Reinventing Buddhist Tantra

Posted on 29. Apr, 2012 by in Blog

David Chapman has opened a new series of articles entitled “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra.” If you’re not familiar with David’s work so far, especially the series on Consensus Buddhism, please look at the “Consensus: Outline” – for the whole Consensus series, look here. The new series on Buddhist tantra is exciting in that it jumpstarts a curious discussion on possibilities for a 21st century tantric Western Buddhism. Please join the discussion by posting in the articles’ comments section.

While most of discussion will most likely be informed by Tibetan Vajrayana references, especially Tibetan strategies in presenting tantric teachings through history, the general intention is to consider whether there are new opportunities for an authentic yet naturalized tantra in the West. There’s a lot of dogmatism and resistance to be met, and distancing from conservative institutional forms of Buddhist esoterism will be unavoidable.

While David’s opinions are his own, they disclose a pattern shared by many, and his honest laying of cards is commendable. A bold discussion among peers is what we need at this point. A disambiguation is necessary before we can move on, and it can only be arrived at through engaged, informed, candid conversation.

On a personal note, the question of naturalized tantra – or naturalized esoteric Buddhism in general – has been at the heart of my study and practice for the past 20+ years, especially since I began teaching. There’s the obvious cultural disparity, whether Indian, Tibetan, or Japanese, and then there’s the gap in means and meanings from agricultural medieval society to a digital post-industrial society with entirely different notions of self and world. What seems as a huge obstacle, suggests that we should start from scratch, trusting our best intuitions.

11 Responses to “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra”

  1. David Chapman

    29. Apr, 2012

    Hi, Hokai,

    Thank you so much for this!

    I hope you will be part of the discussion, too; either here or on my site or both. Our perspectives seem to have much in common, but I’m sure there are also interesting differences.

    I know so little about Shingon that, unfortunately, my presentation can’t reflect its insights. I’ll try hard to avoid equating “Buddhist tantra” with “Tibetan tantra”, though. Fortunately, the differences between those two things will be one of my main themes…

    I am curious: when you say “naturalized” in this post, do you mean that in the sense of “introducing into a new cultural context” or in the sense of “eliminating supernatural elements”? I am guessing the first, but there has been much talking recently of “naturalizing Buddhism” in the second sense – ”Owen Flanagan’s book, for example.

    I’m interested in “naturalizing” tantra in both senses, although I’m not quite pursuing either one. In the first sense, I’m more interested in freeing tantra from its Tibetan context than in adding Western cultural interpretation. (Although some of that is probably inevitable.) In the second sense, I have a mostly-naturalistic worldview (no flying lamas, except on airplanes), but I don’t personally feel a need to be ultra-hygenic about scrubbing off all supernatural narrative.

    Thanks again,


  2. Hokai

    29. Apr, 2012

    David, you’re welcome. By naturalization, I primarily mean Buddhist tantra finding a way to express itself in native discourse, which usually starts with language and then proceeds into ways of living and relating to society. Insofar as Buddhist tantra is capable of finding for itself native expressions, it will be alive and animated, not a stuffed animal. The “expressions” include linguistic, artistic, intellectual, cultural, economic, and organizational forms. And yes, a meta-cultural context is what we’re after, not a mere translation. As far as “supernaturalism” is concerned, highly charged symbolic and allegorical structures can be recycled, but superstitions must go. Looking forward to new episodes:)

  3. Matthew O'Connell

    29. Apr, 2012

    Have taken your advice and read more attentively Dave’s posts and made a few comments of my own. As you said when we spoke last, action is required. Much of what is held in the potential of living ‘spacious passion’ as one’s outlook smacks of potentially shamanic action, which in the form I’ve been practicing it, involves embracing primal forces as an invitation to engage outside of role confirming and stabilizing dynamics.

    I do feel that we should have the courage to start owning these paths with or without the consent of the hierarchy in place. Perhaps you’re right though that this would best be achieved through starting afresh so as to avoid unnecessary conflict and divisions. This would imply creating a new path and an institution to give form and a focus for such proceedings, right? Perhaps some informal gatherings of interested parties with a clear intent and space to experiment would be a good place to collectively get the ball rolling?

  4. Hokai

    29. Apr, 2012

    @Matthew I find an honest conversation between senior practitioners of Buddhist tantra to be a sufficient challenge. A non-sectarian network would be the logical next step, but there are two many uncertainties at this point. Of course, others could feel inclined to try out something more explicit and adventurous.

  5. Gate

    30. Apr, 2012

    “And yes, a meta-cultural context is what we’re after, not a mere translation.”

    — that’s the heart of the matter, isn’t it? And a formidable difficulty: it requires going back to the Big Questions afresh: what is a human being? what is our purpose? what is the nature of our relationship with the All of It? how do we engage in a way that reflects respectful understanding of these things?

    Tantra, and Daoism, and shamanism began as answers-in-practice to these questions; to try to simply reword them to fit the worldview that we inherited robs them of all their power.

  6. David Chapman

    02. May, 2012

    “I find an honest conversation between senior practitioners of Buddhist tantra to be a sufficient challenge” – Sadly, this is my observation also. I hope this isn’t something caused by tantric practice itself. Tribal, sectarian infighting, accompanied by political paranoia, secrecy, and unnecessary hostility, is ingrained in Tibetan culture. Westerners seem to pick that up and replicate it in the West.

    I’m hoping that having a nobody (me) raise some of the obvious issues may lead to discussions among senior folks that otherwise wouldn’t happen. Putting them out in a public forum might force communications that otherwise would be avoided. Perhaps, first, students will ask awkward new questions of their teachers; and then the teachers will communicate with each other as they try to come up with answers.

    @Gate – I agree with all that.

  7. David Chapman

    02. May, 2012

    Hokai, would you consider turning on email notification of new comments? Probably you are getting them as site author, but others don’t, so we have to check back to see if there’s something new.

    I gather that this is an option in WordPress that is off by default, but that you can turn on easily.

  8. Hokai

    02. May, 2012

    @David Any dogmatism can directly be traced to the institutionalization of Buddhist tantra. Primordial Buddha not being just universal teacher, but also absolute ruler, the institutional reflection became spiritual despotism (of benevolent kind, we’ve been asked to believe). What you describe happens when there are many little chauvinist despots, each in their own bubble reality.

    Re email notification, it’s a plugin, and I promise to look into it.

  9. David Chapman

    02. May, 2012

    “Many little chauvinist despots, each in their own bubble reality” – how true!

    Thank you very much re: email notification.

  10. Lama Surya Das

    06. May, 2012

    Dear Hokai,

    can you kindly get in touch with me to discuss and explore further the future of Vajrayana in the West, something many of us Dharma teachers are presently discussing among ourselves? I appreciate very much your thoughtful writings and teachings.


  11. Daniel M. Ingram

    02. Dec, 2013

    @David and Hokai: you two really need to just get the stuff out there. Whatever obstacles impede the free-flow of a contemporary Vajrayana, vow to smash them.

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