Please update your subscription!

If you get notified about this post by email, or through the Wordpress site or app—you will need to change your subscription, if you want to hear about future posts.

Soon I will move Vividness off wordpress.com, and your current subscription won’t work any longer.

Instead, you can sign up for my email newsletter here.

It’s free! At most one email per week.

You could sign up for it even if you don’t subscribe to Vividness currently!

The newsletter includes updates about all my web sites, and whatever else I’m doing in public. (Apart from Twitter, of course; you can follow me there.) Plus sometimes chatty discussions, exercises to try, recommended writing and listening from other authors, and so forth.

There’s about 2500 subscribers currently. They signed up for news about my Meaningness site. I asked if they were OK to get updates for my Buddhist sites as well, and they overwhelmingly said yes.

But maybe that’s not true for you? Maybe you only want updates on Buddhist stuff? If there’s enough “we want Buddhism only” readers, I could start a second, separate email newsletter. Let me know in the comments below.

(If you get updates to Vividness by RSS, I’m pretty confident it that will continue to work after I move off WordPress. You might want to check, after the transition, though. And you might like to subscribe to the newsletter anyway!)

It’s a book

Vividness was always meant to be a book. I said so in one of the earliest posts, almost a decade ago:

A couple years ago, I noticed that the Mainstream Western Buddhist Consensus had started to crumble at the edges. Younger teachers broke out of the rigid Nice Buddhism model… I predicted this would accelerate and burst into the open in a couple of years.

So I started writing a book about it. (You can take the boy out of academia, but you can’t take academia out of the boy.) [But, history was moving fast, and I didn’t have time to write that and my other books simultaneously.] Instead of a carefully-researched book, I am going to do a blog series: a big brain dump of semi-digested ideas, odd facts, and wild-assed guesses.

This was a mistake, in retrospect. It has not been easy to fix, due to the limitations of wordpress.com and the difficulty of transferring information out of it. Recently I’ve written software to do that, and it is nearly finished.

The new version of Vividness will present a coherent book-shaped hierarchical structure. That should make it easier to understand the major points.

More Vividness, for Evolving Ground

I may write more on Vividness, more often, starting next year.

My spouse Charlie Awbery recently cofounded a community of contemporary Vajrayana practice, Evolving Ground. It’s growing rapidly and Charlie has exciting plans for its future. I haven’t had time to be involved this year; maybe in 2021. Probably I can best contribute by writing more.

I explicitly abandoned Vividness in 2014 because I couldn’t see any way to teach contemporary Vajrayana, nor did anyone else seem capable of it. Charlie is proving I was wrong.

Some preliminaries: ngöndro

Reinventing the preparatory curriculum for Buddhist tantra

“Ngöndro” is a Tibetan word that means “going before.”1 In everyday language, it can mean “pioneer,” for example. In its technical religious meaning, it refers to sets of preliminary practices.

The job of a ngondro is to get you ready to practice a corresponding Buddhist system—that is, a particular yana. “Yana” literally means “vehicle.” A yana takes you from a starting point (called its base) to a destination (the result) using a collection of methods (the path). To begin to practice a yana, you have to be at its starting point. This is not a matter of bureaucratic box-ticking requirements; it’s a matter of functional capacity. If you don’t know basic algebra, you can’t start learning calculus; it would be meaningless to try. None of it would make any sense and you wouldn’t get anywhere. So highschool algebra class is the ngöndro for calculus, one might say.

Continue reading “Some preliminaries: ngöndro”

Reinventing Buddhist Tantra: Annotated Table of Contents

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.

Continue reading “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra: Annotated Table of Contents”

Enlightenments beyond the Enlightenment

Ann Gleig’s American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity explores recent developments in American Buddhism.1 Her language is academic but simple and clear, with hardly any technical jargon; the book can be read by anyone with a basic understanding of Buddhism. Her treatment of controversies is admirably non-polemical, with even-handed (but colorful) presentation of multiple points of view on every issue.2

American Dharma may be important both for academics and for practitioners:

  • For historians, her detailed ethnographic survey includes emerging groups and trends not covered in previous works.
  • That survey may also be useful for individual practitioners who want to understand the changing lay of the land, and how our personal religious commitments may shift in response. Going well below the surface, it is not an enumeration of brands, but an exploration of fundamental themes: the new problems of meaning that various American Buddhisms address, and how.
  • Theorists may find an interpretive framework to build on in Gleig’s analysis of these movements: the mixed extension and rejection of Buddhist modernism.
  • Buddhist leaders, particularly those who hope to influence broader American culture—as Buddhism repeatedly has—would do well to think through the implications of Gleig’s analysis for their own work.

I care mostly about that last one. American Buddhism is at a turning point, and I want the people steering it to take what Gleig has to say seriously. This post is about why.

Because I’m extremely self-centered, I’ll also explain how her work relates to what I was trying to do with Vividness, and how it may influence what I may do with it later.

Continue reading “Enlightenments beyond the Enlightenment”

Yidams: a godless approach, naturally!

Rethinking a key Vajrayana Buddhist practice, for skeptics and atheists

I ain’t against gods and goddesses, in their place. But they’ve got to be the ones we make ourselves. Then we can take ’em to bits for the parts when we don’t need ’em anymore, see?

—Granny Weatherwax, in Lords and Ladies

Gods drive most people away from Vajrayana Buddhism before they even know what it’s about. That’s a pity, because it is not about gods.

As an atheist, I rejected Vajrayana for several years when I was told that it’s mostly about gods and demons and magic and stuff.

But Vajrayana (Buddhist tantra) doesn’t need gods anymore. We could take them to bits for parts, if we wanted; or just shoo them back home.

Or, better, we can agree to a new arrangement with them: we will treat them with the respect they deserve, if they stop pretending to exist.

“BUT!” you object, if you know anything about Vajrayana, “what about deity yoga?

“Deity yoga” is perhaps the most important tantric practice. It requires the cooperation of “yidams,” who are…

Continue reading “Yidams: a godless approach, naturally!”

Buddhist tantra is not about techniques

The value of Vajrayana is an attitude—the spacious passion that unclogs energy—not technical intricacies.

“Not about techniques” is a somewhat unusual view.

Traditional teachers and texts 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.

Continue reading “Buddhist tantra is not about techniques”

Imperfect Buddha podcast

Stages of maturation, Dzogchen, and the future of Buddhism.

Matthew O’Connell interviewed me recently for the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Our conversation is now up on Soundcloud, and should appear above. If that’s not working, try this link.

The Imperfect Buddha Podcast, often cohosted with Stuart Baldwin,

aims to tackle the limits of Buddhism in the West and the taboos surrounding it, whilst pushing for its radical transformation into a genuine means for individual and collective liberation.

That would be a good description of what I’m trying to do here at Vividness also, so we had lots to talk about. We ranged over many topics; Matthew titled the episode “Stages of maturation, Dzogchen, and the future of Buddhism,” and those may be the highlights.

Continue reading “Imperfect Buddha podcast”

Two podcasts: Rebuilding the ruined city of Buddhism

Buddhist ruins at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, courtesy Christoph Rooms

Two new Buddhist Geeks podcasts with Vincent Horn and me, in conversation:

This will be the first in a series of Geeks podcasts on Buddhist ethics, with a variety of guests.

I described that framework in “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” and its relevance in “Better Buddhisms: A developmental approach.”

Continue reading “Two podcasts: Rebuilding the ruined city of Buddhism”

A Trackless Path: Dzogchen in plain English

A Trackless Path by Ken McLeod

Ken McLeod has an exceptional ability to explain Vajrayana Buddhism in plain English. Dzogchen, a branch of Vajrayana, is the most difficult part of Buddhism to understand. It is also, in my opinion, the most important.

It is fortunate, then, that McLeod has just published A Trackless Path, his first book on the topic.

Continue reading “A Trackless Path: Dzogchen in plain English”

Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

Moonpaths by the Cowherds

For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers.

Buddhism has wrestled with the same problem for much longer: most of two thousand years. According to Mahayana, everything is empty. This means everything exists only as an illusion, or arbitrary human convention. “Everything” must include śīla—codes of religious discipline. (Those are the closest thing Buddhism has to morality.) “Everything” definitely includes people, the main topic of ethics.

For two millennia, authorities have acknowledged an apparent contradiction: why should we conform to śīla if it is empty, illusory, arbitrary, or mere convention? If people don’t really exist, why should we have ethical concern for them? Numerous ingenious answers have been proposed by brilliant philosophers. No one answer has been broadly accepted, which suggests none is satisfactory. Buddhists have argued endlessly, sometimes bitterly, about this problem; this continues in the contemporary West.

In this post, I will suggest that the problem lies in the Mahayana treatment of emptiness and form. Vajrayana offers a different understanding of what emptiness is and how it relates to form. In Dzogchen, this provides an alternative approach to beneficent activity. This approach seems strikingly similar to that proposed by the psychologist Robert Kegan, whose developmental ethics model and its application to Buddhism I discussed recently. I suggest that Dzogchen and Kegan’s work each cast light on the other, and together they may dissolve the foundations problem in both Western and Buddhist moral philosophy.

Continue reading “Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics”