Sunday, November 28, 2004

What *really* is Tantra? My essay

I've decided to write my essay for Tibetan Buddhism on 'What really is Tantra' - a topic I'm sure will draw some attention from the 'uninitiated'. Well, just to cool your appetites a bit: only about 2% of Tantra has anything to do with Sex and Death. The rest is heavily abstinence, purification, concentration, etc based. Of course that is the Tantra of India and Tibet... Tantra in America is ALL about sex and death! Shows you what can happen when Westerners get ahold of things they don't understand!

Another aspect of Tantra is secrecy, based on the idea that while Tantra is enormously powerful, it is also exceptionally dangerous and difficult. The practitioner either shoots up to or near complete enlightenment, or down to the deepest hells (yes Buddhism has Hells).

There is also a stress on the connection between one practitioner and the next as the only possible way that Tantra can be passed on. Tantric texts are very difficult to make sense of, and a reader needs guidance to understand what in them is literal and what is figurative. There is a tension, therefore, in calling anything a Westerner reads in the bookshop 'Tantra'. The book may be by an enlightened practitioner, it may include ancient 'root texts', but it dismisses the teacher-student relationship by simply being put out there for mass consumption.

True Tantra, if we are to speak of such a thing, can only come from a teacher in a Tantric lineage directly to a student. Further, it can only come after ENORMOUS amounts of preparation. The stress on the danger of Tantra seems to have been forgotten by Western popularizers of it.

In any case, I would think that 99.9% of Westerners who come across Tantra will lack either the knowledgeable teacher or the preparation necessary to understand and implement Tantra. In my case, I take very seriously the fact that what I study in the classroom and in books is simply 'about Tantra', lacking the heart of actual Tantra. I have a 'book knowledge' of Tantra in much the same way one can get a 'book knowledge' of Tai Kwon Do and yet still get his ass kicked in a match. I would not dream of teaching or implementing my 'book knowledge' in the real world. Someday, maybe, I'll have the knowledgeable teacher and the preparation (mastery of Buddhist ethics and meditation) necessary for REAL Tantric practice, including that fun 2% of Sex and Death!

Philosophy Games - via Electric Blue Moodiness

Do check these games out! I especially enjoyed "Do it Yourself Deity" and "Staying Alive"

Electric Blue Moodiness: Philosophy Games

Thanks to Dorian for posting them!

Post Reading Week - Yet Still, I Read

Well, you may imagine that things would change radically from Reading Week to another 'not Reading' week, but this is not so much the case in my world. For the most part I am pushing on with reading.

I'll post some thoughts on classes after this - but thought I might also draw your attention to an essay I blurted out last week: Buddhism vs. Marxism in the West: Foes or Allies..? A long, but hopefully thought-provoking account of the potential goods and evils of both Buddhism and Marxism in the current day. I say that I 'blurted' it out because that is basically how it happened: I saw the talk on Tuesday and it bounced in and out of my thoughts for a couple days. Then, on Thursday I just HAD to write out a response, just to get it out of me so I could focus on my studies. So, the whole thing was basically written in one evening, something I wish I could do with my academic essays!

In other news, things have been quite boring - which is good I suppose. Other than a drink with Tuesday's speaker, Dr. Daniel Webster, and my professor after the talk that gave rise to the above essay, I've maintained three weeks of absolute sobriety. It's amazing, and I must continue to tell myself this, the difference in mental clarity that arises after a few weeks + of sobriety.

I’ll be home in Montana in just 2 weeks. That is also kind of amazing, and I’m happy to be able to return for the holidays. I'm looking forward to the cold blue skies of Montana, the inviting aromas of Mother's cooking, the craziness of family as the presents begin to pile under the well decorated plastic Christmas tree, and the buzz of anticipation from my nephew and niece as the big day draws near.

Conference Abstract for a paper I hope to give in March

Just thought I might post the abstract I whipped out last week for an upcoming Postgraduate conference here in Bristol. I have about 80% of the stuff in the abstract taken care of through my past Philosophical and Religious Studies papers, but I'll have to put some work in bringing it all together as described below. In any case I think it will be fun. Any comments/suggestions based on this for reading/preparation would be appreciated:

Throughout the history of Buddhism, its most central philosophical doctrine, that of anattā (Skt. anātman) or not-self, has also been its most misunderstood doctrine. Today, Western philosophers are trying to understand anātman, often incorrectly using Western metaphysical models inherited from Descartes. This paper seeks to coherently and correctly bring anātman into the Western Philosophical dialogue by providing a Buddhist explanation of mind-body interaction. In the process, the Buddhist explanation will be compared to such Western philosophers as Aristotle, Gilbert Ryle, John Searle, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Through examples we will peal back the layers of reality and our mental constructions of it to see directly the unreality of both materialism and idealism, both nihilism and eternalism.

The historical development of anātman must be rooted in the philosophical milieu of the Buddha’s time, dominated by Brahmanical ‘self’ theory. The Buddha also encountered and refuted other ontological theories identical to those of the modern west, including materialism and idealism. Anata thus is not a complete refutation of selfhood as we understand it in the West, but a corrective philosophical statement against the hypostatization of the Aristotelian essence of self.

Anatman has been further confounded by the development of another Buddhist doctrine, śūnyatā, or emptiness. Śūnyatā is simply the rejection of ultimate substance, that which stands below. Given this we can see that for a Buddhist the categories of body and mind as substances are themselves mistaken. The stress of śūnyatā in Buddhist philosophy in the 1st Century C.E. led to over a millennium of rich philosophy and intense debate. Two ‘schools’ coming out of this debate are the Yogacāra, or so-called Idealist School, and the Prāsgika Madyamaka, the Refutational/Consequential Middle-Way School. The philosophy of these two schools, and the repercussions of their beliefs will be examined as well.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Life as a Masters Student: Reading Week– Awfully Dull

This week has been ‘reading week’ for students in the faculty of arts at U. Bristol, giving us time to stretch our legs, catch up on reading, visit the country, veg out, or party. Me? I’ve read, and read and read. My internet/computer at my flat is up and running now, so I have little excuse to even leave the house (If I had a toilet and a hot-plate I wouldn’t leave the room!). I should/will get out for some table tennis soon, I think, as I am getting a bit antsy.

The reading has been good though, “Civilized Shamans” by Geoffrey Samuel – a detailed text on “Buddhism in Tibetan Societies” as the subtitle reads. For an anthropologically based text it reads beautifully, and I find myself lost in it for hours at a time (my interest in the topic may play a large part in that as well).

Now I’m working on a website dedicated to the courses here for myself and fellow students to share notes, etc: -- long URL, I know, but that seems to happen whenever I try to ‘rationalize’ the files on my website. Hopefully the site will be useful for fellow students.

Man, the week has gone by fast… too fast. What did I do? Read, we’ve got that covered. Oh, I visited the Lam Rim Bristol Buddhist Center on Tuesday. That was great. Heard teachings from Pobonka Rinpoche’s “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand” by a Tibetan Geshe. Tomorrow I’ll see Mattieu Richard, a senior Western monk and translator for the Dalai Lama here in Bristol, which will be fantastic I’m sure. Well, the speed at which time moves is indicative of how busy you are or how much fun you’re having, so I won’t complain that it’s going so fast. Ah.. I also started work on Geshe Michael Roach’s ‘The Book’ – a kind of Buddhist confession and aspiration book, kept daily, 6 times a day! Needless to say I’m not quite keeping it up as often as I should, but I’m working on it! I wrote a letter to my grandma, that was a major activity J Well – In any case, as the title states, it has been a dull time! The other (interesting to me at least) thing I did was discovered a couple fantastic advanced Tibetan Buddhist texts, one being “The Gold Refinery” a pithy text on the steps of the path to enlightenment by His Holiness the 8th Dalai Lama – a very good text. I hope to transcribe it to the above studies website with my notes at some point, when I get another free week or two!

Another Dharma project I’m working on/thinking about is a book/series of essays called “Buddhism in Two Words” – something that could introduce important Buddhist topics under pithy headings; suitable to new readers. Chapters would include “Free Yourself” “Choosing Reality” “Let Go” “Going Deeper” “Common Sense” and others; using the two words to set a theme, creating a simple center that new readers could come back to if the concepts get a bit out of their grasp: ie. describing the Buddhist Discipline in terms of “Common Sense” – showing how it formed based on actual events, and how it has changed in form and interpretation depending on circumstances – while cautioning a new reader from trying to reform it or question it prima facia, without looking into the “Common Sense” that arises with full understanding of the particular rules. Just another hair-brain idea floating around my cavernous, empty head! We’ll see what comes of it!


Thursday, November 18, 2004

Where I live in Bristol: Hodgkin House

A bit about my house in Bristol is certainly in order, as it is a major locus of my life here.

The house is run by the English Anglican Church, and church activities are certainly a part of the house, though they welcome everyone ('of all faiths or none' they say). The staff is very kind, I think they are more kind to me as a native English speaker than to some of others in the house, more patient perhaps, or at least more at ease.

About a quarter of the 55 or so students in the house are Chinese, and they tend to group together a lot, though there are several who are very outgoing toward non-Chinese. There are several Indians, most of whom speak Bengali and spend time together (these are the ones mentioned previously - a very fun group). There are two muslim men, one from Bengaladesh and one from Pakistan (two nations which were one before 1971 I have learned) - they seem very nice from my short talks with them. A couple guys are from Malaysia, there is a girl from Vietnam, and a few other Asians. There are also a handfull of Europeans, notably one Italian woman and a girl from the south of Spain - oh, and Erol from Bulgaria (think of Tom Hanks in 'The Teminal'). These are the people I spend my meal-times and some spare extra time with. There are also several students there who use the 'small kitchen' (as opposed to the main kitchen) so I don't see them and have met them only in passing here and there. More should be posted on particular residents/friends from the house as time passes.

The building itself is composed of 5 flats side-by-side together, 5 levels (basement-ground floor- and three floors of rooms). I'm on the first floor (room 105) and most activities are on the ground (table tenis, office, small tv room) or basement (both kitchens, large tv room, games room, laundry) levels.

The house is just 2 blocks from the Student Union (which I have yet to visit! but soon will) and about 10 minutes walk from my department (Theology and Religious Studies). It's also just about 5-7 minutes from a grocier and a flock of other up-scale stores on a main strip called 'Queen's Road'. The neighborhood is fairly busy, especially at night, when students pour toward the bars/clubs (many on Queen's Road) and then return in the whee hours. My room faces the street, so I get to hear them pass :)

Some flavor (flavour) of my life in UK

(edited from emails home to my mum and sister)


Nothing major, but just something I am liking a lot about being at the Hodgkinhouse:Last night I was invited to join a group of Indian students for dinner. I was served two fantastic Indian dishes, though I did not get any specific name for either, 'curry in a hurry' from the man cooking, and 'fried rice with dahl' from the woman. The curry was similar to something at Tipu's, though I cannot remember what. He (Sorjay) intentially kept it very mild on my account and I told him I could definitely handle some kick, though not too much.

And today I am fasting for National Fast Day - an opportunity for non-Muslims to join the Muslim community in celebrating/observing Ramadan. In an hour I will go to a local church where there is a fast breaking ceremony. Apparently I'mnot fasting correctly! as I have had some tea and water, both a no-no according to a Muslim girl I met in the house this afternoon. Oh well - I'm a bit under the weather, perhaps a flu (given some aches in my legs and back), so I think tea and water are a good idea.

Also, I'm reading Thomas Merton's Asian Journals - something recommended by my Buddhism professor back in Missoula (Alan Sponberg) to a fellow student. The book gives an interesting point of view on Buddhism, that of a Catholic contemplative...


Reporting from England (finally!) or "What this blog is about"

Finally! I've set up a blog in England. I started a little Blog called "American Buddhist Perspective" (I'll post a link to it later) last summer, but never really posted much there. At almost the same time, a good friend of mine, Ali Tabibnejad, created a Blog for the UM Philosophy Society where the two of us traded posts for a while - but that now has fallen off.

So - here I begin a new online blogging journey. The purpose, I suppose, will be to post thoughts and experiences I have in Bristol, UK. I keep my own journal for the more private items, so here I will post what I feel is appropriate for anyone to read. The bulk of it should be related to Buddhism, to life as a global citizen, and to my relations with my family and friends, here and in the US. I'll try to make the subject matter of each post clear by the title, even if that means excessively long titles.

About me?: My name is Justin Whitaker. I'm 24, studying at the University of Bristol for a Masters of Arts in Buddhist Studies. The degree will keep me here in England until roughly July (maybe I'll stay through September?) of 2005. I have a Bachelors of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Montana. Beyond my MA I'm not sure what exactly I'll do - but it looks like I'll definitely take at least a short time off before any further (Ph.D.) studies. I'd like to travel the world a bit, maybe in the Peacecorps, maybe as an English teacher in South/South East Asia.

I'm a Buddhist, focusing primarily in the Tibetan Geluk tradition (that of the Dalai Lama), and have practiced for about 4 years now, although hitherto not very seriously. I hope to some day teach, likely in a University (hense the Ph.D. plans), but possibly also in a less academic Buddhist setting.

I have a wonderful family in Montana: an older brother and sister, and my parents. I have a few scattered friends in Montana and evermoreso around the US and world.

That should be enough of an introduction of me and the blog for now - you can always email me at or comment on particular postings. I hope to keep this blog up quite regularly.

Best wishes. Love. Peace. jw.