Understanding Buddhist Tantra by contrast

The first part of my series on Reinventing Buddhist Tantra explained what Tantra is, in its own terms.

The second part, beginning here, explains it by contrast. It explains what Tantra is not.

Explaining what Tantra is points to its center. Explaining what Tantra is not points to its boundaries. Both contribute to understanding.

“Understanding Tantra by contrast” has two sections and two goals. Both sections should help with both goals.

Two sections

Tantra defines itself partly by comparison with “Sutrayana,” which means “all non-Tantric Buddhisms.” The first section presents a point-by-point comparison of these two. That is somewhat unrealistic, since non-Tantric Buddhisms are so diverse, and may differ from “Sutrayana” as Tantra defines it. So, in several posts, I’ll look at how various actual Buddhisms relate to Sutrayana and to Tantra.

The second section is a series of posts, each titled “Tantra is not…” something. Some of these expand on the comparison between Tantra and Sutrayana. Others explain common misconceptions about what Tantra is.

Two goals

The two goals are to better understand Tantra for its own sake, and to understand its complicated relationship with Consensus Buddhism—the current American mainstream.

Both these are subgoals of my overall project: I want to help bring into being new Buddhisms that address current and near-future social, cultural, technological, and psychological conditions. I believe that future Buddhisms must draw partly from Tantra—as the current Consensus has—but in new ways.

I expect future Buddhisms will be more successful if they understand Tantra accurately. It will help to understand how the Consensus has borrowed some aspects, distorted some, and rejected others that could have been useful.


  1. Overview of tantra
    1. Base: spacious passion
    2. Path: unclogging energy
    3. Result: mastery, power, play, nobility (incomplete)
  2. Understanding tantra by contrast ← You are here
    1. Tantra and Sutrayana compared
    2. What tantra is not
  3. Tantra: A history of innovation and institutionalization
    1. India: Witches, sorcerers, and kings
    2. Tibet: The State Apparat for the Prevention of Buddhas
    3. The West: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi
  4. Modern Buddhist Tantra, and what comes after
    1. Naturalizing Buddhist Tantra
    2. Tantra and Buddhist Romanticism
    3. Tantra as an antidote to Buddhianity
    4. Teachers in Buddhist Tantra
    5. Reinventing Buddhist ritual
    6. Tantra after modernity

Process note

A year ago, I put the “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” project on hold. I have many unfinished writing projects, and little time to write. This seemed less important than others, and I planned to devote what time I had to them instead.

However, my girlfriend Rin’dzin Pamo has started blogging about contemporary and future Buddhist Tantra at Vajrayana Now. So she has inspired me to return to the “Reinventing” project. Her blog has generated a lot of interest, with lively comment threads; check it out!

Over the last year, it turned out that I’ve had even less time to write, and have made little progress on the other projects.

I hope that, starting now, I will have more time—though certainly not enough ever to finish everything I’ve started. It still might seem that concentrating on the most important projects would make sense… except that I’m rusty, and they are the most difficult.

“Tantra by contrast” is relatively easy, and I have extensive notes written years ago. I hope to polish them into finished articles and complete it quickly, as a warm-up.

The last two posts in section 1.C., in the Roadmap above, were supposed to be about “Play” and “Nobility.” These were difficult, and that was part of what stopped me a year ago. They are about the result or final aim of Tantra, which I’ve certainly not achieved myself. Further, the result is usually described in terms of “enlightenment”—which I find unhelpful. There is plenty of scriptural precedent for discussing the aim in terms of “play” and “nobility,” but not so much in the commentaries. So, I can’t just regurgitate a textbook explanation, and those posts are going to have to wait. (Until I get enlightened, maybe!) Sorry about that.


My thanks to Hokai Sobol and Rin’dzin Pamo who read drafts of many of the upcoming posts and offered valuable suggestions and corrections. Of course, they don’t agree with everything I said, so they’re not to blame when I get things wrong!


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

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