One Dharma, Zero Tantra

Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma claims in places to be a “unified theory of Dharma” that combines “all the lineages of Buddhism.”

The book begins with a two-page endorsement from the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is widely (mis)understood in the West as the Pope of Tibetan Buddhism. The most distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhism is its inclusion of Buddhist Tantra.

However, One Dharma is 100% Tantra-free.

It’s hard to imagine the Pope of Rome endorsing a book by a Muslim about the unity of all the Abrahamic religions. But it would be particularly hard to imagine if the book never mentioned any distinctively Catholic doctrine.

It might seem that something odd is going on here… But in fact a Tantra-free Western Buddhism is precisely what the Dalai Lama would want to endorse.

And “100% Tantra-free” is a founding principle of Consensus Buddhism.

Explaining why the Dalai Lama and Joseph Goldstein would want to extirpate Tantra will take several posts; this one mostly just points out the anomaly.

No Tantra here, just us chickens

First, let’s check my “100% free” assertion.

The words “Tantra” and “Tantric” do not appear in the book at all.

“Vajrayana” is more-or-less synonymous with “Tantric Buddhism,” and appears in One Dharma five times. Each is only in passing. Here they all are, just to be thorough:

The temple bells of Theravada, the wooden clapper of Zen, and the long horns of Vajrayana all awaken us to ultimate freedom. (p. 5)
The breakaway monks of the Great Assembly were the precursors of what slowly evolved into the schools of the Mahayana (Pali and Sanskrit for “Great Vehicle”) and, later, Tibetan Vajrayana (Sanskrit for “Diamond Vehicle”) traditions. (p. 23)
Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners view the original teachings of the first turning as being fundamental but not complete, and maintain it is only through the more mystical manifestations of Buddhahood that we come to a full understanding of reality. (p. 25)
By the aspiration of the holy lamas, Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and lineage masters / May all vajra [vajrayana; dharma] friends attain stable mindfulness and ascend the throne / Of perfect Awakening. (p. 90; quote from a prayer; square brackets in original)

None of these actually says anything about Vajrayana (and in each case the following sentences do not elaborate).

Dzogchen is sometimes counted as part of Tantra. Usually, it is better to think of it as a separate vehicle, because it’s quite different in its principles, function, and style.

One Dharma has some passing mentions of “Dzogchen,” plus a discussion on pp. 176-182. On the whole, it seems this is actually about the Mahayana doctrine of trikaya, rather than Dzogchen, and that he didn’t understand the difference. (This is a subtle and ambiguous point, so I don’t want to go into it here.)

In any case, Dzogchen is something neither Goldstein nor the Dalai Lama would want to suppress. (There are Tibetans who do want to get rid of Dzogchen, but the Dalai Lama is not one.)

Is this omission significant?

Vajrayana is not the only kind of Buddhism left out of One Dharma. For example, other than Zen, none of the many East Asian Mahayana schools, such as Nichiren, are ever mentioned.

Goldstein backs off from the “all Buddhist lineages” claim, in places, saying that he actually only draws on Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Different Buddhisms are, in fact, so contradictory that he couldn’t have included many of them. So, omission of any particular one might have no significance.

I will argue that his omission of Vajrayana is significant in a way that omission of Nichiren is not. Specifically, the Consensus actively suppressed Vajrayana, whereas it merely ignored the others.

Goldstein says that this selection of Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism is based “simply on the particular passions of my own spiritual journey” (p. 4). It is not a coincidence, though. Those three are the only Buddhisms that appeal to the Consensus’s market: middle-middle and upper-middle-class white Americans.

Consensus Buddhism is not in competition with Nichiren. The main Nichiren Buddhism in America, Soka Gakkai, appeals to working-class people, immigrants, and non-whites. Those are markets the Consensus can’t reach. (The reasons different Buddhisms appeal to different classes are fascinating. I may come back to that in future posts.)

On the other hand, modernized Vajrayana was—in the 1980s—a strong competitor to the Consensus. It appeals to same market. And I suspect that, over the next couple decades, a new, contemporary Buddhist Tantra could be more attractive to that market than the Consensus. In upcoming posts, I hope to sketch what that might look like, and why you might like it.

I don’t think the Consensus has suppressed Vajrayana simply as a business move, to consolidate market share. Rather, its leaders honestly believe that Tantra should not be taught.

And that brings us back to the Dalai Lama. Although Tibetan Buddhism includes Mahayana and Dzogchen, Tantra is its primary teaching. Wasn’t it odd to include “Tibetan Buddhism” in One Dharma, but not Tantra? Why would a powerful Tibetan Buddhist politician endorse that? The full answer will requires a long detour through Tibetan political history.

The short version is that the Dalai Lama himself was a major source for the Consensus leaders’ belief that Vajrayana is eeeevil. Vajrayana-free Tibetan Buddhism was exactly what he wanted to promote. How fortunate that he could get white Theravadins to help!

Here’s something else that might be a clue—although it might just be an interesting coincidence. Who first sponsored Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield as teachers?

(Hint: it was not their Theravadin masters.)

Answer: Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the man who invented modern Vajrayana.