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

Buddhist tantra is about elegant, accurate, kind, effective, expansive action in the real world. That means that it values skill, creativity, and accomplishment.

Tantra aims at mastery: mastery of specifically religious techniques, but also of all arts, sciences, and practical know-how.

Tantra engenders all-around cluefulness: savoir-faire, improvisatory panache, and practical élan.

Some specific methods of tantra develop mastery, but mostly it’s the power of the attitude. Tantra develops discipline, precision, commitment, and confidence. You need these general-purpose emotional skills to be competent at anything—or at everything.

Accomplishment is a natural outcome when you unclog energy. Then you free your passion—your caring about real-world specifics—for action. The ability to enjoy all circumstances cuts through complaints—the limiting ideas that something is wrong with the world or with yourself. Spacious passion produces spontaneity, grace, and pride without aggression. A tantrika needs nothing and has nothing to lose, so he or she is willing to take drastic action, without flinching, when needed.

Specific skills

In pre-modern Tibet, well-educated lamas had to master a university curriculum that covered all the intellectual disciplines known then: from astrology through botany, calligraphy, dance, history, medicine, poetry, psychology, and so on to zoology. (Well, maybe not zoology, but at least demonology, a branch of cryptozoology!) Of course, most of the specific content of Tibetan education was completely wrong. However, the attitude that you should learn as much as possible, about as many things as possible, remains valuable.

Westerners often have the idea that “spirituality” is the opposite of “worldly concerns.” They are surprised, baffled, and even annoyed when they see how much energy Tibetan teachers put into creating useful or beautiful things. “High lamas” turn out to be accomplished experts in unlikely disciplines like carpentry, target shooting, or film-making.

Tantra is anti-spiritual, though. It is mainly about “worldly concerns,” so this is no contradiction.


At this point, you may be thinking tantra sounds elitist. You might not be good at everything; you might not even be particularly good at anything. A religion that is only for special people might sound unattractive, or even evil.

Remember, though, that we’re now in the result section of this outline of tantra. I’m writing about the goal, or the ideal.

Tantra has prerequisites; but being already accomplished is not one of them. Mastery is an aim, not a starting point.

Tantra requires hard work, however. It is expansive, but not laid-back.

Consensus Buddhism sometimes seems to promote itself as a religion for dropouts, space cadets, and victims. Tantra is incompatible with seeing yourself that way. If you are willing to let go of that kind of self-definition, it has methods for developing confidence and competence—but you need to leave ordinariness behind.

Tantra is, in fact, elitist—depending on what you mean by that word. It could be meritocratic. It could be open to anyone who meets the functional prerequisites, and is willing to follow the path.

Tantra can’t be made compatible with some extremist egalitarian ideologies, though. It’s just a fact that some people are better at some things than others. That has natural consequences. For example, someone who is better at a skill can often teach it to someone who is less good at it, and not vice versa.

Historically, tantra has almost always been elitist in a different sense. It has mainly been reserved for the ruling class, because practical mastery leads to power, and the ruling class wants to keep power for itself. Social, political, and economic elites have created artificial obstacles to keep commoners from practicing tantra.

Tibet, for example, has a hereditary caste system, not unlike India’s. Tibetans—like civilized people everywhere—are obsessed with social class distinctions. It would be unacceptable for a Tibetan aristocrat to be religiously inferior to someone from a lower caste. So it is important to keep low-caste people from religious accomplishment.

This is one reason Tibetan conservatives oppose teaching tantra to Westerners. It is not only racism; it is also classism, or casteism.

I’ll write much more about this in upcoming posts. It’s one key to understanding why Tibetan tantra is mostly useless in 2012.

The bridge builder

The epitome of tantric mastery was Thangtong Gyalpo (1385–1464).

He was a genius; a Tibetan Renaissance Man. For his religious accomplishment, he is generally regarded as a Buddha. He invented the iron-chain suspension bridge, which could span broad rivers for the first time, and built more than a hundred of them across the Tibetan region. He was the inventor of the art form known as “Tibetan opera,” and his operas are still frequently performed. He was an architectural innovator, building numerous temples of peculiar design, some of which I’ve visited. He was a painter, sculptor, doctor, composer, musician, and poet. I expect he cooked a mean momo.

Here’s an extract from a letter to my lamas, from when I was on pilgrimage in Bhutan in 2003:

As an MIT graduate I have a special place in my heart for Thangtong Gyalpo: he’s the only acknowledged Buddha who was also an engineer. (As far as I know.)

According to my guidebook, only one of his bridges is still functioning. I saw it today, and I think the book was exaggerating. It is no longer functioning, and on the whole is no longer functional. Unfortunately, since the building of a modern Bailey bridge across the same gorge in 1978, it is no longer used, has not been maintained, and is rapidly falling apart; which is very sad.

It’s a damn fine piece of engineering. It’s about seventy-five feet long, with nine chains hung to give a U-shaped cross-section. The chains are anchored in stone gatehouses at either end. The roofs of these have been allowed to collapse, so now water runs through them and the masonry is also collapsing. Unless some reconstruction is done, I think the chains will fall into the river within a decade.

The chains themselves are in perfect condition. They show very little rust, and look like they could have been forged a year ago. Apparently he used an alloy that is both strong and rust-proof. Although my engineering training was entirely un-civil, it looks to my eye like the bridge was substantially over-engineered, which is probably why it has survived six hundred years. (His bridge over the Tsangpo must have been several-fold longer; I speculate that he used the same gauge chain on all his bridges, which made for overkill on this one.)

The cross-members have all fallen away, and the chains are now tied to each other instead with baling wire, which is also rusting away, so they hang free in many places.

One could, however, still walk across; and having in this case more devotion than sense, I set out to do just that. I was about a quarter of the way across before Norbu, the translator, noticed and yelled at me to come back.

Obviously these bridges were great things. I asked Norbu why people hadn’t built more of them after Thangtong Gyalpo left. I had to ask three times in different ways before he understood, because it was such a stupid question. “They couldn’t,” he finally replied. “He built it with his miracle power, you know.”

This is why I hate miracles: they are such an obstacle to people using their own gumption and applying methods: whether methods of civil engineering or meditation.

Tragically, the bridge was completely destroyed a year later.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

20 thoughts on “Mastery”

  1. I just read the first chapter of *Time Enough for Love* in the “Look Inside” thingy on

    Holy crap! :-)

    How can people write such things?! How the HELL did Heinlein THINK of the PREMISE for this BOOK?! Right?! Geeze Louise.

    Amazing. I have to buy it and read it now. And I don’t have money to spend. Damnit, David! Stop recommending good books. :-)

    I am constantly, perhaps more and more, amazed by the creativity of people: Heinlein’s novel (or rather, the first chapter); Thangtong’s bridges; Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s writing and facial hair styles; (to be a little bit of a kiss-ass — sorry) YOUR ability to track a path (perhaps: blaze a trail) through all this Buddhist history and theory in ways that always leave me excited about things I thought I already understood or I wasn’t paying attention to; *Franny and Zooey*; the film *The Tree of Life* (see it if you haven’t — I am not sure if I understand what it was “about”, but I am pretty confident it helped me become a slightly better person, somehow); a seemingly ENDLESSLY AMAZING parade of bands and musicians (listen to Lianne La Havas’ album *Is Your Love Big Enough?* or alt-J’s album *An Awesome Wave* — great stuff from new folks); and all the paintings and photographs and poems and outfits and dance moves and tree houses and soil rehabilitation techniques and hilarious sarcasm and necklaces, and, and . . .

    Sometimes I think of all the art that’s been made, is being made, and will be made — and that I will have come into contact with a virtually unimaginably small portion of it during my relatively short life — and I think it used to make me worry. Now, though, it is, I guess, a relief. The world seems to be as saturated with beautiful, amazing creativity as it is with strife and stupidity. I couldn’t really avoid the good stuff if I wanted to. :-)

    It makes it more difficult to (nihilistically) give up than to (compassionately) keep going.

    I hope I can contribute someday.


  2. Yesterday I started reading “Hidden in Plain Sight” by the martial artist Ellis Amdur. He has a neat discussion of power and mastery in his forward. Here’s a quote from it:

    “An instructor is responsible for teaching a tradition to the highest level that his or her students can achieve. However, this is only true if those students refuse to be satisfied with merely studying under a wonderful teacher, or claiming a wonderful heritage and lineage. Such smug satisfaction at being under the aegis of a master is the opposite of the hunger for mastery itself. . .”

    He describes mastery in that context as the meeting of virtuosity and vitality (my interpretation).


  3. I remember reading the following story yonks ago, I’m not sure where though:

    a group of monks are trying to fix a problem at their monastery with the drainage. They’ve traced the problem to a blockage some fifty meters outside of the monastery itself, a blockage in the outlet pipe which has caused a slurry pit to emerge at its base. A deep, smelly pit of filth and slime. Attempting to unblock the pipe fails, they try with long sticks, other pipes, but none of it does the job. Further, none of them knows much about plumbing.

    After a while the procrastinating monks are noticed to have been gone awhile, and this fact is drawn to the attention of the high Lama resident at the monastery. On a whim, he decides to investigate. Th monks recount their discovery of the issue and the Lama takes one look at it and says ‘Yep, I see the problem, there’s only one thing for it.’ And, lifting up his robes he wades into the rank pit of waste, sticks his arm down the pipe, extracts the offending rocks blocking it, and wades out again. ‘That should do it’, he says to the astounded monks, and heads back to the monastery without further ado.

    Enthralled by the intervention of their esteemed Lama, one of the monks exclaims ‘I always knew our Lama was a great practitioner, but not that he was a plumber too. Did you see him wade through all that shit, he’s a real Master isn’t he?!’

  4. @ Noah — You have certainly entered into the spirit of things here!

    Time Enough for Love is one of my favorite books. It’s a vast sprawling mess; several novels stapled together inside the frame story that you read on Amazon. The first hundred pages are hard to get through, but eventually the epic sweep of the thing, plus the remarkable hero, catch you, and then…

    @ Rin’dzin — Thanks! “The meeting of virtuosity and vitality” does seem an insightful definition for mastery.

    @ Alex — Wow, that’s a great story, and totally relevant here!

    Not many Tibetan lamas would do such a thing, even if they could. Those who would—are indeed masters of tantra.

  5. Oh, by the way, the aphorisms from Time Enough for Love were extracted and published as a separate book, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long. Much or all of the text is online here.

    There’s an awful lot of useful advice in there. Starting with “Any priest or shaman must be presumed guilty until proved innocent.”

    “Small change can often be found under seat cushions” has saved my ass more than once.

  6. Ah, yes, and “Everything in excess! To enjoy the flavor of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks.” I need to re-read this thing. Half of what I would say about tantra is in there, so I can just steal it.

  7. “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

    OK, I’ll stop now. Y’all can read the rest for yourselves.

  8. @David:

    Thanks! :-)

    “. . . but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”

    Lol! :-)

    “It may be better to be a live jackal than a dead lion, but it is better still to be a live lion. And usually easier.”

    “Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a God superior to themselves. Most Gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”

    ‘Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded–here and there, now and then–are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as “bad luck.”’

    “God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent-it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.”

    “Courage is the compliment of fear. A man who is fearless cannot be courageous. (He is also a fool.)”

    Thanks, David.


  9. I’ve only gotten to this line:

    Tantra engenders all-around cluefulness: savoir-faire, improvisatory panache, and practical élan.

    and had to commend hitting it out of the park

  10. I see a big problem when an immature person starts viewing oneself as a special member of elite (or even as a “master”): from there is just a small step to hubris. I guess in many martial arts this is automatically solved by the fact that you rise approximately to that level where you will get beaten about as often as you will win, which teaches you some humility as well.
    Not that I’m against the concept of elite (in skills and ability) per se. Still, I have realized that the real masters are often very modest people.

    Have you read Kazantzakis’s “Ascesis: The Saviors of God” by the way? Interesting synthesis of Nietzschean and Buddhist ideas, with a strong Kazantzakian flavor. Made a big and lasting impression on me when I read it years back.

  11. Of course one could say that Kazantzakis’ “Askesis” is also about the philosophy of Henri Bergson, but written much much better than Bergson did.

    One of the rare books that have recently impressed me is Jaimal Yogis’s “Saltwater Buddha”. I was positively surprised how there was none of the usual “self-help for victims” blather I have come to expect from most of the buddhism books written by westerners, and also how he (quite shortly) writes about dukha without the barely hidden attitude of “sour grapes” often present.

    Maybe because he is a surfer, and attaining mastery (which of course can always be improved!) is inherent part of the surfing culture. I don’t know which school of Buddhism he adheres to, but clearly he is not renouncing the joy the ocean can give him. This paragraph right in the introduction already stroke me as a quite deviant from the usual “all is suffering” ethos:

    Some say that the “goal” of Buddhism is to become a Buddha – to become awake. And one of the historical Buddha’s very first teachings, recorded in Avatamsaka Sutra, says “the Earth expounds Dharma,” meaning, that the very world we live in describes how to awaken. And since the most of the earth is ocean, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that, with the right intention and awareness, you can learn to be a Buddha by playing in the waves.

  12. Yes, hubris is recognized in the tantric tradition as perhaps the greatest danger on the path. There are various safeguards against it, which are not entirely reliable.

    Thanks for the book recommendations; I haven’t come across either of these before!

  13. I’d like to talk about points of view of you all – especially D. Chapman – about lamas and their flaws. The Lama is supposed to be an example of what students can reach, but reading all that Chapman writes here and looking at my own experience of them and some experiences of others, it’s deeply disappointing.

    I’m not asking more of this general talk about this and that theory, but of our experiences with Lamas. Of course they help a lot, even (or especially) when they’re angry with us, but they commit many mistakes. The other day I read this and got really worried:

    “Even if they are murderers …”

    Well, I’m trying to have such a pure vision, but then what? I just CANNOT reach this level of faith in any human guru, whatsoever… I simply can’t access this level of surrender to the point of ignoring the faults of many lamas.

    When I try to apply this so-called pure vision and say that Chinese were good in the end, because they made Vajrayana to spread around the world while Tibetans were keeping it restricted to their world, then a guy calls me “closer to evil”, as If i were really endorsing the Chinese invasion. It’s not that I’m so much worried of what people think of me, but I’m worried that I can’t have faith in Lamas anymore to this point of seeing one of them committing a crime or acting in very ordinary ways and still believe that they are a Buddha as Dudjom Rinpoche suggests in that text.

    What keeps us practicing? Maybe, the possibility of becoming noble masters, at least of our minds and help others to do so. If Buddhism is dead, as Chapman what to expect from a corpse? Who are our example?

    I just LOVE to read or hear Drugpa Kunleg’s stories, but sometimes they seem a little… hmmm… strange to me… Sometimes I understand them, but when it comes to the point where he wants to have sex with some guys wife and this guy takes a sword and when Drukpa ties a knot on the weapon, then the guy understands that he’s a great master and lets his wife take Drukpa’s weenie on her secret lotus… Well, if we have to avoid supernatural claims, whadda heck this story is telling us?

    Please, people, help me to overcome this confuse mind… You are my lamas for this! hehehe

  14. For whatever my opinion is worth: I think the lama/student relationship would need significant revision/reinvention in order to function broadly in the contemporary world.

    Some people are trying to do that. Ken McLeod, Hokai Sobol, and Reggie Ray come to mind as examples.

  15. I love the taste of your brain, but today I have an immense hunger for your pulsating stomach or your beating heart, if you don’t mind to expose them…

    Would you, please, be comfortable to leave both this cold and distant technicality or that hot and adolescent fictionality away and tell us some stories about bad feelings you already had on YOUR teachers, any seemingly faults that they displayed and how YOU managed somewhat to stay inspired by them (or not)?? (Damn it! Let your blood spill all over the table! LOM)

    Because sometimes it seems that for a Vajra master to really help you, a complete surrender may be necessary and us, 21st c. Western weirdos, seem unable to take this step. Y’know, that thing they say that what matters more is your pure view, not the finger pointing the moon to you… that even if your teacher is the worst person ever, if you see him like a Buddha, that’s the kind of inspiration (blessing) you get.

    This is almost spooky for me… so I act like Gollum… the Ring is my ordinary life… and the bats outside the window are telling me to go nuts and dive into that ocean of surrender, no matter how irrational it may be… no matter how much space for abuse there can be in it… (of course this is a joke, but I have a family of bats living in my attic).

  16. I can’t give you what you are looking for here. Sorry!

    Y’know, that thing they say that what matters more is your pure view, not the finger pointing the moon to you… that even if your teacher is the worst person ever, if you see him like a Buddha, that’s the kind of inspiration (blessing) you get.

    I think this can work for some people, sometimes. It’s risky and not the right approach for most people.

    I have bats living in my bathroom wall, also!

  17. Ok… No food for the demon today… I’ll have to fill my guts with your brain… That’s fine!

    I know its risky, but that’s not the whole point you’ve been emphasizing about Tantra? It’s like an investment, only that’s not (just) about the money (a 3-year retreat costs 20 grand, at least).

    There’s no free lunch, Bat-room Man! (sorry, couldn’t resist the bad pun)

    I had a dream where Ngak’chang Rinpoche was Val Kilmer and headed a group of supermarket thieves using dirty gray sweaters with hoods, but the group was the best sangha in the world and every theft was a huuuge fun teaching on the nature of mind!!!!

    But I cannot indulge in thefts like this because I’m not enlightened like him. I’ve to be a nice guy and allow supermarkets to rob me instead (prices getting high here).

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