Reinventing Buddhist tantra badly

Some spiritual facts are now obvious:

These facts must be central principles of any religion that hopes to function in this century.

Consensus Buddhism”—the modern Buddhist mainstream—acknowledges these principles, but only with some embarrassment. The Consensus is rooted mainly in Sutrayana: traditional non-tantric Buddhism. The inconvenient truth is that Sutrayana absolutely denies and rejects each of these values. Its own core principles are revulsion for the world and renunciation of involvement with it.

This is awkward, to put it mildly. Sutrayana is not a plausible foundation for a popular 21st century religion.

The Consensus rejects renunciation; so what is left? Renunciation is the engine of Sutrayana; when you pull that out, the vehicle may look good, it may be comfortable to sit in, but it won’t go anywhere. In fact, Consensus Buddhism does sometimes seem to consist of no more than simple meditation methods plus vague feel-good ethics. That is not a vehicle that will take you far.

The “spiritual facts” I began with are principles of Tantric Buddhism. Tantra should be a better starting point for contemporary Western Buddhism. Unfortunately, Consensus Buddhism has rejected and opposed tantra as politically unacceptable.

Consensus Buddhism wants tantric results, but rejects tantric methods. So….?

Reinventing Buddhist Tantra unconsciously

Because these spiritual facts are obvious and important, Consensus Buddhism has partly adapted itself to them. It has grown away from its Sutric roots in an approximately Tantric direction. Its leaders probably did not understand this was what they were doing. Starting with the Sutrayana they inherited from Asian teachers, they adapted it step by step to accommodate modern values, without noticing that many of those values were always central to tantra.

Consensus Buddhism has:

These pieces do not fit together well. One could dismiss the result as a hopeless mishmash of unrelated, vaguely attractive ideas. Without a clear organizing principle, this cannot function.

Alternatively, we could understand this as a relatively coherent—but unconscious—attempt to reinvent Buddhist Tantra. Tantra has Buddhist ways to address each of the issues for which the Consensus has had to import non-Buddhist concepts and methods. The hard work of reconciling enthusiastic worldly involvement with core Buddhist values has already been done, more than a thousand years ago. Isn’t that where modern Buddhism should start?

Some aspects of tantra are non-obvious. You are likely to recreate it badly if you miss those. If you want to reinvent the wheel, you should first understand thoroughly how current ones work. Even people who are explicitly attempting to reinvent tantra, and have some training in its traditional forms, may screw up. (See my discussion of Michael Roach and Christie McNally’s attempt.)

Consensus Buddhism’s imports retain the non-Buddhist attitudes of their original ideological systems. You are unlikely to engineer a better wheel from a milk carton, three slices of cheese, and a feather duster—and unlikely to build a better Buddhism out of miscellaneous fragments of other ideologies.

Consensus Buddhism also retains a residue of renunciation from Sutrayana. Many Consensus teachers still consider monasticism the ideal, even though they don’t practice it. They are emotionally constricted, uncomfortable with intensity, and afraid of the awful possibility of too much fun. They reject tantra partly for its total lack of restraint.

The way forward

I believe that for Western Buddhism to survive this century, we have to start by admitting that tantra’s values are better aligned with ours than Sutrayana’s are. Tantra has tools to address spiritual facts we find central, and so it has to be accepted as part of the foundation of a workable modern Buddhism.

There are two immediate obstacles. One is that some aspects of tantra may seem outright unacceptable. Those need rethinking. Second, it is hard to know where even to start. Tantra appears to be closely-held Asian property, and Asians are mostly uninterested in helping Westerners modernize it.

Stay tuned for more on both of those topics.