Reinventing Buddhist tantra badly

Some spiritual facts are now obvious:

  • Experiences of awe and wonder, in appreciation of nature or of human arts, can be profoundly religious and transformative.
  • Creative work, making useful and beautiful things to aid and delight others, is a noble and fulfilling spiritual activity.
  • Romantic love and sex—although sometimes sources of great suffering—may be the most valuable spiritual aspects of our lives.
  • Fully experiencing emotions transforms them from a source of trouble into a source of wisdom.
  • Women are at least as naturally religious as men.

These facts must be central principles of any religion that hopes to function in this century.

Consensus Buddhism”—the modern Buddhist mainstream—acknowledges these principles, but only with some embarrassment. The Consensus is rooted mainly in Sutrayana: traditional non-tantric Buddhism. The inconvenient truth is that Sutrayana absolutely denies and rejects each of these values. Its own core principles are revulsion for the world and renunciation of involvement with it.

This is awkward, to put it mildly. Sutrayana is not a plausible foundation for a popular 21st century religion.

The Consensus rejects renunciation; so what is left? Renunciation is the engine of Sutrayana; when you pull that out, the vehicle may look good, it may be comfortable to sit in, but it won’t go anywhere. In fact, Consensus Buddhism does sometimes seem to consist of no more than simple meditation methods plus vague feel-good ethics. That is not a vehicle that will take you far.

The “spiritual facts” I began with are principles of Tantric Buddhism. Tantra should be a better starting point for contemporary Western Buddhism. Unfortunately, Consensus Buddhism has rejected and opposed tantra as politically unacceptable.

Consensus Buddhism wants tantric results, but rejects tantric methods. So….?

Reinventing Buddhist Tantra unconsciously

Because these spiritual facts are obvious and important, Consensus Buddhism has partly adapted itself to them. It has grown away from its Sutric roots in an approximately Tantric direction. Its leaders probably did not understand this was what they were doing. Starting with the Sutrayana they inherited from Asian teachers, they adapted it step by step to accommodate modern values, without noticing that many of those values were always central to tantra.

Consensus Buddhism has:

  • Borrowed from psychotherapy, to address the insights that fully feeling emotions is spiritually valuable and transformative, and that relationships are central to spiritual growth.
  • Borrowed from social justice activism, to address the insight that effective engagement with others’ needs is central to spiritual practice.
  • Borrowed from feminism, to address the fact that many Western Buddhist leaders, and a majority of students, are women.
  • Borrowed ethics from liberal Christianity and secular humanism, because traditional Buddhist ethics are wrong and/or inadequate.
  • Borrowed consciousness-altering methods from Western monist/magical/New Age systems, because Sutrayana has inadequate tools for that.
  • Borrowed ideas about the spiritual value of pleasure, awe, and artistic creativity from Hindu Tantra, because Hinduism seemed less unacceptable and inaccessible than Buddhist Tantra!

These pieces do not fit together well. One could dismiss the result as a hopeless mishmash of unrelated, vaguely attractive ideas. Without a clear organizing principle, this cannot function.

Alternatively, we could understand this as a relatively coherent—but unconscious—attempt to reinvent Buddhist Tantra. Tantra has Buddhist ways to address each of the issues for which the Consensus has had to import non-Buddhist concepts and methods. The hard work of reconciling enthusiastic worldly involvement with core Buddhist values has already been done, more than a thousand years ago. Isn’t that where modern Buddhism should start?

Some aspects of tantra are non-obvious. You are likely to recreate it badly if you miss those. If you want to reinvent the wheel, you should first understand thoroughly how current ones work. Even people who are explicitly attempting to reinvent tantra, and have some training in its traditional forms, may screw up. (See my discussion of Michael Roach and Christie McNally’s attempt.)

Consensus Buddhism’s imports retain the non-Buddhist attitudes of their original ideological systems. You are unlikely to engineer a better wheel from a milk carton, three slices of cheese, and a feather duster—and unlikely to build a better Buddhism out of miscellaneous fragments of other ideologies.

Consensus Buddhism also retains a residue of renunciation from Sutrayana. Many Consensus teachers still consider monasticism the ideal, even though they don’t practice it. They are emotionally constricted, uncomfortable with intensity, and afraid of the awful possibility of too much fun. They reject tantra partly for its total lack of restraint.

The way forward

I believe that for Western Buddhism to survive this century, we have to start by admitting that tantra’s values are better aligned with ours than Sutrayana’s are. Tantra has tools to address spiritual facts we find central, and so it has to be accepted as part of the foundation of a workable modern Buddhism.

There are two immediate obstacles. One is that some aspects of tantra may seem outright unacceptable. Those need rethinking. Second, it is hard to know where even to start. Tantra appears to be closely-held Asian property, and Asians are mostly uninterested in helping Westerners modernize it.

Stay tuned for more on both of those topics.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

26 thoughts on “Reinventing Buddhist tantra badly”

  1. “In fact, Consensus Buddhism does sometimes seem to consist of no more than simple meditation methods plus vague feel-good ethics. That is not a vehicle that will take you far.”

    I’m not convinced that you actually need anything else, or that anything else can take you any further. “Simple meditation methods” can take you very far indeed. I quite like consensus Buddhism.

  2. Hi David,

    It seems to be that Western Tantra already exists in the form of Ceremonial Magick, and its relatives (Theosophy, et al) You seem to be familiar with it. Why should we create a Western *Buddhist*Tantra, if a Western Tantra already exists. Or is something wrong with CM?

    I suspect that you already have ideas on this, and I look forward to your answer.

  3. David-
    I agree with you on all of this. Any reinvention of Buddhist tantra should come from the roots which are already there, and are actually Buddhist. I honestly don’t see that anything needs changing, but really mostly needs repackaging.Also, the more ngakpa approaches are the ones that fit better and should be emphasized.

    Western Ceremonial Magic is not Buddhist and is not a substitute- it has built into it all kinds of non-Buddhist understandings. Consensus Buddhism makes a major error in not having enough Compassion and devotional practice. It ends up cold and sterile as a result- but westerners are afraid of it, or averse to it, or don’t see why it belongs in Buddhist training so it is not taught in Mindfulness teaching centers. The teachers learned these practices in Thailand and Burma but chose not to import it, or to teach it.

    I think the training programs needs to be organized and presented in a way that makes sense to westerners. One issue I struggle over is that westerners want the highest teaching right away- dzogchen- when it’s actually way above their heads and is counterproductive to learn it without preparation- but nobody believes this, and they won’t believe it.

    There needs to be some initial mahayana teaching accompanied by shamata and vipassana practice- mindfulness practice, basically- as a foundation training. This kind of teaching can have the same level public interaction as the consensus mindfulness groups- but a mechanism can be taught that entices people to come to the next level teaching classes. Maybe there’s a little bit of light philosophy taught. At that point dzogchen can be hinted at, peripherally. Actually, madhyamika is so close- although not identical- that they can also be taught that and taught how that is almost the same and is a highest teaching also. In this way they are getting what everybody else is being taught elsewhere. This would be a public level teaching, and could easily include discussion of western teachings. The only issue here is that the teacher needs to know these teachings, and that probably requires a western lama- but this could be taught by western senior students. Also, we have needed supportive books written by westerners which translate and interpret tantra for our culture- but these are being written slowly. Tantra is a great fit, but it needs explaining and cross-indexing with other western ideas for it to make sense why you should bother with it.

    Transitioning them to ngondro is another big step. Ngondro also contains the entire path, in a tantric sense, and can be taught as a far more rapid, and more complete, method that builds on the previous approach. In our center our lama has also added a variant approach, which is to teach the Guhyagarbha tantra and Shitro practice (not the Karma LIngpa version). This is a variant path which does not require ngondro practice and the various levels of deity yoga after. This approach preceded the nyingthig tradition, and is the entire tantric system in one practice, and is typically taught and practiced from a dzogchen perspective. That simplifies things- although many still choose to do ngondro. It sounds like your Aro Ter ngondro practice may be similarly used. Pure dzogchen texts are taught after or alongside the tantra teaching, and trekchod practice is folded into that teaching- which is basically thogel practice.

    Once students are doing ngondro it is an easy step to further practices, as they are already onboard, and are probably already participating in some of them at tsoks, or have listened to lamas who have taught some of the practices.

    If this is all taught in a manner that makes sense to westerners, with some public entry-level teachings then people are usually able to get on board. In Asia they had the same issues, which is why most people in Tibet only practiced Mahayana and some sutra chanting, or Chenresig mantra chanting, and merit building offerings- another thing westerners won’t go for.

  4. True, Ceremonial Magick is not Buddhist. But it is Tantric. And it presents a set of techniques that are in line with Western symbolism. Add Buddhism and stir?

  5. Nick — No accounting for taste! Consensus Buddhism clearly works for millions of people, and that’s a good thing.

    5GhostFist — Western Ceremonial Magick is metaphysically rooted in German Idealism (and Neo-Platonism before that). I find that stuff mostly harmful.

    However, it’s possible that Vajrayana could learn a lot from the experimental and pragmatic aspects of Western magick. Sam Webster’s work is potentially interesting, for instance.

    On the other hand, I’m not persuaded that Ra-Hoor-Khuit (his Thelemic/Egyptian deity) is any more relevant or approachable for Americans than Yeshé Tsogyal (the principal yidam of my lineage). Less, I would say, actually.

    Foster Ryan — I agree with you on all of this :-)

    westerners want the highest teaching right away- dzogchen- when it’s actually way above their heads and is counterproductive to learn it without preparation- but nobody believes this, and they won’t believe it.

    A few years ago, I thought teaching Dzogchen would be the way to go. I’ve come to agree that this was probably wrong. Some people probably can go straight into Dzogchen, but it’s rare.

    Unless one understands how Dzogchen functions as the fulfillment of Tantra, it gets corrupted into something indistinguishable from neo-Advaita. There’s a lot of people going around teaching “Dzogchen” now who do exactly that. This is a big problem because it obscures the real thing.

    mindfulness practice, basically, as a foundation training

    Yes, this is more-or-less the Aro approach, and was also more-or-less Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach in his Shambhala Training.

    Realistically, in future, most people will approach Western Vajrayana with a Consensus Buddhist background. After a few years of vipassana, they realize that it’s pointing in the wrong direction for them, and they want a path of vivid, full-blooded, creative engagement. Yet, the vipassana they’ve done will be excellent preparation—because emptiness is the base for tantra. The only difficulty is in deprogramming all their Consensus ideology.

    teach the Guhyagarbha tantra and Shitro practice… this does not require ngondro

    That’s extremely interesting, partly for its own sake, but also as an instance of the general principle that the Vajrayana of a thousand years ago is more appropriate now than the Vajrayana of a hundred years ago.

    May I ask who your Lama is, and/or which is your center?

  6. My Lama is Khenpo Sonam Tobgayl Rinpoche. Our center is Lhundrup Choling, in Los Angeles. His lineage is very close to yours- he teaches Dudjom Tersar, and used to teach under Lama Tharchin at Pema Osel Ling. He was also a student of Thinley Norbhu, and it was he who authorized the founding of our center. Check our site out- although it’s not much- but at least we have it up and slightly attended to- at http://www.lhundrupcholing.com.

  7. To add to my previous comments re the Guhyagarbha tantra and Shitro practice: The Guhyagarbha tantra itself is the foundation of the Nyingma school’s approach to and understanding of tantra.It is also the source of the first textual mention of Dzogchen. In this one tantra and its commentaries one has a single text tradition which contains the entire teaching of tantra in one book. It is the root tantra of the Nyingma of which every other tantra can be seen as an elaboration.The text comes from India and has been taught throughout the entire history of Vajrayana in Tibet. The shitro practice is the practice distillation of the tantra.

    It makes sense to me that such a teaching is a potentially perfect approach for us here today. First, it comes from the early days of Buddhism in Tibet, from a time when conditions are similar to ours here today. Second, we have no elaborate support structure for vajrayana so the simplicity of one book and one practice is very simplifying- even though the practice itself is complex- but not terribly so- lets just call it rich. This would still require earlier mahayana training- something accomplishable in a modified Consensus Buddhist approach. In the more modern nyinghtig approach the ngondro process is meant to accomplish much of that preliminary teaching.

    There may well be other meditation practices similar in principle to this approach- I don’t know- and they would all be good fits I suspect. OTOH, this doesn’t negate the value of the more modern stage-like approaches. It only gives the option of another way of going about things that may work better for some people’s impatient characters. It probably takes just as long to achieve realization, but at least there’s not the sense of waiting to later learn the deep secrets. Tantra wasn’t always taught in stages in India and Tibet, so maybe it’s an option worth trying more in the West. We like options here.

  8. I’d have to agree with 5GhostFist, as a CM practitioner myself, there is much there that could be useful in making a Western Buddhist Tantra, since as he points out, it is Tantric. So is the modern practice of Alchemy. The obvious obstacle is the total lack of Madhyamaka teachings on emptiness and the illusory nature of dichotomic existence in these systems. The unobvious obstacle is that there is a thick patina covering it made of circle-jerking (as it is known on the internet), auto-fellatio, and self-help-bullshit marketing.

    But these practices exist, have their merits when the patina is polished off, and also must be addressed in some fashion, whether by appropriation or the less optimal method of condemnation.

    However it plays out, a thoroughly Western Buddhist Tantra has a long way to go.

  9. Foster Ryan — Oh, how delightful! I met with Khenpo Sonam Rinpoche a couple of times a dozen years ago at Pema Ösel Ling. He gave me extensive advice on pilgrimage in Bhutan and on various tantric craft points—making chöd drums and so forth. It’s great to hear that he has his own center now; at that time he was living in a trailer at PÖL and had no students of his own as far as I know. I found him to be extremely kind and knowledgeable. If it happens to seem appropriate, please give him best regards from me and from the Aro Sangha—there were several of us who had connections with him at that time.

    JL Hughes — Yes… I’ve noticed both those obstacles :-). Problems create opportunities, however, perhaps!

  10. I read your email on my phone at class tonight and extended your greetings to Khenpo after the class. He remembers you, and remembers your sangha. He says Hello and sends his best wishes to you and your sangha :) Yes, he opened up this center about 5 years ago so at the time he didn’t have his own students.

  11. David – I hope you speak more about how “Dzogchen functions as the fulfillment of Tantra”. I feel this is a very interesting and subtle point. True for the Aro tradition and also possibly with Shangpa tradition. Heard Ken McLeod once use the term ‘the union of insight and ecstasy’. To which I thought – “hell ya!”.
    One other point. Some vipassana yogis practice a very deep level of ‘metta’, which I have personally coined as ‘secret metta’. It’s not about nice phrases and ‘wishing’, it’s about raising your energetic body to ecstatic levels and radiating it out. (sound a bit like tantric transmission?) Perhaps like some kind of Chenrezig practice, except maybe not with that specific visualization. I am just speaking here from my personal subjective experience, which may be skewed by my deeply tantric perspective. ;-)

  12. Foster Ryan — Thank you very much indeed! It is great to refresh such connections. I’m really glad to know he’s teaching, and that he’s innovating (by going back a thousand-plus years!) too.

    Marie — I like “the union of insight and ecstasy” a lot! “The union of wisdom and bliss” would be traditional, but “insight and ecstasy” points in a more active direction.

    Dzogchen is the fulfillment of tantra in every system that has Dzogchen, I think. Literally, Dzogchen means “great completion”—it’s the completion of tantra. Dzogrim is the “completion stage” of tantra, and Dzogchen caps that.

    Maybe you had something more than that in mind?

  13. David-

    Actually, we are doing a lot more than just practicing Shitro. We have also been experimenting with delivery methods for Khenpo’s teachings. We video stream on U-stream, and now Youtube (through a private channel) so that students across town, out of state, and now also a group in Vancouver, Canada are also able to receive the teachings.
    All of our classes have downloadable audio so you can listen to a podcast of the classes.

    Mind you we’re doing this in LA where almost none of us have much spare time and most students work full time, and the ones that don’t tend toward being un-techsavvy- but we are making progress, slowly.

    Students come for empowerments, or in the case of Canada, Khenpo goes there to do the empowerments, then listen to the classes online, or in person when they can make it.
    We are also working to develop some sort of an online discussion board for people in various classes to be able to do virtual debates. We are in development of an online and in-person Khenpo training shedra. Every one of Khenpo’s classes have been recorded and we are accumulating classes. All of his classes have been ones taught in his shedra, and have been taught according to traditional shedra teaching standards- as he received them in Nepal and Sikkim. We have 3 nights per week of classes- Tantra night, Dzogchen night, and Ngondro night-, and will soon introduce Saturday mornings for Mahayana/Madhyamika training. In this way each of the stages of class as taught in the traditional 9 year shedra are being offered- although not in the traditional sequence. Later they can be studied by the students in sequence- once all the classes have been taught and recorded. The teaching is all being done in English, as (almost ?) all the texts have been translated. Tibetan will probably be up to the students themselves to decide on whether they want to learn it or not. Hopefully we will have a system of senior students teaching mindfulness and basic mahayana as the more public outreach aspect. We are trying to mimic online university classes, while not losing the direct personal transmission aspect.

    The goal is to teach the real teachings but in an accessible manner.
    How they are taught and what ones students pick up on is an ongoing experiment.
    Also, once we have the training then we can experiment with the next level of Americanization.

  14. Wow, that all sounds great! Fabulous energy.

    We’re moving in some of the same directions—into remote, video-based teaching, for example. That seems to have great potential.

    If/when there are any publicly available videos of Khenpo Rinpoche teaching, I’d love to see them.

  15. re: “Maybe you had something more than that in mind?”
    It’s about energy. Tantra, as ecstatic practice or subtle body practice (Tsa-lung, Tummo, etc), raises the level of energy, which makes it easier to discover the non-dual state in ordinary experience. There’s so much joy, that ordinary sensory experience is constantly reminding you of that fountain of joy, and you just can’t help noticing the non-dual nature of your joy and sensory experience! I think Vipassana yogis could also do this through ecstatic-metta, but maybe not so many people are practicing ecstatic-metta. I know one guy who is.

  16. You mention that renunciation is the engine of sutrayana but not tantra. However, it is my understanding that renunciation is also central to mahamudra. How would you distinguish these two?

  17. Hi, Bobby,

    Sorry to be slow to reply—Wordpress is not getting comment notifications to me reliably, so I didn’t see your question until just now.

    I don’t know much about mahamudra, so I can’t give a confident answer. Maybe someone else reading this can?

    My understanding is that mahamudra is divided into “sutra mahamudra, tantra mahamudra, and essence mahamudra.” I would guess that renunciation is a key principle only in sutra mahamudra, and not in tantra or essence mahamudra. This is just speculation, though!

  18. Hey David!

    Been trying to get some clarity on the similarities and differences between psychotherapy and tantra then I finally read your previous post. Here’s what intrigues me. One of the spiritual facts you list is:
    “Fully experiencing emotions transforms them from a source of trouble into a source of wisdom.”

    Later you say that:

    “Consensus Buddhism has:
    Borrowed from psychotherapy, to address the insights that fully feeling emotions is spiritually valuable and transformative, and that relationships are central to spiritual growth.
    There appears to be some similarity between therapy and tantra, in that both use the content of daily life as part of the path. However I’m not familiar enough with the tantric view to say where that similarity ends.”

    My question: specifically on this point of seeing emotions and relationships as transformative, how are the tantric and psychotherapeutic views different? What is missing, if anything, from therapy to be a source of tantric transformation?

    Love to hear your thoughts on this!
    Eran.

  19. Hi Eran,

    This is a great question!

    I’m not qualified to answer because I don’t know enough about psychotherapy, and haven’t thought about the relationship much at all. There’s a big literature on Buddhism and therapy which I’m mainly ignorant of. Maybe others here can weigh in.

    I suspect that different Vajrayanists would give very different answers, which reflect different ideas of what tantra is essentially about.

    The most common answer might be that the goals are different: tantra aims for enlightenment, therapy doesn’t. Therapy addresses pathology; tantra doesn’t.

    I think this is accurate, but I find “enlightenment” a vague and useless word, so I don’t especially like it. Also, this is the generic conservative Buddhist dismissal of psychotherapy, and is not distinctively tantric.

    One might reformulate it as “therapy goes from sub-normal to normal functioning; tantra goes from normal to super-normal.” That’s probably approximately accurate, again, but begs many questions.

    Here are some other possible answers to your original question:

    * The tantric transformation works by “mixing emotions with emptiness,” or (in other language) finding their hidden empty character, which is always there. Emptiness isn’t a concept in Western psychotherapy.

    * Tantra aims at a particular systematic series of transformations of negative emotions into positive ones. For example, anger transforms into clarity, and desire into compassion. There’s no analog of this in psychotherapy that I know of.

    * Tantra is not about the self, or about the individual. Personal liberation is a non-goal. This goes far beyond the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal (which is too abstract to have much impact, in my opinion). The tantrika attempts to “transform the total mandala,” which means everything over which she has influence.

    Since the goals and processes of tantra and therapy are very different, the specific methods are also very different.

    There certainly are some things in common. As you point out, both use the content of daily life as part of the path. Both think emotions are all basically good, and important (unlike Sutrayana, which thinks they’re almost all bad, and should be abandoned, destroyed, or ignored).

    Maybe more interestingly, both tantra and psychoanalytically-derived therapies depend centrally on an asymmetrical relationship (with the therapist or lama). That analogy probably doesn’t go very far, but there might be *some* value in it.

    Does this provoke any thoughts for you (or anyone else)?

    David

  20. +Eran +David My experience of psychotherapy-based buddhist teachers vs. more tantricly based buddhist teachers is that the psychotherapy-based teachers are more likely to be concerned about helping you maintain your sense of ‘safety’. As your sense of self starts getting threatened, you might start to feel a bit, shall we say, unsafe. A tantric teacher is more likely to push you into the chaos of that feeling. They are less afraid of throwing you into chaos. That’s why the tantric relationship with the teacher is quite important. You really have to trust that person, because your ‘self’ is getting reconstructed at a very deep level. Like, tearing down the house completely, rather than changing the furniture and adding new fixtures.

  21. Tantra and psychotherapy both provide positive approaches to engaging with emotions, but it seems like there’s a false meta-narrative when they’re brought together: psychotherapy is ‘a safe way to encounter and work through your emotions,’ Tantra is often met with a knee-jerk reaction as ‘potentially dangerous.’

    Obviously psychotherapy can go wrong – but mostly these days it’s viewed as an acceptable, safe option. We know that there are ways in which Buddhist Tantra can go wrong too. At this point in time, this knowledge gets in the way of Tantra being seen as ‘mostly safe’. It’s true there’s much work to be done, to change that view.

    But maybe part of the problem is that Tantra is mistakenly viewed as ‘inherently dangerous’ because it’s almost without exception contrasted to Buddhist approaches that view emotions with caution, at best? Maybe it would be more useful if, in presenting Tantra in the West, we were to follow the line of comparison between Buddhist Tantra and psychotherapy instead? What if, in the future, people were to ask ‘do you think psychotherapy, or Buddhist Tantra, would be best for me at this point?’ with the underlying assumption that both were tried, tested and legitimate ways to develop a mature handle on emotions?

    Maybe that’s the ‘killer app’ that you’re looking for in Tantra? A secular way in, that cuts out the renunciative approach altogether.

  22. Terminology gets a bit confusing and these topics are pretty wide-ranging so I’ll try to clarify and focus.

    When I speak of psychotherapy in this context I’m not referring to the kind of work that addresses deep psychopathology rather to the kind of work that can support someone in moving toward increased fulfillment, self-actualization, etc. Moving from “normal” to “awesome”, is how I’d describe it in a nutshell. This work includes (and is not limited to) discovering and releasing self-limiting beliefs, healing trauma (often early attachment trauma), shadow work, etc. All of these aspects of therapy require facing unpleasant experiences and often repressed emotions/thoughts. The process can be one of expanding one’s definition of what’s “allowed”, expanding the definition of self while also loosening the hold on it. It doesn’t aim at Enlightenment but like you say, David, the definition of what Enlightenment is, is kinda murky. Right now, I’d be satisfied with Enlightenment == Happy with my current level of Enlightenment :)

    I think with this definition, the difference becomes even harder to find. If both tantra and psychotherapy can aim at a way of being that is “more” than normal, how are they different? I think we need to break this down further.

    Goal: Is tantra’s “more” bigger than therapy’s “more”? Is it self-actualization vs. self-realization vs self-transcendance? (Do these terms even mean anything?)
    View: What are the assumptions/stories that tantra includes that Western psychotherapy might reject? And vice versa.
    Practice: How are the practices different? How are they similar? It might be interesting to begin with the similarities.
    The nature of the relationship with the teacher/therapist. 

    To say more about some of the points you bring up:

    Emptiness definitely seems like a point of difference. However, emptiness is just a word. What is the experience it is pointing at? How is that experience transformational? If we take one classic explanation – empty meaning empty of inherent existence, transitory, illusory even – and apply this to feelings, thoughts, etc. then it seems to me that the goal is trying to free a person from the bondage of feelings, emotions, and thoughts. This doesn’t sound too far-fetched of a goal for therapy. The difference, IMO, would be that therapy tends to be focused on specific emotion clusters whereas tantra and contemplative methods in general, go for the root cause. That could be because of a simple difference in views (what is possible and what is desirable).

    Transforming negative emotions into positive is not explicit in therapy but definitely exists. Pulling back projections, I think, is one way it’s done. Another is through asking the client to stay with an emotion long enough to see what’s behind it. Again, therapy would usually go on a case-by-case basis (this experience of anger, that experience of anger,…) is this different in tantra?

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by transforming the total mandala. Can you say more about that? Or do you have any resources that describe that more?

    Last, the teacher/therapist relationship. There’s some research showing that the therapist’s way of being is just as important as the method of therapy employed (for the purpose effecting successful therapy). No doubt this is key to therapy. A good therapist provides a place to heal old relationship trauma (through the transference relationship), creates a safe place for the client to experience new ways of being and models what this new way of being could be like. I don’t know that that is very different from the role of a tantric teacher…

    BTW, If you watch old videos of Fritz Perls, I think you’d find he’s very different from what most people expect. He’s more on the crazy wisdom side, there’s a confrontational aspect to his work and a willingness to involve himself that you don’t see in “normal” talk therapy. Is the kind of transformation that Perls is aiming at closer to the tantric goal? If I’ve ever seen an example of including/transforming the whole mandala, it’s him.

  23. @ Rin’dzin

    Maybe it would be more useful if, in presenting Tantra in the West, we were to follow the line of comparison between Buddhist Tantra and psychotherapy instead? What if, in the future, people were to ask ‘do you think psychotherapy, or Buddhist Tantra, would be best for me at this point?’ with the underlying assumption that both were tried, tested and legitimate ways to develop a mature handle on emotions? Maybe that’s the ‘killer app’ that you’re looking for in Tantra? A secular way in, that cuts out the renunciative approach altogether.

    An intriguing possibility! Let us make it so :-) .

    @ Eran — These are excellent questions, which I’m not the best person to answer (lacking much knowledge of psychotherapy). I hope others may contribute, but I’ll do the best I can here…

    Goal: Is tantra’s “more” bigger than therapy’s “more”?

    I think so, but it could be hard to demonstrate. I’ve characterized tantra’s goal as “mastery, power, play, and [especially] nobility.” Does that go beyond psychotherapy? I don’t know. These are all common secular goals, except “nobility.” Maybe that’s where a key difference lies? “Nobility” is profoundly uncomfortable…

    Is it self-actualization vs. self-realization vs self-transcendance?

    My take is that Vajrayana isn’t much interested in self-anything. It’s not about the self, the lack of a self, seeing through the illusion of self, or analyzing, understanding, fixing, actualizing, realizing, or transcending your self. It just doesn’t care. This seems like a major difference.

    Rin’dzin is doing a Buddhist Geeks Community presentation about that soon!

    What are the assumptions/stories that tantra includes that Western psychotherapy might reject?

    This is difficult to answer because there are various tantras-as-we-have-inherited-them, and there is tantra-as-it-could-be. The former are diverse and the latter is undefined!

    Practice: How are the practices different? How are they similar? It might be interesting to begin with the similarities.

    Yes, that would be good, because the apparent differences are obvious and overwhelming.

    In terms of the possible similarity between the therapist and lama, one might consider whether Vajrayana involves a transference relationship. In practice, it definitely does—students inevitably try to make their lama into a substitute parent. But it’s explicit that this is an error and not how it’s supposed to work.

    Instead, perhaps it would be productive to consider the relationship between student and lama as a transference of the relationship between the student and their own enlightenment. According to tantric theory, we’re all always already enlightened—but we are emotionally estranged from that enlightenment. The lama acts as a symbol of our enlightenment, and a positive relationship with the lama transfers back into a positive relationship with enlightenment.

    asking the client to stay with an emotion long enough to see what’s behind it. Again, therapy would usually go on a case-by-case basis (this experience of anger, that experience of anger,…) is this different in tantra?

    Staying with a negative emotion is an important method in tantra, yes. Actively provoking negative emotions is another—which may be the point where tantra gets more dangerous than therapy!

    The therapeutic and tantric attitudes to emotions may be different in that therapy supposes that emotions mean something, and it matters what they mean (and what triggers them, and so on). All this has to do with the “structure of the self.” Tantra is not particularly interested in mental contents. It’s interested in meaningness, but not much in specific meanings; not in particular thoughts or feelings. It’s interested in structures of interaction. Maybe that implies there are connections with therapeutic methods that look at how relationships work… although the little I know about family systems theory doesn’t particularly seem to connect.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by transforming the total mandala. Can you say more about that? Or do you have any resources that describe that more?

    “Mandala” originally meant “the territory ruled by a king.” Metaphorically, it is your physical, social, cultural, economic, and political environment, to the extent that you have some influence over it. Vajrayana isn’t interested much in the self—it’s interested in the mandala and what you can do with it.

    “Ruling” is not nice, so English-language presentations of Vajrayana tend to quietly skip it. The Shambhala book is probably the most accessible presentation.

    There’s some research showing that the therapist’s way of being is just as important as the method of therapy employed (for the purpose effecting successful therapy).

    Interesting!—that makes a lot of sense to me! I would think that being a therapist is “human-complete,” so what matters is how you are, more than methods. I will argue in an upcoming post that exactly this is also true of Vajrayana—which this contradicts the traditional view. I don’t think Vajrayana’s much-hyped methods are particularly important; what matters is your attitude.

    A good therapist … creates a safe place for the client to experience new ways of being and models what this new way of being could be like.

    Yes, those are important parts of the job of a lama. “A place to heal old relationship trauma,” not so much—unless we are talking about one’s relationship with enlightenment!

  24. Maybe a good start would be to do as Gurdjieff tried to (he’s been into Vajrayana, that’s for sure): using new terminologies.

    Tantra and Buddhism are already linked to some clichés. Tantra is somewhat confused with Hindu Tantra and taken just as a sexual exercise for doing an hours long intercourse with no ejaculation in order for man and woman reach multiple orgasms together.

    Sometimes people confuse Tantra with what Osho’s direct students teach today, which is a great salad sometimes falling back on the previous line I mention above.

    For instance, here in my country there are places where people associate the word Tantra with sexual organ massages that many high class prostitutes utilize as preliminaries on their clients and as a disguise for their main source of income.

    Buddhism and Yoga most people associate with relaxation, hippie sterile peace-and-love and boredom. Even meditation is commonly linked to non-thinking, relaxation and doing nothing.

    While all these points may have interesting things (such as doing nothing and eroticism) that can offer something on a society that sees doing nothing and sex still as taboos, the terminologies generate disinterest from those that could benefit from Tantric Buddhism.

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