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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Buddhist tantra is not about techniques

The value of Vajrayana is an attitude—the spacious passion that unclogs energy—not technical intricacies.

“Not about techniques” is a somewhat unusual view.

Traditional teachers and texts do often—not always—define Buddhist tantra as a collection of esoteric practices.

For modernizers, too, it’s tempting to describe tantra as “advanced mental technology.” As an engineer, I find that an attractive proposition:

What we want out of Vajrayana, once we’ve stripped away the traditional superstitions, is a pragmatic manual of proven techniques for transforming consciousness.

I think this is a mistake, however. It’s not exactly wrong, but:

  • Thinking of tantra as techniques overlooks what I consider most valuable in it.
  • Many traditional techniques don’t work, and claims about the effectiveness of the ones that do are often exaggerated.
  • Viewing tantra as technology is, ironically, a roadblock to necessary innovations.
  • The technical view also risks aggressive self-aggrandizement.

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A killer app for modern Vajrayana?

In the tech world, a “killer app” is a single program so compelling that people will buy a whole system just to run it. For example, many people bought the Xbox to play the game Halo. Some bought early smartphones for Google Maps with GPS. Then they found other uses…

Mindfulness meditation has been the killer app for mainstream modern Buddhism. Its benefits were so obvious that millions of people bought into Buddhism just to learn it.

Could modern tantric Buddhism have a killer app?

It would need to be:

  • obviously effective
  • with clearly different results from mindfulness meditation
  • easy to learn
  • easy to practice, requiring minimal time, equipment, or preparation
  • naturalistic and secular—not supernatural or overtly religious
  • teachable by people with relatively modest qualifications

I have defined the method of Buddhist tantra as “unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion,” so that’s how the killer should work. I’ve defined the aim as “mastery, power, play, and nobility,” so that’s what the killer app should produce.

(How many people would buy into a whole system to get that?)

Surprisingly, there is a practice that might deliver on all those promises. It is one of the “windhorse” practices of Shambhala Training.

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Buddhist tantra for non-Buddhists?

A surprising and wonderful thing!

My Buddhist sites are increasingly read and appreciated by non-Buddhists. Particularly, they attract smart, science-y, tech-y, creative, competent readers. Some come from the LessWrong rationalist community, for instance—which I have written about and for.

Especially gratifyingly, they often go straight for my most hardcore, uncompromisingly tantric stuff—and they get it. They understand why it matters, and ask intelligent, substantive questions. This is not something I expected at all.

My Meaningness book is meant for non-Buddhists. It’s supposed to be a practical philosophy of life, inspired by Buddhism, but explicitly non-Buddhist. I expected that site to gain non-Buddhist readers like these—unusually smart people who dismiss religion and “spirituality” as nonsense, but who still face problems of meaning. (Only about 5% of that book has made it on-line, so far. Soon I hope to get back to working on it!)

Several geeky non-Buddhist readers have said that what they most want are practices of meaning that are compatible with a modern, secular world-view. Mindfulness meditation is one—but they recognize that it heads in the wrong direction for them.

The Meaningness book is supposed to be purely conceptual. It is practical, but the practice is only one of understanding—not doing. Maybe this needs a re-think.

Readers have said that what they want, specifically, are ritual methods. Among secular geeks, there is a hunger for meaningful ritual that is also compatible with a modern, Western, naturalistic world-view. Ritual that connects us, creating communities; raises energy and brings feelings of wonder, ecstasy, motivation, and commitment; points to what we care most about, and widens our view.

This, a naturalized, secularized Buddhist tantra can provide.

Four strategies for naturalizing religion

I’ve noticed four strategies for “naturalizing” a religion—for making it compatible with the scientific worldview.

Two strategies get rid of supernatural aspects: ignoring and denying. Two other strategies reinterpret supernatural aspects in natural terms: psychologizing and mythologizing.

My aim is to naturalize Buddhist tantra, but these apply to any religion. The innovators who naturalized Sutrayana (mainstream Buddhism) used all four strategies. All four can be useful for Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) too.

Interestingly, the first two strategies correspond to the fundamental method of Sutrayana: renunciation, or rejection of harmful stuff. The second two correspond to the fundamental method of Vajrayana: transformation of harmful stuff into helpful stuff. This makes me think reinterpretation strategies may be particularly useful in naturalizing Buddhist tantra.

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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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