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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Finding a teacher of modern Buddhist Tantra

You can’t, because there aren’t any.

I’m really sorry about this. I’m afraid I’ve raised expectations that can’t be satisfied—for now, anyway.

I started writing about “modern Buddhist Tantra” mainly out of intellectual interest. I wanted to show it would be possible—and a good thing. I also had a vague idea that if I made this understood, someone would start teaching it. My hope was that creating demand would somehow conjure supply into existence.

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Two new podcasts: tantra and ritual creation

Vincent Horn interviewed me recently for the Buddhist Geeks Community. An edited version is now available as a pair of podcasts:

I enjoyed the interview considerably. Vince asked some questions I wasn’t particularly expecting, and I came up with coherent answers. I haven’t actually listened to the podcasts, because I find my own voice grating, but I’ve been told they are good!

Much of the content will be familiar if you are following the blog, but some topics came up that I haven’t covered before. Also, some folks find it easier to absorb information by voice than text.

What ritual feels like when it works

Vince Horn interviewed me today for the Buddhist Geeks Community. One of the questions he asked was about ritual. My outline has several posts on that topic—but they may be months in the future. So these are some quick thoughts on the value of ritual for contemporary religion.

His question:

This is probably one of the most confusing aspects of Vajrayana Buddhism for many folks, and perhaps also the most confusing aspect of most religions for modern people.  You make the assertion that we could have a modern tantra that is ritual-free, but that this probably isn’t a very good idea.  What are the redeeming aspects of ritual, and what might modern rituals look & feel like?

Let’s start with the biggest reason we all hate ritual. If you say “ritual,” the word that is most likely to come to mind is “empty.” Mostly, our experience of ritual is that it’s meaningless. It’s boring and stupid. It’s something we’re forced to sit through, even though we’re not enjoying it, and the values it expresses are ones we don’t agree with.

What’s more, it doesn’t seem like anyone involved really believes in what they’re doing. Even the leaders of the ritual are just going through the motions, and it doesn’t mean anything for them either. The only purpose of the whole thing is to enforce institutional continuity and power.

That’s a dead ritual. It’s a zombie ritual, and we should put a bullet in its head.

All of this is true for most Buddhist ritual as well, definitely including traditional tantric rituals, which can be super boring and pointless. In fact, they usually are.

So, basically, if you think of the exact opposite of all this, you have what ritual should be—and can be.

When it’s working, ritual is not in the least boring or stupid. It’s emotionally exciting and intellectually fascinating. It’s intensely meaningful.

In fact, that is what ritual is all about: intensifying, concentrating, and directing meaning. It inspires, it produces ecstatic states of consciousness, it provides purpose, and drives commitment and action.

Continue reading “What ritual feels like when it works”

A killer app for modern Vajrayana?

In the tech world, a “killer app” is a single program so compelling that people will buy a whole system just to run it. For example, many people bought the Xbox to play the game Halo. Some bought early smartphones for Google Maps with GPS. Then they found other uses…

Mindfulness meditation has been the killer app for mainstream modern Buddhism. Its benefits were so obvious that millions of people bought into Buddhism just to learn it.

Could modern tantric Buddhism have a killer app?

It would need to be:

  • obviously effective
  • with clearly different results from mindfulness meditation
  • easy to learn
  • easy to practice, requiring minimal time, equipment, or preparation
  • naturalistic and secular—not supernatural or overtly religious
  • teachable by people with relatively modest qualifications

I have defined the method of Buddhist tantra as “unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion,” so that’s how the killer should work. I’ve defined the aim as “mastery, power, play, and nobility,” so that’s what the killer app should produce.

(How many people would buy into a whole system to get that?)

Surprisingly, there is a practice that might deliver on all those promises. It is one of the “windhorse” practices of Shambhala Training.

Continue reading “A killer app for modern Vajrayana?”

Buddhist tantra for non-Buddhists?

A surprising and wonderful thing!

My Buddhist sites are increasingly read and appreciated by non-Buddhists. Particularly, they attract smart, science-y, tech-y, creative, competent readers. Some come from the LessWrong rationalist community, for instance—which I have written about and for.

Especially gratifyingly, they often go straight for my most hardcore, uncompromisingly tantric stuff—and they get it. They understand why it matters, and ask intelligent, substantive questions. This is not something I expected at all.

My Meaningness book is meant for non-Buddhists. It’s supposed to be a practical philosophy of life, inspired by Buddhism, but explicitly non-Buddhist. I expected that site to gain non-Buddhist readers like these—unusually smart people who dismiss religion and “spirituality” as nonsense, but who still face problems of meaning. (Only about 5% of that book has made it on-line, so far. Soon I hope to get back to working on it!)

Several geeky non-Buddhist readers have said that what they most want are practices of meaning that are compatible with a modern, secular world-view. Mindfulness meditation is one—but they recognize that it heads in the wrong direction for them.

The Meaningness book is supposed to be purely conceptual. It is practical, but the practice is only one of understanding—not doing. Maybe this needs a re-think.

Readers have said that what they want, specifically, are ritual methods. Among secular geeks, there is a hunger for meaningful ritual that is also compatible with a modern, Western, naturalistic world-view. Ritual that connects us, creating communities; raises energy and brings feelings of wonder, ecstasy, motivation, and commitment; points to what we care most about, and widens our view.

This, a naturalized, secularized Buddhist tantra can provide.