Not all Buddhism is about liberation from suffering

The wheel of dharma at Konark Sun Temple in Orissa
Dharmachakra, the wheel of dharma, Konark Sun Temple, Orissa

Sutra dominates

When most people say ‘Buddhism’, what they are referring to is Sutrayana, the path of Sutra.1 I use ‘Sutra’, for short. Sutra is the dominant form of Buddhism available today. It is so dominant that it might be fair to say it has a monopoly on Buddhism. The majority of Buddhist practitioners do not know about alternatives.

Sutra centers on the idea that complete liberation from suffering is possible. By doing the right things, being the right way, eventually, we can extricate ourselves from Samsara, a cycle of perpetually self-inducing misery. Many secular presentations of meditation have adopted this underlying framework. The language is the same, barring removal of the most prominent forms of magical thinking.

Is this realistic? The only way to eliminate suffering is to cease sensation. This was the original purpose of meditation practices intended to achieve no-self and liberation from Samsara. Is this what you want?

Later developments in Buddhism, particularly in Tantra and Dzogchen, do not have the same goal. They put less emphasis on liberation from suffering and include enjoyment and appreciation as aspects of the path.

The monopoly of Sutra in Buddhism is such that it might come as a surprise to hear this. It might be possible to conclude “then Vajrayana is not Buddhism”.  Some do so, or regard it as the corruption of an original pure form. For many, it is heresy to include practices that do not focus on liberation from the suffering of Samsara in a definition of Buddhism.

Christianity struggled with dotrinal challenges many times, for instance during the Protestant Reformation. Now Christians understand that Christianity includes multiple denominations, even if they reject some interpretations. More generally, most people understand that Christianity encompasses radically different, contrary views. By contrast, it is not yet well understood in the Buddhisphere that there are many distinct Buddhisms, some radically different and challenging to Sutric assumptions.

Whether or not you are a lumper or a splitter, history is messy, scripture is contradictory and so has been practice. The origins and developments of Buddhist Tantra are inextricably bound to its complex relationship with Sutra.2  Tantra encompasses a continuation of, a re-working of, and reaction to the ideas embodied in Sutric Buddhism, including dropping the goal of anatman, no-self.

Many contemporary presentations of Tantra are approached via Sutra, using the language of Sutra. This is not wrong — it is technically coherent to present Tantra from this perspective. Unfortunately though, Tantra’s distinct views and methods are often lost in the Sutric language and perspective. I don’t find that approach attractive because it occludes the most interesting, non-conformist origins and applications of Tantra. Maybe that is the point?

Meditation practice

The only way to escape suffering is to cease experience. This was the ideal, it was the purpose of practice, in the cultural context in which Sutra developed. Much contemporary meditation instruction continues to incorporate this ideal. But it seems irrelevant to contemporaries who nonetheless experience meditation’s power and usefulness. Without thinking through the implications, it is easy to fall into using the idealist, escapist language of Sutra to describe one’s meditation experience, because that is the default vocabulary that teachers, groups, apps, and traditions use. My post living contradictions is about this inconsistency.

Meditation can change your relationship with pain, dissatisfaction, and suffering, for the better without promising an end to it. If you think there is no world for human beings other than the one we live in, and that therefore escaping suffering is unrealistic, this approach may work well for you.

  1. 1.Some core tenets of Sutra are the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Other doctrines, considered central by many are karma, the three marks of existence, the five precepts and the Prajnaparamita (‘wisdom perfection, transcendent wisdom’).
  2. 2.The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, Samuel, Geoffrey, 2008 (Barnes & Noble)