Sutra and Tantra compared

This table compares, point by point, Sutrayana (traditional non-Tantric Buddhism) and Buddhist Tantra.

Issue Sutrayana Tantrayana
Overview:
Prerequisite Revulsion for samsara Recognition of emptiness
Path/overall method Renunciation of self, emotions, and the world Transformation and liberation of energy
Result/view of enlightenment Recognition of emptiness; suffering ended by elimination of defilements Recognition of inseparability of emptiness and form (wholeness)
Character of enlightened people Saintliness, peace Nobility, heroism, mastery, adventure, play
Metaphysics:
Absolute and relative truth Emphasizes absolute truth (i.e. emptiness) Emphasizes relative truth (appearances); ultimately, rejects the distinction between the two
Absolute and relative domains Aims to someday reach the absolute domain (Nirvana as Neverland) Operates within the relative domain (the actual world; nirvana is not separate from samsara)
The actual world Inherently corrupt; provokes wrong emotions; should be abandoned Inherently sacred; provokes delight; should be enjoyed, enhanced, and engaged with
Suffering The main point Not a big deal; a source of compassionate energy
Pleasure Bad; a fetter to be avoided Good; a delight to be enjoyed
The practitioner:
Self/ego The biggest problem; illusory and/or cause of all troubles Not a problem; not separate from Buddha-nature
The body Source of mental defilements; repulsive rotting sack of shit; to be subjugated Source of delight; indispensible for compassionate action; to be celebrated
Strong emotions Five poisons to renounce: greed, anger, desire, envy, denial Five elixirs of the wisdom energies: generosity, clarity, appreciation, action, and acceptance
Sexual desire and intercourse The #1 obstacle; celibacy is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress Exceptionally useful motivation and method on the fast path to Buddhahood
Women Inherently spiritually inferior Inherently spiritually superior (or at least equal)
The practice:
Time to full enlightenment “Three countless eons,” which equals billions of years Between a moment and a lifetime, depending on individuals and circumstances
Safety Supposedly safe Potentially dangerous
Available methods Few; each suitable for everyone Vast in number and diverse in approaches, suitable for different people and situations
Thoughts Obstacles to be eliminated in meditation Essence of enlightenment, when properly apprehended
Meditation and action Separate activities Inseparable: practical, everyday activity should be constant meditation
Secrecy Not secret; can and should be taught to everyone Supposedly secret, and only to be taught to qualified people
Role of the teacher Ordinary person who gives universal, non-personal teachings Enlightened person who gives specific, personalized teaching
Ethics Mainly based on self-denial; superficially compatible with Christian morality Rejects self-denial; beyond good and evil; obviously incompatible with Christian morality
Some NON-differences:
Gods, demons, miracles Important; central in Mahayana (celestial bodhisattvas) Important, but their lack of concrete existence is emphasized
Rituals Important but not central Important but not central

Is this a caricature?

You might not recognize this “Sutrayana” as similar to the non-Tantric Buddhism you practice. It may seem like a caricature or straw man, and therefore an unfair or meaningless comparison. I’ll discuss how Sutrayana relates to actual Buddhisms, such as Theravada and Zen, in upcoming posts.

Differing views of this relationship

Everything in the table is a mainstream tantric view. (I mention this because some of what I write about tantra is unusual, eccentric, or personal.)

The view here is from the yogic Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Other Tibetan Schools have different views on a few points. Some tend to deemphasize the differences between Sutra and Tantra, and to blur the boundary. Therefore, their proponents may quibble with details, although overall there are few significant disagreements. Areas of controversy may be:

  • the exact role of renunciation in Sutra and Tantra
  • whether Sutra and Tantra have the same end-point
  • the role of ethics in Tantra
  • whether ritual is central or peripheral

I don’t know enough about the non-Tibetan Vajaryana schools to say much about their views. However, what I have read about the exoteric (Kengyo) vs. esoteric (Mikkyo) distinction in Japanese Shingon corresponds reasonably closely to the Sutra vs. Tantra distinction I’ve presented here.

Further reading (and a video)

Systematic, point-by-point comparisons of Sutra and Tantra are rare and murky. (This seems odd. I suspect it’s because making the relationship too clear causes political problems.) The best I have found (in order of reading difficulty) are:

For a quick, clear but incomplete summary of Sutra vs. Tantra, here’s a video with Shenphen Rinpoche (a white Geluk lama):

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

42 thoughts on “Sutra and Tantra compared”

  1. Really excellent chart, David. There’s a lot of material there to digest.

    I have two questions about the “Tantra” side of the equation, stemming from my own lack of expertise.

    First: is the emphasis on “Wholeness” found in all tantras? Because I thought that there were some which emphasized emptiness, and some which emphasized wholeness.

    Second:does tantric morality really “reject self-denial”? I’m thinking here of the the Bodhisattva vow rejecting “wasting time on frivolous actions such as carelessness, lack of pure morality, dancing, playing music just for fun, gossiping and also distracting others in meditation”, or, umm, certain elements of the Kalacakra vows. It seems to me that these call for a pretty significant degree of renunciation.

  2. These are excellent questions, Michael. The second strikes at the heart of the matter, so I’ll answer it first.

    The tantric vows explicitly contradict and supersede the sutric vows (precepts, vinaya, bodhisattva). The specific vows vary somewhat according to the tantric system, but generally they do involve enjoying yourself (and others) thoroughly, and reject renunciation. In every system (except maybe Kriyatantra), they require drinking alcohol, for instance, which is obviously a no-no for sutra. The tantras explicitly tell you to abandon “pure morality,” and are big on dancing, enjoying music, conversation, and sex. (Maybe not “distracting others in meditation”…)

    My use of “wholeness” is maybe a bit dubious or misleading, because it sounds like Western psychological ideas. However, what I’m pointing at is that Tantra can be seen as a creative response to the apparent contradiction between Madhyamaka (the philosophy of emptiness) and Tathagatagarbha (the philosophy of personal enlightenment). This tension was the central issue in late Mahayana, and the root of most Buddhist innovations after about 600 CE. Zen can be analyzed as another, somewhat different response.

    As far as I know, there are no tantras that emphasize either emptiness or wholeness above the other. (But I don’t know everything—please correct me if you find a source!) Generally, tantras are classified as “mother, father, and non-dual,” which means they emphasize (respectively) the transformation of lust, anger, and idiocy.

    I know less about Kalacakra than any of the other tantric systems. It’s classified as non-dual… maybe it emphasizes emptiness for that reason?

  3. With respect to the vows to renounce renunciation and reject “pure morality,” is the purpose primarily:

    a) liminal, in that you’re breaking a taboo for the sake of breaking a taboo (in the way that some Indian yogis eat beef ritually – not very exciting if you’re not a Hindu)

    b) hedonistic, in the sense that hey, these things are fun, go to town if you enjoy them,

    c) ecstatic, in the sense that sex/drugs/rocknroll are nice aids to alterning your consciousness,

    d) something else?

    Of course I don’t mean this to imply that one has to be THE reason, or different reasons might be more or less prominent in different contexts – but it seems like something that would have an interesting answer, and a useful one, if you’re trying to figure out how to usefully interpret an enjoinment to reject pure morality.

  4. Hi David,

    I’m enjoying reading along and learning about a religion that I know very little about. Thanks for taking the time!

    I have a question about Buddhism – I’ve read that there are some versions (sects or whatever they are called) of Buddhism that actually don’t believe in gods. Is this just really a misunderstanding due to the fact that all Buddhists believe in many gods but not a supreme God? Or are there actually some small groups within Buddhism that reject the idea of gods altogether?

  5. @ Howie — Glad you are enjoying the blog!

    As far as I know, all pre-modern Buddhist sects believed in gods with a small g. However, in many pre-modern Buddhisms, they didn’t play a significant role, and it was easy to junk them. Basically all modern Buddhists have junked them. If this is particularly important to you, you might like to check out the Secular Buddhist Association, for whom naturalism (spook-free-ness) is a central tenet.

    @ Matthias — Answers to these questions are not easy. I think all of a, b, and c are correct, but might miss the central point. Tantric leaders from different times and sects would have different opinions about what the central point is, though.

    Regarding renunciation, the tantric view is that it is one valuable mode of practice until you have recognized emptiness, because that’s what it is for. Once you have some sense of emptiness/anatman, renunciation is counter-productive, because forward motion is into the world (on behalf of others) rather than away from the world. The world is as enjoyable as it is horrifying. To engage beneficially with other people, you have to savor both aspects.

    Ethics has been contentious in tantra from the beginning, with strongly diverging opinions. I’ve written about tantric ethics in “Buddhists Who Kill.” To quote myself:

    What Tantrikas vow, really, is not to wriggle out of hard ethical decisions. It is the vow to be an “ethically normal person,” rather than hiding behind religion. The Precept of never killing is the easy way out. It lets you wash your hands in a crisis and say “I am a Buddhist—so someone else is going to have to deal with the crazy guy shooting up the school with a submachine gun. I am too morally pure to take his life.” That is cowardly and unhelpful.

    The purity orientation is rigid and self-protective. The psychological appeal of “pure morality” is: “if I follow these simple rules, I’m guaranteed of a good outcome by cosmic justice.” That’s just a fancy form of self-interest; it’s not ethical (in the sense of caring about other people) at all.

    If you care about other people, you sometimes have to do ethically questionable things. Reality is messy. There are no easy answers.

  6. Hey David,

    Thanks a lot for the response! I’ve been looking over that site it almost sounds like humanism with some values taken from the Buddhist traditions.

    Truth is I’m not so sure I am a naturalist. Possibilian is the best word I’ve come across to describe me. I have a hard time thinking that there are spirits or gods somewhere that are hiding but still wanting to interact with us, but something transcendent or beyond our human understanding (possibly even described as supernatural) isn’t something that I know either way on. That’s why I like exploring lots of different religions cuz I figure the more you know the closer you get to truth.

    Thanks again,
    Howie

  7. Very interesting…very.I deeply respect the effort and due consideration embodied in your analysis.
    I’m disinclined to invest a lot of effort in writing a response: should you be interested, I propose we discuss the analysis over a series of phone conversations.
    My assessment, one of constructive criticism – not dissing.
    First, sutrayana characterization unwarrantedly comingles hinayana and bodhisattva buddhisms. With respect to the latter, many points are readily subject to falsification. As such, recommendation is to move to a threefold model to better exemplify organic growth and evolutionary refinement of dharma.

    Tantrayana is far too Tibetocentric. Vajrayana is by no means exclusive to Tibet, rather a movement encompassing Tibet, Mongolia, Central Asia, and with deep historical evidence in China, Korea, and Japan. A generalized characterization of tantrayana of tibetocentric expression is simply unacceptable as reductionistic, mistaking the forest for the trees. Tibetocentricism is emic, while generalized summary characterization of vajrayana must chunk up to etic standards.

  8. David: for what it’s worth, the Kalacakra vows prohibit sex. I’ll try to find the classification re: tantras and emptiness and get back to you. (Sorry to be so rushed– I’ll try to respond more fully when I have time. I find this fascinating…)

  9. I found the reference I was thinking of– it is a footnote by the translator (Richard Barron) to the Autobiography of Jamgon Kongtrul, where he writes:

    “Father tantras emphasize the lucidity aspect of mind and the transformation of anger and aggression; mother tantras place more emphasis on the aspect of emptiness and the transformation of desire and attachment; nondual tantra gives equal emphasis to both aspects of the nature of mind, and deals with the transformation of ignorance. The category to which a given tantra is assigned may vary from one school to another.”

  10. Ken, I agree with all you say here. I’ll be saying the same things in upcoming posts. The next few analyze “Sutrayana” as an abstract generalization; among other things, it does collapse the Hinayana/Mahayana distinction, which can be misleading. Further in the future is one titled “Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism,” followed by “Tibetan Buddhism is not Vajrayana,” and then “Buddhist Tantra is not anyone’s property.” If Buddhist Tantra is to be of any use in the West, it has to be clearly distinguished from Tibetanism, and it’s helpful to understand the diversity of Tantric Buddhisms that have existed in other cultures.

  11. Good direction, David.

    I’ll pass one on heard in Japan on various occasions. Hinayana stands as a Mahayana critique, not a term used otherwise. Smaller vehicle (hinayana) carries the connotation of small minded or petty. Thus far haven’t heard that here in the West!

    Also recommend a focus on not only the path (eg, dashabhumi or ten stages of Dashabhumikasutra), but also the pivotal minimal awakening marking entry into path – srottapana for T, bodhicitta for M. A point regularly missed in the West is with arising of bodhicitta, there’s also arising of purvapranidhan – key to the Vimalakirti as pranidhana (vow) to develop buddhakshetra, not obsession about enlghtenment., purvapranidhana is key to sukhavati buddhism (cf Schopen, IIJ, 1979, Rebirth in Sukhavati as the Generalized Goal of Indian Buddhism – that’s a profound paradigm shift for Western buddhology and TMZ buddhism, one it’s never been able to accept much less fly with.

    Looking forward to those forthcoming pieces.

    Do you have any versions of the Chinese wheel of life mandala (bhavacakra mandala)? The Indo-Tibetan form depicts the three toxins as rooster, snake and boar at center; however, the Chinese one changes the center to the character hsin (Mandarin) or shin (go-un reading) or kokooro (kun reading) in Japanese. That’s the so-called ‘heart radical’ . Usually rendered as ‘mind’ as in One Mind (for isshin, trans skt ekagracitta). Mind is half a translation since it means heart/mind – not as two distinct concepts as in English, but all rolled into one in Ch.
    That mandala bears vajrayana importance. Shift from bodhicitta to vajracitta (kongoshin) is profound, a shift from preliminary 1st bhumi to adamantine irrerversibility of the 7th bhumia (avaivartika bhumi). So this is the killer app distinction between bosatsudo (opps – bodhisattva yana (yana gets rendered as Tao, Japanese Do (long ‘o’ with macron) and kongosatsudo.

  12. Michael, Thanks for these!

    I’m about to attempt to clarify some things about Kalacakra, partly by correcting with what you said. But first I have to say that I know much less about it than any other tantric system; it’s not taught in the lineages I’ve studied. It is also a distant outlier among systems. Here’s the 13th Dalai Lama on that:

    Kalacakra [is] a system presenting the tantric path in a manner markedly different from the presentation found in other highest yoga systems. This ‘clear’ tantra is usually taught separately from the other highest yoga paths, for its infrastructure is considerably different from those of the mainstream traditions

    Sometimes it’s considered a separate yana, Kalacakrayana, rather than being part of Tantrayana/Vajrayana. However, based on my sketchy knowledge of it, I don’t believe it’s actually different enough to warrant that.

    In particular, it’s not so different that it prohibits sex. This is discussed by Alex Berzin (the leading Western expert on Kalacakra) in his discussion of the fifth tantric root vow and the first and second branch vows.

    The fifth root vow prohibits ejaculation. Maybe you misunderstood “no ejaculation” as “no sex,” whereas Kalacakra centrally involves sex.

    In karma mudra (tantric sexual practice) you separate the processes of ejaculation and orgasm by abstaining from the first, thereby enhancing the second. You can learn this solo or with a partner in full intercourse. The first and second branch vows are about wrong ways of having intercourse. Basically, rape is not OK and, once you’ve committed to practicing tantric sex, ordinary sex is not OK.

    Another possible source of misunderstanding is that the Geluk School (and only that School) holds that no one nowadays is sufficiently holy to actually practice tantric sex. (Or that’s their public position, anyway; they may well practice it secretly. This would be consistent with other things they say about tantric secrecy.)

    So, although Kalacakra recommends tantric sex and gives recipes, the Geluk School prohibits it. That is another possible source for misremembering “Kalacakra vows prohibit sex.”

    There are sexual metaphors running throughout Buddhist Tantra. One aspect of that is that emptiness and wisdom are regarded as female, and form and compassion are regarded as male. The implications of this are elaborate and far-reaching. (My Lamas’ book Entering the Heart of the Sun and Moon is about this.)

    Enlightenment is the non-duality of emptiness and form, or compassion and wisdom. Everyone has all these qualities, but they seem separate and difficult to access. Enlightenment consists of experiencing their unity (wholeness).

    Tantric texts, unfortunately, mainly assume you are a heterosexual man. Emptiness and wisdom are particularly difficult for men to access, according to the tantric schema; they are ordinarily experienced as external and desirable, like women. The path consists of uniting (external) emptiness/wisdom and with (internal) form/compassion. Metaphorically, this is a sexual union, which can be brought about by actual sexual practice—among other methods—and brings about great bliss.

    The “mother” (female) tantras are about this, so they (in the Jamgon Kongtrul quote) “place more emphasis on the aspect of emptiness [= women] and the transformation of desire and attachment.” When desire is united with emptiness, it transforms into non-dual compassion and discriminating wisdom. This tantric symbolism is alluded to in Berzin’s discussion of the first branch vow.

    So, about “I thought that there were some [tantras] which emphasized emptiness, and some which emphasized wholeness.” In terms of result, they all are about wholeness (the non-dual union of other and self, emptiness and form, wisdom and compassion). In terms of path, the mother tantras take self, form, and compassion for granted, and are about how to unite those with other, emptiness, and wisdom. The father tantras are more about manipulating the self, forms, and compassion.

    Or, that’s the theory, anyway. It’s mostly one of those academic classifications that Tibetan scholars love to argue about, and doesn’t have much to do with actual practice. In fact, most discussions of the father/mother distinction acknowledge that it’s disputed and problematic and maybe even useless. For example, the 14th (current) Dalai Lama explains that here. After going through a bunch of conflicting technical opinions, he concludes that the distinction doesn’t actually matter.

  13. Again, I’m afraid I have to be too brief here. Yes, I was referring to the “no ejaculation” clause, but it also makes clear that there’s to be no sex for pleasure, only in a ritual context, and only without ejaculation (and only in the completion phase, and the steps to get there are insane, as you know.) And, even then, as you note, the Gelug tradition strongly encourages that people not take physical consorts at all. So, my point is that we’re not that far off from the monastic ideal at all. Similarly, I’ve heard of tantric traditions that use alcohol in ritual settings, but I don’t know of any that call for social drinking– but once again, I stress, I am not an expert, and stand to be corrected.

  14. Michael — Yes, everything you say is correct from a Geluk perspective. Alex Berzin is a Gelukpa, and writing from that point of view.

    As I noted in the post, “Some [Tibetan Schools] tend to deemphasize the differences between Sutra and Tantra, and to blur the boundary. Therefore, their proponents may quibble with details.” The Geluk School takes this the furthest. Their approach is to revise Tantra to make it as compatible with Sutra as possible.

    I wrote about this in “Tantra, sex, and romance novels,” with particular reference to karmamudra practice.

    I find this approach unappealing, personally. I also think it’s unlikely to be a good fit for many Westerners. It had a particular, primarily political function in the context of Tibetan society, which is irrelevant here. However—different strokes for different folks!

    Regarding social drinking: yes, this is expected within the Nyingma and Kagyüd traditions. For instance, Kyabjé Düdjom Rinpoche’s Drinking Song makes this clear. (He was the Head of the Nyingma in the mid-20th century.) That doesn’t seem to be publicly available on line… Trungpa Rinpoche also wrote about this, but I can find it only in a non-public text (and he might not be the best example given that alcohol may have killed him). I may be able to find public sources if you are really skeptical and it seems important.

    But if you’ve spent time with Nyingma yogic lamas, you know that this is just a taken-for-granted aspect of the path. Hanging around drinking and having casual conversations with students (not apparently about dharma) is a main mode of teaching.

    More broadly the point is that drinking is enjoyable, and enjoyment is the principle of tantra, and (except for the Gelukpa) anti-pleasure “morality” is right out. The issue of “is social drinking OK?” doesn’t even arise. Of course it’s OK—why on earth wouldn’t it be?

  15. Haha. Bring on Ikkyu, the taboo Red Thread koans, and hannya-to (prajna water – since monks were forbidden to eat beyond midday, some took to drinking their rice fermented as sake).

  16. I love Ikkyu :-)

    I didn’t know about hannya-to… but I’ve observed that Tibetan monks can find a remarkable variety of loopholes in their vows, allowing them to drink in many situations other than formal ganapuja.

    One can, in fact, regard all of existence as ganapuja, and indeed that’s an excellent tantric practice. I feel that for “monk” to have any meaning, vinaya ought to be interpreted rather more narrowly, but who cares what I think…

  17. Trungpa knew all about hannya-to for a spell, prompting the sake manufacturer of his choice to send a representative to Boulder in order to determine what had cause runaway sales in a community traditionally a low consumer!

  18. David: I’m definitely reading a lot of Gelugpa literature at the moment, so that is definitely coloring my perspective– but at the same time, if we are going to omit the Gelug tradition (as atypical) and the Kalacakra (as late and atypical), and if the exceptions continue to multiply, pretty soon we’re going to need to start talking about a particular subset of tantra rather than tantra *per se*.

  19. Hmm, well, yes, I said that everything in the post was a mainstream tantric view, not the tantric view, and flagged renunciation as one of the notable areas of disagreement.

    I’ve written at some length about the diversity of tantra, and the fact that anything you can say about it will have exceptions. For each item in the comparison table, there’s probably some sect that disagrees. Nevertheless, I do think that most sects, across lands and centuries, would agree with most of them.

    The Gelukpa are atypical in their view of renunciation in tantra. I don’t think any other tantric sect agrees with them on that, except inasmuch as the Geluk School’s political dominance has allowed them to force their view on other Tibetan sects to some extent.

    As far as I know, Kalacakra isn’t atypical in this way. I mentioned that it’s an outlier only because I don’t know much about it, so I can’t talk about it with the same confidence I would some other systems. It’s possible that it has an atypical view of renunciation even when interpreted by other sects, but I haven’t read that, and would be surprised if it were the case. I’d be interested to know, if you or anyone else finds out.

  20. David, A Hubbard: This is excellent, thanks. As I hope is clear, I am not trying to argue for any particular viewpoint here, Gelug or otherwise– if I point to counter-examples, it’s only to try to better understand the context.

  21. Michael, Thanks, yes. Exactly the right approach, because what I’m trying to do at this point is to delimit the boundaries of tantra. Finding counter-examples or apparent counter-examples helps.

    The boundaries are somewhat fuzzy, partly because of tantra’s diversity, and partly because there have been various attempts to reconcile it with other things (notably including Sutra).

  22. Hi, David, I’ve read almost all of the posts here, very informative and insightful, coming from a Theravada perspective I found all this new information interesting, not only about Theravada but also about the “attitude” of Tantra.

    I have two questions. First is about ethics- what is there in Vajrayana about morality, where are it’s imperatives and values, or is it nihilistic in that sense? Does it say somewhere e.g. that is wrong to inflict suffering on other, or something like that, does it give precepts? Second question is about the “attitude”, which is AFAIU it’s central tenet, is your proposal that Vajrayana should basically be striped of all it’s supernalism leaving only the attitude and things related to it, and that this attitude is what’s (or should be) the appeal of Tantra?

  23. Hi Steven, thanks for the questions!

    I’ve written a bit about tantric ethics in “Buddhists who kill,” and in comments on the page that follows this one.

    what is there in Vajrayana about morality, where are it’s imperatives and values, or is it nihilistic in that sense?

    Vajrayana is diverse, spanning more than a thousand years and dozens of cultures, and there’s been many different approaches to this. Generally, it rejects rule-based ethics. Many or most Vajrayana subschools adopt Mahayana compassion-based ethics. I don’t think it has a well-developed ethical approach of its own, but some teachers would disagree.

    Does it say somewhere e.g. that is wrong to inflict suffering on other

    “Buddhists who kill” may answer that question… One has to consider alternatives.

    does it give precepts?

    It considers the Sutric precepts to be only relative truths. For example, killing people is usually wrong, but sometimes better than any other alternative.

    It has its own set of “samaya vows,” but these are not really ethical. Like vinaya, they are training rules.

    Second question is about the “attitude”, which is AFAIU it’s central tenet

    Just to be clear, the idea that an “attitude” is the main thing about tantra is my eccentric interpretation. It’s not usual (although I think many broad-minded teachers would say “yes, that’s not inaccurate, although it’s not the way I teach it.”)

    is your proposal that Vajrayana should basically be striped of all it’s supernalism

    Not exactly… there’s no “should” about it. Removing supernatural stuff is one way it could adapt to contemporary cultural conditions. In future, there might be successful Vajrayanas that retain supernatural elements, and other ones that deny them.

    leaving only the attitude and things related to it, and that this attitude is what’s (or should be) the appeal of Tantra?

    Well, there’s also methods. Tantra’s huge variety of methods for self-transformation is also highly appealing.

    I think those may need radical revision to make them accessible to 21st century Western culture. I think the methods flow from the attitude, so I emphasize the attitude as a prerequisite for understanding and transforming the methods.

  24. Thank you for the answer.

    If you don’t anything better to do, I’d like to follow up :)

    So, if Vajrayana’s ethics is pretty much just “be compassionate” how is that different/ better then the Consensus minimalist ethics of “be nice”? :)

    Also, if this revised Vajrayana is to be about the “attitute” and methods for achieving and maintaining it, it seems to me that such a possible Vajrayana, that is stripped-down of it’s supernatural teachings, maybe wouldn’t have anything more to offer to a westerner then e.g. Cyrenaicism and other ancient Greek schools which were all happiness oriented and had various methods for achieving and maintaining it. Classics by Aristotle, Plutarch, Seneca and Cicero come to mind, especially the last two, and also books like Cicero on the Emotions by Margaret Graver and Emotion and Peace of Mind by Richard Sorabji which comment on the mentioned methods.

  25. Excellent questions!

    if Vajrayana’s ethics is pretty much just “be compassionate” how is that different/ better then the Consensus minimalist ethics of “be nice”?

    I think “be compassionate” has zero value. Everyone (from most religions) would agree that being compassionate is a very good thing, and possibly even the most important thing, ethics-wise. So this adds nothing to what is always already common knowledge. The question is “how,” and I don’t think Vajrayana (or any other brand of Buddhism) has any distinctively useful answers.

    (Although… Now that I think of it, one of the tantric samaya vows is to never denigrate women as a group. That is distinctive, and arguably useful! But, as I mentioned, it’s not really an ethical teaching, it’s a training rule. The point is that male tantrikas have to rely on women for teaching at a certain point, and you won’t be able to take in that teaching if you think women are all inferior to you.)

    I think “be nice” has less than zero value. Of course, it is usually best to be pleasant, polite, and complimentary. But this is something every child has been told twenty times a day since they were two years old. It’s not a profound ethical teaching. And, sometimes it’s important to say things that are unwanted and unpleasant.

    So what is the actual effect of a “be nice” ethics? Self-righteousness (“I’m better than you because I’m so nice and Buddhist”) and superficial, inauthentic relationships in which real communication is impossible. And this is precisely what one sees in Consensus Buddhist circles. “Be nice” is worse than nothing.

    Of course, one can make the opposite mistake, of insisting on saying unpleasant things just because they are true and relevant, without adequately taking into account they pain they may cause. I tend to fall into this error. But trading off emotional hurt vs practical usefulness is already a level of ethical sophistication that Buddhism has nothing to say about (so far as I know).

    Vajrayana, stripped-down of it’s supernatural teachings, maybe wouldn’t have anything more to offer to a westerner then e.g. Cyrenaicism and other ancient Greek schools which were all happiness oriented and had various methods for achieving and maintaining it.

    I don’t know very much about those Greek schools. I have had good intentions to learn more, but it hasn’t happened yet! (Somewhat off-topic, there’s an extremely interesting book, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, that argues that Buddhism was much more influenced by these Greek schools than is generally believed. I’m convinced, and that’s why I want to read more.)

    That said, I’d suggest several reasons Vajrayana may have more to offer.

    First, Vajrayana does not aim at happiness. (I am explicitly disagreeing with the current Dalai Lama here, by the way!) I don’t think happiness as a goal was taught by any pre-modern tantric school or text. Relatedly, the Greek schools mainly aim at serenity, often through disengagement and emotional diminishment (just as in Sutra). This is not the goal or method of Vajrayana.

    Second, Vajrayana is a living tradition; you can (with considerably difficulty) get direct transmission of the whole thing from a living human master. The Greek schools are extinct. Based on what little I’ve read about them, many of their practices were explicitly secret, and are therefore lost. But in addition, most spiritual learning is not verbal information; it’s a way of being that you get simply by spending years in the company of those who embody it. It cannot be written down. Even if every aspect of the Greek schools were documented in detail, this personal transmission is unavailable, and it would be difficult or impossible to re-embody the way of being.

    Third, the Greek texts were foundational for the European Enlightenment, and have been very thoroughly worked-over by our culture. Whatever is of value there, we have probably already assimilated. Vajrayana may be usefully alien, containing insights that were not available in the West before the 1970s.

  26. Again, thanks for the answer, great to have this exchange.

    First I thougth that the “attitude” of Vajrayana is a central thing, thinking about some Socratic/ Stoic like notion of going trough samsara and never minding it, by redefining suffering so as to exclude pain, aging, illness and leave only not getting what you want and getting what you don’t want, which you can manage “simply” by changing your wanting, but then you suprised me by saying that it’s not really central. Now you suprise me again by saying that Vajrayana is not about happiness, it seems I understood everything wrong :)

    I mentioned Cyrenaics exactly because of that, they advocated not mental pleasures of abstinence and ascetism like Epirueans and Stoics, but indulgence in bodily pleasures, the more the better, take everything you can, don’t calculate like Epicureans about future bigger pleasures, so they were proverbially hedonist, and their main technique for coping with pain and dissatisfaction (also used by Stoics in a lesser degree) is the so called praemeditatio malorum, forsigh (pre-meditation) of evils, thinking about all sort of painful and dissatisfactory things that can happen to you, because they believed that the greatest suffering comes if bad things are not expected, so if you expect them, you suffer much less when they happen, and there also other advice to reduce suffering even less or cancel it out altogether.

    I have to say I don’t agree about living traditions, e.g. I was a Christian living very piously for a few years by reading various text from 2nd, 3rd and 4th century CE by Church fathers, so called Desert fathers, I practiced many ascetical rules, mental trainings and prayer practices based only on those books, I didn’t find anyone living practicing those things, and I found it great, I left Christianity based on theorical, theological dissagreement, so I don’t do those stuff anymore because I don’t any more think that God wants me to, but I have those days as good memories, I still practice some minor advice from there and draw some general lessons from those teachings.

  27. I don’t think happiness is a goal of any form of pre-modern Buddhism. (There might be some exception somewhere, though!)

    For Hinayana, happiness is explicitly rejected as a hindrance. The goal is equanimity—a zero state—which can only be fully accomplished by escaping physical existence altogether.

    For Mahayana, the goal is eliminating the suffering of others; your own state is irrelevant (except to the extent that it promotes that goal). You vow not to leave existence, but that is not because it is bearable, but because you are so compassionate. Existence in Mahayana is still considered hellish.

    Vajrayana says that existence can sometimes be pretty damn great, but maximizing pleasure or happiness or whatever is not the goal. (It can sometimes be used as a means, but so can the opposite.)

  28. I practiced different teachings of Sutric and Tantric Buddhism, Dzogchen, and other traditions, including contemporary psychotherapy :).
    For me, my way is the pivot, the core. Many theories and practices – that I felt needed – I connected to this core.
    I believe it was exactly so for Buddha Shakyamuni. He studied and practised methods that he met, and learned how did they fit his intention, how did they work in his life.
    He investigated the world, to discover the true way.

    So there is no real separation between “Zen”, “Dzogchen”, “Tantra”, “Sutra” etc.
    Buddhist Tantra is not the opposite to Sutra, it’s only some set of methods. (More or less of specific kind).

    I believe that most counterpositions between them are made out of ignorance.
    Sources that you refer to are not absolutely reliable.

    – Namkhai Norbu may be a good practitioner of Dzogchen, but many of his views on Buddhism are wrong. (You know, people can’t embrace everything equally well: some are good meditators, but have not much understanding of principles; they are not so skilled in thinking. That is the case for Namkhai Norbu).
    I mentioned some of his misconcepts e.g. in “Sutra and Dzogchen” thread on Zen Forum:
    http://www.zenforuminternational.org/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=10628&start=20#p163628

    – Chögyam Trungpa, e.g., based his comparison of Zen and Tantra on a basis of his acquaintance with Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen. What Trungpa learned he described as Zen way.
    But that was not Zen Way in general. That was Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen.
    Other teachers have different versions of Zen. In the essence they can be the same, but approaches can differ. Thus I say: “Zen is only one in the essence, but there are as many Zens as Zen teachers”.
    (The essence of Zen is the pure seeing here and now. The open wisdom. It’s rather the way to view the practice, than specific separate teaching. Maybe that’s why Dogen said there is no Zen as specific school [distinct from the rest of Buddhism]).

    Thus, what Chögyam Trungpa compared as “Sutra” and “Tantra” were actually some views on Sutra compared to some views on Tantra. Do you see the difference?

    It happens quite usually in such comparisons (and in criticism of different teachings). People think they criticize something in general, but actually they criticize only some particular cases or specific views on that.
    Often their views are limited and do not really express the essence of what they try to criticize.

    For example, let’s look at that table:

    Path/overall method
    ===============
    Sutra:
    Renunciation of self, emotions, and the world

    Tantra:
    Transformation and liberation of energy
    —-
    That is pretty common mistake of “Tantric” and “Dzogchen” thinkers. Actually, renunciation is not the whole path of Sutra, it’s only the starting point.
    And it is a starting point for Tantric and other practitioners too! For any path. Because if you want to improve anything, it means to renounce something. Otherwise, why would you do any regular practice?
    Maybe people from tantric schools tend to confuse Sutric teachings with starting level, because such is the usual progression in tantric schools (esp. Geluk). First you learn Sutra, only then Tantra. As a result, they think that the principles of the advanced stages belong to Tantra (which is not true).
    Or, if these people didn’t learn well Sutra first, how could they compare? They don’t know the subject well enough.
    For example, Vimalakirti Sutra expresses the same approach of freedom and non-formality that some attribute to Tantra.

    Actually, saying that “Sutra Path/Overall Method” is “renunciation of self, emotions, and the world” is absolutely wrong. (Some would say, it’s demonic view and aspersion).

    Buddha Shakyamuni started his first sermon from the First Noble Truth of suffering. “Beings do suffer”. Why did he start with that?
    Because that’s why people practise.
    He didn’t say “renounce self, emotions, and the world”. Actually he said quite the opposite: renounce overly ascetic practices and follow the middle way. Find the true self, the true emotions, the true world – **instead of keeping yourself in suffering of battles between illusions**.

    Result/view of enlightenment
    =====================
    Sutra:
    Recognition of emptiness; suffering ended by elimination of defilements

    Tantra:
    Recognition of inseparability of emptiness and form (wholeness)
    —-
    That’s just wrong opposition. There is no difference between “Recognition of emptiness” and “Recognition of inseparability of emptiness and form”.
    Only people who misunderstand emptiness can think otherwise.
    Besides, that inseparability is expressed in Sutric texts, such as Heart Sutra. So why attribute this to Tantra?
    And, finally: yes, suffering ends by elimination of defilements.
    It is true and it is not opposite to “recognition of wholeness”.
    Rather, the contrary: while eliminating defilements, we progress in recognising the wholeness. And the progress in recognising wholeness helps to eliminate defilements.

    I think, people who counterpose these are in some trap of battling the truth. They try to deny the need for eliminating defilements. They justify that by using undigested ideas about “the better way”.
    But, actually, in order to use one truth, people don’t need to battle another truth.
    In order to get freedom from “being obsessed with renunciation”, you don’t have to battle the idea of renunciation. Rather, you have to drop the attachment to the narrow view.
    Reality is many-sided, it is called “absolute truth”.
    “Relative truths” are many one-sided truths.
    Practitioner should integrate relative truths together, then he could reach absolute truth.
    Which means to see behind words and ideas.

    Being obsessed with narrow ideas about freedom doesn’t conduct to real freedom.
    Freedom comes when people can see the truth in both approaches – “emptiness” and “causality” – and follow them both in practice.

    My advice:
    Use principles that help you – that widen and deepen the view on practice. But let go “intellectual games” of sticking labels to things that you don’t really know.

    What would be the result, then?
    Not obsessed by renunciation, but not ignoring it when it’s needed.
    Being “insane” only in a sense of dropping intellectual attachments, but not being insane to hold to emotional attachments.
    Without eliminating defilements of intellectual and emotional turmoil, there could be no freedom. Only subjection to attachments, over-reactions and inability to follow your way in a stable manner.

  29. Hello Constant,

    We agree strongly about two things. First, Buddhisms are extremely diverse. Tantric Buddhisms, even, are extremely diverse. I frequently emphasize this point in my writing. Therefore, what I present is an approach to Buddhist Tantra—not “The Absolute Truth of Buddhist Tantra.” It’s one approach that may be useful for some people—or not. (See this post and this one for extensive disclaimers.) Since you agree that Buddhisms are diverse, I’m not sure why you want to to criticize the particular approach I take here.

    Our second point of agreement is a consequence of the first. Because of the diversity, it’s difficult to generalize about Buddhism; and therefore any schematic comparison of “Sutra” and “Tantra” will be, to some extent, an oversimplified caricature. I made that point explicitly in the previous post:

    “Sutrayana” is a somewhat theoretical construct. No one would say “yes, I am a Sutrayana Buddhist!” Actual non-Tantric Buddhisms are diverse, and don’t share all the features that “Sutra” has. Still, “Sutra” is a useful starting point for understanding how other Buddhisms differ from Tantra.

    Plus, I devoted an entire post to this point.

    Regarding the rest of your comment, we mostly disagree. Rather than spelling out replies in detail, I’ll mostly link to other pages where I’ve discussed the points you raise.

    You wrote:

    Buddhist Tantra is … only some set of methods.

    This is the approach of the Geluk school, which teaches tantra as a collection of methods for accelerating the path of Mahayana. The other Tibetan schools mostly do not take this approach; they view Tantra as having a different base, path, and result from Sutra.

    Sources that you refer to are not absolutely reliable.

    I don’t regard any source as absolutely reliable. I cite sources so readers can read them to learn more if they are interested. Also so readers can see that what I’m presenting is mainly consistent with some traditions.

    The books I recommend by Namkhai Norbu and Chögyam Trungpa compare Tibetan Sutra with Tibetan Tantra. Neither book discusses Zen, although both writers have written about Zen elsewhere.

    My knowledge of Zen is quite limited. I find it plausible that Namkhai Norbu’s comparison of Zen and Dzogchen may be mistaken. That is not relevant here, because in my view Zen is not Sutra. It describes itself as “a special transmission outside the sutras.” I discussed that in passing here. What I said about Sutra in this post was not meant to apply to Zen. Tibetan Sutra is quite unlike Zen.

    renunciation is not the whole path of Sutra, it’s only the starting point.
    And it is a starting point for Tantric and other practitioners too!

    This is not the view of Tibetan Buddhism, for the most part. See my discussion here.

    Vimalakirti Sutra expresses the same approach of freedom and non-formality that some attribute to Tantra.

    Yes, it’s widely recognized that the Vimalakirti Sutra points in the direction of Tantra.

    saying that “Sutra Path/Overall Method” is “renunciation of self, emotions, and the world” is absolutely wrong. (Some would say, it’s demonic view and aspersion).

    That renunciation is the essence of the path of Sutra is explicitly stated by some authoritative Tibetan texts (such as The Yogini’s Eye which I’ve discussed elsewhere). Obviously, you are free to disagree. However, the dogmatic assertion that it “is absolutely wrong” is not going to impress many people. Buddhists in Asia have disagreed violently about such things for millennia, up to and including civil war. In the West, most people no longer find dogmatic claims convincing.

    [Shakyamuni] said quite the opposite: renounce overly ascetic practices and follow the middle way.

    I discussed that here. This is a mistaken, modern misinterpretation of scripture, I believe.

    [Shakyamuni said] “Find the true self…”

    Nearly all Buddhist scripture strongly denies the existence of a true self. As far as I know, the only exception is the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which is influential only in Zen. Certainly, all the early Buddhist scriptures explicitly reject any true self.

    That’s just wrong opposition. There is no difference between “Recognition of emptiness” and “Recognition of inseparability of emptiness and form”.

    You are, again, making an unsupported assertion of absolute truth. Some scriptures (mostly Mahayana) do support your view; some scriptures (mostly Vajrayana) support my view.

    I’m presenting a particular, mainly-traditional, Indo-Tibetan view. You might not like it, but just saying “this is wrong!” is pointless.

    My advice:

    Why are you giving me advice?

    I didn’t ask for it.

    Unasked-for advice is (usually) arrogant, presumptuous, and rude.

  30. > Since you agree that Buddhisms are diverse, I’m not sure why you want to to criticize the particular approach I take here.
    Because you misinterpret Sutric Buddhism.
    For example:
    > Existence in Mahayana is still considered hellish.
    I would agree if you’d say “my particular approach to Mahayana considers…”
    But you speak about Mahayana in general.

    I could explain further only to those who respects my advice and wants to learn to discern original views from interpretations.

  31. What is the attitude of the two to jokes and humor? From the above, I guess that sutra lacks a good sense of humor (like some brands of Christianity) while I would guess tantra to be compatible with it. Don’t know if this is important, but the question just came up.

  32. Hi David, there is no Drinking song by Dujom Rinpoche, this is a myth circulated by some folks from Aro who use it however they like. The text is actually beer offering text called “Offering of chang: Messenger of great joy” (chang mchod rab dga’i pho nya) it is found in volume 18 of Dujom Rinpoche’s collected works. It is an offering practice, where one can use drinking of chang as an offering. So it is not just some flamboyant drinking song that the author of the English translation that circulates among people tries to make it into. Also it is not something secret, but is publicly available in Dujom sungbum on TBRC web-site.

  33. Hi Kunzang, thanks for the reference! As far as I can tell, the TBRC gives only the title, and the text is not available on-line?

    I have the Tibetan text of the liturgy used in translation by the Aro gTér sangha on paper, but unfortunately I’m several thousand miles from home, so I can’t verify that its title is the same as the one you reference. (I have no reason to think it isn’t, but it’s possible that he wrote two different but similar texts.)

    I’m not sure what you think the “myth” is, or what your objection is to the text’s use?

    It is an offering practice, where one can use drinking of chang as an offering.

    Quite so. That is how it is used in the Aro gTér sangha.

    Also it is not something secret

    I like to err on the side of caution in discussing Tibetan Buddhism, in order to not inadvertently disclose things that some Tibetans might consider non-public. This is particularly true of texts and practices from other lineages that I don’t know well. There are many texts that are available in Tibetan online that historically would be considered highly secret, and which many people consider should not be translated now. And, as far as I can tell, this text is not available online even in Tibetan. That does not imply that it is secret; but I personally do not know whether the Dudjom lineage considers it public.

  34. Hi David, this comparison table is awesome, many thanks for it! :) Are you going to create similar table that compares Tantra and Dzoghchen?

  35. Hmm, I hadn’t thought of doing that! More generally, it’s not part of the plan to write much about Dzogchen. I don’t feel qualified, and there are other people doing a good job on that. (I don’t feel qualified to write about tantra, either, but basically no one else is even trying nowadays, so my lame efforts may be better than nothing.)

    On the specific issues in this table, Dzogchen would agree with Tantra almost always. To contrast the two, one would have to select a different set of distinctions.

    At this point in cultural history, I think it would be more useful to contrast Dzogchen with Advaita Vedanta than with Tantra. There’s been a lot of blurring of Dzogchen and Advaita in the West, which has made it even more difficult to get access to actual Dzogchen than it already was.

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