Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Book review: Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism

Last August, in a opening shot examining the relationship between tantra and transgression I made a few references to the work of Christian K. Wedemeyer, so I thought it would be pertinent to review his most recent book – Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism : History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions (Columbia University Press, 2013). I’m reviewing the Kindle edition here, so all citations made will reflect that.

Making Sense of Tantric BuddhismChristian K. Wedemeyer’s Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism sets out to achieve two major aims – a critical intervention into the scholarly methods of accounting for Tantric Buddhism and a “constructive contribution” to its interpetration – particularly focused on the theme of transgression. This is a dense, and at times, difficult book to engage with, and some passing familiarity not only with Tantric Buddhism, but also the scholars with who’s work the author draws on – particularly Hadyn White and Roland Barthes – will be helpful here.

Part One (chapters 1-3) is devoted to a critical review of Tantric Buddhist Historiography, Wedemeyer’s aim being, to demonstrate how such narratives – to readers who are socialised into communities in which they are taken as canonical – appear as natural and unproblematic: “[in] the modern West and those educated in its regimes, such stories do not seem contrived. These narratives are part of the architecture of our understanding; their use in structuring histories of unknown cultures like that of Tantric Buddhism intuitively make sense” (loc 1727). Wedemeyer critically reviews narrations of the “origins” of Tantric Buddhism (chapter 1) and how these origin narratives account for its transgressive practices; how these “cultural habits of historiography” – become methodological ruts in the process of historical research (chapter 2); and in chapter 3, how these narratives are complicated by “how indigenous sources understand and depict the origins of their traditions”.

This section is particularly useful for anyone interested in how historical narratives both shape and determine the limits of interpretation. For example, in chapter 2, Wedemeyer examines the narratives which argue that Tantric Buddhism (and Tantric traditions in general) represent a primordial, sometimes matriarchal religion of India which was driven underground, but never quite extinguished, by the patriarchal Aryans – but later erupted – like the “black gold” in the Beverly Hillbillies as an underground (or counter-current) to Aryan Vedic religion – a narrative which has found particular favour in occult and new age explanations of the “origins” of tantra. Wedemeyer points out that there is a remarkable consistency across all iterations of this discourse – and “an utter lack of any but the most tenuous evidentiary foundation” (loc 1462). He argues that this vision of origin emerged from mid-19th century work on the universality of matriarchal religions, notably in the writings of Johann J Bachofen. He points out that such narratives are structured through oppositional, hierarchical binaries – primitive v. civilised, female vs. male, etc., which can be used to either devalue – or valorise – Tantric Buddhism. Romantic deployments of this narrative tend to use the same oppositional binaries, merely inverting them. Wedemeyer argues that these narratives products of “cultural imagination” based on a “superficial resemblance of Tantric worship with alleged matriarchal tendencies in ancient Mediterranean societies” (loc 1546).

Part 2 of Making Sense moves into matters of interpretation, returning to the question he poses at the outset – “What is one to make of a tradition whose most revered scriptures seem to counsel its devotees to violate not only its most basic moral precepts, but to violate all the most contemporaneous standards of human decency? What might all these outré statements (and presumably, behaviours) mean?” (loc 2841). In getting to grips with this key question, Wedemeyer reviews the major scholarly approaches to the problem of tantric transgression – the literalists – who tend to aver that the tantras mean exactly what they say, and the figurativists – who tend to interpret the language of the tantras in terms of symbolism and metaphor. Wedemeyer argues that both approaches have their place within interpretation, but both have their limitations too. Wedemeyer’s response is to stake a claim for a different approach – that of connotative semiotics (see this overview by Daniel Chandler). Chapter 4 examines the interpretation of the five “meats” (māṃsa) i.e. beef, dog, elephant, horse, and human flesh and the five “ambrosias” (amṛta) i.e. feces, urine, blood, semen, and marrow – as they appear in the Guhyasamāja Tantra – and how they relate to Tantric Buddhism as a lived, social practice. In Chapter 5, Wedemeyer turns to transgressive practices and how they were understood within its communities – he argues that they were only intended for for virtuousos among practitioner communities and that these practices were only engaged in for discrete periods of time. Chapter six offers an interpretation of Tantric Buddhism within a wider social context. Here, for example, Wedemeyer critically examines the division between monastic practitioner and “marginal” siddha practitioners. Again, he overturns the “received wisdom” here, arguing that siddha practices and texts emerged from within “mainstream” Buddhist communities and were initially practiced within “Buddhist monastic or quasi-monastic enclaves” (loc. 4738). He also argues that the “transgressive” tantras “were not meant to set them [practitioners] apart from the mainstream of society” (loc. 5149) pointing out that these rituals would have required an elaborate support system.

Overall, Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism is a fascinating and challenging book which overturns much of the “recieved wisdom” concerning the puported origins of Buddhist Tantra – it’s relation to transgressive practice, and how to understand and interpret such practice. It’s by no means an “easy” read for a non-specialist (I had to go off and re-aquaint myself with Barthes’ connotative semiotics) but is certainly worth the effort.

Youtube video: “Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism”: A Wednesday Lunch Dean’s Forum with Christian K. Wedemeyer (University of Chicago, 2014)


  1. Gav
    Posted July 31st 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Don’t know if you’ve read it, but if so, how does this book compare with Ronald M. Davidson’s Indian Esoteric Buddhism (a Social History of the Tantric Movement)?

    • Phil Hine
      Posted August 1st 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

      Yes, I read Ronald Davidson’s Indian Esoteric Buddhism when it first came out. It’s a wonderful book, and after reading Wedemeyer’s Making Sense I feel the need to go back to it, if only because Wedemeyer, whilst acknowledging Davidson’s ground-breaking work, is critical of many of his interpretations. Whilst Indian Esoteric Buddhism is mostly concerned with accounting for the development of Buddhist Tantra, it’s emergence and it’s relationship to social and political polities, I’d say that Making Sense is much more narrowly focused – on historiography and its effects on interpretation with respect to the framing of transgressive practices.

  2. Amy
    Posted August 2nd 2014 at 2:31 am | Permalink

    I am so glad you reviewed this! It is thick reading, yes, but I found it to be well worth it. One aspect of his work here which struck me was the notion that the origin myth that we ascribe to a particular religion constructs an essential “meaning” which shapes our interpretation even through a variety of contexts. Yes. And I can see this being a huge issue not only for scholars, but for all sorts of practitioners. Thanks for this. Oh yes, loving the practice pieces as well.