Reinventing Buddhist Tantra

A conversation has begun about what post-Consensus Buddhisms could be. I will join in by suggesting renewed Buddhist Tantra as a possibility. Tantra aims in a direction many people want to go—quite a different direction from mainstream Buddhism. So its goal is inspiring; and its path can be exhilarating.

That might seem unlikely. “Isn’t Tibetan Buddhism incredibly conservative? What about all those gods and demons and miracles and Medieval superstitions? And prostrating to lamas, and rituals and robes and thrones and crowns? And hours and hours of chanting gibberish in Tibetan? This is exactly the stuff we want to leave behind—hardly the way forward for Western Buddhism!”

Mostly, yes, vintage-1959 Tibetan Buddhism is the only Buddhist Tantra that is available; and I agree that it’s culture-bound and anachronistic.

Yet I think new Tantric Buddhisms could be particularly relevant to life in the 21st century.

This page previews upcoming posts that will sketch possibilities that might look entirely unlike what has come before.

I say “Buddhisms,” plural, because I don’t want the new, better alternative to Consensus Buddhism. What I want is space for many alternatives to develop. Some may sprout from Tantra; others from other roots.

I say “sketching possibilities” because I do not have a worked-out alternative to offer. I can only wave toward directions that look promising. I hope others will explore further, and that new forms may emerge collaboratively.

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One Dharma, Zero Tantra

Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma claims in places to be a “unified theory of Dharma” that combines “all the lineages of Buddhism.”

The book begins with a two-page endorsement from the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is widely (mis)understood in the West as the Pope of Tibetan Buddhism. The most distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhism is its inclusion of Buddhist Tantra.

However, One Dharma is 100% Tantra-free.

It’s hard to imagine the Pope of Rome endorsing a book by a Muslim about the unity of all the Abrahamic religions. But it would be particularly hard to imagine if the book never mentioned any distinctively Catholic doctrine.

It might seem that something odd is going on here… But in fact a Tantra-free Western Buddhism is precisely what the Dalai Lama would want to endorse.

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Buddhist Geeks podcast II, and coming attractions

The second half of my Buddhist Geeks interview is now up on the web.

This covers the recent history of the Consensus, and the future. Among other things, I talk about the possibility for new forms of Buddhist Tantra.

I’m really happy with the way the podcast came out. I sound more articulate than I actually am! Vince must have applied some advanced digital magic.

If you take a look at my Twitter stream (in the right column of this blog, or here), you’ll see that recently I’ve been tweeting mainly about Buddhist Tantra. I’m hoping to write here soon a long series of posts about the possibilities for reinventing Buddhist Tantra. The tweets are a preview—summaries of upcoming posts, in slogan form.

First, though, a couple of posts analyzing Joseph Goldstein’s One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. That’s a manifesto for Consensus Buddhism, by one of its leaders.

I hoped to post that analysis before the Geeks podcast went up, but haven’t yet had time to finish it. One Dharma is important because, after going on about the Consensus for months, this will be the first time I engage with it directly and concretely, rather than talking about it in the abstract.

After that, I’m planning to write about the future of Tantra. This actually will break the flow of my analysis of the Consensus. Logically, it would be better to continue my historical approach. I would write about the hippies’ encounter with Asian modernist Buddhism in the 1960s and 70s; the innovative creation of Western Buddhism in the 80s; the formation of the political Consensus in 1993 at the Dharamsala Western Buddhist Teachers Conference (with an analysis of the Statement it released, mentioned in this podcast); the suppression of alternative Western Buddhisms in the 1990s and 2000s; signs that the Consensus is now opening up (or breaking down); and only then the possibilities for the future!

But maybe all that stuff is awfully dry; and anyway it’s over. “History is bunk,” as Henry Ford said. I did a poll on Twitter, and 100% of respondents said they’d rather hear about the future than the past. So—that is what I will write next!