the fact that the Buddha essence is non-polar,
Buddhist iconographers use sexual polarity to
symbolize the twin concepts of insight and compassion.
All goddesses are symbols of insight and the gods
represent compassion. The union of compassion
and insight symbolizes the non-polarized state
of bodhicitta, or the mind of enlightenment, which
is represented visually by showing two deities
engaged in sexual union. Tibetans characterize
such images as yab-yum, which literally means
father-mother; in Sanskrit the expression is yuganaddha
(pair united). This sexual metaphor is also used
to denote the highest stage of yoga in which there
is no polarity, no discrimination, and the truth
is indivisible as the vajra itself. It may be
added parenthetically that while such images,
whether statues or paintings, are today much sought
after by collectors and boldly displayed in museums,
in Tibet they were always meant to be seen only
by the initiated. The rites associated with these
images were also arcane and not for public consumption.
The word Tantra itself is derived
from the verbal root tan, meaning to "weave".
Many things are interwoven on the Tantric path,
including the lives of men and women. The Buddha
couples of Tantric iconography celebrate this
deep harmony of the sexes. The purpose of this
dynamic was the creation of partnerships devoted
to the realization of the ultimate truth. For
instance, the man cultivates pure vision by seeing
the woman as a deity, her sexual organ as the
throne of enlightenment, and her sexual fluid
as divine nectar. Thus according to the Brhadaranyaka
Upanisad, sexual union also constitutes a fire
sacrifice, as performed by the creator god Prajapati
upon creating woman:
Having created her, he worshipped
her sexual organ;
Therefore a woman's sexuality should be worshipped.
He stretched forth from himself a stone for pressing
[i.e., causing a woman's sexual fluid to flow]
And impregnated her with that.
Her lap is the sacrificial altar;
Her hair, the sacrificial grass;
Her skin the soma press;
The depths of her sexual organ, the fire in the
. . . . . . . . . . Many mortals...go
forth from this world...without merit,
Namely, those who practice sexual union without
Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 6.4.1-4
Often the mother is shown in a
posture with both legs around the father's waist.
In this remarkable and richly symbolic manifestation,
both the male and the female are emanations of
the Buddha. They appear simultaneously united
and independent, like the complex relationship
of sameness and difference between wisdom (female)
and compassion (male) in the enlightened state.
Ponderous, energetic forms confront the viewer
in this stunning portrayal. Shamvara (supreme
bliss) embraces the massive sky blue body of his
consort Vajravarahi, holding in his hands various
implements symbolic of his triumph over ignorance
and evil. She gazes rapturously and intently at
her consort with her head thrown back, heightening
their electrifying aura. Two of her arms tightly
clutch Shamvara's neck. His first two arms embrace
his consort, and holding a Vajra and a bell make
the diamond HUM - sound gesture with the crossed
wrists, behind her back. This gesture celebrates
the inseparable union of method and wisdom.
The father-mother union image
is not an example of erotic art, but is a manifestation
of the Buddha's highest spiritual essence. More
than metaphorical, to the devout Tibetan this
image is concrete evidence of the existence of
great spiritual attainment. The female (mother)
represents transcendent wisdom: the direct awareness
of reality as the Buddha experienced it and taught
it. The male (father), represents compassion for
all beings, which is the natural expression of
such wisdom. Their union, although exquisitely
blissful, is ultimately undertaken out of compassion
for the world. This sacred communion of the male
and female Buddha generates waves of bliss and
harmony that turn the world into a Mandala (container
of essence) and showers forth a rain of nectar
that satisfies the spiritual hunger in the hearts
of living beings everywhere. Modern depth psychology
has recognized such images to represent the deepest
archetypes of the unconscious, integrating the
powerful instinctual energies of life into a consciously
sublimated and exalted state.
The texts often refer to the union
of a lotus and vajra, or diamond scepter. Clearly,
"lotus" and vajra are metaphors, not literal terms.
One is not meant to bring together a flower and
a scepter, but something denoted by these terms.
Depending upon the level of interpretation, uniting
the lotus and the vajra can mean uniting wisdom
and compassion, or bliss and emptiness, within
the practitioner's psyche, or bringing together
the female and male organs in physical union,
or a number of other things that must be combined
on the path to enlightenment.
Along with Gopa, he experienced
By uniting the diamond scepter and lotus,
He attained the fruit of bliss.
Buddhahood is obtained from bliss, and
Apart from women there will not be bliss
And at another place:
The man [sees] the woman as
The woman [sees] the man as a god.
By joining the diamond
scepter and lotus,
They should make
offerings to each other.
There is no worship apart from this.
forms expressing this union are based upon the
germinal mantra 'Om mani padme Hum'. This mantra
contains both mani, meaning jewel, synonym for
vajra, the word which means diamond, thunderbolt
and the male organ, and padme meaning 'in the
lotus' (locative case of padma), a symbol for
the female sexual organ, the outer opening of
which resembles the petals of a lotus. This formal
similarity, as well as the fact that the lotus
is a Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment,
makes this magnificent flower a natural symbol
for feminine sexuality. The supportive texts envision
a resplendent world of vivid color, choreographed
movement, exquisite texture, and intimate gesture:
Constantly take refuge at my
feet, my dear...
Be gracious, beloved, and
Give me pleasure with your diamond scepter.
Look at my three-petaled lotus,
Its center adorned with a stamen.
It is a Buddha paradise, adorned with a red Buddha,
A cosmic mother who bestows
Bliss and tranquility on the passionate.
Abandon all conceptual thought and
Unite with my reclining form;
Place my feet upon your shoulders and look me
up and down.
Make the fully awakened scepter
Enter the opening in the center of the lotus.
Move a hundred,thousand,hundred thousand times
In my three-petaled lotus Of swollen flesh.
Placing one's scepter there, offer pleasure to
Wind, inner wind-my lotus is the unexcelled!
Aroused by the tip of the diamond scepter,
It is red like a bandhuka flower.
Another common Tantric metaphor
for sexual union is the image of the "Churner
and the Churned". Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), drawing
on a range of Indian sources, explains that churning
the female partner with the diamond scepter is
the efficient cause of the nectar of Buddhahood,
and argues that just as fire is kindled by rubbing
two sticks together, bliss is generated by churning.
The image of churning also refers to the Hindu
myth wherein gods and demons churn the cosmic
ocean of milk to extract its nectar. The goddess
Sakti is produced from this process, and her sexual
fluids become the immortality-bestowing nectar
the gods are seeking. Thus, churning the yogic
partner, which stimulates the flow of her nectar,
mirrors the stirring of the cosmic ocean for its
potent, liberating nectar. Churning also connotes
the circulation of the yogic energy as it surges
within the psychic channels and then rises in
the central channel. Thus, the metaphor of churning,
which appears to be a simple physical analogy,
resonates richly with various nuances of Tantric
Tantric Buddhism is unique among
Buddhist sub-traditions in its acceptance of the
body and sense experience as sources of knowledge
and power. Tantric Buddhists eulogized the body
as an "abode of bliss" and boldly affirmed that
desire, sexuality, and pleasure can be embraced
on the path to enlightenment. In keeping with
this life-affirming orientation, the movement
upheld the possibility of liberating relationships
between men and women and envisioned cooperative
yogic methods that men and women can perform together
in order to transform the ardor of their intimacy
and passion into blissful, enlightened states
of awareness. This mood of exuberant delight,
graceful sensuousness, and reciprocity that often
characterizes the sculpted and painted couples
also suffuses the literary descriptions in the
Tantric texts, which exult in an open and unshamed
affirmation of sensuality in a religious context:
Therefore, one who desires
Should practice what is to be practiced.
To renounce the sense objects
Is to torture oneself by asceticism-don't do it!
When you see form, look!
Similarly, listen to sounds,
Taste delicious flavors,
Use the objects of the five senses -
You will quickly attain supreme Buddhahood.
Tantra asserts that, instead of
suppressing, vision and ecstasy, they should be
cultivated and used. Because sensation and emotion
are the most powerful human motive forces, they
should not be crushed out, but harnessed to the
ultimate goal. Properly channeled they can provide
an unparalleled source of energy, bringing benefits
to society as well as continually increasing ecstasy
for the individual. Tantra deals in love, and
love needs objects. One cannot love nothing. Love
means care; and care carried to the limit is perhaps
the ultimate social virtue.
(All quotations and translations are from the book "Passionate Enlightenment" by Miranda Shaw, which is a comprehensive and masterly analysis of the Tantric Buddhist tradition from a feminist perspective.)
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