What can this blog do?

There are many Vajrayana traditions and they can appear quite different. The point of this site is to facilitate understanding of Vajrayana as a field, the general principles upon which it is based, and its contemporary function in the world. My priors are that Vajrayana offers something distinct from other Buddhisms, that it is well-suited to flourish in a variety of forms outside its traditional cultural context.

I am not an expert in all Vajrayana; quite the contrary. I have gone into depth in one approach. It is likely that, if you find Vajrayana a good fit, you will do so too. The vision I have for Vajrayana Now is that it will become a stepping-stone for potential tantrikas (people who practice Vajrayana). It’ll be quite a wide, flat stepping stone, one that you can hang around on before deciding which direction to step, hop or jump next. And you can always come back to it and splash out in a different direction if you like.

Here are some ideas for topics the site might cover:

  • A resource section with pages on different approaches, courses and retreats, books, websites
  • Practice and practices
  • Principles and functions
    – ethics/morality/yanas (vehicles and their view)
  • Introduction to teachers and their styles, links to their biographies and teaching schedules
  • Teacher matters: the role of the teacher, teacher-student relationships
  • Portraits of yogis, past and present
  • Blog posts about living as a tantrika

I’ll add more to that list as the shape and scope of the site becomes clearer. I am hoping that parts of the site will be a collaborative effort, with contributions from practitioners experienced in different styles and lineages of Vajrayana practice. If you would like to contribute in that way, please get in touch with me via the contact form.

Please use the comments section of this page to tell me what you would like to see the site cover. What would help you, personally, approaching Vajrayana? I can’t promise to deliver everything that’s suggested – but it will be a good starting point to know how you think I can help.

Thank you!

12 thoughts on “What can this blog do?”

  1. I’m an interested beginner… what I’d like to see?
    Practical tecnique instructions, and how they work, how they fit into the broader set of tecniques, how progress develops over time.
    What’s the take on the ethical side, what is forbidden, what is allowed, what is recommended -and, most important, what principles are underlying the whole take on morality-.

    More in general, I’d like a pragmatic approach, taking out what is cultural and leaving what is essential, explaining what is essential and how it works in a way that is understandable even without a tibetan background of some sort.

    Even more in general, I’d like to be able to understand and practice vajrayana in the same way I can understand and practice theravada.
    So, one question, then: does it even make sense to practice vajrayana without a teacher, in the same way that theravada can?

  2. Thanks Mario, you have touched on some big topics here. I will add a section, Vajrayana practices, to the list, and maybe one category for principles. I’m still mulling this over as it’s very difficult to separate the pragmatic side of practice from its principle and function. All those things somehow belong together. Some category will go up there, anyhow, and I hope it will eventually encompass your interests.

    So, one question, then: does it even make sense to practice vajrayana without a teacher, in the same way that theravada can?

    Not in the long run. I don’t know of any Vajrayana approach that would say the teacher is dispensable. Though of course, it’s unrealistic to expect to find a teacher that you can work personally with for a long period without quite a lot of exploration first. The styles of teacher-student relationship can vary enormously too.

    The teacher-student relationship is the mechanism for personal change in Vajrayana. But that doesn’t mean that the practices are useless without having found a teacher to work with. For example, silent sitting meditation where you let go of your personal referencing and internal narratives, would be excellent preparation for working with a teacher. And – as far as I understand – most Vajrayana approaches would advocate some form of silent sitting.

    I will also add teacher-student relationships to the categories.

    Have fun in your explorations!

  3. Mario – good questions indeed. First – teachers are essential. Period. (My opinion of course, but a very strong one.) However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do a lot of groundwork in the process of finding your teacher. Exploration is important – very important. And the practice you already know about and do is very helpful and won’t go to waste. Even if you end up going into some practice that is quite unlike anything you do now, the work you have done and are doing to open up and discipline your mind will help a great deal.

  4. Thanks for the replies!

    Yeah, thought something like that about the student-teacher relationship; however, I thought it was worth asking for a number of reasons, some of them being:

    -there is a youtube video of Shinzen Young explaining how insight into the anatta can arise as a consequence of Deity-Yoga practices
    -there is a discussion recorded somewhere (I think in the Hurricane Ranch discussions) where Daniel Ingram and Hokai Sobol talk about Vajrayana practices and how they line up with the progress throught nanas described in the Mahasi tradition
    -more in general, any approach that works has to lead to some kind of insight into the 3C by definition, some overlapping has to be there
    -I’ve read that there is a lot of chakra awareness involved in Vajrayana practices, and thefounder of AYP talk about the same enlightnment the other guys here are talking about, and does that without any student-teacher relationship and with lot of work on energies and chakras, so again, there is something there that obviously works in a way thatis not dependent upon the teacher
    -I have read something about the difference between material and inner Guru, wich has a striking resemblance with some more devotional-oriented approaches.

    On a more personal level:
    -I read a book on Chod a while back, got somehow the essence, and now I occasionally use visualization of demons to deal with things in daily life effectively
    -I read about some tantric visualization that goes something like “imagine energies waterfalling from the crown chakra throught your whole body”, and that is a perfect description of some experience that I had before having read that
    -a while back I noticed some energy trasmutation phenomenon as in “this energy (emotional or not) turns into a different kind of energy”, and now I regularly turn sexual energies into metta, and anger can obviously create a tremendous amount of clarity, and there is obviously a blissfull component in desire, wich are some of the energy trasmutation-related things that I red a few years back while looking for some source in Vajrayana (then I stabilized in a theravada context)

    So, putting all this together, I’d say that, at least, some of the techniques can be applied without a teacher, because these things are clearly a potential that everyone has for the very simple reason that they are natural consequences of the way we are built on a subtle level, and obviously no tradition has copyright upon that.

    Maybe the teacher is, like someone told in the comments on the first post, the one that holds things together, creating a series of practices that are syinergetic and consistent with the needs of the student?
    But, if that’sthe case,one could argue that even in a theravada context such a figure would be very nice to have, and yet people get enlightned regardless; could that be the same with the Vajrayana techniques?
    Or maybe Vajrayana is an approach that by it’s nature has student-teacher relationship, cultural and ritualistic stuff melted together in such a deep way that, without them, the techniques could work regardless but at that point it wouldn’t even make any sense to call that Vajrayana?

    I’m sorry if I’m a bit of a pain, but this is a discussion that I’ve been wanting to have for a long time… bye!

  5. Hi Mario,

    I enjoyed our spontaneous chat over Google hangout just now.

    So, putting all this together, I’d say that, at least, some of the techniques can be applied without a teacher, because these things are clearly a potential that everyone has for the very simple reason that they are natural consequences of the way we are built on a subtle level, and obviously no tradition has copyright upon that.

    It’s not that practices can or can’t work without a teacher, so much as that the teacher in Vajrayana has a particular rôle in relation to you and your practice.

    Any practice that has a description of what to do can be generalized. If you can do what the instructions say, then you can try the practice out, right? You can get to see if it does what it’s supposed to do when you try it. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Maybe something entirely unexpected will happen.

    In Vajrayana, what matters is what you do with whatever happens when you practice, more than what happens itself. One thing that differentiates it from other Buddhist paths – traditionally – is that advice from the teacher is personal, not general. Different Vajrayana groups will explain the reasons for that in different ways.

    Maybe the teacher is, like someone told in the comments on the first post, the one that holds things together, creating a series of practices that are syinergetic and consistent with the needs of the student? But, if that’s the case, one could argue that even in a theravada context such a figure would be very nice to have, and yet people get enlightned regardless; could that be the same with the Vajrayana techniques?

    What makes the difference isn’t the techniques themselves, it’s the method of approach. There are the same, or similar techniques across different approaches. For some people, working in depth with one teacher over many years works best. For others, gathering insights from a broad spectrum of teachers works well. For others, trying out different practices to see what works is the right thing. The needs for each student change over time too. I spent about five years trying out lots of different techniques and reading a lot, before I felt I wanted a personal teacher.

    I hope that helps sort out some of the questions?

    I’m sorry if I’m a bit of a pain, but this is a discussion that I’ve been wanting to have for a long time… bye!

    I don’t find you a pain in any way. The discussion could be helpful for other readers too.

  6. I find there’s a useful analogy between a Vajrayana teacher and a PhD thesis (dissertation) advisor.

    As a university undergraduate, or even Master’s student, you have many teachers. There may be one or two who are particularly inspiring, or whom you particularly like, or even who take a particular interest in you; but it’s still a broad and open situation. This works because at that level you learn mostly concepts and techniques. You can learn those from many people.

    At the PhD level, you are learning to be a particular kind of person, or to live a particular kind of life: the life of creative, original, individual research or artistry. It seems to be mostly only possible to learn that through an intensive apprenticeship with a single teacher who gives you personal advice. In the university system, that is your PhD thesis advisor. You meet frequently one-on-one with your advisor, for an hour or more, to discuss the direction of your work in depth. Typically you do that at least weekly for several years.

    Both modernized Western Theravada, and Vajrayana, are sometimes presented as collections of concepts and techniques. That seems to work well in the Theravada case. It fits well with the traditional Theravada role of the teacher as a “mitra,” friend, with whom you have a relationship similar to a classroom teacher in the West.

    I think it’s a major (although common) mistake to understand Vajrayana as a collection of concepts and techniques. I find it better to regard Vajrayana as an approach to life. It has many concepts and techniques; but those are secondary.

    I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to learn the Vajrayana way of life other than by spending a lot of time with someone who lives that way. You pick up the way of life through observation, and from interaction with the teacher, and with the students around the teacher who are a little further along. It can’t really be written down, so you can’t read it in a textbook. Mostly it can’t even be put into words, so you can’t get it from a classroom lecture either.

    Mostly, you can learn Vajrayana concepts and techniques from anyone. Almost nothing is secret in Vajrayana nowadays. If you want to learn very advanced practices, it’s not difficult to find someone who will teach them to you. But those aren’t going to do much good unless you understand how they fit into the Vajrayana way of life.

    (I planned to write about these issues in the “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” series on my blog… Maybe if there’s enough interest, I’ll get around to it before dying.)

  7. “I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to learn the Vajrayana way of life other than by spending a lot of time with someone who lives that way. You pick up the way of life through observation, and from interaction with the teacher, and with the students around the teacher who are a little further along. It can’t really be written down, so you can’t read it in a textbook. Mostly it can’t even be put into words, so you can’t get it from a classroom lecture either”

    I don’t see how any way of life can be learned by reading something, since a way of living is more something that penetrates in your bones than something that you know something about, and yet, eventually you can end up assimilating that in many ways, some of them being:
    -doing certain actions that are consistent with that way&not doing certain actions that are not
    -practice, both formal and informal
    -learning about conceptual framework
    -learning about the view on morality specific of that particular way
    -hanging around with people doing the same thing
    -asking questions
    -listening to talks by more experienced guys
    -being exposed to anecdotes of daily living of people on the path
    -reflecting on cause&effects (previous vipassana training helps with this)
    -reflecting on what you previously learned in other ways
    All of these things interact one with the other, leading to an understanding that naturally deepens over time.

    So, it seems to me that there is a lot that can be done to expose someone to the Vajrayana way of life, at least, to give him/her some ideas about what the thing is about, to give some sense of what someone is going toward; and, btw, is also one of the reasons I’m interested in the ethical side of the thing.

    Bye!

  8. Hi Mario – I had a whole reply written and then your next post appeared – and I really agree with it. Again – you bring up some good questions – in this case, right on target with the whole issue of making the Vajrayanna more accessible. Here’s my response to your earlier remarks.

    You said, “I’m sorry if I’m a bit of a pain, but this is a discussion that I’ve been wanting to have for a long time… bye!” Anything that makes me think is a pain – possibly it’s also good for me. But exploring, questioning, ruminating are all essential ….

    In his response David said,

    “I think it’s a major (although common) mistake to understand Vajrayana as a collection of concepts and techniques. I find it better to regard Vajrayana as an approach to life. It has many concepts and techniques; but those are secondary.”

    “I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to learn the Vajrayana way of life other than by spending a lot of time with someone who lives that way. You pick up the way of life through observation, and from interaction with the teacher, and with the students around the teacher who are a little further along. It can’t really be written down, so you can’t read it in a textbook. Mostly it can’t even be put into words, so you can’t get it from a classroom lecture either.”

    Rin’dzin also mentioned the idea of Vajrayana being ‘an approach to life.’ I’m not sure I quite get that completely or perhaps would articulate it differently – even so, it’s pointing to something important. The rest of my quote from David, about spending a lot of time with the teacher – that’s my experience too. The Shinzen Young video bears this out – his major point is that you can get insight into the constructed and arbitrary nature of the self via deity meditation. That’s the tip of the iceberg, only the tip. Anyone taking this as the whole story – or secret – will miss about 90%.

    This raises a lot of issues – one of which, to my mind at least, is that close teacher/student connection is not the main teaching model for Vajrayana in the west. But for me it’s important to keep in mind that Vajrayana is rooted in Mahayana – and authentic Vajrayana practitioners, teachers and students alike, will do whatever they can to help others to reach the goal. The secrecy aspect is in service of this motivation – at least ideally – though like everything else, it can get distorted.

  9. Ideally Vajrayana functions in the context of a very close relationship between the teacher & the student. It is not that one is given a set of practices & techniques but that the actual relationship with the Lama functions as the main content of the teaching & practice. In this way it is completely individualized & specific to the people involved, Lama & student. Trying to access the essence of Vajrayana by reading about various practices & choosing which ones appeal is somewhat like trying to learn how to tango by watching videos & reading books. When you actually interact with a partner, the whole thing opens into another dimension entirely.

  10. @David, Susan and SD Wangmo,
    Thank you all for your insightful comments into the teacher-student relationship in Vajrayana. I enjoyed how you each brought out something important about the context, with different emphases.

    @Mario
    It’s unusual, though possible, to find a Vajrayana teacher without the kind of preparation that you mention. I know a few people who have successfully ‘leaped straight in’ on meeting a teacher, without having read, practiced and prepared for some years beforehand. But normally there’s a lot of formal and informal practice, learning about the framework, listening to talks, etc first.

    A particularly useful preparation is also spending time with the teacher’s sangha, getting familiar with the style and approach and, also, obviously, spending time with the teacher. Though, like Susan says, that may or may not be possible according to the teacher’s circumstances, number of students and so forth.

    You might find useful Chögyam Trungpa’s introductory interview to the Journey without Goal series at Naropa in 1974. There he specifically talks about the relationship between Hinayana and Vajrayana, and the tantric practitioner:

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