Your self is not a spiritual obstacle

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.

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

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

No upgrade required

You do not need to:

  • fix your self
  • improve your self
  • get rid of your self
  • see through the illusion of your self
  • transcend your self
  • transform your self
  • analyze or understand your self

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

No other, better self

You cannot, and do not need to:

  • find your True Self
  • get in touch with your higher self [much less your guardian angel]
  • awaken the Buddha Within
  • unify your little self with the cosmic All-Self

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

There are no wrong emotions

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

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

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

Your feelings are not significant

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

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

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

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

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

Practical faults

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

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

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

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

Just as you are

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

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

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

Relating this to tradition

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

How to become a sky god

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

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

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

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

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

But first, a little light entertainment.

Dormitive principles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the pattern:

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

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

Tathagatagarbha: Mahayana’s dormitive principle

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

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

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

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

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

Most importantly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tantra, tathagatagarbha, and Dzogchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given that I’m a Buddha, now what?

Practical tantra

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

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

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

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

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

Never mind the sky gods

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

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

Dzogchen’s answer to that:

NEVER MIND THE SKY GODS

HERE’S THE SEX PISTOLS

Further reading

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

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

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

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

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

For an explanation of the Nyingma taxonomy of tantras, see Chögyam Trungpa’s The Lion’s Roar.

For the relationship between tantra and Dzogchen, see the “uncommon perspective” page on the Aro web site, and its pages on tantra and Dzogchen. For greater detail, Namkhai Norbu’s The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen is outstanding.

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20 Responses to Your self is not a spiritual obstacle

  1. James says:

    Not to nit-pick, but what about the sense that I have a self? If I were englightened already, presumably I wouldn’t feel like that exists?

  2. According to Dzogchen, you just are a Buddha, whether you like it or not. Whatever way you feel right now is what it feels like to be a Buddha, right now. If you have the sense that you have a self, then being a Buddha feels like having a self—at the moment.

    “Experiencing non-self” is one definition of “enlightenment”. But for many Buddhisms, “experiencing the permanent, suffering-free Self” is “enlightenment.”

    We should drop the word “enlightenment.” It means too many different things. Most of them are metaphysical fantasies, and worse than useless.

  3. Matthias says:

    What does “Buddha” mean in this context? What would it mean not to be a Buddha?

  4. Well, yes, for Dzogchen, everyone is a Buddha… you can’t not be one. So when Dzogchen says “Buddhas are such-and-such a way,” it implies “everyone is such-and-such a way.” This somewhat dissolves the meaning of the word—although the claim that “everyone is this way” remains.

    For us, now, this is useful because it authorizes us to eliminate a bunch of bad Buddhist metaphysics. The original intent was probably somewhat different.

  5. giannakali says:

    Reblogged this on Beyond Meds and commented:
    This is a very cool explanation of tantra which in reading I realized I’ve been practicing without knowing it.

    Teachers everywhere! What a time to be alive. You’ll see at the end of the post David recommends a book I shared here once too and it’s one I have embraced for many years that has deeply influenced me. “There is nothing wrong with you” by Cheri Huber.

  6. Reblogged this on Namaste Consulting Inc. and commented:
    Another wise and wonderful post!

  7. NellaLou says:

    This seems to re-frame Madhyamika doctrine into something much more approachable. The relationship (compliment and apparent tension) between tathagatagharba and Madhyamika is philosophically interesting to me. This seems to be something a lot of people get tangled in leading to either nihilism or chaos. Resolution of the two truths paradox is something I’ve tried to approach from Zen for quite some time. It was only when explanations became forthcoming via the tantric viewpoint that it started to become somewhat more clear. Reading some Tsongkhapa also. Tathagatagharba always brought to mind Matryoshka dolls that one opens up only to find a smaller one within, but on a somewhat infinite non-material basis. Conceptual nesting dolls.

    I’ve been studying up on Nagarjuna’s ideas as they came to be interpreted in early China. Example http://www.thezensite.com/ZenEssays/Nagarjuna/ChineseMadhyamaka.htm mainly to try to figure out why I disagree with popular interpretations of it so strongly. This killing the ego notion is part of it or uses Nagarjuna as justification which strikes me as a very shallow understanding. The ego is a functional interface both social and psychologically organizational with emotion an epiphenomenon.

    With Zen and Pure Land when one utterly fails,then truth is revealed. Nadir and zenith combine or are perceived non-dually.

    OK maybe my comment is not quite ready for prime time. Here’s something else.

    X, Y and Z explanations work well for me. All this stuff can be explained by such algorithms I feel. Sometimes Zen koans are like that I think. Or certain poetry.

    It may be too late in the evening. Interlacing all this together needs a bit more work. I shall read all the references you have provided that I haven’t encountered yet and try to be a bit more coherent on this in the future. Something is germinating and your post has fertilized it somewhat. (in a good way) Thanks.

  8. What an invitation to play Tantra is! As a modality for engaging with others, it really sounds like fun, and very theatrical. If we are already Buddha, then it seems we have simply failed to appreciate the game we are involved in and haven’t yet understood the rules of play. As we say in England, ‘It’s not cricket!’
    From reading the comments about Buddha Nature V Nargajuna: Surely the confusion between the two philosophical schools is irrelevant if you’re placing your questioning into direct experience? Why be so concerned about adopting a fixed perspective on the process of awakening? The goal is not Buddhahood, it’s the end of suffering. When you appreciate how vast the different forms of suffering are, and specifically how they are essentially forms of separation from direct experience, often very subtle, the question is no longer what am I, or what am I not, but how is this moment and how am I in relation to it, and preferably, ‘What would be the optimum modality for engaging fully right here, right now?’
    I think it useful as an intellectual exercise to explore the two perspectives, but they are probably wisely taken as simply two theoretical perspectives on experience. Perhaps you could be an independent thinker and conclude that both are correct and get on with practice? Or am I being flippant and dismissive?
    Perhaps that’s why pursuing the identity of a Sky God was not the original message and not what’s the pay off in terms of super-powers? If you are freeing yourself from suffering and dissatisfaction then living anything but fully each and every moment is the inevitable conclusion when you get some traction in practice.
    Paradox essentially seems to be the game to play and I’m pretty sure so far that it has nothing to do with resolution and more to do with embracing dynamic opposites. Perhaps this is another aspect of the notion of the middle-way?

    http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.it/2012/03/lets-talk-about-sexbuddhism-meet.html (Some thoughts on sex and Buddhism)

  9. Greg says:

    As far as the fruition is concerned, there are no significant differences between the Mahayana-Sutrayana model of Buddhahood and the Vajrayana and Dzogchen one. You are trying to make the former sound fantastical and the latter sound naturalistic, and that is preposterous. There is a different view of the basis and path, yes, but not of the fruition.

    In Dzogchen there is still a huge functional distinction made between those who have recognized, cultivated and stabilized rigpa and those who haven’t, so practically speaking there is still the same broad dichotomy that you are ridiculing. And the characterization of fully realized Buddhas is no less exalted and fantastical.

  10. bneal817 says:

    Great article! Blog-writing ranks really high on my list of “cool things for a Buddha to do.” Keep up the sacred play, my friend!

    ~ Ben

  11. @ giannakali, @ Namaste — Thank you very much for re-blogs!

    @ giannakali — I found a couple of posts on your blog that really resonated with what I’m saying here. Interesting!

  12. @ NellaLou — Yes, attempts to resolve the dynamic tension between Madhyamaka and Tathagatagarbha theory seems to have been crucial for driving innovation in both Zen and tantra.

    Tsongkhapa is brilliant, and totally worth reading, but in the end I don’t agree with his approach. He winds up saying that the tathagatagarbha is just the same thing as emptiness (which actually is probably the same resolution as in a lot of Zen). But I don’t think that works, especially not with his interpretation of emptiness as a mere absence. In the celebrated rangtong/zhentong debate, zhentong performs the opposite assimilation, asserting that emptiness actually has all the divine qualities of the tathagatagarbha; which I also find unhelpful. Ju Mipham’s attempt to resolve this via Dzogchen (in Beacon of Certainty) is brilliant, and I want to think it’s right, but I’m not sure I understand it.

    In the end, I think both Madhyamaka and Tathagatagarbha are just wrong; but they are wrong in subtle, interesting ways that are absolutely worth wrestling with.

  13. @ Matthew O’Connell — Yes: play, theatricality, and enjoying paradox are all at the heart of tantra!

    As you suggest, I think both Madhyamaka and Tathagatagarbha theory began as attempts to describe meditation experiences. (Different ones in the two cases.) They also contain a lot of speculative, intellectual metaphysics. I do think it’s important to apply the intellect, and philosophy, when attempting to explain meditation experiences. However, part of the problem with both fields is probably that many of the theorists did not actually have the experiences the theories were originally about. So they quickly got detached from any real phenomena.

    We actually have better philosophical tools available in the Western tradition. Applying those to what we experience in meditation may be productive.

    Here it’s probably important both to respect the Buddhist philosophical tradition—which is often brilliant—and not to be bound by it.

    I don’t think “ending suffering” is the goal of tantra, btw. I’ll have much more to say about that in future posts.

  14. Oh, I forgot to mention. Dzogchen explicitly rejects the doctrine of “two truths.” It might be the only Buddhism that does so.

    There’s only one reality, and we’re living in it—like it or not!

  15. @ Greg:

    As far as the fruition is concerned, there are no significant differences between the Mahayana-Sutrayana model of Buddhahood and the Vajrayana and Dzogchen one.

    That’s disputed, within Tibetan Buddhism. One perspective is that Mahayana/Sutrayana realizes only emptiness, whereas Vajrayana realizes the union of emptiness and form/phenomena/bliss/clarity.

    However, I’m interested in a different distinction: between concepts of fruition in which you become a supernatural sky god, and concepts in which you don’t.

    Of course, Theravada has a sky-god-free account of fruition, and I think that makes it attractive for many modern Westerners.

    However, Theravada’s fruition story has other metaphysics that I reject; and overall I find it completely unattractive, whereas aspects of the Mahayana and Vajrayana theories are appealing.

    In Dzogchen … the characterization of fully realized Buddhas is no less exalted and fantastical.

    If we’re talking scripture, I think I would want to disagree with that, to some extent. However, this is undoubtedly true of the way Dzogchen is typically taught now by most Tibetans.

    there is still a huge functional distinction made between those who have recognized, cultivated and stabilized rigpa and those who haven’t, so practically speaking there is still the same broad dichotomy that you are ridiculing.

    Yes, as a social phenomenon this is certainly correct… although I’m not sure it is either useful, or consistent with scripture…

    You are trying to make the former sound fantastical and the latter sound naturalistic, and that is preposterous.

    I am trying to point toward a naturalistic account of the fruition of tantra, and to reject a metaphysical one. However, I’m not making the mistake of suggesting that this distinction lines up with sutra vs. tantra. For the tantric yanas below Dzogchen, fruition is definitely tathagatagarbha-based, and more-or-less equates with becoming a sky god.

    I don’t think Dzogchen has an account of fruition that is deliberately naturalistic in the modern Western sense. I do think it eliminates some bad metaphysics. That makes it more amenable to a reinvention project that would actually naturalize it. I do think both tantra and Dzogchen contain resources for constructing a sky-god-free account of fruition.

    I’m calling it “nobility.” I’ll sketch what that might look like in an upcoming post.

  16. Greg says:

    The essence of what I am saying, as I think you realize, is that it is preposterous to say that in Mahayana-Sutrayana you “become a supernatural sky god” and in Dzogchen you don’t. That is no less true in Dzogchen scripture, and in the exegetical tradition of the great figures of Dzogchen over the centuries, and in the way that Dzogchen is understood now by contemporary leading exponents. The same is true of the distinction between recognizing rigpa and not.

    Whether or not this is useful or due for revisionism is a whole other thing, but you should be clear that you seem to be talking about a pseudo-Dzogchen of your own devising.

  17. you seem to be talking about a pseudo-Dzogchen of your own devising.

    Hmm, yes; let me refer you to my earlier post “Diversity, generalization, and authenticity.” Particularly where I say:

    It may be useful sometimes to mentally replace the word “tantra” with “Chapman’s confused ideas.” Then maybe you like my ideas, or you don’t, and we can discuss that. That would probably be more useful than arguing about whether or not something is “really” Buddhist tantra.

    (The same would go for “Dzogchen” as “tantra.”)

    Setting aside the question of whether I’m talking about “authentic Dzogchen”: do you think that a naturalistic account of the fruition of Vajrayana would be useful? Or pointless? Or actively harmful?

  18. Chris says:

    So, where can I find these “tantric tools” that I can start using today?

  19. Hi Chris,

    It’s difficult to give specific recommendations, for two reasons:

    The first is that tantra is intensely individual. Different people will be able to make best use of different tools, presented in different styles. Also, it’s hard to learn to use them other than in the context of personal apprenticeship, which means most people need to find a teacher who they can have a good relationship with.

    The second problem is that Buddhist Tantra is mostly just not available in the West currently. There are very few people teaching it in a way that many people here are likely to be able to use.

    The point of this blog series will be to ask “why is Tantra so unavailable?” and “What can we do about it?” The answer to the first question is historical and political; Tantra is unavailable because powerful people want it to be unavailable. The answer to the second, for teachers, is “innovate”; and “demand straightforwardness” for students. We ought to be able to do much better. I think we can—I hope we will.

    I practice in the Aro Ter lineage, whose culturally-Western teachers present Tantra in ways that may be more accessible here than many culturally-Asian teachers. You can check out our websites to get a sense of the style of the lineage. If you like it, you can go on to read the books, and if you live in a place where there’s an Aro teacher, you can go to classes or a weekend event or something.

    There are some other contemporary presentations I find interesting, but don’t know much about, so I’m listing them just as possible starting points for investigation:

    Good luck,

    David

  20. oliwa~ says:

    Dude, David, I’m just so inspired and F-ing stoked checking out your blog. Thank you for your thoughtfulness and work collecting all these ideas~

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