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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Finding a teacher of modern Buddhist Tantra

You can’t, because there aren’t any.

I’m really sorry about this. I’m afraid I’ve raised expectations that can’t be satisfied—for now, anyway.

I started writing about “modern Buddhist Tantra” mainly out of intellectual interest. I wanted to show it would be possible—and a good thing. I also had a vague idea that if I made this understood, someone would start teaching it. My hope was that creating demand would somehow conjure supply into existence.

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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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