Book - Approaching Vajrayana - David Chapman
Back to [[ David Chapman ]] | Buddhism | Buddhist Tantra
Link to book/blog
Finding a home in Buddhism
Finding a home within Buddhism is a matter of individual “fit” rather than ultimate correctness. Buddhism is a pragmatic religion. It is concerned mainly with methods, rather than truth. Because we are all different, different methods will be useful for us.
Questions to think about
- What style of teaching and practice do I find inspiring? What motivates me to practice?
- Where am I at, spiritually? What am I currently capable of? What are my strengths and weaknesses?
- What are the different directions I can go from here? Among those, which direction do I want to go?
- What tools are available to take me from where I am to where I want to go?
- Which Buddhist teachers and lineages offer those tools? Where do I feel a heart connection? What do I like?
your sangha should be irritating
Questions about the path
- Does the path take you somewhere you want to go?
- Can it actually get you there?
- Do you have the strength and skills to follow it?
People have different tastes in paths. Some people like walking in forest; I prefer an open landscape. Some people choose paths to lakes; I would rather get to a peak.
Some spiritual paths are supposed to get you close to God. I don’t like God, and want to stay as far away from him as I can. Some spiritual paths make you holy and serene. I would rather get sweaty and ecstatic.
On “following your own path”
…doesn’t take you far enough along any path to be useful, and also doesn’t take you into genuinely unexplored territory. Without a specific direction, you are unlikely ever to get far from your starting point.
People who “follow their own path” are frequently excited about their latest approach: last week quantum aura balancing, this week holistic aromatherapy. But ten years later they are dealing with the same emotional problems in the same ways, and their lives don’t look different.
What are “Yanas”?
“Yana” literally means “vehicle.”
Most often, the Buddhist yanas are listed as Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
A different classification (not mentioned there) is into Sutrayana, Tantrayana, and Dzogchen. In this scheme, Sutrayana includes Hinayana and Mahayana.
The different yanas contradict each other profoundly. They are not superficially and arbitrarily different. Their fundamental principles are different. They have different concepts of truth, and especially of ultimate truth. For Mahayana, emptiness is the ultimate truth and ultimate goal. It is a shock to be told that in Vajrayana, emptiness is merely the starting point. The ethical systems of the yanas are at odds with each other. Pretty nearly everything that you must never do according to Sutrayana, you sometimes must do according to Vajrayana.
Sutrayana & Vajrayana
Literally, Sutrayana means “the vehicle (yana) based on the scriptures called ‘sutras’”—or ‘suttas’ in Pali. The scriptures of Tantric Buddhism are called “tantras”, not sutras.
Sutra promises liberation from suffering, but in some descriptions the price is a kind of living death. You are liberated from suffering only by abandoning desire, and anything that provokes desire. For most modern people, this is not an attractive proposition—except when we are desperately unhappy.
Sutrayana is anti-self, anti-emotions, anti-body, and anti-women in ways often strikingly similar to Christianity. It’s also anti-thought, at least in meditation.
Tantra, and the modern world view, are pro-emotions (if they are handled properly) and pro-body. For Tantra, enlightenment is not just a change in one’s mind; the emotions and body are also transformed, because these three are not separate.
The Middle Way is not just any “sensible” path avoiding positive and negative extremes. It’s at the zero point, where there is neither pleasure nor pain. The goal is equanimity; neutrality; absence of either desire or aversion.
For Sutrayana, there is no such thing as a sensible, safe, or acceptable quantity or type of sensory pleasure. All sensory pleasure results in craving, and is incompatible with the path.
The key distinction between tantra and Sutrayana (traditional mainstream Buddhism) is that tantra is about compassionate engagement with the everyday world. A tantrika takes practical action for the benefit of others.
We take compassionate action for granted in modern Western Buddhism, but it is not advocated by Sutrayana, which recommends complete disengagement. In Mahayana—part of Sutrayana—one takes the bodhisattva vow, to save all sentient beings. But Mahayana methods are all about developing a benevolent attitude, and about avoiding harm. That’s nice; but notably absent are methods for actually improving situations. In fact, Mahayana sometimes actively discourages that as “merely redecorating samsara,” and a distraction from the quest for nirvana.
Tantra is an attitude, the attitude of spacious passion. Uniting spaciousness and passion unclogs energy, producing mastery, power, nobility, and playfulness.
Spaciousness implies that you are open to everything in the world. You don’t get finicky about “this aspect is spiritually bad; it’s impure, so I’ll avoid it.”
Spaciousness implies that you allow everything in the world to be as it is. You don’t think “this is wrong, it should be some other way.” You accept all outcomes—including disasters—as just how things are.
Passion is the desire to actively connect with everything. You are interested in everything, eager to learn, and eager to intervene. Passion is the desire to create and enjoy. Passion drives projects, and also just tinkering with reality to see what happens.
Spaciousness - Suspending Judgment
Spaciousness is an attitude: the willingness to suspend the process of meaning-making. Spaciousness is the willingness to allow unknowing, uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity, meaninglessness.
Spaciousness values astonishment, perplexity, and groundlessness. Spaciousness gives experience a quality of freshness: every situation appears unique, not merely as another instance of a familiar category.
Spaciousness depends on opened perception. Habitual categorization suppresses details; it dulls the senses. The supposed meaning of a situation blocks your view of it. You see only interpretations, not the full complexity, variability, and diversity of reality. Spaciousness directs attention to specifics, and reveals their vividness. It recognizes, not rejects, both incoherent messiness and alluring beauty.
Experience is mediated by interpretations & assumptions
Even emotions that seem extremely direct and biologically determined are mediated by meaning. Physical pain may be welcome in the context of intense athletic exertion; it lets you know that you are performing at your maximum. Two different people identically touching you intimately may produce entirely different emotions depending on the meanings you give to them.
Suspending interpretation gives space for unexpected alternative meanings to emerge. That opens new possibilities for action; alternative responses to situations and feelings. You can break habitual patterns.
When not adding interpretations to situations, it is possible to appreciate all circumstances. When not drawing implications from emotions, they are freed from compulsion, resentment, and ennui. It becomes possible to enjoy all emotions as vivid, non-conceptual energy.
One without the other fails
Spaciousness is functional only when wed with passion. Without passion, spaciousness produces only a stupid peacefulness. Spaciousness, by itself, is passive.
Passion without spaciousness is blind obsession. Without spaciousness, passion is confined to fixed channels, and its energy is often destructive. You act on emotions compulsively, or impulsively.
When the two are united, passion can flow in the many directions that are revealed by spaciousness. Then you can use your emotions creatively—propulsively—rather than being used by them habitually.
Spaciousness makes it possible to care deeply—and at the same time, to accept any outcome.
All About the Attitude
Tantra can seem extremely complex and technical. However, its mass of details are all just hints about how to maintain the passionate, spacious attitude.
The tantric attitude is valuable regardless of how you come to adopt it. On the other hand, the tantric practices and doctrines have no intrinsic value. They exist only to promote the attitude.
Action & Fearlessness
Passion and spaciousness together imply that you care deeply about the world, that you urgently want to fix problems, that you always do your best—and you are unruffled when you fail.
Having this realistic attitude produces a kind of _fearlessness_—a key attribute for tantrikas. It is not the idiot fearlessness—produced by spirituality—of being sure that things will magically come out well in the end, because God loves you. It is the fearlessness of knowing that the world is neither good nor bad; that it is not your enemy; that events are often random; that you will do your best; and so outcomes have no spiritual meaning.
Problems are not a problem. A problem is a species of opportunity: a chance to act to make things better than they would be otherwise. The world is full of opportunities. It is rich with resources for improvisation, for creativity, for caring, for connection.
Some Buddhisms treat both their path and goal as primarily mental, internal, or subjective. For Buddhist tantra, external action is more important. But accurate action requires blurring the subjective/objective boundary.
Usually, one has an attitude toward something or someone. Again, this is key for tantra. While some Buddhisms emphasize objectless emptiness, tantra is about this world and its inhabitants. While the Buddhas of the other leading brands sit around in the sky being holy, tantric Buddhas act.
Engaged Buddhism inherits Mahayana’s weakness. Engaged Buddhism is all about having good intentions; it mainly fails to take effective action.
Sacredness & Meaning
Tantra also says that everything is sacred. Therefore, every activity is a sacred activity, and meditation and practical action are inseparable. Since you don’t need to reject the world to attain enlightenment, Tantric goals are achievable in your current lifetime.
I hope that modern Tantra can overcome both [[ nihilism ]] and [[ eternalism ]] through recognizing that sacredness is a stance toward the world, not an inherent quality of some bits of it; and that adopting the stance that everything is sacred generally leads to better outcomes than the stance that nothing is sacred.
Because nothing is inherently sacred, anything and everything can be experienced as sacred. Snot is sacred. The city skyline is sacred. A half-crushed plastic soda bottle floating in the gutter is sacred.
This is a bigger, brighter view than we are used to. In every situation, we have the opportunity to experience awe and beauty. This view is also more accurate. In Dzogchen, it is called kadag, or “primordial purity.” All reality is “primordially” pure because purification is impossible and unnecessary. Nothing has ever been impure. We only created the illusion of impurity as a reference point, to avoid the vertigo of vastness.
Niceness and Depression
If a particular problem energy is too strong to deal with, you can’t turn it down, but you can drain energy out the whole system. This produces low-energy stuckness. It can appear as depression, niceness, cluelessness, and general uselessness. Many people misuse Buddhism this way, as a tool for lobotomizing themselves, because they haven’t got a better way of handling intense emotions.
The tantric alternative is to unify spaciousness with passion. Spaciousness loosens the causal links between perception and emotion, and between emotion and action. Spaciousness reveals the absence of inherent meaning in all three.
Alternatively, you can understand karma as habitual emotional patterns. For example, if your anger leads to violence, that generally makes other people violent in response, and your situation worsens. Here karma is not external, but a causal interaction between your psychology and the world.
Spaciousness can then be understood as breaking the links in the chains of karma. You let go of dysfunctional patterns of emotion-laden perception and knee-jerk action, and your situation improves.
Tantric Buddhism is the path of transformation. The practices of Tantra transform negative emotions into positive, enlightened ones. Usually in Tantra we wait for negative emotions to occur, and then apply transformative methods. If you are sufficiently committed, however, you can deliberately stir up negative emotions in order to transform them. This makes it possible to practice transformation as much as you want—rather than having to wait around for something bad to happen.
Yana of Excess
Tantra […] is not the polite Middle Way between extremes. It is the way of glorious, ridiculous excess.
Most tantric practices crank it.
Tantra has a gonzo, over-the-top attitude. Increasing passion motivates extreme action. Increasing spaciousness gives room for extreme weirdness. Increasing energy fuels extreme emotion.
Intensity to practice real spaciousness
“Spaciousness” means letting go of the compulsion to make experiences mean something. Those meanings are mostly created conceptually.
Sufficient intensity actually overwhelms your ability to conceptualize. When you stub your toe, for a couple of seconds there is no thought; there is only pain. Or, you can be so angry, or so turned on sexually, that you can’t think. Usually this is considered a problem, but for tantra, it is an opportunity to experience reality without your concepts getting in the way.
Tantra contains endless methods for generating different intense experiences. Many of these are elaborate and technical. I think that’s unnecessary. What matters is an understanding of the principle of all these methods: you deliberately intensify experience, and commit to joining that with space
Tantra aims at mastery: mastery of specifically religious techniques, but also of all arts, sciences, and practical know-how.
Tantra engenders all-around cluefulness: savoir-faire, improvisatory panache, and practical élan.
Some specific methods of tantra develop mastery, but mostly it’s the power of the attitude. Tantra develops discipline, precision, commitment, and confidence. You need these general-purpose emotional skills to be competent at anything—or at everything.
Tantra offers em-power-ment. Power-from-within grants the ability to make elegant, accurate, kind, effective, expansive changes in the world.
No other Buddhism has that power as a goal.
I think it makes tantra a uniquely valuable path—for some people.
Power-from-within, like authority, comes with responsibility and risks. Like authority, it can be used for good or ill. It’s often a headache. The more power you have, the more emotionally mature you have to be to use it properly.
Not everyone would want that responsibility. Not everyone is capable of it, whether or not they want it. Tantra is not for everyone. Even putting the elitism of authority aside, tantra has an inherent elitism of willingness and ability.
I consider the ultimate goal of tantra to be “nobility.” Nobility is right use of power.
Nobility - Rising to Serve
Nobility is the aspiration to manifest glory for the benefit of others. Nobility is using whatever abilities we have in service of others. Nobility is seeking to fulfill our in-born human potential, and to develop all our in-born human qualities.
Because nobility is an intention, it is possible for everyone. Specialness tries to be better than ordinariness. It would only be possible to be special if most people were ordinary. Claims of specialness are based on uncommon qualities. It would not be possible for everyone to be special.
Everyone could be noble—and at times all of us are noble. It is not an accomplishment; it is a stance. But nobility is not easy. It is not easy to hold the intention continuously. It is not easy to abandon our laziness. It is not easy to let go of hope that one day we will discover our “true life-mission,” given by the cosmic plan. To be noble is not special—but it is extraordinary.
Specialness demands constant confirmation. That is because no one really can be special, and no one is special. The illusion of specialness is in constant danger of collapse. Nobility takes itself for granted, and needs no confirmation. When we have that intention, we have no doubt of it. Specialness aims at a brilliant destiny; nobility is always already complete.
Specialness serves in order to rise, whereas nobility rises in order to serve.
The idea of being “noble” may sound remote or ridiculous. However, it is actually possible—whereas it is not possible to be either ordinary or special. Nobility is actually available to all of us in every moment, simply by choosing it. It is frightening; but to me it seems infinitely worthwhile.
- The most negative emotion is hatred. Wrathful practice is called “wrathful” because hatred is the emotion you most stir up and attempt to transform. As part of the method, you rely on a “wrathful yidam,” or visualized enraged deity. (Dorje Phurba, shown at the top of this page, is an example.) With this practice, hatred can be transformed into the clarity of enlightenment.
- you visualize the full, grisly awfulness of death. This is an instance of the tantric method of intensification: cranking the horror up to eleven.
- That is the tantric practice of “pure vision.” Like charnel ground, it is a “practice of view,” which means developing the habit of interpreting the world in a particular way. There are technical methods for developing this “divine perception.” However, as in earlier pages, I would rather emphasize the power of the attitude. What is important is relating to people as though they were Buddhas, and relating to circumstances as though they were a “Pure Land.”
Here are all the notes in this garden, along with their links, visualized as a graph.