An interview with Miranda Shaw
From Spring/ Summer 98 Issue of What is Enlightenment? Magazine
Reprinted with permission
Miranda Shaw is the author of
Passionate Enlightenment - Women in Tantric Buddhism
When Professor Miranda Shaw looks at women in Tibetan paintings, she does not see colorful two-dimensional figures born of an artist's mind. She sees "numinous, sky-borne women," "revelers in freedom," "enchantresses of passion, ecstasy and ferocious intensity" - radiant reflections of the powerful, enlightened women who helped to shape the world of Buddhist tantra.
She writes: "One can almost hear the soft clacking of their intricate bone jewelry and feel the wind stirred by their rainbow-colored scarves as they soar through the tantric Buddhist landscape." It was her encounter with these images at an art exhibit during her sophomore year in college that first captured her imagination and inspired the curiosity that fueled her life's first major work-a research quest that carried her from the Harvard Divinity School to the remote reaches of the Tibetan plateau in search of an authentic firsthand understanding of the theory and practice of tantra.
Raised by Methodist parents in a small town in Ohio, Shaw first became interested in Eastern religions at the age of fourteen when a family friend showed her a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. Despite having been raised with little exposure to religious thought, she found herself mesmerized, unable to put the book down. It was the beginning of a love affair with religious literature, the tokens of which still line the hallways and rooms of her small apartment near the University of Richmond, where she is now Assistant Professor of Religion. Her zeal for religious study eventually propelled her into the doctoral program at Harvard, where working on her Ph.D. dissertation, she found her way to the forefront of research into tantric Buddhism.
The culmination of that research is her 1994 book, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Now in its fourth printing, Passionate Enlightenment has been hailed as a groundbreaking contribution to the study of tantric history. Drawing on her exhaustive study of the central tantric texts in their original languages, as well as two and a half years of field research in India and Nepal, Shaw's book presents a revolutionary reexamination of the nature of tantric practice, revolving around one simple point: In addition to serving the spiritual progress of men, tantra was also for the enlightenment of women. While there has been a great deal of scholarship on both Buddhism and tantra over the past quarter century, prior to Shaw's work, the assumption underlying that research had always been that women were included in tantric practice only to the extent that they could support men in their pursuit of enlightenment. By setting that assumption aside and taking a fresh, in-depth look at both written and living sources, Shaw discovered a world in which women not only lived and practiced on an equal footing with men in their own pursuit of spiritual transformation, but in many cases even led the way. In fact, Shaw learned that for the serious male tantric practitioner, women were to be worshipped, honored and revered as the bringers of enlightened energy into the world. Through this revolutionary reinterpretation of the tantric texts, Shaw was finally able to make sense of many of the seemingly disparate strands of this complex tradition and, in so doing, to create a foundation for a new chapter in the study of tantric theory and practice.
While this issue of What Is Enlightenment? is not directly concerned with the topic of gender in relation to spiritual practice, we knew as soon as we read Miranda Shaw's book that we wanted to speak with her. As a pioneering thinker in her field and a researcher with firsthand experience among traditional teachers, she appeared to be in a better position than almost anyone to help us sort through the confusing message of contemporary tantra. And, in a manner uncharacteristic of the writing of many scholars, her adventurous prose revealed a dynamic and seemingly personal interest in her subject. What intrigued us most of all, however, were the apparent ease and confidence with which she was able to shift from subtle and insightful explications of esoteric Buddhist teachings to detailed descriptions of the more graphic dimensions of tantric sexual practice without missing a beat. Miranda Shaw, we thought, must be an unusual professor.
But despite having read her work and having spoken with her a few times on the phone, the day Miranda Shaw picked me up at the Richmond airport, I think I was still expecting someone more closely resembling a librarian than the attractive, spirited woman who greeted me. "I didn't expect you to be so young!" she said, shaking my hand and smiling warmly. And as we sped into town from the airport, tires screeching around at least one corner, I began to get a sense of the Miranda Shaw who had found so much inspiration in the images of the sky-dancing tantric heroines. Later, sitting lotus-style in the living room of her apartment, surrounded by erotic imagery from both classical and contemporary art, she shared both her understanding of the views and practices of Buddhist tantra and the personal passion for her subject that had taken her to the far corners of the earth.
WIE: In your book Passionate Enlightenment, you describe how tantric Buddhism began as a revolutionary movement or rebellion against the rigidity of traditional Buddhist monastic institutions. Who were these revolutionaries?
Miranda Shaw: The founders of tantra came from all walks of life. We find royalty and aristocracy as well as tribal people and people practicing all kinds of trades and crafts. But interestingly, we also find people from the monasteries. As tantra was being founded and shaped, some of those in the monasteries left because they didn't want to be removed from life-as-lived. The main impetus for the movement, though, did take place outside the monasteries, from what we would call laypeople-people who wanted to practice yoga and spiritual disciplines, but not necessarily in a monastic context as celibates, and not in separation from members of the opposite sex or outside of the context of their intimate and familial relationships.
WIE: Prior to the emergence of tantra, Buddhism was generally practiced only within a strict monastic setting, so if you wanted to become a serious spiritual practitioner within Buddhism, you joined the monastery?
MS: That's right. There were ethical practices and simple meditations that laypeople did, but they wouldn't be the intensive spiritual pursuits in quest of enlightenment.
WIE: What were the pivotal events that spurred this new movement?
MS: The development of Buddhism has been marked by ever increasing expansion into new geographic areas and new social groups and cultural contexts. During the tantric period, we find Buddhism once again expanding its base and actually reaching out to people, for example, in the mountains, at the borders of society, and at the lower rungs of society. As these people entered Buddhism, they brought with them their own forms of spirituality, their own symbolism and ritual skills. So their insights became woven into the tantric Buddhist vision. One of the ritual skills that is associated with those groups is the shamanic practice of "transforming into deity." These techniques of transforming into deity then combined with the tantric goal of attaining Buddhahood in this very life.
WIE: Transforming into deity-what does that mean exactly?
MS: Embodying the presence of deity on every level of your being: body, speech and mind. Not only mentally seeing the world as a deity would see it-as harmonious and pure and perfect as it is, as a realm of aesthetic splendor-but also speaking as a deity would speak: with words of insight, liberation and compassion. What I find very exciting about the tantric vision is the practice of realizing the presence of deities within your own body and manifesting divinity through your physical actions. But it is not only manifesting the presence of a deity so that the deity can receive worship, or to heal or to perform other activities, but to manifest the presence of full enlightenment, of Buddhahood, in the world.
WIE: This was obviously an entirely new context for the practice of Buddhism. What was actually happening at that time?
MS: The institutional pattern of tantra followed the ancient yogic model in India, which is that a teacher comes forth with teachings, revelations and methods, and then disciples who want to practice that gather around the teacher and often live near the teacher. They practice together and perhaps go on pilgrimage together and form a small community. There was no central organizing or authorizing body that would censor the teachings in advance or would limit who could teach, which is one of the reasons why it was such a creative period.
WIE: What were some of the key practices of the tantric approach?
MS: The basic mindfulness techniques and ethical teachings of Buddhism were already in place by this time. What was added at this point was the incorporation of a number of yogic techniques, specific ways of directing the breath and the inner energies of the body, which were drawn from the broader yogic knowledge of India. A lot of ritual elements were also incorporated, as well as magical techniques and dance practices. Probably what was most distinctive about this period, though, was the introduction of the yoga of union-the practices that men and women could do together in order to transform the energies awakened by sexual union into very refined states of consciousness, wisdom and bliss.
WIE: Until that time, there had been no sexual practice in Buddhism, right?
MS: Right. There were ethical teachings about sexuality but there were no yogas for using those energies to attain enlightenment.
WIE: How was sexuality or the practice of sexual yoga seen to be of benefit on the path to enlightenment?
MS: Sexuality is an extremely powerful, primal and irreducible aspect of human nature. One of the contributions of the tantric paradigm was the insight that sexual energies were being wasted in some forms of meditative practice. Some of the tantric pioneers felt that a celibate lifestyle did not, in fact, represent a mastery of one's sexuality, but rather a repression of and even a flight in fear from one's sexuality. One was in fact postponing for future lives work which must be done to integrate every aspect of one's being and to master every form of energy at one's command.
WIE: So the idea was that if you took a lifelong vow of celibacy, there was no way you could actually achieve mastery over the sexual impulse?
MS: There is a tantric teaching to the effect that without the practice of sexual union and without integrating one's energies at that level, it is impossible to attain enlightenment in the present lifetime.
WIE: I read in your book that one of the tantric texts goes so far as to state that even the Buddha did not in fact attain enlightenment under the bodhi tree, as is commonly believed, but while practicing sexual yoga in the palace with his wife.
MS: That's exactly the teaching I'm referring to. They say it's impossible to attain enlightenment in the present lifetime without uniting with a yogic consort. So they claim that even Shakyamuni Buddha had a consort with whom he practiced-his wife, before he left the palace-and that if he had not done that, he could not have attained enlightenment.
WIE: You say in your book that although he had already actually achieved enlightenment in the palace, he renounced his kingdom, became a homeless wanderer and did years of austere practices in order to inspire people to take up the spiritual life-people who might be moved by such a powerful act of renunciation.
MS: Yes, he attained enlightenment in union with her. Then, in order to draw people who would be inspired by renunciation and who are in fact destined to follow a path of renunciation during this lifetime, he provided that illusory display of austerity.
WIE: It's a fascinating story. But I would imagine that the Theravadins or other more traditional Buddhists would argue that that was just a rewriting of history to serve the tantrics' own ideological aims.
MS: What Shakyamuni actually did and attained and said is so lost in the mists of time that by the time we get the earliest written sources, it's already hundreds of years later. I do feel that the tantric account is possible. In speaking about this, though, I want to make it clear that the tantrics did not make a value judgment about people who could not or did not want to integrate their sexual energies into their spiritual path during this lifetime. They realized that celibacy is appropriate for some people because of where they are karmically. But what the tantric insight added was the recognition that some people have an abundance of passion-a very sensual, sensuous, aesthetically alive, emotionally intense character. They wanted to offer tantra as a way that those people could use this intensity so that they would not have to waste all this energy which was at their command, and which in all likelihood they could not really renounce or repress in any case.
WIE: In talking about it this way, you seem to be saying that there are different paths for different types of people and that tantra was intended for passionate people, those who expressed an unusual degree of fire and intensity in their character.
MS: Absolutely. The texts say this over and over again: Tantra is for passionate people.
WIE: How does that fit with the view you just described, that tantric union is the only way that anyone can actually attain full Buddhahood in this lifetime?
MS: Full Buddhahood in this lifetime is a tantric goal. It is not a Mahayana or Theravada goal. Therefore, it's fully consistent.
WIE: But in whatever lifetime it happens, at that point it will be in this lifetime. So in the end, they do seem to be saying that the only way anybody is ever going to get there is through the practice of sexual yoga or tantric union.
MS: That's right. Because, interestingly, they believe that in order to attain full enlightenment you have to contact and release the energy of your heart, which for them is the center, the core of your being, of your consciousness, at the deepest level. That is where you are storing the fears, hatreds and angers of many lifetimes. They felt that only the energy that is generated through the practice of union with a consort could have the power to blast through the residue of centuries of egoic behavior and immersion in illusion and negativity, and to dissolve the layers of hatred and fear within the heart.
WIE: How does this "blasting through" occur? In your book, you state that "practice with a [tantric] partner is believed to make it possible to open the heart fully at the most profound level, freeing it from all knots, constrictions and obscurations created by false views and self-cherishing emotions."
MS: One of the purposes of the sexual yogas is to concentrate the energies in the abdominal area of the body, which is the seat of inner fire that the tantrics seek to kindle and fan into flame. Through the practice of sexual union, the attention is concentrated in that area, which is several inches below the navel, in the region where the sexual sensations would be arising. However, unlike ordinary sexuality, where the partners would simply allow the pleasure to take its course, tantrics would concentrate their energy and their thought at this one point and use it to arouse that inner fire. When that fire is kindled and starts to burn very brightly, there are several meditations that can be done to refine the energies at the heart. One of them is to direct the energy upward into the heart and, because of the quantity of energy involved, as it goes through the heart, it naturally unties a knot, as they say, and bursts through these residues. However, as the residues are being released, one will sometimes have an experiential sensation of the emotion that is being released as it floats up into conscious awareness. Sometimes if it's a hatred, for example, or a fear that's floating up, one will actively experience the emotion as it's being released. It takes a great deal of awareness to be able to process the emotions that are coming up from the past and release them as they arise, rather than project them onto the present situation.
WIE: It sounds as though the practice requires a lot more than just the generation of intense energy. It must also demand a cultivation of certain qualities, and of one's character, in order for the practitioner to be able to bear everything that such an intensity of energy is going to stir up.
MS: The potential for reattachment is there because as these emotions and powerful mind-states are being generated, if you are not really poised to detach from them, you can become reinvolved in these past neuroses. They demand at that time to be dealt with in one way or another, and that's why practicing tantra is said to be like walking along the edge of a sword. It's not without its danger. The intensity of energies you're working with and the level of psyche that you are excavating is potentially dangerous to your peace of mind.
WIE: What is it like to be working so closely and intimately with another person when dealing with such powerful energies and emotions? Tantric relationships must be unusually intense.
MS: The relationship provides an opportunity to observe ourselves, to mirror one another and to work with these energies as they arise in an ongoing way. When that direct involvement is combined with the power of the yoga, the entire relationship becomes a crucible of inner combustion and total transformation.
WIE: It would seem, then, that the spiritual involvement between two partners goes far beyond just doing the energetic practice together. Does it also confront the challenge of living together and finding a way to become decent human beings?
MS: It goes vastly beyond becoming decent human beings. It has to do with how we are going to support one another in attaining enlightenment, which is another level of interaction altogether. It might involve things that in an ordinary way don't look decent. That's why it's very important in choosing a tantric partner to find someone who has a comparable level of emotional, intellectual and spiritual sophistication. Because the processes involved require not only a high degree of emotional detachment, but also the possession of certain intellectual skills, such as the capacity to deconstruct the contents and interpretations of one's experience in a precise way.
WIE: It sounds as though getting into a tantric relationship is a serious event requiring a lot of forethought. This doesn't seem like something you could just add to your relationship.
MS: It would be harder to add tantra to an existing relationship than it would be to start it as a tantric relationship from the beginning, because in an existing relationship so many patterns would already be in place. And then you'd have all those patterns in addition to all the patterns from the previous lifetimes that you're trying to clear up. I like to think that in theory it could be done, but that's not the way it seems to work.
WIE: One of the other practices that you detail in your book has to do with the combining of bliss and emptiness, or the attempt to bring the realization of emptiness to bear on one's experience of bliss. When you say "bliss" in this context, do you simply mean erotic pleasure-the same pleasure that most people are familiar with?
MS: In tantric practice, one goes beyond pleasure and follows the pleasure to its root, which is the core of the mind, which is made of pure bliss. You go into the realm of pure bliss which is beyond the senses, but you have used the senses to reach it. You've used the sense pleasure and gone deeply into its core. But when you're in this deep level of bliss, it's very easy to become attached to the object of the bliss, or source of the bliss-which is your partner-and also to the experience of bliss itself, and to turn the bliss into yet another experience of entanglement. That is why the experience of bliss is combined with meditation upon emptiness. It is necessary in tantra to combine this experience of very intense bliss with the realization of emptiness. Tantrics would already have familiarized themselves with the philosophy of emptiness, the understanding that all phenomena are devoid of intrinsic identity, of permanent, independent selfhood. So in that sense, there's an understanding that the world is illusory and thus is not capable of providing satisfaction or ultimate bliss. What tantric partners do in the midst of the experience of bliss is to take this specific insight and apply it to the experience of bliss itself and to deconstruct it, to see that there is no self that is experiencing the bliss. The bliss has arisen in a kind of empty space. There's no owner of the bliss. There's no source of the bliss. The combination of bliss with this insight into its emptiness should then lead each partner into vast, skylike awareness, a decentered awareness-in essence, an experience of universal awareness.
WIE: There's another point in your book where you describe the transformation of sensual pleasure into spiritual ecstasy.
MS: This is exactly how it happens. The ordinary pleasure is turned into transcendent pleasure by the application of insight into emptiness.
WIE: Okay. So there's this intense experience of erotic pleasure and you're completely concentrated in that.
MS: Yes, and then you're applying your insight into emptiness. You're deconstructing it. You're seeing it as empty. As you move through that process, you're actually removing any possible elements of attachment within it, so you're taking yourself out of the bliss as the experiencer. You're taking the object out of the bliss as its cause. You're taking even that interpretation of the experience as bliss, even the word "bliss," out of it also. As you deconstruct the different aspects of the bliss, it is transformed from ordinary bliss or pleasure into the transcendent bliss that is devoid of characteristics, and which cannot be described.
WIE: So does the bliss actually change or do you just peel away everything that you've imposed on it in order to illuminate what it was already?
MS: In the tantric analysis, you're removing the obstacles to experiencing it in its fullness. According to tantra, that transcendent bliss is fully present in every moment of experience, but it's covered over by what we have projected onto our experience, which are the demands of our ego upon that event.
WIE: One of the main topics of your book is male/female gender relationships and gender roles. You make it quite clear that in the practice of tantric sexual yoga, men are to worship women. Throughout the text, men are variously referred to as "devotees," "servants" and even "slaves" of the women, and in particular, men are advised that they should "take refuge in the vulva of an esteemed woman" and should even "be willing to touch and ingest every substance discharged by a woman's body."
MS: And lick any part of her body, if requested to do so!
WIE: That's an extreme degree of willingness to worship and to accept a decidedly subordinate relationship to the woman. It's literally treating the woman as a goddess.
MS: As a goddess, yes. The goal of tantric practice is to transform into deity. The woman's path involves realizing that she is, in essence, a goddess or a female Buddha. The man's treatment of her supports her in her emerging realization of her enlightened essence. If he were treating her merely as an equal or as a subordinate, she would have to struggle against his vision and his treatment of her in order to realize her innate divinity. Tantric women do not want to do that.
WIE: If embodiment of deity is one of the main goals of tantra, is it also a goal for the man?
MS: Oh, absolutely.
WIE: Does she then treat him like a god?
MS: He's also realizing his innate divinity and his Buddhahood, only he believes that the proper expression of his Buddhahood is to honor her divinity. In this worldview, it is the role of the female to channel enlightened energies, the energy of transformation, into the world in a powerful way. It is the role of the male to be the recipient of those energies and to honor them and their source. Some men may disagree, but that is the tantric view.
WIE: In your book you mention that in bringing the woman to arousal, "a man must be careful to incite arousal without detracting from her mindfulness." How does he do that?
MS: It's a question of virtuosity, of precision, of delicacy. He can't approach it in a sloppy or-
WIE: A gross-minded kind of way?
MS: Yes. I guess delicacy is the best word for it. Not imposing himself and his advances upon her but eliciting her pleasure. It's a different orientation. It involves a great deal of attentiveness to her state of mind and her stages of arousal. It precludes the kind of aggressiveness in the sexual act where the man has a set of preconceived stages in his mind that he's going to get through before he reaches his goal, and the quicker the better.
WIE: That would distract her from her meditation?
WIE: You mentioned earlier that tantric union or sexual yoga is considered to be one of the highest, most advanced practices, requiring tremendous preparation, including intensive meditation practice, the cultivation of a sense of universal responsibility, compassionate motivation, and even the abandonment of the illusion of a separate, isolated self-all this simply to prepare to do the practice.
MS: That's right. And it requires solitude. It's something that you would do in most cases in a retreat type of situation.
WIE: What kind of retreat?
MS: The couple might go to the woods, to a cave or a meditation hut-someplace where they have silence and solitude. Because of the rarefied states of awareness that one would be cultivating, one really wouldn't want interruption at that time. One would need to concentrate and go into the experience very deeply.
WIE: So this wasn't a practice that couples were doing in the evenings after work and dinner?
MS: Once the practice was stabilized and mastered, they could do that, but at the beginning, while they were developing it, it wouldn't be like that. You hear about people going on retreats, for example, for six months or a year, where they would perform sexual yoga practice intensively before they would try to integrate it into their lives on a more natural, ongoing basis.
WIE: It's interesting to hear that this is how it has historically and traditionally been viewed because our reference point for tantra these days is something much different. Looking through the spiritual magazines, we see countless tantra workshops being taught by couples, which other couples attend together or to which singles come and pair up for a one- or two- week "intensive." Compared to the spiritual context you've described, from what I've seen these workshops seem to be based on more of a Western therapeutic approach.
MS: The main distinction, I think, between some of the modern, more secularized or Westernized versions -but also some Indian versions-is that in these contemporary approaches, the relationship itself is the focus, and they're importing elements and practices from tantra in order to enhance their relationship. Whereas in authentic tantra, you're using the contents of your relationship in order to pursue and attain enlightenment. So the focus, the goal, is completely different.
WIE: How much of what's currently going on around us in the West in the name of tantra do you feel actually lives up to the seriousness of what you have been describing?
MS: It seems that in general Westerners do not have the foundation that Eastern practitioners would have. For example, the practice of tantra in India, Nepal and Tibet presumes five years, on average, of study of the philosophy of emptiness. People who are considering doing tantric practice ask one another: "What philosophies of emptiness have you studied?" "What texts?" They'll question one another on technical points of emptiness. What Westerner has done that? The fruition of tantric practice is the union of bliss and emptiness. If you do not understand emptiness, you cannot deconstruct your emotions, and that is essential to tantric practice. What do you do with fear when it arises, or anger or intense desire or lust? How do you deconstruct that if you don't understand emptiness? As you said, it's not psychotherapy.
WIE: I understand that it's also a tantric practice to imagine you're performing sexual yoga without actually having a physical partner.
MS: This is for monks, because they don't want to give up their vows of celibacy. They consider it preparation for that time when they can practice with a consort in future lives.
WIE: When they're doing that visualization practice, is it actually something that they're engaged in on every level, so to speak? Do they provoke arousal in themselves?
MS: They're supposed to.
WIE: They're supposed to get sexually aroused and do this visualization? Even in the monastery they're doing that?
MS: Some of them. That's the impression one gets. They learn to channel that energy on their own. They're not taking it to a point of release, but arousing it and controlling it.
WIE: In addition to your study of the tantric texts, you also did two and a half years of field research in Asia. You mentioned that you met a number of yogis and yoginis. How many did you meet whom you felt were true tantric masters?
MS: More than a dozen. They weren't all teachers of it, but they were all serious practitioners and adept masters. I met some inauthentic ones, too.
WIE: What convinced you that they were true masters?
MS: I talked to them about the practices and I also looked at the level or intensity of their awareness, their capacity to be totally aware in the present moment. One also gets a feeling for the purity of the yogic body of a person to whom one is talking.
WIE: What do you mean by that?
MS: How much presence or absence there is in their system of egoic residue. You can tell that by the way they move and the way they comport themselves, the gravity, dignity and total mindfulness of their presence. Whether their movements appear to be the gestures of a deity, whether they communicate divinity and total impeccability. It was the quality of their embodiment and presence that I looked at. But I didn't stop there. If I thought I had found someone, I would question them. It's a very subtle process.
WIE: In your book you mention Lama Jorphel, who was in some sense a teacher to you. Did you have other teachers as well or was he the only one?
MS: I met many impressive people, but he was the one with whom I worked most closely for the longest period. He really became involved in the project and took an interest in guiding me personally as well as intellectually. As a tantric teacher, he would not be interested simply in providing information about tantra or spiritual development. His whole purpose as a teacher of course is to guide and to transform people. Shortly after we met, very early in our interaction together, he asked me if I had a meditation practice. At that time, I did not. He told me that if I were to work with him, I would need to do 100,000 prostrations, starting today. And 100,000 purification mantras as well. I just said, "All right." I mean, how could I presume to ask for tantric teachings and not be willing to do any practice?
WIE: In your book, you also describe the way he worked with you ongoingly by spontaneously responding to your different emotional and mental states.
MS: He's a person whom I would characterize as having total awareness of the present moment and the capacity to devise a teaching or a lesson on the spot that mirrors the state of mind of the student and reveals whatever aspect of ego or illusion that may be operative in them at that time. It was an extraordinary kind of interaction. I had never experienced such accuracy of feedback from any Western therapist or counselor. I realized that that was because he was bringing no ego needs or projections to the situation whatsoever and therefore he had the capacity to mirror it in a very clear way.
WIE: Did you also undergo some of the more advanced tantric trainings? It wasn't clear to me whether you yourself engaged in the tantric yoga practices we've been speaking about.
MS: Tantric practice is secret. You can't talk about it. You can't say, "I did this." You can't say, "I did that." It's absolutely forbidden.
WIE: People only speak about it in the abstract?
MS: You can speak about it with the people you're doing it with.I talk about things in the abstract that I know to be true. That's all I can say. I wrote about very little from a purely theoretical perspective. I either ascertained it or talked to someone who had experienced it.
WIE: Lama Jorphel obviously imparted a lot to you during your time with him. Can you speak about what's changed for you as a result of all this?
MS: I changed profoundly on every level from my research and study, even on a cellular level. I was completely transformed physically. People who knew me before I started my research and then saw me towards the end of that period did not recognize me. Also, my understanding of men totally changed. I discovered that men were capable of decency, total refinement, and in fact, enlightenment. That it's possible for men to be supportive of women in a profoundly spiritual way, not simply emotionally. I discovered a whole form of male celebration of women that I did not know existed. I was also surrounded by images of divinity in female form, and seeing the unclothed female body in a religious context rather than in a commercial, secular context as it is in the West was profoundly affirming for me as a woman. My understanding of what is possible in male/female relationships changed and my understanding of myself as a woman completely changed. I had internalized a lot of the shame-based attitudes of the West, not only the general attitudes of the culture at large but also specific forms of shaming that had been inflicted upon me in my own personal trajectory from which I was able finally to be healed. I would really say that I encountered the power and full sacredness of being female, because the tantric teaching is that women are pure and sacred in the essence of their being. You're talking about your very cells, your energy, not simply something that you can attain, but an ontological fact. That changes the orientation of your journey.
WIE: There have been so many abuses of power by spiritual authorities over the past twenty years, and in particular, many reported cases of sexual abuse by teachers in the Buddhist tradition claiming to be practicing tantra. Often it seems that the word "tantra" is used to justify what usually turns out to be nothing more than the pursuit of personal sexual gratification, often at the disciple's expense. Even the great Kalu Rinpoche, revered as one of the greatest Buddhist masters of the modern era, often referred to as the Milarepa of the twentieth century and considered by many to have been a living Buddha, is now known to have been maintaining a secret sexual relationship with his young Western female translator, June Campbell, who claims with considerable support that she was intimidated into keeping the relationship secret.
MS: I have no doubt that it happened. She was emotionally coerced into a sexually abusive and exploitative relationship. Unfortunately, the word "tantra" does provide a shield behind which sexual predation can hide. But when you actually inquire into such sexual situations, you find out that tantric practice was not the intent of the relationship. The way, for example, that June Campbell describes their relationship, there was nothing even remotely tantric about it. It was not for their mutual pursuit of enlightenment. It was purely exploitative. This is not tantra. I have been approached by people who would simply say something like, "Have sex with me and you'll become more enlightened!"-which of course is not tantra. If someone is approached by a spiritual teacher and is told, as it was told to June Campbell and others, that this is for the benefit of the teacher, then they should know automatically that it is not tantra. Because in tantra, you're not allowed to use the other person on any level. It has to be totally voluntary. Any form of coercion is disallowed in tantra. I think the tantrics foresaw this kind of abuse because they made a rule that the man may not directly approach or request a woman to enter into a tantric relationship. He has to approach her and offer himself subtly, indirectly through body language, through signs and a certain secret language they use. We need this kind of clarity in the West, because women's lives, their peace of mind and even their spiritual practice are being destroyed by ordinary predation. This is simply sexual abuse in Eastern garb. I hope that work like mine, interviews like yours and this issue of your magazine will help to clarify what tantra is so that people cannot hide behind that label.
WIE: In looking at this whole issue, though, it seems to me that something else is also revealed by the fact that so many great masters have failed to demonstrate an enlightened relationship to sexuality. We're not just speaking about charlatans. Everybody I know who met Kalu Rinpoche said he was an incredibly beautiful human being, a truly rare example of purity and humanity.
MS: He was unbelievable.
WIE: So my question is: If even a man like that, who has attained such a high level of practice, in a tradition where there is such an elaborate teaching around sexuality, is unable to live with integrity and decency in the face of the sexual impulse, then how wise is it for anyone to recommend that people take up sexual practice as a path to enlightenment?
MS: These abuses and distortions actually justify the original insight and intent of tantra, which was that if you do not work directly with your sexuality, if you simply repress it or try to ignore it without mastering it, then you cannot become fully enlightened. It's not going to take care of itself. And it's not going to go away by itself if you have a lifetime of celibacy. What we see happening, even in the case of the great master, is that if sexuality is neglected, and at the same time, other sides of the personality, such as lust for power or accumulation, are also developing, then the sexual energies are simply going to be there to be claimed by the uncultivated and even possibly corrupt dimensions of the personality. This is the entire point of tantra: Enlighten your sexuality along with everything else!
WIE: Because if it's not looked into, if it's not reckoned with, then it's bound to resurface somewhere?
MS: Yes, it will surface as part of the unenlightened dimension of your character and emerge in a way that causes you suffering and inflicts suffering on others. The purpose of the path to enlightenment is to cease to suffer and to cease to cause others to suffer. Cases like this simply demonstrate that no matter how enlightened you may be, you must also pay attention to your sexuality.
From What is Enlightenment? Magazine
Reprinted with permission