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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Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana

“Tantric Theravada”?!

Recently I asked how Theravada relates to the theoretical category “Sutrayana.” I originally expected to answer:

Traditional Theravada fits the definition of Sutrayana very well. Naturally, it has moved slightly in the direction of Vajrayana as it modernized.

However, I was shocked to discover that:

Theravada has included Vajrayana for as long as it has existed—and still does!

Not many Western Buddhists know this. It’s exciting because it means that there are more diverse resources for creating modern Buddhist Tantra than I realized.

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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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Yanas are not Buddhist sects

The concept of “yanas” is a major source of confusion about Buddhism for Westerners. We get them muddled up with sects, which are a completely different thing.

The relationship between yanas and sects is easy to understand by analogy with the automobile business. A yana is category of vehicle, like SUVs. A sect (or Buddhist “school”) is a brand, like Ford.

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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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Sutra, Tantra, and the modern worldview

My last post contrasted Buddhist Tantra with “Sutrayana,” which is supposed to be a summary of non-Tantric Buddhism. In future posts, I’ll ask how accurately “Sutrayana” reflects actual Buddhisms such as Theravada and Zen.

Here, I compare Sutra and Tantra from the point of view of modern secular humanism. In sum, the modern secular view is much more in agreement with Tantra than with Sutra on points where they differ. The modern view and the tantric view affirm the value of life in the everyday world, whereas Sutra denies it. (Tantra may be less acceptable to the modern worldview than Sutra in its ethical and social views, however.)

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Sutra and Tantra compared

This table compares, point by point, Sutrayana (traditional non-Tantric Buddhism) and Buddhist Tantra.

Issue Sutrayana Tantrayana
Prerequisite Revulsion for samsara Recognition of emptiness
Path/overall method Renunciation of self, emotions, and the world Transformation and liberation of energy
Result/view of enlightenment Recognition of emptiness; suffering ended by elimination of defilements Recognition of inseparability of emptiness and form (wholeness)
Character of enlightened people Saintliness, peace Nobility, heroism, mastery, adventure, play
Absolute and relative truth Emphasizes absolute truth (i.e. emptiness) Emphasizes relative truth (appearances); ultimately, rejects the distinction between the two
Absolute and relative domains Aims to someday reach the absolute domain (Nirvana as Neverland) Operates within the relative domain (the actual world; nirvana is not separate from samsara)
The actual world Inherently corrupt; provokes wrong emotions; should be abandoned Inherently sacred; provokes delight; should be enjoyed, enhanced, and engaged with
Suffering The main point Not a big deal; a source of compassionate energy
Pleasure Bad; a fetter to be avoided Good; a delight to be enjoyed
The practitioner:
Self/ego The biggest problem; illusory and/or cause of all troubles Not a problem; not separate from Buddha-nature
The body Source of mental defilements; repulsive rotting sack of shit; to be subjugated Source of delight; indispensible for compassionate action; to be celebrated
Strong emotions Five poisons to renounce: greed, anger, desire, envy, denial Five elixirs of the wisdom energies: generosity, clarity, appreciation, action, and acceptance
Sexual desire and intercourse The #1 obstacle; celibacy is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress Exceptionally useful motivation and method on the fast path to Buddhahood
Women Inherently spiritually inferior Inherently spiritually superior (or at least equal)
The practice:
Time to full enlightenment “Three countless eons,” which equals billions of years Between a moment and a lifetime, depending on individuals and circumstances
Safety Supposedly safe Potentially dangerous
Available methods Few; each suitable for everyone Vast in number and diverse in approaches, suitable for different people and situations
Thoughts Obstacles to be eliminated in meditation Essence of enlightenment, when properly apprehended
Meditation and action Separate activities Inseparable: practical, everyday activity should be constant meditation
Secrecy Not secret; can and should be taught to everyone Supposedly secret, and only to be taught to qualified people
Role of the teacher Ordinary person who gives universal, non-personal teachings Enlightened person who gives specific, personalized teaching
Ethics Mainly based on self-denial; superficially compatible with Christian morality Rejects self-denial; beyond good and evil; obviously incompatible with Christian morality
Some NON-differences:
Gods, demons, miracles Important; central in Mahayana (celestial bodhisattvas) Important, but their lack of concrete existence is emphasized
Rituals Important but not central Important but not central

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Buddhist Tantra defines itself partly by contrast with “Sutrayana.” “Sutrayana” is supposed to mean “all non-Tantric Buddhism.” My next post compares the two point-by-point.

The differences are stark; perhaps shocking, even. A crude summary:

  • Sutrayana says life sucks totally, so you should separate yourself from the world and try to escape into Nirvana—but that is effectively impossible.
  • Tantra says that life is often fabulous (though often horrible too), so you should enjoy and celebrate it; and enlightenment in this world is realistically feasible.

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Understanding Buddhist Tantra by contrast

The first part of my series on Reinventing Buddhist Tantra explained what Tantra is, in its own terms.

The second part, beginning here, explains it by contrast. It explains what Tantra is not.

Explaining what Tantra is points to its center. Explaining what Tantra is not points to its boundaries. Both contribute to understanding.

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