I’ve found it difficult to write this post because it’s all in bits and pieces in my head. But honestly, that’s how I have experienced this situation for several years: bits and pieces. However awkward this might sound, I’m ready to make a declaration: I have found a living practice tradition that could be described as Tantric Theravada. It’s the Triratna Buddhist Mahasangha (or ‘movement’, as they call it). To be brief: what is it that makes it ‘tantric Theravada?’ This: the emphasis of their scriptural dharma teaching is on the Pali Canon and the Theravada ritual tradition. But UNLIKE traditional Theravada, which is strictly renunciate, Triratna combines this with a lively appreciation for the arts: poetry, music, visual art, material crafts, dance, theatre and performing arts. The arts are considered not only enriching in a humanistic sense, but essential spiritual training. Moreover, there is a respect and appreciation for the embodied life, for so-called ‘body Buddhism’; likewise, a reverence for the natural world. The emphasis on art-as-sacred practice comes from a strong Tibetan influence in Triratna, which I call the ‘tantric’ part of the tradition. It is Eros as Art; it is imaginative and playful; the practice of art-as-sacred creates a ‘beautiful Buddhism’. Thus, Triratna not only ‘borrows from’ Tibetan tantric Buddhism and Theravada, but marries them, blends them together into a new form: Tantric Theravada.
Triratna probably doesn’t call what they practice “tantric Theravada”. They probably just call it “Buddhism”. And I don’t speak for or represent Triratna. I only speak for my own experience within this tradition. I have had this vision or longing for a tantric Theravada for several years. I started Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition; my practice experience included Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings. I enjoyed the rituals and the rich culture that formed its colorful container. But I was frustrated and alienated by the emphasis on “emptiness.” To sum it up, if you put together all the teachings of Tibetan philosophy, from its Indian antecedents (Nagarjuna) through all its various Tibetan schools and traditions (Madhyamaka, Citamatra, Yogacara, etc.), they are all teachings about “emptiness.” Arguments about emptiness, understanding emptiness, misunderstanding emptiness, the true nature of mind (emptiness), talking about emptiness, not talking about emptiness, and so on. It’s 90% about emptiness, and a little bit about compassion. By the end of my time in the tradition, I was sick to death of it and felt spiritually starved.
Then I was introduced to Theravada in a Sri Lankan community. I loved the clarity of the teachings, loved the Pali canon, so I switched to Theravada. While I loved Theravada teachings, I was disappointed with its strict renunciate culture that discouraged the enjoyment of “amusements”: music, art, film, theatre and the performing arts. I was also feeling a loss for the Tibetan ritual tradition. Furthermore, I was presented with a Western version of Theravada, known as Secular Buddhism, which had been stripped down to a form of Buddhist psychology. It was a very dry, cerebral experience, dogmatically rigid, narrowly focused on ‘relieving suffering’.
The problem was that in my head, I could not put together these two experiences, which seemed to be almost polar opposites of each other. How do you do this? How do you put together tantra and Theravada? I had this sense that there must be some a way to put this together. I dug into the history of Theravada, and began to discover the modern remains of a more ancient religion that was much richer and more varied than just Buddhist psychology. Older South Asian forms of Theravada had a rich pantheon of references to gods and spirits, mythologies, rituals, art, music and dance. I learned that Buddhism in Sri Lanka was never just Theravada or the Pali canon. That in fact, Sri Lankan Buddhism included all the lineages of Buddhism that we know today, including the Mahayana, Vajrayana and tantric traditions. I learned that Thai Buddhism had a rich mythical culture full of spirits, gods, rituals, sacred geometry (yantra), amulets, body art, and magic. I discovered a more ancient religious culture called “esoteric Theravada”, which was being documented by historians in Southeast Asia, primarily in Cambodia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. There was very little known or written about this ancient tradition. I read every book and collected every paper I could find.
I was following the work of Kate Crosby, an historian of South Asian Buddhism, and was thrilled when I read her latest book, Esoteric Theravada, a monumental work of research in this field. It was everything I hoped it would be; a granular history of the borán kamathana, the ‘old way’ of transformation into buddhahood through the body, through the ritual use of alchemy, Ayurvedic medicine, sacred geometry, and ‘generative grammar’, which is the encoding of Pali syllables, sounds and words into mantras of transformation. There it was, more complete than anyone had previously displayed it. But there was no way for me to learn or practice this nearly extinct tradition. What Crosby’s book did was give me permission to say “This is possible; there is a tantric form of Theravada. It is an earlier form and it is just as historically “authentic” as later forms of Theravada.”
So after reading Dr. Crosby’s book, I began thinking about what it might imply about a “tantric Theravada”. We modern Buddhists can’t revive the ancient forms of this practice, but we can translate its larger symbolic shapes and ideas into a modern form. So what constitutes its ‘larger shapes’? As a premise, tantric Theravada accepts the body and the natural world as materially real. So first, it’s a practice of transformation through the body, of transforming not only one’s consciousness, but one’s whole physical being into the ‘body of a buddha.’ This is done through symbolic material practices that involve sound (mantra), sacred geometry (yantra), visualization, ritual, and the recitation of transformative words and teachings. So all the elements are there that can be translated into modern forms through the embodiment of dharmic practices, through meditation, music, art, craft, visualization, poetry, mythology, ritual and symbolic enactment. That is precisely what I found in Triratna’s teachings of the arts-as-sacred practice and why I chose to call it “tantric Theravada.”