Recent comments

Monism and the Dark Night

Paul 2024-03-24

Commenting on: Consensus Buddhism: what's left

is the “Dark Night of the Soul” nightmare some modern vipassana meditators experience a consequence of monist distortions? (I suspect so.)

That’s very interesting, could you elaborate?

no longer a student

David Chapman 2024-03-20

Commenting on: Wrathful practice

After a dozen years, I concluded that ultimately I wasn’t quite a good enough fit (or vice versa). In short, my outlook is more modern than that of the Aro gTér. Also, I am more interested in versions of Buddhism that seek to benefit many people, whereas the Aro gTér is explicitly suitable only for a small number of people who fit its particular style.

Reasons for leaving Aro gTer?

A 2024-03-20

Commenting on: Wrathful practice

Hi David,

Thanks for this site.

the Aro gTér, which I used to be a student of

Why are you no longer a student of the Aro gTér?

Skipping stage 3

David Chapman 2024-02-26

Commenting on: Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence

Hi, thanks for the comment!

This is a common reaction to the theory from those of us on the autistic spectrum. There’s a couple of things to say in reply.

The first, which I covered in some detail in “You can’t skip stage 3” in “Natural misunderstandings of adult stage theory,” is that this probably reflects a misunderstanding of what stage 3 is. The misunderstanding is natural, and partly my fault, as that discussion explains.

In short, the likely confusion is between domains of meaning and self-structure. In our culture, the most important domains for most people during stage 3 are emotions and relationships. Those of us who were uninterested and bad at those during our teens may feel we skipped the stage. However, that’s probably because we were more interested in other domains, and put our energy into them instead. However, according to the theory, we had the same fundamental structure of selfing at that age as neurotypicals.

The original definitions of stages 1-4 come from Piaget’s studies of child cognition. Stage 3, in his terms, is “concrete operations,” the stage at which we were fascinated with factual details and could go on for hours about dinosaur taxonomy or the history of racing cars, without clear understanding of the principles involved (which is stage 4, “formal operations”). If you didn’t care about relationships when you were 11, but were passionately interested in video game monster stats—that was your stage 3.

The other thing to say is that adult stage theory was originally based on observed, empirical statistical regularities. It’s possible that some small-ish fraction of people do skip stages. In fact, the empirical research includes few longitudinal studies, so that might not show up in the scanty data.

My guess, based on structural reasoning rather than the data, is that the first explanation is more likely correct. That is, you didn’t skip stage 3; you just didn’t recognize it from the description here.

What do you think?

Stage 4 without stage 3? Data point: Myself; claim: Widespread in autistic spectrum people.

dreieck 2024-02-26

Commenting on: Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence

I want to challenge the (fundamental) assumption of the model that development necessarily (i.e. in every single case) needs to proceed in the order of the stages as described/ that “higher” stages have the ability to also function in “lower” stages.
And as datapoint I bring myself:

I cannot remember that I ever have been able to function in stage 3. And I make the claim that many people on the autistic spectrum can easily function in stage 4, but not in stage 3.

What do you think?
Might that show a boundary of this model?


Thomas Flint

David Chapman 2024-02-12

Commenting on: Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana

Hi, I’m sorry, I have no contact info for him. I was never in touch with him; I learned about the name change from something on the public web.

Thomas Flint

troy 2024-02-12

Commenting on: Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana

Hi David,
Through you above message I learn that my long time former buddhist monk friend Thomas Flint has moved on. I want to write him. Can you give me an email address or other solid contact?
with thanks,
Troy Harris

Further baseless speculation as symbol-system-manipulation competence is robbed of purpose

Jesus Christmas 2023-12-25

Commenting on: Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence

It would seem to me (again, as someone actively and excruciatingly regressing from stage 5 to stage 2 as the world walks whistling by) that, unfortunately, societies that do not follow the Western liberal individualist model, actually have the upper hand at producing hypothetical “stage 6” individuals.

Roughly speaking, I picture a society where “the institutions are there to serve the individual” as a “cold war of all against all” where 50% of participants achieving stage 3 is be sufficient to maintain economic output at stable levels within the scope of living memory (which, in this case, is less than or equal to ~1 generation, due to deficiencies of further perception as inherent to the given stage.)

OTOH, a totalitarian society where “the individual is there to serve the institutions” would naturally cause individuals achieving a higher development stage to, well, rebel. This would make them visible to the institution, which would initially crush them - to its own detriment - then eventually one of these projects would figure out how to co-opt and incorporate these challengers to its own hegemony; or, from the opposing viewpoint, those who are able to rebel invisibly would figure out how to take over the societal institutions from the inside, thinking they are “bending them to their will” but instead just becoming one with them.

“You Are The Ones and We Are The Many”, to be overly dramatic and obtuse about a point I find difficult to express in the language that I am given by The Many.

I find the whole idea repugnant, tbh. In my head, it is the human individuals that are the bearers of conscious experience, and therefore moral value. Systems of individuals, on the other hand, are of course vastly more powerful than individuals, but have no consciousness, and I have come to perceive them as parasitic entities that exist in “behavior-space”. Who would win? Whose side are you on? Do you believe there are no sides? Does the forces that oppose you believe the same?

Fascinating, fascinating stuff! And everyone who I used to be able to talk with about such things now seems to be across something from me! Baseless speculation includes that some have found a place in the “system” that rewards them enough for Upton Sinclair’s law to apply (easy if you cound “not being crushed today” as reward), and yet others have been broken by their unilateral search for peace with a world that is at war with them for no reason, and become unaware operatives of rot.

And me, I just sit around bored and frustrated, hardly even finding it worth to write thoughts on Internet, lest they also be incorporated into the immortal unconscious which took away my sense of purpose “for my benefit” (as the Wilsonites would also probably rationalize to themselves the selling of false maps of shared interiorities to any seek of correct truths that passes by. “Hey, man’s gotta eat an if they get burnt it’s their fault.”)

Really gotta read the original Kegan.

Trip report

Jesus Christmas 2023-12-25

Commenting on: Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence

This systematization is positively fascinating: a rigorous map of modes of consciousness about whose existence authors like R. A. Wilson would hint at, then sell you a fake to see if you figure it out for yourself.

I would like to report that over a period of ~15 years my state of being has regressed from precocious stage 5 (intuiting the presence of such patterns as described in the article, experiencing frustration that nobody seemed to know or care about such things, seeking a way out of a partially modernized mess of a society by virtue of “meta” awareness ascribing me further degrees of freedom) to exhausted stage 2 (where the only thing I can speak for is my personal experience, and other humans literally have no meaning or existence to me other than as relates to my present necessities - which I had thankfully struggled to minimize over time, and can now apparently persist in this state indefinitely.)

Furthermore I have a fundamental suspicion that my parents had experienced a societally-induced process of regression before and during my early upbringing; my observation over the years is that only after shedding the burden of
“breadwinning and childrearing as the only legitimate purpose of an adult person’s existence in a mixed stage 2-4 society” were they able to regain some degree of higher functioning. I consider it evil to create new thinking beings on such shaky grounds, but what is done is done.

What I took away from the whole ordeal that has been my lived experience as a conscious human being is that it has a strong “curated” flavor to it; from your description on what miscomprehension between stages 2/3/4 looks like, I infer that an individual might theoretically gain the following capability: they would be able, through persistent reinforcement, to force others into a certain developmental stage, thus qualitatively changing the system through which they perceive the world. The ethics of this process are contingent on the stage of development at which the perpetrator has developed that capability. Common pararational traps such as “conspiracy theories” and “esotericism/occultism” seem to me like the experience of an individual participating in the system at developmental stage N-1, figuring out the existence of stage N, extrapolating the existence of stages N+1,2…M, and becoming either terrified or power-mad about it, depending on where their locus of control was situated at the moment of realization.

Please, send help. I am trapped in a talking monkey.


Crystal 2023-12-06

Commenting on: There are no spiritual problems

Yes yes yes

Thank you

Crystal 2023-12-06

Commenting on: The Tantric Base: Spacious Passion

Thank you for reflecting back to me how I intuitively practice spirituality

A life changer

vgm 2023-12-02

Commenting on: How to learn Buddhist tantra

Feeling gratitude upon re-reading. The idea of “asking raw questions” changed my life.

I am reminded, in a similar vein, of Ken McLeod’s statement that ‘your teacher is not there to answer your questions – they are there to ask you questions that you can not answer as you currently are.’

Zen's classification is unclear (to me)

David Chapman 2023-09-29

Commenting on: Yanas are not Buddhist sects

Hi T, thanks for an interesting and perspicacious comment! Definitely not annoying.

I was a child when you wrote much of this book, and it’s adding great value to my life today as a young adult.

This is somewhat surreal to me, but yes, it’s been fifteen years… I’m glad you are finding it useful!

It seems to me Zen could be considered a yana, developed from dhyana but now its own distinct yana inclusive of dhyana.

I agree that this would make good sense. I don’t know of anyone having said this (apart from you). Generally, Zen is counted as Mahayana, but it also describes itself as “a special transmission outside the sutras,” and it seems to have a different fundamental attitude than Indian Mahayana. On the other hand, the Pure Land Schools are also counted as Mahayana, but have an even more distinctive principle and function, so the category “Mahayana” is confused and confusing and ideally would be abandoned. The Tibetans continued the Indian academic practice of clearly distinguishing yanas, in theory at least, but East Asia didn’t even try, and the innovations there don’t fit into the Indian scheme.

Zen the yana as a cousin to Dzogchen

Yes. In fact, in their early development, they are historically intertwined. The Wikipedia article on semde (early Dzogchen):

Scholars like Samten Karmay and Karen Liljenberg have also argued that other traditions like tantric Shaivism and Chan Buddhism may have had some influence on this early Dzogchen literature… Liljenberg notes that various documents form Dunhuang indicate that some Dzogchen practitioners were syncretizing Dzogchen with Chan and other early Dzogchen works show that other people disagreed with this trend. This is also supported by the work of the Tibetan scholar Nubchen Sanggye Yeshe. Nubchen attempts to argue for the difference between the two teachings and the superiority of Dzogchen, but he also agrees that much of their terminology is similar. Furthermore, the biography of several Dzogchen masters depict them as traveling to China (Vairotsana) or even having transmitted Chan lineages (Aro Yeshe).

What unites Dzogchen and Tantra conceptually and mechanically under Vajrayana, beyond aesthetic and sequential development?

Yeah, kinda mostly that.

Buddha through Vajrayana?

Also that. Although… Dzogchen basically refuses to take the category “Buddha” seriously. Everyone is beginninglessly enlightened, so there’s nobody here but us Buddhas.

often Zen seeks a goalless Buddhism, although this is controversial across practice lineages

Yup. Nobody here but us Buddhas, so there’s nothing to be gained. “Therefore, Shariputra, since the bodhisattvas have no attainment, they abide by means of prajnaparamita.”

What is Zen?

T Stevenson 2023-09-28

Commenting on: Yanas are not Buddhist sects

Hopefully comments on decade+ old posts are taken as complementary and not annoying - I was a child when you wrote much of this book, and it’s adding great value to my life today as a young adult.

Your Yanas posts throughout Vividness have greatly clarified the whole conversation for me. But one issue (and it’s almost certainly actually a non-issue) is the classification of Zen - and by that I mean the whole of Zen, including Chan, Seon, Thiên, and Japanese Zen.

It seems to me Zen could be considered a yana, developed from dhyana but now its own distinct yana inclusive of dhyana. Zazen is a specific approach to meditation, koan study is a unique method of pointing to, playing with, and integrating the understanding of emptiness, and there are unique rituals and devices that approach and play with emptiness in specific ways (Zen poetry, gardens and sculpture, ritualized living).

If Zen is considered a yana, then sects would be the schools and lineages, such as Sōtō, Ōbaku, Rinzai, Jogyesa - all of which primarily focus on Zen the yana, but also frequently incorporate other yanas, like sutra.

I do see, in my very limited understanding, Zen the yana as a cousin to Dzogchen - similar to your framing in Beyond Emptiness, particularly at the highest level of koan practice… So that begs the question of whether Zen as a yana fits within Mahayana or Vajrayana, or neither.

What unites Dzogchen and Tantra conceptually and mechanically under Vajrayana, beyond aesthetic and sequential development? Is the difference between core yanas purely the aim - Arhat through Hinayana, Bodhisattva through Mahayana, and Buddha through Vajrayana? If so, Zen might constitute a fourth core yana standing outside the traditional three - as often Zen seeks a goalless Buddhism, although this is controversial across practice lineages (the Bodhisattva-ideal runs deep throughout Zen-focused sects).

Vajrayana isn't tibetan

Karma Sang Gye Gyasto 2023-09-19

Commenting on: Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism (and vice versa)

In climbing the big mountain we’re all facing, it really is irrelevant to me if Vajrayana is or isn’t Tibetan. What matters is that the person practicing Vajrayana is becoming a better, happier person for the benefit of others!

You could spend 1000 years analyzing dharma, histories, monks, tantrayana, and sutrayana and more, but still, it is, for me, connecting with the individual deities/archetypes that brings release, not academic speculation.

And meditation? Great, relaxing, clears the mind etc. However, meditation can never be more than an ephemeral solution to suffering. Quit meditating, and the suffering pops back up–every time–maybe it’s less because you disassociated from it somewhat for a time, but trust my experience, the only way to constantly be happy and in bliss, for me anyway, and probably you, is to constantly connect with a deity. Constantly. Then you become a part of their bliss. It’s unexplainable. The other huge advantage comes at death; you need to be commiserating with an advanced being when you enter the bardo; otherwise, you’ll be like a leaf in a windstorm–you’ll be at the mercy of your own accumulated energies.

You connect with a deity through visualization and their mantra, but this isn’t understood or believed by the masses.

Thank you!

T Stevenson 2023-09-16

Commenting on: The Dark Age and Buddhism’s future

I hadn’t seen that article! Thank you so much!

I can tell this whole site is going to be a great resource to help me articulate to my wife and friends a great deal of my spiritual outlook. It is very difficult to put into words for your typical western atheist or agnostic who’s only familiar with Christianity - a fundamentally different way of relating to and experiencing the world, the self and one another.

Thank you for all your work and elucidation!

Fundamentally new interpretations

David Chapman 2023-09-16

Commenting on: The Dark Age and Buddhism’s future

Hi, thanks for the comment! I find myself in strong agreement with everything you say.

Relevant, in case you haven’t seen it, is my page “Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism (and vice versa).”

Appreciation and Passing Thought

T Stevenson 2023-09-16

Commenting on: The Dark Age and Buddhism’s future

I really appreciate this blog, because it essentially summarizes much of my spiritual outlook. I formally practice Zen, but I have a deep fondness for Vajrayana and hope to deepen my understanding and pursuit of tantra in a parallel manner as time goes on.

One thought I do have, however, is on the difference between Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhism. Obviously Tibetan Buddhism is a part, a derivative, of Vajrayana, but it is not the entirety of Vajrayana and Tibet does not own Vajrayana. I think a lot of resistance to our thinking comes from a desire to maintain indigenous culture and spirituality in the Tibetan tradition - we don’t want westerners appropriating and recreating “Tibetan” Buddhism according to their personal spiritual and philosophical proclivities. But we could develop distinct Vajrayana lineages in the west, potentially branching off from Tibetan lineages but explicitly reframed as fundamentally new interpretations distinct from traditional Tibetan understanding (say, western traditions branching from each of the 4 schools, with reinterpretations of myths and animus beliefs).

I think there have been a few attempts at this approach - like Diamond Way - but they tend to be marred by cultic behavior, sectarianism, western new age BS, and the general scandals and superficialities that tend to taint deliberate western reinterpretations of spiritual traditions. It might be useful for it evolve similar to western Zen, but retaining its myth, spirituality and symbology (western Zen is often so secularized and serious it can feel alienated from its spiritual and cultural roots). I think this could have organically happened if Chogyam Trungpa hadn’t gone so far off the rails in the 60s and 70s and made the horrid mistake of transmitting his authority to Osel Tendzin.

Who's the target audience?

Xpym 2023-08-09

Commenting on: Relating as beneficent space

Is this aimed at people who are already giving benefit of the doubt to vaguely-Buddhist metaphysics, so to speak? When I attempt a translation into my own, some of it does feel already familiar, but even so, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of response to the self-posed “theoretical, abstract, implausible, or incomprehensible” charge.

There’s the notorious “Dodo bird verdict” that all forms of psychotherapies are equally effective, strongly implying their specific content doesn’t matter. Is there good outsider-accessible evidence that Buddhism-informed approaches fare any better in practice?

is the definition of spaciousness restricted to "freedom from fixed meanings"?

kimsia 2023-07-30

Commenting on: Spacious freedom

How about the sense of “spaciousness” that comes from having lots of unstructured time like during holidays?

Freedom from obligations and the have-to’s of day to day

Is that part of the spaciousness definition you have in mind here?

I also see how this spaciousness is closely linked to the awareness when you speak about the difference of awareness and mind elsewhere in vividness

In western psychology, awareness is a part of mind. Whereas in Dzogchen, mind is a part of awareness where awareness is like this infinite boundary-less vast space if i recall correctly.

Can you talk more about the difference between the awareness of Dzogchen and the spaciousness here?

It’s so simple!

Jesse 2023-07-22

Commenting on: Relating as beneficent space

Drop the involvement with judgment and subjective interpretation. So obvious and yet we find ourselves trapped in those constructs again and again. Crazy. Good stuff. Timely too.


Simon Grant 2023-07-19

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

I guess I was starting from the “difficult to describe” aspect. Now, of course, not everything that is difficult to describe is similar purely in virtue of it being difficult to describe. However, I felt a kind of connection, also felt alongside the Christian “apophatic” tradition. In my understanding of that tradition, one does not try to say what God is, but rather points, by saying what God is not. Or something…


David Chapman 2023-07-18

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

Not seeing a connection…


Simon Grant 2023-07-18

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

Just curious, from a naive and pretty ignorant perspective....

Demons and Dzogchen

David Chapman 2023-07-16

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

I think I’ll stick with summoning demons, at least I understand how that is supposed to work.

Yup. Traditionally tantra was a functional prerequisite for Dzogchen. It’s difficult to approach Dzogchen directly, because it doesn’t make any sense (until it does). Tantric practice is one way to find the sense that Dzogchen makes.

In chöd you let go of identification with your body, which synergizes with letting go of mental stuff, and then you find that you are Tröma, whose mindness is all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, impersonal space (albeit with an excitingly, enjoyably bloodthirsty flavor), and thereby you are doing Dzogchen.


David Chapman 2023-07-16

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

What can one do when this opportunity happens?

The answer may change as it becomes more familiar. At first, all that is possible may be just noticing it, because it lasts only a moment or two. With more familiarity, there is a felt sense of “oh, this again, nice!” (but not in words). If the moment extends, you can rest in it, and maybe exert a slight amount of effort to resist the temptation to snap back into ordinariness. You can reach around and feel what it is like; its texture. You can act from it.

Why does the teacher say “Excellent! So now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

There are many Easter eggs hidden in the text. Some are sign-posted; some (like this) are not.

It’s a quote from Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s a bit of a spoiler for that whole book, so I won’t explain it. I haven’t read the book in a million years, but I remember it as good. There's an analogy between the situation in which that question is asked in Portnoy and the situation here.

Is his mother Swedish, and does it come out when he’s feeling jaunty?

The teacher is female (the text refers to her as “she” a few times). There’s a couple of Easter eggs in there that explain who she is.

Is “all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, impersonal space” a description of rigpa in terms of the elements?

Well spotted, yes.

If so, are these terms which indicate what happens when form and emptiness are perceived as non-dual?

Yes, although this is biased on the side of emptiness. I’m not sure why it came out that way. It’s (fictionally) from an introductory lecture, where emphasizing the emptiness qualities might be helpful (since emptiness is less familiar than form).


SusanC 2023-07-16

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

I think I’ll stick with summoning demons, at least I understand how that is supposed to work..

Thank you

vgm 2023-07-16

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

I enjoyed this and thought it was laugh-out-loud funny. The second student’s description of why they’re interested in Dzogchen (vs tantra) helped me clarify my own interests.

I hope you continue to write dialogue, as it conveys (to me) some texture that seems otherwise hard to convey.

“If something bizarre happens and you can’t find your mind… you have an opportunity.”

What can one do when this opportunity happens? I recognized something that might be similar to it this morning.

- Why does the teacher say “Excellent! So now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” Is his mother Swedish, and does it come out when he’s feeling jaunty?
- Is “all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, impersonal space” a description of rigpa in terms of the elements? If so, are these terms which indicate what happens when form and emptiness are perceived as non-dual?

Thanks for the clarification

Paul 2023-07-15

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

Ok, I think I see what you’re going for now. I still feel aversion towards this approach but that’s just me :)

The magic is jarring

David Chapman 2023-07-15

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

Thanks for the feedback!

That ending is potentially misleading, and I went back and forth about whether to include it. The reasons I did include it may help understand the whole thing…

The overall point the teacher makes within the story is “take apparent statements about Dzogchen as inexplicit instructions about what to look for where, instead.”

The story is a fiction, written by me. The overall point of my presenting the story itself is also “take apparent statements about Dzogchen as inexplicit instructions instead.”

Popping out of the frame story, this inexplicit meta-instruction also applies to the story.

A straightforward misreading of the story, ignoring that, is “you can’t get Dzogchen without magic provided by a Special Teacher Person.”

Reading it as “what to look for where,” the instruction is: be on the lookout for moments that are relevantly similar to what the student experienced at that point in the story. If something bizarre happens and you can’t find your mind… you have an opportunity.

Such a moment potentially might occur for some readers as they read that part of the story—because it takes a sudden left turn…

And such a moment might occur for some readers right now, as pieces fall into place.

liked it but found ending problematic

Paul 2023-07-15

Commenting on: A non-statement ain't-framework

Quick comment: I liked this up until the ending which felt a bit “magical”. I feel like it might add unnecessary confusion.

For context: I’ve been practising dzogchen for 5 years and come from a similar background to you.

Critical missing functions

David Chapman 2023-07-06

Commenting on: The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana

What I am curious about is whether there are crucial functions that traditional Lamas play that are not realized by this presentation of the coaching relationship.

Well, what is crucial or not crucial depends on the five certainties: the students, the teacher, the teaching, and the time and place. Traditional lamas have many different functions, most of which would not fit in a coaching format. If, due to factors within the five certainties, one or more of those functions is critical, the coaching model would not be a good one.

The article says:

What contemporary social arrangement would support the essential aspects of the Dzogchen learning relationship? Evolving Ground is an answer to that question.

I’ve added the emphasis to “an” here to make clear that this isn’t a universal answer. It’s one that can work in this time and place for some students, teachers, and teachings.

As an example of its dependence on teachings, we described this as a model for Dzogchen transmission, contrasting that with tantric transmission. Charlie also teaches tantra, and a somewhat different structure is needed for that. That’s a different work in progress, emerging organically as it’s under co-construction with the students, teaching, time, and place.

It depends on the students, too, as the article said: “Dzogchen transmission requires far more from the student. It depends on receptive presence…” So this model won’t work for students who haven’t developed that capacity.

And, this model won’t be suitable for some teachers, for any of many reasons.

Re: Devotion

A curious Ngakpa 2023-07-05

Commenting on: The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana


Thank you for your extended reply. I appreciate the added context for Dangerous Friend, and the attempt to untangle the questions around devotion.

Re the pushback — it’s understandable to disregard if the criticism is coming from a refusal to acknowledge modernity, but what I meant was whether there is something that is diluted when the relationship shifts to coaching. For instance, I find it quite plausible that a typical coach will require more skill than a Lama in facilitating a shift in the student. Of course, the whole point is that a coaching relationship is more flexible and in principle can include even some of the wrathful display that certain Lamas have.

The presentation of the relationship, and the words used to describe the teacher have a markéd impact on progress. What I am curious about is whether there are crucial functions that traditional Lamas play that are not realized by this presentation of the coaching relationship.

Tantra, Dzogchen, Evolving Ground

David Chapman 2023-07-04

Commenting on: What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?

Hi Alex,

Do you still find modernizing tantra to be a worthwhile goal?

Yes. Tantra and Dzogchen are both valuable depending on where you are and where you want to go. Also, they can be complementary and synergistic. For some people at some times, one or the other may be more suitable; for others, practicing them in tandem might be best.

In “Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen, ” I made fun of tantra from point of view of Dzogchen, just in order to clarify how it differs (and because it was entertaining). I could equally make fun of Dzogchen from point of view of tantra: “A bunch of supposed ‘yogis’ who are too lazy and stupid to actually do anything, and just go around running their mouths about how enlightenment is ineffable because ALL IS ONE and everything is perfect so there’s nothing to say or do and like wow man have you ever really looked at the sky?!”

You mention that dzogchen may be too inaccessible for most folks to benefit, but I find myself wondering if this is really the case (many, many people seem to benefit from Harris’ presentation)

Well… his understanding of what “Dzogchen” means is not the same as mine. This is a complicated and tricky topic, which I’ve considered writing about. I would not say that his explanations are incorrect, but they seem somewhat limited, and may miss the main point. Apparently he often talks as though recognition of emptiness is the goal of Dzogchen, which would be incorrect. That is the goal of Sutrayana, and the base (prerequisite) for tantra.

I don’t want to diss him, because he has inspired millions of people to meditate, and that is excellent. And also his explanations may be true to his lineage, which is of the Kagyu School, whereas my understanding is from the Nyingma tradition. The two do present Dzogchen quite differently.

“just look at what is happening right now”

This instruction is more characteristic of Sutrayana practice than of Dzogchen. To the limited extent I have been exposed to his presentation, that conflation is characteristic of Harris’ explanation.

This point is subtle, and probably can be explained only in person to someone who is ready for it (“transmission).” However, “look at” implies a separation of the looker from what is seen, which falls away even at the endpoint of Sutrayana.

why ought a person interested in modernization bother with tantra at all?

Because it has a different function. There is no one essence of Buddhism; the different yanas have different principles, goals, and methods.

I think the project of cultural preservation is important of its own right, and I’ve fallen in love with much of what TT’s organizations do in this respect.

Yes… there is much to love about Tibetan religious culture. And, I have visited TT’s center in Berkeley, a few years ago. I was hit with a wave of intense nostalgia for my time visiting temples in the Himalayas.

Simultaneously, I had a feeling of “What on earth are you people doing here?? This is all very nice, but it has nothing to do with your actual world. It’s a museum full of beautiful things that no longer function. You are LARPing. Get real!”

I mostly dropped the Vividness project a decade ago because I wasn’t capable of actualizing my theorizing, and no one else seemed likely to create a new, contemporary version of Vajrayana either.

Three years ago, my spouse Rin’dzin, who has vastly more practice and teaching experience than me, started doing exactly that.

Rin’dzin leads the Evolving Ground community for contemporary Vajrayana, including versions of key tantric practices and views. It seems to work very well for many people. I haven’t been much involved, for lack of time; I hope that may change.


Some questions about where you've gone...

Alex 2023-07-04

Commenting on: What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?

Hey David,

I’ve been slowly making my way through this site after being introduced to it by a friend in college a few years ago. I’m currently practicing and volunteering/studying full-time as part of the mandala of orgs founded by Tarthang Tulku. Although the org is highly non-traditional by Tibetan standards and makes secular forms of understanding emptiness highly accessible, it’s also been really useful to be able to read your presentation of tantra, as a way to consider what the essence of the practice is, and how it might be changed in the future.

As I’ve made my way through your website, it seems you’ve sort of chronicled your gradual move away of tantra (i.e. the totaled sports car), towards essence traditions in terms of your personal practice and intellectual interest. It’s been almost ten years or so since you’ve published much of what is written here, and I’m curious how your perspective (and practice) has changed since then. Do you still find modernizing tantra to be a worthwhile goal?

Like many young, anxious people of my generation, I was initially introduced to practice through Sam Harris, and his secular presentation of the dzogchen style, in the spirit of “just look at what is happening right now.” It changed my life, and I have been falling deeper down the contemplative rabbit hole ever sense. You mention that dzogchen may be too inaccessible for most folks to benefit, but I find myself wondering if this is really the case (many, many people seem to benefit from Harris’ presentation), and I wonder how your perspective on this has changed over the years?

If we really are really talking about distilling the essence of buddhist practice into that is as portable as possible, why ought a person interested in modernization bother with tantra at all? I think the project of cultural preservation is important of its own right, and I’ve fallen in love with much of what TT’s organizations do in this respect. But if modernity is what we are looking for, I can’t help but wonder if re-modeling tantra is barking up the wrong tree. Although more groundless practices may not be themselves ‘ennobling,’ I wonder if this is really what is important to preserve, or if it is generally better to leave that work to the individual, and to western psychological and philosophical approaches for actuating such changes, rather than forcefully trying to yoke it to non-dual experience.

Thanks again for all you’ve done on this site. Would love to hear your thoughts.


So many coaches already

Murat 2023-07-02

Commenting on: The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana

Great post, but I’d worry about the tight congruence between omnipresent coaches and current neoliberal economic logics, revolving on individualism, entrepreneurialism , adaptability, flexibility. Basically, little one-person shops to purchase one-on-one training, experience, and expertise. Also a semi-tragic facet in the vein of ‘humans of late capitalism,’ as the burn-outs of so many in prior professional or institutional contexts supplies the very capital for their reinvention of coaches for those who are still employees! Maybe the ubiquity of coaches is a cultural and economic symptom of sorts, not something to be taken for granted or idealized.


David Chapman 2023-07-02

Commenting on: The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana

These are excellent questions, thank you!

I read Dangerous Friend when it came out, but don’t remember it very well. We (Charlie and I) were students of Ngak’chang Rinpoche at the time, as was the author of the book, Rig’dzin Dorje, and we knew him quite well. He’s a good guy; we haven’t talked in about a decade though, since I left that sangha.

It’s hard to know how he would respond. I can’t speak for anyone else, ever, of course. But also there has been a lot of water under the bridge, for all concerned, since 2001 when it was published. Historical conditions have changed… some of which I’ll explain below.

they critique attempts to do away with the Lama but have little discussion of alternative arrangements

Yes. The book was motivated by attacks coming, at that time, from what I called “Consensus Buddhism.” It was one sally in a large, nasty war that lasted two decades (roughly mid-80s to mid-2000s).

The Consensus presented a stark dichotomy of either radical egalitarianism or “the guru model.” They confused Tibetan practice with “the guru model,” and pointed to bad behavior from some gurus (many/most of whom were not Buddhist) as proof that “the guru model” is bad and therefore lamas are bad and therefore Tibetan Buddhism is unacceptable for Westerners.

Meanwhile, Tibetan conservatives insisted that they owned Vajrayana and it had to be the way they said, and nothing whatsoever could be allowed to change.

The controversy overlooked a wide space of what was already feasible. These were never the only two models. In fact the Consensus didn’t practice their egalitarian theory themselves. They had, and have, what we termed “pastors” here.

Tibetan learning relationships were also quite variable in practice. The book defends a somewhat idealized version of a scriptural theory, which is not generally realistic. The mahasiddha stories are exaggerated, heroic myths of ancient times; they can serve as inspiring models, but aren’t descriptively accurate.

In the war between tradition and modernity, what was mostly missed by both sides was the functional role of the lama. Traditional sources, and therefore Rig’dzin Dorje who relied on them, did not do a good job of explaining why lamas are necessary, and specifically what they do. (If my memory of his book is correct.)

The model we presented here attempts to clarify the functional role, which we believe is absolutely necessary, and to separate it from traditional institutional practice, which we believe is culturally-specific and not ideally suited to current Western conditions.

Something we didn’t talk about is devotion. That isn’t because it’s not important. Some amount of devotion is functionally necessary, and it can be centrally important, depending on the student.

One reason not discussing it is that the word “devotion” is vague, and doesn’t communicate well the pattern of interaction that is functionally necessary. Instead, it suggests patterns in romantic relations that tend to dysfunction (“codependence”). In fact, that pattern is the way “the guru model” goes wrong in dysfunctional cults. In that case, students who don’t understand how to relate to the teacher fall into the same dysfunctional emotional dependence they’d bring to a romantic relationship. If the teacher doesn’t forcefully correct their misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship, the standard guru/cult abuse scandal develops naturally.

So we’d want to avoid the word altogether, and talk instead about what is functionally necessary from the student. “Devotion” is whatever attitude toward the teacher is needed in order to be able to make use of the teaching. We did include one sentence of that:

It depends on receptive presence: active, attentive openness to brief, subtle interactions, in an apparently mundane relationship with someone who may appear perfectly ordinary.

This is, roughly speaking, what “devotion” functionally consists of in a Dzogchen context. One could adopt “receptive presence” as an attitude, just based on this brief description, and that might be enough. Or, that might be obscure, or difficult.

In that case, some other words could be helpful. Receptive presence depends on an adequate degree of trust in the teacher. That includes trust that they are competent to teach the material (including to give transmission of the relevant sort). Another word for this could be respect, rather than “devotion.” It also includes trust in their good intentions; that they aren’t psychologically or emotionally manipulating you, and don’t have some secret selfish personal agenda. There needs to be enough of that trust that you are willing to follow their instructions, at least on a provisional “I’ll give that a serious try” basis, even if they don’t seem like they’d work. (Of course, asking questions for clarification at that point is a good idea!)

Another functional aspect of “devotion” is inspiration. That is the motivation for doing the hard work of Vajrayana, and for making changes in your psychology that may be somewhat difficult or even painful initially. Ideally, you find the teacher inspiring: they have personal qualities you’d like to emulate. At minimum, you need to find the contents of their teaching inspiring. They give you an uplifting vision of possibility.

In developmental terms you might see devotion as a mechanism for disruption of a self centering stage 3 process into an institutionally oriented stage 4 process.

That’s interesting… it could indeed do that, if the teacher guides students in that direction.

The lama is often traditionally described as a father-figure. For young monks (some start in monasteries as young as five), that’s just necessary. And monasteries are fairly systematic institutions, so one function of the lama is to induct novices into that systematic mode of being.

Relating to the lama in ways reminiscent of relating to a parent is natural, probably unavoidable to some extent. It can be helpful, so long as the student understands their own emotional transference, and can mostly separate the ways it is functional (trust and respect) from the ways it is not (dependence and/or reflex rejection of authority).

I am very curious what, if any, you’d anticipate in terms of pushback f you presented this idea to extant Vajrayana Lineages.

I’m not curious :)

I simply don’t care about what traditionalists think, anymore. I think they’ve made themselves irrelevant through refusal to adapt. Their opinion is no longer of consequence.

There is much to learn from tradition. It is best not learned from those who refuse to acknowledge modernity and postmodernity.

Situating this critique within modern teachings on the Lama student relationship

Curious nagkpa 2023-07-02

Commenting on: The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana

Thank you for sharing your and Charlie’s perspective. As usual, I find much insight in your writing.
I am wondering how you think the authors of such books as ‘Dangerous Friend’, a modern book which explores the importance of the Lama student relationship, would respond to this post.
If I recall correctly, they critique attempts to do away with the Lama but have little discussion of alternative arrangements, such as coaching. One thing I anticipate is that devotion will be far more difficult to cultivate with the proposed dzogchen-coach advocated here. I am recalling certain mahasiddha stories where it was devotion that allowed major transformation.( In developmental terms you might see devotion as a mechanism for disruption of a self centering stage 3 process into an institutionally oriented stage 4 process.)
I am very curious what, if any, you’d anticipate in terms of pushback f you presented this idea to extant Vajrayana Lineages.

Ineffability and incommensurability are great

Kenny 2023-06-25

Commenting on: The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana

Damn – I’m even more intrigued!

I’m only really passably familiar with Buddhism – via the various (mostly pretty superficial) glosses of what you describe as ‘Consensus/Modern/Western Buddhism’ – but I think I’m much more familiar with what I think you’re pointing-at/gesturing-to in the form of ‘Taosim for nerds’ via, e.g. the relevant works of Raymond Smullyan. (I also feel like my academic background in mathematics was frequently and, at the time, surprisingly similar in many ways.)

I think I can appreciate why one would want to preserve the possibility of experiencing “shock[s]” and their ability to put one into a “non-ordinary state”, so I don’t think I’m personally at much danger of falling into the trap of dismissing this kind of thing as “nonsense” or being not “worthwhile”.

I’m still curious tho about the kind(s) of ‘insights’ one might expect (or hope) to discover.

But I also think you’ve kinda-sorta demonstrated the very thing I’m asking about in this back and forth! I now think I’ve been ‘putting you on the spot’ – unfairly – because, if for no other reason, you don’t know what ‘insights’ I’m currently missing (or could usefully rediscover).

(I’m a little sadder now that I don’t expect to be able to just ‘try this out’ at one of the Evolving Ground retreats/events.)

Ineffability and incommensurability

David Chapman 2023-06-24

Commenting on: The learning relationship in contemporary Vajrayana

Are the kinds of things students learn via “transmission” generally/mostly/almost-always/always things that are difficult/impossible to describe, even after the fact?

Well, officially the answer is “yes,” the content is always ineffable. It points to indescribable aspects of experience that one is unlikely to be able to access until one has been meditating pretty seriously for several years.

Transmission is usually (not always) given verbally, although it is an indirect “mere indication” or “pointing,” rather than a propositional statement. And, although officially the whole of Dzogchen can be transmitted in a single short sentence—and I think that’s true in a sense—there are thousands of volumes of Dzogchen theory. So apparently you can explain it; but maybe only after the fact, in retrospect.

There’s a bit of an anti-intellectual streak in Dzogchen. That is a necessary corrective to the sterile intellectualism of the university-style education of elite monks, but it may be counter-productive for the rest of us.

Coincidentally, the day before you asked this I started writing a piece on this topic. I think there may be a useful analogy with the notion of “incommensurability” in the philosophy of science. Sometimes new “paradigms” simply can’t be understood from the perspective of the older one, because the fundamental ontology is different. As a consequence, all the old words mean different things in the new ontology. An example is planets in the Copernican revolution. (I wrote about that in detail here.) Before the revolution, a “planet” was a light that moved around in the sky differently from the stars, and therefore included the sun and moon, but not the earth. After the revolution, a “planet” was something that goes around the sun, which includes the earth but not the sun or moon. That is inconceivable and nonsensical in the old ontology; the sun is up in the sky and the earth is down here and obviously not moving; how could the earth possibly go around the sun?

Dzogchen has a radically unfamiliar fundamental ontology; even, or maybe especially, if you are familiar with sutric or tantric Buddhism. Words like “emptiness” and “enlightenment” and “mind” and “non-duality” and “meditation” mean something quite different. (Although there’s some continuity, in the same way that Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn remained planets after the Copernican Revolution.)

I think—I’m not entirely sure—in Dzogchen transmission, the teacher points this out by pointing to aspects of the student’s current experience.

If not, are there any examples you can (and are willing to) share?

This stuff used to be secret, but it’s not secret at all now. Nevertheless, there’s two reasons to be cautious giving examples. One is that if you read a sentence now and sorta-kinda understand it, it’s less likely to be a shock when you get it as transmission, and then it won’t have the effect of putting you in a useful non-ordinary state. The other is that if you don’t sorta-kinda understand it, it may sound like nonsense, and you could conclude that there’s nothing here worthwhile.

There’s another analogy, actually, with meta-rationality, which has a radically different fundamental ontology from rationality, and if you hear meta-rational statements before you are ready, they sound like stupid hippie woo. If you are just barely ready, they may come as a shock and revelation. (Likewise, if you hear rational statements before you’re ready—if you are in the prerational stage of cognition—they just sound like selfish social dominance claims.)

Anyway, as a fake example, there’s a made-up example here, in which the teacher tries to give transmission and the student doesn’t get it:

This is just my made-up example, trying to give the flavor of the thing, so don’t take it seriously.