Pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws

This is my second post about Michael Roach and Christie McNally, who tried to teach Buddhist tantra and made a mess instead.

It is about gender-bending, violence, and black magic in Buddhist tantra. It’s about manic pixie dream girls and eating your shadow—and pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws. Understanding how Roach and McNally got these things wrong can help understand how to do tantra right.

(My previous post explained some background: about Buddhist tantra, the shadow, and Roach and McNally’s training—or lack of it—in the Geluk school.)

The shadow of the “opposite” gender

Nina Burleigh writes in Rolling Stone:

[Their] students were taught the tantric practice of picturing [the goddess] Vajrayogini as a 16-year-old in the flush of a sexual awakening, with “her vagina dripping to the floor”…

Great sensationalist journalism—but also totally orthodox.

The actual practice is experiencing yourself as Vajrayogini. This works on many levels simultaneously, but one important function is to overcome gender identity. For a man, it explodes the limited conception of yourself as inherently male. (Women can experience themselves as a god with a massive hard-on.) Gender is a major part of the shadow—the unseen “not me.”

Burleigh quoting McNally: “Roach was interested in embracing his feminine side.” That is a traditional aspect of tantric wholeness; Vajrayogini is a fine way of accomplishing it.

Roach encouraged male adherents to… honor Vajrayogini by dressing as women. Roach himself… dressed as a “preppy girl,” with eye shadow, eyeliner, skirts and blouses.

Although untraditional, this is also a fine way to do it. Once a friend of mine had me put on her black lamé cocktail dress. It fit perfectly. When she pointed me at her full-length mirror, my instant reaction was I want that girl NOW. That was seriously weird—and a transformative experience.

Roach was layering another American-style improvement on the ancient teachings: equality. “In Tibetan Buddhism, women are worshipped as divine, while they are told they are lower than men,” says McNally. “[Roach] did a radical thing asking me to teach beside him.”

This is another thing they got right, in my opinion. It’s also traditional—if you go back far enough. In the earliest days—according to the traditional histories—women were the primary teachers of tantra. Only later did men seize control; and only later than that did monks get involved.

Monks and the shadow of gender

Before his relationship with with McNally, Roach spent most of his adult life in strict Geluk monasteries. Geluk practice is particularly anti-female, anti-sex, and anti-enjoyment. [Update: some people say that Roach’s claim to have spent much of his life in monasteries is not true; in which case my account here needs revision.]

Femaleness, and heterosexual intercourse, are part of the institutional shadow of monasticism. In that celibate, intensely male environment, they are rejected as utterly not-me. This is perfectly consistent with principles of sutra—but antithetical to tantra.

It seems likely that Roach’s initial swerve from Geluk orthodoxy was an authentic recognition of this. He could no longer pretend that he had no feminine characteristics, nor that he had no sexual desire.

To deepen that realization, he would need to relate to an actual woman. Unfortunately, at this stage in his development, that was probably too scary. Instead, he found a manic pixie dream girl.

Manic pixie dream girls

Laurie Penny’s “I was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl” explains. This is a role some women can play for some men. The man is geeky, dutiful, mopey, and has no idea how to enjoy himself. (Many monks fit that bill.) The job of the manic pixie dream girl (MPDG) is to open him up to the wonderful adventure that is life. She magically transforms him by being cute and excitable and girly and zany and sweet and full of fun.

No one can be that all the time. MPDG is an act, not a human being. Some women try to be a MPDG, because some men love that. The MPDG has to put most of her personality—anger, depression, and practicality—into the not-me. MPDG is all light—no scary darkness allowed. This is psychologically and spiritually harmful.

Relating to a MPDG may help some guys for a while. A MPDG actually can help a man retrieve fun, adventure, and sensual enjoyment from his shadow—if he has exiled them there. However, because the MPDG has hidden so much of herself in her own shadow, the relationship is extremely limited. This sort of relationship actively colludes to keep a man’s fear, sorrow, and rage hidden from him.

This seems to have been the dynamic of McNally and Roach’s relationship, from what I have read. (Here I’m psychoanalyzing people I don’t know, which is error-prone, but it’s based mainly on their own writing.) Roach was not ready to relate to a full-spectrum woman, with her own power, agendas, lusts, and rages. That would be far too scary. Instead, McNally could act out the MPDG archetype. In return, she got high social status and a somewhat insane level of devotion.

Around the time they split up, she dropped the MPDG act, and started to reclaim her shadow. That is a difficult, dangerous business. Accepting your own dark side is hugely valuable—an essential part of the tantric Buddhist path—but during the process everyone makes mistakes. Those can be seriously harmful. There are ways of minimizing the danger, but McNally apparently had little or no instruction, and few if any of the usual safeguards were in place.

Angels and witches

Roach’s teaching made constant reference to “angels.” This was an explicitly Christian borrowing. Mostly, though, “angel” was a highly distorting translation of “dakini.”

A better translation is “witch.” Dakinis are ferocious cannibals. They are, also, the enlightened females (ambiguously human or supernatural) who first made tantric Buddhism available to humankind. Either way, they are enormously powerful, prone to lust and rage, and beyond full male comprehension.

In other words, dakinis are women who have completed the work of eating their shadows. “Witches” are also, in Laurie Penny’s essay, women who refuse to play MPDGs. (I’ve written more about dakinis here.)

An “angel,” on the other hand, is all light, no shadow. Nearly the opposite of a dakini.

Dakinis play a central role in Buddhist tantra, particularly its scary shadow-eating aspects. Systematically replacing dakinis with “angels,” as Roach did, is a sign that he was unwilling to do the shadow work. This might have been intelligent: he may have been psychologically unready, or lacked the necessary instructions. Or, it may simply have been cowardice, and unwillingness to take the next step in his spiritual development.

Part of Roach’s practice was regarding McNally (and all other women) “as angels.” Seeing all women as dakinis is, indeed, a key tantric practice. That means potentially taking them as terrifying teachers of black magic—not simpering dream girls.

I suspect that refusal to deal with his shadow—his greed, fear, and anger—helps explain Roach’s so-called “cult leader” actions.

Black magic

Web discussions make much of McNally’s practice of “black magic.” That sounds sensationalistic, but is probably accurate in a sense. There is much in Buddhist tantra that could be described as “black magic” reasonably accurately. I’ve written about this at length on Buddhism for Vampires. Eating the shadow, particularly if you do it abruptly, can seem much like “black magic.”

This does not imply harm, nor harmful intent—though it does risk harmful effects. “Black magic” can sometimes be transformative, in a positive way, for individuals and communities. It is rarely the best approach, however. It’s a last-ditch approach to cutting through fundamentalist conditioning.

Diving into black magic probably took guts, and was an authentic move toward wholeness for McNally. It’s tragic, though, that she seems to have had no guidance. This was an unforeseen bad consequence of the suppression of Buddhist tantra.

It also recklessly endangered her students. Shadow-eating is work a teacher absolutely must complete before leading a three-year retreat. Sorting out your psychological issues while leading one is very wrong.

It appears that McNally was very ready to start learning tantra—if anyone had been willing to teach her. She was not nearly ready to start teaching it.

Violence

After her marriage with Roach ended, McNally married Ian Thorson—who eventually died unnecessarily, setting off the media circus. Thorson was Roach’s opposite in many ways. One was that Thorson was prone to violence.

I suspect this was McNally’s way of working with shadow material in a relationship. She was starting to explore her witchy self—the dark feminine—which includes violence. In the incident that got her and Thorson ejected from the retreat, she cut him with a knife shortly after starting martial arts training. In her own account:

Well, there is this big knife we got as a wedding present… thus began our rather dangerous play. If I had had any training at all, the accident never would have happened. I simply did not understand that the knife could actually cut someone.

There is another reason why I wanted to study martial arts. I was actively trying to raise up this aggressive energy, a kind of fierce divine pride, and I asked my holy Love [Thorson] to be my Teacher for this.

Why did I ask him to teach me? Well, he had been having a lot of physical aggression at the time (nothing too serious), and I simply didn't relate to it, and wanted to understand it better- I wanted to understand how he felt.

Understanding, incorporating, and transforming violence into compassionate action is an absolutely authentic tantric Buddhist practice. It’s also difficult and dangerous. Unfortunately, McNally was apparently just winging it. In this letter, she comes off as extraordinarily naive; a pixie who has just dipped her toe into the black river of death for the first time. “I simply did not understand that the knife could actually cut someone!”

Goddess with a chainsaw

In 2009, Roach and McNally led a “Kali initiation” ritual they made up. It seems to have been very loosely and partially based on a ritual for a superficially similar Buddhist goddess (Maksorma), but Roach and McNally consistently referred to “Kali” instead. Kali is a Hindu goddess, not a Buddhist one. Her eternalist-dualist function in Hinduism is antithetical to Buddhism.

According to one participant, “The initiation was divided into two parts. I must say that [Roach’s] part was very sweet and beautiful.” (This is consistent with Roach’s general sweetness-and-light approach.) The participant continues:

On the other hand, Christie's initiation occurred at night… Christie sat on some sort of a throne. One of my friends said she started crying as soon as she entered because she was so frightened. My own thought was "Oh, how theatrical."

This Kali initiation included blood sacrifices, knives, samurai long swords, a temple full of every imaginable weapon… Rifles, AK47, bows, cross-bows, chainsaws, wicked looking garden implements… People were grabbed, blindfolded, walked up the wash (stream bed) and stuffed into a box.

Christie: "Kali requires something from you. She requires your blood."

I was given a little medical device to stab my finger with. It was rather dull from use and I had to make several attempts to get a drop of blood.

Christie swaggered up to me holding a long knife and ran her finger over the sharp edge in a threatening way, saying, "Kali requires more of you." She reminded me of a beautiful swashbuckling pirate.

Some participants were apparently horrified. Others report that they found it silly and amateurish. I imagine some enjoyed it. (I might have.)

Although the details are unconventional, this is not utterly unlike a “wrathful empowerment” in the Tibetan tradition. For instance, diverse weapons, including guns, are absolutely part of Buddhist tantra. Dakinis often carry several. (Not chainsaws, as far as I know, but that’s a splendid extrapolation!) The blood sacrifice is a Hindu thing, probably; I don’t know of anything like it in Buddhist empowerments. It seems harmless, though, so long as the lancet was sterile.

I am not defending McNally here. Apparently she sprang this on students who were psychologically unprepared for it, without adequate explanation. I suspect the ritual had more to do with her exploring her witchy self than something likely to benefit participants. And it seems to have made Kali a transcendent Other—a dualist eternalism that does not work in Buddhist tantra.

[Update: I’ve explained how and why it matters that this was a non-Buddhist ritual for a non-Buddhist goddess here.]

How not to reinvent Buddhist tantra

As far as I can tell, Roach and McNally didn’t know what the hell they were doing.

In my view, the main problem was not that they were unauthorized and innovating—although that is risky and difficult.

The main problem was also not that they were ignorant of technical specifics—although that certainly didn’t help. If you understand the essential principles of tantra, you can improvise details. Great lamas routinely do that. Even Roach (who is not stupid) and McNally (who is not cowardly) managed it to some extent.

The main problem was that they had hardly begun their personal work of tantric transformation, while leading a supposedly advanced tantric retreat.

Some lessons about how to reinvent Buddhist tantra

Keep Buddhist tantra Buddhist. It doesn’t work to mix in bits of other religions.

Even teachers need teachers. No one knows everything. Roach was well-qualified to teach sutra. He needed instruction in tantra, and didn’t get it. [Update: or else he ignored it, according to some people who have contacted me.]

You need to master some existing system of Buddhist tantra before creating new forms. The point is not orthodoxy for its own sake, nor obedience to hierarchy. The point is competence. A minimal standard for mastery is complete digestion of your shadow (or full transformation of the kleshas, to use more traditional language).

Acknowledge from the outset that tantra is not nice; that it is realistic, not airy-fairy, and requires unpleasant hard work.

Reserve wrathful tantra for students who are ready for it.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

29 thoughts on “Pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws”

  1. I like this take overall. However I am skeptical that there is anyone who has ever lived who accomplished your minimum standard of “complete digestion of your shadow.”

  2. If we instead take a less strict criteria, like “reasonably dealt with one’s shadow,” then there is still the possibility of cult abuse for any tantric teacher. I think this is much more realistic, and what actually occurs. People are never perfected beings and continually make mistakes, but hopefully they are smaller rather than larger ones.

    For isn’t “complete digestion of your shadow” just another idealistic standard we put on our teachers and on enlightenment itself? Doesn’t these kinds of views of a guru actually create the structure of rationalizing abuses of power? If we believe our tantric guru is a perfected being then we believe the lies that they seduce students for special “tantric empowerments,” etc. whereas if we just think that this person is human they are just being inappropriate.

  3. I think perhaps the problem is more endemic to Tibetan Buddhism generally, which is in the practices that have a student visualize one’s guru as a perfect being or a God. Sometimes this is quite overt and other times it is subtle, but always it is a lie.

  4. There’s a danger in using the ‘shadow’ language that the goals of Tantra might get confused with the goals of therapy. Therapeutic shadow eating can be highly nutritious and, in Buddhist terms, can get you very good at samsara. That is, it can help you become a successful, socially competent being. It can ‘nurture your spirituality’ too, whatever that might mean, personally.

    Tantric transformation practices might also achieve those things along the way, but the process includes a loosening and increased awareness of the referencing process through which we create and co-create our reality. Understanding the mechanics of identity creation, recognizing their arbitrary and referential nature experientially, then playing with them, is not prescriptive in therapy. (Not that it might not happen, for some people in some circumstances.)

    The experiential result of the Tantric process might include altered perceptions of ‘how things are,’ different mind states, if you like. That’s why samsaric competence (whatever the process, shadow-eating included) is prerequisite for Tantric practice. If you’re not well-versed and competent with one reality, ‘exploding’ it could mean exactly that – a messy, uncontrolled, harmful explosion, featuring psychological mayhem and delusion. Tantric practice, FAIL: get back to some basic shadow-eating, if it’s not too late. The practical result of Tantra includes increased dexterity in the world, through competence to work at the level of social, ‘conventional’ referencing, if not beyond. Not decreased competence.

    With skilled guidance and a conducive practice environment, those two paths can occur simultaneously, co-exist as method. By definition, the intersection of the two is always present in Tantric practice, anyway. But – partly because of the political reasons you suggest – it’s difficult to find and to be confident in finding such unusual training. Better and safer to get good at samsara first.

    RiP

  5. Ditto to Duff. However, I imagine there are dyed-in-the-wool Buddhists who believe the Buddha was such a person. Hell maybe he was, just like Jesus was god incarnate.

  6. @ Duff — Thank you for this! They are good points, certainly.

    The question of how to adapt the role of the teacher is one of the main conundrums for Buddhist tantra in the modern world. It’s possible that it’s insoluble, in which case tantra will simply be lost. Generally, though, I think there is a middle way between “we cannot change anything at all about the traditional teacher-student relationship” and “it’s unacceptable for tantra to be anything other than totally egalitarian, with no teacher-student distinctions.” (This page is relevant.)

    the practices that have a student visualize one’s guru as a perfect being or a God

    This is useful only if it empowers the student in the short term to visualize himself or herself as a god (not a God, by the way—the distinction is critical!). That empowerment is the only legitimate function of the practice.

    Cult leaders abuse it in the ways you’ve pointed out. That necessarily involves withholding from their students the tools to become deities themselves—which is the only significant function of a tantric teacher.

    Regarding complete tantric transformation—probably not many readers will understand what that means, which may make it seem more impossible than it otherwise would.

    Tantric transformation does not mean that you get rid of the kleshas (“bad” emotions). That is part of the sutric theory of enlightenment. I don’t think it’s very likely.

    One way guru/disciple relationships go wrong is when students expect their teachers to be klesha-free—which is not what a tantric guru is supposed to be, at all. But it’s what lots of students want their teachers to be, and some teachers try to meet that desire, or pretend to.

    “Transformation” means that you experience the kleshas fully, including their empty nature. That generally makes them unproblematic for you and others. And it changes their apparent qualities.

    A tantric master must be extremely greedy; that’s part of what tantric mastery means. However, a tantric master laughs at her own greed. It is empty and therefore impersonal. She is as greedy for your getting what you want as for her getting what she wants—and is continuously aware that neither means anything. The experience of wanting is itself delightful, once its empty character is obvious, whether you get what you want or not. That delight in wantingness manifests as art—as appreciating, and creating, highly wantable things.

    I find it plausible (although not certain) that one could fully accomplish that. Others may not.

    Others may also not have any interest in relating to someone like that. It certainly can be uncomfortable—but it’s also magical. Experiencing my lamas’ intense desire that other people get the things they want is charming. Experiencing my lamas’ intense but humorous desire for the things they want themselves helps me appreciate those things more—and helps me enjoy my own unmet desires.

  7. @ Rin’dzin Pamo — Thanks, yes, bringing psychotherapeutic concepts into Buddhism is highly dubious. I criticize other people for doing it, and here I am doing it myself.

    Your points that psychological and spiritual development are separate but compatible processes, and that a reasonable level of psychological health is a prerequisite for tantra, are both important.

  8. @ Duff – You raise some interesting points, but a potential problem with the alternative you present (‘*reasonably* dealt with’ instead of ‘*complete* digestion’ for example) is that it is half hearted. At a certain point half heartedness means you never get up off of the couch. If your teacher is ‘just a little bit more sorted than you, but hey, nobody’s perfect’ and ‘I’ve kinda dealt with my shadow, a bit, well, at least I know it’s there, I think. . .’ the energy of the situation is diminished. You start to be able to make excuses ‘Well, my teacher might be more sorted than me, but he still ain’t perfect. He sat in a cave for a lot longer than I ever can. If I had that chance I might be less of a buffoon, but I’ve got a job and everything, so it’s okay that I’m a buffoon. No one ever really deals with their buffoonery – screw it, I’m going to the pub’.

    Tantra is the spiritual equivalent of practising to race against Usain Bolt. You practise and engage in exercise and a diet and fitness regime as if you are going to run in the olympic games. You practise with the expectation of running in the final, and winning. If you don’t practise with that view, then it is guaranteed that you will *never* beat Bolt in the final. If you come up with reasons (however logical, reasonable, rational and practical) that you won’t even make the final – that if fact almost no one ever makes the final – that affects how you approach your exercise. Eventually it means you won’t exercise at all.

    Now, beating Bolt in the final is not the point. The point is wholeheartedness. If you approach practise wholeheartedly, that will communicate itself through how you are in the world – regardless of whether or not you win the medal – and it has a positive effect on you and on the world. The risk as you say is that to beat Bolt you might turn into an egomaniac (the sports analogy remains useful here – as there are plenty of egomanics in professional sports) – that you tell the world you’re number one, whilst treating everyone around you like number two. The tantric practitioner approaches their practice with the wholeheartedness of an olympic sprinter, but also with the humor and humility to remain a fully rounded and decent human being.

    There is a tension there, for sure, and the solution to that tension is humor. It is quite funny that I think I can beat Bolt in the final. That is a nonsensical notion. I won’t stand a chance. But. . . I still put on my track shoes and do my training. I still visualize myself crossing the finish line before Bolt. And when I cross the line, I look at my time on the clock, and I laugh and smile.

    My father in law is in his 60s, and had a bypass last year, but when he turns out for his local running club he still runs like he thinks he’s going to beat Usain Bolt.

    Maybe he will.

  9. Duff is right. People are never perfected beings, and anyone can and probably will become abusive when surrounded by credulous followers who insist on believing otherwise. If “halfheartedness” is the danger in acknowledging that reality, it is far less destructive than what comes from denying it.

  10. F*ck it. I pretty much agree with Namgyal here. I rather live a wholehearted life, even if I might be wrong. This may sound somehow highly irresponsible for some people, but I rather live in the embrace of a lovely and mischievous cannibal witch, than swim in the waters of paranoia and personal mediocrity.

    @David: I love the way how you describe dakinis. <3

  11. I think that it is a false dichotomy between incremental psychological progress and any kind of absolutisation of spiritual progress that is at the root of the problems you describe.
    You write <>,, but this strikes me as still full of unhelpful absolutisations. What does it mean to experience the kleshas “fully”, or for them to become “unproblematic”? It looks to me like someone in a powerful social position decides these things, when what they need to be doing to support the spiritual progress of their students is just to be straightforward about all their strengths and all their weaknesses. Spiritual progress is the same as psychological progress, provided you don’t restrict psychological progress to a medical model. Psychological progress requires awareness and disclosure, not posturing. Spiritual progress is no different.

    @Namgyal: I don’t buy any of this stuff about trying to run like Ussain Bolt. We do not need absolute goals, or even ridiculously unrealistic ones, to integrate our motives. We need to recruit our imaginative, idealistic selves as well as our practical and realistic selves to the tasks we set ourselves, sure, but I’d suggest we do this by following the Middle Way in relation to the goals we set – i.e. setting goals that are a substantial challenge but also feasible. You might be inspired by Ussain Bolt, but that’s rather different from trying to be like Ussain Bolt, as you’re only likely to make real progress by starting with a recognition of ways that you’re not at all like Ussain Bolt.

  12. Hi Robert,

    Thanks for your comment; nice to see you here!

    Sorry that something in what you wrote got lost in the formatting. I’m guessing you quoted:

    “Transformation” means that you experience the kleshas fully, including their empty nature. That generally makes them unproblematic for you and others. And it changes their apparent qualities.

    This isn’t meant to be anything remarkable. It’s something that happens naturally, sometimes, for everyone. What tantra does is point at that; it says, “this is valuable!”, and gives you ways to make it happen more reliably, in the face of stronger provocations.

    Tantra does take, mainly, an incremental approach. It’s about relative progress in the real (physical, social) world. Some of its accounts of the goal state are absolute and plainly mythological and absurd; those, I think, we can leave behind in pre-modern history.

    “Experiencing the kleshas fully” means maintaining awareness during bouts of strong emotion, so that you are not pushed around by them. That is why they become unproblematic. Does this seem impossible?

  13. Hi David, Yes, you deduced what I was quoting correctly.

    I’d agree that it is possible to improve the degree to which one remains aware of a wider context when undergoing strong emotion, but this always seems to me a matter of degree. It’s a matter of how strong the emotion is, and how strong the underlying awareness is – both need to be seen in relation to each other. It’s also not necessarily enough to remain ‘reasonably aware’ in an average case, because that may still mean one is knocked off balance in a case where the emotion is still extreme, but perhaps still not that uncommon.

    I’m struck by the way that just one absolutisation in a context in which people may otherwise be sincerely trying to be incremental can confuse matters substantially. This is one of my major problems with many Mahayana/Vajrayana formulations of the Middle Way in general. Rather than seeing the Middle Way consistently as a method that can be applied to a degree, they see it as an ontology that has to be understood as a whole. To try to make that compatible with experience one then gets talk of glimpses of non-dual insight rather than degrees of insight maintained more stably. When that model is used it can more easily be used to justify revelatory beliefs about gurus, power structures etc, because the teachers are taken to have had a discontinuously different experience, even if it’s theoretically acknowledged not to have been an absolute experience in other ways. Again, that seems to me a result of creating a false dichotomy between spiritual and psychological models, and thinking of the spiritual model in a discontinuous metaphysical way.

  14. this always seems to me a matter of degree. It’s a matter of how strong the emotion is, and how strong the underlying awareness is – both need to be seen in relation to each other. It’s also not necessarily enough to remain ‘reasonably aware’ in an average case

    I agree! But, isn’t it possible that someone might have sufficiently strong awareness to be able to meet even the strongest emotions? That seems entirely plausible to me. I can’t imagine an in-principle, a priori reason one couldn’t develop the skill to that extent. If there’s no in-principle reason, then it’s just an empirical question. Lacking any strong evidence, I remain agnostic. However, I’d also adduce weak anecdotal and personal evidence to say that it seems quite likely.

    Rather than seeing the Middle Way consistently as a method that can be applied to a degree, they see it as an ontology that has to be understood as a whole.

    Yes, I’ve come to think that Buddhist philosophy is pretty well hopelessly broken, as a result. We agree about this! That said, I think Dzogchen undoes some of the philosophical errors of earlier systems, by explicitly rejecting many of the mistaken ontological premises (such as the “two truths” doctrine).

    talk of glimpses of non-dual insight rather than degrees of insight maintained more stably

    Well… I think “non-dual insight” is best understood as a particular category of insight, rather than an absolutization of insight in general.

    The “glimpses” language is, I think, mostly an end-run around problems of claims of accomplishment. If you say “I have [or have had] non-dual insight,” some people think that’s a big no-no because only Extremely Special People are allowed to have that. So it has become socially acceptable to say “I have had glimpses.” Ordinary people are allowed to say that, because it’s so ambiguous. (What’s a glimpse of an insight?)

    When that model is used it can more easily be used to justify revelatory beliefs about gurus, power structures etc, because the teachers are taken to have had a discontinuously different experience… that seems to me a result of … thinking of the spiritual model in a discontinuous metaphysical way.

    I agree. Vajrayana, throughout its history, has been used mainly to reinforce power hierarchies. Metaphysical and magical myths have been a big part of that.

    But there is also a strong antinomian and politically subversive thread throughout Vajrayana, and there are plenty of resources in scripture and traditional practice for using it against existing social structures. For instance, it holds that enlightenment is equally available to everyone, lay or ordained, irrespective of any social condition; and that this is a realistic possibility in the real world, not some sort of metaphysical transformation accomplished only on a separate plane of existence.

  15. “[Their] students were taught the tantric practice of picturing [the goddess] Vajrayogini as a 16-year-old in the flush of a sexual awakening, with “her vagina dripping to the floor”…”

    Westerners don’t need yet another excuse to pornify their conception of young women.

    I’ve just left 2 comments on your other piece about these two on how Westerners just don’t have the cultural backgrounds or samskaras *yet* to really “grok” the Eastern Traditions and go deep with them.

    Most Westerners, like the two you mention, are just dabbling superficially and trying to become gurus before they’ve even managed to be genuine disciples.

  16. And you’ve mentioned elsewhere something about Buddhism or Buddhist Tantra being able to really deliver in the West (I’m paraphrasing,sorry) if the ritual and mythological aspects are removed.

    While I know there are some people opposed to ritual and mythology (at least the kind of a seemingly religious flavor, however they will, oddly enough, create their own rituals and mythologies around their own ego-centered life, particularly the “relaaaaationship” story, meaning sexual relationship, is a big ritual and myth that Westerners eat up like it was chocolate cake going outta style), ……. there are a lot of people in the West who crave for ritual and myth to create some meaning, abstract beauty and zest in their lives. Indeed ritual and myth serve many functions in human psychological evolution and I think both are very much needed to give Westerners that cultural grounding they need in order to grok and go deep with the Eastern Traditions, which they are sorely lacking now.

    Its part of the building of samskaras which I mentioned above.

  17. Hi, OMkara,

    Thanks for your comments!

    I’m strongly in favor of myths and rituals. I agree: these create meaning, beauty, and zest.

    But, it matters which ones, and it matters how we regard them. In Buddhism, myths and rituals have changed much faster than doctrines and core practices. That’s because they are cultural productions. I think we need a new round of myth-creation and ritual-creation. I also think it’s important to understand that they are cultural productions, not Cosmic Truths.

  18. “I also think it’s important to understand that they are cultural productions, not Cosmic Truths.”

    They serve as portals into expanded consciousness. Buddhism itself is a cultural production. There is nothing wrong with culture. Culture serves as a portal.

  19. David, if you have time would you mind listening to this video and tell me if the speaker is correct about Buddha discussing atman in the texts that are referenced beginning around the 22:00 minute mark? The book references will appear on the screen in text. Thankyou!

  20. The texts referenced are from the Pali Canon, which I don’t know very well. They are probably all on-line and you can look for yourself; or you can consult someone who is an expert in that area.

  21. Quick note, and I apologize if someone already got this in the comments, but the idea that that angels are “all light” is not an accurate summary of angels in Judaism and Christianity (and for all I know Islam, which I am less familiar with). The terrible angel, the angel as an agent of God’s wrath, is a recurring theme, and it is as an agent of God that the figure of Satan first appears in the Old Testament to inflict strife on Job.

  22. Thank you! You are right, of course; and you were the first person to point this out.

    I don’t know whether this is my error, or Michael Roach’s.

    The conception of angels as “all light” is prevalent in current popular Christianity, even though it is theologically incorrect. An observation that might lead in interesting directions…

  23. “… Every angel is terrifying…”

    Duino Elegies
    by Rainer Maria Rilke
    Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992
    Translated by Stephen Mitchell

    The First Elegy
    Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
    and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
    I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
    For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
    and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    Every angel is terrifying.
    And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
    Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?
    Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware
    that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.

    from Stephen Mitchell’s gorgeous translation of Rilke; the best writing on angels that I know is SM’s brilliantly composed novel, “Meetings with the Archangel.”

  24. By wrathful, requiring unpleasant hard work, swallowing one’s shadow, etc, are you referring to Chod Practice in dangerous, lonely, sepulchral places lying under the shadow of death, that constantly churn the stomach? Speaking rhetorically and practically, how many are ready for such things?

  25. Re:Hindu and Buddhist tantra

    The two have close connections – there are all kinds of debates about which elements of Buddhist Tantra came from Hindu Tantra and which elements of Hindu Tantra came from Buddhist Tantra which will probably never be untangled.

    Back in the early 1970s I asked one of my teachers, Khunnu Rinpoche about this. He was perhaps uniquely qualified to answer this as he was born in the Kinnaur district of India and knew Hindi, Sanskrit and several other Indian languages fluently, had studied with some of the greatest teachers of early 20th century Tibet of all traditions and had also wandered the length and breadth of India amongst Indian sadhus and yogis. Consequently, although a Buddhist he also knew about many different Hindu traditions in great detail.

    Anyway Rinpoche’s reply was that the important methods in both systems of tantra were virtually identical – and in many cases the Hindu tradition preserved those methods in greater detail. However, according to him the two essential things that differentiate Buddhist tantra from Hindu tantra are firstly the motivation of Bodhicitta (both relative and ultimate) and secondly combining Lhatong/ Vipassana with Shine/ Shamata. (Hindu traditions have Shine/ Shamata but not Lhatong/ Vipassana). He said that although the methods are for all intents and purposes the same because the intention and awareness with which they are practised is different the results are very different. Of course if one practices Buddhist tantra without proper grounding in Bodhicitta and without the awareness of Vipassana one may end up with similar results to the practitioner of Hindu tantra.

  26. That confirms what I have read; but it’s good to hear it from someone so well-qualified!

    In terms of this post, it seems that Roach & McNally’s intentions and worldviews were quite confused. Their mixed motivations were probably not clear even to themselves, and their view was a muddle of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and New Age. It’s not surprising the results were unpredictable and unfortunate.

    More broadly, I suspect that most of the power of Buddhist Tantra comes from the attitude with which you practice it. (Namely, bodhicitta in both ultimate and relative senses.) The specific methods may not be so important.

    If that’s right, there’s room to develop alternate methods that may be more functional in modernity. But, there’s relatively little precedent for modernist Vajrayana experimentation, and therefore uncertainty that alternatives are possible; and so, great caution is necessary. On the other hand, excessive caution might lead to Buddhist Tantra going altogether extinct. Tricky business.

  27. Just a correction: though Kali is a Hindu goddess, she appears in Buddhist Tantra iconography and mythology, especially at the Dudjom Tersar Chöd, with the name Vajra Kroddhi Kali (Thröma Nagmo), the Thunderbolt Adamantine Very Wrathful Black Mother (our shadow?).

    Anyways, you never bother to comment the same fiascos regarding Trungpa Rinpoche and his Shambhalla Community or even Rajneesh Osho’s communes.

    I know some people from this group

    http://www.centrometamorfose.com.br/en

    And it seems a good practical approach to modern Buddhist Tantra, although a little bit poisoned by Monist Eternalism.

    What do you think about Osho?

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