Vajrayana is not Tibetan Buddhism (and vice versa)

Western Buddhists commonly equate “Vajrayana” with “Tibetan Buddhism.” This is wrong for two reasons:

  1. Most of Vajrayana is not Tibetan
  2. Most of Tibetan Buddhism is not Vajrayana

This is not controversial. Every scholar, Tibetan and Western, agrees. Still, it’s a widespread confusion.

This matters for what Buddhism can be in the 21st century. In the 1970s, Tibetan pioneers like Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshé, and Chögyam Trungpa developed modern presentations of Vajrayana. Around 1990, the Tibetan power structure put a stop to that.

Tibetans may legitimately choose to block modernization of Tibetan Buddhism—especially when that is attempted by non-Tibetans. It is their religion, and cultural appropriation can be harmful.

Tibetans have no right, and (I hope) no motivation or ability, to block modernization of Vajrayana. It was never their property.

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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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Pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws

This is my second post about Michael Roach and Christie McNally, who tried to teach Buddhist tantra and made a mess instead.

It is about gender-bending, violence, and black magic in Buddhist tantra. It’s about manic pixie dream girls and eating your shadow—and pussy-dripping goddesses with chainsaws. Understanding how Roach and McNally got these things wrong can help understand how to do tantra right.

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Getting tantra wrong: The Roach/McNally fiasco

Michael Roach and Christie McNally, before they blew up, were trying to make Buddhist tantra work in 21st century America. I think that is terribly important for Buddhism, and for America.

Their blow-up is one of several current Buddhist scandals. If you’ve missed the story so far, Roach is a former Tibetan monk who taught increasingly “unconventionally,” and eventually led what has been described as a “dysfunctional” “cult.” He secretly married his student Christie McNally, then dumped her, but left her in charge of a three-year “tantric” retreat in the Arizona desert. After various goings-on, she was ejected from the retreat with another student, who died of dehydration in a meditation cave a couple months later.

The mainstream media—Rolling Stone and the New York Times for instance—found the death angle, together with Roach and McNally’s seemingly strange ideas and behaviors, sufficiently spectacular to run long articles. They have concentrated on the guru/cult/scandal aspects of Roach’s and McNally’s mistakes. Those are interesting and important, but here I’ll ignore them. They’ve been covered extensively elsewhere, and this case seems fairly typical of the pattern.

Instead, I’ll discuss the religious content of their practice. I suspect I understand what they were groping for—and failed at—better than they did. (Or, I may be confused.)

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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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Mastery

Thangtong Gyalpo's Chain Bridge over the Tsangpo River

Thangtong Gyalpo’s bridge over the Tsangpo

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

Specialization is for insects.

—Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

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Diversity, generalization, and authenticity

Buddhist tantra is extraordinarily diverse. Its 1400-year history, spanning most of Asia, includes many radically different, contradictory approaches. There is probably nothing they all have in common. It is impossible to generalize about tantra. Anything you might say will turn out to have an exception somewhere, or somewhen.

In my overview, I will often write “tantra is X,” or “tantra says Y,” or “tantric practice does Z.” As generalizations, these will always be false.

What I mean is: “It seems to me that tantra can be X, say Y, or do Z—and I think that’s a good thing. That is the approach to tantra I favor.”

I will often also explain tantra by contrasting it with other forms of Buddhism. Then I will say “tantra is not X”; and what I mean is “tantra doesn’t have to be X, and X is not part of the approach I favor.”

To write the long versions of these out, each time, would become cumbersome. So, I’ll substitute the simpler versions. But, please bear in mind that these are shorthand.

This is risky. If you are not familiar with other presentations of Buddhist tantra, you may get a seriously skewed, narrow perspective. If you find what I have to say interesting, you certainly should read other authors to get a broader view.

If you do already know something about tantra, it may seem that I make absurd, sweeping statements, probably based on ignorance and arrogance. Perhaps you can give me the benefit of the doubt by mentally reattaching the qualifiers: “it seems possible to me that tantra could…”

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