What do you want Buddhism for?

Buddhist banquet

I have a sense that, in American Buddhism, this question may be coming to a crisis point.

Traditionally, what most people wanted from Buddhism—in practice—was good luck in this life, and better circumstances in their next life.

The modern Buddhism of the 1870s to 1970s rejected those answers as supernatural, and therefore unbelievable. So it went back to the scriptures to renew an old theoretical answer: “enlightenment.”

Unfortunately, the scriptural explanations of enlightenment are mostly also supernatural. So, modern Buddhism invented various replacement interpretations. Apparently they work for some people; but mostly they seem unsatisfactory. They may be implausible, unworkably vague, or unimpressive.

In my last post, I suggested that “enlightenment” is such a confused idea that we ought to drop it altogether. Several of my earlier posts have also argued that “enlightenment” is a counter-productive escape fantasy.

Many Western Buddhist leaders have recognized this, probably for decades. I’m not sure there’s been a full, open discussion about it, though. Can “enlightenment” be rescued? Or, if we abandon it, what is Buddhism good for? These questions are confusing and embarrassing, and might drive away the audience. So maybe there is a tacit agreement to avoid them.

Implicitly, the Consensus answer is: Buddhist ethics make you a better person, and meditation promotes mental health and social functioning.

There doesn’t seem to be any difference between American “Buddhist ethics” and mainstream American secular liberal ethics, however. Is there any significant point on which they disagree? I haven’t found one. If there is none, then “Buddhism” boils down to psychotherapeutic meditation.

What is on the menu besides meditation?

“Mindfulness-based” therapies—roughly, Buddhist meditation without Buddhism—are great, as far as they go. But doesn’t Buddhism itself have more to offer?

It’s not clear what. So, some Buddhist leaders worry that secular mindfulness will displace Buddhism. Meditation is modern Buddhism’s killer app, its signature dish; and if you can get it a la carte, maybe no one will order the whole five-course banquet.

If the rest of the menu is unappealing, maybe Buddhism deserves to go out of business. However, I share the feeling that the mindfulness movement may leave out too much. Some sort of baby is lost when the bathwater of obsolete cultural traditions is thrown away. But what is that baby, if not “enlightenment” (or some equivalent euphemism like “liberation”)?

There seems to be something in Buddhism—maybe several things—that are enormously powerful and beautiful, but hard to put a finger on. Perhaps when people talk about “enlightenment,” really they are just pointing at that mystery. We can’t say quite what the value is, but we think we know it when we glimpse it. And maybe we don’t want to discuss it because we’re afraid that maybe it doesn’t really exist, or that trying to pin it down in words will make it slip away permanently.

What do you want from Buddhism, if enlightenment is not on the menu?

I find that a hard question. I don’t want to offer—or accept—a facile textbook reply. I’m somewhat unsure, for myself. I certainly don’t think there’s any one right answer.

Over the next four pages, I’ll sketch one approach, based in Buddhist tantra. I’ll suggest that it offers a way of living that is enjoyable for you and valuable to others. The aim is elegant, accurate, kind, effective, expansive action in the real world. The four pages will cover mastery, power, play, and nobility.

There is no endpoint in this approach. You can’t finally get it. You can get better at it, though, and that’s what tantra is good for. “Elegant, accurate, kind, effective, and expansive” are the “five tantric wisdoms.” (You can read about them in Ngakpa Chögyam’s Spectrum of Ecstasy.)

Compared with “enlightenment,” maybe this seems mundane and disappointing. But maybe what I have already written about “spacious passion” and “unclogging energy” will motivate you to continue reading. Maybe “nobility” will be inspiring when we get to it.

Maybe these are things Buddhism can offer that “mindfulness” and “Buddhist ethics” cannot.

Maybe many people would want them—if Buddhism can actually deliver them.

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17 Responses to What do you want Buddhism for?

  1. Kate Gowen says:

    I find myself confused: if “enlightenment” is NOT described thus: “… no endpoint … You can’t finally get it. You can get better at it, though, and that’s what tantra is good for. “Elegant, accurate, kind, effective, and expansive” are the “five tantric wisdoms” — what “enlightenment” are you taking off the menu? The five tantric wisdoms, or their lineal relatives in other traditions, always seemed to my eye to be a fleshing-out of the bare concept of awakened/enlightened. The other key description was “beginningless/endless/unbounded.”

    Is this a philosophical version of the snatch-the-tablecloth-away trick, leaving everything else on the table in place, down to the cutlery?

  2. What I’m doing here is snatching the word “enlightenment” away—that elaborately embroidered tablecloth is now indelibly stained with countless layers of spilled grease from the banquets of intellectual speculation that have been held on it. We’re better off with a bare tabletop.

    In my last post, I suggested that we try to be clearer about specific conceptions of Buddhist goals. That’s what I hope to do next… Some people might say that the five wisdoms are enlightenment; but since you’d get no agreement on that from non-Tantric Buddhists, and even tantra itself has several other conceptions of enlightenment, I think it’s unhelpful.

  3. Kate Gowen says:

    Ah, yes– I tend to remain determinedly ignorant of views contrary– or even incomprehensibly divergent– to my own; thanks for your help in this regard. Never cared so much for the tablecloth, anyway: I came for the feast!

  4. karmakshanti says:

    Just out of curiosity, David and Kate, what do you expect to be doing after your death?

  5. Kate Gowen says:

    David will undoubtedly have a much more interesting answer than I: without having given the matter much thought, I’d say I expect to be no less astonished then than now. As to “doing”– I have no idea what I’m doing, now, either!

  6. karmakshanti says:

    Well, Kate, I hope you do as good over there as you’re doing over here. They tell me that a “precious human birth”, where you have not only human shape, but also the chance and inclination to actually practice Dharma is as rare as a daytime star, so we must make the best use of it we can. When I look at most of the Aro folks, I see people even luckier than this, people who are not having a lot of ripening karma to purify at the moment. If that means that prior to this they actualized Rigpa and have returned to benefit beings, I can only celebrate that fact. So may death find you happy and content, willing to let go of friends and family, and ready to fulfill all good aspirations from all your past lives wherever you may go next.

  7. Pingback: Thinking About ‘Enlightenment’ « Ataraxia and Mental Effluents

  8. Honey Badger says:

    If it is not on the menu? Nothing I guess, as everything else can be achieved without a lama with purely mundane methods.

    With the myriads of Aro practices the goal is not enlightenment, but to be more elegant, accurate and so on? I just don’t buy it. There are far more quicker and effective ways to achieve those goals than doing years of Dzogchen ngondro, tantric practices or martial arts. Just don’t get it.

  9. bert0001 says:

    What about great Compassion?

  10. Greg says:

    Nice treatment of these issues. My only quibble, and it is a relatively minor one:

    “Traditionally, what people wanted from Buddhism—in practice—was good luck in this life, and better circumstances in their next life.”

    This undoubtedly true of the vast majority. But there have always been a small elite–in Tibet at least–that was interested in “enlightenment.” Or to be more precise, progressive realization on the perceived path to samyaksambodhi. It is not entirely a reconstructed concern.

  11. Sengchen Dra-tsal says:

    ‎”Confusion in dealing with the situation of life as a fixed thing seems to be a sane approach. So what seems to be insane is enlightenment.” ~ Rig’dzin Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

  12. alfayate says:

    Hi David.

    First of all: Thank you very much for your blogs. I’ve been reading them for a while and almost all posts are extremely interesting, very well written and well documented. They’ve helped me to place my practice in a wider context and to sharpen, round and deepen it. They address, in a clear and systematic way, some important matters I haven’t seen addressed previously.

    What do I want Buddhism for? Well, by the way, I don’t consider myself a ‘Buddhist’ (as I don’t like nor I found particularly useful to label myself or other people) although you could say that I follow a ‘Buddhist’ path mainly based on what is called ‘Sutrayana’. What I want from ‘Buddhism’ is a method to develop a way of life that leads to lessen ‘suffering’ and increase ‘happiness’ for yourself and everyone else too (specially for all the people whom you interact with in a daily basis). And this method must be practical, realistic, meaningful and workable in the everyday ‘normal routine’ of a ‘Western’ person living in the beginning of the XXI century CE. Meditation is on the menu, indeed, but there are many other things also.

    Having said that, I have to confess that reading your posts (the Reinventing Tantra series, in particular) I’ve experienced an increasing ‘reverse yana-shock’, that is: I expected the path you are describing to be very different from mine (well, they are) but I found many coincidences in some central points (like the attitude towards everyday practical concerns and ‘illumination’ experiences, the final aim, the unhype approach to practice – your everyday life IS your practice, the real match, the ‘rest’ is training-, the lack of concern about the path being ‘traditional’ or not, etc…) Maybe it’s just that if you want seriously to follow a path based on ‘Buddhism’ suitable for ‘normal’ Westerners of today, you could find many different methods but based on similar (or the same) methodologies.

    Or, maybe, (and I could be completely mistaken here) it’s that we’re talking about the same path but with different phases and orientations for different people. What makes me think that is the way you present ‘Tantra’ as compatible with ‘Sutra’ (in the sense that “[…]it is possible to take both approaches at different times, depending on your ability to cope with more and less intense circumstances, […] but not at the same time”). That makes sense to me and implies (as you state explicitly somewhere else) that you have to develop first a certain ‘level’ on ‘Sutra’ (including wisdom and ethics) before going into ‘Tantra’; it’s just that I think (I don’t have direct experience on this) that many people won’t be able or want or need to reach that ‘level’.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to read your next posts. I’m sure they’ll help me to clarify my ideas about this.

    (loaded words on quotes).

  13. Hi alfayate,

    Thank you very much for your appreciation! I’m glad this has been useful for you.

    I think that you are right: the points you see in common between the approach I’m suggesting, and the one you are following, are modern ones. They’re common to most or all forms of modernist Buddhism, and in fact modernist spirituality/religion in general.

    A main point of the first part of the “reinventing Buddhist tantra” series is that tantra is compatible with modernism. Theravada and Zen have been more-or-less completely modernized over the past hundred years. Tantra mostly hasn’t been. The third part of the series will explain how this is due to history and politics: attempts to modernize tantra were actively suppressed by both Tibetans and Westerners in the 1990s.

    There is no inherent, religious reason tantra can’t be fully modern, so far as I can see. In fact, I believe that it is more compatible with modernity, because it is primarily interested in real-world practical action, whereas sutra historically tended toward world-renunciation and pursuit of other-worldly metaphysical goals.

    The second part of the series, “what tantra is not,” coming soon, will clarify the differences between sutra and tantra. That may help readers who are potentially interested in tantra to decide whether it’s a path they’d prefer.

    On your last point. Yes, tantra does have more prerequisites than sutra. It has functional prerequisites that are inherent to the practice; and it has formal prerequisites that are imposed by traditional institutions. Mastery of sutra is only a formal prerequisite, in my opinion. Functionally, you do need some personal qualities that sutra can help develop. Most or all of those qualities could be developed in other ways, I believe, though. Someone who sincerely practiced liberal Christianity might well be better qualified than many highly-educated, long-term Buddhists.

    You said: “Meditation is on the menu, indeed, but there are many other things also.” I’m curious, what are those things?

    Best wishes,

    David

  14. alfayate says:

    Hi David

    Thank you very much for your comment.

    What’s in the menu besides Meditation? Well, (skipping aside the question of what ‘Meditation’ are we talking about “–What’s in the menu? -Meat, sir. -What Meat?”) I’m afraid I’m not going to say anything new as the path I follow is mainly based on ‘Sutrayana’, so the quick answer would be ‘The Noble Eightfold Path’, but I think this would be misleading since (as I learned from my personal experience) the ‘traditional’ definition may sound reiterative, confusing and even absurd (bad translations and forced interpretations help a lot on this). In fact it took me a lot of time of practice, studying and talking with my teacher to make the ‘traditional’ division into something understandable, practical and meaningful for me. So I’m going to try to make a brief exposition in which I use some words that may sound strange or alien to ‘tradition’. The ‘based on’ warning may explain this up to a point and the rest goes on my ignorance of the standard translation terms for the English-speaking ‘Buddhist’ world (“Mindfulness? I think I’ll take Meat”).

    Chez Siddharta – Degustation Menu – The Noble Eightfold Path

    Tasting Notes: The menu is served in increasing portions with all the ingredients mixed together (up to a point), so the division here is only for guidance. We hope it helps you to understand and enjoy our cuisine, but remember this is not the menu, only a description (it may be others). If you want to know what the menu is, taste it!

    Our menu is divided in three main categories: Wisdom, Ethics, Mind Discipline. All of them are equally important as the lack or the excess of one may ruin the dish. It’s important to notice that you should take each one in an active way, that is, as a training, with a goal, motivation, effort, method and evaluation. Also you have to be flexible and wise enough to adapt it to your current situation, capabilities, limits, etc… You don’t have to (in fact, you can’t and you mustn’t try) take all at once at maximum… always gradual, step by step, at your own pace.

    Wisdom
    1- Right Vision: ‘Seeing the path’. You have to know at each stage what the path is, how you’re going to walk it, where you are and where it leads, the dangers and opportunities… in general and in detail. Examples: reading books, blogs… going to teachings, observing others, observing yourself, talking with other people, learning from experience….

    2- Right Motivation: What moves you? What are you expecting to get? In long terms and in our daily actions. Do you have a hidden agenda unknown even to yourself? Do your acts match your (supposed) motives? Besides, Do you have enough motivation to carry on? Examples: various meditations and practices to cultivate compassion and non-attachment (not to confuse with renunciation), mantras, seed-thoughts, music, role models, take a break, enjoy simple pleasures, going places and being with people who share your values and lift you up….

    Ethics
    3- Right Expression: Express what it needs to be expressed in the right moment and in the right way (even if it upsets some people). Examples: be honest, don’t lie, silence, listen to others, don’t talk about yourself, don’t argue, respect, be clear and concise…

    4- Right Action: Same thing (right sex goes here). Examples: don’t make others dependent on you, accept whatever you get, take care of your health, respect the feelings of others…

    5- Right way of life. Understand that your everyday routine actions have an impact on you, the environment and other people. How do you earn your bread? How do you behave at work? What resources do you use? On what do you invest your time and money? What do you give to who and what do they do with it?… Examples: mutual support with your friends, family and colleagues, eat organic food, do your tasks the best you can, buy fair trade products, don’t waste energy, sleep enough, enjoy Nature….

    Mind Discipline
    6- Right Effort: Make a gradual but persistent effort to avoid harmful thoughts and emotions, transform them if they arise, foment healthy thoughts and emotions and keep them if they arise. Examples: write a diary to register your thoughts, emotions and actions, pinch yourself, wash the dishes…

    7- Right Attention: Practice and increase you attention and concentration, pay attention to what you do and know what things you don’t have to pay attention to. Examples: meditate in your breath, repeat to yourself “I’m in… doing….”, avoid metaphysical questions, listen carefully to others (what they say and what they communicate)…

    8- Right Meditation: (Ufff) Goal: To express virtues in your everyday life. Method: Concentrate the mind in a virtuous ‘object’. There are also base meditations that use neutral objects to train the concentration and peace of mind.

    Well…. I think that’s enough for now. I hope it hasn’t been very tedious. Reading it now, I think it gets a bit watered down (the meat is in the details) but maybe at least gives a good overall idea.

    Sutra vs Tantra and the prerequisites… very interesting indeed, but we leave that for tomorrow’s meal.

    Best wishes

  15. Thanks! Fun and clear.

  16. Foster Ryan says:

    Hi-
    I practice in a very closely related lineage to yours- Dudjom Tersar and closely connected ngakpa lineages. One of the things, I think, what’s confusing for a non-Dzogchen reader or practitioner about your thoughts is that there can be a lot of misunderstanding about the Dzogchen use of language re the goal. Since, in Dzogchen-informed (tantric) approaches we are already enlightened and are just practicing our realization, then the goal of enlightenment is already out the window from the beginning. We start from the result so we are not trying to achieve it. Hence your use of the term nobility, or the term power- from the dzogchen view these are perfectly correct ways of thinking. In this case we are perfecting our display of enlightenment- which we already are- and one could easily say that that these terms are what a perfected display of enlightenment looks like. This is what great compassion looks like. We also don’t even say that we meditate- only rest in the View. Well of course that looks like meditating from the outside.
    For readers from different schools this is potentially very misleading re the goal of dzogchen teachings or practices. This is part of the reason for secrecy about the teachings. it is not that these teachings were hidden in order to keep a secret and have power over others, but rather that until a person has it explained properly they are almost guaranteed to misunderstand and be misled what you are saying- hence the yana shock- nevermind the misunderstanding of a non-Buddhist.
    I would agree that what most people want from Buddhism is a better life- and it was that way in Tibet too- hence the support by kings and the laity as it led to greater power and prosperity- which it does.I don’t know any practitioners who practice for any other reason, really, although they may not be conscious of it. All the benefits listed are aspects of this practical effect.
    One of the ways of communicating with other schools is to borrow their language to say the same thing. Since dzogchen is believed to be the supreme view, it follows that not everyone understands it. Hence in many traditional texts- such as Longchenpa’s ‘Treasury of Philosophical Systems’- there is a summary and critique of schools from sutrayana on up, so that one may listen to a person and figure out where they’re at and communicate with them in that language. When one knows the limits of that view the informed practitioner can guide the hearer up the chain of understanding, toward tantra or dzogchen or mahamudra.

  17. mrcuteblackie says:

    The concept that human birth is special vis-a-vis enlightenment is far-fetched. In one of my astral travels I have visited a certain realm of fairies who are quite close to the human race, and they needed a path to awaken. So I tought them a meditation suited fior them. They are now getting enlightened, or at least ascending to heavenly reals.

    Yes, they are luminous and have wings, but the share the same natural environments that we have here, and are physically located here. We cant see them, they cant see us. The gardens or forests on earth that they live in look thousands of time more beautiful than the human copies. They protect these environments for us. But their main duty is to find the souls of children who die young but did not receive enough prayers to meet Christ of th Buddha or go to heaven. She pampers them in her garden, they sing, and there they are protected from roaming evil spirits who are active in the space between this fairy realm and our phyisical real. All is a mind game also, but for now. while not yet realized, lets see it as true.

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