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.


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?

  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.