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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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.

[Update, April 2019]: A new Annotated Table of Contents reflects the current state of the project, covers important issues that I hadn’t yet thought of when I wrote this introductory post, and explains why I back-burnered the effort in 2014.

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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Riding Solo to the Top of the World

 

Riding Solo to the Top of the World is an extraordinary documentary film about one man’s journey into the Himalayas. Under-employed filmmaker Gaurav Jani set out to document his motorcycle adventure in the Ladakh Changthang—the highest and most remote part of his native India. What he found there went far beyond adventure.

With no money to hire a camera crew, he shot the whole film himself, mainly from a tripod. This made an already arduous undertaking far more difficult; to get a distance shot of his bike inching along a mountain track above a river gorge, he would have to set the camera up on the opposite side, start it running, ride over to provide the action, and then ride (or often run) back to collect the camera.

This odd constraint, which seems as though it would make the film static and awkward, does quite the opposite. It adds both drama (can he manage this shot?) and a meditative peacefulness. It helps that the Changthang landscape is stunning and his cinematography outstanding.

His plan was a simple adventure story; but that was not what he got. He intended to take his bike over the highest motorable passes in the world, on seasonal military tracks above 18,000 feet, where no motorcycle had ever gone before. That might have been mainly interesting for motorcycle travel geeks, like his previous effort One Crazy Ride, about hard travel across Arunachal Pradesh. As it happens, he succeeded in his plan, after overcoming dire obstacles.

When he reached the Changthang, however, his plan was nearly derailed by a radical change of intention.

It’s a cliché to say that any hard travel has an internal and an external dimension. In this case, the internal dimension might have been expected to involve heroic determination overcoming hardship and loneliness. And there is some of that—but also, again, exactly the opposite.

The Changthang is culturally Tibetan. Its few inhabitants, the Changpas, are pastoral nomads who practice the Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I also belong).

Gaurav Jani fell in love with the Changpas, and spent unplanned weeks living with them. Most of the movie is about his interactions with them, and about their religious practices. He filmed both their daily life and religious festivals.

He describes his inner transformation as a result of encountering Tibetan culture. It parallels my own experience in the Himalayas. There is a peacefulness, a freedom, a rightness in the way ordinary Tibetans live that is enormously appealing. After a few weeks, it changes you permanently. You can no longer find the busy modern way of life sane.

He is currently living with the Changpas full-time for a year, and making a new movie about how they survive the -40 degree winter.

Riding Solo is sometimes shown at film festivals, where it has won a slew of awards; but if you want to see it, you’ll probably have to buy the DVD.

Try the trailer if you aren’t sure.