Comments on “Tantric Theravada and modern Vajrayana”

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Dharmadhatu Daka 2013-11-29

In your opinion, why is it that people start to borrow from Hindu Tantra to reinvent Vajrayana? I’m not irritated by this so much as I am confused. Before I started studying with Tibetan teachers, I had borrowed a little bit of everything from several different traditions, but once I was exposed to the diversity of methods in the Vajrayana, I felt no need to borrow - there’s simply too much available to even bother. Do you think this borrowing is because of a lack of access to Tantric teachers, or is there something else at work? Could you give an example of something that is characteristically Hindu that people have imported into Buddhist Tantra? (I’ve seen Lingam-worship show up in a few schools, which is pretty obvious. Do you maybe have an example of something more subtle?) Again, thanks so much!

David Chapman 2013-11-29
why is it that people start to borrow from Hindu Tantra to reinvent Vajrayana? I’m not irritated by this so much as I am confused.

I’m confused and irritated :-)

I can’t be sure; one would have to interview the people who do that to find out. However, I think it’s two things: first, since the Ösel Tendzin disaster, Tibetans have mostly not been willing to give meaningful access to tantra, and have actively obstructed efforts at developing more modern presentations of it; second, Western Buddhist leaders find various aspects of Vajrayana politically incorrect, and it’s easier to filter those out from an alien (Hindu) version than from a Buddhist version.

I’m speaking here about the West… In Sri Lanka, it’s probably just sectarianism. “Obviously Theravada is the One True Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism is devil worship plus a bit of Mahayana, and everyone knows that Mahayana is based on fake scriptures that aren’t the true word of the Buddha like our Pali ones.”

Maybe in both cases the principle is that it’s harder to accept something that is closer to home. Since Hindu tantra is non-Buddhist, you don’t have to take it seriously, you can just raid it for bits you like. With Vajrayana you have to do a lot of hard work to sort out your relationship with it, because much of it is shared with Sutra and some is opposite to Sutra and WTF.

Could you give an example of something that is characteristically Hindu that people have imported into Buddhist Tantra?

Well, this is a particularly blatant example.

More insidiously I see the “view” or attitude of Hindu tantra being imported. I think the most important value of Vajrayana is its attitude (“uniting spaciousness and compassion to unclog energy to bring about nobility”) which is quite different from the Hindu attitude (so far as I understand that).

Marie 2013-11-30

Thanks for the article on Burmese wizards. Fascinating. Wonder if any of the Spirit Rock / IMS folk learned those practices.

David Chapman 2013-11-30

Michael Dorfman has kindly pointed me to a fascinating article by Ann Gleig published just three days ago which is highly relevant: “From Theravada to tantra: the making of an American tantric Buddhism?.” (You may remember that Ann gave the closing keynote at this year’s Buddhist Geeks Conference.)

She argues that “West Coast Vipassana” (the lineage of Jack Kornfield) is de facto semi-tantric, whereas “East Coast Vipassana” (the lineage of Joseph Goldstein) is closer to Hinayana in its semi-renunciative emphasis. She attributes this in part to the Thai origin of the West Coast variety vs. the Burmese origin of the East Coast.

This make sense in the light of my tentative, preliminary understanding of Thai vs. Burmese tantra. Vajrayana, and Mahayana Tathagatagarbha theory, seem to have been woven directly into the Thai Forest Tradition from its beginning. Ajahn Jumnien, who apparently continues to teach tantric methods at Spirit Rock, is in that lineage, as was Ajahn Chah, Jack Kornfield’s primary teacher.

In Burma, the weikza lam (vidyadhara/wizard path) is a clearly separate yana, and it seems that mostly people who practice vipassana don’t practice weikza and vice versa. The weikza lam is mostly practical magic, and seems to be anti-modern, whereas Thai Forest tantra is more liberatory and pro-modernity.

My bias is to keep the yanas as distinct as possible, and on that basis I would have favored the Burmese model, but it seems that Thai Tantra has modernized because it’s integrated with Hinayana.

Kornfield talks about this Thai/Burmese and West/East Coast US split in this interesting article referenced by Gleig. She also notes that “the main practice of the majority of Spirit Rock teachers is not vipassana but the tantric Buddhist practice of Dzogchen.” Yowza! The plot thickens. “My research shows that many participants do understand their practices as essentially tantric and that while they may not be engaging in historic tantric practices, they are developing techniques, at least somewhat analogous to those in traditional Asian tantric traditions. One practitioner, I interviewed, for example, suggested that the psychological shadow work encouraged in West Coast Vipassana was a contemporary version of working directly with the defilements within Tantric Buddhism.”

We have at least four models for Sutra-Tantra integration: Zen, Thai Forest, Gelukpa, and Consensus (or West Coast Vipassana). It might now be interesting to analyze whether these all work the same way, or if they include different aspects of Sutra and Tantra in different ways.

I mostly can’t understand how Sutra-Tantra integration works at all, because they point in opposite directions. Looking at these details might help me, at least, make sense of that.

Here’s Gleig’s abstract:

This paper examines recent innovations in the American vipassana or insight community, specifically a current I identify as ‘West Coast Vipassana’ that has revisioned the Theravadin Buddhist goal of liberation, from a transcendental condition that demands a renunciation of the world, to an ‘embodied enlightenment’ that affirms everyday householder life as a site for awakening. I draw on Jeffrey J. Kripal’s tantric transmission thesis to advance an essentially tantric hermeneutic of West Coast Vipassana. I argue that while West Coast Vipassana is originally based in Theravada Buddhism, an Asian renouncer tradition that sharply differentiates between the immanent and transcendent, it has taken a markedly tantric turn in America. I also note, however, that it considerably differs from traditional Buddhist tantric traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism or esoteric Japanese Buddhism in being distinctively modern and American.

Vincent Horn 2013-12-01

This reminds me of a brief exchange we had about renunciation being the core engine of Theravada. Looking at the distinction between yanas and sects–which makes a whole lot of sense–I’d say that you were probably (at the time) confusing the two. Renunciation may be the core engine of the hinayana approach, but it definitely isn’t the core engine of the style of practice that many of the teachers I’ve studied with employ (ex. Jack Kornfield & Trudy Goodman).

In any case it’s really interesting to learn about some of the more vajra-wizard stuff in the Theravada world, and also to learn more from you about the tradition that I know the (least?) most. :-)

Vincent Horn 2013-12-01

P.S. - I wouldn’t attribute the difference between IMS & Spirit Rock as being purely about the difference between the Thai Forest tradition and the Burmese Mahasi tradition. One need only look at some of lineage holders of Ajahn Chah for examples of some of today’s most renunciative Theravada practitioners (Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Sumedho, etc.)… These are folks that don’t eat past noon, who won’t be in a room alone with a woman, etc. The Mahasi tradition, in comparison, was a lot more liberal w/r/t opening its doors to lay meditators and with the ethical trainings (one could easily practice at a Mahasi center only taking 5 or 8 training precepts, which frankly isn’t all that hard (even for a beer guzzling, weed smoking, meat eating person like me).

I think the difference has more to do, perhaps, with the 1st generation of teachers (Jack, Joseph, & Sharon in this case) and on how they developed as teachers and people. Jack spent a lot of time exploring other traditions, working to integrate ideas and practices from Western psychology, etc. than Joseph has. I think this broadening of perspective, and a general interest in “integrating” probably had more to do with the yana-like shift in the culture around Spirit Rock than where they arose. I’m sure there are many other factors as well…

David Chapman 2013-12-01

Hi, Vince, thank you for these comments!

Yes, in that earlier conversation, I was making the assumption Theravada=Hinayana, which is clearly not true.

I still have questions about how “West Coast Vipassana” works, if it is neither renunciate nor tantric. There’s no Asian precedent for a Buddhism that is neither of those things, so far as I know. Of course, that doesn’t mean there can’t be one, but I’d like to understand better how and why it works.

My current take is that it’s trying to get tantric results while avoiding explicitly-tantric methods, and borrowing quasi-tantric methods from non-Buddhist sources (including depth psychology). I take Ann Gleig as saying something similar. If that’s correct, then I’ll suggest that it would be better to use Buddhist methods to get those results. I’ll put up a post about that in ten days or so—it’s written already, but I won’t have time to answer comments during the next week.

What you say about East Coast vs West Coast differences depending on the personalities of particular people seems probable!

Personal dispositions, or characteristics, drive religious interests, needs, and talents. Luckily, there are many different kinds of Buddhism, suitable for different sorts of people!

ann gleig 2013-12-08

Another important influence at Spirit Rock is A.H. Almaas’s Diamond Approach. In his latest book, Divine Eros, Almaas (pen name of Hameed Ali) explicitly likens his approach to a tantric one. His teaching has has a big influence on a number of big names at Spirit Rock-Jack Kornfield, Eugence Cash, Sharda Rogell ext.

ann gleig 2013-12-08

ps. sorry for the typos! (i meant Eugene Cash and ect. ) Also, a couple of clarifications (i)West and East coast are just loose signifiers. There is a lot of traffic and overlap between the two centers, yet, many of the teachers I interviewed or spoke two acknowledged different flavors between the two. One explanation they attributed it to was the difference between the Burmese and Thai lineages of Theravada. (ii) One major way I see West Coast as Tantric is its approach to working with emotional states in a more transmutational/transformative way (that acknowledges them as manifestations of wisdom-in the way that say the 5 poisons are approached in Tibetan Buddhism)I think the Diamond Approach is a big influence on this and wish I had included it in the article. (iii) What I tried to make clear in the article is that this is a tantric approach that is distinctive from historic Tantric Buddhism-it isn’t ritualistic, for example. So I would say they are developing new Tantric methods, David, as well as Tantric results. At any rate, my aim with the article is just to get people thinking more creatively and positively about what’s occurring in American Buddhism rather than just lamenting it as a dilution of traditional Buddhism, which is the main narrative in Buddhist studies scholarship.

David Chapman 2013-12-08

Hi, Ann, thanks for these clarifications!

I’d be interested to learn more about “new tantric methods.” My following post suggests something similar: that quasi-tantric methods get borrowed from other, mainly Western sources, and pressed into service in place of Buddhist tantric methods.

I find this problematic, but it’s certainly also true that it’s not obvious how exactly to make Buddhist tantric methods work in America in 2013!

Lobsang Dorje 2013-12-22

Hi David,
I liked this article and also the similar one about Zen a lot (I think it was called Zen versus the U:S. Navy or something similar). I would be interested to know why you never write in the same style about Vajrayana? Nobody ever discusses which support Vajrayana in general had that made it able to rise so fast in the West.
Of course, following the tradition of Buddhist tantra for decades, I know about its appeal. But I am also a business school graduate and it is obvious that Vajrayana had strong “anonymous” support when it established itself in the 60s and 70s.
There is a long series of Lamas and Rinpoches which had a bunch of broken hippie followers (no offence meant) and suddenly started to set up monasteries worth millions of USD. Let alone the decades of unrealistically positive media coverage for Buddhism. When asked, the general answer is that one donor had given a million of dollars as a generous gift, and of course he wants to stay unknown, as it is a spiritual practice.

So let me come clear about what I actually want to say. Definitely Vajrayana had a lot of support from high Western government sources. This helped to establish the offical anti-Chinese political dogma of the West and brought back a lot of “communist” hippies into the mainstream working process.

If you need basic information, refer to Mikel Dunhams book Buddha’s Warriors.

In South America the funding of religions by the CIA is far more aknowledged. In order to keep the local population away from communist ideas, the CIA financed many of the local evangelical churches with absurd amounts of money.

This doesn’t mean that the teachings are in any way spoilt or deluded, for me the actual teachings are inherently pure. But living in total denial of the western roots of our spiritual path is not an appropriate attitute for someone who is seriously involved in dark magic (means integrating the shadow side). This is possibly the biggest taboo in temporary Western Vajrayana and I am fully confident you are the person to write about this (half joking, half serious).

Kind regards.

David Chapman 2013-12-22

Hi Lobsang Dorje,

Thanks, these are interesting questions!

why [do] you never write in the same style about Vajrayana?

I had planned to! My most recent outline had a big section on the history and politics of Buddhist tantra. I’ve decided to drop this, however. It’s too big and difficult and depressing—for me to write, and for anyone else to read.

I haven’t read Buddha’s Warriors, but I know a bit about the CIA funding for Khampa guerrillas. That’s what the book is about, right? According to the Wikipedia, the CIA program wound down in the late ’60s and ended completely in 1972. The U.S. also sent some money to the Dalai Lama to use for propaganda purposes ($180,000/year according to that WP article), which ended in 1974.

The first Tibetan lamas to have significant followings in the U.S. were Chögyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku. They were both pretty obscure until the early 70s, at which time the CIA program was over. And, I’m pretty sure the Dalai Lama would not have funded either of them. I suspect that he opposed and obstructed both of them, although I don’t have direct evidence for that.

it is obvious that Vajrayana had strong “anonymous” support when it established itself in the 60s and 70s. There is a long series of Lamas and Rinpoches which had a bunch of broken hippie followers (no offence meant) and suddenly started to set up monasteries worth millions of USD... When asked, the general answer is that one donor had given a million of dollars as a generous gift, and of course he wants to stay unknown, as it is a spiritual practice.

Hmm, who are you thinking of here? I’m pretty sure there were no million-dollar centers in the 1960s. In the 1970s, Chögyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku are the only ones who come to mind as fitting that description.

I find it plausible that Trungpa’s organization was funded on relatively small donations from its very large number of members. That is what everyone involved has always claimed. I was somewhat involved in the finance of the Bay Area Shambhala centers in the mid-1990s, so I have some sense of how the cash flow worked. (This was in a consolidation phase, rather than start-up/growth, so the capital requirements were less, but it still seems workable to me.) There are transcripts of Trungpa griping about the fact that he didn’t have any wealthy big donors, and the Bay Area sangha leadership was still griping about that when I was involved.

I don’t know anything about Tarthang Tulku’s organization or finances. I’ve tried to find out more, but that history is curiously impenetrable. I suspect it has been deliberately suppressed—although my guess is that this is because of conflict with the Geluk power structure, rather than finances.

Definitely Vajrayana had a lot of support from high Western government sources. This helped to establish the offical anti-Chinese political dogma of the West and brought back a lot of “communist” hippies into the mainstream working process.

I’m assuming that by “Vajrayana” here you actually mean “Tibetan Buddhism” (which is a different thing).

I do find it plausible that there was US government support for Tibetan Buddhism as part of an anti-China propaganda campaign. (More likely in the 1980s-90s than 1960s-70s, would be my guess.) However, I don’t know of any actual evidence for that. I’d love to know more if there is any.

decades of unrealistically positive media coverage for Buddhism.

Yes, that’s certainly striking! And it would be fascinating if this turned out to have had government backing.

Skeptical historians (e.g. Donald Lopez) have analyzed this instead in terms of Westerners using Buddhism to symbolize problematic issues in Western culture. That has been going on since long before the 1960s. Western romanticization of Tibet goes back hundreds of years, and became a major thing starting in the late 1800s due to Theosophy.

I think this is the main explanation, but government subsidy could also be a factor.

But living in total denial of the western roots of our spiritual path is not an appropriate attitute for someone who is seriously involved in dark magic (means integrating the shadow side).

Yes, much of my intellectual effort in the past few years has been devoted to sorting this out—inspired mainly by David L. McMahan’s book.

This is possibly the biggest taboo in temporary Western Vajrayana

I don’t know… I think a bigger taboo may be looking at the ugly history of Tibetan politics. I’ve come to see current Tibetan Buddhism as a battleground continuing a religious civil war that goes back centuries. I find that the teachings are spoiled by that, unfortunately.

My current take is that the opportunity to modernize Tibetan Buddhism, pioneered by Trungpa Rinpoche and Tarthang Tulku and others in the 1970s, has probably passed permanently. If there is to be a modern Vajrayana, it won’t come by incremental modernization of the Tibetan version. It will have to be a more radical rethinking, starting from the fundamental principles of the yana rather than historical practice.

If that’s right, then the Tibetan history is much less relevant—which is another reason I’ve decided to drop it.

Best wishes,

David

Kate Gowen 2013-12-26

http://www.tricycle.com/feature/russia-love

This article about the role of Kalmyk Mongol lamas (including Robert Thurman’s teacher) who arrived almost 20 years before CTR– may shed some light. I found it fascinating.

Alexander Glavan 2015-01-28

Dear David Chapman, thanks for the informative post. I was reading your comments and maybe I can shed some light on this: “I mostly can’t understand how Sutra-Tantra integration works at all, because they point in opposite directions.” in relation to the Thai Forrest Tradition.

My teacher, Adam Mizner, is a sotapanna and very close student of Ajahn Jumnean. He lives in Thailand and is fluent in Thai language, and as a Theravadin teacher he is very much a traditionalist. In fact, other than being a student of LP Jumnean yourself (and speaking Thai), your best bet for having a peek into the lineage might be through Adam Mizner’s dhamma talks (that LP Jumnean asked him to give). There’s almost nothing else in English on the internet that goes into the depths of it, or if there is, I haven’t found it yet. I’m saying all of this, because to my understanding, this lineage gives the most elegant and powerful integration of what you call Sutra&Tantra. I won’t waste your time talking about the kind of impact it has had on my life and my understanding of Buddhism. After a decade of “being somewhat interested in Buddhism” I finally consider myself a Theravadin student and practitioner.

I think the talks can clarify how the two aspects really do work together, here’s some of the talks he’s given in Thailand and in the US https://soundcloud.com/lokuttaradhamma/sets/desana

If you don’t have time for them all, consider listening to talks 11,12 and 13, they are 3 parts of a 3 days teaching in the US which briefly sum up a lot of the teachings. Alternatively, listen to number 17, it is about what you describe as the Tantric aspect. As for the “sutra aspect”, if I can call it that, I suggest number 18 maybe, or any of the others.

I hope this doesn’t come off as advertisement and you find it useful.

Metta

Luis Santiago 2016-05-13

”(…) Obviously Theravada is the One True Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism is devil worship plus a bit of Mahayana, and everyone knows that Mahayana is based on fake scriptures that aren’t the true word of the Buddha like our Pali ones.”

David Chapman, are you serious on that or were you ironic?
If ou are serious, I think you should review your idea of what “One True” means. Pali scriptures written 400 to 500 years after Buddha passed way could not appropriately be called the “One True” record of Buddha’s teachings. I like Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach, as is written in the final notes of the book “Old Path White Clouds”. All of us modern practitioners of Buddhism should be able to see the true essence of the teachings present in all authentic traditions. The mahayana scriptures, according to him, should be seen as shedding a light on the older scriptures. And indeed they do shed a light which, in my opinion, is much brighter than that shed by the Theravada Abhidhamma for example. But that is, of course, a matter of personal interest and undestanding.
What I disagree is the idea of the “fake”. That is quite sectarian and unecessary, since we have many traditions developed along many centuries, none with a direct record written by the Buddha himself. Nevertheless, all share the same core teachings, epitomized in the four noble truths, interpreted in a variety of ways.

David Chapman 2016-05-13

Sorry, yes, I was being ironic, and attributing the opinion to Theravada sectarians! I have edited my comment to put that sentence in quotation marks now; maybe that will be less confusing.

I agree with everything you say here (which is not surprising because I do practice Tibetan Buddhism!).

Shaun 2017-07-09

I have also discovered tantric Theravada, and I appreciate your research in this area. I practice a kind of tantric Theravada, and I’m glad to know that there is some kind of lineage in which to ground the practice. Read Ann Gleig’s article, very helpful. The (apparent) difference between Tibetan and Shaivic tantra and its Theravada form is that Tibetan & Shaivic forms were full of feudalistic imagery of seeing oneself as ‘kings and queens’; and more than imagery, was embedded with actual feudal monarchies and monastic feudalism; see Davidson’s “Indian Esoteric Buddhism”. The new Dhammakaya movement (which I have personally witnessed in Sri Lanka sanghas) reintroduces ritual and tantric symbolism into Theravada, but also elevates the power of the monastic priesthood to perform those rituals. The tantric Theravada of Cambodia was bound up with ascetic forest monasticism, but not political or monastic feudalism. Gleig’s article shows that tantric Theravada can also be embedded in liberal democracies, not dependent on feudalism, gurus and monastics, but in peer-led. low-hierarchy communities. You should also investigate the syncretism of Sri Lanka, where temple sites house both Hindu Shaivic deities and Buddhist deities, and the two share common deities and rituals. Sri Lanka Theravada monks developed devotions to Kali, Saraswati, and Hanuman.

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