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.

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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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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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