A naturalized Buddhist tantra would, by definition, have nothing supernatural about it.
That seems straightforward; but actually there are degrees of naturalization. Dropping claims of supernatural powers and beings and realms is just the start. For example, many “alternative healing” systems make no explicitly supernatural claims, but couldn’t work through natural causes.
Here’s a possible spectrum:
- Include explicitly supernatural claims
- Eliminate explicitly supernatural claims
- Eliminate elements for which no natural understanding seems feasible
- Eliminate elements for which there is inadequate empirical evidence
- Find specific, empirically justified explanations for the remaining elements
- Understand practices well enough to re-engineer them to be more reliable and effective
How meditation has increasingly naturalized
Back in the 1800s, modern Buddhism eliminated explicitly supernatural claims (degree 1).
In retrospect, we know that a natural understanding of meditation’s effects is feasible in principle (degree 2). A few decades ago, even that was not clear. The mainstream scientific view was that your thoughts could not possibly affect your physical health—that was superstitious woo talk! “Meditation” was just New Age hippy-dippy quackery, on a par with dowsing, say.
There’s now solid empirical evidence for many meditation effects. That’s a great relief to me. I always thought meditation probably worked, but it’s incredibly easy to fool yourself about such things. People who produce and consume angelic gem essences believe they have obviously powerful effects—and presumably they are wrong.
So now basic Buddhist meditation is somewhere between 3 and 4. We know that it works, and there’s beginning to be some understanding of how and why.
We’re not yet at degree 5—developing significantly improved methods based on scientific understanding—but early work has begun. I hope this succeeds; the further along this spectrum of naturalization, the better, in my opinion.
How natural do you need Vajrayana to be?
In later posts, I hope to convince you that a degree-2 Vajrayana is possible. (Degree 2 means “nothing in it that couldn’t have a natural explanation.”) I can’t do more than that, because there hasn’t yet been much scientific study of tantric methods.
In other words, I can’t prove Vajrayana does anything; so it’s entirely reasonable to ignore it until there’s better evidence. Tantric practices seem to me to work—but I could be deluded, like believers in angelic gem essences. I’ll be a lot happier when (and if) evidence comes in.
I think it’s slightly unreasonable to require degree 4 (specific explanations), but not wildly unreasonable. Things that work for no known reason are suspect; they might not work for everyone, or might have bad side-effects, or might suddenly stop working.
There’s only a handful of Sutrayana (non-tantric) meditation methods. Many experiments have been done on each, because many experiments are always needed to figure out a new phenomenon. (And there is still much that is not understood.)
The great diversity of tantric practices—there are hundreds—will make systematic study more difficult. Also, there may only be a few dozen people who have mastered some methods, and that too could make research difficult.
Most important, Vajrayana is ultimately about about interactions between you and the world, not about mind states. The neuroscience methods that have been used to study Sutrayana meditation may simply not apply. This does not mean other methods couldn’t be used—ones drawn from experimental social psychology perhaps—but it may require a different skill set, and therefore a different group of scientists.
Still, a few experiments have been done. From a brief google, I learned that:
- A study found that tantric visualization dramatically enhances mental imagery tasks (as one might expect).
- Several studies of tummo, an “energy” practice, found that (as claimed) it raises the core body temperature above the normal range. It also increases alpha brainwaves, which correlate with heightened attention.
- Deity yoga had some sort of complicated effect that I wasn’t motivated to struggle through the paper to understand!
If you know of other scientific studies of tantric practices, I’d love to hear about them!