Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana

“Tantric Theravada”?!

Recently I asked how Theravada relates to the theoretical category “Sutrayana.” I originally expected to answer:

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.

Vajrayana persists

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.

Further reading

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.

Cambodian Vajrayana may be the most intact in Theravada. See blog posts by Bhikkhu Gavesako: overview; history; meditation methods; texts. He also contributed to a useful forum thread.

Buddhism and Society and World Conqueror & World Renouncer demonstrate that Buddhism is never separate from politics, nor from individual human motivations.


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:

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

17 thoughts on “Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana”

  1. In your opinion, why is it that people start to borrow from Hindu Tantra to reinvent Vajrayana? I’m not irritated by this so much as I am confused. Before I started studying with Tibetan teachers, I had borrowed a little bit of everything from several different traditions, but once I was exposed to the diversity of methods in the Vajrayana, I felt no need to borrow – there’s simply too much available to even bother. Do you think this borrowing is because of a lack of access to Tantric teachers, or is there something else at work? Could you give an example of something that is characteristically Hindu that people have imported into Buddhist Tantra? (I’ve seen Lingam-worship show up in a few schools, which is pretty obvious. Do you maybe have an example of something more subtle?) Again, thanks so much!

  2. why is it that people start to borrow from Hindu Tantra to reinvent Vajrayana? I’m not irritated by this so much as I am confused.

    I’m confused and irritated :-)

    I can’t be sure; one would have to interview the people who do that to find out. However, I think it’s two things: first, since the Ösel Tendzin disaster, Tibetans have mostly not been willing to give meaningful access to tantra, and have actively obstructed efforts at developing more modern presentations of it; second, Western Buddhist leaders find various aspects of Vajrayana politically incorrect, and it’s easier to filter those out from an alien (Hindu) version than from a Buddhist version.

    I’m speaking here about the West… In Sri Lanka, it’s probably just sectarianism. “Obviously Theravada is the One True Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism is devil worship plus a bit of Mahayana, and everyone knows that Mahayana is based on fake scriptures that aren’t the true word of the Buddha like our Pali ones.”

    Maybe in both cases the principle is that it’s harder to accept something that is closer to home. Since Hindu tantra is non-Buddhist, you don’t have to take it seriously, you can just raid it for bits you like. With Vajrayana you have to do a lot of hard work to sort out your relationship with it, because much of it is shared with Sutra and some is opposite to Sutra and WTF.

    Could you give an example of something that is characteristically Hindu that people have imported into Buddhist Tantra?

    Well, this is a particularly blatant example.

    More insidiously I see the “view” or attitude of Hindu tantra being imported. I think the most important value of Vajrayana is its attitude (“uniting spaciousness and compassion to unclog energy to bring about nobility”) which is quite different from the Hindu attitude (so far as I understand that).

  3. Thanks for the article on Burmese wizards. Fascinating. Wonder if any of the Spirit Rock / IMS folk learned those practices.

  4. Michael Dorfman has kindly pointed me to a fascinating article by Ann Gleig published just three days ago which is highly relevant: “From Theravada to tantra: the making of an American tantric Buddhism?.” (You may remember that Ann gave the closing keynote at this year’s Buddhist Geeks Conference.)

    She argues that “West Coast Vipassana” (the lineage of Jack Kornfield) is de facto semi-tantric, whereas “East Coast Vipassana” (the lineage of Joseph Goldstein) is closer to Hinayana in its semi-renunciative emphasis. She attributes this in part to the Thai origin of the West Coast variety vs. the Burmese origin of the East Coast.

    This make sense in the light of my tentative, preliminary understanding of Thai vs. Burmese tantra. Vajrayana, and Mahayana Tathagatagarbha theory, seem to have been woven directly into the Thai Forest Tradition from its beginning. Ajahn Jumnien, who apparently continues to teach tantric methods at Spirit Rock, is in that lineage, as was Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield’s primary teacher.

    In Burma, the weikza lam (vidyadhara/wizard path) is a clearly separate yana, and it seems that mostly people who practice vipassana don’t practice weikza and vice versa. The weikza lam is mostly practical magic, and seems to be anti-modern, whereas Thai Forest tantra is more liberatory and pro-modernity.

    My bias is to keep the yanas as distinct as possible, and on that basis I would have favored the Burmese model, but it seems that Thai Tantra has modernized because it’s integrated with Hinayana.

    Kornfield talks about this Thai/Burmese and West/East Coast US split in this interesting article referenced by Gleig. She also notes that “the main practice of the majority of Spirit Rock teachers is not vipassana but the tantric Buddhist practice of Dzogchen.” Yowza! The plot thickens. “My research shows that many participants do understand their practices as essentially tantric and that while they may not be engaging in historic tantric practices, they are developing techniques, at least somewhat analogous to those in traditional Asian tantric traditions. One practitioner, I interviewed, for example, suggested that the psychological shadow work encouraged in West Coast Vipassana was a contemporary version of working directly with the defilements within Tantric Buddhism.”

    We have at least four models for Sutra-Tantra integration: Zen, Thai Forest, Gelukpa, and Consensus (or West Coast Vipassana). It might now be interesting to analyze whether these all work the same way, or if they include different aspects of Sutra and Tantra in different ways.

    I mostly can’t understand how Sutra-Tantra integration works at all, because they point in opposite directions. Looking at these details might help me, at least, make sense of that.

    Here’s Gleig’s abstract:

    This paper examines recent innovations in the American vipassana or insight community, specifically a current I identify as ‘West Coast Vipassana’ that has revisioned the Theravadin Buddhist goal of liberation, from a transcendental condition that demands a renunciation of the world, to an ‘embodied enlightenment’ that affirms everyday householder life as a site for awakening. I draw on Jeffrey J. Kripal’s tantric transmission thesis to advance an essentially tantric hermeneutic of West Coast Vipassana. I argue that while West Coast Vipassana is originally based in Theravada Buddhism, an Asian renouncer tradition that sharply differentiates between the immanent and transcendent, it has taken a markedly tantric turn in America. I also note, however, that it considerably differs from traditional Buddhist tantric traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism or esoteric Japanese Buddhism in being distinctively modern and American.

  5. This reminds me of a brief exchange we had about renunciation being the core engine of Theravada. Looking at the distinction between yanas and sects–which makes a whole lot of sense–I’d say that you were probably (at the time) confusing the two. Renunciation may be the core engine of the hinayana approach, but it definitely isn’t the core engine of the style of practice that many of the teachers I’ve studied with employ (ex. Jack Kornfield & Trudy Goodman).

    In any case it’s really interesting to learn about some of the more vajra-wizard stuff in the Theravada world, and also to learn more from you about the tradition that I know the (least?) most. :-)

  6. P.S. – I wouldn’t attribute the difference between IMS & Spirit Rock as being purely about the difference between the Thai Forest tradition and the Burmese Mahasi tradition. One need only look at some of lineage holders of Ajahn Chah for examples of some of today’s most renunciative Theravada practitioners (Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Sumedho, etc.)… These are folks that don’t eat past noon, who won’t be in a room alone with a woman, etc. The Mahasi tradition, in comparison, was a lot more liberal w/r/t opening its doors to lay meditators and with the ethical trainings (one could easily practice at a Mahasi center only taking 5 or 8 training precepts, which frankly isn’t all that hard (even for a beer guzzling, weed smoking, meat eating person like me).

    I think the difference has more to do, perhaps, with the 1st generation of teachers (Jack, Joseph, & Sharon in this case) and on how they developed as teachers and people. Jack spent a lot of time exploring other traditions, working to integrate ideas and practices from Western psychology, etc. than Joseph has. I think this broadening of perspective, and a general interest in “integrating” probably had more to do with the yana-like shift in the culture around Spirit Rock than where they arose. I’m sure there are many other factors as well…

  7. Hi, Vince, thank you for these comments!

    Yes, in that earlier conversation, I was making the assumption Theravada=Hinayana, which is clearly not true.

    I still have questions about how “West Coast Vipassana” works, if it is neither renunciate nor tantric. There’s no Asian precedent for a Buddhism that is neither of those things, so far as I know. Of course, that doesn’t mean there can’t be one, but I’d like to understand better how and why it works.

    My current take is that it’s trying to get tantric results while avoiding explicitly-tantric methods, and borrowing quasi-tantric methods from non-Buddhist sources (including depth psychology). I take Ann Gleig as saying something similar. If that’s correct, then I’ll suggest that it would be better to use Buddhist methods to get those results. I’ll put up a post about that in ten days or so—it’s written already, but I won’t have time to answer comments during the next week.

    What you say about East Coast vs West Coast differences depending on the personalities of particular people seems probable!

    Personal dispositions, or characteristics, drive religious interests, needs, and talents. Luckily, there are many different kinds of Buddhism, suitable for different sorts of people!

  8. Another important influence at Spirit Rock is A.H. Almaas’s Diamond Approach. In his latest book, Divine Eros, Almaas (pen name of Hameed Ali) explicitly likens his approach to a tantric one. His teaching has has a big influence on a number of big names at Spirit Rock-Jack Kornfield, Eugence Cash, Sharda Rogell ext.

  9. ps. sorry for the typos! (i meant Eugene Cash and ect. ) Also, a couple of clarifications (i)West and East coast are just loose signifiers. There is a lot of traffic and overlap between the two centers, yet, many of the teachers I interviewed or spoke two acknowledged different flavors between the two. One explanation they attributed it to was the difference between the Burmese and Thai lineages of Theravada. (ii) One major way I see West Coast as Tantric is its approach to working with emotional states in a more transmutational/transformative way (that acknowledges them as manifestations of wisdom-in the way that say the 5 poisons are approached in Tibetan Buddhism)I think the Diamond Approach is a big influence on this and wish I had included it in the article. (iii) What I tried to make clear in the article is that this is a tantric approach that is distinctive from historic Tantric Buddhism-it isn’t ritualistic, for example. So I would say they are developing new Tantric methods, David, as well as Tantric results. At any rate, my aim with the article is just to get people thinking more creatively and positively about what’s occurring in American Buddhism rather than just lamenting it as a dilution of traditional Buddhism, which is the main narrative in Buddhist studies scholarship.

  10. Hi, Ann, thanks for these clarifications!

    I’d be interested to learn more about “new tantric methods.” My following post suggests something similar: that quasi-tantric methods get borrowed from other, mainly Western sources, and pressed into service in place of Buddhist tantric methods.

    I find this problematic, but it’s certainly also true that it’s not obvious how exactly to make Buddhist tantric methods work in America in 2013!

  11. Hi David,
    I liked this article and also the similar one about Zen a lot (I think it was called Zen versus the U:S. Navy or something similar). I would be interested to know why you never write in the same style about Vajrayana? Nobody ever discusses which support Vajrayana in general had that made it able to rise so fast in the West.
    Of course, following the tradition of Buddhist tantra for decades, I know about its appeal. But I am also a business school graduate and it is obvious that Vajrayana had strong “anonymous” support when it established itself in the 60s and 70s.
    There is a long series of Lamas and Rinpoches which had a bunch of broken hippie followers (no offence meant) and suddenly started to set up monasteries worth millions of USD. Let alone the decades of unrealistically positive media coverage for Buddhism. When asked, the general answer is that one donor had given a million of dollars as a generous gift, and of course he wants to stay unknown, as it is a spiritual practice.

    So let me come clear about what I actually want to say. Definitely Vajrayana had a lot of support from high Western government sources. This helped to establish the offical anti-Chinese political dogma of the West and brought back a lot of “communist” hippies into the mainstream working process.

    If you need basic information, refer to Mikel Dunhams book Buddha’s Warriors.

    In South America the funding of religions by the CIA is far more aknowledged. In order to keep the local population away from communist ideas, the CIA financed many of the local evangelical churches with absurd amounts of money.

    This doesn’t mean that the teachings are in any way spoilt or deluded, for me the actual teachings are inherently pure. But living in total denial of the western roots of our spiritual path is not an appropriate attitute for someone who is seriously involved in dark magic (means integrating the shadow side). This is possibly the biggest taboo in temporary Western Vajrayana and I am fully confident you are the person to write about this (half joking, half serious).

    Kind regards.

  12. Hi Lobsang Dorje,

    Thanks, these are interesting questions!

    why [do] you never write in the same style about Vajrayana?

    I had planned to! My most recent outline had a big section on the history and politics of Buddhist tantra. I’ve decided to drop this, however. It’s too big and difficult and depressing—for me to write, and for anyone else to read.

    I haven’t read Buddha’s Warriors, but I know a bit about the CIA funding for Khampa guerrillas. That’s what the book is about, right? According to the Wikipedia, the CIA program wound down in the late ’60s and ended completely in 1972. The U.S. also sent some money to the Dalai Lama to use for propaganda purposes ($180,000/year according to that WP article), which ended in 1974.

    The first Tibetan lamas to have significant followings in the U.S. were Chögyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku. They were both pretty obscure until the early 70s, at which time the CIA program was over. And, I’m pretty sure the Dalai Lama would not have funded either of them. I suspect that he opposed and obstructed both of them, although I don’t have direct evidence for that.

    it is obvious that Vajrayana had strong “anonymous” support when it established itself in the 60s and 70s. There is a long series of Lamas and Rinpoches which had a bunch of broken hippie followers (no offence meant) and suddenly started to set up monasteries worth millions of USD… When asked, the general answer is that one donor had given a million of dollars as a generous gift, and of course he wants to stay unknown, as it is a spiritual practice.

    Hmm, who are you thinking of here? I’m pretty sure there were no million-dollar centers in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Chögyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku are the only ones who come to mind as fitting that description.

    I find it plausible that Trungpa’s organization was funded on relatively small donations from its very large number of members. That is what everyone involved has always claimed. I was somewhat involved in the finance of the Bay Area Shambhala centers in the mid-1990s, so I have some sense of how the cash flow worked. (This was in a consolidation phase, rather than start-up/growth, so the capital requirements were less, but it still seems workable to me.) There are transcripts of Trungpa griping about the fact that he didn’t have any wealthy big donors, and the Bay Area sangha leadership was still griping about that when I was involved.

    I don’t know anything about Tarthang Tulku’s organization or finances. I’ve tried to find out more, but that history is curiously impenetrable. I suspect it has been deliberately suppressed—although my guess is that this is because of conflict with the Geluk power structure, rather than finances.

    Definitely Vajrayana had a lot of support from high Western government sources. This helped to establish the offical anti-Chinese political dogma of the West and brought back a lot of “communist” hippies into the mainstream working process.

    I’m assuming that by “Vajrayana” here you actually mean “Tibetan Buddhism” (which is a different thing).

    I do find it plausible that there was US government support for Tibetan Buddhism as part of an anti-China propaganda campaign. (More likely in the 1980s-90s than 1960s-70s, would be my guess.) However, I don’t know of any actual evidence for that. I’d love to know more if there is any.

    decades of unrealistically positive media coverage for Buddhism.

    Yes, that’s certainly striking! And it would be fascinating if this turned out to have had government backing.

    Skeptical historians (e.g. Donald Lopez) have analyzed this instead in terms of Westerners using Buddhism to symbolize problematic issues in Western culture. That has been going on since long before the 1960s. Western romanticization of Tibet goes back hundreds of years, and became a major thing starting in the late 1800s due to Theosophy.

    I think this is the main explanation, but government subsidy could also be a factor.

    But living in total denial of the western roots of our spiritual path is not an appropriate attitute for someone who is seriously involved in dark magic (means integrating the shadow side).

    Yes, much of my intellectual effort in the past few years has been devoted to sorting this out—inspired mainly by David L. McMahan’s book.

    This is possibly the biggest taboo in temporary Western Vajrayana

    I don’t know… I think a bigger taboo may be looking at the ugly history of Tibetan politics. I’ve come to see current Tibetan Buddhism as a battleground continuing a religious civil war that goes back centuries. I find that the teachings are spoiled by that, unfortunately.

    My current take is that the opportunity to modernize Tibetan Buddhism, pioneered by Trungpa Rinpoche and Tarthang Tulku and others in the 1970s, has probably passed permanently. If there is to be a modern Vajrayana, it won’t come by incremental modernization of the Tibetan version. It will have to be a more radical rethinking, starting from the fundamental principles of the yana rather than historical practice.

    If that’s right, then the Tibetan history is much less relevant—which is another reason I’ve decided to drop it.

    Best wishes,


  13. Dear David Chapman, thanks for the informative post. I was reading your comments and maybe I can shed some light on this: “I mostly can’t understand how Sutra-Tantra integration works at all, because they point in opposite directions.” in relation to the Thai Forrest Tradition.

    My teacher, Adam Mizner, is a sotapanna and very close student of Ajahn Jumnean. He lives in Thailand and is fluent in Thai language, and as a Theravadin teacher he is very much a traditionalist. In fact, other than being a student of LP Jumnean yourself (and speaking Thai), your best bet for having a peek into the lineage might be through Adam Mizner’s dhamma talks (that LP Jumnean asked him to give). There’s almost nothing else in English on the internet that goes into the depths of it, or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. I’m saying all of this, because to my understanding, this lineage gives the most elegant and powerful integration of what you call Sutra&Tantra. I won’t waste your time talking about the kind of impact it has had on my life and my understanding of Buddhism. After a decade of “being somewhat interested in Buddhism” I finally consider myself a Theravadin student and practitioner.

    I think the talks can clarify how the two aspects really do work together, here’s some of the talks he’s given in Thailand and in the US https://soundcloud.com/lokuttaradhamma/sets/desana

    If you don’t have time for them all, consider listening to talks 11,12 and 13, they are 3 parts of a 3 days teaching in the US which briefly sum up a lot of the teachings. Alternatively, listen to number 17, it is about what you describe as the Tantric aspect. As for the “sutra aspect”, if I can call it that, I suggest number 18 maybe, or any of the others.

    I hope this doesn’t come off as advertisement and you find it useful.


  14. “(…) Obviously Theravada is the One True Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism is devil worship plus a bit of Mahayana, and everyone knows that Mahayana is based on fake scriptures that aren’t the true word of the Buddha like our Pali ones.”

    David Chapman, are you serious on that or were you ironic?
    If ou are serious, I think you should review your idea of what “One True” means. Pali scriptures written 400 to 500 years after Buddha passed way could not appropriately be called the “One True” record of Buddha’s teachings. I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach, as is written in the final notes of the book “Old Path White Clouds”. All of us modern practitioners of Buddhism should be able to see the true essence of the teachings present in all authentic traditions. The mahayana scriptures, according to him, should be seen as shedding a light on the older scriptures. And indeed they do shed a light which, in my opinion, is much brighter than that shed by the Theravada Abhidhamma for example. But that is, of course, a matter of personal interest and undestanding.
    What I disagree is the idea of the “fake”. That is quite sectarian and unecessary, since we have many traditions developed along many centuries, none with a direct record written by the Buddha himself. Nevertheless, all share the same core teachings, epitomized in the four noble truths, interpreted in a variety of ways.

  15. Sorry, yes, I was being ironic, and attributing the opinion to Theravada sectarians! I have edited my comment to put that sentence in quotation marks now; maybe that will be less confusing.

    I agree with everything you say here (which is not surprising because I do practice Tibetan Buddhism!).

  16. I have also discovered tantric Theravada, and I appreciate your research in this area. I practice a kind of tantric Theravada, and I’m glad to know that there is some kind of lineage in which to ground the practice. Read Ann Gleig’s article, very helpful. The (apparent) difference between Tibetan and Shaivic tantra and its Theravada form is that Tibetan & Shaivic forms were full of feudalistic imagery of seeing oneself as ‘kings and queens’; and more than imagery, was embedded with actual feudal monarchies and monastic feudalism; see Davidson’s “Indian Esoteric Buddhism”. The new Dhammakaya movement (which I have personally witnessed in Sri Lanka sanghas) reintroduces ritual and tantric symbolism into Theravada, but also elevates the power of the monastic priesthood to perform those rituals. The tantric Theravada of Cambodia was bound up with ascetic forest monasticism, but not political or monastic feudalism. Gleig’s article shows that tantric Theravada can also be embedded in liberal democracies, not dependent on feudalism, gurus and monastics, but in peer-led. low-hierarchy communities. You should also investigate the syncretism of Sri Lanka, where temple sites house both Hindu Shaivic deities and Buddhist deities, and the two share common deities and rituals. Sri Lanka Theravada monks developed devotions to Kali, Saraswati, and Hanuman.

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