“Buddhist ethics”: a Tantric critique

“Buddhist ethics,” as I’ve pointed out in recent posts, has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality. Instead, it’s indistinguishable from mainstream leftish middle-class American secular morality.

This page points out disagreements between contemporary “Buddhist ethics” and a Tantric Buddhist view, for several reasons:

  1. I think, at these points of conflict, Tantra is ethically correct, and “Buddhist ethics” is wrong.
  2. Western Buddhist Tantra was suppressed in the early 1990s partly because of these conflicts. Explaining the Tantric view may help reopen a door that has been closed for two decades.
  3. An attractive, genuinely Buddhist alternative to “Buddhist ethics” might be possible.
  4. Middle-class American secular values are failing many people—but are taken for granted, with no obvious alternative available. Tantra might be a weapon for throwing them off and constructing a more satisfactory way of being.

Tantric Buddhism includes a complete rejection of mainstream (Sutric) Buddhist morality. However, since “Buddhist ethics” is not that, most of the traditional Tantric critique is irrelevant.

Instead, this is a brief critique of certain leftish secular views, common in Consensus Buddhism, from a Tantric perspective. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, and I will make no detailed arguments. I want to give the flavor of a Tantric alternative.

This is also not a general critique of leftism. And, although Buddhist Tantra rejects some leftist views, that does not make Tantric Buddhism rightist. Nor am I a rightist personally. Buddhist Tantra rejects many rightish aspects of Sutric Buddhism, such as its sex-negativity, misogyny, and anti-world attitude. Those are not part of current “Buddhist ethics,” however, so they don’t need to be discussed further here.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that Buddhism is inherently leftist, or particularly compatible with leftist views. Jeff Wilson and Brad Warner have explained why this is mistaken, so I don’t need to go into that here.

I’ll discuss:

  • Puritanism
  • Mentalism and sincerity
  • Universalism
  • Rejection of authority
  • Middle class values

These are all closely related to each other, because they’re all rooted in Calvinism, which has a powerfully consistent internal logic.1

Puritanism: the war on fun

A highlight of my time as a Wiccan Neopagan was the culminating ritual of a week-long retreat. The ceremony evolved by stages into two hundred witches dancing naked around a bonfire for hours after midnight. It was a sublime, transformative experience.

It is unthinkable that anything similar might happen on a Consensus Buddhist retreat. But why? What Buddhist principle would it violate?

The ritual violated every principle of Sutrayana. But nobody practices that in America. What of Consensus Buddhism? That is not anti-nakedness, anti-dancing, anti-bonfires, or anti-staying-up-late. Or is it?

Such a ritual would be too much fun. You might have frighteningly strong emotions. You might lose control. That would be undignified and awkward. Someone might see you having too much fun, and would judge you for it, and you’d feel awful the next day.

These are not Buddhist criteria. They are Puritan criteria. They are American middle class public morality—which is mainly Puritanism, lightly revised to reflect improved contraceptive technology.

The 1960s American New Left defined itself as against Puritanism. Consensus Buddhism, with roots in the New Left, follows—but only rhetorically. Here’s Sharon Salzberg, blithely contradicting two central principles of traditional Buddhism:

In Buddhist teaching, morality does not mean a forced or puritanical abiding by rules. Morality means living with intentions that reflect our love and compassion for ourselves as well as caring for others.2

In contemporary use, “puritan” usually means “anti-pleasure” (and especially “anti-sex”), but this is historically incorrect. Puritanism was more-or-less the English branch of Calvinism. It did not condemn pleasure, but was wary of it as a temptation to sin. It explicitly recommended pleasures, of the right sorts, in the right situations, in the right quantities, with the right intentions. Marital sex was not merely allowed but religiously required. Sexual pleasure was considered a special gift from God, and a husband’s impotence was sufficient grounds for a woman to obtain a divorce. Alcohol in moderation was considered Godly; public drunkenness was not.

Ironically, Salzberg’s intention in denying “puritanism” was to reject renunciation, the central principle of Sutrayana; and to endorse, in its place, the central principle of actual Puritan morality!3 And this substitution of puritanism for renunciation is the heart of Consensus “Buddhist ethics,” as I’ve argued earlier.

Reveling in sensual pleasure is a central principle of Tantra. In the Sutrayana milieu, this entailed a thorough rejection of renunciation. Consensus Buddhism’s rejection of renunciation draws it away from Sutrayana, in the direction of Tantra. However, American puritan inhibitions compel the Consensus to reject Tantra’s unrestrained enthusiasm as well. Enjoying yourself too much is unseemly. It’s just not nice—even when no harm is done to yourself or others.

I believe contemporary Vajrayana offers weapons we can use to liberate ourselves from unconscious puritan attitudes.4 I think moderation in pleasures, emotional constriction, and measuring out life in teaspoons are ethically wrong. Enjoyment is good, in any quantity. More is better! Take it to the max—and beyond!

Two puritan fears inhibit us. The first is that intense enjoyment must lead to harm. “That ritual sounds extremely problematic. Probably everyone drank way too much, and some had inappropriate sex they regretted in the morning. You should be mindful at all times, lest you harm yourself or others. That was the traditional meaning of the Fifth Precept.”

Tantra emphasizes personal responsibility, and basic sense and sanity. Tantra is not hedonism—the antonym of puritanism in current usage—but only because it recognizes actions have longer-term consequences. Seeking immediate pleasure without regard for consequences is simply stupid. If you drink too much, expect and accept the result. Don’t blame the ritual’s leaders; no one forced you to do that. You should know your own limits and act accordingly. “We shouldn’t hold revels on Buddhist retreats because some people would do stupid things” gives stupid people veto power over the religious practice of responsible people. That’s morally wrong, in my opinion.

The second fear is social judgement. Puritanism encourages everyone to police everyone else’s enjoyment. I think that is also morally wrong.

If I can offer just one piece of ethical advice, from this whole series on “Buddhist ethics,” it is this:

Do not judge, censor, condemn, or ridicule anyone else (not even those bad people!) for enjoying things you consider “problematic,” “inappropriate,” or just don’t like yourself.

“Problematic” could be an expression of genuine moral concern. Too often, though, it’s just an expression of self-righteous judgmentalism. Those bad people enjoy the wrong things, and too much. “Inappropriate” may conceal simple envy.

Learn to accept other people enjoying things you dislike—or that your social group rejects. Then learn to enjoy their enjoyment of those things. This is entirely possible! You may then come to enjoy those things, too—if you have the courage to engage in pleasures your social group disparages. You may find the only reason you thought you disliked them is that “people like you” aren’t “supposed to” like them. You may also find you truly don’t like them—and that’s also fine. You can still enjoy other people’s enjoyment of them.

Mentalism vs. practicality

Buddhism makes a big fuss about “compassion.” Compassion leads to good intentions. But there, mostly, non-Tantric Buddhism stops. There seems to be an implicit assumption that if you feel compassion for someone, you’ll magically be able to benefit them.

The South Park underwear gnomes had a brilliant business plan:

  1. Steal underpants
  2. ???
  3. Profit!

Bodhisattvayana—the Buddhist path of compassion—is similarly brilliant:

  1. Compassion
  2. ???
  3. Save all sentient beings!

Something is missing: how do you save all sentient beings? Less fancifully, how can you help other people? Bodhisattvayana has almost nothing to say.

For Bodhisattvayana, Consensus Buddhism, Calvinism, and contemporary secular morality, the important thing is having appropriately pious attitudes—such as compassion. I call this “mentalism.” Also, you must verbally express those attitudes; I call that “sincerity.” For these ethical systems, what you actually do, and practical consequences, are secondary. (I’ve written about a book on the limitations and defects of mentalism and sincerity; its relevance to Tantra should be obvious.)

The opposition of some leftists to pollution permits is an elegant illustration. A permit policy sets the total amount of pollution allowed—at whatever level is necessary to prevent catastrophic global warming, for example. Each permit allows you to emit a set amount of pollution; you can buy more permits if you want to emit more, or sell some if you can emit less. However, the number of permits is limited to the total amount allowed. Barring illegal cheating, this guarantees that no more will be emitted, and trading ensures that the goal is accomplished with minimal economic disruption.5 This is a practical solution.

For certain leftists, this is an abomination. It allows bad people to continue having bad mental states. It fails to recognize that pollution is immoral. In fact, it explicitly says that pollution is allowed!6 Industry executives can continue to run their businesses for profit, just as they did before. It does not force them to adjust their attitudes. It does not replace capitalist greed with compassion. The practical consequences of permit policies are uninteresting; what is important is that they don’t improve intentions.

Buddhist Tantra is more interested in practical actions and their consequences than in moral attitudes. It was invented specifically to fill in the blank step 2 in “Buddhist ethics.” Where Bodhisattvayana speaks of “wisdom and compassion,” Tantra often speaks of “wisdom and method.”

To be fair, Consensus “engaged” Buddhism (unlike traditional Sutrayana) recognizes the need for practical action. As I discussed earlier, it borrows both the Christian charity model and the New Left political protest model. Though usually well-meaning and sometimes helpful, I find both morally suspect; I suspect neither is particularly effective; and I observe that neither is distinctively Buddhist. Petteri Sulonen has written a brilliant post against Buddhist charity.

Doing it right requires a deep understanding of the specific problems being addressed, excellent organizational skills, gobs of common sense, and massive sensitivity to the people being helped. I know people who have spent most of their lives doing such things, and one thing I hear quite consistently is that starry-eyed, well-intentioned amateurs can make a huge mess of things… Competent professionals should be in charge, and amateurs should ask them if there’s some way they can help.

This resonates with Tantra’s emphasis on mastery of methods and acceptance of legitimate authority.

The Consensus Buddhist political approach consists mostly of being noisy and obnoxious about your morally judgmental mind-states. How often is that actually helpful, and how often does it just satisfy the drive for self-righteous condemnation of those bad people?

I would like to offer a contemporary Tantric alternative—but I can’t do that yet. I will make some vague suggestions in upcoming posts. Here, I’ll just say that Tantra offers a distinctively Buddhist approach to practical action on behalf of others. Figuring out how to adapt that to our culture may not be easy, but seems very worthwhile.

Egalitarianism: equal how?

Egalitarianism underlies ethical universalism and rejection of authority. Egalitarianism was unknown in all traditional Buddhisms; it’s an accomplishment of the European Enlightenment and Protestant Reformation.

In all pre-modern civilizations, different castes were governed by different rules. The upper castes had greater privileges and fewer restrictions and obligations; the opposite was true for the lower castes. By modern standards, this is obviously wrong. Enlightenment egalitarianism was a rejection specifically of the European caste system7 of hereditary roles. In eliminating most privileges of the aristocracy, and the oppression of serfs and slaves, this was—in my view—unambiguous progress.

However, people differ in many ways, and individuals are not factually equal in abilities. Different people should not always be treated equally, by law, custom, or morals, either. For example, accommodations should be—and are—made for people who cannot walk. As another, if you are sufficiently mentally retarded, you are considered “incompetent” to participate in a legal defense. For your protection, you cannot be convicted or punished. Standard criminal law is suspended, and an alternate system applies.

“Everyone is equal” is often valuable as a slogan, as an expression of the moral value of fairness. But to treat everyone equally would be highly unethical in many cases. We should, and do, apply higher ethical standards to people with greater intelligence, education, power, and responsibility. The most that can be said is “for certain purposes, most people should be treated the same way, with certain exceptions.”

Questions about which ways people should be treated the same, despite factual differences, and in which ways they should be treated differently, are unsettled—and, obviously, highly political.

Universalism: one size fits all

Moral universalism is the idea that a single set of norms should bind everyone equally.

Catholicism and traditional Buddhism do have universalist tendencies: they treat most adult males similarly for certain religious purposes. However, neither opposed slavery, the local caste system,8 the secular power structure, or patriarchy; and both gave some men special religious status, with distinctive privileges.

Universalism is a Protestant and Enlightenment innovation. “Every man his own priest” eliminated the religious privileges of the clergy. Rejecting different moral requirements for different groups was part of smashing the European caste system.

“Buddhist ethics” (i.e. contemporary secular morality) is universalist. A single system is supposed to apply identically to everyone.

Factually, however, people differ in their cognitive and moral abilities. (I will discuss this extensively in my next post.) A simple, clear-cut, unsubtle ethics is suitable for those of lesser ability. Holding them to complex, ambiguous, sophisticated ethical standards that they cannot understand is wrong—even if the more advanced system is more correct in the abstract. Fundamentalism is right for many people, because black-and-white rules are what it takes to keep them from gross immorality.

Tantra recognizes differences in ability, and prescribes different codes for different people. The lay precepts are suitable for those who lack the revulsion necessary for Hinayana. Vinaya is suitable for those who lack the compassion necessary for Bodhisattvayana. The Bodhisattva vows are suitable for those who lack the courage necessary for Vajrayana. Tantric samaya vows bind only tantrikas. For most people to take samaya vows, or even Bodhisattva vows, or even vinaya, would be harmful and wrong.

Each yana’s vows are more difficult than the previous one’s. Each yana’s vows also override the previous one’s. The samaya vows often contradict vinaya. That doesn’t mean vinaya is wrong, or that tantrikas should go out of their way to violate every vinaya rule as often as possible. It means that tantrikas are held to a different, more difficult standard, which takes precedence in cases of conflict.

In this respect, Tantra resembles stage 5 of Kegan’s moral developmental framework, which is the subject of the next page. Tantra takes Sutric codes of morality as objects and relativizes them. It is, in part, about how to relate to multiple ethical systems; that is the hallmark of stage 5.

I don’t think any of these Buddhist codes of conduct are useful now, other than to hardcore Buddhist practitioners. In particular, Tantra is far from offering a fully-developed stage 5 ethics.

However, I believe the general Tantric approach of advocating different ethics for different people is right. A following page suggests that “Buddhist ethics” is a stage 3 system, and highly suitable for people at that developmental stage. More sophisticated ethical systems are appropriate for other people; I’ll sketch implications for contemporary Buddhism.

All must be equally powerless

Consensus Buddhism is infected with a confused, extreme egalitarianism that wants to reject all authority and all personal power. This has roots in radical leftism and in Protestant anti-clericalism.

Some political radicals have detailed theories about why all power is bad and how society would operate better without it. However, almost no one—including almost no Consensus Buddhists—takes those stories seriously. It’s obvious there’s no connection with reality. Still, hyperegalitarianism operates as a vague felt sense and moral ideal. Everyone reluctantly recognizes that power and authority are necessary, but still wants to condemn and undermine them on principle. (Which principle? You probably won’t get a coherent answer to that.)

Consensus Buddhists, like other Calvinists, have no priests. That wouldn’t be nice at all. Everyone is equal here! Of course, like other Calvinist sects, the Consensus has pastors, who are officially not priests. They just act as priests. But they aren’t priests, so that’s all right… Maybe? The subterfuge is a bit too obvious; so the power of Consensus leaders is minimized. I expect this limits their effectiveness.

Developing and exercising power, for the benefit of others, is a main goal of Buddhist Tantra. Buddhist Tantra does also have priests (lamas), who are not religiously equal to everyone else.

Personal power is a tool that can be used for good or ill. Power is effective but dangerous. However, most tools are dangerous if misused. It is nice to imagine that powerless people could do as much good without the danger, but we have no idea how.

Buddhist Tantra’s acknowledgment of the value of power, and its unequal priests, make it unacceptable to the Consensus mindset. It was largely for these reasons that the Consensus suppressed modern Tantra. I’ve discussed these issues at length previously, so I won’t say more here.

Tantra: liberation from middle class values

Unlike Consensus Buddhism, Tantra is not middle class. It is not interested in being respectable—and that is the essential middle class value. It strongly contradicts other ones, including puritanism and sincerity.

Censoring public expressions of desire and enjoyment is a middle class value because it demonstrates the ability to postpone gratification and to cooperate harmoniously. Those abilities are often valuable, but should not—in my view—inhibit us when they are not relevant. Working class people, and upper class people, exhibit unrestrained desire and enjoyment—which middle class people find off-putting.

The relationships between the Consensus, Tantra, and class are not coincidental. They have deep historical roots. For several centuries, early Buddhism was mainly a religion of the upper middle class: bankers, manufacturers, and owners of global import/export companies. That is the Buddhism of the Sutras. Only later did significant numbers of peasants convert as well.

Early Tantra apparently9 combined two disparate lineages, both inimical to middle class values. The “father lineage” derived from royal coronation ceremonies, and contributed the aristocratic arrogance of yidam and abhisheka. The “mother lineage” derived from the shamanic sex and death cult of reviled outcaste women. They contributed the ecstasy and horror of karmamudra, ganachakra, and rites of liberation.

Tantra’s vivid iconography combines these two threads as well. From the father lineage, there are figures of extraordinary grace; those appear “classical” to the Western eye because they are actually based on Ancient Greek models. The imagery of the mother lineage is straight out of a tattoo parlor, or off a skateboard: skulls in flames, daggers through hearts torn from living chests, and demonic naked women with implausible proportions. (Many graphics I use on Buddhism for Vampires are actually tattoo flash.) These violently contradictory aesthetics may combine harmoniously in a single work of art.

Despite periodic attempts to domesticate it, Tantra continued to embody both aristocratic and lower class values throughout its history—and has been shunned by the middle class. Also, despite constant attempts by the aristocracy to reserve its practices for themselves, whenever their grip has loosened, it has been seized by marginal people as a route to personal power.

The modern Buddhist Tantra of the 1970s-80s was particularly attractive to working class people. (From my personal experience, many of both Chögyam Trungpa’s and Ngakpa Chögyam’s students were working class; I’m not sure about the other teachers.) Consensus Buddhism was almost exclusively middle class (to its egalitarian dismay)—although that seems to be changing recently.

To a middle-class sensibility, Tantra seems simultaneously vulgar and uncomfortably elegant. Vulgar means “things lower-class people like, which people in my class would be embarrassed to admit enjoying.” Uncomfortably elegant means “uses signals of a class higher than mine, which I wouldn’t attempt for fear I’d screw them up.” Hotel and restaurant advertisements often pitch their “lifestyle experiences” as “casually elegant.” This oxymoronic phrase is code for “we’ll provide you with status signals from a class above yours, but we’ll make sure you don’t get dissed for using them incorrectly.” A tantric retreat might include both considerable scatalogical humor and an elaborate banquet for which formal attire and courtly etiquette are required. This is the antithesis of “casual elegance.” It’s an insult to middle class pretensions.

I believe Tantra can help us escape the limitations of the restrictive middle class world-view. Technological changes are making those values increasingly dysfunctional. The twentieth century economic deal—conform to Protestant work ethics and you’ll have a comfortable life—has been broken. In a dystopian extrapolation, nearly everyone will end up working class, with no middle class ladder up. In that case, hard work and self-restraint are a chump’s game. In a utopian scenario, robots will do all unpleasant work, and a basic income scheme will free everyone to enjoy themselves and create cool stuff. In that case too, delayed gratification is less important. We should adopt the working class attitude of “I want intense fun NOW!”, plus the aristocratic aesthete’s sustained determination to create and appreciate the best.

At their best, Tantra’s aristocratic values engender nobility, which I take as its ultimate aim. Let us all treat each other as aristocrats—not as shopkeepers, bureaucrats, or corporate drones. We all have the potential to be powerful, kind, and extraordinary—and Tantra can help us fulfill that possibility.

  1. It’s amusing, and perhaps illuminating, to view Consensus Buddhism as a mildly eccentric Protestant Christian sect that replaced Palestinian fairy tales with Indian fairy tales. 
  2. The Force of Kindness: Change Your Life with Love and Compassion, pp. 66-67. The two principles this passage contradicts are renunciation and the rejection of self-cherishing. If Sutrayana has an essence, those together might be it. 
  3. Earlier on her same page: “The world may tell us to grab as much as we want… but how about being really radical and questioning how much we need?” That’s a classic puritan sentiment. It’s worth noting that the Puritans defined themselves, and were defined by others, as political, as well as religious, radicals. Their politics, as well as their morality, had more in common with contemporary leftism than you might imagine. 
  4. The 1960s New Left began with a rejection of puritanism, but that was mainly reversed within the left by the 1980s. Consensus Buddhism is an example of leftish culture re-embracing puritanism. Currently, there are precious few ideologies that echo 1960s anti-puritanism. Sex-positive feminism and Neopaganism are two. 
  5. In practice, permit schemes have had mixed results. Some have succeeded—for example the American acid rain reduction program. Others have failed, due to cheating, loopholes, corruption, and/or setting the total amount allowed too high. 
  6. In fact, pollution permits are neatly parallel to the indulgences issued by the Catholic Church. Indulgences were widely (if inaccurately) understood as permits to sin a certain amount, purchased for money. Condemning indulgences was one of the first, main acts of the Protestant Reformation. 
  7. The European hereditary class system of the aristocracy, gentry, freemen, serfs, and slaves is also a caste system, although that term is not usually applied to it. I say “is” not “was” because remnants are still enforced by law. For example, some members of the British aristocracy still have distinctive legal privileges by birth. 
  8. Some modern Buddhisms claim that traditional Buddhism opposed the caste system. This is a Victorian invention. There are some scriptural passages in which the Buddha says caste is religiously irrelevant, which is not the same thing; and there are many passages in which he takes caste for granted. All pre-modern Buddhist countries had some kind of caste system. See for instance Gombrich’s Theravada Buddhism, pp. 30, 49, 70. 
  9. Historical uncertainties remain. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement and Kiss of the Yogini: “Tantric Sex” in its South Asian Contexts are sources for this view. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

31 thoughts on ““Buddhist ethics”: a Tantric critique”

  1. I’m interested in your analysis of Tantra and class. In my experience with Tantra (both in India and in the US), class issues were not as you describe them. I don’t recall, for instance, very many actual “working class” folks following Trungpa. There were a number of folks pretending to be working class just as there were a number of folks in SDS, The Weathermen and the early days of Feminism, etc. pretending to be working class. It was a way of establishing your credentials: “I’m not part of the establishment; I’m not like ‘the Man'”. No hip person wanted to be identified as middle class and nobody wanted to be identified as upper class either; this seems to be an attitude peculiar to Americans. In India (in my experience with tantric practitioners from Sri Lanka and Chennai), the caste system was implicit. The “lower classes” were there to be, essentially, “used” by the higher classes and women, especially, were there to be used by all. The language was egalitarian; the reality was not. One of the problems seems to be the belief that people, by the time they get to the level of Vajrayana, will have arrived at a level of realization that will ensure that their actions will be skillful. I think history has show that this is not an accurate perception of how it plays out.
    RoughGarden’s take on the future of Buddhism yesterday seemed sadly accurate to me .

  2. sadhvi

    I don’t recall, for instance, very many actual “working class” folks following Trungpa. There were a number of folks pretending to be working class

    Interesting, thanks! You may have a more accurate take than me; I arrived after he’d died.

    tantric practitioners from Sri Lanka and Chennai

    Is this Buddhist or Hindu? I would expect Hindu tantra to be more caste-conscious than Buddhist tantra, although I gather Sri Lankan Buddhism is highly caste-conscious too.

    The language was egalitarian; the reality was not.

    This is true of Tibetan Vajranaya as well. I value Vajrayana for its claimed principles, much more than for the reality of its social practice in pre-Chinese-invasion Tibet.

    Religious ideologies are always appropriated to support the local social norms. (My critique of “Buddhist ethics” is pointing this out for Consensus Buddhism.) However, they can also undermine them; Protestantism is a dramatic example, in its day. I hope Buddhist Tantra has resources that could correct some dysfunctional aspects of current American culture.

  3. Hi David,
    The tantric teachers I mentioned were Hindu. My experience was that they unfortunately affirmed what I had already experienced in Vajrayana. The “claimed principles” are never quite what one encounters. The whole cultural context is important. If there’s an idea of creating something different, we’d better be aware of just how much of the “original” teaching we are referring to is culturally conditioned and, even more importantly, what our own culture has conditioned us to accept as true. Even the idea of transparency or what it means to be open is culturally conditioned. It takes a lot of precision to tease these things out and it takes a real willingness to look at our own culturally conditioned blindspots, not just the obvious heavy hitters like “greed and consumption” or “the marketing of spirituality”. I’m thinking more of the great American myths of individuality and power that get played out over and over again (and in virtually all “liberation” movements here). It’s not abstract. Tantra offers tools, yes, but would you give a blowtorch to a three year old? Seems like that might be already happening in some parts of the country (hey, maybe that’s what’s causing all those wildfires). Then that brings up the same old problem: who decides who’s “ready” for those “advanced teachings” or, if it’s totally “egalitarian”, what state are folks in who are part of your sangha. Maybe it IS better to do it all online…less real in some ways but safer too…smile.

  4. sadhvi — Thanks, yes, these are all good points. It is not obvious how best to proceed, which is why I can offer no highly-specific recommendations for modern Buddhist tantra. I do think experimentation could be valuable.

  5. “such as its sex-negativity, misogyny, and anti-world attitude.”

    Is misgyny an aspect of Sutric Buddhism? I think not. It’s akin to saying that Western enlightenment is pro-eugenics, racism, colonialism, imperialism because there were many western thinkers of enlightenment who agreed to those aspects. Many (if not all) founding fathers of the U.S granted slavery, but strongly influenced by western enlightenment as well.

    Second, while I fully agree that Buddhism has very little to say about politics or political theory, I think sutric Buddhism is compatible with leftist views in many respects as well as rightist views. For example, Chinese used Buddhism for pacifism propaganda (No war & invasion of china, but peace~) against Tibet in Chinese Tang dynasty period. Buddhism was also used for egalitarian policy propaganda for commoners (since a truly Buddhist King is supposed to have compassion, have to do something to lessen suffering of his subjects).

    Of course, Zen was used for nationalistic, pro war propaganda by the imperial Japan ( a well-known story). But it’s arguably much easier to justify pacifism with Buddhist scriptures than pro-war propaganda.

    Maybe the only leftist political agenda which sutric Buddhism is in direct conflict with would be ‘pro-abortion’ policy. Even homosexuality has been treated ambivalently within sutric Buddhism, in other words, there are two opposing trends toward homosexuality in Buddhism. All-in-All, I think one can argue that homosexuality should not discriminated because any sex (free from misconduct) is EQUALLY bad from Buddhist point of view. Interestingly, Korean Buddhism has highest ratio in granting homosexuality among 4 groups, (1) Korean Buddhism (2) Korean Protestantism (3) Korean Catholic (4) No religious affiliation, even though Buddhism is usually associated with cultural conservatism (No sex, No drinking, No abortion, pro-tradition tendency) in Korea.

  6. Is misogyny an aspect of Sutric Buddhism?

    Yes. I wrote about that here. It’s unambiguous, I think.

    I think sutric Buddhism is compatible with leftist views in many respects as well as rightist views.

    I agree.

  7. Hi David, I’m enjoying all these posts. I didn’t understand your comments about class, for example ‘Working class people, and upper class people, exhibit unrestrained desire and enjoyment—which middle class people find off-putting.’ Are these commments being from a north American position?

  8. Hi Tsül’dzin, nice to see you here!

    ‘Working class people, and upper class people, exhibit unrestrained desire and enjoyment—which middle class people find off-putting.’ Are these commments being from a north American position?

    This is a common sociological analysis (not any insight of my own). I think I’ve read it applied to Britain, but I’m not sure. I think I’ve also heard Ngak’chang Rinpoche say something similar!

    As with any sociological claim, it’s just a generalization, of course. Individuals within a class vary dramatically, based on personality, specifics of experience, and so on. Specific situations may also make different expressions seem appropriate or not.

  9. Hi David, probably you omitted tag “ethics” from this post by mistake. (I’m just organizing the ethics series for myself for offline reading, and I just saw that this post is not among those if I select by tag.)

  10. The following is meant as a general comment on this whole series, not just this post. It’s a selection from an interview with B. Allan Wallace, “Tibetan Buddhism in the West: Is it working here? An Interview with Alan Wallace”, by Brian Hodel. Published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Summer 2001.

    Click to access Tricycle%20Interview.pdf

    Q: In the monastic setting, teachings follow a coherent order. What’s the effect of teaching outside this format?
    A: In the West, it is very common that a lama will pass through a city and give a tantric Buddhist initiation and a weekend of esoteric teachings on visualization practices or ways of experiencing a state of pure awareness. What’s missing here in the vast majority of cases is the profound context: the theoretical context, the context of faith, the context of a mature spiritual community. The teachings themselves, though perfectly traditional, are being introduced in a radically non-traditional context. And this, I think, has on numerous occasions led to terrible misunderstandings and a great deal of unnecessary conflict, unrest, confusion and suffering.
    Q: Such as?
    A: Back in the late 1970s some very fine lamas came to this country and gave a number of advanced teachings. A lot of the Westerners in attendance, young men and young women, got very enthused by these lamas who were teaching in concert, and a number of them, right off the bat, were ordained right then and there with no context whatsoever, with no monastery, no abbot, and no proctor to teach them the vows and help them to assimilate and apply the vows in daily life. I think the vast majority, if not every single one of that group, eventually returned their vows, because there was no context for them and they entered into it with little understanding of the step that they were taking.

    Q: Why not just stick to basic, foundational teachings? Why are these high teachings even given as introductions?
    A: I think the simple answer is: if lamas confined themselves to teaching topics such as ethical discipline, renunciation, and the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion few people would come. Before going on tour, lamas often ask what kind of teachings Westerners would like, and the response is often a request for advanced teachings, say on Dzogchen or Mahamudra, which are concerned with exploring the nature of pure, conceptually unstructured awareness, or one’s own inner Buddha-nature. Out of compassion and the wish to fulfill others’ wishes, many lamas comply. Perhaps their rationale is that people will probably get more benefit hearing something they are really interested in, than in hearing valuable teachings in which they have no interest—in which case they probably wouldn’t show up at all anyway.

  11. “A: I think the simple answer is: if lamas confined themselves to teaching topics such as ethical discipline, renunciation, and the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion few people would come.”
    Wallace’s critique is that the Lamas teach Dzogchen and tantra because that’s what Westerner’s want to hear. They don’t want to be bothered with ‘ethical discipline’, renunciation and loving kindness.” That’s boring “beginner” teachings for losers and pussies. That whole Western attitude has been broadcast loud and clear on this blog.

    Secondly, or really firstly, many of these high level tantric teachings are completely out of context in a Western setting. The result is that tantra itself gets watered down into a programmatic pablum of marketable mush for mass Western consumption. The result is a Disneyfied “Magic Kingdom” that is purveyed specifically for middle class western consumption. It has all the rituals and deities, all the “bells and whistles,” but none of the real spiritual guts of tantric practice. It becomes just another social club of eccentrics wearing funny hats.

  12. B. Allan Wallace: Westerners want the Fast Track to Awakeing, Drive Through Enlightenment;
    Q: Isn’t there a problem here of appealing to the ego? I may request the highest teachings because I want to attain realization as quickly as possible. But of what value are the higher teachings if I haven’t absorbed the basics? Isn’t that like throwing seed on stones?

    A: In my experience, lamas who are willing to give these very advanced teachings will strongly emphasize the importance of the foundational teachings and practices, such as those concerning the cultivation of renunciation and compassion. One of my teachers, Gyatrul Rinpoche, has often given advanced teachings on Mahamudra and Dzogchen, but he hammers home the message time and time again: “Yes, these are profound teachings. Yes, it can be very helpful for you to do the practice. At the same time, do not overlook the foundational teachings, because these are the ones that, in the foreseeable future, are much more likely to really bring about evident transformation for the better in your own minds and in your own lives.” Gyatrul Rinpoche has taught for more than two decades in this country. He still emphasizes the foundational teachings, but at times students complain that they have already heard these teachings and don’t want to hear them anymore. In many cases, even though these students have not realized the foundational teachings through practice, they’ve heard them and more or less understood them intellectually. But out of familiarity they have lost interest in these teachings, no longer wishing to practice them, and yearn instead for something new, something profound, something that promises to bring about the kind of spiritual transformation they haven’t gained so far.

    As Gyatrul Rinpoche has often commented, it’s not that the lamas don’t want us to hear or practice these higher teachings. They just don’t want us to do them instead of the foundational teachings, because then we’ll wind up following the more advanced practices without benefiting from them, while shunning the more basic practices and therefore getting no practical benefit at all. The advice I’ve heard and embrace is that we need to keep our feet planted in the ground of the foundational teachings and reach to the sky with the more advanced teachings.

    Q: If many Western students are getting the higher teachings towards the beginning but then have to go back to the foundational teachings, isn’t this counterproductive?
    A: It certainly can be!
    Q: That doesn’t sound very efficient.

    A: Overall, I don’t think there is much efficiency in the way that teachings are taught or practiced in the West, even though we, being a consumer society, a business-oriented society, prioritize efficiency. Also in the West various lamas of all the different orders of Tibetan Buddhism are passing through town for weekend events. And this means you have the possibility of being exposed to a hodgepodge of weekend teachings and initiations and your exposure to Buddhism becomes random. It’s like going to a buffet. You pick up whatever is coming through, but there’s no order to it, no continuity, no progressive development, and so again: it’s very inefficient. This can turn a lot of people into dilettantes, as they acquire a “taste of the town” of Buddhism, dabbling in one flavor after another, without gaining proficiency in anything.

    This lack of continuity is due, in part, to a lack of patience. As a consumer society we want snappy results. That’s part of what we consider to be efficient. If we go to a teaching we want to see results in a weekend, or at least in a week! And some teachers are willing to cater to that type of mentality. I’ve even seen advertisements for Tibetan Buddhist events that sound like Madison Avenue hype.

  13. Still enjoying the series! It will be interesting to see how you pull it all together/conclude it.

    I still think you have the potential to hit the wall of people’s interpretation based on their stage development. Someone who is not ready for tantra is going to interpret tantra practices with a sutra mind — they are going to looking for the concrete “facts” of practice and are going to follow those dogmatically. Hoping that won’t happen, though! Looking forward to the next posts.

    I’m also hoping you will speak to the paradox of “tantric ritual/practice” – why would a practitioner who has the foundation of emptiness (which also requires an embrace of full experience) need a prescribed ritual? That’s the part that has always hung me up when looking at the Aro tradition. It’s full of really smart people and dedicated meditators/practitioners… but why do they all have to dress up like cowboys/cowgirls and shoot guns or arrows? I’m not asking the experiential why (it’s obviously fun), I’m asking the formulaic why, i.e., why does the costume party have one theme? What makes for a quality tantric ritual? Why not just go to the nightclub and fully experience that heaven and hell, so to speak?

    Obviously these short end-of-article comments are too short for nuance, so I apologize in advance for questioning so bluntly!

  14. Thanks, jamie, these are insightful questions!

    I still think you have the potential to hit the wall of people’s interpretation based on their stage development.

    Definitely. Tantra is not for everyone.

    they are going to looking for the concrete “facts” of practice and are going to follow those dogmatically.

    Yes; that’s unfortunately common. I don’t intend to talk about any “facts of practice,” so that’s not a problem for me; but it’s a problem any teacher of modern tantra faces.

    My outline does include a post titled something like “Tantra is not about advanced practices” that would try to dispel that misunderstanding.

    why would a practitioner who has the foundation of emptiness (which also requires an embrace of full experience) need a prescribed ritual?

    For the same reason a competent cook often uses recipes. A competent cook can improvise from scratch, but you can’t figure out everything for yourself every time. A recipe embodies the understanding of some other expert who figured out something that works reliably. Actually, recipes almost always have a lineage; the one you use is based on an earlier one, and so on, so you are leveraging the experience of many experts.

    Also, when you do hit on something that works, it’s good to write it down and do the same thing again, because improvisation is error-prone. Even for yourself, following your own recipe helps.

    Also because repetition itself works on the human brain in some way that probably no one understands. Just doing the same thing over and over has a powerful effect.

    why does the costume party have one theme?

    That’s an excellent question… but as you guessed, it’s one that would take a least a long blog post to answer! There’s many different aspects to the answer.

    One would start: the overall function of the event is very different from the function of a costume party. The function of the particular style of clothing serves that overall function. It’s non-arbitrary. For example, there are Aro gTér events in which everyone dresses in the manner of the Regency Court of early 19th century Britain. These “Natural Dignity” events are ones whose function is to experience a society in which everyone treats everyone else as aristocrats (as I suggested in the last paragraph of this page). One could do that wearing anything, but Regency dress is a powerful pragmatic support for the practice.

    Why not just go to the nightclub and fully experience that heaven and hell, so to speak?

    One can, certainly. But a nightclub has a different function, so it is not especially supportive of the practice. It’s not antithetical to tantra, at all; one should be able to practice tantra there. But it’s not particularly easy, either.

  15. Thanks for the kind response. I was a bit worried that it would be taken the wrong way. I’ve admired the forthright expression of the Aro tradition for a long time… I guess this series has also reminded me how much I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of NC’s students create. He created a culture of practice which seems very “his” in its expression, but I don’t have a sense of how that will continue into the future. (I suspect there are students who will want to stay with the basic recipe and there will be students that create their own flavors while acknowledging the founding inspiration…)

    I guess that seque into Aro in the midst of a discussion of ethics relates back to the “no truths, only methods” idea. In my mind, we should seek (and teach) ethics that provide the merest of scaffolding to empower opening and extending into the world, to help us meet the rawness of the world as best we are capable. So in that sense, I don’t care if it is bland middle-class ethics or tantric… just as long a people are (nobly) living slightly out of their comfort zone, still growing up, still awakening, still recognizing new resistances and new embraces that were unseen/unknowable just a year ago…

    I think most folks underestimate what they are capable of — and underestimate how easy it is to become stagnant — which is why I am really enjoying your putting “nice” ethics in the spotlight and putting tantra out there for a critical look.

  16. @Jamie


    “That’s the part that has always hung me up when looking at the Aro tradition. It’s full of really smart people and dedicated meditators/practitioners… but why do they all have to dress up like cowboys/cowgirls and shoot guns or arrows?”

    Ngak’chang Rinpoche teaches on the relationship between dress, art and Vajrayana practice. I hope that he and Khandro Déchen will write something for public consumption about that…but they have many projects.

    You probably only see pictures of those apprentices (I’m one of them) that like to adopt dress as practice. Not everyone has the time or the inclination to re-invent themselves so wholeheartedly, and nobody has to. But regarding the way you display yourself in the world as a practice is possible in small, experimental bites, and individual apprentices are sometimes encouraged to feel what it would be like to dress differently. The facial topiary is connected: different styles have associations with particular characters of personality and demeanour.

    The Aro gTér lamas are influenced by Chögyam Trungpa’s encouragement of hippie students to break away from conventions of casual dress and anti-establishment view. Tantra pulls the rug from under your feet by challenging your conformity to social and cultural convention. Ritual of behaviour and dress can function in this way: the structure provides leverage out from sheep-like conformity you didn’t previously see.

    The style of dress they encourage is any that expresses “tasteful flamboyance and unwitheld appreciation. We have no hippie uniform to shed, but rather, a form of drabness born of ‘comfort’ and ‘staid inconspicuousness.’ ”

    The style of Western wear that Ngak’chang Rinpoche likes is late 19th century. Like with any art, once you get to know a field well, you appreciate differences in style and detail. That style is quite different to a cowboy/cowgirl look. (I also like the latter – Rinpoche doesn’t.) The practice is one of individual expression, within a fixed period style. I don’t know what pictures you’ve seen, but I guess if you look closely you’ll see different individual styles of appreciation.

    “I’m not asking the experiential why (it’s obviously fun), I’m asking the formulaic why, i.e., why does the costume party have one theme?”

    It doesn’t, but you probably only see that theme, because it’s obviously different in some way, and that’s how people like to brand us. These are pictures from apprentice gatherings and retreats in Montana. Usually they’re very small. I’ll be going to one next week which will have about ten participants, max. On most apprentice retreats across the world, apprentices wear what they want, within the ‘theme’ of the yogic colours – red, white and blue.

    “What makes for a quality tantric ritual?”

    This is an important question, there’s loads to say…but probably this isn’t the place as we’d be veering off-topic. I sometimes think about resurrecting my Vajrayana Now blog, to write about such things, but it’s not become top priority yet.

    “Why not just go to the nightclub and fully experience that heaven and hell, so to speak?”

    We do. Well, some of us, anyway.

    “Obviously these short end-of-article comments are too short for nuance, so I apologize in advance for questioning so bluntly!”

    I think these are really great questions, I’m glad you asked them.


  17. @Jamie
    I was writing my comment while you posted yours – sorry they crossed over.

    I guess that seque into Aro in the midst of a discussion of ethics relates back to the “no truths, only methods” idea. In my mind, we should seek (and teach) ethics that provide the merest of scaffolding to empower opening and extending into the world, to help us meet the rawness of the world as best we are capable. So in that sense, I don’t care if it is bland middle-class ethics or tantric… just as long a people are (nobly) living slightly out of their comfort zone, still growing up, still awakening, still recognizing new resistances and new embraces that were unseen/unknowable just a year ago…

    I like how you put this.


  18. He created a culture of practice which seems very “his” in its expression

    Yes; one aspect of tantra is that one takes the personality-display of the lama as an aspect of the path. Since different lamas have different personality-displays, the mandala has a different texture in each case.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of NC’s students create.

    This is happening now. The younger Aro gTér Lamas all have distinctive personality-displays, and many are developing their own distinctive teachings—content as well as style. All are consonant with the general Aro gTér ethos, but diverse within that lineage.

    a form of drabness born of ‘comfort’ and ‘staid inconspicuousness.’

    This is the middle-middle class display of conspicuous blandness, which I deride in an earlier post.

  19. A wonderful piece of writing. It covers a lot of ground fairly succinctly and is quite inspiring. Thank you. I particularly enjoyed the working class/aristocracy comparison. I think it’s well put.

  20. @Jamie:

    Speaking of the dress and Aro gTér, I am myself an Aro practitioner and my lama (one of the younger ones, not Ngak’chang Rinpoche), suggested me to start to dress myself like a biker. And so I did.

    So not everybody looks like a cowboy either. :)

    The suggestion I got was of course a personal one. I am a large bear of a man, and I have an appreciation of extreme metal music. I am also related to Danish/Swedish Vikings – obvious if you would see my face. Biker-like appearance actually suits very naturally to me.

  21. I have been thinking a little about modern cultural developments and their convergence with Vajrayana. As was being discussed above, a lot of people are puzzled about why smart people would perform rituals or dress up in funny clothes. This, however, is just old-people thinking- yup, all of those questions are questions left over from modern and post-modern thinking habits.
    The newer era of thought, frequently called Metamodernism, and sometimes by a sub-name for an aspect of this post-postmodern life, Performatism, has returned to ritualism.
    Following the logic of: pre-modern thinking took rituals and myths as god-ordained truth; modernism tried to extract the essence or abandon those things altogether to get to the real meaning behind the rituals unclouded by superstition; postmodernism decided that none of them had any meaning in the end and there is no meaning anyway so lets just get f’ed up and play with surface forms. Metamodern times have returned to play with meaning and to rediscover depth, while knowing that they are empty of meaning at the same time.
    This is very much like the stages of Buddhist vehicles as they develop from the most earthy up to dzogchen (or zen too), and dzogchen (and zen) in reality being usually practiced within the context of a sadhana (a ritual)- zen is no different in actuality, only with a different ritual structure.
    Ritual is used both as a way to transcend ones’ ego as well as a way to maintain awareness while being embodied in form. So, if we know that everything has no ultimate meaning then how are we to act? We can do this by interpreting our actions as performance, or as ritual. In this way we reenchant the world while maintaining an awareness of its ultimate emptiness- instead of retreating into a lethargic, paralyzed, meaning-devoid, nihilistic, surface worshiping stupor.
    Adopting deliberate clothing and behaviour is part of this- seeing our world as constructed but embracing it anyway while not losing the punch line.
    So as we reembrace ritual we understand it with scientific eyes without letting science dismember it; we reenchant the world and use ritual to help us to realize and embody the otherwise-abstract teachings; and we keep the vision that it is all empty anyway without sliding into nihilism. This is like doing a performance- hence the use of the word Performatism elsewhere. How else can you act and embrace life without making it a self-oriented and grasping experience?


  22. “A highlight of my time as a Wiccan Neopagan was the culminating ritual of a week-long retreat. The ceremony evolved by stages into two hundred witches dancing naked around a bonfire for hours after midnight. It was a sublime, transformative experience.”

    Now you’re talking.

  23. Could we say that ethics is true as long as it increases the feelings of peace, harmony, concentration, gratitude and spaciousness? I mean, there is no inherent basis for morality but there are impacts of moral behaviour on our human psyche.
    If I show gratitude and help and donate to others I feel good and warm.
    If I talk to somebody who is going through a “hard” time, I feel concentrated and in harmony with myself.
    If I spend the last hours with somebody dying, I feel spaciousness.

    On the other hand, if I insult somebody I feel hard and contracted. If I don’t help somebody in need I feel improsined with negative thoughts, etc.

    Would this explanation help to understand moral behaviour? At least ancient India apparently lived by this dharma. More details can be found under the subject of Gunas -> Vedanta.

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