Yidams: a godless approach, naturally!

Rethinking a key Vajrayana Buddhist practice, for skeptics and atheists

I ain’t against gods and goddesses, in their place. But they’ve got to be the ones we make ourselves. Then we can take ’em to bits for the parts when we don’t need ’em anymore, see?

—Granny Weatherwax, in Lords and Ladies

Gods drive most people away from Vajrayana Buddhism before they even know what it’s about. That’s a pity, because it is not about gods.

As an atheist, I rejected Vajrayana for several years when I was told that it’s mostly about gods and demons and magic and stuff.

But Vajrayana (Buddhist tantra) doesn’t need gods anymore. We could take them to bits for parts, if we wanted; or just shoo them back home.

Or, better, we can agree to a new arrangement with them: we will treat them with the respect they deserve, if they stop pretending to exist.

“BUT!” you object, if you know anything about Vajrayana, “what about deity yoga?

“Deity yoga” is perhaps the most important tantric practice. It requires the cooperation of “yidams,” who are…

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Beyond emptiness: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen

ox herding picture #8: emptiness
number eight: emptiness

Buddhist Tantra begins where Sutrayana ends: at emptiness. Tantra concerns the realms beyond emptiness, about which mainstream Buddhism (Sutrayana) has nothing to say.

Few Buddhist systems go beyond emptiness. This post is a humorous sketch of the differences among three: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen. (Mahamudra is another, which I won’t discuss.) I can’t write seriously, because my practice of Tantra and Dzogchen is pathetic, and I haven’t practiced Zen at all. The post is long, but I hope you will find it entertaining, and that it conveys something of the attitudes of the three approaches.

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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.)

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Sutra and Tantra compared

This table compares, point by point, Sutrayana (traditional non-Tantric Buddhism) and Buddhist Tantra.

Issue Sutrayana Tantrayana
Prerequisite Revulsion for samsara Recognition of emptiness
Path/overall method Renunciation of self, emotions, and the world Transformation and liberation of energy
Result/view of enlightenment Recognition of emptiness; suffering ended by elimination of defilements Recognition of inseparability of emptiness and form (wholeness)
Character of enlightened people Saintliness, peace Nobility, heroism, mastery, adventure, play
Absolute and relative truth Emphasizes absolute truth (i.e. emptiness) Emphasizes relative truth (appearances); ultimately, rejects the distinction between the two
Absolute and relative domains Aims to someday reach the absolute domain (Nirvana as Neverland) Operates within the relative domain (the actual world; nirvana is not separate from samsara)
The actual world Inherently corrupt; provokes wrong emotions; should be abandoned Inherently sacred; provokes delight; should be enjoyed, enhanced, and engaged with
Suffering The main point Not a big deal; a source of compassionate energy
Pleasure Bad; a fetter to be avoided Good; a delight to be enjoyed
The practitioner:
Self/ego The biggest problem; illusory and/or cause of all troubles Not a problem; not separate from Buddha-nature
The body Source of mental defilements; repulsive rotting sack of shit; to be subjugated Source of delight; indispensible for compassionate action; to be celebrated
Strong emotions Five poisons to renounce: greed, anger, desire, envy, denial Five elixirs of the wisdom energies: generosity, clarity, appreciation, action, and acceptance
Sexual desire and intercourse The #1 obstacle; celibacy is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress Exceptionally useful motivation and method on the fast path to Buddhahood
Women Inherently spiritually inferior Inherently spiritually superior (or at least equal)
The practice:
Time to full enlightenment “Three countless eons,” which equals billions of years Between a moment and a lifetime, depending on individuals and circumstances
Safety Supposedly safe Potentially dangerous
Available methods Few; each suitable for everyone Vast in number and diverse in approaches, suitable for different people and situations
Thoughts Obstacles to be eliminated in meditation Essence of enlightenment, when properly apprehended
Meditation and action Separate activities Inseparable: practical, everyday activity should be constant meditation
Secrecy Not secret; can and should be taught to everyone Supposedly secret, and only to be taught to qualified people
Role of the teacher Ordinary person who gives universal, non-personal teachings Enlightened person who gives specific, personalized teaching
Ethics Mainly based on self-denial; superficially compatible with Christian morality Rejects self-denial; beyond good and evil; obviously incompatible with Christian morality
Some NON-differences:
Gods, demons, miracles Important; central in Mahayana (celestial bodhisattvas) Important, but their lack of concrete existence is emphasized
Rituals Important but not central Important but not central

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Podcast: Enlightenment & Epistemology

Ted Meissner, of The Secular Buddhist Association, recently invited me to discuss “what can we know about enlightenment, and how?” for their podcast series. Our conversation was based on my post about that here.

The podcast episode (“Enlightenment and Epistemology”), now available, came out really well. Ted is a skilled interviewer, and also added his own considerable insight and sensible judgement to the mix.

Ted and his colleagues, like me, want to find—I hate to use this phrase, but—a middle way between accepting traditional Buddhist beliefs uncritically, and rejecting all of Buddhism just because a fair bit of it is nonsense.

This has to be an on-going project. (In fact, it has already been on-going for a couple of millennia now, as Buddhism has undergone frequent revision and innovation.) It is not clear, and it probably never will be certain, quite how best to do that.

The Secular Buddhist podcast series presents diverse views on how Buddhism can contribute to contemporary society—and vice versa. There’s much of great interest there; check it out!

What do you want Buddhism for?

Buddhist banquet

I have a sense that, in American Buddhism, this question may be coming to a crisis point.

Traditionally, what most people wanted from Buddhism—in practice—was good luck in this life, and better circumstances in their next life.

The modern Buddhism of the 1870s to 1970s rejected those answers as supernatural, and therefore unbelievable. So it went back to the scriptures to renew an old theoretical answer: “enlightenment.”

Unfortunately, the scriptural explanations of enlightenment are mostly also supernatural. So, modern Buddhism invented various replacement interpretations. Apparently they work for some people; but mostly they seem unsatisfactory. They may be implausible, unworkably vague, or unimpressive.

In my last post, I suggested that “enlightenment” is such a confused idea that we ought to drop it altogether. Several of my earlier posts have also argued that “enlightenment” is a counter-productive escape fantasy.

Many Western Buddhist leaders have recognized this, probably for decades. I’m not sure there’s been a full, open discussion about it, though. Can “enlightenment” be rescued? Or, if we abandon it, what is Buddhism good for? These questions are confusing and embarrassing, and might drive away the audience. So maybe there is a tacit agreement to avoid them.

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Epistemology and enlightenment

“How do you know the Buddha was enlightened?” asked the ogress in “Eating an entire epistemologist.”

Here are some similar questions:

  • What is enlightenment?
  • Is there such a thing?
  • How can we find out?
  • What is it good for?
  • Why should we care?
  • Who is enlightened?
  • How can you tell?

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Twixt path and result

Road map

  1. Overview of tantra
    1. Base: spacious passion
    2. Path: unclogging energy
    3. Result: nobility ← You are here
  2. Understanding tantra by contrast with other Buddhisms
  3. Tantra: a history of innovation
  4. The future of Buddhist tantra

Pure Land” was the final post in the section explaining the path, or method, of Buddhist tantra.

Next, I will discuss its goal, or result.

In most Buddhist traditions, “enlightenment” is the goal. I believe that this idea is so vague and dubious that we should drop it.

I’ll suggest a possible alternative goal, “nobility.” Nobility, as a goal, is understandable, believable, desirable, and practical.

Because nobility is understandable, it makes the technical methods of tantra understandable. If “enlightenment” is the goal, many tantric techniques seem like voodoo. They are just bizarre and crazy. If you think of them as ways of developing nobility, they make better sense.

Rare strands of traditional Vajrayana do reject enlightenment as a goal, and aim for nobility, so this isn’t a complete fabrication. Some reinvention is required, however.