Maithuna: Reflections on the Sacred Tantric Union of Masculine and Feminine
This is my depiction of male and female in sexual union, manifesting in the forms of Vajrayogini and Heruka.
Chod Maithuna, oil paint on silk. By Tilly Campbell-Allen
Most people are well acquainted with traditional artistic expressions of the joining of masculine and feminine principles and all that the personifications represent. The paintings were created in a time and society that, like it or not, still leaned toward the patriarchic, regardless of the concept of reincarnating into any gendered meat sack.
What I have been interested in is how some of these concepts can be interpreted in our modern, hopefully slightly more egalitarian world. A world in which the female principle isn’t smaller, contorted, with her back toward us, regardless of what the scholars may argue.
“The world will be saved by the Western woman,” according to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Well, that’s the meme that has been doing the rounds for a few years now. In context, it seems to have been mentioned during the Vancouver Peace Summit 2009, probably relating to what else His Holiness had said during a pro-women dialogue.
“Some people may call me a feminist,” he continued. “But we need more effort to promote basic human values—human compassion, human affection. And in that respect, females have more sensitivity for others’ pain and suffering.”
As a woman, naturally, I am going to agree!
That said, as a woman, I’d be remiss not to also argue that sadly his latter point is not always the case, of course. I am, nonetheless, curious as to how traditional imagery can be played with in today’s world. So with that preface, I’d like to continue, in two parts, and delve into my offering of this sacred connection. I draw upon all the traditional meanings and symbols and simply offer a tweaked angle to consider.
Maithuna is a Sanskrit term for sexual union, a yoga of marriage. To preserve the purity and sanctity of these practices, maithuna was kept secret for thousands of years. Sexual practice has long been known to bring transcendental bliss, whether in the Black Tantra of orgasm or White Tantra of withholding at the moment of orgasm to internalize and ascend the feeling.
Sadly, abuse of knowledge happens. Globally and historically, the misuse of sex occurs, resulting in the abuse of many students by their “gurus” and fatally transmitted diseases, as well as the black magic associated with these sacred rituals. In more recent years, the knowledge has become more public, and with the spread of Eastern esoteric wisdoms into the West, the practices of tantric sex have often become misunderstood.
It is said that these are degenerate times. As such, the practice of sacred sex has become an “excuse” for sexual misconduct. I think the Sogyal saga has shed light on much of the shadow side of modern Buddhism. Many women have been on the receiving end of a so-called “guru,” and when they did attempt to bring it to light, it was often either never taken seriously or brushed under the rug of communal silence. Cited as karma to be worked through, is something too easily said as a justification for turning the other cheek.
And while many newcomers, especially Westerners, turn to Buddhism with the best of intentions, it is easy to forget that much of traditional Buddhist training has roots in a very different time and culture. Likewise, we in the modern world perceive everything through our modern filters, yet things are not the same as they were 2,500 years ago.
The Dharma teacher Lama Tsültrim Allione writes:
I was at a lunch with the Dalai Lama and five Buddhist teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. We were sitting in a charming room with white carpets and many windows. The food was a delightful, fragrant, vegetarian Indian meal. There were lovely flower arrangements on the table.
We were discussing sexual misconduct among Western Buddhist teachers. A woman Buddhist from California brought up someone who was using his students for his own sexual needs. One woman said, “We are working with him with compassion, trying to get him to understand his motives for exploiting female students and to help him change his actions.”
The Dalai Lama slammed his fist on the table, saying loudly, “Compassion is fine, but it has to stop! And those doing it should be exposed!” All the serving plates on the table jumped, the water glasses tipped precariously, and I almost choked on the bite of saffron rice in my mouth.
Suddenly I saw him as a fierce manifestation of compassion and realized that this clarity did not mean that the Dalai Lama had moved away from compassion. Rather, he was bringing compassion and manifesting it as decisive fierceness. His magnetism was glowing like a fire.
I will always remember that day, because it was such a good teaching on compassion and precision. Compassion is not a wishy-washy “anything goes” approach. Compassion can say a fierce no! — Lama Tsültrim Allione, Wisdom Rising: Journey into the Mandala of the Empowered Feminine (2018)
Because there comes a time when enough is enough.
Is it possible that, even with the best intentions, many people today, however they like to frame it, have misconstrued the teachings in favor of multiple sexual partners? The toughest challenges can occur within the sanctity of a monogamous equal union, yet can it not be where the really profound ascension occurs?
This is a truly transformational yoga that can only occur with time, trust, truth, work, respect, perseverance, and total egoic surrender. Egoic death while still in the body. No romance here. Not reliant upon another to do the work for us, but a mutual coming together.
In this form of high tantra, in a similar vein to the Native Americans whose men protect women from harm so the women can “teach them the way home,” it is through the mutual dance that allows the typically more spiritually intuitive woman to help the man grow. Many ancient Buddhist stories speak of the enlightenment attained by those who are ready for this type of union. “She” may be in the form of a lowly wine seller (as in the story of Ghantapa) whose social status is of not much worth, but in reality she was Vajrayogini who saw it was time for him to receive her blessings.
In this painting, he supports her as she bestows upon him her bliss.
Chod Maithuna, oil paint and 24 karat gold on silk.
By Tilly Campbell-Allen
In Tibet, a knife called a kartika is used to cut meat and flay flesh. In a land where the earth is solid and a belief that the one last human gift we can offer is that of our dead body to feed the living, the remains of the dead were/are butchered and given to the vultures to feed upon.
In Chod, there is the offering of our earthly bodies, a symbolic death, a separation from the mundane mind-body and ultimate wisdom. Vajrayogini, being the highest primordial Buddha in female creation form, carries a kartika. She cuts away the ignorance. Now I love pigs and they are highly intelligent creatures, but in Tibetan Buddhism they represent ignorance. It is the “intelligent ignorance” of mankind, lost in a left-brained, ego-based reality. So in this painting, the male has two heads: the outer pig “mask,” then the human that is hidden inside. Nonetheless, the human form still needs to be stripped away as well to allow the ultimate bliss to fill him.
This spiritual journey can be hard for most of us and often takes situations to facilitate this evolution. In Chod, this “shamanic” practice is done very consciously.
Vajrayogini—the primordial creator, the Queen Dakini, the unfettered female, giver of life resulting in inevitable death, misunderstood, feared, and therefore historically demonized by those threatened—is traditionally depicted with a trace of blood falling from one of her fangs. Her fangs are representative of the Four Noble Truths and attainment over the four maras, and the drop of blood, the blood of life force, is a drop of Great Bliss (the original blood drop is found at the navel and the quintessential drop is the indestructible drop found at the heart, the drop that splits at the moment of death).
As we can see, the blood is pouring down from Heruka’s fang, and from the skull cup that Vajrayogini extends to him, filling the body below with supreme bliss. She has a fire body. She generates her inner heat of Great Wisdom Bliss and offers it to him. This is an inner heat during the intimacy of sexual intercourse but extends into our daily interpersonal intimate relationships. Through his willingness to be stripped of ego, he allows her to transform him into a greater version of himself.
Heruka, the “blood drinker,” the embodiment of indivisible bliss and emptiness, the wrathful male deity who loves all sentient beings with such ferocity that he facilitates in her flaying of his earthly male counterpart’s ego and is a conduit for the “bloody” Great Bliss that Vajrayogini gifts him.
In Tibet, the traditional greeting is made with the tongue extended. This stems from the original Bon tradition, when the Dzungar people invaded Tibet and feared the magical recitations of the Bonpos and Nyingmas, and believed that reciting these mantras would turn their tongues brown or black. The Dzungar officials would insist on seeing the tongues of Tibetans, the result—death for many natives. It morphed into a voluntary practice that to this day now says, “I have nothing to hide.”
Aside from the obvious sexual implications of tongues pressed against each other, they are also expressing, “I have no secrets from you; I have nothing to hide.” These two personified cosmic forces are adorned with the typical jeweled skull-crowns of the wisdom Buddhas and surrounded by bliss flames of supreme awareness. Their third eyes—seeing beyond the veil of mundane perception—are fully opened. Their three eyes each understanding the true nature of past, present, and future.
Only with heart may one enter.
In all cultures, it would seem, dating far back into history, the Elixir of Life appears to be in the mixing of red and white. The mixing and uniting of opposites.
The moon is considered masculine in many cultures. A full moon’s “milky white energy,” resembling semen, was even thought to be able to impregnate women. To wit, in stories of vampires and werewolves, the seductive blood-drinkers and men affected by the full moon are immortal enemies, yet inextricably bound until love creates the hybrid who unifies the two and brings about a super species.
In ophiolatry (serpent worship—one of the oldest and most prevalent sacred practices in the world, found morphed in the root texts of nearly all the world’s religions and spiritual practices), the snake is the bringer of life and death. It holds its own antidote to its deadly bite, along with the skin-sloughing symbolism of rebirth. The venom helps T-cell replication and possesses psychoactive properties, leaving the consumer’s health boosted and transcending to higher states of reality. Traditionally, this mixing of blood and venom was done in a skull cup. Arguably, the root, both physically and esoterically, of the Holy Grail.
The Anahata, or heart chakra, is associated with the thymus gland where T-cells are produced. At her heart, Vajrayogini traditionally wears a mirror, reflecting truth. In the case of this painting however, naturally it is the secret tantric practice of mixing menstrual blood and semen where transpersonal experiences are reached. Red Tantra is the practice of sexuality and White Tantra that of spirituality. The ascending Kundalini serpent energy rising up from the sexual centers as blood and semen mix. The lotus disk on which these transcending lovers are seated, is covered in red and white, dripping earthward.
Dance together. Support her and allow her to evolve you, could be how we see this. You see, apart from a few very exceptional cases, it is more than the mere act of sex or a fleeting heart connection.
Yes, we can love many. Yes, we strive for non-attachment. Yes, we work on non-projection. Yes, we can and often do engage in significantly evolving relationships. Today's relationship with women is in a confused state of flux stemming back a couple of thousand years. Ancient India is a perfect example of how a goddess-worshipping country has fallen to a land where many women are treated worse than the worst criminals, resulting in thousands of deaths each year. Here in the West, something as apparently superficial as salary has been grossly unequal resulting in an unbalanced society. Yet we have much talk of the return of the Divine Feminine. Many men “love women so much” though, that, whether it is from a “misogynistic rapper’s” view point, or that of the “goddess-loving guru,” or a man in awe of woman, the female still occupies a place of objectification to the desires of males and their (unconscious) feelings of supremacy or inadequacy. Simultaneously, many women have opted to don the goddess archetype, using sexuality as a tool and engaging with many sexual partners.
This is not to say that one should remain in an unhealthy relationship, nor a judgment for or against people’s free will to do with their bodies as they wish. However, if someone truly wishes to attain higher states of enlightenment through union, the often more challenging long haul “yoga of marriage” where the partners evolve each other, rather than the “poly-love” mantra that many cite under the modern “neotantra,” seems far more appropriate. Kundalini may rise, but the danger is the energy exchange. Possibly worse for a genuine seeker, as it may keep the practitioner trapped in an illusion of attaining higher mind, of higher love.
It would be remiss of me to imply that I endorse one route of relationship and not another. This is not my intention. We are all unique and each of us has our own path to happiness. I am simply mindful of the justifications some can offer to endorse their own proclivities, which may be more harmful than not. My aim is to offer another view point of view to think about. And if it evokes a reaction, either way, that’s good.
Tilly Campbell-Allen (Dakini as Art)
Related features from Buddhistdoor Global
The Growth of Wisdom and Compassion: An Interview with Drukmo Gyal Dakini, Part One
Connecting Modern Understanding to Ancient Wisdom: An Interview with Drukmo Gyal Dakini, Part Two
The Dakini at the Bus Stop
Connecting the Spirit with Love Through Authentic Art