Reinventing Buddhist Tantra

A conversation has begun about what post-Consensus Buddhisms could be. I will suggest a renewed Buddhist Tantra as a possibility.

Tantra aims in a direction many people want to go—quite a different direction from mainstream Buddhism. So its goal is inspiring; and its path can be exhilarating.

That might seem unlikely. “Isn’t Tibetan Buddhism incredibly conservative? What about all those gods and demons and miracles and Medieval superstitions? And prostrating to lamas, and rituals and robes and thrones and crowns? And hours and hours of chanting gibberish in Tibetan? This is exactly the stuff we want to leave behind—hardly the way forward for Western Buddhism!”

Mostly, yes, vintage-1959 Tibetan Buddhism is the only Buddhist Tantra that is available; and I agree that it’s culture-bound and anachronistic.

Yet I think new Tantric Buddhisms could be particularly relevant to life in the 21st century.

This page previews upcoming posts that will sketch possibilities that might look entirely unlike what has come before.

[Update, April 2019]: A new Annotated Table of Contents reflects the current state of the project, covers important issues that I hadn’t yet thought of when I wrote this introductory post, and explains why I back-burnered the effort in 2014.

[Update, December 2020]: The part of “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” I completed was mainly not about reinventing; it was a preliminary explanation of fundamental Vajrayana principles. I have merged that into Approaching Vajrayana. So now the rest of this page is out of date, and so is the 2019 Annotated Table of Contents.

I say “Buddhisms,” plural, because I don’t want the new, better alternative to Consensus Buddhism. What I want is space for many alternatives to develop. Some may sprout from Tantra; others from other roots.

I say “sketching possibilities” because I do not have a worked-out alternative to offer. I can only wave toward directions that look promising. I hope others will explore further, and that new forms may emerge collaboratively.

Why I should shut up, and why I won’t

There are several excellent reasons for me not to write about this. In short, I am totally unqualified.

However, most of what I have to say, no one else seems to be saying. If I don’t say it, perhaps no one will. I feel responsible for 3% of Buddhism, so I’ll go ahead and say it anyway. And I’ll put a big red warning up front that I may be completely out to lunch.

Fortunately, since I have no credentials, no one will listen unless what I say makes sense. So probably no great harm can come of it.

I expect someone will try to shut me up by yelling “That’s not really Buddhism!” or “That’s not authentic Vajrayana!” I find these objections meaningless, and will ignore them. What matters is whether something works, not whether or not it is “really” or “authentically” Buddhism.

A Tantric attitude

For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.

You may find that you already have this attitude. Many Westerners do—although it’s difficult to maintain consistently.

At first this explanation might seem anti-climactic. “That’s all you think Tantra is about? Big deal!”

The excitement starts when you realize there is a whole religion built on this attitude. There is a system for putting the vision into practice, for intensifying and developing it, for making everything you do consistent with it.

The innumerable, brilliant techniques of Tantra flow logically from this attitude. But, if you understand and fully embrace the attitude, then no specific methods are necessary. Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.

The intricate symbolism and subtle philosophy of Tantra express and embellish the fundamental theme of spacious passion. They point out its implications and use and value. Again, the forms are limitless. Some are culturally-specific, which implies that—if necessary—it should be possible to develop Western symbolism that accurately reflects the same themes.

The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.

Tantric history

The posts up to this point in the outline sketch what I hope are inspiring (if vague) possibilities. Before getting into specifics, we have some unpleasant medicine to take: a political history of Buddhist Tantra. Some history is needed in order to understand why Buddhist Tantra is the way it is now, and how it could be different. Unfortunately, some of it is tiresome and ugly: dead people behaving badly. In any case, I hope to show that:

I will provide a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. (Hint: Tibetan history is more fun with spaceships and ray guns.)

Tantric denials

To open up space for what Tantra could be, I need to explain what it isn’t.

In each of these, you can read “is not necessarily.” Tantra could be each of these things, in some versions. Not the kinds of Tantra that appeal to me, though.

An automotive engineering approach

Now we get down to nuts and bolts.

Tantra is a yana, which means “vehicle” in Sanskrit. It is possible to “reinvent” a vehicle. Revolutionary cars like the Model T Ford, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Citroen DS, and the Mazda Miata each introduced many new technologies and design concepts.

All of them had four wheels, an engine, headlights, seats, and a windshield, however. There are some things a car has to have, in order to function as a car.

A vehicle with two wheels is not a car. How about three wheels? People have tried that, but they’re tippy. Five wheels? Forget it.

A car without an engine doesn’t go. If a vehicle is going to take you somewhere, you need a source of energy to turn the wheels. An electric motor? Faddish now, and doesn’t work well. Maybe in the future. [I wrote this before the Tesla Model S existed!]

Hey, wouldn’t it be great to power a car with earthworms? That would be so organic and ecological.

The point is, “reinvention” can’t mean arbitrary make-overs that seem really cool. You can’t put wings on a car and expect it to fly. There are things you can change, and things you can’t. This has nothing to do with sacred tradition, or what it says in holy books, or what powerful priests will allow. It has everything to do with engineering.

If you want to reinvent Tantra, you need to understand how it works. What makes it go? What factors affect its energetic efficiency? How do you minimize drag? How do the safety belts function in a crash?

I will sketch my understanding of the fundamental principles and functions of Buddhist Tantra. If I’ve got it right, any future Tantra will need to conform to that general design. But this also points out areas that are open for experimentation, variation, and adaptation.

The Consensus and Tantra

I’ll write several posts on the Consensus’ complex relationship with Tantra.

For somewhat accidental, historical reasons, the Consensus mainly rejected it. However, it did incorporate certain aspects.

I suggest that most potential Western Buddhists would find the Tantric attitude attractive—and would not find the fundamental attitude of mainstream Asian Buddhism attractive—if both were explained accurately. This has led to some major obfuscation.

Meanwhile, because Westerners do want what Tantra has to offer, Consensus Buddhism has had to adopt vaguely similar practices and concepts from psychotherapy, the New Age, Hinduism, and elsewhere. This has not gone well.

Reinventing Buddhist ritual

Ritual is often said to be the defining feature of Buddhist Tantra. This is wrong. All pre-modern forms of Buddhism involved extensive ritual. Also, I suspect an entirely ritual-free Buddhist Tantra would be possible.

Possible, but not desirable. Many Western Buddhists reject ritual; but not—I think—for good reasons. In fact, it is only religious ritual they reject. Non-religious ritual is a vital aspect of every Westerner’s daily life.

So first, I will try to pull out the reasons for this rejection; and I will suggest that they are mostly confused.

We should reject religious rituals if they are boring and don’t work. And mostly that’s how they are. I’ll suggest reasons why.

Buddhism needs new rituals. Rituals that are exciting, fascinating, overwhelming. Rituals that leave you ecstatic, transported, inspired to practice. A great concert or theatrical performance can do that—just not in a religious context. We should expect Buddhism to provide the same high; as it did in the past, and still sometimes can. When it doesn’t, something is missing.

Fortunately, ritual is an aspect of Buddhism that is particularly open to innovation. Leaders have always felt free to create new rituals, even at times when Buddhism was highly conservative about doctrine.

Tantra has a handful of fundamental types of ritual, each with a defined function. For each, there is a primordial structure or underlying grammar. Within that framework, endless exuberant elaboration is possible, expressing the Tantric attitude and aims, in all artistic modes—music, dance, drama, poetry, painting, sculpture, costumery, and so on. An understanding of the basic forms, plus the principles and function of ritual in general, can be a starting point for creativity.