Comments on “The power of an attitude”

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David - do you in any way differentiate ‘Attitude’ from ‘View’, and if so, how? I ask because I cannot differentiate your description of Attitude from my own of View in this post.

I sometimes think that View gets confused for people, in terms of some vague concept of ‘How you think about something’ and folk get lost in thought as a result.

I was wondering if that is why you chose the word Attitude or whether it was because of the strut that this word has. The word View doesn’t sound like it struts. After all, you can tell by the way I use my walk I’m a woman’s man; no time to talk. . .

Gottheo 2012-04-28

“Attitude”, “Spacious Passion” “Resultant Vehicle” “the path is the goal” sounds very good. I like it.

Karmakshanti 2012-04-28

Looking back to your cited sources, Anu is generally a perfection stage practice with both a yoga of form with tsa/lung as well as a formless yoga of direct perception. Neither you nor your sources are that informative beyond this, leaving many questions: Does Anu have development stage practices that are different than Mahayoga? Indeed, does it have any development stage practices at all? And if it teaches formless practices, how are these different than Dzogchen? The Nyingmas seem to be at great pains to separate these things, while the Sarma tantras and commentaries which I have studied stress the continuity of all such methods, whether of form or formless, as essentially the same Path of Annutarayoga leading to the same Fruition, which my teachers call Mahamudra. But the reasons the Nyingma are so positive about that separation or what is significant about the boundaries are not really very clear.

These questions lead to more immediate ones about what you mean by “attitude”. Apparently, what you are proposing as a “postmodern tantra” is a narrowing down of the plethora of choices that traditional tantra has to offer, as well as reworking of them to separate those choices from “Buddhism” as an “ism”, a definite and specific teaching with exclusive boundaries.

But it is not clear what is on the menu for us to choose from. And, particularly since you propose “attitude” as a new terminology not related to any Sanskrit or Tibetan equivalent, it is also not clear what choices you wish to make from the menu other than to “do being a Buddha”. None of this can be very informative to a beginner who has had this terminology sprung on them out of nowhere nor is it so to anyone experienced who is used to analyzing the corpus of material in a different way. At least I could not plainly describe what the attitude of doing being a Buddha might be nor give any clear reasons why such an attitude would benefit “more independent part-time practitioners with real lives”.

David Chapman 2012-04-28

“View” (lTa ba in Tibetan) usually refers to something abstract, intellectual, and philosophical. Most often, it is “a theory about what the heck ‘emptiness’ is supposed to mean”. This has nearly nothing to do with what I’m calling “the tantric attitude”.

“View” is usually thought of as something in your head, whereas “attitude” crosses the inside/outside boundary. It suggests action. And as you perceptively point out, it’s got strut to it. Strut (“vajra pride”) is critical in tantra.

Living the view” is a key term in the Aro gTér, and is pretty much exactly what I mean by “attitude”. As far as I know, based on a google search, that phrase is unique to Aro.

In Dzogchen generally, “lhündrup” is when “view” and “activity” become inseparable. Probably about the same thing as “living the view”, except lhündrup requires non-dual awareness.

David Chapman 2012-04-28

@ Karmakshanti — good questions!

All of these terms are vague, unfortunately. What counts as a “development stage practice” may vary according to context.

Anuyoga does have self-arising yidam practice, which is approximately that. The distinctive feature of anuyoga yidam practice is that it non-liturgical, or minimally liturgical, and non-gradual. Rather than building up the visualization gradually according to instructions in the sadhana text, you produce the whole thing at once, based on your recollection of the felt experience of the yidam. One advantage of this approach is that you can do it whenever you have a few spare minutes, under almost any circumstances.

As you say, the classification of Inner Tantra into three yanas is a point of pride for Nyingmas, and I think it is somewhat arbitrary. Still, it is useful to have a word for “tantra with minimal ritual and Dzogchen view”, which is mostly what “anuyoga” means now. (It’s meant various other things at different stages in its history, as Dalton’s PhD thesis explains.)

Regarding your observation that it is not clear what I’m talking about: maybe you can bear with me for a while. I can’t explain everything at once! My outline currently has titles for 74 pages on “reinventing tantra”. We’ll see how much of that I get through before I die. At my current rate of writing, completion seems improbable…

Still, I hope to get the first dozen pages done in the next couple of months, and maybe that will be adequate to see what I’m advocating.

@ David - thank you for your Views on View. I wasn’t aware that lTa ba normally meant as you have described. All is clear.

Linda Blanchard 2012-04-28

I found this post to be quite helpful (if I am actually getting what you’re saying) in understanding how to practice the tantra it seems you are suggesting, and I have very little familiarity with tantra (though I just ordered Lama Yeshé’s book). Perhaps I can’t be counted as a beginner, though, because I’ve studied Theravadan texts and commentaries quite a lot, and been putting the teachings into practice for years.

In Theravada, too, the concept of “Right View” seems to be that it is an intellectual understanding, but this has always made sense to me only as a starting place; I have always thought that “Right View” had a beginning and ending place, and the ending place isn’t a view at all, but an understanding so deep one wouldn’t have to think “how do I apply this?” anymore. I can see the “Just Do It” “be the Buddha” “does this generate spacious passion” method as getting us from A to Z – from the first step of intellectual understanding to the lasting part where it’s no longer intellectual – in the quickest possible way, by putting it into living practice and having a simple question to ask.

mriramos 2012-04-28

‘Mainstream’ anuyoga practice involving ‘the winds and channels’ are generally highly restricted, secret, etc. (I think Hokai is planning to write on the topic of secrecy soon). I am talking about practices like Tsa-lung, Trul-khor, Tummo, etc, that activate/awaken/open the subtle body. Try to walk into a Nyingma or Kagyu place and ask for these teachings. Show me the book where these practices are clearly outlined.
The Bon ( are beginning to teach these more openly now, so that’s where I’m learning about some of these teachings. I’ve found these teachings to be extremely helpful.

Karmakshanti 2012-04-28

The notion of instantaneous appearance of the yidam goes a long way toward answering my questions, at least for me. While the use of very short daily versions of many yidam practices by laypeople is not uncommon among ordinary Tibetans, it is certainly undertaken with a great deal more initial faith than Western students can normally bring to the table. Immediate and total identification with the yidam is harder to do but may actually, as you have suggested, suit our skeptical culture better. The difficulty that I can see is that of replacing or modifying the extensive ngondro practices that preceed such things. It is a common belief that I observe among many students here that ngondro is no more than makework imposted by teachers simply interested in secrecy for its own sake. But I have never heard this from anyone who has actually completed ngondro, and I would have to say from personal observation that such completion does make tantric practice a whole lot easier and less prone to obstacles.

SInce we are deliberately avoiding “metaphysics” and “puritanical” pontificating, we will simply have to glide by trying to explain, as the monastics do, what actually changes when you accomplish ngondro, but I can state definitely that this change is an empirical fact: you are suddenly able to do certain practices and understand certain concepts with great ease, where before even attempting them generated all sorts of barriers and problems.

Given the remarks by mriramos above, and the question of what book details yogic completion stage practices, I should point out that a pretty clear version of the Kagyu approach called the Six Yogas of Naropa has been in print since the 1920’s in W.Y. Evans-Wentz’ Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. In addition, Garma C.C. Chang translated a very explicit practice text written by one of the Situ incarnations under the title of The Six Yogas of Naropa, and a rather rigid, but quite informative, general explanation of the Higher Yoga tantras by Gelug Geshe Kelsang Gyatso called Clear Light of Bliss appeared years ago. While there may be differences from the Nyingma treatment of this material, they can’t be all that different since everybody is talking about the same “subtle body”.

Unfortunately, as explicit as they are, they continue to be as “self-secret” as they have been since they were first published.

Ananda 2012-04-28


mriramos 2012-04-28

@Karmakshanti re: “The difficulty that I can see is that of replacing or modifying the extensive ngondro practices that preceed such things. It is a common belief that I observe among many students here that ngondro is no more than makework imposted by teachers simply interested in secrecy for its own sake. But I have never heard this from anyone who has actually completed ngondro, and I would have to say from personal observation that such completion does make tantric practice a whole lot easier and less prone to obstacles.”

I think this is where ‘innovation’ needs to come in. Yes, preparation is required. Yes, some kind of base of experience is required. Yes, good teachers, and actual hands-on guidance for advanced practices, is needed. But just telling people - go do 100000 prostrations because … well, that’s what we all do. It just shuts the door for some people.

Maybe you’ve been sitting in Zen or Vipassana style for 10 years, and you have stable attention, and humility and openness, and you just want to explore the subtle body practices. The institutional mindset doesn’t seem to support that.

@mriramos - re: ‘. . . just telling people – go do 100000 prostrations because … well, that’s what we all do. . . ‘ made me think - it’s pretty unhelpful if people never question anything. In a Tibetan cultural context I would that the answer ‘that’s what we do’ is enough for most people. That’s not useful because if you don’t understand why you’re doing something you might not get maximum value out of it.

On the flip side, if you question everything you’re going to struggle to get anything done and fail to recognise the value in the thing in question.

I think the answer lies in presentation. The presentation has to recognise the audience to which it is being presented. A Western audience needs a bit more explanation of ‘why’. A Tibetan audience might usefully benefit from a bit of teasing in order to engage with them - as Chhi’med Rig’dzin Rinpoche did with the monks when teaching them how to make rain.

The ‘why’ of ngondro is pretty simple though. The easiest analogy for me is that it is like learning how to play scales on a violin. Playing scales can seem pretty dull stuff; well, actually it is pretty dull stuff, but in reality playing scales is playing the violin. The biggest obstacle actually is the boredom and sense that you ‘want to get on with the real fun of ‘playing a proper piece of music’. However when performing a piece of music ‘for real’, playing scales will have helped if you’ve practiced them, because you get the finger positioning, intervals between notes, intonation etc. You could learn to play the violin without formally learning to play scales - but that leads to a different set of problems - and you get the boredom of playing badly - although you can still learn that way (witness many self-taught guitarists in various musical traditions).

The biggest advantage of ngondro is for the teacher - so they know the student is dedicated enough to have put some hours in. It’s a barrier. But it’s not like a magical light switch gets turned on the moment that 100,000th Dorje Sempa mantra gets recited.

The biggest problem of ngondro - for the teacher - is a failure to explain it to people - so people can get to think it is pointless.

3dgcum83 2012-04-29

I’m wondering whether your take on the context in which tantra comes to life isn’t simply a matter of emphasis rather than something alternative to a more standard model. Obviously the manner in which tantric vehicles are deployed in people’s lives differs according to the style of instruction received but even so it does seem to me that your concept of ‘attitude’ is already utlised within the traditional formulation of view-meditation-action found in Mahayana and Vajrayana. I’ve heard Khandro Rinpoche on more than one occasion mention that practitioners need to attempt to close the gap between view and action, that the lives of practitioners should reflect the view in how they are in the world. Is this so different from what you are describing? It certainly seems to bring the focus out of the subjective sphere of the individual’s experience and into the world of interaction. She also mentioned that more seasoned practitioners should certainly strive to mingle the view with action such that their personalities should exhibit the qualities arising form their practice. It seemed that her point was on ensuring that there shouldn’t be an emphasis on internal change at the expense of how we are in the world, as a continuation of our practice and understanding. Maybe you could outline how your idea differs from this formulation?

As an aside Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche is giving the entire transmission of the Anuyoga root tantra discussed in Dalton’s thesis, in Poland this year.

muflax 2012-04-29


“My outline currently has titles for 74 pages on “reinventing tantra”. We’ll see how much of that I get through before I die. At my current rate of writing, completion seems improbable…”

Don’t you dare pull a Douglas Adams on me! I lived through this shit once, I can’t stand it again. “I’m going to write a lot of excellent stuff, express my desire to change an unsatisfying work and here is this new and really clever novel I’m writing, now let’s go get a convenient heart attack!” Not again, man!

(Sorry I don’t much have anything constructive to say. What you have said so far is good but unsurprising (to me), which is nice, ‘cause it means you’re going in a direction I’m very much interested in.)

David Chapman 2012-04-29

@Linda Blanchard — I think, yes, you understood what I was trying to say! I hope you find Lama Yeshé’s book interesting, enjoyable, and useful.

@Karmakshanti — glad my minimal explanation of anuyoga was helpful. Based on my limited knowledge of both, the tsa rlung practices of anuyoga and the anuttara dzogrim (completion phase, Six Yogas of Naropa) are not greatly different, as you suggest.

As @mriramos points out, the Bön and Nyingma have always taught such things more openly, and (in the Bön case at least) this is accelerating. I gather they feel that the time for secrecy is pretty well over. That seems right to me, and I think greater openness is a good thing.

When one has had the practice instruction, and a bit of practical experience, the previously “self-secret” texts make sense. @Karmakshanti, does that seem like a good thing or a bad thing to you? I’m mostly in favor of opening everything up, now. But I can see the validity of reasons for secrecy, and my mind is open to being changed about whether total disclosure is the right move. (BTW, I do not intend to reveal anything, myself, that is not already in the English-language open literature.)

@mriramos suggests that extensive experience with silent sitting meditation can substitute for tantric ngöndro. That is the approach taken by the Aro lamas. It was also advocated by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in his earliest teaching, and by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. The latter two lamas both partly backed away from that, though. I’m not sure whether that was due to political pressure, or due to discovering students found tantric practice difficult if they hadn’t competed tantric ngöndro.

Tentatively I’m planning to write a page (or more) about ngöndro, but I don’t yet feel confident about the material. One thing I want to do is trace its history; and getting sources for that has been difficult. It is apparently a “recent” innovation; probably from the 1600s or 1700s. (Which shows that “you have to do ngöndro or the sky will fall” is false.) But I don’t know for sure who instituted it and how and why. If anyone knows anything, I’d love to hear about it!

@mriramos suggests innovation in ngöndro is possible. That seems a valuable line of inquiry. If we understand clearly what ngöndro does, then it may be possible to devise other courses of practice that have the same effect, and that are better-suited to current conditions.

For some students, extensive silent sitting practice may be a good substitute. But others find silent sitting extremely difficult, and would do better with a more active practice-set. Also, silent sitting may produce the changes necessary to begin tantra in some cases, but perhaps even mastery of it is inadequate in others.

Another thought: tantric ngöndro is preparation for generation-stage sadhana. In the sarma curriculum, that is a prerequisite for completion phase practice. But in the Nyingma, generation is not necessarily seen as a prerequisite for completion. That suggests that there could, in principle, be a separate ngöndro for subtle body practice. (Although… maybe that’s what the anuyoga instant yidam practice does…)

I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud. I haven’t done tantric ngöndro, which makes me particularly unqualified to speak. More input from those who have completed it would be welcome!

Namgyal Dorje — Having students spend years learning to play scales before allowing them to pick out a melody seems like a typically Asian method of teaching. Western music students won’t put up with it. And, my impression is that learning research shows one shouldn’t; it’s not an efficient/effective way to learn. You probably do need to learn to play scales accurately, but it’s better to mix that in with learning to play music.

That suggests that, in teaching/learning tantra, it would be valuable to mix technical exercises (of graduated difficulty) with actual practices (of graduated difficulty).

@3dgcum83 — Yes, pretty much everything I say in this series is only a matter of emphasis and presentation. I don’t have anything new to say. As I mentioned, I don’t think open-minded Tibetan lamas would object to anything in this post. Khandro Rinpoche counts, I hope!

Thank you very much for the information about Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche giving the anuyoga empowerment! Interestingly, Jake Dalton seems to have revived interest in it among Tibetans as well as Westerners.

We now have an odd situation, in which some lineages have revived the empowerment, and others have revived the actual practice, but as far as I know there is no lineage that has both the empowerment and the practice! I hope that someone is able to recombine those threads of tradition soon.

@muflax — I’ll try my best not to die soon! If I do, you have my permission to raise my ghost from hell and give me a hard time.

I have way too many writing projects going at once. This is atypical for me. Historically, I have worked on one major thing at a time, and have a good track record of finishing projects. I’m not sure what has gone wrong… Partly, it is that they are all aspects of the same thing. What I’m writing here is not separate from the Meaningness book or the vampire novel. It’s the same stuff said in different ways, for different people. I’m torn over which is more useful.

Karmakshanti 2012-04-29

As far as opening up the teachings, David, it is, as you know, a matter of commitments (Skt. samaya). You make these as a part of the process of learning Vajrayana, both to your teacher and your yidam. Again skipping over the metaphysics of why, I can also empirically report from personal experience that degenerated or broken commitments do cause you incredible problems– sometimes years in duration. So I’d say your silence is very wise.


At least in the Kagyu tradition, what ngondro is supposed to accomplish is not the same thing as what straight sitting is supposed to accomplish. Sitting calms you down and brings your awareness under better control, but it frequently has little impact on the “conflicting emotions” (Skt. kleshsa) that drive our off the cushion behavior. Putting aside “ordinary ngondro”, which is intellectual meditation on why you are doing Buddhism in the first place, the first or prostration section does two things (again I am speaking empirically): first, it stirs up all your conflicting emotions at once and forces you to face the fact that you are not nearly as accomplished a Buddhist as you thought; second, it deepens and cements in you the commitment to the Bodhisattva Ideal.

In the second stage you use yidam practice to work effectively with your conflicting emotions (skipping over the metaphysics once again) and the difficult long term effects they have on you and those around you, who are likely to know very well that you’re not as accomplished a Buddhist as you think. There is a further function to this. If you read the very detailed instructions in Evans-Wentz, the first step in form based completion practices is a yidam visualization, and actually a sudden and unelaborated one. The “development stage” of tantra is extended practice at getting good at visualizing the yidam, so that you can apply it to such things as the subtle body. As far as I know, the Zen techniques simply don’t address this.

In fact the use of a yidam in ngondro is far more “advanced” than most people realize at the time (including me). It is actually your first serious and intensified development stage practice that really serves to get you ready for more elaboration of the completion stage, including being able to do it immediately and without excess fuss.

In the third or “offering” stage, beyond the other metaphysical things, you are cultivating your own generosity to others, working directly on the first significant step everyone must take on the Bodhisattva Path.

Finally, the “guru yoga” segment brings you much closer to your personal teacher. I can’t say too much more than that, because all the rest of it is pure metaphysics. And the problem with saying too much about the metaphysics is that it inevitably leads to the irrelevant and distracting demand that you “justify” the metaphysics. Anyone not thoroughly schooled in the Monastery, such as myself, is in no position to attempt that. My private view is that, as a lay Buddhist, you simply have to regard most of it like axioms in mathematics, which are used to prove something but cannot be proved themselves.

@ David:

Could different set of practices be substituted? Probably. But, truly, the inner experiences of the ngondro will happen to you in one form or another in Vajrayana no matter what you do. The ngondro we have is certainly very recent, but it was developed to perform one very important task: to keep the rockier parts of the Vajrayana under careful control, so they minimally disrupt your practice and your progress. And, empirically, I would have to say that they do that pretty well.

Matthew O'Connell 2012-04-29

’…by which I mean: how can we make tantra inspiring and practical in the global 21st century culture?’

I love the simplicity of your definition of Tantra as simply the attitude of ‘spacious passion’. I can’t help but feel that this Tantric ideal of spacious passion could work as a wonderful antidote to the commercialisation model that has infused spirituality. The latest Buddhist commercialisation and attempt at reaching mass validation is Mindfulness and the meeting of Buddhism and science. This is a wonderful movement and evolution in western Buddhism that has the potential to provide practice and relief for millions and much deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the brain. This is not the daring path of Tantra however and smacks of the same status-quo subservience that riles the spirits of some of us and I think for many who are called by a deeper yearning for connection and wild spiritedness, the Tantric ideal as you have defined it may be an antidote to an unimaginative outlook. It needs to be put into action though. A 21st century Tantra for the new millennium would need people to start putting it into practice and making advances in doing so, and dare I say it, be willing to define their actions both within and without the Buddhist context. This might then mean being willing to loosen up identity. I have been imagining a non-Buddhist Buddhism for a short while now, if you get my meaning, and can’t help but feel that this Tantric ideal ought to be an essential element. It will take daring to do so. Why don’t we start to get the ball rolling. Perhaps a simple game of dare could get us started :) But really, compassion infused with wild, unimpeded living would do wonders to any field where an ounce of creativity can be appreciated. Dave you’ve provided the name for this new movement: The Path of Spacious Passion.

David Chapman 2012-04-29

@Karmakshanti — Thank you, that’s a useful overview of the functions of ngöndro!

Samaya is one of the issues involved with tantric secrecy. For an individual, it is paramount. In choosing not to reveal anything that is not in the open English literature, I’m following the example and advice of my lamas. Fortunately, though, as perhaps you implicitly point out, there is not much of significantly value that is not available in the open English literature, so the issue is somewhat moot now.

Still, it seems to me that there’s also a matter of social consensus. That is, Tibetans as group have gradually decided over the past 40 years to make more and more stuff public. At the same time, there is a residual pretense of secrecy, plus a reluctance to speak clearly about some things that are explained in the open literature, but perhaps not in language many people can follow. To the extent I have any influence, I would tend to try to move that consensus in the direction of greater willingness to speak clearly. But, I can also see that in some cases that can cause trouble for the unprepared.

But, truly, the inner experiences of the ngondro will happen to you in one form or another in Vajrayana no matter what you do... I would have to say that [traditional ngöndro] does that pretty well.

Yes… So the good thing about traditional ngöndro is that we know it works. But, many people find it an insuperable obstacle, and that does not seem a good thing. And, the first part of what you say suggests that other practices could potentially work even better.

About this, I’m not agitating for some particular change, or even for any change at all; just trying to open up a space for discussion about what might be possible. That might be useless speculation, except when conducted among those who have thoroughly mastered tantra, though.

Karmakshanti 2012-04-29


Well, if it were me, I would suggest that a good start would be accumulating a “minimum accomplishment” count of mantras with a very short liturgy for a yidam like Chenrezig or Amitabha. The count is 100,000 repetitions per syllable, so in each case it would be 600,000. It would be best if you could get a Wang and lung for the yidams, which is really not too hard, and even if you don’t have this, continuous practice of their mantras is highly likely to bring you the opportunity to get them anyway. If you are diligent, reaching 600,000 takes far less time than most people think.

I know the difficulty will be gaining the student’s confidence in any repetitive practice whose effect is incremental and gradual, and this is essentially the same difficulty (once you factor out chronic couchpotatohood) most have with ngondro in general and prostrations in particular. It is very difficult to explain that, first, some qualities from your past have to change inside you in order to practice effectively over the long haul, and second, that what will actually accomplish that is a process rather like sanding wood.

The problem is truly this inner change. The conventional explanations of “purifying past karma” and “accumulating merit” are misleading in English because what happens takes place inside your mind stream and is not waving a magic wand to change something outside you. A very rough analogy would be detoxification from alcohol or drugs. If you make the inner change of detoxing, you are likely to have a different future than you would as an alcoholic or a crackhead, and this change in your future is not incomprehensible magic.

The main thing is for the student to stick with the same good, but repetitive, action until they themselves can tell that their attitude or their habits of thinking and feeling actually have changed. For mantra repetition the “minimum accomplishment” count is just about the place where most students can actually see a change.

If you ask yourself what good qualities does everyone need to cultivate to practice Tantra safely and sanely from the beginning, there are probably alternate practices to ngondro that will serve. A good shorthand description of such qualities would be the Six Perfections of the Bodhisattva. With each of those good qualities like “generosity” you have to start somewhere even if it is only treating someone to lunch. Then you have to regularly and diligently follow up.

It really isn’t magic.

Myo Gak Kun Sunim 2012-04-30

@David, I’m reading this series of yours with a great deal of anticipation. I’m in what Ihear is a rather unique Buddhist position, in that not only did I spend years as a Kagyu monk practicing Tibetan Vajrayana, but I’ve also been trained in East Asian “mikkyo”/Vajrayana and have received transmission/inga as a Zen teacher (my current primary function).

I would contend, at least from where I sit, that ultimately sutra and tantra do -not- contradict each other, and that much of what you have considered the distilled essence of tantra is, in fact, the heart of Zen. Of course, I can’t rule out the possibility that I have simply brought my own “tantric view” with me into anoth practice - and I believe I recall reading once that some Buddhist scholars actually classify/consider Zen itself to be a form of tantra/Vajrayana.

In any case, this looks to be a fascinating discussion - thank you for starting it.

David Chapman 2012-04-30

@Karmakshanti — That all makes sense! I’d like to reply at greater length, but I’m pressed for time just now. Maybe later.

@Myo Gak Kun Sunim — Well, clearly, you are in a better position than me to say whether Zen and Tantra are essentially the same. I’m open to changing my mind, so I hope you’ll continue to comment! In any case, your perspective will surely be useful to other readers.

I gather that Zen is “a path beyond sutra”, which of course also describes tantra. Clearly, they are the same in some ways, and different in others. Since we can’t assign a number to how similar or how different, it’s subjective whether they are more similar, or more different.

I will have very little to say about Zen, because I know so little. I will contrast tantra with two things: Sutrayana as explained by Tibetans, and Consensus Buddhism as currently taught and practiced in America. Neither of those is Zen, although the Consensus certainly draws heavily on modernized versions of it (such as Sanbokyodan).

mriramos 2012-05-01

@Karmakshanti Firstly, I appreciated your detailed discussions on Ngondro, and pretty much agree with you on most points. Especially - ‘it’s not magic’, and, that one cannot bypass the fruition of what these practices are designed to achieve. (attentional and emotional stability, or concentration and equanimity).

One question on your statement - “At least in the Kagyu tradition, what ngondro is supposed to accomplish is not the same thing as what straight sitting is supposed to accomplish. Sitting calms you down and brings your awareness under better control, but it frequently has little impact on the “conflicting emotions” (Skt. kleshsa) that drive our off the cushion behavior.”
Are you talking about Shamatha, which is supposed to provide attentional stability, but not necessarily emotional stability? There are SO many ways to talk about sitting practice.
In the Kagyu approach that you studied, is it assumed that one must do Tantric Ngondro before attempting Mahamudra?

Wondering if you know about Alan Wallace’s current approach (and what your view is on it). He does these 3 month retreats based on the Longchenpa text ‘Stilling the Mind’, which divides the path into the 4 stages of Shamatha, Vipassana, Trekchod and Togal. No tantra or tantric Ngondro in that particular formulation. The book suggests that one could move into advanced Dzogchen practice, without Tantra, if one has reach the ‘fruition’ of Shamatha and Vipassana. (at least, that was my understanding, which could be faulty).

Karmakshanti 2012-05-01


My home monastery is KTD in Woodstock and my personal teacher is its abbot, Ven. Khenpo Kartar Rinpoche. And he is very insistent on the ngondro completion before the serious study of Mahamudra (and, in fact, our ngondro is the one called Foundations of Mahamudra with the major commentary by Kongtrul the Great) as well as any of the major Kagyu yidam practices and Guru Yogas. I was not explicit above, but the Karmapa tradition places very strong stress on “The Blessings of the Guru” both in the ngondro and after as the basis of progress in Mahamudra meditation. And I was talking about the practice of Shamatha. But even with Mahamudra teaching (at least outside the Lama retreat) long periods of sitting are not encouraged. One major teacher that I know has put it as, “We’re after quality not quantity here.”

We are taught the necessity of purifying karma and accumulating merit in a very traditional way before making much of an attempt at tranquility and insight. The view is basically that the karmic imprints on the mind stream are usually so strong that much emotional tranquility is not even possible until they are cleared. My experience at least, bore this out. And as well, the view that “merit makes the mare go” has been so in my case. The pacification of my exterior obstacles after finishing the Mandala Offering section was startlingly abrupt.

Of course, this traditional way of teaching makes it very hard in lay life to finish ngondro. But the Rinpoches have been very generous with terma practices that have profound potential applications to worldly life: Tangthong Gyalpo’s 4-armed Chenrezig, Chogyur Lingpa’s Green Tara, Nam Cho Mingyur Dorje’s Amitabha and Medicine Buddha practices, and the 7-line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche from the Konchog Chindu terma tradition. KKR has also given Atisha’s White Tara Long Life Practice with liturgy by both Tai Situ and Kongtrul the Great. The Chenrezig and Tara practices particularly are specific for purification and accumulation of merit in a less intense way than the ngondro, and I am just beginning to realize and understand the profound blessings of Guru Rinpoche that have nourished me over these last 30 years.

As a primary practice before ngondro we often use Kongtrul’s version of Tong Len, taking the Bodhisattva Vow is encouraged, and Genyen Vows are explained and offered to those with stable lives, should they wish them.

More important to my mind is that KKR has given extensive teachings to all students on the Nam Cho Amitabha which are more than just practice instructions, and are very explicit information on the Annutara Tantras as a whole. He has stressed the accumulation of Amitabha mantras very strongly, and now that his early (1970’s) students are beginning to die off, this has apparently been very fruitful.

All of that is really a lot of profound stuff for lay practice, even without ngondro, and KKR has been very diligent in teaching the background and the principles behind the tantric terma practices. And any pretence to erudition that I might possess has been largely due to that alone. Of course I’ve read books, but without KKR’s teaching I certainly would understand what I’ve read far less than I do.

Karmakshanti 2012-05-01

I should add to this that the person to address the question about moving on to Dzogchen is David. He is, after all, doing Dzogchen ngondro currently.

Sabio Lantz 2012-05-05
"Tantra can seem extremely complex and technical." -- David

And indeed, reading some comments here support this statement. And for me, this is very uninviting and I think will be a huge part of the cause of the death of this sort of Buddhism in the future, as you predict, David.

"Applying tantric methods blindly, without understanding the point, can make you mean-spirited, aggressive, self-important, paranoid, and closed-minded." -- David

I have certainly seen that. And there is nothing worse than seeing people use the sanctimony of their religion with layered terms of unnecessary (if not deceptive) complexity to justify their temperament. Again, this is another reason people rightfully reject religion.

For these reasons, I will spin many prayer canisters hoping the Buddhas receive the sky bound requests for the reinvented successful Tantra, of which you dream.

I look forward to more on the “Anuyoga” – that explanation was clarifying to me. It is so difficult to sort out the animals in the Buddhist Zoo, and are a great Zoo guide.

@ David - Thank you for pointing out Jacob Dalton’s PhD Thesis. I would never have imagined that I would enjoy reading a thesis quite so much, but I’ve put down my Wordsworth for it!

There are a couple of themes within the thesis which I would dispute - so if you do indeed get a chance to Blog about it that would be delightful. In particular I found it irritating when Dalton suggested the text he was studying ‘tantrifies’ the teachings. I can understand why the politics of the period he was studying led some new translation school writers to say that - but it is surely a new translation perspective. Tantra is tantra - the Nyingma writers of the time could equally have levelled the charge in reverse that the new translation writers were ‘sutrifying’ tantra. The fact that this critique was levelled at the time is entirely valid - I just felt that Dalton as an academic could have applied more critical faculty to the critique, rather than simply adopting it.

Still, a few glitches like that - and the depressing portrayal of 16th/17th century Tibetan Buddhist politics it contains - aside, it is fascinating.

David Chapman 2012-05-05

Glad you liked it!

Yes, there’s things in it I would quibble with, too. Overall it’s awfully interesting, though. On the point you mention—I think he’s developed a more tantric perspective in the years since writing that.

You might enjoy his recent The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. It includes the most detailed information about the so-called “Tibetan Dark Age” yet available in book form. (Plus additional depressing later-Tibetan political history.)

As with Antonio Terrone’s thesis, Dalton’s new book confirms many factual statements that Ngak’chang Rinpoche has made for 25 years, and that no one took seriously (presumably because he’s white and doesn’t have a PhD and wears the wrong color of skirt).

A certain sense of vindication there…

In memory of Violla Liuzzo 2012-05-11

A few days ago a heard someone flipping through TV channels in the background.
For a few moments the person stopped flipping and I heard the following..........
In 2004 the EU official discovered that Greece was way over the 3 percent of GDP
budget limit and that it was spending way more on national defence than it was publically reporting. The official reported this to his supiriors in Luxemburg and was shocked when absolutely nothing happened. A few seconds later the TV started getting fliped from one channel to the next again.
So I have to ask myself, was there not one officer in the Greek military above the rank of Major that was not either a clown or a criminal. How can an officer of the Greek military accept their paycheck when they have failed so miserably to do what they are paid to do. To proctect the Greek people?
Of course the clowns will try to defend themselves by saying look we are paid to defend the people from an outside invasion. It is the job of the politicains to protect the people from non military threats. But I would say to them if they want to define their job so narrowly then they should have been smart enough not to join the Greek military in the first place because the chnace that such outdated services would actually be needed in their lifetime were so small
that to take part in such a scheme is clearly a fraudulent mafia like extortion racket.
I wonder if there was even one military officer who tried to point out to the poliiticans what the likely threats were to the Greek people and what the unilikely threats were. Since the Greek officer corp. failed so miserably I think that it is fair to ask if they are even smart enough to know how miserably they have failed? I think it is also fair to ask how do Greek officers think?
What sorts of philosophies influence their thinking? What type of attitudes to they have?
Finally I wonder if they had been exposed to Tantra would they have done anything differently?
They were certianly exposed to Christianty and they acted in a competely unchristian manner.
They were certianly exposed to Plato and Aristotle yet that did not help them any.
They were certianly exposed to the ideas of the western enlightenment but that did not help them either. The sky gods were certianly there watching them and evalutating them. But the sky gods did nothing. If these military officers had thought that they were being closely watched and evaluated by beings who know something about military service wouid any of them have acted one bit different? If any of them had had the opportunity to study Tantra for ten years with someone who was an expert on the subject could we have expected them to act one bit different?
The same questoin could be asked fo the more than one dozen police officers that tasered an illegal immigrant to death when he was no longer offering resistance. The same questions could be asked about different people all over the world every day who live up to the worst sterotypes of the human race.
When LT. Cali and his men were murdering the women and children of a Vietnamese Village a US Helicopter pilot landed and stood between some of the villagers and the US soldiers shooting them saving the lives of some of the villagers. If the dissemination of Tantra will cause more people to act like that helicopter pilot and fewer to act like LT. Cali them I am all for spreading knowledge of Tantra. If talk of sky gods causes fewer people to act like the helicopter pilot then I will stop talking about them. Would a belief in sky gods have any affect over how people behave?
Would a believer likely have more attitude or less, thinking that the job at hand is a job for someone else?

@ In memory of Violla Liuzzo - it sounds alas like there are people locked in their own little psychological hell realms in some of the situations you describe.

I felt on reading it that your key phrase is ‘exposed to. . .’

If people live the attitude of tantra, then they would not act in this manner.

If people are exposed to others who live the attitude of tantra, then there is a chance for that attitude to communicate itself - and open up the opportunity for alterative courses of action even for those who do not practice tantra.

To actively communicate with people who are locked in their own little psychological hell realm takes a particular kind of tantrika - a particular manifestation of tantric attitude.

In memory of Violla Liuzzo 2012-05-12

Hello, Namgyal,
I do not understand your comment. Do you mean people like the high ranking Greek officers are in their own little hell relm? Or the leather industrialist that build a leather factory capable of cleaning the factories wastes from the water before it is released in to the river but only use it when there is an inspection to save money to save money?
I do not think that these people understand themselves as living in a hell relm I think that they see themselves as having great lives and as being responsible citizens and examples for others to follow. They do not want to die because when that day comes they will be tossed out of their comfortable heaven relm in to the unkoan. With out further information one can not say whether a specific person in such a position is stupid and does not understand the harm to others that they are causing or knows full well the harm that they are causing others and do it anyways.

Sabio Lantz 2012-05-12

@In memory,
I like your points, but on a funny note: You said,
“they will be tossed out of their comfortable heaven relm in to the unkoan.”

Perhaps “unkoan” was just a minor typo, or just a wonderful play on the Zen word “kōan” instead of the word “unknown”. It was probably a simple mistake, but a fortuitous one.

@ In memory of Violla Liuzzo - Hmm, my point wasn’t intended to pinpoint the psychological state of all those you describe - the soliders for example could arguably have been described as inhabiting the animal realm for example - it was to try to address the question of how people might behave if they’ve been exposed to a spiritual tradition, or spiritual attitude. To be affected by contact with a spiritual attitudeone has to be in a position to be receptive. People aren’t always able to appreciate what is there before them (e.g.

When you wrote ‘I do not think that these people understand themselves as living in a hell realm. . .’ I agree completely - but that is the nature of the realms other than the human realm. In the god realms or hell realms beings are so wrapped up in their splendour or agony that they do not recognise the true affects of their actions. In the human realm beings have the best possible chance to recognise situations as they actually are and act accordingly. The Helicopter pilot was firmly situated in the human realm for example - and would no doubt make a fine tantrika (and fine Christian, Muslim. . . etc.). When in a realm other than the human realm this is difficult. Were the US soldiers truly affected by the actions of the Helicopter pilot, or did his actions merely inconvenience, expose or delay them in some way?

When you posed the question ‘would these people have acted any differently if they had been exposed to tantra?’ my answer is ‘maybe’ - but a great deal of that is down to them, rather than down to tantra (or Christianity, or the classical writers, or. . .) A great communicator, a great tantrika might have the ability to break through to such people. The success or failure of the communication is down to the messenger, and the recipient, as much as it is down to the content of the message itself.

@ David - I very much appreciate the desription of anuyoga as being a bridge between tantra and dzogchen. This is reflective of the way that kriya tantra is a bridge between sutra and tantra. An excellent formulation sir! Of course I do deeply regret the fact that I’ve been diving into Dalton’s works since reading this post. The material on the non-monastic sanghas, the first spread, and anuyoga is all fascinating and delightful, but my goodness the Tibetan history and politics revealed so clearly within his works are bleak.

David Chapman 2012-05-13

Anuyoga as bridge between tantra and Dzogchen—that’s entirely canonical, I can’t take any credit there at all! Thanks anyway :-) Yes, similarly kriya is the bridge between bodhisattvayana and “real” tantra.

I see each yana as having a crucial limitation that you eventually recognize as you have gained sufficient experience with it; and then moving to the next one becomes logical. Each next yana makes sense as the antidote to the previous yana’s inadequacy.

That’s made explicit in the Kunjé Gyalpo. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this written up clearly in English for a general Buddhist audience. That would be useful, probably.

Yes—Dalton is fascinating, and depressing.

I’m afraid I’m going to write up a bunch of Tibetan politico-religious history on this blog, coming up in maybe two months, and it will probably prompt a wave of Buddhists being admitted to psychiatric hospitals for major depression, if not actual suicides.

@ David - entirely canonical? Ah, interesting! The sequentialism of the yanas was one (known) thing of course, but the term ‘bridge’ was what interested me. Dalton’s PhD suggests that it was not always thus - that kriya tantra and anuyoga went through periods when they were much more seen as stand alone vehicles - that could be practiced as such - but became ‘squeezed’ through how the vehicles around them were used and perceived.

Re: Tibetan-politico-religious history - well if you’re going to write that I would suggest to your readership that a useful ngondro might be watching Rome on HBO (or, I’ve been advised, the recent series The Tudors).

Sabio Lantz 2012-05-14

I’d wager that the percentage of Christians that would be surprised by a show revealing the intrigues and crimes of Christianity would be hugely smaller than the number of Western Buddhists who will be surprised by David’s upcoming articles. Western Buddhism seems to draw a disproportionate number of idealists who love the mysterious East. Again, just a wager.

Namgyal – clicking your twitter link, we see that you title yourself a “Reverend”. May we ask why? Riding on the robes of those catholic priests? :-)

Donought Whole, Wheat 2012-05-14

The power of an attitude and I do not have a spiritual problem seem to be blood relatives.
First of all since the meaning of the word spiritual is quite fuzzy would it make sense to say that I do not have a problem. Well we David you certianly cleared up the idea that I and every one else has many practical problems. Specialization in the world today of course means that no one can get by for very long without help from others in our specialized society. Also I do not want to forget to mention the many psychological problems that people have and are either not aware of or unsure how to deal with.
Now to get to the attitude part. How would a Tantric attitude differ from any other attitude?
Why would this be better than any other attitude? Is it because a Tantic attitude would help a person achieve their goals? Well why should I believe that? Did Mother Teresa or Thomas Edison or Henery Ford or Donlad Trump or Warren Buffet or J. Edgar Hoover or John McCain or Barak Obama or Clarence Thomas or Allen Page or Ceaser Chavez or Madonna or Shirley Chisolm ever hear of Tantra? Is there some aspect of their attitude that they all hade in common?
So I kind of got the impression that Tantra will give us the courage to change the thinks that we can the patence to accept the things that we can not change and the wisdom to know the difference. But thinking such as that kind of implies some level of, of, the word escapes me for a moment, but it is a synonim of unselfishness. Yet you said Tantra itself was amoral you would have to find the morality elsewhere. Well that implies that this attitde could be used for entirely and extremely selfhish purposes. Well that makes sense being very selfish at times could be a very neccessary thing to do? Wait a minute. What did I just say? What would determine if extreme selfishmess was neccessary? So we know that Tantra could be used for selfish or unselfish purposes. Why should anyone then want to use it for unselfish purposes? Is it because it they do use it for unselfish purposes they will not pay any price for being useselfish or is it that they will not mind paying the price of being unselfish?
So the few examples that I gave in my posts above show that many practical problems are caused by people who are either to stupid to understand the externalities of their behavior or they do not care. I find it funny that all of the “Consensus” Buddhists books that I have read always say that it is becasue people are to stupid to realize how their behavior affects the environment and other people and if only we convince them that what they are doing hurts others they will change. Hahahahahaha these books never mention that it was Buddhists who organized the revolt the drove the Moguls out of China after Ghengis Khan had conquored it.
Anyways if Tanta can be used for selfihs purposes does something need to be said about why anyone should bother to use it for unselfish purposes?
This question then brings me back to the question of whether or not people have a problem or whether or not they are fine as they are? Well if the vast majority of people are behaving in such a way that a whole social system is built upon deciet, intimidation, occasional murder, and other sociopathic acts becasue if you do not take part in the system you will be crushed by it I find that a pertty good definition of a people with a sever psychological problem if not a spititual one:
Is the quiestion of, Why should one be good, or perhaps why should one be unselfish, or perhaps Why should one take risks for the common good, a psychological question or a spiritual question? I look at it as a psychological problem. For centuries this has been seen as a spirtual problem. As far as I know I can work with that too.

@ Sabio - I use the title Reverend because as an ordained Ngakpa I was instructed so to do by my teachers.

Buddhist teachers have an awful lot in common with Christian Vicars, when you examine the two roles - it’s not just that the tend to work weekends, wear exotic hats on special occasions and so on. . .

I don’t know about Catholic Priests, but my local Anglican Vicar who is part of the High Church of England is a fine fellow, and - wonderfully - his name is Father Bishop.

David Chapman 2012-05-14

@Namgyal — Düdjom Rinpoche’s Big Red Book is pretty canonical. His chapter on Anuyoga begins:

"Anuyoga" conveys the sense of "subsequent yoga." It forms the connecting link between the Mahayoga of the creation state and the vehicle of extremely perfect yoga [i.e. Dzogchen]. The view which is to be realised according to Anuyoga is that all things are buddhahood from the very beginning in the fundamental mandala of enlightened mind, characterised as a coalescence of the expanse of reality and pristine cognition..."

@Donought — my view is that the answer to the question “why use tantra unselfishly” is no different from the answer to the question “why use anything else unselfishly.”

@ David - Dud’jom Rinpoche. . . canonical. . . indeed yes! Seriously though, thank you kindly for the quotation. Now there’s a book written for the Kindle. . .

Sabio Lantz 2012-05-15

@Namgyal: Ah, thanx for the explanation of “Rev”.

JR 2012-06-02

I have PDF of Dudjom Rinpoche’s Big Red Book …

Another thingy isn’t ‘living the view’ related to practice as in - base/view - path/meditation - fruit/action - cause if you had the result Lhundrup you would rest in Non-duality so then your attitude would be Rigpa.

Process for Enlightenment

Marko 2021-10-23

Hi David,

I got to this page from your practical guide to tantra that you linked from, which in turn I got to from the e-mail you sent out not too long ago.

I’m interested in learning this because I’ve been practicing shi-nè for a year now, and while I feel I have made progress, in particular my inner world, my outer world - in particular how act - still seems totally undeveloped. This seems like something that makes sense for me to get into now.

However, you said there are prerequisites:

maybe a hundred hours of formal practice to get a taste, and a thousand for basic proficiency with the method

I would recommend much additional reading, meditation, and preliminary involvement with a sangha.

I don’t have formal practice, I just sit silently on my bed, usually for ~20 min. a day, but I have been doing it for a year now so it does count for something. While getting into a 1-on-1 relationship with a lama doesn’t seem very likely / possible, I think it is possible for me to get involved in a sangha, so maybe I can look into doing that. For the “much additional reading” part, I am not too sure… since I am not that interested in reading anymore, generally speaking, but if it is required I can do it.

I will hold off on reading through the practical guide to tantra until I feel like I am more ready and prepared.

Approach gradually

David Chapman 2021-10-23

Sounds good… yes, getting gradually involved with a sangha might be the next step. You can learn a lot from interacting with other students.

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