Over the last several pages, I’ve summarized an attitude, “spacious passion,” which I claimed is the key to Buddhist tantra. Here are some likely objections:
An attitude? Disappointing. Is that all there is to tantra? Big deal.
This is just common sense. I already have that attitude.
It’s unrealistic. Sounds nice, but can anyone live that way?
What about suffering? Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be the solution to that? How does your attitude help?
Tantra is about gods and demons and miraculous flying lamas. That’s what makes it different from regular Buddhism, and you’ve left all that out.
I’ll address these points gradually over the next several pages.
This page is about disappointment.
Cutting through the hype
The tantric scriptures are filled with extraordinary, ludicrous advertising claims. This plays poorly with intelligent Westerners, who disbelieve—and are repelled by—excessive self-promotion. I suggest that the traditional advertising claims of tantra are unrealistic and should be dropped.
I think it’s important to deflate the hype as part of re-presenting tantra. A reputation for realism, rather than metaphysical fantasy, would help make Buddhist tantra accessible to a broader audience. A reinvented tantra should promise no more than it can deliver.
This isn’t really a tantric issue; it’s a Buddhist issue. The scriptures of all Buddhist schools are filled with extraordinary, ludicrous hype. However, over the past 150 years, the modernizers of Zen and Theravada quietly suppressed such claims from their own traditions. That makes modern Zen and Theravada sound much more modest and reasonable and realistic than tantra.
Puncturing spiritual hype was one of the main themes in the teaching of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who first reinvented tantra for the modern West. That’s the central point of his best-known book, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. It emphasized that Buddhism should be profoundly disappointing, compared with fantasies of magic, transcendence, and salvation. He said that his audiences often found his approach “toned down and too sensible.”
Unfortunately, modernized Buddhist tantra was suppressed in the early 1990s. Since then, Tibetan traditionalists have kept straight faces while teaching preposterous texts. This reinforces the impression that Tibetan Buddhism is a collection of Medieval fairy tales.
In later pages, I will suggest that tantra can be more realistic than modernized Zen or Theravda, because it needs fewer metaphysical claims. Tantra is concerned primarily with practical action in the physical world. It can do without quasi-magical events like “enlightenment” and dubious alternate realms like “nirvana.”
So… If “spacious passion” sounds disappointing, compared with whatever you were expecting from Buddhist Tantra, that’s a good thing.
But maybe tantra need not be disappointing…
I took the title of this page from Charlotte Joko Beck’s wonderful book Nothing Special. Writing from a Zen perspective, she suggests that letting go of spiritual fantasies is a prerequisite to effective Buddhist practice.
Nothing is really solved until we understand that there is no solution. We’re falling, and there’s no answer to that. We can’t control it. We’re spending our life trying to stop the falling; yet it never stops. There is no solution, no wonderful person who can make it stop. No success, no dream, no anything can make it stop. Our body is just going down.
Joko Beck taught in the Sanbo Kyodan (Harada-Yasutani) lineage of Zen. I’ve been sharply critical of Sanbo Kyodan elsewhere, for its fetishizing and mythologizing kensho, for its claim that enlightenment consists of discovering your True Self, and for a lot of half-witted talk about God.
At the same time, there is much in Sanbo Kyodan I admire and agree with: its emphasis on non-monastic practice, on everyday life as the path, and on extensive formless meditation; and for dropping many aspects of traditional Japanese Buddhism that no longer function.
I too am, in a sense, a member of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage. Joko Beck was the first serious teacher of my first serious Buddhist teacher, Lama Zér-mé Dri’mèd. I am, therefore, her grand-student, and Yasutani Roshi—the founder of Sanbo Kyodan—is my great-great-grand-teacher.
I have never practiced Zen, though. Zér-mé was teaching Shambhala Training when I was her student; she is now a Lama in the Aro gTér lineage. Joko Beck also moved on. She de-emphasized kensho, and eventually broke with Sanbo Kyodan altogether.
Still, Zér-mé sometimes said that it seemed that Joko Beck was speaking through her. And, in that, there was probably an echo of Joko’s teacher Maezumi Roshi; and her grand-teacher Yasutani; and so on, back further than history can reach. That’s how lineage works.
I hope my writing sometimes manages to be simple, clear, and ordinary. If so, that is probably partly Joko Beck’s influence, and Lama Zér-mé’s—and also back beyond Bodhidharma.
This is the end of the “base” section of my introduction to Buddhist tantra. The next page begins the “path” section.