I have rashly promised to sketch possibilities for future tantric Buddhisms. This page explains why that’s probably a bad idea. The next one explains why I’m going ahead anyway.
The short version:
- I am the wrong person to do this. I’m completely unqualified, and I am just kibitzing. I have neither the ability nor the wish to make such possibilities real.
I have limited experience with tantra
To bring forth new forms, you ought to have mastered the existing ones. My teachers talk about this in terms of jazz improvisation. Improv is all about breaking the rules, but you can’t usefully break rules until you have mastered them. You have to be able to play jazz standards straight before improv becomes meaningful.
I have some experience with most of the major tantric practices, but am far from having mastered any of them. So, at an experiential level, I don’t know what I’m talking about. My understanding is more intellectual than practical.
It’s possible that I’m entirely out to lunch. You should not accept anything I say just because I said it.
Tantra is not even my main practice
I mostly practice the Dzogchen sem-dé ngöndro, not tantra. (This ngöndro is a system of formless meditation, similar to Zen shikantaza and some brands of vipassana.)
Why not write about Dzogchen, then, rather than tantra?
- Tantra is a much clearer alternative to Consensus Buddhism than Dzogchen is. Tantra is systematically opposite to Sutrayana, which Consensus Buddhism is mostly based on.
- Tantra is much easier to understand, and much easier to explain, than Dzogchen.
- Some understanding of tantra may be necessary as an introduction to Dzogchen, anyway.
I am a nobody
I have no Buddhist credentials. I am not a teacher, nor ordained.
I am just kibitzing
I don’t plan to turn my sketchy ideas into a workable system. I hope qualified teachers will develop approaches similar to what I suggest, but they won’t need my amateur advice.
Perhaps I can be useful in creating popular enthusiasm for such possibilities, however.
I am happy with the system I practice
I am a student in the Aro Ter lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It works for me.
Naturally, the suggestions I will make are heavily influenced by my experience with the Aro gTér. In fact, if there’s value in what I say, that is where it came from. If you want to learn more, that’s the first place I’d recommend looking.
Nevertheless, my suggestions may be quite different from the Aro gTér in style. The Aro system is, in its own words, “hardcore” and “eccentric.” It may not have broad appeal, or be widely accessible.
I would like to see Buddhist tantra available to millions of people. That would require a more “user friendly” presentation. Consensus Buddhism has done a fine job with user friendliness, which suggests it is possible.
There is a risk of watering-down in developing a system with mass appeal. Some compromises are almost certain, actually. My feeling is that watered-down tantra is better than none at all—for some people. And experience with watered-down systems may lead some people on to the hard stuff.
I am not a modernist
What I will suggest might mostly be described as “modernized Buddhist tantra.” Theravada and Zen were both modernized a century ago (as I have written), and Consensus Buddhism is based on those modernized forms. Due to historical accidents, tantra only began to be modernized in the 1970s and ’80s, and modernization stalled during the following two decades.
I think modernized tantra would be useful to many people, for whom a modernist world-view is non-negotiable. So, I hope that line of development restarts.
However, I am not a modernist. Some of what I have to say will offend some modernists. They insist that Buddhism must be consistent with modern ideas about rationality and ethics. I think it would be possible, and useful, to develop a tantric Buddhism that conforms to their requirements. It would be “scientific” and politically correct. As I will explain, I don’t find that particularly attractive. I don’t consider modernist principles to be Ultimate Truth.
I believe that the modern era ended in the late 20th. century. Modernism is not the best way forward, for the long run.
After finishing this series on “reinventing tantra”—and after returning to, and finishing, my historical analysis of the Consensus—I will sketch an entirely different set of possible futures. I will ask: what use can Buddh-ism have in the post-systems world, in which -isms are all inherently obsolete? In this era, culture, society, and self are shattered into kaleidoscopic fragments. What role can the jagged shards of Buddh-ism play when no one defines themselves as an -ist?