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.”

The purpose of pure vision

Pure vision might sound like pretending. It definitely feels like pretending when you first start practicing. “Isn’t pretending a bad idea?” I’ll come back to that. First, what is pure vision good for?

Antidote to ordinariness

Pure vision is the antidote to misperceiving people and things as ordinary. Conceiving them as “ordinary,” you tune out their specifics and relate to them only to manipulate them for boring, necessary purposes. They lose most of their ability to surprise or delight you.

Nothing is objectively “ordinary,” and nothing is objectively “sacred.” These are strictly in the eye of the beholder. So which would you prefer to live with?


Tantra aims for enjoyment of all circumstances. This is an obviously desirable way of being. Besides that, enjoying everything helps you accomplish other tantric goals. (More about that later.)

In a pure land—a paradise—obviously everything is enjoyable. If you experience whatever situation you find yourself in as a pure land, then you will enjoy it.

Obligatory sexual metaphor

(This is tantra, after all!)

The six senses are six beautiful naked deities (of your sexual preference) offering you bowls of nectar, plates of ambrosia, and, um, other delights.

Tantric psychology, like all Buddhist psychology, emphasizes the role of the senses in connecting the world with your emotions. Mainstream Buddhism explains this as mainly negative: sensory awareness provokes hatred, lust, and ignorance; and sensory connections are “fetters” that chain you to samsara.

Tantra reverses that. The physical world is nirvana. You should want to be connected to it, as much as possible, because it is thoroughly enjoyable, and because the real world is the place you can be most useful. Your emotions (stripped of fixed meanings) provide the energy that drives usefulness.

You should, therefore, honor the senses as sacred. You should also get to know them better by paying more attention to what they do and how. Personifying them as sexy deities is a tantric trick to help with that.

Of course, these deities are devoted to serving you. They bring you all the world’s wonderful experiences, offering them as gifts.

Dissolving fixed meanings

Ordinarily, we automatically interpret people and situations as intrinsically good, bad, or uninteresting; as supports or threats. Perceiving something as “intrinsically bad” means that its badness is fixed—an objective, enduring meaning. Then we have emotional reactions to those valuations, and act based on the emotions. This is one way of understanding the Buddhist concept of “kleshas.”

The kleshas are supposed to be the cause of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness); but we can turn that around. Unsatisfactoriness is the cause of the kleshas. Habitually seeing life as a nasty problem is what makes you interpret people and things as good, bad, or uninteresting.

In pure vision’s paradise, nothing is unsatisfactory or threatening. So, you can relax. There’s no need to categorize people and situations as good, bad, or uninteresting.

This is a method for developing spaciousness, which is a key to tantra. Alternatively, you can understand this as the transformation of the tantric five kleshas into the corresponding five wisdoms. The wisdoms are the energies of the kleshas, minus fixation.

Exploding subjective and objective

It might seem that pure vision fixates everything as “good.” But that fixation is the klesha of neediness—“Gotta have it!” You take a subjective valuation (“I like it”) and project it as an objective quality (“it’s good”).

Pure vision makes everything interesting—not “good.” Interest is what makes everything enjoyable. Interest is a dynamic interaction: neither subjective nor objective, but a process that involves both self and other. Enjoyment is also interactive, whereas neurotic desire is subjective.

Is this realistic?

How do you feel about what I’ve written so far?

  • If you tend toward nihilism (as I do), it may inspire derision. It may sound like typical rainbow fairy spiritual self-deception. You may wonder if I’ve taken an overdose of stupidity—especially after my wonderfully grim previous post about the charnel ground.

  • If you tend toward eternalism, it may inspire hope. It may come as a relief, after my horrifyingly grim previous post about the charnel ground. You may wonder what awful thing happened to me then to write such depressing rubbish.

Either way: apparently, I’ve retracted what I said in the last post. Tantra offers salvation from samsara after all!


Rose-colored glasses?

Isn’t it unrealistic to deliberately delude yourself with a kitschy fantasy? Isn’t it better to face the truth about the world as it is? Putting on rose-colored glasses doesn’t actually make the world any less bad; and if you can’t see it accurately, you won’t be able to respond accurately. Especially not to threats.

However, the ultimate aim of pure vision is not to see anything that isn’t objectively there, nor to hide anything that is. The aim is to end the hallucination that subjective valuations (good, bad, uninteresting) are objective qualities.

In tantric technical exercises, you do visualize things that are not there. For example, you try to see ordinary pebbles as precious jewels. The point of this, though, is to come to appreciate pebbles for their own real-world qualities.

“Ordinary” is a hallucination—an imposed meaning. It blinds you to the thing itself; to the beauty of the rock, which you can enjoy if you pay it attention. “Precious” is also a hallucination, but you can use it as a temporary antidote to “ordinary.” Visualizations are training wheels for the actual practice. Trying to see a pebble as precious, you open your eyes to what is there.

The technical practices of pure vision are probably best tried first in a safe space. Done properly, they won’t turn you into an idiot, however. The attitude of pure vision is realistic, not Pollyannaish. It does not blind you to harmful consequences.

What it can do is allow you to appreciate anything, including “bad” and “ordinary” things. There is a powerful social taboo that says you are only allowed to enjoy “good things.” (This is especially key to the middle classes, by the way. Things from your own sub-class are “ordinary,” and you shouldn’t enjoy them much. Things from the next grade down are “bad,” and you mustn’t enjoy them at all, or your status may slip and fall.)

You can enjoy even physical pain—almost always labeled “bad.” But athletes actively enjoy certain kinds of pain, as proofs of accomplishment. The same pain would cause suffering if it didn’t have that meaning. By stripping the meaning off other pains, you can enjoy them, too. (That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t rather avoid them, though.)

Is this possible?

Is it possible to see everyone as a Buddha, and all the world as a paradise?

My experience is that it’s hard work. Ideally, you are supposed to maintain pure vision at all times. I can’t do that, and I can’t know whether it is possible.

However, being able to do it even a little bit is enjoyable and useful. I think it’s certainly worth trying.

This is one of the many aspects of tantra where working closely with a teacher is invaluable. They can give advice on appreciation tailored for your personal patterns of aversion. They can give specific advice about how to enjoy particular things. You can also learn a lot simply by watching them relish unlikely pleasures.

No heaven on earth

The pure land might sound like heaven, but it’s actually quite different.

Traditional Buddhism has heavens, which it considers no damn good. Everything is so blandly pleasurable that you turn into an indolent idiot. There is no motivation to do anything but soak in it. It is always mid-afternoon, and the weather is always perfect.

Nothing ever happens in heaven. Time slows almost to a halt. You can spend billions of years without noticing that you have got absolutely nothing done.

A pure land, by contrast, is the ideal place for Buddhist practice. It’s comfortable enough that you can settle into meditation, but not stupefyingly pleasant. It’s varied enough to jolt you out of the mindless bliss states that can trap advanced meditators. In the pure land, the point is to wake up, train hard, and learn how to make yourself useful.

In heaven, it is always 78 degrees Fahrenheit—a soothing tropical warmth. In the pure land, there are bracing autumn mornings that say: wake up!

In heaven, angels play constant sweet songs. In the pure land, there is none of that kitschy muzak. There is silence—often the best thing for meditation. In that, you may hear the sound of wind in the branches. As dusk falls, frogs call. There is the croak of a raven; and then in the distance the snarl of a hyaena.

I saw hyaenas being fed once. It was terrifying. They can, and did, bite straight through a cow’s leg bone. From the way they hurled themselves against the cage walls as we passed, it was obvious that they consider people food.

So in the pure land, the hyaena’s snarl is a useful reminder that time and life are limited, which motivates practice.

Heaven is a garden of perfectly maintained, tastefully color-coordinated flower beds, emitting a delicate perfume.

There are flowers in the pure land, too. They grow on thorny black brambles, amidst the heaps of rotting corpses, which emit the acrid stench of death.

Wait a minute! Something’s wrong—this suddenly got twisted and weird…


This could be heaven and this could be hell
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…

It seems that we’ve wandered from the pure land into the charnel ground. Charnel ground is the practice of viewing all reality as a horror movie. What went wrong?

Nothing. Here is the secret key to both practices:

The pure land is the charnel ground.
The charnel ground is the pure land.

It is not that things you like are the pure land, and ones you don’t are the charnel ground. That’s just the dualism of the kleshas—attraction and aversion.

It is not that reality is somewhere in-between heaven and hell. It is not that charnel ground practice is the antidote to liking things, and pure land the antidote to disliking them. That might be the approach of lukewarm mainstream Buddhism; but Tantra is not the middle way.

It is not that you alternate pure land and charnel ground practice. You do that in training, but it is not the ultimate, non-dual practice.

All of reality is always simultaneously a pure land and a charnel ground.

Everything is sacred—perfect just as it is. Everything is a nightmare, horror heaped on horror.

The charnel ground is a paradise: there are always plenty of corpses to eat, and rivers of poison to drink. (Tantrikas are required to eat corpses—of cows, at least—and to drink rivers of poison—alcohol, at least.)

Steak and wine

Everyone you meet is a shambling undead monstrosity and also a perfectly enlightened Buddha.

So are you.

It is not that you are a Buddha when you are “being good” and a monster when you are “bad.” These are two poetic descriptions of the same whole person.

The value of charnel ground and pure vision practice is in highlighting different feelings you have about the one non-dual reality. Charnel ground is the antidote to eternalism: the delusion that the universe has some ultimate metaphysical meaning that will save you. Pure vision is the antidote to nihilism: the delusion that the universe is only dead matter, and life—full of suffering—has no purpose.

In the garden of nightmares, coiling vines grow pale flowers. They bloom at midnight.

You stroll through the endless charnel ground hand-in-hand with the god/dess of your dreams.

S/he stoops and, delighted, picks up a bleached, broken human femur. It glints in the moonlight.

You turn it over in your hands, admiring the delicate filigree of bone within. So lovely!

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

33 thoughts on “Pure Land”

  1. If this is true:

    “Tantra aims for enjoyment of all circumstances.”

    then either this is true:

    “Tantra offers salvation from samsara after all!”

    or else tantra has bad aim and doesn’t work very well.

  2. The syllogism @ Greg is only true if possibilities are inherently binary. Chaos is the portal out of the dualistic world/view. Chaos is not a solution or salvation; it can be enjoyed– or suffered. Responses are infinite, as are manifestations.

  3. Enjoyment of all circumstances is the antithesis of samsara, it is entirely incommensurate with samsara. So those two particular possibilities are quite binary, in fact. If “chaos” is a potential portal out of the dualism worldview, and the dualistic world view is a problem, then by definition chaos is a solution and a salvation.

  4. @ Greg — I think the yanas are best defined in terms of the practitioner’s intended goal—rather than the methods applied.

    If one practices to end one’s personal suffering—to escape samsara—that is Hinayana (as the word is used by Tibetans), regardless of what methods you use.

    Tantrayana is, indeed, advertised by some Tibetans as ending samsara. (Those with something to sell will make whatever claims for it are vaguely plausible, to different audiences.) I think that if you practice tantra for that reason, you miss the point. But maybe it works; and ending personal suffering is a good thing. Just not a particularly interesting thing—to me. I frequently do things that increase suffering, when I care more about something else.

    If you practice to end the suffering of others, then you are practicing Bodhisattvayana—regardless of what methods you use. This is explicit in the Geluk School; they use tantric methods for Bodhisattva ends. Again, relieving other people’s suffering is a good thing—but not what I care about most. And it’s not, I think, what tantra is about, considered in its own terms.

    Samsara means not just suffering but cyclic rebirth. For tantra, ending rebirth is an anti-goal. You deliberately choose to be reborn in the form realms, because that’s where the action is.

    If you practice with the intention of manifesting glory—which is what I think tantra is about—then samsara and suffering are beside the point. Enjoyment is a method on the way to nobility, not a final end in itself, and not the antithesis of suffering.

    Many tantric scriptures emphasize that samsara is nirvana, and nirvana is samsara. The charnel ground is the pure land. Suffering is not particularly something to be avoided. Suffering and enjoyment are both “ornaments of rigpa.” The empty distinction between them is funny, not urgent or problematic.

  5. One of the things I’ve been taught is that tantric visualization is for the purification of perception. Our ordinary perceptions are like breathing on a cold window pane while trying to look through it– constantly creating something to force perception back to the perceiving subject and separating us from the perceived object. The visualization practices are a sort of “graphic novel” of what enlightenment shows you about the world when the “subject” is let go of. The next step is to let go of “perceived objects”. Then the graphic novel dissolves into pure perception with neither subject nor object, and when such pure perception occurs spontaneously and unceasingly on its own, without your having to “visualize” anything, this is the first stage of “realization” where gross kleshas are pacified and you are already in the Pure Land without having to go anywhere else.

    Beyond this, there are increasingly subtle “veils” of emotivity and conceptual thinking that separate you from complete and total Buddhahood that you must clear away, but your gross perceptions are already so transformed that there is no doubt and no downfall back to gross confusion. The true power of completion stage techniques such as the “heat yoga” is that they can be used to greatly speed up the clearing of these subtle levels. My teachers often speak of the initial level of realization as a Nirmanakaya Pure Land which still has perceivable qualities in the same way that our guru or Shakyamuni have ordinary form, allowing even unenlightened beings to see them and be taught by them. As the subtle veils clear away, the world becomes a Samboghakaya Pure Land and then the undifferentiated Dharmakaya–both of which cannot truly be described in any perceptual terms whatever.

    But since all these things have already been this way from beginningless time, there truly is nothing to “realize”, and no need to transform either yourself or what you experience into “something better” or “something else”. And the concept of “realization” itself is one of those very subtle veils of conceptual thinking to be purified to reach the state of “no more to be learned.”

  6. @David – There has never been a Tibetan Vajrayana or Mahamudra Dzogchen path where the stated (and actual) goal wasn’t achieving Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings – and Buddhas don’t suffer, in any traditional formulation in all of the yanas.

    “Samsara means not just suffering but cyclic rebirth. For tantra, ending rebirth is an anti-goal. You deliberately choose to be reborn in the form realms, because that’s where the action is.”

    This is not exactly true. You do indeed choose to be reborn in the form realms as an aryabodhisattva moving up the bhumis. But by the time you can control your rebirth you are already past suffering, it is traditionally said. And one you achieve samyaksambodhi, you are not actually reborn anywhere – you just send out sambhogakaya emanations.

    “If you practice with the intention of manifesting glory—which is what I think tantra is about—then samsara and suffering are beside the point. Enjoyment is a method on the way to nobility, not a final end in itself, and not the antithesis of suffering.”

    That is fine as far as it goes, but it is a modern reformulation and not traditional, and should be acknowledged as such. Further, “suffering” that is enjoyed is not suffering.

    “Many tantric scriptures emphasize that samsara is nirvana, and nirvana is samsara. The charnel ground is the pure land. Suffering is not particularly something to be avoided. Suffering and enjoyment are both “ornaments of rigpa.” The empty distinction between them is funny, not urgent or problematic.”

    Yes, the tantric scriptures equate the two, but that is in a context where nirvana has been superseded as a goal by a revised understanding of samyaksambodhi. But the new paradigm of the goal still includes an end to suffering, even if that is not what is emphasized rhetorically. Because the goal is still Buddhahood, and Buddhas don’t suffer.

  7. While it is possible to conceive of someone ready to practice Tantra with no prior work, in practice, I don’t think it works. We all still have to accumulate immeasurable merit, purify wagonloads of karmic accumulation, and receive the blessings of the guru through the preliminary practices. I would not have said this with such confidence in the 25 years I kept trying to do these things and failing. But I can say so now.

    Maybe Tantra will be the Postmodern Buddhism. But I don’t think those younger than me will bring any more capacity for overcoming the obstacles that even thinking about it creates if you have an insufficient accumulation of merit, no prior work with karmic purification, and no guru in whom you really believe and trust. After having considered it, I don’t think anybody is ready to take on the hard work needed without considerable time and experience developing some Hinayana discipline (even if only that of a householder) and fostering the Mahayana attitude of compassion and loving kindness. This is what my teachers told me from day one and I have to admit they were right, however much I resisted it along the way.

    In the end, it is not our philosophical stances that make the difference, nor our skepticism (or lack of it) about Buddhist miracle stories. Every alternative there merely confronts you with a different set of obstacles to your practice. What matters is how much you trust and cherish the guru, and how much you desire that other beings not suffer even if you do.

  8. @ Karmakshanti — I think that your first comment (5:17) is a statement of the same themes as my post, in more traditional language. (Is that what you intended?) I don’t find anything to disagree with in it, certainly!

    I also don’t disagree with anything in your second comment (8:22). (Although I’m not sure how it’s relevant to this particular post; maybe it’s responding to my general program rather than the post?)

    Tantra is not for everyone, or for many people. It has functional prerequisites that are quite stringent. I haven’t written about those yet; I can’t write about everything at once! I do plan to discuss that eventually.

    Where I will depart from current Tibetan dogma is in clearly separating functional prerequisites from formal prerequisites. Discipline and compassion are key functional prerequisites, and attempting to practice tantra without them is a recipe for failure and possibly disaster. Ngöndro—a formal prerequisite—is one way to develop discipline and compassion; but it is not the only way, and it doesn’t necessarily work, either. (Maybe a T-shirt that says “I did 100,000 prostrations and all I got was sore knees” would be apropos!)

    @ Greg — Hmm. Rather than responding point-by-point, I’d rather try to understand where you are coming from in your last comment. What are you trying to accomplish? Are you contrasting the approach I’m taking here with some particular alternative? Or trying to correct what appear to you to be random specific minor errors of doctrine? Or… what?

    Until I get that, we could argue esoteric scholarly points until the yaks came home, and it wouldn’t do anyone else reading this any good. I say “anyone else” because obviously you are learned enough that I’m not going to persuade you of anything—so our dialog is probably useful only to third parties.

  9. Hi David. I’m *very* curious about those functional prerequisites as I’m starting to poke around Vajrayana centres in town. I wonder about these because I’m starting to run up against certain ideological walls (not that these aren’t common ones in Western Theravada circles either). For instance, compassion necessitating vegetarianism or particular political positions (about marginal tax rates, say) or about clarity of mind requiring abandonment of rock music! I believe your particular Sangha allows much more breadth in terms of some of these things (vegetarianism, for sure), so I’m wondering whether this is simply characteristic of Aro or what, because there seems to be much adamant insistence that “it’s this way or the highway.”

    I suppose that that’s something you’re going to get to eventually though and that I’m jumping the gun! Defer the question if you wish – sorry, I’m impatient! :)

    I have been wondering though, how well does Aro fit the picture of ‘modernized tantra’ that you’re getting at?

  10. I am just a bad arse honey badger who doesn’t give a damn, but this article tickled my mind.

    I have been following your writings for quite a while now, and this one is the one I like best so far. You are a good writer and have given serious thought around the issue. Made my day.

    Reminded me of a dear lamai naljor practice of the 16th Karmapa I use, and would like to take the opportunity to quote a bit from it.

    “Now, our surroundings, this world and all worlds appear, perfect and pure. Every atom vibrates with joy and is kept together by love. Everything is fresh and meaningful, radiant with unlimited potential. Beings manifest, near and far. They are female or male Buddhas, whether they know it or not. Sounds are mantras and all thoughts wisdom, for the sole reason that they can happen.”

  11. @David – Yes, I’m contrasting your characterization of tantra with the traditional one, particularly your assertion that it doesn’t promise an end to suffering. I would not agree that that is a minor point of doctrine. And I don’t think it is particularly esoteric.

    I took a quick look at books on Dzogchen, and came across the following right away. And these are not writers who stick the “Dzogchen” label on sutrayana presentations for marketing purposes – these are all writers who have taken a lot of flak for supposedly sharing Dzogchen teachings too openly. While I realize your post is about tantra in particular rather than Dzogchen, they are applicable all the same insofar as they illustrate that suffering never stops being a particular concern.

    “We find here not only archaic shamanic rituals and magical practices, the aim of which is to secure worldly benefits for the practitioner and his patrons in this present life, but also the higher spiritual teachings of Sutra, the higher spiritual teachings of Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen (mdo sngags sems gsum). The aim of these latter teachings is not just worldly benefits here and now, but the transcendent goal of liberation from the suffering of Samsara, the beginningless cycle of death and rebirth, and attainment of the enlightenment of a Buddha, the ultimate potential of human development and evolution.” –John Myrdhin Reynolds, Bon Dzogchen Teachings, pg 10

    “In the teachings of the Great Perfection there is the concept of lhundrup, spontaneous perfection or spontaneous presence that characterizes all phenomena, including happiness and suffering. Whatever arises in experience is perfect just as it is. All phenomena are a manifestation of the five pure elemental lights and from the five lights all the qualities of nirvana ceaselessly manifest. It is only because we are trapped in erroneous dualistic views that we engage in an ultimately false struggle with experience. We only need to wake—like from a dream— for it to end, and when it does we realize that it was never real. But until we awaken, we suffer.” –Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, Healing With Form, Energy and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen pg 122

    In brief, through the practice of the path of Trekcho and Togal, one will reach the ultimate realization of the dharmakaya, the enlightened state of the Primordial Buddha Samantabhadra, within this very lifetime. This is the best case. If not, then one can be freed in the other three bardos: the bardos of the moment of death, dharmata, and becoming. Even if this does not happen, one can stilI be relieved of suffering and be liberated by the virtues or blessings of the Dzogchen teachings.–Sogyal Rinpoche, Dzogchen and Padmasambhava, pg 69

    A true practitioner of Dzogchen, finding himself in the state of Dzogchen, even though he is engaged in the concrete material world about him, is not conditioned by what surrounds him. Therefore, he does not suffer like an individual who takes everything about him to be solid,
    substantial, and real.–Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, The Cycle of Day and Night – An Essential Tibetan Text on the Practice of Dzogchen, pg 76

    However, I find your idea of practice as a means to enjoyment, glory and nobility interesting. It is potentially a lot more relevant to people than the traditional raison d’être – and for that reason, among others, it is worth differentiating clearly. I have no interest in enforcing orthodoxy, but I think it is helpful and important to acknowledge when we consciously depart from it.

  12. Pure vision makes everything interesting—not “good.” Interest is what makes everything enjoyable. Interest is a dynamic interaction: neither subjective nor objective, but a process that involves both self and other. Enjoyment is also interactive, whereas neurotic desire is subjective.

    My teacher is on her way to Germany soon to give a talk entitled – “Come back, ego – all is forgiven”. In light of that, I wonder if I have to consider “neurotic desire” as in some sort of opposition to non-dual “interest”?

    It also sounds like you equate the opposite of subjectivity to “interactive” or “involving both self and other”. It’s as if you are looking to the opposite of subjectivity for non-duality.

    I don’t think so. Subject – object *are* duality. To bounce around between them is not a choice between duality and nonduality, it’s all duality, that those ideas are separate is duality itself.

    I like to say that if nonduality were the *opposite* of duality, it wouldn’t *really* be nonduality, for the notion of opposite or opposition is itself a duality, and the supposedly opposing things are trapped in the dualized view of their opposition. Ah, but there is the rub . . .

    Oh and please don’t promote the perversion of “middle way” as both, as when you mention “simultaneity” of charnel ground and pure land. As the madhyamika reasoning cleverly points out, the middle way is not on the list of all the logical possibilities that our mind can rattle off like a good LISP programmer:
    – one
    – the ‘other’
    – both
    – neither

    It’s that *other* case [that defies rationale], but tastes like some really sweet honey.

    I see what I am interested in.

    Of this there is no doubt.

    In this condition I remain.

  13. @ James — Virtually all Tibetan Buddhist teachers will require you to complete ngöndro before you start tantra itself. Ngöndro is a formal prerequisite which, ideally, guarantees that you meet the functional prerequisites. We’ve discussed it several times in comment threads on this blog. Karmakshanti has explained it particularly clearly and eloquently, for example in several comments on this page.

    In its cultural context, ngöndro was meant to be completed in about three months of full-time work by teenage boys. Among other problems with ngöndro in the West, doing it in one-hour segments over a period of many years (which is the typical pattern) probably does not have the same effect. Also, if you don’t understand why you are doing it, you probably won’t get the benefit, and many Tibetan teachers are unable to explain to Westerners what the point is.

    You are young and probably have relatively minimal responsibilities, and are smart enough to figure out the point for yourself. If you can take three months off to do ngöndro full time, it’s worth considering seriously. It can be a hugely rewarding practice for its own sake, and a solid foundation invaluable in further work. Unfortunately, most Westerners find it to be a vast, incomprehensible, and pointless obstacle, instead.

    Most Tibetan Buddhist centers in the West combine 1970s California political correctness with 1950s Tibetan theocracy—as you have observed. I find those ideologies both repellent individually, and a bizarre combination (since their fundamental values are almost perfectly opposite).

    Aro is too modern for traditionalists, and too traditional for modernists. You’d probably find it too traditional. It does take an “this way or the highway” approach to many things. However, it is neither politically correct nor theocratic.

    Also, it doesn’t exist in your area. But, given how rare non-traditional tantra is currently, your only options are probably going to be distance courses. You could investigate the Aro members program.

    The “tantra” I am describing in this blog series doesn’t exist. I’m trying to conjure it into being by describing it. That is, frankly, silly, and almost certainly won’t work.

    There are several current initiatives to develop fully modern tantric systems. They may have distance-learning programs (I forget). Check out the Juniper path and the Three Doors program. (I know only a very little about these, so I am not specifically recommending them, but some things about them look promising from afar.) Hokai Sobol and Ken McLeod both also teach modern tantra, including by Skype, but I believe both are on sabbatical currently.

    As to functional prerequisites. I haven’t thought that through yet. Maybe “discipline, virtue, and emptiness” is a summary. Discipline: you can work hard at something and accomplish it. As a result, your life is functional: you have adequate personal and life skills that you don’t leave messes. Virtue: you have developed some measure of the paramitas (or some equivalent list). You’re a basically good person. And then, you need some experiential understanding of emptiness. You can get that from any brand of formless sitting (vipassana, shikantaza, shamatha-vipashyana).

    Also, you need to develop “devotion” for your teacher. In fact, if you have that, and your teacher is competent and willing to devote a lot of time to you, devotion is sufficient by itself. If you lack discipline, virtue, and emptiness-view, practicing tantra will result in big messes; but then your teacher can point to them and say “clean that up, here’s how,” and if you have sufficient devotion you’ll do it. I don’t recommend that approach, but it’s potentially available.

    “Devotion” is a tricky subject, and is one of the things that typically drives Westerners out of tantra. It’s highly ideological in Tibetan culture, which can obscure and distort its proper function. It also pushes Westerners’ EVIL CULT LEADER button. On the whole, I think it takes care of itself if you and your teacher are well-intentioned and intelligent and reasonably compatible.

    If you are going to do tantra in the typical 1950s style, as a series of complex rituals, then ngöndro also develops the technical skills necessary. It includes simplified versions of many of the major technical practices.

    I don’t think that style is appropriate for many Westerners, so that aspect of ngöndro may be irrelevant. On the other hand, there are only a handful of people who teach tantra other than as technical rituals.

  14. @ Greg — That’s an impressive set of quotes, and hard to argue with!

    So, it’s clearly possible that I’m just wrong. I want to hold out an alternative interpretation, though, which is that in these passages the writers are mixing up the yanas as skillful means for communicating with people who are at a particular stage on the path. That is, people who are still concerned with their personal suffering (so in actuality they are practicing Hinayana), but who are inspired by the view of Vajrayana. In order to see whether that interpretation is right, we’d need to ask the teachers you quoted, making it clear that what we’re looking for is an answer from a pure Dzogchen view, not a mixed-yana path view. I don’t know what they’d say.

    Thank you for your generous last paragraph. I am, of course, describing a hypothetical non-traditional tantra. So, whether or not Vajrayana traditionally aims for an end to suffering is irrelevant. Still, I don’t want to mislead anyone about what the traditional view is.

  15. @ Sengchen Dra-tsal

    I wonder if I have to consider “neurotic desire” as in some sort of opposition to non-dual “interest”?

    From a Dzogchen/result viewpoint, both are just the energy of the fire element. But from a tantra/path viewpoint, they are different. In tantra, you “transform” one into the other.

    I’m afraid I couldn’t quite follow the rest of your comment.

  16. “I am, of course, describing a hypothetical non-traditional tantra. So, whether or not Vajrayana traditionally aims for an end to suffering is irrelevant. Still, I don’t want to mislead anyone about what the traditional view is.”

    Yes, now that you mention it I do remember you saying as much at some point – but in the absence of any qualifiers I seem not to have keep the disclaimer in mind from post to post.

  17. Thank you, David! I appreciate how helpful and engaged you always are. I will investigate all these routes you suggested, but even if none works for me, I am keeping your writings in mind as I poke around Dharma centres here – it’s helping me to know what questions to ask/what to keep and eye out for.

  18. “That is, people who are still concerned with their personal suffering (so in actuality they are practicing Hinayana), but who are inspired by the view of Vajrayana.”

    David, thanks for this. Its rare to have support in the “suffering is okay (and empty)” quarter. Concern (or obsession) with personal suffering is personal suffering.

  19. “That is, people who are still concerned with their personal suffering (so in actuality they are practicing Hinayana), but who are inspired by the view of Vajrayana.”

    David, thanks for this. Its rare to have support in the “suffering is okay (and empty)” camp. Concern (or obsession) with personal suffering is personal suffering.

  20. By the way, has any normal lay person gone deeply into this pure vision type practice and can comment on the experiential changes that result? I feel naturally drawn to this type of practice right now as it feels simultaneously authentic and a compassionate act towards others.

  21. I am fool enough to hazard the observation that “pure vision” can be a spontaneous experience [as opposed to an ordered, sequential, intentional practice]– and that those who evidence it get called poets, artists, mystics, saints. Or happy idiots, if they don’t have anyone doing PR for them. In which case, the relevant “practice” would be Garab Dorje’s instruction to “Remain.”

    This sort of thing probably irritates the scientific, the methodical, the orthodox– those with a limited view of what is “pragmatic.” But what could be more pragmatic than to acknowledge all of reality– including the most idiosyncratic and ephemeral– not just the parts various experts lay claim to?

  22. “Isn’t it unrealistic to deliberately delude yourself with a kitschy fantasy? Isn’t it better to face the truth about the world as it is? ”

    Again, it all goes back to the concept of samskaras, or grounding in the cultural ethos that Buddhism arose from. In such cultures “facing the truth as it is” is a part of life, a part of the culture, and a part of Buddhism. In that context, Pure Land, and Tantrik Eternalism, makes sense because the foundational understanding/experience of suffering and termporality is already there and is constantly running in the background, or foreground, depending on how “third world” one’s environment is.

    In the modern West however Tantrik Eternalism functions as no more than an ego extension for materialistic narcissists.

    That’s why I say Westerners need a firm foundation in the cultures from which the Eastern Wisdom Traditions first sprang in order to truly understand and practice them.

  23. I don’t remember for sure, but I think I had the song in mind when I wrote that!

    Thanks for the hyaena video. I prefer to keep on the other side of a wall from them :-)

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