I’ve noticed four strategies for “naturalizing” a religion—for making it compatible with the scientific worldview.
Two strategies get rid of supernatural aspects: ignoring and denying. Two other strategies reinterpret supernatural aspects in natural terms: psychologizing and mythologizing.
My aim is to naturalize Buddhist tantra, but these apply to any religion. The innovators who naturalized Sutrayana (mainstream Buddhism) used all four strategies. All four can be useful for Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) too.
Interestingly, the first two strategies correspond to the fundamental method of Sutrayana: renunciation, or rejection of harmful stuff. The second two correspond to the fundamental method of Vajrayana: transformation of harmful stuff into helpful stuff. This makes me think reinterpretation strategies may be particularly useful in naturalizing Buddhist tantra.
Renunciative strategies for naturalization
Modern Buddhism simply ignores most supernatural parts of traditional Buddhism. Teachers rarely mention the Pali Canon’s discussions of the magical powers attainable through meditation, like walking on water. As long as students don’t know or don’t care about these, it’s mission accomplished.
Most of the supernatural parts of traditional Vajrayana can also just be ignored. For example, some tantric scriptures are full of spells for practical magic, like how to fly on the back of a vampire by drawing a magic symbol on its chest. Probably nothing needs to be said or done about this, because no one is going to ask “can you really do that?”
When a question about the supernatural does come up, it can be denied explicitly. All modern teachers will deny that hell is a cave, inhabited by demons, that you could get to by digging in the ground—although Buddhist scriptures clearly say so.
To naturalize Vajrayana, we might issue a blanket denial of all its supernatural traditions, and reconstruct it without any mention of them. That would be the hardline approach. We’d get a squeaky-clean, sleek, modern religion that way—which many people might like.
Is this possible? From a naturalistic point of view, if Vajrayana practices work, they work naturally. Perhaps they don’t work at all—but I think they do. So I believe a “renunciative” approach, rigorously purifying the religion of all contaminating hints of the supernatural, is possible. In later posts, I’ll sketch how this might work.
This might be the most broadly-accessible presentation for modern Vajrayana. It is not my preferred option.
Some might say removing all mention of the supernatural throws the baby out with the bathwater. I’d say it is more like a stew. If you fish the potatoes out of the pot and wash them off carefully, they’d make an edible meal—but potatoes by themselves are not very tasty, and you’d waste most of the stew’s nutritional value.
Psychological transformations of Buddhist traditions are common, in both Sutrayana and Vajrayana. For example, Lama Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons is a psychological reinterpretation of the tantric chöd practice:
[A] demon might be addiction, self-hatred, perfectionism, anger, jealousy, or anything that is dragging you down, draining your energy. To put it simply, our demons are what we fear… anything that blocks complete inner freedom is a demon.
In general, we can reinterpret tradition’s external, supernatural entities as internal, mental ones. This may have great value for modern people, because we find our selves shattered into fragments that can be hostile and uncommunicative. (That is much less true for people in traditional societies.) We can translate supernatural realms (such as the heavens and hells) into psychological states or ways of being. Supernatural powers and mysterious forces become metaphors for emotional energies.
There’s no obvious reason this should work. Why would concepts and practices concerning imaginary external beings prove useful when applied in an entirely different domain?
Some say it is because the supposed demons were always internal: tradition misunderstood mental phenomena as supernatural ones. Shamanic systems such as Vajrayana were primitive forms of psychotherapy. They developed methods by trial and error that may be powerful and useful, despite their total misunderstanding of what they were up to. I’m somewhat skeptical about this explanation; it’s too tidy.
In any case, it’s more important to know whether these psychological transformations work than why. Many people’s experience—including mine—suggests they do. Still, I’d be happier with stronger evidence than anecdotes.
The fourth naturalization strategy is to declare supernatural parts of Buddhism to be myths: religious fictions. Mythologization is close to my heart, and I believe it has enormous potential. It’s a complex topic, and little understood in modern Buddhism, so I’ll say a bit here, and more in future posts.
Myths are stories about religiously significant events that did not actually happen, usually involving people who did not actually exist. As statements of objective fact, myths are false. That does not mean they are worthless.
Many Christian sects are obsessed with the claim that their mythology is actually true—and that’s what makes them special. Westerners unconsciously transfer this silly idea to other religions. Having realized the Christian myths are untrue, they go looking for true ones. This misses the point. Truth and belief are irrelevant for most religion.
Novels, dramas, and paintings are not true, but the best have great aesthetic value. Myths are not true, but the best have great religious value. Religious and aesthetic value are not the same, although the best myths have both. Myths are not mainly entertainment, although they may be that too.
Myths unclog energy by provoking wonder. “Wonder” is the union of passionate interest and open receptivity. I have defined the path of tantra as “unclogging energy by unifying passion and spaciousness”—so you can see why myth is particularly important here!
You do not need to believe in magic to be inspired, moved, and perhaps permanently transformed by The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Their creators were both deliberately making modern myths. These fictions are major influences on many people’s spirituality—though not many recognize that.
Still, both have limited religious impact—and not only because they are taken to be mere entertainment. The religious/philosophical ideas their authors used as backgrounds to their stories were limited and muddled.
In following posts, I’ll explain that myths, as stories about people doing things together, are particularly important for tantra—which is about how to do things together. And I’ll explain ritual as the enactment—the doing—of myths, so they are felt in the body.