making sense of tantric buddhism -- christian wedemeyer

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Christian K. Wedemeyers systematic investigation into Buddhist Tantric traditions fundamentally rethinks the nature of its transgressive theories and practices and situates them firmly within larger trends in learned Indian culture. Challenging the notion that such phenomena are marginal or primitive, Wedemeyer demonstrates these antinomian rituals of rebellion were integrally related, ideologically and institutionally, both within the Buddhist mainstream and Indian culture.

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INTRodUCTIoNmaking sense in and of the human sciences

va-kharora-gajady-ask ptva masena bhojana nityam || ia sarvaviea-rakta-vilipta-mahamasa samasta-kutsita-masa praaka-ata-lakasayukta divyam | vairocanentipa ka-atai simisimayamana vananara-cchardita-miram masa vajrambu-marjika-yuktam | vairocana-samira bhoktavya yoginotsahai | Having drunk dog, donkey, camel, and elephant blood, one should regularly feed on their flesh. human flesh smeared with the blood of all species of animals is beloved. Entirely vile meat full of millions of worms is divine. Meat rendered putrid by shit, seething with hundreds of maggots, mixed with dog and human vomit, with a coating of pissmixed with shit it should be eaten by the yogin with gusto.1

Sapua Tantra

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antric Buddhism presents to the historian of religions an interpretative conundrum. It is, to all appearances, a significant branch of a major world religionone whose scriptures and practices spread from India across Asia, capturing the minds, voices, and purses of millions in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Bali, Cambodia, China, and Japan. More recently, these traditions have begun to take root in regions as far-flung as Russia, the United kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. on the other hand, their widespread popularity seems virtually incomprehensible in light of the highly objectionable features of certain of their scriptures and rituals. The citation from the Sapua Tantra is a clear case in point: It is difficult to imagine a more disgusting and degraded vision of spiritual practice, yet this passage is found in one of

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the most respected scriptures of the esoteric Buddhist Adamantine Way (vajrayna). What sense can one make of a religious tradition that seems to advocate behaviors that most sane human beings would consider aberrant (at best), if not criminal or pathological? This precise question was in fact raised over a century ago as modern studies of Tantric Buddhism were just beginning. The eminent scholar of Sanskrit literature, Rajendralal Mitra, was understandably troubled by similar statements found in the even more highly-revered Guhyasamaja (Esoteric Community) Tantra. Finding these at once the most revolting and horrible that human depravity could think of, Mitra empathized with the many among his readers who might consider that such teachings would, doubtless, be best treated as the ravings of madmen. he cautioned, however, that following this particular interpretative avenueas attractive and instinctual as it might at first appearmay be premature insofar as this same text is reckoned to be the sacred scripture of millions of intelligent human beings.2 Although much important work has been done in the field of Tantric studies since these words were first written, scholars continue to struggle with and offer conflicting resolutions to what we might call Mitras quandary.3 Attempts in this direction are complicated by the fact that all would-be interpreters of Tantric Buddhism in India must negotiate a fundamental methodological challenge. Statements such as those quoted here from the Sapua Tantra appear in texts that are historically disconnected from the cultural milieu that created and sustained them. Scholars of the history of Tantric Buddhism, therefore, must themselves reconstruct a cultural context within which to interpret the discourses and practices found in its literature. Without an informing context, it is not at all clear what such scriptural statements might mean. For instance, a stated injunction to (pardon my french) eat shit effectively means quite distinct things in different contexts. It might, for instance, be spoken by a government operative engaged in torturing a prisoner, forcing feces into his mouth in an effort to demean and disgust him and thus break his spirit. on the other hand, it might be spoken by one starving castaway to another, helpfully, suggesting a desperate means to stave off hunger in the absence of other sustenance. In addition to these more literalalbeit quite differentusages, the same words might also be spoken metaphorically (e.g., by one frustrated driver to another, expressing the anger and hatred of road rage). Just as easily, it may be spoken by one friend to another in jest, in the course of playful mutual teasing.

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When confronted with Tantric Buddhist scriptures that say eat shit, the responsible interpreter is likewise not immediately certain how those words are to be taken. It is necessary first to determine the cultural milieu in which these scriptures and their associated rituals were created and used. This, however, presents another challenge to scholarly method. There is virtually no evidence beyond textual accounts to determine when, where, why, or by whom these discourses were used in late first-millennium India. In order adequately to interpret these scriptures, the historical contexts of their articulation must be reconstructed. In so doing, however, scholars must rely primarily on the corpus of scriptures themselves. Thus, as in all historical inquiry, the interpretation of Tantric Buddhism in India unavoidably involves a complex dialectic of content and context: The transgressive statements of the Tantras are interpreted on the basis of an imagined context, yet that context is itself the result of prior interpretation of the statements. To call it a dialectic is therefore to be rather charitable, for such methods run great risk of committing the fallacy circulus in probando, or circular reasoning. even though, ultimately, any solution will inevitably be subject to some such element of circularitybound as all interpreters are in the hermeneutic circlethere are, I believe, methods of analysis that provide greater purchase on the nature of the significations that occur in this complex corpus of literature. In particular, I believe that the methods offered by semiology have tremendous promise for studies in this area. This is so for two reasons. on the one hand, semiological perspectives in general allow greater insight into the nature of discursive signs and the complex uses to which they are put in a variety of social contexts. Semiology, that is, is devoted toand thus excels atdemonstrating how it is that (as J. L. Austin put it) people do things with words.4 Furthermore, semiological analysisinsofar as it tends to focus attention on macroscopic patterns of signification across entire texts or larger corporaallows a much more reliable and nuanced approach to interpretation than the more intuitive, microscopic avenue that attempts to generalize directly from interpretations of expressions taken individually. By comparing usages across texts and corpora and analyzing their relations, semiology allows a greater and more sensitive attention to the contexts of particular expressions than is possible with a less systematic approach.5 Before these methods may be fruitfully applied to the project of advancing an alternative reconstruction of the meanings and contexts of Indian Tantric Buddhism, however, a certain amount of preparatory

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work is required in order to clear the ground. In particular, critical attention needs first to be paid to the interpretative models that have been advanced in previous scholarship, so that a new approach may proceed free of encumbering assumptions that have so strongly marked earlier accounts. This is necessary insofar as there has developed over the course of two centuries of research a consistent, hegemonic, effectively autonomous, and self-sustaining network of scholarly discourses on Tantric Buddhism that authorizes and reinforces certain ways of speaking about and otherwise representing it. In this respect, modern discourses about Buddhist Tantrism are similar to the phenomenon of orientalism as discussed by edward Said. In his work, Said was concerned to illustrate inter alia the remarkable internal consistency of orientalism and its ideas about the orient . . . despite or beyond any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a real orient.6 That is, once certain rhetorical tropes by which the east may be represented had become familiar to european audiences, they developed a certain authority. They sounded plausible all the more so because they drew upon and redeployed well-trodden and familiar themes in the european historical and cultural imagination. Likewise, the discourses used by modern scholars in reading the literature of and reconstructing the nature and history of Tantric Buddhism display much the same internal, tautological consistency. The same limited stock of ideasoften couched in nearly identical languagerecurs decade after decade in new publications and is rarely subjected to critical analysis of its own genealogy. of primary concern in this regard is not merely scholarly repetition or redundancy, but what might be called methodological solipsism: a kind of emperors new clothes effect. The discourses that circulate in the secondary literature condition what people see in the primary sources. Scholars read the secondary literature before they read the primary literature and, having thus been prepared by the discursive community to see the emperors clothes, are thereafter predisposedsocializedto see the data in light of those models and to replicate them in their writings. There is, as Said indicated, a complex dialectic of reinforcement by which prior discourses condition what we experience of the data presented to us, which interpretations then further reinforce our commitment to those very discourses.7 Predictably, then, once the path was blazed, the road of academic representations of India and Indian Buddhism quickly developed significant discursive ruts. Just as ruts in real roads constrain the choices