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.

Power and the Consensus

Consensus Buddhism was created by hippies. Their formative experience was rejecting the authority of The Establishment. The government, church, schools, and media had wrong attitudes to race, sex, drugs, work, and war. Generally, hippies adopted radical politics that rejected individual power altogether. They saw collective “people power” as the only legitimate kind.

This became awkward for Consensus leaders who came into positions of authority. Mostly they have struggled, in good faith, to create new ways of wielding power responsibly. This has not always been successful—as continuing sex and money scandals show. That is embarrassing.

Tantra’s frank pursuit of power is one reason it is unacceptable to the Consensus. Consensus Buddhism thinks power is icky. Only Bad People have it or want it. Maybe sometimes it is a nasty necessity, but you should be embarrassed about it. You shouldn’t pursue it, you should try to hide it, you shouldn’t talk about it. You should pretend it doesn’t exist.

This attitude is unrealistic. Power can’t be wished out of existence. We’re stuck with it. We have to live with it, one way or another. Better to see it clearly, and to use it effectively.

Often people turn to spirituality when they want to escape power relationships. Consensus Buddhism can appeal to people who feel powerless, have given up on the real world, and are looking for satisfaction in some alternate realm. That is not the attitude of tantra.

Power and Tibetan Buddhism

Tantra is totally entangled with political power in Tibetan society.

You can’t make sense of Tibetan tantra until you understand how it was reinvented, over and over, to serve ruling class power. I will write more about this in the “history of tantra” section of this work.

The remaking of tantra as a tool for oppression is one reason vintage–1959 Tibetan Buddhism is a bad fit for Westerners in 2012. We have zero interest in being part of a feudal theocratic caste system. Consciously or not, most Tibetan teachers slot Western students into roles in that system.

Even when they don’t, 1959-style practices were designed to support the theocracy. Many of them make little sense outside it.

This runs deep. Superficial changes are insufficient to free the 1959 framework from its political functions. Any future attempt to reinvent tantra needs to understand this clearly before making the radical revisions necessary.

Marginal groups may sometimes have seized tantra as a tool against dominant institutions. These times include the Indian Dark Age, the Tibetan Dark Age, and contemporary Amdo and Kham. None of these is a completely clear, well-documented case. However, they can be inspiring semi-mythological models of the power of tantra to fight oppression.

The tantra practiced by rebels is very different from the theocratic tantra mostly now taught in the West. I think it would be a better starting point.

Types of power

Some useful categories:

  • Supernatural power: to do practical magic, usually with the help of demons

  • Authority: power that comes from your position in a social institution

  • Power-from-within: which comes from your personal character and skills

A weapon of mass destruction

Supernatural power doesn’t exist. However, to understand Tibetan tantra, and Tibetan politics, you need to know how important this imaginary power was.

For example, Tibetans genuinely believed that tantra includes the power to kill by magic. This was the Tibetan weapon of mass destruction. A single powerful tantrika could slaughter an entire army.

Politically powerful people made sure they controlled who got that weapon, of course. This is one reason Tibetan Buddhism is full of artificial obstacles to tantric practice.

Religious authority

Many Western Buddhists oppose authority by reflex. Power is a problem, so let’s get rid of it.

Reforming Asian systems of religious authority is one way Buddhism has Westernized. Tibetan Buddhism has mainly not done that.

This actually led to the founding of Consensus Buddhism, as a political institution. Around 1990, a group of Western Buddhist leaders were deeply concerned by a string of severe abuses of power by Buddhist teachers in America. (I think they were right to be concerned.) Something had to be done.

The Consensus approach was to replace “the guru model” with “the spiritual friend model.” A spiritual friend has no authority, so abuse is not possible. (Or that was the idea; it hasn’t worked out quite like that.) In 1993, at a conference sponsored by the Dalai Lama, the group issued a policy statement. Most of it is good sense that no one could object to.

However, some Tibetans did object strongly. In doctrine and practice, the guru is the heart of tantra. Eliminating the guru, they said, would simply mean the end of tantra. And, the document’s demand that “all teachers [must] live by the five lay precepts” directly contradicts tantra. Tantra requires students as well as teachers to violate the precepts.

From the Consensus point of view, this was nonsense. It was just a lame traditionalist excuse for bogus theocratic power.

I think these groups were talking past each other:

  • The Tibetans were right that tantra can’t function without asymmetric student-teacher relationships. The “spiritual friend model” won’t work for tantra. They were also right that tantra cannot conform to conventional morality.

  • The Consensus was right that guru-disciple relationships are often dysfunctional, and the traditional forms are unworkable in the West. They were right that “crazy wisdom” does not justify exploitation.

I think there is room for middle ground. The tantric teaching system can be reformed without losing its essential functions. It’s possible to drop feudal theocratic traditions while honoring the inherent power difference in all teacher-student relationships. (I’ll say more about this in later posts. Until then, you may reasonably be skeptical.)

A few years of open war between the Consensus and the Tibetans ended in a truce. The implicit treaty terms were:

1. The Consensus would leave traditional Tibetan tantra alone.

The Consensus leaders found it hard to oppose that, because traditional texts are clear about the central role of the tantric teacher. They were sensitive to charges of cultural imperialism.

Traditional Tibetan tantra had less and less appeal to Westerners, so the Consensus leaders felt it could be left to dwindle into irrelevance. Also, the audience for that and for the Consensus were quite different. You can’t save everyone, and people who get sucked into traditional tantra are mostly beyond the Consensus’s ability to help.

2. The Tibetans would cooperate with the Consensus to suppress non-traditional tantra.

Modern tantra was a threat to both. It undercut the whole Tibetan power structure. Upstart innovators like Chögyam Trungpa, Tarthang Tulku, and Namkhai Norbu gained vastly more power than the hierarchy thought they deserved. Worse, some Westerners were made lamas. That absolutely had to be stopped, because the theocracy could not control them. It would also end their lucrative racial monopoly.

For many Westerners, modernized tantra was more attractive than the sutra-based Consensus. In the 1980s, the two were in competition for students. Also, I imagine Consensus leaders thought that Western gurus were even more likely than Asian ones to go off the tracks into narcissistic exploitation. In any case, modern tantra just seemed too dangerous to be allowed.

Both groups were rightly horrified about Ösel Tenzin. This white guy, who Chögyam Trungpa appointed as a lama, and as his successor, was an epic disaster. Ending experiments in Western tantra seemed a small price to pay to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.

Their combined effort to stamp out modern tantra was almost completely successful. I’ll write more about that in the history section.

Tantric power-from-within

Tantra offers em-power-ment. Power-from-within grants the ability to make elegant, accurate, kind, effective, expansive changes in the world.

No other Buddhism has that power as a goal.

I think it makes tantra a uniquely valuable path—for some people.

Power-from-within, like authority, comes with responsibility and risks. Like authority, it can be used for good or ill. It’s often a headache. The more power you have, the more emotionally mature you have to be to use it properly.

Not everyone would want that responsibility. Not everyone is capable of it, whether or not they want it. Tantra is not for everyone. Even putting the elitism of authority aside, tantra has an inherent elitism of willingness and ability.

I consider the ultimate goal of tantra to be “nobility.” Nobility is right use of power.

My page after next will be about that.


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

14 thoughts on “Power”

  1. There is one dimension to that you touch on but I think needs a little further elaboration: Lamas in the west were actually far more powerful than they ever were in Tibet, at least within the bubble of their own little organizations. In Tibet, even lamas with a lot of political power were subject to all sorts of constraints, checks and balances. Although many people might have regarded them as gods, there were always other Tibetans willing to torture and kill them if they crossed the wrong boundaries. Even at more mundane levels, Chogyam Trungpa, for example, spends a lot of time in Born in Tibet complaining about how he never got to do what he wanted to do because first the tutor and then the bursar made all the decisions regarding his personal schedule.

    On the contrary, in the west they all form their own “dharma organizations” so that they don’t have to work with anyone else, even other lamas from the exact same lineage. As the heads of their own little worlds, their spiritual authority becomes the basis for unchecked authority in all realms. When everyone in your world is samaya-bound to you, including the board of directors which is legally supposed to be checking your authority, there is no one to tell you perhaps you shouldn’t solicit sex from that 18-year old sangha member’s daughter, or pay yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salary and benefits, or declare your secret wife a goddess. No one else in your little bumble has any authority whatsoever, spiritual, temporal or otherwise. Whatever else lamas in Tibet got away with, they didn’t each operate in their own little hermetically sealed kingdoms.

    And then there is the Tibetan omerta by which even the most egregious behavior will almost never provoke public comment by other lamas. A code of omerta conveniently adopted by the commercial dharma magazines. In Tibet there would be public silence coupled with backstage machinations. In the West public rebuke is the only recourse possible, since there is no shared backstage, but it isn’t used.

    Fortunately, with the rise of the internet there is finally one check on this power – the likelihood of public exposure and shaming.

  2. re: “The Tibetans would cooperate with the Consensus to suppress non-traditional tantra.”
    Maybe you could give a few examples of what ‘non-traditional tantra’ looks like (if this does not pre-empt your upcoming posts too much). Chogyam Trungpa (from what I’ve heard), made his students do ‘traditional ngondro’, and ‘traditional’ vajrayogini practice. But perhaps, non-traditionally, he also made them do a lot of shamatha practice before they could start the ‘ngondro’.

  3. I found this post more subversive than the others and appreciate it more so as a result. A few random thoughts. I apologise for any incoherence:

    As any powerful individual knows, without power, you have no impact. Without impact, any voice you may have is lost. The rich and wealthy have been abusing this insight since for ever. As you say, most Buddhists (any spiritual type really) consider power to be evil, a distortion of the sacred. New-Agers consider worthy power to be a spiritual capacity only. How wrong they are and how clear it is that their wishy washy solipsism means they have no relevance on the global scene in spite of their fantasies about the new millennium ushering in a new golden age and 2012 being the moment of transcendence. How many Buddhists in their disdain for power are a sort of New-Ager, I wonder?
    The collective inertia in the face of powerful leadership amongst consensus Buddhism seems to reflect a naive idealism in which people will naturally collaborate and harmonise if only they practice and smile enough and develop enough of that super-compassion which solves all evils.
    I worked in a genuine co-operative for a year and had the title of company director, whilst driving trucks, and found the attempt at collective decision making to be absurd. The same small clique of long-term employees dominated the decision making process time after time and softer voices were ignored. People recognise power and cannot but help but respond to it, even if their response is opposition. If Tantra can offer a clearer understanding of the raw nature of power and its consequences, then it certainly has something invaluable to offer to all Buddhists and to the relevance of Buddhism long-term. Certainly the issue of power needs to be out in the open and be considered within a more sophisticated and less allergic framework.
    In spite of the nervousness towards power that you describe, people love powerful leaders. The lazy decision by hippies to abandon power structures in the 70s was a failure in re-evaluating the dynamics of the relationship that ought to exist between who leads and who follows. Instead of a sufficient and sustained collective call for a levelling of power and change in the rules for leaders, the lack of cohesion between multiple voices led to a fizzling out and the emergence of the capitalism of the 80s and the runaway leaders for sale that we see in the US & UK today. Hippies and spiritual types ever since have supported the powerful elites long-term by opting out of politics and pretending that eventually the non-spiritual types will go away or be transformed by the global awakening around the corner.
    I would re-frame the crisis of democracy that we are facing in the west as actually a failure of leadership. Leadership is not a position of advantage, but one of service. The key to leadership and the harnessing of power, is to do so in service of the people and the situations that arise with a very clear intent and direction. Profound commitment to excellence in service to the many when combined with capacity and will results in powerful leadership. This is no different for Buddhists and Buddhism.

  4. @ David – Whilst I agree that ‘many Western Buddhists oppose authority by reflex’ I would insert the words ‘traditional models’ of authority. Yes, as you say ‘Reforming Asian systems of religious authority is one way Buddhism has Westernized.’ I actually feel that Western culture as a whole is engaged in on an ongoing programme of subverting traditional models of authority – and has been since the protestant reformation. I perceive the process as being much slower than some elements of your blog describe, having been going on since Luther (at least). Buddhism is merely the latest target.

    The reason I would insert the words ‘traditional models’ is that what actually results from the Consensus activity is a *new* model of authority. Consensus Buddhism has leaders – who wield power. They just wield a different kind of power than the traditional model. As long as they conform to the prerequisites of this new power model (for example, emphasizing equality, equal opportunity, personal process over ‘archaic’ models of unending promise and binding commitment, vegetarianism, environmentalism. . .) then they get to wield power. Traditional models are criticized for the fact that people follow their leaders blindly. Now the pretense is that we follow our leaders with *open eyes* – but this is just a different system that gives the same results. And follow we do. Nowadays we re-elect leaders, rather than shoot them. Sure, it’s more civilized, but a wise man once said ‘in a democratic system it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government gets in’.

    I would argue that the leadership and power model of Consensus Buddhism is just as flawed as, for example, the theocratic model that has dominated Tibetan Buddhism. It’s just a different set of flaws, with different downsides. The tone of your posting here does suggest – I think inadvertently – that Consensus Buddhists have ‘got what they wanted’ – a system that cannot be corrupted, because it has done away with a flawed leadership model. I actually wonder, perhaps cynically, if it is more a case that Consensus Buddhist *leaders* have got what *they* wanted – a new system in which *they* can perform leadership roles, when perhaps they would not have been able to do so in the old, traditional system

  5. @ Greg — Thanks! And ‘yes’ to all that.

    The points you touch on are all ones I hope to write much more about later. I started writing a reply here, and realized that it would be longer than the average blog post, so it’ll have to wait!

    @ palapiku — Yes, there are significant similarities between Buddhist tantra and Satanism. They both systematically invert some of the values of their parent religious system, while leaving the basic framework intact. (I plan to write about this explicitly, soon.)

    There’s at least one critical difference between Buddhist tantra and the LaVey version of Satanism. Tantra, like other Buddhisms, insists that whatever you do, it should be for the benefit of others. It’s anti-selfish, whereas selfishness was LaVey’s central principle.

    There’s no agreed-on definition for what counts as “Buddhism,” so it’s meaningless to say “this isn’t really Buddhism.” Perhaps what you actually mean is “this is very different from the Buddhisms I already know about,” and/or “I don’t like it”?

    @ Marie Ramos — For the 1980s, my list of “non-traditional tantra” teachers is Chögyam Trungpa, Tarthang Tulku, Namkhai Norbu, and Ngakpa Chögyam. None of these could really be called “modern” (nor would they want to have be), but each innovated significantly in various ways.

    Trungpa’s Shambhala Training system was the closest thing we’ve had to “modern tantra” so far, I think. (It’s been revised out of recognition in the past dozen years, unfortunately.) Officially, it was a non-Buddhist secular path of meditation. In fact, its later stages contained a ton of innovations in completion-phase tantra.

    His early teaching of Buddhist tantra—in Crazy Wisdom for instance—was radical. He didn’t pull any punches; it’s the straight dope. His later Buddhist teaching became more conventional. I think that the change probably came with the visit of the Karmapa. He had been seriously considering saying “fuck you” to the Karmapa, but decided he liked and respected him, and would work more closely within the traditional Karma Kagyu framework. But then his innovations had to spill over somewhere else, and they went into Shambhala Training.

    @ Matthew — Well said! I agree with all of that.

    @ Namgyal Dorje — Yes, I agree with all you say, also.

    In earlier drafts of this page, I was more critical of the Consensus leaders. I toned that down and left the criticism largely implicit. Maybe I went too far.

    I’m still wrestling with the question of what is the best balance between pointing out the failings of the Consensus and its leadership while avoiding unnecessary hurtfulness. (I wrote a whole page about that recently.) It seems likely that I will continue to err on both sides.

    Leaders are always caught up in ideologies and social processes that they do not understand, even when they originated them. In most cases, they mostly think they are doing the right thing, as best they can. In most cases, there are negative effects of their activities, which they are blind to. In most cases, they become complacent and comfortable. They lose their original vision, and also come to rely on enjoying the perks of power. None of this makes them evil; but it does mean they must be opposed.

  6. Hi David. As an American who embraces the spirit of democracy, I am aligned with the “hippies” who saw “collective people power as the only legitimate kind.” However, democracy will only work when it is kept local and when people have the liberty to develop their own “power from within.” In terms of our democracy here in the United States, it has been undermined by institutions like forced schooling, which teaches us to be irresponsible, incompetent, and dependent on others for all our goods, services, and on experts for all kinds of advice. The authority of the expert is akin to Religious Authority, blended in some with power from within. Perhaps the religious / spiritual club is just a part of this phenomenon: people who have been schooled to rely on others come seeking a religious authority who has some kind of credential, be it Religious Authority or power-from-within. Either way, while it may be enlightening to listen to so-called experts, it is often dis-em-powering because the listener is willing to cede his own personal authority to the expert. I agree with Namgyal Dorje that the new “Consensus” leadership has recreated the hierarchy in their own image. While power is, as you platitudinously say, unavoidable, systems that set up experts will always disempower the individual and therefore misuse power (or in your words be “ignoble.” I appreciate your work to expose Consensus Buddhism, because it is this kind of critical study and speech that encourages people to think for themselves, follow advice they deem appropriate after a critical examination, and generally be their own authority.

    On another note, I understand your hesitancy to attack vehemently, not wanting to defeat your own purposes by inflaming those you criticize (and because you like them). However, it strikes me that the “noble” way to enter discourse here is to be painfully honest and clear (lest you wind up enforcing dubious opinions) while making it equally clear that you do not intend your remarks to be an indictment of someone’s character altogether ie that you have “no hard feelings.” Either way, please don’t trust that your implicit criticisms will be understood, particularly if someone is just skimming through a blog post. If you are open to honest criticism, you are qualified to give it.

  7. @ David – thank you for your reply. Regarding ‘I’m still wrestling with the question of what is the best balance between pointing out the failings of the Consensus and its leadership while avoiding unnecessary hurtfulness’ you’re doing a great job at this from my perspective. I suspect that it is impossible to get the balance right. What you’re doing though is still trying to achieve balance in spite of that, being entirely open about the process, and being entirely willing to clarify points where there is contention. That’s all you can do in such a situation.

    As a result of this open approach both to the Consensus and the subject matter in general, I think you wield a certain kind of power here yourself – perhaps a fourth class of power – the power of clear, open intent. When someone’s intentions are clearly and openly expressed, the respect and trust this approach can win is enormous. I notice this particularly in certain politicians, scientific and religious figures whose views I *disagree* with. Where their case is stated in an open manner, free from defensiveness, I find that I *trust* them more than I trust people I agree with. I distrust those I agree with because of my own failings – because I am suspicious that I’m inclined to like them just because I agree with them.

  8. @David: Thank you for another great post. (I pray that you will soon win a national lottery, so that you could quit your day job, and become a full time Buddhist Blogger.) As always, while I generally agreed with your post as a whole, you managed to include a detaiI I disagree with – this time the detail was your ultra-modernist view about the (non)existence of supernatural power. :D But nevermind.

    I was wondering though, whether you are familiar with two Thai concepts, “saksit” and “khuna”, which could both be translated as “power” ? (They both extend from human-to-human relationships into supernatural-to-human relationships, so whether one accepts the existence of supernatural power does not really matter.) Googling does not help, and there are very few books that mention or explain these interesting ideas of power. (Niels Mulder: Inside Thai Society, has a good explanation.) The idea is, that all meaningful power relationships, or relationships with a meaningful power difference, are of either kind, or a combined ones in a few rare cases, and one does indeed relate in a very different manner to someone or something depending on which power is present. One acts differently in the presence of a holder of saksit and a holder of khuna. Mistaking one for the other could even prove fatal, in a literal sense.

    If you are familiar with these two different concepts of power, I’ll guess you will use them in your future posts, so I do not wish to spoil the fun by explaining too much about them here. If on the other hand you have no idea of these ideas, you might want to know more. I have found them a great help in thinking about power and all power related stuff. I even finally managed to understand what the Lord of the Rings is all about by thinking in terms of saksit and khuna! It is not a story about good vs evil, freedom vs tyranny, light vs darkness, order vs chaos, but a story of a clash between two different types of pure power, khuna and saksit, where the main holders of these powers are Aragorn and Sauron respectively, the main storyline being how khuna-in-potentia eventually becomes fully manifest in Aragorn as he accepts his true nature.

    In the same vein, it perhaps happened, that the Consensus, while rightfully fearing pure and unchained saksit, wanted to chain it, but as it failed to tell saksit and khuna apart, managed merely to banish holders of the khuna from the realm, and while preferring to have a Steward of Gondor as their authority, instead of the rightful King, found eventually that the Steward, alas, was enthralled and slaved by all the saksit left.

    (And if that made sense to anyone, I’ll eat my hat.)

  9. Hi,

    Thank you very much for your praise and prayer!

    I did not know about khuna and saksit. Thanks for letting me know about them!

    I read a little on the web, which suggested that they correspond to moral/ordered/comfortable power and amoral/chaotic/alien power. Is that right?

  10. you should also look at the vinaya pitaka,it has the Buddhas ideas on how a monastic order should run itself. It says in it that the decision should be by consensus, if one monk is oppose on community matter, it cannot be done. And it doesnt matter at all about theior seniority. Once they are a full member of the community , their opinion is of equal weight to the oldest monks. This kind of structure , is of course good for fostering harmony within a community. It is very different from what is practiced now.

  11. @ Lama Tsewang – would I be right in assuming that the decision making model you describe relates solely to secular (e.g. administrative) matters, and that there is a different model for the interpretation of doctrine?

  12. i dont think so , there is not a clear line between those two things.First of all , a Sangha doent legislate what people believe. thats an idea we get here , from christian traditions. if someone does really crazy stuff ,and is asked to stop, and does not, then its a matter to brig up in front of a community.

  13. how much bolloney can you write about something to make benefit? None. Good luck trying to fit tantra into your established lives or views of reality.

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