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.
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 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!
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 earlierposts 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.
Understanding tantra by contrast with other Buddhisms
Tantra: a history of innovation
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.