Sacred Sexuality and Tantra
Anybody who has taken a sex education class in school knows how very little science—and a bit of pop psychology—can tell us about sex. That is because the modern secular world, with its purely materialistic and psychological approach, has stripped the sacred from human sexuality. But even sensitive young people know that on a fundamental level sexuality is a deep spiritual matter.
Of course we can learn much from evolutionary biology and behavioral psychology regarding sex and gender; however, human sexuality, as opposed to mere sex, is a mysterious realm that once belonged to the religious realm. As Morpheaus tells Neo the Matrix: “I can’t tell you what The Matrix is, you have to experience it for yourself” (The Matrix being an obvious symbol of female genitalia). But let’s not reduce sexuality to scientism and endless psychologizing.
The point is: no scientist, psychologist, Kama Sutra manual, porn video, neo-tantric sex guru can tell you what human sexuality is: you will have to experience it for yourself. And then after experiencing it you may know even less about it. And all that is all very good, because human sexuality is fundamentally a mystery.
The science of sex, or ‘how’ sex works can be described in biological terms, is as easy as observing birds and bees, but the sacred dimension of sexuality is something else altogether. That is to say, human sexuality is more than mere biology, which is why human beings, unlike animals, do this strange ritual called ‘making love’, which is a spiritual, poetic, artistic—and potentially even a religious—act. But also we should say that while human sexualiy is a creative act it is also a profoundly dangerous game, revealing the sublime and the ridiculous, the deep and the demonic, all the ‘hidden parts’ of our nature.
Today we live in a world that is obsessed with sex but strips it of its sacred dimension (no pun intended). The decadent yet oddly puritan west remains strangely complicated and confused with regards to sex: on the one hand completely obsessed with sexual imagery and forms of pornography and yet on the other still quite puritan and moralistic about it. Like the victorian age when pornography was rampant, we are still weirdly repressed about sex on a fundamental level, despite a seeming licentiousness.
Sex needs to be understood and its energy transmuted rather than demonized; we need to go beyond both hedonism and repression. Of course, religion used to regulate sexuality through various means such as marriage, but today people look at sex in a all-too-casual manner. Sacred sexuality requires a real discipline and art. It is a lot more than just fucking.
Porn gives us a theater of sex without intimacy; psychology promises a healthy sex life through endless therapy. Sexuality has become a commercial transaction, stripped of all resonance. But this is not limited to actual porn or prostitution (which was also a sacred vocation once) but the whole of society.
Today the pornification of society is total. Social media is pornified. Shopping is pornified. Fast food is food porn. We are titillated and stimulated by phantom desires constantly but somehow full of ennui, and this lack of meaning is good business for the therapy industry.
What is missing is again the sacred. The controversial spiritual madman and Guru Osho told us that sex should be elaborate and conscious ritual, a profound meditation on intimacy and love. His sexual therapies, which he called Neo-Tantra, were quite popular in the 70’s, when orgies and so-called free love experiments were rampant.
But Osho’s sexual and communal experiments failed dramatically in America. Perhaps the Osho cult made it quite clear (See the Netflix series: Wild, Wild Country) that sex unleashes both our creative genius but also our darkest madness. Osho pioneered therapies which have been useful to many people in transcending their sexual uptightness and energetic/emotional blocks, but the Osho cult illustrated the danger of Tantra when implicated on a large scale. We need a mature sacred sexuality which is linked to genuine spirituality.
Sutra and Tantra
The Buddhist split between sutra and tantra may help think about a right relationship to sexuality. The sutric path is about self discipline and renunciation, and giving up dangerous and deluding passions. Most religion is sutric in this sense: about turning the human ape into a civilized and virtuous human being. This means creating a container for the fire of sexuality and keeping this fire from getting out of control. But when we have a firm basis in sutric virtue and ethics, the tantric adept becomes ready to work with the dangerous and blissful energies of passion and desire—and to have a positive attitude towards creative eroticism and loveplay. Tantra is an adult form of spirituality, in other words—not a game for spiritual dilletants or ‘sneaky fuckers’ in search of easy sex.
Tantra is profoundly alchemic in nature. It literally means the practice of ‘weaving together’ or ‘methods’. And sexual practice is only one of thousands of tantric practices that grew out of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The tantric process, like alchemy, turns metaphorical lead into gold, or base desires into exalted states. Sexuality is often the central metaphor of tantra because lovemaking is where most humans get the closest to divine ecstasy; however we must remind people that Tantra cannot be reduced to sexual techniques for semen retention, but is about radical spiritual transformation.
Alchemy, tantra, and sacred sexuality are all about the transformation and the symbolic union of the male and female principles. The female principle is usually described as the lunar, receptive, generative, earthly, watery, dynamic nature; the male principle is said to be solar, penetrative, transcendental, rational, fiery etc. (Of course, the symbolic meaning of male and female differs in different cultures: the Egyptians for example associated women with the sun and men with the moon, so symbolic systems differ. Symbols are not scientific truths, they are descriptions of patterns and are not so fixed or absolute.) In my own spiritual tradition, Vajrayana Buddhism, one of the most iconic and controversial symbols we use is called the yab-yung. The yab-yung shows the male and female wisdom deity in sexual union, usually naked but adorned by all kinds of symbolic jewelry, sensual objects, and even skull cups and weapons. The tantric deity is portrayed sitting up straight in lotus position, while he straddles and penetrates the tantric goddess. He is still and regal and she is dynamic and flowing; he is unchanging and penetrating; she expresses a wild ecstasy. On a higher level this represents an ultimate spiritual state of non-duality where the man and women are ‘not one and not two’. The imagery is complex but is often about transforming the profane into the sacred.
In many of the more conservative Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, images of the yab-yung are illegal and considered to be a decadent corruption of Sutric Buddhism, which is all about the renunciation of desire. However, in the Tantric traditions, the adept doesn’t avoid passion: on the contrary, desire and passion represent the potential for real transcendence, for real union, for full-on contact with the divine. Tantra makes use of ordinary human sexuality to give access to non-ordinary transcendence, or mahakukka, which means great bliss and joy, which is something beyond ordinary attachment to peaks of pleasure.
There is a spiritual science to the tantric path, but there is also a philosophical and artistic basis as well. In other words, Tantra is a holistic path, which encompassess all kinds of so-called ‘higher spirituality’ and much so-called ‘lower passions’. In tantra we can utilize, in an ecological, restorative manner, all the passions and vicissitudes of human expression, in service of that ultimate union with the divine.
The Male and Female Principle
In Buddhist tantric phenomenology and mythopoetics there are two channels within a human being: the lunar and the solar. The solar channel represents the masculine and the lunar the feminine. Without going into details of this complex esoteric system, the aim is the generation of love/bliss and devotion as the remedy to human bondage and suffering. When the sun and the moon, the masculine and the feminine, meet in the heart, there is the bliss of divine union. If we are honest with ourselves, this is what we search for more than anything in the world, in our deepest heart.
In western alchemy there are similar but less explicit sexual metaphors. To create gold sulphur rises up to heat the base metal lead, and mercury descends to cool it and give it form. Sulphur can also be translated as ‘the breath of God’ and was associated with the male principle; mercury was a cooling and corrosive element associated with the female principle and the moon. Mercury and sulphur, if properly conjoined, created a divine substance like gold. The erotic metaphor is obvious. Sexual intimacy is where most people get the closest creating this metaphoric gold.
The art of tantra is to unite the male and the female essences, without dispelling or exhausting their power—as usually happens with ordinary ejaculation. A much deeper pleasure can be experienced than the simple orgasm this way. Expanded and mystical pleasure can be discovered in sexual union—but also in pure imagination, or in exploring nature and art. Ultimately, sexual energy doesn’t have to be exhausting and addictive, but can be profoundly healing and expansive, and even lead to exalted mystical states.
Tantra, it should be repeated, is very dangerous however. States of mystical ecstasy are not an end in themselves—and can even lead to madness or what the Buddhists call Rudra (which means something like demonic egomania). That is why wholesome tantra—as opposed to California new age tantra—has always been done within a spiritual context of education and practice.
Today some basic techniques of sexual tantra are no longer secret, but to be practiced properly they require skilled compassionate teachers, otherwise they are either futile or dangerous. Tantra needs to be held within a sacred context. Sacred sexuality can never be bought or sold on the marketplace. That is because it is about the most intimate and the most real.
Note: Much of the material on Tantra has been ransacked from the great work of the Tantric Buddhist master Traktung Khepa and whatever is true here undoubtedly comes from his influence and whatever is wrong comes from my own ‘missing of the mark’. Also my good friend and the most awesome philosopher Alexander Bard made the distinction between sex and sexuality and has helped me think about these things immesely.