Tantra or Sutra? The New Middle Way.

Did you say Tantra?

Doesn’t that mean….

hoooold it! You’ll see. 

Let me begin by talking about Culadasa.

Culadasa (aka John Yates PhD) is a very renowned teacher in the West who, illuminated and informed by his background in neuroscience and Buddhist teachings, has written a comprehensive step-by-step instruction manual for reaching awakening through meditation called The Mind Illuminated. I say this based on the attestation of others with much more ethos than myself since I have yet to reach the end of the book, meaning I have yet to establish a serious meditation practice. But having read the first few chapters more than once and skimmed through the rest, I can definitely say it’s an immensely helpful and informative book, whether you’re a professional or a complete newbie in the realm of meditation.

Yet, there is something Culadasa said in minute 56:44 to about 1:02:00 of this video that caught me by surprise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7brJ8qrLBo&feature=youtu.be&t=3404.  I summarize what he says below.

Not long after this clip, Culadasa was asked to leave from his organization, the Dharma Treasure, for reasons you can read more about here. I don’t share this fact for the sake of shock value or to disseminate hatred, and definitely not to discredit all the great work he’s done. I share it simply to give some context to his message in the video. 

And his message is exactly what I want to focus on. Culadasa has worked to reform the dharma teachings in the West, and I hope this post can shed some light on what type of reform we’re talking about.

Meditation is often portrayed as part and parcel of a multi-fold practical path that will end your suffering by giving up craving and all of its consequences. Nevertheless, Culadasa, after years of practicing and teaching, is saying something that seems to go against this old-time, taintless portrayal: somehow meditation and Buddhism at large, in their focus on making you reach enlightenment by recognizing and non-identifying with the incessant ups and downs (“waking up”), can make it harder for you to eradicate the ingrained deterrents and psychological burdens (“cleaning up”) that set that sinusoidal wave of dukkha into motion.

Pushing down, ignoring, suppressing….

….these are all potential byproducts of dedicated spirituality. As Culdasa explains, these burdens are made known through dukkha (‘unsatisfactoriness’ of life) and if you get rid of dukkha through enlightenment, then coming to know them and subsequently doing away with them will be evermore difficult to achieve.

He elaborates on this in his podcast interview with Michael W. Taft, saying that downgrading negative emotions can become a form of ‘spiritual bypass’ when instead, letting them manifest might be the only way to help you integrate them into your being and change them.

But wait a second. 

Isn’t reversing this negative conditioning exactly the very process by which you eliminate dukkha? How can you eliminate dukkha and still be negatively conditioned?

Well, from how I understand it, they’re not mutually exclusive. Buddhism is not about getting rid of pain or pleasure, per se, it’s about being able to sit with all states and conditions, including pain and pleasure, without engaging. It’s about escaping into discomfort, not escaping from discomfort, as Shinzen Young puts it in his interview with Robert Wright.

However, as Taft mentions, what happens is that those emotions, whether good or bad, risk being stripped of their valence and averaged out into simple activity, like static, so that that is all you experience.

The content of those emotions on the other hand, you are taught, are not to be dwelled upon, and that is the problem.

Thus, extinguishing dukkha is consistent with the notion that whatever darkness is lurking within can be left to lurk and eat away. This is because these ‘bugs’ of your psyche crawl along the plain of the ego, and when the ego structure evaporates due to consistent spiritual practice, you (ironically) no longer have useful, action-oriented ‘insight’ into that level of your being. They simply stop resurfacing, the clues are no longer there, but they’re still present down below, pulling the strings.

‘Letting go’, then, does not mean ‘getting rid’.

Or is this just Culadasa’s experience? Even if it were, I don’t think we should discredit it. Regardless of accolades and expectations, Culadasa is a human being like the rest of us. He’s made mistakes that he’s admitted to and he’s fallen to temptation. So have all of us. But unlike many of us, Culadasa has also dedicated his life to Buddhist teachings and has found from first-hand experience that nonetheless, in his own words, “it is not enough”. It might be better, but not quite there.

Now the question becomes: is this the cursèd (#Shakespeare) fate that awaits all of Buddhist endeavors?

Admittedly, Buddhism is quite an umbrella term, encompassing many branches, traditions and modes of practice. Could it be that Culadasa’s specific mode of practice is what lead to his ultimate dukkha? This article seems to propose just this stance. Apparently, Culadasa practices Sutrayana (Sutra) and not Vajrayana. Vajrayana is also known as Tantrayana, or Tantra for short.

Alas, this is where my discussion of Tantra comes in. I know you’ve all been waiting for it. 

See, I’ve always felt a certain conflict existing in Buddhism based on my personal experience with it. Maybe you have too. I don’t know, just something about the dichotomy between understanding the emptiness but feeling the wholeness, the bliss; something about how inaccessible enlightenment is and yet, how the answers are supposedly all here, available to you.

I knew about Buddhism and I knew about Tantra (narrowly, stereotypically), but I didn’t know how the two went together (if they even did). I felt like they did, maybe the way we think all Eastern concepts and traditions are related, but I was confronted with the aforementioned dichotomies. Well, this article has brought it all together for me. If you rather not read more than you fancy, here’s a good 4-min summary video of the difference between Sutra and Tantra. Both can be seen as modes (‘tools’, ‘vehicles’) of reaching nirvana, but they’re quite contrasting (see this point-by-point comparison for more detail).

For the purpose of this blog entry, however, I will focus on one main difference: Sutrayana says that the aggregates of physical and mental life must be renounced, while Tantrayana is all about accepting those elements of life, those energies, including pleasures, thoughts and sensations, and transforming them into paths that lead to enlightenment. 

Thus, Tantra allows for enjoyment instead of demanding relentless abdication like Sutrayana:

“Afflicted grasping and desires based on mistaken ideas are the problem, not happiness and pleasure,” (John Powers in Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, my emphasis).

This includes sex, and is probably how most of us have come to understand Tantra. But it isn’t “just everyday sex”.

A clear and concise explanation for this comes from the section called “Sexuality in Tantra” in this webpage, from where I took the above quote:

“What is usually overlooked is that sexual practices in tantra should be free from the ordinary desires and lust…arousal of the sexual energy is preferably done by just visualising a consort. The union of male and female are symbolic for the union of method or compassion and wisdom, or more specific in tantra, the union of bliss and emptiness,” (my emphasis).

Quite unexpectedly, however, although it overall seems like Vajrayana/Tantrayana approaches are the ones that would appeal the most to Westerners, from what I’ve read they aren’t the most accessible nor the most practiced…why could that be?

One answer to this conundrum that I’ve stumbled upon (which comes from this same section) is that they aren’t ‘accessible’ because they are dangerous:

“…rather than repressing negative emotions like attachment, they are transformed into positive energy. But using this transformation principle has two sides: it is not only a very effective means of making mental changes, but if they are done without proper guidance of a qualified teacher, the practitioner can easily increase negative emotions rather than reducing them.” (my emphasis).

It’s no surprise, after all. Looking at our demons straight in the face can be very traumatic if we don’t have effective coping strategies at our disposal or the proper means of support that teach us how to confront them safely.

Courage and brute force, all heroes ultimately find out, are not themselves conducive to winning.

So it seems that even Tantrayana has its weaknesses…then if Sutrayana and Tantrayana are both problematic, what’s the answer???

What all this suggests, I think, is that the dharma itself is not enough.

The dharma always has to be viewed in the context of the person who is trying to adopt its ways, and each person is unique. It is this dynamic interplay that will lead to nirvana.

Sutrayana suppression can be detrimental, but so can Tantrayana immersion. As Culadasa says in the podcast: “suppression of [emotions] is one extreme. The attempt to transform even the most unwholesome emotions is the other extreme.”

Thus, he continues, it is time to integrate Buddhist teachings with the new science of the mind that was not around back when these extremes were delineated.

This is the necessary reform I hinted at at the beginning of this post. 

If not, Culadasa asks, how many acts of ‘compassion’ currently underway are just compensatory behaviors? How much of the rationalization is simply a way of disguising unresolved psychological baggage? These questions can help reveal why many spiritual leaders are constantly committing severe transgressions without much hesitation. It doesn’t have to be intentional. It might just be that their spiritual dedication led to a sort of unexpected blindness.

What emerges out of this thesis is a brand new middle way – that which weaves through the intersection of therapy, science and Buddhism – and I hope that this blog entry will mark the beginning of a series of articles in which I try to piece together the clues of what this could look like, learning alongside the reader, 

forever searching for that feeling of forever. 

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