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.
An abstract specification
In “Unclogging,” I claimed that “the method of Buddhist tantra is unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.” Anything that fits that definition is Buddhist tantra.
This is an abstract specification. It is an extremely generalized description of how Buddhist tantra works.
The specification might be implemented in wildly varying ways. In fact, it has been implemented in wildly different ways, developed over many centuries. The methods of traditional Buddhist tantra are extremely diverse; but all seem to me to meet this specification.
If future tantras may also be quite different (in details) from what has gone before, then there are hard questions about what can count as a workable innovation.
If you know tantra well, you may disagree with my definition. But whether it is right or wrong, I suggest that it is valuable to describe tantra abstractly.
An abstract specification is a guide to what counts as Buddhist tantra. For example, if one accepted the “unclogging” specification, then one would be receptive to the possibility of new practices that fit that description—even if they don’t look much like vintage-1959 Tibetan Buddhism.
One might also reject supposedly-tantric practices of vintage-1959 Tibetan Buddhism if they don’t serve the purpose of unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion. (In my opinion, many have other purposes, such as social control, and should be abandoned. More about that later in this series.)
If you have not practiced tantra, and find what I’ve said about it interesting, you may already have felt impatient. “Sounds good—now what to do I actually do?” In that case, the “unclogging” page may have been spectacularly unhelpful. It probably sounded totally vague and mystical.
What I would like to write is a practical tantra manual for beginners. “Here’s a series of simple, specific exercises that anyone can do, and that can get you well started on the path of a shiny new tantra, suitable for 2012.”
I can’t do that, though. Whether such a manual is possible, or even desirable, seems an open question.
There are a few teachers who present Buddhist tantra in contemporary language; for example, the lamas of the Aro gTér, which I practice. I’m not qualified to teach that; and it doesn’t have easy tantric practices you can begin after reading a web page.
Traditional tantra does, of course, have specific practices, with detailed instructions. But I don’t think describing them here would useful, or mostly even possible. You would probably find the details unappealing and unlikely. They make no sense outside of an elaborate context: a conceptual context, a social context, and a practice context.
For example, the best-known tantric practice is yidam. If you don’t have the background to understand how and why that works, your reaction is likely to be “yuck, that’s insane and stupid.” The short version is “pretend you are a sky god”; that doesn’t sound promising, does it? Yet yidam is among the most useful of the traditional tantric practices. (If you’d like to learn more, I recommend this modern introduction by Ken McLeod, or Ngakpa Chögyam’s book Wearing the Body of Visions.)
The methods of tantra that work most explicitly with energy are supposedly secret; but in reality, information is readily available. The best-known practice is “tummo”; Google will turn up thousands of pages about it, including detailed instructions. But tummo is “self-secret”: you can read all about it on the web, but it will make no sense, and probably you’ll learn nothing. That is another reason not to discuss traditional practices here.
The context necessary to make traditional tantric practices useful is difficult to recreate in the West. This is why it seems innovation is called for.
I’m certainly not qualified to bring forth new practices. That may make everything I write in this series pointless. Still, I will get a little more specific toward the end of the series, when I talk more explicitly about reinvention.
I do believe there are unclogging methods that are specific, direct, simple, quick, and effective. (I will point to the windhorse practice from Chögyam Trunpga’s Shambhala terma as an example.) It is possible that something like it would suitable for complete beginners.
Unclogging Consensus Buddhism
The “Unclogging” page is, I hope, an example of the process it describes. It is a part of an attempt to unclog energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.
Consensus Buddhism feels to me like a complex pattern of blocked and kinked energy flows. It is constricted by niceness, unconscious class assumptions, and unconscious modernist assumptions. It’s distorted by a series of dubious alliances and enmities—with other forms of Buddhism, and with non-Buddhist systems. It alternates between listlessness and irritation at its narrow demographics, its failure to suppress sexual misconduct among its own teachers, its love-hate relationship with tradition, and the sense that spiritual goals that seemed within reach thirty years ago remain elusive.
My last page addresses a specific blockage. Buddhism in the modern world naturally wants to flow into tantra, because tantra’s goals are aligned with modern goals, and tantra’s worldview is mostly compatible with the modern worldview. However, the way into Buddhist tantra was closed off in the early 1990s.
Therefore, the impulse has had to flow into psychotherapy, New Age nonsense, and Hindu tantra instead. Those offer other, non-Buddhist methods for energetic transformation. Consensus Buddhism has incorporated some of their practices and beliefs. (I will write more about this in a post titled “Looking for transformation in all the wrong places.”)
Consensus Buddhism’s rigid constrictions seem now to be loosening, and I hope to help free them further.
To reopen the tantric Buddhist path, we must combine spaciousness and passion.
The spaciousness here is openness to new ways of understanding Buddhism. The passion is our love of meditation, our gratitude for what we’ve received from tradition, and our determination to make them relevant and available to as many people as possible.