What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?

“Modern Buddhist tantra” unites the two threads of this blog: modern Buddhism, and Buddhist tantra. But what would that even mean? And is it even possible?

Modern Buddhism” may be:

  • Science-compatible: atheist, rational, empirical, free of spooks and supernatural superstitions
  • Secular: not religious or dogmatic; teaching practices, not beliefs
  • Culturally engaged: teaching creativity and the arts
  • Socially engaged: including practical compassionate action
  • Naturally engaged: with curiosity and awe at the beauty, vastness, and intricacy of the physical and biological world
  • Psychologically and ethically sophisticated: incorporating Western insights into the self, emotions, and relationships
  • Universal: a path suitable for everyone, everywhere
  • Sober: sensible, restrained, free from self-indulgent emotionalism
  • Authentic: based on the original teaching of the human founder, not made-up gods
  • Exoteric: free from rituals, incense, and mumbo-jumbo in ancient languages
  • Egalitarian: free from priests, robes, and hierarchy

Can tantric Buddhism meet these criteria? Mostly yes, I think. Some points I’m doubtful about.

Do we want tantric Buddhism to meet these criteria? That’s a matter of personal taste and values. Opinions will vary.

What do you want modern Buddhism to be?

Different aspects of modernism are important to different people. Some modern Buddhists would strongly reject some of these criteria, while considering others essential.

Which are important to you, and why? It would help me if you look back over the list, and leave a comment at the end of this post! (Have I completely missed any criteria?) Depending on answers, I will go into greater or lesser depth on particular topics.

Buddhist tantra and three Western systems

David L. McMahan explains modern Buddhism as as dialog with three Western systems: scientific rationalism, Romantic expressivism, and Protestant Christianity. This framework came as a revelation to me. It’s now widely accepted in academia, and is increasingly influential among practicing Buddhists.

McMahan mostly ignores Vajrayana. However, I understand modern Buddhist tantra partly by applying his framework. My list above actually has three sections: rationalist criteria, Romantic/engaged criteria, and Protestant criteria.

Personally, I value the rationalist criteria highly. I find the Romantic ones important but somewhat problematic. The Protestant ones I mainly reject, or would want to modify.

In future posts, I will explain how tantric Buddhism can easily be modernized along rationalist and Romantic lines. I’m unsure it can be made compatible with Protestantism (unlike Sutrayana, which was Protestantized in the late 1800s). I’ll explain why that might be difficult, and also why I wouldn’t want it. Instead, I’ll recommend Vajrayana as an antidote to Protestant Buddhism.

The rest of this post is a preview, divided into three sections for the three aspects of modernism.

Vajrayana and science: atheism, rationalism, empiricism, naturalism, and secularism

Reconciling tantra with the scientific, secular worldview is the easiest part of modernizing it. (Maybe this is surprising?)

Asian reformers reconciled Sutrayana (non-tantric Buddhism) with science in the late 1800s. Before then, all brands of Buddhism were full of gods and demons, miracles and magic.

The same reform strategies apply equally well to Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism). You can simply delete all its supernatural aspects without any major loss. Alternatively, you can reinterpret them as a rich system of metaphors.

Vajrayana is actually more science-compatible than Sutrayana, because it says enlightenment is within the world. Sutrayana’s concept of enlightenment, as an exit from the world into another dimension, is inherently metaphysical. Vajrayana needs no metaphysical assumptions at all.

I will suggest non-magical approaches to the main types of tantric practice.

Engaged Vajrayana

I’ve previously argued that Vajrayana is particularly compatible with the modern worldview because it affirms the value of life in the everyday world, whereas Sutrayana denies it. Relatedly, Vajrayana promotes wholeness and connection, whereas Sutrayana destroys them.

Vajrayana, in other words, has always been “engaged Buddhism.” That is its whole point. Vajrayana is, specifically: culturally, socially, naturally, and psychologically engaged—the “Romantic” criteria I listed at the beginning of this post.

On the other hand, Western Romanticism includes some dangerously wrong metaphysics. Vajrayana can empower Romanticism’s accurate insights, and can also shred its philosophical errors.

Vajrayana and Protestant Christianity

Previously, I’ve detailed thirteen Protestant themes modern Buddhism has adopted. Relative to Sutrayana, Vajrayana is more compatible with some, and less compatible with others.

Traditional Vajrayana upholds the following Protestant ideas, which are absent or less emphasized in Sutrayana:

  • Everyone can potentially attain enlightenment
  • Religious practice is your personal responsibility; no one can do it for you
  • Non-monks can teach Buddhism; celibacy is not essential to religious leadership
  • Everyday life is sacred

Four other themes of Protestantism are contradicted by tantra: puritanism, scripturalism, anti-ritualism, and anti-clericalism. In America, these assumptions have escaped from Christianity, and are taken for granted in secular culture. They go without saying; they are unthought, automatic prejudices. These are major obstacles for Western Vajrayana.

Puritanism Lite

Sutrayana rejects all worldly emotions outright—especially desire and pleasure. Protestant Buddhism replaced this with Puritanism Lite. That is pervasive anxiety about emotions, especially desire and pleasure.

Puritan Buddhism says pleasure and desire are OK, but only in appropriate quantities, at appropriate times, for the appropriate reasons, for the appropriate objects. You ought to constantly check that your desires haven’t gotten out of control, because that’s what they naturally try to do. You must maintain constant suspicion of your own motivations, because your nature is essentially sinful, due to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Um, wait! No, that last bit is not Protestant Buddhist mythology. But it is the original source for its values. “Carefully controlled amounts of sensory pleasure are OK” is not a Buddhist idea. Sutrayana says sensory pleasure is bad—period! Vajrayana says sensory pleasure is good—period! (Of course, the ways we try to get pleasure may be bad—but that is a different issue.)

Consensus Buddhists don’t think of themselves as Puritans, but a Lite version is central to their religion. This is one way modern Vajrayana would be very different—and would appeal to quite different personalities.

Scripturalism

Before the Christian Protestant Reformation, the Church was the ultimate spiritual authority. Protestantism made the Bible the ultimate authority instead. The Bible was simultaneously the Ultimate Truth, straight from God, and the wise sayings of the human founder of the religion.

Similarly, the monastic sangha was the ultimate spiritual authority in traditional Buddhism. The Protestant Buddhist Reformation made scripture—especially the Pali Canon—the ultimate authority instead. The Canon was simultaneously the Ultimate Truth, straight from the transcendent Buddha, and the wise sayings of the human founder of the religion.

This has not worked well for Buddhism, although many modern Buddhists are still oddly enthusiastic. Maybe it seems less bad than trusting Buddhist institutions (which are pervasively corrupt), and less bad than relying on divine inspiration (since gods don’t exist).

While scripturalism is probably wrong for all Buddhisms, it especially won’t work for Vajrayana. The tantric scriptures are not “original” or “authentic” by Protestant standards. And, they are outrageous, absurd, horrifying, and baffling. You can’t possibly base a religion on them. Traditional tantric Buddhism has some relationship with them, but no one clearly understands what.

We have to accept modern Buddhist tantra as a partly-recent, human creation. It can have no guarantee of Ultimate Truth from an ancient book.

Anti-ritualism

Modern Buddhism rejects ritual for two wrong reasons. Rationalists may have the idea that ritual has only supernatural purposes. Protestants see ritual as artificially enhancing the authority of priests, and as a barrier between ordinary people and sacredness.

Modern Buddhists often misunderstand tantra as “the ritual wing of traditional Buddhism.” Actually, we could have an entirely non-ritual Buddhist tantra. However, I’ll explain how ritual is valuable, and why reasons for opposition are mistaken.

  • Rituals are often not supernatural—think of graduation ceremonies, for instance. I’ll sketch an purely naturalistic approach to tantric Buddhist ritual.

  • Modern ritual must be participatory—so it connects everyone involved to sacredness.

  • Ritual inspires, provides purpose, produces ecstatic states of consciousness, combines all creative arts in a unified performance, and can be huge fun.

Anti-clericalism

Hostility to priests and their power was the founding essence of Protestant Christianity.

Hostility to priests (especially “gurus”) and their power was also the founding essence of Consensus Buddhism. This produces paradoxes, such as powerful teachers denouncing the existence of teachers and power. It produces pernicious problems when people reject opportunities for learning because it might imply that someone was more spiritually advanced than someone else.

Tantra is more advanced than Consensus Buddhism, and you probably can’t learn it from books or from a peer group. Modern Vajrayana can’t function on a hyper-egalitarian basis in which everyone must have the same role. This does not mean that the traditional Asian teacher-student relationship is sacred and immutable. Sensible middle ground seems possible. I’ll suggest some approaches.

Appalling, abusive behavior by some Buddhist leaders is a genuine, major problem. However, virulent, unconscious Protestant anti-clericalism poisons discussion about how best to address it. This may be the single biggest obstacle to modern tantra.

Roadmap and process note

This post introduces the third, most important part of my “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” series.

Since my last roadmap, three months ago, I’ve decided to drop huge parts of the outline in order to get to the actual point sooner.

“The actual point” is a sketch of a possible near-future Buddhist tantra. This is difficult; I’m extravagantly unqualified, and probably shouldn’t attempt it. It’s quite likely that I will crash and burn in the middle. I’m also torn between this and other writing projects, so I may suddenly abandon it. However, here’s the current plan:

  1. Overview of tantra
    1. Base: spacious passion
    2. Path: unclogging energy
    3. Result: mastery, power, play, nobility (incomplete)
  2. Tantra and Sutrayana compared
  3. Modern Buddhist Tantra ← You are here
    1. Naturalizing Buddhist Tantra
      1. Yidam (“deity yoga”) practice: a godless modern approach
      2. Tsa-lung (“energy”) practice: a wooless modern approach
      3. Reinventing Buddhist ritual
    2. Tantra as engaged Buddhism
    3. Tantra as an antidote to Protestant Buddhianity

Feedback please!

Which of the topics I’ve mentioned here are most important to you? What would you want from modern Buddhist tantra? What obstacles do you see?

About these ads
This entry was posted in Reinventing Buddhist Tantra and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to What would “modern Buddhist tantra” even mean?

  1. samwebster11 says:

    Well done! These are the challenges before us as we bring the Buddhadharma and Tantranyana into modern American culture. As a Pagan mage, I’ve been translating tantric practice into forms my fellows can use and have had some success. Would you like a copy of my book, “Tantric Thelema”? It summarizes the work thus far instantiating a Mahayogatantra practice.
    cheers,
    )O+
    sam webster

  2. Zac says:

    Can’t wait for the deity yoga entry! My favourite part of Tantra.

  3. Darcey Riley says:

    Hi David! I find this post fascinating, despite having almost no exposure to Buddhism (and none to Tantra) outside of your blog. But I’ve been wondering a lot lately how one might design a new spiritual tradition that’s compatible with various aspects of the modern scientific worldview (if such a thing can be said to exist). (I assume you’ve encountered Kevin Simler’s posts on this? If not, you might find them interesting, though I don’t think they have any connection to Buddhism.)

    Also, just wondering: to what extent are the following two desiderata in conflict?:
    “Secular: not religious or dogmatic; teaching practices, not beliefs”
    “Exoteric: free from rituals, incense, and mumbo-jumbo in ancient languages”
    Is there a different between practices and rituals, and if so, what is it?

    Thanks!
    -Darcey

  4. Darcey Riley says:

    Er, I mean if “the modern scientific worldview” can be said to exist, not a spiritual tradition compatible with it. Sorry for the double-comment!

  5. I wonder if an additional modernist criterion might be modularity. Obviously this can carry some well-known dangers of dilletantism and incoherence. But it’s obviously in some demand, as it appears to be what moderns always end up going for anyway. Inasmuch as they do, it might be good for the system to have clearly labelled what parts depend on what other parts.

  6. @ sam — Thank you very much! I have read some of your writing on the web with great interest. I’ll contact you by email.

    @ Zac — Thanks for the feedback!

    @ Darcey — Thanks, yes, I’ve read several of Kevin Simler’s posts, and found them to my liking.

    Mainstream Buddhism has claimed to be especially science-compatible for 150 years. Here, for instance, is Anagarika Dharmapala (a key Asian Buddhist modernizer) addressing the World Parliament of Religions in 1898:

    The message of the Buddha that I bring to you is free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths. The Buddha taught to the civilized Aryans of India twenty-five centuries ago a scientific religion containing the highest individualistic altruistic ethics, a philosophy of life built on psychological mysticism and a cosmology which is in harmony with geology, astronomy, radioactivity and reality.

    This was pure invention at the time—no Buddhism had ever been that—but he and a few others conjured “scientific Buddhism” or “Buddhism Without Beliefs” into existence.

    What I’m doing here is pointing out that the Vajrayana/tantric branch of Buddhism is more compatible with modern values than the mainstream branch, and also that it is equally compatible with the naturalistic/rational/empirical worldview. So if we want naturalistic Buddhism, it’s the flavor to go with. (It’s only due to historical accidents that it is not the Western Buddhist mainstream.)

    I’ve argued elsewhere that Vajrayana is uniquely suited to current conditions among existing religions.

    Practices vs. rituals: the main practice of mainstream modern Buddhism is silent sitting meditation (“mindfulness”). That’s considered non-ritual. Mainstream modern Buddhism accepts the Protestant injunction that ritual is an abomination before God.

    @ Matthias — By “modularity” you mean: it’s feasible and allowable to adopt any subset of features?

    I think you are right that this is important now! Thank you very much for pointing it out.

    This would probably count as a “post-modern” criterion rather than a modern one. It denies that intact systems are sacrosanct. If I ever finish writing about modern tantra, I plan to write about tantra in this post-systems era. One of my hesitations about writing about “modern tantra” is the recognition that modernity is over, and it may already be too late for modern religions. Modern, here, in the sense of being a complete system.

    “Post-modern tantra,” if such a thing is possible, would look very different from what I’m going to propose here. It’s more difficult to think about. Conceptually, modernizing tantra is completely straightforward—although it’s not clear how or whether it can turn into a living religion. Conceptually, post-systematic tantra is swirling mist, for now!

  7. Emma says:

    I feel like I keep bringing up the same points whenever I’m am commenting about modern buddhism, but so be it—I suppose I just feel evangelical about these topics.

    You write: “Appalling, abusive behavior by some Buddhist leaders is a genuine, major problem. However, virulent, unconscious Protestant anti-clericalism poisons discussion about how best to address it. This may be the single biggest obstacle to modern tantra.”

    Agreed! I feel like issues around power and leadership creates the biggest obstacle to modern tantra, but it is also perhaps it’s biggest opportunity.

    As you have noted before, concern about abuse of power by spiritual leaders often devolves into simple gossip about sex, money or drug use. As a result, solutions to leadership problems using revolve around creating leaders who are morally unobjectionable. It also seems that teachers and students are discouraged from getting to know each other very well to avoid creating even minor moral objections. Teachers often become more like college professors who give a lot of seminars on how to meditate.

    I think many people are looking for a more traditionally tantric student/teacher relationship, but they want that exchange to be “healthy” based on the modern understanding of human relationships. No lying. No weird emotional manipulation. Skilled negotiation of power differentials. And perhaps most importantly, understanding within the entire sangha of the conditions that lead to thought reform and group think.

    (see especially Lifton’s 8 criteria of though reform: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thought_Reform_and_the_Psychology_of_Totalism)

    If a modern tantra is able to addresses these issues head on—avoiding getting lost in debates about what kind of sex is ok and what kind of drug use is ok—and reinvents a student/teacher relationship that can be accepted as healthy in the modern world, that will be a *major* innovation. One that would very likely attract a large number of practitioners.

  8. Hi Emma,

    Please keep evangelizing your ideas! You are certainly welcome to do so here, and I hope you do so elsewhere as well.

    You seem to have thought about this more seriously than almost anyone, and to have an unusual perspective that makes good sense to me. I don’t have any worked-out answers, myself, unfortunately.

    One thing I’ve thought about writing about is the role of PhD thesis supervisors. Or, at least, that role as I understood it 25 years ago in elite computer science departments… I don’t know how much it may have changed, or how representative it was even then.

    This is (or was) much more like “the guru model” than like classroom teaching. An intense, one-on-one apprenticeship, very explicitly unequal, with nearly unlimited power on the part of the advisor (which was sometimes abused). When it worked well, it worked very well—and it seemed to be the only way of producing independent researchers. A PhD thesis advisor teaches things you could not learn from books, or in a classroom. They are highly personal, and much of it is a matter of inarticulable attitudes and habits rather than concepts or methods.

    Unfortunately, I think very few people understand how that process works, apart from those of us who have been in that sort of relationship. However, it is an entirely Western, modern model for what a tantric teacher/student relationship might be like.

    Because this situation was sometimes abused, and more often failed due to personal incompatibility or insufficient effort from either the teacher or the student, I suspect it may have been reformed since I was involved. (I wound up “rescuing” a few people who were failed by the system, and acted as their de facto dissertation advisor, so I know both sides—teacher and student, success and failure.) It would be interesting to know if it now functions better or worse, or just differently…

  9. Emma says:

    Thank you for your kind words and encouragement David.

    I’ve never had a PhD thesis advisor, but from what you write above, it does sound like a potentially useful and workable model. Any close relationship holds the possibility for abuse—otherwise it wouldn’t be a very influential relationship. I think the hard part would be re-creating the context provided by the rest of the department and the university. If an apprentice relationship is not going well, there does need to be someone who will do what you did and intervene with real help, real authority, or both.

    Trauma research has indicated that individual traumatic events are not necessarily that damaging on their own—it’s the larger community’s response, or lack of response, that often makes all the difference in a recovery. I think that applies here.

    I would be interesting to find out how the advisor / candidate relationship has been reformed at research universities, if at all…

  10. Tom says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your informative and well-constructed site(s). I was introduced to Aro a couple of years ago, totally happenstance, by way of the “Aro Buddhist podcast:. I’m not sure if that is still in operation. I would love to hear that it is.

    You write: “The same reform strategies apply equally well to Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism). You can simply delete all its supernatural aspects without any major loss. Alternatively, you can reinterpret them as a rich system of metaphors.”

    I was a bit surprised to see this as one of your potentially successful reforms for modern Buddhist Vajrayana. Tibetan Vajrayana is the form I am most familiar with, particularly the Dzogchen teachings of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, and to some extent Chogyam Trungpa. If you were to ask them, the deities, “gods”, demons, ghosts, and other supernatural beings most definitely exist, and are essential for Tantric ritual practices. The terma that are absolutely essential to Nyingma teachings concern supernatural beings who delivered them to very specific people at specific times. You couldn’t just delete them and reimagine them as metaphors or archetypes. I have found this to be an attitude of “Consensus Buddhism”, and it is suspect.

    Vajrayana does have metaphysical aspects, of which I’m sure you are familiar through Aro teachings. How could you chant mantra thinking that it is just a sequence of random sounds? How could you offer *actual* food/drink/incense to “symbols”?

    Again, thank you for keeping up with these discussions, as well as your great effort to maintain these valuable sites.

    Tom

  11. @ Emma — “Trauma research has indicated that individual traumatic events are not necessarily that damaging on their own—it’s the larger community’s response, or lack of response, that often makes all the difference in a recovery.” That’s very interesting, thanks; I didn’t know that…

    @ Tom — Glad you like this site! I’m not sure when/whether the Aro podcast will be updated. Turning raw recordings into podcasts is much more work than it seems, unfortunately, and volunteer enthusiasm varies for that.

    Re “The terma that are absolutely essential to Nyingma teachings concern supernatural beings”: yes. But, although I personally practice in a Nyingma lineage, I’m not writing here about Nyingma teachings; nor even about Tibetan Buddhism. Rather, about a hypothetical modern Vajrayana that doesn’t exist (yet).

    I think you are right that one could not start from Tibetan Buddhism, simply delete its supernatural elements, and expect the rest to function well.

    The approach I will sketch starts instead from abstract principles of Vajrayana, and works toward making those concrete in the modern world. I don’t think that gods, demons, or metaphysical realms are necessary in “abstract Vajrayana,” and so I don’t think they are necessary in “modern Vajrayana” either.

    “How could you chant mantra thinking that it is just a sequence of random sounds?” — There are many non-magical reasons a mantra could be non-random. Jayarava has done some work on this, for instance. However, one could also just accept that the mantra works, without needing an explanation. Or, you could accept that it is random. Repeating any random sequence of sounds a few million times might have a powerful effect. Or, you could do without mantras.

    I don’t think any single element of traditional practice is necessary. You could drop any one, or even most of them, and still have a functional path, I suspect. (But this is an empirical question, that could only be answered for sure by trying.)

    I don’t advocate dropping mantras (or any other specific aspect of tradition). Just pointing out that it may be possible to make very large changes, if the underlying abstract principles are understood.

  12. Many confuse the scientific outlook with atheistic materialism. However, atheistic materialism is not as compatible with the systematic method of knowledge creation as the more evangelical atheists would like to admit. One may care to think twice before making a “modern” Buddhism grounded in Materialism.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Materialism#Criticism_and_alternatives

    As a Historian I can tell you that all claims to “authentic” can never be 100% true, due to the nature of information and the data loss involved with n+1 orders of representations. It only gets worse as time t gets larger. Better to base authentic in the “tested and verified”, and not the historical veracity of people.

    The other side of my objection to fetishizing authenticity is that the human brain responds well to behaving as if gods are real, despite whether they are or not. Full integration of an idea happens not just on an intellectual level but an emotional one as well, so I’m not so quick to expunge the gods and other spooks from my practice yet, nor do I mind them being used as noms de plume for the real authors. Want to say your tantra was written by Ten Headed Snake-man King? Fine, whatever. Is your tantra useful? That’s what is really important.

    Some seemingly “just for show” rituals have turned out to have very real physiological effects. Here’s some anecdotal evidence:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1261236/Our-happy-hormone-wedding-How-levels-love-hormone-oxytocin-ceremony–intriguing-results.html

    Other than that I don’t have a problem with the list per se, except that out concept of “modern” is itself subject to the context of our times. Which you pointed out in the bit about Shambala in your other post. The Romans considered themselves very modern and rational, and they liked to watch people die, live in an arena. So maybe “modern” should be less of a concern, and a Buddhism which is simply more effective, or “optimized”, would be more efficacious.

  13. Jeff says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post too much for the last few days. I’m a little put off by the seeming importance you place on “scientific compatibility” and a “empirical” outlook. I wonder if the importance is here because we all feel so revolted by the Christian literalists, creationists, etc.? Do we need to pay for their sins, so to speak? I’ve been practicing in a Vajrayana tradition for many years; we seem to have a good way of relating to the unseen, non-empirical elements of our practice. You may find belief in entities like dharmapalas distasteful, but can you say that such a belief is dangerous, or counter-productive to the goal of Vajrayana? I am not at all anti-science, I think it represents the pinnacle of conceptual mind. As such, though, I’m just not sure that it really has anything to do with Vajrayana, other than marketing or making it more agreeable to modern practitioners. It seems to me that most of the big problems that Buddhists have is when they take a hyper-rational, “scientific” approach to the dharma. (I’m thinking Hakugen’s critique of Zen and WWII). I guess what I’m asking is what problem are you addressing by making this such an important component of your idea here?

  14. Tom says:

    Sutrayana = renouncing the world and all of your circumstances. Relies on meditation techniques, scripture, behavior modification, etc. Sure, modernize at will. No problem, as the abstract concepts can be reformulated to fit with the current world system.
    Tantrayana = integrating with the world and your circumstances. Relies on powerful images, sounds, and body movements. Can be abstracted and modernized? Not so sure…maybe by someone with extraordinary intellect, personal mastery, emotional power…maybe Buddha could do it… ;)

    I guess it could be a fun mental exercise to come up with “Abstract Tantra”, but ultimately it will be useless. In order for something to be “Tantra” (with any tradition, in any age) it needs:
    1) the guru, and
    2) blessings of the lineage

    If you don’t want to believe in “gurus” or lineage blessings, then Tantra isn’t for you. Trungpa created his own organizations, but he never dispatched with the basic principle of teacher-disciple, and much of the core Shambhala material (albeit re-packaged) was brought from his teachers’ lineage, as well as his own terma (which is one of those yucky superstitious things us modern folk don’t want to hear about). He’s probably the best example of someone attempting to modernize (whatever that means) Tantra. The so-called “power” of Tantra comes largely from the quality of the people who have practiced before you, who have given you the images, sounds, movements, etc that you are using for your own advancement. The tools have to come from somewhere. There is always a teacher. I suppose an abstract Tantra could involved the practice of each individual creating and painting their own Yidam, according to their own cultural preferences, and then formulating their own mantra, etc. But this is a bit laughable, for sure. For those who cringe at the thought of having to receive a teaching from a teacher, what you probably want to practice instead is something along the lines of the Jungian personality type system. There you can create abstract images to be internalized, allowing the individual to “transform”, integrate with their circumstances, become happier, more fulfilled, or whatever your personal goals. As for realizing emptiness — and then returning from emptiness into form?? (which is the singular goal of Vajrayana) — Not so easy, and can’t be done alone (This I have heard from teachers of Buddhist Tantra who I respect immensely, and who have proven themselves as practitioners).

    You can probably get really sophisticated at cherry-picking Buddhist concepts and symbols that seem to have power, and that jive with whatever current cultural trends are being practiced at the time. But there are already plenty of existing modern, atheist, rational, empirical, spook-free systems of practical psychology perfectly suited for today’s man and woman. With Vajrayana Buddhism, what you get is what you get. No need to change anything. As many wise teachers have said, you should fall in love with your “religion”, or spiritual path, as it is. If a practice truly speaks to you, then modernization isn’t even a relevant concept. If it doesn’t, move on.

  15. @ JL Hughes — Yes, materialism is a philosophical position, not an empirical/scientific one. It is possible to be a methodological naturalist and not a materialist. That’s more-or-less where I am at personally; I wrote about that here.

    Rituals definitely have powerful effects! Anthropologists and sociologists would agree unanimously… So they are something we can use if we don’t have a Protestant allergy to them.

  16. Hi, Jeff and Tom,

    To respond, I’ll have to go somewhat meta, to discuss the nature and motivations of the project, before addressing specifics.

    I think Vajrayana has unique value for the modern world. However, if it is not modernized, it is unlikely to survive at all, anywhere, and certainly won’t have the impact on mainstream Western culture it potentially could have.

    Current presentations of Vajrayana are repellent, obscure, and irrelevant for most Westerners. Blaming “most Westerners” for this would be beside the point; what is at stake is survival and impact, not finger-pointing. It’s Vajrayana’s responsibility to communicate itself in a way that is understandable and attractive.

    Is it legitimate to change the presentation? Yes, because that has been done, over and over, throughout history. Originally I planned several posts here explaining that history of innovation, but dropped them in order to get to more important topics. In short, tantra’s external forms have changed radically many times, in response to changing social/cultural/economic/political conditions. Our conditions are very different from pre–1950 Tibet, so radical changes are justifiable again.

    Is it possible to create a modern presentation? Partly this depends on what counts as “modern.” I’ve adopted McMahan’s framework, because it seems right to me, and because it’s now quite well-known. I suspect Vajrayana is compatible with most of that framework; perhaps not the Protestant criteria. As I said in the next post, I think Shambhala Training is proof of this.

    Science-compatibility is a key aspect of McMahan’s framework, so any discussion of “modern Vajrayana” has to at least consider that. It’s important because nearly all Westerners strongly reject foreign spooks. Polytheism is out of the question. If it’s possible to have a spook-free Vajrayana, that would hugely increase its potential audience.

    I noted in the post that

    Different aspects of modernism are important to different people. Some modern Buddhists would strongly reject some of these criteria, while considering others essential.

    In future, there may be many different modern Vajrayanas, some of which may have spooks and some not. (Some may have priests in robes, and some not. Some may advocate social change, and some not. These are independent choices.)

    I hope the future holds diverse modern tantric Buddhisms. Currently, we have none, so it seems worth considering whether and how Vajrayana could be modern according to each of the criteria, separately.

    I don’t believe in spooks, so the question “can Vajrayana function without them” is important to me personally. However, most of my sangha believes in spooks, and that doesn’t bother me! I’m not allergic to other people’s beliefs, and have no interest in changing them. I would enthusiastically support a modern Vajrayana that did have spooks. Let a thousand flowers bloom!

    You may find belief in entities like dharmapalas distasteful, but can you say that such a belief is dangerous, or counter-productive to the goal of Vajrayana?

    No. To be explicit, I’m not opposing traditional Vajrayana at all, nor am I arguing that all future Vajrayanas should be spook-free. Rather, I’m suggesting that if spook-free versions are possible, then they will be attractive for many people. So it’s worth investigating that possibility.

    Tom, you made a series of absolute statements about how Tantra has to be, what it can’t be, and what would happen if changes were attempted. You seem quite sure about these… Why? How do you know?

    It seems to me that no one can know for sure what is possible, because not many things have been tried. Shambhala Training was a successful experiment; Tarthang Tulku’s TSK system was another; Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s Three Doors is a current attempt.

    With Vajrayana Buddhism, what you get is what you get. No need to change anything.

    This is false, as a matter of historical fact (never mind future possibilities). Humans have changed Vajrayana Buddhism repeatedly, because it wasn’t meeting then-current needs.

    There’s some points here we agree about. We both think that teachers are key for Vajrayana. That is why I’m skeptical that it is compatible with Protestant anti-clericalism. (Maybe we can’t actually rule out the possibility of a teacher-free Vajrayana until it’s been tried thoroughly, but I wouldn’t spend time on the attempt.)

    I agree also about the importance and power of the blessings of the lineage. However, I don’t think that implies conservatism, nor does it require the blessings of institutions. “Lineage” and “institutional tradition” are not the same. Thinley Norbu Rinpoche made this point forcefully in Magic Dance:

    Some easterners, or westerners who think like easterners, believe that westerners cannot have lineage because they have no tradition. If we believe that westerners are too materialistic to have any spiritual lineage, we are disrespectful to pure Buddhist lineage. If we are not concerned with true spiritual qualities but are superficially seduced by eastern customs and manners because we associate the east with Buddhist lineage, we are also disrespectful to pure Buddhist lineage. If we think that only priests, lamas and gurus have lineage, then we have title lineage conception and padlock and key lineage conception which is disrespectful to pure spiritual lineage.

    Some people think lineage depends on a teacher. Especially some easterners believe that westerners cannot have lineage because they are not linked from birth to a spiritual teacher. Unless we are nihilists and believe only in the visible, we cannot judge the spiritual qualities of someone who has no visible teacher in this life.

    Your sketch of what modern tantra might look like is nothing like what I will advocate. I agree it’s laughable.

    The so-called “power” of Tantra comes largely from the quality of the people who have practiced before you, who have given you the images, sounds, movements, etc that you are using for your own advancement. The tools have to come from somewhere.

    Yes; but Tantra has also constantly innovated. The tools did come from particular people who innovated, often not that long ago.

    The awkward question here is who now can do that. I have no good answer, which potentially makes this entire project an idle intellectual exercise. That is why I’ve dropped it before, and may drop it again at any point.

  17. Chris McKenna says:

    Hey all…

    I’d like to be a little bit more optimistic about the possibility of new forms of Vajrayana (and other Buddhisms) emerging. There is something about the post-modern sense of time that I think compels us to put unfair pressure on the process of cultural/religious assimilation. Basically, “serious Western practitioners” are (consciously and unconsciously) declaring traditional lineage transmissions to Westerners to be “a failure” when, from any reasonable historical prospective, they haven’t even gotten off the ground yet.

    I remember a few years ago I was discussing “Shoes Outside the Door” (the book chronicling the complexities of Baker-Roshi and SFZC’s history) with a friend who was taking the millionth swipe at “stupid first generation Western students ruining Buddhism.” I was like, are you kidding me?

    Someone had to make those mistakes! If they didn’t I would have! Power, authority and projection are serious and complicated issues!! I have nothing but gratitude for the tremendous amount of “sorting out” the first generation of American Buddhists did. To think there is some neat-and-tidy way of transitioning contemplative systems across cultures is some kind of perfectionist fantasy.

    On a side note to the tantra discussion, you have wondered out loud several times on this blog what the “engine of Consensus Buddhism” is if it is not renunciation. I beleive you are correct that there is a good slug of that movement with no engine (just some vague sense that “awareness” is “important”).

    However, I do think there is a deeper end of the pool. I think that is best talked about by looking at what Shamar Rinpoche (who’s comments on tantra you didn’t agree with) and Joseph Goldstein (who’s book you don’t like) have in common in their overall orientation – systematic shamatha/vipashyana training leading to some form of non-dual oriented practice. I see this as basically the heart-wood of most modern vipassana teachers. It’s a re-interpretation of insight meditation as a kind of sutra mahamudra. I agree the view teachings are a tad murky, but overall I’m not as cynical about the results as you. I believe some people are getting someplace with it. I also believe some Tibetan teachers who I like are behind the approach for non-political reasons (obviously Tsoknyi Rinpoche would be head of the pack here).

    With this as the backdrop, I agree with you about the importance of re-vitalizing anu-style tantra (obviously Chogyal Namkhai Norbu and others are already doing this). I think it is highly compatible with many forms of modern practice, and I think it could really help balance out some of the holes (right now what you have is vipassana people cross training in various kinds of shamanism to get tantric practice elements. I think this is mainly because many indigenous shamanic traditions in the Americas are significantly easier to access and have fewer barriers than good Tibetan Vajrayana).

    Lastly, I applaud your call for pluralism. Interestingly, secularism is not a concern of mine at all (I could care less about making things compatible with any form of scientific materialism). I am however very interested in what is going to happen to “methods” over the next 100 years (I think Thinley Norbu Rinpoche was right that the view teachings need no modernization whatsoever).

  18. Jeff says:

    I’m certainly not against “updating” the Vajryana. My Vajrayana teacher is a white dude from Connecticut! It just seems that you are leaving a bit of the “Buddhist” from your definition of Buddhist Tantra. While that path does entail “unclogging energy” and ennobling ourselves, it is ultimately a path to realize the Mahayana ideals. That’s the Buddhist part, right? From that perspective (based on Nagarjuna, and others) conceptual mind is utility. It is limited, it is flawed, and it is misleading. To use conceptual mind as the ground of your practice as opposed to the enlightened state of mind transferred by a qualified teacher seems to miss the point entirely. Though if your goal – and it may be – is to do to the Vajrayana what the mindfulness people seem to be doing with sutric Buddhism (that is: making it a technology for simply improving samsaric existence) then more power to you, I guess. I mean that less dismissively than it sounds. I practice Vajrayana and “unclog energy” and work to ennoble myself _so that I may help lead others to liberation_. I’m starting to feel that this motivation might be in your categories of “spooks” and non-empirical “superstition”, which – again – is fine, but we are talking about two very different things.

  19. Tom says:

    I should have clarified that “no need to change” was referring to the basic principle of receiving a form for visualization. The forms have changed many times, yes, and they will continue to change. But I think one of the aspects of Vajrayana that can’t change is the usage of a visualized form during meditation. That’s what makes it different from simple sitting meditation. And if an aspect of modernity is the need for validation from the scientific community, good luck getting them to OK your meditational forms!

    As for Vajrayana dying out, so be it. It’s happened before and it will definitely happen again. I’m not worried that modern man won’t have this ancient practice. They have enough objects and concepts to satisfy their curiosity for many lifetimes.

    On a final note, Trungpa is so often remembered for how he presented Vajrayana in a modern way, but it’s easy to forget how he brought modern people to the way of the ancients. Some of the things he had his students do were straight-up Marpa/Milarepa, and I could totally see them happening in 11th century Tibet. As for democracy — one of the hallmarks of modernity — he subverted it any chance he could get. One of his greatest achievements was proving that it wasn’t entirely the obligation of the teachings to conform to the times, but it was also necessary for the students to change in order for the teachings to take root. Again, thanks for providing a forum for this discussion.

  20. Marie says:

    +Chris McKenna re: “With this as the backdrop, I agree with you about the importance of re-vitalizing anu-style tantra (obviously Chogyal Namkhai Norbu and others are already doing this). I think it is highly compatible with many forms of modern practice, and I think it could really help balance out some of the holes (right now what you have is vipassana people cross training in various kinds of shamanism to get tantric practice elements. I think this is mainly because many indigenous shamanic traditions in the Americas are significantly easier to access and have fewer barriers than good Tibetan Vajrayana).”
    This is what I am seeing. People are seeing the missing pieces, and attempting to fill them in, in various (perhaps haphazard and confusing) ways. For example, at Spirit Rock, they have a Chi Gung master come to all of their month-long retreats. I have heard that he helps people who get ‘energy imbalances’ from attempting too much sitting practice when they are not used to it. I have also seen an ‘ecstatic’ form of ‘metta’. No deities, but clearly an example of pumping up the emotional volume, which, combined with high-concentration states, is a transformation practice in its own right. Spirit Rock teachers are apparently getting trained in ‘ritual’ now. I am curious to see what elements they have chosen to bring in. One teacher I know in that community with native american training, is totally ‘out’ about inviting the ‘spooks’ (as David would say) to bless the retreat and the practice.
    Interesting comment you made about Tsoknyi Rinpoche, in relation to ‘sutra mahamudra’. In a way, this is also Alan Wallace’s approach – Shamatha/Vipassana/Dzogchen. (skipping Tantra). Maybe at Spirit Rock, they’re more tantric than Alan Wallace now! (ha, ha). (I jest. Neither are really tantric).
    Personally, I think the key will be the anuyoga-type practices. If you do these seriously, you just end up having sambhogakaya experiences. And then you understand tantra, and say: of course -I get how deity forms work with emotional experience as a transformation practice. Obvious. But also tricky, because you’re in the ‘land of woo’ (as David would say), and ‘that ain’t Kansas anymore’. And you need *really* good teachers out there at that point, and there aren’t too many out there …

  21. Chris says:

    Hey Marie…

    It’s funny… I wrote that last post kind of quickly but I was definitely thinking about Alan Wallace’s shamatha–>dzogchen style when writing it. I also want to admit that – in naming the trend I did – that I am def. being simplistic (sometimes its fun to be). Alan has obviously spilled a lot of ink saying why his kamalishila/dudjom lingpa approach to shamatha makes more sense than some of khanika samadhi-style approaches advocated by some modern vipassana teachers.

    Your point about bringing in qigong teachers to do energy management is interesting. Do you think this is something the Tibetan lineages need to pay attention to as well?

    I’ve actually been a committed qigong practitioner for years. I’ve found the stance/standing work to be invaluable. I note that I’ve heard just as many vajrayana practioners complain about the lack of preparatory movement work in their systems as I have vipassana practioners (again there are many exceptions like Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, but I don’t see equal access to the more vigorous movement material across modern vajrayana as a whole).

    There is no question (in my mind at least) that movement and dance played a historical role in tantra. However, it seems to me that the material that was the most carefully preserved over the last century or two was the seated energetic work.

    My sense is that many Westerners are realizing that they need more or different physical preparation to make the subtle energetic work really stick. In that vein, it’s easy to take digs at modern yoga, but “behind the current” I think there is some very interesting tantric-style movement work developing (see especially Zhander Remete and his crew: http://www.shadowyoga.com/2014/index1.php#page1). This yet another area the future modern vajrayana(s) could pay more explicit attention to.

    And David… I didn’t say it in my last comment… but your site is great.

  22. Thank you all for such thoughtful and interesting comments! Sorry to have been away for a while, and slow to follow up.

    @ Chris — “I have nothing but gratitude for the tremendous amount of “sorting out” the first generation of American Buddhists did.” Great point, yes.

    It took a few centuries for the Chinese to figure out how to assimilate Indian Buddhism; maybe the same will be true for the West. Maybe we shouldn’t expect a workable Western Buddhism before 2200.

    On the other hand, it may be that unless Buddhisms modernize now, they will vanish in Asia as well. Educated urban Asians are abandoning Buddhism in droves. There may be only a couple decades of opportunity remaining before traditional Buddhisms go extinct.

    a re-interpretation of insight meditation as a kind of sutra mahamudra

    That’s very interesting! It makes sense, although I don’t have much knowledge of either what Spirit Rock is teaching, nor sutra mahamudra. It would be unreasonable of me to demand that they explain this in a way I can understand… but I hope they eventually do anyway!

    right now what you have is vipassana people cross training in various kinds of shamanism to get tantric practice elements

    I didn’t know that! Striking, and consistent with my hypothesis that they are “reinventing tantra badly” due to Vajrayana being off-limits.

    I agree that movement systems like qigong, dance, and yoga are indispensable for energy work, and it’s a problem that few Tibetans teach this. The Aro lamas have always included some of this in their teaching, but it’s become particularly prominent in the past five years or so. My girlfriend Rin’dzin Pamo started teaching these a year or two ago, and the response has been strongly positive.

    @ Jeff — “To use conceptual mind as the ground of your practice as opposed to the enlightened state of mind transferred by a qualified teacher seems to miss the point entirely”: Yes, I agree! I must have written unclearly.

    I’m not sure what you are responding to here… Is it the word “rational”? “Rational” could mean many different things; in the context of modern Buddhism it doesn’t ever seem to mean taking conceptual mind as the ground of practice. (So far as I can remember!)

    to do to the Vajrayana what the mindfulness people seem to be doing with sutric Buddhism (that is: making it a technology for simply improving samsaric existence)

    I’m actually unsure what I think about this. I agree it seems a limited goal, from one perspective. On the other hand, tantra insists that samsara and nirvana are inseparable, so there is no escape from samsara. That makes the concept of “liberation” problematic and dubious. I’ve suggested before that “enlightenment” is probably not a useful idea, because it’s so conceptually confused. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not important, or not possible!

    @ Tom — Thanks for the clarifications!

    I think one of the aspects of Vajrayana that can’t change is the usage of a visualized form during meditation

    Yes, I think I would probably agree with that. (Theoretically there might be some exception, but it seems unlikely. Anyway, it’s not a possibility I’d pursue!)

    good luck getting the scientific community to OK your meditational forms

    Actually, I don’t think that would be difficult, if if did turn out to be important. There’s already some promising scientific research on yidam practice that shows dramatic results. If that continues, I would expect studies comparing different yidams to see whether (as we believe) they produce different effects.

    One of his greatest achievements was proving that it wasn’t entirely the obligation of the teachings to conform to the times, but it was also necessary for the students to change in order for the teachings to take root.

    I agree with that. More generally, tantra will always involve difficult personal change—because that’s the whole point.

    Currently, however, to even get to the point where the necessary difficulties appear, you have to plow through years of unnecessary difficulties, dealing with masses of traditional Asian culture that have nothing to do with Vajrayana itself. That obscures the value of Vajrayana as well its intrinsic difficulties. The project of “modernizing Buddhist tantra” is to clear that stuff away, so the value and difficulty of tantra are both clearly visible to beginners.

    @ Marie — Thanks for this; very interesting to read about new developments at Spirit Rock!

    Spirit Rock teachers are apparently getting trained in ‘ritual’ now.

    I saw a tweet from Emily Horn about that a few days ago… Yowzer!

    Maybe instead of insulting the Spirit Rock folks I should see if they want to collaborate…

    Personally, I think the key will be the anuyoga-type practices. If you do these seriously, you just end up having sambhogakaya experiences. And then you understand tantra, and say: of course -I get how deity forms work with emotional experience as a transformation practice. Obvious. But also tricky, because you’re in the ‘land of woo’ (as David would say), and ‘that ain’t Kansas anymore’. And you need *really* good teachers out there at that point, and there aren’t too many out there

    These are important points, yes…

  23. Foster Ryan says:

    The first thing that comes to mind here, for me, is the question of modularity. This is slightly questionable. From the outside it looks like Vajrayana is a collection of parts- but actually this is not true. It is actually one closed loop system- with a few variants. To borrow Mipham Rinpoche’s list, it consists of 11 parts: View (one’s understanding of goal; one’s perspective; one’s understanding of the Nature of Mind. This would include, for example, understanding the view of Dzogchen); Conduct (how to act while practicing vajrayana as a reflection and support of realizartion; Mandala (a symbolic mental image of wholeness. This can be a view of the totality of the world as represented within the body, or as a cosmic realm with a central mountain and a palace on top and a deity, or deities, within the palace) ; Empowerment (requiring a lama); Samaya (or ‘vow’- not actually vows, but this is the typical translation); Accomplishment ( as in the medthod of accomplishing realization- the Generation and Completion yogas); Offerings (tsoks); Enlightened Activity (applying meditation methods to achieve practical goals; Mudras (including the body in meditations); and Mantra.There a few basic approaches to this method, but really basically two, either of these practicable from slightly different perspectives. The two basic methods are, in the Nyngma classification, Mahayoga and Anuyoga. Mahayoga emphasizes visualization of the mandala and deities and utilizes radiation of light from one’s heart; Anuyoga emphasizes the channels and winds. While they look different, really they are just different in emphasis, as they both accomplish the same things, just using a different approach, and both utilize similar visualizations. The other variation is the view- either some stage of tantric or dzogchen/mahamudra. Still, the basic practices are the same, but with a different understanding.

    The thing is, this is all one seamless whole- in two or four slight variations, with other levels of tantra being further variations.

    So how can this be modularized or simplified? Would you remove a technique? of course not, that would be foolish. Would one remove some parts of the 11 themes? How could you? They are just different aspects of one practice. For example, would one practice the view without meditating on it? Why? Would we, for example, not practice tsoks, or embodying the teachings in a special context where one can involve every aspect of being at least for a short time? Why would one want to do that?

    Okay, one could study the philosophy and apply it for insights into another tradition.
    One could use the ideas of vajrayana and integrate them into another tradition- which would then probably want to include all 11 elements as well.

    The ways I think it could be simplified would mostly be by any single individual: just pick one tradition and stick with that. Don’t read every text ever written in that tradition- pick a key text in each subject area, or just pick one comprehensive text and call it sufficient. Pick one path and follow it with focus. Mostly, this requires teaching the student how to learn the subject.

    Teachers need to understand our needs and present the teachings in a way that we need- not the way a medieval Tibetan monastic needs it to be presented.

    An issue which always comes up is regarding the existence or not of the heavens and the deities, aka spooks, and the woowoo that goes with believing in these things. First, their existence or not is certainly to be decided. Sure, it’s impossible to prove their existence in a material or evidence based manner, but a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. Nonetheless, I don’t believe that it matters, anyway. Still, it can certainly be presented as a useful story, which may or may not be true. It is useful as a skillful means. The deities can certainly seen as aspects of ourselves that we are developing, and for this we need to create imagery and names, because that’s how our brain works. These things are too abstract without imagery and anthropomorphization for most people to deal with.

    Something that many people take issue with is the devotion to these made up things and to the lama. How else does one propose to exercise and development of compassion? This is the mistake of many intellectuals, or so-called left-brain people. They are exactly the ones who need to do these practices, and I’m sure their partners would agree. The lama, unfortunately for the anti-clericalists, is the essence of this entire system. The lama is an embodied stand-in tfor the deities, and when we visualize the deities we do so knowing that it is the lama. Without this understanding vajrayana is dead. The thing is, it’s not him or her, personally, and that’s what needs to be clearly understood by many. OTOH, I know of many students for whom the personal devotion to the lama is what makes the tradition have meaning and come to life. They need an actual human being for them to be able to imagine the meaning of the practices. For the ‘left brainers’ this may be a tragedy, and a horror, but that’s what these people need. They may, possibly, need to move beyond that, but they need to be able to be there while it’s necessary. Getting rid of it would be a loss, and it’s impossible anyway.

    I, personally, am not against the keeping of all the traditions, although I personally go for the most succinct approaches, but I also like the more elaborate ones but just don’t have enough free time for them. What I would like is a more pruned version of them to be available for general practitioners, and a deeper or richer version available as time permits. I believe we need some more modern interpretive texts that can sit alongside the older ones.We need more western lamas who are teaching the traditions but have the ability to interpret and transmit them skillfully. I don’t want sanitized and simplified versions where much of the richness is abandoned, as if we can’t handle it, or are spiritual children. We need a version that can hold its own up to the traditionalists, even if its organized differently and maybe they shrug their shoulders a little and say “I don’t know why they do it that way, but they seem to know what they’re talking about and they seem to be good practitioners:.Maybe not every practitioner can debate madhyamika, but so what. Some of us should be able to debate it, and when it’s necessary we call them up. We need to have some scholar practitioners who aren’t just academics. The rest of us shouldn’t feel pressured to be that and should feel like real members of the sangha nonetheless. We need teachers to be able to teach without being academics, and that means a slightly different lama training system- but on the other hand, Christian ministers and priests go to bible college and seminary before teaching, so maybe that’s fine to keep for those who want to teach.

    Mostly, we need to develop new ways of teaching that match people’s needs. I don’t think the teachings themselves need alteration, but they certainly need clarification, some interpretation, and some change in presentation.

  24. Foster Ryan says:

    OK, while I’m at it.
    The whole thing of lamas flying into town and then continuing onward- if that’s all you got then fine, but really, we need local lamas and then fine, a guest speaker comes into town to visit and perform something out of the local lama’s pay grade. Not that I don’t like those events, but it’s not good in the long term to be dependant on that stuff.

    Some of the woowoo stuff- whatever you think- is incredible. Like have you ever gone to a relics exhibit- too me it’s like a giant hit of acid. I have no idea, in an everyday sense, why, but I don’t really care. Damn, they are intense. If one doesn’t like it then don’t go, but don’t insult those who do go and find it amazing. Maybe it’s a psychological trick- but it’s a good one and that’s fine by me. Suspending judgement on things we don’t understand or believe is fine.

    There needs to be some consistency in the teachings for any one center- nobody needs endless new empowerments and teachings- it just leaves everybody confused. There needs to be an institutional understanding of this and that needs to be communicated by one’s lama.

    Tsoks: they should be performed with good food. Often times they consist of doritos and cookies.

    I would love if all the various texts could be translated into English by translators who can approximate the ability to sing the traditional melodies with the translation. I love those melodies but wish it was in English many times- still, I also really like it in Tibetan as the songs and prayers sound beautiful in the language.

  25. @ Foster Ryan — Thank you for these thoughts. Very much apropos.

    I agree that it’s hard to think about Vajrayana other than as a complete system. According to my outline, I’ll soon post a piece to the effect that it is not a collection of “skilful means” or “power tools for Mahayana,” as sometimes is said. The important thing is the overall attitude, and then all the specifics (including Mipham’s 11 points) follow from that. I do plan to eventually sketch what a “post-systems Vajrayana” might look like, but I’m not at all confident that is possible.

    So how can this be modularized or simplified? Would you remove a technique? of course not, that would be foolish.

    Depends on what level of abstraction you mean by “a technique.” Could you do without one particular yidam? Yes. Could you do without yidam practice altogether? Possibly. Could you do without “meditation with signs” altogether? Almost certainly not (if it’s going to be tantra rather than Dzogchen or something).

    Still, it can certainly be presented as a useful story, which may or may not be true. It is useful as a skillful means. The deities can certainly seen as aspects of ourselves that we are developing, and for this we need to create imagery and names, because that’s how our brain works. These things are too abstract without imagery and anthropomorphization for most people to deal with.

    Yes; mythology is hugely useful whether or not it is true.

    I advocate admitting that it is not literally true, plus insisting that it is useful nonetheless. Non-existence is not a defect. I practice deity yoga (of course!) and don’t see it as a problem that the deities I practice are non-existent. I practice invocation and exorcism and don’t see it as a problem that the spooks I invoke and exorcise don’t exist. I’m actively promulgating new mythology, which I present as trashy genre fiction :-) .

    I don’t think the teachings themselves need alteration, but they certainly need clarification, some interpretation, and some change in presentation.

    What’s debatable here is what counts as “the teachings” (or “the essence”) and what is merely “presentation” or “external cultural forms.” I don’t see any bright-line test for this. Madhyamaka teaches us to be suspicious of essences, after all…

    Some of the woowoo stuff- whatever you think- is incredible.

    Sure!

    I seem to have an unusual perspective on this… You don’t have to believe anything to get the emotional impact and transformative effect of ritual and mythology. I have a problem when someone says “this is Yeshe Tsogyel’s personal vajra” (because it isn’t). I have no problem with “seeing this thing alleged to be Yeshe Tsogyel’s personal vajra was a profound, life-changing experience”—because I’ve had such experiences.

    Thanks for the other points—all good ones!

    Doritos?? Feh.

  26. Foster Ryan says:

    David- I certainly think that one could do without many of the yidams- unless it happens to be the one that one is personally practicing. In general, I think that one should focus on a small collection of practices and yidams- maybe even just one or two throughout one’s practice. Perhaps the variety of practices and yidams will thin out naturally as the system modernizes- losing some of its richness, yes, but it’s probably inevitable as it encounters the modern world, with a few bigger systems taking over.
    I don’t know about getting rid of deity yoga altogether. It’s by visualizin oooneself as deity that one changes one’s self perception to that of deity. We also visualize the world as mandala- changing our perception of the nature of the world. Maybe one doesn’t have to go to extremes on such practices, but it’s certainly effective.
    I have practiced without yidam practice altogether, as pure trekcho, and it was good too. Still, I returned to deity yoga because it has so many benefits- whether its maha, anu, or ati in content, or even one of the lower tantra forms. When I do trekcho within the deity yogas it’s much stronger- so I keep doing them.
    I do, personally, however, like the shorter versions of such practices. If I can do all my daily practices in 30 to 45 minutes per day then I think that’s realistic for most people. If one has less time then there should be a way to shorten the practice, and of course if one has more time then one can expand it. I like the possibility of a 15 minute version if that’s all I have time for.

  27. Marie says:

    @David re: “Maybe instead of insulting the Spirit Rock folks I should see if they want to collaborate…”
    Spirit Rock is a large collective, run by a large ‘council’ of teachers.

    http://www.spiritrock.org/teachers-council

    And when you look at the ‘visiting teachers’, you see huge diversity there:

    http://www.spiritrock.org/page.aspx?pid=806

    I’d imagine they have lively internal debates about just how far to push the boundaries of what’s buddhistly-kosher. Just guessing here…

  28. Foster Ryan says:

    David, you said “There’s already some promising scientific research on yidam practice that shows dramatic results. If that continues, I would expect studies comparing different yidams to see whether (as we believe) they produce different effects.”
    What research? I would love to see the research you are referring to. Any links?

  29. Here’s a link: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19476594

    If anyone can suggest others, that would be very helpful!

    I know it’s not the only one, but I don’t have other links now. I haven’t done a proper literature search, partly because I haven’t got around to it, and partly because I don’t have academic access to journals, so it will be frustratingly incomplete anyway.

  30. Tom says:

    “I advocate admitting that it is not literally true, plus insisting that it is useful nonetheless. Non-existence is not a defect. I practice deity yoga (of course!) and don’t see it as a problem that the deities I practice are non-existent. I practice invocation and exorcism and don’t see it as a problem that the spooks I invoke and exorcise don’t exist.”

    For me, this is an intensely problematic view, for a simple reason. I felt the same way for the first few years of my own study, and even now I can feel my mind resisting when it comes to deities and the like. But for me to say these things definitely don’t exist would amount to me calling my teachers liars. Or, I would be saying that my realizations are greater than theirs, despite their overwhelming experience with meditation, study, teaching, living the teachings, etc. Even non-monastic, non-clerical, non-dogmatic Dzogchen teachers (such as Chogyal Namkhai Norbu), who work tirelessly to spread the teachings and make them accessible to Western students, would be so-called liars in this regard. I’m not ready to label these brilliant, hard-working, devoted teachers as incapable of seeing things as they really are, and I would have a hard time going to sleep believing that most of the teachers in the Dzogchen tradition are liars and/or incompetent/irrational. What is more likely the case is that I have never had a direct experience of these things, so I believe them to be non-existent. However, it must be noted that “To disbelieve without experiential evidence is the same as to believe without experiential evidence.” http://www.aroencyclopaedia.org/shared/text/r/rebirth_ar_eng.php

    Maybe I prefer to see them as mythical for the time being, which is fine, but while I’m taking that stance I should acknowledge that the other viewpoint is at least as plausible as mine, and I shouldn’t expect someone to “admit” to something just because that’s my orientation. I think we need to be extra cautious when proclaiming things definitely do or don’t exist. Upon doing so we assume a position of authority which we most likely do not have, and this can actually be damaging or off-putting to someone approaching Vajrayana for the first time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s