“Not about techniques” is a somewhat unusual view.
Traditional teachers and text do often—not always—define Buddhist tantra as a collection of esoteric practices.
For modernizers, too, it’s tempting to describe tantra as “advanced mental technology.” As an engineer, I find that an attractive proposition:
What we want out of Vajrayana, once we’ve stripped away the traditional superstitions, is a pragmatic manual of proven techniques for transforming consciousness.
I think this is a mistake, however. It’s not exactly wrong, but:
- Thinking of tantra as techniques overlooks what I consider most valuable in it.
- Many traditional techniques don’t work, and claims about the effectiveness of the ones that do are often exaggerated.
- Viewing tantra as technology is, ironically, a roadblock to necessary innovations.
- The technical view also risks aggressive self-aggrandizement.
Tantra is an attitude, not a technology
We often think of a religion as beliefs plus practices. From a naturalistic perspective, Buddhism’s beliefs are almost all wrong, so modern Buddhism drops them. That means its value must be in practices? Some value, yes, but I think actually Buddhist tantra is valuable mainly for its unique attitude toward life.
I have defined that attitude as “spacious passion,” and described the overall method of tantra as:
Tantra is about your relationship with everything in your life. If “tantric practice” is a technical procedure you carry out for an hour every morning, it may not do much. It’s the attitude that does the work, not the techniques.
Some Westerners may make slow progress with tantra because they have not been shown the attitude—and therefore don’t understand what it is for. They may have the idea that simply performing tantric techniques according to the manual is effective. That’s like “paint by numbers”—or like my guitar playing. I can hit the right notes at pretty much the right time, but due to my severe Rhythm Deficiency Disorder, it sounds nothing like music. “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Spacious passion is the swing in tantric practice. It’s what makes it music, not a series of notes.
If you do have the tantric attitude, that by itself might be enough, even with no specific techniques at all. Ultimately, just maintaining the attitude is itself the practice of tantra.
The view that an attitude, not techniques, are what matter in tantra is somewhat unusual, but it is also traditional. This is the Dzogchen take on tantra, more-or-less. Kunjé Gyalpo, the earliest major Dzogchen text, criticizes tantra as artificial, conceptually complicated, gimmicky, and unnecessarily effortful. The best practice is simply to “remain in the state.”1
Don’t believe the hype
What tantric techniques can do is throw you into the attitude, intensify it, and help maintain it. Some can be extremely powerful, but we need to be realistic about what works and how.
I think tantric practices are over-hyped by the tradition. Its exaggerated claims get in the way of clear understanding and practical use.
Some reasons tantric techniques may not work for us:
- Many are supposed to accomplish impossible, supernatural results, like raising the dead by magic, or walking on water.
- Many are impractical in the West. For example, we can’t gather a hundred highly-trained monks to take all the necessary roles in a complex, ten-day-long ritual.
- Many are culturally specific. They make no sense unless you have been brought up in that culture—or are willing to immerse yourself in it for several years.
- Many were designed for slaves, monks, or bored aristocrats of the leisure class, and make no sense for free lay commoners.
- Many were probably always feeble—some charismatic guy’s plausible idea that failed, but persisted because he became famous.
The tantric attitude guides innovations in techniques
My guess is that enough of the tradition is unworkable that future Buddhist tantra will need to innovate many new practices. In fact, it has innovated throughout its history—but perhaps more drastic and rapid change is needed than ever before.
If the value of tantra was just its techniques, or if we regarded them as sacred procedures to apply by rote, this would be impossible. They’d work however well they worked, and that would be that.
In fact, tantric techniques flow from the tantric attitude—not vice versa. This makes innovation possible. We can understand what traditional techniques accomplish, and why they work. That can guide adaptation, and the creation of new methods that promote the same attitude in a different context. I’ve described one such new practice, developed in America in the 1980s, that seems particularly suitable here and now—a “killer app,” even!
I suspect there is no particular class of techniques that are indispensable. For instance, yidam is perhaps the single most important tantric practice. I believe one could drop yidam altogether, and tantra would still function.
However, some technical methods do work here and now. Others can be made to work if adapted. I’m not suggesting one should drop yidam—it does work, and there’s nothing wrong with it—just that nothing is essential.
A technical orientation encourages self-aggrandizement
Some Westernizers promote tantra as “power tools for transformation.” This seems particularly common among people attracted to tantra’s promise of power.
This misunderstanding leads to a peculiar sort of arrogance. I see it too often in online Buddhist forums. Tantrikas engage in aggressive one-up-manship:
I’ve learned more advanced techniques than you have, my lama’s version is better than your lama’s version, plus you’re doing it wrong, and—(I’m properly humble in a Buddhist way, so I would never say so)—but you really need to know that my samadhi is much deeper than yours!
This probably gives onlookers the impression that Vajrayana is a religion for dickheads only.
Some Westerners believe they can use tantric techniques to dominate men and seduce women. This isn’t entirely false, but usually doesn’t go well. I discussed the pitfalls in “Black magic, transformation, and power.”2
Others interpret tantric power as a mental upgrade, resulting from mental technology. Talk of “self-transformation” encourages the fantasy that you can fix yourself up, eliminating your defects; construct a better, more attractive you; establish solid personal territory and gain confidence in your own power; and ultimately, perhaps you can save yourself from all suffering by attaining enlightenment. If you can just master the difficult mental techniques, all this is possible! (No, it’s not.)
This interpretation is an example of what I’ve described as the “psychologization strategy” for naturalizing Buddhism. “Psychologization” reframes supernatural external phenomena as psychological internal ones. These reinterpretations may be appropriate for Sutrayana, which is largely about the self (or supposed lack thereof). Psychologization can be misleading and dangerous when applied to tantra. Tantra is not mainly about the self. It is about relationships: connections and interactions.
It is the tantric attitude that transforms—and remember, that attitude is the union of spacious freedom with passionate connections. Those tend to dissolve arrogance, aggression, and self-aggrandizement. Tantric power comes from unclogging energy—not from collecting and concentrating it.
This page was to be a preface to a ten-page section of Reinventing Buddhist Tantra that explains how two key traditional tantric practices could be naturalized. They are yidam, often described as “deity yoga”; and tsa lung, or “energy practice.” Both are traditionally understood as supernatural, but I find them effective despite having a naturalistic worldview.
The point of this page was that the details don’t particularly matter, because techniques are not centrally important. I wanted to discourage readers from getting hooked on the hope that I would eventually deliver a practical manual, which I didn’t intend to do.
As I explained in my Imperfect Buddha podcast recently,
I abandoned Reinventing Buddhist Tantra several years ago. A re-presentation of Vajrayana for contemporary cultural conditions is conceptually straightforward, and I’ve worked a lot of it out in draft form. However, contemporary social conditions are not conducive. That is, the sorts of social structures required to support contemporary Vajrayana do not exist, and I don’t see how to create them.
So this page has sat dormant in the vast Vividness draft document for four years. However, by chance I’ve emailed the piece to several people over the past few months—for different reasons—and some spontaneously suggested I publish it.
Reviewing the draft document, the first page of the yidam section is nearly complete—so perhaps I will publish that as well! However useless it may be at this moment in history.
This page—and the series overall—were greatly improved by comments from Rin’dzin Pamo.
- This discussion is in chapter 8 of Kunjé Gyalpo, and is expanded on elsewhere in the book, and in later Dzogchen texts. I have taken the liberty of replacing “remaining in the state” with “maintaining the attitude” because the latter is rather more active in orientation. Kunjé Gyalpo is the main text of the Mind Section of Dzogchen, which later scriptures consider slightly too passive and inward. Rightly, in my view, for what little that’s worth! ↩
- There’s similar issues in Western occultism. “What is ‘dark fluff’?” is an insightful discussion. Occultism mostly doesn’t do anything, so people are always looking for something “more extreme” that might. But the kinds of specific, practical outcomes some people want simply aren’t available. Once they realize Western esotericism is mostly lame nonsense made up a few decades ago, many try to cross over to tantra as a time-proven set of more powerful techniques. That doesn’t work either, and often causes unnecessary annoyance for all concerned. ↩