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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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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