A killer app for modern Vajrayana?

In the tech world, a “killer app” is a single program so compelling that people will buy a whole system just to run it. For example, many people bought the Xbox to play the game Halo. Some bought early smartphones for Google Maps with GPS. Then they found other uses…

Mindfulness meditation has been the killer app for mainstream modern Buddhism. Its benefits were so obvious that millions of people bought into Buddhism just to learn it.

Could modern tantric Buddhism have a killer app?

It would need to be:

  • obviously effective
  • with clearly different results from mindfulness meditation
  • easy to learn
  • easy to practice, requiring minimal time, equipment, or preparation
  • naturalistic and secular—not supernatural or overtly religious
  • teachable by people with relatively modest qualifications

I have defined the method of Buddhist tantra as “unclogging energy by uniting spaciousness and passion,” so that’s how the killer should work. I’ve defined the aim as “mastery, power, play, and nobility,” so that’s what the killer app should produce.

(How many people would buy into a whole system to get that?)

Surprisingly, there is a practice that might deliver on all those promises. It is one of the “windhorse” practices of Shambhala Training.

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Buddhist tantra for non-Buddhists?

A surprising and wonderful thing!

My Buddhist sites are increasingly read and appreciated by non-Buddhists. Particularly, they attract smart, science-y, tech-y, creative, competent readers. Some come from the LessWrong rationalist community, for instance—which I have written about and for.

Especially gratifyingly, they often go straight for my most hardcore, uncompromisingly tantric stuff—and they get it. They understand why it matters, and ask intelligent, substantive questions. This is not something I expected at all.

My Meaningness book is meant for non-Buddhists. It’s supposed to be a practical philosophy of life, inspired by Buddhism, but explicitly non-Buddhist. I expected that site to gain non-Buddhist readers like these—unusually smart people who dismiss religion and “spirituality” as nonsense, but who still face problems of meaning. (Only about 5% of that book has made it on-line, so far. Soon I hope to get back to working on it!)

Several geeky non-Buddhist readers have said that what they most want are practices of meaning that are compatible with a modern, secular world-view. Mindfulness meditation is one—but they recognize that it heads in the wrong direction for them.

The Meaningness book is supposed to be purely conceptual. It is practical, but the practice is only one of understanding—not doing. Maybe this needs a re-think.

Readers have said that what they want, specifically, are ritual methods. Among secular geeks, there is a hunger for meaningful ritual that is also compatible with a modern, Western, naturalistic world-view. Ritual that connects us, creating communities; raises energy and brings feelings of wonder, ecstasy, motivation, and commitment; points to what we care most about, and widens our view.

This, a naturalized, secularized Buddhist tantra can provide.

Shambhala Training was secular Vajrayana

From the 1970s to 1990s, Shambhala Training explained itself as “a secular path of meditation.” It was:

  • explicitly non-Buddhist
  • not a religion; without dogmatic beliefs; compatible with atheism and secular humanism
  • compatible with any religion, including Christianity

Secular mindfulness meditation is commonplace now, but this was radical then. Shambhala was an opportunity to learn advanced Buddhist meditation techniques without having to buy into Buddhist beliefs and institutions. For me, and tens of thousands of others, that was hugely valuable.

Officially, Shambhala Training synthesized several spiritual traditions from around the world. In reality, its founder, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, drew mainly on the specific, unusual Vajrayana system he learned in Tibet. The introductory Training “levels” presented basic Buddhist meditation from an implicitly Vajrayana perspective; advanced levels were increasingly overtly tantric. The whole path was devoid of Sutrayana: no Buddha, no Noble Truths, no renunciation, no paramitas, no Neverland Nirvana.

Shambhala Training was the clearest example of modern Vajrayana to date. I’ll explain below how it met most of the criteria for “modernity” I listed in my previous post.

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What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?

“Modern Buddhist tantra” unites the two threads of this blog: modern Buddhism, and Buddhist tantra. But what would that even mean? And is it even possible?

Modern Buddhism” may be:

  • Science-compatible: atheist, rational, empirical, free of spooks and supernatural superstitions
  • Secular: not religious or dogmatic; teaching practices, not beliefs
  • Culturally engaged: teaching creativity and the arts
  • Socially engaged: including practical compassionate action
  • Naturally engaged: with curiosity and awe at the beauty, vastness, and intricacy of the physical and biological world
  • Psychologically and ethically sophisticated: incorporating Western insights into the self, emotions, and relationships
  • Universal: a path suitable for everyone, everywhere
  • Sober: sensible, restrained, free from self-indulgent emotionalism
  • Authentic: based on the original teaching of the human founder, not made-up gods
  • Exoteric: free from rituals, incense, and mumbo-jumbo in ancient languages
  • Egalitarian: free from priests, robes, and hierarchy

Continue reading “What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?”

Reinventing Buddhist tantra badly

Some spiritual facts are now obvious:

  • Experiences of awe and wonder, in appreciation of nature or of human arts, can be profoundly religious and transformative.
  • Creative work, making useful and beautiful things to aid and delight others, is a noble and fulfilling spiritual activity.
  • Romantic love and sex—although sometimes sources of great suffering—may be the most valuable spiritual aspects of our lives.
  • Fully experiencing emotions transforms them from a source of trouble into a source of wisdom.
  • Women are at least as naturally religious as men.

These facts must be central principles of any religion that hopes to function in this century.

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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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Renunciation is the engine for most of Buddhism

“Revulsion for the world” and “renunciation of all pleasure” are not familiar topics for Western Buddhists. They sound like old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone Christianity. Not very nice; so probably they couldn’t have much to do with Buddhism?

But according to the table I presented recently, revulsion and renunciation are the prerequisite and essential method—the ignition key and engine—of non-tantric Buddhism.

If that is right, maybe there’s a problem. Consensus Buddhism—the current American Buddhist mainstream—rejects revulsion and renunciation. How is that supposed to work? If you pull out the engine, what makes the vehicle go?

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