What is the relationship between sexuality and spiritual freedom? Where does sex fit into the pursuit of ego transcendence, the quest for perfect enlightenment? When six months ago we started our research for this special issue of What Is Enlightenment?
, we could never have imagined how far our journey would take us. Our encounter with the overwhelming diversity of approaches to sexuality thriving in the modern spiritual world turned out to be a wild, often shocking, occasionally surreal, and always concept-challenging adventure that, as of this writing, still has our heads spinning.
Almost everyone has something to say about sex. In fact, in beginning our exploration, we were intrigued to find that the most compelling thinking on sexuality came to us from contemporary sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and feminists whose willingness to question deeply held cultural assumptions in their pursuit of the truth about sex has led them to some provocative and even revolutionary insights. But while this made for engaging reading and many intriguing discussions lasting late into the night, we quickly realized that in order to stay focused on the subject at hand, we would have to resist many a temptation to venture down yet another fascinating but ultimately tangential avenue. It was clear that to really find out what sex has to do with spirit, we would have to seek out spiritual teachers and thinkers with insight and experience in this arena.
We didn't have to look far; in the modern spiritual world, sex is a hot topic. "Sacred Sex" workshops abound. Dozens of books, tapes and videos describing the ancient Eastern sexual practices of tantra and Taoism can be found in almost any bookstore. And popular spiritual magazines routinely feature smiling couples in loving embrace touting the power of the sexual relationship as a spiritual path. Yet while we had all been exposed to the popular face of today's idiosyncratic sex-meets-spirit culture, it wasn't until we jumped in with both feet that we began to have any idea how
strange the attempt to unite sex and spirit can be.
First, there was Father Andrew Greeley—Catholic priest, sociologist, newspaper columnist, vocal advocate of Church policy reform—and best-selling author of over forty sexually explicit romance novels.
Then there was the German TV talk show featuring an animated discussion between Dr. Ruth, two tantra therapists, a porn star, an actor-turned-Catholic-priest and a Protestant minister who, upon admitting that his wife was the only person he had ever slept with, was met with unanimous indignation and forced to defend his apparently sacrilegious belief that he "had not missed anything."
And then there was the night we watched the Sacred Sex
video. An inside look at a "hands-on" week-long "tantra intensive" in Maui, the video also features interviews with and demonstrations by several of the leading figures in today's sacred sex movement, including former porn star Annie Sprinkle, whose leave-nothing-to-the-imagination sex-education nightclub act culminates in an onstage grand-finale orgasm dedicated to world peace. After this, the sight of Margot Anand spitting wine all over her boyfriend during ritual foreplay seemed almost conservative.
Wondering if such adventurism might simply be a product of our sex-infatuated modern world, we consulted the history books. However, in reading the Buddhist Vinaya, or monastic rules of conduct, we learned that the Buddha had found it necessary to make explicit rules to curtail behavior far more outrageous than anything taught in a modern tantra workshop—including copulation with animals, skulls and corpses. Beginning to suspect that we might have missed a chapter in our study of ancient religious practices, we turned to Buddhist scholar Miranda Shaw, who confirmed our suspicions when she informed us that in traditional Tibetan tantra, as an act of devotion to and worship of their female partners, male practitioners were expected to feel honored to ingest any
of their partner's bodily fluids.
If all of this seems too strange to be true, we would do well to remember that this is after all a world in which the star of American Gigolo
and Looking for Mister Goodbar
is a devoted disciple of the world's second most famous celibate. (Speaking of Hollywood, we tried several times to get Madonna to talk with us, and were pleasantly surprised to hear that, although too busy to give an interview now, she did find the magazine "very enlightening" and offered to speak with us in the future.)
While modern attempts to bring sex and spirit under one roof take a bewildering variety of forms, the fundamental view pervading the contemporary spiritual scene seems to be that sex, long seen as the enemy of the spirit, is actually its ally. This sex-positive spiritual view holds that to truly become whole, we must liberate our sexuality from the chains of guilt, shame and repression, and allow it to find full expression as a natural, healthy and even sacred part of life. One of the most vocal and eloquent proponents of this "new paradigm" is ex-Mother Meera devotee turned prophet of passion Andrew Harvey, who states in his book Return of the Mother
: "It's lethal and obscene to keep alive the old patriarchal fears about sexuality. What is needed is for the body to be blessed. Why? Because we're in it. Why would we be here if we were not meant to love and celebrate our bodies, and to find out that sexuality can be the physical grammar of the lovemaking of the soul? . . . When you finally learn how to love and celebrate your body and your sexuality, it's then that the full miracle of life becomes obvious to you."
This belief has become so widespread that today the spiritual practice of celibacy—considered for millennia to be a profound, powerful and even crucial aspect of spiritual life by Christians, Buddhists and Hindus alike—seems to have all but fallen by the wayside. In fact, it's difficult even to find mention of celibacy in contemporary discussion, other than in debates over whether it should still be a requirement for Catholic clergy. The modern consensus seems to be that in a psychologically enlightened culture such as ours, celibacy no longer has much relevance.
Most tantrists say there can be no enlightenment without sexual practice. Most celibates, on the other hand, say there is no chance of enlightenment without giving up sex altogether. Is sex really a path to enlightenment? Or is it essential to renounce our sexuality to attain the highest spiritual states?
Propelled headlong into the unknown by the force of these and other questions, we found ourselves careening, tumbling, gasping and laughing our way through the labyrinthine, fascinating and challenging exploration that ultimately became this issue. We spoke with some extraordinary individuals: Father Thomas Keating, Swami Chidananda and Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, whose moving descriptions of the fruits of celibacy evoke a sense of wonder and reverence at the potential for simplicity and purity of heart their practice holds; Barry Long and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, whose inspired portrayals of the essence of sacred sexuality convey a palpable sense of how the spiritual vision can become manifest in the world; and Margot Anand and Miranda Shaw, whose fierce challenge of sexual taboos would force even the most progressive among us to question how free we really are from the grip of Victorian values. And we saw, one after another, our own ideas and assumptions stretched and expanded as our experience showed us again and again that, in this arena perhaps more than any, things are rarely as they seem. If anything has become absolutely clear to us over these past four months, it is that sexuality is an unavoidable fact of human life, that navigating its often turbulent waters is a challenge for all of us, and that, for anyone intent on finding his or her way to spiritual freedom, it is a primal and potent force that has
to be reckoned with.