Pure Passion

Judith Simmer-Brown on the role of desire in Buddhist Tantra: “The intensity of desire can only be liberated by desire itself.”

Judith Simmer-Brown
1 July 1999

Judith Simmer-Brown on the role of desire in Buddhist Tantra.

When the Buddha sat under the tree of awakening, one of the primary discoveries that he made was the role of desire and passion in human life. He recognized that human life is pervaded by experiences of anxiety and sorrow, and suggested that they arise from desire, a kind of craving which drives humans into continuous experiences of pain.

All of us without exception wish to be happy and not to suffer. We pursue pleasure and devise elaborate schemes to elude painful experiences. The irony of human life is that our very desire for pleasure results in suffering: Whatever we have, we wish for more or for something different. When we do have what we want, we eventually lose it or decide it is not what we really wanted. Buddha Sakyamuni’s teaching of the four noble truths accurately pinpointed this emotional style of human beings, that this impulse toward pleasure creates an endless series of frustrating situations for us, and until we recognize how human life is driven by unfulfilled desire, we cannot experience a respite to our suffering.

But according to the view of vajrayana Buddhism, desire is also the working basis of compassion. Desire’s very eagerness to please carries intelligence, which when liberated from self-centered preoccupations, resonates with the emotional experience of others. Desire becomes empathy as we develop our capacity to recognize the different styles of suffering described in Buddhism as the six realms.

Human desire propels us into momentary psychological experiences which mirror the unrelieved ordeals of each of the other five realms of existence:

We experience moments of intense jealousy, echoing the experience of the jealous gods.

We experience raging anger or cold disdain similar to the beings of the hot and cold hells.

Like animals and god-realm beings, we fall into the numbing ignorance of daily routine or the blissful ignorance of idealism.

Like hungry ghosts, our arrogance is haunted by the yearning for satiation.

Because of these temporary empathetic experiences, we can feel the intense styles of suffering of other realms, and we are sensitized to the endless patterns of suffering and hopelessness which pervade the world. We are aware of the suffering of other beings and, if we reflect, we can feel empathy and compassion and the desire to liberate them from their suffering.

When our habitual self-centered desire turns toward care for others, a kind of spiritual transformation is possible. This is described in Buddhism as the practice of the bodhisattva, one who is committed to clarity of understanding and the welfare of others. The fuel for this practice is desire, which has been transformed into the awakened heart, a spontaneous openness and warmth which liberates habitual self-centeredness. The practice of the bodhisattva would have no fuel if it were not for the power of our desire. Accompanied by strong commitment and clarity of mind, transformed desire is a kind of contagious fever of compassion.

How do we liberate desire and turn its intelligence and intensity toward awakening for ourselves and others? In tantra, this fundamental quality of human existence is liberated with very skillful methods.

The intensity of desire can only be liberated by desire itself. As the Hevajra-tantra states, “That by which the world is bound, by that same its bonds are released, but the world is deluded and knows not this truth, and he who is deprived of this truth will not gain perfection.” The passionate quality of human experience can only be liberated through desire itself; then it is described as a “mingling of passion and absence of passion.”

One of the distinctive features of Tibetan vajrayana, especially in the practices of the “highest yoga tantra” (Anuttara-yoga-tantra), is its inclusiveness with regard to desire, and especially sexuality in a spiritual context. This offers a way to work directly with desire, but it requires a strong foundation of training and a selfless motivation.

According to Anuttara-yoga, training in the “three vehicles” (yanas) is essential to spiritual development, especially in the area of working with our most primitive emotional life.

In order to work with our self-centered desire, we train in the foundational vehicle, the hinayana, in which we learn self-restraint, renunciation and simplicity. “Desirelessness” is one of the treasured spiritual qualities of the practitioner who has mastered the hinayana. However, after disciplining ourselves in this way, we retain a residue of aggression: we have rejected too much of the intelligence of desire, and have cut ourselves off from the suffering of others.

In the broad vehicle, the mahayana, aggression is seen as the strongest obstacle to the practice of compassion, we cannot benefit beings if we are angry toward them or toward their suffering. With mahayana training, aggression is transformed into patience and care, and we are able to begin to relieve the suffering we encounter. But while the mahayana acknowledges the close relationship between desire and compassion, there is the danger that desire can lead to “idiot compassion,” a kind of compassion tainted by our own personal agendas.

So having completed the training of the first two vehicles, we discover a residue of blindness or obliviousness which inhibits our further development. We have used our altruistic dreams to dilute the intensity of the world. In avoiding painful emotions, difficult life passages and underlying habitual patterns, we have become enamored with the idealism of our compassion.

When we continue our training in the “diamond vehicle,” the vajrayana, we address directly this oblivious quality. Vajrayana training and practice give us immediate proximity to all aspects of our experience, removing the blinders which remained from the previous practices.

This time the residue that remains is passion. However, it is now said that passion need not be an obstacle to spiritual growth. By this time, it has been refined through spiritual training and represents the warm heart combined with the intensity of vajrayana experience and practice.

If desire becomes the object of contemplation, it holds great power for bringing the mind to the essential point. In the Anuttara-yoga tradition, there is really no distinction made between passion in this sense and compassion. When purified of self-centeredness, passion is expressed as devotion to others, as caring skillfully and utterly about their welfare. It is also expressed as zest in living and appreciation of the unique beauty of each moment. Experiences of realization naturally carry with them the burning heart of joy and compassion, otherwise they are not genuine realization experiences.

However, this is also a dangerous path, for if passion seeks to serve the ego, the explosive result creates havoc for both partners and for others. Hence, the dynamic of sexuality in Anuttara-yoga tantra is always pyrotechnic and potent.

Since desire and passion are so basic to our human life, it is important that we work with them properly, employing them as fuel for wakefulness and compassion.

According to the sacred outlook of vajrayana, the ordi- nary chemistry between men and women is a powerful expression of the fundamental dynamic of phenomena. For this reason, the realm of gender relationships is of utmost interest for the tantric practitioner, for the dynamic experienced there exposes the heart of the world.

On any ultimate level, there is no real difference between women and men. Our natures are ultimately empty of inherent existence, vast and expansive, and free of conceptual elaboration. Yet there are sacred masculine and feminine energies which are an essential part of the mind-body complex that makes up the individual.

These energies are not determined by biology, in the vajrayana view, it is more that biology has emanated from these fundamental energies of mind and phenomena. Each of us is made up of these subtle masculine and feminine energies, whatever our gender. Masculine and feminine energies flow in our minds, emotions, and subtle and physical bodies.

On an ultimate level our minds have no gender, but “feminine” insight and “masculine” skillful means intertwine in all our experience. On a subtle body level, all humans have feminine and masculine channels and winds (nadis and prana), which intermingle and which may in meditation meet in the nondual central channel. Our physical bodies have both feminine and masculine qualities, but depending upon our karma and the physical bodies we have inherited, we have different abilities to radiate feminine or masculine energies. Always, the physical body expresses the qualities which are there in the subtle body and in the mind. All three of these are interdependent.

On the level of appearance and manifestation, women and men are distinct and complementary in their physical forms and psychological experiences. From the view of vajrayana Buddhism, both feminine and masculine qualities are inherently positive, awakened and beneficial, but when accompanied by ignorance and habitual patterns they can manifest in painful ways. When powerful self-centeredness is the motivation, relationships between women and men can arouse dramatic streams of emotionality, conceptuality and fantasy, leading to pain and alienation. But whether manifested in awakened or painful ways, the qualities of feminine and masculine energies remain consistent. Feminine manifestation is associated with energetic heat and intensity; masculine manifestation is associated with steady power and groundedness. Penetrating insight as manifested in the lives of human women is a subtle, pervasive and very intelligent energy, a kind of sharpness or sensitivity. In its basic nature it is awareness, but in daily life it manifests as sensitivity, which can be quite intense and hot, related with emotionality. This sensitivity has more allegiance to dynamics than to content. There is a Tibetan saying: “Women’s intelligence is at a very sharp angle, and empty.” This means that women have a heightened ability to identify problems and to penetrate them, without clinging to results.

The heat and intensity of women’s energy can trip intense emotional triggers, which can create enormous chaos. This chaos can be beneficial when intractable situations present themselves. For example, when bureaucracy becomes overbearing or when stubborn logics and habitual styles are employed, penetrating insight can liberate the ponderous environment into chaos, even when it manifests as intense emotionality.

The sensitivity of women’s intuition can see injustice, emotional subtlety, interpersonal dynamics, and hidden meanings. When there are imbalances and obstacles in specific environments, the sharp and penetrating qualities of women can identify them and adjust them. This emotionality can also be very warm, generating compassion and care for others.

However, when intense emotionality is indulged, feminine intelligence can become self-serving. When this happens, feminine wisdom can become wild and even dangerous, subverting its own intelligence. Women have a capacity for responsiveness which can be fickle and provocative in its style of expression. Its fascination with sharpness may become habitual, so that when problems are identified, feminine energy may not have a particular allegiance to solutions.

An analogy to feminine wisdom is the sharpness of a knife, which is very cutting and penetrating. But if not used properly, it can be too sharp, too sensitive, unstable and even dangerous. In this case it is important to have a complementary energy, strong and skilled, to steady that wild blade and protect those things which are not to be cut.

When skillful means manifests in the styles of human men, there is strength, solidity and resiliency. In contrast to the feminine energy, the masculine is explicit, directed toward the material world of manifestation, and action-oriented. It is also more grounded, more sleepy, and when out of balance, could be considered a stubborn, resentful presence. Generally, however, it is praised because it is strong and faithful.

In positive manifestation, masculine means are tolerant, patient and accommodating. The fundamental masculine quality is immovability and bluntness. Men may have the wisdom to know what is happening, whether just or unjust, good or bad, negative or positive, and to just let things be as they are. Masculine energy is also known for loyalty, reliability, and the ability to join in groups to achieve common goals. It is culturally associated with politics, institutions and traditions.

On the other hand, masculine energy can be too accommodating, even lazy, and tends to be dull and oblivious. Without the stimulation of feminine wisdom, the masculine can go to sleep or be lulled into merely habitual routines or bureaucratic solutions. Or, when confronted by the wild and self-serving feminine, the masculine can become stubborn, cold and stolid. When threatened, the masculine can become blunt and heavy-handed, retaliating without precision or accuracy. The masculine needs relationship with sharpness because, though it is very strong, it is not precise or incisive.

When either of these energies manifests alone in our beings, they can become an obstacle to one’s spiritual development, according to the vajrayana. One without the other creates an imbalance in the practitioner, no matter what the gender. The sharpness of our mind-body complex yearns for more grounding, and our dullness craves excitement and clarity. Unifying these two qualities and bringing them into some kind of balance is one of the goals of vajrayana practice.

As the tantric practitioner becomes more attuned to these polar energies in her or his experience, they are found to reside everywhere. For example, it is possible to see the interplay between the feminine and masculine energies in solitary meditation. We experience them as our mindfulness practice oscillates between the extremes of wildness on the one hand, and drowsiness or dullness on the other. One moment we are bothered by excess discursiveness mixed with vivid emotionality, making a settled state of mind impossible. Ten minutes later, we find ourselves nodding off to sleep, spaced out and blank. Our practice is to work with these two poles of our meditation, understanding that they come from a common root.

When we acknowledge the interrelationship between penetrating insight and skillful means, it is possible to synchronize these energies and revitalize our human experience. We could not even directly experience the world without the cooperation and interplay of the two energies. When we experience our sense perceptions, seeing the color red involves the masculine aspect. But distinguishing the vivid tone of red, its vibrating intensity, in contrast to other colors or other reds, requires the feminine quality. If we have too much masculine, we see the color but we do not discriminate it. If we have too much feminine quality, our sense perceptions jump from thing to thing without really seeing anything directly.

The relationship between these two energies is more complex in interpersonal relationships. When feminine and masculine are at war, their neurotic aspects are heightened. The “other” becomes objectified as the enemy or threat, and the imbalance is exaggerated and solidified. The feminine becomes more emotional, wild and destructive, and the masculine more obstinate, harsh and political. Even when there is attraction between the feminine and masculine, if self-centered interests predominate, suffering and alienation can result.

The vajrayana practitioner must learn to appreciate differences and acknowledge the gifts of both genders in order to maintain sacred outlook in relationships. She or he must also acknowledge the dynamic power which arises in relationship with other.

As a woman, I have a balance of masculine and feminine aspects of my mind, imagination and subtle body, though it is often difficult for me to access them. On a tangible physical level, however, I am not in balance. By virtue of the fact of having a female body, I radiate the feminine qualities more strongly, and it is natural for me to yearn for the masculine qualities. Similarly, it is natural for men to yearn for feminine qualities.

One way to wholeness in vajrayana is to discover, through desire, the interrelatedness of masculine and feminine qualities on all levels of experience. The sharp edginess of women reaches for the blunt pragmatism of men; at the same time, men yearn for the emotional intensity of women. Sexual yearning is, at its heart, no different from spiritual yearning. Appreciating contrast and complementarity is central to the tantric practitioner’s life, as is tracing the dance between men and women in ordinary discourse. And sexual passion is a central expression of this dynamic, which goes to the heart of the body and mind.

In the dynamics of sexual attraction, both explicit and implicit, powerful forces are at work. While each of us is a complete universe, on the level of tangible manifestation we are not all that complete, according to tantra, and sexual desire is an aspect of yearning for completeness.

The passionate quality of human experience can only be liberated through desire itself; then it is described as a “mingling of passion and absence of passion.”

Working with this desire in harmony with practice is a great challenge for the vajrayana practitioner. It is difficult to honor passion without being overwhelmed by self-centered desire for gratification.

Experiencing intense passion without succumbing to gratification is at the heart of practice in Anuttara-yoga and this separates sexuality in Buddhist tantra from ordinary sexuality. It is a practice which requires all the preliminary training we have described, and must be combined with a close relationship to a tantric teacher.

There are various practices that enable us to contemplate directly the nature of passion as an important part of the spiritual path. In Anuttara-yoga-tantra, three such traditional practices may be given by a tantric guru.

First, in creation phase practice one may visualize the meditational deities in sexual union, as for instance in the practices of Vajrayogini and Cakrasamvara. Second, one may practice the generation of internal heat through the subtle body practices of the vital breath moving into the central channel. Third, under extremely rare conditions one may practice so-called “sexual yoga” with a qualified and appropriate consort. Each of these practices must be taught by the authentic guru in the context of vajrayana preliminaries and commitments.

What are the benefits for the tantric practitioner of contemplating the nature of passion? These practices have often been misunderstood by the uninitiated, for they are seen to be ways to practice spirituality through self-gratification. But self-gratification is contrary to the tantric path of meditation. As the Hevajra-tantra says, “This practice is not taught for the sake of enjoyment, but for the examination of one’s own thought, whether the mind is steady or wavering.”

Why would one arouse passion without self-gratification as motive and method? Generally, these practices are valued because they transform ordinary passion into the basis for the experience of great bliss, or mahasukha, which is “an actual experience of bliss, a physical, psychological, total experience of joy that comes from being completely without discursive thoughts, being completely in the realm of nonthought,” as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explained.

“Nonthought” is an experience of being completely present in nowness. It is available to everyone, but the vajrayana tradition provides powerful and skillful methods which accelerate inner development in direct and tangible ways. Ordinary methods of meditation practice may only slowly or intermittently grant the benefits of nonthought in the practitioner’s experience. Cultivating great bliss is a powerful tool which greatly hastens the removal of emotional and conceptual obscurations in one’s practice. When one is able to clear away these obscurations, wisdom and compassion arise spontaneously.

This progress is important, for it frees the practitioner to be more readily available to the needs, both spiritual and material, of the many suffering beings in the world. When one is able to turn all inner resources to the process of waking up, compassion is liberated and the spiritual benefits for all are more quickly evident.

Since desire and passion are so basic to our human life, it is important that we work with them properly, employing them as fuel for wakefulness and compassion. The purpose of the exploration of the nature of passion is bringing about realization where it has not already occurred. From this point of view, the liberation of passion and the experience of bliss is a powerful expedient in the practice of tantra.

For the material presented in this article, I am indebted to the teachings of several remarkable, realized lamas. For the material on feminine and masculine energies, especially the Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and also the Ven. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the Ven. Khandro Rinpoche, the Ven. Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, and the Ven. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. For contemplating the nature of passion in vajrayana practice, I am also indebted to Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. All of these lamas granted me interviews on the topic of my book, Dakini’s Warm Breath: Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism, from which this article was adapted.

Judith Simmer-Brown

Judith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University and a senior Buddhist teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition.