Reinventing Buddhist Tantra: Annotated Table of Contents

Tantra is a form of Buddhism whose unusual characteristics make it particularly appropriate for Western culture, society, and psychology. Unfortunately, its presentation has mostly not been updated for current conditions—unlike some other branches of Buddhism. Due to a series of historical accidents, this has left it mainly unavailable, despite its great potential.

Reinventing Buddhist Tantra is a project I began in 2012. My aim was to show how this form of Buddhism could address our current crisis of meaning, and how it could be explained a way that makes sense to Westerners who have less than zero interest in esoteric metaphysics or Medieval Asian culture.

After finishing several dozen posts, covering much less than half of the planned material, I ran into trouble. A conceptual reworking of Buddhist Tantra, making it suitable for current conditions, is straightforward. What is not straightforward is actualizing the concepts as a social form. Particularly: who could teach this, and how? I have no answer to that. So I back-burnered the project in 2014. I’ve only occasionally added pages since then.

The concepts may still be useful as bits and pieces, even if the overall project seems infeasible. Below is an outline of the original plan: first a summary version, and then page-by-page in detail.

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Consensus Buddhism: what’s left

When I started writing about Consensus Buddhism, four years ago, I pointed to signs that it was in crisis and on its way out. Now, its failed attempt to mount a coherent political response to secular mindfulness shows it’s over. Of course, the teachers are still teaching and the centers are still open; but as a cultural force, it’s spent.

This means specifically that it is no longer capable of suppressing modern Tantric Buddhism—one of my main motivations for writing about it. (There’s many other obstacles to that—but Consensus hostility had been the most daunting, and that’s no longer significant.)

So I’m probably done writing about Consensus Buddhism. There’s some loose ends, though.

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How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics

Modern “Buddhist ethics” is indistinguishable from current secular ethics and has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality.

So, where did it come from, and why?

The short answer is that Buddhist modernizers simply replaced traditional Buddhist morality with whatever was the most prestigious Western ethical system at the time. They decorated that with vaguely-relevant scriptural quotes, said “compassion” a lot, and declared victory.

This replacement occurred in roughly three phases:

  1. Around 1850-1900, Victorian Christian morality replaced traditional morality in modernist Asian Buddhism. This hybrid was successfully re-exported to the West, but is now unknown in America, because Victorianism is considered old fashioned. It’s still influential in Asia.1
  2. Around 1900-1960, Western political theories were imported into Buddhist countries, and were declared “the Buddhist ethics of social responsibility.” This was the root of “engaged Buddhism,” one of the two main strands of current Western “Buddhist ethics.”
  3. In the 1990s, the recently-invented secular morality of the New Left, identity politics, and ecological consciousness was declared “Buddhist” by Consensus Buddhism. This is mostly what counts as “Buddhist ethics” in the West today, although most Asian Buddhists would reject it utterly.

So what?

Well, the question is: are we stuck with this stuff? Of course, advocates of “Buddhist ethics” would say “This is what The Buddha taught, so it is Eternal Truth!” But the correct answer is: No, ordinary people just made it up, over the past hundred and fifty years, to solve problems of meaningness that appeared newly in their times.

So, facing our own new problems of meaningness, we can—and should—invent something different. And since “Buddhist ethics” is half of Consensus Buddhism, this implies an extensive reinvention of Buddhism for the West.

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Degrees of naturalization

A naturalized Buddhist tantra would, by definition, have nothing supernatural about it.

That seems straightforward; but actually there are degrees of naturalization. Dropping claims of supernatural powers and beings and realms is just the start. For example, many “alternative healing” systems make no explicitly supernatural claims, but couldn’t work through natural causes.

Here’s a possible spectrum:

  1. Include explicitly supernatural claims
  2. Eliminate explicitly supernatural claims
  3. Eliminate elements for which no natural understanding seems feasible
  4. Eliminate elements for which there is inadequate empirical evidence
  5. Find specific, empirically justified explanations for the remaining elements
  6. Understand practices well enough to re-engineer them to be more reliable and effective

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Naturalizing Buddhist tantra

There’s a common idea that Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) is the crude, superstitious version. Real Buddhism is rational and empirical; it’s about meditating and being a good person. Vajrayana is all about magic, gods, and demons—which are primitive make-believe.

If this were right, Vajrayana would be doomed. Anyway, I would have no interest in it.

Fortunately, this view misses the point. It’s not what Vajrayana is about. Tantra is not inherently supernatural. We can remove all the supernatural beliefs, if we want, without losing anything important.

This has seemed obvious to me, and not particularly significant, for two decades. Judging from recent blog comments and private emails, the possibility of Vajrayana without the supernatural is surprisingly controversial. It provokes stronger feelings—pro and con—than I expected.

So I need to proceed carefully, to detail lines of thought which I would prefer to summarize briefly. According to my current outline, “naturalizing Buddhist tantra” will run to fifteen posts.

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Shambhala Training was secular Vajrayana

From the 1970s to 1990s, Shambhala Training explained itself as “a secular path of meditation.” It was:

  • explicitly non-Buddhist
  • not a religion; without dogmatic beliefs; compatible with atheism and secular humanism
  • compatible with any religion, including Christianity

Secular mindfulness meditation is commonplace now, but this was radical then. Shambhala was an opportunity to learn advanced Buddhist meditation techniques without having to buy into Buddhist beliefs and institutions. For me, and tens of thousands of others, that was hugely valuable.

Officially, Shambhala Training synthesized several spiritual traditions from around the world. In reality, its founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, drew mainly on the specific, unusual Vajrayana system he learned in Tibet. The introductory Training “levels” presented basic Buddhist meditation from an implicitly Vajrayana perspective; advanced levels were increasingly overtly tantric. The whole path was devoid of Sutrayana: no Buddha, no Noble Truths, no renunciation, no paramitas, no Neverland Nirvana.

Shambhala Training was the clearest example of modern Vajrayana to date. I’ll explain below how it met most of the criteria for “modernity” I listed in my previous post.

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What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?

“Modern Buddhist tantra” unites the two threads of this blog: modern Buddhism, and Buddhist tantra. But what would that even mean? And is it even possible?

Modern Buddhism” may be:

  • Science-compatible: atheist, rational, empirical, free of spooks and supernatural superstitions
  • Secular: not religious or dogmatic; teaching practices, not beliefs
  • Culturally engaged: teaching creativity and the arts
  • Socially engaged: including practical compassionate action
  • Naturally engaged: with curiosity and awe at the beauty, vastness, and intricacy of the physical and biological world
  • Psychologically and ethically sophisticated: incorporating Western insights into the self, emotions, and relationships
  • Universal: a path suitable for everyone, everywhere
  • Sober: sensible, restrained, free from self-indulgent emotionalism
  • Authentic: based on the original teaching of the human founder, not made-up gods
  • Exoteric: free from rituals, incense, and mumbo-jumbo in ancient languages
  • Egalitarian: free from priests, robes, and hierarchy

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Power

 

Power is a main goal of Buddhist tantra. That’s unique and valuable among Buddhisms.

Power comes from skillful use of energy—personal energy, and also the energy of situations and other people. (See my page on “unclogging energy” for more.)

Tantra develops confidence, mastery, and charisma. These are keys to power.

The two faces of power

Power is awkward. Most people—certainly most Western Buddhists—have strong, mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, power is the ability to get things done. Without power, it is impossible to accomplish anything. Power makes it possible to benefit others, and to change the world for the better. The bodhisattva vows are goody-goody weaksauce without the power of tantra. Benevolence has little value without the ability to act.

On the other hand, power corrupts. Power is, at best, morally neutral. It can be used for evil as easily as for good. Throughout history, power elites have brutally oppressed and exploited the majority. “Mastery” includes the powers of domination and coercion.

Power is inherently, inescapably political. Power inevitably raises strong emotions, both desire and hate.

Power is not nice. Power is not polite. Power is not a comfortable subject to discuss.

Power is a central issue for Consensus Buddhism, and for Tibetan Buddhism.

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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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The Making of Buddhist Modernism

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has changed the way I think about Buddhism more than any book I’ve read in years. I think it’s destined to be an influential classic.

It’s a history of how and why “Western Buddhism” came to be what it is. That casts new light on what “Western Buddhism” is, and raises new questions about whether that’s what we want.

My understanding of this book is the main basis for this blog series. (Of course, I use other sources too, and of course McMahan might disagree with everything I say.) This is not a general review. Instead, I will explain some parts of the book that are relevant to my own project.

Traditional Buddhism is very unlike Western Buddhism

Most Western Buddhists don’t realize how different even the most traditional and “authentic” forms found in the West are from traditional Asian Buddhism. Once this is understood, questions arise: where did modern Buddhism come from? Why? What is it good for? Is it legitimate? What are the implications of its differences from tradition?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism starts with a series of four portraits of typical Buddhists in Asia and in the West. It explains their understanding of Buddhist theory and practice. These portraits are devastatingly accurate; and very funny, because of the total disconnect between the traditional Asian and Western Buddhists. If you have not spent time in Asia, with traditional Buddhists, this chapter may come as a shock; and is certainly worth reading even if you skip the rest of the book.

Briefly: Westerners take for granted that meditation is a main Buddhist practice, and that reading and understanding Buddhist texts is another. Traditionally, in Asia, almost no one ever meditated, and almost no one ever read religious texts with the intention of figuring out what they meant. This was true even in monasteries, never mind lay communities. In traditional Asia, virtually all Buddhist practice is aimed either at accumulating merit in order to have a better next life; or at influencing assorted gods and demons, whose actions have practical consequences for one’s health and wealth.

Much of “Western” Buddhism was developed in Asia by Asians

It is startling how much of “Western” Buddhism was invented in Asia, before 1950—before there was much Western interest in Buddhism. McMahan suggests, therefore, that we talk about “Buddhist modernism” rather than “Western Buddhism.”

On a later blog page, I will summarize some of this history, concentrating on modernist Theravada and Zen, and drawing on the historical research of Gil Fronsdal and Brooke Schedneck as well as David McMahan.

Modernist Buddhism hybridizes tradition with Western ideologies

McMahan explores in detail the way Buddhism has been altered to incorporate three major Western ideologies:

McMahan treats two other Western systems in less depth:

  • Psychology and psychotherapy
  • Political ideals: individualism, egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy, social justice

What I found most startling and useful in the book was seeing how deeply these five ideologies have been “read back” into Buddhism, so that they are mostly overlooked, and taken to be traditional Asian products.

Later in this series, I will go into more detail about the influences of each of these Western ideologies on Buddhist modernism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with mixing Buddhism with Western ideas

Buddhist traditionalists object to mixing Buddhism with anything else. “Pure Dharma” is supposedly unchanged since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, and messing with it is wrong wrong wrong.

I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree (and so does McMahan). Buddhism has actually been hybridizing with other systems almost from the beginning; and why should we think that new presentations of its core principles won’t be better for new times?

The five Western ideologies are also not altogether alien to Buddhism. They do resonate with some aspects of Buddhist tradition. In Buddhist modernism, those resonating aspects are highlighted, while parts of Buddhism that contradict Western ideas are suppressed. Quoting McMahan:

This “taking up” of selected elements of a tradition in the context of another tradition is how religions develop, adapt, change, and come to occupy different ideological niches from the ones they evolved in. The taking up and development of Buddhism in the context of [Western ideologies] has created a new Buddhism, a hybrid that is adapted to all [of them] and is able to both complement and criticize them. (p. 116)

Buddhist modernism is attractively familiar

Buddhist modernism has been successful because it makes sense to Westerners.

That’s not surprising: much of it is our own culture, repackaged and passed back to us.

Familiar ideas about individual access to ultimate truth (a core theme of Protestantism), social justice, and emotional health are dressed up with Sanskrit, Pali, or Tibetan words, and supported with highly selective quotations from Buddhist scripture. That makes them intriguingly exotic, yet comfortably unthreatening.

The West has its own powerful critiques of each modern ideology

The ideologies that were mixed into Buddhist modernism are each problematic. There are powerful Western critiques of each of these five Western ideas.

When these ideologies are disguised as “timeless Eastern wisdom,” we may accept them uncritically. Repackaging questionable Western theories as Buddhism might get them past filters when they shouldn’t.

New forms of Buddhism address new problems

It’s useful to think of each new form of Buddhism as trying to solve particular problems that crop up in a particular place and time.

Much of Buddhist modernism developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Asia, to solve major Asian political problems. Western military power threatened colonial domination, and the influx of Protestant Christian missionaries threatened to replace Asian cultures. Buddhist modernism was created largely to help fight off these threats.

That motivation is irrelevant to us now. It’s worth asking how Buddhism has been shaped by anti-colonialsm, and whether a religion created with that agenda is still a good fit.

More recently, Buddhism in the West has developed in response to other problems. One is the widespread loss of faith in Christianity, potentially leading to the “disenchantment of the world,” a sense of meaninglessness, and nihilist despair and rage. Another was a series of political and social crises, addressed by the “engaged Buddhist” movement.

It is worth asking whether disenchantment, meaninglessness, and nihilism are still the problems they seemed 30-40 years ago. (I think not—and my theory is that this is why mainstream Western Buddhism is less attractive to people born after the ’60s.)

It is worth asking whether Buddhism is an effective way of addressing current political and social problems. (I’m not sure, but I doubt it.)

It is worth asking, what other problems might Buddhism help with now?

What kind of Buddhism do you want?

I think that Buddhist modernism is on the whole a good thing. But I can’t swallow it whole.

For each of the five Western ideologies that Buddhism has incorporated, I will point out ways I find them problematic, in Western terms.

I will also sketch some extremely tentative ideas about how Buddhism may develop in the world we live in now. It’s a world that has some new spiritual problems, emerging in the past couple decades, which we’re only beginning to recognize. I’ll point out some of those, and suggest ways Buddhism might be relevant.