Buddhist tantra for non-Buddhists?

A surprising and wonderful thing!

My Buddhist sites are increasingly read and appreciated by non-Buddhists. Particularly, they attract smart, science-y, tech-y, creative, competent readers. Some come from the LessWrong rationalist community, for instance—which I have written about and for.

Especially gratifyingly, they often go straight for my most hardcore, uncompromisingly tantric stuff—and they get it. They understand why it matters, and ask intelligent, substantive questions. This is not something I expected at all.

My Meaningness book is meant for non-Buddhists. It’s supposed to be a practical philosophy of life, inspired by Buddhism, but explicitly non-Buddhist. I expected that site to gain non-Buddhist readers like these—unusually smart people who dismiss religion and “spirituality” as nonsense, but who still face problems of meaning. (Only about 5% of that book has made it on-line, so far. Soon I hope to get back to working on it!)

Several geeky non-Buddhist readers have said that what they most want are practices of meaning that are compatible with a modern, secular world-view. Mindfulness meditation is one—but they recognize that it heads in the wrong direction for them.

The Meaningness book is supposed to be purely conceptual. It is practical, but the practice is only one of understanding—not doing. Maybe this needs a re-think.

Readers have said that what they want, specifically, are ritual methods. Among secular geeks, there is a hunger for meaningful ritual that is also compatible with a modern, Western, naturalistic world-view. Ritual that connects us, creating communities; raises energy and brings feelings of wonder, ecstasy, motivation, and commitment; points to what we care most about, and widens our view.

This, a naturalized, secularized Buddhist tantra can provide.


Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

24 thoughts on “Buddhist tantra for non-Buddhists?”

  1. This sounds amazing; I am very interested in meaningful rituals that are applicable to modern life and can’t wait to see what you come up with. I actually don’t mind gods/demons/etc.; what I’m looking for is a spiritual framework that’s compatible with my philosophical outlook, and based on everything you’ve said, it seems like Buddhist tantra might actually be able to provide that! This is surprising and wonderful.

    Anyway, I am commenting right now to say: thank you for writing all of these websites, and developing all these ideas, and answering all of our comments and questions! Your writings and advice have been incredibly useful to me so far, and I’m really looking forward to reading what you come up with for a naturalized, secularized Buddhist tantra.

  2. Agree completely! I left Buddhism ten years ago because I was not happy practicing within what was then the FWBO, although I always felt a strong pull towards the Nyingma tradition. With hindsight, I see one of the root underlying issues as the conflict between sutra and tantra and the behaviour that it led to. I concluded then that because of that conflict “Buddhism” was not a useful word because of lack of cohesion in what it described. I moved into the Pagan traditions, practicing a mixture of heathenry and Wicca. I describe myself as a sceptical atheist in the context of public discourse and a heathen witch in the context of private discourse.
    I think there are six secularly justifiable benefits of ritual magic: it clarifies intent as part of the preparatory work, addresses the psychological need to do something, can bring about changes within its practitioners, can be done in a group containing both sexes and a range of ages, develops a group mind, and connects people more with the universe and its wonders.

  3. We already have all this. It’s called Zen. All the ritual you want, a path, and a most wonderful result. You don’t have to rediscover it. It’s already right here.

  4. It’s interesting that you are finding that your readers are interested in finding rituals. I have to admit that the idea of ritual leaves me quite cold… I see it as a second-best option to life experiences. Rituals tend to be “about” something rather than actually be something, tend to be derivative rather than pure expression.

    I would much rather go to a nightclub or concert or a movie or camping or (etc. etc.) than attend a ritual that was purported to deliver the same kinds of experiences but from within a spiritual context. Rituals are have always seemed a bit of a bait and switch — have this experience of spirituality or expression or intensity… but no need to go through the work of having those actual experiences in your normal life. (And of course there is the whole “let’s do a ritual instead of actually practicing/getting better at something” deal.)

    Similarly, If you are a music lover, it isn’t difficult to listen to a Christian rock station and figure out what popular song they derived their “sound” from. The problem is, as much as I love the sound, there is a disconnect between the sound and the lyrics. They just don’t mesh. Which is probably a result of trying to make something fit into the context for ritual, the spiritual tradition/design aesthetic.

    Of course all of my critiques depend on how ritual is defined. Looking forward to more than this tease! :)

  5. Am really looking forward to your book. Would be interesting to see you do a Skype call with Ken McLeod about the subject. Developing new rituals and practices poses interesting issues of people “freestyling” and drifting down the corridors of self-deception. Relating to a teacher and a community are presumably among the safeguards though, from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t quite work out that way. Also, presumably, lineage teachers are theoretically screened over time which is one of the areas that separates them from life coaches and other aggressively marketed “guides.”

  6. @ Darcey Riley — Thank you very much for your enthusiasm, and for the many perceptive questions you have asked!

    @ Robin Taylor — That’s interesting to hear about the sutra vs tantra conflict. Modern Buddhisms seem all to combine aspects of these, more or less skilfully. It often doesn’t seem to work well.

    I have a background in Neopaganism and Wicca, which influences how I think about Vajrayana. I’m currently reading Sam Webster’s book Tantric Thelema, which is a systematic combination of the two. You might find it interesting. I think he’s done a really nice job. His interest seems to be reforming Neopagan practice using Vajrayana elements, whereas mine would be the reverse, but there’s much to be learned there.

    Nice list of benefits of ritual!

    @ Sabio — Unfortunately, I’m still just describing a fantasy. As I warned at the beginning, I can’t follow through on this, which probably makes the whole thing pointless. Someone else may deliver, however.

    @ Bob G — That’s interesting; I’d like to hear you say more about that!

    Twenty posts back, I promised to address the question of how Zen relates to the sutra-vs-tantra dichotomy. I put a lot of work into a page about that, and finished a draft, and then decided not to publish it. I realized that I fundamentally don’t understand how Zen works. I used to think I did have at least a basic understanding (I’ve read a lot of books about Zen, although I have never practiced it). The harder I looked into how it relates to sutra and tantra, the more I realized I was confused.

    Maybe not a lot of modern Zen practitioners know that Zen incorporated large amounts of tantra, at several points in its history. That was both early on, in China and Tibet, where some of the most important figures practiced both Zen and tantra, and again in Japan, through mutual influence with Tendai.

    So the best sense I can make of it is that Zen is an innovative sutra/tantra hybrid. But despite best effort, I don’t really understand how that works.

    @ jamie — I would be interested to hear what sorts of rituals you have in mind here. Offhand, I can’t think of rituals that purport to deliver the same experience as a nightclub or concert or a movie or camping, but from within a spiritual context? I’m wondering if perhaps this is a lame version of Neopaganism, for instance?

    Negative experiences with ritual may be because (1) most rituals suck and/or (2) most rituals have functions one might not be on board with. In category 1, mainstream Christian rituals are archaic (unchanged since the late 1800s), which is one reason the mainstream denominations collapsed. Evangelical denominations with heavy metal services (e.g.) have picked up the slack. In category 2, sportsball ritual is very exciting and meaningful if you care about sportsball. I don’t, so being forced to attend high school football pep rallies was excruciating.

    My experience with Neopaganism was that most rituals sucked, but some were really great. When I was involved (in the 1980s) we didn’t have good enough ritual technology to make them work consistently. That may or may not have changed…

    @ Gypsy — I’d love to discuss this with Ken McLeod. He’s done more towards “modern Buddhist tantra” than anyone else in the past decade.

    Developing new rituals and practices poses interesting issues of people “freestyling” and drifting down the corridors of self-deception.

    Yes. I think this is inevitable, though. All anyone can do is make a good-faith effort to avoid that; there are no guarantees. There are some checks and balances and mechanisms, but none of them work particularly well.

    It’s not like Tibetan Vajrayana isn’t full of self-deception, after all! And other-deception.

  7. >Offhand, I can’t think of rituals that purport to deliver the same experience as a nightclub or concert or a movie or camping, but from within a spiritual context

    Burning Man?

    I have a long experience of burns but limited experience of tantra, so I may be missing the mark here, but I find that there is much in common. Encouragement of creativity, feeling of community, energy-raising situation leading (hopefully) to transformation.

    I reckon it ticks almost every box on your list posted on “What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?” except for =sober=

  8. Once again, I find myself in total agreement with you, David. The rational West is slowly discovering that it can reap the benefits of religion, ritual and spirituality without letting the brain fall out. When we enjoy opera, film or theatre we can experience deep emotional involvement, intellectual stimulation and catarsis, despite the fact that we know that what we see is “fake”. Why not give religious ecstacy and ritual exactly the same treatment and role? Who cares the Buddha’s, demons, gods, sacred elements, spirits and what-have-you are not real, if they can be used to provide insight, enjoyment, catarsis, social interaction, tools for meditation and so on? I really like Georg Feuerstein’s designation “psychotechnology” in this context. Oh, BTW, David, I noticed we share an interest in machine learning :).

  9. Calling the quarters (plus the centre) with the five “Dyhani” Buddhas, maybe? Sam Webster’s book gave me a lot of ideas, and the same as you, I’m more interested in the flow of ritual technology from Western paganism to reform Vajrayana into a workable Western mystery tradition.

  10. Many interesting ideas here. It appears to be veering toward a deeper revision– not of the practices themselves– but of our understanding of them. The Chogyam Trungpa solution, if you will; the guy may have been ahead of not only his time, but our time and time to come…

  11. The less wrong solstice, and burning man, are definitely evidence of modern ritual, its value and growing appeal, but they lack the brass ring of spaciousness being a formal part of the setting.

    Is it enough to satisfy your quest, David, that there are modern rituals where people can mix together and get exposed to subgroups that have meditative practices of spaciousness?

    I reckon not, which is why you’re doing this blog series, which is calling for the creation of something new?

    I don’t know if it fits the bill, or how scalable it is, or whether a lineage will arise to continue it after Jill is gone, but Jill Purce, longtime student of Namkhai Norbu, does a multi day “Mandala” ritual twice a year that embeds a lot of different vajrayana practices and yet is accessible to people with no buddhist or meditation experience. http://www.healingvoice.com/workshopsmenu.htm

  12. @ Kate — Yeah, I’ve changed direction again, and once again chucked the outline. It said I had another 20 pages to write just about “naturalizing,” and I don’t want to take the time to do that. It appears obvious to me (maybe only because I’ve thought about it for decades), so it’s pretty boring unless I know it is going to make something happen.

    The real questions are “what would this look like to outsiders, and who would want it, and who is going to provide it?” There’s no point working through the details without answers. I haven’t got any answer to “who is going to provide it”—not me—so I think I’m at an impasse again. (I suspended this project for a year, autumn 2012 to autumn 2013, for the same reason.)

    I’ve got another post coming out tomorrow morning, written some time back, which picks up the Chögyam Trungpa / Shambhala Training approach again, as (interestingly enough!) you suggest.

    After that, there’s an incomplete post that sketches an answer to “what would this look like to outsiders?” It asks: Sutrayana is to MBSR as Vajrayana is to—what? In other words, what would an MBSR-style program look like if it were tantra-based instead of sutra-based? I’m not at all sure that would be a good thing, or possible, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.

    I think I’m done with “interesting thought experiments,” though. Unless/until I see a way for this to become a practical reality, I’m probably going to drop the project (again) and go back to one of my other nineteen unfinished writing projects!

  13. Is it enough to satisfy your quest, David, that there are modern rituals where people can mix together and get exposed to subgroups that have meditative practices of spaciousness?

    Not quite—but that’s a good start!

    Thanks for the pointer to Jill Purce’s work, which sounds great. (I love overtone singing!) I found these descriptions of the mandala retreat:


  14. Thank you very much! I found that and some follow-on pages very interesting, particularly his discussion of his thought process. I also found it slightly frustrating that he didn’t make use of resources for learning how to construct rituals available in neopaganism, anthropology, etc.

  15. I practice my own peculiar version of Western ‘tantra’, which combines aspects of kabbalah, heretical Christianity (including elements derived from gnosticism), alchemy, magick, Tarot, work with the Holy Guardian Angel, and of course, sex.

    I was long interested in Buddhism, and then went through a hardcore materialist period, but I had some experiences which simply didn’t fit within that materialist framework. These experiences led me to renew my search for some type of spiritual tradition. During this period, I started exploring some of the more esoteric ideas found in the West, within certain strains of mysticism and the occult. I discovered that it was possible to use even the Bible in a tantric way, without needing to buy into any belief in an actually existing “being” called “YHVH”: I view all such entities as ultimately illusory just as my own self is illusory and impermanent. In your terminology, I have negated ideas of “eternalism” within the Western traditions. The ONE can only be defined as NO-THING, a space of empty possibility beyond any duality that is not really knowable at all from the standpoint of ordinary dualistic cognition. 1=0. In kabbalah, this concept already exists, as the highest form of deity is “Ayn Sof”, which means “without end” or “without limit”.

    In fact, I look at “God” as not a person but a process unfolding in history, a process that contains both light and dark aspects. This means that for me, all metaphysically “evil” figures found in the Bible (Satan, the Devil, Lucifer, Beelzebub, the Serpent) are just as much aspects of God as are the familiar “good” angels, or the Logos. This also means that evil figures function in a similar way to wrathful deities in Tibetan Buddhism.

    The most important key that unlocked these texts was the work of David Chaim Smith, in his books “The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis” and “The Sacrificial Universe”. In these books, the author explores a form of kabbalah without any notion of a personal creator deity. Genesis 1-3 in particular are interpreted as a meditation manual which describes the “fall” of ordinary cognition from nonduality into conventional dualistic cognition, but also points the way for a return to Eden. This approach opened my eyes to the fact that traditional texts can be read in highly nontraditional ways. This has let me even use certain texts that are familiar from my youth, such as passages from Psalms, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon, within my practice (I usually chant or pray passages from the KJV).

    The most “tantric” element in my practice is the practice of feeding demons and working with negative aspects of the self through acceptance rather than total rejection. It was actually from Lama Tsultrim Allione that I learned of the Feeding Demons practice in a form suitable for Westerners. Working with Biblical texts in a heretical way also seem to be very liberating, as it challenges me to grow beyond the deep negative conditioning which I experienced growing up within a fundamentalist sect. Finally, most important for me are the transformation of mundane daily activities, such as showering, washing dishes, and walking through my neighborhood, into spiritual practices.

    While it can be difficult maintaining a practice without the support of a community, it does seem that I am, as they say, “following my True Will”. Anyway, I do think it is important to engage in an exchange of ideas with from within other traditions that aim at a goal of non-dualistic enlightenment, and I find your blog to be very interesting even as a non-Buddhist.

  16. Hi David, I’m not a Buddhist but find the history of Buddhism and its many forms interesting, also your blog is intelligent and covers many diverse area.

    On the subject of religious ritual for rationalists and those with a materialistic mind set (which otherwise prevents them accepting conventional religious methodology due to non belief)and who seek to find meaning and perhaps therapeutic benefit through the proxy use of religious ceremony, knowing it is fundamentally nonsense and therefore a play or theater for something else, in this case some psychological, social or even remedial cathartic process : The odd answer to this that comes to mind, is that this often is exactly how exoteric religion is already used.

    Many of my friends only use such practices to the degree that it socially or internally reduces levels of anxiety and leaves a degree of, “that may get me into the good books with you know Who.” (The Who here is not necessarily the traditional deity either) I think you mentioned something similar in how traditional Asian Buddhism was most often used as a merit based theatrical display (though taken very personally). So, is the use of apparently or pretentiously and purely hypocritical, (in the true rather than judgmental sense) religious ceremony for remedial benefit legitimate? It may be argued on compassionate grounds that every one may use, (in this case) Buddhist ceremony, if they can find a palatable fit for remedial rather than religious purpose, with the full knowledge that they are performing such practices only to the degree that reason allows in their case.

    My own view on this is: It appears to me to be an absurdity, it fully presumes that all ritual is nonsense in the spiritual or religious sense. That is there is no contact with any spirit power other than what may be psychologically and biologically available. It remains a one dimensional (okay strictly three dimensional) event then. It is based in despair really. The despair of anything other than absolute physicality. Why not, rather than look for a program that can be dumbed down to suit a personal mind set, look for one that may change the mind set or point of view that is problematic, that is in this case dogmatic rationalism itself. I think a more honest way to use such ceremonies would be as a means to, “open to mysterious possibility”, (or however you may define it). You can’t willfully embrace a system you know is false and hope to really benefit, a fundamental integrity is necessary.

  17. Hi Nitram,

    I wouldn’t recommend performing rituals in a hypocritical sense. If one thought that rituals could only work if they were supernatural, and that there is no supernatural, that would be deceptive and probably pretty ineffective.

    I think rituals work for reasons that have nothing to do with the supernatural, and we can be entirely up-front about that. If we aren’t even pretending there is anything supernatural about them, then there’s no hypocrisy—and they can still work very well. Probably even better, since if you are trying to make supernatural stuff happen, or pretending to, and it doesn’t, then that’s lame.

    Ritual, understood in this way, is not nonsense at all, nor is it a product of despair. It’s cheerful and effective.

  18. Hi David, not trying to be merely argumentative, but perhaps coming from a different background where what you call supernatural is considered actual rather than fiction, and may be experienced as such. I’m having trouble understanding why you would perform a a practice or perform at least a seemingly religious ritual if it has no real spiritual value. Perhaps you could explain what would be the benefit of that. Hope you don’t mind a bit of what you may consider less intellectual but more pragmatic discussion or if you have not the time, perhaps a link. Again appreciate your input.

  19. Hmm, it sounds like for you “has no supernatural component” implies “has no spiritual value.” In other words, “spiritual” necessarily implies “supernatural.”

    For me, and many other people, “spiritual” and “supernatural” have nothing to do with each other, so a non-supernatural ritual can have great spiritual value. If you’re interested, you could find many resources here.

    So, I am not advocating performing rituals that have no spiritual value. I do not advocate performing rituals that look religious for their non-religious benefits. (I think you are right that this is the norm in exoteric religion. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it doesn’t appeal to me personally.)

    I suggest creating non-supernatural rituals that have great spiritual value, and are performed for that reason.

  20. Thanks for the link David, I am sure some of your less informed readers (such as me) will enjoy reading and understanding the point of view described as Naturalism and how it relates to some interpretations of Buddhism in particular. It certainly explains why many rationalists (for want of a better word) can associate with Buddhism to some degree . I get the strong feeling Naturalism harks back to the ancient materialist philosophies of India, from memory they were around at the time of the Buddha’s birth and also something of the nature worship of paganism without the non physical elements.

    However there are bucket load of problems with Naturalism as I see it (and in relation to Buddhism as well) first, you would have to take the Transcendent out of Buddhism, what about Nirvana? What about the absolute extinction of conditional reality as the goal of practice. The Sage was a Transcendentalist, totally, can you take that away? And I am sure there are arguments for this, but that’s just the small stuff really.

    Here is the really obvious factor. To use a metaphor — “you’re not really dancing!”– in Naturalism as described, and the writer of those essays even has an apologetic tone (as if he only half believes his own point of view) You are sort of dragging your feet, in a rigid intellectual trap of rational captivity, locked into absolute physicality and trying to make something seeming transcendent out of it ( with a very small t). The ordinary adherent may quite likely exclaim ‘W.T.F! –this is not religion, this is not spiritual practice,” this is the pretense of it, convoluted to suit modernity and the mind of science. That is not to say there is not honesty there, and humility and integrity, we are clearly all in the same situation, suffering and change are a given. The problem of absolute physicality, however it is described, is it’s one dimensional point of view and its ‘chronic’ rationalism (which is not liberating at all, certainly not in the sense of the great Transcendentalists past and present) and is at root a fear based containment. Much more may be said about it but will leave it there.. Hope you take no offense here, all with a grain of salt..

    n.b Just one final note the author seems to have a naive view on what is spiritual and what is supernatural ( a bad word) the so called supernatural as described say in the catholic church is not my idea of what goes beyond or transcends physicality, part of the problem is taking dualism in its absolute form and assuming that is the only way to approach it.

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