Nothing special

Over the last several pages, I’ve summarized an attitude, “spacious passion,” which I claimed is the key to Buddhist tantra. Here are some likely objections:

  1. An attitude? Disappointing. Is that all there is to tantra? Big deal.
  2. This is just common sense. I already have that attitude.
  3. It’s unrealistic. Sounds nice, but can anyone live that way?
  4. What about suffering? Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be the solution to that? How does your attitude help?
  5. Tantra is about gods and demons and miraculous flying lamas. That’s what makes it different from regular Buddhism, and you’ve left all that out.

I’ll address these points gradually over the next several pages.

This page is about disappointment.

Cutting through the hype

The tantric scriptures are filled with extraordinary, ludicrous advertising claims. This plays poorly with intelligent Westerners, who disbelieve—and are repelled by—excessive self-promotion. I suggest that the traditional advertising claims of tantra are unrealistic and should be dropped.

I think it’s important to deflate the hype as part of re-presenting tantra. A reputation for realism, rather than metaphysical fantasy, would help make Buddhist tantra accessible to a broader audience. A reinvented tantra should promise no more than it can deliver.

This isn’t really a tantric issue; it’s a Buddhist issue. The scriptures of all Buddhist schools are filled with extraordinary, ludicrous hype. However, over the past 150 years, the modernizers of Zen and Theravada quietly suppressed such claims from their own traditions. That makes modern Zen and Theravada sound much more modest and reasonable and realistic than tantra.

Puncturing spiritual hype was one of the main themes in the teaching of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who first reinvented tantra for the modern West. That’s the central point of his best-known book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. It emphasized that Buddhism should be profoundly disappointing, compared with fantasies of magic, transcendence, and salvation. He said that his audiences often found his approach “toned down and too sensible.”

Unfortunately, modernized Buddhist tantra was suppressed in the early 1990s. Since then, Tibetan traditionalists have kept straight faces while teaching preposterous texts. This reinforces the impression that Tibetan Buddhism is a collection of Medieval fairy tales.

In later pages, I will suggest that tantra can be more realistic than modernized Zen or Theravda, because it needs fewer metaphysical claims. Tantra is concerned primarily with practical action in the physical world. It can do without quasi-magical events like “enlightenment” and dubious alternate realms like “nirvana.”

So… If “spacious passion” sounds disappointing, compared with whatever you were expecting from Buddhist Tantra, that’s a good thing.

But maybe tantra need not be disappointing…

Further reading

I took the title of this page from Charlotte Joko Beck’s wonderful book Nothing Special. Writing from a Zen perspective, she suggests that letting go of spiritual fantasies is a prerequisite to effective Buddhist practice.

Nothing is really solved until we understand that there is no solution. We’re falling, and there’s no answer to that. We can’t control it. We’re spending our life trying to stop the falling; yet it never stops. There is no solution, no wonderful person who can make it stop. No success, no dream, no anything can make it stop. Our body is just going down.

Joko Beck taught in the Sanbo Kyodan (Harada-Yasutani) lineage of Zen. I’ve been sharply critical of Sanbo Kyodan elsewhere, for its fetishizing and mythologizing kensho, for its claim that enlightenment consists of discovering your True Self, and for a lot of half-witted talk about God.

At the same time, there is much in Sanbo Kyodan I admire and agree with: its emphasis on non-monastic practice, on everyday life as the path, and on extensive formless meditation; and for dropping many aspects of traditional Japanese Buddhism that no longer function.

I too am, in a sense, a member of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage. Joko Beck was the first serious teacher of my first serious Buddhist teacher, Lama Zér-mé Dri’mèd. I am, therefore, her grand-student, and Yasutani Roshi—the founder of Sanbo Kyodan—is my great-great-grand-teacher.

I have never practiced Zen, though. Zér-mé was teaching Shambhala Training when I was her student; she is now a Lama in the Aro gTér lineage. Joko Beck also moved on. She de-emphasized kensho, and eventually broke with Sanbo Kyodan altogether.

Still, Zér-mé sometimes said that it seemed that Joko Beck was speaking through her. And, in that, there was probably an echo of Joko’s teacher Maezumi Roshi; and her grand-teacher Yasutani; and so on, back further than history can reach. That’s how lineage works.

I hope my writing sometimes manages to be simple, clear, and ordinary. If so, that is probably partly Joko Beck’s influence, and Lama Zér-mé’s—and also back beyond Bodhidharma.

Road map

This is the end of the “base” section of my introduction to Buddhist tantra. The next page begins the “path” section.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

13 thoughts on “Nothing special”

  1. I’m not precisely sure if you are including the practice of yidams in this context, but, if you are, I would add to this that I have been taught that what you are describing as spacious passion is the result of accomplishing the yidam, of discerning that you and your yidam are not two separate things and that when seeing yourself as inseparable from the yidam you experience your ordinary emotions as the “five enlightened wisdoms”. Just as you have been one with the yidam long before you realized it, your emotions have always been these five wisdoms, you have merely been unaware of it because of your confusion.

    Before you realize this, however, the yidam serves the profound purpose of undermining our habitual grasping and fixation on exterior objects as independent of our perception of them and of being “real” without that perception being involved. While we could argue about the metaphysics of this, they are beside the point. What is really important is that, for most of us, Tantra requires hard work. For a few fortunate individuals their confusion is so translucent that clearing it away requires far less work than the ordinary individual, but work there still is.

    I have always interpreted Trungpa’s initial teachings as necessary and intended to dispell Western illusions that you could get Tantra as something for nothing, without work, through means of LSD or other psychotropics. I certainly found this to be the case while I was living through it. It was also the case that Shambala (then Vajradhatu) treated “Tantra” as a big deal and a big mystery for the fortunate few who obtained sufficient “work credentials” in sitting meditation and in many involved “levels” of hearing teachings and doing practice before you were actually given any “tantric” teachings at all. In fact, it always seemed far too credential oriented to suit me as a style of practice.

    What was taught in Vajradhatu as Tantra to the fortunate few was the very traditional practice of Vajrayogini as passed down through the Trungpa lineage, with the very traditional beginning of the Four ordinary foundations and the four extraordinary foundation (large numbers of prostrations and so on) in the form described in Jamgon Komgtrul’s Torch Of Certainty. This all may have been a reinvention of Tantra, but, frankly, at the time, it seemed no different at the level of yidam practice to the traditional teaching of my Karma Kagyu teachers, merely a different approach to the Karma Kagyu initial training with a “safe” yidam practice such as Four Armed White Chenrezig, that introduced the terminology of traditional Tantra from the very beginning, even if the lamas’ explanations of it were very abbreviated and sketchy.

    I would stress that this was exactly parallel in time to the Vajradhatu approach, and not in the least a “return” to anything on the part of my teachers. And if they did anything to suppress the Vajradhatu approach, I never saw it. Trungpa’s students, whether beginners, four foundations practitioners, or tantrikas were always treated with the greatest courtesy at my monastery.

    As to the “hype” of “yogic applications” or “siddhi” I can’t claim any experience with these one way or another with one exception. There have been several instances over the past 35 years where lamas have displayed what appeared to be true clairvoyance or “suprasensible cognition”. Try as I might, I have never been able to come up with any explanation better than the traditional one, that these things are side effects of truly accomplishing a yidam.

  2. I’m not precisely sure if you are including the practice of yidams in this context, but, if you are, I would add to this that I have been taught that what you are describing as spacious passion is the result of accomplishing the yidam, of discerning that you and your yidam are not two separate things and that when seeing yourself as inseparable from the yidam you experience your ordinary emotions as the “five enlightened wisdoms”.

    Yes to all of those points.

    I’m not saying anything new here; just putting it in language I hope is more accessible.

    Tantra requires hard work.

    Youbetcha! Ain’t that the truth.

    [Chögyam Trunpga] treated “Tantra” as a big deal

    Yeeehhhs… In some places he taught it as “no big deal” and in others as “a very big deal.”

    I plan to follow his example! :-)

    it always seemed far too credential oriented to suit me as a style of practice.

    I agree. I doubt I would have bothered with Vajradhatu if I had been around at the time. In any case, I wasn’t willing to bother with it in the mid-1990s when I could have pursued it. I went for the Aro lineage instead, which is much less linear and stage-driven.

    What was taught in Vajradhatu as Tantra to the fortunate few was the very traditional practice of Vajrayogini as passed down through the Trungpa lineage

    Yes. But, if you read the transcripts of his early-1970s tantric teachings, he simultaneously taught that straight-up and made fun of it. Both his utter respect for the tradition and his ridicule of its absurdities and limitations come through clearly.

    I doubt that anyone at the time was able to understand what he was up to with that.

    Anyway, ten years later, he revealed his Shambhala terma, which is a radical reinvention of Vajrayana.

    if they did anything to suppress the Vajradhatu approach, I never saw it.

    Good! I would not have expected that. After all, Karmapa XV did fully endorse Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching.

  3. David, I really love your writings, but I have to disagree with you here. You begin:

    “The tantric scriptures are filled with extraordinary, ludicrous advertising claims. This plays poorly with intelligent Westerners, who disbelieve—and are repelled by—excessive self-promotion. I suggest that the traditional advertising claims of tantra are unrealistic and should be dropped.”

    Should be “dropped”? From what tradition? For ALL traditions? For ALL practitioners?

    I would say that if you don’t yet understand that the “ludicrous advertising claims” are METAPHORS and not to be taken ‘literally’, then what are you doing practicing tantra?! If you haven’t yet learned that ALL language is metaphor, in the sense of pointing at something beyond itself, then really, what kind of Buddhist are you? (Not YOU, which I think is a pretty great one generally speaking…)

    Personally I LOVE the colorful, outrageous claims (from a conventional perspective) of flying lamas, walking through walls, reading minds and all the rest. I have found that they’re an ocean of creative, skillfully crafted symbolism that works well with my mind. Yeah, I remember in the early days being a tad confused by all that, but I kept digging and practicing and that quickly dissipated.

    So, maybe for some folks we need new traditions devoid of the fantastic language and specific practices dropped, but for many (many, many, many…) such an approach is beautiful, functional and speaks to the heart, taking us immediately beyond clinging to things are real. A danger of not including such an approach is that you take the dry, “down-to-Earth” language as real… because it’s “logical” and “rational” and not ludicrous, not crazy.

    No thanks, man. I’ll stick with the crazy shit. ;-)

  4. Hi Robert,

    Yes, thank you, this is an excellent point. I agree entirely.

    So, in fact, I’m elaborating a mythology of tantric magic in my Buddhist historical romance novel. It’s replete with sorcerers, vampires, goddesses, and witches, and magic in practically every episode; all based pretty closely on traditional sources.

    On the other hand, I think it is sometimes important to be clear that we are viewing these things as metaphors and as inspiration, not as objective truths. Metaphors are not how they were typically viewed in India or Tibet.

  5. David, I didn’t even think of the irony of your “fictional” work! Ha, ha! ;-)

    But really, can I make one more point? Aren’t you insulting the intelligence of Westerners a little bit assuming that they can’t grasp the difference between metaphor and “objective truth”… But on that, I would also say that it has occurred to me that there is absolutely no such thing as objective truth either! ALL there is are meanings and identities that we fabricate. That we fabricate in a way that is consistent and agreeable because we happen to share similar karmic conditions doesn’t therefore make our less colorful language anymore True than the more “out there” ideas that enjoy less of a consensus.

    Also, in regards to siddhis, the common and supreme siddhis… some of them do “work as advertised”, even in a “literal sense”. Take clairvoyance (a bad translation), or “knowing the mind of others”. Well, if you really know your mind – TRULY know it – your sense of what is going on in other’s minds is heightened to an almost “supernatural” level. You could argue that this is merely seeing subtle behavioral and verbal cues and knowing what they indicate, but that doesn’t negate the fact that via such channels you “know” the mind of another being in a much deeper way than your average person.

    Also, the ability to manifest as multiple beings simultaneously (given a reasonable time frame, not literally all at once)… I just got done with a 10 days retreat with my guru and had lunch at a table with him and three fellow students. To me, he was clearly manifesting as four different beings, speaking to each of us in a different style and focusing on different “issues”, switching gears effortlessly. My mind-boggled watching him. He was carrying on 4-5 different conversations as well, leaving one for a moment then returning a few minutes later right where it left off without missing a beat… I’m not sure what siddhi that would be considered but it was amazing.

    Finally, as regards to siddhis, the beautiful (?) thing about them is they cannot be cultivated or even discovered as an end-in-themselves. You must fully realize emptiness, but not become attached to it, and fully realize clarity-luminosity (likewise, not becoming attached) for siddhis to manifest… no special or extra effort is required, I believe.

    Love your work, David. Apparent contradictions and all. You’re intellectually honest and a very clear, precise writer. Your work will no doubt benefit countless beings. Thank you.

  6. I think we have to make a clear distinction here between lineage histories and namthar and the actual tantras, sadhanas, and practice instruction themselves. The histories and biographies are filled with all sorts of miraculous events. Did these happen? I have no idea one way or the other, but I have observed that the students who cannot seriously accept the possibility that they might have happened, and who start from an a priori position that such things are impossible, really never develop the oomph to practice Tantra at all, even though the practical parts have relatively little to contend with in the way of miracles. Water seeks its own level and, in my sangha, they naturally gravitate to the cultivation of Bodhicitta through the practice of Lojong, and remain highly satisfied with this, which offers little disturbance to their a priori conclusions about “objective truth”.

    The point of Tantra is self-transformation from the speedy, but difficult, dispersal of most of our major samsaric confusion that results from any fixed ideas about what is possible or not. Because of this, I’m skeptical of any transformed Tantra that does not undermine the “rational, scientific viewpoint” (which is actually a covert Postivist philosophy in disguise) in the same way that it undermines all other explicit philosophical stances, of both physics and metaphysics.

    The skeptical undercover positivist simply is not skeptical enough to release the stranglehold of an already made up mind. This is why, at least in my view, that Nagarjuna is of such overwhelming importance. His dialectic teaches you how to be skeptical of your already made up mind, and exposes the covert and unexamined assumptions of the commonplace Positivist philosophy which exists behind an a priori judgment of what is or is not “impossible”.

    I think to practice Tantra with any practical results, you have to regard the miracle stories as something more than mere metaphor, even if you don’t expect to fly or meet anyone else who can fly either. This is not the same thing as the much, stronger, more explicit and fixed expectation that you will never fly nor ever meet anyone else who can. This simple, and very clear, error in logic is what is behind overly self assured and fixated “scientific rationalism”. It is that error in logic that is the toughest obstacle to overcome (at least for us in the West) for the tantric transformation to take place at all.

  7. Karmakshanti, I agree with you almost entirely. Yes, siddhis are more than “mere metaphor”… they manifest as real phenomena, as real as anything else we experience. I have encountered such beings, as I said… but of course, what is possible is a line we draw in our imaginations. There’s no such line in actuality… To believe there is… well, just another security blanket, I suppose.

  8. As I am personally becoming more convinced every day that man doesn’t need religion anymore, buddhism included, as we have arts and science to satisfyingly compensate for the loss of it, I wanted to comment on the “siddhis”.

    Modern science have made most practices to gain siddhis obsolete, as we can wear a down jacket instead of spending years in practising gTummo, we can buy airplane tickets to all over the world instead of practising levitation, we can use a particle collider to get a glimpse inside the particles that atoms are composed of instead ofmeditating on becoming smaller than small, we can use telescopes to understand the universe instead of meditating on becoming bigger than galaxies, use X-ray to see through thick walls instead of developing third eye etc. etc. ad nauseaum.

    I guess we still can benefit from teachings on the nature of mind/Mind and learn the ultimate siddhi. But we can get pretty close, if not all the way, just by arts and science.

    Sorry for babbling.

  9. @ Mouchoir – Mundane Siddhis were not primarily used as a means of living without a global transport network, or micro/tele-scopes. The only Siddhi that really matters is the ultimate Siddhi of Realization. The others are interesting side effects of practice, that can inspire some people to practice Buddhism. You could argue that perhaps the Science Museum in London or (smaller scale) Techniquest in Cardiff are displays of interesting scientific effects, intended to inspire some people to practice Science. Sci-Siddhis.

    If practicing Science or the Arts makes those practicing it Decent Human Beings, then those people probably don’t need Religion. I have had the pleasure of playing in a number of bands, ensembles and orchestras, and meeting more than my fair share of scientists and engineers. In my statistically insignificant personal experience and entirely limited lifespan I haven’t noticed a great trend in decency increasing amongst those groups of, but I could be wrong.

  10. Another consideration here is the practical use of such powers to sustain a life of isolated meditation. Even though the basic instructions for the Heat Yoga are in the Indian texts, it is the Tibetans who elaborated them as a means of managing meditation in a cold climate. I strongly suspect that, as time goes on, we in the West will elaborate the formless meditations of Mahamudra or Dzogchen to manage the major problem of our own day–chronic overstimulation.

    As far as “needing” religion is concerned, there are two places where “the rubber meets the road”. The first is the undeniable fact that all the ordinary pleasures and joys of our lives are transient and impermanent and none of us is exempt from some form of mental or physical pain which we would rather not experience. The second is our own inevitable death. If something besides religion actually gives us tools to deal with these things, then we probably don’t “need” religion; but dealing with them means more than merely pretending that they aren’t there.

    I observe that most of the people who have no religion but have “something else” instead do no more than pretend that transience, pain, and death simply aren’t there. I have not been impressed by efficacy of the “something elses” when you can no longer keep pretending. Consider your diagnosis of liver cancer. You won’t know it until you are overtly sick, by then it will be terminal in about six to eight weeks, and the final days of it will be a nightmare of horrible physical pain which may or may not be pallitated by the common, medical, opium derivatives. This assumes, of course, that you will be allowed to take enough of them to make a difference–our lingering Puritanism causes doctors to habitually under medicate pain. If your “something else” of arts and sciences will allow to deal with this, that’s great, but I don’t think this is very likely.

    I’m not exactly sure what the Aro folks mean by a Decent Human Being with the capitalized letters. If it is some kind of norm or default setting for our species that most of us either lose track of or was never programmed into us when it might have been, I’m not sure what reestablishing the default setting will do for us when our liver cancer diagnosis shows up, either. If it is something more than just the desirable norm for human life, what the capital letters refer to is pretty opaque to me.

    Can anyone speak to this?

  11. @ Karmakshanti – Decent Human Being is not an Aro gTér term – it’s a personal term from yours truly. If it is nonsensical or incomprehensible please don’t think that is due to the Aro gTér – that’s just due to my own whimsy and particular linguistic peculiarities.

    So, to explain what I meant – anyone who can generally go through life without kvetching all the time, and making other people’s lives a misery, who sticks to their word, has a sense of honor and whose manner and mode of being normally has an uplifting effect on the people around them would qualify. A Tantrika would therefore qualify; someone who followed the Shambhala teachings would qualify – anyone who is endeavouring to practice, and live the view. It is entirely possible to be a Decent Human Being without religious practice, and even if one does practice there is no great need for Realization. Decency is linked to attitude (and thus to David’s piece here).

    I was endeavouring (and perhaps failing) to make the point to our French friend that I do not regard it as inherrent within science,the arts or religion that if you dabble in their respective paths you will automatically become a Decent Human Being. If you are one, naturally, you probably don’t need anything else in your life (I know one who sells steel, plays video games, and writes comedy scripts for TV programmes and needs nothing more in his life beyond the occasional espresso). I’m not convinced that science can be said to have successfully ‘replaced’ religion as a great source of increase in general decency amongst people in the world. Knowing how to split an atom doesn’t make me a nicer person to be with. Indeed I think the upside of religion is that being a generally decent person is the goal (that is *not* the goal of science or the arts). If you know someone’s goal is to be a generally decent person, you’ve got some gauge against which to measure your experience of them as a person. If your goal is to be a really good clarinet player, you can still be a real shitbag, whilst being entirely successful in your goal of being a really good clarinet player. No one can complain about your playing just because you are objectionable and an entirely unpleasant person to be with.

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