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Love and Passion in Tantric Buddhist Art

Article of the Month - July 2000
Viewed 68876 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

Yab-YumNotwithstanding the fact that the Buddha essence is non-polar, Buddhist iconographers use sexual polarity to symbolize the twin concepts of insight and compassion. All goddesses are symbols of insight and the gods represent compassion. The union of compassion and insight symbolizes the non-polarized state of bodhicitta, or the mind of enlightenment, which is represented visually by showing two deities engaged in sexual union. Tibetans characterize such images as yab-yum, which literally means father-mother; in Sanskrit the expression is yuganaddha (pair united). This sexual metaphor is also used to denote the highest stage of yoga in which there is no polarity, no discrimination, and the truth is indivisible as the vajra itself. It may be added parenthetically that while such images, whether statues or paintings, are today much sought after by collectors and boldly displayed in museums, in Tibet they were always meant to be seen only by the initiated. The rites associated with these images were also arcane and not for public consumption.

The word Tantra itself is derived from the verbal root tan, meaning to "weave". Many things are interwoven on the Tantric path, including the lives of men and women. The Buddha couples of Tantric iconography celebrate this deep harmony of the sexes. The purpose of this dynamic was the creation of partnerships devoted to the realization of the ultimate truth. For instance, the man cultivates pure vision by seeing the woman as a deity, her sexual organ as the throne of enlightenment, and her sexual fluid as divine nectar. Thus according to the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, sexual union also constitutes a fire sacrifice, as performed by the creator god Prajapati upon creating woman:

Having created her, he worshipped her sexual organ;
Therefore a woman's sexuality should be worshipped.
He stretched forth from himself a stone for pressing nectar
[i.e., causing a woman's sexual fluid to flow]
And impregnated her with that.
Her lap is the sacrificial altar;
Her hair, the sacrificial grass;
Her skin the soma press;
The depths of her sexual organ, the fire in the middle

. . . . . . . . . . Many mortals...go forth from this world...without merit,
Namely, those who practice sexual union without knowing this.

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 6.4.1-4

Thangka Paintings


Often the mother is shown in a posture with both legs around the father's waist. In this remarkable and richly symbolic manifestation, both the male and the female are emanations of the Buddha. They appear simultaneously united and independent, like the complex relationship of sameness and difference between wisdom (female) and compassion (male) in the enlightened state. Ponderous, energetic forms confront the viewer in this stunning portrayal. Shamvara (supreme bliss) embraces the massive sky blue body of his consort Vajravarahi, holding in his hands various implements symbolic of his triumph over ignorance and evil. She gazes rapturously and intently at her consort with her head thrown back, heightening their electrifying aura. Two of her arms tightly clutch Shamvara's neck. His first two arms embrace his consort, and holding a Vajra and a bell make the diamond HUM - sound gesture with the crossed wrists, behind her back. This gesture celebrates the inseparable union of method and wisdom.


Father Mother Thangka Paintings


The father-mother union image is not an example of erotic art, but is a manifestation of the Buddha's highest spiritual essence. More than metaphorical, to the devout Tibetan this image is concrete evidence of the existence of great spiritual attainment. The female (mother) represents transcendent wisdom: the direct awareness of reality as the Buddha experienced it and taught it. The male (father), represents compassion for all beings, which is the natural expression of such wisdom. Their union, although exquisitely blissful, is ultimately undertaken out of compassion for the world. This sacred communion of the male and female Buddha generates waves of bliss and harmony that turn the world into a Mandala (container of essence) and showers forth a rain of nectar that satisfies the spiritual hunger in the hearts of living beings everywhere. Modern depth psychology has recognized such images to represent the deepest archetypes of the unconscious, integrating the powerful instinctual energies of life into a consciously sublimated and exalted state.

The texts often refer to the union of a lotus and vajra, or diamond scepter. Clearly, "lotus" and vajra are metaphors, not literal terms. One is not meant to bring together a flower and a scepter, but something denoted by these terms. Depending upon the level of interpretation, uniting the lotus and the vajra can mean uniting wisdom and compassion, or bliss and emptiness, within the practitioner's psyche, or bringing together the female and male organs in physical union, or a number of other things that must be combined on the path to enlightenment.

Along with Gopa, he experienced bliss.
By uniting the diamond scepter and lotus,
He attained the fruit of bliss.
Buddhahood is obtained from bliss, and
Apart from women there will not be bliss

And at another place:

The man [sees] the woman as a goddess
The woman [sees] the man as a god.
By joining the diamond scepter and lotus,
They should make offerings to each other.
There is no worship apart from this.

... Candamaharosana-tantra

Tantra PaintingsThe forms expressing this union are based upon the germinal mantra 'Om mani padme Hum'. This mantra contains both mani, meaning jewel, synonym for vajra, the word which means diamond, thunderbolt and the male organ, and padme meaning 'in the lotus' (locative case of padma), a symbol for the female sexual organ, the outer opening of which resembles the petals of a lotus. This formal similarity, as well as the fact that the lotus is a Buddhist symbol of purity and enlightenment, makes this magnificent flower a natural symbol for feminine sexuality. The supportive texts envision a resplendent world of vivid color, choreographed movement, exquisite texture, and intimate gesture:


Constantly take refuge at my feet, my dear...
Be gracious, beloved, and
Give me pleasure with your diamond scepter.
Look at my three-petaled lotus,
Its center adorned with a stamen.
It is a Buddha paradise, adorned with a red Buddha,
A cosmic mother who bestows
Bliss and tranquility on the passionate.
Abandon all conceptual thought and
Unite with my reclining form;
Place my feet upon your shoulders and look me up and down.
Make the fully awakened scepter
Enter the opening in the center of the lotus.
Move a hundred,thousand,hundred thousand times
In my three-petaled lotus Of swollen flesh.
Placing one's scepter there, offer pleasure to her mind.
Wind, inner wind-my lotus is the unexcelled!
Aroused by the tip of the diamond scepter,
It is red like a bandhuka flower.


Another common Tantric metaphor for sexual union is the image of the "Churner and the Churned". Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), drawing on a range of Indian sources, explains that churning the female partner with the diamond scepter is the efficient cause of the nectar of Buddhahood, and argues that just as fire is kindled by rubbing two sticks together, bliss is generated by churning. The image of churning also refers to the Hindu myth wherein gods and demons churn the cosmic ocean of milk to extract its nectar. The goddess Sakti is produced from this process, and her sexual fluids become the immortality-bestowing nectar the gods are seeking. Thus, churning the yogic partner, which stimulates the flow of her nectar, mirrors the stirring of the cosmic ocean for its potent, liberating nectar. Churning also connotes the circulation of the yogic energy as it surges within the psychic channels and then rises in the central channel. Thus, the metaphor of churning, which appears to be a simple physical analogy, resonates richly with various nuances of Tantric union.

Tantric Buddhism is unique among Buddhist sub-traditions in its acceptance of the body and sense experience as sources of knowledge and power. Tantric Buddhists eulogized the body as an "abode of bliss" and boldly affirmed that desire, sexuality, and pleasure can be embraced on the path to enlightenment. In keeping with this life-affirming orientation, the movement upheld the possibility of liberating relationships between men and women and envisioned cooperative yogic methods that men and women can perform together in order to transform the ardor of their intimacy and passion into blissful, enlightened states of awareness. This mood of exuberant delight, graceful sensuousness, and reciprocity that often characterizes the sculpted and painted couples also suffuses the literary descriptions in the Tantric texts, which exult in an open and unshamed affirmation of sensuality in a religious context:

Therefore, one who desires Buddhahood
Should practice what is to be practiced.
To renounce the sense objects
Is to torture oneself by asceticism-don't do it!
When you see form, look!
Similarly, listen to sounds,
Inhale scents,
Taste delicious flavors,
Feel textures.
Use the objects of the five senses -
You will quickly attain supreme Buddhahood.

... Candamaharosana-tantra

Tantra asserts that, instead of suppressing, vision and ecstasy, they should be cultivated and used. Because sensation and emotion are the most powerful human motive forces, they should not be crushed out, but harnessed to the ultimate goal. Properly channeled they can provide an unparalleled source of energy, bringing benefits to society as well as continually increasing ecstasy for the individual. Tantra deals in love, and love needs objects. One cannot love nothing. Love means care; and care carried to the limit is perhaps the ultimate social virtue.

(All quotations and translations are from the book "Passionate Enlightenment" by Miranda Shaw, which is a comprehensive and masterly analysis of the Tantric Buddhist tradition from a feminist perspective.)

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  • Tantric art means, that somebody first studies Tantra, than he or she has to become a yogic Adept and Train himself, herself, master some philosophical Topics, as Training to overcome egoicentrism and selfish thinking, speaking and acting. Than find a real master which has the Realisation, love and compassion, than ask for Transmission and than become a very humble serving Person for the rest of yourlife. Tantra is no Business, ist the reality of existance, but using it, we have to feel responsability for all beings and nature. Trantra is essentially the Methode of overcoming dualism and to become one with the divine within ourself but also as appearance all over.
    by Johannes Frischknecht, Kempttalstrasse 101, 8320 Fehraltorf ZH ( on 26th Oct 2013
  • I came across this article whilst looking for information as to what it is that is represented by the Buddhist goddesses' numerous arms, and I must say that this article was very enjoyable. I have often wanted to know more about Eastern philosophy and art, but I soon become discouraged and bogged down by my inability to pronounce so many of the names (whether out loud or in thought). This article was not so over strewn with names I could not pronounce as to discourage me, and it explained the names used quite well.

    I have not the time at the moment to read more of the website, but I shall certainly visit it again to learn more.

    by JT on 19th May 2008
  • I thought it was inspiring.
    by DR on 14th Dec 2007
  • What is the ultimate goal here ? To become What ? Most of what I have read via this website is a cleaned up version of some of the most unclean thoughts and actions that I have ever studied. Consorts for monks ? That expostulate wisdom ? via what means ?

    The thought: that in making love you do indeed exchange spirits. Comes from the thoughts remain the same in our quest for knowledge of spirit and truth, why do we seek out the imitators ?
    by Sheri on 17th May 2007
  • I am conducting research on the social, historical, spiritual and cultural sides of what it means to be a Brahmana.

    Would the anonymous being who made valuable insights into the agaamas and the relevance/irrelevance of castes during the Kali age please e-mail me on

    The article was also insightful. There are experiences which are part and parcel of being a sensual creature and wisdom lies in the balance between celebration and mastery.
    by Mahesh on 13th Apr 2006
  • What an inspirational article. As a former Monk in Tibetan Tradition , I was particularly interested that you Quoted Tsongkhapa (who outwardly showed pure Pratimoksha Discipline-including celibacy) .
    That Leper guy seem to have confused Emptiness/Shunyata with Nothingness. A common error. I think you have elucidated very clearly how duality is to be used to experience Non-Dualistic Wisdom and Bliss . Thanks for that.
    by Tom on 1st Apr 2006
  • I had a geography project due over Hinduism and this helped me a great deal. LOVE YA!
    by Brandi on 30th Oct 2005
  • "One cannot love nothing."

    - Have you ever read any metaphysical scriptures at all? Nothingness=Beingness=Love <-- these converge into the one substrate of reality.
    by leper on 25th Jan 2005
  • Beautiful indeed
    by Louise Jalbert on 4th Jan 2005
  • I agree, we should not focus on sex, instead focus on passion and the love of art.

    Melanie H. *Panama City Beach, FL.*
    by Melanie on 2nd Apr 2004
  • Become one with the universe
    by Melanie on 2nd Apr 2004
  • what new ?
    by lww on 25th Nov 2003
  • great works
    by peter tseng on 9th Jun 2003
  • I am the very proud owner of the beautiful brass statue of Ya-Yum as seen on the top of this article.
    The article adds such insight and reasoning to the joy of ownership.
    May I first say the picture in no way does the piece justice. The detail is superb and the composition is spectacular. The balance of the two is so perfect you almost feel they are moving. The slight sideways tilt of the males head adds an enormous feeling of warmth to the piece, there is no vulgarity. The female leans into him as if he is her tree. Their arms fold around each other but do not touch, as if the force force that binds them is not physical, whilst the eye contact is perfectly aligned (all six).
    The piece is reassuringly heavy and of correct proportions, the feeling of realism is added by the lack of any stand. The male figure sits calmly in the lotus position, effortlessly supporting the females weight, every so slightly reclining to counterbalance. The female shoulders are swept back in a natural yearning.
    The piece is quiet breathtaking, it brings us such wonderful energy.
    Thank you so much for bringing it to us.
    by Jon on 2nd Jun 2003
  • ok
    by menandros on 24th Feb 2003
  • Beautiful .....
    by dominique poupart on 3rd Jan 2003
  • any info on tantric would help
    by andy on 8th Oct 2002
  • -one cannot love nothing-
    The closing paragraph said it all. I love having these articles to learn about all that is new yet familiar alredy.
    by Aimee on 19th Sep 2001
  • No doubt the article on Hindu-Buddhist tantra is a mine of information. However it reinforces the limited scope that Western people get on tantra from books that capitalize on the esoteric sexuality of certain sects. There is a broader picture that does not get much exposure in the West. And that is: that tantra teaches the brahminical or priestly way of life for these post-Vedic times we live in now, when the elaborate and costly fire sacrifices performed in Vedic kingdoms of old are no longer practicable. In the *Mahabharata Anusasana Parva* Maheshvara Shiva tells Uma Devi: etaih karma-phalair devi nyuna-jaati-kulodbhavah shuudro api aagama-sampanno dvijo bhavati samskrtah. Karmabhir shuchibhir devi shuddhaatmaa vijitendriyah shuudro api dvija-vat sevyai iti brahmaavit svayam. This means, "By the results of prescribed karmas (duties taught in the scriptures) and by following the agaama scriptures (meaning especially that we should receive initiation into the teachings of such scriptures by a learned guru) then a low-born person such as a shuudra can become a brahmin. Oh goddess, Brahmaa the creator himself declared that by performance of pure karmas a shuudra becomes as respectable as a brahmin." The actual point here is that in our present age (called Kali Yuga or the Age of Strife), nobody is a "born brahmin." The Hindu caste system is a fossilized relic of a bygone age. The Skanda Purana states: ashuudhaah shuudro-kalpaa hi braahmanaah kali-sambhavaah: "In the Kali Age, those born in brahmin families become impure like shudras." This is because the old Vedic culture of the dvijas (twice-born castes, i.e. the brahmins, ksatriyas and vaishyas) is defunct. The Vedic texts are called nigaama, and the tantric texts are called agaama. In these dark times, the path of spiritual elevation is to be found in the agaama. And by the way, this is not about social castes. A brahmin or braahmana is defined thusly: brahma jaanaatiiti braahmanah--Öne who knows the Supreme Spirit is actually a brahmin." In conclusion, I wish to emphasize that the majority of agaama scriptures or tantras that people in India follow today are not about esoteric sexuality, magic, summoning dakinis etc. Rather, they show the path of Vedanta (the conclusion of the Vedas, i.e. Brahman) in the post-Vedic age
    by Anonymous on 6th Jul 2001
  • This was a fabulous article. Thank you,
    by Jillian on 3rd May 2001
    by Anonymous on 3rd May 2001
  • It seems that all any one cares about is sex........I'm kinda disgusted with all this sex is a sign of weakness......everyone is obssessed with sex the way a crack addict is obssessed with getting their next hit.
    by Anonymous on 3rd May 2001
  • I appreciated the valuable information. In my view, it is important that human Beings appreciate the Senses. It is also important that the Sacred is restored to human sexual experience. The "modern" Western culture has been trending toward increasing abstraction and intellectualization, moving away from the sensual experiencing. This causes separation from the Divine, which is available through the senses. This separation from the senses is the root cause of many forms of stress and strife in todays world. We have the senses for a reason. They should be used to appreciate Life, our World, and the worlds beyond thought. Of the greatest importance is emotional sensitivity, which begins with sensitivity in the senses. Emotional sensitivity is indeed the doorway to the Divine which abides in all Life and in all forms of Consiousness, whether physical, or non-physical.<br>I feel that you are providing a service to Life by disseminating such information to the global human community. (The animals don't need such advice, because they are always living genuinely, in the Harmony.)<br>Love and Passion should not be mere abstract concepts, but actual and deep experiences. These perspectives which you have presented are directly related to the views and excercises which have been presented at <b></b>. These practices are highly recommended. Best Wishes
    by Neil on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you so much for the article, it's one I will keep.
    by Zepher on 3rd May 2001
  • Thanks very much for this article on Buddhist Tantric art. I really enjoyed reading it. Regards
    by Malina on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you greatly for the article, it was especially enlightening.
    by Anonymous on 3rd May 2001
  • Very interesting article...I catually work at a raturant/Lounge in south beach that is called TANTRA...every item on the menu is made with aphrodisiacs. Its an amzing place, everyone leaves there having has an incredible experience.
    by Tracy on 3rd May 2001
  • Dear Nitin, thank you so much for the wonderful article on tantra. It was very informative. Namaste
    by Bob on 3rd May 2001
  • Thank you for this most enlightening article. Tantric practices and symbolism are very difficult concepts for those of us who have developed our sensibilities in western cultures. Your excellent presentation of the subject has gone a long way toward clearing up my cultural bias based inherent misunderstanding of the imagery. Sincerely
    by Harry McKeithen on 3rd May 2001


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