Deconstructing Tantra

This talk was presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, June 14, 2014.


Tantra is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It is the most sophisticated form of dharma, so complex that it is held to require the guidance of a qualified teacher. Indeed, practising Tantra without professional guidance is widely (though not universally) considered to be intrinsically dangerous and/or inefficacious. It is, however, founded upon the previous turnings of the wheel, represented by (1) the Pali Canon and the doctrines of the Four Noble Truths, etc.; (2) Prajnaparamita and Madhyamaka (Nagarjuna) and the doctrines of emptiness, compassion, and bodhicitta; and (3) the doctrines of the Buddha-nature and tathagatagarbha, respectively. Although the later turnings are traditionally ascribed to the Buddha, these mythological traditions can reasonably be considered to be non-historical without contradicting their essential value or truth. Indeed, their a-historicity itself may be regarded as a sign of their transcendental nature. Nonetheless, they are continuous with the former as implications are continuous with axioms. An in-depth critical reading of the Pali Canon clearly shows that the seeds of the later doctrines are implicit therein. In fact, showing this has been one of the main purposes of these talks. Therefore, we can reject any suggestion that the Mahayana sutras and the Tantras were revealed by the historical Buddha and at the same time accept them unconditionally without contradiction as dharma. The only contradiction here is for fundamentalists, sectarian religionists, and literal-minded academics and historians.[1] The criteria of spiritual authenticity and historical authenticity are not the same, but neither should we “confuse the planes.”

Mahayana Buddhism originated at the university of Takkasila (present day Taxila), the same place where Angulimala studied, and was brought to perfection in the land of Oddiyana (Tib. Orgyen), perhaps the Swat Valley, whence it was brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava in the 8th century in the form of Tantra or Vajrayana Buddhism. (BTW, there is a great movie about Angulimala, in Thai with English subtitles, on YouTube that I recommend. The URL is ). Thus, Tantra developed over many centuries in a cultural milieu steeped in pan-Himalayan mysticism, and continued to develop over many more centuries in Tibet primarily by professional ecclesiastics who spent their lives studying, practising, and refining both the theory and techniques of Tantra in great depth and detail, culminating in the Kalachakra circa 1000 CE. In addition, the true teachings of Tantra were originally orally transmitted from teacher to disciple, many of whom were cave-dwelling eremites, and must have been far simpler and more essential than their later religious elaborations. What was written down were merely glosses, the extreme succinctness of which was expected to be amplified by personal instruction. Later, when the texts were written down in greater detail, the secrecy of the essential teachings was preserved by means of a sophisticated symbolic language that is virtually impenetrable to the uninitiated, the so-called “twilight language.” Consequently, the Tantric teachings and texts are virtually unintelligible, and this problem of comprehension and interpretation is exacerbated by the culturally contingent symbolic language in which they are expressed. Thus, the transmission of Tantra to the West presents a special problem for scholars and practitioners alike. Clearly, simply copying cultural forms and norms without any real understanding is an inadequate approach, and is likely to lead to various kinds of delusion. Although a minority of Westerners may have the capacity and the will to spend their lives learning multiple Asian languages, studying the symbolism of complex esoteric systems, and finally performing the complex and demanding physical and psychological practices that Tantra demands, for most, even in Asia, it is impossible.

Nevertheless, Tantra is grounded in the same dharma that all of Buddhism is, which in turn is grounded in the universal quality of sentience that is not the prerogative of any single race, school, or sect. Thus, the difficulties are not essential but accidental. We are all human beings, whether we are born in Asia or America. We are all products of the same universal cosmic process, and therefore the highest spirituality is the same for all and is accessible to all, and not just on earth. This is the basis of the ekayana, which acquires special significance as we enter the second half of the Buddhist 5,000 year cycle, which implies a return to the source on a higher level as we exit the millennium of degeneration that began in 1012 CE.

How then shall we in the West approach Tantra? Much progress has already been made in this area. C.G. Jung’s exhaustive exploration of the collective unconscious has revealed the essential similarity of all symbolic systems, thus opening up the Asian mythological archetypes to psychological analysis. Mircea Eliade’s investigation of shamanism has shown that shamanic symbols and techniques are rooted in a primordial experiential spirituality that grounds all religions and religious experiences and is at least tens of thousands of years old. William James and Aldous Huxley have done the same for mysticism. Psychedelic research also has shown that the predisposition to spiritual experience is universal not only in general but in its particularities, including profound ecstatic and transformative experiences that manifest regardless of cultural indoctrination, and are both ontically and psychologically significant, transformative, and profoundly healing if pursued with proper preparation and care. There are also numerous similarities between Tibetan Buddhism, so-called, and the Western esoteric tradition that invite comparison.

During the 1990s I studied shamanism and psychedelic experience fairly extensively, and formulated the thesis that all spiritual and religious practices are based, not merely in universal symbolic motifs, but in universal technical methodologies. As a result of my research I identified 35 discrete modalities for inducing spiritual, ecstatic, visionary, and altered states of consciousness. I have discussed these in other talks. At that time I did of course possess a broad familiarity with Tantra, and noted that Tantric practices also exhibit a similar if not identical set of technical procedures. I postulated that in fact all spiritual and religious systems are based on a common set of essential techniques, which in turn provides a basis for analysis comparable to the notation on which music is based. It becomes possible, therefore, to decode all religious and spiritual systems in terms of these techniques, which, being smaller in number and simpler than Jung’s symbolic archetypes, must be even more primary. This is consistent with the view that all religions are based on visionary and ecstatic experiences of one or more founders. Spirituality is, indeed, primarily experiential, and only secondarily ideological, which is why spirituality precedes religion. Religion itself testifies to the primacy of spirituality, just as the coprolite attests to the primacy of nourishment, without being identical with it.

Analyzing spiritual and religious practices in terms of these primary constitutive experiential techniques, in terms of number, variety, sequence, etc., enables one to assess and compare the spiritual and religious practices of all times and climes, from a comprehensive structural and analytical point of view, and to understand them as constructions. Since Tantras are constructions, they can be deconstructed into their essential processes, which can in turn be reconstructed in alternative forms and guises suited to the place, time, and practitioners amongst whom they manifest. This is comparable to the Nyingma doctrine of termas, or continuous revelation. This is the dynamic or kinetic aspect of dharma that is utterly incompatible with organizationalism, given its inherent conservative and authoritarian tendencies.

While it may indeed be desirable to work under the guidance of a qualified and experienced professional, to say that this is a necessary and invariable precondition of practice itself is self-contradictory, because, as constructions, all tantras have an historically contingent source that must ultimately descend from one or more original, realized, self-ordained practitioners. The Buddha himself, the reputed originator of Tantra, was himself a self-ordained practitioner. Moreover, the enormous elaboration of Tantra is also an historical process, and as such has sometimes become mixed up with secondary political, ideological, sectarian, and other biases and complexifications. Nonetheless, as the ultimately efficacious practice involving powerful psychological and physical techniques that can also be dangerous, a qualified teacher is certainly desirable, even if it is not essential. C.G. Jung himself has testified to the extraordinary power of the archetypes and their capacity to induce psychotic states in those inadequately prepared.

In concluding this section, I would like to bring this discussion back to the Pali Canon by calling your attention to the phenomenon of Tantric Theravada, more properly Yogavacara. This is discussed by Peter Harvey on pages 201 and 202 of his book, Introduction to Buddhism (2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, 2013), which I propose to read.

There is not a lot of literature in English on Tantric Theravada. However, T.W. Rhys David’s translation of a 19th century Yogavacara text entitled The Yogavacara’s Manual of Indian Mysticism As Practised by Buddhists (Pali Text Society, 1896) is available at and you can also read “Tantric Theravada: A Bibliographic Essay on the Writings of Francois Bizot and others on the Yogavacara Tradition,” by Kate Crosby (Cardiff University) at Crosby identifies 11 features of Tantric Theravada in this essay.


1.    The same line of reasoning can be applied to the terma literature.

Further Study

Introduction to Anuttarayoga Tantra (Alex Berzin)