Sutra, Tantra, and the modern worldview

My last post contrasted Buddhist Tantra with “Sutrayana,” which is supposed to be a summary of non-Tantric Buddhism. In future posts, I’ll ask how accurately “Sutrayana” reflects actual Buddhisms such as Theravada and Zen.

Here, I compare Sutra and Tantra from the point of view of modern secular humanism. In sum, the modern secular view is much more in agreement with Tantra than with Sutra on points where they differ. The modern view and the tantric view affirm the value of life in the everyday world, whereas Sutra denies it. (Tantra may be less acceptable to the modern worldview than Sutra in its ethical and social views, however.)

The modern secular worldview is our default cultural background, against which potential Buddhists evaluate all Buddhisms. If Tantra looks more like the modern view than Sutra does, it ought to be more appealing for prospective modern Buddhists.

Put another way, if Tantra has failed to become a major thread in contemporary Western Buddhism, it is not because it is less compatible with modernity. In later posts, I’ll explore the question of why Tantra is widely considered Medieval despite that. (It is due to politics and historical accidents.)

Of course, the tantric worldview is also dramatically different from the modern secular humanist view, despite these similarities. Tantra has features in common with Sutra that contradict the modern view, plus some unique features that might come as shocks to most people. However, these potential obstacles are rarely reached by Westerners, because Tantra’s typical presentation as Medieval Tibetanism stops them first.

Prerequisites

The prerequisite for Sutrayana is “revulsion for samsara,” which means rejecting all worldly conditions as inherently unsatisfactory. “Revulsion for samsara” does not mean thinking that your personal circumstances suck, or everyone’s life sucks currently. If you think your life would not suck if you were gorgeous, rich, young, healthy, and talented, you do not have revulsion for samsara. If you imagine the world would be OK if we adopted a better political system, or developed technology that saved us from all material problems, or if everyone had a proper spiritual, social, or psychological attitude—you do not have revulsion for samsara.

Sutrayana is about rejecting and transcending the world, so if you don’t have revulsion for it, you can’t even start.

Secular humanism is incompatible with revulsion for samsara. And, in fact, most American Buddhists do not have revulsion for samara, as far as I can tell.

The prerequisite for Tantra is recognition of emptiness. This is fully compatible with secular humanism (which has nothing to say about emptiness one way or the other).

It does prompt the question: “so how do I get that?” Sutrayana equates recognition of emptiness with enlightenment, the end-point of its path. So it thinks emptiness is a very big deal, available only to a tiny number of extremely special people. Tantra is considered unrealistic by some American Buddhists for that reason.

On the other hand, many American Buddhists consider that sotapatti or kensho (“initial enlightenment”; recognition of non-self or emptiness) can be obtained fairly easily by ordinary people. And Tantra offers its own ways of developing sufficient recognition of emptiness to begin.

Path

For Sutrayana, the path is self-denial. (An upcoming post is about just that, because it may seem alien to modern Buddhists.)

The modern worldview affirms the individual, and sees no value—and much potential harm—in self-denial.

For Tantra, the path is transformation and liberation. That sounds fine to the modern secular view, which has roots in psychotherapy and liberal political values. “Transformation” is the path of psychotherapy, and “liberation” is (supposedly) the path of all modern political systems. These words mean rather different things in Tantra, so this is only a superficial similarity. However, at least there is no immediately obvious incompatibility of values, as there is with the path of Sutra.

Result

The result of both Sutra and Tantra is supposedly “enlightenment” or “Buddhahood.” However, they have (in my opinion) quite different ideas about what that means. Sutra emphasizes liberation from, whereas Tantra promotes liberation into.

Sutra promises liberation from suffering, but in some descriptions the price is a kind of living death. You are liberated from suffering only by abandoning desire, and anything that provokes desire. For most modern people, this is not an attractive proposition—except when we are desperately unhappy.

Sutric enlightenment is supposed to make you peaceful and saintly. Those sound good briefly, but intolerably tedious if you think about what they’d actually be like. Saints are fine to respect at a distance, but you wouldn’t want to live with one, much less be one.

Tantra promises liberation from pointless constrictions, and liberation into mastery, power, play, and nobility. This is mostly a much more attractive goal.

Consensus Buddhists are mostly “politically correct,” and think that “power” is inherently bad (and “nobility” a fiction), so that could be a sticking point. However, modern Tantra appeals to different sorts of people than the Sutra-based Consensus. Explaining Tantra to an audience that considers power good when wielded wisely might be a way of drawing interest.

Absolute and relative

The modern world has rejected “absolute truth”—rightly, I think. The various “absolute truths” of Sutrayana seem, to the modern listener, too vague to be meaningful; highly improbable; or incomprehensible.

In its later developments (e.g. Dzogchen), Tantra explicitly rejects Sutra’s “two truths” theory (absolute and relative). The secular worldview, similarly, rejects special “spiritual truths” that contradict mundane truths.

Sutrayana’s absolute domains—Nirvana or emptiness as alternate planes or dimensions of existence—are not credible. Modern thinking rejected the Christian heaven, and Buddhist equivalents seem different only in irrelevant metaphysical details.

Tantra emphasizes the actual, physical and social, experienced world. This is the world that secular humanism affirms. (The ideas of “world” in Tantra and modernity are not identical, however. Tantra, like some strands of Sutra, questions the world/self boundary that the secular view usually assumes.)

The world, meditation, and sacredness

Sutrayana rejects the physical world as inherently corrupt and corrupting. Nothing ultimately good can come of it, so it should be abandoned. Since meditation reaches toward another, holy world, and this one is vile and worthless, meditation and practical activity are entirely separate.

The modern view is that the world has a mixture of desirable and undesirable features, and that it is our job to enjoy and improve it. Tantra agrees with that. (See my posts on charnel ground and pure land.)

However, Tantra also says that everything is sacred. Therefore, every activity is a sacred activity, and meditation and practical action are inseparable. Since you don’t need to reject the world to attain enlightenment, Tantric goals are achievable in your current lifetime.

The secular view is that nothing is sacred. This can lead some modern people (of a nihilistic bent) to reject Tantra.

It can also attract some modern people (often of an eternalistic or Romantic bent). Many Westerners come to Buddhism as an alternative to the nihilism of secularity, with a recognition that sacredness matters.

I hope that modern Tantra can overcome both nihilism and eternalism through recognizing that sacredness is a stance toward the world, not an inherent quality of some bits of it; and that adopting the stance that everything is sacred generally leads to better outcomes than the stance that nothing is sacred.

Suffering

Everyone suffers, and wishes they didn’t. Sutrayana’s central selling point is the promise to eliminate suffering.

When non-Buddhists critique Buddhism, this is one of the claims they usually reject. People’s problem is not “suffering” as such, it is numerous specific difficulties. When Buddhism says that “everything is suffering,” it’s obviously wrong; many experiences are wonderful. Buddhism’s claims to “eliminate” suffering are non-credible (Nirvana as heaven), unavailable (enlightenment as becoming a sky god, which takes “three countless eons”), or bait-and-switch (suffering eliminated by killing all emotions).

I think these criticisms are basically correct. But, they apply mainly to Sutrayana. Tantra isn’t much interested in suffering. It’s about getting things done. Some things you can get done will alleviate suffering—yours or others; some are just cool.

Pleasure

Sutrayana makes craving for sense pleasures the main cause of suffering. To kill the craving, you must abstain from physical pleasure. Especially sex, but also everything you enjoy—except being nice to other people.

Tantra thinks pleasure (especially sex) is good, and enjoyment is the essence of the path.

Seriously, do I need to ask which sounds better?

The self, body, emotions, thoughts, and women

Traditional Christianity is anti-self, anti-body, anti-emotions, and anti-women. These are closely linked in Christian thought.

Sutrayana is anti-self, anti-emotions, anti-body, and anti-women in ways often strikingly similar to Christianity. It’s also anti-thought, at least in meditation.

Tantra, and the modern world view, are pro-emotions (if they are handled properly) and pro-body. For Tantra, enlightenment is not just a change in one’s mind; the emotions and body are also transformed, because these three are not separate.

Neither Tantra nor the modern view has a particular problem with selves (as opposed to selfishness) or thoughts.

Tantra says that women are spiritually equal (or even superior) to men. One of the “root vows” of Tantra is to never denigrate women. This ought to be appealing to egalitarian modern people.

Ethics

Secular modernism rejects ethics based on self-denial, as Christianity and Sutrayana ethics both are.

On the other hand, secular modernism is wary of the phrase “beyond good and evil.” (“Didn’t Hitler say that?”)

Secular ethics is basically Christian ethics minus the self-denial. If Tantra has any ethics at all, it is not like that. I would say it simply has no ethics. I consider that a non-problem; it just means you have to take your ethics from somewhere else. However, some Buddhist teachers would disagree.

Multiplicity of methods

This is one of Tantra’s main traditional claims for superiority over Sutra. Often Tantra has explained itself as a collection of high-powered technologies that accelerate the Buddhist path. This could be appealing to the modern, technological worldview—if the methods were taught in a pragmatic, naturalistic framework. I’ll suggest later that Tantra somewhat mis-represents itself, however: it is not best thought of as technology.

Still, its diversity of methods is appealing. To quote from the free Aro meditation course, Tantra includes:

Gods, demons, miracles, and rituals

Tantra is often considered incompatible with the modern worldview because it is infested with superstitions. This is a misunderstanding.

All Buddhisms in Asia were thoroughly infested with superstitions until they were modernized, starting in the late 1800s. Theravada in Thai villages is still mostly about gods, demons, and rituals; only in urban meditation centers is it a rational, science-compatible religion.

Tantric Buddhism could easily be naturalized (i.e. have the magical worldview removed from it). I’ll write about how in a later post. It’s only because of historical accidents—Tibetan and Japanese religious politics—that this has mostly not yet happened.

So gods, demons, miracles, and rituals are not points on which Sutra and Tantra differ.

Safety, secrecy, and the role of the teacher

I have sneakily put here, at the end, all the issues where Sutrayana comes out looking better!

Sutrayana at least claims to be safe, although I think there are some dangers in practicing it. Buddhist tantra is definitely not safe. I don’t think it’s hugely dangerous, but one should approach with caution.

Tantrayana at least claims to be secret. In reality, in 2013, it just isn’t. Virtually everything can be found in English-language books. There are almost no remaining secrets (and they’ll probably come out soon). So this is a non-difference.

However, there is a huge problem of practical access to Tantra. This makes it effectively secret, unless you are lucky enough to find a teacher who is willing to explain it, and/or do a lot of research on your own.

That brings us to the difference where Tantra seems least palatable to the modern view: the role of the teacher. The Sutrayana idea of a teacher as “spiritual friend” is comfortable; the Tantrayana concept of a teacher as an embodiment of enlightenment who gives you personalized instructions is not.

This has been a major obstacle to the development of modern Tantra. I don’t think it needs to be; I think there are ways of thinking about the role of a Tantric teacher that are compatible with modern values. Tantric traditionalists have not understood those values well enough to make the translation. They have also not wanted to give up traditional prerogatives. And, the hyper-egalitarian anti-authority leaders of Consensus Buddhism have actively opposed the development of a sane middle ground.

This is a complex, emotionally-charged topic that I will return to in later posts.