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