Intentional degeneracy

an old postcard image of a Tibetan wandering yogi with a pointy hat

Recently, I have been spending much of my time with yogis at Evolving Ground, our community of contemporary Vajrayana practice. More than a hundred yogis have joined the community. The Happy Yogis Slack is bustling with all sorts of interesting discussion about meditation, Vajrayana views, and methodology. Anyone can join.

There are four types of additional involvement in Evolving Ground: apprenticeship, pupil, solo practitioner, and degenerate. Apprentice and pupil numbers are limited while we establish systems. Apprentices are fully involved members who help develop, run, and support the community. Pupils have a more informal relationship with the group. They have access to many group sessions, including a small group monthly practice lab. They can also attend study groups, book groups, and collaborative workshops, some of which are organized by apprentices. We recently established the solo practitioner category for community members who like to keep in touch and attend some events, without commiting to a regular group practice lab. To our delight, degenerates continue to join the community at a steady rate. Degenerates are lively practitioners with inquisitive cynicism and prudent optimism. Degenerates have a reading club, a film club and access to other community groups, meditation sessions and the 24/7 online hangout space. We have capacity for unlimited degeneracy.

In the #degenerates channel on the Happy Yogi slack, someone asked: “I was wondering if anyone could explain the degenerate label of Evolving Ground to me. what makes Evolving Ground degenerate vs another non degenerate Vajrayana group? I am specifically curious about what trad vaj groups would find degenerate about this one. Like what practices etc separate Evolving Ground from a traditional Nyingma group like Aro gTér. I’m trying to get a sense of where this fits into the larger scene?”

I replied and my friend and cofounder, Jared, suggested I could post my answer here, too. It might be helpful for people curious about the Happy Yogi community.

Here’s my reply:

“When Jared and I decided to invite people to an initial investigation of what it might mean to move from Sutric (renunciative) view, to life-affirming, worldly-oriented, Buddhist Tantra, we held a Stoa event. We say a little about why we chose to call ourselves degenerate fuckwits from the outset in the video from that event. It’s the Sutra to Tantra video here

One reason was to help people deselect from the group quickly: if seeing two practitioners make fun of themselves and their practice is off-putting, then the approach to practice that we take here would probably not appeal. The yogic tradition has many stories of mendicant yogis who refuse to fit spiritual and social norms. I identify with them, personally, having been a wandering weirdo myself, for many years.

Now Tibetan spiritual traditions follow standard, ritual formulas. Although individually and as a group we might sometimes practice traditional forms, our primary emphasis here is to engage in practice in terms of its principle and function without a Tibetan environment. In future, new forms will arise. For the time being we’re building the foundations for community of Vajrayana practice in silent sitting—though we’re already moving away from Tibetan and Sanskrit terminology. We want the connection with the Tibetan traditions to remain available for anyone who wishes to pursue them. Practice and linguistic translations will be explicit.

Many of the wider community in the Slack and the practice group are exploring Vajrayana in terms of its view and its difference to other practices that they’re involved with. In the pupils and apprentices gatherings, we’re developing a deeper understanding of view and methodology, and that’ll eventually take shape in the wider community too. Most traditional Vajrayana groups wouldn’t have space for practitioners to talk about non-Vajrayana practices, and to make comparisons, as we do here.

A reason to use the word “degenerate” is in relation to our inheritance. At this time of starting something new, traditional Tibetan Buddhism (and other Buddhist traditions)  are in a state of degeneracy, with multiple abuses of the spiritual role, of group trust and of leadership privileges. We’re, in a sense, starting from a point of degeneracy and should acknowledge and own that in order to transform the landscape.

With regard to your question about how traditional lineages might view us, that would depend on who you ask. For some, we may seem irrelevant.  When I left traditional Vajrayana, I gave up adherence to the Tantric vows, at least in their outer form. From an extreme, “true believer,” perspective, that’s the worst thing you can do. From that perspective, any teaching, practice or group organized by a vow breaker is, by definition, inauthentic. If that is important for a practitioner—and for some it is—they will regard this group as illegitimate, no matter what the practices.

With regards to the practices and how they differ from those in traditional contexts, everything we do here will be congruent in terms of the principles and outcomes of Vajrayana methods. It should be possible for any practitioner to move from Evolving Ground into a more traditional context, and vice versa, and have the practices seem familiar and make sense, if they understand them in terms of principle and function.  They may look and feel somewhat different, without the Tibetan cultural influence. We’ll have much less liturgy than most Tibetan groups and we won’t be engaging in lengthy sadhanas, but that’s more to do with the view from Dzogchen than the movement into a contemporary cultural setting.

The teaching/guiding/mentoring relationships are informal in nature. From a traditional perspective they may look inadequate—demeanor and roles are quite prescribed in that context. The best way for you to get a sense of how we’re different to a group like the Aro gTér would be to attend one of their retreats in person, if and when it should become possible again. You’d probably get a feel for the traditional flavor attending their online events too. The first thing you’d notice would be group practice involving Tibetan instruments, drums, bells, group song, robes and Tibetan settings, thangkas around the walls and many ritual objects, instruments and symbols. The look and feel is substantially different—essential to what we’re doing here is providing space for Vajrayana practice to arise without the Tibetan cultural influence and tradition.

Even though it’s early days and we have a long way to go before it’ll be apparent to most where we’re heading, if you spend some time with traditional groups, you’ll immediately sense how we’re different. There are some pupils and apprentices in Evolving Ground with decades of experience in traditional Vajrayana. If the opportunity arises, you might chat with them about how it seems different and how it might be viewed from the traditional contexts they’re familiar with. In future, we’ll be practicing in group settings more formally and we’ll start introducing Tantric and Dzogchen practice in the group too. At the moment some of the apprentices and pupils have their own, other practices alongside silent sitting. Some follow traditional forms, others are applying principles to their practice in a less traditionally prescribed way.”