Reinventing Buddhist tantra badly

Some spiritual facts are now obvious:

  • Experiences of awe and wonder, in appreciation of nature or of human arts, can be profoundly religious and transformative.
  • Creative work, making useful and beautiful things to aid and delight others, is a noble and fulfilling spiritual activity.
  • Romantic love and sex—although sometimes sources of great suffering—may be the most valuable spiritual aspects of our lives.
  • Fully experiencing emotions transforms them from a source of trouble into a source of wisdom.
  • Women are at least as naturally religious as men.

These facts must be central principles of any religion that hopes to function in this century.

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Yanas are not Buddhist sects

The concept of “yanas” is a major source of confusion about Buddhism for Westerners. We get them muddled up with sects, which are a completely different thing.

The relationship between yanas and sects is easy to understand by analogy with the automobile business. A yana is category of vehicle, like SUVs. A sect (or Buddhist “school”) is a brand, like Ford.

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How does “Sutrayana” relate to actual Buddhisms?

Sutrayana, as I explained it in the past few posts, may have seemed alien; possibly even unrecognizable as Buddhism. The negativity of revulsion and renunciation might seem extreme, and incompatible with your understanding of the Middle Way.

Sutrayana is a somewhat theoretical concept. It lumps together all of Buddhism other than Vajrayana, but Buddhisms are extremely diverse. How well does this theoretical construct resemble reality?

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Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism

“Revulsion for the world” and “renunciation of all pleasure” are not familiar topics for Western Buddhists. They sound like old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone Christianity. Not very nice; so probably they couldn’t have much to do with Buddhism?

But according to the table I presented recently, revulsion and renunciation are the prerequisite and essential method—the ignition key and engine—of non-tantric Buddhism.

If that is right, maybe there’s a problem. Consensus Buddhism—the current American Buddhist mainstream—rejects revulsion and renunciation. How is that supposed to work? If you pull out the engine, what makes the vehicle go?

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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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Buddhist Tantra defines itself partly by contrast with “Sutrayana.” “Sutrayana” is supposed to mean “all non-Tantric Buddhism.” My next post compares the two point-by-point.

The differences are stark; perhaps shocking, even. A crude summary:

  • Sutrayana says life sucks totally, so you should separate yourself from the world and try to escape into Nirvana—but that is effectively impossible.
  • Tantra says that life is often fabulous (though often horrible too), so you should enjoy and celebrate it; and enlightenment in this world is realistically feasible.

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Understanding Buddhist Tantra by contrast

The first part of my series on Reinventing Buddhist Tantra explained what Tantra is, in its own terms.

The second part, beginning here, explains it by contrast. It explains what Tantra is not.

Explaining what Tantra is points to its center. Explaining what Tantra is not points to its boundaries. Both contribute to understanding.

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