In the 1970s and ’80s, several brilliant innovators presented Buddhist tantra in the West for the first time. They taught from personal experience, not ancient texts. They explained tantra in plain modern language, not academic jargon or bad translations from Medieval Tibetan. Their talks were warm, humorous, interactive, and frequently referred to popular culture and everyday Western life.
Among these were Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshé, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, and Ngakpa Chögyam. To prepare to write about tantra, I recently re-read a dozen of their books. I was awed anew, although I had gone through each of them several times before.
I certainly have nothing new to say; nothing to add to those presentations. And yet, in upcoming posts, I will re-present Buddhist tantra again.
Why reinvent the wheel? Why not just say “tantra is cool, go read those books”?
Every presentation of tantra needs to be highly specific to its time and place. The themes of Sutrayana—mainstream Buddhism—are eternal. Emptiness is unchanging. Absolute truth is the same everywhere. But tantra is about form; about manifest appearances; about concrete experiences; about relative truth. Tantra needs to be continually reinterpreted so it makes sense in a continually changing world.
My judgement is that the world has changed hugely since the 1980s—in ways that may not be obvious. So, books from the first flowering of Buddhist tantra in the West may no longer communicate. Especially, they may not seem compelling to people who were born in the ’70s and later, who came of age in the ’90s and later.
On this page, I’ll describe three ways the world has changed, and why they imply that a new presentation of tantra is necessary:
- Consensus Buddhism, which began around 1990, is now taken for granted as defining Buddhism overall. Tantra needs to be explained relative to the Consensus.
- Almost nothing was known about Tibetan Buddhism in the West before the 1970s. Mediocre export Tibetanism is now widely misunderstood as defining Buddhist tantra.
- The 1980s were perhaps the last decade of the Modern era. Modernity has ended. That means the end of some fundamental assumptions that Western Buddhist audiences once took for granted.
Buddhist tantra after the Consensus
Americans in the 1970s mostly knew they knew little about Buddhism—especially not about tantric Buddhism. That gave them open minds. Nowadays, due to successful marketing, everyone thinks they know what Buddhism is. What everyone thinks Buddhism is, is the Consensus.
This means Buddhist tantra must now be described partly by contrast with the Consensus, which adopted some little bits of tantra, but deliberately excludes most of it.
It would be simpler and clearer to explain tantra straight-up, in its own terms, without reference to other forms of Buddhism. In a perfect world, that would be ideal. But it has never been possible, even from the beginning, because tantra is so different from the Buddhist mainstream.
My judgement is that it is not possible now, either. Current audiences constantly misunderstand tantra, due to assumptions they import from Consensus Buddhism. A teacher must constantly say “you might think X, but that is just the Consensus view; tantra says exactly the opposite.”
Books written in the ’70s and ’80s defined tantra in contrast with a different set of spiritual misconceptions—many of which are now uncommon. That makes the explanations less relevant to current readers, and easier to misunderstand.
It appears to me that the era of Consensus domination of American convert Buddhism is ending. After a 20-year gap, there is a renewed openness to alternatives. Innovative new Buddhisms are starting to appear; some draw on tantra. Probably more will in the future.
Even after it loses dominance, I expect Consensus Buddhism to remain highly influential. That means that other Buddhisms will continue to define themselves partly in contrast with it.
Buddhist tantra after sentimental Tibetanism
In the 1970s and ’80s, the great pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West created an economic demand for teachings. In the 1990s and 2000s, less-brilliant Tibetans met that demand.
The tantra of the pioneers was uncompromising and innovative. Later teachers supplied a mixture of what Westerners wanted to hear and what Tibetan tradition made it easy to teach.
Mediocre “export quality” Tibetan Buddhism is a muddle of:
- Consensus “it is nice to be nice” platitudes
- Bad metaphysics
- Medieval superstitions
- Tibetan folk culture
- Long-winded reiteration of texts that lost their meanings centuries ago
- Empty rituals, often functioning mainly as fundraisers
It’s hard to know why anyone was willing to listen to this. Tibetans are genetically holy, apparently. Or at least exotically, orientally fascinating. Also, they are oppressed, and therefore romantic Noble Savages.
Anyway, this junk seems to be going out of fashion. It’s too familiar to be hip.
That means there is a new opening for Buddhist tantra that is not limited by Tibetan culture. However, at first, new presentations will have to constantly differentiate themselves from Tibetanism.
That imperative did not exist in the ’70s and ’80s. Books from that era may now be misunderstood as Tibetanism rather than Buddhism.
Buddhist tantra after the end of modernity
“Modernity” is a set of fundamental assumptions about culture, society, and the self. One key modernist idea is that we need a system that explains everything. Buddhism was understood in the 20th century as such a system.
The modernist assumptions were taken for granted by the West for centuries. By the late 1900s, however, it became clear that they were irrelevant or wrong.
The modern era is now, arguably, over. For people who have made the transition, this is a huge shift in the way we experience the world. (This includes many in Generations X and Y.) The shift is oddly invisible to those still living in modernity (including most born during the Baby Boom).
The first teachers of Buddhist tantra in the West had a Boomer audience. Naturally, their presentations of tantra were geared to a modern understanding. Much in those presentations seems meaningless, or wrong, to new audiences who do not share the modernist understanding.
The end of modernity is both a dire threat and a fabulous opportunity for Buddhism. I think it’s quite likely that Buddhism will go extinct in this century. The post-modern era is hostile to –isms, and Buddhism is an –ism.
The post-modern era has quite a different set of spiritual problems to the modern era. Although many of the modern problems have dissolved, new dilemmas are coming into focus.
I believe that Buddhism, particularly Buddhist tantra and Dzogchen, may offer keys to resolving those issues.
I feel a responsibility to do what I can to help make those keys available.
A selective overview of Buddhist tantra from a nobody
Unfortunately, as the previous page explained, I am incapable of producing a new introduction to Buddhist tantra for our time.
However, over several upcoming posts, I will provide an incomplete overview, to give some sense of what tantra is about.
Mainly, what I want to communicate is a way of relating with tantra—more than the thing itself. This approach is inspired by, and similar to, that of the pioneers that inspire me; but it is not identical. Perhaps it is one that is more accessible now.
This approach is quite possibly wrong. If so, it’s probably better that it be advocated by a nobody, like me.
The suggestions I have are pretty obvious. They’re natural outgrowths from traditional and ’70s-80s tantra, plus contemporary Western ideas. If I don’t propose them, someone with credentials might. If the approach had a credentialed backer, perhaps some students would be misled by authority. Perhaps, too, if an authority advocated this approach, critics would be too polite to dispute it.
If I’m wrong, someone will point that out, and then everyone will ignore me. No harm done.
Introductions to Buddhist tantra
Probably, qualified teachers are now preparing new introductions to Buddhist tantra, in terms appropriate for the 21st century. Until they publish, the most up-to-date systematic introductions date from before the 1990s Consensus ban on tantric teaching.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche did more than anyone else to bring Buddhist tantra to the West. (Arguably, he did more than anyone else to bring Buddhism to America, period.) His Journey without Goal: The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha is an excellent general introduction. Actually, I would recommend almost any of his books, but that is probably the best starting place for his approach to tantra.
When anyone asks me for a single beginner’s book, I recommend Lama Yeshé’s Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire. It is exceptionally clear, simple, and straightforward. It is filled with an extraordinary warmth and light, like a May morning, illuminating everything but never harsh.
Lama Yeshé’s approach to tantra is rather different from the one I will advocate, however. He is more willing to compromise with Sutrayana (mainstream Buddhism); and he includes quite a bit of metaphysics, which I reject. Still, I find the book wonderful, and it requires the least background knowledge of any of the ones I suggest here.
Ngakpa Chögyam (Ngak’chang Rinpoche) is my Lama, with his wife Khandro Déchen. Wearing the Body of Visions is his overview of Buddhist tantra. Naturally, it has had the most influence on me, and my approach is more similar to the one in this book than in the other two. I find it wholly remarkable. First published in 1992, it also has a somewhat more contemporary feel than Chögyam Trungpa’s and Lama Yeshé’s books, which were based on talks given in the 1970s.
Whereas Chögyam Trungpa and Lama Yeshé died in the 1980s, Ngakpa Chögyam is very much alive, teaching, and writing new books. His approach and style have continued to evolve, in directions I will suggest Buddhism must take now. For instance, his recent books are less systematic, more explicitly interwoven with everyday life and popular culture, and less explicitly religious.
Co-written with Khandro Déchen, E-Mailing the Lamas from Afar (2009) is an edited collection of replies to email messages from their students. It is far from a systematic introduction, and contains little “esoteric information.” Instead, it is full of practical, often humorous, advice on how to apply Buddhist tantra in real life. It leaps from the most mundane practicalities to the most “advanced” Buddhist practices and teachings, and back, sometimes within a single sentence. Perhaps better than any other book, it shows how tantra can actually be lived and used by Westerners in the 21st century.
“Now you something say”
In the 1980s, Ngakpa Chögyam sometimes acted as an assistant teacher alongside his lama Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche. Rinpoche gave the first part of each talk, and then at an unpredictable moment turned it over to his student: “Now you something say.” (Verbs come at the end of sentences in Tibetan, and Rinpoche’s English grammar tended to reflect that.) Ngakpa Chögyam had a half hour, by Rinpoche’s watch, to cover the remainder of the topic. If he finished a few minutes early, Rinpoche made him go on talking until the clock said he was done. That tested Ngakpa Chögyam’s teaching in a pointed way.
This story is almost perfectly dissimilar to the current situation. I am not a teacher, or assistant teacher, and Ngakpa Chögyam hasn’t told me to write about “reinventing Buddhist tantra.”
Still, despite my lack of qualifications and authorization, now I will something say…