Not all Buddhism is about liberation from suffering

Dharmachakra, the wheel of dharma
wikimedia commons

Sutra dominates

When most people say ‘Buddhism’, what they are referring to is Sutrayana, the path of Sutra.1 I use ‘Sutra’, for short. Sutra is the dominant form of Buddhism available today. It is so dominant that it might be fair to say it has a monopoly on Buddhism. The majority of Buddhist practitioners do not know about alternatives.

Sutra centers on the idea that complete liberation from suffering is possible. By doing the right things, being the right way, eventually, we can extricate ourselves from a cycle of perpetually self-inducing misery. Many secular presentations of meditation have adopted this underlying framework. The language is the same, barring removal of the most prominent forms of magical thinking.

Is this realistic? The only way to eliminate suffering is to cease sensation. This is the purpose of meditation practices intended to achieve no-self and liberation from Samsara. Is this what you want?

Later developments, particularly in Tantra and Dzogchen, let go the goal of anatman (no-self) and focus less on liberation from suffering.

The global monopoly of Sutra in Buddhism is such that it might come as a surprise to hear this. It might be possible to conclude “then Vajrayana is not Buddhism”.  Some do so or regard it as the corruption of an original pure form.

For many Buddhists, it is heresy to include practices that do not focus on experiencing no-self, or liberation from Samsara in a definition of ‘Buddhism’. Sutra is so globally dominant today that even the idea that there are other Buddhisms is news. Christianity struggled with this sort of challenge during the Protestant Reformation but seems, for the most part, to have settled sociologically if not doctrinally into an acceptance of pluralism. It’s now generally understood that Christianity encompasses radically different, contrary views. By contrast, Buddhism has a long way to go.

Whether or not you are a lumper or a splitter, history is messy, scripture is contradictory and so has been practice. The origins and developments of Buddhist Tantra are inextricably bound to its complex relationship with Sutra.2  It encompasses both a continuation of, re-working and reaction to the ideas embodied in Sutric Buddhism, including effectively dropping the goal of anatman, no-self.3

Meditation practice

The only way to escape suffering is to cease experience. This was the ideal, it was the purpose of practice, in the cultural context in which Sutra developed. Much contemporary meditation instruction continues to incorporate this ideal. It seems quaint at best to contemporaries who nonetheless think meditation can be powerful and useful. Even so, many still use the idealist, escapist language of Sutra to describe meditation experience. My next post is about this contradiction.

Meditation can change your relationship with pain, dissatisfaction and suffering without promising an end to it. If you think there is no world for human beings other than the one we live in, and that therefore escaping suffering is unrealistic, this approach may be for you.


  1. Some core tenets of Sutra are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Other doctrines, considered central by many are karma, the three marks of existence, the Five Precepts and the Prajnaparamita (‘wisdom perfection, transcendent wisdom’).

  2.  The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, Samuel, Geoffrey, 2008 (Barnes & Noble)

  3. Many contemporary presentations of Tantra are approached via Sutra, using the language of Sutra, to the exclusion of having anything distinct to say. This isn’t wrong: it’s technically coherent to present Tantra from this perspective. I don’t particularly like this approach though. It occludes the most interesting, non-conformist meanings of Tantra. Maybe that is the point.


8 thoughts on “Not all Buddhism is about liberation from suffering”

  1. I look forward to the next entry, I liked the first one a lot, hence the follow.
    It is said it Tibet that you cannot see the summit of a mountain from the summit of a smaller mountain but it’s not that one way is better than another, its that one way is better for one person and not the other. You might be surprised to know that Vajrayana Buddhism is very much alive in the western countries.


  2. @quantumpreceptor
    Thanks for visiting!

    It is said it Tibet that you cannot see the summit of a mountain from the summit of a smaller mountain but it’s not that one way is better than another, its that one way is better for one person and not the other.

    That analogy appeals to me as I like being in the mountains very much.

    You might be surprised to know that Vajrayana Buddhism is very much alive in the western countries.

    I am greedy 🙂 I would like to see more, with more variety.

  3. More variety, really? I cannot imagine something having more variety than the Buddhadharma with its 84000 different teachings. I would like to see humanity choosing one part of Buddhism each for themselves and start digging really deep in one place with it. The results would be astounding.


  4. Thanks for this… the idea that Dzogchen ‘let’s go the goal of anatman’ sounds right and I’m wondering if this is because base, path and fruit are the same?

    1. Hi Michael, glad you’re enjoying the perspective.

      the idea that Dzogchen ‘let’s go the goal of anatman’ sounds right and I’m wondering if this is because base, path and fruit are the same?

      Yes, it reflects a shift in worldview in some strands of Buddhism that took place over centuries. The goal of anatman (‘no-self’) is a solution to the idea that existence – defined as the cycle of Samsara – sucks. In this view the self is of central importance: so long as there is a self, there is karma and rebirth. The only logical way out is not to exist.

      Dzogchen view regards existence as awesome (in Longchenpa’s terms “the majestic play of wonderment”). From that perspective the idea of no-self is uninteresting.

      1. I know that this may go down like a ton of bricks but here goes……
        This is a fundamental misunderstanding of emptiness. I write as a practitioner and from direct experience. It is an academic understanding. An experiential understanding of the emptiness of self wouldn’t have this as a conclusion because the problem would be seen very simply.

        What you have critiqued is the daft Buddhist models based on superstition where there is no suffering at all. The silliness is got round by believers saying ‘anyone with this attainment wouldn’t show it.’ Well that could be said of someone who claims to be able to shoot fire out of their arse but who says they won’t demonstrate it for superstitious reasons. They’d be laughed at and for very good reason.

        The suffering that ceases when the appearance of an inherently existent self ceases is clear to see when it happens. It is a very specific subset of suffering.

        Like with the rainbows that appear in the sky but were never ever there and never will be, there is no inherently existent self to get rid of. The rainbow can’t be removed from the sky because they were never there. What can be removed is the minds perception of a rainbow in the sky.

        The rainbow does not exist, you can’t have one person near it in the air seeing it and one on the ground seeing it. The rainbow can’t be gotten rid of and in the same way there is no ‘self’ to get rid of.

        Anyone who craves owning a rainbow might try and collect a piece of one in a jar. But they can’t. Because it never existed. They may get upset if someone criticises the rainbow in the sky or be delighted when someone praises it’s beauty. But it was never there. The problem is not a rainbow needing to be extinguished or enhanced, or transformed. It was never there.

        That doesn’t mean rainbow didn’t appear to the mind. Because it did. But not more than that. Not more than that. ‘Rainbows not really being in the sky’ isn’t a belief, or a dogma, or a practice, or a sect, or a school of thought, or a tradition, or a sutra, or a tantra, or a British thing, or a US thing, or a Christian thing or a Buddhist thing, or a lower school thing or an upper school thing, or a vajrayana thing or a non vajrayana thing.

        It’s just that if you think the rainbow can be grabbed and put in a jar but you can never get it you suffer non contentment. If you think the rainbow shouldn’t be insulted you suffer non contentment. if you think the rainbow is under attack you develop non contentment.

        The rainbow was never ever there. This is the point. When this recognition is present the suffering of non contentment associated with the rainbow can’t possibly arise. You can still be kicked in the bollocks or be headbutted and the physical pain will manifest and you might still sometimes be a dick or really nice because personality is not owned by a self. Thoughts and feelings have no owner. The rainbow doesn’t own anything. We can’t say it’s the rainbow’s cloud….because there’s no rainbow up there.

        In the same way ‘it’s my thought’ or ‘it’s my feeling’ are just themselves thoughts.

        There is specific suffering that arises because of the above mistaken mental construct. Other suffering doesn’t cease. The nervous system still functions. And there is contentment.

        Vedanta offers a deeper insight into stillness where everything including the sufferings of mistaking a real self is accepted contentedly. This stillness can watch the mistake Buddhism addresses and can watch it not being there too if that happens. Both are ok because that content stillness doesn’t need anything to be different from the way it is.

        The mistake Vedanta practitioners make is that because the ignorance of self still functions it labels the stillness ‘self’ and things it really has intrinsic selfness imbued in it. It doesn’t but the mistake can’t be spotted.

        This is why Vedanta practitioners usually have ignorance remaining and hanging by a thread and Buddhist practitioners can’t watch there ignorance and wisdom from the unchanging stillness that everything appears within.

        There is general appearance within the stillness and then mind imputes ‘object’ onto bits of it and gives that idea a name. The mind then bizarrely decides it didn’t create the idea of the object and that it had been there all along waiting to be discovered.

        Anything can appear and the mind can endlessly relate to it. That accounts for so much Buddhist ritual, visualisation etc. The crucial question is what is the nature of the things the mind experiences. And can the stillness that everything occurs within become the observation platform. The first is dealt with in Buddhism, the second is dealt with in Vedanta using the pointing method.

        Every ball of knotted string unravels differently so I’m not criticising anyone’s path but I am conveying the correct Buddhist meaning because I experience it has do others I’ve chatted to having followed the instructions and had awakenings. Even that is just appearance with no owner, hence emptiness is empty.

        Good luck with the Vajrayana. It’s only Vajrayana if the ignorance I’ve described is turned off. If that ignorance isn’t turned off then it’s mental theatre or training in correct view. Training in correct view doesn’t need anything esoteric or special though, it’s very simple.

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