How to learn Buddhist tantra

Fallen skier getting up awkwardly

You can’t learn it from books, or from stuff you find on the internet. You can’t learn it in a classroom. You can’t figure it out by yourself.

You can only learn it from someone who can do it. How?

Read the missing manual

It’s common to spend the first few years of involvement with Buddhist tantra flailing. You don’t know how to learn it; you feel you are somehow missing the point, and you are right. The ways you have learned other things mostly won’t work here.

Tantra is a “way of being.” Explanations of how to learn those are scarce. I have some familiarity with being a scientist, engineer, manager, and entrepreneur. There are books and university courses for these fields, which explain theories and methods. Mainly they don’t explain the ways of being.

As an undergraduate, you learn how to learn theories and methods, from books and classes. That is the undergraduate way of being. You don’t learn how to be a scientist or a manager. You don’t even know what that means. You can’t learn it in a classroom. If you are lucky, you learn it through individual apprenticeship in graduate school, or on the job.

This web page is a “manual” for how to learn to be a tantrika: how to learn the tantric way of being. That becomes relevant only once you’ve learned enough about tantra that you have a sense of what it means, and are inspired to take it on.

This page is not about what tantra is, or about the way of being; just about how to learn it. That is a major commitment: maybe a hundred hours of formal practice to get a taste, and a thousand for basic proficiency with the methods.

Vividness includes an introduction to Buddhist tantra, starting here. Before taking on tantric practice, I would recommend much additional reading, meditation, and preliminary involvement with a sangha.

The manual collects bits of informal advice I’ve heard various teachers give orally. Most of it seems never to have been written down elsewhere. I have not gone beyond beginning-to-intermediate practice of Vajrayana, and have no particular insight. However, I have found each point generally accurate, based on observation and personal experience.

Tantric systems are diverse, and every student and every teacher of tantra is different, so some may not apply to you. Disregard anything here that conflicts with your own teacher’s and sangha’s guidelines.

I’ve compiled this primarily for students of non-traditional teachers, whose style may be closer to Western relational models than traditional Asian ones. Much of it may apply to students in more traditional systems, though. Some may be useful for anyone engaged in any sort of learning relationship.

The manual is particularly relevant if you are joining, or considering joining, the Evolving Ground tantric sangha, taught by my spouse Charlie Awbery. It does not necessarily apply for other, non-tantric participants in Evolving Ground, although it may help make the most of your experience there in any case.

The readers most likely to take advice seriously may be those who need it least, so they may over-apply it; and those who need it most are likely to ignore it. For instance, the recommendation to “stop pretending to be a student” might needlessly worry some serious meditators who could doubt their commitment; whereas dabblers might not notice it is about them. In case of doubt, ask your teacher.

Know what works, and what doesn’t

I have good news: it’s really simple. Basic tantric practices work. If you do the work to make them work, you get their advertised results.1

What doesn’t work is not doing the practices. Much of this manual explains reasons you might not. This may seem a wee bit negative. More good news: there are remedies for each obstacle to practice. I hope you take the advice collected here as profoundly positive in intent and effect.

Rely on a teacher

This manual is mainly about how to learn by working with a teacher of Buddhist tantra, one-on-one or in small groups.2 I may follow it up with a page about how to relate to fellow students in a vajra sangha,3 another necessary resource for learning the way of being.

Understand why you need a teacher

Personally, I would rather figure everything out myself. I am arrogant, introverted, and stubborn. This does not work in Vajrayana. You can’t figure it out for yourself. You need a teacher, and you need to take their advice.4

Part of the teacher’s job used to be to explain secret methods. Nowadays, you can find instructions for nearly all tantric practices on the internet. Many people read those, try them, and are disappointed. I don’t know of anyone who has gotten far that way. That’s probably because:

A teacher can help with each of these problems—if you understand what you need to do to make their work feasible. Many natural-seeming ways of relating to teachers don’t work. These can waste years of your time, as well as time and energy from your teacher and fellow students.

Develop mutual autonomous trust

A system may have official, written expectations of teachers and students. However, the asymmetrical learning relationship necessarily starts out somewhat nebulous, and not deeply committed on either side.5 It depends on developing mutual autonomous trust, that you will each carry out your roles well enough. This deepens over many years, as you learn about each other through interaction.

It is only when you are relating to someone as a student that they can relate to you as a teacher. This is not a matter of formal roles (although those can be useful as reminders, or as organizational infrastructure). It is a mode of interaction, which can be engaged or suspended at any moment, depending on context and purpose. It operates only as a matter of immediate, mutual appreciation.

The student must have an attitude of open curiosity and acceptance of counsel. The teacher must have an attitude of caring interest in the student’s development as a whole person. Learning the way of being emerges from embodying these attitudes in interaction.

Enjoying the personality display of the teacher is critical to their function. If you had the opportunity to spend time with Shakespeare, you wouldn’t ask for technical advice about your writing. (What a wasted opportunity!) You’d want to hang out and find out what he was like. What sort of person could write what he did?

Reach the base first

Buddhist tantra has experience of emptiness as its “base,” or functional prerequisite. This isn’t an arbitrary bureaucratic requirement; the practices can’t work if you don’t have at least some familiarity with non-conceptual experience. You can follow the practice instructions without that, but will be missing the central point. Without the ability to apprehend “apparitional forms” (such as yidams and energetic channels) as also empty, the tendency is either to treat them as arbitrary products of creative imagination, or to concretize them as definitely existing entities. Both misunderstandings proceed into magical wish-fulfillment fantasies, which are not at all the function of tantra.

Getting to the base—learning to recognize emptiness—isn’t easy, and typically also requires personal guidance from a teacher. Finding the base is not tantra, it’s ngöndro, which I’ve written a bit about previously.

Practice diligently

Vajrayana is hard work. Roughly, an hour per day of formal practice, on most days, is a minimum effective dose. If that sounds like a lot, work up to it gradually. But you are unlikely even to reach the base with much less than an hour’s meditation per day over many months, or a few years. You should probably be comfortable with hour-long emptiness-oriented meditation sessions before beginning tantric practice.

Intensive retreats, with many hours of meditation per day, can accelerate progress and deepen your experience and understanding, in ways no amount of hour-per-day practice can. They’re an occasional must-do, but a bit risky, so seek an experienced teacher’s guidance before embarking on one.

Find confidence and inspiration

It’s hard to do that much hard work. You need to be confident that it’s going to pay off, and you need the inspiration to want it to pay off.

Maybe the teacher’s most important job is to say: “I did it, it worked, it was worth it.”

Anyone can say that, so you shouldn’t necessarily believe it. A teacher can function for you only if you have confidence in them, so that’s a main criterion in choosing one. What they say may be less significant than how they say it—do you find them credible? And can you see that their way of being is intriguingly and inspiringly different?

Adjust your practice when it goes wrong

Most tantric methods are somewhat weird and complicated and difficult. There’s many ways they can go slightly wrong, and not work, or even cause harm. Part of the job of the teacher is to help you figure out what’s happening then, and what you can do differently. Much of this manual is about asking the right sorts of questions to get actionable answers from your teacher.

Integrate practice, self, and life

Practice sessions can be a refuge from ugly mundane life. Setting aside some time and space as sacred can maintain a spark of vitality in over-busy or oppressive periods that otherwise might send you into distracted exhaustion or resignation.

An aim of tantra is to see everything as sacred. So, when you can, bring that sense with you from your meditation into shopping trips and family conflicts and work emails.

Likewise, bring the liveliness of your “ordinary” self from the daily life to the meditation cushion. The specifics of your circumstances are irrelevant, but the passionate energy of your involvement, your lust for people and projects and beautiful things, is rocket fuel for Buddhist tantra.

Isolating practice from reality as “special” risks turning it into kitsch, and into irrelevance, and then into a chore. When practice does seem like a dull chore, it’s probably because it’s not connecting with you and your life.

Discover what you want

Not knowing what you want is an unavoidable initial obstacle. You can’t know: because you don’t know what is possible, and you don’t know what it would be like. Until you do know, you will be doing studenting wrong. Because this is inevitable, it’s something to accept, notice, work on, and gradually sort out. You do that through experience of what Vajrayana makes available.

Tantra deliberately magnetizes you with theatrical intensity and vivid complexity. It has to do that, because its actual point cannot be communicated other than through extensive participation. Traditional presentations used bait and switch marketing. Such chicanery seems better avoided in a contemporary setting.

Even when tantra is presented as honestly as possible, whatever initial inspiration draws you in will be somewhat off the mark. It’s not pointing in quite the direction that Vajrayana aims for. Whatever you think you want, it will be a wish-fulfillment fantasy in part, whereas Vajrayana can be grittily realistic.

From a trailhead on the edge of wilderness, you mostly can’t see where the path goes until you get there. You glimpse far-off peaks, but you don’t know what butterfly meadows you may pause to enjoy on the way there, nor what dangerous river gorges you may have to cross. You can’t tell whether those peaks are worth the trouble, or if you’d rather stop and camp by a lake. The path forks repeatedly; you will get choices about where to go. Buddhist tantra is vast, with innumerable interesting way-points.

So, as a beginner, you stand around at the trailhead dithering and gossiping about what might be possible. You hear travel stories from people who’ve been out there; they sound attractive, but vague and conflicting. Until you’ve gone many miles along a track and soaked your sore feet in a glacial icemelt stream and started to get a sense of the territory, you aren’t actually learning anything—just collecting infotainment.

Stop pretending to be a student

If you don’t know what you want, but think you may want something that may be available in a system, you hang out, acting like you see other students acting, and hope it somehow eventually becomes clear. This is not a bad strategy, and probably inevitable at first, because you don’t know how to learn.

If you are still doing that after a year or two, something has gone wrong. This is too common. Every vajra sangha has people who have been around for years or decades who haven’t even started learning, because they are only pretending to be students. They’re enjoying a social scene, but have not figured out what it’s about, and don’t even notice they don’t know.

Vajrayana is a matter of life and death. You have very little time before you die. Don’t waste it on pretending.

Consider the possibility that you are not a student. Maybe you don’t even want to be a student? It’s frightening and a ton of work. Something attracted you to tantra, but it might not be worth it. At some point, either you have to go for it, or it’s better to drop it and do something else you want more.

If you want to enter the tantric way of being, and you realize you are only pretending to be a student, it’s time to stop and reassess your situation.6 Step out of the default social script for studenting! Ask your teacher bluntly, and ask yourself, what you need to do differently to get serious and stop fooling around.

Most often, the answer is “actually do the practice you have been given.” It’s comfortable and natural to substitute talking about the practice for doing it.

Meditation practice can be joyful and inspiring, but it can also be a dull grind. If it’s consistently unattractive, so you aren’t really doing it, tell your teacher that. They may be able to help you figure out why. Pretending it’s going fine, and then gradually not doing it, or never even getting seriously started, is a common early failure mode.

If you don’t practice, you can’t learn, because mainly you learn Vajrayana by asking your teacher questions about problems you encounter in practice. This is why you can’t learn most of it from books or classes, and you can’t figure it out on your own. Carrying over learning habits from school is an obstacle here. There is no point learning about a practice you don’t do.

That would be like learning about skiing. You read a whole lot of skiing technique books, and then hang out on an internet skiing forum, explaining your expert opinions about how most people get it wrong. You’ve never been out on a ski slope, because you don’t like getting cold, and anyway you’d probably fall over a lot, even on the easy runs, and that wouldn’t be any fun at all.

Learning tantra is more like learning a skill than like school. If you have taken guitar lessons or skiing lessons or something like that, it’s a better model. It’s not fully accurate either, though, because although tantra includes skills, that’s not the main thing, which is a way of being. You can tell whether or not you are skiing; you cannot tell, at first, whether you are practicing tantra, because you don’t know what it is.

You learn to ski by falling down, and if you have an instructor, they tell you why you fell down, and what to do differently. Same with tantra.

Your Vajrayana teacher will ask “how is your practice going?” Usually they mean: tell me exactly what you are doing when you fall down, and what awkward position you land in. A ski instructor does not want to hear a long story about how you feel about skiing, or a detailed account of a successful run, as if that were interesting. Your Vajrayana teacher doesn’t either. Your feelings about meditation are the same as everyone else’s, however unusual they may seem, and the teacher has heard it all 2,357 times before.

Instead, the teacher can be useful if you say “I do this, but then that happens, which seems bad. Is there a better way of doing this, or is it inevitable as a beginner, or what?”

How you feel about skiing, or Vajrayana, does affect your motivation. Although the autobiographical details are usually irrelevant, letting your teacher know when you are discouraged or enthusiastic can be important. Discouragement may be due to practice flaws they can help you correct. Enthusiasm may mean you are ready to take on a more difficult practice.

Ask raw questions

Buddhist tantra gives you tools to change your way of being. It changes your mind texture, your relationships, your ideas about yourself. How badly do you want to change? It is sometimes frightening or unpleasant or wearisome.

You need to work at understanding your situation, your practice, where it is going. When you ask your teacher a question, is it because you want to understand, or are you just collecting factoids? Is it a real question or a fake question?

Do you need to understand? Or are you just pretending to be a student?

These are raw questions:

When I do this practice for working with emotions, I don’t feel any positive ones. I’ve got plenty of access to the negative ones! Am I going to get positive ones eventually? Where are they? Why can’t I find them? Am I doing the practice wrong??

That could be urgent. It could also be difficult to admit your negativity to the teacher, particularly if you anticipate the answer “you are hopelessly emotionally broken” or “yes, you are doing it wrong, because you are an inadequate person,” or if you worry the teacher will take it as a hostile challenge to the value of the practice.

You gave me this practice, I wasn’t getting much out of it, so I got creative and brought something completely different into it, and then suddenly the practice began to work! So, isn’t it better to invent my own practices that work for me personally, instead of relying on traditional ones that don’t?

In this case, the teacher’s answer was: “That wasn’t what this practice is about. Your modification finally got you to the base! What you experienced isn’t the thing itself, it’s the prerequisite for the thing. Now you can actually begin doing the original practice!”

“Oh, I thought that was what the result was supposed to be,” said the student.

“No, that’s the base. I’m glad you made it there!”

I got into Buddhism because I was afraid of death. I grew up Christian, but stopped believing, and that was awful. When I discovered Buddhism, rebirth made more sense. I had different reasons for practicing at different times, but hope for a good rebirth was a thread that went through the whole thing. In the past couple years, I’ve developed a much more science-y worldview, and I’ve realized I don’t really believe in rebirth anymore. That’s taken away a lot of my motivation for practice. I think about death too much, and that’s scary and depressing. Is there a Buddhist way I can think about death without rebirth that isn’t depressing? How can I be motivated to practice if everything will end permanently when I die?

That question was a matter of life and death. The asker was deadly serious. He was scared to ask, in case the teacher said “you must believe in rebirth to be a Buddhist, get out of here”; but he needed an answer. He was willing to risk the teacher’s disapproval by being honest about where he was at, and what he wanted, because a good enough answer might change his life.

Be honest about where you are at and what you want. Risk the question if the answer matters.

Act on advice

Take your teacher’s answers seriously enough to immediately, actually, significantly change what you are doing.

The alternative is “considering” it as an interesting theoretical possibility. Maybe then you will act on it at some indefinite point in the future. Why not now? If there is a specific reason, discuss it with your teacher. If there isn’t—why are you stalling?

You need to trust that your teacher’s advice is likely to be accurate and safe. In dramatic cases, use common sense. Don’t jump off a cliff if your teacher tells you to; find a different teacher, and maybe put out a warning. This is rare (although admittedly not as rare as it should be).

More realistically, you need to trust that your teacher knows you well enough to give you personally relevant advice. Generic advice, recommending some harmless weak sauce practice, can waste your time. Teachers do that for their own safety. A teacher needs to trust you to use personalized advice sensibly, and not somehow misunderstand it as telling you to jump off a cliff. (That is also rare, and not as rare as it should be.) They also don’t want to waste time on students who only want to talk about themselves, and who won’t find practice suggestions sufficiently motivating to act on them.

You establish mutual, autonomous trust by being honest about where you are at, and where you want to go, and then taking advice to heart.

The teacher says “since what you have been doing isn’t working so well, here is something else you can try, and see what happens.” Or, “you’ve pretty well mastered your current practice, so you are ready to switch to doing the next, more advanced thing instead.” So, try that seriously for a while. If it doesn’t work, go back and say:

Maybe you thought you were doing the practice, but actually you were doing something somewhat different, which the teacher can clarify. Or maybe you are unusual, and need to do some other practice; but the only way for the teacher to discover this is your seriously attempting the practice given first, and finding specifically how it doesn’t work for you.

Eschew submissive strategizing

Two common, opposite failure modes: being submissive in relation to your teacher, and acting like you are equal to them. These are connected with seeing the teacher as special, and as ordinary. Your teacher is neither—and neither are you. They know more than you, and can do things you can’t yet, but they aren’t magic.

The most dramatic consequences of submissiveness involve abusive sexual or financial misconduct by teachers. It is important to be aware of, and to avoid, that possibility. This is a widely-known and fairly well-understood problem. It is caused in part by importing traditional norms of teacher-student interactions (the authoritarian “guru model”) into contemporary society, where they mostly don’t work well. I won’t say more about this here: not to minimize the issue, but because it’s a well-known problem, which has been discussed many times elsewhere in detail.7

Catastrophic failures of the traditional authoritarian model are one motivation for supporting an egalitarian alternative; but that doesn’t work either, for reasons discussed later.

Developing a new model for teacher-student relationships is a main challenge for contemporary Vajrayana. Currently, each non-traditional teacher is improvising patterns, based on experience of what works for them and their students. These are diverse, although “apprenticeship” describes many of them. Perhaps in time a consensus of best practices will emerge.

This page is practical, not theoretical, so instead I’ll point out non-dramatic ways acting submissively prevents you from learning.

If you are excessively submissive, acting as a stereotypical sycophantic acolyte, the teacher can’t see who you are, or what’s going on with you, so they can’t intervene helpfully. Submissiveness can be a way of hiding your self, and thereby protecting yourself from accurate, unwelcome feedback.

Put a different way, the contrasting errors of submissiveness and arrogance correspond to being too credulous and being stubbornly skeptical. When you are too credulous, you accept teachings that make no sense to you as Holy Truths. When you are too skeptical, you reject teaching you don’t like, again without adequate understanding.

Some major opportunities for learning are saying to your teacher:

You might not want to say those things, because the teacher’s replies could be uncomfortable:

Glossing over your resistance makes specific, personalized advice like this, critical to learning Vajrayana, unavailable.

Admit your teacher is not special

You might like to think your teacher is special and you are ordinary. That would transfer responsibility for your spiritual development from you to them—which would be great if it worked! But it doesn’t.

Many traditional versions of tantra encourage you to think that way. The guru has some essential characteristic (“enlightenment”) that is clearly distinct from those of normal human beings. The implicit promise is that they can magically make you special too, and that’s the point of the whole thing.

Then, years along the path, the teacher might let you in on the Big Secret: There is no special or ordinary anywhere.

Mind blown! This switcheroo can be extremely effective for some people. But I think mostly we’d do well to short circuit that now. Let’s go straight to “there is no special or ordinary,” and explore what that implies for our everyday lives. Recognizing that the teacher is neither special nor ordinary is a good place to start.

Teachers may act special, for various reasons, among them to point toward the possibility of non-ordinariness. Dramatic, charismatic, eccentric self-presentation makes the point that the teacher is not ordinary. Puncturing the delusion of mundanity may be helpful, even when the arrow flies further on in a somewhat inaccurate direction. This is the mode particularly of “outer tantra,” the division of Vajrayana concerned with relating to sacredness as external, and purifying yourself in preparation for encountering it.

A charismatic teacher can be magnetizing and inspiring, and if that motivates you to practice, it’s valuable. Allowing, or encouraging, an enduring illusion of specialness is a common teaching error. Likewise, just basking in the radiance of the teacher’s personality display is a common student error, leaving you stuck in ordinariness.

A related error is relating to the teacher’s fame or institutional position, as if your association with them will increase your own status. “I am a student of Fancy Lama X” is sometimes used as namedropping, like having a minor relationship with a Hollywood personality. Are we supposed to care that you walk your dog in the same park as Kim Kardashian, and sometimes she says hi and you make smalltalk about your pets?

Progress in Vajrayana requires concrete understanding, not just borrowed holiness. Traditionally, the more advanced the students, the less special the teacher acts, and the more down-to-earth their presentation. A teacher of outer tantra wears gorgeous embroidered robes and sits on a tall gilded throne, so you can see they are Special. A dzogchen teacher may seem utterly mundane. Unless you know what to look for and are highly perceptive, you may miss their main teaching: a way of being that is spontaneously responsive to context and purpose, and therefore neither ordinary nor special.

A friend of mine attended a tantric ritual empowerment given by a famous lama in Kathmandu.8 After hours of intense performance, he finally finished the prescribed structure. He staggered down from the throne, peeled off his magnificent priestly outfit, and collapsed on the floor in front of everyone, in his underwear, panting and obviously exhausted. Once he’d drunk some water and some raksi, and recovered a bit, he gave a couple hours of spontaneous teaching on dzogchen, sitting on the floor in his underwear.

Dzogchen was the primary teaching of this lama, and his contrasting dual performance communicated the essential difference between tantra and dzogchen.9 Tantra is magnificent but can be exhausting and silly; dzogchen is relaxed but easy to mistake for ordinariness and triviality.

You may know the parable about the guy who came to a Zen master asking for teaching, but kept interrupting with his own opinions. The master likened him to a full cup, into which no more tea could be poured. “Come back when you have emptied your cup; then I can give you some tea,” he said. The first part of this makes a good point, but the second could be misleading. A teacher can’t pour Vajrayana into your head; they aren’t magic, and that’s not how learning works. You can’t just sit at their feet passively accepting their holy wisdom; you need to actively work at understanding.

Let go of egalitarian individualism

If you want to become a research chemist, you don’t get together with some friends and sit in a circle sharing your feelings about chemistry. You find someone who does cutting-edge chemistry and you learn from them. When you start out, they have done many full-time years more study and practice of chemistry than you. If they know chemistry and you don’t, you can’t teach them. Possibly they can teach you, but not if you think you are equal with regards to chemistry. You aren’t.

Somehow, while no one finds this problematic in case of chemistry, it’s strongly resisted in other domains. There’s even scientific fields in which everyone feels morally entitled to an equal opinion. Quantum mechanics, for example.10 I know people who love to go on for hours, lecturing anyone who will listen, explaining their confident understanding of quantum and its implications for consciousness, time travel, healing, and God—but they couldn’t pass a high school physics exam. Somehow they don’t consider that relevant.

Unless you have done years of full-time work in the field, a PhD or equivalent, your opinions about quantum mechanics are meaningless. It’s actually difficult stuff.

Unless you have done years of full-time tantric study and practice, a three-year retreat11 or equivalent, your opinions about it are meaningless. It’s actually difficult stuff.

“Spirituality” is one of those domains everyone feels they have a moral right to an opinion about, which is as good as anyone else’s.12 Such domains somehow transfer the Western liberal tradition of egalitarian individualism from the moral, legal, and political realms, where it is critically important and mainly correct, into others in which it’s irrelevant and absurd.

One reason for this error is that, whereas it’s reasonable to suppose that any chemistry professor at a regular university has a mainly accurate and adequate understanding of chemistry, it’s difficult to know whether someone who claims to be a spiritual teacher has an accurate or adequate understanding of their domain.13 Then it’s tempting to adopt the nihilistic attitude that distinctions are impossible, and no one knows anything significant that you don’t. You can figure it all out, as well as anyone else, by reading some web pages and doing some mushrooms.

The individualist idea that “it’s about experience, and only I can know my experience” also contributes. However, you probably mostly don’t notice or understand the aspects of experience that Vajrayana addresses. Your experience, in these aspects, is probably also not relevantly different from anyone else’s. You need someone to point out significant features that you have been overlooking, and that are difficult to describe, although they are common.

“Can’t we all be teachers to each other?” No. You could teach your chemistry professor to ski, if you know how, but you can’t teach them chemistry. Carrying over egalitarian political beliefs into a chemistry course is unhelpful. This is not a political situation. If you think everything has to be political, you can’t learn anything difficult.

Egalitarian peer relationships are also valuable in learning Vajrayana. That is a function of sangha. Interactions with fellow students are an enjoyable source of conceptual and non-conceptual insight.

Ask about apparent contradictions

Seeming inconsistencies are common in Vajrayana. Four mistaken ways to relate to them:

If you are not actively engaged in developing your understanding, you may not notice contradictions at all, just passively accepting teachings as factoids or spiritual blather.

If you are working at understanding, you will be curious when you find a contradiction: how might this be resolved? Maybe you can figure it out yourself. Most often, a contradiction juxtaposes elements of different yanas. Ask: which yana did each come from? Do their contrasting principles explain the apparent conflict?

Treating paradoxes as Holy Mysteries limits your understanding. Traditionally, some inconsistencies were glossed over that way, but mainly the tradition included vigorous intellectual debate over every aspect. Vajrayana can mostly be understood logically, although it is not always presented that way.

Being afraid of questioning your teacher, and arguing with them, correspond to the errors of submissiveness and arrogance.

Persistently raising a contradiction because you genuinely want to understand its resolution is honorable (although if your teacher eventually displays frustration and moves on, it’s best to let it drop for a while at least). Arguing for the sake of argument, or to demonstrate that you can’t be dominated, is not.

Although you need to be willing to drop your opinions, it’s also a mistake not to express confusion to the teacher. “You said it works like this, but that makes no sense to me because of that other thing.” Then the teacher could explain, or explore it with you if there’s time. They might help you figure it out with several different approaches, until you get it.

If they can’t, then in principle their understanding might be mistaken, or yours might be. There isn’t any point in arguing at that point. Due to their greater experience, you aren’t likely to change their mind.

If this reaches an impasse often enough, they aren’t the right teacher for you. Perhaps not for anyone; they might be unqualified, regardless of credentials. More likely, there just isn’t a good fit in personality or spiritual aims or cognitive style.

Set aside your personal story

Mistaking a teacher-student relationship for an ordinary one leads to thinking it is—or should be—a friendship.14 The teacher may be friendly; that’s often helpful. It’s not always necessary, is not the point, and can be misleading or a distraction, depending on where the student is at.

Mistaking it only for a friendship leads to thinking that talking with the teacher is a conversation about mutually interesting topics, such as you and the details of your personal stuff. From the Vajrayana point of view, you are not special, and your stuff is the same as everyone else’s stuff. The texture of energy is relevant, but factual details mostly aren’t.15

This is one of the most important things you can learn in your first few years of involvement with Buddhism. The best understanding of “anatman” is: lose interest in the fictional narrative you mistake for your self. It’s not that your self “doesn’t exist,” it’s that the story is mostly tedious and irrelevant. You are not your story; you have stories; you are meta to them.16

Recognizing personal stories as empty, and setting them aside, is an aspect of the base for Vajrayana practice. If you are stuck in stories, one of the most helpful things a teacher can do is to interrupt your telling and refocus your attention to your practice. This may seem rude, possibly even brutal, until you understand why they do it. Once they’ve done it a few times, you can catch yourself telling your story—to yourself or to everyone else who will put up with it—and you can cut through it without external help.

If you’ve developed the ability to work with stories as objects of awareness, so you aren’t stuck in them as self-definitions, they may be useful and relevant. You can relate to them as “empty forms,” which is the way tantra views all phenomena. Learning to recognize when and how and why a story is relevant is part of the path.

Admit your teacher is not ordinary

You can learn chemistry from a teacher who you regard as ordinary. You can’t learn tantra from a teacher who you regard as ordinary, because their topic is non-ordinariness.

You can’t learn tantra if you regard yourself as ordinary, either! You learn what your own non-ordinariness means partly by noticing the non-ordinariness of your teacher and your relationship with them. Don’t postpone that: try to recognize their non-ordinariness from the outset.

If you think the teacher is ordinary, you will try to relate to them using familiar social scripts. If you are trying to learn a non-ordinary way of being, you have to accept that they won’t always conform to ordinary social patterns. You can’t always understand what they do or say in those terms, and the learning relationship won’t work.

Relax your theory of teacher-student relationships

Insisting that your idea of how the teacher-student relationship should work is cosmically or politically correct, or even that any fixed idea of how it should work is correct, is a major obstacle. The teacher is going to do what they do, and if that doesn’t work for you, you are wasting everyone’s time. You have to mostly accept their model. If you think it is wrong, or not a good fit for you, find a different teacher.

Generally, a teacher will adapt their teaching style to different students, groups, and circumstances to some degree. From a base of emptiness, they don’t have a fixed idea of what’s cosmically correct, either. If they are genuine, their motivation is to be useful in whatever way is feasible for them in whatever situation they find themselves in. How that will happen can’t be forced or determined in advance. You can enable them to figure that out by showing where the edges of your understanding, practice, and capabilities are.

The teaching situation is always a co-creation of the teacher and students. You are responsible for contributing to that, in a way that is realistic in terms of your current level of understanding and capacity.

The relationship between a teacher and an individual student is always unique, to varying extents, just as the relationship between any two people is unique. Tantric teachers give quite different, often directly conflicting, instructions to different students; may teach particular subjects or practices only to certain peculiar pupils; and may display entirely different personalities according to the individual or audience they interact with.

For a student who tends to over-control due to lack of confidence, the teacher may manifest as expansive and sympathetic. They might say “there’s no right or wrong in practice; don’t worry about it, just relax.” For one whose tendency to arrogance produces sloppiness, the teacher might manifest as sharp and firm. They might say “you can’t get the results of practice without following the instructions precisely.”

Make practice your main motivation

When practicing tantra, it’s useful to regard sutra, tantra, and dzogchen as corresponding to base, path, and result. In this framework, tantra is the way of methods. It takes sutrayana‘s insights into emptiness as a starting point and deploys hard work to reach dzogchen’s “great completion.”

Learning tantra requires doing its practices. The result of tantric practice is a way of being, but you cannot reach that without diligent application of specific methods.

So that’s the right motivation. It is easy to lose track of that, and to act on the basis of other considerations. Mixed motivations for involvement are inevitable, and mostly OK, but don’t forget that you are mainly doing this to learn and to practice.

Remember the function of the sangha

When a tantric sangha functions well, it can be an exceptionally copacetic social group, marked by high mutual respect, acceptance, and enjoyment of each others’ company. Tantra is about particular, desirable qualities of interaction, which can be sensed in sangha gatherings and relationships. That is a deliberate conjuration by the participants.

For a beginner, this may be the initial draw: recognition that something exciting is happening in this scene, even if you are not yet able to put it into words. It’s also rather off-putting, in an intriguing way.

What on earth are these people doing? What makes it seem simultaneously dorky and cool? Why do they seem abnormally cheerful and confident and straightforward? I seem to be enjoying their company—but would I want to act like that?

Wondering begins the investigation of what you want from tantra, and then how you might get it.

As your understanding of tantra grows, sangha interactions are a workshop in which you can practice your skills, and learn by observing and interacting with other students.

Involvement in a vajra scene can be so gratifying that you sometimes forget it’s a means to an end, not the end in itself. You could waste your time, and that of others, in idle social grooming behavior. You could forget that a functional sangha is an artificial construct that requires diligent attention and active maintenance from all participants, including you. You could forget that your fellow students are there to learn Vajrayana, and that creating an environment to support that is the aim of the social group.

Some Buddhist groups offer emotional support to their members. Implicitly or explicitly, this may be part of the function of the sangha. This is not the case at the level of tantric practice. Students are assumed to have basic emotional maturity. The teacher and other students may offer limited emotional support, out of natural kindness and concern, but not so much as to become a distraction or energy sink. A vajra sangha is not a therapy group; if you need extensive emotional support, seek it elsewhere. Also, do not overindulge other students’ demands for it.

Study texts. Not too many. Mostly about practice.

Buddhist tantra is staggeringly complex, intellectually challenging, and conceptually vivid. Understanding its theoretical structure sharpens your practice. Figuring that out can also be hugely enjoyable; I recommend it.

There’s hundreds of books about tantra in English, and you could learn Tibetan and Sanskrit and Japanese to access thousands more. It’s definitely worth reading some. Maybe not all of them.

Savoring ideas is delightful, but intellectual understanding is not the aim of tantra. It’s a means to the end. It’s a mistake to get distracted by conceptual fascination from practice into study as a replacement motivation.

There’s a necessary balance between practice and study, which may shift back and forth over years. Conceptual understanding inspires and deepens practice; practice experience deepens conceptual understanding, and inspires further study. If one of the two seems unattractive, it’s probably because you have been neglecting it; shifting your effort to do more of it will help.

Seek understanding, not approval

If you respect your teacher, it’s natural to want their approval. Working to get their approval is a mistaken motivation, however. It can be a common, major obstacle if it replaces the desire to learn to do Vajrayana. It leads to your hiding parts of yourself from them that you think they might not like, and to manipulative behaviors that try to tempt or trick or coerce the teacher into telling you that you are OK, and that your personal misinterpretation of the system is OK. This may repeat childhood patterns of seeking approval from parents or grade school teachers. It’s annoying and a waste of time and effort.

One strategy is making a big show of commitment too quickly. Reasonable caution recommends getting involved with a spiritual group gradually, testing the water before diving in. People who show up and immediately announce that they are willing to take on major responsibilities or make large financial contributions usually disappear a few months later. They realized it was not going to get them what they were angling for: the teacher’s exceptional gratitude, and high status within the community. Teachers should be suspicious of this pattern. It’s disruptive; and if they entrust a new student with large responsibilities in response to a show of commitment, the task is likely to get dropped on the floor.

Release your collections

Any strategy to accumulate something is a wrong motivation (although natural, fun, and to an extent inevitable). It’s easy to avoid actual Vajrayana by becoming a collector of:

Wanting to become special is a wrong motivation, because it’s impossible. Wanting it is also natural; but try to drop it when you can, as much as you can.

“Enlightenment” often means “becoming special,” and you can’t do that. Trying will make you miserable, and you’ll probably make everyone around you miserable too. Sometimes “enlightenment” refers to some specific practice effect or other. Those may be realistically achievable, and may be worth working hard for. Don’t expect they are going to make everything super peachy keen forever, though.

Trying to get your teacher to confirm that you are special, or “enlightened,” especially if you want it to be publicly certified, combines multiple serious mistakes. It’s common but dire.

These wrong motivations play a role in some “guru abuse” scandals. Students often try to buy something from the teacher, other than teaching, with sex or money. The teacher is always primarily to blame in such cases, but teachers are human, and like sex and money as much as anyone else. Since the teaching relationship is always a co-creation, students also have a responsibility to direct their motivations and actions toward learning, and away from other considerations such as status, as much as we can.

Acknowledgements

This page is partly based on discussions with Charlie Awbery, and greatly improved by their comments on drafts. Neither they, nor my former teachers, are responsible for its faults.


  1. 1.Not all the practices work. Many “advanced” practices—such as those to raise the dead, walk on water, or destroy an enemy army by causing an earthquake—are obviously impossible. Common sense is mostly sufficient to discern which results are realistic.
  2. 2.You may have several teachers, plural, sequentially or simultaneously. For simplicity, this manual talks in terms of “a teacher” or “your teacher,” singular. Mostly it’s difficult to get access to personal instruction from even one qualified teacher, though. Popular teachers are available only in lecture format, which can provide inspiration and conceptual understanding, but does not give the personal guidance most of us need to make tantric practice feasible.
  3. 3.When used as an adjective, “vajra” typically means “pertaining to Vajrayana,” and so is roughly synonymous with “tantric.” A “sangha” is a Buddhist group.
  4. 4.This is a practical statement, not an absolute, theoretical one. I have never heard of anyone becoming a research chemist by learning on their own. I have never heard of anyone becoming an accomplished tantrika on their own. Is that possible in theory? Maybe. Maybe you are so special that you are the exception. Even in principle, though, part of what it means to be a research chemist is to relate to other research chemists in the research chemist-y way, because it’s a collaborative activity. Part of what it means to be a tantrika is to relate to other tantrikas in the tantric way, because it’s a collaborative activity. It’s hard to imagine how you could figure that out on your own.
  5. 5.Traditionally, tantra was only taught after the student took “samaya vows.” You took those before you even found out what tantra was; and they demanded extraordinary commitments from students. This doesn’t function in the West. My impression is that it was more paid lip service to than practiced literally in Tibet, as well.
  6. 6.Several years ago, I realized that, after two decades of being a student, I had started pretending instead. I decided to quit, to free up time for other priorities, and made my non-student status official. Maybe I will go back to it someday.
  7. 7.A web search will turn up numerous discussions of “guru abuse,” and I would recommend reading several if you are somehow unaware of the problem. I can’t strongly recommend any in particular; none seem to provide useful explanations, or adequate guidelines for bringing the pattern to an end. (You could try Kramer and Alstad’s The Guru Papers: Masks of authoritarian power.) Most want to moralize, rather than to fix the problem. Everyone wants to avoid any blame, regardless of what part they may have played in a dysfunctional mess, and to look good by demonizing the guilty. This obscures the complex—but predictable—social dynamics that can lead individuals and groups from initially healthy interactions into nightmare cult behaviors.
  8. 8.I wasn’t there, got the story second-hand, don’t remember it well, and have probably distorted and exaggerated details. Consider this a parable, not a journalistic report.
  9. 9.Perhaps he exaggerated his exhaustion to make the point more clearly. He was known for such playful trickery.
  10. 10.Or artificial intelligence. Don’t get me started.
  11. 11.In many systems, a full-time retreat lasting three years plus three months plus three days qualifies you to teach Buddhist tantra.
  12. 12.This is a defining feature of Protestantism, and diffused from it into nearly all other religions, including Buddhism.
  13. 13.Sad to say, some “high” Tibetan lamas with fancy institutional credentials have shockingly little knowledge or understanding of Vajrayana. Often they were given a prestigious religious title at age three, for political reasons. (Sons of wealthy aristocrats somehow always turn out to be reincarnations of famous lamas of the past.) They failed to grow into the job, or just aren’t interested. A few are outright charlatans.
  14. 14.Conversely, imagining that the teacher is special, and you aren’t, leads to thinking that you couldn’t be friends across that gap, which is also mistaken.
  15. 15.Traditionally, the details of everyday life are usually disregarded entirely. This is probably due to the tendency to muddle up sutra and tantra, and sutra’s devaluing of the world in favor of a transcendent state.
  16. 16.In terms of adult developmental theory, taking narratives of emotions and relationships as your self is characteristic of stage 3 in Robert Kegan’s framework. Readers of Vividness seem to lean toward technical occupations, in which it’s common to operate at stage 3 in emotional and relational domains, although at stage 4 in cognitive ones. If that sounds like you, learning to subordinate your stories to systematic principles might be a major developmental advance, well worth pursuing.