Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tantric Sex and "Spirituality"

If you cruise the Internet, you can find thousands of blogs and websites devoted to the principles of various Californianized Eastern religions, holding forth on this or that type of “spirituality.”  Everything from a kind of generalized Marin County mysticism-lite to blatant quackery like reflexology, magic crystals, and pyramid power is being promoted as part a spiritual journey that will unblock your chakras, enlighten your mind, empower your soul, fill your wallet, and heal your body of all its ills.

Unfortunately, Tantric sex has been nearly buried under this pile of homogenized spiritual goo.  The overwhelming majority of blogs, books, websites, teachers, and workshops that claim to teach “Tantra” teach it as part of an explicitly and dogmatically religious curriculum.  Tantric sex is, they unanimously proclaim, only a tiny part of “true Tantric spirituality.”

Here’s a fairly mild example of a diatribe against non-religious Tantric sex, by Robert Allen, a self-proclaimed teacher of Tantra, spirituality, and “the men’s movement”:
Neo-tantra, often referred to as sacred sexuality, is not tantra.
Tantric practice includes rubbing yourself with ashes of cow dung, baptism by ensanguination, and f*cking on dead bodies. That’s tantra. It’s not all about sex. It’s not f*cking everyone you meet.
Tantra is a religion. Tantra uses mantra, magical symbols, energy work and visualization rituals to aid the practitioner in blending with the divine within and without.
Neo-tantra picks and chooses a bit, which is fine, but completes itself in sex, not liberation.
Tantra is liberation theology, a mystic entwining of the poles with the human body. Tantra is the vast embrace of Shakti and Shiva, the work the ritual, the bliss the reward.
Neo-tantra is a natural ideal. The sensual focus on your partner, the slowing of the need for climax, and learning the courses and curves of each other’s bodies is a beautiful experience. This embrace of the sacred teaches us respect and love for our bodies and spirit. But it’s not tantra.
At least Allen recognizes the joy and beauty of Tantric sex.  There are a hundred other diatribes I could have chosen that use much more hostile language to condemn the non-religious use of Tantric techniques.  

But what is interesting is that these people are all over the map on what they try to describe as the religious side of Tantra.  They all insist that true Tantra is something mystical, spiritual, and religious, and that whatever it is is somehow very complicated, requiring years of study and great devotion to your personal guru, but they can’t agree on what it is!  Every guru has a different formula for enlightenment.

Partly this is for marketing reasons, creating product differentiation by insisting that your snake oil is the only one that works.  But some of this disagreement is legitimate and exists for historical reasons.  There are Tantric traditions within nearly all of the many, many branches of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, and the other religions that emerged in Asia and South Asia.  Teachers from each of these different Tantric traditions attempt to explain what happens during Tantric sex in terms of their own religious beliefs, with the result that their definitions of "true Tantra" disagree with each other at almost every point.

Most Westerners have only a vague general impression about Eastern religions and have little appreciation for how diverse these religions actually are.  For example, a Westerner could be forgiven for thinking, as many do, that Buddhism is a single religion headed by the Dalai Lama, in much the way that Catholicism is a religion headed by the Pope.  But the Dalai Lama is no more the leader of all Buddhists than the Pope is the leader of all Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  In fact, much less so.

The Dalai Lama is actually a "high lama" in one of the many schools within Vajrayāna, which is itself a very small branch of Buddhism, representing only 6% of all Buddhists worldwide.  And the gulf in beliefs and practices between Vajrayāna and the other branches of Buddhism (especially Theravāda, the oldest branch of Buddhism, with about three eighths of all Buddhists) is huge.  Vajrayāna is at least as different from Theravāda as Islam is from Methodism.  Calling them both "Buddhism" is a stretch.

Then there are all the bewilderingly different religious traditions, branches, sub-branches, sects, and cults within what we in the West call "the religion” of Hinduism, and most of them have their own Tantric traditions.  When Robert Allen described Tantra as “rubbing yourself with ashes of cow dung, baptism by ensanguination, and f*cking on dead bodies,” he was referring to one extreme Hindu cult that existed thousands of years ago.  That may be his standard for true Tantra, but it would be unhesitatingly rejected by every existing variety of Hinduism with a Tantric tradition.

The simple fact is that the only thing constant about what we call Tantra is a set of sexual techniques that work spectacularly well.  Tantric sex, done lovingly and well, creates intense physical pleasure and profound psychological effects that are hard to explain without a fairly deep knowledge of neuroscience and biochemistry.  To anyone who experienced them for the first time long ago, without some sense of how consciousness and sensation are created and interpreted by the brain and body, they must have seemed like overwhelming proof of a supernatural reality.

Every Asian religion has had to cope with members who experimented with Tantric sex and experienced these remarkable effects.  Each of these religions, in turn, tried to incorporate these seemingly magical phenomena and to explain their effects in its own way, using its own language and theological beliefs.  Over time, as those religions splintered and evolved, so did their explanations of Tantra and why it worked.

However, one thing didn’t change:  the basic outlines of the Tantric sexual experience itself.  That’s because it works.  You can come up with a thousand different spiritual explanations for it, and it doesn’t matter.  It still works.  But if you stop doing Tantric sex and do something else because your religion says you should do it differently, it stops working.  Whenever theological speculation and religious schism try to pull Tantric sex too far away from reality, reality pulls it back.

So my question to all the spiritual gurus out there who condemn “neo-tantra” is this:  if one part of a tradition stays more or less constant for more than two thousand years, and the other part drifts and fragments into hundreds of contradictory versions, which part of it is “true”?  Which part is “real”?

Because the reality is that there’s nothing “neo” about Tantric sex.  Like meditation, Tantric sex is based on a profound discovery about how we can manipulate our own minds and bodies with certain, non-obvious rituals that have some pretty amazing effects.  It has been the attempts to explain the effects of Tantric sex in religious, mystical, spiritual, and supernatural terms that have splintered and drifted and changed with theological fashion.

True Tantra is Tantric sex.  Everything else is spiritual cruft that has been layered onto it for more than two thousand years by those who have tried to claim and control and explain the seemingly magical effects of Tantra for their own purposes.  Anyone who tells you something different is trying to use great sex as bait to recruit you into their own cult or religion.

And that's important, because many, many normal, skeptical, hardheaded people would really benefit from learning Tantra, but have no interest in joining a cult or adopting a new religion.


  1. This is the brilliant, thoughtful and intelligent explanation of Tantra I've been looking for. I can't thank you enough for this blog. Don't stop! :)

  2. What's the constant? The human design, that's what. Forged in Africa over 250,000 years ago, Homo sapiens sapiens emerged. While we migrated, most of the core human genome hasn't changed at all.

    The design for our sexual midbrains is older yet. ;)

  3. Just found your blog, simply amazing! I've been interested in Tantra for a long time but couldn't get past all the pseudo science/religion that came with it. This blog is a breath of fresh air, thank you!