Not long ago, two well-known Buddhist teachers living in the United States shocked many of their fellow Tibetan Buddhists by making public the fact that they live together as a spiritual practice. One is a monk, one is a nun, and both consider themselves celibate. Their relationship is physical, but sexually chaste. They say they chose this practice because they felt that if Tibetan Buddhist ideas were to spread in the West, those ideas would have to be more inclusive of women as equals.

This partnershguru initiationip between equal mates is foreign to Buddhism—which sprang from Hindu roots and tends to be androcentric (male-centered). However, the idea that controlled sexual union between male and female can be a spiritual practice definitely lurks behind the scenes of Tibetan Buddhism. For example, female Buddha Lady Yeshe Tsogyel became enlightened through ritual sexual union with her guru more than a thousand years ago.

Today, many Buddhist teachers seem the very picture of contented celibacy. Yet some Tibetan Buddhist holy men still quietly take consorts for the purpose of ritualistic lovemaking, without ejaculation. The Dalai Lama himself teaches that “the best opportunity for further [spiritual] development is during sexual intercourse” without seminal emission:

    "The reference here is to the experience of entering into union with a consort of the opposite sex, by means of which the elements at the crown are melted."

He explains that the penis is utilized, but the energy movement taking place is fully controlled and is never let out. It is eventually returned to other parts of the body. The principle of controlling the sexual energy applies to women, too. He notes that because of the need for avoiding orgasm, “there is a kind of special connection with celibacy.”

Some of today’s Tibetan Buddhist-inspired tantra teachers include orgasm in their courses—after an intense buildup of sexual energy that produces a drug-like state of mind. However, the Dalai Lama teaches that orgasm cannot lead to enlightenment. He says this belief is a “root downfall,” a mistaken practice, perhaps based on distorted, selfish values. He also explains that it is not intercourse, but state of mind that matters.

    "Mere intercourse has nothing to do with spiritual cultivation.When a person has achieved a high level of practice in motivation and wisdom, then even the joining of the two sex organs, or so-called intercourse, does not detract from the maintenance of that person’s pure behavior."

Teachings like these reveal an uneasy tension between celibacy and intercourse. Perhaps this is why some Buddhist holy men keep their sexual trysts behind the scenes. Such unions are not between equals, as June Campbell, a young Scottish woman, found when she was recruited to participate in this type of concealed liaison. As she pointed out in an interview entitled "Emperor's Tantric Robes," the tulku system, by which a lama symbolically gives birth to himself through reincarnation as another male, forestalls equal spiritual partnerships between men and women. It also works a hardship on young boys, who are raised away from daily contact with loving women in an all-male environment. The result of this practice is a male monastic tradition that regards women as potential pollutants and obstacles to religious practice, while at the same time revering them (during sexual ritual) as goddesses who are essential to a man’s enlightenment.

All of this means that the couple mentioned at the beginning of this section are engaging in quite a different practice than the traditional one, even though their approach is very consistent with Buddhism’s loftiest principles. This may be why the Dalai Lama expressed his disapproval of them, publishing a statement that this “unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness’s teachings and practices.”

The tension between celibacy and ritual sex in Buddhism may go as far back as Gautama Buddha himself. He is said to have taught that enlightenment resides in the sexual parts of women (Buddhatvam Yosityonisamasritam), a disquieting maxim for his many celibate disciples. He also urged his disciples not to continue the cycle of suffering by fathering children. These two suggestions dovetail in the practice of sex without ejaculation, yet few Buddhists choose this path despite their traditional emphasis on compassion, self-control, and retention of semen.

The Tibetan Buddhist myth The Legend of the Great Stupa Jarungkhasor sheds some light on the tension between celibate purity and sex as a spiritual practice, by suggesting that there are actually three paths to enlightenment (which may support each other, of course). All address the power of sexual desire to distort spiritual perception, because this source of distortion is believed to be at the heart of humanity’s worst problems (and spiritual blindness).

The first two paths are the Mahayana and the Hinayana. The Mahayana is the neutralization of passion through selfless service and dedication to releasing all life from the bonds of emotional distortion and limited vision. It is open to a wide range of personalities. In contrast, the Hinayana is not suited to all personalities. It prescribes total rejection and renunciation of passion (celibacy), and is characterized as safe, sure, and slow.

According to the Great Stupa, one’s best chance for freeing oneself from the chaos of mankind’s spiritual dark age is to tame the passions using the third path of controlled indulgence, or Vajrayana, a homeopathic method in which one uses sexual desire, but carefully, by avoiding orgasm and drawing the sexual energy upward. Vajrayana is open to all, and is a means of overcoming humanity’s impulsive nature. “We rise by the same way that we fell” is a Tibetan Buddhist adage, meaning that if sex and emotions have brought humankind down, they are a means by which it can heal and restore itself.

The path of controlled indulgence is considered the fastest, yet most risky, of these paths. Interestingly, the legend suggests that the service and celibate devotion paths—although excellent, beneficial disciplines—won’t get the job done during the chaos of humankind’s spiritual dark age.

The late scholar Mircea Eliade explained that for a Tibetan Buddhist, sex holds the key to regaining the Light:

    "So long as man practices the sexual act in instinctual blindness, that is to say like any other animal, the light remains hidden. But . . . by checking the seminal ejaculation one defeats the biological purpose of the sexual act."

Controlled indulgence is thus a means to move toward the androgyny of a divine state. According to Eliade, some tantrics seek an experience of gnosis, or nirvanic consciousness, while some speak of yogis who realize immortality in the body. According to tradition, they do not die; they disappear into heaven clothed in “spirit-bodies,” “divine bodies,” or “bodies of Pure Light.”

This experience of androgyny may, in some cases, require the spiritual synergy of both sexes. An earlier Dalai Lama (the twelfth) apparently resisted the insight about the power of such union, to his peril. He recorded a vision in which the famous male guru of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel (the female Buddha mentioned above) spoke the following words:

    If you accept the practice of secret mantra by
    Relying upon a Knowledge Lady [a woman he had met, Rigma Tsomo],
    Tibetan Buddhism will thrive
    And the Dharma Protectors will act.
    But if you do not rely upon
    The siddhi [extraordinary power] of karmamudra [sexual yoga],
    You will soon die.

That Dalai Lama died at the age of twenty.

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