When we hear of the term Tantra in the west, we tend to conjure ideas of weekend workshops, Pujas, or sensual ‘Tantric massage.’ But eventually we may consider Tantra’s origins, and wonder how any of this relates to thousands of years of eastern traditional wisdom and practice recorded in the Vedas, or the rich symbolism found within their pantheon of Gods.
In order to help us clearly understand where sexuality communes with spiritual practice, let’s take a journey through our minds eye to the Tantric Temples of Khajuraho in the heart of India, Madhya Pradesh, famous for the erotic sculptures that circumscribe their exterior walls.
Dry Indian air brushes our faces in this dusty red sandstone environment and our step slows as we find ourselves standing before high ancient temple walls, and our gaze is magnetized to hundreds of beautifully intricate, sandstone carvings; shapely, bejeweled women dance, apply makeup, and strap and unstrap their girdles. Couples, groups and even animals play in an endless array of erotic positions and orgiastic enactments. One pair makes love while two maidens besides them press palms to their mouths in embarrassment. A woman strides atop her lover, who simultaneously stimulates the yonis of two women… one on each side of him. There’s even a man copulating with a horse amongst a lively orgiastic scene.
Our attention passes slowly from one scenario to the next. Through some observations we remain neutral, while others particularly catch our attention. Some depictions might delight, while others seem gross, shameful or absurd. We’re attracted or repulsed, stimulated or even turned on, or we may even feel embarrassed and turn our eyes away in discomfort.
The point of all of these carvings is to take note where we may experience any sensation, response or reaction; these are the signposts of our fears, judgments and desires. And it is within these places where we discover our personal inner work that remains to be faced, approached and ultimately brought to completion before we are prepared in mind, body and spirit to enter the inner Temple and participate in Tantra’s deeper meditative practices.
While Eastern devotees make their way around the outer temple and focus in contemplative meditation upon each scenario as their preparatory practice, neo-tantra is the closest thing to a western counterpart.
And because we are a material culture, what eastern symbols, methodologies and teachings reach us tend to be translated into the literal and physical. This is easily observed in average western yoga class, where yoga is understood as a practice consisting of physical postures, rather than postures being an aspect of the practice of yoga, if part of the practice at all. Tantra is treated much the same from the context of sex.
However, there is another reason that neo-tantra has been connected not only with the tantric name, but for it’s rather exaggerated focus upon sex; the methodologies introduced through Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh…otherwise known as Master Osho.
Osho was well aware of the necessity to introduce a direct and free approach to facing sexual desire in the west due to our Christian indoctrinations that correlate sex with sin. He knew that western psychology around sex was often deeply repressed; hidden within the subconscious and held taught through guilt and shame, creating psychological entrapments that result in distorted and destructive social manifestations. Accordingly, Osho sent out several western Sannyasin envoys to teach the ideologies and methods that have been incorporated into what is now Tantra of the west.
Osho was indeed Tantric and certainly understood that the methodologies he purported did not encompass the deepest essence of Tantra. He also knew that Tantra’s higher practices could not be comprehended nor reached by minds and bodies still bound by desire.
Sex is the seed
Love is the flower
Compassion is the fragrance
Rajneesh’s literal and direct approach has indeed had its effects, for the notion of sex as sin has indeed been transforming throughout the western paradigm… yet we still have a long way to go.
While Neo Tantra can be quite a fast and effective methodology through its power of direct embodied experience, offering both means and permission to uncover and face some of our previously withheld or repressed desires, it can, and often does, tie itself into quite a bind in its tendency to believe its promotion of ego gratification, pleasure seeking and sexualized identifications necessarily equates to freedom and higher consciousness. It doesn’t. And while great sex or manifestation of romantic partner/s may be great side effects of Tantric practice, their focus as a goal is in truth running in the opposite direction.
In Tantra, the goal is not about relationship counseling, orgasmic sex or manifesting your life’s dreams, desires or ambitions. Tantra is not a path of self-improvement, self-development or any form of self-aggrandizement. Rather, its means are often a process of negation and death. While Tantra recognizes the potential necessity of approaching our desires, ideals and attachments, the objective is ultimately to move past them. And this is as true for any sexual or relational structure as a permanent and fixed identity as it is for any idealized lifestyle of purity or holiness. From the liberated state, we are no longer bound to social image or identities, nor are we run by our normalized fears, desires, insecurities, anxieties, drives and power plays.
And this is precisely why authenticity in Tantra is basically nonexistent in the west. For we are a society that literally runs the entirety of our lives around our symbolic ideals, identifications and desires…and there’s nothing wrong with that from the standpoint of societal norms. It’s the culture we live in and not everyone is archetypally built to enter the psychological battlefield and rip these structures apart. In fact, I strongly recommend against it.
Tantrikas are those for whom instant gratification just isn’t fast enough ~ Rahasya
To wrap this all together, the potential benefits and pitfalls of tantra in the west should by now be clear. Facing one’s sexual desires and taboos is metaphorical to the journey along the outside of the Temple walls; imperative steps along the path that cannot be skipped nor conceptually overridden. At the same time, we must be aware of the inevitable dangers when utilizing this direct and literal approach. In grasping at the shadow of repression while denying one’s own deepest pain, wounds and fears, the western practitioner easily becomes bound within endless cycles of desire and obsession.
Since I wrote my autobiography No Mud, No Lotus years ago that spoke into the neo-tantra issue quite vulnerably through my own experience, I have since noticed quite a shift occurring. More practitioners are becoming honest about their work, calling it sexual Shamanism, sacred sex, sacred prostitution and the like.
And we need to recognize that the continuation of such work is essential for our social evolution, and its practitioners necessitate honor, safety and respect. The more we are willing to lean towards our own fears and judgments around such work, the less its practitioners will feel the need to hide behind spiritualized terms or aggrandize what they offer, and the battles that continue to play out between the eastern and western schools can be seen for what they are and ultimately come to closure.
Maya offers Sessions on the Tantric Path. See her Sessions Page.