If we want a non-supernatural version of Buddhist tantra, it will help to look at why magic was traditionally an important part of it.
Tantra is the path of action
The key distinction between tantra and Sutrayana (traditional mainstream Buddhism) is that tantra is about compassionate engagement with the everyday world. A tantrika takes practical action for the benefit of others.
We take compassionate action for granted in modern Western Buddhism, but it is not advocated by Sutrayana, which recommends complete disengagement. In Mahayana—part of Sutrayana—one takes the bodhisattva vow, to save all sentient beings. But Mahayana methods are all about developing a benevolent attitude, and about avoiding harm. That’s nice; but notably absent are methods for actually improving situations. In fact, Mahayana sometimes actively discourages that as “merely redecorating samsara,” and a distraction from the quest for nirvana.
Tantra rejects the samsara/nirvana distinction, and takes seriously the vow to benefit specific people, in a practical way, now. (Rather than “all sentient beings,” in some vague metaphysical way, in the impossibly distant future, when you have attained enlightenment). How?
Magic as practical action
In the pre-modern world, no one doubted that magic worked. For those who could wield it, magic was a source of huge power to do good (or evil). If you wanted to end famines, cure plagues, stop wars, raise the dead—magic seemed a far more practical approach than pathetic Medieval technology.
Tantra now often attracts Westerners who want to believe in magic. However, they see magic as something “spiritual” that provides a consoling worldview, not as the most practical way of getting real-world tasks done. In my view, this totally misses the point. It turns an exceptionally hard-assed religion into kitschy mystical make-believe. Tantra is anti-spiritual.
From a naturalistic perspective, magic doesn’t work. Traditional tantra’s attempts to use magic compassionately were ineffective. Unfortunately, that means many of tantra’s methods were useless, and must be dropped.
Tantric action without magic
If tantra were correctly defined as “the magical branch of Buddhism,” that would leave us with nothing. Game over, go home.
But that is not the correct definition. Tantra is “the accomplishing-things branch of Buddhism.” Magic was a means to that end—not an end in itself.
Optionally, we can naturalize some of tantra’s magical methods via the methods of psychologization and mythologization I discussed in the last post. For example, in the chöd ritual, you offer your body as a sacrifice to be eaten by demons. You do not have to “believe in” demons for chöd to scare you silly, and to strengthen your resolve to be generous, which is the point. But specific methods are not the essence of tantra, I think.
Minus magic, what does that mean?
If we care for the world, we want to help in whatever way will be most effective and enjoyable. Tantra has always included non-magical methods: technology, the arts, and social and political leadership. I wrote about this in “Mastery” and “Power.” “Nobility” is the right use of power, for the benefit of others.
These are also the aims of effective, secular people of good will. What extra does tantra bring?
Tantra works with energy forms. In religion, “energy” is often understood supernaturally—and from a naturalistic perspective, that’s nonsense. But “energy” is often entirely natural. The word refers metaphorically to natural phenomena that are not simply quantitative forms of physical energy. “Energy” is both internal—the energy of emotions, bodily processes, and sensations—and external—the energy of groups, situations, and non-human processes.
“Her presentation electrified the energy in the boardroom.” Businessweek magazine—not known for endorsing magical spirituality—might write that.
Creating an electric atmosphere is Mahayoga 101. (Mahayoga is one of the branches of Tantra.) Maybe that gives a glimpse of the way tantra is a path to power…
(If “energy” still sounds like an abstract fantasy, or dangerously edging on supernaturalism, my page on “Unclogging” may help.)
Tantric methods create, manipulate, and break connections. Magical connections with supernatural beings are nonsense from a naturalistic perspective. But working with connections is also essential for effective action in the real world. Some tantric methods apply here too.
In secular life, we often use “magical” to mean “unexpectedly wonderful.” We experience “magic” when we are open to surprise, to serendipity; when we are curious, more than controlling. “Magic” happens when we are willing to simply enjoy, without demanding immediate understanding.
This is the sense of “magic” that Steve Jobs invoked when he described the original iPad as “truly magical.” Many people found it that way: unexpectedly wonderful; enjoyable without requiring understanding; inviting undirected exploration. This is not a product endorsement… I don’t own one and can’t quite figure out why people love them. I find wonderment particularly in nature. For me, watching a crow drink from a puddle is magic.
If manipulation of energy and connections is the passion aspect of “natural magic,” wonderment is the spacious aspect. Wonderment occurs when spaciousness combines with appreciation. Wonderment is one of the best things in life, and tantra has many methods for making it happen more often.
Secular culture has plenty of passion; it lacks spaciousness.
Buddhist meditation brings spaciousness; but Sutrayana sees that that as the end point. Many meditators are frustrated by inability to integrate the openness and insight they find on the cushion with “real life.”
Tantra is unique in combining spaciousness and passion. When those are brought together—when skillful manipulation of energy unites with open-ended wonder—life becomes magical play. When you extend that play to include others, for their enjoyment and enhancement, you embody tantric nobility.