“Buddhism for vampires? That’s silly. Buddhism and vampires don’t have anything to do with each other—do they?”
Surprisingly, vampires have played a significant role in Buddhism, in Asia, for centuries. They are not a Western invention.
And, contemporary vampire fiction—“preternatural romance”—provides tools for presenting aspects of Buddhism that are otherwise difficult to communicate.
Vampires in Buddhist history
There is extensive vampire lore within traditional Buddhism. I have summarized this in “The Tibetan Book of the Undead.” Apart from its intrinsic interest, this history makes it clear that one cannot dismiss “Buddhism for vampires” as inherently bogus. According to mainstream tradition, vampires have practiced Buddhism, and some have even attained Buddhahood. No one can say this is an illegitimate topic, or some kind of Western commercial distortion. One could combine Buddhism and vampires in a cheap gimmick—but I believe it is possible to explain Buddhism accurately in the language of the undead. In fact, I believe some aspects of Buddhism are best explained that way.
Vampires, ambiguity, and paradox
Buddhism, at root, is a method for facing the paradoxes of life and death with curiosity, appreciation, generosity, and joy. Its starting point is the experience of ambiguity. The natural tendency is to polarize: to say “this is this and that is that; I love this and hate that.” But experience is unavoidably undefinable. Reality refuses to fit into categories; it is always in flux. When “this” inexplicably turns into “that,” and you love or hate the “wrong” thing: that is paradox. Rejecting ambiguity is, according to Buddhism, the primordial error, and source of all unhappiness. Paradox is resolved through non-duality: allowing the horns of a dilemma to co-exist.
What has this to do with vampires? Consider the basic paradox of the undead. To paraphrase the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, they are not alive, nor dead, nor both, nor neither. The undead are, as contemporary Buddhist philosopher Stephen T. Asma puts it, “liminal beings.” “Liminal” means “on the threshold”; a defining feature of monsters is that they are neither one thing nor another. This is just the fundamental Buddhist paradox of emptiness and form, reflected in a pool of blood.
In Buddhist tradition, and in contemporary fiction, the paradox of undeath extends into a network of metaphors for ambiguities that are otherwise difficult to talk about. These aspects of existence must be approached with sensitivity and indirection: both because they can raise violent emotions, and due to the subtlety of their resolutions.
This discussion is not for the faint-hearted. It is for those willing to walk the razor edge of life and death, monstrosity and nobility, horror and beauty, disgust and delight, romance and madness, and the eternal moment where all these converge, in non-duality. These are main themes of Buddhist Tantra—and of vampire fiction.
The Vetali’s Gift
A young man, devastated by the gruesome deaths of everyone he loves, desperate for answers to life and death, sets out on a quest. He is diverted from his journey when he meets a woman who turns his reality inside-out. Terrifying, compelling, and incomprehensible, she teaches him far more about life, love, and death than he bargained for.
The tale is set in northern India, 1300 years ago—the time and place of the birth of Buddhist Tantra. Tantric Buddhist lore is woven all through the story. This is a Buddhism not of serene monks, but of zombies and demons, sorcerers and witches. It is a Buddhism of violence, horror, and erotic love. It is a Buddhism that may seem unrecognizable—but that echoes ancient texts, and may in some ways be especially relevant for our own time.
Genesis of this site
Buddhism for Vampires began as a joke, over on my Approaching Aro site. I was writing about the hijacking of Buddhism by New Age space cadets, psychotherapists, politically-correct self-righteous bigots, and “nice” people who fear the real world and want to play make-believe instead.
I was inspired by Brad Warner. He presents orthodox Zen Buddhism in the language of punk rock. That makes it accessible to a new audience: people who hate holiness, moral hypocrisy, and healing crystals. Of course, there are many people who don’t like either crystals or punk rock. Buddhism needs to be presented in as many ways as possible, to reach as many people as possible.
I suggested “Buddhism for vampires” as another possible presentation. Vampires are wildly popular now, and vampire fans probably don’t yet overlap much with Buddhists. I wasn’t really serious. But the more I thought about it, the more connections I made between the undead and aspects of Buddhism I find important, but that are minimized in the modern “nice” presentation. Then when I did some research, I was surprised by the extensive connections in traditional Buddhist scripture and folklore too.
Beyond “Buddhism for Vampires”
I hope that if you find what you read here interesting, you will want to learn more. I try to link any unfamiliar concepts to pages that explain them. If anything is unclear, please leave a question in a comment.
At the same time I am writing this site, I am presenting the same themes, quite differently, over at meaningness.com. That site looks at various “stances” everyone takes in relationship to ambiguities of meaning. The presentation there is in terms of mainstream Western thought, not Buddhism, and is for a general audience. You might like that presentation better, or this one—or you may find them strangely complementary.
If you prefer your Buddhism without vampires, you might like to look at Approaching Aro. It is a personal introduction to contemporary Tibetan Buddhism, in the non-monastic style I practice.
Updates and sharing
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My name is David Chapman. I have a sort of brief biography over on Approaching Aro.
I am a student in the Aro lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. I am influenced by what I have learned from that tradition. If you learn anything valuable here, my teachers are to thank. However, what I write may often differ from the Aro tradition, and should not be taken as representing it. Here I am presenting a mixture of early Buddhist history and frank fantasy. Also, my understanding of Buddhism is imperfect.
I have no relevant qualifications to write this site. People sometimes get all bent out of shape about Buddhist teaching credentials. To avoid misunderstanding: I have none. Whatever I say about Buddhism may be wrong; if it matters, you should check it with someone who knows what they are talking about.
As it happens, I also have no credentials when it comes to vampires. I don’t like scary movies, and I haven't really read much vampire fiction.
Given that, how I came to be writing a Buddhist vampire romance is one of those inexplicable confluences. Nevertheless, I find the intersection of Buddhism and vampires emotionally gripping and intellectually fascinating. I hope you will too.