This entry is my research paper for last quarter’s Buddhist Traditions course at Pacifica Graduate Institute. This paper reflects a snippet of a personal journey of self-discovery. I am inspired and enthusiastic to continue exploration, research, and academic writing in this realm.
Relationships between men and women continue to be an ongoing study in western culture, especially as gender roles and identities and connections with each other has seemingly become increasingly blurred. Tantric Buddhism, which originated around the 11th and 12th centuries in India, rooted its foundation in the concept of female reverence and the important role female power and knowledge played in the overall attainment of enlightenment. While commonly perceived with highly negative connotations, the true power exchange dynamic existing in BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism) parallels many of the Tantric Buddhism notions involving respect, communication, trust, and vulnerability in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment, bliss, and ecstasy. While many gender dynamics exist in today’s realms of BDSM and Tantric Buddhism, this paper will focus on male-female relationships for the ease of language.
Tantric Buddhism gained immense cultural popularity during the Pala period of India. This sect of Buddhism was not limited to any particular caste system, nor was it isolated to a specific gender. This practice embraced people from all classes and levels of education from elite to ordinary villagers (Shaw 22). Tantric Buddhism sets itself apart from other spiritual practices of the time in its focus on the reverence of women and the understanding that spiritual enlightenment is to be achieved by embracing the feminine for guidance and worship. Tantric Buddhism holds reverence for the divine feminine creative powers (Shaw 32). The belief is that it essentially was senseless to exclude the female representation of the Buddha since bodies are both male and female and Buddhahood is attainable in the present life and in the present body (Shaw 27).
Tantric Buddhism, as with other sects of Buddhism, aims to achieve spiritual enlightenment. Distinguishing Tantric practice, however, is the emphasis on bliss and ecstasy as a means to achieve this. The body is a vehicle for attaining a blissful state for the mind. Tantric Buddhism is unique in its acceptance of the body and the senses as sources of knowledge and power (Shaw 140) rather than reasons behind suffering and shame.
While distinguished in its own right, Tantric Buddhism borrows from Shaktism, or goddess-worship, is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, and gained insight from Madhyamahaka, Yogacara, and Tathagatagarbhaj with the ideals of altruistic motivation and dedication to compassionate service (Shaw 23). This spiritual approach drew value from all Indian religious practices, such as the Vedic rituals, the mysticism of the Upanishads, and Yogic practices (31).
Female Tantric figures are prominent in the Tantric texts and imagery. In art, these women are oftentimes depicted dancing or flying through the sky; hair flowing loosely; adorned with skull and bone jewelry; sometimes hunting; sometimes their skin color is red or blue in hue. This imagery serves to demonstrate the free, independent, untamed qualities of the Tantric woman. One prominent female Buddha is Vajrayogini with her blood red skin, wildly loose black hair, dancing sometimes on the skulls of corpses, sometimes soaring in the sky, and drinking ambrosia from a cup made from a skull (Shaw 28). She is free, unashamed, reveling in her power, fierceness and independence.
Various poems and stories exist in the Tantric scriptures describing women hunting and flying and traversing liberally. “Tantric texts articulate a profound and appreciative metaphysical understanding of female embodiment” (Shaw 35). There are terms to describe these divine feminine creatures: Yogini, a practitioner in Yoga, the ritual arts and a deity with magical powers; dakini, also known as “skywalker” for her ability to fly which serves as a metaphor highlighting her spiritual ecstasy and freedom; duti, the female messengers of both the mundane and trans-worldly realms; and the vira or heroine who has deviated from conventional practices in order to traverse the challenging path of Tantric Buddhism (Shaw 38-39).
The female figures are independent and proud yet when they are enjoined with masculinity they achieve the roles of teachers, spiritual allies, and mystical companions. Their male partners, rather than being portrayed as dominators or suppressors, are lovers, supplicants, and spiritual companions (Shaw 37).
Tantric Buddhism rests in the foundational knowledge that women are essential to achieving spiritual enlightenment. Tantric women gurus have the ability to achieve enlightenment on their own. They are strong, independent, aware of their power and revel in their power. They are “proud of their strength, delight in shrewdish behavior, and derive pleasure from the fact they are untamable” (Shaw 54-55).
The goal of achieving bliss and the importance of honoring the feminine as a balance between energies are strong parallels in the philosophies of BDSM. “Both Tantra and BDSM are erotic arts of consciousness.” Both employ sex techniques, focus on stimulating the senses, are consensual between practitioners, raise erotic energy and “encourage personal freedom, individuality and imagination” (Carrellas 10). Sensory experiences are not a source of suffering, but rather a source of bliss (Shaw 93).
Bliss and ecstasy, used somewhat interchangeably in this paper, may be described as a soulful happiness; a metaphysical experience; the feeling of connecting with the sacred and the divine. Carrellas offers guidelines for attaining this state: stay in the moment, don’t try so hard, release expectations and judgments, surrender, and be present and conscientious (21).
The relationships between practitioners of both Tantra Buddhism and BDSM hold similarities. Tantra emphasizes predominately reverence to the woman, which can be expressed in various ways beyond the ritual: cooking for her, serving her, or massaging her feet. BDSM coins this relationship as a Domme/submissive paralleling the female Guru/male disciple dynamic. However, existing in BDSM very commonly is the Dominant/submissive embodying a male Dominant and female submissive. These terms, however, may be misleading to a non-practitioner for they do not denote a weakness or an inferiority on the part of the submissive. In fact, it is quite the opposite, as the submissive maintains the control of boundaries and limits; without the trust of the Dom(me), there can be no involvement.
Tantric Buddhism offers the illusion that women are in the dominant position. Shaw elaborates that this “surface imbalance helped to ensure the deeper harmony of the sexes”. It is as though men needed to be pushed farther away from the extreme of their egocentricity in order to embrace the role and meaning of women in the dynamic in order to achieve balance. This relationship did not focus on the dominance of either gender, but rather the union of masculine and feminine in the shared goal of spiritual enlightenment (72).
Both practices depend on intimacy and respect unconditionally. In Tantric practice violation of demonstrating respect resulted in severe consequences. Intimacy is critical for the attainment of bliss and enlightenment. Disciples were encouraged to take care in selecting their gurus. She should demonstrate freedom, be free from shame and fear, rejoice in her femininity, be adventurous, and speak her truth. Pairings were also based on characteristics such as body types, behavioral patterns and psychological traits (Shaw 54). This selection process most definitely parallels BDSM relationships, much like dating in the conventional sense. Intimacy and the willingness to please and serve require certain compatibilities and attraction. A healthy and true BDSM relationship maintains the utmost respect and substantial communication between partners.
As previously mentioned, the body is embraced as a vehicle for attaining bliss, ecstasy and enlightenment, which incorporates erotic sexual acts, although not necessarily dependent on them. Again, this holds true for both Tantric practice and BDSM. BDSM acknowledges and accepts an endless array of “fetishes” and continually stresses the release of shame and judgment with the understanding that partners are in consensual agreement. These fetishes serve as forms of worship, recognizing the divinity in your partner, as well as simply a means to achieve a state of ecstasy. Sexual pleasure is an intimate offering and the employment of fetishes requires understanding and control.
The main elements in sexual connection with the goal of ecstasy are to transcend time, become egoless, and to be in your natural state (Carrellas 18). Passion and pleasure are important, but not ignorance and lust. Detachment from the ego is critical, and intimacy exists (Shaw 168-169).
The acts between partners have been called “rituals” in Tantric practice and “play sessions” in BDSM. While the success of attaining spiritual enlightenment encompasses interaction in daily life and an overall relationship, rituals and sessions are important opportunities to further the shared goals.
Both practices offer the exercise of eye-gazing. Specifically looking at the non-dominant eye (the left eye for a right-handed person for instance) is to look into the gateway of the soul (Carrellas 3). Eye-gazing is an important step in connecting and a tool in the development of trust. Another technique is touching a hand over the partner’s heart, connecting the heart chakra. “We build energy in BDSM in the same ways we build energy in Tantra. It’s a dance of the heart/upper chakra energy with genital/lower chakra energy” (Carrellas 210).
Once trust is established the disciple or submissive can work towards surrendering. It is critical for the Guru or Dominant to know their partner; to be aware of their body language; to have an understanding of their fears, curiosities, traumas, and desires; to be present and relaxed with a quiet mind. This keeps the disciple/submissive on “the edge” (Carrellas 210). Trust also develops in that if the Guru/Dominant takes their partner too far in the experience that they possess the recognition, ability and desire to recover their disciple/submissive. Oftentimes this is demonstrated in the practice of “aftercare” within BDSM, offering affection, compassion and nurturing behavior.
BDSM employs a variety of props – again, based upon the preferences and curiosities of the practitioners – that may likely have been utilized in ancient Tantric practices as well. Simple tools include bondage items and blindfolds. The idea behind these items is to deprive certain senses in order for others to become heightened, thus enhancing the blissful experience and ability to surrender. If the disciple/submissive is blindfolded, other senses such as smell and sound and touch increase, cultivating the ability to experience pleasure, the release of endorphines, quiet the mind, and surrender to the experience and the moment. These rituals or sessions may or may not involve genital stimulation. Attaining this blissful state may be induced by the simple caress of a feather on the skin, or the warmth of candle wax, or the scent of something sweet.
BDSM calls this state of ecstasy “subspace”. Buddhism terms this as achieving emptiness and utilizes the term mahamudra. This space is natural, relaxed, loose, and clarity is achieved. The mahamudra “opens the door to a realm of magical fluidity” creating a state of awareness where “anything is possible” (Shaw 95) and realizations can be made like “a fresh wind sweeping through an empty sky” (87).
Particularly in contemporary western societies, feelings of shame and judgment are prevalent surrounding sex, desire, and pleasure. These are age-old challenges, it seems, as demonstrated in the emergence of Tantra Buddhism as early as the 11th century CE. The roles of men and women and the interactions between the genders have notably been unbalanced and obscured. The most successful female submissives in BDSM relationship dynamics are powerful, independent women (or men) who choose to relinquish control and offer her submission to her Dominant for the achievement of ecstasy, fulfillment and ultimately a modernized form of spiritual enlightenment. While on the surface the Dominant appears to be in complete control, in reality this power exchange involves the submissive dictating the interactions with regards to boundaries and the amount of control she releases. Once this is established the Dominant can fulfill his role as a guide, a mentor, an edge-pusher. It becomes his enjoyed position to learn her boundaries, understand her deeply and intensely in the intellectual, emotional and physical senses in order to push her for growth.
In the primal sense, women desire the opportunity to fill this type of submission. The more independent she is in her everyday life, the more she craves embracing her femininity; a Dominant man feeds this craving for her. The Dominant/submissive dynamic speaks to a type of goddess worship paralleling the reverence offered to the female gurus in Tantric Buddhist practices. Shaw quotes from the Cittavisuddhiprakarana: “Love, enjoyed by the ignorant, becomes bondage. That very same love, tasted by one with understanding, brings liberation. Enjoy all the pleasures of love fearlessly for the sake of liberation” (140).
Carrellas, Barbara, and Annie Sprinkle. Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley, Calif: Celestial Arts, 2007. Print.
Shaw, Miranda. Passionate Enlightenment. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995. Print.