Mahayana is optional

Yoda looking cute
“Your path, you must decide.” — Yoda

Mahayana is a path leading to understanding of “emptiness” and compassion. The base, that is, the starting point or foundational experience for Tantric practice, is the same as the result of Mahayana. So from the perspective of Tantra, Mahayana provides a preparatory route to its base.

Most proponents of Tibetan Buddhism say that without the foundation in Mahayana teachings, view, and practices, particularly the cultivation of compassion (bodhicitta),1 Tantric practice is dangerous. It risks egotistical, manic power trips, controlling, dominant behavior, explosive experiences of uncontrolled energy, psychological problems associated with delusions of grandiosity and psychic control, and a lack of personal accountability.

Developing Mahayana view was an essential prerequisite for Vajrayana in Tibet, as it was the only available approach. Mahayana is not an essential approach to Vajrayana in our contemporary cultural circumstances. But Tibetan teachers exported Buddhist training in its most elaborate, institutionalized form, designed for dedicated monastic practice, and applied it to Westernized adults approaching Buddhist practice in contemporary, non-monastic circumstances. That missed the point of Mahayana’s institutional role, social and spiritual.

Mahayana, especially the cultivation of bodhicitta and good karma, was the moral foundation of Tibetan culture. The Tibetan monastic system was at the heart of politics and society. Mahayana inculcated ethcial norms in Tibet, for children, families, and the whole of society. The Vajrayana that Tibetans brought to the modern world developed in this institutional context. Teachers and students have left unquestioned the assumption that Mahayana is indispensable.

Tibetan institutions present a staged system of prerequisites. These begin with Mahayana practices, such as the cultivation of bodhicitta, and often include the ‘common preliminaries’ — contemplating the “four thoughts that turn the mind to practice.”2 There are multiple other preparatory practices for Vajrayana, including the ‘uncommon preliminaries’, the Tantric ngöndro — purification practice, with sādhanā ritual, mandala offering, prostrations, and guru yoga. The Tantric preliminaries usually have the flavor and style of Tantric practice, but they are functionally Mahayana in that they lead to the experience of emptiness. The final preliminary is the first actual Tantric practice.

People approaching spiritual practice in contemporary society usually have basic ethical understanding, empathetic regard for others, and good intention. Many approaching Evolving Ground have expressed compassion as motivation for deepening their spiritual practice and social capability. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have already learned at least simple compassion and concern for others.3 In the West, that is often through Christian-influenced cultural upbringing. Cultures each have their own ethical system, a training in cooperative behaviour, that fulfills the same social function that Mahayana did in Tibetan society.

Early Vajrayana in Tibet was explicitly anti-scholastic and functioned pro-socially. In the reorganization of Tibetan society after the fourteenth century, the Geluk development of the monastic system institutionalized Vajrayana inside the Mahayana framework. The Mahayana worldview, in which the bodhisattva ideal is the peak of attainment, became the dominant, normative influence. Vajrayana was purified of its unsavory, worldly elements. In the monastic system, the anarchic, social orientation of Vajrayana’s earlier manifestation was neglected in favor of arcane, systematized, liturgical ritual. Some of the physical yogic practices were preserved, particularly in the schools of Tibetan Buddhism that maintained a minority of non-monastic practitioners. From the perspective of Mahayana, those aspects of Vajrayana should be reserved for advanced practitioners.

Inheriting the monastic framework, many teachers regard Vajrayana as an add-on: an extension of Mahayana. But earlier traditions in Tibet, and contemporary non-monastic traditions, relate to Vajrayana paths in their own right. When Vajrayana is understood and approached as having its own, distinct, starting point and methodology, Mahayana is an optional, not an essential prerequisite. Any social or spiritual technology, Buddhist or not, that gets you to the base for Vajrayana practice, fulfills a preparatory function.

Recontextualizing Mahayana

To relativize Mahayana is not to reject it. Engaging diligently with Mahayana practice can be humbling, empowering, and developmental, whether or not the intention is to prepare for Buddhist Tantra. Many contemporary students have benefitted from the worldview and practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the cultivation of compassion, contemplative meditations, and ritual offering.

This page explains and reflects the approach that we’re taking in our community of contemporary Vajrayana practice, Evolving Ground. We regard Mahayana in its Tibetan form — that is, all of the preliminaries as presented in the Tibetan systems, including practices of cultivation of bodhicitta, the bodhisattva vows — as optional preparations for Vajrayana practice. They are interchangeable with other preparatory practices that would fulfill the same role of establishing (1) ethical maturity and (2) experience of emptiness (‘spacious presence’).

Relativizing Mahayana does not denigrate it. It recontextualizes and revitalizes the system. Exporting spiritual technology from one time and place to another requires intelligent application for it to stay alive — that is, to continue to function well. Rote imitation leads to dysfunctional practice. It is possible to spend decades progressing through the Tibetan preliminaries and established system without them functioning in the way intended. In the worst case, the result is abuse of power. More usually, it is a tragic waste of time.

Tantric practice can be dangerous if it is approached without caution. For Sutric practice, the starting point is recognition of a common, general experience — suffering, or existential dissatisfaction. We are all, already there, so there is no need for concern about undertaking Sutric practice from an inappropriate starting point.4 By contrast, the starting point for Tantric practice is the uncommonly recognized experience of emptiness. Without grounding in the experience of emptiness — that is, without experiencing the inherent nebulosity and spaciousness of all phenomena, including especially our emotions — the form of Tantric practice could become overwhelming. Stories of Tantric practice failing and leading to harm are sometimes used to warn people against approaching Tantra without a well-established Mahayana practice. However, all the disaster stories I have ever heard are about practitioners, Western and Tibetan, with decades of practice in Tibetan establishment Buddhism — that is, Mahayana. That is not surprising: given that there have not been other options, it is the only failure mode to date. But it would be inaccurate to say that the traditional approach from Mahayana and the established system of Tantric preliminaries will reliably prevent problems.

The cultivation of bodhicitta, or taking the bodhisattva vows, might result in “selflessness” — the desire to give oneself in service for the benefit of others. In Christianity, developing charity or other virtues serves a similar personal and social function. Christian practice could serve equally well in preparation for Buddhist Tantra. Many demands of adult life and work in contemporary society might serve a preparatory function. Training as a teacher in an educational institution, for example, requires putting yourself in the shoes of your students, good communication skills, kindness, and patience.

Emptiness, the foundation for Tantric practice, is defined and acquired in multiple ways. One way to understand emptiness is as a loosening up of self-referentiality, a playfulness regarding the importance of one’s own view and opinions. Another approach is through presence of awareness from meditation. When you are present and alert, you are not immersed in a narrative about how things are, you experience the rising of consciousness as fresh and vivid in each moment.

In Western, individualist society, our personal backgrounds cover a wider range than ever before in human history. Development into adulthood is astonishingly different for individuals, depending on social circumstances, family, and education. We should understand approaching Vajrayana as a process best accomplished in whatever way suits an individual’s circumstances. This requires drawing on, and creating, a wider range of preparatory practices.

In Evolving Ground, we do not confine practice and preliminaries to a set, institutionalized, conventionally spiritual path. We do not reject that option either, but we are broadening the scope of approach by viewing Vajrayana as a path in its own right and by taking an intelligent approach to the way that preliminaries function, including those found in Tibetan Mahayana. Some in our community want to engage primarily with silent sitting. Some select Mahayana practices, and others may practice Tantric ngöndro in its traditional form. Others are experimenting with new approaches, or learning how a background in Christianity, for example, or psychology, or a martial art, might contribute to their personal foundation for Tantric practice.

  1. 1.Lit. “Awakened mind;” the desire for the liberation of all sentient beings
  2. 2.Precious human rebirth, impermanence, karma, suffering.
  3. 3.In Robert Kegan’s stages of psychological development, this is a key feature of stage three, the communal mode. Viewed from Kegan’s developmental framework, most people in contemporary societies operate in stage three mode.
  4. 4.This does not mean that engaging in Sutric practice is risk free. All systems of meditation and practice have failure modes and associated risks.