Outcastes As Activists: A Tantric Approach to Engaged Buddhism

I’ve spent most of my life with outcastes, drunks and queers mostly; second to that, artists and academics, and of course activists. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with Buddhists, but don’t let their calm demeanour fool you; most of ‘em don’t have it together either. I’ve spent most of my life with crazy people of one kind or another—as a social worker, friend, lover, family or sangha member. My fellow activists are a special bunch: angry but idealistic, always believing that ‘another world is possible’ and pissed off because it hasn’t arrived yet.

Outcastes (1) tend to have a lot of compassion for other outcastes, like homeless people, the insane, the poor, immigrants, the racially oppressed, youth, the queer, people marked with the stigma of deviance. That stigma is tattooed across my forehead in invisible ink when I walk into my sangha for Sunday morning sit. I never really feel like I fit in, but I try awfully damn hard. Do I have to be the only flaming faggot in the whole sangha? It makes me feel hopelessly weird. And no surprise, I’m also the one who can’t help noticing other things that don’t fit. Like I noticed how the three ‘turnings of the wheel’ of dharma don’t seem to follow on each other very neatly; and the third turning seems especially out of sync, occurring nearly a millennia after Buddha’s death.

It all started with a question. How did tantra become the ‘third turning of the wheel’ of dharma in Buddhism? After the total emptiness of the Mahayana, now all of a sudden you have all these deities and weird esoteric practices and hey, you can at least imagine having sex even if you can’t actually do it. So I went looking for answers and came up with Ronald M. Davidson’s Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. In this book I discovered the fascinating history of the Hindu siddhas, the practitioners of a renegade form of Shiva-Shakta cult, and their sudden invasion of Buddhism in 8th century India.

Siddha means ‘accomplished’, but in its original context, it referred to radical ascetics whose spiritual practices, or tantra, gave them power over spirits, natural elements and cosmic forces. They performed spells and rituals, and frequented cremation grounds. They were considered saints by some, criminals by others, provoking both reverence and ridicule. They lived at the edges of cities, near the cremation grounds, along with low caste and tribal peoples, criminals and other outcastes (matanga) on the margins of Indic society. Davidson describes them as “going naked along their own paths, devoted solely to their own subjective experiences”:

With their ornaments of human bone, carrying skullcaps and tridents, conquering demons, flying to the land of the dakinis, copulating in graveyards, these personalities could only be associated with the heterodox Saiva [Shiva] figures… (p. 125)(2)

Davidson presents the historic evidence that by the 8th century, monastic Buddhism was on the verge of collapse, having lost most of its protection and support from the feudal kings of medieval India. Monasteries shut down all over central India. All that remained were a few large monasteries on the fringes of the subcontinent, in the extreme northern, southern and western borders of India. Meanwhile, the Brahamanic sects, which included the siddhas, gained immense popularity with both laity and kings; it was the era of classic Hindu temple-building. Brahamanic religion replaced Mahayana Buddhism in the royal courts; even the siddhas had special roles performing magic rituals for kings. Into the “void” left by the collapse of Mahayana Buddhism, monastics quickly imported the tantric culture of the siddha into Buddhist literature and practice.

It was the siddhas who practiced what would later become known as “crazy wisdom.” The siddhas undertook five stages of spiritual practice:

As noted above, the Pasupatas [siddhas] were to practice five stages in their ascetic endeavors. In the first, the distinguished state (vyaktavastha), they were to inhabit temples and conform to rules. In the second, the undistinguished state (avyaktavastha), they were to act insane in public and court dishonour. In the third, they were to dwell in an empty cave; in the fourth, they were to dwell in a cemetery; and in the fifth, they were to dwell in Rudra. (p. 183).

It was the second stage that struck me as strangely resonant with the practice of social activism. I’ve often read the critique from other engaged Buddhists that “Buddhists can do other things at protests besides sit and meditate.” We can stand up, march and vocally protest, speak out, engage in street theatre. But as a Buddhist, where is the spiritual justification for that kind of confrontational action? I’m suggesting that it’s in the lineage of the siddhas, whose ascetic practice involved acting insane in public and courting dishonour. Davidson explains that it was an ascetic practice because it provoked the disgust of the audience toward the siddha, causing them to renounce their social status:

Of these, the second is exceptional and distinctly Pasupata [siddah], since it involves seeking unmerited social disapproval, so that those in the immediate environment are tricked into their vocalization of their moral outrage by the Pasupata yogin. Since the Pasupata is only imitating disreputable behavior—for example, behaving like a dog—the castigation is unmerited and the yogin accordingly is relieved of previous negative karma, which now passes onto the unwary critic. (p. 219)

The siddha performs a sacred ritual of provocation, performing the abject, that which is despised, oppressed, banished and forgotten, bringing repressed issues to the attention of people in the public square. Siddha deliberately act in such a way as to bring ridicule and scorn upon themselves, thereby expiating karma for themselves and for those who participate in the ritual. This strikes me as a profoundly compassionate act. It could be done in a way so as not to provoke a violent reaction, but to raise consciousness, a critical mindfulness, of witnesses and the wider public. For the siddha, violating public norms became a way to break the bonds of ego and class/caste status. Indeed, the whole cult of tantra involved the deliberate violation of social norms as a practice of spiritual transcendence.

Davidson describes the sacred role of the siddhas as bearers of truth:

In this work, siddhas are noted for their capacity to “sing truth” (siddha saccam anugayanti)—that is, perform acts of truth (saccakiriya). By the power of their truth statements, siddhas make the rain fall, cause fire (the god Agni) to be turned back in its course, and even transform the dreadful Halahala poison—which stained blue the throat of Siva himself—into a medicinal antidote. (p. 175)

A tantric approach to engaged Buddhism sings truth, performs truth as a defiant act that provokes critical mindfulness, and thereby transforms the poison of oppression into the medicine of justice, healing and peace.

Siddhas were known not only for their ritual and magic, but for great skill in music, dance, and theatre. Siddhas were associated with wandering theatre troupes, who were also considered outcaste. Later the Buddhist siddhas would incorporate song, dance and dramatic performance into their tantric liturgies:

The new scriptures of the [buddhist] siddhas, the mahayoga- and the yogini-tantras, are overwhelmingly dominated by ritual, song, dance, and storytelling—all blended together. Even when the forms of yoga are observed, the emphasis is on the fluidity of language and on the performative functions of letters and groups of sounds. Thus one source of the new scriptural authors might be sought from a social strata composed of, or at least exposed to, singers, performers, players, street preachers, and touring theater troupes. (p. 238)

The sacred performance of the siddha could be incorporated into the practice of engaged Buddhism, including street theatre, singing truth, speaking truth, dancing truth, creatively using ritual ‘magic’ to engage witnesses in the enactment of the truth. Imagine doing drag street theatre as sacred ritual at your next Pride Parade. If someone asks you why you’re all decked out in leather and feather boas, dancing wildly to the music of a beatbox, tell them you’re a tantric Buddhist and this one of your spiritual practices.

You might be thinking, “Well great, that’s a lot of cool inspiration from the Hindu siddhas, but they weren’t Buddhists.” Oh yes they were, that is, they became the Buddhists. Siddha tantra invaded 8th century Indic Buddhism in record time. According to Davidson and his exhaustive search of the historical record, Buddhists wholly incorporated siddha trantra into Buddhist practice in less than a hundred years, virtually overnight by 8th century standards.

John Newman, one of the world’s leading Kalachakra scholars, says point blank that much of what we call Vajrayana or the ‘third turning of the wheel’ is not Buddhism as it had been established in the Shrvakanyana and Mahayana forms. Vajrayana is the syncretic incorporation of doctrines and practices from contemporary faiths of the era, particularly Saiva (Shiva) Hinduism. This is especially true for the Kalacakra tantra:

The Kalacakra, or “Wheel of Time,” was the last major product of Indian Vajrayana Buddhism. All late Vajrayana Buddhism is syncretic – it takes elements from non-Buddhist religious traditions and assimilates them to a Buddhist context. However, in the Kalacakra tantra syncretism is unusually obvious and is even self-conscious—the tantra makes little effort to disguise its borrowings from the Śaiva, Vaisnava, and Jaina traditions. The basic structure of the Kalacakra system is itself non-Buddhist: the Kalacakra uses the ancient idea of the homology of the macrocosm and the microcosm as the foundation of its soteriology. (from”Islam in the Kalachakra Tantra” by John Newman. The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. Vol 21:2 pg 313)

Tantric Buddhists were called siddhi-accomplishing masters or vidyadhara. Davidson describes the tantric cult of the siddhas within monastic Buddhism:

Accordingly, Buddhist siddhas have both continuities and discontinuities with siddhas in other, especially Saiva [Shiva], lineages. In some ways, Buddhist siddhas demonstrated the appropriation of an older sociological form—the independent sage/magician, who lived in a liminal zone on the borders between fields and forests. Their rites involved the conjunction of sexual practices and Buddhist mandala visualization with ritual accouterments made from parts of the human body, so that control may be exercised over the forces hindering the natural abilities of the siddha to manipulate the cosmos at will. . .They reinforced their reputations for personal sanctity with rumors of the magical manipulation of various flavors of demonic females (dakini, yaksi, yogini), cemetery ghouls (vetala), and other things that go bump in the night. . .

Thus Buddhist siddhas represented a new social prototype that provided regional centers and disenfranchised groups with a model of autonomous power outside the artifice of caste Hinduism. They also offered sophisticated religious approval that did not require the abandonment of regional identity, in this way different from the depersonalization that Buddhist monks experienced. Siddhas became the first line of temporal involvement with tribal and outcaste peoples, appropriated and imitated cult practices, objects, and sites, and set up preferred siddha religious activities in distant provinces and foreign lands. (p. 234)

Buddhist siddhas operated both in conjunction with but outside of the monastic system. They not only cavorted with outcastes, but often came from outcaste groups themselves. In the absence of monasteries, ordained monks and siddhas lived together in small communities. They shared religious practices, blending older monastic forms with tribal and outcaste forms of practice into what would later be institutionalized as Buddhist tantra.

In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, Dzogchen Patrul Rinpoche relates that many of the early Buddhist siddha masters of India deliberately chose a life as outcastes: “Do not misinterpret how he [master] acts. most of India’s siddhas lived as common evil-doers, beasts, outcastes, more degenerate than the lowest of the low.” (Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, as quoted in “Introduction to Buddhism” by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Nalandabodhi.)

Contemporary Buddhism in 21st century North America is largely associated with the professional class, what Jesse Maceo Vega-Frey calls “the petit bourgeoisieification of the Buddha’s teaching” or the PBG (3). My one contention with Vega-Frey’s argument is that Buddhism has always been aligned with the ruling class, especially feudal monarchy; read Buddhist history. Under late neoliberalism, the function of Buddhism has been to soothe the trauma of over-extended egos and over-stimulated minds via meditation and mindfulness. Neoliberal forms of Buddhism are designed to seal off practitioners in a tension-free, a-political bubble of ‘mindfulness’. But historically also, there have been revolutionary moments in Buddhism, such as the 8th century siddha tantra movement.

Dr. Ambedkar’s Dalit Buddhist movement is another revolutionary moment in Buddhist history. Dr. Ambedkar was himself born into the Untouchable caste, an outcaste who became an activist. He wanted to free Dalits (Untouchables) from the Hindu caste system by converting them to another religion outside the caste system, and he chose Buddhism. Because of Ambedkar’s Dalit movement, begun in 1955, there are now roughly eight million Buddhists in India today, 90% of whom were formerly Dalits or Untouchable caste.

In the 21st century, the revolutionary moment might be the emergence of an engaged Buddhism of the satyagraha variety. Satyagraha means “truth force” and involves the deliberate non-violent resistance to unjust laws and social practices.

Vaclav Havel, leader of the so-called velvet revolution in the Czech Republic, called this kind of resistance “the power of the powerless”. He advocated for the deliberate resistance to norms of peaceful compliance with violent and unjust regimes. Instead, his samizdat (4) “theatre of dissidence” called for the public performance of resistance to and violation of unjust laws. The tantric practice of defying social norms as a spiritual practice calls for just such a “theatre of dissidence” as a satyagraha movement against normalized injustice.

1. I deliberately use the spelling ‘outcaste’ to signify that many of us never made it into the class castes that we were bred to occupy. Davidson uses this spelling throughout his book, where I believe it refers to persons of low caste or outside the Hindu caste system. B. R. Ambedkar, in  “The Annihilation of Caste”, explains that “outcastes” are those who “break caste”, that is, who violate the social norms and rules that govern their caste, and by doing so, are “excommunicated” or “cast out” from the Brahamanic religion. (para. 19.6).

2. Unless otherwise stated, all quotes in this article from Ronald M. Davidson, (2002) Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement, New York City: Columbia University Press.

3. http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/the-pbg-and-the-false-promise-of-mindfulness/ To be fair, many of those who appear to be ‘pbg’ in our sanghas are actually failures and drop-outs of the bourgeoisie class system, and thus, outcastes from their own class.

4. samizdat is officially banned literature that is circulated as a means of protest and building resistance.


One thought on “Outcastes As Activists: A Tantric Approach to Engaged Buddhism

  1. Really great read, wonderful blog. May I please share this, and other articles, from time to time with my newsletter and on my social media?

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