What is it like to be the Buddha? What, for that matter, would it be like to live as a posthuman? In this text I’m going to argue that the two could be symbiotic, mirroring each other in terms of exotic fluidity and personal transformation. In particular, I’m going to focus upon one particular brand of Buddhism - that of Vajrayana, more commonly know as tantra.
Let’s begin by disabusing ourselves of a common misconception: tantra ≠ sexual experimentation. Sure, sex is a method employed in tantra, but then so is eating ice-cream or using the bathroom. Despite lurid ‘journalism’ and Sting, tantra in fact encompasses a vast cornucopia of methods designed to be utilised by the practitioner as best fits their level of awareness and circumstances at the time. Sex may sell, but tantra offers you more bang for your buck if taken seriously.
I’m going to have to present a simplified version of what tantra is, so please bear that in mind before Googling away and retorting that I’ve presented a skewed view of something far more complex. Different traditions each have their own take on how best to practice, so I can only write from what I know from the perspective of how I was taught.
Vajrayana means ‘thunderbolt’ or ‘diamond’ vehicle, with the sense that it is indestructible and electric. This is in contrast, though complements, what Shakyamuni Buddha taught, the vehicle described in the early texts of non-tantric Buddhism. Tantra means something like ‘thread’ or ‘warp and weft’ and refers to the lived experience of our present reality intertwined with the magic of enlightened or awakened experience - in short, the experience of becoming the Buddha.
For reasons of space, I’m going to focus on one aspect of tantric method - that of visualisation. The principle is that tantra is continually performing itself in each and every moment. The trick is to tune in to this vibrant becoming, to be totally identified with outrageous expressions of who we are. One method we can use to accomplish this dramatic transformation is visualisation.
Tantra can be broadly divided into two camps - those of the Outer and Inner Tantras (the ‘Tantras’ actually refer to the texts one uses for one’s practice). The difference between the two is that in the Outer Tantras one visualises the deity outside of oneself; in the Inner Tantras one self-envisions oneself as the deity. Referring to ‘deities’ do not make the mistake of thinking of them as gods or spiritual beings, but rather as expressions of different aspects of our being to demonstrate that all negative and painful states of mind are merely distortions of our primordially awakened state.
In order to engage with tantric practice, one must first have a firm grounding in the vast openness and awareness that lies at the heart of being. This includes preparations such as mindfulness meditation where one gradually learns to remain uninvolved with fleeting thoughts and emotions. Once one has gained some stability in this, one can approach visualisation where these fleeting apparitions we call reality can be realised as the grand dance of existence and non-existence that is our natural state.
Outer Tantras approach visualisation as experiencing the deity outside ourselves, in the space before us. There are literary hundreds of deities that can be utilised for this purpose, but in the tradition in which I was taught one usually begins with Padmasambhava, the tantric Buddha, or Yeshe Tsogyal, his consort and enlightened Buddha in her own right. Using exacting representations of these figures, together with their mantra (the energy of the deity in the form of sound), one begins with ‘creative imagination’ of the Buddha in front of one. Once this becomes as real to the practitioner as the kitchen sink, office, or factory floor, one begins to merge with the deity, represented by visualising rays of light emanating from the deity to oneself.
The Inner Tantras pick up where this merging with the energy of the deity begins to become a reality for the practitioner. Rather than visualising the deity as separate from oneself, one now self-arises as the deity itself.
As someone who had spent three years practicing Zen meditation and thus had some stability in groundlessness, I skipped the Outer Tantras and proceeded to practice the Inner Tantras off the bat. Convention dictates that in order to consolidate this merging of self with the deity’s particular pizzazz, one practises for as long as it takes to internally recite the mantra of the deity one thousand times for each syllable of the mantra. As an example, Padmasambhava’s mantra is twelve syllables long, so you continue in the practice until you have completed 1,200,000 recitations. Yeshe Tsogyal’s mantra is fifteen syllables, so, well, you can do the maths a lot better than I can.
After this initial ‘introduction’ and to the point where one truly feels oneself to be the deity, one branches out into other methods, for example; Medicine Buddha, Wealth Buddha, Purification, Compassion and, yes, joyous representations of sexuality. Each takes the negative energy associated with its position on the existential spectrum of being and transforms it into the awakened form of that energy. Deities can be peaceful, joyous or wrathful, depending on the intensity and type of neurotic emotions being transformed. My personal practice was that of Dorje Trollo - the ‘Crazy Wisdom’ manifestation of Padmasambhava - an incredibly wrathful and tumultuous practice which critics, given my current bipolarism, may say did its job exceptionally well.
To cut a long story short: Vajrayana Buddhism uses powerful visualisation techniques of identifying with the negative energies that we experience as making up our reality and transforming them into enlightened wonderment. Suddenly sorting through the sock drawer is no longer a chore but a divine activity.
So I wonder; might not these personal (and collective) concepts of transformation, bliss, fluidity of being, non-binary gender roles, unlimited power and deep compassion, fleeting and exotic mind-states - using that most precious of commodities, the human mind - offer a precursor to posthuman reality, one that we can utilise right now?
From David Pearce’s Hedonistic Imperative to Natasha Vita-More’s Primo Posthuman, from technoprogressive ideals of technology married with social justice to emotional, intellectual and bodily augmentation, fluidity of personhood and physical expression; could not tantra, in its reimagining of what it means to human, offer us a taste of the Singularity here and now?
Transhumanists talk of us as becoming gods. Might it not be better if we rather thought of ourselves as becoming Buddhas? Imbued with both wisdom and compassion, wouldn’t that lead us into a better future? After all, throughout human history, our gods have not always lived up to ideals such as benevolence and appreciation for humankind. I’d hate to think of a future being peopled by Old Testament-like cyber-organisms, a future defined by petty altercations, ongoing feuds and war.
And what of our AGIs? Might they not wish to rest in vast, unlimited, spaciousness from time to time, arising in glorious and extravagant forms for the sheer play of it? The fancy tickles me, and I’m not sure we would be any the worse for it.
The Buddha essentially said: ‘Be aware, and if you can’t be aware, be kind.’ I believe that strong AIs could possess almost unlimited wisdom given time, but I would like to think that this would be balanced by equally unfettered compassion for all sentient life - the two separate yet inseparable - a magnificent spectrum of limitless and rapturous forms, each according to its purpose.
One without the other could spell disaster for humanity. We want our AGIs to excel in intelligence (that is, after all, what defines them), but I hope, perhaps naively, that there will be a healthy dose of simple kindness that they come to appreciate also, for all our sakes.
AGI as Buddha? Us? Maybe Vajrayana Buddhism can give us a glimpse into the window of what that would feel like?
And what an enchanting future that would be.