Practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism have a unique and, to some, shocking approach to the experience of desire, whether it be for sex, money, power—or even desire itself. No one explains this approach better than Miranda Shaw, Ph.D., author of the award-winning book Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism (Princeton University Press, 1995). Shaw focuses her research on gender, sexuality, goddess worship and sacred dance in Buddhism. Her latest book, Buddhist Goddesses of India (Princeton University Press), was released in the fall of 2006. Updating a previous conversation, we asked Miranda Shaw to explain the history and basic philosophy of Tantra.
Inquiring Mind: When people hear the word Tantra, many immediately think of exotic sexual practices. But as you explain in your books, Tantra concerns itself with all of life.
Miranda Shaw: The word Tantra comes from the verbal stem tan, meaning “to weave.” Tantra is a spiritual path that weaves, or integrates, every aspect of life, including all daily activities, intimacy and passion, into the path to enlightenment. According to Tantra, there is one basic energy that courses through the universe and through our bodies. Thus, embodiment is understood as a dynamic, permeable mind-body continuum without fixed boundaries, the site of energies—inner winds and flames, meltings and flowings—that can bring about dramatic transformations on the path to enlightenment.
The Tantric teachings originated in India and the Himalayas in the seventh through twelfth centuries C.E. They represent the pinnacle of a long path of discipline that begins with the basic Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, nonself, impermanence and karma. It progresses through the bodhisattva path—compassionate motivation, altruistic activity and the Mahayana philosophy of emptiness—and culminates in the Tantric teachings.
IM: How does Tantra understand the energy of desire?
MS: In Tantra desire is honored. Of course, the Tantric practitioner recognizes that there are negative expressions of desire, motivated by ego and selfishness—expressions that can lead to harm and suffering. But desire is not intrinsically bad or an impediment to spiritual realization. Tantra sees desire as an expression of the blissful relatedness that is the matrix of all existence. Desire is what calls different aspects of reality into relationship with one another. It’s a movement toward the world and other beings, and as such is a positive expression of interconnection.
IM: Of course, when you work with the energy of desire you are playing with the proverbial fire. It is probably very easy to delude yourself and twist the practices to feed selfish hungers.
MS: Yes, there are many possible ways to fall off of the Tantric path. That is why Tantra begins only after lengthy practices of purification. What Tantra adds to the mix of Buddhist practice is the ability to dissolve any emotion as it arises by seeing it as intrinsically empty. Tantra sees all the world as empty, as a pure, playful, illusory manifestation.
IM: What takes place in a Tantric sexual relationship?
MS: A Tantric relationship is a partnership that two people enter, voluntarily and consciously, as part of their path to enlightenment in this lifetime. People who enter into such a relationship will already have prepared for this path by learning mindfulness meditation practices, basic Buddhist teachings, and also a number of advanced philosophical teachings. They both agree that this relationship will be integral to their spiritual practice and is not set up to gratify the ego of either person involved. This is one of the overarching principles of the relationship.
IM: So the relationship is explicitly not for sensual pleasure?
MS: Sensual pleasure is a goal of secular life and ordinary relationships. In a Tantric partnership, the intimacy and bliss of the physical union will be channeled toward yogic and meditative ends. The significant difference between Tantra and other Buddhist paths is that Tantra is a fully embodied path. That means that the sensuality, knowledge and power of the body are interwoven into the path. They are not avoided. They are, in fact, cultivated and then channeled in very specific ways.
IM: So motivation is the key.
MS: The motivation is diametrically opposed to what normally propels people into personal relationships. The motivation is not security, and it is not emotional fulfillment of the ordinary kind. The motivation is to gain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, and these practitioners will use every aspect of their embodied being to attain that goal.
IM: In the Theravada tradition, the way to do extreme practice is to close yourself off from all conventional sense pleasures. You go to a monastery where you don’t listen to music, don’t smell perfumes, don’t eat rich foods. You don’t look at the opposite sex or sleep under the same roof with a woman, if you are a monk, or with a man, if you are a nun. With Tantra, instead of cutting yourself off from all of this, you enter right into the middle of it and work with it.
MS: But in Tantra there are also periods of seclusion or retreat situations where the companions go together to a cave or retreat house and practice very intensively for many hours a day without interruption. But the energies that they cultivate then have to be integrated back into daily life.
IM: What happens on retreat? Are the partners engaged in coitus, working with these sexual energies for many hours a day?
MS: Practice with a consort is not synonymous with physical union. I prefer to use the word intimacy rather than sexuality, because sex is not the essence of the practice. That’s our impoverished Western view of what intimacy entails. There are many other practices that Tantric partners do together. One of these practices is gazing: long sessions where the partners cultivate pure vision by gaining the ability to see one another as divine, as embodied manifestations of buddhahood, and as enlightened in essence. There are other exercises where they simply touch each other’s fingertips or touch the palms of their hands, or they eat and feast together as a practice of cultivating and channeling their bliss.
IM: You have said that during their intimacy, the two partners make a deep imprint on one another’s karma.
MS: By combining their energies and then channeling that energy through their bodies into the subtle yogic anatomy, they are absorbing the quality of their partner’s consciousness and, in fact, absorbing their partner’s karma. Together they generate the energy that enables them to blast through some of the knots created by that karma. They are sharing karma because they are then both working with the same set of pooled karma. In ordinary relationships, you are also creating and sharing karma together. But it’s like the difference between swimming in the ocean, in the case of an ordinary relationship, and injecting saltwater into your veins, in the case of a Tantric relationship. A very intimate communion takes place in a Tantric partnership. That is why the choice of a Tantric partner is such a delicate process.
IM: It is widely rumored that in the name of Tantra some Buddhist teachers, especially in the West, have engaged in sexual relationships that have been harmful to students, particularly women students. Could you talk about that?
MS: In the West, we have gathered that Tantra involves sexuality, so when we hear about the sexual activities of a Buddhist teacher, we automatically think that maybe it’s Tantra. Some teachers have hidden behind that label, and they have been able to hide behind it because we Westerners don’t know what Tantra means. But these liaisons, at least the ones that I have known about, violate basic Mahayana Buddhist principles of compassionate motivation and selfless, benevolent activity. It is a gross violation of bodhisattva motivation to express one’s sexuality in a way that harms another person psychologically or physically—and that includes any kind of coercive relationship, or any relationship in which there is a disparity in the emotional strength of the so-called “partners.” Moreover, such a thing would be unthinkable in the Tantric context of a fully conscious, voluntary and mutually enlightening relationship.
I’ll give an example from my own experience of how such an abusive teacher might operate. I was once approached by a lama whom I believed to be a monk. I didn’t know him well enough to have occasion to inquire as to which vows he had taken. After a very short acquaintance, he abruptly invited me to have sexual relations with him. He claimed that to do so would be of spiritual benefit to me. He was, in effect, attempting to sexually abuse me.
There was no relationship between us, so I was stunned by the unexpectedness of the approach. I was also astonished at the smoothness of his obviously well-rehearsed lines. He said, “I think it would be good for your meditation. I feel we have a karmic connection that should be expressed in this way.” I was very taken aback: “I thought you were a monk.” He said, “Oh no, no. I just wear these robes to please my mother and to enhance my teaching.” That was a lot to assimilate since he wears the full monastic regalia. Then I asked, “What do you mean by saying that it would help my meditation?” He said, “It will help you to relax.” I said, “I never heard that meditation was relaxation. My lama never taught me that the essence of meditation is to relax.” He said, “In general it will just help you.” And I asked, “In that case, why doesn’t anyone who has sexual relations become enlightened? Why isn’t everyone enlightened?”
I decided to try to find out if, contrary to all appearances, he was a genuine Tantric practitioner. I asked, “What Tantric texts have you studied? What Tantric methods were you proposing to employ?” He said, “What texts?” I replied, “Well, for example, the Cakrasamvara Tantra, is that what you’ve studied? Is that what you practice?” He said, “Oh no, I haven’t done any of that practice. I’m not talking about Tantra. I’m not qualified to do Tantra.” He immediately backed down, his bravado just evaporated, and he slunk off.
After my encounter with this practiced predator, I found out that he had left a body count of ruined lives. I feel it is important that we become knowledgeable about Tantra in part so that we have some handle with which to evaluate the behavior of such teachers.
IM: Is there a practice for those not totally committed to this path, perhaps a “beginner’s Tantra,” teachings that are relevant for ordinary practitioners in their intimate relationships?
MS: First of all, I would say that anyone can do this practice, if the primary understanding is that your relationship is a sacred bond and exists for the purpose of the liberation of both partners. Keep in the foreground the fact that you are both spiritual seekers.
You could also begin to view your partner as divine. See the purity and Buddha-essence of this other being, and make those qualities the conscious focus of your interaction. Behave toward your partner as you would toward a deity, literally. Make offerings. Treat your partner as the divine.
At the same time, you have to remember that the bliss and completion that you seek is not to be found in another person. In other words, you aren’t placing the responsibility for satisfaction in the hands of your partner. What you are working on is your own capacity to experience the inherent blissfulness of reality.
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