Comparative studies: Vajrayana, Sutric Buddhism, Tantric Saivism - and Iamblichean Neoplatonism

Comparative studies: Vajrayana and the West. Commonalities and supplementary practices of agency and empowerment

1. Commonalities - a western tantra? Inclusiveness and life-affirmation

David Chapman compared points of commonality between Nietzsche and Tantra over at

  • Cheerful and radically life-affirming.
  • The will to power; valorization of development of personal strength
  • Rising above pervasive mediocrity. Honor. Glory. Nobility.

The west does have some analogies to Vajrayana. Nietzsche, yes. And also Jung’s individuation through spiritual alchemy. Jung and Nietzsche are part of a larger western tradition - which one might call Dionysian Romanticism. The book “Gospel of the open road” explains that:

“There are fascinating parallels between the new spirituality taught by Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau and ancient spiritual wisdom as found in … Tantra, Taoism, … Vajrayana and Zen Buddhism.”

The roots of this tradition of this Jungian and Nietzschean “Dionysian Romanticism”, is in part Iamblichean Neoplatonism. Scholar Gregory Shaw has done an interesting study on the similarities between Iamblichean Neoplatonism and Tantra:

“Iamblichean theurgy represents a radically non-dual orientation that incorporates the body into divine experience.” “The obstacles to our divinization become the vehicles through which we
become divine.” “For Tantra and theurgy, escaping from the world is a profound selfdelusion. For both traditions, the world is theophany. Why would one need to escape it?”

In this sense theurgy closely resembles the tantric non-dualism of South Asian yoga traditions. I explore the consequences of living in a non-dual cosmos and present Platonic theurgy as the Tantra of the West."

A practical example of integration of eastern and western tantric-ish paths, might be The Craft of The Warrior

2. Supplementary practices? Agency and empowerment

Perhaps one could say that two key elements of Nietzsche’s philosophy and Vajrayana are heart and empowerment/strength.

a. Life-affirmation and heart
A key practice of Trungpa, Aro and the Vajrayana is Embracing Emotions as the Path. As we know, this life-affirming and inclusive attitude is different from the renunciate path of sutric buddhism, exemplified by Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s approach. It goes well with Wallis’ Saiva Tantra, Jung’s Wholeness, Nietzsche’s and Emerson’s Dionysian view, and Iamblichus’ Theurgy.

b. Empowerment and agency
b.1 Agency in Saiva Tantra, sutric Buddhism and Vajrayana/Shambhala
On the other hand, I wonder to what extent Nietzsche’s focus on strength, empowerment and warriorhood through responsibility is emphasized in Vajrayana or, alternatively, in Trungpa’s Shambhala teachings.

Christoffer Wallis teaches Saiva Tantra, and according to him, there is no agency or free will in the tantric teachings, not even from a relative point of view, or only to a small extent. This is different from Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s sutric Buddhism - which emphasizes agency, and even warriorhood:

"The lessons [Buddha] learned about action and effort in the course of developing that skill, and which were confirmed by the experience of his Awakening, formed the basis of his doctrine of kamma. This doctrine lies at the heart of his teaching, and forms the essence of the Triple Refuge. Put briefly, it states that action is real, effective, and the result of one’s own choice. If one chooses to act skillfully and works to develop that skill, one’s actions can lead to happiness, not only on the ordinary sensory level, but also on a level that transcends all the dimensions of time and the present.

While there is a book on “active” karma edited from Trungpa’s work - I haven’t seen the issue of agency be subject to the same clear exposition and practice in Trungpa’s teachings, as in Thanissaro’s. And I’m not sure whether Trungpa’s teachings on Karma are strictly sutric.

That might come down to my lack of knowledge about the Vajrayana or the Shambhala teachings. If that is the case, please enlighten me. If not, maybe one could continue David Chapman’s East-west comparative studies, and integrate some teachings on agency and empowerment.

b.2 Western candidates of agency: William Atkinson’s man of action
One candidate could be William Atkinson’s books on “Personal Power” from the 1920’s - which partly make Nietzsche’s teachings into a practical path of personal development. Atkinson’s books inspired Carlos Castaneda’s spiritual warriorship. Castaneda and Trungpa are for example combined in the above mentioned book “The Craft of The Warrior”.

b.3 Western candidates of agency: Amor fati - a Neoplatonic view of karma
Another promising example is Nietzsche’s “amor fati” - loving one’s fate - which Rudolf Steiner has applied in his teachings on Karma. He teaches that we call forth the challenges in our lives for our learning and growth. Things don’t happen to us, they happen for us. The key questions to ask to gain such an attitude is:

“HOW did I call forth this challenge, WHY did I call it forth, WHAT do I need to learn.”

By asking these questions, we immediately feel empowered and responsible. This eliminates victimhood and ressentiment. We might even smile a bit, and come to “love our fate”. We do this, not necessarily because we accept the Neoplatonic doctrine on karma which stands behind these questions, but because it can strengthen us - as per Nietzsche’s fictionalism. There are some western spiritual warriors who practice this view over at the Toltec Legacy

Iamblichean Neoplatonism is a western sibling of Vajrayana which can enrich our understanding of both the Vajrayana and the west.

Thoughts welcome

  • Peter
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Hello Peter and welcome to MM :slight_smile: I guess you came here from Charlie Rindzin Pamo’s platform?

There are lots of references in your post, lots of possible directions for further discussion. I absolutely adore some of Chapman’s writings, especially reinventing tantra. I’ve been writing the same series/book for years now. I wish modern vajrayana got more attention and coverage in the world. Emotions as the path, word :slight_smile:

It is interesting, fascinating really, the references to Western sources. I am pretty clueless about all of that and can’t comment much but reading with interest.

Hi, and thanks for the welcome :slight_smile: Yes, I came from the EvolvingGround platform.

I can see how the western references may be alien. A more homely discussion could be the contrasting of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s view of karma with Vajrayana’s views. I’d also be interested in hearing more about your series on reinventing tantra.

I’ve read some of Charlie’s writings comparing sutra to tantra. That is a very necessary topic to discuss in the Western dharma that is widely influenced by sutric and monastic views, unfortunately so.

With my reference to a book I was referring to my work as a pragmatic vajrayana teacher over the past almost 15 years. What Chapman was contemplating and sketching in his blog, we’ve already done in Pemako sangha with excellent results. Recently I’ve been waiting for inspiration to arrive and haven’t accomplished much in terms of writing but I am planning to write and gather from my already existing writings a book about “reinventing tantra”, a truly western and pragmatic representation of the whole path from ignorance to wisdom.

Sounds promising.

Where would you start when it comes to Vajrayana and Karma? And if Vajrayana doesn’t have particular teachings on Karma, maybe there is reason to look towards Tibetan Buddhist teachings on Karma - Lama Yeshe etc.

Where would I start studying vajrayana and karma? Vajrayana from instructions given by a guru, karma from watching one’s mind.

I see. Robina Courtin seems to be a nice integration of Vajrayana and Sutric Karma for now. Peace

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Hi Peter, a warm welcome to MM from me aswell!

That’s a very interesting compilation of western and eastern view points that you shared here. The domain of western philosophy is not as shallow as we usually think. There always have been people who went deep. They might not have had the piercing yogic techniques to really pierce through but they came as close as they could. Nietzsche definitely being one of them.

I love the dance of seeming opposites in our phenomneal and conceptual world. And the deeper we look into the nature of these seeming opposites, the closer they start to dance together. The more I look into agency, the more I see the non-agency in it. The more I look into non-agency, the more I see the agency in it. Until they collapse in total spontaneity which is neither agency nor non-agency. Yet, both view points are valuable in the relative sense, part of the dance, part of the liveliness.

Like the famous Yoga of Nonmeditation in Mahamudra. It’s not “no meditation” but “only meditation”. There’s nothing but meditation. Perfect one-pointedness, yet without any coming and going.

Jeez, how incredibly dull and lifeless all these neo-nonduality teachings are which simply deny the dance of the opposites.

Thanks for the post, Peter :slight_smile:

Hi, and thanks for the welcome!

Yes, you make an interesting point with regards to agency - and its relation to spontaneity. I also think it depends on where in the path one is. Starting out from a western seeker’s perspective, I’ve felt it helpful to adopt the Buddhist view as espoused by Gelug practitioner Robina Courting: “You are the boss”. It puts the power in my hands, and it is up to me to change my behavior in line with the principles of karma. That might not be as needed when one has progressed further. She writes:

What we are now is the result of what we have done, said, and thought before, and what we will be in the future is thus in our own hands. We are the boss. One might say that for the Buddha, we create ourselves. … Buddha lays it all out, all from his own observation, his own experience. This is Buddhist practice.

You write:

They might not have had the piercing yogic techniques to really pierce through but they came as close as they could. Nietzsche definitely being one of them.

Yes, I do agree that Nietzsche didn’t go “all the way”. Jung called himself the first successful Dionysian, and claimed to “pierce through”. However, even if he integrated a substantial amount of his shadow side, that is not the same as realizing full buddhahood.

In the pre-Christian west - which Jung, Nietzsche and Emerson were trying to revive - there were traditions of life-affirmation who also had the techniques to “pierce through”. Theurgic Neoplatonism as mentioned above is one such tradition. But also pre-Socratics like Pythagoras and Parmenides.

I’ll quote some more from Gregory Shaw’s article “Platonic Tantra”:

As Emerson put it, «man is a god in ruins», and the question is what to do with the ruins of our embodied life

People no longer come to philosophers for an experience of divine presence, for darshan, for transformation, because philosophers today lack the power to transform. This affective dimension of philosophy has become lost to us, but it was integral to the later [Iamblichean] Platonists. … Philosophy is united with the art of sacred things since this art is concerned with the purification of the luminous body … Iamblichean henōsis is inclusive; it is the result of the soul embracing the unifying activity that manifests the material world. … Theurgical Platonists do not escape from the world. In Emerson’s terms, they become Lords of this world: their bodies become thrones and nature is their kingdom. … For Platonists, the Demiurge is the weaving of opposites.

Gregory Shaw has also reviewed Peter Kingsley’s "Catafalque": Carl Jung and the insanity of reason which traces the origins of Carl Jung’s views to the presocratics:

What is fundamentally important about Catafalque is that Kingsley demonstrates convincingly that Jung recovered the shamanic path exemplified by Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Socrates. Jung tried to save us from the “insanity of reason” by descending to the underworld, serving the archetypes, and disavowing the impiety of “the Greeks” who reduce the sacred to rationalizations.

Individuation is the surrendering of the personal to the impersonal, and precisely what Jung experienced it to be, the death of his personality. … Put simply, individuation is deification …

Individuation cuts to the very core of self-consciousness; it is the annihilation of the ego, not its inflation. … The problem is thinking itself, our way of being conscious. Rationality, the habit of shaping our experience into coordinated abstractions—while being a remarkable skill—is a skill that has swallowed us up and enslaved us. We have become, Jung laments, “victims of our thinking. … The cry of Merlin, for both Jung and Kingsley, is the cry of the soul to re-enter the wildness of the world and ourselves.