Is Vajrayana hacking the West?

Come back when you finish preliminaries
“Come back when you finish preliminaries”

In my last post, I categorised justifications for the idea that Westerners are ill-suited to practice Vajrayana. Those justifications – that our values are incompatible, we can’t commit, our lifestyles do not provide conducive circumstances or that our karmic connection is lacking – are anecdotally common. Sometimes they are not stated outright but hidden in conciliatory language. My versions of these justifications are stripped down: I wanted to expose them in their most simple form, to make them easier to spot in articles and conversations.

In this post I highlight some generalisations underlying such justifications, then I examine the notion that Western culture is to blame.

The idea that Westerners are ill-suited to Vajrayana assumes a comparison between ‘Westerners’ and ‘non-Westerners’.

Who are the ‘non-Westerners’ intended? It’s useful first to clarify the underlying comparison. It could pertain to racial or ethnic differences, culture, socio-economic class or nationality.

Often it turns out the intended comparison is some vague distinction between Westerners and Tibetans or Asians, not non-Westerners per se.

Stereotypes are best met with precision. If you encounter a sweeping generalization about Western practitioners being an ill-fit for Vajrayana, first try to establish who would be a good fit? How are they different? Why are they more suited to Vajrayana practice?

Referring to the mythology of Orientalism might help that endeavour.

“East vs. West”

Orientalism essentialises non-Western, Eastern societies as unchanging and undeveloped against the superiority of post-Enlightenment, developed Western society. Occidentalism is Orientalism’s counterpart: a view from Eastern societies that stereotypes the West. The ‘profane West versus pure Eastern Tradition’ narrative derives from these cultural ideals.

These broad stereotypes were never helpful but they are increasingly old-fashioned and irrelevant. More pertinent comparisons occluded by the East versus West mythology are:

  • pre-industrial vs. post-industrial society
  • communal vs. systematized social organisation
  • middle-class vs. working class behaviours
  • contrasting socio-cultural mores and norms

There are now millions of middle-class people who have never been to ‘the West’ who live and think with a post-capitalist mindset. There are millions of Westerners who hold pre-systematised worldviews with communal priorities. There are many, many millions of us functioning at times with an incoherent mixture of both.

This reality makes meaningless the argument ‘Vajrayana is too hard for Westerners’.

Vajrayana shouldn’t work better for some cultures than others

Do our cultural norms make Vajrayana peculiarly inaccessible? They shouldn’t.

The argument that Western culture degenerates personal qualities so much as to make Vajrayana inaccessible goes something like this:

“Our consumer culture is fast and superficial. Spirituality is no longer an integral part of our social being; we’ve lost it and we have to go looking for it. Westerners can’t help being like they are: they’ve been immersed in values antithetical to spiritual practice since they were born. The norms of devotion and kindness so important to Vajrayana are far from Western materialist ideals.”

One of the principle functions of Vajrayana is to undermine habitual references. In practice, this means our cultural and social references become transparent to us. We begin to see how we use culturally produced, shared norms to prove the illusion of our own substantiality. Vajrayana hacks our culturally and personally configured code. If this isn’t working in contemporary societies, then Vajrayana is not functioning as it should.

“What do we want? Vajrayana! When do we want it? In due course!”

There are examples of successful Vajrayana programmes in the West – though fewer than other types of Buddhism. Why isn’t there at least one Vajrayana centre with a resident teacher in every city in the West?

Vajrayana differs from other Buddhisms in that experiential emptiness is not its goal. Zen and Theravada seek emptiness (or non-self). The goal of emptiness is independent of cultural forms. It does not look different when it crosses a cultural or social boundary. The detail of the method is the same, whatever the time and place. If our practice is to turn away from the cycle of self-perpetuating suffering, cut our ties to desire, see the truth of impermanence everywhere, the details of our cultural circumstances are irrelevant. These models scale easily across cultures. They operate at the general human level. The personality of the individual and their cultural patterns are unimportant for the practice.

Vajrayana, by contrast, starts from the emptiness of experience. This is the ground from which it engages with forms. It is closely involved with the stuff of cultural and personal difference. It doesn’t reject conditioning, it utilizes it. To do that well, Vajrayana must become intimate with cultural norms and forms.

It takes time to develop cultural software. Contemporary Western society is the most diverse ever. Our challenge today may be the need for more varied Vajrayana programmes, precisely because we live in a culture that values individualism, autonomy and diversity. If we understand culture as an aspect of our personalities, the raw material of our human behaviour transformed by Vajrayana practice, we should not blame Western cultural conditioning for Vajrayana not working.

If Vajrayana is less effective than it might be, maybe it’s not because Westerners can’t hack Vajrayana, but because Vajrayana isn’t hacking the West?

In this post, I explored only one of the justifications that Westerners are unsuited to Vajrayana. I will revisit this idea in subsequent posts.

Questions for readers:

Is it surprising that Vajrayana isn’t more readily available?

Are current Vajrayanas somehow at odds with Western students? Which should change?

8 thoughts on “Is Vajrayana hacking the West?”

    1. That’s an excellent book—I too recommend it highly!

      Here are some relevant excerpts:

      Some easterners, or westerners who think like easterners, believe that westerners cannot have lineage because they have no tradition. If we believe that westerners are too materialistic to have any spiritual lineage, we are disrespectful to pure Buddhist lineage. If we are not concerned with true spiritual qualities but are superficially seduced by eastern customs and manners because we associate the east with Buddhist lineage, we are also disrespectful to pure Buddhist lineage. If we think that only priests, lamas and gurus have lineage, then we have title lineage conception and padlock and key lineage conception which is disrespectful to pure spiritual lineage.

      …the Buddha said that real teaching never depends on race.

      … easterners and westerners are making Dharma factories, trying to bargain with substance lineage for power and gain. Like capitalists who want prestige and wealth in order to have the respect of others, we want gain that is touchable and useful and are afraid of poverty, anonymity and loss of worldly power. We think that lineage must be exclusive, only for those who accumulate spiritual prestige. We think that lineage is found only through associating with conspicuously high people, well-known Dharma centers, and teachers who have been recognized by the public as traditional lineage holders.

      … some easterners believe that westerners cannot have lineage because they are not linked from birth to a spiritual teacher. Unless we are nihilists and believe only in the visible, we cannot judge the spiritual qualities of someone who has no visible teacher in this life.

  1. Rin’dzin,

    Amazing post. I don’t have nearly enough experience to properly comment on this, but I find the entire topic fascinating, so I’m going to dive in anyway.

    Vajrayana shouldn’t work better for some cultures than others

    This seems to imply that the principle and function behind Vajrayana is independent of culture, while also using culture as a means of expression. So if Vajrayana does less well in contemporary society than traditional ones, does it make sense to apply the same principles and functions, but adapting to (and taking advantage of) the vast ‘cultural code’ of contemporary culture?

    Can you allow change yet remain the same? Or am I completely confused?

    My (limited) understanding of how Vajrayana provides transformation through the use of symbol is based on the view that we are symbols of ourselves. Our identities are symbolic in nature, and happen to incorporate cultural patterns and norms circulating in society. Could symbols prevalent in contemporary society have a role in Vajrayana? How would that relate to yidam practice?

    Maybe contemporary society also provides other opportunities for expression — even in the form of cognitive toolkits and frameworks which are not available in traditional societies, like your use of the language of code and hacking with cultural software. Some contemporary worldviews based on interpretations of modern physics like the multiverse can be particularly disruptive to consensual concepts of identity, and may be useful in pointing in the right direction.

    If we understand culture as the raw material Vajrayana uses to transform individual neurotic behaviour into compassionate, heroic action, we can’t blame Western cultural conditioning for Vajrayana not working.

    That makes sense, and gives us the opportunity of seeing the time and place we are in is as a huge space, open to innovation.


  2. Hi Cristiano,
    Sorry for my delay in replying to comments. I’ve been on a short retreat.

    Vajrayana shouldn’t work better for some cultures than others

    This seems to imply that the principle and function behind Vajrayana is independent of culture, while also using culture as a means of expression.

    Not exactly. . .that’s more true of Sutrayana, because the principle employed by Sutra is renunciation. Sutra rejects conditioning, so there’s (at least hypothetically) a separation, or ‘independence’ between the conditioning and the subject that renounces conditioning.

    Vajrayana is inseparable from conditioning – that’s how transformation or ‘liberation’ works. Imagine you have some raw ingredients all mushed up in a tin. You cook them and they’re transformed into a fabulous, rich, extreme chocolate cake. The original ingredients are still there – nothing was rejected – but the result is something different.

    So if Vajrayana does less well in contemporary society than traditional ones, does it make sense to apply the same principles and functions, but adapting to (and taking advantage of) the vast ‘cultural code’ of contemporary culture?

    Yes, that’s the only way that Vajrayana can work. The extent to which its principles of transformation and liberation are working indicates how much ‘adaptation’ there is. This is quite subtle: if particular rites or rituals that originated in one culture happen to work well for some people in another one, then – to the extent that they work – they function as methods of transformation in the different culture. No problem. A problem only occurs if and when they don’t function as intended.

    Can you allow change yet remain the same? Or am I completely confused?

    Details change frequently – you can see this from the history of Vajrayana. It has looked quite different in different times and places. The principle – that is, the way it works – remains the same. And the object, or result, (recognition of the non-duality of emptiness and form) is consistent.

    Could symbols prevalent in contemporary society have a role in Vajrayana?

    I don’t see why not.

    How would that relate to yidam practice?

    Yidams have always arisen in the minds of realized practitioners. So, technically, a contemporary yidam would appear to a realized practitioner and that would be that.

  3. I’m not suprised that vajrayana isn’t more readily available, the reason being that I think it is somewhat at odds with current trends; there doesn’t appear to be much of a demand for it, and so it follows that supply dwindles.

    Modern economics promote self advancement and with that comes hierarchy. These trends seem increasingly global, and so more and more people are thinking in these terms, and seem to see this as a good thing.
    As Vajrayana requires a vajra master, individuals with self advancing aspirations may be less likely to be interested as they will not necessarily see themselves as being where they would like to be in what will probably look like a hierarchy.

    Ultimately, entropy is considered unavoidable, and evolution/adaptability may be thought of as changes that could defer it’s inevitability.
    In which case it may be useful for both Vajrayana teachers and their students to be flexible and at least open, to change.

    Incidentally, I also like Magic Dance! Three cheers for Magic Dance!

  4. Another issue- one we are discussing in our sangha- a Dudjom Tersar and Longchen Nyightig lineage- is the issue of training lineage teachers. Traditionally in the Nyingma, as I guess in the other lineages, nobody would teach until they become a Khenpo. This training takes 9 years full time in a monastery. How the heck is that supposed to happen here? In zen you keep showing up and doing retreats and then at some point you are appointed as a teacher- but that’s a far cry from 9 years of full time university style training. We are playing with streaming internet classes, downloadable audio, etc.. Maybe then a student shows up 4 times per year for retreat or face time. Still, I don’t know how this is supposed to happen. Westerners don’t support monks who could then live as full time monastics, and it certainly wouldn’t be wise for a student to spend that many years not coming up with a skill to pay the bills (they are even having to solve this problem in Asia). Even though Tantra is ideal for us the logistics present an immense challenge. My lama, as well as most of my sangha, likes the fact that we are being taught the real thing, unwatered down, unnewageified, and studying authentic texts. How do we make this work? We are in West Los Angeles and this is not an inexpensive place, We need to come up with a way for this to work, but it’s a serious challenge.

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