Your self is not a spiritual obstacle

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

You are just fine—just as you are. That is tantra’s main claim about the self.

“Ego” is not evil. It is not a spiritual problem.

No upgrade required

You do not need to:

Tantra is about living here and now. Whatever self you do or don’t have—you are how you are, now. Waiting to get fixed before living is not helpful.

No other, better self

You cannot, and do not need to:

These are just fantasies. They are imaginary ideals that spiritual people try to live up to. All they will ever do is make you feel inadequate and miserable.

There are no wrong emotions

Desire, anger, and ignorance—the Buddhist kleshas—are just fine. There is absolutely nothing wrong with them. They can be unpleasant to experience—but they can also be fun. Life’s mixed like that; it doesn’t make emotions evil.

This does not mean that there are no wrong actions. It means that experiencing the kleshas does not force you to act wrongly. Tantra has a toolkit of methods that help break the habitual links between particular emotions and actions.

To make the point that no emotion is wrong, tantra has greedy Buddhas, angry Buddhas, horny Buddhas, paranoid Buddhas, and idiotic Buddhas. (These are the “Five Buddha Families.”)

Your feelings are not significant

Sometimes, even when feelings are painful and unhelpful, we cling to them as defining our selves.

Everyone has the same set of emotions, though. The details about which ones you feel, in which situations, are spiritually meaningless. You cannot find The Answer To Life, The Universe, And Everything there.

Your personal patterns do not validate your existence. Do not weave them into a story about how special and different you are.

Tantra has tools that help break the habitual links between situations and emotions. That gives emotional freedom. The fact that so-and-so happened does not mean you have to feel such-and-such.

That means a tantrika cannot make excuses along the lines of “I wanted to do the right thing, but my self got in the way.”

Practical faults

“There is nothing fundamentally wrong with you” does not mean you are perfect. (Although some New Age folks might tell you that.)

You have no cosmic defects; but, if you are like me, you have numerous practical faults. For example, I am habitually irritated—usually by badly-designed or buggy software.

That is not a good thing. I get grumpy, and gripe about broken websites to my girlfriend. Occasionally that gets her in a grump too.

For tantra, the energy that drives bad habits is the same as a specific form of wisdom. For example, irritation and mental clarity are produced by the same energy. (I do think very clearly about software.) The methods of tantra allow you to flip each klesha into the corresponding wisdom.

Just as you are

Tantra is not therapy; it not is about fixing up or improving the self. It may help with psychological problems, but that is not the point.

Tantra allows you to view your counter-productive habits with some affection and humor—even as you try to overcome them.

The point of tantra is to live as considerately, effectively, and enjoyably as possible just as you are.

Relating this to tradition

This page is based on the Dzogchen approach to the tathagatagarbha theory. That’s a pretty technical subject, so what follows is rather long and complicated. I’ve tried to make it somewhat amusing, however.

How to become a sky god

Mahayana has the brilliant idea that Buddhas are sky gods. They live up in the sky, and they are gods because they have an immortal (permanent) Self (atman) that is entirely suffering-free. Also they are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. And you can be one too!

This makes Mahayana popular, because everyone wants to be a sky god. Theravada doesn’t allow that.

However, sky gods cause a bunch of philosophical problems. Also a technical one:

OK, you’ve sold me. I want to be a sky god. How do I, as an impermanent, constantly-suffering non-self, become one?

Mahayana came up with a brilliant answer to that: the tathagatagarbha.

But first, a little light entertainment.

Dormitive principles

In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson wrote:

Molière, long ago, depicted an oral doctoral examination in which the learned doctors ask the candidate to state the “cause and reason” why opium puts people to sleep. The candidate triumphantly answers in dog Latin, “Because there is in it a dormitive principle (virtus dormitiva).”

Characteristically, the scientist confronts a complex interactive system — in this case, an interaction between man and opium. He observes a change in the system — the man falls asleep. The scientist then explains the change by giving a name to a fictitious “cause,” located in one or other component of the interacting system. Either the opium contains a reified dormitive principle, or the man contains a reified need for sleep, an adormitosis, which is “expressed” in his response to opium.

And, characteristically, all such hypotheses are “dormitive” in the sense that they put to sleep the critical faculty … within the scientist himself.

… In fact, the multiplication of dormitive hypotheses is a symptom of … the present state of the behavioral sciences — a mass of quasi-theoretical speculation unconnected with any core of fundamental knowledge.

Since Bateson wrote this forty years ago, diagnosing a supposed explanation as a “dormitive principle” has become common and useful.

Here’s the pattern:

  • Some process X has result Y. We want an explanation.
  • You invent a thingy Z, an invisible part or essence of X, which allows it to cause Y.
  • Z is actually just an fancy renaming of Y.
  • You add a bunch of meaningless technical jargon, preferably in an extinct holy language, to obscure that.
  • You hope no one notices that Z actually explains nothing, and can’t be found because it’s purely metaphysical.

In Molière’s case, the process X is “taking opium,” result Y is “falling sleep,” and the abstraction Z is “the dormitive principle.”

Tathagatagarbha: Mahayana’s dormitive principle

So how does practicing Buddhism (X) cause you to become a sky god (Y)? Well, according to Mahayana, it’s the tathagatagarbha (Z) that makes it possible.

“Tathagata” is a code word for “Buddha.” The meaning of “garbha” is obscure. One common translation is “embryo.” However, it is said that the meaning of “tathagatagarbha” is more-or-less identical to “Buddha-nature.” In other words: “enlightenment principle.”

So the idea is that everyone has one of these garbha thingies inside themselves; and it is already a sky god, or somehow similar to one, so it causes you to turn into one too. (The garbha is, of course, highly abstract and metaphysical; you can’t find it if you cut someone up.)

This is phenomenally beef-brained. Like all explanations relying on “dormitive principles,” it totally fails to explain anything; it just puts a name on the hypothetical cause. It leaves a slew of philosophical and technical problems:

  • So what sort of thing is this garbha? (For example: is it an atman (Self) or not?)
  • How exactly does it relate to me? (If I am impermanent, how can I have a permanent garbha?)
  • How exactly does it relate to sky gods? (Is it the same thing as dharmakaya or what?)
  • What do those relationships imply about my relationship with sky gods? (If it’s one, why aren’t I one?)

Most importantly:

  • I still want to be a sky god. But if I’ve got a garbha, it’s obviously not doing its job. It must be asleep or something. What do I have to do to kick it awake and get to work?

Various sutras give a wide range of unworkable answers to these questions. By their own admission, they are inconsistent and incoherent; contradictory and confused.

You could look at the history of non-Theravada Buddhism as a series of attempts to make sense of these problems.

Generally, in China—and later Japan—they were regarded as Holy Mysteries. Tathagatagarbha is dormitive in Bateson’s second sense: it puts to sleep the critical faculty within Buddhists. “The very fact that the doctrine makes no sense is what makes Mahayana superior to all other religions.” Credo quia absurdum.

The “other-powered” East Asian schools—which became the most popular—take the sensible position that becoming a sky god by your own effort is inconceivable. Instead, you should pray to an existing one—Amitabha—who will pull you up.

Zen insists on trying anyway. For Rinzai Zen, failing at the impossible task of making sense of Mahayana’s absurd metaphysical contradictions (i.e., koan practice) is the very thing that brings about enlightenment.

Even modern Zen still dangles the promise that you can become a sky god. It aims at a metaphysical operation in which you discover your True Self, which is deathless and free of all suffering. “Sky” is now metaphorical, but talk of becoming God remains strangely popular.

Tantra, tathagatagarbha, and Dzogchen

Tantra is rooted directly in the tathagatagarbha sutras. However, it is more interested in the technical question—how do I make the garbha do its thing?—than the metaphysical ones. Over many centuries, different tantric systems have invented startlingly diverse methods.

The Nyingma taxonomy is one useful way of classifying these thousands of tantric texts and methods. It categorizes them into six yanas, in an order from “outermost” to “innermost,” or “lowest” to “highest.”

As you travel from the lowest to highest tantras, “Buddhahood” becomes an increasingly realistic possibility. On the one hand, it seems more and more present and achievable. On the other, it becomes less and less exalted and metaphysical.

The “highest” of the six tantric yanas is Dzogchen. It has, I think, the only workable answer to the problems with tathagatagarbha:

According to Dzogchen, you are always already a fully-enlightened Buddha.

That means that the garbha has no work to do, so we can chuck it out. All its metaphysical problems disappear along with it.

The technical problem—how do I become a Buddha?—also disappears. You already are one, so there is nothing to do.

Dzogchen is the only Buddhism that is not a path to enlightenment. It is a path from enlightenment. Dzogchen answers a different question:

Given that I’m a Buddha, now what?

Practical tantra

Viewed from Dzogchen, tantra’s attempts to bring about enlightenment are comical. It’s like a school of sharks scheming about how to get wet.

That doesn’t make tantra useless, however. It can be reinterpreted as practical methods for accomplishing practical ends.

In fact, tantra has always been put down by people who say Buddhists should spend absolutely all their energy on trying to become sky gods. In their opinion, any attempt to be useful here on earth is a waste of time. Sometimes detractors say that a practical, this-worldly orientation is what defines tantra, relative to other yanas. This is wrong, but it is true that tantra has always had a big practical aspect, from its beginning.

When tantric methods are reinterpreted from the Dzogchen perspective, their distinctive feature is to assume you are a Buddha. In other words: there is nothing spiritually wrong with you; there is no spiritual quality that you lack; there are no spiritual goals you need to achieve.

From the Dzogchen perspective, tantra is a bunch of cool things for Buddhas to do.

Never mind the sky gods

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking:

Hey, buster, you just pulled a fast one! If you’re saying I’m a Buddha, you’ve moved the goal posts. Maybe I am a “Buddha,” according to your definition, but so what? I still want to be a sky god. I’m definitely not a sky god.

Dzogchen’s answer to that:



Further reading

Pages 6-8 of Ngakpa Chögyam’s Wearing the Body of Visions cover the same material as this page, and are the most direct influence on it.

Chögyam Trungpa’s Crazy Wisdom was another major source for this page (and my previous and next ones). Pages 6-10 are particularly relevant.

Cheri Huber’s There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate is an easy, down-to-earth modern Zen interpretation of tathagatagarbha, with zero jargon. I found it helpful when I read it fifteen years ago. I can’t find my copy, and I suspect I would want to argue with some parts of it now. However, from memory, I would still recommend it.

For the Five Buddha Families, and how to flip kleshas into wisdoms, see Ngakpa Chögyam’s Spectrum of Ecstasy: Embracing the Five Wisdom Emotions of Vajrayana Buddhism.

Paul Williams’ Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations gives a good overview of tathagatagarbha theories. (The book is also a valuable resource for understanding the history and logical structure of Mahayana overall.)

For an explanation of the Nyingma taxonomy of tantras, see Chögyam Trungpa’s The Lion’s Roar. For the relationship between tantra and Dzogchen, see Namkhai Norbu’s The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen.