Comments on “One Dharma, Zero Tantra”

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Sabio Lantz 2012-01-02

Nice intro! Very tantrically tantalizing.

Kate Gowen 2012-01-02

Could you elaborate a wee bit on that last ‘knocked-me-over-with-a-feather’ statement that it was Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche who sponsored the IMS founders as teachers? When? Where? How?

David Chapman 2012-01-02

He invited them to teach at the first Naropa shedra. They were popular and successful there, and that launched their teaching careers.

To be fastidiously accurate, in the case of Joseph Goldstein, he was invited by Ram Das; but on behalf of Naropa, which was Trungpa Rinpoche’s thing.

Jack Kornfield wrote an insightful, lyrical appreciation of Trungpa Rinpoche which appeared in (if I’m not misremembering) Fabrice Midal’s collection.

Clearly, he, at least, was not against Trungpa personally. Rather, I imagine the thinking was something like “That was then, this is now; he did a lot of good, but we don’t want anything like that to happen again. It was too risky, it moved too fast, America wasn’t ready for it. The whole guru thing has got to go; if even as great a teacher as he was abused it, then no one should be in that position. Especially not white people.”

Jayarava Attwood 2012-01-03

Hi David,

The thing about target markets is fascinating. My impression is that this issue is more global - Buddhism has a narrow market in the West, and a different but similarly narrow market in India.

I suspect that tantra is seen negatively for a number of reasons. The selling of initiations by Tibetan lamas for example. Tantra is often marketed as an easy path - just chant this mantra a million times and all beings will be saved… if you chant this mantra on a full moon it is a millions times more powerful (with the issue of what “powerful” means carefully avoided and obscured). Also people tend to become spiritual materialists just collecting sadhanas and mantras. I certainly meet this kind of attitude very often via my mantra website. There is also the problem of multiplying bogus tulkus. Tantra seems to closely tied to the concerns of the Tibetan diaspora.

Tantra also seems very complicated: the books are puzzling and sometimes incomprehensible (though this is more true of Tibetan Tantra than the very few books on Japanese Tantra). The jargon is extensive and confusing - and one has to master it on top of the whole of mahāyāna jargon and philosophy. The iconography is bewildering. etc. Few people have the attention span any more.

But I wonder if the central problem is that Tantra is more difficult to see in rationalist terms? It’s often not much more than magic. I wonder if Consensus Buddhists are emphasising the aspects of Buddhism that can be most easily accommodated into the scientific world view? If so I would have some sympathy for that approach. Also if so they are continuing a process begun by Mr and Mrs Rhys Davids in the 19th century. If one cannot give a rational account of a practice it is much harder to sell to a population which is justly wary of superstition and metaphysics.

On the other hand a lot of people I know seem to positively want magic to be real, so maybe I’ve got it wrong.

Some religions, particularly the more fundamentalist sort seem to target lower socio-economic groups. Western/Consensus Buddhism, on the whole, seems to appeal to the middle-aged and middle classes. I’m thinking of your post on Baby Boomers. By Baboos for Baboos? I have a blog post coming up which points out that where Buddhism has become established in a country it has historically been because the royalty of the country converted first. In the West we are not reaching the powerful and the decision makers, and rationalist Buddhism seems to have little to offer these people. Indeed it was the more “powerful” magic of Buddhism which made the difference in countries like China and Tibet. We have yet to really fully conceptualise and articulate what practical help Buddhism can give our politicians for example, who are focussed on being electable more than anything. Maybe the research on mindfulness (Glenn Wallis complaints not withstanding) offers a way into the upper echelons of society? Maybe.

Great to have you actively blogging again btw!


Sabio Lantz 2012-01-03

I forgot to follow, so I will add a bit of a comment again.

Lay of the Land
Unless a reader has explored Tibetan Buddhism or is a Buddhaholic (in honor of Glenn Wallis’ language use) whose nightstand consists of nothing but books from all the various confusing Buddhist sects, I would imagine they can get lost in these posts with all the references to the Nyingma Buddhist Classification Scheme. I think having a pic or two as a map for naive readers may allow broader readership. To that end I offerthis map of the yanas which I made when I started trying to understand the lay of the land.

Magic, Temperaments & Niche Markets
I performed Magic tricks for my daughter’s birthday party yesterday. Some ate it up and others scoffed. At our New Years party, some danced with surrender and others sat with reserved-half-smiles watching. Neither of these divisions are surprising for we all know that temperaments are everything. Different products draw different temperaments, different economics and power positions form different personalities. Lots of markets for everyone.

Devotion & Faith in Buddhism
What I find interesting is how little of Nichiren/Shin Buddhist talk I hear on Buddhist blogs. David contends they are just ignored, but I am curious if they feel ignored. I am curious about Lama-devotion, Guru-Bhakti, Jesus Devotion and Nichiren faith as a transformation tool – do they share anything? Is this side of the human mind captured by the 9-Yana classification?

Frank Martin 2012-01-03

Looking at how popular what Sabio calls Jesus Devotion and I tend to refer to as Jesus Bhakti is in the west, I can’t imagine why anyone would think Lama-Devotion and Guru-Bhakti wouldn’t be. Seems like those are EXACTLY the elements that should be showcased when approaching Vajrayana if we want it to be widely accepted. The aversion to it demonstrates clearly just how OTL (Out To Lunch) Boomers and the Consensus are when it comes to understanding what will be well received in the wider culture. Like it or not, even though its not what the Consensus or Boomers want, magic seems to be EXACTLY what everyone outside middle-class America wants. The sooner that fact is accepted, the sooner and quicker we’ll see Buddhism be widely embraced in the US. Its the variety, not the Consensus, that will draw lots of different people.

de-lurking 2012-01-03

“The reasons different Buddhisms appeal to different classes are fascinating. I may come back to that in future posts.”

I hope you do! I wonder if it mirrors the popularity of different kinds of Christianity by class, from the liberal/abstract/anti-materialistic Protestant strains of the upper-middle class to the “prosperity gospel” of the poor and working classes:

P.S. Joseph Goldstein’s 1974 Naropa dharma talks are available here:

Sky Serpent 2012-01-04

For some people so-called magical practices might be just what they need. As symbolic activity that is directed outside of oneself, magical practices can provide support which more introspective contemplation cannot always do. Personally, I have found them very beneficial in my life - considering what was my situation when I started doing spiritual practices. For others, it might be different. For very superstitious persons, magical practices may do more harm than good, as it might just enhance their superstitious neuroses. I have seen the happen.

You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.

I would rather not see magical practices thrown out of Tantra because they might offend somebody’s rational perception of what the world is. Those kind of practices have their uses for certain people in certain times and therefore have their value.

Sabio Lantz 2012-01-04

@Sky Serpent
Most helpful for a discussion of “magic” would be an exploration of terms – since terms help communicate. Many religious people depend on magic to cure their child’s illness (and avoid other medicines), or bring them safety (rather than leaving a dangerous area), or grant them travel protection (instead of …). It is this use of magic that is rightfully deplorable. And it is this notion of magic that science has fought hard to displace. In Tibet & India, writing a mantra on a piece of paper and then putting it in a glass of water and stirring it until the ink dissolves is suppose to produce a powerful medicine. I think this magic-meme is worth combating.

I understand the downsides of science very well – and don’t want to spin that conversation into action – and I know you are a scientist with an excellent perspective who could do so well. But I think we are best to avoiding using highly abstract, loaded terms like “magic” or “religion” or “patriot” or “enlightened” unless we aren’t speaking to in-house people who mindlessly nod their heads in agreement to our assumptions. Otherwise, we are using them for shock-value and not really trying to communicate. Instead, those who feel a hybrid, personalized notion can be useful (as you seem to here) would serve us well to unpack the word and honor its past struggle, offenses and misuses and then offer up a hybrid – and even then, perhaps a new term should be invented.

Or not. Lots of folks, as you said, love the “or not” option.

Sky Serpent 2012-01-04


I agree in principle. A new term could be useful. “Magic” is such a loaded word. I usually talk about “magic” with people who actually do such practices and therefore there is some common ground and understanding with regards to terminology and context.

But to reframe my opinion into a more specific Buddhist context: just because some Mahayoga practices appear “magical” or “superstitious” according to certain views, does not mean that they are without value as a spiritual practice for some people.

Sabio Lantz 2012-01-04

@ Sky Serpent I agree. I just want to see the superstitious magic disempowered. I am sure Mahayoga stuff in Tibet is used in superstitious ways as well as valuable transformative ways. They are still intimately connected – I find that unfortunate.

David Chapman 2012-01-04

@ Jayarava — an excellent summary of the issues. I am going to pull the characteristic Buddhist Modernism move of saying “that’s all Asian cultural stuff, which we can drop if we want.” But since modernity is over, I’ll apply some post-modern irony by casting doubt on the feasibility and advisability of that project, at the same time.

@ Sky Serpent & Sabio — I plan to address the “magic” issue both here and on Buddhism for Vampires, Real Soon Now. In fact my page on “black magic” was very nearly ready to post on B4V six months ago. If I could just find two spare hours to polish off the rough corners…

@ Everyone else — thanks for your comments! I’m sorry not to have more time to reply individually.

Greg 2012-01-11

Personally, I think Pure Land Buddhism could be a big hit here if done right. It’s basically the devotion-and-heaven-when-you-die model that everyone seems to like so much about Christianity, without the psychopathic deity and all of his impossible rules.

David Chapman 2012-01-11

Greg, I’ve puzzled about that. It’s an entertaining possibility, and it probably does account for some of the success of SGI. (And I’m not sure how seriously you meant it!)

My impression is that essentially all contemporary American Christians simply ignore whichever rules they find inconvenient. (The Christian pastors I read say so, anyway; with distress, or at least feigned distress.) (Interestingly similar to vinaya, nearly all of which has been simply ignored by essentially all Asians for as far back as there is any evidence.) Having done that, the deity transforms into a team mascot, who cheers for your side and boos out-groups.

So I think that the Americans who are temperamentally suited to Pure Land have already got a religion that’s functionally indistinguishable. It would be difficult, in marketing-speak, to differentiate the brand sufficiently to gain significant market share.

Greg 2012-01-12

That’s true, except that with PLB you also don’t have to rationalize it when the allegedly all-powerful deity lets you down in this life. I think you may be right about SGI, based on what little I know about it, except that to me that seems more like the Buddhist version of the prosperity gospel Christianity that has recently gotten so popular. Jesus/Amitabha, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz.

Gottheo 2012-01-15

I did a little reading on the Aro website to try to get a grip on what Tantra and Vajrayana are. It seemed to parallel in some ways pentecostal and eastern orthodox christian and roman catholic spirituality Perhaps some of the potential American market for tantric spirituality is met by that old fashioned Jesus stuff!

Peter Snowdon 2012-01-17

@ Sky Serpent & Sabio:
regarding ambiguity and playfulness in using ‘magic’:
I just finished reading a fascinating book by French psychiatrist Tobie Nathan, The Sperm of the Devil (my translation, there is no English version of the book available, unfortunately). The subject of the book is basically, how can you do something like psychoanalysis with people (mainly, in Nathan’s case, African and North African immigrants) whose cultural frame of reference is completely different from that of a Western European? His short answer is: by understanding that the traditional healing techniques they have as reference points need to be affirmed as reference points, though not necessarily as the ultimate answer to their problems, because these techniques give meaning to their symptoms, and meaning is the first thing they want, indeed in some cases, it is sufficient to resolve/dissolve their suffering.
The interesting part for a discussion of magic, in a Buddhist or any other context, is that Nathan insists several times on the fact that, in his practice in a large Paris hospital, while he uses the language of the relevant culture, he never says unambiguously that he believes in djinns, or in spirit possession, or in the work of shamanic healers. And one of the reasons is that the people who consult him do not believe unambiguously in these things themselves. Their basic attitude towards magic is ambivalence. Part of them would like it to work, and part of them suspects all magicians of being charlatans. And that ambivalence is integral to the real healing power of magical and other similar rituals. So if Nathan pretended to be a spirit healer, or simply referred them to such a healer as the obvious solution, this would undermine their confidence in him.
My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.

Sabio Lantz 2012-01-17

@ Peter:
I agree that:
– symbols can be useful while not true
– we all hold an odd mix of contradictory ideas and feelings
– rigidness is often dysfunctional
– precision is often useful
– truth is an approximation of what is useful in specific domains

David C 2012-01-20

The function of magic in our post-modern, scientific-materialist culture has been retained but re-assigned to the Artist. Others have written elsewhere about how Art now serves much of the function of Religion (or at least magical religion). The medieval cultures in which Tantra flourished didn’t divide their literature into “fiction” and “nonfiction.” Today, a good work of, say, performance art or installation art or perhaps a video work like the Cremaster series will have all the mind-blowing imagery, obscure narrative, and mytho-poetic expression of a great sadhana or tantric ceremony. Extending this idea to @Peter Snowdon’s discusion of shamanic healing: look at all those families marching through the halls of any major metropolitan art museum on a weekend because “art is good for you.”

Dee 2012-12-10

From a social cognitive perspective, it is difficult to get people to change their beliefs, especially if what they current believe is working for them. I was an SGI member and I agree with some of the posts that it is very similiar to the prosperity gospels we are now seeing in American Christianity. As a previous Christian (before I converted to Buddhism) I see many similiarities between different Buddhist schools that resemeble different Christian sects. What I have found is that different schools of religion appeal to different classes of people based on their specific needs and understanding. But, in reading the Lotus Sutra, Chpt 2: Expedient Means, the Buddha preached different topics and used different vehicles for that reason. At the end of the day, there is only one path. However, there are different messages to reach different audiences. So, I don’t think the focus should be about how to market which particular school of thought. I think its more about what audience you want to reach most. Then, based on the audience you want to target, you present the specific message. But, in my humble opinion, when it comes to religion in the West, you cannot replace something that is assumed to be working with something that is unknown and not tested. Christianity, in all of its splender and forms, has a stronghold on a good segment of the population. So much so, most people assume you are Christian and are shocked when they discover you are not. As a Buddhist (primarily Nichiren focus) I do hope that Buddhism will become stronger. There is a need and I do think it can catch hold.

Tenzin Nordron 2014-02-20

Don’t understand why you assert that the Dalai Lama wants to “extirpate” tantra in the West or “. . . in fact a Tantra-free Western Buddhism is precisely what the Dalai Lama would want to endorse.” H.H. Dalai Lama asserts that many religious traditions, non-Buddhist as well as Buddhist traditions other than Tibetan, etc., are/can be very beneficial for the endless varieties of human dispositions/afflictions. One of his three personal commitments is to promote religious harmony thru appreciation of others’ spiritual practices. Naturally that would especially appertain to other Buddhist approaches. Nonetheless, H.H. Dalai Lama is the supreme Vajrayana Heirophant, who always bestows permission initiations of Action Tantras or full-blown Higher Yoga Tantra empowerments whenever he has been requested to give a Dharma teaching anywhere in the world. His many conferrals of Kalachakra in the West (which he specifically permits non-Buddhists to attend tho not, of course, mentally receive) should be sufficient evidence for you to retract your assertions.

David Chapman 2014-02-20


My statement that “in fact a Tantra-free Western Buddhism is precisely what the Dalai Lama would want to endorse” may have been rash in attributing motivations. We can never know for sure what anyone else wants. However, it’s based on observation of what he does (and what the rest of the Tibetan hierarchy, especially the Geluk hierarchy, does).

There’s a great blog post from just a couple days ago on “Racial Hierarchy in Modern Buddhism” that addresses your question pretty squarely, so I’ll suggest reading it, rather than repeating what Indrajala said there.

Some quotes:

Tibetan teachers have a vested interest in maintaining a monopoly over their spiritual authority. The reality is that most Tibetan teachers, be they a wealthy Rinpoche or not, are representatives of people in rather dire circumstances in South Asia. The Tibetan clergy in South Asia have a good thing going and cannot afford to lose it, both for themselves and the sake of their people. To delegate real spiritual authority to non-Tibetans would jeopardize religious and associated economic arrangements that their people very deeply depend on. As one friend of mine said, “The Tibetans in India have one export: Buddhism.” In due time perhaps Tibetan Vajrayāna in the west will simply become Vajrayāna, and less importance will be laid upon the ethnic background of teachers and practitioners.

Your main point is that the Dalai Lama is willing to give wangs (“empowerments”) to the public. My question for you would be: does that actually enable anyone to practice tantra?

I think the answer is “no.” No one comes away from that with the tools they need to even begin tantra. Nor does the Dalai Lama offer the public follow-up instructions that would make effective practice of tantra feasible. Only a handful of Tibetans do that.

The actual function of a wang, as given by most Tibetan lamas, is to raise money. It’s an empty ritual that provides some low-grade entertainment, and makes the participants feel like they are getting something spiritual for their money. Practically none of the attendees understands what is going on, and even for those who do, it doesn’t make actual tantric practice possible.

Two minor points:

H.H. Dalai Lama is the supreme Vajrayana Heirophant

Not true. He is the most politically powerful Geluk lama. He is not the official religious head of the Geluk School—that’s the Ganden Tripa—although the Dalai Lama controls it politically. He has no religious status in the other Tibetan Schools, which are officially independent. He (and/or the Geluk power structure) meddle in the other Schools’ religious affairs, which I consider illegitimate. (Opinion about this within the other Schools varies.)

Obviously, the Dalai Lama has no influence whatsoever on non-Tibetan tantra (e.g. Japanese Shingon or Tantric Theravada). Nor should he have any power over non-Tibetan Western tantra.

Naturally, many Westerners are inspired and influenced by him, which is great. I admire him in many ways. It’s totally appropriate for Western Gelukpas to have vast devotion for him, and for anyone to hold him in high religious regard. That’s separate from his political role.

H.H. Dalai Lama asserts that many religious traditions, non-Buddhist as well as Buddhist traditions other than Tibetan, etc., are/can be very beneficial for the endless varieties of human dispositions/afflictions. One of his three personal commitments is to promote religious harmony thru appreciation of others’ spiritual practices. Naturally that would especially appertain to other Buddhist approaches.

Yes, that’s nice, great PR, but it doesn’t seem at all relevant to whether he wants Westerners to practice tantra.

Big 2014-03-08

If you can’t find a teacher to teach you how to practice Tantra that’s because you are too busy being a pseudo-intellectual and pseudo-spiritual know it all. Try harder. The reason there aren’t as many western teachers is because so many of us know it all before we even started. We all can recite tidbits of facts on demand yet we rarely can’t put those pieces together in a true fashion or demonstrate any wisdom. Instead we either write pathetic blogs like this, or we read them and our pseudo developed minds are fascinated, or we pathetically waste our time responding to this low brow nonsense in the comments section as I am. Get a life. I’ll get one too. Take this trash offline.

Priya Das 2015-08-11

Again I am baffled and left with same question. what are you trying to say. You are so smart. Why are you wasting a valuable precious incarnation in some kind of shallow “Tantra Elitism”. HH. Trungpa Rinpoche and HH. Gelek Rinpoche left Tibet in each other’s company, both of them, Akong Rimpoche, Lama Zopa Rimpoche were all nurtured by an English Woman who walked with Gandhi, sat with the Sayadaws, and taught the Lamas. Did she teach Tantra? How f-ing stupid does that questions sound. Consider that by dissing teachers like Joseph Goldstein and HH. Trungpa Rimpoche, you are not helping anyone gain understanding of the real nature of things, but creating future obstruction for your self by unskillful speech. You are very bright, and a very humorous and talented writer. Consider how your gifts can be put to bring about positive results.

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