Sutra, Tantra, and the modern worldview

My last post contrasted Buddhist Tantra with “Sutrayana,” which is supposed to be a summary of non-Tantric Buddhism. In future posts, I’ll ask how accurately “Sutrayana” reflects actual Buddhisms such as Theravada and Zen.

Here, I compare Sutra and Tantra from the point of view of modern secular humanism. In sum, the modern secular view is much more in agreement with Tantra than with Sutra on points where they differ. The modern view and the tantric view affirm the value of life in the everyday world, whereas Sutra denies it. (Tantra may be less acceptable to the modern worldview than Sutra in its ethical and social views, however.)

The modern secular worldview is our default cultural background, against which potential Buddhists evaluate all Buddhisms. If Tantra looks more like the modern view than Sutra does, it ought to be more appealing for prospective modern Buddhists.

Put another way, if Tantra has failed to become a major thread in contemporary Western Buddhism, it is not because it is less compatible with modernity. In later posts, I’ll explore the question of why Tantra is widely considered Medieval despite that. (It is due to politics and historical accidents.)

Of course, the tantric worldview is also dramatically different from the modern secular humanist view, despite these similarities. Tantra has features in common with Sutra that contradict the modern view, plus some unique features that might come as shocks to most people. However, these potential obstacles are rarely reached by Westerners, because Tantra’s typical presentation as Medieval Tibetanism stops them first.

Prerequisites

The prerequisite for Sutrayana is “revulsion for samsara,” which means rejecting all worldly conditions as inherently unsatisfactory. “Revulsion for samsara” does not mean thinking that your personal circumstances suck, or everyone’s life sucks currently. If you think your life would not suck if you were gorgeous, rich, young, healthy, and talented, you do not have revulsion for samsara. If you imagine the world would be OK if we adopted a better political system, or developed technology that saved us from all material problems, or if everyone had a proper spiritual, social, or psychological attitude—you do not have revulsion for samsara.

Sutrayana is about rejecting and transcending the world, so if you don’t have revulsion for it, you can’t even start.

Secular humanism is incompatible with revulsion for samsara. And, in fact, most American Buddhists do not have revulsion for samara, as far as I can tell.

The prerequisite for Tantra is recognition of emptiness. This is fully compatible with secular humanism (which has nothing to say about emptiness one way or the other).

It does prompt the question: “so how do I get that?” Sutrayana equates recognition of emptiness with enlightenment, the end-point of its path. So it thinks emptiness is a very big deal, available only to a tiny number of extremely special people. Tantra is considered unrealistic by some American Buddhists for that reason.

On the other hand, many American Buddhists consider that sotapatti or kensho (“initial enlightenment”; recognition of non-self or emptiness) can be obtained fairly easily by ordinary people. And Tantra offers its own ways of developing sufficient recognition of emptiness to begin.

Path

For Sutrayana, the path is self-denial. (An upcoming post is about just that, because it may seem alien to modern Buddhists.)

The modern worldview affirms the individual, and sees no value—and much potential harm—in self-denial.

For Tantra, the path is transformation and liberation. That sounds fine to the modern secular view, which has roots in psychotherapy and liberal political values. “Transformation” is the path of psychotherapy, and “liberation” is (supposedly) the path of all modern political systems. These words mean rather different things in Tantra, so this is only a superficial similarity. However, at least there is no immediately obvious incompatibility of values, as there is with the path of Sutra.

Result

The result of both Sutra and Tantra is supposedly “enlightenment” or “Buddhahood.” However, they have (in my opinion) quite different ideas about what that means. Sutra emphasizes liberation from, whereas Tantra promotes liberation into.

Sutra promises liberation from suffering, but in some descriptions the price is a kind of living death. You are liberated from suffering only by abandoning desire, and anything that provokes desire. For most modern people, this is not an attractive proposition—except when we are desperately unhappy.

Sutric enlightenment is supposed to make you peaceful and saintly. Those sound good briefly, but intolerably tedious if you think about what they’d actually be like. Saints are fine to respect at a distance, but you wouldn’t want to live with one, much less be one.

Tantra promises liberation from pointless constrictions, and liberation into mastery, power, play, and nobility. This is mostly a much more attractive goal.

Consensus Buddhists are mostly “politically correct,” and think that “power” is inherently bad (and “nobility” a fiction), so that could be a sticking point. However, modern Tantra appeals to different sorts of people than the Sutra-based Consensus. Explaining Tantra to an audience that considers power good when wielded wisely might be a way of drawing interest.

Absolute and relative

The modern world has rejected “absolute truth”—rightly, I think. The various “absolute truths” of Sutrayana seem, to the modern listener, too vague to be meaningful; highly improbable; or incomprehensible.

In its later developments (e.g. Dzogchen), Tantra explicitly rejects Sutra’s “two truths” theory (absolute and relative). The secular worldview, similarly, rejects special “spiritual truths” that contradict mundane truths.

Sutrayana’s absolute domains—Nirvana or emptiness as alternate planes or dimensions of existence—are not credible. Modern thinking rejected the Christian heaven, and Buddhist equivalents seem different only in irrelevant metaphysical details.

Tantra emphasizes the actual, physical and social, experienced world. This is the world that secular humanism affirms. (The ideas of “world” in Tantra and modernity are not identical, however. Tantra, like some strands of Sutra, questions the world/self boundary that the secular view usually assumes.)

The world, meditation, and sacredness

Sutrayana rejects the physical world as inherently corrupt and corrupting. Nothing ultimately good can come of it, so it should be abandoned. Since meditation reaches toward another, holy world, and this one is vile and worthless, meditation and practical activity are entirely separate.

The modern view is that the world has a mixture of desirable and undesirable features, and that it is our job to enjoy and improve it. Tantra agrees with that. (See my posts on charnel ground and pure land.)

However, Tantra also says that everything is sacred. Therefore, every activity is a sacred activity, and meditation and practical action are inseparable. Since you don’t need to reject the world to attain enlightenment, Tantric goals are achievable in your current lifetime.

The secular view is that nothing is sacred. This can lead some modern people (of a nihilistic bent) to reject Tantra.

It can also attract some modern people (often of an eternalistic or Romantic bent). Many Westerners come to Buddhism as an alternative to the nihilism of secularity, with a recognition that sacredness matters.

I hope that modern Tantra can overcome both nihilism and eternalism through recognizing that sacredness is a stance toward the world, not an inherent quality of some bits of it; and that adopting the stance that everything is sacred generally leads to better outcomes than the stance that nothing is sacred.

Suffering

Everyone suffers, and wishes they didn’t. Sutrayana’s central selling point is the promise to eliminate suffering.

When non-Buddhists critique Buddhism, this is one of the claims they usually reject. People’s problem is not “suffering” as such, it is numerous specific difficulties. When Buddhism says that “everything is suffering,” it’s obviously wrong; many experiences are wonderful. Buddhism’s claims to “eliminate” suffering are non-credible (Nirvana as heaven), unavailable (enlightenment as becoming a sky god, which takes “three countless eons”), or bait-and-switch (suffering eliminated by killing all emotions).

I think these criticisms are basically correct. But, they apply mainly to Sutrayana. Tantra isn’t much interested in suffering. It’s about getting things done. Some things you can get done will alleviate suffering—yours or others; some are just cool.

Pleasure

Sutrayana makes craving for sense pleasures the main cause of suffering. To kill the craving, you must abstain from physical pleasure. Especially sex, but also everything you enjoy—except being nice to other people.

Tantra thinks pleasure (especially sex) is good, and enjoyment is the essence of the path.

Seriously, do I need to ask which sounds better?

The self, body, emotions, thoughts, and women

Traditional Christianity is anti-self, anti-body, anti-emotions, and anti-women. These are closely linked in Christian thought.

Sutrayana is anti-self, anti-emotions, anti-body, and anti-women in ways often strikingly similar to Christianity. It’s also anti-thought, at least in meditation.

Tantra, and the modern world view, are pro-emotions (if they are handled properly) and pro-body. For Tantra, enlightenment is not just a change in one’s mind; the emotions and body are also transformed, because these three are not separate.

Neither Tantra nor the modern view has a particular problem with selves (as opposed to selfishness) or thoughts.

Tantra says that women are spiritually equal (or even superior) to men. One of the “root vows” of Tantra is to never denigrate women. This ought to be appealing to egalitarian modern people.

Ethics

Secular modernism rejects ethics based on self-denial, as Christianity and Sutrayana ethics both are.

On the other hand, secular modernism is wary of the phrase “beyond good and evil.” (“Didn’t Hitler say that?”)

Secular ethics is basically Christian ethics minus the self-denial. If Tantra has any ethics at all, it is not like that. I would say it simply has no ethics. I consider that a non-problem; it just means you have to take your ethics from somewhere else. However, some Buddhist teachers would disagree.

Multiplicity of methods

This is one of Tantra’s main traditional claims for superiority over Sutra. Often Tantra has explained itself as a collection of high-powered technologies that accelerate the Buddhist path. This could be appealing to the modern, technological worldview—if the methods were taught in a pragmatic, naturalistic framework. I’ll suggest later that Tantra somewhat mis-represents itself, however: it is not best thought of as technology.

Still, its diversity of methods is appealing. To quote from the free Aro meditation course, Tantra includes:

  • methods which can only be practiced alone; methods which require a large group;
  • methods which require the strength and flexibility of a competition gymnast; methods which—though physical exercises—were devised by an elderly cripple for his own use;
  • methods which can be completed in five seconds or less; methods which must be practiced twenty-four hours a day for many weeks continuously;
  • methods which require mountains, running water, fire, or wind;
  • methods which can only be employed on a cloudless day; methods which can only be employed in total darkness;
  • methods employed in sleep (yes, this is possible);
  • and a great many others.

Gods, demons, miracles, and rituals

Tantra is often considered incompatible with the modern worldview because it is infested with superstitions. This is a misunderstanding.

All Buddhisms in Asia were thoroughly infested with superstitions until they were modernized, starting in the late 1800s. Theravada in Thai villages is still mostly about gods, demons, and rituals; only in urban meditation centers is it a rational, science-compatible religion.

Tantric Buddhism could easily be naturalized (i.e. have the magical worldview removed from it). I’ll write about how in a later post. It’s only because of historical accidents—Tibetan and Japanese religious politics—that this has mostly not yet happened.

So gods, demons, miracles, and rituals are not points on which Sutra and Tantra differ.

Safety, secrecy, and the role of the teacher

I have sneakily put here, at the end, all the issues where Sutrayana comes out looking better!

Sutrayana at least claims to be safe, although I think there are some dangers in practicing it. Buddhist tantra is definitely not safe. I don’t think it’s hugely dangerous, but one should approach with caution.

Tantrayana at least claims to be secret. In reality, in 2013, it just isn’t. Virtually everything can be found in English-language books. There are almost no remaining secrets (and they’ll probably come out soon). So this is a non-difference.

However, there is a huge problem of practical access to Tantra. This makes it effectively secret, unless you are lucky enough to find a teacher who is willing to explain it, and/or do a lot of research on your own.

That brings us to the difference where Tantra seems least palatable to the modern view: the role of the teacher. The Sutrayana idea of a teacher as “spiritual friend” is comfortable; the Tantrayana concept of a teacher as an embodiment of enlightenment who gives you personalized instructions is not.

This has been a major obstacle to the development of modern Tantra. I don’t think it needs to be; I think there are ways of thinking about the role of a Tantric teacher that are compatible with modern values. Tantric traditionalists have not understood those values well enough to make the translation. They have also not wanted to give up traditional prerogatives. And, the hyper-egalitarian anti-authority leaders of Consensus Buddhism have actively opposed the development of a sane middle ground.

This is a complex, emotionally-charged topic that I will return to in later posts.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

36 thoughts on “Sutra, Tantra, and the modern worldview”

  1. I’m curious about your characterization of suffering in sutrayana. My understanding of the teaching of suffering is not that fabulous experiences don’t exist, but that even those are shot through with an awareness that they are transient and impermanent. Suffering is created by our constantly wanting to pin things down (primarily, and most pathologically, our selves). But perhaps I am just reflecting the modernized, psychologized Buddhism view of the day?

  2. “I hope that modern Tantra can overcome both nihilism and eternalism through recognizing that sacredness is a stance toward the world, not an inherent quality of some bits of it; and that adopting the stance that everything is sacred generally leads to better outcomes than the stance that nothing is sacred.”

    Hear, hear! Well done Dave for pointing out this much misunderstood point! Attitude and approach as the basis for living effectively in the world, rather than grasping at eternal, and usually romantic, truths. Anything to say on paradox, or the bringing together of dynamic opposites as sources of energy?
    By the way, have you read David Abram’s ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’? It explores what I would consider an eminently tantric mode of engaging with the world through a welding of contemporary animism and Western philosophy. I think that some of Abram’s ways of describing a sacred stance to the world are extremely well formulated and could add to a discussion of the how of tantra in the modern world.

  3. Another thought about this;

    “The Sutrayana idea of a teacher as “spiritual friend” is comfortable; the Tantrayana concept of a teacher as an embodiment of enlightenment who gives you personalized instructions is not.”

    Isn’t this issue such a sticking point in part because of the cultural baggage that comes with Tantric Buddhism, primarily Tibetan in the West, and the rather warped notions we generally have about enlightenment being a super-power-ranger state of ever-lasting awesomeness? Perhaps if it came down to this person being more awake than you and therefore is able to point out the way ahead as an individual that acts in part as an image maker, or example, of what’s possible, then maybe the Tantric model of teacher student could be salvaged in some form, could become more humanised as a working basis for dissemination of an ongoing, working relationship? I still believe strongly we need radical renovation of Buddhism in the West. We haven’t gone nearly far enough yet in making it anew and I for one am certainly more attracted to a vivid, dynamic mode of engaging with Buddhist techniques that is not dry Secular, Protestant style Buddhism.
    I could ramble on further, but shall stop here.

  4. Thanks for the Abram recommendation—it definitely looks like my kind of thing! I’ve put it on my (too-long) list.

    Isn’t this issue such a sticking point in part because of the cultural baggage that comes with Tantric Buddhism, primarily Tibetan in the West

    Yes; but also because of the hyper-egalitarian baggage that comes with the green meme in Western culture.

    the rather warped notions we generally have about enlightenment being a super-power-ranger state of ever-lasting awesomeness

    Yes. Of course, the “we” here is nearly all of Buddhist history.

    Perhaps if it came down to this person being more awake than you and therefore is able to point out the way ahead as an individual that acts in part as an image maker, or example, of what’s possible, then maybe the Tantric model of teacher student could be salvaged in some form, could become more humanised as a working basis for dissemination of an ongoing, working relationship?

    I think so, yes.

  5. David Carris — Hi, nice to meet you.

    My understanding of the teaching of suffering is not that fabulous experiences don’t exist, but that even those are shot through with an awareness that they are transient and impermanent.

    Yes. But then Sutrayana says “only permanent bliss will do, and that is unavailable within the actual world,” so either you should cease to exist (according to Hinayana) or become an immortal, suffering-free, truly-existing god in another realm (according to some versions of Mahayana). These conclusions are silly from a modern perspective.

    Tantra (in some versions at least) doesn’t find the lack of permanent pleasure a cosmic defect. Pain and pleasure come and go, and this has no particular significance, and tantra isn’t about fixing that. Since permanent bliss is a non-goal, you can hang around here in the actual world and make yourself useful while having a good time.

  6. I’m afraid I have to disagree with your statement that “Sutrayana is about rejecting and transcending the world, so if you don’t have revulsion for it, you can’t even start.” The monastic path of Sutrayana, sure– but if you look at the Buddha’s instructions to lay Buddhists in the Mahanama Sutta (AN8.25), for example, you see that it’s not particularly world-rejecting, or based upon revulsion. For laypeople, the immediate goal (on the path to cessation) is a favorable rebirth, one in which we will presumably be more amenable to rejecting the world. In other words, the stance is similar to St Augustine’s famous “Lord, grant me chastity– but not yet!”

    As you know, the consensus/modernist Buddhism is the attempt to take the goal, the rhetoric and some of the practices of the monastic path and apply them to laypeople– and the result is more than a little incoherent.

    Otherwise, I’m also not sure I’d agree that tantra has no ethics– but again, the sources I am relying on here may be atypical. I’d be interested to see what the sadhanas of other tantras and other traditions include in this regard.

  7. Re:

    Perhaps if it came down to this person being more awake than you and therefore is able to point out the way ahead as an individual that acts in part as an image maker, or example, of what’s possible, then maybe the Tantric model of teacher student could be salvaged in some form, could become more humanised as a working basis for dissemination of an ongoing, working relationship?

    (from Matthew)

    The relationship with a Tantric teacher has to start somewhere, so this might be a good approach. There’s nothing wrong with regarding a teacher as ‘a bit more awake than I am’ – but that’s the Sutric approach. (How else would you view a spiritual friend?)

    For a tantrika (someone who holds Tantric vows), or someone preparing for that eventuality, the view of the teacher as fully awakened is what matters. Whether ‘fully awakened’ is a reality, or not, is irrelevant.

    Few Tantric practitioners jump directly into viewing the teacher as awakened. That has obvious dangers. It can take many years to establish confidence in a teacher’s realization, and rushing that process is foolish. Being able to practice viewing the teacher as awakened without taking vows and with the option to walk away should probably be a a part of any approach to taking a Tantric teacher.

    Seeing your teacher as awakened doesn’t mean regarding them as a non-human, transcendent saint – but there is an element of surrender there which is not necessary in the Sutric teacher-student relationship. You surrender your belief that your emotional responses and impetus to take particular actions are ‘right.’ Tantric practice develops your ability to see your personal patterns and to experience them as arbitrary – empty of non-contextual importance, or meaning. In Tantra, that doesn’t mean that you reject your personal patterning, so much as that you come to regard every situation as having many possible outcomes, way beyond those you feel, see or can even imagine. Ultimately, surrender to your teacher is the same as surrender to presence, in that your patterning is so loose that you can replace, with ease, one idea with another, or one action with another, if the present moment – or your teacher – suggests it.

    If you continue to understand that your teacher is human, and can still view them as awakened – allowing the process I described above to occur – you become more responsible, not less. The idea that the Tantric teacher-student relationship invariably leads to moronic blind faith and guru worship is mistaken. That could happen – but it would be a distortion. Knowing that your teacher is human means you can discuss the reality and context of a situation with them – in fact, that you have a responsibility to do so – it doesn’t mean that you become a glassy-eyed imbecile waiting for instructions from the Holy Guru. Regarding them as awakened maintains your constant openness to experiencing reality, and behaving, differently. That is how the relationship is liberating.

  8. David, I have been reading everything you post and trying to digest it as best and fast as my little brain can. I keep hoping you would address the concept and law of Samaya and how it binds us to the teacher or is used as a fear point to keep us in line. The path of Tantra is dangerous but many want to know why and how much. Do you think the role of Samaya is relevant here and is it at the heart of what makes Tantra risky and likewise important for absolute obedience to the Guru?

  9. For laypeople, the immediate goal (on the path to cessation) is a favorable rebirth, one in which we will presumably be more amenable to rejecting the world.

    Yes… but this is not Sutrayana. It is called “the mundane vehicle,” or “the vehicle of gods and men” (lha mi’i theg pa), which is excluded from Sutrayana. In the classification of vehicles as “lower” and “higher,” it is placed below Shravakayana, which is the lower half of Hinayana. Sutrayana includes only Shravakayana, Pratyekabuddhayana, and Mahayana.

    As a yana, the mundane vehicle is analyzed as having a base of recognition of the inevitability of cosmic justice based on karma, a path of karmically correct action, and a result of better rebirth. Supposedly you hope that superior rebirth will produce revulsion, which is the base for Shravakayana.

    Not everything in every sutra/sutta is consistent with “Sutrayana,” which is a somewhat artificial and theoretical category. However, in AN8.25, I don’t see that Gautama is teaching the mundane vehicle. It seems that one could equally read it as his urging lay followers into Shravakaya. Since he taught Hinayana, it may have been taken for granted that he thought lay people should attain revulsion and practice renunciation as much as possible given their circumstances, and didn’t see a need to say so explicitly in this particular dialog.

    As you know, the consensus/modernist Buddhism is the attempt to take the goal, the rhetoric and some of the practices of the monastic path and apply them to laypeople– and the result is more than a little incoherent.

    Yes, that’s a very good point!

    The thing is, the worldly vehicle, which was the main lay practice, is not attractive for most Westerners. So that’s out as a starting point for modern Buddhism. Sutrayana, because it is about revulsion and renunciation, mostly only makes sense for monks, and being a monk is neither attractive nor feasible for many modern people. So I think that has also been a poor starting point. I agree strongly that it doesn’t adapt well to lay practice—although obviously this is controversial.

    Tantrayana was created specifically as a path for lay people who couldn’t or didn’t want to be monks. (Or so its own histories say.) For this reason, at least, it seems a good starting point for modern Buddhism.

    I’m also not sure I’d agree that tantra has no ethics– but again, the sources I am relying on here may be atypical. I’d be interested to see what the sadhanas of other tantras and other traditions include in this regard.

    Yes, this is one of the other points I flagged as an area of disagreement—again primarily from the Geluk School.

    The Mahayoga/Anuttara scriptures themselves are often horrifying in this respect. Many of them recommend systematically performing the most hideously unethical acts imaginable. They go far out of their way to invent extraordinary new crimes. No one really knows what the point of that was. Obviously, this has been a huge problem throughout the history of tantra, with lots of scholars arguing about how to deal with it. I personally found it very emotionally difficult when I discovered this, and spent several years struggling with it. My Lamas’ advice was: “Ignore it.” I now think that was good advice, which I didn’t follow. My current approach is to read the anti-ethical passages as humorous exaggeration, with the intention of negating Sutrayana’s rule-based and virtue-based ethics. Tantra provides no positive substitute, however, I think.

    So you have to get your ethics from somewhere else. For the Gelukpas, that is Bodhisattvayana, but that leads to contradictions that may be problematic. For Nyingmapas, the Dzogchen concept of lhündrüp (spontaneous compassionate action) can be the basis for a positive ethical theory, but it is extremely abstract, and maybe not helpful in practice unless you happen to be a Buddha. As far as I can see, contemporary secular ethics are mostly consistent with Tantra, and that’s my personal approach in practice.

  10. Hi, redwoodhawk,

    I’d like to postpone discussion of this as much as possible. It’s a complex and emotionally explosive issue, and I don’t have a fully-worked-out answer. What I’d like to do is to first make a case that Tantra is attractive and workable (apart from perhaps this issue) in America in 2013. If I persuade readers of that, we can tackle the guru issue from a standpoint of “this may be a big problem, but it’s worth making a serious effort, because we really want Tantra to be possible.”

    There was a huge controversy around this in American Buddhism in the mid-1990s, which was entirely unconstructive, partly because opponents didn’t see any reason that Tantra was valuable. Tantra was not understood as a yana, but as a national (Tibetan) sect. If Tantra were just “esoteric Tibetan Buddhism,” then there’s no reason to preserve it in the West. It can be left to Tibetans.

    If Tantra is understood as “probably the best starting point for Western Buddhism,” then it’s worth trying to figure out how to deal with the teacher/student relationship. I don’t have a complete answer to that. I do have a lot to say, but it will take a lot of background explanation before I can say it.

    The danger in postponing this is that it may seem that I have something to hide, and want to shut down discussion of a controversial issue. I definitely think it needs to be discussed, however.

    The path of Tantra is dangerous but many want to know why and how much.

    Yes. I have a post on this coming up in the outline.

    Do you think the role of Samaya is relevant here and is it at the heart of what makes Tantra risky and likewise important for absolute obedience to the Guru?

    Well, if samaya is operating properly, it is the main safeguard against the dangers of tantra. That’s why traditionalists insist on it. Tantra can make you psychotic, in a manic or schizotypal way, and/or aggressive verging on sociopathic. Going that way can feel great, and you don’t notice, or don’t care, that you are turning into a monster. The lama’s job, if you start down that path, is to say NO. If you still hold samaya, that restrains you, and then the lama can tell you what to do that will put you back on a sane path. You might not want to do those things, which is where obedience is critical.

    None of this is actually likely; I don’t think tantra is very dangerous. But this is one of the positive functions of samaya. (Not the only one!)

    With all that said, the danger of abusive lamas is also real and well-publicized. I don’t think I want to say much more about that, because it would open out into a broad discussion that I do want to postpone. It’s a serious issue and needs serious thinking and discussion.

    One thing I might point out is that abusive teachers are also a problem in Zen and Theravada, which do not have a system of samaya. It’s not clear that samaya actually makes it any worse in practice.

    Another is that the most recent serious case of lama misconduct in Tibetan Buddhism was the Roach/McNally affair. In that case, samaya would have saved the day if Michael Roach had maintained it. His teachers repeatedly and forcefully told him to stop what he was doing. He was not obedient—and that was the problem.

  11. Excellent recap of many of your other fine posts. This “Sparks Notes” version was fun.
    With the differences between Tantrayana and Sutrayana, it seems amazingly deceptive to pretend to meaningfully tack on the word “Buddhism” at the end. :-)
    As if they share anything substantial in common except an accidental history.

    It is a little sad to me that if Tantra gets meaningfully incorporated into Western Culture in a useful way in any significant, easily accessible way, I won’t be around to see that. It seems that at that time, people will look back in their history class and say, “You’ve got to read Chapman, if you want to see the origins of this movement.” :-)

  12. David– you wrote “The Mahayoga/Anuttara scriptures themselves are often horrifying in this respect. Many of them recommend systematically performing the most hideously unethical acts imaginable. They go far out of their way to invent extraordinary new crimes. No one really knows what the point of that was.”

    It may be worth noting that this aspect of tantra is older than Buddhism; in fact, one such Śaivite tantrika, Angulimala, makes a memorable appearance in the Pali canon, wearing his necklace of fingers.

    And certainly this ritualized antinomianism is at the heart of most tantra, eating the banned substances, performing banned sex acts, drinking banned alcohols, etc. The question (for me, at least), is to what degree these are supposed to be practiced outside of the ritual context.

  13. Sabio — Yes, Sutra and Buddhist Tantra are very different. But there are also important continuities. These become visible partly when you compare Buddhist and Hindu Tantra, and partly when you deconstruct the logic of Bodhisattvayana. Buddhist and Hindu Tantra are also very different, and those differences make sense only in terms of Buddhist Tantra having grown out of Mahayana. And, Bodhisattvayana, which is part of Sutra, is internally inconsistent. It can’t actually make sense on its own terms. The only way it is workable is as a stepping stone from Hinayana to Tantrayana. (Or so I will argue. This opinion will be unpopular with Mahayanists, obviously.)

    if Tantra gets meaningfully incorporated into Western Culture in a useful, significant, easily accessible way, I won’t be around to see that.

    Or probably me either. One of the reasons I dropped this blog series a year ago is that I can’t see a complete way forward. There are serious obstacles, and I got discouraged. But, there are also extraordinary opportunities. My hope is that publicizing the hypothetical possibility will lead other people, more capable than me, to find ways past the obstacles. “Capable” probably means “younger,” among other things; this would be an intense, two-decade project at minimum, and at 52 I probably don’t have the lifetime and energy required.

  14. Michael — “The question (for me, at least), is to what degree these are supposed to be practiced outside of the ritual context.”

    I think this is up to us! There’s considerable variation within tantric traditions; and a hypothetical modern tantra can do things differently too. So there’s a broad range of possibilities, which one could select among depending on personal proclivities (and one’s teacher’s advice).

    Kriya tantra has no antinomian practice, ritual or otherwise, so if someone is allergic to that, it’s an option. There’s minimal antinomian practice in the other branches of Outer Tantra, too. And then when it comes to anuttara, the Gelukpa mostly ignore the antinomian aspects, explaining them away as metaphors or visualizations.

    I think the key is understanding the functions of the antinomian practices. If one regards them as ancient holy mysteries that you have to just either accept or reject, there’s probably little benefit in them. If you understand what they are for, you can choose when to apply them, whether in a ritual or non-ritual context.

    My Buddhism for Vampires site is, implicitly, all about the functions of antinomian practices, and how they can function in the contemporary world. “Dark Culture and Tantric Transformation” might be a good starting point.

    BTW, Western historians (Geoffrey Samuel, David Gordon White, Ronald Davidson) think Hindu tantra started around the same time as Buddhist tantra—probably only decades earlier, if that, and not centuries. If they are right, Angulimala was not a Shaivite tantrika, despite superficial similarities.

  15. I’ll have to re-read my Samuel; I thought he posited a continuity between the pre-Buddhist Yoga tradition and tantra, but I could easily be misremembering.

  16. Interesting… I read his “Origins of yoga and Tantra” a few years ago, so I might be misremembering too! I looked up “Angulimala” in the index, and in fact he discusses this question specifically on p. 245. Apparently it was Gombrich who suggested that Angulimala might be “some kind of early version of the kapalika-style ascetic.” Samuel says he is “not fully convinced,” although “Angulimala might conceivably be intended as some sort of hostile parody of an extreme Śaivite ascetic.” However, more broadly, you are right that he sees some continuity between tantra proper and earlier traditions of antinomian practice.

  17. I got the Angulimala/Śaivite connection from Gombrich; of course, even if he’s viewed as a parody, it implies that some kind of antinomian Śaivite behavior was happening at the time.

    You’re right, of course, that the Gelug interpret the antinomian behavior metaphorically or as visualization– but are they atypical in this (besides the use of a physical consort)? I mean, for example, reading the list of substances called for in the Mahakala Tantra, would these be taken as written in the other schools? (We can take this offline to discuss restricted matters, of course.)

  18. Well, it’s hard to know in general, because usually these sorts of things are done only in secret. So we have no reliable statistics!

    I don’t know about the Mahakala medical substances specifically. I do know that the “five meats” and “five nectars” are sometimes taken literally. How often, I can’t be sure. My impression is that it’s rare in all schools.

    Cannibalism is probably the squickiest thing in there. I have no particular problem with it, and a slight amount of personal experience. (I wrote about one instance here.) Consuming assorted human by-products is also not really a big deal. But, if you understand the tantric function of eating/drinking disgusting things, there are alternatives that are safer and less intimidating; I wrote about that here.

    That said, antinomian practice is mostly not part of the specific lineage I belong to (the Aro gTér). Aro de-emphasizes mahayoga, and takes it mainly metaphorically rather than literally. Anuyoga is the main tantric vehicle for Aro, and anuyoga doesn’t bother with antinomian stuff. It assumes you’ve already dealt with those sorts of emotional issues.

    We do practice a few things in ways that would make Gelukpas uncomfortable, however. The main example is the “three displays” in the Aro tsok.

    There are some Nyingma lamas who teach “literal” mahayoga practices more than ours do. (To be clear, these include ethnic Tibetans.) They prefer that this not be public, naturally.

  19. In the case of Mahakala, it is a bit more specific than cannibalism– for example, on the list is: the tongue of an untoothed child, the skull of a sweeper, the skull of a brahmin, a penis, and one’s sister’s discharge, making the collection procedure somewhat problematic, it would seem. I’m afraid I don’t know the tantra well enough to know if the infant should be purpose-killed, etc.

    But again, if we limit ourselves to the five nectars and five meats– are these to be ingested routinely in daily life? Or only in ritual settings? (That’s a rhetorical question, by the way: I don’t expect you to have an answer. But the question underlies much of our discussion so far.)

  20. are these to be ingested routinely in daily life? Or only in ritual settings? That’s a rhetorical question

    Well, hmm, I guess I’m not sure now where you are going with this. What difference would it make if the answer were one or the other? I’m not suggesting it makes no difference, but I’m unsure what implications either would have.

    There might be versions of tantra in which the answer is “routinely” and other versions in which it’s “only in tsok,” so you could choose. Although for nearly all extant versions the answer is probably “never.”

  21. My underlying question is regarding the relationship between this antinomianism and standard Buddhist behavior/ethics. For example, you write “Tantra thinks pleasure (especially sex) is good, and enjoyment is the essence of the path.” But does it really think pleasure and enjoyment is generally good, or is the enjoyment/pleasure kept within the bounds of ritual? Are monks who are involved in consort practice having sex for enjoyment and pleasure generally, or are they only having sex in a ritual context, and channeling the pleasure toward a soteriological goal? Are they drinking alcohol and eating proscribed substances only in rituals, or getting drunk and eating meals for pleasure? Etc., etc.

    And, just to repeat one more time– I’m really not arguing with you here; I’m just trying to understand.

  22. I’m really not arguing with you here; I’m just trying to understand.

    Yes, thanks! I apologize if my tone seems a bit irritable. I’ve been dealing with somewhat unexpected, difficult, unpleasant practical events in the past few days, and I’m afraid that may be affecting my replies inappropriately. Sorry about that!

    It makes no religious sense for monks to practice tantra. (Lay people and ordained non-monastic tantrikas—ngakpas—are the natural practitioners of tantra.) Monastic tantra occurs only only due to economic and political factors, not religious ones. Vinaya and tantra are so opposed that combining them requires drastic compromises of one sort or another. How this works out in practice depends on the tradition, the caste status of the monk, etc.

    A common approach is, indeed, to practice tantra only on ritual occasions, and to maintain vinaya otherwise. Like every other compromise approach, this violates the spirit of tantra. Tantra is about the transformation of all of life and experience. This is one of the features that distinguishes tantra from sutra. For tantra, mundane life is the practice; for sutra, practice is set apart from mundane life, which is inherently anti-spiritual.

    So let’s forget about monks, and consider tantra practiced as it was originally meant to be, by lay people.

    Here we should make a distinction between “that which violates ordinary lay sensibilities” (like cannibalism) and “that which is forbidden to monks” (like enjoying food). Only the former is antinomian in a non-monastic context. I’m guessing that your question here is about ordinarily accepted pleasures?

    A useful source might be Lama Yeshe’s Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire, starting with the last paragraph of p. 20, continuing with “Religion and the rejection of pleasure” and “Buddha and the path of enjoyment” (pp. 22-26), and “Tantra and enjoyment” (pp. 29-30). Lama Yeshe was a Geluk monk (and therefore more prone to compromising with Sutrayana than me), but he was teaching Western lay people, and so was able to present Tantra in a more authentic way than is possible in a monastic context.

    Excerpts:

    For many people, religion means nothing more than a denial or a rejection of the pleasurable parts of life. It is seen as saying “no” to desire, “no” to spontaneity, “no” to freedom of expression. No wonder, then, that organized religion has such a bad name… Unfortunately, the way in which many societies have used religion as a means of political oppression and control justifies this harsh judgment.

    There are a lot of people who feel that the proper way of following a spiritual discipline is by denying their simple humanity. They have become so suspicious of pleasure that they think there is actual value in being miserable: “I am a religious person so I shouldn’t enjoy myself.” Although their aim is to achieve some form of eternal peace and happiness they make a point of denying themselves the everyday pleasures of life. They view these pleasures as obstacles, hindrances to spiritual development, and if they happen to experience a small amount of pleasure, they feel uncomfortable. They cannot even eat a piece of chocolate without thinking they are sinful and greedy!

    But all such attitudes are completely mistaken. There is no reason at all to feel guilty about pleasure; this is just as mistaken as grasping onto passing pleasures and expecting them to give us ultimate satisfaction.

    The function of tantra is to transform all pleasures into the transcendental experience of deep penetrative awareness. Instead of advocating separation from worldly pleasures the way many other traditions do, tantra emphasizes that it is much more effective for human beings to enjoy themselves and channel the energy of their enjoyments into a quick and powerful path to fulfillment and enlightenment. This is the most skillful way of using our precious human potential.

    Contrary to what some people might believe, there is nothing wrong with having pleasures and enjoyments.

    With the proper understanding of transformation, whatever we do, twenty-four hours a day, can bring us closer to our goal of totality and self-fulfillment. All our actions— walking, eating, and even urinating!—can be brought into our spiritual path.

  23. David: When you write “So let’s forget about monks, and consider tantra practiced as it was originally meant to be, by lay people” you get to the crux of the issue I suppose.

    I’m afraid I don’t know the textual tradition nearly well enough to feel comfortable making that leap into “was originally meant to be” in the face of the evidence of what it actually was. A fairly large percentage of the tantric literature I am acquainted with was written by monks, for monks. Tossing out a thousand years of Tibetan writings as atypical is a pretty radical move. (I’m not saying it’s not warranted- I’m just saying I haven’t myself the epistemological warrant to do so, yet.)

    But I’m understanding better and better the context of your analysis, thanks. And sorry to hear about your recent difficulties.

  24. Tossing out a thousand years of Tibetan writings as atypical is a pretty radical move.

    Well, I’d be happy to do that if it were necessary, but I don’t think it is. I think most Tibetan writing on tantra (including by monks) is consistent with most of how I characterized the sutra/tantra relationship in the previous post. I think that’s probably true even in writing on the role of pleasure. To be sure, we’d need to look through the major texts from each of the major schools and compare what they say.

    I have no personal interest in becoming a monk, and I don’t think that’s a useful move for many people in the modern world; and I’m more interested in the future of tantra than its past. This may skew my writing in some ways. (Still, I try to be careful when making factual statements about history.)

    It might be worth mentioning that there are ngakpas (ordained non-monastic tantrikas) even within the Geluk school. (This came as a surprise to me when I learned that; I had thought Geluk tantra was entirely monastic.) Tibetan Geluk lamas have ordained Westerners as ngakpas.

    One major reason for the existence of monastic tantra is economic; lay people in Asia will give money to monks, because that is supposed to generate merit, but mostly they don’t make donations to non-monastic tantrikas. If you want to be a full-time practitioner in Asia, being a monk is the economically most expedient approach. Being a monk in the West is extremely difficult, for lack of economic support and lack of cultural comprehension. Being a ngakpa is easier; you can have a job, for instance.

    Being a ngakpa means you don’t have to make constant compromises with vinaya, which speeds things up; you can practice tantra 24/7 instead of only during rituals. In some Tibetan traditions (I don’t remember which) monks who do a three-year tantra retreat explicitly return their vows for the duration (becoming formally non-monks).

    Maybe there are Westerners for whom maintaining vinaya while practicing tantra is the best path, though. Tantra can make you crazy. The samaya vows and close supervision by a lama should prevent that. However, if your lama is rarely available, maybe vinaya would help prevent one’s falling into arrogance or indulgence.

  25. Thanks again for the explication. Most of the texts related to tantra that I have read were written by monks, for monks– but they might not at all be a representative sample of the extant literature, and I’ve definitely been focusing on the tantra of the past and not the present.

  26. I must confess; this is extremely unpersuasive. Your characterization of ‘Sutrayana’ is meaningless. Is this a ‘Tibetan’ concept? I am totally unfamiliar with this interpretation. The teaching of the Lotus Sutra (which I thought most Tibetans also saw as the highest teaching of the ‘Buddha’) is completely antithetical to your description of ‘Sutrayana.’ Interpreting the Lotus in ‘The Great Concentration and Insight’ Zhiyi says, “The ignorance and dust of desires are enlightenment, and the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana.” Nichiren said, “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life…” The middle way indicates that any view of life that does not take the whole of life into account is incomplete and unworthy of being taught. The Sutra says, “if there are good men or good women who, hearing this Lotus Sutra, respond with joy, what amount of blessings do they acquire?” and it explains, ” the benefits gained by even the fiftieth person who hears the Lotus Sutra as it is handed along to him and responds with joy are immeasurable, boundless asamkhyas in number.” I don’t read this as a prediction. I read it as a direction. If the insight of Tantra is that life is worth living then I really don’t see the need for it. This is not a teaching unique to Tantra. Tantra itself is not unique to Buddhism and seems grafted on to Buddhism and not in any way essential. Shouldn’t a teaching be open to every person? Tantra will always be inaccessible to most people because it depends on experiences that are never going to be easy to pass around (unlike the Lotus teaching.) If you try to gather the necessary amount of teachers to propagate Tantra (and to widely propagate it you would need many teachers because as you say a teacher is required) then you are going to run into the same issues that led Nichiren to say, “Zen is for devils!” (Personally I don’t want to police a church! No one needs that headache but look at the way some women have been treated in Zen. The Catholics also did a pretty crummy job of that and it was surely made worse by the fact that they required lay people to trust the priest so much.) The Bodhisattva path is not only much simpler. It is actually completely sufficient. The Lotus says,

    At all times I think to myself:
    How can I cause living beings
    to gain entry into the unsurpassed way
    and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?

    The phrase you wrongly attributed to Hitler is from Nietzsche and goes “Whatever is done out of love is beyond good and evil.” To me that is the very essence of the Bodhisattva path and the sole purpose of Buddhism. If I cannot see the Buddha in others then how will I ever see myself as the Buddha? In the Lotus, Taho Buddha and Shakyamuni Buddha sit side by side in the treasure tower of our life. They are not two.

  27. Your characterization of ‘Sutrayana’ is meaningless. Is this a ‘Tibetan’ concept?

    It’s an Indian concept. It comes from the Nalanda academic tradition, roughly around the year 1100. That was after Chinese and Indian Buddhism were mainly isolated from each other, which is probably why you haven’t heard of it.

    However, the earlier distinction between “exoteric” and “esoteric” Buddhism is essentially the same, was widely taught in China, and is still important in Japan.

    I am totally unfamiliar with this interpretation.

    If you are sincerely interested in learning more, I can suggest things to read. It’s entirely standard and widely accepted.

    The teaching of the Lotus Sutra (which I thought most Tibetans also saw as the highest teaching of the ‘Buddha’)

    You were mistaken. The Tibetans do not see the Lotus Sutra as important, and think that its teaching is only “provisional,” i.e. only approximately correct. They consider provisional texts as only appropriate for teaching people who are incapable of understanding the “definitive view,” which they think is actually fully correct; or for explaining why wrong views are wrong.

    Indian Mahayana, in the narrower sense that excludes Vajrayana, had three main parts: Madhayamaka, Yogacara, and Tathagatagarbha. The Lotus Sutra belongs to the Tathagatagarbha section. The later Indian view (formulated by Shantarakshita, in the late 700s) is that Madhayamaka is the ultimately correct version of Mahayana, and the other two are only relatively correct. The Tibetans mostly inherited this outlook.

    Among the Tathagatagarbha texts, the Tibetans consider the Uttaratantra Shastra to be the mainly important one, and as far as I know the Lotus Sutra is entirely ignored by Tibetans.

    the Lotus Sutra is completely antithetical to your description of ‘Sutrayana.’ … “The ignorance and dust of desires are enlightenment, and the sufferings of birth and death are nirvana.”

    Yes, in general Mahayana holds that samsara and nirvana are the same thing. This goes all the way back to Nagarjuna (the earliest version of Mahayana we can identify).

    This, unfortunately, makes Mahayana conceptually incoherent. I wrote about that here. Mahayana is pulled backward toward the coherent anti-life view of Hinayana, and forward toward the coherent life-affirming view of Tantra, and can’t resolve that contradiction within its own worldview.

    The Tathagatagarba literature was the historically last version of Mahayana, and the one that is closest to Tantra. Historically, Tantra seems to have grown out of Tathagatagarbha theory, at least in part.

    Tantra itself is not unique to Buddhism and seems grafted on to Buddhism and not in any way essential.

    It’s not essential—it’s different. It’s not an add-on; it’s an entirely different approach, from the ground up.

    Which version of Buddhism is useful for a particular person depends on where they are currently at, and where they want to go. There’s no version that is good for everyone, in my opinion.

    Shouldn’t a teaching be open to every person?

    I think so. I think Tantra should be made freely available. I’ve advocated for that in many places.

    Tantra will always be inaccessible to most people because it depends on experiences that are never going to be easy to pass around (unlike the Lotus teaching.)

    Molecular biology will always be inaccessible to most people because it depends on a level of scientific understanding that is never going to be easy to pass around (unlike astrology). Should we stop teaching molecular biology?

    The Bodhisattva path is not only much simpler. It is actually completely sufficient.

    Sufficient for what?

    How do you know?

    How can I cause living beings
    to gain entry into the unsurpassed way
    and quickly acquire the body of a Buddha?

    Have you acquired the body of a Buddha?

    What does that mean?

    If you haven’t, who has?

    How do you know?

    The phrase you wrongly attributed to Hitler is from Nietzsche

    I put it in scare quotes to indicate that I was making fun of people who think it was Hitler who said this. I’ve read everything Nietzsche wrote that has been translated into English, and he’s a major influence on me. I think his view is similar to that of Tantra in many ways. (Not all!)

  28. “I think his view is similar to that of Tantra in many ways. (Not all!)”

    WOOOAH! Hey now. That needs to be explained. I see Nietzsche as being the dead opposite of Buddhism.

  29. That’s OK—tantra is systematically opposite (Sutric) Buddhism, as well!

    The relationship between Nietzsche and Tantra is a big subject, which I might write about someday. Some points of commonality:

    * The Übermensch is similar in some ways to the tantric conception of enlightenment.

    * Cheerful and radically life-affirming.

    * Liberation from cultural conditioning.

    * The will to power; valorization of development of personal strength, confidence etc.

    * Rising above pervasive mediocrity. Honor. Glory. Nobility.

    * His “give style to one’s character” is roughly equivalent to the tantric concept “ornaments of realization.”

    * Eternal recurrence: strikingly similar to the Three Terrible Oaths of Garab Dorje.

  30. VERY interesting. I’m a Nietzschean turned Buddhist, who has always seen the two as completely incompatible. This response makes me look at your work with new eyes.

  31. Oh, maybe the most important connection between Nietzsche and Buddhist Tantra: analysis and rejection of “slave morality” in favor of aristocratic/warrior values. This is entirely explicit in Tantra (as well as Nietzsche of course), and closely parallel. Nietzsche rightly condemned “Buddhism” as a version of slave morality—but the “Buddhism” he knew was Sutra, not Tantra.

    This is one of my central gripes about “Consensus Buddhism,” although I haven’t articulated it well. (“Nice Buddhism” comes closest.) Consensus Buddhism consists of “mindfulness meditation” plus “Buddhist ethics.” Its so-called “Buddhist ethics” are indistinguishable from 1980s leftish secular ethics. Mostly, they have nothing to do with Asian Buddhist ethics; but both Consensus and Sutra are “slave moralities” in Nietzsche’s sense. 1980s leftish secular ethics are actually late-1800s liberal Protestant Christian morality, with slight revisions to reflect improved contraceptive technology.

    So Christian slave morality is most of the content of Consensus Buddhism. Yucch.

    Tools for freeing ourselves from slave morality are one of the greatest things Buddhist Tantra can potentially offer. Potentially, it could be our weapon for throwing off the memetic domination of late-1800s liberal Christianity, and “political correctness,” its descendant—demonically harmful stuff.

    Because Buddhist Tantra is Buddhist, it combines noble values with compassion and openness, in a way reactionary politics does not. Perhaps it points to a new path forward; a vector orthogonal to all current ideologies.

    Unfortunately, neither Nietzsche nor Buddhist Tantra can provide a detailed guide to what a non-slave morality would look like in 2014. Combining and transcending both master and slave moralities was Nietzsche’s intention, but he clearly failed, and/or left the project unfinished when he went mad. There’s little detail in what he wrote, and some of it is clearly wrong; abhorrent, even.

    Buddhist Tantra gives a great deal more detail, both in terms of concepts and practices. However, it evolved in Medieval Asia, and most of it does not translate well. For one thing, they had an actual feudal aristocracy and warrior caste. We rightly reject that. “Nobility” has to be interpreted metaphorically. There’s numerous other serious disjunctures.

    Progress must come more from inspiration and abstract principles than Tantric specifics. We have to ask: what aspects of the Indo-European warrior-caste value system do we want to reclaim? How is it possible to combine those with Christian-derived Western secular values we want to retain? What social practices will support this fusion?

    Given provisional answers to those questions, we can explore the collapsing ruins of Vajrayana, searching for ancient artifacts we might refashion as contemporary weaponry.

  32. It feels funny to reply to a 27 month old comment. Ha. Perhaps this belongs on the Ethics page?

    David wrote “For Nyingmapas, the Dzogchen concept of lhündrüp (spontaneous compassionate action) can be the basis for a positive ethical theory.”

    On reading this, I think of the work of the Arbinger Institute (authors of “Leadership and Self-Deception” and “The Anatomy of Peace”), which has been very influential for me, both as a manager, a consultant, and in everyday life. I’ve formed my own personal ethical framework from this, combined with a contemporary take on the yogic yamas and niyamas (vows / observances / principles).

    The Arbinger work teaches (in the guise of leadership development for managers, and also family-therapy-ish training) an approach to engaging with others that is a development of Martin Buber’s “I-You” vs “I-Thou” distinction.

    A key part of the approach is the practice of becoming aware of a call to act compassionately in relationship to another in a given moment. And then, what you do with that awareness — they call this “the choice”: One choice is to honour the awareness (which might result in action, but might not). The other choice is to dismiss the awareness through self-justification, which they hold is an act of self-violence.

    The awareness of a call to act compassionately is an indication of being “I-Thou” to the other, seeing the other as a whole person and an entity worthy of love and respect. The choice to honour the awareness maintains the “I-Thou”, while the choice to dismiss the awareness results in “I-You”, seeing the other as an object (say, an obstacle, a means of getting something, or an adversary), and as not worthy of love and respect.

    Another part of the approach worth mentioning is “collusion”. This is the stance of that feelings that arise, intentions, and verbal/physical acts are part of a system. An example of collusion is when two people each hold that they are in conflict with each other, and are taking actions that seem (from their “I” of the “I-You”) totally reasonable. Yet, the actions just serve to dig each party further into the conflict. The collusion stance is that they are both collaborating to maintain their conflict, getting increasingly attached to their self-justifications (or “reasonableness”) as the energy feeding the system.

    There are various techniques that help you to become aware of collusions in the system, so you can take spontaneous compassionate action to break the cycle, and restore an “I-Thou” stance.

    My own experience is, this gives me a practical ethical framework that is better (for me, anyway) than following morals / laws in the form of “thou shalt (not)” that are about moral and immoral actions. It is also more useful and holistic than modern ethical frameworks based only on evaluating the consequences of decisions (like trolley-car dilemmas).

    I don’t know how to describe my approach exactly. But it’s grounded in remaining aware (not sweeping awarenesses away for personal comfort), the invitation to look holistically at broader systems, and considering all people (including myself) as whole beings. All the while, being open to spontaneous action (or inaction) that won’t necessarily make sense at the time, but might in retrospect.

  33. I just read the Aro Encyclopaedia entry on Karma. I found it congruent with what I was trying to describe in the comment above.

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