“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Overview of tantra
- Tantra and Sutrayana compared
- Modern Buddhist Tantra ← You are here
- Naturalizing Buddhist Tantra
- Yidam (“deity yoga”) practice: a godless modern approach
- Tsa-lung (“energy”) practice: a wooless modern approach
- Reinventing Buddhist ritual
- Tantra as engaged Buddhism
- Tantra as an antidote to Protestant Buddhianity
- Naturalizing Buddhist Tantra
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?