“You know what we need, Hobbes? We need an attitude.”
—Calvin & Hobbes
What I find most valuable in Buddhist tantra is an attitude. It’s the attitude I’ll call “spacious passion.” Over the next several pages, I’ll explain that attitude, with its applications and implications.
But here, even before telling you what spacious passion is, I want to answer an objection:
An attitude?? What good is an “attitude”? And what’s it got to do with Buddhist tantra? I thought tantra was supposed to be about mystical rituals and esoteric doctrines, not an attitude.
“Attitude” is an interesting word. Attitudes cross the internal/external, subjective/objective boundary. An “attitude” may include an emotional or mental state; but it can also refer to a bodily posture. It may be defined as a tendency toward a particular action or response.
This is key to Tantrayana. Some Buddhisms treat both their path and goal as primarily mental, internal, or subjective. For Buddhist tantra, external action is more important. But accurate action requires blurring the subjective/objective boundary.
Usually, one has an attitude toward something or someone. Again, this is key for tantra. While some Buddhisms emphasize objectless emptiness, tantra is about this world and its inhabitants. While the Buddhas of the other leading brands sit around in the sky being holy, tantric Buddhas act. They act on the basis of their “attitude toward.”
The path of tantra consists simply of maintaining the attitude.
“So what?” Well, since the attitude is a disposition to act, you reliably respond perceptively, compassionately, and effectively to problems and opportunities. Maintaining the attitude makes life choiceless.
Tantra doesn’t necessarily mean you think less about what to do; nor does it give you magic powers to overcome obstacles. What it does is eliminate questions like:
Do I feel like being a sullen selfish slob? Or do I feel like being helpful, cheerful, and creative?
Tantric methods make the answer automatic; and eventually the question no longer arises.
Tantra assumes you are intelligent. It has some hints about how to be helpful, cheerful, and creative. Mostly, though, if you decide to, you can figure that out for yourself.
Tantra can seem extremely complex and technical. However, its mass of details are all just hints about how to maintain the passionate, spacious attitude.
The tantric attitude is valuable regardless of how you come to adopt it. On the other hand, the tantric practices and doctrines have no intrinsic value. They exist only to promote the attitude.
If you have some other way of maintaining the attitude, you could—in theory—fully accomplish tantra without using or knowing anything about the traditional teachings. Ultimately, any and every activity is tantric practice, when accompanied by the attitude.
The attitude of spacious passion makes the tantric concepts and methods make sense. It shows why they exist and how they work. It gives you an intuitive meta-feel for them; an automatic natural understanding. Consulting the attitude lets you know how you are doing:
Is this practice enhancing my tendency to spacious passion? Or is it making me narrow and dopey?
Applying tantric methods blindly, without understanding the point, can make you mean-spirited, aggressive, self-important, paranoid, and closed-minded. How you react to life difficulties lets you know if you are doing it wrong.
Technical mastery and intellectual understanding are important in tantra, but not all-important. They are only means to an end. Asking:
What do I need to do, or to understand, to live with greater gusto and wider vision?
is the guide to deciding how far to take particular techniques or studies, and which to take up next.
Elsewhere on this site, I write about “reinventing tantra,” by which I mean: how can we make tantra inspiring and practical in the global 21st century culture? Much needs to change—just as tantra has changed countless times in the past, to meet new circumstances. How do we know what to retain from tradition, what to re-present in new language, what to leave behind, and what to create that is altogether new?
Answers can flow from the understanding that tantra exists simply to promote spacious passion. Whatever does that, here and now, is a valuable method of contemporary tantra. Whatever does not, needs revision; or can be left on the shelf as a possible resource for future generations.
Relating this to tradition
I am not using “attitude” to translate any particular Tibetan or Sanskrit word. And, as far as I know, there is no tantric text that says that maintaining an attitude is the most important thing.
I do think that this is implicit in tantric theory, though. I suspect that open-minded Tibetan lamas would not particularly object to my formulation.
Causal and resultant vehicles
Tibetan theory divides Buddhism into causal and resultant vehicles. A “vehicle” is a yana, or approach to Buddhism.
Mainstream (non-tantric) Buddhism is described as consisting of “causal vehicles.” Their methods attempt to cause enlightenment.
The tantric yanas—there are half a dozen of them—are resultant vehicles. According to tantra, you are always already enlightened. Therefore, it is not necessary (or possible) to cause enlightenment. Instead, you take the supposed result (Buddhahood) as the path.
That is, the method of tantra is to do being a Buddha. Or, it is often said, you self-identify as a Buddha.
Since the goal is also to be a Buddha, some versions of tantra say explicitly that the path is the goal (and vice versa).
Different forms of Buddhism have different ideas about what a Buddha is. For many, though, I think it’s fair to say that Buddhahood is, indeed, an attitude. So, maintaining the attitude of a Buddha is the path, and is also the goal.
I prefer to speak of “maintaining an attitude” than “self-identifying” to emphasize the dynamic external activity of Buddhahood, and also because “self” is such a problematic concept in Buddhism.
I prefer not to talk about Buddhas and Buddhahood. Those concepts are far too encrusted with myth, ideology, metaphysics, intellectual argument, and historical confusion.
The approach to tantra I advocate is similar to anuyoga.
Anuyoga is a distinctive, uncommon form of tantra, found only in the Nyingma branch of Tibetan Buddhism. It is different enough from “mainstream” tantra that it is considered a separate yana. Its texts, practices, and doctrines barely overlap with other tantric yanas, although it is similar enough to count as tantra rather than something else entirely.
Anuyoga skips most of the complex ritual of “mainstream” tantra. Instead, its approach is: Just Do It®. You go directly into being a Buddha, with only minimal technical support.
Anuyoga flourished mainly during the “Tibetan Dark Age” around the year 959. This period was considered “dark” by later propagandists, because the Tibetan state and the established church lost control over tantra. From my point of view, it was probably something of a Golden Age. (I’ve written about that elsewhere.)
After theocracy was re-established, anuyoga became almost entirely theoretical, forgotten, fictitious, or extinct. (Jacob Dalton wrote a fascinating PhD thesis about this, if you want to learn more. I may summarize that in an upcoming post.)
Anuyoga developed as a style of practice suitable for dynamic social conditions. It is ideal for independent, part-time practitioners who have real lives. On the other hand, the style of tantra taught in Tibet in the past few hundred years was designed to support state power and institutional stability. It is suited mainly for monks, i.e. indentured religious factory workers.
Social conditions for Buddhism in the contemporary West are more similar to the “Dark Age” than to the theocratic feudalism of recent Tibet. I think the anuyoga approach is more attractive and useful for most contemporary Westerners than the other tantric yanas. Unfortunately, those other yanas (particularly mahayoga and anuttara tantra) have mostly been all that is available.
However, interest in anuyoga has been revived in the West by both scholars and practitioners. As a living practice, it is taught, for example, in the Aro gTér and by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu.
Anuyoga forms a “bridge” between mainstream tantra and Dzogchen. I learned tantra mainly in the Aro style, and Aro teaches mainly Dzogchen. My explanations of tantra are strongly influenced by Dzogchen ideas—which is almost the same as to say that they are anuyoga in flavor.