Charlie Awbery and Jared Janes, the Stoa, October 26th, 2020
Transcribed by Sunil Rao.
Jared: Welcome to The Stoa. This is the second part of our Evolving Ground series in which we’re establishing the foundation of how our community - which is also named Evolving Ground - is approaching Vajrayana in a contemporary way. I don’t think we’re going to go into a ton of the backstory, but we did do that a bit in the first session. If you want to look at that recording it is available at evolvingground.org, so feel free to jump back there if there’s some things or gaps that seem to come up as we’re moving forward.
I’ve been calling myself a steward and I realized that there’s actually one steward of The Stoa that is Peter. So sorry Peter, I am just a facilitator - but that being said, I’ll hand things off to Charlie to introduce herself, and then we’ll jump into our topic for today.
Charlie: Thanks, Jared. Hi, everybody. I’ve said this before in previous meetings that we’ve had, but just a little bit of background and introduction. I’m a Vajrayana practitioner. I took ordination in a traditional lineage and I left that context a couple of years ago. But my name within that context that I still use sometimes is Rin’dzin Pamo, so you might have come across that name or come across me in that context on my blog, Vajrayana Now.
A little bit about Vajrayana for anybody who’s new here and who’s not familiar with the term. As we’re presenting it here, it’s a life-affirming, practical, spiritual training in presence of awareness, basically. There are many hundreds of practices; each have got their own specific function and purpose. But the general, overarching intention and the direction of Vajrayana is congruent, worldly activity. I think “worldly” is a good word to use because that covers many domains. It includes society, it includes environment, other people, nature, emotions - it’s a very broad overarching term. In Buddhist terminology you would maybe say something like: Vajrayana trains dexterous, skillful activity in the world of form, and that includes everyone and everything, everywhere. That’s a Buddhist way of phrasing what we’re doing.
Sometimes people ask about the end goal of Vajrayana, and personally I prefer to talk about the effect or the result or results, because Vajrayana has many hundreds of practices - it has probably thousands of practices, and those are not all the same. And where they lead - the direction that they’re oriented towards - that’s a continually renewed state of presence in activity. And in that state of presence, you could say that compassion and spaciousness arise spontaneously. There’s a very natural orientation not towards transcending the world or leaving the world. The orientation is towards natural congruence and active, present awareness. Spontaneity means in this context an rising of its own accord. You don’t have to do anything in that state, you don’t have to do something to make compassion or competence occur. It just arises naturally from the practice and the training. If you experience the result of Vajrayana practice, at any time compassion and spaciousness are both there, instantaneously. That’s some of my little introduction about how this fits into the context of what we’re doing and what we are intending to train in Evolving Ground, in the Happy Yogi Slack.
Did I miss anything…?
Jared: No I think that’s a good framing, and we did go in a bit more about Vajrayana specifically in Part One.
Charlie: That’s right. And if you check out my blog or go to evolvingground.org you’re going to find increasingly that we put more and more material up there that provides something of a context and will help you orient to what the community is getting up to and what we’re about.
Jared: My brief intro is - I don’t come from a traditional background. It was more of the Pragmatic Dharma and other Western variants of Buddhism that we’ve seen over the past 10 years or so that have started gaining a lot of steam. So the Mind Illuminated, Unified Mindfulness and teachers like Shinzen Young and Culdasa and Daniel Ingram and all those folks definitely informed how I got started.
And yet I started to notice that - and maybe this speaks a bit toward what we’re going to be talking about today - that a lot of these practices still have to varying degrees one foot in the more renunciative form of Buddhism and transcendental perspective. I guess we’ve described ourselves as “degenerates” because I know I don’t have any urge to remove myself from the world, and want to be in the messy muck. So Vajrayana made a lot of sense for me, and that’s when I found Charlie’s blog. We started chatting and a year later we decided to do this audacious thing of trying to figure out how to take Vajrayana principles and apply them in a contemporary setting. That’s a very brief background on me.
Today what we’ll do is - Charlie’s going to give a presentation on view and what that means in a Buddhist context, and then the two of us might discuss a little bit about whatever comes up, and then we’ll open it up to a broader conversation, and just hear your thoughts and questions and see what arises.
Charlie: Thanks. Presentation in the sense that I’m just going to ramble on for a while. I’ve got a few little notes here to remind me about things that I thought I might say.
Where to start…view is…there’s a lot to say about it because it’s not a very clearly defined concept or practice, but it is both a concept and a practice. And it’s a very broad way of approaching practice, or understanding different lineages, different paths, and different methods in Buddhism.
View is inseparable from yana - that is the term for path. There are different paths. One of the ways that paths are distinguished is by describing their view. That is, the world view that you have describes the path that you’re engaging with. And then in Buddhism there are so many paths and you get into this geekery of classification and go down the rabbit hole of defining the 16 paths and the 34 paths and all of the various, many, slightly tweaked, different types of paths in different systems. So different systems have different paths, and view is entirely connected up with this whole idea of there being different paths. It can get quite complicated. You can get into a lot of detail about the particular view and what that is. So I’m going to keep it quite broad today. But I think understanding the history of the term is interesting and useful.
Originally it came about as a way - this is really in the sort of formative period of Buddhism and Abhidharma - it came about as a way to describe people who weren’t on the path. It was like “them and us” with our view, and the heathens have their “wrong” view - this very two-way, binary classification. Eventually that was connected to the idea of soul and having a soul. And within Buddhism, historically there has not been the idea of a soul. So the tirtika - the “them” - they were the people who believed that there was a soul, and the Buddhists - anatman - no-self, no soul, no inherent permanent thing inside us that continues to exist. That was the very early formation.
The way that view was conceived came to change within Mahayana, and there was a lot of discussion about different paths because people were coming to understand that one could be a practicing Buddhist and practice in one way or another way, and have somewhat different ways of going about it. There was a lot of attempt at synthesis, or attempt at trying to make things work and figure out how these different concepts of how life is, or what the world is like - how that could be reconciled so that people didn’t kill each other, basically. In the Mahayana, it came to be connected to the idea of path, and accepting different paths and different paths within Buddhism - people having different divergences and different orientation.
Like I said, it’s not an entirely simple concept or practice. So what I’m going to do is bring some different ideas and some different ways of looking at or of coming to understand view, and then I’ll look at those in terms of how we view ourselves according to different yanas (or different methods or just by default), how we view ourselves and our emotions and our own personal internal experience and how we view others. That is very much connected to the kind of methodology that we’re training in and what we’re attracted to as practice. And then how we relate to nature and the environment and the world, and all of those three things are ways that you can unpack what is happening with view.
A couple of sessions ago on The Stoa - this is actually our third one, our first was number zero - I talked quite a lot about frames of reference. I’m not going to go over that again in any great detail, but that is very much connected to view. If you haven’t seen that discussion that we had - it’s called “Sutra to Tantra” and primarily is about frames of reference. That’s some quite useful material to bring to this idea as well. Frames of reference - that’s one way of describing view.
Another way and one which I like is to talk about immersion. When you have a particular view it pervades everything. View is like the air that you breathe. It defines everything. It’s how you see everything, it’s your understanding of the world, it’s where you’re at somehow. It’s connected to attitude, it’s connected to demeanor, to stance - all of those things, they’re very slightly different, they have very strong connections and overlaps with view. How you see other people in the world - that’s very deeply connected to your framework of reference your view - that may be hidden.
It’s a nebulous concept, it’s a bit difficult to describe because it’s so hidden. Often I think view isn’t particularly coherent; you can flip between different views without realizing it according to what the pressures of circumstances are. There’s this modern bailey pattern that can happen, where you retreat to one view when the other one’s threatened, and then you come back out to that view once the threat’s gone. And that just happens so automatically that you don’t realize that that’s happening. It’s like we usually have a tendency towards one particular very dominant view, and then some alternative is stacked up that we can use as that one fails, and we can very easily slip into and then go back to the dominant view, but we don’t notice that; we don’t notice that we’re doing it. We’re employing views as coping strategies in a way. We’ve learned our frameworks of reference in order to be able to navigate life and to navigate our experience in some kind of helpful, useful way - or it seems it has seemed that way.
When view becomes a practice, at that point you’re bringing it intentionally into conscious experience. The idea is that when you bring this into consciousness and you regard it as a practice, then that’s like an intentional immersion. From the meta-systematic perspective, the idea arises that it’s possible to consciously move between different systems and to immerse yourself in one or another or different methods in order to fully understand what that system is and how to come to terms with it. There’s this thing about coming to terms with the system, and for that to occur, there’s this sense of complete immersion of really getting to know how all the bits work or how it functions and going over and over that and experiencing it as it works again and again, so that you’re very familiar with that. It’s like you’re embodying view in some sense. In the Buddhist context, “system,” “path,” “method” - these are all words that pretty much relate to similar or the same things.
Your underlying view at any point is reflected in how you see yourself and how you relate with your emotions and your sensed experience, and it’s connected to how you regard other people and your whole attitude towards the environment, towards society, towards nature.
What I’m going to do specifically here is look at the difference between Sutric view and Tantric view which we’ve already done some before. This is going to be a theme that comes through this whole series and is recurring again and again. But I’m doing this specifically to go into detail about how views can be different. It’s also giving a way to - when you’re reading books or when you’re hearing other people speak or giving presentations or whatever - that you can begin to start distinguishing, particularly in a Buddhist or a spiritual context, the views that are informing - or what is the the dominant view that is informing - this particular person’s presentation.
This is something you could go into a lot more detail. Not just Sutra, not just Tantra - these are just very, very broad categories. If you are familiar with David Chapman’s work at meaningness.com, you can also look at view in terms of monism, eternalism, nihilism and dualism. And these are all very common views that we tend to slip in between and which we use invisibly - they go unnoticed. Part of the work that he’s doing there is bringing those views into consciousness so that they can be much better understood as informing the way that people work, the way that people address problems, the way that we relate, and the way that we write books or whatever. I just wanted to make the point that the views that I am going to look at in more detail here are just two of many, many, many - even within Buddhism. I like to look at these two because they’re very broad, and so they describe this really quite broad way of relating, and they’re not difficult to pick up. Once you’re really aware of these different, orthogonal, ways of relating to things, then you can begin to spot them a lot, a lot easier.
I would like to go into Dzogchen view a little as well, but we may or may not have time for that. Maybe Jared will have something that he can say about that later as well.
Thinking about view in relation to self - personal stuff, our internal world, all of our sense fields and our cognition and everything that is personal. In the Sutric view, the encapsulation of the view is that uncontrolled emotions are preventing you from freedom, from liberation, from enlightenment. Emotions, particularly turbulent emotions - desire, anger - they become obstacles. You view those as obstacles to your liberation. Sutric view is reflected in the way that you think about your emotional life, your time, yourself. It’s a project that you’re working on.
The analogy that I thought of in this context was - it’s like a sculpture. You’re working to make this beautiful, perfect sculpture, and you’re chipping away at the bits that you don’t want. You’re intricately involved in perfecting this beautiful, pure work of art. The bits that you chop off or the bits that you’re honing away - those are just completely irrelevant. What you’re focused on and the way that you’re working is just creating this beautiful, eventually perfect, pure object, if you like - or in the sense of practice, it’s subject. There’s this idea of perfection, of ultimate purity you’re training yourself towards - and that is no-self. That is, there’s this flip that occurs because eventually you hone everything away. There’s this sense of the ideal of perfection, but eventually what that becomes is cessation or complete cessation of sensation. It’s emptiness. So the perfect sculpture is when there’s no material left. It’s just emptiness. Maybe a bit of a crass analogy, but I wanted to get this project idea established in relation to Sutra.
Not that Tantra doesn’t have projects. There are many activities and projects; the view which informs those is somewhat different. Sutric view establishes this goal of purity of self, nonduality of self, experience of no-self, or emptiness of self that is fundamentally different from ordinary experience. Now with Tantra, rather than uncontrolled emotions preventing liberation - so the emotions must be pacified or tamed or calmed - Tantra regards emotions as messed up. They’ve been convoluted and constrained and scrunched and squidged; they’ve somehow been sort of shoved into this sort of tight, restricted, highly limited form - sometimes referred to as neuroses or distorted or unenlightened quality, and personally I don’t really like those terms. The view is that the emotional experience has been violently constricted by an enforced, habitual, compulsive mode or response. And that’s so instantaneous, it’s hard to see ourselves doing that. But that is the thing within Tantric view that is seen to be the cause of the limitation. The Tantric view towards self and emotions is that we’ve done this - this is something that we’ve done, and the view is reflected in wanting to engage with those emotions in order to change who and how we are.
There’s still this idea of liberation, and particularly in outer Tantra, there’s a lot about purifying and perfecting. That idea is still there, but it’s much more mundane and messy. Tantra is way more messy than Sutra, and the view is that liberation or transformation is the principle which the view informs. Transformation is through involvement with the ordinary, everyday emotional experience - because there is this view of what we have done and how emotions are that changes the way that we’re going to work with them. In order for transformation to occur, there has to be involvement. It just doesn’t happen at a distance; there isn’t an observer that you’re creating that is relating to an object. You’re getting in there, involved, you’re allowing the space for transformation to occur.
With Sutric view - most meditation methods are informed by Sutra - they emphasize calming and pacifying emotions. Tantra is often mistaken from that perspective. Tantra is mistaken to be about expression, because the opposite of renouncing and calming is thought to be owning and expressing. It’s seen to be different, and the difference that’s perceived from that perspective is “oh, it’s about getting into your emotions and expressing and having them.” We’re not talking about opposites here; Tantra isn’t opposite to Sutra. It’s orthogonal to Sutra; historically it was meta to Sutra. It’s a way of stepping outside of Sutric view. There’s a different paradigm; there’s not a continuation of Sutra. It’s different in principle. That’s a really important point to understand about the difference in Tantric view: it’s different in principle. It’s not a continuation. It’s not an expansion.
With regards to emotions that means that you’re engaging and becoming familiar with the somatic experience of emotion in order to have more choice available to you than basic, compulsive expression or repression or distraction or ignoring. You’re not calming; you’re engaging in order for that relationship to change. The way that we restrict and constrain our emotional experiences is very individual. And the Tantric view towards emotions - that there are contortions, that there are distortions of their natural state - means that the practice occurs in the presence of the emotion. That is a big difference. With Sutra, your work or your practice is without the presence of the emotion. You’re finding the space without the arising emotion, and that’s where your practice is. With Tantra, your practice is with the presence of the arising emotion; you’re finding space with that. You’re not rejecting it or ignoring it. You’re not calming it.
When you get really skillful at that, you can channel the emotion effectively. For example, with anger: you feel the anger, you understand the nature of the arriving motion, you understand it experientially. You find the liberated quality of the emotion, which is clarity maybe, or some kind of very clearing experience. And there is a choice there, and then maybe there’s an expression, maybe there’s a direct passionate statement - which is just also going to be obviously kind because you have the spaciousness there.
Expression of emotion in Buddhist Tantra is never righteous, it’s not mean. Expression of emotion is not going to be mean or vindictive or terrified or peevish because it’s just always based in spaciousness, and spaciousness is kindness. So with Tantra - and this is different to Dzogchen as well - there’s often a time gap. There’s a time gap between the arising of the emotion and the internal response because there is some work there, there is practice; you’re allowing the spaciousness to be there. Maybe that’s expression eventually; maybe it isn’t. There’s always this choice.
Jared: There’s a question that I think might be worth addressing now. Siddharth, did you want to unmute yourself and ask your question, or I can ask it for you?
[Question from Siddharth]: When you say that Tantra is not a continuation of Sutra, is that with reference to the view associated with each path, or with the paths themselves? I know sometimes it’s said that the result of Sutra is the base of Tantra.
Charlie: Right. It’s both continuation and not a continuation, and I am emphasizing the difference at this moment. It is a continuation in that sense, but what I wanted to emphasize is the difference in the sense, that it is a different paradigm; it’s a different way of working. When we’re talking about view, view is what makes the difference. View is the sort of hub of the discontinuation, the discontinuity. Again, the reason I’m emphasizing the difference is because often the difference is covered over in some sense in order for things to seem harmonious and continuous, and often Tantra is viewed from the perspective of Sutra. What I’m doing here is viewing Sutra from the perspective of Tantra, and viewing Tantra from its own perspective in its own right. From this view, there is a discontinuity. But it’s a really good question, because that is the usual presentation - the end point of Sutra is the beginning point of Tantra - and that’s also important so thanks for raising that, yeah.
I waffled on a bit about the different views in relation to self and to personal emotion and personal experience and what have you. Taking this into the realm of others - the way that you view others - Sutra views others as trapped and suffering in the same way that we are with our emotions and experience. The way that Sutra views our selves is also reflected in the way that Sutra views other people - other people that we’re relating with whether we know them or not. People are trapped, people are suffering, suffering is horrible, it sucks and we can get out of it. That is the Sutric view.
Because in this view you have some understanding of how things work as a practitioner, then there’s a clearly defined way that you’re going to end suffering and liberate yourself. It might take a very, very long time, but you’re on that project. In some sense, you regard yourself as different to others, in the same way that your liberated self is different to and separate from your emotional obstacles, your own impurities. In that way, the purity of your own self is separate from and different to others as well. Your pure self is pitying of others who are in this same, horrible, slush pile of nasty suffering. You have compassion for others, because your view is that they are suffering; you view them as trapped like parts of yourself that you’re seeing as obstacles. This is how metta practice comes about. It’s about purifying your own impurities and your own negative karma through magically purifying others of theirs as well. You’re bringing good will and purity and light and benevolent intention into your interactions with others in order to assist in the project of getting rid of suffering and bad feelings. Metta is very much tied up with Sutric view of others. There’s this purification principle and this idea of bringing wholesomeness and the view of others is informed by the idea that suffering is the natural condition, and that it’s possible to escape from it. You’re renouncing suffering. Your view is that you’re moving beyond suffering; there’s a way out. Others can escape from it as well, and your purpose is to bring relief to others by distancing even from the idea of suffering. That’s very much emphasized in Sutric view and that can be a very, very helpful, wholesome practice if you’re going through a shit time or whatever.
In Tantra, because Tantric view towards how the world is and ourself and our emotions is very different, it’s also different in relation to others. In Tantra you’re not rejecting your own impurities and inadequacies as such. You’re continuing to experience and feel the messiness of your emotional world. There’s no clearly-defined thing between “this is a good emotion,” “this is a bad emotion.” It’s just all a jumble - a lot of incoherence there. And your view of others’ experiences is that their view is equally messy and unpredictable as your own. With Tantric practice, you’re engaging with all the qualities of your own being, so the view towards others is that you’re engaging with all their qualities too. You’re not assisting or purifying other people with your own purity; you’re dancing with them. You’re recognizing and engaging with their individual quirks and personalities, because how you relate to yourself is non-renunciative, so also that view manifests in relationship with others.
So with yourself, you’re opening up space for choicefulness with regards to your emotions and your experience and that’s the same towards others. You’re looking for the space, making it available for them, you’re engaging with who and how they happen to be in the moment, and accepting their emotions and their constraints as just being a part of the play of how we are, how we relate in the world. The Tantric view towards others is that rather than rejecting anyone, you’re seeking to understand, because transformation can’t occur without first understanding. Again, there’s this sense of a time lag in the work that you’re doing in your practice. It takes time from the initial recognition and engagement to get to the point where transformation can occur because you’re having to find the space. We were getting back to the question that somebody asked - you find a space. That’s the starting point that’s the base for Tantric practice: you find the space in the interaction.
I’m going to go on to talking about relationship with the world and environment and nature. Any questions that particularly arise in relation to relations…?
Jared: Looks like Asyl has his hand up - go ahead.
Asyl: Thanks, Jared. Thanks, Charlie. A quick question - this might get addressed later - but I was wondering: is there any recommendation in terms of the personality or the way people behave, and whether Sutric or Tantric practices are better for them based on their personality or stage of evolution?
Charlie: Yeah, that’s interesting. From the Tantric perspective, personality is really important, and your personality in some sense is your practice, it’s very much connected to your practice.
In Sutra that is not so much the case. In Sutra there’s a general answer that is applicative to everybody; you’re aiming towards a sameness rather than difference. I think it would be appropriate for somebody to practice according to which of those views they feel is most resonant. I think the Sutric view can be very helpful if you are if you are in a position where life actually has been pretty shit, and you’re having a lot of difficulty in dealing, or things are just being constantly thrown at you so much that it can actually be really helpful to take respite, and it can be very, very helpful to work within a very clear set system and structure.
If you’re not used to systems, if you’re not used to conforming yourself to a system and you don’t know how to do that, then Sutra can be fabulous, that can be really great. If your life has been pretty chaotic or if you’re pulled in one direction or another, and you’ve never had that experience of learning how to systematize, then I think Sutric practice is just fabulous for that. It really, really can help people just become more systematized as being. And some of the Sutric organizations and approaches are very, very good at doing that. Goenka’s approach is very good at that; TMI I think is probably really great at helping people to systematize.
Jared: We have another one from Mauro. What are the practical differences between a Tantrika and a Sutric practitioner with relation to others? If you could give some specific examples, that’d be great.
Charlie: Yeah, well in the extreme, a Sutric practitioner is in a monastery sitting in their little meditation box so they can stay awake all night, or stay aware all night [laughter]. The archetypal extreme of the Tantrika is the chad who’s like “Bring it on! Bring it on! I’m a hero, I can do all of this, I have infinite compassion, I have infinite generosity.”
The archetypal Sutric practitioner is somebody who is really very careful, very considered, very cautious in relation to the potential danger and implosion and explosion of stuff. There’s a lot of taming there, and you might go to a monastery to really spend quite a lot of time in contemplative practice, really slowing things down a lot, paying a lot of attention to every moment. And when that gets translated into sort of ordinary everyday life, the Sutric view is to really pay deliberate attention to what is going on, to constantly renew this “what’s happening now.” There’s a slight sort of objectification there in terms of observing and bringing, observation or noticing. I’m sort of caricaturing the Tantrika and the Sutric practitioner.
Jared: So a couple other quick ones. Purple, you say: if Sutra has general answers that apply to everyone, does that mean that Tantra has specific answers that are different for everyone?
Jared: We could just give that a “yep!”
And then another one from Robert Stonehill: what is the ultimate motivation for action in Tantra, assuming that purification is the ultimate motivation for Sutra?
Charlie: I’m trying not to use Buddhist terms here - but in Buddhist terms, the motivation comes from the idea of the unification of compassion and wisdom. The motivation is already based in spaciousness, and spaciousness naturally gives rise to compassion. The motivation for Tantra is often regarded as compassion, and I think I’d like to look at it in terms of active engagement. The motivation is much more about being creative. The motivation is to create good stuff - good, useful, appropriate, congruent interrelations; appropriate, congruent relationships and organizations and institutions and social opportunities. The direction of Tantra is congruence, about congruent activity; so the motivation coming from spacious awareness is always about wanting to have that engagement.
Jared: And I would just also say, too: we’re speaking of the caricatures of Sutra and Tantra, and pretty much any lineages or teachings or systems that you’re going to run into today are very blended. In a very extreme sense, if you’re a hardcore Sutric practitioner that might mean that emotions of all sort are just forbidden.
Charlie, I think you told me about running into some Theravadan monks in Tibet, and they fit the stone cold face - they are completely removed from any of the human element. But Mahayana, which is more common, includes some of this emotion but it’s specifically the heartful emotion, the metta. It’s starting to include emotion, but with limits. Seeing things on the spectrum, I think, is really helpful. It does really get messy in a lot of ways.
Charlie: That’s a really good way of looking at it. And then the next little step on from Mahayana is the outer Tantra, and that starts to have more of the relationship with emotions that previously were seen as a bit negative. But there’s still the purifying aspect there. That’s a really great way of putting it, Jared. Thank you.
So, thinking about how view affects our relationship with nature and the environment and the world at large…Traditionally - very traditionally like Jared was just saying - in the Sutric view, your view towards the world is that you are aiming to leave it, and if at all possible you do that while you’re still here. I’m not kidding - the Sutric view is to leave this world. Sutra has this minimalist quality to it. You’re uncluttering your environment to make it a conducive habitat for you to nurture your virtuous side, your pure sides. For example, you don’t want babies around. They’re going to mess things up and make it extremely difficult, because they’ll be getting in the way, and anything that gets in the way of attaining pure, pure life and enlightenment with this capital ‘e’ is non-conducive to the path. Sometimes you get these compromises where it’s like “well, yeah, okay you can still practice and have babies and stuff but it will be harder and will take a lot longer.” It is actually very hard to practice Sutra sincerely with babies and shit and stuff around, and there’s a very good reason for that. Sutric view traditionally was anti-natalist. You took vows of celibacy; you went off to a monastery; your environment was honed to reflect the purity of emptiness. For people practicing that path, sex and families and being in the world was just a big no-no.
A very interesting thing happens with the view towards nature in Sutra. There’s this distinct split that occurs. This is maybe a bit more of a traditional view, but you would regard all of nature as disgusting. This is really explicit in the Sutras - it’s gross, it’s worldly, it’s non-conducive to practice. Animals are dumb and less lucky than you are in your fortunate, precious human rebirth. There’s this sense that the body is gross. There are practices that cultivate the view of the body as really disgusting and horrible. And you have this same view towards nature. It’s full of horrible creepy-crawlies, and they reflect how you yourself are captured into habitual compulsive cycles of pattern and response that you want to get away from, you want to escape.
But on the other hand, looking at Sutra in its modern contemporary context, I think a very different split has happened. It’s really interesting. As it has become modernized, you get this opposite view of nature. It’s coming from Romanticism; it’s incorporating idealism and Romanticism into Buddhist approaches. And you get this saccharine, pure, very kitsch attitude that is separating you from the reality and the messiness of nature. It’s stripping nature of anything dangerous and dirty, and sees only the beauty. There’s a distance there, so you’re romanticizing and observing from a distance, and then you can regard nature as very pure as well. So there’s this split: into the world is either gross and horrible, or there’s this sort of thing that’s been brought from the Western tradition into regarding the world as sort of very pure and beautiful and not having that nastiness.
And that reflects the Sutric view towards the self. You strip the self of all the dangerous stuff, of anything uncontrollable and unpredictable. When you really take Sutric view on sincerely, there’s also this danger that you might start role playing into this sort of “pure self.” Sometimes I think when Sutric view is scorned - when it’s looked at as being sort of “oh, no” - that what’s happening is that we’re seeing a sort of false presentation of Sutric view. There’s this virtuous, holy, good self that’s prescribed and very confirming and confining. I think that’s one of the ways that the Sutric view can backfire. It can prescribe this very fixed personality that people try to model themselves into, or that we might try to mold ourselves into being this fixed personality.
Tantra backfires in a very different way. What tends to happen with Tantric view is that the expression of emotion is mistaken as the practice, because you’re doing all this work to embrace and engage with your emotions. And especially if that’s invaluable and revelatory - and it can be revelatory if you’re coming from having practiced a lot of Sutra - that can be a really valuable and useful experience. And then what can happen is you get into this cycle of immediate, compulsive expression, which is very ironic of course because that’s exactly what Sutra trains you to avoid. So it can seem like when you’re stepping into Tantra and you’re transitioning your view into Tantric view, that you have this sort of liberated expression of emotion, and you’re in touch with all your emotions and it’s fabulous and you’re just vomiting them all over everybody. It’s not uncommon when somebody’s actually beginning to make that move from Sutric practice into Tantric practice and into Tantric view. That can happen very naturally. At a certain point, if you’ve been living an ordinary life engaging with the world, but trying to sort of restrict your emotions or behave in a very sort of dissociated detached way and then you open up to Tantric view, you can get this backlash. That is not uncommon. You’ve not been used to embracing your emotion and sensation; you’ve been trying to pacify it and calm it. And then you get to figure out something about the nature of renunciative frameworks and view being maybe not what you want. In that situation, total compulsive expression can feel very liberating. It can feel like that is the practice.
I’ve gone off track. So the Tantric view towards nature and the environment…The Tantric relationship with the environment, with the natural world is interesting. It’s all about creativity - metaphorically, or maybe even literally. Maybe you’re a gardener; you’re nurturing; you’re assessing; you’re tweaking; you’re giving space for things to grow; you’re cultivating something in a direction. With Tantric relationship with the world, you’re changing circumstances to give the world around you the best chance to grow. It’s like you’re watering it - making sure that there’s some light there. There’s a lot of involvement, but you’re not focused on the outcome. You’re engaged in the process. You may have an overall intention or purpose, you may have a sense of where you’re heading, but you don’t always know how you’re going to get there. There’s this looseness. It’s about playfulness, it’s about a willingness toward trial and error, towards tweaking things. You’ll often hear people referring to Tantric practice as being like dancing, and the result as being fluidity.
This is pertinent in relationship with the environment because it’s engaged, creative, play. The view towards the environment as having this sort of unpredictable, messy, chaotic, gorgeous, everything-ness quality…if you view the environment in that way, that gives rise to a relationship that involves engaged, creative, play. That all comes out of your meditation practice. That’s the direction that your meditation leads.
Shi-ne practice that we’re referring to here, or opening practice, is always the base for something else in Tantric practice. It’s never the end thing. It’s always the foundation. It’s always the ground for the next way of relating or the next practice. It’s always there as the ground of your practice. And the ground of experience in meditation provides the security and the self-reliance. A lot of Tantric practice is about developing self-reliance. Really, it’s the confidence - it’s about developing confidence for you to engage and transform the world around you into a vivid, live, colorful, productive…active productivity. You can’t be distant to engage in that way. You’re going to get your hands mucky. You’re not fixed in relation to the world around you. You’re not the same from one moment to the next. You’re not cultivating equanimity and sameness of response to things.
Equanimity and transformation don’t match very well. Transformation occurs with spacious, passionate involvement. You bring spaciousness to Tantric practice, much more than you would bring equanimity. Your meditation is cultivating spaciousness, and spaciousness cultivates creative activity. I think it’s worth recognizing that relative to the dissociative and disengaged renunciative view, this relational view is actually pretty threatening by comparison when it’s viewed from the view that is cultivating equanimity. You can’t do this when you’re cultivating equanimity. You can’t relate to the world in the same way. Again, this is emphasizing the difference in views here. You can’t romanticize the world if you’re really, fully engaged. You have to have some sort of distance there to be able to do that. Tantric view is very realist in that sense, very pragmatic. It’s involved engagement with things as they are. It’s not climbing neatly prepared steps with railings to a scenic view with a signpost telling you where the scenic view is and then a big board at the top saying “scenic view.” That’s very reassuring - you know that you’ve got the scenic view, that that’s what that is. Tantra just doesn’t do that, it’s a very different view in that way. It’s not very scenic.
Jared: I would say, Charlie, that the equanimity component - the only way I see it fitting in here in the transition is that spaciousness itself is equanimeous in the sense that it doesn’t have much of an agenda.
Charlie: Yeah, right.
Jared: But if we’re using this dancing metaphor, you need space to dance in. And the more spaciousness - the bigger the dance floor - the more possibility there is for movement and interaction. But that does not mean that we’re dispassionate and completely equanimous with the actual dancing. We’re actually fully engaged with it.
Charlie: I think equanimity has become very much associated with calmness, don’t you think?
Jared: Yeah, for sure.
Charlie: Like you’re saying, maybe the Tantric view towards equanimity is more to do with equality of stuff arising, something like that. It shifts the emphasis somehow, I think. Maybe I should just stop waffling now [laughter].
Jared: Let’s see here - we are at an hour - okay, cool. For a second I thought we were already at our time, but that works perfect.
Let’s see here, maybe we can open up some questions here. And Todd if you’ve seen anything specific that you think would be good to start with…
Charlie: Todd is helping us navigate the chat because sometimes a lot of chat happens and it’s not always possible to keep track of what’s happening there. Todd is our man in the chat.
Jared: You there, Todd?
Todd: I’m sorry, I thought you were going to say something so I was holding off.
There’s a couple here I think. First, there’s a question from Purple that I think is good to get into a little bit. “Is shi-ne ever an end unto itself, or is it always the base of something else?”
Charlie: Shi-ne as a practice has its own result, but there’s no point practicing it unless it’s the base for something else. Within itself, it has the result that is a particular kind of spacious presence. But that’s not an end, that’s a starting point really.
Jared: And the spacious presence in the context of one that does not exclude the dance. Things are still happening in the spaciousness, whereas something like cessation - it’s the result of a lot of the Sutric method - there’s nothing there. It’s just spaciousness, and without anything arising within it.
Charlie: Right. It’s spaciousness in the sense that thoughts don’t arise, but you still have sensation when you’re practicing shi-ne. You’re still hearing sounds.
Some states in the Sutric path will lead you to a place - which is the end point as well, it’s connected to the end point, so it’s very different in that sense - you’re not hearing, you’re not experiencing sensation. All of your sensations are pacified. Sensation might change a lot with shi-ne practice because you are simply allowing it to occur naturally without that conceptual grip that often shrouds it. Concept just naturally seems to die down. Thoughts naturally dissolve because that’s what they do when they have space around them.
Jared: I noticed, Nicole, you said Tantric practice sounds more unification-oriented than Sutric practice. Yeah, I think that’s a perfect way of describing. I think ‘yogi,’ which is alluding to this yoking, whereas Tantra is yoking the result of Sutra with everything else so that they become inseparable in some sense.
Charlie: And in traditional terminology, you would say Tantric practice is the unification of emptiness and form or the non-duality of wisdom and compassion. And unification is often in the inner Tantras connected to unification of male and female, and there are a lot of sexual imagery there as well. Yeah, unification is a very traditional description of Tantric goal.
Jared: Even with the statues…in the Sutra route, it’s the solo Buddha with his pleasant smile of just being okay with everything in his isolation. And one of the common Tantric statues is is the yab-yum which is a male and female having sex in unification. It’s very, very explicit [laughter].
But to Charlie’s point, the male and female is symbolic in the sense of talking about this very fundamental experience of emptiness - or you could call it nebulosity or openness - and then form or pattern or order or material. They are definitely to be taken symbolically, even though a lot of Tantric practices use them in more of a literal fashion.
Let’s see here…
Todd: Jared, I think there was a question from Sarah a little bit ago here around shi-ne. Sarah, did you want to ask that question around flattening a preference landscape?
Sarah: Sure. That one was when people were asking about equanimity. I remember on one call you said something about “flattening a preference landscape” when you’re doing shi-ne. And maybe that was about where your awareness or attention goes, or what arises. But it sounds like that would be different from somehow changing yourself so that you feel the same way about whatever comes up.
Charlie: Right. Yeah, I remember that conversation. That was addressing the idea in concentrative meditation that there’s a central focus, and very often that is quite internal. There’s this idea of center and periphery, so it’s unbalanced in that sense. With shi-ne practice, there’s the idea that you are not giving particular priority to any aspect of experience. You don’t prioritize your nose, you don’t prioritize your breath, you don’t prioritize yourself in this body. But you don’t not maintain awareness of all of those things. It’s not flattening so much as we were saying equalness maybe. As far as your sense fields extend, then that is where your awareness is. The tendency as well when one starts practicing shi-ne - from practicing very concentrative method into practicing a more opening style of meditation - is that your mind starts popping around. It’s that thing and then that thing and that. And there’s a sense of you’re awareness being very flitty, and that gradually dies down. Things want to grab. Things arise and that is in a sense a sort of grabbing of awareness. And then the practice releases that, so that there’s no particular prioritization. Things can just arise, and they arise in the space. So the felt sense is - yeah, I guess, equanimous in that sense.
Jared: The equanimous…to what Charlie was saying before - I think there’s a connotation that gets put on top of it which is calmness, or a certain demeanor. It can be this weird thing - we’re play-acting equanimity: “if I don’t care about anything, then I react to it all the same,” and there’s a bit of an agenda being brought up. But yeah, the strange thing is: if there isn’t a preferential treatment or a prescribed way of interacting with what comes up in experience, then the quality of what arises is not defined by you, I suppose, in the sense that - sometimes if I’m sitting in shi-ne, and there’s motorcycles flying by, and maybe my wife’s on a conference call and she’s frustrated - all of a sudden, things are very energetic and lively and almost a little chaotic, but that is because the environment is chaotic.
So if I were to prescribe my reaction to it by saying “I have to relate to this in a certain way,” that’s when we might go wrong. And yet I think real equanimity can be found in spaciousness, in open space, because it doesn’t have any agenda. I think that our mistake is when we get an idea of what equanimity is and we start to play-act it, if that makes any sense [laughter].
Charlie: And there’s no there’s no prioritization of focus either. That situation that you described just then - it would be very easy if you’re trying to maintain focus on your breath and maintain this very calm, consistent relationship with the breath. And then all this stuff’s going on - that’s going to be distracting. It’s going to be irritating. Whereas, if the emphasis on focus is taken away and there’s just no idea that there has to be a particular focus, then everything just arises without that priority.
Todd: There’s some interesting back and forth in the chat around Tantra and psychotherapy. Nicole, did you want to ask that question that you had from a few minutes back?
Nicole: Sure. As I was listening I was just jumping to what I know about Freud and psychotherapeutic practice based on all of the research that has been done in the past century or so by psychologists, specifically in regards to repression and specifically in regards to what not allowing our desires to be unleashed - how that causes us to be unhealthy in certain respects and can cause psychopathy. I was wondering if you think perhaps that that’s sort of leaning more so in the direction of Tantric view. I guess my question is - now I remember: would you say that Tantric practice, based on this recent research, is more in line with human nature, rather than Sutric practice?
Jared: I would say, too, that it’s always important to realize that - like we were talking about spectrum-wise - there’s so many different types of therapy and psychotherapy. You might find Sutric elements in some and you might find Tantric elements in others.
To your point, a lot of the “shadow work”-type things…uncovering what we have repressed or were ashamed of…does go in a Tantric route of wanting to work with it, wanting to include it in our experience. And yet, at the same time, if the goal of uncovering it is to get rid of it, then that might be some sort of amalgamation of the two. E.g., we want to purify it or we want to get rid of it, as opposed to transforming it into something else. It’s hard to clearly put it in either camp, but you can use the Tantric-Sutric lens to look at things and get a bit of a flavor of where they orient toward.
Todd: I like Christian’s question here in chat around goodness and congruence and who defines that. Christian, do you want to go ahead and ask that?
Christian: Yeah, I can ask that. You mentioned that goodness and congruence are the motivating objectives of the creative play in the Tantric view when that earlier question about motivation for action was asked. And I was wondering how goodness or congruence is defined - if it’s defined within the view, or if that’s something that’s left up to the Tantric practitioner, or how those two ideas may overlap…
Charlie: Right, I see. This idea of congruence is coming from the end point of the meditation series which is spontaneous, congruent action. And that is the result of Tantric practice in some ways and the base of Dzogchen practice.
This is a question that I think a lot about and that I’ve gone backwards and forwards a lot over over the years. I don’t think there is an automatic…if you experience the result of Tantric practice, if you experience rigpa, if you experience presence of awareness; that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are going to behave perfectly or always act in the best way.
The practice after having the experience of presence of awareness from meditation - which is always a practice which requires renewing in some sense; it’s never fixed, never fixed…the practice after that is learning and training how to relate that in the world as you go about ordinary activity, how to maintain that state, and how to translate that into congruent response.
And that isn’t automatic; it’s not prescribed as “this is the way that you do it.” And the very nature of the world makes that impossible. There’s always a random element, there’s always something unpredictable; you’re never going to have perfect information. Your motivation might be there and your awareness might be there, but things can just still pan out wrong. That’s very much built into the whole of the Vajrayana perspective of how things are. You cannot ever have perfection. It just simply is not something that is going to be consistently, constantly available as activity. There’s always going to be this play and fluidity and there can always be different kinds of skill or a better sort of skill. I suppose it’s a little bit like continuing positive feedback loops. That could be an infinite loop. It’s not something that is going to end at some point in perfect experience.
Jared: To keep coming back to the dancing metaphor…I think we all know what it looks like when the dance is too prescribed; it’s too constrained; it’s not creative; it can’t ever change or evolve to the circumstances. When we include spontaneity or creativity, through finding that spaciousness and possibility and get out of our own ways, we get into something that looks like a flow state. To have presence of awareness - to be at the end of this meditation series - might mean that it’s very easy for you to flow and to dance very fluidly, without hesitation and with a lot of confidence. And yet, every time you’re dancing, you’re practicing and figuring out how to continually develop the skills of dancing. There’s no end to that - to how good we get at working with our methods and openness to creative, spontaneous action.
Charlie: Right. An analogy that you’re reminding me of is skiing. You watch somebody skiing over new terrain or down different sorts of mountain sides; there’s always something different. There they’re always responding in a way, and it’s just beautiful to watch because there’s this congruence between the activity and the environment. And there’s a sort of dancing relationship with the environment. I really like that kind of analogy. You couldn’t say that that is a fixed, perfect end point in any way. It’s just somebody being very skillfully - with this fabulous capacity that they’ve developed to be able to relate to their particular environment.
Nicole, I was thinking about your question, wanting to come back to that. I think the answer that Jared gave was really good. There’s this whole western tradition, and there’s a lot of question around “how does it relate,” and “how do we relate the whole history of psychology and the whole history of western western civilization in some way with what we’re inheriting from Buddhist traditions.” And a lot of people do a lot of very good work in that area. Some people look at synthesis, some people emphasize the differences. I just wanted to say that this is a whole, really big field.
Some of the people doing really good work in this area are Michael Taft…he’s bringing a really deep personal experience from the Buddhist background, and he’s working with people who are looking at psychology and how that relates.
Who else is doing that? I’m blocking on his name - Michael works with him at the moment, he’s been on his podcast, the one who does glimpses - Lock Kelly. Right, he’s also looking at the synthesis and he’s got deep experience in both areas, in both traditions. He’s somebody you might be interested to look into as well.
I also like to emphasize the differences a lot; I’m always going on about differences. I think it’s really worthwhile looking at a system in itself and having the immersive experience of understanding how that system works. Maybe narrowing sometimes rather than trying to figure out everything in comparison to each other and merge everything. I think it’s well worth doing a little bit of shopping around and then finding a system that really seems to resonate, and then going more into that one and exploring it as well. And the other thing that came to mind is David’s pages on Buddhism for Vampires. Shadow work isn’t the same as Tantric practice, but there are very interesting similarities…eating the shadow and all of that series.
Todd: There’s been some interesting back and forth in the chat here for the last few minutes about a question from Michael Taft’s recent Stoa. Sarah, did you want to go ahead and start that question off and see if we can get Charlie and Jared’s thoughts on it?
Sarah: Yeah. This was on October 6th - I listened to Michael Taft on the Stoa, and someone I think asked a question about either Shinzen Young or the Monastic Academy - MAPLE - they’re tied in together. And Michael Taft said “they’re describing stuff dualistically, and then pushing people into the nondual view.”
I’m wondering if you all have thoughts on that, because it’s been unclear to me what view they’re using and how that relates to the methods they’re using. Because when they talk about purpose, it seems very Sutric, it seems very like “the world is bad, we gotta fix it, we gotta fix ourselves, we gotta chip away all the bad stuff.” But then they use Tantric-style emotional work like biomotive encircling.
Charlie: I know a little about Monastic Academy, I know a little about Shinzen’s approach…I don’t think I’m in a good position to comment because I don’t know enough about how they’re going about things.
My understanding of circling is that it’s pretty similar to a lot of the Gestalt work that I was involved with; the description of what circling is like and the Gestalt work…And then there’s also what’s called “focusing” or that background. So I think I’m reasonably familiar with those kinds of group emotional work and dynamics. And I would say there really is certainly a Tantric flavor to that methodology. Where it ends up - if you’re looking at understanding emotional resonance personally and in relation to others and exploring emotional connection and how people are relating to each other in the here and now in a circle. If you’re doing that exploration then traditionally speaking that’s not Sutric practice. That’s not Sutric methodology; that’s not Sutric practice. But if your end point would then be to say “okay, well now that I understand that emotion, I can leave it behind,” then that might be heading towards a Sutric goal. But I don’t know enough about what they are doing to say whether they’re bringing Sutric view in at a later point, or whether it’s just a mishmash of views.
Do you have any thoughts about that, Jared? You maybe have more knowledge of those systems than I do…
Jared: My broad view of a lot of the work is that much of what we’re seeing with people like Shinzen and everyone is leading to unique syntheses of Sutra, Tantra, maybe even a little bit of Dzogchen and Mahamudra, and then also incorporating a bunch of therapy/psychotherapy. That seems to be the background frame that all that us westerners come to things from. Because it’s a synthesis, I think it can be really tough to try and unpack just what exactly it is. And then when you also factor in that sometimes, even if it’s not explicitly stated in a system, there can be a Tantric or Sutric influence simply by the words that we use and the common connotations that everybody has with them. I couldn’t say that I have any clear sense of the orientation but it definitely seems like a lot of modern syntheses.
The reason I got to Vajrayana in some sense was part of a looking for a foundational way, or a very non-abstracted view that I could employ to see what all of these systems are, what they’re doing and how they’re working. And that becomes more available - especially in very specific contexts, talking to somebody about “how is this affecting you,” “what’s working, what’s not working.” And this goes to the specificity of Tantra. And yeah, really, this comes down to the fact that Vajrayana uses these base lenses - even though there’s many other ones with just emptiness and form. Wanting to really embody those in a deep way - as this meta-view, even though from a Vajrayana view, it’s still saying that it’s not any more true in some sense - all of these are simply different lenses that we can look at things. But yeah, the “emptiness and form” lens for me is the most foundational that I’ve found. It really does allow me to move between different perspectives and to try to see what’s working and how it’s working.
I could go in circles if we were to talk about something specifically like - “oh yeah this is a Tantric method here, but now it’s coming to a Sutric result, or implying a Sutric view,” or now - to Charlie’s point - “after we’ve stoked up these emotions in a Tantric way, now we’re going to start relating to them in a Sutric way so we can get rid of them…” It eats its tail in a lot of ways, it’s really hard to say that there’s any super consistent thing. It’s a messy world, right [laughter]?
Charlie: Speaking to your point about language, Jared…and Sarah, relating back to what you were saying as well. Nearly everything is presented in Sutric language, and that’s something I’m very keen to bring into awareness in the field. If you’re hearing the words “attention,” “focus,” “concentration,” “end goal,” particularly this whole language around “who is the observer,” “who is the subject,” “who’s doing the watching” - all of that is very, very Sutric language.
There are a slew of books written about Dzogchen, and nearly all of them are written in Sutric language. It doesn’t matter if you have a nice cover with “Dzogchen” and big fancy letters on the front, you’ve got some Tibetan dude with 100 arms. If the book is about “calming the mind” and “escaping samsara” and “achieving equanimity” and “leaving attachments behind” - this is another very, very Sutric style of language. “Attachment” and “leaving attachment” and “detachment” and “detaching from emotions”…all of that is Sutric language.
It’s not that that is a problem in itself. It’s not to negate the validity of the practice. But I think it’s really, really good to understand what that is, to be able to notice that and say, “okay, right, this is a description from the perspective of Sutra or with Sutric view because it’s using that language.” That can be very helpful in untangling what is being presented in different syntheses and different systems and what have you.
And we don’t really have a good language for Tantra and Dzogchen. Those would be very, very, uniquely different in their terminology. I often think about how we’re describing things. In that whole series that I did on shi-ne and shamatha and the TMI series on my blog - the differences between all of that - I was really, really careful not to use the word “attention” and not to talk about things in terms of “attention” and “focus.” I may have done at some point, I don’t remember. But I was very intentionally using the language of shi-ne to describe shi-ne practice rather than using the language of TMI or the language of Sutric practice to describe shi-ne. Those kinds of differences are not easy to pick up on either because the language of Sutra is so pervasive. It’s so everywhere. We’re spiritually immersed in that language now. And I think other possibilities are available.
Jared: The more we stretch it - the dynamics of Sutra, which are just basically value judgments about what is good and bad in our experience - we can also move past the Buddhist context and say that Christian influences of heaven and hell and sin and everything like also have some of those similar dynamics.
Charlie: Right, yeah, Puritan influences tie in really well with Sutric view.
Jared: We’re right at our time so I was thinking we could wrap the recording up here, and then stop this and see if anybody else wants to stick around. That being said; to the viewers, thank you for tuning in if you made it this far, sorry for our rambling [laughter].
Charlie: Let’s plug our Patreon!
Jared: Oh yeah. evolvingground.org currently just redirects directly to our Patreon. We’ve gotten a number of early yogis signing up to support what we’re doing.
Charlie: We so appreciate it. Thank you. It’s just such a vibrant, fabulous community. We love you. Thank you.
Jared: And that being said, if you go there, there’s a link to a form at the top which is available to anybody. If you send in the form, that basically says a little bit about your meditation background and why you’re interested in Vajrayana, then you get invited to our Slack channel, which we call the Happy Yogi Slack. And there’s a ton of public content and discussions and all sorts of stuff going on and cool conversations that are readily available to anybody regardless of whether you’re a patron or not. But then we also have some perks for people who are making a little bit more of a strong commitment to working with us.
I guess that’s all we have for you today. I don’t know how many of these we’re going to do. This is number two. To create the foundation, we probably have a dozen or so, maybe a little less, I have no idea. We’ll see what we have in for number three. I don’t think we’ve decided yet, have we, Charlie?
Charlie: I don’t think we’ve decided. We’ve toyed with maybe principle and function, we’ve talked about having one on confidence or transformation, maybe. We’ll bring those things in…
Jared: If you’re not in the Slack channel and you want to keep up with us, I think the easiest way is probably just on Twitter. Charlie and I are both fairly active there. Mine’s @JaredJanes and Charlie yours is…
Charlie: @awbery. Perfect. All right, thanks, guys, and we’ll talk to you next time.