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.

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.)

Annoyingly abstract

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.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

20 thoughts on “Unclogging Consensus Buddhism”

  1. Do you spend much time with consensus buddhist practitioners, groups or teachers? Did something happen with them personally? After reading many posts about the subject I can’t help feeling that this reeks a bit like earthy smoky obsession to me? Almost like a crusade, vendetta or something similar? Almost like late Thinley Norbu Rinpoches obsessive almost aggressive opposition of nihilists and eternalists, which I never fully undersood.

    What have I missed? WHY is it such a big deal for you to mind what the rest of the buddhist world is doing?

    Sorry for speaking so bluntly, I mean not to offend, just to understand.

  2. >“Sounds good—now what to do I actually do?”
    FWIW, reading your previous post and applying the recent awareness from my practice of relatively solid emotional energetic manifestations in my body, with simply the suggestions of spaciousness and passion, as opposed to turning down the energy level in the whole system, prompted me to try softening and redirecting these emotion-energy-things into other manifestations rather than just waiting for them to disappear under my awareness. I do practice a bit of chi gung so that may have helped inform my actions.

    But yeah, I read your post and did some stuff and got good results, so thanks, and respect your own power to communicate beyond the actual content of the words :-)

  3. Yeah, Dave, what’s up with the grudge? You don’t think these Consensus folks are really causing any PROBLEMS do you?

    Maybe if you painstakingly wrote out a entire series explaining exactly why these guys are potentially such a big problem, and put it up on the internet, then we’d understand.

    Have you thought of doing that?

    Just an idea.

    :-)

  4. @MdM: One person’s “obsessive almost aggressive opposition of nihilists and eternalists” is a whole bunch of other folks’ “clarity about seductive potential misunderstandings of dharma.” Speaking for myself, and many friends. David, of course, doesn’t need my help.

  5. @ Mouchoir — These are fair questions. I ask myself a closely related question often: “Why am I spending so much time on this Consensus Buddhism stuff, which I don’t care personally about at all?”

    So… No, I don’t spend much time with Consensus-y people. I haven’t had any bad experiences with them that I can recall. I hope I don’t appear to be personally hostile, even though I do satirize some ideas, and occasionally people, sharply.

    The main reason I’m writing so much about this is that I keep getting positive feedback. I’d actually rather work on the Meaningness book, which seems more important, or the vampire novel, which is more fun. However, the people have spoken, via web statistics: this blog gets more traffic, comments, retweets, and so on.

    Apparently, it’s more interesting and/or useful to my audience. It seems that the topics are “live issues” for significant numbers of Buddhists.

    I had a hard time making sense of Kyabjé Thinley Norbu Rinpoche’s analysis of nihilism and eternalism (in White Sail) until, halfway through, I suddenly realized his discussion is in terms of tantra, particularly the tantric interpretation of tathagatagarbha, rather than Dzogchen. I had been assuming he would write in terms of Dzogchen, because obviously he could, but that kept failing to fit what he was actually saying. Once I re-framed it in tantric terms, it all made sense.

    Personally, I find the Dzogchen explanation more to my taste. But, particularly toward the end, that book is awesome for showing the the vastness of his mind. It becomes obvious how incredibly much further there is to go with meditation than I have gone.

    An interesting questions is “Why did he think a tantric analysis was more useful for America in 2001 [when it was published] than a Dzogchen analysis?” I’ve no idea what the answer to that is. I know very little about what and how and why he taught.

  6. @ bruce — FWIW, glad to hear that!

    From the very little I know about chi gung, it does seem to have some similarities to tantra. Relatedly, some scholars think that the energetic methods in Buddhist tantra came originally from Taoism.

  7. @ David

    Thanks for the answer. White Sail, as you said, seems to me too to be written from the POV of Tantra, which is fair enough given his intended audience. What I failed to fully comprehend though was the fact that the four philosophical extremes relate closely to four respective elements, inasmuch the neurotic qualities of the elements correspond to the liberated ones and I couldn’t put my finger on why he saw a problem with people having those views, possibly due to inability to see things from the POV of Tantra. I think it just felt odd to me as a concept to “attack” against certain views, not all of them with same gusto. See what I mean? Little like picking on people who are obsessive and paranoid, leaving greedy, angry and depressed out.

    Same applied to your comments as well. For me it seemed a bit too much territorialist and slightly obsessive too, almost Dharma Cop-like and it didn’t sit well with my idea about who and how you are, based on what I know. I stand corrected now.

    I am glad that you took the time to explain it to me. I’ll leave it there, so it is business as usual for the consensus view busters, and I am sure View & Veracity continues to sing your praise through all eternity. Oops, on second thought, perhaps not. ;)

  8. @ Kate Gowen

    Nor does he need mine. I just consider him as a friend, and have no fear of voicing my concerns. I am almost always open to change my view where shown faulty, and I didn’t intend my brute force comments in any malicious way, just so that you know.

    Have a lovely day!

    MdM

  9. Hi David,

    You write, ‘It becomes obvious how incredibly much further there is to go with meditation than I have gone.’ I just wondered how this makes you feel.

    It strikes me that although Buddhism claims to offer a path from dissatisfaction it actually feeds on it and reinforces it. One can never do enough practice. There’s always further to travel. One has to practice like ones hair is on fire (what a hideous simile!) because death stalks and there’s so far to go. Really, this is the hell from which ones seeks relief, isn’t it?

  10. Dear David,

    Thanks again for your stimulating writings. I was wondering, regarding “Relatedly, some scholars think that the energetic methods in Buddhist tantra came originally from Taoism,” if you had any scholarly sources your could recommend.

    All the best,

    Daniel

  11. (I am not speaking for David, but I felt like commenting.)

    @Mike: “It strikes me that although Buddhism claims to offer a path from dissatisfaction it
    actually feeds on it and reinforces it. One can never do enough practice. There’s always further to travel.”

    But so it is with any skill which requires practice. Any skill can be improved regardless of the level. Should I be dissatisfied as a astronomer because some more advanced instruments might and will prove some of my work wrong in the future? Though maybe I am just strange… The end of dissatisfaction does not motivate me. I begun both space science and Buddhist practice because pushing the boundaries of my (maybe others’) understanding is delightful. I am cool with that.

    “One has to practice like ones hair is on fire (what a hideous simile!) because death stalks and there’s so far to go. Really, this is the hell from which ones seeks relief, isn’t it?”

    I have heard, that you can find the wildest parties in hell…

    Yeah, death will come sooner or later. I could spend my time masturbating or doing something I perceive worthwhile regardless of my success – even both :D. Life can be a rocket which moves in chaotic trajectories and will explode when it reaches to orbit. But for some people tantric practice can make it a delightful chaos with majestic explosions of many colors.

  12. @ Mike — I think understand where you are coming from, and I have felt that way occasionally. But mostly I feel like Sky Serpent — it’s inspiring that there is so much interesting territory to explore, and it doesn’t bother me that I’ll never see most of it. I don’t really believe in “enlightenment” as a final “now I’ve got the whole thing forever” state. So “I won’t attain enlightenment” is not a meaningful problem for me. I love walking in mountains, but I don’t want to live at the top of Jomolungma (Mt. Everest).

    @ Daniel Mroz — Check out Geoffrey Samuel’s The Origins of Yoga and Tantra. I don’t have my copy with me, but my electronic notes file on it says that pages 278 and 285 discuss this; probably others around there. He probably cites sources with more detail, but unfortunately I can’t get that for you at the moment.

  13. David – Thanks very much. I had a look at Samuel’s book on its Amazon preview and it looks very interesting. I’ll get my hands one one…

    I ask because my friend, teacher and mentor, Dr. Michael Saso maintains that:

    “It is my strong conviction that Tantric Buddhists in Japan and in Tibet learned wuleifa 五雷法 from Daoists at the end of the Tang dynasty. The zhou咒 and shouyin 手印 are the same for Zhengyi Citan Daoists, and for Tibetan Buddhists. The images and concepts are from East, not South Asia.” (http://www.michaelsaso.org May 22, 2012)

    You can read a bit more about this on Dr. Saso’s site. His books and essays also abound, as an internet search will reveal.

    All the best,

    Daniel

  14. Hi Daniel,

    Ah, interesting. Well, yes, check out what Samuel says. My shaky recollection is that the Tantric Buddhist energetic practices are well-documented to have come to Tibet and to Japan (via China) from India. However, Samuel suggests that they previously came into Buddhist Tantra from Taoism, mainly because they are documented to have appeared in Taoism a couple of centuries earlier than in Tantric Buddhism. My memory is that they showed up in Indian Tantric Buddhism in the 800s, which is close to the end of the Tang, as Saso suggests (but again my memory for the dates is vague).

    If you learn more, I’d be interested to hear about it!

    What are zhou咒 and shouyin 手印 ?

    Thanks & best wishes,

    David

  15. David,

    Apologies for leaving bits of untranslated Chinese kicking about! Zhou Yu, literally ‘magic language’ is Chinese for mantra and shouyin, or ‘hand seals’ are mudras.

    An odd aside, some of the Daoist practices I’ve learned in the Lungmen (Dragon Gate) lineage (which is sortof Daoism-lite, created to copy institutional Buddhism and cash in on the colossal Imperial tax breaks offered to Buddhist monasteries), are exact parallels of Indian/Tibetan practices, with the seed-syllables for the various chakras (ling qiu or ‘spiritual spheres’ in Chinese) resembling their Sanskrit correlates: Om is for example rendered as Ong, etc…

    Apologies for dragging your post’s comments off into esoteric minutia!

    Thanks and all the best,

    Daniel

  16. Hi Daniel,

    Thank! I like esoteric minutiae, up to a point, anyway… So it sounds like the Buddhist modifications of the Taoist practices were then re-imported into Taoism. I wouldn’t be surprised if that version then got reimported into Buddhism again!

    The more I’ve learned about intellectual history, the more I find groups swiping each other’s concepts, rhetoric, and practices. The fact that Hinduism and Buddhism were enemies didn’t prevent them from repeatedly appropriating each other’s stuff wholesale, with tweaks as required to fit their respective frameworks, over at least a thousand years. It seems likely that Buddhism and Taoism did the same.

    Cheers,

    David

  17. @David
    > I don’t really believe in “enlightenment” as a final “now I’ve got the whole thing forever” state. So “I won’t attain enlightenment” is not a meaningful problem for me.

    Enlightenment the word seems to mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It also seems to really push many people’s buttons, so my apologies if I upset anyone with my following comments. My current understanding, taking the word enlightenment to mean the completion of 4 cycles of insight as mapped, for instance, by Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, is that it is a very achievable goal, as suggested for instance by Daniel Brown’s Pointing Out the Great Way where he suggests 3-5 years of practice might accomplish this.

    That said, my current understanding agrees what I understand of what David has written above: Enlightenment is nothing like the ultimate attainment.

    So I guess what I am saying is, I currently believe enlightenment is a very achievable goal, but by no means the ultimate goal.

    My understanding too of the prospects of attainment of enlightenment is that it is somewhat practice dependent, and that one could certainly practice for a good long time without attaining enlightenment, though probably achieving other attainments than the (tending to be) more rapid path to enlightenment (tends to) lead.

    I also agree with David’s and Sky Serpent’s view that it is not critical to achieve the ultimate. I think with the billions of people here on the planet that it is pretty obvious that the vast majority of us will never be the top of any category. Dealing with that near inevitability, as well as other even likelier prospects such as death is of course another matter, but one I think that Buddhism ought to be of some help with.

    Thanks for the tip that Taoist energy practices and Tantra might have some commonalities. That will be of great help in explorations in those directions!

    http://www.wisdompubs.org/Pages/display.lasso?-KeyValue=32808&-Token..
    http://www.interactivebuddha.com/mctb.shtml

  18. Just a thought.

    As form and emptiness are inseparable, does it apply to nirvana and samsara too? Enlightened state and unenlightened state dancing together? Are all the three kayas just ornaments or facets of the ultimate svabhavikakaya? Energy, essence and form inseparable?

    Possibly.

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