Naturalizing Buddhist tantra

There’s a common idea that Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) is the crude, superstitious version. Real Buddhism is rational and empirical; it’s about meditating and being a good person. Vajrayana is all about magic, gods, and demons—which are primitive make-believe.

If this were right, Vajrayana would be doomed. Anyway, I would have no interest in it.

Fortunately, this view misses the point. It’s not what Vajrayana is about. Tantra is not inherently supernatural. We can remove all the supernatural beliefs, if we want, without losing anything important.

This has seemed obvious to me, and not particularly significant, for two decades. Judging from recent blog comments and private emails, the possibility of Vajrayana without the supernatural is surprisingly controversial. It provokes stronger feelings—pro and con—than I expected.

So I need to proceed carefully, to detail lines of thought which I would prefer to summarize briefly. According to my current outline, “naturalizing Buddhist tantra” will run to fifteen posts.

Why naturalize Vajrayana?

In religious studies, “natural” means “not supernatural.” To “naturalize” Vajrayana would mean creating a version without supernatural beliefs.

This is important because most Westerners are either wedded to their Western supernatural ideas, or reject all supernaturalism. If Vajrayana is valuable for the modern West, and if its gods and demons are optional, many more Westerners could make use of a naturalized version. Naturalism is also central in the modern worldview, so any modern Buddhist tantra has to at least consider it.

This does not imply hostility to traditional supernatural versions, nor to modern supernatural Vajrayanas either. Different paths are good fits for different people. I don’t believe in magic, gods, or demons, but most of my sangha does—and that doesn’t bother me! I’m not allergic to other people’s beliefs, and have no interest in changing them. I would enthusiastically support an otherwise-modern demon-haunted Vajrayana. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

So I won’t argue for the non-existence of demons. I’m just going to ask: if there were none, what would that mean for Vajrayana?

Some atheists might prefer a Vajrayana that explicitly denies the existence of demons. Alternatively, a version that neither denies nor relies on them—like Shambhala Training—might be the most broadly accessible.

Many people would prefer a version that made no mention of demons at all. Personally, I like demons, and would prefer to retain them as charming and useful myths, while denying their literal existence.

Perhaps in future we can have all these variants—but currently we have no modern Vajrayana at all.

Why has Vajrayana not already naturalized?

Many people assume that because Vajrayana hasn’t naturalized, the reason is that it can’t. However, as far as I can tell, the reasons are historical accidents, rather than something about Vajrayana itself.

Before 1860, all brands of Buddhism were extensively supernatural. In rural Asia, they all still are.

Naturalized Buddhisms were first created in the late 1800s, by reformers like King Mongkut (in Thai Theravada) and Inoue Enryō (“Dr. Spook,” who kicked the demons out of Zen). Rational, empirical, scientific Buddhism was a new invention—despite claims that Gotama Buddha was a rational, empirical “scientist of the mind.”

Thai and Japanese Buddhisms were naturalized as part of national modernization campaigns, which aimed to prevent domination by Western colonial powers. Tibetan leaders understood the danger of colonization too late, so Tibet failed to modernize in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Since the 1959 Chinese takeover, Tibetan Buddhism has resisted naturalization probably mostly as part of an attempt to maintain Tibetan culture intact in the face of catastrophe. So much was lost that it is natural to try to preserve unchanged what remains. (Or, mostly unchanged—even the Dalai Lama has agreed to some naturalizing reinterpretations.) Unfortunately, this traditionalism risks increasing irrelevance and eventual extinction from lack of interest on the part of younger Tibetans with increasingly modern worldviews.

I don’t know enough about non-Tibetan tantric systems to say why they haven’t naturalized—but I suspect it’s also respect for tradition rather than intrinsic difficulty.