Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hidden Secrets of Tantric Sex

Is the Tantra a sex-obsessed corruption of Buddhism?

Padmavajra thinks not.

The last great phase in the historical development of Indian Buddhism was known as the Vajrayana (literally, 'The Thunderbolt Way) Its major contribution to Buddhism was a number of new and radical practices leading to Enlightenment.

The Vajrayana's aim was to bring the practitioner to Enlightenment as quickly as possible, and one of its central concerns was the liberalization and canalization of more and more of the practitioner's energy. Part of its way of effecting this was through sexual metaphor, sexual symbolism, and even through what have been called 'sexo-yogic' practices.

Because of its apparent use of sex as an aspect of spiritual practice, the Vajrayana has provoked two extreme responses in the West. In the early days of Buddhist studies, the Vajrayana was generally condemned as a corruption of the sublime ideals of Buddhism. More recent interest has tended to the other extreme. Some are attracted to the Vajrayana precisely because of its apparent sanctification of desire in general, and sexual desire in particular. In a recent exposition of the Vajrayana by a Tibetan teacher, we find the following, '...if desire for a woman arises, it must be relied upon...'. Such a presentation of the Vajrayana would seem to suggest that being a Buddhist does not involve changing ourselves. We can, apparently, keep hold of our desires as they will lead us to Enlightenment.

The truth behind the use of sexual themes in the Vajrayana is, as might be expected, far from either of the extremes mentioned. Though we are dealing with a vast and complex subject, it is possible to discern three distinct (though related) aspects of the place of sex in the Vajrayana. Firstly, there is the shock value of sexual language. For example, in the canonical texts of the Vajrayana - the Tantras - which flourished in India roughly between the 4th and 10th centuries CE, we can find sexual intercourse with the chaodali (outcaste girl) and prostitutes being recommended. At that time, contact - what to speak of sexual congress - with an outcaste, according to Hindu society (back to which Buddhism had to some extent been drawn), would have been deemed spiritually polluting. But, in making such recommendations, the Vajrayana was simply trying to shock people out of their mundane social conditioning. It was seeking to liberate the energy locked up in the convention and taboo of Hindu society.

Whether or not these recommendations were enacted is an open question. Stephan Beyer enthusiastically describes the followers of the Vajrayana thus: 'They sang of wisdom as the great Whore, for she opens herself to every man who seeks her, ...made love to the spontaneous maiden within them, and preached a world upside down, ... and were altogether quite outrageous and shocking to all good and sober citizens. It would be interesting to ponder how the Vajrayana would speak to our own age, where sexual license has become a kind of norm. If they wanted to shock people out of their conditioning today, the old followers of the Vajrayana might have to appear as a rap artist advocating the ecstacies etc.

In that passage quoted from Stephan Beyer, we read that the followers of the Vajrayana 'made love to the spontaneous maiden within them'. This brings us to the second aspect of sex in the Vajrayana, the so-called 'sexo-yogic' practices.

We have seen that the Tantras recommended sexual intercourse with the chaodali. Now, as well as aiming to decondition, this sort of recommendation would sometimes also have been referring to certain forms of yogic practice. Here, the word chaodali is not referring to a woman at all. In this context, chaodali can be translated as 'the fiery one' and, simply stated, refers to the vital energy that must be contacted and incorporated into our practice. It parallels the better known kundalini.

The practices associated with the arousal of the chaodali occur in the anuttara-yoga Tantra, the highest level of Vajrayana practice, and - traditionally - should be undertaken only after years of successful training in Hinayana, Mahayana, and lower Vajrayana disciplines. Indeed, in India and old Tibet, these practices would not have been known about, even in theory, by those not initiated into them. (This might be one of the reasons why these practices were 'hidden away in sexual language - to keep them out of the reach of those not ready to undertake them.) Sangharakshita has recalled that in his own contact with Tibetan monks, lamas, and lay people, there was no special interest shown in these teachings, and definitely no unhealthy emphasis.

There also seems to be some doubt as to whether the 'sexo-yogic' practices were intended to describe anything physical at all. Herbert Guenther, a writer normally very sure of himself, says in commenting on one of these practices: 'We move in a world which probably is neither physical nor mental, but may partake of both (or be something completely different). In some of the practices found in the Tantras and their related works we encounter elaborate visualization techniques where the practitioner is instructed to see himself as a Buddha in sexual union with a female consort, usually described as a dakini. Here the aspect of sexo-yogic practice merges with the third aspect, that of sexual symbolism.

Within the Mahayana, Enlightenment was principally seen as the insoluble union of wisdom and compassion. Mahayana artists were fond of depicting this union in paintings and images, in the form of the androgynous figure of the Bodhisattva - a beautiful sixteen-year-old: gentle, yet strong in appearance.

The Vajrayana sought to depict this union even more vividly, and so depicted the Buddha or Bodhisattva in sexual union with the dakini. We often come across such figures in Vajrayana art. The Buddha or Bodhisattva looks serene, contemplative, blissful; while the dakini - appearing like a goddess - embraces him tightly, and looks rapturously into his face. Here the male figure symbolizes Compassion, the female figure Wisdom. Sangharakshita has commented on such depictions thus: 'One must observe that though there are two figures there are not two persons: there is only one Enlightened person, one Enlightened mind, within which are united reason and emotion, wisdom and compassion.

These representations embody under the form of sexual symbolism (here of course one has nothing to do with sexuality in the ordinary sense) the ideal of Wisdom and Compassion united. Traditionally, these images are considered highly sacred, inspiring profound reverence and devotion, not in any way stimulating a sexual response. However, they have suffered abuse.

Some people go so far as to recommend that during sexual intercourse, the man should visualize himself as the Buddha: the woman should visualize herself as the dakini. Both should experience their lovemaking as an enactment of the uniting of Wisdom with Compassion. Such recommendations provide the deluded with a first class means of rationalizing away their mundane desires.

For most of us, such a practice would be a purely mental activity making no significant difference to the basic urges involved. It would be no more than a fancy way of having sex. For those experienced enough to see and feel themselves to be a Buddha at such times, it is highly unlikely that they would want to involve themselves with sex at all! Being so content, complete, and rich within themselves, they would hardly need to reach beyond themselves for their pleasures.

To conclude, within the Vajrayana, sex - as most of us understand and experience it - is not part of the path to Enlightenment at all. Sexual language within the Vajrayana is strictly metaphorical, strictly symbolic: not to be taken literally. Indeed, if taken literally, some Vajrayana writings will not lead us to Enlightenment, but will sink us more deeply in the mire of greed, hatred, and delusion.


1.Thinley Norbu, The Small Golden Key, p.24

2. Stephan Beyer, The Buddhist Experience, p. 258

3. Herbert V. Guenther, The Life' and Teaching of Naropa, pp. 161-162

4. Ven. Sangharakshita, 'Masculinity' and 'Femininity' in the Spiritual Life, p.24


1 comment:

  1. Sorry, nice try, but there are sexual practices in Vajrayana. And they aren't as prudish as the conservative right wings of Buddhism would like to make everyone believe.