Yidams: a godless approach, naturally!

Rethinking a key Vajrayana Buddhist practice, for skeptics and atheists

I ain’t against gods and goddesses, in their place. But they’ve got to be the ones we make ourselves. Then we can take ’em to bits for the parts when we don’t need ’em anymore, see?

—Granny Weatherwax, in Lords and Ladies

Gods drive most people away from Vajrayana Buddhism before they even know what it’s about. That’s a pity, because it is not about gods.

As an atheist, I rejected Vajrayana for several years when I was told that it’s mostly about gods and demons and magic and stuff.

But Vajrayana (Buddhist tantra) doesn’t need gods anymore. We could take them to bits for parts, if we wanted; or just shoo them back home.

Or, better, we can agree to a new arrangement with them: we will treat them with the respect they deserve, if they stop pretending to exist.

“BUT!” you object, if you know anything about Vajrayana, “what about deity yoga?

“Deity yoga” is perhaps the most important tantric practice. It requires the cooperation of “yidams,” who are…

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Buddhist tantra is not about techniques

The value of Vajrayana is an attitude—the spacious passion that unclogs energy—not technical intricacies.

“Not about techniques” is a somewhat unusual view.

Traditional teachers and text do often—not always—define Buddhist tantra as a collection of esoteric practices.

For modernizers, too, it’s tempting to describe tantra as “advanced mental technology.” As an engineer, I find that an attractive proposition:

What we want out of Vajrayana, once we’ve stripped away the traditional superstitions, is a pragmatic manual of proven techniques for transforming consciousness.

I think this is a mistake, however. It’s not exactly wrong, but:

  • Thinking of tantra as techniques overlooks what I consider most valuable in it.
  • Many traditional techniques don’t work, and claims about the effectiveness of the ones that do are often exaggerated.
  • Viewing tantra as technology is, ironically, a roadblock to necessary innovations.
  • The technical view also risks aggressive self-aggrandizement.

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Imperfect Buddha podcast

Stages of maturation, Dzogchen, and the future of Buddhism.

Matthew O’Connell interviewed me recently for the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Our conversation is now up on Soundcloud, and should appear above. If that’s not working, try this link.

The Imperfect Buddha Podcast, often cohosted with Stuart Baldwin,

aims to tackle the limits of Buddhism in the West and the taboos surrounding it, whilst pushing for its radical transformation into a genuine means for individual and collective liberation.

That would be a good description of what I’m trying to do here at Vividness also, so we had lots to talk about. We ranged over many topics; Matthew titled the episode “Stages of maturation, Dzogchen, and the future of Buddhism,” and those may be the highlights.

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A Trackless Path: Dzogchen in plain English

A Trackless Path by Ken McLeod

Ken McLeod has an exceptional ability to explain Vajrayana Buddhism in plain English. Dzogchen, a branch of Vajrayana, is the most difficult part of Buddhism to understand. It is also, in my opinion, the most important.

It is fortunate, then, that McLeod has just published A Trackless Path, his first book on the topic.

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Emptiness, form, and Dzogchen ethics

Moonpaths by the Cowherds

For a hundred years, the West has wrestled with the problem of ethical nihilism. God’s commands once provided a firm foundation for morality; but then he died. All attempts to find an alternative foundation have failed. Why, then, should we be moral? How can we be sure what is moral? No one has satisfactory answers, despite many ingenious attempts by brilliant philosophers.

Buddhism has wrestled with the same problem for much longer: most of two thousand years. According to Mahayana, everything is empty. This means everything exists only as an illusion, or arbitrary human convention. “Everything” must include śīla—codes of religious discipline. (Those are the closest thing Buddhism has to morality.) “Everything” definitely includes people, the main topic of ethics.

For two millennia, authorities have acknowledged an apparent contradiction: why should we conform to śīla if it is empty, illusory, arbitrary, or mere convention? If people don’t really exist, why should we have ethical concern for them? Numerous ingenious answers have been proposed by brilliant philosophers. No one answer has been broadly accepted, which suggests none is satisfactory. Buddhists have argued endlessly, sometimes bitterly, about this problem; this continues in the contemporary West.

In this post, I will suggest that the problem lies in the Mahayana treatment of emptiness and form. Vajrayana offers a different understanding of what emptiness is and how it relates to form. In Dzogchen, this provides an alternative approach to beneficent activity. This approach seems strikingly similar to that proposed by the psychologist Robert Kegan, whose developmental ethics model and its application to Buddhism I discussed recently. I suggest that Dzogchen and Kegan’s work each cast light on the other, and together they may dissolve the foundations problem in both Western and Buddhist moral philosophy.

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Better Buddhisms: A developmental approach

American Buddhist organizations and events rarely run smoothly. We take muddled ineffectuality for granted. Leaders don’t understand how to organize, and participants vigorously resist all systematic processes. Few are on board with principle that “if you say you are going to do something, you should do it.” (And if you are not going to do it, you need to tell someone about it and help clean up the mess.)

Someone said they were going to help set up for an event because they really felt like saying so was the way to preserve harmony and good feelings at the time; but something came up with a friend. And they didn’t feel that being there for the set-up was important. They “forgot” to tell you, because that might have led to bad feelings. It would be uncompassionate and un-Buddhist of you to give them a hard time about it, because helping out as agreed would have caused them suffering.

Unfortunately, transitory cooperative feelings and “being nice” do not get practical work done. This ethos exasperates and actively drives away competent people.

Buddhist classes starting late are a trivial, but telling, manifestation of a deep failing. By implicitly validating an adolescent way of being, contemporary Buddhism impedes personal growth.

Understanding what has gone wrong points to a profound opportunity. Buddhism could be a remarkable resource for supporting growth into full adulthood and beyond.

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“Buddhist ethics”: a Tantric critique

“Buddhist ethics,” as I’ve pointed out in recent posts, has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality. Instead, it’s indistinguishable from mainstream leftish middle-class American secular morality.

This page points out disagreements between contemporary “Buddhist ethics” and a Tantric Buddhist view, for several reasons:

  1. I think, at these points of conflict, Tantra is ethically correct, and “Buddhist ethics” is wrong.
  2. Western Buddhist Tantra was suppressed in the early 1990s partly because of these conflicts. Explaining the Tantric view may help reopen a door that has been closed for two decades.
  3. An attractive, genuinely Buddhist alternative to “Buddhist ethics” might be possible.
  4. Middle-class American secular values are failing many people—but are taken for granted, with no obvious alternative available. Tantra might be a weapon for throwing them off and constructing a more satisfactory way of being.

Tantric Buddhism includes a complete rejection of mainstream (Sutric) Buddhist morality. However, since “Buddhist ethics” is not that, most of the traditional Tantric critique is irrelevant.

Instead, this is a brief critique of certain leftish secular views, common in Consensus Buddhism, from a Tantric perspective. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, and I will make no detailed arguments. I want to give the flavor of a Tantric alternative.

This is also not a general critique of leftism. And, although Buddhist Tantra rejects some leftist views, that does not make Tantric Buddhism rightist. Nor am I a rightist personally. Buddhist Tantra rejects many rightish aspects of Sutric Buddhism, such as its sex-negativity, misogyny, and anti-world attitude. Those are not part of current “Buddhist ethics,” however, so they don’t need to be discussed further here.

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