Our Buddhism goes to eleven

This amplifier goes to eleven

The method of intensification

Nigel Tufnel, guitarist in the decreasingly-fictional heavy metal band Spinal Tap, explained that they could play louder than anyone else because their amplifiers went to eleven.

Tantra has a similar approach. It is not the polite Middle Way between extremes. It is the way of glorious, ridiculous excess.

Most tantric practices crank it.

Tantra has a gonzo, over-the-top attitude. Increasing passion motivates extreme action. Increasing spaciousness gives room for extreme weirdness. Increasing energy fuels extreme emotion.

Developing spaciousness

Intensification is not a goal for its own sake. Deliberately creating intensity is not natural, and extremes have no particular value.

Instead, this is a method: an exercise, an aspect of the path. It prepares you for the culmination of tantra—fluid, effective action—by developing spaciousness.

Sutra (mainstream Buddhism) develops spaciousness in almost exactly the opposite way: through self-restraint. This is also a valuable method, and also not particularly natural; there’s nothing particularly enlightened about self-restraint itself.

It’s funny that sutra and tantra take opposite approaches to developing spaciousness—and they both work! You can use both methods—although not at the same time. With practice, you learn which is the best approach for you in particular situations.

Intensity builds capacity

Tantra is extreme because reality is extreme. One way or another, you are going to have to deal with sex, love, loss, conflict, failure, and our good friends “old age, sickness, and death.”

Sutra recommends that you minimize your exposure to such emotionally provocative situations. It recommends that you develop equanimity to meet them without passion when you cannot avoid them.

Tantra recommends that you gradually increase your ability to act effectively in extreme situations, by developing spaciousness and passion together. You can do that relatively safely by deliberately creating intensity, in a controlled situation. There you practice meeting strong feelings with accommodating space.

Intensity incinerates meaning

“Spaciousness” means letting go of the compulsion to make experiences mean something. Those meanings are mostly created conceptually.

Sufficient intensity actually overwhelms your ability to conceptualize. When you stub your toe, for a couple of seconds there is no thought; there is only pain. Or, you can be so angry, or so turned on sexually, that you can’t think. Usually this is considered a problem, but for tantra, it is an opportunity to experience reality without your concepts getting in the way.

Any intensity will do

Tantra contains endless methods for generating different intense experiences. Many of these are elaborate and technical. I think that’s unnecessary. What matters is an understanding of the principle of all these methods: you deliberately intensify experience, and commit to joining that with space.

It doesn’t matter what experience you intensify. Early tantra mostly used sexual pleasure. That is inherently intense, and has the happy byproduct of being enjoyable. Pain is just as good, and may be easier to arrange. It’s used a lot in Hindu tantra, but much less in Buddhism. You can use intense anxiety or desire or even boredom.

Recent Tibetan tantra makes extensive use of paranoia. The lama creates intense paranoia among his or her students, over totally trivial issues. The advantage here is that—because nothing real is at stake—it’s safer than working with rage or lust.

It’s pretty unpleasant, though. Also, inevitably, not all the paranoia gets successfully transformed into constructive activity. As a result, there is a strong undercurrent of paranoia throughout Tibetan Buddhism. This can be quite ugly and problematic; I’ll discuss that when I write about Tibetan politics.

Over-the-topness

Tantra promotes outrageousness—not from violating norms for their own sake, but because deliberate intensification is not normal, and takes you places most people never go.

The outrageousness of tantra is related to, but different from, the outrageousness of the 20th century bohemian artist. It shares a willingness to go into creative madness, and to accept terror and revulsion.

The slogan of the romantic rebel is épater le bourgeoisie: “let’s scandalize the middle-class squares!” This is aggressive and smug; the attitude is “we’re better than them because we can tolerate more weirdness.” That comparison is quite unnecessary.

Usually, tantra is outrageous in order to explode the limited conceptions of tantric practitioners themselves—not for the effect it has on other people. Occasionally it’s useful to shock the public, but only if that leads to some genuine benefit.

Going too far

In tantra, you may take it way too far, until it breaks. (Whatever “it” is.)

If it breaks, the breach reveals the underlying structure of experience, in the manner of breaking. Conceptual mind smoothes over the grittiness of experience, so long it is able to cope. When coping fails, you can see the machinery grinding away beneath that.

If you can maintain some spaciousness through the breakdown, what it reveals is likely to be very funny.

Big and stupid

Tantra is big and stupid. It’s like a wildly enthusiastic but not very bright St. Bernard puppy.

Sometimes it’s good to be stupid. It’s endearing, and it cuts through intellectual complexity that may just be a psychological defense against experiencing the rawness of reality.

But the amped-up stupidity of tantra can get tiring, tiresome, and stale—like heavy metal.

In that case, you might want to try Dzogchen, which is approximately tantra minus the big and stupid. I’ll say more about that later.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

19 thoughts on “Our Buddhism goes to eleven”

  1. David,

    Nice read!

    Tell me more about your view on the amped up stupidity of Tantra ? Is it the symbolism & iconography ? Or the sometimes “purposeful” ramping up of neurosis as a means to understanding their enlightened quality? It would appear, at least in our lineage, that one just uses what’s available and doesn’t purposely try to ramp up ones energy as suggested by some Lamas in some traditions – I’m thinking of Shabkar here (laughingly remembering your article on him)….

    Hope all is well!!

    Jason

  2. Hi Jason,

    It’s the unbridled emotionalism, combined with an attitude of just going with it (whatever “it” is), without stopping to ask a lot of questions about “does this make any sense?”.

    As a method, this can be extremely useful, particularly if you are practicing under the close guidance of a competent lama. If you insist on being intelligent, you can waste a lot of time balking at various things you don’t yet understand. The attitude of “vajra stupidity” cuts through that and hurtles you forward on the path.

    Of course, a lot of tantra doesn’t make any sense. Some of it works even though it doesn’t make sense; and a lot of it is rubbish. (In my opinion.)

    Within our lineage—the Aro gTér—there is quite a wide range of personal styles of practice; some more tantric, and others emphasizing Dzogchen. Overall, though, the lineage is more Dzogchen-ish, even in the tantric bits, than nearly any other Tibetan Buddhist system. So, yes, there’s less of a tendency to crank things way up in Aro than in most other lineages.

    Still, our ritual practices are designed to be energetically intense—think of the overwhelming din and the ferocious display of weaponry at a wrathful empowerment, for example. And when we practice joyous or wrathful yidams, there’s a deliberate ramping up of feelings.

    Best wishes,

    David

  3. Hi David,
    Thanks for this post.
    Just to let you know that the French phrase actually is “Epater le bourgeois” without an “e” at the end.
    Sacha

  4. Another step onwards in exploring alternative modes of being; love it!
    Would you be willing to share some actual examples used in the Aro-ter tradition that you have personally experienced? I don’t necessarily mean formal practice. I imagine that in part what you do in your group settings is create a space where the type of behaviour you describe is encouraged, or perhaps even normalised. Would that be the case? If so, do you have a sort of challenge from your lamas to go out in the world and experiment with a less restrained expression of your unique expression? Is there a dynamic where you get to meet your limits, fears even, with regards to the Tantric modality?
    http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.it/

  5. @ B.M.sharma — Yes, quite right. Some of the Dzogchen scriptures criticize Tantra for “artificiality,” relative to the “natural” Dzogchen approach of just allowing things to be as they are (and allowing yourself to be as you are). On the other hand, there’s nothing really wrong with applying an artificial method, so long as it has useful results, and so long as you understand that it’s not Ultimate Truth.

    @ Sacha — Oops! Thanks! I had actually meant to write bourgeoisie, which is a less common version of the expression, but makes better sense in context. I’ve fixed the typo now.

    @ Matthew O’Connell — Thanks for good questions!

    I think I should start with a few caveats. The Aro approach is more Dzogchen than tantra, so it’s more about working with naturally-arising intensity than about cranking it up. We do both, though.

    Also, I should say that Aro group retreats are quite structured. There are usually some intense activities, but they are orchestrated by the Lamas. This is important in a group context; if everyone is being wild and crazy in their own way, it’s likely to just be a mess.

    That said—yes, Aro retreats can be seriously intense and “challenging”. You can read about my experience with a recent one here. As another random example, we sometimes go swimming naked in heavy surf in a near-freezing ocean.

    If so, do you have a sort of challenge from your lamas to go out in the world and experiment with a less restrained expression of your unique expression?

    Yes, definitely. That’s a major aspect of the teaching.

    But, they also emphasize circumspection, dignity, and consideration. The tales of wild and crazy behavior by mahasiddhas are inspiring. On the other hand, if one deliberately sets out to be wild and crazy, one is likely to just do conventionally “wild and crazy things”, which generally means getting drunk, annoying people unnecessarily, and having sex with someone you really shouldn’t.

    In an upcoming post, I’ll write about “nobility,” which is right use of tantric power. Right use of power is unrestrained, and may be outrageous, but is always in service of others.

    Is there a dynamic where you get to meet your limits, fears even, with regards to the Tantric modality?

    Sure. For practice to be effective, you have to ride your edge—you need to push right up against your limits and fears.

    That can happen just in practicing silent sitting meditation; sometimes staying on the cushion for another five minutes is a heroic act.

    There are also formal practices designed to push you through fear; chöd is the most obvious example. Chöd is highly shamanic; you might find it to your liking! My next post is going to be about it, as it happens.

    Riding your edge could also be dramatic and public. My Lamas are English, and therefore (according to them) not fond of drama. That’s just a matter of individual personality display, though. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was famous for dramatic displays that were effective in an American context.

  6. Nice article as usual. For me the similarities in spaciousness by sutric and tantric approaches are strikingly close to each other, although the method varies, just like you said. Then again, Dzogchen’s natural relaxation can be found in both if one knows what to look for. They are not so different in essence from each other, but then again I suspect that is just the way things are, as these categories are a bit artificial in the first place, just to suit specific needs. YMMV of course.

    Talking about intense and challenging retreat experiences, swimming in cold water can be extreme for some, but I do know lamas who take their students parachute free falling and high speed motorcycle tours across the serpent roads in Alps. Some might employ other tactics to enable students to overcome their fears, like dangerous trekking routes in Nepal etc..For some just being in the mandala of their lama/s and other practitioners can be extreme enough.

    £Very enjoyable article indeed.

  7. I’m familiar with Chod. It has similar characteristics to various shamanic rituals, but interestingly enough dismemberment happens quite spontaneously in shamanic visioning work all by itself in all manner of ways. It doesn’t have an explicit intent because of this though, so differs in that respect. It acts as a destructor of self-grasping however, for obvious reasons, and leads to greater fearlessness. It tends to result in profound respect for the finite nature of existence and a much richer, felt connection to the natural world. Having your body devoured by ants, torn apart by lightening, being buried or burnt alive, all in technicolour 3D, can be quite an edge! A real exercise in letting go at a very deep level.

    ‘This is important in a group context; if everyone is being wild and crazy in their own way, it’s likely to just be a mess.’

    It seems to me that even in pushing the edge and unleashing our wilder natures, rules of engagement and a shared direction are required, otherwise there is a tendency to dispersion, loss of direction, or unnecessary interpersonal friction. With practice and time and maturity, a natural more measured and harmonious interaction between people’s wild natures is found; there is the creation of a group resonance that is grounded in a shared intent. This is something I have found in shamanic circles (albeit very few of them & only when a certain ripening has occurred), but never in Buddhism. In that quality of space, leadership naturally shifts and moves and something close to natural magic takes place.
    It seems to me that part of your work on Tantra is an attempt to imagine possibilities,a channelling of your enthusiasm for possibilities not yet materialised. I’d still love to hear of more actual experience with this mode of being :)

  8. Thanks, these are vital points!

    It seems to me that even in pushing the edge and unleashing our wilder natures, rules of engagement and a shared direction are required, otherwise there is a tendency to dispersion, loss of direction, or unnecessary interpersonal friction.

    Yes, exactly!

    With practice and time and maturity, a natural more measured and harmonious interaction between people’s wild natures is found; there is the creation of a group resonance that is grounded in a shared intent. This is something I have found in shamanic circles (albeit very few of them & only when a certain ripening has occurred), but never in Buddhism.

    Yes. I think this is really important. I was a Wiccan Neopagan before I was a Buddhist, and had that experience there, and wanted to find that dynamic in a Buddhist context. That’s very difficult, although it’s exactly what is needed for advanced work in Vajrayana. (This is the point of the tsok khorlo ritual, for example.) I think that mostly the Tibetans have forgotten how to do this.

    It is what the Aro Lamas want to have happen on our retreats, and sometimes it does. The Gésar martial arts retreat I mentioned was a good example. There was a lot of serious magic there, along with a lot of fun and a lot of craziness. (Most of it I haven’t described in my write-up, because it was meant more as a general introduction to the Gésar system.) This depends on having a group that gels in the right way, and that doesn’t always happen. Lama Bar-ché, who holds the Gésar terma, is brilliant at engendering this dynamic. You might consider going to one of his retreats in Helsinki.

    Mostly, you can’t get this depth of practice other than in a committed group of at most a few dozen. The Aro lamas deliberately restrict the number of their students for this reason.

    The last part of this series on tantra will be about reinventing Buddhist ritual. I’m going to draw on my experience with Neopaganism, and suggest that Western Buddhists could learn a great deal from it.

    I’d still love to hear of more actual experience with this mode of being

    Hmm. As is traditional in Buddhist tantra, our Lamas mainly discourage discussion of personal experiences. There’s many good reasons for that, although there are also good reasons to be open about them. It’s not a matter of secrecy, but of avoiding comparisons.

    I can speak in general terms, rather than about my personal experience… but I’m not sure what sort of thing you are looking for.

  9. Appreciate your response.

    I am not a strong proponent of secrecy, but for sure it has its place. It’s interesting to hear that you have had some similar experience in the neo-Pagan world.

    My curiosity has nothing to do with comparison, which I find frankly dull. I was more interested in the extent to which you might go in your tradition to challenge your edges, which can be incredibly personal as you pointed out.

    Meeting edges, both those which are harsh and soft, is one of the most daring and rewarding spiritual acts I know of. To hear that others are doing this work is very encouraging to me. I wanted to hear of some examples to get a sense of the authenticity at play, because as you are likely aware, meeting one’s edge at an Anthony Robbins fire walk is all well and good, but meeting your edges as an ongoing pursuit of awakening to the totality of experience is less common.

    I think I mentioned in a comment on another post of yours months back that I had been to a few Aro-Ter retreats when I was living in Bristol, just over the bridge from Cardiff. I appreciated the down-to-earth quality of all present and both Ngakpa Chogyam and the other teachers, were clearly human and not at all enamoured with institutionalised Tibetan Buddhism. It was all very English however and I wonder if they keep some of the more adventurous activity for apprentices only :) which is fine of course and appropriate in building community.

    I’ll check out Lama Bar-ché. Thanks.

  10. I was more interested in the extent to which you might go in your tradition to challenge your edges, which can be incredibly personal as you pointed out… I wanted to hear of some examples to get a sense of the authenticity at play

    Yes… so this is why it is a problem to give specific examples. Two reasons, actually. One is that it is totally personal, because what is easy for one person may be difficult for another, and vice versa. For example, I’ve written that I’m squeamish about eating insects, but enjoy mild cannibalism. It could be the other way around for someone else. Different Aro apprentices are also at different points along their path into spacious passion, and practices that are easy for some of the ordained would make me run screaming, whereas practices that are easy for me might make some new students run screaming.

    To rephrase your questions a bit, maybe you are asking, “OK, is this thing for real? Are you guys really hardcore, or are you pretending?” I’ve certainly come across groups who I thought were pretending. But then the second problem is the comparison one. How hardcore is hardcore enough? This could head towards a penis-size contest.

    Maybe the best I can say that if you want to be hardcore, there is plenty of room for that in the Aro sangha. There’s no limit, so long as you aren’t causing trouble for anyone else. On the other hand, the lamas are pretty gentle with those who are more timid.

    If you want to explore further, probably the best thing would be to arrange a private interview with one of the Aro lamas—Lama Bar-ché might be a good fit for you—and discuss the sorts of things you do, or want to do, and see how they react to that.

    I think I mentioned in a comment on another post of yours months back that I had been to a few Aro-Ter retreats

    Oh, I’d forgotten that…

    It was all very English however and I wonder if they keep some of the more adventurous activity for apprentices only

    Yes and yes.

    Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s teaching has become more and more Dzogchen-oriented, which is much less overtly challenging. Some of the other Lamas teach in a more tantric style (Bar-ché Dorje for example). Also, as Rinpoche’s sangha has aged, I think it’s natural that the gonzo quality has waned. Lama Bar-ché’s sangha is much younger and more energetic on average.

    Apprentice-only retreats are generally more hardcore than the public ones, for all the obvious reasons.

    By the way, Lama Bar-ché’s biography on the web is six years out of date and misses most of what he currently teaches… It’s past time for an updated version.

  11. After this I’ll leave you in peace :) I imagine you’re off to Buddhist Geeks? I’ll be watching it on live-stream when the time difference permits.
    Again, I appreciate your time in responding. I think your rephrasing of the question is off though, because as I mentioned, comparisons are dull. But I can see how you might perceive my curiosity in that way.
    Most of what I write are my own conclusions from personal experience rather than the repetition of what teachers of mine have had to say; so I’m not after a penis size contest :) From that perspective, rather than doubt the integrity of the Aro-Ter, I am a curious observer, curious to hear how you have personally gone from telling us what Tantra is, to experiencing for yourself what Tantra is, or for that matter those in your circle of dharma buddies. Because as I mentioned in a past comment, as far as I can tell, this level of engagement with the world is fundamentally a human endeavour and requires practice, especially in developing the courage to engage audaciously in any given environment. At that level I believe sharing experience is both educational and inspiring, as opposed to comparative and diminutive.
    So, to be more explicit in my intended questioning (which may be too personal and therefore rightly ignored by you), I was curious to hear examples, yours, or from members of the Aro-Ter, or anybody that you know who isn’t a Tibetan Lama, etc, that is having success at living this modality in their day to day lives and how that looks. The stories we have are often of eccentric masters from far away lands, but like you I am fully committed to a revisioing of western dharma with westerners as protagonists in the reshaping of dharma for the 21st century, so rather than deny the inspirational stories of Tibetan, Japanese, Indian practitioners, who went all the way so to speak, I’d like to start hearing some of our own. Does that make sense? Perhaps there are not enough explicit examples out there, but I kind of doubt that is the case. bringing the direct experience of these teachings home is what breaks a great deal of the mystification of the dharma as something exotic, or even special (as in superior, or abstract).
    I’m not after a new path, but thanks for the suggestions. I continue with the shamanic tradition, which I also teach, and work with a very talented Shingon teacher 1:1 (whom I think you know). I do love to hear about individuals and groups really engaging with the dharma at a deeply human level, not to compare, but because it’s the antithesis of the nice, consensus Buddhism that you have been so active in writing about. And because my actual dharma work is not practised within a group context, so my contemporaries are only from the shamanic world as far as meat space is concerned, and online for the Buddhist folk.
    Keep up the good work and enjoy your cannibalism!

  12. Ah, sorry, I think I understand better now.

    So, this is reminding me of the “Open Practice” advocated by ~C4Chaos here and further developed by Tom BH here. (Both of whom I greatly enjoyed meeting at last year’s Buddhist Geeks Conference.) Is that what you have in mind?

    I haven’t followed #openpractice carefully; I’d guess there’s a lot of reports from vipassana practitioners, and few from tantrikas?

    I need to think about this more. I agree with the intent in principle, but I’m reluctant in practice. When I think of specific examples, it doesn’t seem that they would be particularly useful (because they are so personal), and it does seem that could easily be misunderstood.

    It’s occurring to me that this may be an important function of meatspace sangha that I hadn’t entirely appreciated before. If a particular story is about someone I know personally, it makes sense in a way that it wouldn’t in the abstract. Hearing that Joe Bloggs had the courage to do X, and had some sort of result, is meaningful if I can visualize him and have a sense of where he is on his path. Hearing that some unnamed person did X, I’m likely to wonder “can I do X?” and then the answer is “yes, that’s easy, he must have been a wimp” or “no, I could never do that, I must be a wimp.” Maybe I’m more addicted to comparison than you!

    It’s occurring to me that Chhi’mèd Künzang (one of the Aro teachers) posted the video here in somewhat the #openpractice spirit. I’m not sure it will make sense out of context. If you can jump onto a barrel, you should be able to jump out of one, right? Same height. If you know him, the video is really funny. Maybe not so much otherwise.

    I’ll continue to think about how I could give specific examples—thank you very much for a most interesting dialog.

    Really glad to hear you are working with the teacher you didn’t name. I hope to see him this afternoon.

  13. You sound very authorative in telling the world how Buddhism and tantric practice should be. Is your Lama aware of this mission and do you have his approval? If so, does it mean that you are his proxy in doing so? I might have misunderstood something here, but to me it seems that this kind of elitism must be somehow hardcoded in Tibetan Buddhism, which seems unfortunate. I think we have enough of this us and them mentality in the world already, is it really necessary from Buddhists too? Just asking, don’t mean to hurt your feelings, apologies if it does.

  14. You sound very authorative in telling the world how Buddhism and tantric practice should be.

    I prefaced this whole series with a page on “Why I should shut up,” which explains that I am entirely unqualified to write about tantra, and no one should take what I say as authoritative. Having done that, I’m simply saying what I think. It seems that readers would find it tiresome for me to repeat the “I’m just some guy with a blog” message in every post.

    Is your Lama aware of this mission and do you have his approval?

    Yes, I discussed the project, in general terms, with my Lamas before starting. Ngak’chang Rinpoche said “Well, I suppose you probably can’t make things any worse.” (They find the general current misunderstanding of Vajrayana dismaying.)

    Maybe “reluctant permission” might characterize their attitude.

    does it mean that you are his proxy in doing so?

    No, definitely not. The approach I am taking here is very different in style from the Aro gTér (which they hold and teach). I believe that there is no substantive contradiction between my presentation and Aro; but that is only because (so far as I can see) neither one contradicts orthodox Indo-Tibetan Vajrayana.

    it seems that this kind of elitism must be somehow hardcoded in Tibetan Buddhism, which seems unfortunate.

    Elitism is hard-coded in Buddhist tantra (not Tibetan Buddhism—Tibetan Buddhism includes Hinayana, which is not elitist, and tantra exists in many places besides Tibet).

    I plan to write about that in an upcoming post. It’s an awkward, and important, issue.

    Elitism is not inherently good or bad; like most things, it can have good or bad effects, depending on how it is used.

  15. Hello David. Nice blog. Have you written anything about the controversies and different conceptions around Dzogchen and Rigpa? There seems to be a great consensus about it too…

    Got interested about it after reading this dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=48&t=7390&start=0 just add the usual triple w in front of it to make link workable..

    Cheers.

  16. This is a very immature naive and ignorant understanding of Tantra, and for that matter, Sutra. I think your knowledge of these subjects is very superficial and incredibly lacking in actual realisation. it’s like you have regurgitated some of the things you’ve read or been taught, with very little maturity. You should definitely have a proper consideration of Right-hand and left-hand paths before making such inane and sometimes stupid generalisations – you might see that some of the things you’ve said are quite wrong.

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