Contradictions in Sutra
Practices that derive from Sutra center on liberation from Samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth caused by habitual grasping to attraction, aversion and indifference.
The core teachings are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Being trapped in Samsara causes ‘dukkha’ (Pali) dissatisfaction, often translated as suffering. The patterns of attraction, aversion, and indifference make 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.
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 habits 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 as the goal.
If you look closely, there are irreconcilable contradictions1 in the worldview underlying this framework for 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 ignoring them or detaching 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
Moral judgementalism rooted in dualist contradictions is all-pervasive in contemporary society. The mindful ‘now’ is morally superior to some other, abstract platitude such as the fast, mindless world of capitalism. Our culturally Western obsession with progress, our focus on screens and technology, must exist at the expense of fully experiencing the beauty of a raindrop.
From the perspective of Buddhist Tantra, dualism is 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 cultural systems whilst simultaneously understanding their limitations. We don’t need to detach ourselves from life in order to be happy, emotionally mature beings, or to experience presence of awareness.
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 there are a variety of Buddhisms and meditations available. It is common to contrast them with each other, to think of them in terms of their differences. 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, even Vajrayana.3
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, are all Sutric in their style and presentation. Additionally, much of Tibetan Buddhism taught as Vajrayana is based on the practices and language of Mahayana and has a Sutric flavor. When presentations of Buddhist Tantra are given in a Sutric framework, Tantra may look and sound like Sutra, or it may seem arcane. 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, developing spacious awareness, psychological and behavioural insight, experience without thought, stillness — whatever our practice is — what matters are the localized results. Was I wrapped up in thought stories? 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 incorporated into 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 simultaneously adopting a Sutric worldview, using the language of Sutra.
The distinguishing feature of Sutric-derived frameworks is a language and methodology generated by a soteriology that separates the end point, the result of practice, from worldly experience. In most contemporary presentations, across the spectrum from 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 the cycle of suffering and rebirth that is seen to characterize our human condition.
The point of ascetic practices and their worldview 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 across 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 fulfilment as human beings. This is not an objection to Sutric methodology per se. Rather, it is a suggestion that the Sutric worldview has limited application in the context of an ordinary life of relationships, sex, families, work, and 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.
Buddhist Tantra, regarded as a methodology in its own right, provides a different approach. Tantric practice develops generosity, power, connection, mastery, and intelligence; all of these with spacious presence in our every-day lives. The language and attitudes of Buddhist Tantra that I present on this site are not centrally concerned with letting go of grasping, liberation from suffering, or developing equanimity. Whereas Sutra starts with the recognition of suffering, Tantra starts with the acknowledgement of enjoyment. Its methods employ spacious appreciation, and the result is fulfilling activity in the world of our current experience — for that is the only world that we have.
- 1.A contradiction is 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. Vajrayana is canonically distinct from Sutra (which is Mahayana and Hinayana). It comprises Tantra and Dzogchen. Many practice lineages include a mixture.