By Enrico Blanca
The rise and popularity of Tantric spirituality here in the West should be familiar to readers of the Tattooed Buddha.
Along with Zen and mindfulness, neo-Tantrism occupies a significant niche in the spiritual marketplace. The combination of an ancient Hindu and Buddhist tradition with our desire for a more free and alternative sexuality is irresistible to a certain segment of the Western-bohemian-professional-middle-class. Alongside the widespread appeal of neo-Tantra, there is a critique which sees it as the perfect spirituality for the current stage of consumer capitalism.
Writers such as Hugh Urban and Slavoj Zizek have pointed out that as the Protestant Ethic of frugality and asceticism enabled the emergence of early capitalism, religions now which celebrate pleasure and sexual enjoyment are a cultural analog to logic of late capitalism. And when I look at all the ways tantrism has been watered down reduced to a sexy, pleasurable pursuit (a few my Google search of tantrism pointed me to Sting and his seven-hour orgasms), I have to agree.
If you want to learn about tantric sex you pretty much have to buy books written by self-styled gurus or sign up for an expensive workshop.
Along with the aesthetic of orgasms and hedonism, comes an implicit endorsement of financial success, ample leisure and white privilege. All of this falls under the rubric of what Chogyam Trungpa (an authentic and gifted, though controversial, Vajrayana lineage holder) years ago termed “spiritual materialism.” We are promised that through buying crystals, beads, malas and various other kitschy adornments, we can enter a world of erotic bliss.
Hell, we can turn ourselves into our own cute Buddha statues.
As a socialist, I am well aware of the ways in which contemporary consumer capitalism can co-opt and manipulate anything into the logic of getting and spending. So, what is an erotically inclined Buddhist to do?
Well, today in Nepal and parts of India (Assam and Kerala), ordinary householders, wives and husbands, practice traditional and very deep forms of tantrism. And these devotional and contemplative practices include and culminate in ritual, sexual intercourse.
Yes, kundalini, chakras and everything else so appealing to those drawn to sex, drugs and Rajneesh in the United States.
But in Southern Asia, it is done within an organic cultural tradition, which systematically cultivates sensual enjoyment. Tantric adepts in those parts of the world are embedded in ancient and living traditions of the aesthetic and religious refinement of sex. And it is no coincidence these historically tantric regions have attitudes and policies regarding women and gender that would be envied by Western feminists.
To wrap up, my view is that the critique of Western neo-Tantra as an adjunct to and expression of the spiritual logic of consumer capitalism is pointed, cogent and altogether accurate. However, within the flaccid genitals of New Age hipsters lies a tiny glass bead.
And that bead, if gently extricated and cherished with seriousness and discipline, can explode into the Great Bliss, Mahasukka.
Enrico Blanca is a free range intellectual (of pecking intelligence), poet, flaneur, socialist and cosmopolitan bon vivant who lives in New York City. He has had a nearly 30 year career as an academic librarian and is now embarking on a second one as a substance abuse counselor. A long-time Zen practitioner, he now studies with Barry Magid at the Ordinary Mind Zendo. He has a passion for music, cooking, writing and performing his poetry, and cherchez les femmes. Right now he is all about Ikkyu.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Editor: Andrew Campbell
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