Are tantrikas in danger of extinction?

In my post Diclofenac warning for tantrikas I wrote:

Vultures are not afraid of death. They thrive on it. But they are in serious danger of extinction.

Dead vultures
Not many left

Sometimes I wonder if that is also true of tantrikas.

I had conversations with older practitioners which led me to believe Vajryana was more sought from the 1960s to 1990s than it is now. Does Vajrayana appeal less to the contemporaries than it did to hippy generation explorers and young people 40 years ago? If so, does this matter?

In the 1960s through 1970s there was a surge of introducing Buddhisms to the West. The baby boom generation travelled to Asia and brought back with them a new influx of learning, teachers and Buddhist forms. It sounds like it was an exciting time, in the way that encountering difference and expanding horizons – personal and cultural – is.

Vajrayana played a part in that encounter, usually as one element in the wider package of Tibetan Buddhism. Accomplished Tibetan masters, such as Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche left Tibet and began to set up institutional structures to train Western students in the 1960s. Young American and European students sought teachings and retreat in India and returned empowered to take their own students.

There was, then, a cultural excitement with the exotic in a way that doesn’t exist now. And I think that Vajrayana, as practised by Tibetans (which is the form I know best), would have fitted well into that particular exchange. Its loud instruments, formal rituals and paintings of colourful, ferocious-looking beings would have been attractively alien then. Cultural strangeness appealed for its own sake. Today, difference is normal: the norm is to choose between available differences, according to personal preference. A popular liberal ‘Western’ value is the automatic rejection of highly formalized religious ritual as ‘other’.The East-West dichotomy, taken as given for much of the 20th century,  doesn’t exist now in the way it did in the 60s when many of the Buddhisms available today were established.

How would we even know?

How would we know if tantrikas are in danger of extinction? To begin, we would need to assess whether Vajrayana is waning in terms of its availability, and its interest.

As far as I know, there are no numbers available for Vajrayana students since 1960 to the present day, so no obvious means of quantitative assessment. One could look at numbers of Vajrayana teachers: that might be feasible – though that would not indicate numbers of students and their degree of involvement.

Maybe quantity is not important with regards to continuity. You might say that what matters is only that there remain a few awesome teachers to pass Vajrayana on to one or two highly capable students, who in their turn will transmit the lineage. Then continuity is most important for its own sake. Numbers don’t matter. This is not a hypotherical argument, it’s one I’ve heard often. 

But if you care about the continuing availability of Vajrayana to future generations – as I do – then beyond a certain point, quantity of teachers and committed students does matter. I think we have already reached that point because intelligent, highly motivated, enthusiastic practitioners want and would benefit from, access to styles of Vajrayana that don’t yet exist. This year’s Buddhist Geeks conference confirmed that. I don’t think anyone is wrong for wanting new forms of Vajrayana, or that it’s an unrealistic desire. On the contrary, enthusiasm for creativity and change is Tantric in style.

There is more interest in Vajrayana than there are available forms to meet the need.  So maybe we don’t need to think about this after all? There is still lots of interest, and those who are really interested will make the required effort to gain access. This is a common view I’ve heard expressed.

Except:

Search interest declining
Search interest declining

This is a screenshot of the Google search trend for ‘Vajrayana.’ Unfortunately, data is only available since 2004. The graph shows a gradual, fairly steady 60% decline since May 2004.2

More data is available for ‘Vajrayana’ mentioned in books:

1950 to 2008 'Vajrayana' Google Ngram
1950 to 2008 ‘Vajrayana’ Google N-gram

There is a clear downward trend after 2000. There is no data for 2008 to 2013, but if we assume the same rate of decline as for the previous 8 years, as indicated by the search term trend, we’ve already reached 0.

This kind of data is general and limited, but it’s the best available for this post.

If we combine the available search data, which suggests a general decline in interest, with the anecdotal evidence that people interested in Vajrayana can’t find fitting forms, we could surmise that, even though interest has declined, it still outweighs availability.

What do you think about this?

I will visit the question again in future posts, but I’d like to hear from you first.

Questions to readers:

Do you think Vajrayana practitioners are in danger of extinction? Why, or why not?

What other data, quantitative or qualitative, might we take into account?

My analysis that needs are unmet is anecdotal. Is it accurate?

What do you think are the implications of declining interest, possibly alongside unmet need: for teachers, sanghas and seekers?

References:

1. Romanticizing and disdaining cultural otherness are two sides of the same Orientalist coin: a contemporary distaste for Vajrayana might reflect a continuation of the West dealing with a cultural encounter.

2. The downward trend has continued since I wrote this post. May 2018 marks a 70% drop in ‘Vajrayana’ used in search term queries, since May 2004.

35 thoughts on “Are tantrikas in danger of extinction?”

  1. Could it be that interest in Vajrayana is waning because availability is waning?

    Many people have asked me where to go for contemporary Vajrayana teaching/training, and I haven’t really been able to strongly recommend any teacher.

    Eventually, if there’s no supply, there gets to be no demand. During the century absinthe was banned, who wanted it?

  2. An important factor I think is that, now that yoga and midfullness are becoming mainstram, there is an incredible gap between the availability of practical information regarding theravada/yoga sources and those related to Vajrayana; while there is probably an increased need for spirituality, the demand is very easily met by other approaches, wich is consistent in temporal terms with the decreasing interest after the beginning of the new century.

  3. As David knows, I wandered for a number of years, trying to find a Vajrayana teacher. I went to retreats in California, Wisconsin, New England, Seattle. I met with a number of teachers. Rarely was a teacher (1) available at all, (2) taking students, (3) able to communicate in English.

    Eventually, I wound up studying some Japanese Vajrayana and then I went into Zen. In comparison to the above, I can find a Zen or Vipassana teacher (or 20) in every large city, especially on the coasts of North America. They are almost all willing to work with students who come and sit (and they reside at or near the centers they run themselves, unlike Tibetans) and, of course, they are America or Western and all speak English. At that point, I effectively gave up on trying to study the Vajrayana, seeing that seeking behavior was just another form of spiritual materialism.

  4. [technical]
    Rin’dzin, could you please enhance the usability of footnotes? The supersrcript font is utterly minuscule and linking back and forth between the index and the footnote text is not implemented.
    What would be really cool is to add pop-up footnotes!

  5. I don’t travel much lately, but as far as I’m aware, interest in Vajrayana has been on the rise in Poland in the recent decade. Perhaps owing to its very strong and conservative Catholic culture, Poland has not been so spiritually maleable as some more Western countries, and is a bit “late” in acquiring new spiritual traditions. Things like Yoga and Buddhism are often termed as “alternative” lifestyles. But that’s just a view of one country; perhaps as with everything, tendencies might well be varied depending on where you are.
    I don’t think really quantitative nor qualitative data is or has ever been available. Schools and teachers of Vajrayana do not widely publicise their numbers; and it’s pretty much impossible to determine whether authentic teachers of Vajrayana are in decline or on the rise.
    Therefore it is also impossible to determine whether the demand is met or not.
    From my narrow field of experience in Bristol, UK – yes, demand is met. There isn’t much of it, but what need there is, is being met by the teachers I know of, as their respective Sanghas slowly grow in numbers.
    Personally, I think that it’s not the numbers that matter in Vajrayana. The numbers were supposedly large in Tibet before king Langdarma, then dwindled sharply during his reign (at least the monastics did, apparently), only to grow in strength after it.
    All that is needed are a few authentic transmitters, for the sparkle to be carried through time. On the other hand, yes, the sparkle is statistically more precarious, the fewer carriers there are.

  6. Maybe teachers or availability aren’t there because people don’t have natural desire to present what is no longer desired. I think your xenophilia analysis of grey-headed hippies is accurate.
    A new Tantra must evolve or new-age slop will predominate, I’m afraid. That is my skepticism.

  7. I suspect Vajrayana practitioners are in danger of evolution. I’m not quite sure if the experiment so far has worked, mostly because of rigid adherence to cultural trappings (dress and jewelry, which work for some but not for many) and cultural baggage (no shortage of scandals). The era of being a naïve, true believer in the mystical teachings has come and went. I’m curious about the future, too.

  8. @csabahenk
    I would so love to have pop-up footnotes. I’m using wordpress.com, so using script isn’t possible, only css. I looked into this previously and came to the conclusion that it can’t be done. If anyone knows of a way that it can, please tell me. (I haven’t yet come across a wordpress.com blog that successfully uses pop-up footnotes, but if I do, I’ll ask how they did it.) In the meantime, sorry. I know, it sucks.

  9. @David

    Could it be that interest in Vajrayana is waning because availability is waning?

    It’s pretty clear that there is an availability problem for some people. My purpose with this blog is to get a better idea of the shape and degree of the problem. I’ve no idea whether it will be possible for me, or the blog to do anything about it, but at least having it clearly defined and evidenced may help those who can, figure out what to do about it. Hopefully we here can contribute in some way to that process too.

    Of the various reasons for interest in Vajrayana waning, waning availability might be one of the better ones (because there are obvious solutions). I doubt it’s the only, or main reason: most likely it’s part of a more complex network of related causes. I think it’s a fairly well accepted notion on the US West Coast that availability is a problem. I don’t know whether that concern has currency elsewhere. Cha-tsal’s comment re Poland and the UK would suggest otherwise.

    Many people have asked me where to go for contemporary Vajrayana teaching/training, and I haven’t really been able to strongly recommend any teacher.

    How many? And, when you say that you haven’t been able to recommend a teacher, do you mean, rather, that you can’t think of a teacher who would suit the individual particularly well?

    I think there are more than a few excellent teachers. But choosing a Vajrayana teacher is quite different to choosing a mindfulness teacher, or spiritual guide, in that personality fit matters. Probably more to say about that, but I’ll leave it there for now.

    During the century absinthe was banned, who wanted it?

    The point is a good one: that if nobody hears much about Vajrayana, no-one will want it. You could say, so what? So long as a few people continue the sparkle, it doesn’t matter. However, like with languages that become extinct, there’s a critical point in numbers, beyond which the language is bound to die. That happens because the language gets subsumed into ‘the common language.’ If you have 10 people gathering to talk, and 8 of them speak x, and 10 speak y, x will prevail, with a bit of y. Below 8/10, y prevails. The fraction of Vajrayana practitioners out of those interested and practicing mindfulness and spirituality is almost certainly less than 1/10.

    Mario, I hope this addresses your comment somewhat too. Not knowing that Vajrayana is any different from any other spiritual path is a threat to its survival. It is radically different to mindfulness, and to other Buddhisms. It could be ‘the best’ result for some seeking spiritual solutions. Mindfulness, different Buddhisms, different spiritual paths, all address different, not the same, needs.

  10. @Al
    Thanks for visiting and for your frankness. I’m pretty gutted, hearing about your experience wrt Vajrayana. Also I’m glad, and not surprised to hear that you can find teachers easily in Zen and Vipassana. In a way, it’s always going to be easier to find a Zen or Theravada teacher, because there is a formula to teaching those paths which is replicable. Thank goodness.

    Vajrayana is, by definition, concerned with individual rather than general solutions, so its propagation is much harder. (This leads to some interesting questions about how/whether to scale, and if so, how to maintain personal solutions.) A problem only occurs if the availability becomes so little that a downward trend occurs. I think this may be what is happening, and I hope to bring awareness to it.

  11. How many [people have asked me to recommend Vajrayana teachers]?

    Via my various blogs, I’d guess I get that question once every couple of weeks. So, it’s around a hundred by now, roughly.

    when you say that you haven’t been able to recommend a teacher, do you mean, rather, that you can’t think of a teacher who would suit the individual particularly well?

    Yes; in Vajrayana, it’s very much a matter of personal fit. There are people for whom I can say “I think you’d like Lama So-and-so, go check her out,” and many more people for whom I can’t think of any obvious match. (Of course, there are many many teachers whom I don’t know.)

    But, there aren’t any organizations or lineages I can recommend unreservedly either. Maybe “generic mainstream reasonably-high-quality Vajrayana teaching” is not a feasible thing. Maybe it’s a silly idea; I don’t know. But if it could exist, it seems like it might do a lot of good.

    Of course, I often recommend people check out our own tradition, which is generally excellent. But—in the words of our Lamas—it is also inherently “small” and “eccentric” and not meant for many people. The emphasis is on benefiting a small number of people hugely, rather than benefiting as many people as possible.

    My personal interest nowadays is in helping something of Vajrayana survive this century—which seems far from certain.

  12. @Cha-tsal

    I don’t think really quantitative nor qualitative data is or has ever been available. Schools and teachers of Vajrayana do not widely publicise their numbers; and it’s pretty much impossible to determine whether authentic teachers of Vajrayana are in decline or on the rise.
    Therefore it is also impossible to determine whether the demand is met or not.

    Yes, agreed: not much data is available at all, and you’re right that quantitative data is hard to come by. I’m hoping to address that, even if at a very general level. However, anecdotal data, on the contrary, is fairly easy to come by.

    That doesn’t affect determining whether the demand is met or not. One can inquire about demand without going to schools and teachers.

    From my narrow field of experience in Bristol, UK – yes, demand is met. There isn’t much of it, but what need there is, is being met by the teachers I know of, as their respective Sanghas slowly grow in numbers.

    It’s great to hear this.

    Interesting point about the history of Vajrayana in Tibet.

  13. @Sabio

    Maybe teachers or availability aren’t there because people don’t have natural desire to present what is no longer desired.

    You make the opposite point than David’s (waning availability affects demand). If waning demand is the cause, then how has that come about? Mario pointed to one possibility: that Vajrayana’s distinctive solution gets subsumed into the general mêlée of mindful, spiritual or Buddhist availabilities, then gets lost.

    Any other ideas?

    I think your xenophilia analysis of grey-headed hippies is accurate.

    It’s an analysis at a general, generational level. The shift in cultural norms between current generations is huge, and not always appreciated. I know many of that generation (because I’m in a Buddhist sangha 🙂 and I love talking with them and learning from them, partly because of the difference in worldview. The boomer generation accomplished a lot, but, frankly, it’s time for us younger pipsqueaks to get off our asses and…um…(vague hand waving) Do Something.

  14. In my opinion, most people who attend U.S. Vajrayana centers and retreats have little capacity and almost zero instruction for practicing real Buddhist tantra, i.e. using the sexual energies within the channels to bring one’s mind to awakening. And, I think that’s a good thing. Because there is so little personal instruction, things can easily go very wrong for the Western student causing both psychological and emotional problems, some of which are never recovered from in this life time.

    I think a much more suitable model for the Western student is Mahayana with it’s emphasis on bodhicitta. Most students in Dharma Centers do not put the energy and time to stabilize their meditation (Shamata). Without that, there is no reason for a teacher or for the higher practices because a student cannot experience and hold the higher levels unless the mind is stabilized, Westerners want to skip over the basics and go for the higher practices and that’s where the problems begin. It may not a bad idea to go to Vipassana Centers or Zen Centers for years to stabilize your mind before trying to do channel work in tantra.

    The few students who actually spend the days, months and years in preparatory practice, getting them ready for true tantric practice, will most likely have the teachers available to them when they reach those levels. Yogic tantra practices are not usually taught until near the end of the traditional 3 year retreat and then more fully in a student’s second 3 year retreat. The few Westerners that I know who have done this much practice and retreat are just as qualified as a Tibetan to teach; those who have not done the retreats should not be teaching the material because they have no personal experiences to back up their “knowledge.” (Beware of teachers asking for money, trying to attract more students and raising money for centers.)

    Is Vajrayana on the wane? Perhaps. In every country that Buddhism has flourished, Buddhism morphed to suit that culture’s needs. That will happen in the West too. We are only in the second generation here of Buddhism in the West and it has usually taken 3 generations for Buddhism to plant itself into a new country. But we are doing it different here. For the first time the emphasis has not been on establishing monasteries and nunneries where your entire life is given over to spiritual pursuit, but in establishing lay centers. And I hardly think that most lay people, despite all good intentions, sincerity and devotion, will have the conditions and vast amounts of time it takes to become proficient in tantric practices, so where is the need for proficient teachers? So, perhaps a more important question is, what of the Buddha’s teachings is most important for Westerners to learn, follow and propagate and what will that modality look like in 50 years and what kind of teachers do we need to fill that need?

  15. @jamie

    I suspect Vajrayana practitioners are in danger of evolution.

    That would be a step up from extinction at least.

    I’m not quite sure if the experiment so far has worked, mostly because of rigid adherence to cultural trappings (dress and jewelry, which work for some but not for many)

    I can’t stand cultural trappings. I’d so much rather walk around naked, but it’s culturally unacceptable so I have to wear stuff. Sigh.

    and cultural baggage (no shortage of scandals).

    I do see there’s a connection between some scandals and different cultural norms – but for the world that we live in now, I find that a poor excuse. Scandals happen across Buddhism, and across all fields. People behave badly. It’s a big topic and maybe not for this page, but I’ve no doubt we’ll revisit it later. (Thanks for being the first person to bring this up here. I do think it’s important.)

    The era of being a naïve, true believer in the mystical teachings has come and went.

    Yes, I agree.

  16. @ Rin Sensei,
    Yes, I made the opposite point of David:
    David: waning availability affects demand
    Sabio: waning interest affects supply
    People will not feel the market demand and thus not invent a product to sell. Sometimes that is wrong, of course. Sometimes if you build something, you can persuade folks they need it even though previously they felt no such need. Economics is complicated and Religion is certainly (like all human interactions) “economics”.
    I think you made a good analysis for why the shrinking demand:
    — decreased excitement with the foreign (“a cultural excitement with the exotic in a way that doesn’t exist now.”)
    When I returned from my first trip to India in the 70s, I brought back some of very cool stuff — carpets, statues, paintings, incense etc. People loved visiting my apartment.
    Within 10 years, that stuff was all available at a chain call “Pier 1 Imports” and nowadays, you can find it anywhere and much better quality.
    So if any element of love of different and new fed the desires, it faded with easy availability. For those that crave what is new and different, easy availability ironically kills that desire.
    That was the tail end of the social and sexual revolutions — and over the next decades we saw the perversions and downfall of Marxist politics and sexual casuality. Trungpa fit a niche then.
    So those who are still xenophiles can get their jollies easily now on the internet or at any mall and decorate their houses with ease.
    Further, god-talk, guru-talk and such is now, more than even, heard rightly with great suspicion. Sexual abuse in Christian and Buddhist circles were exposed. Cults are now understood clearly and Tantra stuff is dependent on settings that are ripe for cultic settings — I think this is clearly recognized. Not to say Tantra is not a possible good tool , but obviously one ripe and ready to be abused. People feel this more clearly now then back then — they were so disappointed with the 50s mentality, they were willing to take chances — and stupid chances at that.
    So I feel a very different Tantra must evolve — I think David is working on that in offering it insights to be repackaged in very very different forms. I agree with you, it is up to this and coming generations to invent that to save radical transformative methods for those to whom they may apply.

  17. I clearly remember my week long retreat with Namkhai Norbu. After a week of being in a room with him and a few hundred others, I had a brief moment to stand in line and touch his hand before the next person in line caused me to move on. That was my introduction to that teacher in the flesh, along with listening to have instruct on some practices and such. Much of my experience of Vajrayana was like that: a room full of people, a teacher with an inner cohort shielding him, chanting in Tibetan, and maybe a small amount of instruction on a sadhana. Norbu was actually much MUCH better than most.

    I remember when I took refuge at the Sakya monastery in Seattle. I stood in line, there was chanting, we all took refuge and received our Dharma names. Following this, there was…nothing. No organized instructional program concerning the Dharma. No ongoing introductions to anything for folks that had taken refuge. We were all on our own to find our way with the exception that we could come Sunday mornings to chant a bit and then do some Shamatha sitting (without any master present).

    It is easy to go through a refuge ceremony in Vajrayana in the U.S. After that, it is nearly impossible to get any hands on instruction in what Vajrayana is or how to approach it. I wound up reading dozens of books, often written by folks from different traditions without much introductory material (or, conversely, being ALL introductory material on bodhicitta). Going to retreats, if you found them, you might get five or ten minutes with a teacher. Occasionally you could get more, assuming there was a translator on hand since the teacher usually spoke broken English at best.

    Not to be “Debbie Downer,” but compare that to the experience of anyone going to a Vipassana or Zen center for the first (or 100th) time.

  18. A small point – the Vajrayana form of Buddhism is still the new kid on the block – the founding asian teachers started appearing in the west only in the early ’70’s – a couple were a bit earlier, but not substantially. In contrast, other forms of Buddhism had mature western students teaching by then as well as a number of asian teachers. Actually, I don’t see any of these groups flourishing among westerners – and the vajrayana groups seem to be doing better in my neck of the woods.

  19. Susan,

    Zen began being practiced by converts in the early 60’s in San Francisco and a few other places (my late father-in-law sat with Suzuki Roshi then). There is only a decade (at most) difference. The primary difference I see is that Suzuki and others empowered Western converts to run groups and began teaching after a decade or two whereas the Vajrayana teachers rarely did so. The difference is apparent. Another diffeence I note is that Zen teachers, for example, came to America to stay oftentimes and didn’t simply cycle back to Asia only to return for brief tours, requiring all serious students to go to India.

  20. Ani Konchog, thank you for visiting and for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

    Is there such a thing as ‘the Western student’ anymore? I wonder. It’s a division I feel increasingly less comfortable with as I travel and meet contemporary students in different countries. Most dharma students, whatever their ethnic background, have busy work-filled lives and figure out the extent of their availability for practice in relation to other necessary commitments. Those who have more time available, for whatever reason, are the minority.

    I strongly agree with you that results take time and dedication.

    Most Buddhist paths present a direct correlation between time available for practice, separate to ordinary, everyday life – and relative attainment. You expressed that path eloquently. Vajrayana is most often seen and presented in that way too: as the culmination of many years of renunciate practice. That is: practice in which one disengages from ordinary life. That is a valuable path: it works, for those it suits and is available to.

    With any path, total commitment is the point at which one’s life and practice are inseparable, whatever that looks like.

    Vajrayana is non-renunciative. For that reason, I think it is peculiarly suited to contemporary life. Moreover, there are Vajrayana paths that present direct entry: that is, a way to prepare and practice in the style of the path itself; most obviously, but not confined to, the Tantric ngöndro. Also, within Vajrayana, there are householding, non-monastic lineages. The entire path for practitioners in householding traditions was, and is, non-renunciative.

    Contemporary life and practice is different because of individual choice and cultural circumstances, not because of a ‘type’ of person. One way in which it is different is that degrees of involvement in spiritual practice are possible. This jars somewhat with the principle of renunciation, whereas it’s conducive to integration. Again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think either path is better than the other. But I do think it’s ironic that paths of renunciation are better known and understood these days than paths of transformation and engagement.

    In my opinion, most people who attend U.S. Vajrayana centers and retreats have little capacity and almost zero instruction for practicing real Buddhist tantra, i.e. using the sexual energies within the channels to bring one’s mind to awakening. . . (Shamata).

    There are many Buddhist Tantric practices other than these. And there are many preliminary practices to these. Even so, don’t liberal attitudes to sex make sexual practices more culturally relevant and possible than ever?

    Because there is so little personal instruction, things can easily go very wrong for the Western student causing both psychological and emotional problems, some of which are never recovered from in this life time. . .Most students in Dharma Centers do not put the energy and time to stabilize their meditation

    I agree that personal instruction is important and lacking. Perhaps where we differ is that I meet people with an obvious capacity for serious practice, people who do put energy and time into their meditation, with results. So I feel the need for proficient teachers is urgent and not fully met.

    Is Vajrayana on the wane? Perhaps. In every country that Buddhism has flourished, Buddhism morphed to suit that culture’s needs. That will happen in the West too.

    Yes, we agree here too, though I think it would be a shame for Vajrayana to die because it wasn’t presented as compatible with our culture. I think it is.

    So, perhaps a more important question is, what of the Buddha’s teachings is most important for Westerners to learn, follow and propagate and what will that modality look like in 50 years and what kind of teachers do we need to fill that need?

    ‘Westerners,’ if there even is such a group any more, are as varied as Buddhism – or probably more so. Some do find a good fit with some Buddhisms. This is great. But I’m convinced that there is room for Vajrayana now, that it is highly suited to contemporary culture and that there’s not enough of it.

  21. Hi Sabio,

    Cults are now understood clearly and Tantra stuff is dependent on settings that are ripe for cultic settings — I think this is clearly recognized. Not to say Tantra is not a possible good tool , but obviously one ripe and ready to be abused.

    This is a myth. Tantra is not dependent on settings that are conducive to cultish behaviour any more than any institution in which teaching is involved. Tantra is not the same as the old Tibetan society and is not dependent on outdated mechanisms to survive. Cultish behaviour happens in circumstances where institutional safeguards against it fail or don’t exist. Tantra can have institutional safeguards without sacrificing the importance of the teacher-student relationship and without sacrificing its potency as a method of transformation. But yes: there is still a long way to go for this to be clear and obvious to anyone approaching Buddhist Tantra and I think this, rightly, underlies the gist of your comment.

  22. Tantra is not dependent on settings that are conducive to cultish behaviour any more than any institution in which teaching is involved.

    Hmm. I hope this is true, but I think the burden of proof is on those of us who believe so. I don’t think we have strong evidence or reasons for that, so far. How tantric teacher-student relationships can work in the West in the next few decades remains to be worked out. I’m hopeful, but there’s a lot of work yet to be done, I think.

  23. Thank you for a lovely and thoughtful reply. I just want to make a few short counter points. Just because I am an Ani, I didn’t mean any of the above remarks to have anything to do with ordination. I think renunciation (turning away) is at every level of Buddhist practice and I was referring more to a time problem than any title or vows held.

    Yes, there are many Vajrayana practices, and there is much to be benefited from by practicing these, but I thought your original post was talking about the higher tantric practices in particular. My mistake if I misunderstood what you were trying to say. Tantra (either with a consort or not) is damn hard work. It is about as much like conventional sex as poking your eyes with a chopstick, (unless, of course, you’re into that sort of thing). So it seems to me that liberal societal attitudes having to do with sex, would have very little to do with practicing actual Buddhist tantra, which is different from Hindu or “New Age” tantric practices since there is no orgasm in Buddhist tantra practices, I mean, if you’re into sex….wouldn’t that be a huge downer?

    I think where we mostly differ (viva la difference!) is that I personally don’t see what Vajrayana can contribute to the vast majority of contemporary Buddhist students that Mahayana doesn’t address. But maybe my mind is “degenerate” already and that’s why I don’t see it. (I’m not trying to be snotty….it is a possibility.)

    Anyway, great conversation. Be well and happy please.

  24. David, Sabio:

    How tantric teacher-student relationships can work in the West in the next few decades remains to be worked out. I’m hopeful, but there’s a lot of work yet to be done, I think.

    Yes…you’re probably right. My belief in the efficacy of the relationship and Tantric practice, and it not being reliant on settings conducive to cultish behaviour, is based on personal experience and my relationship with sangha friends.

  25. Hello Ani Konchog,
    I think you’re spot on about our main point of difference. You said:

    I think where we mostly differ (viva la difference!) is that I personally don’t see what Vajrayana can contribute to the vast majority of contemporary Buddhist students that Mahayana doesn’t address.

    whereas I see distinctive differences between Vajrayana and Mahayana, particularly in terms of the principle in which each is based. Vajrayana is commonly presented as an extension of Mahayana, and in such circumstances, has a similar flavour. As a path on its own – particularly a yogic one – it is quite different, and offers a different approach to people who want to live in the world, with all the business and messiness that entails. I plan to write more about what Vajrayana can contribute.

    I’m not thinking of liberal attitudes as the characteristic that Vajrayana works with well, so much as the need for an approach and practices that embrace involvement with the world – including but not limited to sexual relationship – rather than rejection. It’s a common misconception that Buddhist Tantric practice is ‘all about sex.’

    I used the word ‘tantrika’ rather lightly, to mean “any practitioner of Buddhist Tantra,” and I’m sorry that may have been misleading. I’ve been thinking I should write an explanation of my use of the word and link to it. I can’t find a better word for the unwieldy English phrase – and I like the word ‘tantrika’ – more normally it would, indeed, refer to those who have taken the vows of Vajrayana (but would not be limited to sexual practice).

  26. While I feel suspicious whether the kind of outward publicity that’s captured by Google Trends correlates with liveliness, I won’t joint the “to hell with numbers!” league either. Indeed, let me make an attempt to find a metrics that faithfully represents the liveliness of Vajrayana — that would be the annual number of occurrence of transmissions…

    Half-joke aside, just think into it… taking me, for example — I’m interested in Vajrayana, use the internet to get at related information, and implied, I make intensive use of Google searches. I wonder if I have ever made a search for “vajrayana”… did you?

    It seems to me that “vajrayana” — or broad descriptive general terms in general — as search term represent outward popularity… not actual interest and inclination towards involvement. More specific searches might give more insight. (In particular with Vajrayana, where individual style gets emphasis, it might be more so.) I sampled related search terms and while it’s true that most were declining, I found some more optimistic graphs: diamond way, kalu rinpoche. (The terms I find most interesting were under Google’s radar, either having too scarce data for a graph, or too sporadic to imply on a trend [ngakpa — it might be worth to revisit a few years down].)

    But then it’s an invitation to the slippery slope of asking questions, “OK that teacher/organization X has such and such trends, but what can we infer from that with respect to Vajrayana in general? How authentic is the Vajrayana they present?” That’s why I concluded as above — it’s more honest to put bias aside and muse about the annual number of occurrence of transmissions.

    I was just to press the Post button when it occurred to me that regarding general terms, Wikipedia trends would be more relevant — checking again my own habits, I do look at the Vajrayana article on Wikipedia, as it has a chance to provide useful data. Wikipedia page views are properly archived since end of 2007 but visualisation tools are not that smooth so I don’t insert here specific links. My impression is that both Vajrayana and specific related terms’ popularity is stable; for purposes of control (ie., can any trend inferred from this data at all?) I also checked politicians who lose their position (W Bush, Sarkozy) and it’s true that their page views are declining since they are out of office.

  27. Al, I’ve been thinking about your experience with the ‘distant-worshippy’ large group settings. It reminds me of a big EDM gig I went to in London. In that setting, the audience were miles from the pop gurus. Then at the end of the concert, the lead singer jumped down into the pit in front of the stage and went the length of the fence so that people could touch her hand.

    Personally, that approach leaves me cold, because I don’t believe that specialness can be passed by human contact. It obviously works very well as inspirational experience for many people, I’d guess for evolutionarily adaptive reasons connected to status.

    In Buddhism there are paths that function through transformative purification. This kind of setting fits well with that approach – it’s a natural outcome. The social dangers are obvious. But I don’t think humanity is going to transform out of that modus operandi any time soon. How to address the potential pitfalls and avoid them is a big question, but it’s not where my interest is.

    I’m primarily concerned with finding and encouraging presentations of Buddhism that fit well for people who won’t find the rock star approach appealing or useful. You’re right that this non-star approach is more widespread in Zen and Theravada. I don’t see any reason that it can’t be widespread in Vajrayana too. It’s important that it becomes so, because – as you rightly point out – this kind of Vajrayana functions differently for the individual than any of the existing models, Zen, Vipassana, Mahayana included.

  28. In my opinion, most people who attend U.S. Vajrayana centers and retreats have little capacity and almost zero instruction for practicing real Buddhist tantra, i.e. using the sexual energies within the channels to bring one’s mind to awakening.

    I find it helpful to bear in mind that “tantra” has meant very different things at different times and places. For instance, the earliest Indian Buddhist tantra, from around the late 500s, had no sexual practice at all, whereas sex was central around 800. Sexual practice was again only a tiny part of Buddhist tantra in Central Tibet in 1950.

    I agree that there are few people nowadays for whom Buddhist tantric sexual practice is practical or helpful.

    The main tantric practice taught in Tibetan centers in the West now is sadhana chanting. In my opinion, that is also not especially helpful for many people nowadays. I do sometimes practice it myself, and enjoy and benefit from it; so I’m not saying it’s useless, just that it’s probably not the most useful tantric practice for most Westerners nowadays.

    The style of tantra mainly taught in Tibetan centers nowadays was developed for low-status monks living in a feudal theocracy. I don’t think it is appropriate for contemporary Westerners at all. (Nor probably even for contemporary Tibetans; but that’s for them to sort out among themselves!)

    Because tantra has been many different things in the past, we have many quite different models to draw on for the future. Also, realizing it has varied wildly according to circumstances opens the possibility of future forms of Buddhist tantra that may be quite different from any historical precedent. As you noted, “In every country that Buddhism has flourished, Buddhism morphed to suit that culture’s needs. That will happen in the West too.”

    I think a much more suitable model for the Western student is Mahayana with it’s emphasis on bodhicitta.

    I think this varies; Western students are diverse! There are some of us for whom Mahayana is not suitable at all, and Vajrayana is a better fit. (It’s worth bearing in mind also that bodhicitta is just as much the basis for Vajrayana as it is for Mahayana.)

    It may not a bad idea to go to Vipassana Centers or Zen Centers for years to stabilize your mind before trying to do channel work in tantra.

    Yes, I think that’s an excellent approach! I did many years of shinè/lhatong (shamatha/vispashyana) before starting tantra. That’s pretty much the way it is done in the system I practice in (Aro), actually. The Aro ngöndro is from Dzogchen semdé (not tantra) and is shinè/lhatong in a style quite close to Zen shikantaza. It’s not considered necessary to finish the ngöndro before starting deity yoga, but without some accomplishment of shinè you aren’t going to get anywhere. Even less with channel work.

    I hardly think that most lay people, despite all good intentions, sincerity and devotion, will have the conditions and vast amounts of time it takes to become proficient in tantric practices, so where is the need for proficient teachers?

    Tantra is probably inherently more difficult than sutra—although again this depends on an individual’s disposition. However, although it may be more difficult, I do believe that a significant number of Westerners can benefit from it, while maintaining jobs, families, and so forth.

    That is the Nyingma yogic style of practice, as found for instance in the Repkong ngakpa/ngakma tradition. The ngakpa/ngakma system has produced many of the most highly realized practitioners in Tibetan history.

  29. @csabahenk
    Thanks for your thoughts from the stats point of view. It’s fun, if you enjoy thinking in this way, but I agree that it’s just one approach of many. I agree with you mostly, though I think there is more connection between the general and the specific than you suggest. You say:

    While I feel suspicious whether the kind of outward publicity that’s captured by Google Trends correlates with liveliness,

    It seems to me that “vajrayana” — or broad descriptive general terms in general — as search term represent outward popularity… not actual interest and inclination towards involvement.

    Though I think that’s true now, I see the connection further down the line: outward publicity now relates to liveliness later, because future core practitioners will have been public with a general interest now. Unless one thinks that liveliness will continue only through family connections and generations: a tenuous strategy for our world, though it worked in pre-modern societies.

    Half-joke aside, just think into it… taking me, for example — I’m interested in Vajrayana, use the internet to get at related information, and implied, I make intensive use of Google searches. I wonder if I have ever made a search for “vajrayana”… did you?

    Probably yes, knowing me. I’m quite systematic. But using the search term ‘Vajrayana’ here is intended only as a general indicator. If searches for ‘Vajrayana’ are dropping, it’s pretty unlikely that searches for ‘Dzogchen’ or ‘Dorjé Tröllo’ are on the rise. (Because n = ‘everyone who uses Google’ and the interest group we’re researching is ‘members of the public with just some curiosity and interest in Vajrayana.’)

    I just checked and the trend for ‘Dzogchen’ is exactly the same, but, as you point out, unsurprisingly there are no results for much more specific terms.

    I sampled related search terms and while it’s true that most were declining, I found some more optimistic graphs: diamond way, kalu rinpoche.

    That is interesting. But I do think it’s relevant that related general terms are also declining.

    Good point re wikipedia, too!

  30. I’ve been involved in the Vajrayana sangha in my community for close to thirty years. I got into this thing of ours in the late 80’s when places like Snowlion Publications were just starting to make texts and supports for practice available. Even then, most of our practice materials came from India or Nepal with teachers. Now, three decades later, the entire situation has changed. With the internet and social media it’s very easy to stay connected and to find resources. I have phone and email access to many of my teachers. I speak with sangha daily, either in meat space or on the internet. Other sangha communities have appeared in the area– Chan, Zen, Vipassana. The community has grown…

    … but the size of the core Vajrayana sangha has remained invariant over three decades.

    We have wondered about this. We’ve tried creating programs for new people. Meet and greets. Open houses. We’ve tried to tailor visiting teacher programs to new people. We’ve hosted teachings in different settings– the University, ecumenical Buddhist temples, churches….

    … but the size of the core Vajrayana sangha remained invariant.

    What we’ve come to realize is that one can’t create Vajrayana Buddhists. We come into this thing because of karmic connections. Those can be reawakened with chance meetings, but not easily formed by chance meetings. The way in which our sangha has remained invariant has reflected this. The people who show up and stick with it sort of fall in face first. Like falling in love or finding something lost. There’s a certainty and a conviction to their arrival. The people who bounce in and out do a few huh-what’s and are never seen again.

    That said, I do think there are some general social issues that make Vajrayana very difficult in contemporary American society. Given my brief travels in Europe, I’m not sure, but I suspect there as well.

    One, the learning curve for Vajrayana is nearly vertical– at least initially. It takes a couple or five solid years to get one’s sea legs. That is a challenge in a society that doesn’t value delayed gratification, and nearly impossible in a plugged in society that expects everything to be fast.

    Vajrayana is subversive by nature of its vision. Perhaps this is why it had larger apparent appeal in the 60’s? When we are intoxicated by our narratives that solutions to problems are all material– economic, political or technological– the radical vision of tantra is easily psychologized and made trivial. It becomes a mere Jungian or New Age trip.

    The vision of tantra is a radical re-enchantment of the world. The skandhas and elements are the five Fathers and Mothers, we all all in the mandala of the Guru as the Yidam. We live in a world completely stripped of it’s magic and splendor by materialism. Again, a difficult vision to embrace, easy to take as mere metaphor.

    This takes time. Lots of time. And involvement on multiple levels.

    Those are my two cents.

    Given this, what we do is make ourselves available. And we focus on the needs of the core sangha. Those with karmic connections can bump into us and stick.

  31. The points that Seamus makes really resonate for me. The vertical learning curve, for one, and the need to spend time. Especially important is the bit about tantra being “a radical re-enchantment of the world.” An attempt to make vajrayana more accessible by taking the enchantment out of it, will result in something that’s not really vajrayana. Here’s where some definitions could be useful. I get the sense that we’re talking about a very wide range of views and practices.

  32. > Do you think Vajrayana practitioners might be in danger of extinction? Why, or why not?

    Some have already stated the obvious, that supply and demand are linked. However, as a student of both Western (formerly) and now Eastern esoteric systems, the question in my mind arises, ‘can one measure data purposefully held in secret?’ Do we see a trend of waning interest, or do we see a trend of interest met, and thenceforth covered in a blanket of purposeful obfuscation?

    > My analysis that need is unmet is anecdotal. Is it right?

    I’m not sure, but a need unmet often mutates to accept other avenues of fulfillment. How many out there, with needs unmet, decided to eschew seeking a teacher and decided that Tantra was amendable to the method of the autodidact? Tantra has within the memetic DNA of anarchism, (in its classical sense, without a ruler), does this arise to express itself in the absence of readily available teachers? Is this good or bad? Some would say bad, there is danger in Tantra for the unwary or incompetent. Some would say good, because Sutrayana as an institution and its monks have held a stranglehold on Tantra for longer then is beneficial, some might say.

    > What do you think are the implications of declining interest, possibly alongside unmet need: for teachers, sanghas and seekers?

    The implications are wild and unchecked experimentation and self learning. Tantra would survive, but would it still be Buddhist? Would it still retain the elements of Yogacara and Madhyamaka thought? Will a process of rediscovering several millenia of techniques have to be repeated due to the scatter-shot nature of the unguided education? In such an environment, sanghas and their teachers will wither from lack of support, seekers will have their precious, irreplaceable time wasted. Are such things worth what such a chaotic environment might produce? Time will tell.

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