Charnel ground

You are trapped in a horrific video game, crawling with bloodthirsty ghouls. There is no way out.

When you reach the final level, the boss monster will eat you alive: GAME OVER.

It’s your move.

Many people reject Buddhist Tantra in favor of Consensus Buddhism, or modernized Theravada or Zen, because those seem realistic. These modernist Buddhisms sweep under the rug all the monsters, miracles, demons and deities of the Pali and Mahayana scriptures. Buddhism is supposed to be rational, scientific, and pragmatic.

Tantra, by contrast, seems incurably infested with magical superstitions.

I take the opposite view. Tantra is brutally realistic—because reality is brutal. It is Sutra (non-tantric Buddhism) that is a fantasy.

Sutra promises the path beyond all suffering. If you do everything right, you can escape this vale of tears into Neverland Nirvana.

Now there is a magical superstition. That fantasy runs far deeper than mere gods and demons. Spooks, after all, can be exorcized easily by declaring them to be psychological metaphors.

Tantra offers no salvation, no escape, no alternative, and no hope. Now that’s scientific, pragmatic, and sensible.

Antidote to hope

Many Western Buddhists implicitly imagine that Buddhism can somehow be The Answer To Life, The Universe, And Everything. Otherwise, we’d be totally fucked.

This is absurd. Life is diverse, and couldn’t have a single solution. Moreover, life is not a problem, so “solution” or “answer” is beside the point.

Anyway, we’re totally fucked. But existential optimism—“there must be a way out”—makes things worse than necessary. You waste effort chasing imaginary salvation, and keep feeling hurt when it doesn’t work out.

Tantra has an antidote.

It is a “practice of view,” which means developing the habit of interpreting the world in a particular way. Specifically, you view the world as a “charnel ground.”

Charnel grounds, in India, are places where unclaimed human corpses are dumped to rot, or be eaten. The bodies are not buried or burned; they are just left out. That’s a delightful buffet for the local carrion-eaters: jackals and hyaenas, tigers and bears, vultures and ravens.

Charnel grounds are dangerous, horrifying, chaotic places. None of the meat-eaters are picky about whether you are dead (except vultures). They are happy to eat living visitors. Unburied corpses also attract demons—in the Indian imagination—and are likely to produce ghosts and vetalas (zombies).

Sane, decent people avoid charnel grounds absolutely. That makes them ideal meeting places for dangerous, marginal people: brigands and spies, for instance, according to lore. Also dakinis (cannibal witches) and yogis (sorcerers): that is, tantric Buddhists.

A tantrika takes the same attitude to reality as to a charnel ground. Reality is a dangerous, horrifying, chaotic place. No one gets out of here alive.

We want to pretend that isn’t true. Most of the time, we convince ourselves that things are going tolerably well, and will get better, and death is remote. We have hope for the future.

Then we are surprised, and unprepared emotionally, any time something bad happens. We think: it wasn’t supposed to be this way! We think: there must be some way out! We think: Help! Buddha save me! These ideas are totally unrealistic, and make it harder to deal with whatever catastrophe is at hand.

General Buddhism recommends that you always remember that death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain.

Tantra goes beyond that: you visualize the full, grisly awfulness of death. This is an instance of the tantric method of intensification: cranking the horror up to eleven.

No escape

Often what people do in horror movies is try desperately to escape—usually in the stupidest way possible.

Religion is mostly also idiotic fantasies of escape.

So let’s cut that right off: there is nowhere you can go where you won’t find monsters feasting on piles of rotting corpses.

The entire universe is a charnel ground. It extends to infinity in every direction: across space, time, all dimensions. There was no glorious creation, no golden age of the past, no possibility of salvation in the future. If there are any alternate worlds, spiritual planes, or magical states of consciousness—they are also entirely charnel ground.

This is a situation of utter claustrophobia.

“But that can’t be true,” maybe you say. “It wouldn’t be fair! Life can’t just be endless suffering!”

Suffering

Tantra is not particularly interested in suffering.

If you complain about suffering, tantra says:

Of course there is suffering! What were you expecting?

You are a disposable walk-on character in a horror movie!

You were hoping for what? Beautiful naked deities, offering you bowls of nectar and ambrosia, maybe?

No existential hope

The point of viewing all reality as a charnel ground is to annihilate existential hope: the hope that you can somehow win the game; the hope that you can somehow escape; the hope that Buddhism will somehow rescue you from old age, sickness, and death.

Now, I hope my girlfriend will give me a Cthulhu plush toy for Christmas. Obviously, my life will be greatly improved if she does. A Cthulhu plush toy is the perfect proof of her affection, a superlative home decoration, and the best possible companion for times when she is away.

But this hope is for a merely practical improvement in my life—a “relative benefit,” in Buddhist jargon. A Cthulhu plush toy is a wonderful thing, but it is not a solution. It is really not very spiritual; it is not an “ultimate” or “absolute” benefit.

Alas: it cannot fix my existential state.

No salvation

It’s easy to misunderstand the method of charnel ground:

Oh, I get it! What a wonderful, paradoxical path to enlightenment! If I just fully embrace hopelessness, then I will be saved!

That is, of course, just more hope.

The only thing hopelessness saves you from is distorted perception. If you fully embrace hopelessness, you are saved from wasting time trying to escape the charnel ground.

But, if everything is utterly hopeless, then “wasting time” is hardly an issue, is it?

Or is it?

No hell on earth

The charnel ground—i.e., everyday reality—is not a hell. Traditional Buddhism does have hells, several of them, but the charnel ground is quite different.

The difference is not in the degree of suffering. Some Buddhist hells might be less bad than some lives in the real world.

The difference is that the inhabitants of hell are so busy feeding their rage that they see no possibility of curiosity, creativity, or celebration.

In hell, nearly everyone has the attitude:

I shouldn’t be here! It wasn’t supposed to be this way! I hate these demons who are torturing me! I hate everyone who had a better rebirth—they think they are so superior! God is a mean motherfucker! It’s not fair!

When you die, the Sorting Hat sends you to your next destination based on your typical emotion in life. For example, if you are angry, you go to hell. That works the same way no matter where you die.

The Hat sends nearly everyone who dies in hell straight back there. Some of the hells are so lethal that the whole process only takes a few seconds per rebirth. So beings die in hell over and over, for countless eons, because they keep getting angry about the whole thing. If you just drop that, then you go somewhere else next time you die.

We can translate this into something practical, using the standard modern Buddhist move of reinterpreting the Six Realms of Rebirth as psychological states.

As long as you are resentful about suffering, as long as you think the world should be different, then you are stuck obsessing over how unfair it is, and scheming about how to escape. And that just makes you angry and miserable all over again.

Charnel ground practice means giving up on that cycle. You simply lose all interest in how life ought to be.

As soon as you forget about “ought to be,” you are left with life just as it is: chaos, horror, death and all.

In that, there is absolutely no hope. But there is opportunity.

Garden of horrors

When you accept that it extends to infinity, you realize that the claustrophobic charnel ground—exactly because there is nowhere else—is a land of total openness and freedom.

You can set off in any direction to explore the scenery. The geography is endlessly varied. There are lakes of fire, rivers of poison, and oceans of blood. There are forests of cannibal trees, and of course the Nameless Lurking Evils at the Mountains of Madness.

So the charnel ground is also a horrifying amusement park. There’s lots to see and do—always something new, in fact.

Instead of trying to escape:

  • You could have fun compiling an atlas.
  • You could throw a party. You could invite the zombies. (Just make sure to collect lots of brains first. You wouldn’t want to be a stingy host.)
  • You could write a geeky identification guide to the many species of demons.
  • You could grow a garden of poisonous flowers. You could learn alchemy and refine poisonous herbal extracts into magical potions.
  • You could go talk to the cannibal witches. They’re unusual company. They might eat you, but something else could happen. Romance is possible

Sooner or later, you’ll die horribly. But you might as well do something interesting in the mean time, not just cower in a corner. Reality is a splatter movie, but it is also an adventure story and a romantic comedy—all at the same time.

Tantra is given to flights of fantasy, because reality is fantastical. Confronted with over-the-top horror in real life, you might as well laugh at the outrageousness of it.

Etcetera

This post is meant to be read together with the next one, “Pure Land.” The two represent mirror-image approaches—nihilistic and eternalistic—to the same non-dual realization. That is hinted at near the end of this post; the following one makes it more explicit.

Charnel ground practice has been part of Buddhism from very early on. I’ve written a little about the Sutric (mainstream) approach. Its goal is exactly opposite of tantra’s. The point is to develop “revulsion for samsara.” If you really understood how awful the world is, you’d be sufficiently motivated to escape it. (Whereas, in tantra, you absolutely can’t escape, and even if you could, you shouldn’t want to. It is only in a world of suffering that you can help others.)

In Tibetan Buddhism, the best-known charnel ground practice is chöd. There are several books on chöd, but I can’t really recommend any of them; they are either tediously academic or bizarrely Consensus-y. (Turning a horrifying ritual of demonic human sacrifice into a nice safe brand of psychotherapy is an extraordinary accomplishment. But, seriously, WTF?)

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the abbot of Surmang monastery, which was famous for chöd practice. As far as I know, he never taught chöd in the West. However, the charnel ground attitude is implicit in many of his books. Giving up all hope of salvation is the central theme in his Crazy Wisdom, for example. In fact, he defines “crazy wisdom” as utter hopelessness (page 10). (Chapter 4 is also explicitly about the charnel ground.)

My website Buddhism For Vampires draws much of its imagery from traditional descriptions of charnel ground practice. If you are into that sort of thing, a good source is Nebesky-Wojkowitz’s Oracles and Demons of Tibet. I particularly loved the description of the palace of Dorje Shugden (pp. 136ff). It’s built from the skulls of demons, ornamented with human hearts and severed heads. Inside there are festoons of wet intestines. Human skins and tiger-hides are stitched together into wall hangings. Everything is dripping with pus and blood. Around the throne, skeletons and zombies dance…

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

64 thoughts on “Charnel ground”

  1. When you say

    “Tantra offers no salvation, no escape, no alternative, and no hope. Now that’s scientific, pragmatic, and sensible.”

    You are comparing apples to oranges. That is, comparing traditional sutrayana to a modernized take on vajrayana. Because traditionally vajrayana offers all of the sutrayana goodies, and then some.

  2. For a less Cthonian view, there is of course the philosophy of Clockwise (It’s not the despair – the despair I can take – it’s the hope. . .)

    A rather English Middle Class Charnel Ground, but a Charnel Ground nonetheless.

  3. Aw, plushie so cute… And causes incurable madness too!

    May I ask precisely what is meant by ‘suffering’ in this context? Because it occurs to me that this being trapped with suffering is not *necessarily* incompatible with sutric Buddhism. For example, it’s accepted that (e.g.) pain carries on as before (the Buddha is speculated to have been a migraine sufferer) but that there is a certain ‘freedom in pain’ that comes with relinquishment of clinging. This is, of course, only one interpretation of sutric Buddhism, but if by suffering we include things like pain, nausea, etc., then it is not clear that we ever get to get away from it.

    Or am I totally off track (been reading too much modernized Theravada)?

  4. @ Greg — Hmm, seems to me I’m comparing apples (modernized Sutrayana) with apples (modernized Tantrayana).

    Most of the modernist Buddhisms still dangle the carrot of Enlightenment, or the end of suffering, or some other metaphysical salvation, even if they may be rather vague about what exactly they are offering.

    I think this will be one of the dividing lines between modern and after-modern Buddhism. Modernity requires some sort of foundational myth (such as Enlightenment), whereas the after-modern period has lost interest in that.

    Also, one can do a different apples-to-apples comparison, of traditional Sutrayana with traditional Tantrayana. While it’s true that, as you say, most strands of Tantra offer assorted implausible goodies, there really is a no-hope, no-salvation strand in the tradition as well. Neither Chögyam Trungpa nor I are making that up; we’re just foregrounding it as an aspect of tradition that is useful as a tool for overcoming the false hopes of modernity.

    Are there also any strands of traditional Sutrayana that offer no hope? Perhaps some versions of Zen? I don’t know much about that.

    @ ACPhilosopher — Thank you very much!

    @ She-zer — Maybe Someone will get you one, if you drop a heavy enough hint.

    @ Duff — It’s not that I’m critical of “nice chöd,” it’s that I’m kind of bemused. It’s just such a radical appropriation and transformation.

    I’ve talked with people who practice it, and it’s clearly helpful for them, and I think I more-or-less understand how and why.

    I guess this is a neat illustration of the fact that traditional practices can be re-made for current circumstances in dramatically different ways, depending on what you want to accomplish. So there could many extremely different future Buddhisms that borrow elements from traditional Tibetan Tantra, reinterpreting them according to taste.

    @ James — Well, I think it’s up to proponents to explain what they mean by “suffering” and how they propose to end it. I don’t know that there’s any version of Sutrayana that doesn’t promise an end to dukkha. However, if you push hard on different Buddhisms, you’ll get different stories about what exactly dukkha is and how it can be ended.

    What I’d emphasize is that anyone who is shopping for a brand of Buddhism ought to ask hard questions about that, and not accept vague, facile, or supernatural answers. I think most Buddhisms get away with highly dubious advertising claims in this area.

    I also think that some versions of “the end of suffering” are quite plausible. If you interpret “suffering” as “resistance to things being as they are,” then successful tantric charnel ground practice is “the end of suffering,” tautologically.

    I hope that doesn’t give anyone any hope, however.

  5. Hope is a view. Hopelessness is another view. Views from a certain view are almost inseparably similar independent of their “content” [principle and function]. I wonder what [or who] is for dinner?

  6. Even the traditional “no-hope, no-salvation strand” was more of a pedagogical tool in the service of the only traditional goal there ever was, samyaksambuddha-hood.

    And I don’t think most modernist sutrayana schools are still dangling the carrot of enlightenment. However, I do think they are confused about what they *are* dangling, and are generally embarrassed to confront the question at all. They haven’t been willing to disown that carrot either.

  7. How very interesting.
    Did I get something wrong? All that tantra smells a bit of nihilism, eternalism and magical thinking to me, what to speak of the erroneus view of rebirths. Must have misunderstood them then. Or do i see things more from nondual pov…?

    I must have gotten chod and charnel grounds totally wrong too. Must be a indo-tibetan cultural thing to actually believe in objective demons. I thought the sole purpose was to trigger strong emotions ie fear, to practice with. That is why western cemeteries dont work, too tame and tidy. War zones might do.

    Did you know that some chod masters didnt start teaching chod before 3-6 tantric ngondros were finished by prospective students?

    I was under impression that Shugden especially was aggresively antagonistic towards Nyingmapas, and as such is not considered a dharmapala by most Nyingma lamas. Then again I imagine they consider demons real.

    Interesting to find you so fascinated by it.

    Well written though although a bit overdone stylistically imnsho.

  8. What’s the point of practicing at all? To show off to the rest of the world what a “hardcore” Buddhist you are?

    Show me something you have to bring to the table that any armchair nihilist hasn’t already been fully aware of for most of their lives.

  9. David, you write ‘While it’s true that, as you say, most strands of Tantra offer assorted implausible goodies, there really is a no-hope, no-salvation strand in the tradition as well.’ This is certainly true. In fact, if you rummage around enough you can find just about every possible view lurking somewhere within the vast edifice of Buddhism, as one might expect after 2500 years of trying to make sense of the original teachings, whatever they were. Probably the same applies to most religions of vintage, even if orthodoxy usually keeps minority views well marginalised. What shines out of this great pickle of views is our ineluctable human reality – that life confounds us and we cannot quite bring ourselves to accept that there isn’t some way of getting it right, even if no-one has yet entirely managed it. We are sucked into Buddhism, as to other religions, by hope for something better, only to have our illusions shattered and replaced, endlessly, by ever more subtle versions of the original hope. Torn agonisingly on a rack between the apparent alternatives of accepting things as they are and trying to bend them to our will we sign up to beguilingly sophisticated systems of practice and belief that all promise some way off the rack, or – for the more advanced practitioners – some way to stay on the rack without actually staying on the rack. Even when we’ve seen through our own devices we keep at it because there’s nowhere else to go.

  10. Fair enough. For what it’s worth, Lama Tsultrim also teaches traditional chöd, which ends up being an extremely complicated practice involving chanting in Tibetan and drumming and hitting a bell in odd rhythms all while visualizing, etc. It’s a bit too complicated and foreign for most lay Westerners, I suspect. Just getting a handle on how to do the drumming is quite a challenge.

    You say that Tantra doesn’t care about suffering, which I find interesting, because I’ve always considered Tantra to be about transformation primarily, which is all about suffering and the ending of suffering. Rather than being vague about it though, I prefer to consider specific instances of suffering and their resolution, which doesn’t necessarily resolve ALL suffering in a person’s life, but instead confronts them with their ongoing reality which necessarily involves some sort of suffering. Therefore effective psychotherapy (which is rare, but does occur, and isn’t always “nice” but can be confrontational, etc.) is Tantra.

    I also tend to consider Tantra to be about “doing the best you can with what you’ve got” instead of becoming a monk or waiting for perfect conditions to become enlightened, after the examples of the mahasiddhas and their great diversity of lives and personalities.

    Am I being too consensus-y? :)

  11. Wow, thank you all for such interesting comments!

    @ Greg — The mahayoga and anuttaratantra scriptures themselves seem to have various goals besides Buddhahood, which they often only pay vague lip service to. For a lot of that literature, raw power is main point. There’s only a thin quasi-Buddhist veneer, in the introduction, to make that sound OK. The rest is meant to be practical in the real world, and has nothing to do with enlightenment.

    And I don’t think most modernist sutrayana schools are still dangling the carrot of enlightenment. However, I do think they are confused about what they *are* dangling, and are generally embarrassed to confront the question at all. They haven’t been willing to disown that carrot either.

    I think we basically agree here. They are still dangling the carrot of Enlightenment, by default or explicitly, depending on the particular school. (Except in some rare cases where they’ve explicitly disowned it.) They are still telling fairy stories about The Buddha, for instance.

    This is a problem, and yes I think it’s one a lot of modernist Buddhist leaders are embarrassed about but unwilling to confront. In the last paragraph, I linked to the Speculative Non-Buddhism site, which is trying to get people to face up to these sorts of conceptual muddles. So am I, in a rather different style…

    @ John Paul & Wanderer — I am glad you brought up eternalism & nihilism, since that is where I am ultimately going with this. As you may know, I’m writing a book on the subject, some bits of which are online. There’s a preview of my approach here.

    My view of Buddhism is rooted in Dzogchen, which criticizes tantra for falling into both eternalism & nihilism at times. Dzogchen claims to avoid that, and to have a correct, non-dual view. I’m not sure whether it gets everything right, either, but it’s a lot closer. I’ve explained earlier the reasons I’m writing about tantra rather than Dzogchen. The version of tantra I’m presenting is reworked in the light of the Dzogchen view. (That was also true of the innovative versions of the 1980s, for example Trungpa Rinpoche’s.)

    Tantra as it exists today is pervaded by magical thinking (a symptom of eternalism). I will argue later that there’s no obstacle to removing that—just as magical thinking was mostly removed from modern sutrayana. In fact, as I suggest early in this post, we can easily remove magical “enlightenment” from tantra, because of its practical orientation. It’s less clear that you can do that with sutrayana and have anything much left.

    The practice I described in this post is sometimes called “innermost chöd.” It doesn’t have quite the same function as the regular, “outer” chöd. The outer chöd is not only about triggering fear for the sake of a strong emotion, though. It’s also about being willing to let go of safety in order to explore chaotic, dangerous situations for the benefit of others. The “garden of horrors” section, above, makes that connection.

    Did you know that some chod masters didnt start teaching chod before 3-6 tantric ngondros were finished by prospective students?

    I didn’t know, but I’m not surprised. Tibetan teachers are all over the map about prerequisites. This is one of the biggest problems for tantra in the West currently. I’ll be writing more about that eventually. It needs to get sorted out.

    I have no particular interest in Shugden; I just liked the description of his palace, for its grisliness. I’m aware of the Shugden controversy, of course.

    Well written though although a bit overdone stylistically

    Thanks for the compliment. If you find this overdone, you should read the tantras themselves! I am extremely restrained by comparison. Overwriting is an instance of the tantric method of intensification. Florid language is helpful in explaining florid practices.

    Wanderer — The point of this charnel ground practice is to extinguish belief in ultimate purposes (eternalism), while reinforcing commitment to relative ones (thereby dispelling nihilism). The “garden” section of the post points toward the non-nihilistic attitude I hold. You can read more about that over on my book site.

    @ Mike — Thanks; I agree with all that!

    Indeed, there is nowhere else to go, and yet we have time in which to do something. I believe that rummaging around in the ruins of tantra can turn up some tools for doing interesting, enjoyable, useful things, while avoiding the twin errors of eternalism and nihilism—hope and despair.

    @ Duff:

    I prefer to consider specific instances of suffering and their resolution, which doesn’t necessarily resolve ALL suffering in a person’s life, but instead confronts them with their ongoing reality

    That sounds good to me!

    The most common presentations of tantra are indeed in terms of “transformation”; but tantra means something pretty different by that than psychotherapy does.

    I think if you went back to the tantric scriptures, you’d probably find that most discussions of transformation don’t talk about suffering. (But, I haven’t actually done this experiment; I could be quite wrong.) Current Tibetan presentations of tantra, on the other hand, are usually heavily tinged with sutra, which of course is indeed all about suffering.

    Anyway, as I wrote earlier:

    In my overview, I will often write “tantra is X,” or “tantra says Y,” or “tantric practice does Z.” As generalizations, these will always be false.

    What I mean is: “It seems to me that tantra can be X, say Y, or do Z—and I think that’s a good thing. That is the approach to tantra I favor.”

    I find suffering boring, and sutra and psychotherapy already address it. I’d like tantra to be about something different. I think tantra has resources for addressing more important issues.

    I also tend to consider Tantra to be about “doing the best you can with what you’ve got” instead of becoming a monk or waiting for perfect conditions to become enlightened, after the examples of the mahasiddhas and their great diversity of lives and personalities.

    Yes, definitely!

    I’d like to flag “instead of becoming a monk,” though. Implicit in that might be the idea that becoming a monk would provide ideal circumstances, and that lay life is second best. I think monasteries are entirely wrong environments for practicing tantra, and that tantra is incompatible with vinaya. (Many Tibetans would disagree, of course.)

    The same argument could be made for Bodhisattvayana, as well, on the basis of the Vimalakirti Sutra, for instance. But that’s a less clear case.

  12. I don’t know that this has anything to do with Buddhist practice one way or another, but I can’t think about the topic of charnel grounds without thinking about the all-too-real gardens of horror that we’ve managed to create (Auschwitz, the the Rwandan genocide, and so many more) and the imaginary future ones that have been threatening for most of my life (nuclear annihilation and all the fictional post-apocalyptic landscapes in movies and science fiction).

    These are all too real (or potentially real), but not having encountered them personally they are also necessarily somewhat imaginary, and forming an attitude to them that is not mentally crippling or otherwise suffering-inducing has been an interesting problem.

  13. @ mtraven — Yes. Contemplation of such awfulness can and should be a part of any Buddhist practice (not just tantra).

    It doesn’t have to cause suffering, but I’m not sure there’s anything I can say about “why not” that won’t sound like facile happy-talk. However: The textbook explanation is that accurate compassion arises from a ground of emptiness. Starting from a position of emptiness does not shield yourself from the suffering of others—ideally, instead, it collapses all separation—but it means that your emotional response is “the genuine heart of sadness” rather than suffering on your own side.

    Sadness is not a bad thing, and not separate from joy.

  14. Re: “The mahayoga and anuttaratantra scriptures themselves seem to have various goals besides Buddhahood, which they often only pay vague lip service to. For a lot of that literature, raw power is main point. There’s only a thin quasi-Buddhist veneer, in the introduction, to make that sound OK. The rest is meant to be practical in the real world, and has nothing to do with enlightenment.”

    Not sure I agree with that. Regarding mahayoga, I quickly consulted Boord’s A Bolt Of Lightning From The Blue, and in there we find more than a little Buddhist gloss. As far as yoginitantra goes, consulting Gray’s Cakrasamvara translation, your point is a little more sound. But most of the tantra itself is about the nuts and bolts of the ritual procedure itself more than anything else.- so in that sense everything else is just a thin gloss.

    And while there certainly is a fair amount of advertising for various promised magical powers, great bliss and enjoyment, and so forth (leaving aside the question of how “pragmatic” that is), that is a far cry from the “no salvation, no escape, no alternative, and no hope” you are arguing for.

  15. This post has gotten big traffic in the past day because it was picked up on the Buddhism Reddit.

    It’s interesting reading the comments over there. Lots of different reactions.

    Mostly, what they seem to reveal is that serializing a book-length work as blog posts doesn’t work very well. Some commenters thought that this post was supposed to be a definition of tantra—whereas of course it’s about the 20th post in a series of about 80, and just describes one particular tantric practice.

    I think quite often about the future of book-length writing. Paper books are obsolete, for sure. And e-Books are The Wrong Thing because they are static and non-interactive. Essentially, an ebook is a a lobotomized web site. (The underlying technology for them is HTML, in fact.)

    What we don’t yet have is either good technology, nor social conventions, for how book-sized ideas can be presented in an interactive hypertext format.

  16. @ Greg — The Chakrasamvara Tantra is indeed a good example.

    So, the “various promised magical powers, great bliss and enjoyment” are all “pragmatic” in the sense that they are worldly benefits—not about escape. The promises are probably mainly unrealistic, but their aim is not Buddhahood, it’s power and fun in real world.

    I’m going to be writing more about “no salvation, no escape, no alternative, and no existential hope” (including, in passing, its scriptural basis) in future posts. I think the best summary is in Chögyam Trungpa’s Crazy Wisdom, though. Pages 9-13 are his essential statement on hopelessness. See also pp. 42-43 on fantasies of nirvana, and the discussion of suffering and the Four Noble Truths on 119-120. “Suffering is not regarded as something you should avoid or abandon”.

  17. No doubt Chogyam Trunpga talks about those things. But I doubt you’ll be able to find much of that sentiment anywhere else. How traditional it is is highly debatable. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that it is mostly his idiosyncratic gloss, for whatever its worth.

  18. David,

    That was a fantastic article! Do you think Shambhala Sun will publish it?

    For decades I’ve identified myself as kind-of-Buddhist but only because I liked some Buddhist practices and certain Buddhist views of self but I never could buy the ideology. Since reading you, for the last two years, I have become clear on what I don’t like about Consensus Buddhism and realized I agree with what you call “Tantric” thinking.

    It does appear I have and do hold a ‘tantra-esque’ philosophy and it would be cool to join a group who does, but that is hard from several angles:

    (1) Tantric buddhism comes with the necessity of having a teacher/guru/lama that you are willing to treat like a deity and to try and commit to them over your own view. Thus all the obvious pitfalls that come with that.

    (2) Even if you find such a person, they can reject you (and do)

    (3) Most cost such groups can involve significant money and travel

    (4) They are often tied up with a Tibetan-phile culture with a huge anti-science component

    (5) The pre-lim exercises for such group are ridiculous: hundreds of thousand prostrations, chanting and more.

    I know you have written about these elsewhere. But when someone writes enticing thoughts and ideas on any hobby or organization, it is easy to pursue. But your “Tantric Buddhism”, written about so enticingly, is far from easily available and comes with many apparent problems.

    I guess you hope your writing helps open other folks to teaching and using in the future so that these issues slowly improve. But it seems unfortunate that the guru-worship thing is always central to tantra. It would seem there would be ways to approach this philosophy and viewpoint without that method. It would be fun to read something like “Tantric thought among Secular Non-Buddhist”. I know you have thought about all this a great deal — and written about it too.

    This is just my way of saying, “I, again, love your article! I only wish it were possible to approach Tantra without all those obstacles.” Consensus Buddhism is much more approachable — I just don’t agree with them for all the reasons you write here and you have helped me understand why I reject the consensus and have never been able to identify as Buddhist.

    Reactions to your articles involve some just trying to challenge your view or over-generalization about Consensus Buddhism, or some may want to understand Tantric more. But for me, it is “how-come it ain’t more approachable”?

    On a very pragmatic note: I agree that “the modernist Buddhisms still dangle the carrot of Enlightenment, or end of suffering, or some other metaphysical salvation …” The tantra offering is some radical transformation of person — and I have not observed that in followers. I see similar tendencies that are now covered with lots of cool philosophical clothing. I wish someone would study if Tantra really offers what it promises — for they all illicitly or explicitly promise something. We need to test it.

    This article is full of brilliant sayings and ways of holding difficult concepts with great non-Buddhist expressions! It is a sort of Stealth Tantric Dharma I hope to read it over-and-over several times to see if I can let those secular ideas sink into my mind. Perhaps the best way to preserve a Dzogchen Tantric view is in secular culture — maybe it is time to give up on religion as a vehicle. Your writings, seems to start that in some ways.

    Thank you for all your effort writing this.

    PS – (after reading comments): I am not sure that writing with tons of hypertext is the answer either — it is intimidating and makes one despair of all the info they will never know. Maybe, instead of a paperback or an e-book, the best going thing for now is to put up a YouTube channel and do a 10 video short series on whatever your favorite blogging theme is? You might need someone to help you since that is a new form. That, could bring more into common, shared, non-religious culture — especially with your Vampire spin. (sorry for the length of the comment — well, sort of sorry!)

  19. Sabio, thanks for an exceptionally insightful comment!

    I think your list of obstacles is correct and valuable. So, what I’m doing at this point is explaining in abstract terms what tantra could be, stripped of traditions that are no longer functional. This is meant to be inspiring, and also as a basis of shared understanding: a structural summary (because I actually couldn’t find one anywhere that was written in contemporary English).

    Later, I will get more concrete about “reinvention,” which requires addressing the obstacles you listed. I think all of them are quite tractable in principle. The biggest problem, really, is “who is willing and able to do this,” given that I’m not.

    The tantra offering is some radical transformation of person — and I have not observed that in followers.

    I’ve seen it radically change some people. The success rate is not high.

    I wish someone would study if Tantra really offers what it promises — for they all illicitly or explicitly promise something. We need to test it.

    Yes. But, serious work on testing Consensus vipassana is only just starting, and that’s a lot easier for researchers to work with than tantra (as it exists now).

    Willoughby Britton’s data at the Buddhist Geeks Conference suggested that most people who practice vipassana for a decade get little out of it, but a few people do change dramatically (and measurably, objectively). I’m sure you’d find the same for tantra (if you could figure out what to measure).

    What this strongly suggests is that better methods are needed—some people get the benefit and most don’t, so we should figure out what’s different. Of course, it might be constitutional, but more likely it’s a question of whether you are actually doing the practice, or if you’ve misunderstood or have reinterpreted it into something more comfortable that doesn’t work.

    Vipassana is the Consensus’ killer app. It’s simple and works and you don’t need to install a whole lot of dubious cultural operating system to run it. We need one like that for tantra.

    Perhaps the best way to preserve a Dzogchen Tantric view is in secular culture — maybe it is time to give up on religion as a vehicle.

    Yes. I’ll do that at this end of this blog (which means probably on my deathbed, at the rate I’m writing).

    I don’t advocate ending Buddhism as a religion, but that may happen whether we like it or not. If that is likely, I want to help ensure that elements of Vajrayana enter secular culture—not just Theravada and Zen.

    Re YouTube. Originally, I had planned to do the Consensus series as a podcast, or maybe a handful of podcasts. I thought that the material wasn’t important enough to spend the time to actually write out the three or four web pages that would be required, and a podcast would be easier and good enough for the job.

    More than a year later, the outline has expanded to well over a hundred posts. And, the two experiences I’ve had with podcasts suggest that they are far more work to prepare than web pages. (Each podcast involved more than a week’s worth of preliminary work; a web page takes me about three days on average.)

    Probably with practice, I’d get to be able to just blather in a vaguely interesting way, and then podcasts would be less work. At first, though, they’d probably be pretty awful.

    Maybe this is an instance of the best [I can do] being an enemy of the good [enough].

    BTW, the Shambhala Sun has invited me to write something for their online edition. I’ve said “not yet.” A good fit for that would be something inspiring about future tantra that doesn’t push anyone’s buttons. I expect I’ll be able to do that in a year, but not now.

  20. @ David,
    Thanks for the fantastic response. You said:

    Willoughby Britton’s data at the Buddhist Geeks Conference suggested that most people who practice vipassana for a decade get little out of it, but a few people do change dramatically (and measurably, objectively). I’m sure you’d find the same for tantra (if you could figure out what to measure).

    What this strongly suggests is that better methods are needed—some people get the benefit and most don’t, so we should figure out what’s different. Of course, it might be constitutional, but more likely it’s a question of whether you are actually doing the practice, or if you’ve misunderstood or have reinterpreted it into something more comfortable that doesn’t work.

    I have thought about that a lot. Indeed, I think it is constitutional and NOT the method. I have always wondered if even our amazing teachers are constitutionally built to be who they are and almost any method would have worked. You think it is fit, but do you really see fit working in Vajrayana which is all about fit?

    My deeply skeptical side says that great swimmer are people whose bodies/minds are built to swim — same with shotputters, highjumpers, pilots etc. Then these great try to teach people to do what they did, but it is a joke. Of course this is not true with all things, but I wonder about changes via meditation.

    You actually stated my suspicions well.
    Not to say people can’t skillfully deceive themselves to think otherwise — especially with lots of investments and surrounded by like thinkers all chanting some unknowable language.

    Thanx (more later)

  21. @ David Chapman,
    I”ve finally gotten back to your reply:

    You said your purpose is:

    to be inspiring … a structural summary … reinvention

    Got it. The problem with slow publications done piecemeal on the web is to remember the goal. Thanks for the reminder.

    I’ve seen it radically change some people. The success rate is not high.

    Would other Tantricists agree with you? Do you feel your use of Tantric methods transformed you. Would others agree with you?

    I want to help ensure that elements of Vajrayana enter secular culture—not just Theravada and Zen.

    Given that Dzogchen is your primary practice, how do you see Dzochen entering secular culture?

  22. Sorry to write so slowly!

    Would other Tantricists agree [that tantra has a low success rate]?

    Interesting question! I have no idea.

    I think that the Tibetan system implicitly discourages asking that question. Spiritual accomplishment in Tibetan Buddhism is directly tied in with power and authority (in both directions), which means that questions of who’s got it are intensely political.

    The vast majority of Tibetans had no possibility of, or interest in, spiritual practice themselves. The question of “who is enlightened?” arose only in terms of “I need to buy some merit—where can I get the best deal for my silver?” It’s only a tiny elite who might think about the question in personal terms. And mostly, their institutionally validated spiritual accomplishment would depend on their birth, and/or institutional politics, not anything they did themselves.

    I imagine if you could get a Tibetan Lama to actually consider the question for three seconds, his answer would be “shut up, kid, you’re causing trouble.” But you probably couldn’t get him to consider it for that long; he’d just reflexively cough up a relevant platitude quoted from scripture, as he was taught to in shedra. The question couldn’t actually penetrate his thinking; it’s too alien.

    Do you feel your use of Tantric methods transformed you?

    Remember that I don’t actually practice tantra. Or not much.

    Mmm… Tantra isn’t meant to transform you, which is one of the ways the word “transformation” is misleading. It automatically gets understood in terms of Western “depth psychology.” You aren’t a thing.

    Tantra transforms interactional dynamics. Have I felt it do that? Yes. Would anyone notice that I interact differently? I have no idea. I don’t have any perspective on it.

    Actually… I have one data point. I’ve noticed during periods when I practice yidam a lot, attractive women show up wanting romantic attention. Presumably that means that either I’m behaving differently, or else I’m more open to noticing something that I’m usually oblivious to.

    how do you see Dzochen entering secular culture?

    As view. It’s mostly view, anyway. If you have the view, then the practices self-manifest, and anyway aren’t important.

  23. Is Dzogchen even thought of as “religious” [versus “secular”]? It hadn’t occurred to me to think of it that way, but that could be my own peculiarity and preference. For that matter, I hadn’t thought of it as culture-bound in any respect.

  24. Is Dzogchen even thought of as “religious” [versus “secular”]?

    Yup. It is thoroughly tied in with Tibetan religious institutions.

    I believe it’s easier to free from institutions than some other forms of Buddhism, however.

  25. “Sooner or later, you’ll die horribly. But you might as well do something interesting in the mean time, not just cower in a corner. Reality is a splatter movie, but it is also an adventure story and a romantic comedy—all at the same time.”

    @David:
    Have you seen Cabin In the Woods?
    I really liked a lot of it. I think I really liked the whole thing, but I’m not quite sure. That probably means they did a good job with it, right?
    :-)

    I recommend it.
    – – – – –

    Thanks for continuing to write.

  26. Hi, Noah. I haven’t seen it—thanks for the recommendation! Looks interesting.

    It’s extremely embarrassing to admit that I find horror movies much too scary to watch. I find even most non-horror movies too scary to watch. How it is that I came to be writing about horror is a deep mystery.

    Recently, my girlfriend and I were trying to find something we both could stand to watch. “You only like movies with beheadings in them!” I said. (She eventually gave up on getting me to see Kill Bill.) “Well, *you* only like movies with fairies in them!” she said.

    She was quite right.

    Elves are an adequate substitute, though.

    Or unicorns.

  27. “The vast majority of Tibetans had no possibility of, or interest in, spiritual practice themselves. The question of “who is enlightened?” arose only in terms of “I need to buy some merit—where can I get the best deal for my silver?” It’s only a tiny elite who might think about the question in personal terms. And mostly, their institutionally validated spiritual accomplishment would depend on their birth, and/or institutional politics, not anything they did themselves.”

    I must say that when I read something like this, I wonder just what parallel universe I’ve stepped into. Do you really mean to say that turning a prayer wheel mindfully isn’t spiritual practice? Or spending your life reciting the Mani mantra isn’t spiritual practice? Or singing the Homages To The 21 Taras while doing housework? Or chanting the Ami Mantra while cultivating the single-minded desire to go to Dewachen. Or routinely sending one of your sons to the monastery and relying on him for Dharma after he finishes his studies? I can only say that I find this flabbergasting. Tibet has been under atheist Chinese rule for over half a century. In the Great Cultural Revolution hardly one stone of a religious building was left standing on another, monastics were killed or imprisoned wholesale, and every last vestige of traditional Tibetan government was obliterated.
    If what you’ve written was really true, there would be no Buddhism left there. None. But it isn’t true.

    Back during one of the easier periods of foreign travel in Tibet, a lama friend of mine who grew up in the Diaspora in India, and has taught for years in Dallas, Texas, would make yearly trips to Lhasa in civilian clothes with large numbers of cheap blankets from America. He’d barter a few of them for an enormous load of tsampa, butter, tea, and salt. Then he would set out on the trail like any other trader and slowly climb to higher country where there were no villages and many caves. He would spend the night meditating in one of the caves. In the morning he would discover a fresh brewed cup of hot tea at the cave opening. After he had sipped it for a while, first one, then another, then a third, and finally about 15 scraggly dressed men stood in front of his cave. He solemnly gave out the blankets, food, and tea, which they took, but they just kept standing there staring at him.

    “We know you must be a lama.” said the first one, “Please give us teachings!” My friend was very embarrassed and protested that their years of solitary meditation gave them much more knowledge of the Dharma than he had. But they refused to be put off, so he finally ended up giving a longish Dharma talk, which satisfied them greatly, and they went back to their caves.

    If the authorities had known about any of it, all 16 of them would be in prison (if not worse). And so would all the other local people who regularly came with alms of food for them. Could any group of American Christians you know of do this for the sake of their beliefs? Tibetans want the Dharma. They have always wanted the Dharma no matter what their social or political status.

  28. @ Karmakshanti — Thanks for the correction! What I meant to say is that very few Tibetans do the kinds of spiritual practices that are meant to lead to enlightenment in their own lifetime. So the question of “what is the percentage likelihood that I’ll achieve enlightenment if I do this practice” is one that would not arise for them.

  29. I like this very much. There is, however, something worth saying about how tantra is based on the view. The view is of primordial purity, which has to do with the nature of mind, which is beyond concept–not with a picture of reality, dark or light.

  30. This reminded all the way down to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins…. ahahaha

    Well, as you yourself mentioned the subject, you could write a little post on the Dorje Shugden controversy…. Thanx!

  31. This is interesting…nothing like anything I have learned about Vajrayana, but it’s an interesting story. I would suggest you research more about certain things, such as your diminutive description of the dakini, and the meaning of emptiness. Vajrayana seems nihilistic at first glance, but people who understand it fully know it isn’t. Good luck on your future studies!

  32. i really do wish people would stop pretending to know what buddists do or do not accept or reject. In truth, they accept or reject nothing if we assume that that which is accepted or rejected is something that exists from its own side. So really…..stop wasting time.

  33. ““You only like movies with beheadings in them!” I said. (She eventually gave up on getting me to see Kill Bill.) “Well, you only like movies with fairies in them!” she said.”

    Have you guys seen Pan’s Labyrinth? A disturbingly beautiful dark fairy tale set against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war.

    It has reasons for both of you to like and dislike it at the same time. A great pure-land/charnel ground film.

  34. John, were you at dinner last night? (Rin’dzin was co-teaching a Buddhist event, and this was the afterparty.) The beheadings-vs-fairies in movies point came up, and someone recommended

    Pan’s Labyrinth

    too! Sounds like we need to investigate…

  35. Not at all. I’m on the other side of the Atlantic.

    Maybe we were psychically linked.

    Or maybe since it’s the most famous dark fairy tale at the moment; it’s no surprise that anyone who is familiar with it would mention it.

    The only odd thing is the timing…

  36. I hate replying to really old posts, but this post really reminded me of a memorable passage from Emil Cioran’s A Short History Of Decay called Variations on Death (it’s long and flowery, so be warned).

    Against the obsession with death, both the subterfuges of hope and the arguments of reason lay down their arms: their insignificance merely whets the appetite to die. In order to triumph over this appetite, there is but one “method”: to live it to the end, to submit to all its pleasures, all its pangs, to do nothing to elude it. An obsession experienced to the point of satiety is annihilated in its own excesses. By dwelling on the infinity of death, thought manages to use it up to inspire disgust for it in us, disgust, that
    negative superfluity which spares nothing and which, before compromising and diminishing the prestige of death, shows us the inanity of life. The man who has not given himself up to the pleasures of anguish, who has not savored in his mind the dangers of his own extinction nor relished such cruel and sweet annihilations, will never be cured of the obsession with death: he will be tormented by it, for he will have resisted it; while the man who, habituated to a discipline of horror, and meditating upon his own carrion, has deliberately reduced himself to ashes—that man will look toward death’s past, and he himself will be merely a resurrected being who can no longer live. His “method” will have cured him of both life and death.

  37. “This is Sparta!” – ευθάνατος

    ˜˜˜˜˜

    “Who are you?”

    “Explorers… in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.”

  38. Hello David,

    I’m enjoying your work. You are voicing a lot of the dissonances which have been surfacing and being muddled through in my practice and study over the past year or so. I have found your writing to be very helpful in digesting these dissonances and realigning my compass, so to speak.

    Your post on charnel ground reminds me a lot of one of these dissonances – meat! I practice in a sangha which like most, is to all intents and purposes, vegetarian. My dharma siblings are nearly all vegetarian. One of the senior members, however, is like me in that they have been told that they should eat meat for health reasons (questionable validity of nutritionist advice aside). We also quietly share the view that there are a lot of puritanical and annoying, who look down on carnivores.

    But, whilst I am undoubtedly a monster, I am not an entirely brainless monster; I am very much aware of the ethical question of eating meat. Factory farming is horrendous, as is a huge proportion of what goes on along the supply chain. I have often toyed with going vegetarian….but one major factor has held me back.

    I love meat. I’m a really good cook. Well cooked meat has pulled me from the precipice of suicide in the past. It is one of the very finest pleasures available to man on this planet. I also think that you cannot live without causing death. Everyone who owns a car is a murderer. Vegetables have feels too, as do all the little bugs you murder when you cook them….not to mention the fact that animals don’t just magically live forever if we don’t eat them.

    I’m interested to hear what the Tantric answer to this would be, as a way of illustrating the practicality of tantra. I can cobble together some vague answer myself, but I suspect it leans towards hedonism rather than a genuine compassionate expression of connecting with other beings.

    Whether you decide this illustrative exercise is worth your time or not – I’d like to thank you again for your work. It’s fun, and helpful, and much like the work of Ken McLeod, provides guidance where my own teacher may not exactly see eye to eye with men, although I keep that quiet and generally try to just be kind and not to offend people in the sangha, especially the teacher, I like him.

    Hitch

  39. PS: my teacher doesn’t always see eye to eye with me…..not ‘men’. Fat fingers.

    Also – a vajrayana teacher once told me I should drink alcohol and eat meat without every explaining it at all, which I thought was funny. So I compromise – which often just buys time and problems – I eat meat in the comfort of my own home, and when with the sangha I practice the outer purity of vegetarianism and non-murderous actions, whilst keeping the inner flesh lusting and murderous propensities heh. I’m going to hell.

  40. Hi James,

    Glad the writing is helpful!

    Tantra has a very specific answer to this particular question. Tantra has a set of fourteen “root vows,” or sacred commitments. One of the fourteen is the commitment to eat meat and drink alcohol. That’s probably what the teacher who told you to do that had in mind.

    The root vow to eat meat and drink alcohol explains that the reason is that this is an essential part of tsok. Tsok is the most essential practice of tantra, so this is not just some cultural convention or something; it goes back to the founding of the religion as the primary sacrament. (Explaining why meat and alcohol are essential in tsok is quite complex, so I won’t go into it here. Also, to be pedantically precise: this applies to the “higher” tantric yanas; it does not hold in the “lower” systems.)

    So, you cannot be an absolutely strict vegetarian or teetotaler and practice tantra. However, it is perfectly consistent with tantra to eat meat and drink alcohol only in the practice of tsok.

    This answer is probably unhelpful, because it’s technical, rather than explaining principles.

    But, I don’t think there’s a definitive tantric answer other than the technical one. That is, you have laid out the relevant considerations very nicely—and I concur with them all heartily—and the ethical ambiguity is inescapable. There is no right, or wrong, answer, from a specifically tantric point of view.

    FWIW, I eat meat enthusiastically, and whenever possible I buy from local farmers who I believe treat their animals well. My ability to check that is limited, however.

  41. Fascinating and depressing “food” for thought. (We have been reading many pages of your interesting and excellent writings; however, this one is disappointing to us for its unnecessary use of curses).

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