Basic Buddhists, Bad Buddhists















by Adam T. Miller

A few days back, the Bulletin’s own Nathan Rein asked the hive-mind that is Facebook to fill him in on what it means to be “basic.” In the ensuing discussion, someone shared a link to a Bustle piece titled “How to Spot the Basic Bitch: A Field Guide.” In the article, brief mention is made of the polar opposite of the Basic Bitch–the Bad Bitch, for whom “life is a sport, and she is winning”–but most of the article details the characteristics of the Basic Bitch. Her clothes are safe, mainstream, and predictable; her drinks of choice are pumpkin spice lattes, Skinny Girl margaritas, and diet; her taste in music is determined by whatever is on pop radio. In short, and to be perfectly tautological, the Basic Bitch is basic.

We are left to infer most of the characteristics of the Bad Bitch. But we are assured that she is everything the Basic Bitch is not. She isn’t afraid to wear, drink, or listen to things that make her stand out from the herd. She’s free and independent. She’s self-assured. She’s powerful.

Turning now to late first millennium, early second millennium India and Tibet…

mahasiddha 3
Buddhist literature that deals with siddhas (adepts), which seems to have been written by siddhas themselves, portrays these figures as completely unrestrained by the conventions of society–be it mainstream or monastic. Siddhas are depicted as being free to eat and drink whatever, free to sleep with whomever, free to live wherever, and so on. This radical freedom is the result of special practices, and it gives them power. According to the Hevajra Tantra:

That by which the world is bound,
By that very thing it is released from bondage.
But the world is deluded and does not understand this truth,
And one who does not grasp this truth cannot attain accomplishments (siddhi).[1]

This same literature depicts Buddhists beholden to lay or monastic vows in less than flattering terms. As John Powers writes:

This attitude [i.e., the siddhas’ attitude] is contrasted with that of conventional Buddhists, who adhere to lay vows or monastic restrictions. As a result, they are bound by their inferior dharma and fail to grasp the expansive vision of the tantras. They remain ordinary and, while they make plodding progress and develop conventional moral qualities and corresponding improved life situations in future rebirths [cf. the last paragraph of the Basic Bitch article], their path is a slow and uninspired one.[2]

13 First Council at Rajagaha, at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti

13 First Council at Rajagaha, at the Nava Jetavana, Shravasti

Non-Tantric Buddhists, we’re led to believe by siddha representations, are bound by convention and rules, ordinary, slow, and uninspired. They wear what everyone else wears. They do what everyone else does. They’re basic.

Here I think it might be fruitful to bring Christian Wedemeyer’s Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism and Craig Martin’s Capitalizing Religion into the conversation. Though they both make larger points with their books, one general takeaway applicable here is that whatever freedom or power siddhas or Bad Bitches might have (or think they have) is made possible by larger norms and in some sense reinforces them. If eating shit and bedding untouchables were not widely assumed to be bad things, it would mean nothing for a siddha to engage in (or talk about engaging in) these practices. If contemporary capitalist modes of production and consumption were not in place and individuality not assumed to be a value expressible in part through purchasing, there would be no Basic Bitch for the Bad Bitch to contrast herself with. (And here it is worth noting, if only parenthetically, that the category basic likely did not emerge among those whom it purportedly denotes.)

The siddha, the Bad Bitch; the conventional Buddhist, the Basic Bitch–worlds apart, but not quite as different as one might think.

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[1] David Snellgrove, ed., The Hevajra Tantra: A Critical Study (Oxford University Press, 1959), 34; quoted in John Powers, “Buddhas, Siddhas, and Indian Masculine Ideals,” in Tantric Traditions in Transmission and Translation, ed. David B. Gray and Ryan Richard Overbey (Oxford University Press, 2016), 27.

[2] John Powers, “Buddhas, Siddhas, and Indian Masculine Ideals,” 27.

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Adam T. Miller is a PhD student in History of Religions at the University of Chicago, an online instructor for Central Methodist University, Editorial Assistant for History of Religions, and Associate Editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. Typically operating within socio-rhetorical theoretical frameworks and employing philological, discourse-analytic, and historical methods, his research interests tend to be all over the place. He plans to specialize in the history and literature of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India (going into Vajrayāna and Tibet, as well), but has written on and maintains a strong interest in such topics as Swami Vivekananda and Death Grips.

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3 Responses to Basic Buddhists, Bad Buddhists

  1. Joshua McDonough says:

    One is reminded of a basic (couldn’t help myself) logical concept in Nagarjuna’s thought and in Prajnaparamita literature in general: conceptual designations are mutually dependent. Can’t be transgressive without something to transgress.

    I had not considered antinomian behavior in this way before. Interesting post.

    • Adam T. Miller says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Joshua. The continuity between Madhyamaka, Prajnaparamita literature, and transgressive non-dualist tantras is something Wedemeyer talks about in his book from time to time, though he is more concerned with situating transgression in the Indian context more broadly. If you haven’t read the book and are interested in this particular data set, or in semiotics / historiography, you should definitely check it out. Highly readable and enjoyable.

      • Joshua McDonough says:

        I indeed own his book. Perhaps this is the incentive I need to finally crack it open.

        I appreciate the response.

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