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The contradictions of Sutra
The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the cessation of Samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth, causing ‘dukkha,’ in Pali, dissatisfaction, often translated as suffering) are core Sutric teachings. Our patterned habits of attraction, aversion and indifference cause us misery. Our attachment to ego makes us self-serving. We are habitual ego-reinforcers, but we can develop detachment and equanimity through concentrated meditation which will enable us to further let go of striving and grasping. Then we will see that our desires and habits cause us unhappiness at a deep level. We can begin to erase even the most subtle traces of conditioning, perhaps even achieving states of cessation, eventually becoming an arhat or experiencing nirvana.
Different presentations may use the language of mindfulness, jhanas, stream entry, no-self, detachment, loving-kindness, compassion, emptiness. Sutra-derived worldviews have in common the theme that if we follow a correct path we can develop virtues in a self-reinforcing cycle of purity or wholesomeness. We will find it incrementally easier to detach ourselves from impurity, misdemeanour and ill-intent. We can develop a release from our grasping self to the point that we no longer experience desire. We might even achieve a state of nirodha and have all sensation cease. In Sutric systems, these experiences are highly desirable. States of intense desire, negative emotions, bad thoughts, are undesirable.
A system that advocates separation from one side of a polarity to achieve its opposite is dualist. Examples of such polarities are ‘good vs bad’, ‘pure vs. impure’, ‘right vs. wrong’. Dualism fixes the meaning of polarities and our selves in relation to them. Sutra is dualist in practice. Some versions simultaneously extol nondualism.
Often if you look closely, there’s an irreconcilable contradiction1 in the worldview underlying an approach to meditation practice. For example, craving reinforces dualism, therefore we must detach ourselves from it. Separation from impurities, which is dualist, purports to lead to an absolute experience: universal transcendence, inter-connectedness or oneness. It is contradictory to say that “I deeply value my emotions, relationships and preferences” and at the same time to train in detachment from them. It is contradictory to fully appreciate the senses, to enjoy good food, laughter and company, and to attempt to end a cycle of craving and aversion seen as the very fabric of emotions, relationships and preferences. In practice, adopting this contradictory stance can lead to moral superiority, judgementalism, uncontrolled explosive feelings, paranoia and depression.2
Once you start to notice it, spiritual judgementalism is everywhere: the mindful ‘now’ is morally superior to some other, abstract platitude such as the fast, mindless world of capitalism. Our culturally Western inability to value the immaterial, our focus on screens and technology exist at the expense of fully experiencing the beauty of a raindrop. From the perspective of Tantra as a methodology in its own right, this is dualism and bound to fail. Anecdotally, we don’t live this dualism, we are more discerning. Many of us have an endless capacity for enjoyment of community life, cities, lattes, smartphones, nature and solitude. We recognize the value of engaging with systems whilst simultaneously understanding their limitations. We don’t need to detach ourselves from life in order to be happy.
Sutra is everywhere
Possibly everything you know as Buddhism, and much Buddhist-influenced secular practice, derives from and uses the language of Sutra. This may come as a surprise because we’re so used to comparing different Buddhisms and meditations with each other, we think of them as distinct and varied. However, much available meditation instruction is Sutra in some or other form. The practices we engage with, the teachings, the perspectives – are most usually presented using the language of Sutra.
Mindfulness practice is a version of Sutra, often presented in a secular framework. Much of Zen is Sutra. Pureland, Vipassana, Insight meditation, progression through the jhanas and stream entry, all of these are Sutric in style and presentation. Additionally, most of the available Buddhist Tantra is based on the practices and language of Mahayana. Mahayana is Sutra. When presentations of Buddhist Tantra are given from a Mahayana base, Tantra becomes supplementary. Even some presentations of Dzogchen are Sutra masquerading as Dzogchen.
Does this matter?
Regarding personal change through meditation, I think it doesn’t necessarily matter. When we are meditating, learning to develop ‘peace of mind’, psychological and behavioural insight, experience without thought, stillness – whatever is our practice what matters are the localized results. Was I wrapped up in thought stories, or not? Did I notice the sensations in my body moment by moment? Did the doorbell distract me? This is fundamental preparatory work in many, if not all meditative paths.
It begins to matter more when the language and stance of Sutra are adopted as a worldview – that is, when we try to make our life work according to a meditation experience that we have framed with terminology immersed in the heritage of Sutra. This applies equally to some secular, mindfulness meditation practices as it does to Buddhist meditation. It is contradictory to attempt full involvement with ordinary, every-day experience according to the view of Sutra, using the language of Sutra.
The distinguishing feature of Sutric-derived frameworks is a language and methodology generated in a soteriology that separates the end point, the result of practice, from worldly experience. In most contemporary presentations, across the spectrum from highly traditional to modern revisionist Buddhisms, magical to secular approaches, success stories – the ‘ultimate’ achievements of practice – are transcendent: that is, separate from this world of experience. They developed in a context of asceticism that rejects a cycle of suffering and rebirth that characterizes our present experience.
The point of such practice was to detach oneself from emotions, cease to experience the pains of habitual craving and remove oneself from life, so as not to experience rebirth again. This fundamental stance is reflected in all Sutric-derived presentations, sometimes it is clear and explicit, other times covert and intermittent.
We can approach meditation with another view, using a different language, one that favors fulfilment in this world, now. We do not need detachment, dualistic liberation from suffering, separation from our world into an ultimate transcendent reality, to experience the fulfilment of our potential as human beings. This is not an objection to Sutra as a methodology per se, rather to suggest that its worldview has limited efficacy as an incongruent approach applied in the context of an ordinary life of relationships, sex, families, work, enjoyment. Some mainstream approaches, seeing this incongruence, combined concepts from Western traditions such as psychotherapy and psychology with the Sutric heritage. Without addressing the core principles underlying different worldviews, this approach risks adding irreconcilable contradictions of principle, function and terminology. I’ll talk more about this later.
Buddhist Tantra, as a methodology in its own right, can provide a different approach. As an attitude to life Tantra is about developing generosity, power, connection, mastery and intelligence; all of these with spacious awareness in our every-day activity.3 The language and attitude of Buddhist Tantra presented here are not centrally concerned with letting go of grasping, liberation from suffering or developing equanimity. Tantra focuses on creating enjoyment through involvement. One starts with the recognition that enjoyment exists, one cultivates enjoyment through developing spacious appreciation, and the result is fulfilling activity in the world of our current experience – for that is the only world that we have.
In my next post I’ll take a look at the terminology associated with different, contradictory worldviews.
1: Not the same as a paradox, which may seem contradictory but points to some insight that illuminates both sides of the apparent contradiction. An erroneous form of reasoning in some systems is the explanation of irreconcilable contradictions as transcendent paradoxes.
2: Kramer and Astad in “The Guru Papers” 1993, characterise this as a ‘good self vs. bad self’ dichotomy. Similar dual aspects of selves are understood in Western systems of psychological development (eg: Bly’s eating the ‘shadow’) and psychotherapy (eg: top dog vs. underdog in Gestalt).
3: We can cultivate spacious awareness in many ways. One of the most direct, valuable methods is silent sitting meditation. For anyone wanting to engage with silent sitting meditation as an approach to Tantric practice, I recommend shi-nè (pronounced shi-né) or similar meditation.