In his The Buddhist Tradition, Professor Theodore de Bary describes a school of Buddhism called Vajrayāna (i.e., Tantrism or “the Vehicle of the Thunderbolt”) which he closely associates with the decline of Buddhist practice in India. To de Bary, this school is the consummation of a variety of vestigial tendencies tracing back to the shamanic culture that produced the Vedas. Moreover, he asserts, Tantrism is interested “in the cults of feminine divinities, in the practice of magico-religious rites, and often contain[s] licentious or repulsive” characteristics “practiced chiefly by the lower social orders.” While it is true that a small number of Tantric teachings are prima facie objectionable, I disagree with de Bary’s contention that Tantrism is largely repulsive or unpleasant. Such characterizations are rooted in upper-handed notions of Western morality and a limited, hegemonic textual selection. Moreover, they are dangerous because they restrict the extent to which Tantrism is a free subject for readers who can not meaningfully discuss its complexity without the limitations on thought and action imposed by de Bary. For these reasons, the goal of this paper is “to widen the field of discussion, not to set limits in accord with the prevailing authority.” It is to argue in favor of an incredibly alluring interpretation of Vajrayāna Buddhism on three grounds; first, that it envisions salvation as an end reasonably attainable by all; second, that it makes practical and nuanced normative claims surrounding compassionate service to others; and third, that it regards sensuous experience as commensurate with the process of enlightenment. It is to a discussion of these redeeming qualities of Tantrism that we now turn our attention.
II: Salvation for All
By the time of the Muslim invasion in India, Buddhism had rapidly merged into the larger body of Hinduist belief and practice. Over the centuries, the Buddha had become increasingly perceived as the “incarnation of the Supreme God…[and] placed, in theory at least, on the same exalted level as the great popular divinities Krishna and Rama.” The deification of the Buddha instilled a sense of nihilism among the masses, suggesting to them that the path of enlightenment the Buddha consummated, and in which they too were supposed to follow, could not be achieved without either the extraordinary meditation conceivable by few or through a perpetually unceasing cycle of rebirth.
Vajrayāna Buddhism is alluring particularly because it challenges those presuppositions and thus the consequent sense of nihilism they incur; it envisions salvation not as a private pursuit for ascetics or the intelligentsia, and not found through a process of endless toil and immaculate discipline “at home [or] in the forest,” but instead as an exoteric end. This is because, for Tantric Buddhists, it is always a misunderstanding of metaphysics, and not a particular inadequacy of one’s being, that lies at the root of suffering. As such, reaching enlightenment is an enterprise situated squarely within “the jewel of the mind” that all rational beings possess. Thus, salvation depends on a cognitive faculty “naturally devoid of the color of [self-discriminating] ideas” that needs merely to dispel its own illusions in order to recognize the emptiness and mutual interdependence of all things comprising the world. Through such a notion, Tantrism dismisses the conception of distinct identity, both between the individual and the universe, and between different aspects of the universal superstructure itself: “As is Nirvāṇa so is Saṃsāra, do not think there is any distinction.” Therefore, Tantrism regards these distinctions as chimerical “hue[s] of what [the mind] imagines,” prevarications the nature of which conceals the ultimate truth of existence: that every sentient being is a Buddha-to-be and can attain omniscience and godlike consciousness within this lifetime and in this body.
Thus, by “refusing to err on [the] matter of self and other,” Vajrayāna Buddhism teaches that individuals may reach enlightenment only upon a realization that their sole essential feature is an unconditional, immutable Buddha-ness, which they share in common with all things, and which unites within an interconnected web of mutuality both the ordinary and the great. It is the sense that attaining enlightenment is possible for all people, not in fantastical accomplishments of will or discipline for ascetics across endless lifetimes, but instead within the inherent purity of the mind, the disentangling of metaphysical misconceptions, and the realized emptiness of all beings mutually comprising the body of the Buddha, that makes Tantrism so compelling to those in search of a more readily achievable path to salvation.
III: Enlightenment & Compassion
Intimately related to the notion of distinction and salvation discussed in the previous section is Vajrayāna Buddhism’s conception of compassion, which is built on the same metaphysical foundations. Particularly, Tantric buddhism discusses compassion in the context of two apparently disparate trees: that of Knowledge and that of the Void. The former is a nirvāṇic representation whose “name is service to others,” and who “spreads through the triple world” bearing fruits and flowers of compassion. The latter also seems to be abound with flowers of compassion, but in reality is impersonal, with “no actual thought of another” on which the essence of compassion naturally depends. As such, the tree of the Void represents Saṃsāra or the illusory world, is uninstantiated in material reality, and is instead (perhaps when the sun shines at particular times in the day) merely a reflection caused by the tree of Knowledge onto a surface of water below. According to Tantrism, enlightenment is found in neither tree alone, not in the nirvāṇic and purely compassionate one, nor in the reflective and impersonal one; instead, it is found in the realization that the tree of Knowledge and its reflection “spring from one seed,” just as the body of a man and his shadow on a bright summer day rely on the same intricate set of physiologic processes that produced his human form in the first place. Through such a notion, the instantiated and the uninstantiated, as well as the compassionate and the impersonal, are indistinguishable just as Nirvāṇa and Saṃsāra as indistinguishable.
Thus, what Vajrayāna Buddhism suggests is that a life lived only in compassionate service to others “does not gain release from toils of existence,” because it misses the impersonal, saṃsāric element. Furthermore, a life lived perpetually ungiving to those in need “is the fruit of Saṃsāra,” as it is devoid of the compassionate, nirvāṇic element. It is only an individual who is strong in the practice of both, who encapsulates both the compassionate tree of Knowledge, and its reflection in the water below, who “remains neither in Saṃsāra nor in Nirvāṇa,” but is able to achieve some yet higher plane of being. In this way, Vajrayāna Buddhism teaches that in order to reach ultimate wisdom, one must reconcile the conditionality of the world with the compassionate service to others, as such a union between two apparent polarities assures compassion is conducted in the right way, and is pursued in the right amount. This notion of compassion represents a very nuanced and practical normative claim, dissipating the tension between service and impersonality, and establishing Vajrayāna Buddhism as far more interested in building standards of ethical conduct than that which de Bary ascribes to it.
IV: Enlightenment & Sensuousness
Another attractive feature of Vajrayāna Buddhism is the extent to which it regards sensuous experience as commensurate with (and not diametrically opposed to) the process of enlightenment. For this reason, the passion that Vajrayāna teachings endorse is not an aimless hedonism; indeed, such forms are continuously referred to as a “poisonous flame” or the “venom [of snakebite]” which, on their own, introduce toxic impurities. Rather, the passion of Tantrism is morally constrained, indulged in specific circumstances, and properly harnessed by those who “have set [their] heart[s] on enlightenment.” Furthermore, such a conception should not be understood solely in its most overt and sexual sense, because such interpretations of passion lead to the erroneous conclusion that Vajrayāna Buddhism is a doctrine of merely “dally[ing] with lovely girls.” This is because, according to Tantric teachings, “the mystic duly dwells…in thoughts of passion” as well. These thoughts might be sexual ones, but they may also refer to a sensuous appreciation of the world by virtue of the elegance of what its emptiness implies — namely, that there exists a cosmic web of continuously interacting energies from which the wondrous coincidence of one’s perceived reality emerges. It may be that the Vajrayāna notion of passion is a way of using the fruits of nature (such as Soma in the Vedic tradition) in order to access a state of intellectual ecstacy towards the external world. It is a way of combating human alienation with respect to the impersonal conditionality of all existence, and thus positing that enlightenment is dependent to some extent on a reclamation of the human experience and of human relationships.
It is important to note also that the milieu surrounding Vajrayāna teachings of passionate indulgence is medicinal and therapeutic, offered to those who are poisoned by doubt and the demon of self-discrimination so that they may “be cured by another poison, the antidote.” As such, the Tantric conception of passion is a way of mobilizing the process of achieving enlightenment and “dwell[ing] in union with one’s divinity.” A rather practical notion, its object is the equilibration of man with his greater universe and its justification is the assertion that, since the path to enlightenment is so harrowing for a humanity consumed by doubt, radical action needs to be taken to “uproot [doubt] completely.” Just as “water in the ear is removed by more water, [and] a thorn [in the skin] by another thorn,” those with demonstrated wisdom and purity should take initiative and “rid themselves of passion by yet more passion.” That is, they must engage in passionate permissiveness only insofar as it can deliver experiential wisdom more quickly. Just as one has no conception of moral conduct without having been placed in a situation in which one’s desires and obligations are set in discordance, Vajrayāna Buddhism considers, with a tremendous amount of seriousness, the extent to which the indulgence in some passion could be justified on the basis that a superordinate result is going to be achieved. If Vajrayāna Buddhism’s notion of passion did not possess that philosophic grounding, then it would be, as de Bary has suggested, an exercise in gluttony and voraciousness. But since it envisions a philosophy in which through the enjoyment of passion one may learn the greater truth about their station in the world and find “the manifold potencies of [their] being,” then its teachings are elegant and worthy of sincere deliberation.
What has been elucidated here is by no means a hard-line defense of the morality of all Tantric practices and teachings, as some undoubtedly possess questionable and esoteric tendencies that transgress normative thought and practice. Nonetheless, what this paper illustrates is that there is an immense beauty and moral sophistication to Tantrism that transcends the types of shallow analyses de Bary makes about it. Not only does it regard enlightenment as an end readily achievable by all rational entities, providing a sense of agency and self-determinism for both the ordinary and the great; and not only does it provide a refined standard of compassionate service for its followers, one conducted in the right way and in the right amount; but also, it offers a balanced view of passionate indulgence, recognizing the conditionality of all things, yet allowing sensuousness in order to attain absolute wisdom. One final point is that it is not any one of these qualities in isolation that makes Vajrayāna Buddhism so compelling. Rather, it is their mutual interaction into an emergent flavor of Tantrism that encourages a reimagination of the extent to which its claims are valuable.