Out of the Closet: The Evolution of Tantra
by Alex Amaru
(Leer en Español)
As a gay man, I am an outsider when it comes down to religious groups. So, I have chosen (or it may have chosen me) Shamanism as my form of spiritual practice. Combined with what I have been learning about Tantra, I have been adapting both practices as a way to help other men who like men; deal with the power of our sexual energy, so that we can learn to surrender and accept it without judgement or fear, tame it or simply release it from its cage and journey freely in a safe environment. As the sexual beings that we are, these are some ways in which we can find balance within ourselves, for not everybody is satisfied or happy with their sex life, and many more are lacking balance between the sexual and the spiritual. This is the realm of Tantra, but do we, men who LOVE other men, fit in this fascinating world?
About four years ago on a fourteen-hour flight from New York to Tokyo, I pulled out from my bag a blue book that featured a small picture of two Buddhist deities in an apparent act of intimacy. Below the picture, the name of a person I am relatively familiar with, given my deep interest in music: Philip Glass. The title Introduction to Tantra, The Transformation of Desire. I was puzzled. l knew Philip Glass’ music but why had he been chosen to write a foreword for a book written by a Tibetan Lama?, in this case, Lama Yeshe. But most of all, I was particularly attracted to the subtitle.
Having spent most of my adult life in New York City and Tokyo, what I would say has remained “constant”, amid all the changes that I’ve experienced, is desire. From the desire of having money to eat to the desire of being successful, it has been my desire for intimacy however, that has remained almost an obsession. Although I have experienced certain degrees of satisfaction, overall, the suffering has been greater, for I never seem to get what I really want. As I’m holding this book on the plane, I wonder if it was written for me, if I’ll find anything I can practice, or at least give me an introduction to transforming this intense desire into freedom.
Fast forward in time and I still have more questions than answers, but I can certainly say I have a far better understanding on what Buddhism stands for. And to a much greater degree than before, what Tantra is about. So, here’s my conclusion: Given that Tantra, as Lama Yeshe acknowledges, is “secret mantra” (141), I will never know what it achieves. Even if I were to become a monk, I would probably be deemed “not capable” of practicing Highest Tantra Yoga – considering the Dalai Lama’s explanation on the different qualities needed to be a Tantrist (20) – among other things, because I like men, and Tantric sexual practices are strictly heterosexual. So, the “fast-track” path to enlightenment, as Tantra is known, is not for me.
However, as a non-religious gay man, what seems achievable, albeit a life-long commitment, is the spiritual transformation the Dalai Lama proposes, with the objective of experiencing happiness. Which is great! for in all honesty, according to a shaman I did ayahuasca with last year, the plant had revealed to her that I have never experienced what it’s like to be really happy. So yes, I’m all up for a spiritual transformation that can help me experience happiness if it’s true that I have never really been happy. But at the same time, it falls short. It feels as if being denied entrance into a coveted Ivy League school on the grounds of, among other things, sexual orientation. Who would want to be part of a school who discriminates based on that?
That the Buddhists consider gay sex “sexual misconduct” as the Dalai Lama was reported saying publicly in 1998 (Peskind), is a reminder that as a religion, Buddhism is at least in this point, conservative and not much different than others. Regardless of the open minded attitude that the Dalai Lama seems to have in several issues like science and social change, it is clear that Buddhism is not just him. It’s an institution. His most recent comments in Washington describing gay marriage as “OK” was followed by a clear stance of the Buddhist perspective: “People who have belief or who have special traditions, then you should follow according to your own tradition. Like Buddhism, there are different kinds of sexual misconduct, so you should follow properly.”However, if in fact the bodhisattva ideals are truly about helping all sentient beings attain enlightenment, then it is time that Buddhism, and specifically, Tantra, adapts its position on homosexuality and gay sex to the twenty-first century. If “Neo-Tantrism” is not the answer and as George Feuerstein contends is “far … from the truth” (xiii) , then it beholds on the Buddhists themselves, especially the Mahayana Buddhists, the responsibility to change, so that those homosexual men that do possess the qualities of great compassion can be ordered into the Tantric tradition and gain access to its secret teachings. If there is one huge problem among gay men in cities like New York, it is our dependence and addiction even, to immediate sexual gratification. We certainly would benefit greatly if we were given the opportunity to know how to transform desire, and follow the Tantric path to enlightenment.
Unfortunately, this is not going to happen anytime soon. The Dalai Lama, when asked, mentioned that “he was open to the possibility of Buddhist tradition changing in response to science, modern social history, and discussion within the various Buddhist sanghas,” however, he noted that “he is not unilaterally empowered to change tradition.” In his own words: “Change can only come on the collective level” (Peskind).
Nonetheless, interest in the topic of homosexuality and Buddhism, Tantra in particular, is growing. Jeffrey Hopkins, who edited and translated Tantra in Tibet, which contains the first modern commentary by the Dalai Lama on “tantra in general and Tsong-ka-pa’s work in particular” (8) is an openly gay scholar. He has taken the liberty to write a “variation on Gedun Chopel’s Tibetan Arts of Love” titled Sex, Orgasm and the Mind of Clear Light for gay men. Using the sixty four techniques of love making within Tantric Buddhism with a gay twist, Hopkins intends to help homosexual men enhance their sexual dynamic with the underlying theme of “compatibility of sexual pleasure with spiritual insight” (vii). An interesting and at times comical read, the book is full of brief tips on approaching sex outside the box, i.e. “Press the naked man on a pillow, and gaze at all his body, high and low. Then bite all the fleshy parts. This is called series of drops” (35). It is however, when he approaches the topic of the clear light, in my opinion, the most interesting aspect of Highest Tantra Yoga, that it all turns incomprehensible. Clearly this is not the kind of teaching a regular folk can grasp nor practice from a book. It needs to be taught by a Lama, preferably a gay one.
Others, like William Schindler, a former monk of the Ramakrishna Order and coincidentally “Mr. L.A. Leather 1999” is the author of the book Gay Tantra.
Schindler, or “Brother William” as he is also known, is doing his lot when it comes to teaching, albeit in a church-like style. In 1999 Schindler founded a “gay- centered spiritual community based in traditional Hindu Tantra” called “Ashram West” in Los Angeles. His website advertises private and public classes by Schindler himself on various texts, like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga Sutras as well as lectures from his book Gay Tantra. There, he warns gay men of not being mislead by the sexual imagery of Tantra:
Some gay persons reading about traditional Tantra may get the erroneous idea that Tantra’s heterosexual imagery does not apply to gay-identified persons. In fact, part of the conjoined male and female figures is that spiritual wholeness requires a union of “male” and “female” within each of us. I believe those who achieve a fully integrated gay identity accomplish this goal as part of the process. From a tantric perspective, therefore, a gay identity or gay consciousness is an advantage, more “spiritual” than a non-gay, gender-polarized identity or more limited consciousness. Tantra would have us all become more gay in the sense of integrating the male and female within ourselves regardless of the gender of our sexual/romantic partners. (20)
I would really like to hear the Dalai Lama’s opinion on this. I get Schindler’s point of integrating the male and female energies in oneself as a Tantric concept, based on non-duality, but I suspect that his last remark “…regardless of the gender…” could be interpreted as if homosexual practices had been accepted in “traditional Tantra.” This is hardly the case. As the Dalai Lama tells us “From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women [sex] is generally considered sexual misconduct.” And as Leonard Zwilling reminds us in his essay on Buddhism and Homosexuality, sexual misconduct could potentially mean expulsion from the monastic order (205-206).
What we are left with is with more questions as to what Tantric relationships are. Miranda Shaw is perhaps the one person who provides us with the clearest picture of this dynamic as she investigates the role of women in Tantric Buddhism. Referring to the “prevalent view” that men used women in a “mechanistic” way for the purpose of enlightenment, she calls it an “impoverished … reduction of the practice” (141). What I gather from her fascinating book Passionate Enlightenment, is that through these sexual rituals (and not necessarily the act itself) men were being trained to venerate women, or at least have a higher level of appreciation for the female gender, and her representation on a cosmic level. As Shaw states, “ a man’s progress in Tantra is marked by stages in his relationship with women. The proper homage to women is a prerequisite to enlightenment” (37). Which got me thinking. If homosexual behavior is to be expected in any closed, same-sex community, such as the sangha; could it be that Tantra was meant to counterbalance this tendency? Beyond the need to recognize the equality of males and females, could Tantra have been used at some degree, to train homosexual monks into heterosexual behavior?
Whatever the case, it is clear to me that the world has changed and that there is a wider acceptance, on a global level, on homosexuality and homosexual relationships. What many saw as “abnormal” now is a thing of the past. My father, who spent two years debating with himself the nature of my homosexuality, in which time he did not even dare look me in the eyes, has now come to the realization that there is nothing to debate. In fact, for the first time in our lives, we are comfortable in each other’s presence and we hug and say “I love you” without any problem. Something unthinkable to me in the past. That the Supreme Court overturned the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as a right between a man and a woman only, is proof that at the core, we are dealing with an issue of civil rights. So, if Buddhism’s appeal to many in the West is on the philosophy and practicality of its teachings, then it is time that they too, revise what is considered unethical. The words of the Dalai Lama can share some light on this, as he refers to the need of humanity to develop “chi sem”, or universal responsibility:
To develop a sense of universal responsibility- of the universal dimension of our every act and of the equal right of all others to happiness and not to suffer- is to develop and attitude of mind whereby, when we see an opportunity to benefit others, we will take it in preference to merely looking after our own narrow interests. But though, of course, we care about what is beyond our scope, we accept it as part of nature and concern ourselves with doing what we can. (162-163)
In the meantime, I suspect that those like myself, who for some reason have a particular fascination with Tantra and happen to be gay, will have to make do with whatever is available, to incorporate sexuality as part of our spiritual evolution. I have found that shamanic practices are a great way to deepen my awareness of my inner self and to help me connect with Mother Earth, therefore expanding my level of compassion for others and care for our planet. In spite of my criticisms, Buddhist philosophy makes sense to me. The Ethics for the New Millennium book is a generous gift from the Dalai Lama for anyone who is interested in developing a more acute awareness of how the mind works and what one can do to tame it. It’s practical and to the point. By practicing these ideas, and incorporating them somehow in my sex life, perhaps by being more focused on my partner(s) than on myself, and by remaining conscious of the effects of my actions, I think I have a good grounding to say that I practice, not Tantra, but love.
© Alex Amaru, 2014
H.H. the Dalai Lama, Tsong-ka-pa. Tantra in Tibet. Ed. & Trans. Jeffrey Hopkins. New York: Snow Lion, 1977.
H.H. the Dalai Lama. Ethics for the New Millennium. New York: Riverhead Books, 1999.
Dalai Lama on Gay Marriage: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/dalai-lama-voices-support-gay-marriage-n46906
Feuerstein, Georg. Tantra The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambala, 1998.
Hopkins, Jeffrey. Sex, Orgasm, and the Mind of Clear Light. California: 1998.
Peskind, Steve. : ”According to Buddhist Tradition: Gays, Lesbians and the Definition of Sexual Misconduct”. Shambala Sun. March 1998. 27 Nov. 2012. http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1977
Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment. New Jersey: Princeton, 1994.
Schindler, William. Gay Tantra. U.S.A.: Xlibris Corporation, 2000.
Schindler, William. Ashram West. 27 Nov. 2012. http://www.gaytantra.org/home.html.
Yeshe, Lama. Introduction to Tantra. Ed. Jonathan Landaw. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.
LINKS TO BOOKS
Introduction to Tantra, The Transformation of Desire: http://www.amazon.com/ Introduction-Tantra-Lama-Thubten-Yeshe/dp/0861711629/ref=sr_1_1? s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394470105&sr=1-1&keywords=intro+to+tantra+yeshe
Sex, Orgasm and the Mind of Clear Light: http://www.amazon.com/Sex-Orgasm- Mind-Clear-Light/dp/1556432747/ref=sr_1_1? s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1394470240&sr=1-1&keywords=Sex%2C+Orgasm +and+the+Mind+of+Clear+Light
Passionate Enlightenment: http://www.amazon.com/Passionate-Enlightenment-%20Miranda-Shaw/dp/0691010900/ref=sr_1_1?
|The Genesis Complex at Glasshouse|
|The Genesis Complex at Glasshouse|