Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism by Christian Wedemeyer

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Sherlock
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Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism by Christian Wedemeyer

Post by Sherlock » Mon Dec 01, 2014 2:02 am

I just finished reading this book and found it quite interesting.

The first part of the book deals with how most modern interpreters have tended to read pre-conceived narratives into tantric literature, often with little evidence backing it, sometimes even going by on third-hand gossip. Speculations on anti-nomian practices originating among tribal peoples, as a means for wayward monks to indulge in their vices on one end and on the other, taking everything in tantric literature as completely allegorical are all some of the distorted interpretations held by scholars working in the Western "text-critical" tradition about tantric literature and they are all based more on these scholars' own conjectures than actually looking at what traditional commentaries say.

In the final part of this section, he describes how the narratives behind the revelation of tantric literature are grounded in similar narratives that stretch back to the Sravaka Canon and general Mahayana. Even in the Sravaka canon there are teachings that were not taught by the Buddha himself for example, and the theory of multiple Buddhas existing in the present is very old. Even the Theravadins, who officially deny that doctrine, have an old prayer in Pali that alludes to multiple Buddhas in the present.

In the second part of the book, Wedemeyer uses a semiological approach to describe what traditional Indian commentaries actually say about these texts.

He deals with a quite a few different points here.

For example, the transgressive practices described in the tantras are not completely allegorical; they need not have been actually carried out but the possibility is open. They originated in a specific context in India and had a purpose in trying to bring about non-conceptual experiences of non-duality.

It is not credible that the Buddhist tantras came from tribal peoples. From the earliest examples, they contain a great deal of advanced Buddhist knowledge from the Sravaka and Mahayana canons. In the references to tribal people in actual Indian biographies (the Shamsher manuscript), it is with reference to learned monks who reach a certain stage of cultivation and adopt the guise of a tribal person to practise tantra. There are parallels in Shaivite siddhas too.

He also argues that Sanderson's thesis that Buddhist tantras were adapted from Shaivite models is not really certain. Sanderson demonstrated a high degree of intertextuality between late yogini tantras and Shaivite tantras, true, but his more recent idea that even earlier stages of Buddhist tantra were based on Shaivite models is more uncertain. The model of a yogi with a khatvanga and a kapala comes from Dharmasastric penance for killing a Brahman, which isn't even Shaivite. In the 8th century, with the transgressive Mahayoga tantras in Buddhism, Shaivite tantras like the Kubjikamata are not particularly transgressive; they still tell practitioners of their vrata to keep chaste, bathe, perform homa rituals etc, all of which are denied in Buddhist Mahayoga vrata.

About the vratacarya (transgressive practices) in Buddhist Mahayoga, he describes how its original context seemed to be a time-limited practice, around 6 months, for very advanced practitioners who have attained heat on the path of joining. It seems like completion stage practices were only for these practitioners, while creation stage was more general. Looking at Indian biographies (not the Lives of the 84 Mahasiddhas, many of which seem to be Tibetan compositions), the siddhas were mostly monks who had spent a lot of time learning general Mahayana as well as tantric practices before leaving the monastery to undergo vrata.

It's an interesting work, I recommend it. He seems to stress the part about only advanced practitioners doing completion stage practices and vratacarya as time-limited practice in Indian Buddhist tantra as opposed to how it is taught in Tibetan traditions a bit much as well as how the Indian siddhas all had monastic backgrounds. I wonder if he is a Gelugpa. I wonder if it's also presented differently in commentaries from the Nyingma period on Mahayoga.

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mindyourmind
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Re: Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism by Christian Wedemeyer

Post by mindyourmind » Mon Dec 01, 2014 8:42 am

That does look interesting.

I will read that and only then be able to meaningfully discuss the book with you.
Dualism is the real root of our suffering and all of our conflicts.

Namkhai Norbu

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Wayfarer
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Re: Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism by Christian Wedemeyer

Post by Wayfarer » Tue Jun 28, 2016 1:49 am

I'm bumping this thread to see if anyone else has recommendations or criticisms of this book. There is a reasonable preview online, but, alas, the only copy has gone missing from my University library and I'm considering buying it. Thanks to Sherlock for the review above - anyone else read it since? (Incidentally, I have read that the author was a student of Robert Thurman.)
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few ~ Suzuki-roshi

tingdzin
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Re: Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism by Christian Wedemeyer

Post by tingdzin » Sat May 13, 2017 1:56 pm

I have just read this book, and if anyone is interested in the various theories about the "origin" of tantra/ Vajrayana, this is a must-read. Even though I don't agree with everything the author says, he clearly shows the flaws in some other theories.

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Malcolm
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Re: Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism by Christian Wedemeyer

Post by Malcolm » Sat May 13, 2017 2:02 pm

tingdzin wrote:I have just read this book, and if anyone is interested in the various theories about the "origin" of tantra/ Vajrayana, this is a must-read. Even though I don't agree with everything the author says, he clearly shows the flaws in some other theories.
Christian Wedemeyer is an extremely nice person with whom I had the pleasure of spending a few hours over glasses of wine at the last Tsadra translation conference. He is very bright and knowledgable. His book is definitely worth the read. It stands as one of the best pieces of critical writing about western scholarship on Vajrayāna to date.
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