Ultimate ‘ecstatic union’: the meaning and role of ‘erotic bliss’ in tantra and Kālacakra

Kālacakra statue – union of bliss-emptiness

“Erotic love, enjoyed by the ignorant, becomes bondage. That very same love, tasted with understanding, brings liberation.”  —Āryadeva

“Erotic bliss is the totality.” —Hevajra Tantra

‘”Buddha taught in countless different ways so that all beings with countless different faculties can find bliss. Anyway, wherever they go, all sentient beings from insects to wise men appear to be competing, running a race to find bliss. So, to find bliss, all you have to do is choose your target; don’t bother about anyone’s target.” – Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

These quotes above are some of the many quotes found from Vajrayana and tantric texts, commentaries, and teachings on the use of ‘erotic/sexual union’ to attain the ultimate ‘great bliss’ (Tibetan: dewa chenpo/bde ba chen po).  The energy of this bliss is orgasmic ecstasy and desire, often compared to a deep intense, lasting orgasm of a woman.  Depictions of semi-naked deities in union, or alone, are symbolic depictions of that great bliss union.  In the Vajrayana context, ‘bliss’ refers to one of the qualities of the ultimate nature, Tathagatagarbha, whose essence is the perfect, unchanging, indivisible union of bliss and emptiness (Tibetan : detong/bde stong). In Mahayana and lesser vehicles, the union is referred to as compassion-emptiness. However in Vajrayana there are varying and gradual levels of physical-mental union that culminate in the ultimate bliss-emptiness. What does ‘erotic bliss’ actually mean in that context and how is it attained?  How is that deep, erotic bliss similar to, but different from, the common, worldly notion of orgasmic pleasures and ‘sexual freedom’, paraded around as ‘free love’, pornography, polyamorous relations and hedonistic promiscuity?
In this brief article, intended for a non-academic audience, I offer some explanations on the role and meaning of ‘erotic bliss’, referencing some traditional Buddhist and non-Buddhist contemporary sources (such as Reich and Bjork), as well as my own experience and study of this subject (particularly in the Kālacakra tradition). Concluding that even though the path to reach the state of ‘everlasting bliss’ requires an extraordinary level of discipline, determination, effort and confidence in liberation from the continuous cycle of suffering and dissatisfaction, bliss is something we can all achieve as it is our very nature, regardless of age, looks, wealth or fame. It is the fundamental nature of reality-mind that involves turning away from externals and taking the inner journey of re-discovering the path ‘home’, via the body’s subtle energies and essential juices, and remaining in that loving ‘home’, which patiently and lovingly awaits all beings and phenomena.
Tantra and Sex

These days, for many ‘tantra’ has become synonymous with another way to ‘get one’s sexual rocks off’ in the name of spirituality, but in essence even that is no different from the worldly and more crass forms of sexuality it seeks to avoid. That’s not to say that engaging in a loving and more spiritually evolved/connected sexuality is not beneficial, it has to be better than blatant misogyny, sexism and porn addiction. As I wrote here in the article about consent, respect and love in tantra, sadly the attachment to, or lack of stable bodhicitta, towards women and sexual pleasure has created a huge degeneration even within vajrayana tantric practices, to the extent that women feel used  and abused by male teachers, as objects that are discarded like trash when no longer needed. The reason for is also no doubt related to the increased levels of monasticism in Tibetan Buddhist vajrayana and the sexual repression and perversion, as well as outright misogyny, of celibate men (often forced to be monks as children) taught to see women as the ‘dirty enemy’ of sexual lust and desire and yet crave and desire them secretly. Worse still, some then hypocritically engage in sexual acts with other monks, in the belief that this does not break their vows, as it is not with a woman or orifices and so on. Unloving detachment or not penetrating orifices, does not mean there is no contravention of basic Buddhist ethics and discipline!

As I have written about here in Tantric Buddhism, Sex and Women: the Importance of Love, Respect and Consent, such denigration and disrespect of women and female sexuality by celibate men, that carves women up into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in terms of the male gaze, not only contravenes the root downfalls of Vajrayana practice but also misses the fundamental point and spirit of bringing lust and desire onto the path of awakening. That is why if people jump straight into tantra out of an interest in sexual unions and pleasure, and lack the foundation (see below) they will be disappointed, and worse punished and ‘avenged’ by ‘wisdom’ if ‘she’ is ‘disrespected’. As sadly, tantric techniques used for normal sexual pleasures will not lead to any great, lasting bliss and ultimately, spiritual awakening.

Padmasambhava in union with Yeshe Tshogyel surrounded by dakinis
The longing ache of dissatisfaction and searching for lasting  ‘bliss’

To abide in the erotic bliss of this ever-present union is the path to liberation. The erotic embrace which liberates with orgasmic bliss; the embrace with the ultimate lover, is the great consort, Mahāmudrā.  To see and experience reality clearly as the siddhas do is to be in continuous, intimate, erotic union with primordial wisdom of your own mind body continuum.  Sexual drive is the primordial power to fuel liberation you must desire it and make love to the divine, the tantras agree that success in sexual yoga is a requirement for attaining enlightenment. Erotic bliss is not ‘just a metaphor’ for higher bliss, the tantric texts state that as you open your awareness to the subtle realm of the sambhogakaya, you directly perceive female and male deities in continuous, erotic unions.

For non-Buddhists, who are not studying or practicing Vajrayana or tantric rituals, all this talk may seem too far-removed from their everyday realities and interests. So how is any of this relevant to millions of people like that? For many, seeking temporary materialistic and physical pleasures is their reason and meaning of life. They don’t see it that way but everything they do is in some way connected to their search and need for inner satisfaction and bliss. Not realising that, they continually seek for it in places and experiences that never last and end up in some of suffering.  Not seeing that the bliss fire within burns eternally and continually and is the very nature of mind and reality, they seek it outside.  This mistaken notion of ‘bliss’ leads to all sorts of addictions, depression and suffering.  I discovered this teaching by Thinley Norbu Rinpoche that sums it up very well:

People living in great poverty with begging hands and pitiful eyes are struggling to find bliss. People living in great wealth with sagging bellies and greedy eyes are hoping to find bliss.

Old people feebly walk about with stick in hand to find bliss. Young people proudly walk about with cock in hands to find bliss.

Lowly clerks, though they don’t like their position, lick the boots of high executives to find bliss. High executives, though they fear revolution, continue to abuse lowly clerks to find bliss.

Some couples meet and marry in order to find bliss. Some couples separate and divorce in order to find bliss.

Some people insult each other in order to find bliss. Some people praise each other in order to find bliss.

Some people commit suicide to shorten their lives in order to find bliss. Some people become health fanatics to live a long life in order to find bliss.

Feculent pigs wallow in dirty mud to find bliss. Beautiful swans glide in clean pools to find bliss.

Some people are very narrow-minded in order to find bliss. Some people are very open-minded in order to find bliss.

Some government are facist in order to find bliss. Some government are democratic in order to find bliss.

Some people, including monks, keep short hair in order to find bliss. Some people, including yogis, keep long hair in order to find bliss.

Some ritualist ring the bell from inside and beat the drum from outside, creating noise to find bliss. Some meditators sit alone watching their mind inside and their noses outside, creating silence to find bliss.

Hermits go to a fresh-air hermitage and shit warm turds in cool, pleasant meadows to find bliss. Socializers go to stuffy Dharma centers, the cool thing to do, and meet warm lovers to find bliss.

Non-religious persons hate religious persons in order to find bliss. Religious persons hate non-religious persons in order to find bliss.

Some sectarians expose their hard penis for all to see and debauch prudish doctrines in order to find bliss. Some supposed nonsectarians bend their hard penis in nonsectarian jockstraps and seduce open-fly sectarians in order to find bliss.

Hinayana followers try to abandon desire to find bliss. Inner Vajrayana followers try to use desire to find bliss.

Hot steam ascends to form clouds that condense into a cool, pleasant rain. Cool water descends to turn generators that convert it’s power into warm, glowing lights.

Bodhisattvas are praying and manifesting activity, sometimes in a masochistic style, sometimes in a sadistic style, in order for all sentient beings to find bliss.

Lord Buddha taught in countless different ways so that all beings with countless different faculties can find bliss.

Anyway, wherever they go, all sentient beings from insects to wise men appear to be competing, running a race to find bliss. So, to find bliss, all you have to do is choose your target; don’t bother about anyone’s target.

Gypsy Gossip and Other Advice, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

I also came across this non-Buddhist contemporary writing, which also  sums up well the meaning of the ultimate bliss/love/union we all so desperately long and seek our entire lives, and how even when people are elderly and no longer inclined towards sexual pleasures, they still seek and find that bliss in other simple pleasures of the heart and environment.  The full version can be read here.

‘For someone without a partner the perfect lover is present, albeit not necessarily physically manifest in the flesh. It’s possible to connect with the energy of this love by being still and putting the focus inside the body. What is registered when nothing becomes the sweetness of existence without formality is the formless love, which waits for the moment to be made real in sense. However someone advanced in age, who is perhaps no longer able or inclined to make physical love, can rest easy in the living reality of all the love that has been made in the great journey through existence. This can often be observed in dear elderly men and women who are content to sit for hours gazing out across the fields or the sea, naturally connected to their perfect lover within the being.

The perfect lover is a companion in both life and death. The actual living experience is the formal aspect of love’s purpose, whereas the virtue of the often difficult situations that must accompany great love is the immortal state. In that other place, free of the restrictions of physical bodies, the reality behind the form is creatively free as a joyous expression of the authentic spiritual being. Love in the immortal space is complete as a unity of everything anyone has ever loved or recognised as the beauty and wonder of the sensory earth. This heavenly emanation is the purity of love without formality. Here, someone only has to think of a loved one and they’ve immediately united with them. But also, it’s possible to enjoy the smell of the rose or the rain, all being created simultaneously within the being.’ ~Lance Kelly

So how to find this eternal great bliss or ‘perfect lover’ and keep it?   The tantric texts and masters tell you how to do that through a combination of vows, discipline, empowerments and rituals, I briefly explain some of these below.

A strong foundation of refuge, renunciation, bodhicitta, the view, vows and a guru

The energy of bliss-love-ecstasy (the great unborn bliss) is all around, something that more contemporary spiritually conscious non-Buddhists, such as Wilhelm Reich (who called it ‘orgone energy’), have also discovered via experiences and experimentations.  It is in the very space expanse that holds all our thoughts and appearances and is the very essence of it, a loving embrace and union of bliss and emptiness. We get tastes of it all the time, but the problem is that is does not last long and is quickly replaced by suffering. So is there a way out of this? According to tantra, yes there is, but it is not easy as it requires a dismantling of the notion and appearance of ‘I’ and ‘other’ of taking ‘impure’ appearances as solid and real and the way ‘phenomena’ actually are. In order to practice tantra though, a strong foundation must first be established, otherwise there is a danger it will become a worldly path to sexual pleasure only. Certain things are important to have:

  • Genuine renunciation – an absolute understanding that worldly pleasures in the cycle of samsara is nothing but suffering and the root causes of that suffering and seeking to be liberated from them.
  • Refuge in the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (as well as the guru, yidam and protectors) -as being the only and true sources of refuge from the cycle of suffering in samsara.
  • Bodhicitta – conventionally, this is a clear and firm wish to attain full awakening, so that one may bring others to full awakening and thus be liberated from suffering. Ultimately, it is the realisation of the union of bliss-emptiness that naturally has compassion for deluded sentient beings.
  • The view – that all conventional and conditioned phenomena and concepts have no inherent existence and are thus illusory, like images in a dream.
  • Vows – taking and keep the five central precepts not killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct  and no hedonistic intoxications. In addition, the vows of a bodhisattva and the vajrayana root commitments.
  • A genuine, qualified guru – for more on the essential qualities of a vajrayana guru see here.

Once all of these are present to a reasonable degree, then the slippery, but extremely quick and effective, path of tantra can be set out upon.

The ‘innate’ union: ‘unchanging bliss’ and ‘emptiness endowed with all aspects’

“No Karmamudrā, no Mahāmudrā”

“When the four mudrās are completed, the sky cannot contain such supreme bliss.’’ —Saraha

As I wrote about here before, the concept of ‘innate’ (meaning that which is spontaneously co-emergent or unified) is used to refer to our ultimate nature, the deity and primordial awareness. The union of bliss-emptiness which is part of the great bliss expanse of ultimate reality is what is uncovered in the tantric rituals of empowerment, sadhana and yoga with the four mudras/consorts (see below). In the Kālacakra texts, the ultimate nature is a union of ”unchanging bliss’ and ’emptiness endowed with all aspects’. This emptiness is not mere nothingness but is that represented by the empty-of-other view (shentong/gzhan stong), which focuses on the Buddha Nature quality of the ultimate expanse being empty of all conditioned and dualistic phenomena, yet full of excellent and amazing infinite ‘Buddha’ qualities.

To understand what is meant by ‘bliss’ in this context, and how it is different from ordinary states of bliss, the texts speak of ordinary bliss, uncommon bliss, melting bliss and unchanging bliss (the ultimate).  As Jamgon Kongtrul states in these important passages, translated in Treasury of Knowledge, Elements of Tantric Practice (pp.132-135) (although the sections on Kālacakra in particular, are often word-for-word copies of Tāranātha’s texts on these subjects), ‘compassion alone’ (in union with emptiness) is not sufficient to attain full awakening. Kongtrul writes that:

Compassion means the uncommon bliss, which does not change.

The compassion being discussed [here in the context of the completion phase] is significantly different from ordinary compassion and great compassion, as well that termed “awakened compassion,” as generally spoken of in the common ways [to realization]. in addition, in this mantra way, there is a threefold distinction, set forth in [Vitapada’s] Sevenfold Yoga, in terms of [levels of] individuals: the compassion of a beginner; the compassion of a bodhisattva who has achieved a stage of realization; and the compassion of a buddha. When taught from a general perspective, those are called “compassion alone,” comparable to calling the common emptiness “emptiness alone.” What is meant is that, unlike the compassion of union [with emptiness], this common compassion by itself—even if one had cultivated it continuously for the entirety of an eon—would not enable one to cross over cyclic existence. compassion alone therefore falls to the side of eternalism and hence is termed “eternalism alone.” accordingly, Saraha states:

One may have thoroughly familiarized with compassion alone but still remain in this cycle, without transcending suffering.

That being the case, in a context such as the completion phase, which is based on the swift path of mantra, what is called the “compassion that is the root of method” should not be taken to mean compassion alone. The root-of-method compassion is considered to be primarily what is known as the “compassion of union [with emptiness].” This union-compassion should be applied as yoga in the path of uncommon emptiness whose essence is compassion. The actual basis of the characteristics of that compassion of union is the uncommon changeless great bliss; that is to say, the self-cognizant dimension of ineffable great-bliss pristine awareness, which is the ultimate dimension of phenomena, unchanging by nature, united as a single essence with the unemitted vital-essence support. This great bliss overcomes the suffering of oneself and others. it is therefore great compassion, since to fully protect all suffering beings is the characteristic [that defines] great compassion. although that is so, [bliss is taught as compassion] not because it simply fits the etymology of the word “compassion” but because [bliss] manifests with an aspect, or mode of apprehension, of supremely great love for all beings without exception. Great bliss has no point of reference since all dualistic experience has ceased and the seal of the ineffable is never transcended. Thus, it is called “compassion without a point of reference.” Moreover, even the bliss [experienced with] an action seal is a manifestation of compassion. as it is said:

To offer everything as a cause for awakening through the method of the wisdom [seal] is to possess a mind endowed with the compassion of a king or minister.

Chakrasamvara (Wheel of Bliss) with five deities

Three types of compassion/bliss and consorts

In tantra and Vajrayana rituals union with a consort/seal (mudrā) takes four forms:
1) the primordial-awareness consort (jñānamudrā),
2) the commitment consort (samayamudrā),
3) the action consort (karmamudrā),
4) the great consort, (mahamudrā)

The action consort is the body-mind of a human being. These mudrās are enumerated in the texts but in terms of the view, every part of our world stands as a mudrā, in terms of being the union.

Jamgon Kongtrul explains that there are three compassions/bliss in connection to these seals:

  1. the bliss of the action seal, which has sentient beings as its point of reference;
  2. the bliss of the pristine-awareness seal, with phenomena as its point of reference; and
  3. the bliss of the great seal, with no point of reference.

[in tantras other than Kālacakra,] great bliss is considered to be relative. That great bliss is not actually relative, but it must be realized by relying on the method of bliss from the melting of the relative [vital essence]. it is therefore considered relative owing to its connection to the relative. in this context—that of the uncommon system of Kālacakra— changeless great bliss is designated as ultimate truth since such bliss is distinguished by the disappearance of conceptual elaborations related to apprehender and apprehended, and so forth. The great seal of empty form endowed with the supreme of all aspects is designated as relative truth since, in terms of its aspects being consistent with those of relative [phenomena], it exists as the true nature of every single relative phenomenon. in fact, the unchanging bliss and [the emptiness] endowed with the supreme of all aspects are one in nature. Therefore, unchanging bliss itself, being the very nature of all phenomena, is without change. in terms of being bliss, it exists in its own right purely as ultimate [truth]. in terms of its manifesting as the totality of all aspects, that great bliss itself is the intrinsic nature or true reality of all relative phenomena. its being the totality of all aspects is therefore considered relative truth. That said, this explanation has been given in order that through it one may come to such understanding.

Tantra is the path of transformation (pariṇāma). You transform the view of your presumed self and others, your defilements into clarity, your attachments  into self liberated phenomena, your desires into fulfillment your suffering into bliss

The vajra-body of six elements: the coarser the element, the more pronounced the wisdom

An important principle in Vajrayāna is that the confused state of mind can be its own best remedy. It is said the stronger the emotions, the stronger the wisdoms and that in any of the five main afflictive emotions, we do not have to transmute them into empty awareness. The nature of the emotion already is this indivisible empty awareness. A metaphor given to describe this is like the woodworm that is born from and out of wood, that  then turns around and eats the wood.

In the Kālacakra tantra and practice, a karmamudrā is also seen as essential aspect on the path to  enlightenment and the body endowed with the six elements, is the ideal base to attain full awakening. Tāranātha explains in A Hundred Blazing Lights, that the reasons for this are because the more pronounced certain elements are in a body, the more pronounced the base of ‘primordial awareness’ is:

…If the other elements are subtle, the primordial awareness is also subtle. If the other elements are more pronounced, the primordial awareness is also more pronounced. So, the coarser the elements of that which it pervades, such as the human body endowed with the five elements, the pervading primordial awareness is also much stronger and greater. This is what we call being endowed with the six elements.

Kongtrul goes on to explain why and how these unions are ‘sealed’ and how the realisation of the innate nature of great bliss and emptiness is realised in the context of the six vajra-yogas. He explains that the realisation of great bliss does not happen until the sixth vajra-yoga and that the first five yogas bring about the realisation of the emptiness endowed with all aspects:

This [“compassion”] is also named “the union of cause and result.” although there is no true cause (as the producer) and result (as the produced), the ultimate dimension of phenomena that is the nature of all causes is the empty form [endowed with the supreme of all aspects], and the ultimate dimension of all results is unchanging bliss. From emptiness—as a function of its very nature—arises bliss. Therefore, emptiness resembles a cause; bliss, a result. There are no differentiations to be made in terms of the essential natures [of empty form and great bliss]. however, as to the way the yogin achieves realization, the first five branches of the [sixfold] yoga [bring about] realization of the characteristics of the totality of all aspects but not the realization based on unchanging bliss. From [the branch of] contemplation onwards, that bliss is also realized. Thus, the path of realization of great bliss arises from the path of realization of just emptiness itself. The agent of realization, the pristine awareness of the phase of completion path, therefore acts as both cause and result. hence, that which is realized, the ultimate dimension of phenomena, is also designated as both cause and result. That being so, the actual union at the time of the path arises from the branch of contemplation. This union, which is the merging into one of knower and knowable, should be understood as the inseparable union of emptiness and compassion. accordingly, the term “knowable” means the mind that is apprehended, in other words, the emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects: wisdom. The “knower” is the apprehending mind, that is, supreme changeless great bliss: method. The seeing of the appearance of such a knowable precedes such a knower, which arises after. The knowable is therefore called “cause,” and the knower, “result.” in this [contemplation] branch, this cause and result “seal” each other by being inseparably merged and hence are termed “union.”

He concludes that:

in summary, the nature of reality at the ground stage is that of the essence of that union. Hence, the resultant pristine awareness also has the essential nature of the union. Therefore, the path or method one applies in order to realize that [pristine awareness] must also have the characteristic [quality] of the union. This is because it is the natural [law] of all things that a particular cause will give rise to a corresponding result. That union, as just explained, is the essential nature of the union of the pristine awareness that is unchanging great bliss and the emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects. it is also the union of great compassion and emptiness. Even the union of the illusory body and luminous clarity is simply this union alone. accordingly, the Continuation of the Guhyasamaja Tantra states:

Yoga will not be achieved by the body of method alone, nor by wisdom alone. The Transcendent one taught yoga as the union of method and wisdom.

“Great compassion,” “luminous clarity,” and “unchanging bliss” are identical in meaning. Moreover, these are explained as being the method, or relative truth as it is generally known. “Emptiness,” “the illusory body,” and “the dimension [of emptiness] endowed with the supreme of all aspects” are identical in meaning. These are considered to be wisdom, or ultimate truth as it is generally known.

‘The Kiss’ by Alex Grey

Conclusion

Thanks to the work of some amazing translators and scholars, there are now several translations and books to read and study on tantra/vajrayana and how to use orgasmic, erotic bliss on the path to full awakening. However, the key points to remember are that without a strong and stable foundation in love, compassion (generated by the four immeasurables), stability in relative and ultimate bodhicitta, the view of emptiness, well-maintained vows and a fully qualified guru, then diving indiscriminately into tantric ‘sexual’ rituals and unions may not only be a waste of time but dangerous and harmful to oneself and others; increasing ordinary sexual desire, attachment and ego and delivering one to vajra hell.

There is no doubt that prolonging or delaying orgasm may aid and prolong a worldly relationship but that is not the central point or purpose of tantra. Nonetheless, the teachings of tantra hold an enticing and seductive key to open the door to the ultimate within, and smash wide open the brick solid door that closes the heart and keeps the ego (and its attendant, suffering) strong. It is for that reason that discussion of the inner bliss and union with the ‘eternal perfect lover’ we all long for, is beneficial to think about and eventually to practice. We all seek it and deserve it because it is our very essence. So, next time you look with passion into the eyes of your loved one, at the ocean on a starry night, or a cool breeze on a beach, or memories of a loved one or nights of passion, or an act of kindness of generosity, without even knowing it  we have ‘come home’ to the perfect lover’s embrace that has been waiting for us with open arms and passionate, loving eyes the whole time we were away from them.  Poetry, song and dance can bring us home too, but only temporarily, and we may not recognise where and what that ‘home’ actually is. It’s not outside of us at all but in the very depths of our inner bodies, sexual energy and juices, and heart.

SONGS OF INSPIRATION

BIBLIOGRAPHY/FURTHER READING

Jamgon Kongtrul, Treasury of Knowledge: Book Eight, Part Three: Elements of Tantric Practice. Snow Lion Publications (2008). Translated by Elio Guarisco and Ingrid McLeod.

Miranda Shaw, Passionate Enlightenment: Women in Tantric Buddhism. Princeton Press (1995).

Jetsun Tāranātha, Meaningful to See: Guiding Instructions on the Profound Path of the Six-Vajra Yogas

Jetsun Tāranātha, Hundred Blazing Lights: Supplementary Commentary on Meaningful to See: Guiding Instructions on the Profound Path of the Six-Vajra Yogas

Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Gypsy Gossip and Other Advice. Shambhala Publications (2016).

Adele Tomlin, Tantric Buddhism, Sex and Women: the Importance of Love, Respect and Consent (2020).

Wilhelm Reich, The Function of Orgasm.

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