Unclogging and traditional Buddhism

Transformation and unclogging

In the past couple of pages, I described the path of tantra in terms of “unclogging.”

Most often, descriptions of tantra center instead on “transformation.” Tantric methods transform “poison into medicine”: negative emotions such as anger into positive mental qualities like clarity. It’s useful to understand that explanation. (If you’d like to learn more, I recommend Ngakpa Chögyam’s Spectrum of Ecstasy.)

“Transformation” is the language of the generation approach to tantra. “Unclogging” is the language of the less well-known completion approach. They can be understood as different descriptions of the same process.

According to the completion approach, it is only possible to “transform” anger into clarity because they are already the same kind of energy. There is only a superficial appearance of change. At a deeper level, clarity is just anger whose channel has been unblocked, so it runs clear. Or, more accurately, anger is only clarity that has been bottled up so it turns stagnant and rotten.

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Unclogging Consensus Buddhism

Audience and innovation

Reinventing tantra” has a mixed audience, which poses a challenge: how much knowledge should I assume; how much interest; what will be exciting, and what off-putting?

I’ve written most pages in two pieces. First, I explain an aspect of Buddhist tantra as simply as I can; and then there’s a commentary, usually headed “Relating this to tradition”. The commentary is for readers who want to geek out on details, or who know Buddhism well but can’t quite figure out where I’m coming from.

The simple explanations have two functions. Obviously, if you are curious about tantra, but not yet very knowledgeable, they may provide a basic understanding, and possibly inspire you to learn more.

Less obviously, the explanations re-present tantra in a particular style. Their content is not deliberately innovative; I’m just trying to write clearly. Inevitably, though, I highlight particular features of tradition that I find valuable, and ignore features that seem irrelevant in 2012.

My overall purpose in writing is to intervene in the culture of modern Buddhism. To succeed, these ideas need to reach Buddhist leaders who are open to innovation.

My last page—“Unclogging”—is more complex and obscure than most. That is because it was meant primarily for teachers of tantra, or for those who may one day teach tantra. Implicitly, it is a suggestion about how to innovate—although it offers no specific innovations itself.

Since that was already long and difficult, I decided to split the commentary off onto two additional pages; this is the first.

On this page, I’ll explain what I was trying to do in “Unclogging,” and why it’s addressed particularly to teachers. On the next page, I’ll do the “relating to tradition” thing.

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The method of tantra is:

Unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.

Energy is blocked by fixed meanings: when narrowed perception insists that things must only go one way.

There is high-energy stuckness and low-energy stuckness:

  • Conflict can produce a high-energy stalemate. Opposing sides pour energy into a situation, each trying to force it to go a particular way. Each imposes a fixed meaning. Because neither can see alternative possibilities, the energy has nowhere to go, and just spins in turbulent vortices.
  • In low-energy stuckness, the possibility of change is missed, and those involved continually drain or dissipate energy from the situation. This happens when they fail to recognize any meaning, or deny it. This stuckness is depressed, stagnant, flaccid.

Energy is both “internal”—the energy of emotions, bodily processes, and sensations—and “external”—the energy of groups, situations, and non-human processes.

Tantra insists that there is no real boundary between “inside” and “outside,” so these are actually the same. Causality flows constantly, unobstructed, across the inside/outside “boundary.” Our perception of situations strongly affects our “internal” energy; our activity strongly affects “external” energy.

However, since dividing inside and outside is habitual, it may be easiest to treat them separately. It may also be useful to concentrate on clarifying one’s internal energies before applying tantra to external situations. On the other hand, an outward orientation, toward practical action, is one of tantra’s most distinctive and valuable qualities.

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