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Tantra, sex, and the transgressive imagination – I

“Like the concept of the primitive or the shaman, Tantra is a profoundly Janus-faced category: attacked in some historical periods as uncivilised or subhuman, and celebrated in other periods (particularly our own) as a precivilised unsullied original state, a sort of Eden before the Fall when harmony prevailed, when sex was free and unrepressed, when the body had not been subjected to modern western prudishness and hypocrisy.”
Hugh Urban, Tantra: Sex, Secrecy Politics and Power in the Study of Religion

Sometimes You Gotta Break the Rules
Burger King

Almost from the beginning of its discovery by Europeans at the turn of the nineteenth century, “tantra” as a concept has revolved around two major axes – sex and transgression – almost to the point that these two elements are often read as tantra’s defining features, that is to say, they are key elements in the “brand image” of tantra. After all, transgression sells. Contemporary ideals of transgression shifts products; we are encouraged to be individual; to “break the rules”; to find and express ourselves as authentic, creative and liberated individuals through buying stuff – from cars to cologne; from burgers to books. There’s a whole genre, seemingly, of books – occult books in particular – that make a point of declaring how transgressive they are -as if otherwise, one might not notice this. Hugh Urban (2006, p254) asks a pertinent question: “Does the quest for radical liberation from even the boundaries of the self really lead to any meaningful sort of freedom? Or has it simply transformed the ideas of “liberation” and “transgression” themselves into commodities that can be purchased for $19.95 from”

Given the ambiguities of contemporary attitudes to “transgression”, I thought it’d be interesting to have a look at some tantric texts where the references to sexual or transgressive practices are – seemingly – fairly explicit – although it does not follow, necessarily, that they are either easy to interpret or even, dare I say, of much use to contemporary practitioners.

No Boundaries, Make Everyday Exciting, Go Further (Ford Advert)

For this first post, I’m going to take a brief look at the Guhyasamaja Tantra (“the secret union tantra”) which is probably one of the most well-known (or infamous) of Buddhist Tantras, dated approximately to between the 7-10th centuries, of which only Tibetan versions have survived. The Guhyasamaja Tantra’s noteriety stems from the fact that it contains passages such as this (Ch5, v.2-8):

“Those who take life, who take pleasure in lying, who always covet the wealth of others, who enjoy making love, who purposely consume faeces and urine, these are worthy ones for the practice. The yogin who makes love to his mother, sister or daughter achieves enormous success in the supreme truth of the Mahayana.”

and in Chapter 7:

“Taking a girl of good fortune, fair-faced and very beautiful, meditating on the foundation of blessing he should offer the worship of essence, and taking semen he should eat, open-eyed, with composed mind; this is the worship of the Body, Speech and Mind of all Mantras. It is called the accomplisher of all mantra-siddhi, the secret of those who possess vajra wisdom.”

it is passages such as these which have prompted many commentators to dismiss all tantric texts as indicative of widespread cultural and moral degeneration) or, equally uncritically, embrace them as amoral and “transgressive”. If we take the first statement above at face value – the author(s) of this text are saying that people who kill, lie, are greedy, enjoy sex, eat shit and drink piss – and commit incest are those who achieve success in (spiritual) practice. These sorts of passages – which occasionally turn up in tantric texts have led to a good deal of puzzlement over whether or not they are literal statements of instruction, “coded” passages, or something else entirely. The underlying problem is that tantric texts in general, address “practitioners” within the traditions. Unlike the kind of magical manuals we have become accustomed to in contemporary western occulture, they are not, by and large, interested in explaining practices to “outsiders” or beginners – often quite the reverse.

Most scholarly interpretations of texts such as these advise following the extensive commentarial traditions which sometimes accompany such texts. For example, Christian Wedemeyer (2002), drawing on extant commentaries on the Guhyasamaja explains that the references in the text to “taking life” indicate the dissolution of identification with the limited sense of selfhood; that the injunctions to “possess the wealth of others” is, in actuality, the grasping of the intuitive wisdom of the perfected Buddhas, and the injunction to commit incest points, rather, to the nondual “union” which is the goal of this particular tradition of Buddhism. Miranda Shaw (1995) offers a slightly different explanation of the Guhyasamaja’s preferment for incest – that “Tantric adherents formed voluntary and tightly knit groups bound by secret initiations and pledges” and that “Tantrics defined themselves as family members in relation to one another.” In support of this argument she cites a quotation from the Cakrasamvara-Tantra:

“Stay only with female messengers:
Mothers, sisters, daughters, and wife.
Practice in a circle, like this,
And not in any other way.”

So in Shaw’s view, the female companion of a guru is likened to a mother, a female disciple of the guru is a sister, a male practitioner’s “own disciple” (presumably a female disciple) is a daughter, and a male practitioner’s female companion is a wife or consort. Her argument is that Tantric injunctions to have sex with one’s own Mother or sister should not be read as “transgressive” instructions for incest, but rather, point to the idea of tantric clan-groupings, wherein sexual rituals occur only between initiates – practitioners who share the same lineage, initiation, and perspectives.

Another point which Shaw makes in respect to texts such as the Guhyasamaja Tantra is these apparently “transgressive” instructions can be thought of as means of scaring off the lightweights as it were – that outsiders to the tradition would be put off by such passages, whereas only “insiders” to the tradition would be able to interpret them properly. However, this does not mean that there is necessarily one “inner meaning” hidden within such statements – Tantric texts tend to be open to multiple interpretations – and Esoteric Buddhism for example, developed several hermeneutical strategies for doing so. Texts would have been interpreted – and deployed – according to particular stages in a practitioner’s degree of attainment – and subject to the guidance of his (or her) preceptor. Again, this is an idea frequently encountered in tantric texts – that practices which, for an ordinary person (or a low-level practitioner) would be defiling (or in the Buddhist context, be causes of samsara) were, for advanced practitioners, sources of liberation.

Break the rules. Stand apart. Keep your head. Go with your heart.(Vanderbilt Perfume Ad)

But let’s go back to the Guhyasamaja Tantra. Much of this text is framed within the terms of a discourse between the Lord Buddha Vajradhara and an assembly of buddhas and bodhisattvas. Immediately after Vajradhara lays out his transgressive programme, as it were – the verse about lying, eating faeces and so forth quoted above; the assembled bodhisattvas are thrown into confusion. The text says: “Why does the blessed master of all Tathagatas speak such words which should not be spoken in the midst of the assembly of all the Tathagatas?” Vajradhara calmly replies that “this is the pure Dharma-nature of the Buddhas who embody the essence of wisdom”. The response of the assembly to hearing this articulation of nondual wisdom goes beyond consternation – the Bodhisattvas faint with fear, and are only revived when Vajradhara enters “the samadhi called Vajra of undivided sameness with space” whereupon, touched by the radiance of this great samadhi, the boddhisattvas attain understanding – and – “filled with wonder and awe and overwhelmed with joy” begin to sing a song in praise of Vajradhara and the nondual Dharma which has been revealed to them.

Wedemeyer (2012) reads this sequence of verses as an example of “motivated discourse” – an attempt to stress the nonduality of binary categories such as pure-impure; sacred-profane; immanent-transcendent. As he points out – the same pattern can be found in chapter 9 of the Guhyasamaja whereby five teachings are given concerning the visualisation of mandalas which “become” one of the five transcendent Lords. In the first practice, a “mandala of buddhas” is transformed into the Vajra Asobhya: “Visualising the Buddhas of the three times, crush them with the Vajra, and contemplate the Body of Bliss of Body, Speech and Mind destroyed and crushed by the vajra, this supreme meditation with which achieves the siddhi of Mind.” Secondly, the Wheel mandala is transformed into Vairocana: “then visualise all the vajra forms of the Buddhas by means of the five jewels; imagine that you steal all these treasures and draw them into the threefold vajra…” so that these stolen jewels become “great sages”. The third practice is: “visualise the Lotus mandalam and transform it into Amitayus; fill it all with Buddhas, and by the practice of the four yogas visualise them all there in union with the forms of women, this is the supreme vajra way”. The fourth visualisation transforms a mandala of Buddhas into Vajra Amogha, in which “the forms of all the Buddhas” are visualised as “the vajra dwelling of false speech” who are then lied to. The final teaching is a mandala of Vajra Ratnekatu, and “filled with all the forms of Buddhas” who are then verbally abused. Once more the assembly are amazed and taken aback by these words, but Vajradhara and the transcendent lords explain the appropriate attitude towards this peculiar dharma:

Family sons, just as smoke appears and causes fire from two pieces of wood rubbed together and from the work of a man’s hands, but the fire does not dwell in the wood that rubs, nor in the wood that is rubbed, nor in the work of the man’s hands, so, Family Sons, the vajra laws of all the Tathagatas should be understood, just as a coming and going.

The chapter ends with the proclamation: “Among the dharmas most wonderful, like space, pure, beyond thought, the relative truth is proclaimed.”

What’s interesting here is that the apparently “transgressive” teachings are more than defiant disavowals of what we might think of as “normative” Buddhist practices. I don’t believe that these teachings are an attempt to mount a critique of orthodox Buddhist ideology, but rather, that they are deliberate provocations – aimed at orienting the reader or listener towards a consideration of the nondual via a deliberate – and knowing – inversion of Buddhist ethics.

There’s no one way to do it. (Levi’s ad)

Of course, one might easily raise the objection that this kind of interpretation represents a kind of bowdlerisation or “sanitisation” of an originary, “transgressive” meaning of these passages. As I noted at the beginning of this post, academics and other interpretators have been arguing for years over whether or not tantric texts should be taken literally, or figuratively. Frequently one encounters the idea that non-sexual passages “hide” a secret, “sexual” meaning via recourse to a “twilight” or intentional language, whereas explicitly “sexual” passages should be read literally. The commentaries which accompany the texts – which themselves frequently favour multiple interpretations of passages, have been themselves criticised as later attempts to sanitise an earlier layer, of transgressive “outsider” practices. This is an argument I will revisit another time. Wedemeyer (2012) however, points out that seemingly “transgressive” statements can be found in other – non-esoteric Buddhist texts. The Dhammapada for example, contains a passage which states: “Having killed mother and father as well as the king and two learned Brahmans, and having beaten the kingdom along with its attendants, a man is called pure.” Wedemeyer comments that this kind of hyperbolic excessiveness is commonly understood to refer to obstacles to sadhana rather than a literal injunction to kill one’s parents. After all, a literal reading of the Buddhist Samantapasadika – Which Bernard Faure (1998, p65) refers to as a “kind of ‘Hite report’ on Buddhist sexuality” might bring one to the conclusion that Buddhist monks were overly occupied with highly creative acts of bestiality with frogs and millipedes. Rather, it is another instance of the kind of rhetorical flourish or excess (Sanskrit: atisayokti) which is a common feature of religious, didactic and poetic literature.As Patrick Olivelle (2011) points out, the use of hyperbole in religious and didactit literature is different from its use in poetics, but “neither can be taken at face value or read literally”.

Ronald M Davidson Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement (Motilal, 2004)
Bernard Faure The Red Thread: Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality (Princeton University Press, 1998)
Fransesca Fremantle A Critical Study of the Guhyasamaja Tantra (London, 1971)
Patrick Olivelle Language, Texts, and Society: Explorations in Ancient Indian Culture and Religion (Anthem Press, 2011)
Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism (Princeton University Press, 1995)
David Shulman More Than Real: A History of the Imagination in South India (Harvard University Press, 2012)
Hugh Urban Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2003)
Hugh Urban Magia Sexualis: Sex, Magic, and Liberation in Modern Western Esotericism (University of California Press, 2006)
Christian K. Wedermeyer Antinomianism and Gradualism: the Contextualization of the Practices of Sensual Enjoyment (Carya) in the Guhyasamaja Arya Tradition (International Journal of Buddhist Studies, vol.3, 2002)
Christian K. Wedermeyer Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions (University of Columbia Press, 2012)


  1. steve davies
    Posted August 8th 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Thanks Phil, this is very thought provoking discussion on how we grapple with hermeneutics and authority-it brought to mind the whole use of new testament material by the early Christian monastic communities and how they chose to interpret sayings such as “if your eye offends you….” in quite literal ways so as to radicalise their path-wanting to distinguish themselves from the mainstream but potentially losing contact with literary hyperbole etc

  2. Kulasundari
    Posted August 8th 2013 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Another excellent post. As a scholar, I do get the arguments of Tantras being taken as literal, but one of the arguments I don’t buy is the subtle (or not so subtle) idea that these authors couldn’t have been philosophically sophisticated enough to speak in metaphor or symbols, so therefore these things must have been literally true. This seems to underlie a lot of arguments for literalism and I find it a little offensive. I think there’s room for some literalism and some metaphor, and this is a case where “both/and” interpretations may be applicable.

    Also, these traditions were alive, and as you rightly state there are often multiple interpretations for any given statement, which vary from person to person, from stage to stage in an individual’s development, or from situation to situation from an individual perspective. That kind of fluidity is part and parcel to Tantric philosophy and practice, at least in my experience. Also, this speaks to the importance of secrecy in these traditions, not just to guard power or safeguard practitioners from real or perceived persecution, but also to safeguard the revelatory process for the individual. That last point is most vital.