Comments on “How to learn Buddhist tantra”

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Apparitional Forms

Drew 2021-10-23

David,

The section about reaching the base is super intriguing to me. I am approaching tantra for the first time, or at least thinking about doing so (I practice shi-ne and belong to the Aro mentor program, which has been awesome).

Can you say any more about how something like the energetic channels need to be apprehended? It’s the kind of thing that, these days, would often be dismissed as a new age BS concept. I can easily see how thinking that the channels actually exist is wrong, since you can’t cut someone open and find them. But the line between thinking they are imaginary and seeing them as empty form seems more subtle, yet so important.

From what I can gather, it relates to the notion of ALL phenomena being empty form. But the trouble is that some things exist physically, even if they are empty. So my actual physical anatomy, veins and organs and what-not, are “empty” but they do seem to exist in a way that energetic channels do not.

I feel that I have at least some minor experience of emptiness from practice, but it’s difficult for me to see how it relates to something like energetic channels.

Thanks!

Apparitional forms in practice

David Chapman 2021-10-23

This is an excellent question!

Yidams, channels, and so forth are non-arbitrary but non-physical. There are many other sorts of things like that. Numbers, for examples. Numbers are not just made up, so you can’t make them do whatever you like, but you can’t catch one in a butterfly net either. Yidams don’t have the same sort of “non-physical existence” as numbers, but the example shows this isn’t an inherently woo category.

It’s deeply mysterious what sort of existence numbers have, but it doesn’t matter what they “really are,” because we know how in practice to work with them.

Similarly, getting hung up philosophically on what kind of existence yidams have isn’t helpful. (So long as you don’t mistake them for either supernatural but inherently existing, or for something you can just make up.) It doesn’t matter, so long as you know how to work with them.

More questions

Drew 2021-10-24

Thanks. So it seems that that DOING the practices is what really counts – and getting the results therefrom.

Some more questions:

In what sense do yidams not have the same kind of non-physical existence as numbers? Is it because what you actually use them for is so different from what numbers are used for?

Also, why is it that yidams and energetic channels are not arbitrary? Is it because they arise out of some kind of “legitimate” visionary experience? Or because the practices do indeed get results?

Can this principle be applied to other religious traditions? For example, can the notions of heaven and hell be considered empty forms? Or are they arbitrary? They can certainly effect people’s behavior in a tangible way if they fear hell badly enough. And similar notions have probably popped up in many separate cultures. So in that sense they seem non-arbitrary.

But how far can this be stretched? If I practice chaos magick and decide to evoke a cartoon character, or a deity that I invented myself, is that arbitrary? Or does it depend on what goes into it?

Arbitrariness and effectiveness

David Chapman 2021-10-24

it seems that that DOING the practices is what really counts – and getting the results therefrom

Yup!

In what sense do yidams not have the same kind of non-physical existence as numbers?

Well, it’s extremely unclear what sort of existence either of them has, so it’s hard to say.

It might be useful to think of a spectrum of arbitrariness, or culture-specificity, or made-up-ness. The melting point of bismuth is extremely non-arbitrary. Fictional characters are fairly arbitrary, but not entirely so. As an author, you formally can make them do whatever you like, but lots of things “don’t work.” If you attribute a completely random sequence of actions to them, you no longer have a fiction, nor a character. There isn’t a narrative.

Numbers are quite non-arbitrary, but perhaps more so than bismuth. Some philosophers think they’re actually culture-specific; others, that they’re inherent in the structure of reality (whatever that means). If you include transfinite numbers, they get quite slippery, and serious mathematicians sharply disagree about how they work and which ones really exist.

Yidams and channels are more arbitrary than numbers and less so than fictional characters. There’s more constraint on what’s possible or workable or functional.

Is it because what you actually use them for is so different from what numbers are used for?

Yes, also that.

Is it because they arise out of some kind of “legitimate” visionary experience?

Well, that’s roughly the traditional view (although the tradition would also say that they are somehow “inherent in the structure of reality,” whatever that means).

I don’t take institutional legitimacy seriously. Traditionally, yes, only a terton can reveal a new yidam. Getting it accepted is in practice a matter of social legitimation, although in theory it’s a matter of esoteric connection with the yidam via the lineage history.

I do think it’s important that yidams derive from people who have extensive experience in the general practice. If you’ve practiced dozens of different yidams, and have dozens of years of full-time practice experience, and a new yidam appears to you in a vision—that’s going to be quite different than if you’ve never practiced any yidam, but read a blog post about how the practice is supposed to work, and decide you don’t like the existing ones, and you make up your own one to suit you.

Or because the practices do indeed get results?

Yes.

Can this principle be applied to other religious traditions? For example, can the notions of heaven and hell be considered empty forms?

Buddhism has a profusion of heavens and hells. From a Dzogchen point of view, yes, they are empty forms. That wouldn’t be the view of other yanas. And, yes, they are non-arbitrary in that the details of what is supposed to happen there have to make sense. That is partly culture-specific, but largely a matter of being human, or even of being an animal. Frogs would also prefer the Buddhist heavens to the Buddhist hells.

If I practice chaos magick and decide to evoke a cartoon character, or a deity that I invented myself, is that arbitrary?

Well, not entirely so; a deity you invent will probably be recognizably a deity to other people, and probably also less unique than you’d guess.

What’s more important is that you relate to a yidam as initially alien, unknown, external, and non-arbitrary. That’s a key part of how and why they function. Tantric practice is practice (preparation) for relating better with everyday reality—which is always, to varying degrees, alien, unknown, external, and non-arbitrary.

Relating with a fantasy figure you made up will lead you into a fantasy world. That might have some value as psychological exploration; you might learn something about yourself that way. It could be counterproductive for the tantric aim of effective action in concrete reality.

RPG comparison

SusanC 2021-10-25

A vajra sangha is not a therapy group; if you need extensive emotional support, seek it elsewhere.

Hi David,

On Twitter you made a comparison to players of RPGs that take the game in a direction that triggers them, without the consent of the other players.

I think that, in the RPG context, players really should not do this.

A few years ago, I was talking about rpgs to some friends who are in a theatre group, who regularly put on theatrical productions. They knew in principle how rpgs are played, but (without really seeing in practise how they are played) were concerned about exactly this problem. Improvised, without a script, it has a danger of going into psychologically dangerous territory.

As someone who has played tabletop rpgs, I tried to explain … the GM is supposed to keep the plot of the story going in some vaguely constructive direction (possibly without railroading the players too much in one particular direction) and one of the things the gm is doing is keeping the story within limits the players feel ok with. In a horror RPG, asking (out of character) what your players limits are going to be for the next scene is a common thing to do, to avoid going places your players find uncomfortable.

A players who designs a character whose backstory includes abuse is kind of a red flag. As a gm, you’ll be kind of inclined to refuse to let them play that character, unless you have some kind of assurance that neither that player nor anyone else is going to be triggered by it.

So a tabletop RPG is typically an inappropriate venue for doing a ptsd exposure.

I can totally get that the same kind of principle applies to tantra.

Except … chöd has way worse potential for this than tabletop rpgs. I can see an argument that if you’re not triggered by chöd, you’re kind of missing the point. Though that kind of Sadhana you might do off by your own, without inflicting it on anyone else.

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