Power

 

Power is a main goal of Buddhist tantra. That’s unique and valuable among Buddhisms.

Power comes from skillful use of energy—personal energy, and also the energy of situations and other people. (See my page on “unclogging energy” for more.)

Tantra develops confidence, mastery, and charisma. These are keys to power.

The two faces of power

Power is awkward. Most people—certainly most Western Buddhists—have strong, mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, power is the ability to get things done. Without power, it is impossible to accomplish anything. Power makes it possible to benefit others, and to change the world for the better. The bodhisattva vows are goody-goody weaksauce without the power of tantra. Benevolence has little value without the ability to act.

On the other hand, power corrupts. Power is, at best, morally neutral. It can be used for evil as easily as for good. Throughout history, power elites have brutally oppressed and exploited the majority. “Mastery” includes the powers of domination and coercion.

Power is inherently, inescapably political. Power inevitably raises strong emotions, both desire and hate.

Power is not nice. Power is not polite. Power is not a comfortable subject to discuss.

Power is a central issue for Consensus Buddhism, and for Tibetan Buddhism.

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Mastery

Thangtong Gyalpo's Chain Bridge over the Tsangpo River

Thangtong Gyalpo’s bridge over the Tsangpo

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

Specialization is for insects.

—Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

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What do you want Buddhism for?

Buddhist banquet

I have a sense that, in American Buddhism, this question may be coming to a crisis point.

Traditionally, what most people wanted from Buddhism—in practice—was good luck in this life, and better circumstances in their next life.

The modern Buddhism of the 1870s to 1970s rejected those answers as supernatural, and therefore unbelievable. So it went back to the scriptures to renew an old theoretical answer: “enlightenment.”

Unfortunately, the scriptural explanations of enlightenment are mostly also supernatural. So, modern Buddhism invented various replacement interpretations. Apparently they work for some people; but mostly they seem unsatisfactory. They may be implausible, unworkably vague, or unimpressive.

In my last post, I suggested that “enlightenment” is such a confused idea that we ought to drop it altogether. Several of my earlier posts have also argued that “enlightenment” is a counter-productive escape fantasy.

Many Western Buddhist leaders have recognized this, probably for decades. I’m not sure there’s been a full, open discussion about it, though. Can “enlightenment” be rescued? Or, if we abandon it, what is Buddhism good for? These questions are confusing and embarrassing, and might drive away the audience. So maybe there is a tacit agreement to avoid them.

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Epistemology and enlightenment

“How do you know the Buddha was enlightened?” asked the ogress in “Eating an entire epistemologist.”

Here are some similar questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

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Twixt path and result

Road map

  1. Overview of tantra
    1. Base: spacious passion
    2. Path: unclogging energy
    3. Result: nobility ← You are here
  2. Understanding tantra by contrast with other Buddhisms
  3. Tantra: a history of innovation
  4. The future of Buddhist tantra

Pure Land” was the final post in the section explaining the path, or method, of Buddhist tantra.

Next, I will discuss its goal, or result.

In most Buddhist traditions, “enlightenment” is the goal. I believe that this idea is so vague and dubious that we should drop it.

I’ll suggest a possible alternative goal, “nobility.” Nobility, as a goal, is understandable, believable, desirable, and practical.

Because nobility is understandable, it makes the technical methods of tantra understandable. If “enlightenment” is the goal, many tantric techniques seem like voodoo. They are just bizarre and crazy. If you think of them as ways of developing nobility, they make better sense.

Rare strands of traditional Vajrayana do reject enlightenment as a goal, and aim for nobility, so this isn’t a complete fabrication. Some reinvention is required, however.

Pure Land

Everyone you meet is a Buddha.

All the world is a sacred paradise.

That is the tantric practice of “pure vision.” Like charnel ground, it is a “practice of view,” which means developing the habit of interpreting the world in a particular way.

There are technical methods for developing this “divine perception.” However, as in earlier pages, I would rather emphasize the power of the attitude.

What is important is relating to people as though they were Buddhas, and relating to circumstances as though they were a “Pure Land.”

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