VAJRAYANA: GOTHIC BUDDHISM?

The purpose of this page is to show that Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as Tantric Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Lamaism) is very closely related to many ideas in the Western gothic subculture. While I will focus on the use of Vajrayana Buddhism in gothic fiction and role-playing, I do not mean to exclude the possibility of real practice of Vajrayana Buddhism by those who consider themselves "goths."

Basic Worldview

Like all Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism is based on the idea that "life is suffering." In other words, a basic component of existing is the fact that the being who is existing will eventually suffer. The only way to escape this suffering is to escape from the cycle of rebirths and cease existing altogether. (Note that this escape form existing does not imply non-existence, as Buddhists believe the duality between these two concepts is transcended by the enlightened).

This fits well with the predisposition in gothic literature of focusing on suffering as an important part of who we are and how we experience the universe. Specifically, many gothic writers focus on suffering as a constant consequence of being alive.

Death Symbolism

Death, as symbolized by bones and skeletons, is used in many contexts of Tibetan Buddhism. Trumpets made from human thighbones, bone beads carved in to skulls, dancers painted to look like skeletons and skull cups made from the skulls of Buddhist teachers are just a few of the many uses of death symbolism in Vajrayana Buddhism. There are two reasons for this: constant reminders of death help practitioners remember that life is impermanent. This is to help keep them from getting caught up in petty concerns (I.E. career, social status, wealth) that mean nothing once this current incarnation is over. The other reason for the constant use of death symbolism is that, in certain tantric rituals, practitioners must offer themselves up to malevolent spirits and actually let their selfhood (their ego) be killed. This rather extreme step is considered an important sacrifice in the quest for enlightenment.

Other Symbolism

Part of Vajrayana Buddhism is the belief that ancient Buddhist masters were able to tame powerful demons, to bind them to an unbreakable oath to do good and to protect the religion and its followers. These beings, called Dharmapalas (see Tibet the RPG), have many temples and altars in Tibet. Although dharmapalas must act benevolently, they are still wrathful beings and enjoy offerings and decorations that appeal to this side of their nature. Some monks make fake meat and blood out of vegetable materials to offer to these beings. Other practitioners may leave real blood and meat as offerings. The houses of many wealthy people have a room devoted to the worship of dharmapalas. These rooms will have shrines, weapons, and stuffed animals with wrathful expressions. Most monasteries have a hall, usually underground, devoted to the worship of dharmapalas. These halls are kept constantly dark and a constant vigil of chanting and music is kept up. This chanting is of the type that dharmapalas like best: deep, foreboding ad cacophonous. The most important oracle of the most important dharmapala in Tibet, Pehar (see Tibet the RPG) has a palace which is decorated in a demonic theme. Walking inside is supposed to be like being in one of the hells. Doorknobs are the wrathful heads of demons, the walls have flayed skins painted on them, etc.

Practices

Unique to Vajrayana Buddhism is the belief that emotions can be used to counteract (and even eliminate) other emotions. Although practitioners will readily acknowledge that this is a very difficult and dangerous feat to attempt, they believe it is the fastest way to achieve enlightenment. Thus, many Vajrayana Buddhist practices are very emotionally potent and very sensual. In some advanced tantras, sexual intercourse is used (in a ritual context) to help achieve enlightenment. In other rituals, practitioners must ritually confront death. In others, practitioners confront wrathful emanations of buddhas and bodhisattvas who have terrifying forms that are a reflection of the practitioner's own deep hatred and unease. Liquor is also used by some Vajrayana sects (usually drunk from a skull-cup).

Dangerous Power

In Vajrayana Buddhism, there is no clear-cut difference between "good magic" and "bad magic." Much gothic literature also tries to see past this distinction. One of Tibet's greatest heroes is a sorcerer (someone who used magic to cause harm to others) who found no satisfaction in destroying his enemies and turned to Buddhist study. Even advanced Vajrayana Buddhist masters have access to secret ceremonies which will let them take a life. These Buddhist masters they try not to use these ceremonies except in the rare cases when it is actually a compassionate act to do so (I.E. when someone is accumulating so much bad Karma by their horrible deeds that they are better off going to the next incarnation). There is still, however, an ever-present knowledge that even these Buddhist masters can slip and start using these powers for selfish purposes. In other countries, Buddhist practitioners are thought of as harmless, while in countries where Vajrayana Buddhism is practiced, some Buddhist practitioners may actually be feared by the populous.

Vampire Analogies

Among the things which Westerners have identified as analogous with the Western concept of vampires are:

The Sri (see Tibet the RPG), invisible malevolent spirits, formed from bad karma, who devour the life force of the living. Sri correspond with Western vampire myths in that, like vampires, Sri are posited as the cause for unexplained loss of vitality.

Rakshasa (see Tibet the RPG), giant cat-people from another nearby world who can change form and like to drink human blood and devour human flesh. Rakshasa are like vampires in that they are more powerful than humans, can change shapes and prey on humans for nourishment.

In my opinion, though, these vampire analogies are poor. Within the context of vampires found in gothic fiction, the closest analogy from Tibetan myth would be that of the Düd Tormented (see Tibet the RPG). These are people who would have died, under natural circumstances, but they were kept alive by invisible, malevolent düd entities who desire to feed on their suffering. This fits closely with the theme in much gothic literature that life can be a curse as well as a gift.

Reactions to Vajrayana

Many outsiders have had reactions to Vajrayana Buddhism similar to reactions outsiders have to gothic literature and culture. At first glance, Vajrayana Buddhism seems to be made up of evil, licentious, nihilistic demon-worshippers. This misreading of Vajrayana Buddhism is easy to make if one examines only the symbols of Vajrayana Buddhism without looking in to the philosophy behind it. Death and suffering are used in Vajrayana symbolism, not to encourage death and suffering, but to help people acknowledge death and suffering and to deal with it more constructively. The fact that Buddhism practitioners hold dangerous magical power is not because this is what they hope to achieve, it is simply an acknowledgment that the world is a dangerous place and that even Buddhist masters can sometimes falter and use their skills for malevolent purposes. Again, these sad truths are brought out in to the open, people are constantly reminded of them, they may even celebrate them, but this is not an endorsement of these truths but an attempt to deal with them constructively. When Vajrayana Buddhists say that "life is suffering" it is not to make people suffer more, but to help them get started on the path towards suffering less, even if it means going through a painful period of admitting the suffering which is currently in their lives.

Like much in the gothic subculture, Vajrayana Buddhism tries to be as cognizant and open as possible about the dark side of life and the universe. They do not try to mask or ignore the things which make life dangerous and full of suffering, but instead they try to explore those elements as deeply as possible.

For more information on incorporating Vajrayana Buddhism in to fiction or role-playing, see Tibet the Role Playing Game by Vajra Enterprises.


If you liked this, you might like these other pages on this site:

Fates Worse Than Death
The RPG of suspense, horror and hope in 2080 on the streets of Manhattan.

Vajra Enterprises Main Page
See all the good stuff on this site.

Tibet vs. US
A tabular comparison of 1950's Tibetan culture to modern American culture.