In the 1970s and ’80s, several brilliant innovators presented Buddhist tantra in the West for the first time. They taught from personal experience, not ancient texts. They explained tantra in plain modern language, not academic jargon or bad translations from Medieval Tibetan. Their talks were warm, humorous, interactive, and frequently referred to popular culture and everyday Western life.
Among these were Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tarthang Tulku, Lama Yeshé, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, and Ngakpa Chögyam. To prepare to write about tantra, I recently re-read a dozen of their books. I was awed anew, although I had gone through each of them several times before.
I certainly have nothing new to say; nothing to add to those presentations. And yet, in upcoming posts, I will re-present Buddhist tantra again.
Why reinvent the wheel? Why not just say “tantra is cool, go read those books”?
Every presentation of tantra needs to be highly specific to its time and place. The themes of Sutrayana—mainstream Buddhism—are eternal. Emptiness is unchanging. Absolute truth is the same everywhere. But tantra is about form; about manifest appearances; about concrete experiences; about relative truth. Tantra needs to be continually reinterpreted so it makes sense in a continually changing world.
My judgement is that the world has changed hugely since the 1980s—in ways that may not be obvious. So, books from the first flowering of Buddhist tantra in the West may no longer communicate. Especially, they may not seem compelling to people who were born in the ’70s and later, who came of age in the ’90s and later.
On this page, I’ll describe three ways the world has changed, and why they imply that a new presentation of tantra is necessary:
- Consensus Buddhism, which began around 1990, is now taken for granted as defining Buddhism overall. Tantra needs to be explained relative to the Consensus.
- Almost nothing was known about Tibetan Buddhism in the West before the 1970s. Mediocre export Tibetanism is now widely misunderstood as defining Buddhist tantra.
- The 1980s were perhaps the last decade of the Modern era. Modernity has ended. That means the end of some fundamental assumptions that Western Buddhist audiences once took for granted.
Continue reading ““Now you something say””