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Buddhadharma : Fall 2010
B DZOGCHEN PONLOP RINPOCHE is a meditation master and scholar in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the founder of Nalandabodhi and the author of Mind Beyond Death and Wild Awakening: The Heart of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. ANNE CAROLYN KLEIN is a founding director of Dawn Mountain Tibetan Temple, Community Center, and Research Institute in Houston, Texas. She is also professor of religious studies at Houston’s Rice University and the author of Heart Essence of the Great Expanse: A Story of Transmission. LARRY MERMELSTEIN is the executive director of the Nalanda Translation Committee, and an acharya, or senior teacher, in Shambhala International. (PORTRAITSLEFT—RIGHT)ChapManto,gabRiellanissen,liZaMattheWs Tantra has gone from being viewed as extremely bizarre to having a kind of Hollywood allure. Now that we have many more human exemplars of what it means to practice in this tradition, the reality is starting to replace the fantasy. —Larry Mermelstein He was a procurer for a prostitute, survived on a diet of fish remains, and threw his principal student off a roof. anne Klein: If you start with this kind of story, and you don’t look at tantric practice and the tradition in its greater con text, you miss the kind of key points that are the foundation for tantric practitioners: appreciation of the preciousness of human life, dedication to ultimate welfare of others, and guru yoga, or devotion to a teacher who embodies wisdom and compassion as your guide. Starting with something like the Tilopa story could easily get you sidetracked. There’s been a lot written about the socalled erotic component of tantra and the psychologizing of that from Freudian perspectives— all of which may have very little to do with how one actually practices the Vajrayana. larry mermelstein: The understanding of tantra among Buddhist practitioners and practicing translators and schol ars has changed radically in the last thirty years or so. It’s gone from being viewed as extremely bizarre, to being every thing from reasonable, albeit still strange and provocative, to having a kind of Hollywood allure. So much more literature and contemporary writing on tantra is available, and many more teachers have moved to the West. We now have dozens of genuine representatives of this tradition on Western soil. Compared with the very early days, we now have many more human exemplars of what it means to practice in this tradi tion, and the reality tends to replace the fantasy. People are therefore coming to understand tantra much better. dzogchen PonloP: I agree that there has been a significant improvement in the general understanding of tantra in the world. And in the West, where I spend a lot of my time, there is a growing understanding of the tantric path. At the same Buddhadharma: Early writings on Buddhist tantra in the West described it almost as a freakish aberration. We’ve come a long way from those days. Nevertheless, tantra is by its very nature exotic and esoteric, so it can cause puzzlement or even disdain. How do you think tantra, Vajrayana, is perceived today? anne Klein: In the world I’m most familiar with, academia, there’s a lot of interest in tantra. There’s interest in assimi lating it to other themes in religious studies. For example, because of its investigation of mind states it becomes associ ated with different kinds of Western psychological analysis. It is also associated with “the transgressive,” the encouragement to transgress certain societal norms. Transgressive is about going against what people think is correct, about being a little bit “in your face.” But while scholars like to talk about tantra as transgres sive, in my view that misses how tantra actually functions for its Buddhist practitioners. It kind of skews the conversation into alleys and byways that don’t really take into account the long history of how tantric ideas and practices have been assimilated very gradually and very thoughtfully—first in India, but particularly in Tibet—into an organized, graded path that leads to the very same realization that is central to all of Buddhism. Vajrayana is not predicated purely upon being radical and iconoclastic. Buddhadharma: If parts of tantric literature, such as stories of mahasiddhas, are taken out of the context of the teachings on appearance, emptiness, and compassion, one could easily con clude that tantra was largely about shocking people’s conven tional sensibilities. One need go no further than the story of Tilopa, the founder of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 10 50