“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:

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 (empowerment). 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.