Traditional Theravada fits the definition of Sutrayana very well. Naturally, it has moved slightly in the direction of Vajrayana as it modernized.
However, I was shocked to discover that:
Theravada has included Vajrayana for as long as it has existed—and still does!
Not many Western Buddhists know this. It’s exciting because it means that there are more diverse resources for creating modern Buddhist Tantra than I realized.
A brief history of tantric Theravada
In the 700s, the Pala Dynasty conquered India, and made Vajrayana (Buddhist Tantra) the state religion. Under Pala influence, Vajrayana spread to every Buddhist country.
Theravada is a sect of Buddhism, not a yana. A sect is a brand; a yana is a type of vehicle. Most Buddhist sects, including Theravada, offer multiple yanas. Despite popular misconceptions, “Theravada” is not the polite word for Hinayana, and “Hinayana” is not a derogatory term for Theravada.
Reports of Chinese pilgrims say that Vajrayana was a major teaching in Theravada in the 700s. That continued through to the late 1100s, when the Sri Lankan king abolished the teaching monasteries for Mahayana and Vajrayana. Apparently he had purely political motivations; their religious power was a threat to his secular power. He clobbered the main Hinayana monastery as well, before reconstituting the Hinayana sangha under tight state control. (This is a consistent pattern throughout Buddhist history: rulers see independent Vajrayana as a threat. The other-worldly orientation of Hinayana makes it easier to dominate.) Despite his attempts, tantra continued, less openly, in Sri Lanka into at least the 1400s, and probably the late 1700s.
Until Buddhism collapsed in India, Theravada was mainly restricted to Sri Lanka. Southeast Asian Buddhism was tied to Northern India, and prominently featured Vajrayana. Theravada spread to Southeast Asia only after the collapse, which left the region open to Sri Lankan evangelism.
Theravadan Tantra is still practiced today in every Theravadan country other than Sri Lanka: Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. (Vietnam’s Buddhism comes mainly from China, is mainly Mahayana, and includes some Vajrayana.)
Theravada loses the plot
Theravadan Hinayana fits the definition of “Sutrayana” very well—according to textual theory.
However… Sometime between 1200 and 1700, the point got lost. Somehow Theravada, in every country, lost sight of Buddhism’s goals.
No one was even pretending to progress toward nibbana. That was officially declared impossible, because the method of vipassana had been lost. The Pali scriptures were also essentially forgotten; only a few scholars could read them. The monastic rules (vinaya) were mostly ignored.
When the goal of Hinayana is lost, it degenerates into merit ranching. Merit is a magical fluid that makes you wealthy in your next life, if you can accumulate enough of it. Monks supposedly produce “merit” simply by being monks. So the owners of monasteries milk their monks for merit, and sell it to laypeople.
Obviously, this is not how Buddhism is supposed to work; but it is how it mostly has worked, throughout Asia. (This may come as a useful shock to some readers… Idealistic fantasies about monasticism are an obstacle in Western Buddhism.)
When the goal of Vajrayana is lost, it degenerates into practical magic. “Practical” here means not that it works, but that its goals are egocentric and materialistic. Supposedly it cures cancer, forces women to have sex with you, increases your bank balance, and protects you against demons.
Mongkut restores Hinayana and suppresses Vajrayana
In the mid-1800s, political pressure from European powers demanded that Buddhism be made acceptable to Christians. Mahayana was polytheism, and Vajrayana was black magic. However, Hinayana could—with major revisions—become a politically adequate, or even superior, version of Christianity.
Mongkut, King of Thailand, was an epic genius. He invented a new Theravada that conformed to European demands, yet also restored the fundamental principles of Hinayana. He reinstated genuine vinaya renunciation, recovered the Pali scriptures as arbiters of religious truth, and initiated the project of rediscovering vipassana.
At the same time, he vigorously suppressed Vajrayana. Partly this was to appease Western sensibilities, and partly it was to break the power of religious-political opposition to his authority. Vajrayana is a path to power, so Mongkut and his successors tried to eliminate it. (He also considered that it had become a bunch of superstitious nonsense, and he was probably mostly right.)
Other Theravadan countries followed Mongkut’s lead. Even into the 21st century, Tantric Theravada has been regarded as a political threat, and actively suppressed by governments. Partly this is by force, and partly by propaganda. Governments have advocated Hinayana as the clean, bright, modern Buddhism, and denigrated Tantra as corrupt, dark, and backward.
Suppression has been only partially successful. Tantric methods are commonly practiced, even by highly revered monks. Some of the innovators of modern vipassana practiced tantric techniques. They combined these with extreme practices of renunciation; I don’t know how that worked. Perhaps their understanding of this combination influenced the mixture of sutric and tantric elements in Consensus Buddhism?
Buddha-Nature, a Mahayana concept, is a necessary foundation for tantric theory. Equivalent ideas are influential in modern Theravada. The Supreme Patriarch of Thai Buddhism argued in 1939 that nibbana is atta (true Self), not anatta (non-self). “Original mind” is used by major meditation teachers (for example Ajahn Maha Bua) to mean Buddha-Nature, more-or-less—although this is incompatible with Hinayana.
Can tantric Theravada be modernized?
Theravada is less resistant to modernization than Tibetan Buddhism. Might Tantric Theravada be a better starting point for Western Buddhist Tantra than Tibetan Vajrayana? I don’t know.
Partly it depends on how much Tantra is still understood and practiced as a distinct path of liberation, rather than as practical magic. (This is given lip service, at least.) It depends, too, on how much tantric practitioners may have embraced government propaganda as their self-definition. Tantric Theravada does get used as an ideological basis for opposition to modernity.
Gil Fronsdal is a senior American vipassana teacher. In 1995, he advocated incorporating Thai Tantra, as taught by Achaan Jumnien, into American Theravada. I find his article inspiring, but as far as I know nothing came of it.
[Update:] A new article by Ann Gleig suggests that, in fact, Thai Tantra has had a large effect on the American vipassana movement. I discuss that here.
A modern Tantric Theravada
Actually, it’s certain Tantric Theravada can be modernized, because it has been, with remarkable success.
The Dhammakaya Movement is the fastest-growing Thai sect, with millions of members. It appeals particularly to the most modern segment of society, the educated urban middle class.
The Dhammakaya Movement teaches simplified versions of tantric theory and meditation techniques. These come from authentically Theravada sources, traceable back at least to the 1700s; they are not recently imported from Tibetan Buddhism or Hinduism.
The Movement is controversial, and denounced by many as a cult. In the usual Vajrayana pattern, it has become a powerful force that governments have tried to suppress. Parliament declared it “a threat to national security” in 1999. It prosecuted the leaders on dubious charges that were eventually dismissed.
Extraordinary photographs of Dhammakaya rituals in 2010 show hundreds of thousands of participants. They are glorious but terrifying, like the Nazi Nuremberg rallies they were allegedly modeled on.
Dhammakaya demonstrates that modernized Buddhist Tantra can have mass appeal for modern people—which I hope is possible in the West too. However, I find its specifics repellent, and I don’t want Western Vajrayana to turn out similarly.
Sri Lanka, reinventing Tantra badly
Tantric Buddhism is much closer to the modern worldview than Sutrayana is. For this reason, modern Buddhists are reinventing Buddhist Tantra anywhere it is not already available. Unfortunately, they usually do a bad job of it.
In Sri Lanka, many educated middle class laypeople now find Hinayana irrelevant. Sri Lankan Vajrayana, which might have met their needs, is extinct.
So laypeople are now, in effect, inventing a new Vajrayana, drawing on Hindu Tantra, Theosophy, Western occultism, and experiments with applied jhana. Theravada Buddhism: a Social History (pp. 203–207) makes this sound quite unappealing .
An upcoming post will suggest that American Buddhism is also “reinventing tantra badly” by borrowing from non-Buddhist traditions.
Tantric Theravada has been mostly ignored by Western academics and Buddhists alike. The best overview I’ve found is “Aspects of Esoteric Southern Buddhism,” but it is just a sketch.
“On saints and wizards” is an introduction to Burmese tantra.
When I wrote this in 2013, almost no information about tantric Theravada was available in English. (Most of what research had been done was by François Bizot and published only in French.)
Since I wrote this, there has been considerable new English-language research. Wikipedia’s article on Tantric Theravada is now quite good. (There was nothing on Wikipedia when I was doing my research.)
Kate Crosby has done exciting work in the past few years. Her Traditional Theravada Meditation and its Modern-Era Suppression, a 2013 book I learned about only in 2016, is a key text. Lawrence Cox wrote a review and summary. Crosby’s work generally confirms what I wrote in 2013 (notably concerning the relationship between state power and Tantra), and fills in many details (notably concerning the relationship between Theravadan and Tibetan Buddhist Tantra).
Here’s a 2019 lecture by Crosby on the subject. Highly technical, but those who can follow it may find it explosive: