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Buddhadharma : Fall 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 10 48 The Myths, Challenges, and Rewards of Tantra foRuM • DZogChen ponlop RinpoChe • anne CaRolyn klein • laRRy MeRMelstein • When tantra touched down in America half a century ago, Westerners tended to view it as an exotic brand of Buddhism built on impenetrable esoteric doctrines. Western writing still often portrays the tradition inaccurately, perpetuating myths and misunderstandings. Buddhist tantra, or Vajrayana (“the indestructible vehicle”), is one of the three major forms of Buddhism, along with the Theravada and the Mahayana, to have developed in India. While the Theravada spread south through much of Southeast Asia, the Mahayana and Vajrayana traveled north to Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan. As a result of the Tibetan diaspora and lamas’ openhandedness in teaching, there are now many Western Tibetan Buddhists who practice Vajrayana. The Vajrayana is essentially a Mahayana tradition and therefore emphasizes the ideal of the bodhisattva, the bud dhanature within all beings, and the practice of universal com passion to relieve suffering. Over its history, however, several features have distinguished the Vajrayana from the more con ventional Mahayana traditions. For one thing, the Vajrayana has been intensely practiceoriented, and it declares that full realization is possible within this lifetime through meditation. The distinctive meditation methods of the Vajrayana include lineages of formless meditation (Mahamudra and Dzogchen) and intricate rituals. These include visualizations of male and female buddhas, the repetition of mantras, the making of elaborate offerings, and finally the practice of various forms of yoga that deal with the subtle or energetic body. Although these colorful and dramatic forms may seem rather differ ent from those of apparently more simple and sober types of Buddhism, the Vajrayana pursues the same goal and the same realization as the other forms of the dharma: shedding of the illusions of a separate, solid self so that life may be unleashed in all its sacredness and splendor. Although the goal pursued by the various Buddhist tradi tions may be the same, the ways they talk about that goal reveal important differences. While the Theravada chooses to speak of “cessation,” the abatement of ego activity, and (faCingpage)ColleCtionofRubinMuseuMofaRt,iteMno.487(aCC.#f1997.31.13) REGGIE RAY is the spiritual director of Dharma Ocean Foundation, based in Crestone, Colorado. He was a senior student of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and teaches within that lineage. He is the author of Touching Enlightenment and Secret of the Vajra World. the Mahayana of “emptiness,” the absence of any substantial or enduring essence to self or world, the Vajrayana talks about the goal in terms of the phenomenal world, the relative expe riences that make up our lives. According to the Vajrayana, realization is not attained by turning away from the world of appearance toward some other realm. Instead, through the practice, we are to dismantle our attachment to what we experience. When we do, we see the seamless enlightenment that always was and always will be—the world is an immense, ineffable, sacred display, charged with incandescent intensity of being and universal liberating wisdom; and we ourselves are buddhas—expressions of the awakened state in human form. This tantric realization is so immense and joyful, and it is so unconditionally life affirming, that its only possible expression is love for all that is—mahakaruna, or great com passion, in Buddhist terms. Cultures, including Buddhist ones, have historically tended to ambivalence toward spiritual realizations of this magnitude because they lead the realized to love in ways that may tran scend or destabilize the status quo. In India, tantric saints were often persecuted; in Tibet they were frequently criticized or even driven out of the monasteries. More recently, in the West, scholars have denigrated the “crazy wisdom” of tantric saints as an excuse to call into question the legitimacy of the entire tantric tradition. A tiny percentage of truly realized saints in the tantric tradition, as in virtually every other religion, sometimes behaved in unconventional ways to express a love for others and a desire to free them that knew no bounds. What a shame that the Western world, both in academia and the popular press, has sometimes attempted to portray tantra in salacious or derogatory terms, and to deny the depth of its spirituality. The following discussion is an exploration of this color ful, evocative, and to some extent unfamiliar expression of the dharma and the fascinating process by which it has been seeking to have its voice heard in the modern world—a world that in many respects thirsts for the richness and intensity of awakened experience that the Vajrayana offers, but which is also unabashedly fearful because of the loss of ego or “self” that tantric practices lead to. (Facing page) Guhyasamaja – Akshobhyavajra Central Tibet, 17th century