Diversity, generalization, and authenticity

Buddhist tantra is extraordinarily diverse. Its 1400-year history, spanning most of Asia, includes many radically different, contradictory approaches. There is probably nothing they all have in common. It is impossible to generalize about tantra. Anything you might say will turn out to have an exception somewhere, or somewhen.

In my overview, I will often write “tantra is X,” or “tantra says Y,” or “tantric practice does Z.” As generalizations, these will always be false.

What I mean is: “It seems to me that tantra can be X, say Y, or do Z—and I think that’s a good thing. That is the approach to tantra I favor.”

I will often also explain tantra by contrasting it with other forms of Buddhism. Then I will say “tantra is not X”; and what I mean is “tantra doesn’t have to be X, and X is not part of the approach I favor.”

To write the long versions of these out, each time, would become cumbersome. So, I’ll substitute the simpler versions. But, please bear in mind that these are shorthand.

This is risky. If you are not familiar with other presentations of Buddhist tantra, you may get a seriously skewed, narrow perspective. If you find what I have to say interesting, you certainly should read other authors to get a broader view.

If you do already know something about tantra, it may seem that I make absurd, sweeping statements, probably based on ignorance and arrogance. Perhaps you can give me the benefit of the doubt by mentally reattaching the qualifiers: “it seems possible to me that tantra could…”

Tradition, authenticity, and innovation

In a series titled “reinventing Buddhist tantra,” the approach is, naturally, non-traditional. This may upset some readers.

If you have studied traditional Tibetan tantra, you may find some statements not only overly broad, but actually wrong. That is, when I say “tantra is X,” you may believe that tantra is never X, and couldn’t be X. It may seem unrecognizable as Buddhist tantra to you. There, we may have an actual difference of opinion, which we might discuss.

However, I believe there’s little or nothing new in my content. By “reinvention,” I mean mainly “re-presentation”: changes in language and format, but not in substance. I am only pointing out implications of current cultural conditions for tantra, and vice versa. Still, stylistic innovations may be drastic enough that there appears to be a change in essentials. (Or, I may just be mistaken about what is essential and what is merely Tibetan or Indian traditional culture.)

It may be useful sometimes to mentally replace the word “tantra” with “Chapman’s confused ideas.” Then maybe you like my ideas, or you don’t, and we can discuss that. That would probably be more useful than arguing about whether or not something is “really” Buddhist tantra.

What does “really” mean? Different tantric systems are wildly different. How similar does something have to be to count as “really” tantra? There can be no rule about that.

Many Tibetans are obsessed with “authenticity.” Since different Tibetan tantric systems contradict each other, they engage in vicious arguments, trying to prove that their version is “authentic.”

“Authentic” is usually equated with “most ancient.” That makes “reinvention” an unpopular idea among Tibetan Buddhists.

The objective fact, though, is that no existing Tibetan Buddhist system is “authentic” in this sense. “Traditional” Tibetan Buddhism, as now taught, mostly dates only to the 1600s and 1700s. (Few Tibetan teachers realize this.) Tibetan Buddhism has, in fact, continually reinvented itself in new forms suitable for new times.

The approach to Buddhist tantra I advocate has more in common with the tantra of the year 959 than 1959. It draws as much on Indian Buddhism as Tibetan Buddhism. So, in a sense, it is far more traditional than what is usually taught now by Tibetans.

That is, however, not the reason for my approach. I have zero interest in justifying anything through tradition. Rather, in 2012 in America, I find some aspects of 959’s Indian tantra more useful than 1959’s Tibetan tantra. (I will write much more about the historical dimensions of tantra in later posts.)

Not arguing with fundamentalists

Unfortunately, some American students of Tibetan Buddhism enjoy a kind of Buddhist fundamentalism. They love to argue about arcane points of dogma by quoting scripture (or, more often, textbook commentaries on scripture). They denounce other Tibetan Buddhist sects as “inauthentic” and sometimes even “demonic.”

I’m unwilling to engage with that sort of discourse here.

I will make no attempt to prove that anything I say is “authentic.” I consider that word meaningless. Much of what I say is certainly “untraditional,” and perhaps even “innovative.” If tradition is important to you, you may wish to read something else instead.

Tibetan fundamentalists like to demand scriptural authority for anything they are unsure of. Although little, if any, of what I have to say is new, I have zero interest in proof through scripture. I’ll ignore such demands.

Sources are important to me, though. If you are genuinely interested to learn more about anything I’ve said, I will usually be able to suggest further reading.

For the same reason, I will often connect my presentation with the more traditional language. In some cases, the wording I use is so different that it may not be obvious what traditional teaching I’m drawing on. In those cases, I’ll relate it back to the more common approach. That is not to justify what I say as compatible with tradition, but to give a route into relevant literature.