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…

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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 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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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What the Buddha REALLY said

We don’t know—and we have no way to find out.

Ronald Hutton, Triumph of the Moon

In the 1980s, I practiced Wicca. Wicca is the original, pre-Christian, goddess-centered nature religion of Europe. Despite centuries of persecution and the burning of millions of Wiccans as “witches,” it survived underground to modern times. When the British Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1951,1 courageous Wiccans began, cautiously, to practice their religion in public.

Well… that’s all hogwash, of course. It was obvious to skeptical Wiccans in the 1980s that our religion was an invented tradition, devised sometime in the twentieth century. It has only the vaguest of connections with pre-Christian European paganism. What we didn’t know, and had no way to find out, is whodunnit, and how, where, why, or quite when. Wicca’s inventors justified the religion as “ancient wisdom,” and they covered their tracks thoroughly. Their fabricated history was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of Wiccans. The inventors of other Neopaganisms adapted the Wiccan “unbroken secret tradition” mythology to their own systems. But as far as we skeptics were concerned, Wicca was a wonderful religion, regardless of where it came from.

The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, published in 1999, was a breakthrough. Ronald Hutton, a serious non-Pagan historian, made key discoveries about Wicca’s twentieth century invention, and found suggestive evidence for broader hypotheses. His treatment was sympathetic and respectful—but facts are facts.

Not surprisingly, Hutton’s work was vitriolically rejected by many practicing Neopagans. Somehow, ancientness is proof of rightness for many people. I seem to lack the brain circuits for this. I can see no reason a 75-year-old religion is, on that account, any less valid than a millennia-old one. (Was Buddhism bogus when the Buddha taught it?) On the other hand, understanding how a religion was invented, and successively re-invented, helps understand how it functions now. Some aspects of Wicca that made sense in the 1940s make no sense now.

Despite Hutton’s discoveries, and further historical research, there is much that is still not known about how Wicca came about. Some key questions probably can never be answered.

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