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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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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“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.

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Why Westerners rebranded secular ethics as “Buddhist” and banned Tantra

Many of the Western creators of Consensus Buddhism say in their autobiographies that they went to Asia because they were disgusted with the sex-and-drugs hedonism of hippie culture. Coming from Protestant cultures, they were looking for a system of self-restraint, but they had rejected Christianity.

Traditional Buddhism is renunciate, not Protestant, and renunciation is also unacceptable to Americans. But Buddhist values had already been partially replaced with Protestant ones in the Asian modernist forms the Consensus founders encountered in the 1960s and 70s. They could, and did, continue that process.

The lay precepts against sexual misconduct and intoxication may have come at first as welcome repudiations of hippie self-indulgence. However, as we’ll see on the next page, they had to be loosened, reinterpreted, and effectively negated to function in America.

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Ritual vs. mentalism

Reading Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity was somewhat shocking.

The book covers many of the same topics I plan to write about, both here and in the Meaningness book; and comes to mostly the same conclusions. Does that mean my work is wasted? I’m unsure. I plan to continue regardless. In the mean time, I recommend Ritual and Its Consequences highly.

The book illuminates diverse topics using a contrast between “ritual” and “sincere” modes of being. The authors’ choice of the term “sincere” may have been unfortunate, because normally it contrasts with “insincere,” and insincerity is often a genuinely bad thing. In fact, as they observe, part of modern hostility to ritual is the belief that it is not merely non-sincere, but anti-sincere, hypocritical, or duplicitous.

Perhaps a better name for the view they contrast with ritual is “mentalism.” Mentalism, in this sense, is the idea that meaning is a matter of mental contents. The classical version says that religion is about beliefs (either true or false, or perhaps meaningless); and ethics is about intentions. Classical mentalism was promoted by the Protestant Reformation, and then by European Enlightenment rationalism. The newer Romantic version says that meaning is about feelings and experiences.

Both brands of mentalism are now central to the modern world-view. Mentalism is, in fact, so taken for granted that most people can’t imagine how it could be otherwise. “What could meaning be, if not something mental?” Traditional views in which, for instance, enlightenment is not an experience strike modern Buddhists as nonsensical: not just false, but incomprehensible.

The central point of Ritual and Its Consequences is in its subtitle: the limits of sincerity. That is, mentalism is both factually wrong and harmful. Sincerity—expressing true beliefs and correct feelings—is often valuable, but not always, and not the only value.

In the mentalist worldview, the only function of ritual could be to express beliefs or feelings. But ritual is, at best, a highly inefficient and imprecise way of doing that. Why not just say what you mean? Worse, if you interpret rituals as expression of beliefs, most of what they say is obviously false or meaningless. If you interpret them as expressions of feelings, they are mostly inauthentic. Ritual, then, is clearly a bad thing, and should be gotten rid of immediately.

This completely misses the point of ritual, however. What matters about ritual is not what it says, but what it does. And what it does is create, sustain, modify, and destroy connections and boundaries. (I have written on this blog about this as the function of Buddhist tantric ritual.)

Because modern culture denies the value of ritual, it has lost important tools for working with boundaries and connections. Therefore, it tends to fall into dualism (hardening boundaries into absolutes) and monism (denying the existence of boundaries altogether). Fundamentalism is an extreme expression of dualism; New Age woo and Buddhist All-Is-One theories of enlightenment are forms of monism. Both these are harmful failures, due in part to rejection of ritual.

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