/if I restart this blog, I will probably write about the present and future of Buddhism. I’ll suggest that modernity is over—it ended in the last decades of the 20th century—and so the time for modern Buddhism has passed.

    If that is right, then there’s not much point in trying to revive modern tantra. Different Buddhisms are suitable for different times and places; modern tantra was great for America in the 1970s and 80s, but probably is no longer a good fit.

    However, we can still ask how tantra can contribute to whatever comes after modern Buddhism.

  5. Hi David

    Thank you very much for your reply. Wow!, that’s what I call a quick one.

    I don’t know much about Tantra and I’m not interested in the Trungpa scandal ‘per se’ but in what it may reveal about the dangers and pitfalls of this concrete path. After all, misinterpretations, scandals, hypocrisy, bad behavior from masters, institutional corruption, power struggles and so on, we had and we’ll have plenty of them at every level on every religion or spiritual path. So, I don’t have any knowledge about what internal problems may have caused modernized Tantra to fail, but from what I’ve read here, I guess that Tantra, having much more ‘potential power’ than other paths is also much more difficult and dangerous, and when it goes wrong (at an individual or collective level) it doesn’t break the windows, it blows the house. As I think (but I may be wrong) you are a very brilliant writer who has valuable, honest and original insights and knowledge about spiritual paths, I’d like to read your perspective on the matter.

    By the way, when I mentioned ‘modernized Tantra’ I meant ‘adapted Tantra methods so they can be useful today in the West’. ‘Today’ and ‘useful’ are the important words here and I don’t care much about Tantra (or any other yana) as a complete system or as a form of ‘Buddhism’ (and, in fact, I think that Tantra born and developed outside of Buddhism, so it seems that it’s always been more a collection of methods than something else). What I care is practical and workable methods for XXI century human beings to develop a ‘good’ way of life; if you can package them and put an –ism label on, right, if not, right. That’s why I find your blogs so interesting, keep them on.

    Best wishes

  6. Oh, I see, I think I understand now!

    Tantra is explicitly about sex and power, where other Buddhisms aren’t. So, yes, maybe Westernized Tantra has more potential for “guru sex scandals” than The Other Leading Brands. It’s hard to know for sure, because there has been so little of it. The other modernizers of the 70s and early 80s didn’t run into that kind of trouble; but there were only a handful of them.

    Anyway, it’s true that fear of misuse of tantric power was the stated reason it was suppressed in the 90s. I think this is like banning chainsaws because someone could use one as a murder weapon; but other people may reasonably disagree. I also suspect that the suppressors had mixed motives. They wanted to eliminate competition, and used “it’s dangerous” as a pretext. And, I would say that modern tantra didn’t “collapse”, it was pro-actively terminated. (Unless you consider the Trungpa/Tendzin mess to have been so bad as to count as “failure” for the whole religion.)

    I’m happy to discuss this in as much more detail as anyone likes. The Trungpa/Tendzin thing was before my time, and I don’t know anything about it that isn’t public information. And, although I think Trungpa Rinpoche was extraordinarily brilliant, I also think he screwed up badly at the end, so I don’t need to defend him.

    I don’t care much about [Buddhism] as a complete system… What I care is practical and workable methods for XXI century human beings to develop a ‘good’ way of life; if you can package them and put an –ism label on, right, if not, right.

    Yes, I think this is now a common feeling. I hope to write in detail, soon, about what it implies for the future.

  7. Hi David

    Thank you for your response. When I wrote about the Tantra ‘potential power’ and risks what I had in mind was more the troubles that can bring to an individual tantrika, (not that I overlook the collective matters, but I think these are less dependent of the concrete path theory and practices) for example: mental/emotional breakdown, disassociation with reality, turning yourself into a dirty-filthy bastard… in short, ending screwing up your life and the lives of those around you after years of effort to get the opposite, just in a very Oedipus’ way.

    “And, I would say that modern tantra didn’t “collapse”, it was pro-actively terminated.”

    Well, that’s a clear and strong statement; I supposed that at least part of the “merit” should be placed on its own dynamics (besides scandals, that would be a symptom or a consequence). But, as I said, I don’t know the facts, so I’ll wait until you write about its recent history to form an opinion.

    “I hope to write in detail, soon, about what it implies for the future.”

    It will be a pleasure to read it.

    Best wishes

  8. mental/emotional breakdown, disassociation with reality, turning yourself into a dirty-filthy bastard…

    Yes… all are possible. They are possible with all religious paths, probably. Maybe less so in Unitarianism, for example, though!

    Tantra sometimes makes a big fuss about how dangerous it is. I think this is probably overstated; but still real. I have on-going discussions with several people about how to think about that. I’m not sure. Fortunately, since I’m not a teacher, I have limited (though non-zero) responsibility.

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