Why did magic matter in Buddhist tantra?

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.

Tantra is an attitude, the attitude of spacious passion. Uniting spaciousness and passion unclogs energy, producing mastery, power, nobility, and playfulness.

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?

Energy, naturally

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.

Wonderment

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.

Play

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.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

25 thoughts on “Why did magic matter in Buddhist tantra?”

  1. If magic is returned to your use, it could regain healthy use. My few exposure to Vajrayana groups showed Westerners clamoring for magic in the negative sense and trying to hard to be special. Having been a former homeopath and acupuncturists, I recognize the types. Until it changes, it will be keep that following.

  2. Bonjour! I read on one of the buddhist forums that it is Tibetan vajrayana that is shot through with tales of magic and the activities of the siddhas with Chinese vajrayana, for example, lacking such tales almost completely, or so I heard. Apparently one of the reasons for the Tibetan fascination was that it inherited the Indian milieu wherein the original tales of the siddhas arose as a result of the conflict between the buddhists and the ‘hindus’, such that dramatic displays of power became the lingua franca when representing power struggles.

  3. I agree with your thoughts on Tantric magic. It integrates emotional, psychological, thought, and imaginal energies and that creates power- in an everyday way- in a way somebody might use visualization to achieve goals in business or sports. It orients the brain and marshals its resources.I personally think that vajrayana is a lot more intelligent about it, and goes deeper, but its basically the same thing- brain and body management technology.I personally feel that the energy system is a real thing- from personal experience- even though it not presently understood by science- but its real nonetheless. Now, about what it is I have no certainty- but it’s there. Tantra is magic in that it works with that system too- but that’s just more brain and body management skills.
    I have had some experience with other kinds of experience, and it makes me believe that other realms exist- but so what. If somebody wants to spend their energy contacting those realms and beings for help it’s not a very effective way to go and probably a complete waste of time, and certainly a stupid strategy choice. Even if they’re completely real they’re still irrelevant and a stupid waste of time. In terms of creating an electric atmosphere, I think that’s a good use of tantra.
    When we meet somebody that has integrated their being and has a powerful presence, or is charismatic, we all feel the power of that person and usually want to be like them or near them. Tantra helps mold us into that kind of a person, and that’s magical, but it’s still mundane. It’s a powerful personal evolution tool. That charisma is an awful lot like ‘radiating power’. Obviously, it’s not the only way to become a person like that, but when I read about how charismatic and powerful people got to be that way it looks a lot like tantra by another name- mostly focus, commitment, faith, and hard work- but tantra is not outside of nature. These methods are innate to us as beings and so it is not so strange that others should stumble across the same principles and apply them in other ways.
    I’m all for taking the name magic away from tantra, and reframing it as inner technology- of course that ‘inner’ may go deeper than we know, but it doesn’t matter- it’s useful enough for us in everyday terms and we can leave the rest of its effects as a speculation which is not really worth spending much time thinking about- unless of course you want to, then go ahead.
    Tantra puts you into spacious passion and makes life into magical play- and the cosmic interpretations are completely unnecessary- that’s plenty enough already for it to be worth my time and effort- here and now.

  4. @ Sabio — I agree. Currently I’m writing about this as though the audience were Buddhists, because that’s the easiest way for me to present it. But people who like traditional Vajrayana mostly would not like modern Vajrayana, and vice versa. (There would be exceptions, of course; some cross-over.)

    In fact, the best approach might be to drop the word “Buddhism” altogether, and all reference to the tradition (other than acknowledging it as an influence), and all use of its buzzwords.

    “Here’s a way to develop mastery, power, nobility, and playfulness, by combining passion and spaciousness to unclog personal and group energy.” What has that got to do with Buddhism? Who cares! I would want to reach geeks, businesspeople, artists, and nurses—not Buddhists. Not anyone who can say “spiritual” without gagging a bit.

    Hmm, I seem to be on a rant…

    I was greatly impressed with Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church, about the growth of Saddleback, one of the most successful evangelical megachurches. His fundamental principle is to find out what the “unchurched” need and want, and to give them that—rather than trying to compete with other churches for the attention of churchgoers. If I were to put the ideas I’m writing about into action, I might deliberately avoid appealing to Buddhists. Maybe that could be an absolute disqualification… You have to swear you are not a Buddhist to get in the door.

    @ Alex — Thanks, I didn’t know that about Chinese tantra! The vast expanses of my ignorance are constantly daunting…

    @ Foster — As usual, we are on the same page here!

  5. The bit about appealing to non-Buddhists specifically reminds me of Brad Keeney, who has specifically branded his spontaneous movement based approach as anti-meditation.

  6. hi, David, I appreciate your perspective a lot and learned some things, here, today, even though I’ve been a devoted Nyingma practitioner for over 15 years. One idea: maybe Tibetan Buddhist is so infused with “magic” because it arose from the Bon tradition, much the same way Christianity incorporates many rituals and ideas from paganism? I know, for example, Chod, Sur and Riwo Sanchod and many other ritual practices are directly linked to Bon practices. What do you think? (sorry for no umlats, here) Take care, Sally

  7. Sally, you find plenty of magic in North Indian Tantra, which is what went to Tibet. I mean, tantra basically was non-Buddhist magic that was integrated into Buddhism. That’s why the mahasiddhas are venerated in both Buddhist and Hindu tantric traditions.

  8. @ Duff — Thanks, that’s funny! I googled and couldn’t find his anti-meditation, but I did see him described as “the anti-pope of shamanism,” which sounds like the sort of thing I might aspire to…

    @ Sally — Thank you very much for the re-blog!

    Yes, there’s certainly been some influence of Tibetan folk magic (and Bön) on Tibetan tantra. On the other hand, as Al said, the Indian version, on which Tibetan tantra is mainly based, was also thoroughly magical. Indian Vajrayana did incorporate some “Hindu” and “folk” magic, most intriguingly from the dakinis, who are credited as the source of tantra.

    On the third hand (I have six, like Mahakala, so I’m not going to run out any time soon), all Buddhism has always had lots of magic in it. The idea that “tantra is the magical branch of Buddhism” is quite wrong. It’s just that the modernized versions of Theravada and Zen had most magic removed in the late 1800s.

    Here is the Samaññaphala Sutta, “one of the masterpieces of the Pali canon,” explaining the results of Hinayana jhana meditation:

    He vanishes. He goes unimpeded through walls, ramparts, and mountains as if through space. He dives in and out of the earth as if it were water. He walks on water without sinking as if it were dry land. Sitting cross-legged he flies through the air like a winged bird. With his hand he touches and strokes even the sun and moon, so mighty and powerful.

    @ Al — Thanks again for sending the Orzech article! I started reading it and got distracted and then Preview crashed and lost track of all the half-read PDFs I had open… I’ve begun reading it once again.

  9. > Tantra rejects the samsara/nirvana distinction

    The Heart Sutra, a Mahayana work, explicitly rejects such distinction, as well as the Diamond and Lankavatara sutra, and presumably the entire opus of the perfection of wisdom sutras, as well as many Pure Land works. You’re not wrong, but the distinction your drawing is not the hard, well defined line that you are describing. So be careful, your deductive reasoning can go astray if you don’t check your generalizations against the facts of the matter with each iteration of your argument.

  10. Sure, definitely, the rejection of the samsara/nirvana distinction begins in Mahayana. I wrote about that a couple of months ago.

    What’s missing in Mahayana (mostly) is commitment to practical action in the relative world, and effective methods for doing that.

    Tantra did grow out of Mahayana gradually, and I agree there isn’t an absolute break or clean distinction. In fact, as I wrote, I find Mahayana conceptually incoherent; it’s pulled toward both Hinayana and tantra and seems internally contradictory. I may just misunderstand it, though! It’s certainly a complex topic, and “Mahayana is unworkable” might be considered a controversial claim…

  11. Stumbled on your blog and have been reading and skimming various posts and discussions, so I’m sure I’ve missed a lot… Anyway, I’ve found “Tantra Techniques” by Jeffery Hopkins useful in considering many of these issues. He discusses Tsong-kha-pa’s “radically critical analysis” of Sutra and Tantra (with a bit of a detour on Jung). Tsong-kha-pa assertd that deity yoga is THE distinguishing feature of Tantra from Sutra.

    If you’re not already familiar with Hopkins book, I recommend it highly as an alternate view of many of the issues discussed here.

  12. Atomic, thank you for the recommendation! I read his previous book on deity yoga, which was solid and helpful. This newer one does look good too.

    I would respectfully disagree with Tsongkhapa that deity yoga is the distinguishing feature of tantra. However, that’s certainly one mainstream view, and there are excellent reasons to hold it.

    I would say instead that deity yoga is the single most prevalent practice of tantra, but that it is probably not indispensable. The completion phase practices can be approached without deity yoga, and can probably do the same work. However, there’s no good reason not to practice deity yoga, so this is only a theoretical disagreement.

  13. Perverting the statement that Einstein supposedly made by changing the word miracle to magic:

    There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is MAGIC. The other is as though everything is MAGIC.

    The only thing I would add to that is the catalyst question: what’s the difference — or equivalently . . . what’s the same?

  14. @ David,
    Thanks for your reply — I just got back to readings.
    You must promise to enroll me as a beta-tester for the I-hate-Buddhism trainee in these techniques when you and your partner are permitted to teach outside of the tradition to us heretics. Hell, I’d be a beta-beta-tester!

  15. What is the true meaning of magic? Different groups have different understandings about magic, then it is quite complex to apply this concept to Tantra.
    The goal of the Buddhist Tantras is the transformation of the impure appearances in its pure and non-dual nature of wisdom. In the view of Tantra, negative emotions manifest themselves along with the winds, giving rise to different sufferings and difficulties. A Tantric ritual would have the power to affect nearby areas transformed the winds of negative emotions in its original form of wisdom.

    Some Buddhist groups, fearing the judgment of the practices of Vajrayana as a form of magic and superstition, end up degenerating Vajrayana, interpreting rituals and practices just as symbolic and psychological, a form of spiritual materialism; then remove the magic of Tantra is a dangerous idea.

  16. Hi,
    I’m not sure that compassionate action is not advocated by ‘Sutrayana’.
    Many references in the pali cannon and stories about acts of generousity
    how important generosity is. In one sutta the Buddha tells monks to attend
    to a sick monk. In another he tells how if he beings knew the importance
    of sharing they wouldn’t let themselves eat one meal without sharing it.
    Also, living in the jungle or forest as a monk has plenty of opportunities for
    compassionate engagement ie: avoidment of harming plant life, bugs and critters,
    even larger and dangerous creatures to some extent such as Tigers and Elephants who some Thai Buddhist monks are famous for befriending them.
    In actuality there doesnt have to be much of a difference between monk renunicate life or lay life, both have their hindrances and pitfalls as well as benefits and one can get enlightened in both (according to sutta). Modern life is not as limiting or confined (or entangling if to use the scriptures language) as it used to be 2500 years ago. Actually the world today can be used to much further extent to advance spiritual realization and observe the three marks of existence.
    Eventually it’s the spiritual work itself that matters the most and it can happen in various circumstances because true Dharma has no place or time.

  17. I speak very direct, I hope you can understand,
    I have seen this article,
    The author is not know tantra,
    Even a bit is not very professional,
    Tantra has two meanings,
    First, it is to point to the brahmans in tantra,
    Second, it is to point to the tantric Buddhism,
    Both have similarities in form, but on the purpose and ideas are not the same,
    Here I simple introduction of tantric Buddhism,
    In general,
    As long as it is the sect of Buddhism,
    Tantra, or zen,
    Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese Buddhism,
    The purpose is to wake up
    With compassion as a fundamental,
    Help the general public to practice,
    Why called tantra?
    Because tantra there are a lot of magical place on the surface,
    (now there are a lot of fake monks, there are many false tantra, often cheat, this is we need to alert)
    In the real tantric, as long as the practice in accordance with a certain way,
    All good wishes can be true,
    (only after the permission of the teacher, professor tantric meditation method, this is the law of tantric, to avoid people to show off, also avoid people abuse)
    As long as a blessing of small items, will bring infinite power and wisdom,
    The strength and wisdom of tantric Buddhism is incredible,
    With limited logical thinking to explain the tantric, like with fireflies light to light up the mountain, it is not possible,
    If want to know more about Buddhism and tantric, can focus on this website,www.zenspeaking.com
    Buddhism help is also very much to me,
    I understand what is cause and effect, what is compassion and what is a clean,
    I understand the self-discipline, know the dedication, and no longer confused,
    Again, must be wary of fake monks, and false tantra, they don’t possess powerful strength and wisdom, is just to deceive the public with smoke screen,
    (in real tantra, the use of the supernatural have strict rules, are not allowed to show off easily, if the violation, will be expelled, and have serious consequences for yourself)

  18. Other sect was mentioned above,
    Such as the bon religion,
    In this also want to say,
    In many religions have supernatural power,
    But in the buddhist tantric meditation,
    Practice is the focus of the mind,
    If you don’t have a good state of mind, the greater the power, means that the greater the risk,
    When faced with force and temptation, once out of control,
    It would be devastating,
    So in Buddhism there are a lot of discipline,
    My English is not very good, I hope you understand,

  19. Even martial arts or poker have their deep and more-than-secret meanings… Not to mention Go/Wei-Chi. Applying Huizynga’s Homo ludens to Tantra, we could say that there’s no way to make an omelet without cracking an egg… The universe itself is playful, not a slaughter machine as we would feel sometimes. Hey, enlightenment is not supposed to be all special & supernatural. It is the opposite, as a matter of fact.

  20. Reblogged this on rangdrol's Blog and commented:
    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.

  21. A very interesting and informative article. However, I would contend that magic may indeed be as plausible and naturalistic a phenomenon as breathing. Meditation has recently been proven to physically alter cellular form in cancer patients. Guided, willful exercise does appear to affect physical reality, even if subtly and maybe in era of less mental distraction this we a self evident fact to those that practiced it.

  22. I do not agree with the conclusions being made by most posters here. Magic has a legitimate place in Vajrayana, simply because the Tibetan buddhists were pragmatic versus the hinayana’s who were a tad fundamentalistic. Hinayana felt the need to distinguish itself versus the common abundant esotericism of hinduism yes, but still it believed in magic and reincarnation etc . It just did not regard it as essential to gaining enlightenment.

    The buddha had some disillusionments along his path and this formed the apparently more rational attitude found in early buddhism. Still they were not disbelievers of magic and divinity, they were just emphasizing simplicity and practice over speculation + they regarded nirvana as ultimate, over the realm of the Gods.

    Tantra, whether hindu or buddhist recognises all that WORKS. Rather then being dogmatic they are practical, pragmatical, So obviously, in their experience as practitioners magic WORKS, as they kept on using it for ages.

    I agree that some westerners sensationalize magic because it gives them something special to identify with. But in the same way scientific/humanistic people who love to emphasize how rational they are or want to be are in just the very same boat. It’s all identification. And this is not a crime, if one sees it for what it is.

    There is no buddhism without magic because buddhism studies life, and magic is part of life. It all has to do with the workings of consciousness and the mind. And us westerners should stop to assume that “our” science is so high and mature. We know absolutely nothing yet and we lure ourselves into thinking that we know a thing. If one truly examines the workings of the mind one can see how every thought is delusion in itself. Learning to sense the nature of mind and applying this experience, that, is the art of magic. Magic simply is a practical application of the power of the individual and super-individual field of mind.

    Indeed, much, if not most, of Tibetan buddhist knowledge comes from Bon, and just the same as much if not most of hindu knowledge is derived from pre-vedic (shamanistic and yogic) practice. I would really not underestimate those old modes of thought.

    In ancient times there were less people with understanding, but those few people were so determined in their practice that they had a very great wealth of knowledge. This knowledge has been misunderstood by the people coming after them and as the “real” kind of people are less and less to be found through the ages, the knowledge is threatened to be lost to so called rationalism and “know better” mentality of the modern highly educated west. To understand the nature of things education is helpful indeed, but far from sufficient. It is meditation and contemplation that do the trick.

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