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 Vividness.live:
- 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.