Tantric Buddhism, Sex and Women: the Importance of Love, Respect and Consent

On this full moon day, and to coincide with the re-naming of my website to ‘Dakini Translations and Publications’ (with its wider remit and focus on the ‘female principle’) this short new article is an attempt to clarify (in simple laywoman’s and unscholarly terms) some of the issues surrounding monasticism, sex, women, consorts in Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism.  It does not claim to be comprehensive or in-depth but hopefully will be of benefit in one way or another!

Monastics and sex

During the years I have spent studying and practising Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, in predominantly Tibetan Buddhist communities, I have witnessed a tendency of some ‘cultural’ Buddhists (a term for people ‘born into’ Buddhism and not necessarily those who have studied the philosophy or practice the rituals and so on), and even non-Buddhists, to think the main vow for a monastic to maintain is not having actual physical sexual intercourse, and that apart from that, they are free to do whatever they like (with the caveat that they can purify it later with Vajrasattva if it is a secondary breach!).  It is generally accepted to be a breach of the root vows if a monk or nun has actual physical sexual intercourse (in any orifice!) and they are supposed to disrobe after having done so. However, that does not then give a green light to any other ‘sexual activity’ (like Bill Clinton saying about Monica Lewinsky,  ‘I never had sex with that woman’, thinking that somehow meant his other sexual activity with her was somehow permissible and thus he had not been unfaithful to his wife!). Monastics and Buddhist lamas are supposed to have reduced (or be actively reducing) their own desires for sexual arousal and pleasure for temporary, worldly reasons. Therefore, any activity that leads them, or any person they have contact with, into more attachment and interest in worldly sexual pleasure and desire would be considered to go against the general spirit of the Vinaya (the general rules of discipline for Buddhists).  For more on the Vinaya and its application to women, LGBT and transgender see this article by Devdutt Pattanaik here, ‘There’s a misogynist aspect of Buddhism that nobody talks about‘.

There is no denying that monastics are also often cultural Buddhists and ordinary human beings, with sexual desires and so on, but it’s the general principle that is important to remember. Monastic root vows also include not stealing and not lying too, so it’s not just about reducing sexual desires and attachment. So, if a monk or nun regularly lies or is dishonest and appropriates things or property from another then they can also be considered to have broken the five main root monastic vows and are supposed to disrobe if it is a serious infraction.

Aside from the sexual aspect of Buddhist ethics and discipline though, a Buddhist teacher (I refer to teachers here because they are supposed to have more developed inner qualities than that of a student), and especially a lama who gives Vajrayana empowerments and teachings, is also supposed to maintain three sets of other Buddhist vows: the Individual Liberation Vows (or Pratimoksha vows), the Bodhisattva Vows and the Vajrayana Vows (or root downfalls).  None of these are that easy to maintain and if they are breached, must be purified correctly and genuinely.  Turning to the subject of women though, how, if at all, do these three types of vows have a particular reference, or application, to women?

A foundation of love and compassion

First, to be able to hold pure Vajrayana vows it is essential to maintain the root vows of Individual Liberation and Bodhisattva.  The Individual Liberation vows are based on genuine renunciation of samsara (the cycle of suffering) and the origins of samsara. Thus, a person with genuine renunciation would no longer seek genuine happiness in worldly, temporary pleasures (such as orgasms) for oneself alone, recognising such egoistic desires and attachments to be the source of much suffering (long and short term).  The foundation of the Bodhisattva vows is the wish to bring all beings away from suffering and to a state of genuine, lasting happiness. So, if a teacher suddenly loses interest, shuns, ignores or lacks love or compassion for any being, for example someone who displeases them, or insults them or makes them angry etc. it would be a sign that they do not have genuine love and compassion for that being.  Taranatha explains clearly that these are essential qualities of any Vajrayana teacher.

Respecting and not disparaging women

To be a Vajrayana teacher one must not only maintain those two sets of vows well and purely but also the vajrayana commitments (or samaya).  One of the fourteen Vajrayana root downfalls  ( rtsa ltung bcu bzhi)[1] is that women should not be disparaged, abused, insulted or degraded, which includes individual women and also generalising about women as a group. So, casual sexist jokes or generalisations about women, e.g. ‘blonde women are stupid’ jokes etc. would be considered a sign of such a general lack of respect. The reason why women are mentioned here, and not men, is because from the Vajrayana viewpoint, the winds and channels yoga of tantric practice, biological women (their biological physical bodies and channels) are considered the nature of wisdom in the union practice of method (male) and wisdom (female).  In addition, due to the pervasive nature of afflictive mental states and impure perception, sentient beings cannot always know, or see, who or who is not an actual dakini/enlightened female being. For that reason, it is also considered important not to degrade, insult or disparage women. You might be insulting a wisdom dakini!

What is a ‘consort’?

Regarding consorts, if it is ordinary sex, (undertaken for pleasure and worldly reasons) it is NOT consort practice. If a person is really doing consort (tsa lung) practice based on love and compassion, then one can even stay a monastic and do it without breaching the root vows. Even better, if a person can do union practice with their energy/subtle body, this is considered to be the cleanest union practice with a physical mudra.

Thus, as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche taught recently in France, a consort is not neccessarily a girlfriend or wife of a Buddhist lama.  Although, often that is how the term has come to be used.  In fact, being a consort has nothing to do with such a relation and is often ‘secret’ (the term in Tibetan is sangyum (gsang yum) literally meaning ‘secret mother’) is someone who engages in physical (or energetic mental union) with a Buddhist master focusing on visualisations and breathing and yogic exercises for the purpose of enlightenment, without excessive attachment or desires.   The enlightened master, Guru Rinpoche had five principal consorts.  Tertöns (treasure-revealers) in particular are said to require a spiritual consort who is considered to be an indispensable aid to the discovery and decipherment of termas (concealed treasures). Also, a spiritual consort might at times be recommended in order to rejuvenate and prolong the life-span of the male practitioner, or remove obstacles in his life, especially his health, and to promote his enlightened activities.  Female practitioners can also take a male consort, as in the case of Yeshe Tsogyal who took Acharya Salé as her consort.

Of course, a consort could be both a romantic partner of a lama as well as engaging in actual consort practice, and conversely a girlfriend or wife might not be a consort at all.   Monastics (those with monastic vows, be they fully ordained or not) are not allowed to marry or ordinary sexual relations. That is very clear. This is why HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, recently recommended, it is important for non-monastics not to wear the monastic robes (or similar clothes) because it confuses people who might then think that such people can have girlfriends and wives and so on. And of course a female practitioner can also take a consort, as Yeshe Tshogyel did.

Vajrasattva in union with consort. Traditional Buddhist depiction.

The secondary Vajrayana root vows mention the downfalls about women in the context of consort (or Karmamudra) practice. In the last few decades, there has been more written recently in the English language (by women) about women and consort practice, such as Passionate Enlightenment by Miranda Shaw, Travellers in Space by June Campbell, the Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of Sera Khandro by Sarah H. Jacoby and a recent academic article by Holly Gayley, Revisiting the Secret Consort (gsang yum) in Tibetan Buddhism .  Shaw, in particular, effectively claims that a genuine consort lama relation would be mutually fulfilling and equal.  However, judging by recent sex scandals of male Buddhist lamas ‘abusing’ and ‘using’ female students (including nuns) for casual sexual encounters and pleasure, it is clear that the ‘consort’ relation (and even the term itself) is still too often misunderstood and misused.

Even though I have not read his new book about the tantric sexual union practice, Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss: Sexuality in Tibetan Buddhism and Medicine, the author Dr Nida Chenagtsang states that the reason he wrote it was to educate and inform people about what an actual Karmamudra practice is and is not, in order to protect people from such worldly and abusive relations.

As I stated in the article ‘Monastic Abuse: The Tragic Case of Kalu Rinpoche’, consort practice is a very particular kind of physical (and/or energetic union) that is undertaken for the sake of enlightenment and not for sexual pleasure only. It is also an activity that involves a high level of yogic competency and expertise on the part of the lama, and in addition, the female consort is supposed to have certain qualities, such as vows, an understanding of emptiness and empowerments.

Qualifications and consent

The secondary root Vajrayana downfalls state that the vajrayana master or teacher, should not pick UNQUALIFIED consorts and also must not FORCE a consort. These terms are not so clear either, but generally speaking the texts and tantras refer to the woman (or consort) having a certain minimum level of attributes, for example, someone that has no vows, no stable practice, or has wrong views or not much understanding of emptiness etc would not be suitable.

But what is meant by ‘force’ here? Certainly, physical rape and coercion or blackmail would be examples of forcing someone. But what about when a lama uses visualisations and mantras, and their own tantric yogic tsa-lung practice to literally overpower and intoxicate a woman to feel very sexual and thus do sexual things towards and with that lama they might not normally do? This kind of experience happens more often than people might know or be aware of.  For example, some deity practices like Kurukulle, if done by a practitioner with certain skills, would allow them to gain access to a woman in this way, like putting a drug in her drink, so that they lose all ability to think clearly and become totally overwhelmed with sexual desire and arousal. Yet, as one article says about Kurukulle: ”Despite depictions of her magnetizing powers as “magical,” they are not for the corrupted purpose of attracting a mate, or money, or luxuries.  Like other emanations of Tara, she is about the “activities” of compassion, in this case attracting and enchanting.”

However, it is also said that  tantric masters have mastery of the four siddhi activities of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugating and thus perhaps ‘overpowering’ a woman in this way might be seen as that kind of legitimate enlightened activity.  However, if it is not based on genuine love, respect and compassion, and not based on the wish for enlightenment, and/or used for power and sexual pleasure, then it might be considered forced and non-consensual. If the woman (or women) feel ‘used and abused’ by it, that might also indicate a lack of clear and mutual consent or adequate qualifications on the part of the master or consort, or both.  As HE Mingyur Rinpoche says in his excellent article, When a Buddhist Teacher Crosses the Line, on the issue of abusive or unethical conduct by Buddhist lamas:

The most important thing to know about these unusual teaching styles is that they are meant to benefit the student. If they are not rooted in compassion and wisdom, they are not genuine. Actions that are rooted in compassion and wisdom—even when they appear odd, eccentric, or even wrathful—do not instill fear or anxiety. They bring about a flowering of compassion and wisdom in the student.

In other words, the results of genuine “crazy wisdom” are always positive and visible. When a teacher uses an extreme approach that is rooted in compassion, the result is spiritual growth, not trauma. Trauma is a sure sign that the “crazy wisdom” behavior was missing the wisdom to see what would truly benefit the student, the compassion that puts the student’s interest first, or both.

Bliss, love, happiness, respect and realisation of  shared spiritual goals could be considered signs of success in such relations.

Gender empowerment and the #Metoo movement

The increasing empowerment, education and gender equality of women globally, has led to an increased sense of concern and injustice at the many gender inequalities in the religious context, including Buddhism. Efforts have been made to improve the status of Buddhist nuns by Tibetan lamas such as HH 17th Karmapa, British nun and acclaimed teacher, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, the first Geshema Kelsang Wangmo, Malaysian nuns Dr. Tenzin Dadon and Karma Tashi Choedron and Buddhist feminist academics, like Rita M Gross and Holly Gayley. In addition, there are now Geshemas and nuns who are teaching at Buddhist nunneries in India, such as Dolma Ling, and more prominent female lamas and practitioners from all cultures and traditions.

Some might argue (like Miranda Shaw) that the consort-lama relation (done genuinely and with mutual respect and consent) was never unequal or sexist in principle and that it has become that way due to patriarchal and sexist cultural norms. Whatever the case may be, the empowerment of women also means them having more access to the information available on consort practice and being able to educate themselves about it. The #Metoo movement and  recent Sakyadita conference held in July 2019, as well as the formation of the Alliance of Buddhist Ethics, are signs that progress is being made on this issue, with more women speaking out and (importantly) supporting each other.  Knowledge is power and with more translations and publications becoming available on this topic as well, women are able to inform themselves before entering into a relation with a male lama and hopefully ensure that it is one based on genuine love and compassion and of wishing to be of genuine benefit to others and oneself. One of the most active Tibetan Buddhist teachers making real practical efforts to empower and improve the unequal status of female monastics and practitioners is also the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, see my recent article about that here.

To end this brief article, I leave you with the words of a Buddhist nun, Dhammanada, one of the first Buddhist nuns to recently receive full ordination in Thailand:

“We need to get to the spirit of Buddhism, in spite of the structure we have,” Dhammananda says. “The Buddha was always for enlightenment, for equality. He even said himself, ‘Don’t believe in my words unless you put it into practice.’ If it works, only then you take it.  “You must keep in mind that the Buddhist texts came out of the Indian social context, in which women were lowest. Buddha refused to accept the Indian caste system. He denied the social structure of his time. This was very revolutionary. To be a revolutionary is to follow in the footsteps of the Buddha.”


[1] Often referred to as being like a Vajrayana vow, these are considered essential to not breach especially if one teaches or gives Vajrayana empowerments.