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The Dark Side of Sacred Sex

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

Can sex be utilized as a vehicle for spiritual awakening? And if it can, should it be?

There are good reasons why Buddhist establishments have such mixed feelings about the Tantric Buddhist sacred sexuality practice of karmamudra. The question in debate: Can sex be utilized as a vehicle for spiritual awakening? And if it can, should it be?

Buddhist establishments are not alone on their conflicting stance when it comes to combining spiritual practice and sex. Most of the great religions and spiritual organizations of the world have wrestled with countless controversies surrounding this very delicate, very human, dilemma. 

Can we be fully expressed sexual beings and simultaneously pursue a spiritual life? 

From the top down, the notion of sex as a vehicle for spiritual awakening has plagued spiritual and religious establishments for millennia, being a source of great misunderstanding, the bending and breaking of vows, and, all too often, sex scandals.

The Dalai Lama himself is no stranger to situations where celibate monks and nuns are caught engaging in this sexual play in the name of “spiritual practice”—when in fact, it’s being applied as a self-righteous attempt to get some primal needs met.

The misunderstanding and misuse of sacred sexuality can be found throughout the world—India, China, Tibet, Japan, Europe, America—often falsely sold under the guise that it is okay to get our sexual needs met if done so as a “spiritual gesture.” Often missing is the profound distinction between communing in sexual embrace from a place of selfless spiritual maturity vs. engaging in sex from a place of craving, motivated by selfish desire.

Craving is craving. Whether engaged from a purely physical place, a mental or emotional place, or a spiritually transcendent place, engaging any dimension of life from a place of craving is to live with an imbalanced mind. All too often, the techniques associated with sacred sexuality are misapplied in such a way that aggravates this imbalance, rather than liberating the practitioner from it.

Scholar and practitioner, Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., reminds us of this in his book, Sacred Sexuality, when he suggests, “Clearly, we cannot divorce sexual techniques from their spiritual and moral bedrock without running the risk of corrupting the tradition we have chosen to follow without debasing our own life. In other words, we must tread the razor’s edge of spontaneity without egoic motivation or attachment.”

Where a man may have only craved physical beauty before, he now craves ecstatic surrender. Where a woman may have only craved confidence before, she now craves impeccable consciousness.

Just because ‘what’ we crave has spiritually evolved does not mean that we have.

Rather, participation in this type of work often results in men and women looking out into the world from an inflated perspective, now aware of just how ‘unconscious’ all of these other potential suitors are. This is wrong understanding.

When craving is the one “driving the bus” of our intimate lives, it feels as if no man or woman could ever possibly measure up to the demand of our insatiable appetites. In these moments, no one is qualified to be our “ideal partner” of impeccable presence, or divine radiance. When we start seeking such things, we’ve fallen into the post-modern trap of wrongly applying the teachings of the sexual yogas to serve the never-ending demands of our personal desires.

Because of the aggravation it creates within ourselves and others, many spiritual traditions have placed sacred sexuality off to the side—indefinitely. Some Buddhists say that the practice of karmamudra is reserved for only the highest level of practitioners, as an impeccably balanced mind is required before engaging in such practices. This is not flawed thinking necessarily, but it leaves about a handful of the people in the world qualified to enjoy the gifts sacred intimacy has to offer.

In many cases, religious and spiritual establishments ignore or condemn sexuality entirely—like a wicked beast locked in the basement, pretending it doesn’t exist. Until one day it roars from severe hunger pains and breaks free of its chains. It thrashes its way into the concert hall of our lives and reeks enough havoc to satisfy its hunger just before it’s shot down with a tranquilizer gun, dragged back down to the basement, and chained up again. We walk away from the scene of the crime whistling like a little kid in the dark, pretending that didn’t just happen.

Whether celibate or not, I think we can all relate to this metaphor. Celibacy attempts to be the solution that tames this wild beast, but those who practice celibacy are arguably just as haunted by sexual temptation as those who do not.

If we are serious about using sexuality as a vehicle for spiritual awakening, or at least as a practice that makes sex compatible with our spiritual lifestyle, then it is our responsibility to proceed with caution, humility, and a healthy dose of skepticism. Skeptical not only of the teachings themselves, but skeptical of our own self-indulgent interest in them.

When practice is rightly engaged, reactive sexual tendencies are transformed. We discover that confidence, beauty, consciousness, and radiance are not achieved through strategies of manipulating ourselves and others. Rather, they manifest as a natural byproduct of our sexual maturity. They are a result of right relationship to the reactive, indulgent, separative sexual impulses of the body-mind.

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