Naturalizing Buddhist tantra

There’s a common idea that Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) is the crude, superstitious version. Real Buddhism is rational and empirical; it’s about meditating and being a good person. Vajrayana is all about magic, gods, and demons—which are primitive make-believe.

If this were right, Vajrayana would be doomed. Anyway, I would have no interest in it.

Fortunately, this view misses the point. It’s not what Vajrayana is about. Tantra is not inherently supernatural. We can remove all the supernatural beliefs, if we want, without losing anything important.

This has seemed obvious to me, and not particularly significant, for two decades. Judging from recent blog comments and private emails, the possibility of Vajrayana without the supernatural is surprisingly controversial. It provokes stronger feelings—pro and con—than I expected.

So I need to proceed carefully, to detail lines of thought which I would prefer to summarize briefly. According to my current outline, “naturalizing Buddhist tantra” will run to fifteen posts.

Why naturalize Vajrayana?

In religious studies, “natural” means “not supernatural.” To “naturalize” Vajrayana would mean creating a version without supernatural beliefs.

This is important because most Westerners are either wedded to their Western supernatural ideas, or reject all supernaturalism. If Vajrayana is valuable for the modern West, and if its gods and demons are optional, many more Westerners could make use of a naturalized version. Naturalism is also central in the modern worldview, so any modern Buddhist tantra has to at least consider it.

This does not imply hostility to traditional supernatural versions, nor to modern supernatural Vajrayanas either. Different paths are good fits for different people. I don’t believe in magic, gods, or demons, but most of my sangha does—and that doesn’t bother me! I’m not allergic to other people’s beliefs, and have no interest in changing them. I would enthusiastically support an otherwise-modern demon-haunted Vajrayana. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

So I won’t argue for the non-existence of demons. I’m just going to ask: if there were none, what would that mean for Vajrayana?

Some atheists might prefer a Vajrayana that explicitly denies the existence of demons. Alternatively, a version that neither denies nor relies on them—like Shambhala Training—might be the most broadly accessible.

Many people would prefer a version that made no mention of demons at all. Personally, I like demons, and would prefer to retain them as charming and useful myths, while denying their literal existence.

Perhaps in future we can have all these variants—but currently we have no modern Vajrayana at all.

Why has Vajrayana not already naturalized?

Many people assume that because Vajrayana hasn’t naturalized, the reason is that it can’t. However, as far as I can tell, the reasons are historical accidents, rather than something about Vajrayana itself.

Before 1860, all brands of Buddhism were extensively supernatural. In rural Asia, they all still are.

Naturalized Buddhisms were first created in the late 1800s, by reformers like King Mongkut (in Thai Theravada) and Inoue Enryō (“Dr. Spook,” who kicked the demons out of Zen). Rational, empirical, scientific Buddhism was a new invention—despite claims that Gotama Buddha was a rational, empirical “scientist of the mind.”

Thai and Japanese Buddhisms were naturalized as part of national modernization campaigns, which aimed to prevent domination by Western colonial powers. Tibetan leaders understood the danger of colonization too late, so Tibet failed to modernize in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Since the 1959 Chinese takeover, Tibetan Buddhism has resisted naturalization probably mostly as part of an attempt to maintain Tibetan culture intact in the face of catastrophe. So much was lost that it is natural to try to preserve unchanged what remains. (Or, mostly unchanged—even the Dalai Lama has agreed to some naturalizing reinterpretations.) Unfortunately, this traditionalism risks increasing irrelevance and eventual extinction from lack of interest on the part of younger Tibetans with increasingly modern worldviews.

I don’t know enough about non-Tibetan tantric systems to say why they haven’t naturalized—but I suspect it’s also respect for tradition rather than intrinsic difficulty.


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

17 thoughts on “Naturalizing Buddhist tantra”

  1. Point me out if I’m wrong here, but Buddhism denies absolute existence to everything, not just demons. So for anything to exist at all, it must be on some relative rather than absolute level, including people. Therefore I have no problem with the idea that gods and demons exist on some relative level because as psychic (as in mental – psyche) forces they clearly affect power over some people. So, why not? I am just as “real” as a demon is on an absolute metaphysical level.

  2. The West is dying for spiritual paths, including ritual, devotion, sangha and so-on, that do not blatantly insult the intellect. Why would we god back to irrational fairy tales? Nonsense such as people dissolving in rainbows and supernatural powers and so on keep people away – most people in the West like to keep an open mind, but don’t want the brain to fall out. But I agree that it’s entirely feasible to reformulate tantra and make it accessible. See what Lama Tsultrim Allione has done with the Chöd ritual – keeping demons and all, but reformulating it as a kind of psychotechnology. Love it!

  3. Indeed, Kristopher! It took me a long time to realize that a rational atheist could indeed eat the demons and have them too. Or rather feed, in the case of chöd. Tsultrim and her work on chöd could IMO serve as an example of how to modernize tantra beyond naive superstition, grinding ritual for ritual’s sake, and irrelevant cultural crud.

  4. I just attended a weekend retreat with Anam Thubten and he basically gave a naturalized vajrayana (and some Dzogchen) instruction, with various practices ranging from empowerment, diety visualization, shamatha, resting in awareness/the natural state/rigpa, loving-kindness meditation, eye gazing (with the empowerment, a very interesting twist), and on and on. He did so elegantly without superstition, or even without much content at all. I thought it was a really good example of what you’ve been writing about.

  5. Feeding the Demons is pretty good, although I prefer Core Transformation (which doesn’t originate from Vajrayana but from NLP)

  6. @ Zac — Yes… demons exist at least fictionally, and don’t-exist at least as much as we don’t-exist. Beyond that, it gets murky. People who “believe in” demons would agree that their mode of existence is not quite the same as ours (they don’t have physical bodies, at least not most of the time), but I don’t think believers can say in quite what sense demons do exist. Will Buckingham has a fine post about this. On the other hand, fictional existence can have large effects—Gandalf has made a lot of money for various people, whereas Fladnag has not.

    @ Apollo — Thanks for reminding me of Feeding The Demons—I am using it as an example in tomorrow’s post.

    @ Kristopher — I occasionally do exorcism rituals. I don’t see it as particularly a problem that the demons I’m exorcizing don’t exist (and therefore are unaffected)…

    @ Duff — That sounds really good! I don’t think I’d heard about Anam Thubten before; went and checked out his site.

  7. existenz & not–

    The exorcism is intended to affect the person who is “possessed,” or so I’ve been told. And I’ve never seen a better example of possession than the dying workmate out in the patio unhooking from his oxygen long enough to light up and take a few puffs. There don’t have to be objectively verifiable entities, for there to be people suffering from a compulsion to enact service to something alien to them.

    — another point of view.

  8. @Duff You mention eye gazing – interesting. Is that a traditional technique used in Vajrayana? I know it’s used widely in neo-tantra, but I haven’t been able so far to trace it back to Vajrayana or other tantra traditions.

  9. If you think that Vajrayana needs to change to accommodate some western materialist mindset then you don’t understand Vajra and you don’t understand the nature of the mind. Vajra is a beautifully rich tradition. If you can’t appreciate what it has to offer then why do you even practice it? There are plenty of McBuddhist traditions out there that might be more amenable to your mindset.

  10. As a westerner and former atheist, I’d make the case that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There is definitely superstition in much of traditional thought, but there is also a lot of truth that gets dismissed by people who believe science has closed the doors on the possibility of immaterial spirituality. Science must and will go through a paradigm shift soon that will cause a re-enchantment of the postmodern worldview and which will open back up the rational basis for inquiry into a truly divine spirituality, not just a pseudo-spiritual materialist psychology. Then, our task becomes figuring out the scientific understanding of true spirituality while enhancing it through technology and integrating it into an intercultural system that embraces and includes the various cultural traditions which came before.

  11. You are exceptionally wrong and you don’t even know what a complete fool you are making of yourself. You are a complete child and you have virtually no understanding at all of the subject of which you speak about. Even a very, very, lowly initiate would have an understanding of the reality of magic. You just happen to be too young for someone to even expend some effort into waking you up to the realities of magic because it’s not really even worth the effort or otherwise needed in your life. You don’t know that these things actually happen and how explicit magic gets. It’s funny but also arrogant how you as a Buddhist would think that you know better in a question like this than all the masters of history together combined. I guess they all lied about siddhis, did Jesus do that as well?

    Really, you shouldn’t be talking out of your ass like this. And you certainly shouldn’t be pontificating to anyone about anything as far as Buddhism is concerned. Pfft! A Buddhist giving in to Western superstition and out of naivete wanting to reform Buddhism. You don’t even know how disrespectful you are being. I would beat your ass if I could but I don’t need to, reality will prove you wrong sooner or later either way.

    And there is no need for ordinary people to concern themselves with magic or tantra. Just do basic things on the path, you’re not gonna be practising advanced sex magic anytime soon. This is the reality and you may see it as elitist but it is simply the way of things. Now, sit down, shut up and respect the wisdom of the masters.

  12. “Personally, I like demons, and would prefer to retain them as charming and useful myths, while denying their literal existence.”

    Oh, had you any idea you infinitely insolent child. Yes, laugh about it, laugh it up. I’m sure the demons will appreciate that. Oh, what a number I would have done on you. Do you know that even archangels fall? And that they sometimes spend eternities as fallen, damned beings? Do you want to laugh about that too?

    Now, you have to ask yourself. What if this type of angel that knew he had a past like this came upon your post? How would he react? What would he like to do to you? How infinitely adorably naive would you be coming off as?

    I just wish you would know about this, and specifically about the absolutely undeniable fact that all of this could happen even to you. Either way, on a long enough timeline it is certainly a certainty that you specifically will experience hell in some capacity. Then we have to consider the fact that creation is neverending, and that it is also an undeniable fact that you as a being are in fact eternal and that this definitely means that it’s only a question of time until you yourself have to do a few eternities as a demon or fallen angel. How about that? Think about that.

    You’re welcome.

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