Tantra, by that name, derives from Vedic/Hindu religions, not Buddhist; it was most common in Northern India, as far as I know, although it got mixed together with Southern Indian local religions such as the worship of Kali. A strange offshoot of it — actually my favorite offshoot of it — is in the Tibetan mixed-religion sometimes called Tibetan Buddhism, but also referred to as Tibetan Lamaism.
In ancient times, Tibet had a native local god/goddess religion, parallel to the Inidan local/regional god/goddess systems. Around the time of the Aryan invasion of India, Aryans consolidated the triple-god concept (Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva) by absorbing the various Dravidian local goddesses as “shaktis” (originally the word meant “power” but it came to imply “female consort”) for their triad. Meanwhile, the Tibetans kinda were left on their own, hence their “Lamaism” does not resemble classic Hinduism.
Then Buddhism swept in and the Tibetans, for some reason, really took to it in a big way, but — like a parallel example of the Mayans in Mexico adopting the Catholic religion but warping it to fit their own local religions (viz. The Virgin of Guadelupe) — the Tibetans never abandoned their ancient god/goddess pairings, so suddenly you have these big Buddhist tankas (religious paintings) showing the 108 Bodhisatvas (108 is a sacred number for mathematical reasons in many cultures, most notably Asia; the Bodhisatvas are the nearly enlightened guys who COULD achieve nirvana (“nothingnes”) but choose as good Samaritans to reincarnate and help other souls evolve to the point of nirvanahood) — and each of these 108 Bodhisatvas is shown with a naked woman, his shakti, in his lap having sex with him!
The 108 Tibetan shaktis are the remnants of local goddesses, and they still bear the mnemonic attributes (colour, sacred objects they hold, mudras (gestures) they are making with their hands, accompanying animals or flowers, etc.) of their former status.
Now, just as the Catholic church took “The Song of Solomon” from the Bible and said, “This is NOT about a woman’s juicy cunt, folks, this is about the Church’s longing for Jesus,” so did the Tibetan Buddhists explain away the sexual congress between these 108 Bodhisatvas and their shaktis as a kind of ephemeral spiritual congress.
Judaism does this in a similar way: the Shekinah (sounds like Shakti, probably from the same proto-Indo-European root) is a female principle representing light or god’s holy spirit, and is known by Judaic scholars, even those who are devoutly monotheistic, to represent an indigenous goddess-worship system that was absorbed into the worship of the male god Jehovah.
The major difference between the Judaic system and the Tibetan Buddhist one is that the Tibetans never stopped drawing representations of the shakti. Over the years she was drawn smaller and smaller, however. In the Vedic (Hindu) Tantra sects, the shakti is represented by a woman of normal size, or perhaps a little smaller-than-average. In the Tibetan tankas, the shakti is smaller-than-average on down to little more than doll-size. She is always there, though, in the Bodhisatva’s lap. I once asked a Tibetan man about this and he said, “Well, without his shakti, the Bodhisatva would not be enlightened.” So they are acknowledging this ancient tantric (for lack of a more universal word) union as a prerequisite for what they now (being nominally Buddhists) call “enlightenment.”
So, anyway, Tibetan Buddhists, who are, more properly speaking, practicing a Buddhist veneer over their native nature-sex religion, have come up with ways of allowing the Buddhist search for “nothingness” and the “absense of desire” to meld with their earlier sex-worship religion.
The way it used to work (pre-Chinese Communist invasion, of course) was that they would take young male candidates for the monastery at about the age of 17 and give them a good two years training in Tantric sex with a female teacher (generally a woman in her 30s or 40s, who taught many men) (nice work if you can get it!) and then they gradually weaned them from actual physical sex into spiritual sex, so that they could experience the same sort of sexual-spiritual bliss through imaginative meditation.
In accounts written by travellers to Tibet during the 19th and early 20th century, it was said that these young men were treated as hermits, made to dwell in isolated caves, their food brought to them twice a day, and the sexual teacher coming to them at intervals. They were to meditate upon sexual union with her while she was away, and eventually they achieved a state of protracted sexual union bliss in the absence of any physical entity. In short, they were aiming to become Bodhisatvas themselves, with their shakti reduced from a real woman to a kind of holy spirit memory of their teacher. Their lover in her spiritual guise (not physical) was called a tulpa.
Of course, all that got shot to hell by the Chinese and I doubt whether anyone is still practicing this stuff outside of Nepal.
I have been working on this idea myself, lately, as I am single. It seems to be feasible. The hard part is letting go of the image of a real man and the memory of him and the longing for him. It is possible at times, though, to glimpse the idea behind what they were doing. I have on occasions constructed a sort of daydream of sexual union with a tulpa which is tantric in nature and seems very real.
I like the Tibetan form of tantra better than the Vedic form. By the 19th century, when Western reports of it became common, the latter — especially in Southern India — seems to have degenerated to a kind of glorified temple prostitution. Women in India were socially and culturally so devalued that even tantra could not enhance their lost status. In Tibet, Northern India and Nepal, women were treated with greater dignity, so the type of tantra practiced there was less opportunistic. Even in India, however, there were splits between the “left hand” and “right hand” Tantric sects. The left hand ones were more orgiastic and the right hand ones were more devotional. I can give examples of their varying practices if you care for details.
I am also very interested in the 19th century Westernization of Tantra called Karezza (Italian for “caress”) which was promulgated in the U.S. by a woman named Alice Bunker Stockham circa 1880 or so. I would be glad to go on at length about that if it interests you too. Karezza flourished in the era prior to World War One and found adherents around the world. It was not presented as a religion, but appeared to be popular in the social circles of the time where one also encountered interest in Theosophy, female suffrage, occultism, dress reform, temperance, and Christian Socialism.
Okay, there you have my take on it…
Hope this was of interest to you.
by Catherine Yronwode
Copyright © 1995 Catherine Yronwode