Degrees of naturalization

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:

  1. Include explicitly supernatural claims
  2. Eliminate explicitly supernatural claims
  3. Eliminate elements for which no natural understanding seems feasible
  4. Eliminate elements for which there is inadequate empirical evidence
  5. Find specific, empirically justified explanations for the remaining elements
  6. 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.

Scientific tantra

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:

If you know of other scientific studies of tantric practices, I’d love to hear about them!

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

26 thoughts on “Degrees of naturalization”

  1. Excellent points, as usual. You want to keep an open mind, but you don’t want the brain to fall out. On the one hand, you don’t want to trust systems or teachers that overly rely on blatantly wrong premises (say, quantum healing and stuff such as that). On the other hand, you want to keep in mind that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Here‘s another article of interest: it’s about a possible mechanism, based on evolutionary psychology and related to the placebo effect, for all kinds of shamanic healing practices. Basically, the attention of a shaman, faith-healer or wise-woman signals the body that it can invest massively in internal repair because the surroundings are safe and supporting.

  2. As societies modernize, it is important to climb your ladder of naturalization. If society drops into insecurity (economic, pestilence, disasters, political …) religion will throw such gains aside. So the ladder has constant traffic, up and down.

  3. Thanks! That evopsych theory of shamanic medicine is really interesting and might explain a lot. I’ve tweeted it and credited you. The jhana study is also interesting…

  4. I hvae a neuroscientist friend who owns and uses all of the equipment used in that deity yoga meditation study. He thinks it was terribly reported and would like to redo the study. I’m going to talk with him more about the idea. he says he would need 10-20 people, in the LA area, to do it with. This could be interesting- maybe we’ll get another study out of it. Any different ideas , anybody about how he should approach it? I like that guy’s basic concept- perform a basic sadhana and make observations about the different phases of the practice. But maybe he could also include someone doing the 3 inner tantra phases separately- but how would one find enough practitioners who could perform all three within the sadhana…

  5. Cool! That’s exciting…

    I would suggest studying anuyoga self-generation rather than sadhana. The anuyoga practice is just “suddenly be the deity”; there’s nothing more to it. A competent practitioner should be able to go in and out of deity mode in one second, on prompt. A sixty-second-on, sixty-second-off protocol would be easy. Or maybe better still would be three minutes woolgathering (default network), three minutes shamatha, three minutes self-generation; repeat as required. I bet you’d get three very distinct activity signatures.

    In comparison, there’s way too much stuff going on in sadhana. In the anuyoga practice, you’re just being the deity; it’s static. With sadhana you’re sequentially visualizing all kinds of mean and nasty stuff, I mean your Scene Of The Crime, with five police officers and three police cars and twenty-seven eight-by-ten color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one is. I mean… I mean… you’re going on for twenty-five minutes with with full orchestration and five part harmony, and the fMRI may think it’s a movement, and that’s what it is, the Tantric Tsok Mahayoga Anti-Massacree Movement, and if you want to join, all you got to do is sing along next time the mantra comes around on the guitar.

    Sorry, I got a little carried away there, but I think you can see the point.

    Finding 10 people in one US city who you are confident can do any tantric practice competently is going to be difficult. (Self-report of competence is probably not going to be reliable.) You’d want everyone to be doing the same deity if possible, because they do seem to have quite different effects.

    I think Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche has a pretty big sangha in LA, though, and he’s one of the few lamas who teach anuyoga, so that might worth looking into.

    For sadhakas in LA, Shambhala would probably be the best bet, in terms of numbers, and also many old-timers who have been doing the same sadhana for decades.

  6. I may be mistaken, but I think Wim Hof (at one point a Tummo practitioner) is able to alter (apparently) his blood chemistry through his meditations. I vaguely remember something about the reduction of cytokines. I’m sorry that I don’t have a paper to cite.

  7. If anybody is doing any sort of a concise sadhana- at least a Nyingma one- they are almost all instant visualizations. Certainly any study could have it done that way- or wait until the whole visualization is generated. Anyway, all the concise ones I’ve ever done have only been a matter of one short mantra and the palace is generated and then a mantra and the deity appears in his seat. One could easily not worry about measuring the self-empowerment stages. Also, any advanced practitioner could just do refuge then instantly the deity appears. From there one could observe what happens when rays are radiated from the heart as in generation stage practice; when anuyoga is performed (mother or father tantra style);and completion stage- with or without characteristics- as deity while holding the View or an equivalent; or just performing trekcho or resting in emptiness. What about when somebody does togel- in a non-deity yoga style- as in using stances and gazes? Could one even find a good practitioner of that version of togel? This could be where you would have to pick one school or another- or maybe both mahamudra and dzogchen approaches would work similarly enough. What about the difference between generation stage with the view versus a pure mahayoga version of generation stage? I know that Gelug and Shakya schools have simllar practices, but the words are different- but I don’t really know them that well to be able to translate to their terms.
    Anyway, that would just be a few things to observe: baseline, shamatha would be good I guess- but where is it in a vajrayana sadhana- but it would still be interesting to have a vajrayana practitioner tested for it, I suppose. Anyway, I would think that seeing what happens as one does refuge and bodhicitta would be interesting. Then an instant generation stage practice and/or an instant anuyoga practice; and resting in the View, then why not observe dedication.. That hits on all the basic stages of a sadhana.
    Personally, I would probably try to find Nyingma practitioners as it’s the school I know, and in addition, the Gelugs seem to get all the attention so why not get the Nyingmas some too.

  8. Hi David,

    Very interesting as always. Where would you place the Tsa Lung system and practices in terms of natural / supernatural. There are no specific dieities or demons involved only the more amorphous ‘energy’. Have there been any scientific studies done?

  9. @David Chapman
    Perhaps my question has escaped your attention in connection.
    I repeat it:
    “Is it not an attempt at corrupting the Buddhist scriptures? Or it is an attempt at corrupting Buddha’s teachings?”

  10. (I don’t mean to butt in — I am also awaiting David’s reply, but this caught my attention because I find the Tsa Lung practices fascinating.)

    @ Shezer – I think I would place it somewhere in the middle-ish. I think it represents a wonderful opportunity in terms of scientific study because it clearly has some mythical/supernatural elements, but it also has real, physical manifestations. I am always amazed at how some practitioners have been able to influence or completely control what were once believed to be completely automatic responses through the Tsa Lung practices. I vaguely remember something about Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche. Wasn’t he studied by the French while underwater or something?

    I like the idea of the imagination being used to change/realize something about the body. It also brings up the point that the imagination, while not entirely solid, is still a real thing, a real experience. I think that as people wish to move away from using drugs to improve their health (e.g. blood pressure, depression), practices like this will start to gain more popularity, and hopefully more study.

  11. @ Foster Ryan — That all makes sense to me! BTW, an experienced Aro practitioner in LA wrote to me privately and said he’d probably volunteer if your friend is actively recruiting. I can put the two in touch if your friend contacts me. He also had some interesting ideas about experimental protocols.

    @ Shé-zér — Tummo is the foundation practice for tsa lung in most Tibetan systems, and it’s been studied quite a lot. Mostly the researchers were interested in the ability to control body temperature, though, which is merely incidental from a religious point of view. It turns out that you can control body temperature, which is vaguely interesting, but so what…

    My outline says I’m going to write two posts about tsa lung / “energy” and how to understand it naturalistically. There’s nothing inherently supernatural about the idea… although supernatural powers are often said to come along with accomplishment. So the powers need to be denied, ignored, psychologized, or mythologized. But the thing itself is unproblematic at the “degree 2” level (and even “degree 3” if you count the evidence on tummo). The outline says I’m going to speculate about about “degree 4,” i.e. how does it work. That’s probably foolish…

    @ paarsurrey — I’ve now answered your question here, as best as I could.

    @ Dharmadhatu Daka

    I like the idea of the imagination being used to change/realize something about the body. It also brings up the point that the imagination, while not entirely solid, is still a real thing, a real experience.

    Yes, this needs to be part of any explanation!

    An interesting, recent anonymous blog reported on attempting to practice tummo. The person did only the breathing exercises, and omitted the visualizations. At a guess, they believed that breathing, being “physical,” could affect body temperature, whereas the visualization, being merely “mental,” could not. My suspicion from the beginning was that the experiment would fail for this reason—that the visualization is critical. It turned out that the experiment did more-or-less fail. (I wish they had followed up by trying to add the visualization!)

    Omitting the visualization was, at a guess, a mistaken deduction from a distorted form of naturalism.

    Although naturalists are usually explicitly materialists (they insist that there is no separate mental stuff, and everything is physical), they are usually implicitly dualists (they believe that thoughts can’t have physical effects). This is a bizarre error—a blatant contradiction—but one that is pervasive in the contemporary West. It’s ironic, and funny, but also annoying because so few people recognize it, even when you point it out to them.

  12. That’s very interesting that the tummo didn’t work without visualization. Personally, that is not a surprise to me at all, as it really seems to me to be an important tool. I really believe that the gurus are not stupid people, and if we didn’t need to use visualization they wouldn’t teach us to do it. There is something to the visualization process. Somehow it controls physical (and other?) processes. What is that mechanism? I would be extremely curious to find out what that mechanism could possibly be, physically.That would certainly be a new scientific discovery. Of course it is also possible that the guy didn’t do the breathing correctly or missed some other important piece of the practice and it wasn’t the fault of his failure to visualize.

    @David- thanks re the practitioner. Send me his contact info. While I’m thinking about the idea I’d love any input.

  13. @David – in regards to finding ways to present and explain anuyoga physical practices, I recently came across “Energies of Transformation – A guide to the Kundalini Process”, by book by Bonnie Greenwell. Part of my own exploration on what is happening in the body when you engage in ‘energy practices’ in a serious way. One of the more comprehensive books on the subject that I have found. One of the Buddhist practitioner/scholars out there seriously needs to write a book on this subject. It’s remarkably hard to find good information.

  14. David and Marie- If you want an interesting discussion of the Kundalini process, read “Biology of Kundalini” by Jane Dixon. That’s an amazing book that I recommend to anyone- especially those who emphasize an energy yoga approach- but it’s an amazing exploration of the biology and psychology of the process. It’s kind of breathtaking.Anybody who wants to think about a western understanding of spiritual transformation should check that book out.

  15. Hi Don,

    I don’t see anything in the article you linked that suggests “parapsychological effects have been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.”

    All it says is that some papers on psi have gotten a lot of web page views.

    The author concludes from this that “scientists pay attention to psi research.” If true, that would be a very long way from “parapsychological effects have been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.”

    However, there’s no evidence that these page views are from scientists. “Many web users are interested in psi research” is uncontroversially true…

  16. Really, did you read the article that Dean linked to on presentiment? He showed results that in my understanding, are irrefutable in terms of the statistics, at least by conventional scientific standards.

    You may have heard of Richard Wiseman, who in 2009 said the major psi abilities – telepathy, remote viewing, psychokinesis and precognition, had been proved (with good methodology, statistics and valid replication) according to conventional scientific standards.

    But he still refuses to accept the validity of psi, because conventional standards are not good enough for extraordinary things like psi. Since he’s refused to define why psi is ‘extraordinary’ his statement is meaningless (as the man who coined the infamous statement, “Extraordinary things require extraordinary proof” has pointed out – I think his name is Truzzi, not Carl Sagan, by the way – and has said he wished he never made that statement and wishes others would stop quoting him).

    In any case, do you think James Randi is a brilliant exposer of “woo”?
    Do you think csicop is a good organization defending science?

    And perhaps most important, have you studied any psi research papers (i suppose it might be fair to ask if so, do you have any training in understanding statistics or research methodology)? If not, what would be the basis for assuming that psi has not been proven?

    I’ve enjoyed reading skeptical literature since the early 70s, mostly as a study of intelligent people speaking on a subject for which – unlike many other things they speak on – they seem incapable of rational thought. I only began speaking regularly to skeptics around 2009, after I posted an essay on integral world and another writer focused on something I said about parapsychology and made 9 major errors in his response, which I pointed out in a follow up paper. For about 2 or 3 years after, I kept trying to engage debunkers (shouldn’t really call them skeptics) in a reasonable conversation, but I came to the conclusion it wasn’t possible.

    I now employ the “Richard Wiseman” technique to see if someone I’m talking to is a genuine skeptic (a true agnostic, in which case I enjoy the conversation very much) or a debunker. If they respond, “Well, that’s just one person”, or “so what, james randi says such and such” or in some other way show they’re not interested in actually engaging in the topic but only in proving a point, it tells me that I need to focus on using my limited time for other things). I came across your blog, and though we seem to disagree about almost everyting about Buddhism, I nevertheless felt you were an open-minded person (I of course assumed from the very first paragraph that you would really prefer to be a physicalist, so I was not surprised when I came across that). But that’s fine!

    Just hoping for a nice agnostic conversation:>)

  17. Really, did you read the article that Dean linked to on presentiment?

    No; you didn’t link that…

    do you think James Randi is a brilliant exposer of “woo”?
    Do you think csicop is a good organization defending science?

    I know very little about them. I’m generally anti-woo, but not much interested in the skeptical movement.

    And perhaps most important, have you studied any psi research papers


    (i suppose it might be fair to ask if so, do you have any training in understanding statistics or research methodology)?

    Yes. (MIT PhD, many years working in labs, etc.)

    If not, what would be the basis for assuming that psi has not been proven?

    This is a complex issue in epistemology. It’s off-topic here, I’m afraid.

    they’re not interested in actually engaging in the topic but only in proving a point

    I’m not interested in either; sorry. Good luck finding someone else to discuss this with!

Comments are closed.