Sutra to Tantra

Here’s the video of me and Jared Janes hosting the Sutra to Tantra group on the Stoa platform. There were over 100 participants, many more than we had envisaged. As you can see, I was quite nervous!

We use the terms shamatha and shi-ne. Shi-ne is the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit shamatha, meaning “calm abiding”. There are a variety of silent meditations referred to by one or other of these names. Shamatha is normally used in the context of Theravadan staged paths. It is taught as a concentration method, focusing on the breath as object, leading to a state of equanimity, or dissolution of the sense of self. Shamatha, also called Shi-ne in Mahayana context, is also sometimes taught as focus on the breath as object in Tibetan traditions. In Vajrayana lineages, by contrast, shi-ne is taught as an expansive meditation leading to spacious awareness. Some Vajrayana versions do not use the breath for focus and do not separate an observing subject from an object as focus. I wrote a little more about that here.

A recurring theme in this video is frames of reference. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, imo the most important point is this (from about half an hour into the video):

“Your frame of reference is easily occluded by all the different practices and approaches that are available, some of which you try out, you know about a ton of them, you incorporate different practices from different traditions, try to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. It’s good and useful to do that, it’s probably necessary to do that, but the down side is that it can occlude where you’re actually at, in that it gives you the false impression that you’re moving between views, systems and references. It gives you the impression that you think you’re applying different methods in different contexts. The thing is, the application of different methods is almost always adapted into and by a frame of reference that you don’t see. This is like your operating system. It’s like a worldview or an implicit understanding of how things are, based on where you’re at.”

This is your stance – it’s where you are now.

I talk about dualism as a stance and how to recognize it. Dualism is a “default mode,” one we adopt habitually. Sutra utilizes dualism as its main methodology. The sutric path is dualist, in that it advocates separating from desires, attachments, emotional turbulence, anger, “negative” mental activity, in order to experience equanimity. This is the framework for many meditations, but it also permeates personal, communal, social and cultural norms. Whereas sutra utilizes dualism as practice, Tantra utilizes “realization” (recognition) of the dualist mode as its starting point. So to adopt a Tantric frame of reference, dualism, rather than being our automatic, habitual mode of relating – the “water that we swim in” – must be experientially seen and understood. It’s like we need to catch ourselves being dualist, experience that texture of our being, before it’s possible for it to become the starting point, or the ground of our practice.

There is a transcript of the talk here.


1:00 Charlie: introduction to the perspective.
7:00 Jared talks about his practice and transitioning from a Sutric frame of reference.
10:00 Language reflecting a different perspective
14:00 Jared: describes a meditation experience of clarity
16:00 No-self experience, different results of shamatha and expansive styles of meditation
19:00 Difference between idea of having a final state that you’re working towards, or not
21:00 Obsession with maps and stages
22:20 Individualized component of Tantic practice
23:30 Starting point for Tantric practice, being able to laugh at yourself a bit
24:00 Zen and Tantra and Dzogchen
27:00 The nature of paths
29:00 Frames of reference
32:00 History of modern meditation methods including Judaeo-Christian worldview
32:30 Dualism. How to recognize it.
40:00 Preferences
46:00 Question about Daoism (I couldn’t hear your voice and there was a bit of a time lag at my end, I’m sorry I talked over you)
52:00 Question: notion of nondualism and discussion about it. Doug Tataryn describes nondual experience of subject-object dichotomy.
1:00:03 Question: What structures outside the Tibetan groups that are available can people explore?
1:10:00 Secrecy in the tradition
1:15:00 Initiation and transmission, are they important?
1:17:30 Tibetan Buddhism has failed
1:20:00 The experience of transmission