Beyond emptiness: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen

ox herding picture #8: emptiness
number eight: emptiness

Buddhist Tantra begins where Sutrayana ends: at emptiness. Tantra concerns the realms beyond emptiness, about which mainstream Buddhism (Sutrayana) has nothing to say.

Few Buddhist systems go beyond emptiness. This post is a humorous sketch of the differences among three: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen. (Mahamudra is another, which I won’t discuss.) I can’t write seriously, because my practice of Tantra and Dzogchen is pathetic, and I haven’t practiced Zen at all. The post is long, but I hope you will find it entertaining, and that it conveys something of the attitudes of the three approaches.

Continue reading “Beyond emptiness: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen”

Nothing special

Over the last several pages, I’ve summarized an attitude, “spacious passion,” which I claimed is the key to Buddhist tantra. Here are some likely objections:

  1. An attitude? Disappointing. Is that all there is to tantra? Big deal.
  2. This is just common sense. I already have that attitude.
  3. It’s unrealistic. Sounds nice, but can anyone live that way?
  4. What about suffering? Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be the solution to that? How does your attitude help?
  5. Tantra is about gods and demons and miraculous flying lamas. That’s what makes it different from regular Buddhism, and you’ve left all that out.

I’ll address these points gradually over the next several pages.

This page is about disappointment.

Continue reading “Nothing special”

Wholeness, connection, and meditation: Competing visions

For many Westerners, Buddhism is mainly about wholeness and connection.

Modern life is atomizing and alienating:

  • Multiple social roles demand that you be several different people in different places. Some of those partial-selves are false fronts; others seem natural. If your personality is quite different at work and at home, and yet both are comfortable, which is the real you?
  • Identity is based on cultural concepts. Modern societies contain many cultures that co-exist uneasily. Everyone owes partial allegiance to several conflicting systems. You end up internalizing these conflicts, so you are divided against yourself.
  • The modern social, economic, and technological order artificially separates us from each other, from nature, and even from our own everyday experience.

This fragmentation and isolation seems unhealthy, unnatural, unsustainable. Many of us turn to spirituality or religion for answers.

For modern Buddhists, meditation is meant to bring healing wholeness and connectedness. The Buddhist worldview is meant to explain how wholeness and connectedness are lost and regained.

Yet this is not what most forms of Buddhism promised, before the 20th century. Quite the opposite…

Three contradictory visions; one Consensus

“Consensus” Buddhism incorporates three quite different ways of approaching wholeness and connection: no-self renunciation, monist mysticism, and tantra. These appear to be radically contradictory, and unreconcilable.

Can the Consensus successfully synthesize them into a single, unified religion? I’ll suggest that, no, attempts to combine these approaches will always fail, with specific, predictable bad results. What, then, is the motivation for merging them?

First, let’s take a quick look at wholeness and connection in the three approaches.

1. No-self and world-renunciation

  • Mind is only parts (skandhas); the illusion of a whole self is the fundamental cause of all suffering.
  • Connections bind us to an unclean world. Attachments and entanglements are bad things, not good ones.
  • The self should be disassembled through insight meditation (vipassana); connections should be broken by withdrawing from sense-pleasures and worldly involvements.
  • That neuters the negative emotions (kleshas), which lead to negative actions (karma).
  • Enlightenment is the disintegration of the self-concept, the elimination of desire, and the severing of all ties to the world.

This is not at all the approach to wholeness and connection most Western Buddhists are looking for!

But, it is the Asian Buddhism mainstream: the approach of the Theravada scriptures, and of many branches of Mahayana. It is where the Consensus Buddhist teachers began, with modernized Theravada in the 1970s.

However, because renunciation takes you in the opposite direction from the way most Westerners want to go, Consensus teachers have supplemented it with other approaches.

2. Monist mysticism

  • Only the ego, or false self, is divided. This division is the fundamental cause of suffering, and of negative emotions and actions.
  • The True Self is inherently whole; perfectly unified, without parts.
  • All is One; everything is totally connected; all apparent distinctions are illusion.
  • These ultimate truths can be realized through internalizing meditation—going deeply into the Self—which gets rid of the ego.
  • Enlightenment is the elimination of the false self, and the realization of the unity of the True Self with the Whole Universe, which is God.

This is the approach of Advaita Vedanta, a branch of Hinduism. It is also the approach of German Romantic Idealism. That’s an early-1800s metaphysical spirituality that remains hugely influential in the West despite few remembering its history.

The monist approach has been explicitly condemned by nearly all Buddhist schools, throughout the history of Buddhism, up to the 20th century.

It has, however, become popular in Western Buddhism in the past few decades. Westerners want wholeness and connection, and monism claims to provide perfect wholeness and total connection.

Why not mix some monism into Buddhism to give the customers what they want? Because monism can’t deliver. In fact, it produces the exact opposite results to what it promises.

Regarding wholeness:

  • The stereotype of “spiritual” people (such as New Agers) is based in fact: monist practices make you scatter-brained. Monists are always following their latest “divine intuition” or “message from the universe,” hopping from one unrealistic path to another. They rarely have enough stability to get anything done.
  • Monism’s insistence on a unitary Higher Self makes it impossible to find workable compromises among conflicting motivations. Those compromises are unromantic hard work, but are the effective path to personal wholeness.
  • In other words, monism produces not personal unity, but mental dissociation into a jumble of fantasies.

And as for connection:

  • Monism promises “total connection with the Absolute Infinite” (or with “the whole universe,” as though that were a single thing). But meaningful connections can only be made with specific, finite beings in this here-and-now world.
  • To achieve unity, internalizing meditation deliberately cuts you off from everyday reality, which is supposedly a distraction and not spiritual enough.
  • You are supposed to “turn inward,” to find a “profound inner experience” that connects you with the divine reality. This is nonsensical. Experiences are not connections; connections aren’t inside you; you can’t connect yourself with all things by cutting yourself off from them.
  • In practice, monists’ relationships with other people, and with their physical environment, usually become godawful messes. Monist practice makes you self-obsessed, unreliable, and unwilling to deal with mundane practicalities.

3. Buddhist Tantra

  • The self is empty form: complicated, constantly changing, and creative.
  • Personal wholeness comes from incorporating and transforming the kleshas. You accept everything that arises in mind, rather than rejecting distasteful stuff as “not me.” Emptiness means mind has no essential nature, so nothing there needs to be a problem.
  • You are connected to some, particular, diverse things, in different, specific ways.
  • These connections are the source of power, delight, and wisdom—as well as unavoidable pain.
  • Wholeness and connections are sustained through tantric practices.
  • Enlightenment is complete transformation.

Explained this way, Tantric Buddhism seems much more what Westerners want. Tantra says wholeness and connection are good things, unlike the no-self renunciate approach. And, the metaphysical claims of tantra are far more reasonable than those of monism.

Yet tantra has had little influence on Consensus Buddhism. Why is it not more popular?

Mixing up contradictory approaches causes trouble

All three approaches have fed into Consensus Buddhism. However, it has not reconciled their contradictions. These conflicts lead to specific, predictable patterns of trouble:

  • The main practice of Consensus Buddhism is vipassana. This method is meant to shatter the self and break connections. Western Buddhists mostly want and expect the opposite results. Using the wrong tool for the job may produce disappointment, or even serious psychological breakdown.
  • Mixing up bits of explanation from contradictory systems made Consensus Buddhism conceptually incoherent. To fix the parts of the story that no longer make sense, teachers substitute non-Buddhist Western concepts. Even if those concepts were valid, at some point there is no longer any point in pretending that they are teaching Buddhism.
  • Westerners want transformation. Buddhism has methods for that, in tantra. Unfortunately, they are politically unacceptable. Instead, Consensus Buddhism substitutes other transformational practices, taken from psychotherapy, the New Age, and Hinduism. These are discordant with Buddhism, and aren’t helpful in pursuing Buddhist goals.

Silencing disagreement

Consensus Buddhism has not merely failed to reconcile these contradictions. It has not even tried. In fact, it has deliberately suppressed the discussions that might have led to clarifying them.

The contradictions have been recognized and discussed within Buddhism for thousands of years. These discussions have often been heated. That is not “nice.”

Consensus Buddhism often dismisses genuine religious differences as:

  • Pointless academic arguments about esoteric philosophical minutiae that make no difference to ordinary Buddhists.
  • Political power struggles disguised as debates about doctrine.
  • Cultural misunderstandings with no practical substance.

Using these excuses, the Consensus has swept contradictions under a blanket of silence. Dissenting voices have been ostracized as “aggressive.” (This is one of several reasons I use the word “Consensus” for mainstream Western Buddhism.)

We need to reopen these questions, not suppress them in the name of tolerance. It is possible to argue about them constructively and respectfully. But even vicious dispute might be better than pretending that incompatible approaches can be combined.

Previous syntheses

In papering over its contradictions, Consensus Buddhism has borrowed rhetoric from two earlier attempts at synthesis. These are the 20th century export-Zen combination of no-self and monism, and the Gelukpa combination of renunciation and tantra.

Combining no-self and monism

Most Zen in the West descends from the New Buddhism of D. T. Suzuki, and/or the Sanbo Kyodan approach of the Harada-Yasutani lineage. (I wrote about these in a previous post, “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy.”)

Both of these New Zens were explicitly created as export products for Westerners. Both explicitly incorporate Western monist mysticism. Both explicitly state that their “Zen” is not specifically Buddhist. Both are rejected by mainstream Japanese Zen teachers.

The Suzuki/Harada/Yasutani approach claims that no-self and True Self are the same thing; that various Buddhist concepts (such as Buddha, nirvana, or emptiness) are the same as the impersonal God (or “Absolute”) of Western monism; and that the goal of Zen meditation is to realize the unity of the True Self with this Absolute.

“New Zen” was one of the two main sources for Consensus Buddhism (together with modernized Theravada). Its Japanese origin provides a cover of apparent authenticity, which allows continuing import of dubious Western religious and philosophical ideas into Buddhism.

I find this combination absurd and actively harmful. More about that below.

Combining renunciation and tantra

The Gelukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism practices tantra in a renunciate framework. Roughly, it combines renunciate goals with tantric methods. It describes Tantra as an arcane, dangerous collection of adjunct rituals for deepening renunciation, suitable only for monks who have completed many years of preliminary intellectual study.

The Dalai Lama comes from the Gelukpa school. He was directly involved in founding Consensus Buddhism, sponsoring the early-1990s conferences where the Consensus was organized. His take on tantra has formed the Consensus view of the subject.

The Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism (to which I belong) rejects the Gelukpa approach. It sees renunciation and tantra both as valid paths. However, they have different goals, and their methods cannot be merged because their fundamental principles are so different. Tantra can be pursued independently from renunciation; it does not require extensive intellectual preparation; and it is especially suitable for non-monks.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was the most influential teacher of Buddhist tantra in the West. The 1980s sex and drug scandals around him were one of the main factors leading to the founding of the Consensus (at the Dalai Lama’s conferences).

These scandals discredited tantra for many Westerners. They were a convenient pretext to impose the conservative Gelukpa view that tantra should be reserved for a few special people, and neutered with elaborate moralistic safeguards.

Because the Consensus adopted this attitude, tantric practices are effectively unavailable in Western Buddhism. Tantra’s influence is limited to esoteric concepts, and the general idea that Buddhism promotes personal transformation. The Consensus has continued to use various maneuvers to suppress tantric practice, and to silence debate about its suitability for Westerners.

I’ll discuss this recent history in detail in a later post.

Process note

On average, it takes me three days of full-time work to produce each web page. Early in this series, I was able to write a new post every few days, because I was working on it full time. Unfortunately, other responsibilities make that impossible for now. In hope that I may finish the series someday, I have decided to drop several big pieces of it.

I had planned to write a full page about what went so wrong in export Zen, and how. That turns out to be a big, difficult topic. There is some basis for monist ideas in the Mahayana scriptures. Sorting out exactly how Sanbo Kyodan distorted Buddhism would be a lot of work, and not of interest to many people. In fact, personally, I don’t care in the least whether monism is traditional or untraditional in Buddhism, so I’m dropping that question.

What matters is not that monism is un-Buddhist, but that it is harmful: it causes unnecessary suffering. It leads people in exactly the wrong direction, away from effective methods for establishing wholeness and connection, and instead into day-dream fantasies of magical invulnerability, omnipotence, and immortality.

It’s important to explain this clearly. However, my tentative plan is to do that on my Meaningness book site. Monism is not a central failing of Consensus Buddhism, so it’s not critical to debunk it here. On the other hand, I had already planned to do that in the Meaningness book before I began this blog on the Consensus.

What I want to do here next is to explain how and why tantra has been excluded from Western Buddhism, and what we can do about it. I will advocate a renewed, reinvented tantra that may better address 21st century spiritual concerns than the Consensus approach can.

Effing the ineffable

Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind

We were walking back towards the zendo when my legs gave way. I fainted. Galli-san laid me down in the entrance to Busshari-To and shouted to Jakuda-san. I only wanted a cup of tea. They brought me inside. Everyone was fussing. I couldn’t understand—just a cup of tea. I tried to calm them, tried to stand up, but collapsed twice. They were worried, massaging my feet, applying carbon, and discussing cures.

Something left me, some huge oppressive weight that I’d never known was there and only recognized in its lifting. I felt so light. I was laughing and crying. Euphoria.

They were alarmed. I assured them I’d never felt so wonderful in my life… My breathing was a kind of panting, as if mounting to some emotional climax. Galli-san told me to breath deeply, to do zazen.

I tried. My breathing stopped.

My mind never felt so clear or lucid. The voices were very far away. I was in a crystal paradise.

Galli was screaming at me to breathe. From somewhere I heard my voice softly answering, “Hai”… I’d have to show them I was OK. I snapped out of it, normal as hell. “You see, I kept telling you I was okay.” They were relieved, but I only wanted to do zazen. I stayed up doing zazen but I was too tired for it to be much good.

Next day, Go Roshi said “Until last night, you were a human trying to become God; now you’re God. I’m Buddha.” He shook my hand. “We must help the others.”

This is my favorite description of an enlightenment experience. It is from Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind, the Zen diary of Maura Soshin O’Halloran. I find the book massively inspiring.

Some people, who know much more about Zen than I do, call it sentimental hagiography, and say this wasn’t really enlightenment.

The event occurred during a sesshin (intensive meditation retreat). Soshin had been living and training in the temple for a couple years. She was malnourished, had an enormous accumulated sleep deficit, and was physically and emotionally exhausted. Just before she fainted, she had come out of dokusan (a private interview), in which her beloved teacher Go Roshi ordered her to marry a man she hated.

The advice of any sane person would have been:

It’s no wonder you had a nervous collapse! You should spend a week in bed, and sleep as much as you can. Eat three square meals a day, with real food—plenty of roast beef and chocolate brownies. You’ll feel normal again soon.

You’re not God! That’s crazy talk. They lock up people who go around saying they’re God.

And, for goodness’ sake, don’t let your guru tell you who to marry!

Listen, dearie, this “Zen” thing sounds like an abusive cult. You should go home to Ireland, find a nice boy to marry, and get on with real life.

I would not have given quite that advice (so I’m probably not altogether sane). I have zero doubt that meditation can produce dramatic experiences, which sometimes result in large, lasting, positive psychological transformations. I hope hers was one of them.

Nevertheless, I think Buddhists ought to ask:

  • What actually did happen? Was she enlightened? How could anyone know?
  • Why did Go Roshi say “Now you’re God”?
  • What did he mean? Is this supposed to be literal, or metaphorical, or what?
  • Was it true? Did Maura O’Halloran become God?

In my next few posts, I am going to criticize a particular “mystical” understanding of enlightenment that is common among Western Buddhists. It is the idea that meditation is the examination of inner experience in order to discover your True Self, which is unified with The Absolute (alias God), which is the transcendant source of goodness and is the entire universe, all of which are One.

Go Roshi apparently taught this idea. I think it is both wrong and harmful. But, my skepticism is not about whether there are dramatic, valuable meditation experiences. It is about what they are, what they imply, and what role they should play on the Buddhist path.

In this post, I will start to ask what we can know on the basis of such experiences—whether other people’s, or our own.

Ineffability and chocolate brownies

The experience of discovering The Ultimate Truth is said to be ineffable: impossible to talk about. However, believers proceed to eff about it at great length. Is this not odd?

Their effing explains what the experience means. Invariably, what it “means” is some Big Cosmic Theory Of Life, The Universe, And Everything. The metaphysical stuff is supposedly proved by the experience. For example, we know you can become God, because Maura O’Halloran felt weird one day. (And other people have felt weird in exactly the same way back to Gautama Buddha!)

Mystics use ineffability to deflect objections to their Big Cosmic Theories two ways:

  1. Ineffability is supposed to make enlightenment experiences a very special and holy mystery.
  2. Ineffability is supposed to make it impossible to argue against the Big Cosmic Theory, because arguments use words.

Here I intend to strip away those defenses, as preparation for arguing (in my next few posts) against the mystical theory of enlightenment.

What is the experience of eating a chocolate brownie like? Can you describe it?

I believe it is ineffable. There is nothing you can say about chocolate that would mean anything to someone who has not tasted it.

Chocolate brownies are one of my favorite things—but I don’t think their ineffability is a big deal.

All experiences are ineffable. The best we can ever do is say “it’s like this other thing.”

There’s nothing that’s much like chocolate. Dramatic meditation experiences are also not much like anything else. But chocolate is not a special holy mystery. No one thinks the experience of chocolate implies anything about The Ultimate Nature of Reality.

So, if mediation experiences have metaphysical implications, it is not because they are ineffable. So much for mystical rhetorical strategy #1.


Many people are driven to religion by the need for certainty. In my view, Buddhism offers none. In fact, it undercuts all certainties.

According to the mystical view, the experience of enlightenment provides certainty: about Life, The Universe, And Everything. That would be reassuring.

Indeed, non-ordinary experiences often come with a strong felt sense of deep metaphysical knowledge. But is that feeling reliable?

Schizophrenics are often vocally certain about metaphysical ideas that are plainly false. So the feeling of certainty doesn’t mean anything.

For meditation experiences to have meaningful implications, there must be some additional reason to believe them.

I think this is true even when they are your own. I’ve had non-ordinary experiences that left me very sure about various things. Some of those things I no longer believe. Others I think were right—but only because I’ve found additional reasons to believe what first appeared in a flash of insight.

It’s an enlightened thing, you wouldn’t understand

“Mysticism begins in mist, has an I in the middle, and ends in schism.”
—Jean Houston

Immediately after declaring enlightenment ineffable, some folks eff about it until the cows have gone to bed. If you don’t accept their metaphysical claims, they may retreat to “it’s ineffable, and moreover you haven’t had the experience, so you’re not qualified to question it.” This is a shield against all possible inquiry.

They want to have their chocolate brownies and eat them too. They get to eff, because they are enlightened—or they know someone who was enlightened, or they read a book by someone who was enlightened. But you can’t object, because it’s ineffable.

This doesn’t work. If it’s ineffable, no one can eff it. If enlightenment experiences have effable metaphysical implications, the effing has to stand on its own two feet. “I had an amazing experience that I can’t say anything about, therefore God exists” is a non-starter.

Effing the ineffable

In the passage at the top of this page, Maura effs her experience a bit. She describes a sensation of lightness, altered auditory and visual perception (“voices far away… a crystal paradise”), and euphoria.

She draws no metaphysical conclusions. For instance, there’s nothing in her account to suggest God was involved. Also nothing about a True Self. She does not even mention the collapse of the self/other boundary, which is common in dramatic meditation experiences.

That means Go Roshi’s interpretation of O’Halloran’s experience—as her becoming God—has no basis in her description of it.

That does not necessarily mean he was wrong. It does mean that his basis for declaring her God must have been something other than the experience itself. We ought to ask what that basis was, to see if we believe it.

It seems to me that he overlaid a preconceived ideology on what happened. Go Roshi taught in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. That lineage has a metaphysics of enlightenment as discovering that your True Self is identical to Ultimate Reality, which is The Entire Universe. Alias: God.

(This is not the view of most forms of Buddhism. I suspect it owes more to the Western mystical tradition than to Buddhism. I sketched the history of this in “Zen vs. the U.S. Navy.”)

If someone who had never practiced Zen fainted on a train, and described their experience as O’Halloran did, would Go Roshi have declared them God? I suspect not.

I suspect Roshi’s reasoning was:

If someone has been practicing Zen full time for several years, and they have passed many koans, and they have some sort of dramatic experience during a sesshin—that must be enlightenment, which means becoming God.

His conclusion was based on his religious beliefs, not her experience.

(Was it an enlightenment experience? I’m entirely agnostic. Because I love her book, I want to believe so.)


Maura Soshin O’Halloran completed her Zen training a year later.

Roshi gave her permission to return to Ireland, her home country, to teach there.

On the way, the bus she was riding went off the road and crashed.

She entered parinirvana in October, 1982, aged 27.

Creaking to the post office
on my rusty bike
I saw one purple iris
wild in the wet green
of the rice field.
I wanted to send it to you.
I can only tell you
it was there.
—Maura O’Halloran