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3 Ways Tantra Is Different

When I began practicing Buddhism, I started attending a local Tibetan center because it was the only local center in which practices were conducted in English and where I, as a teenager from a poor family, didn't have to shell out much for classes, practices, and retreats.  At first, it didn't really resonate with me; I was initially attracted to a more nuts and bolts practice with precepts and mindfulness in the ways that they are most commonly known to the public.  As a friend once described it to me, Tibetan Buddhism is like Mexican Catholicism on steroids.

In truth I totally lucked out by connecting to that center.  It's a place made very special by the its sangha; nonetheless, I struggled initially to find my way there.  I just couldn't figure out what all the exotic Tibetan tchotchkes and mantras and feast practices, etc., had to do with seeing the details of how we create suffering for ourselves and others. Thankfully Frank Howard was on hand to answer my never ending supply of "what-does-this-have-to-do-with..." questions.  

That was about 17 years ago, and while I have branched out into other forms of Buddhism, I've stayed committed to Tibetan Buddhism as well.  I even ordained as a monk in the Nyingma tradition for several years. And although my lama hasn't been able to return to the states for about six years, his teachings remain close to me.  He alternatingly instructed in painstaking detail and grilled me (among others) on the foundational text the Words of My Perfect Teacher by Patrul Rinpoche for about 5 years, and its teachings are pretty soundly imprinted on my heart.  So here are a few things I've learned along the way about how Tantra as a system views certain basic Buddhist teachings differently.  

  1. Reality. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni avoided sweeping metaphysical explanations, but he was quite clear that all phenomena are devoid of an essential defining characteristic (Self) while being made up of causes and conditions that inevitably lead to change.  Tantra emphasizes the dreamlike quality of this by having the practitioner relate to all visible forms as part of the mandala of a given meditational deity, all sounds as mantra, and all mental phenomena as wisdom.  The deity is the embodiment of an enlightened principle or energy, and while it's not equivalent to God in the monotheistic sense, it is Tantra's main tool for shedding limiting personal identities while re-purposing our mental and emotional energies in the service of waking up.  
  2. Buddha Nature. Have you ever asked yourself how is it that if all schools of Buddhism agree that any sense of self is provisional at best, every sentient being has Buddha Nature?  And do rocks and trees have Buddha Nature? From the point of view of Buddhist Tantra, yes, every lump of sod, every annoying phone call, every cloud, every pair of control-top panties manifests Buddha Nature.  Not just sentient beings.  This is so because in the Tantric view, everything is a projection or manifestation of enlightened mind, like a giant bubble with nothing outside of it.  Everything sparkles with enlightened qualities when you know how to look, so everything can wake us up.  Everything.  
  3. The 2nd Noble Truth.  The 2nd Noble truth is the description of what the cause of suffering is.  Most other Buddhist ways of working describe this cause as "desire and clinging".  Tantra reformulates the 2nd Noble Truth as "mundane appearances" or more accurately, seeing appearances in a mundane way.  This tantric view is very respectful in my opinion.  It's saying that when we see things clearly, we don't get tripped up by our thoughts and feelings, and we naturally know how to respond wisely.  From this point of view flows Tantra's way of working: to see all of life as a dreamlike place with infinite opportunities for waking up, and where each moment is sacred.  And that's what's risky about Tantra, as I see it: it's dancing on a fine line between the spiritual materialism of clinging to the "magic" element and the destructive nihilism caused by clinging to the view that the none-of-this-is-Real.  But this dance is definitely possible and quite a powerful way of life, when you have a qualified teacher.  If you're interested practicing Tantra, please find the best dance instructor that you can.  

If any of these ideas are very confusing, please put it down and chalk it up to my lack of skill in explaining profound things.  Or better yet, check out Ethan's current course on the Tantric approach to working with emotions and ethics.


May all beings find whatever teachings will open them up to truth!  

Find me here: https://twitter.com/pythioswatching

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love this

Tibetan Buddhism is like Mexican Catholicism on steroids.

dance instructor

If you're interested practicing Tantra, please find the best dance instructor that you can.

: ) ha

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