Tantra is a form of Buddhism whose unusual characteristics make it particularly appropriate for Western culture, society, and psychology. Unfortunately, its presentation has mostly not been updated for current conditions—unlike some other branches of Buddhism. Due to a series of historical accidents, this has left it mainly unavailable, despite its great potential.
Reinventing Buddhist Tantra is a project I began in 2012. My aim was to show how this form of Buddhism could address our current crisis of meaning, and how it could be explained a way that makes sense to Westerners who have less than zero interest in esoteric metaphysics or Medieval Asian culture.
After finishing several dozen posts, covering much less than half of the planned material, I ran into trouble. A conceptual reworking of Buddhist Tantra, making it suitable for current conditions, is straightforward. What is not straightforward is actualizing the concepts as a social form. Particularly: who could teach this, and how? I have no answer to that. So I back-burnered the project in 2014. I’ve only occasionally added pages since then.
The concepts may still be useful as bits and pieces, even if the overall project seems infeasible. Below is an outline of the original plan: first a summary version, and then page-by-page in detail.
- Introduction and disclaimers
- An overview explanation of Buddhist Tantra
- Understanding Buddhist Tantra by contrast
- Tantra: a history of innovation
- Modern Western Buddhist Tantra
- Rebuilding a shattered world with Vajrayana
“Buddhist Tantra” and “Vajrayana” are nearly synonymous terms; I use them interchangeably on this page.
The first three sections explain Buddhist Tantra as simply and clearly as I was able to. This seemed necessary as background to the project of reinvention, because Tantra is surprisingly little-understood among Western Buddhists, and misconceptions are common. The first two sections are mostly complete; the third is about half-written.
The fourth section was meant to demonstrate that reinventing Buddhist Tantra is historically legitimate, because people have done so frequently throughout its history. Vajrayana has never been “traditional.” I didn’t finish any of pages in this section.
By “modern Buddhism” I mean not “current Buddhism,” but Buddhism reinvented to make it compatible with the ideologies of the “modern era,” which ended a few decades ago. (I have written about non-Tantric Modern Buddhism extensively, starting here.) Several branches of Buddhism modernized starting in the late 1700s, and had completed the process by about 1900.
Vajrayana only began to modernize in the 1970s. This delay was due to politics, rather than anything intrinsically traditional about the system. Versions of Buddhist Tantra that were either partially modernized, or fully modernized but incomplete as systems, were available in the 1980s. Unfortunately they were mostly suppressed in the ’90s.
The fifth section explains how (and to what extent) Vajrayana can be made compatible with modern ideologies, such as secular rationalism, Romantic Idealism, and Protestantism. I finished about a quarter of this; probably enough to get the flavor across, although most details are missing.
The final section suggests that Vajrayana can be a powerful tool for re-making meaning in our current post-modern, “post-truth” world, in which nothing makes sense, and the modern institutions critical for our survival are falling apart. That is actually the point of this whole project! But I have written almost none of it.
My Meaningness project is also heavily influenced by my understanding of Vajrayana. It can be seen as a continuation of Reinventing Buddhist Tantra in a different guise; an attempt to work around the problems that led to my abandoning it.
In what follows, page titles are in bold. The ones I’ve finished and posted appear as links. Non-bold text gives brief explanations for most pages. I restructured the outline as I went along, so some pages appear in a different order here than the order I posted them in.
Introduction and disclaimers
Reinventing Buddhist Tantra: The introduction and original overview.
Why I should shut up: I’m totally unqualified to write about this.
“Now you something say”: I’m an idiot, so I started writing about it anyway.
Diversity, generalization, and authenticity: Is innovation in Vajrayana legitimate?
An overview explanation of Buddhist Tantra
This section is an explanation of Buddhist Tantra in the abstract, as background for understanding what a contemporary Western version might be. I wrote this only because I couldn’t find any concise overview explanation of Vajrayana that I could refer readers to, and I felt that I couldn’t depend on them having already understood the material.
I nearly completed this part of the project—there’s only two posts missing at the end.
A Buddhist “yana,” or approach, is traditionally defined in terms of a base (prerequisites), a path (methods), and a result (goal). I used that three-fold structure for this section.
The power of an attitude: The heart of Vajrayana is its attitude, not its doctrines or practices.
Spacious passion: road map: More on the attitude, plus some house-keeping stuff.
There are no spiritual problems: Good news! Nothing is fundamentally wrong with the world. That frees us up to address practical problems instead.
Your self is not a spiritual obstacle: More good news! You don’t have to fix yourself before getting on with life.
Tantra is anti-spiritual: Tantra has no magic way of fixing everything. That might be disappointing? But it’s realistic, and unlike “spirituality,” Tantra is relentlessly realistic.
Passionate connections: Traditional mainstream Buddhism is about eliminating emotions and breaking your connection with the world. Vajrayana is systematically opposite: it is about using strong emotions to create connections. This is the “form aspect” of the approach.
Spacious freedom: This is the “emptiness aspect” of the approach. Emptiness in Vajrayana is understood as liberating wonderment.
Free-flowing energy is released from the union of spaciousness and passion.
Nothing special: Cutting through spiritual hype, including Vajrayana hype.
Tantra and flow: Tantra produces states similar to “psychological flow,” but without such close dependence on conditions.
Unclogging: The method of tantra is: Unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion.
Unclogging Consensus Buddhism: A meta post, explaining what I was trying to do in the previous one, which may have been difficult to follow.
Unclogging and traditional Buddhism: My explanation of the Tantric path as “unclogging” is not traditional. This explains how it relates to standard presentations.
Our Buddhism goes to eleven: Intensification of experience is a method for unclogging energy. I have mixed feelings about this!
Charnel ground: Life is a horrific video game. When you reach the final level, the boss monster will eat you alive: GAME OVER.
Pure land: Everyone you meet is a Buddha. All the world is a sacred paradise.
Twixt path and result: A brief introduction to this section.
What do you want Buddhism for?: Different Buddhist approaches have different goals. It helps you choose one to get clear about what you want and which ones aim in that direction.
Somewhat non-traditionally, I present the goals of Tantra as mastery, power, nobility, and play.
Mastery: Buddhist tantra is about elegant, accurate, kind, effective, expansive action in the real world. That means that it values skill, creativity, and accomplishment.
Power: Power—the skillful use of energy—is the ability to get things done. Power makes it possible to benefit others, and to change the world for the better. On the other hand, power corrupts.
Nobility: Nobility is the right use of power. This post is missing; I didn’t finish it. However, you can get a sense of where I was going from a short, much earlier essay on nobility on Approaching the Aro gTér; and from a much later attempt, “Drinking the sun” on Buddhism for Vampires.
Play: I also didn’t finish this. “Drinking the sun” covers this topic too, but in much less depth and in a quite different style than I would have used here.
Understanding Buddhist Tantra by contrast
Understanding Buddhist Tantra by contrast: An introduction to the section.
This section was to compare Buddhist Tantra with several other systems:
- Mainstream traditional Buddhism, which Tantra calls “Sutrayana”
- “Consensus Buddhism,” my term for the mainstream pop American Buddhism of the past few decades
- Hindu Tantra, and its contemporary derivative, Neo-Advaita
I finished the first of those, wrote some random bits of the second, and none of the third.
There was also supposed to be a subsection dispelling various common misconceptions: for instance that Buddhist Tantra is all about sex, that it’s not at all about sex, that it is Timeless Asian Wisdom™, that it’s secret, that it’s mystical, that it’s highly intellectual, that it’s extremely dangerous, that it’s about healing, and so on. I dropped this altogether, although I’ve addressed some of the issues elsewhere. (For example, in “Tantra, sex, and romance novels” on Buddhism for Vampires.)
Tantra and Sutra
Sutrayana: “Sutrayana,” or “Sutra” for short, is Tantra’s term for mainstream Buddhism. Their bases, paths, and results are very different. The point is not that either is better than the other, but that each is a better tool for the purpose it was designed for.
Sutra and Tantra compared: A point-by-point contrast.
Sutra, Tantra, and the modern worldview: Tantra is mostly more consonant with the modern worldview than Sutra is. There are a few points of exception.
Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism: Understanding the fundamental principle of Sutric Buddhism.
How does “Sutrayana” relate to actual Buddhisms?: “Sutrayana” is a somewhat theoretical concept. It lumps together all of Buddhism other than Vajrayana, but Buddhisms are extremely diverse. How well does this theoretical construct resemble reality?
Yanas are not Buddhist sects: This clarifies a widespread source of deep, far-reaching conceptual confusions. The relationship is easy to understand by analogy with the automobile business. A yana is category of vehicle, like SUVs. A sect is a brand, like Ford. Most sects provide several yanas.
Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism (and vice versa): Tibetan Buddhism is a collection of sects, each of which offers several yanas, including Hinayana and Mahayana. Vajrayana (Tantra) is a yana, provided by many different sects, most of them non-Tibetan. This shows that Tibetans have no monopoly on Tantra, and Western Buddhist Tantra is a historically and doctrinally legitimate possibility.
Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana: A common misconception is that “Theravada” is the polite word for Hinayana. This is incorrect: Theravada has included Mahayana and Vajrayana throughout their history. Tantric Theravada is more open to innovation than Tantric Tibetan Buddhism, and so could be a valuable resource for Western Tantric Buddhism to draw on.
Beyond emptiness: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen: Comparing three Buddhist systems in a humorous allegory.
Buddhist Tantra and Consensus Buddhism
American “Consensus” Buddhism has had a deeply ambivalent relationship with Tantra.
Consensus Buddhism is historically rooted in Theravadan Hinayana, Tibetan Mahayana, and Zen. However, its goals are much closer to those of Vajrayana, which better aligns with the Western worldview. So, the Consensus adopted aspects of the Tantric view, mostly without admitting it. It was unwilling to adopt Tantric Buddhist practices, so it borrowed approximately parallel ones from non-Buddhist sources.
Simultaneously, the Consensus has strongly opposed Buddhist Tantra, for a mix of reasons—some good, most bad. In the early 1990s, Consensus and Tibetan Buddhist leaders collaborated in a campaign to suppress the modern forms of Buddhist Tantra that developed in the 1980s. They were almost entirely successful.
I didn’t get to this part of the outline at all, but I did post a few random pages that belong in this category, out of order.
One Dharma, Zero Tantra: A manifesto asserted that Consensus American Buddhism is a “unified theory of Dharma” that combines “all the lineages of Buddhism.” The author did not include Tantra—and that was not a careless omission.
Reinventing Buddhist Tantra badly: How the Consensus borrowed practices from non-Buddhist systems to compensate for its rejection of Tantric methods. “You are unlikely to engineer a better wheel from a milk carton, three slices of cheese, and a feather duster—and are unlikely to build a better Buddhism out of miscellaneous fragments of other ideologies.”
Before they blew up, Michael Roach and Christie McNally were trying to invent a Consensus-y Buddhist Tantra for 21st century America. They failed, in a scandal that got extensive mainstream press coverage for its sensationalistic guru-death-cult angle. I wrote two posts examining their failure in religious terms instead:
Getting tantra wrong: The Roach/McNally fiasco: If you try to ban Buddhist Tantra, Americans will invent harmful substitutes. Better to make the real thing available, with suitable safeguards.
Pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws: “It’s about gender-bending, violence, and black magic in Buddhist Tantra. It’s about manic pixie dream girls and eating your shadow—and pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws. Understanding how Roach and McNally got these things wrong can help understand how to do Tantra right.”
Tantra: a history of innovation
The point of this section was to demonstrate that Buddhist Tantra
has been reinvented many times, throughout its history, to meet changing changing social, cultural, political, economic, and psychological conditions. This implies that innovation to adapt it to the 21st century is perfectly legitimate.
Modern Buddhist Tantra doesn’t exist, although it did in the 1980s. This section was also to explain how and why it was suppressed.
I didn’t write any of these posts, partly because I stopped worrying about being opposed by self-declared “traditionalists.” They were a potent political force until recently, but have become irrelevant.
Why is there no modern Buddhist tantra? An introduction and summary for the section.
Inventing Buddhist Tantra: The logic of yana. Why was Buddhist Tantra invented in the first place? Because Mahayana is incoherent in theory and ineffective in practice.
How Buddhists innovate: All Buddhisms have claimed to be the original version, taught by The Buddha Himself. None of them are; every version we know of was a later innovation. This page was to explain the rhetorical strategies of “invented traditions.”
Bodhisattvayana vs. the Huns: How Mahayana proved inadequate in the 500s.
Inventing Buddhist Tantra: The Mahasiddhas. The origin myth.
Sufficiently advanced technology “… is indistinguishable from magic.” How Vajrayana reached Tibet and took root there.
Reinventing Buddhist Tantra: 500-1500. How Tantra was reinvented over and over again to meet new needs in different places and times.
Preventing Buddhist Tantra: 1500-1959. All across Asia, increasingly centralized governments saw Tantra as an independent source of power, and therefore as a threat. They suppressed and/or tightly regulated it. “The State Apparat for the Prevention of Buddhas.”
Tibet fails to modernize: 1793-1959. I have written many posts about how Theravada and Japanese Buddhism modernized. That began in the late 1700s, and was fully accomplished around 1900. Forward-looking Tibetans saw the same opportunity, but were foiled by the aristocracy, who saw modernization as a threat to their privileges.
Vajrayana in the land of the red-faced men: 1967-1992. Tibetan Tantra finally modernized in the diaspora to the West, as innovative lamas were freed from aristocratic-theocratic control. As the Theravadan kingdoms democratized, Tantric Theravada also came out of hiding.
Preventing Buddhist Tantra: 1992-2005. How American Consensus Buddhist leaders collaborated with the Tibetan theocracy-in-exile to suppress modernized Vajrayana.
(I told a small but key part of this story in “Why Westerners rebranded secular ethics as “Buddhist” and banned Tantra,” which was part of a different blog series on this site.)
Reinventing Tantra in Tibet: 1980-? Although the 1959 Chinese invasion and subsequent oppression has been mostly catastrophic for Tibetan Buddhism, the destruction of the sclerotic and repressive Tibetan aristocracy/theocracy freed lamas such as Jigmed Phuntsok to develop innovative new forms in Tibet.
Modern Western Buddhist Tantra
This section was to explain the modernized Tibetan Vajrayana of the 1970s-80s, developed in the West by lamas such as Tarthang Tulku, Chögyam Trungpa, Lama Yeshe, and Ngakpa Chögyam.
What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean? An introduction and overview.
Finding a teacher of modern Buddhist Tantra: You can’t, because there aren’t any. Oops! I recommend some near-misses, though.
Secular Buddhist Tantra
Buddhist tantra for non-Buddhists? Secular rationalists hunger for meaningful ritual that is also compatible with a modern, Western, naturalistic world-view. Ritual connects us, creating communities; raises energy and brings feelings of wonder, ecstasy, motivation, and commitment; points to what we care about most, and widens our view. This, a naturalized, secularized Buddhist tantra can provide.
Shambhala Training was secular Vajrayana: The clearest example of modern Vajrayana to date. Unfortunately, it was an unfinished work, no longer exists in its original form, and it might be somewhat obsolete if it did.
Naturalizing Buddhist Tantra
Naturalizing Buddhist tantra: Tantra is not inherently supernatural. We can remove all the gods, demons, and magic if we want, without losing anything important.
Degrees of naturalization: It’s a continuum. How important is scientific explanation for you?
Four strategies for naturalizing religion: Mainstream Buddhism has used these to eliminate supernatural elements. Tantric Buddhism could use them all too, but I think some are better than others.
Why did magic matter in Buddhist tantra? Tantra is the getting-stuff-done branch of Buddhism. Magic was a means to that end—not an end in itself. We have better ways to get stuff done now—and Tantra can contribute.
The surprising modernity of early Dzogchen: The Tantric reformers of the late 20th century drew mainly on Dzogchen, an atypical branch of Vajrayana that is exceptionally compatible with modern (and postmodern) attitudes.
Naturalizing Tantric practices
Two of the most important practices of Vajrayana are yidam, in which you adopt the sensory experience of a Buddha and thereby become one, and tsalung, the direct manipulation of energy. Both of these were traditionally understood in magical terms, but they actually work, so I intended to re-present them in naturalistic terms.
Buddhist tantra is not about techniques: Viewing tantra as technology is, ironically, a roadblock to necessary innovations.
Yidams: a godless approach, naturally! This was the first post in what was supposed to be a series of five. The version I published does also include brief summaries of the remaining four, which are unfinished.
There were supposed to be a half-dozen posts on tsalung, but I completed only one, which was not meant to be the first:
A killer app for modern Vajrayana? This discusses a specific tsalung practice from the Shambhala Training system. Unfortunately, the details are secret, so I couldn’t give a detailed description, but I explained why something similar could be central for some future Vajrayana.
Reinventing Buddhist myth and ritual
Modern ideology mainly rejected myth and ritual. These are powerful tools that can be made compatible with secular rationalism if it is understood that they do not make factual claims. I planned many posts about this, but finished only a couple.
What ritual feels like when it works: Ritual intensifies, concentrates, and directs meaning. It inspires, it produces ecstatic states of consciousness, it provides purpose, and drives commitment and action. It connects us to each other, creating communities; it ends alienation. It creates experiences of wonderment, which open us to a wider view.
Ritual vs. mentalism: Reviewing a book on the value of ritual.
Revulsion at bad behavior by some teachers of Tantra is a major source of Consensus opposition to Vajrayana. The revulsion is justified, and the opposition is well-intended. It is based on the belief that such abuse is an inevitable consequence of the power dynamics of the teacher/student relationship, described as “the guru model” and supposedly alien to Western culture. This is mostly a misunderstanding.
The power dynamics are not at all alien to the West; they are alien only to the contemporary American classroom model of teaching. The relationship between a PhD supervisor and a doctoral candidate is quite similar, as is the vocational master-apprentice system that is still common in parts of Europe. These do sometimes lead to similar patterns of abuse or neglect. So, of course, do pastor-flock relationships in Christianity and other religions.
The Consensus also believes that a specific “guru model” is intrinsic to Vajrayana, which makes it fatally flawed and unworkable in the West. This is also mostly a misunderstanding. There is no single model; teacher/student relationships are highly varied in Vajrayana. Each of them is culturally specific to some degree, so it is legitimate to find alternatives in different cultures. In ours, some sort of institutional oversight would probably be helpful.
Dispelling the complex related misunderstandings—stemming from Protestant anti-clericalism, Puritan morality, leftish politics, and obsolete educational theories—would be a lot of work, for which my outline has a dozen or so draft pages. It seems doable.
More important is to explain what Vajrayana actually requires of the relationship, abstractly and in principle, before filling in alternative cultural details. Tantra is not a collection of ideas and practices; it is a way of being. It requires the student to be willing to change their way of being on the basis of the teacher’s advice—and not just collect ideas and practices. It requires that the teacher embodies, and visibly displays, that way of being. It requires also that the teacher gives individualized advice and feedback that addresses the distinctive way of being of the student. This requires extensive one-on-one collaboration, so that the teacher and student can both observe each other’s way of being accurately. This too seems doable, in principle.
What I have no good idea about is who could actually do the job. Currently, no one who is capable of teaching Tantra wants to do it in a way compatible with current Western culture. When I started this project, I think I must have had some vague notion that my explanations might persuade some of them to try. It was when I realized that this is unrealistic that I abandoned the whole project.
Rebuilding a shattered world with Vajrayana
This section was the actual point of the whole series, but I never got to it. In retrospect, I ought to have started here.
Everything leading up to it was preliminaries and conceptual background, which I felt was needed to make it understandable and legitimate-seeming. That was probably mostly unnecessary; and it could have been filled in later as needed.
In effect, I’ve continued this project in a different guise as Sailing the seas of meaningness. Although that doesn’t use Buddhist vocabulary, it applies a Tantric understanding to address our current crisis of meaning.
“Desiderata for any future mode of meaningness” is an introduction to that project.