Unclogging and traditional Buddhism

Transformation and unclogging

In the past couple of pages, I described the path of tantra in terms of “unclogging.”

Most often, descriptions of tantra center instead on “transformation.” Tantric methods transform “poison into medicine”: negative emotions such as anger into positive mental qualities like clarity. It’s useful to understand that explanation. (If you’d like to learn more, I recommend Ngakpa Chögyam’s Spectrum of Ecstasy.)

“Transformation” is the language of the generation approach to tantra. “Unclogging” is the language of the less well-known completion approach. They can be understood as different descriptions of the same process.

According to the completion approach, it is only possible to “transform” anger into clarity because they are already the same kind of energy. There is only a superficial appearance of change. At a deeper level, clarity is just anger whose channel has been unblocked, so it runs clear. Or, more accurately, anger is only clarity that has been bottled up so it turns stagnant and rotten.

There’s several reasons I’ve described the “unclogging” framework rather than the “transformation” one:

The word “unclogging” is not particularly central even in most explanations of the completion approach. My explanation is somewhat non-standard. You should be cautious about taking my word for it.

The generation and completion approaches to tantra are usually called “stages” or “phases,” because currently there is the idea that you ought to master generation before you go on to completion. But that was not always so, and it is not what the completion scriptures advocate.

Classifying energies and activities

Any system of practical methods classifies situations and actions, and suggests which sorts of actions are useful in which sorts of situations.

There are many different classifications used in different tantric systems. For example, a common classification of energies is in terms of kleshas (emotional “defilements”). Tantra reveals those to be wisdoms gone stagnant due to blockages. Different tantric systems give different lists of kleshas. In generation tantra, each klesha has a corresponding family of yidams, which are methods suitable for transforming that klesha. (Spectrum of Ecstasy has more about that.)

One common tantric classification of actions to apply to external situations is the four Buddhakarmas—pacifying, magnetizing, enriching, and destroying. Ken McLeod explains this pragmatically as four ways of resolving conflicts (for example in this podcast).

In “Unclogging,” I used a simple classification of internal/external, and high energy/low energy. This is not particularly traditional, and probably it’s too crude to be of much use. I invented it just to help explain tantra in an abstract way.

Because different traditional tantric systems offer different classifications, this is clearly an area in which innovation is possible. Future tantras will classify energetic situations in entirely new ways, with corresponding new tantric methods.

The innovative tantric systems of the 1980s offered just such new classifications. For example, Chögyam Trungpa’s Shambhala terma classifies enlightened activities into “meek, perky, outrageous, and inscrutable,” each with a distinctive energy. The Aro gTér lists “nihilism, eternalism, monism, and dualism” as blockages yidams can overcome. (This set appears elsewhere in Buddhism, but not as a central theme.)

Passion in Sutrayana

Suntrayana—traditional non-tantric Buddhism—is mainly anti-passion. Certain feelings, such as the “Four Immeasurables” (or “Brahmaviharas”: benevolence, compassion, empathetic joy, equanimity), are allowed. Sutrayana condemns most others as defilements, disturbances to equanimity, and chains that bind you to the world. Also, the Immeasurables can hardly be called passions; they are more like abstract attitudes.

According to Sutrayana, you need to get rid of passions by any means necessary. It often uses violent, martial imagery, describing the heroic monk slaughtering passions as the despised enemy.

Much of the structure of monasticism exists to remove the stimuli that provoke strong emotions. To avoid lust, monks should minimize interactions with women. To avoid greed, monks are allowed almost no possessions. To avoid anger, interactions within the monastic sangha are tightly regulated to prevent conflict. (Or at least this is the theory; in practice, monasteries mostly ignore vinaya and pursue other aims.)

Removing provocative stimuli is not sufficient. Sutrayana also explicitly teaches the strategies of setting passions against each other, and of killing your own energy. For example, when you feel lust for someone, you should create artificial disgust as the “opponent power.” You should imagine their body as a rotting sack full of shit, piss, pus, slime, and decay. [I wonder how many monks become necrophiliacs?] Equanimity—the absence of all passion—is the ideal.

Smashing the chains of karma

Karma, if the idea makes any sense at all, is about causality.

Sutrayana tends to see karma as an external system of moral book-keeping. If you squash an ant in this life, that causes a brick to fall on your head in some future life. The way you achieve liberation is by “accumulating merit”; if you are nice enough for long enough, you are magically rewarded with enlightenment.

This is stupid. There’s no coherent explanation for how it’s supposed to work.

Alternatively, you can understand karma as habitual emotional patterns. For example, if your anger leads to violence, that generally makes other people violent in response, and your situation worsens. Here karma is not external, but a causal interaction between your psychology and the world.

Spaciousness can then be understood as breaking the links in the chains of karma. You let go of dysfunctional patterns of emotion-laden perception and knee-jerk action, and your situation improves. “Merit” is not required.

Sutrayana describes itself as a long-haul path. It takes billions of years (literally, billions, according to scripture) to accumulate enough merit to gain liberation.

Tantra describes itself as a quick path. You can gain liberation in a single lifetime, by unhooking the train of perception→emotion→action.

This explanation of karma at least makes sense. I doubt that it’s actually useful; I’d be happy to lose the word “karma” altogether. But if you insist on karma, why not go with a version that needs no cosmic magic?