“You Can’t Watch Pornos in the Monastery”: Tibetan Tantra, Imagined Pleasure, and the Virtuality of Desire

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(Non-Tibetan Buddhist monks, ‘just watching’)

In my previous post on the life of 18th century monk turned non-celibate sexual-yogi Lelung Jedrung Zhepai Dorje, I noted how historically, debates in Tibet about the practice of tantric Buddhism have often revolved around whether or not practitioners should implement instructions and embody imagery included in the Highest Yoga Tantras ‘in the flesh’ or in more figurative or symbolic ways ‘in the imagination’. In the post, I proposed that some Western neo-tantric practitioners had perhaps projected overly rigid distinctions of ‘symbolic/actual’ onto indigenous tantric phenomena. I pointed out how in native Tibetan contexts, the lines between ‘actual’ and ‘imaginary’ in tantric practice could be quite blurry. While non-celibate Tibetan yogis such as Zhepai Dorje have advocated for advanced tantric practices involving sexual intercourse with a physical, human partner-as-deity (i.e. karmamudra), monastics have also relied on tantric consorts, except they have retained their vows in doing so, and have engaged in such unions only in the imagination, without having physical sex.

The way that celibate monasticism and non-celibate (tantric) forms of ‘professional’ Buddhism were developed and flourished side-by-side in Tibet, and in places like Bhutan, Mongolia, Sikkim, Ladakh and in other parts of Tibet’s cultural ’empire’, is truly remarkable. Still, as I pointed out in an earlier essay on the ngakpa tradition of married, tantric clergy , even though most aspects of Tibetan Buddhism have a strong tantric ‘flavour’, concerns about the potential misuse and the regulation of high-level and especially non-celibate tantric practices have been longstanding in Tibetan Buddhist societies. I noted there that:

“Anxieties about tantra going ‘rogue’ are particularly linked to the Age of Fragmentaton in Tibetan histories. Records from this time describe non-celibate ‘village tantric masters’ misinterpreting tantra, and pursuing esoteric practices for selfish, immoral or harmful ends, without a proper Mahayana Buddhist motivation to liberate all beings from suffering. Since monastics with the proper training can and do engage in higher tantric practices, celibacy and monasticism have sometimes been seen as providing a more controlled context for the pursuit of potent but easily misused tantric methods.”

Tantric sexual yoga practices are typically said to require mastery of the very advanced ‘Completion Stage’ practices of the Highest Yoga Tantras. These meditative procedures involve manipulating the flow of one’s subtle, psycho-spiritual energies and awareness as part of manifesting an ‘illusory body’ (sgyu lus) as the meditational tantric deity, which connects with the production and sustaining of the ‘clear light mind’ of innate Buddha-nature. Thus, whether one is practicing tantra with a visualized consort or a physical, ‘actual’ one, the underlying logic and ultimate success of these procedures uniformly depends on the skillful use of creative imagination. The idea of an ‘equal dispensation’ when it comes to tantra obtains on a moral level as well as on a ontological-perceptual one. When asked about what kind of practitioner one would have to be to be able to properly practice tantric sex with a physical consort, His Holiness the current Dalai Lama said in an interview in 1993 that:

“Truthfully, you can only do such practice if there is no sexual desire whatsoever. The kind of realization that is required is like this: If someone gives you a goblet of wine and a glass of urine, or a plate of wonderful food and a piece of excrement, you must be in such a state that you can eat and drink from all four and it makes no difference to you what they are. Then maybe you can do this practice.”  (The interview and its origiinal source is cited in John Power’s introductory book on Tibetan Buddhism)

This perspective is called ro gcig or ‘one taste’ in Tibetan, and points to the perfected non-dual consciousness of great tantric adepts, who have so thoroughly perceived emptiness that they have gone beyond all conventional imputations of pure and impure, good and bad – for these exceedingly rare masters, all phenomena all the time are experienced as uniformly liberated and blissful. This would seem to imply then that materiality ultimately does not matter, that there’s no intrinsic need to engage with tantra’s impure substances and behaviours ‘in the flesh’ as part of transmuting poisoned perceptions into stainless wisdom. If piss or poison are as good as pure water and quality wine, then water and wine must also be as good as piss. Yet, this is somewhat of a best-case scenario, and in practice, materiality still matters. As Daniel Cozort notes, it is possible for tantric yogis and yoginis to engage in Karmamudra practice before they have fully mastered the Completion Stage practices of visualizing oneself as the deity. While such practitioners will experience some profound realizations from doing this, they will not be able to experience complete Buddhahood until they have mastered the Completion Stage. (Certain sexual yoga practices exist in the Yuthok Nyingthik cycle, however, that are geared towards more common practitioners with far less yogic expertise and religious/meditative experience. These combine medical and tantric sensibilities in interesting ways).

Further, while the impure substances of meat, alcohol and sexual fluids that were consumed in some Indian contexts as part of tantric feast-gatherings and initiation ceremonies are most commonly only ingested in trace amounts or via symbolic substitutions by both celibate and non-celibate Tibetan lamas today, even someone as committed to monasticism as the founder of the Gelukpa school Je Tsongkhapa stated that the only way in which one could achieve full Buddhahood in one human lifetime and body while still alive was to practice with a physical consort. Failing this, the only other option for manifesting the wholly perfected illusory-body of a Buddha is to make use of the subtle-mind opportunities that are accessible when one (physically) dies. Je Tsongkhapa himself is said to have chosen this route, since he felt that if he had segued from celibacy to Karmamudra practice while alive too many of his disciples of lesser capacity may have got the wrong idea, and would have tried to follow his example and bring harm to themselves and the teachings.

Some months ago, I came across an apparently true-life, humourous anecdote that had been shared on the popular Tibetan-language discussion site Khabdha.org. The story, entitled “You can’t/aren’t supposed to be allowed to watch pornos in the monastery” (dgon pa’i nang du ‘khrig spyod glog brnyan la lta mi chog zer) was written by a reincarnate lama called Tulku Wangchen and was posted on the site on the 31st of July 2013. The following is a translation of the account, which aside from being legitimately very funny and well-written, highlights I think, a number of key issues relating to materiality and the imagination in the context of Tibetan Buddhist ethics and religious practice. The story goes as follows:


“In Northern California in America there’s a Tibetan Buddhist gompa (*this word is often translated as ‘monastery’ but as is clear here, it can be used as a general term for other sorts of Tibetan Buddhist religious centers as well). The master of the monastery is a good and kind-hearted Nyingma awareness and mantra-holder [i.e. ngakpa] lama. His students are all exclusively Inji (i.e. white/’Western’) ngakpa and ngakmo. Usually, there are between 30 and 40 American men and women that reside at the goma. Sometimes there are also a few drop in visitors who come and go. The gompa is surrounded completely by trees and thick forest and is located at the bottom of a pretty meadow. Even if you were only able to stay at this place for a little while, I imagine you’d definitely be able to achieve some spiritual attainments and mental stability even without having mastered shamatha (i.e. ‘calm abiding’) meditation.

About fifteen years before now, a young tulku (reincarnate lama) from Nepal, a lama from Bhutan as well as a khenpo  (a title often used for Nyingma abbots and monastic scholar-experts) who’d come from India along with several other monks got together at the gompa. Generally, there weren’t any monks at all at the gompa. The lamas and tulku stayed at the gompa for a few months and during that time a funny thing happened. One day, in the gompa office after work was over in the afternoon, a porn video was watched in secret. The viewers were the tulku, the lamas as well as some of the monks. The khenpo, being a little older, wasn’t part of the movie watching group. The gompa secretary, who was an Inji woman, found out about the incident. Her husband is said to have seen what happened and told her about it. The secretary had an audience with Ngakpa Rinpoche. The next day in the gompa, Ngakpa Rinpoche announced to the tulku, lama, khenpo and the monks that there was (going to be) a meeting. So, everyone assembled for meeting but, instead of the Rinpoche coming himself in person, only the Rinpoche’s representative, an Inji lama, arrived.

This lama had an English translator. “Firstly, Rinpoche has passed a message on to me. I have come here to relay this message to you all. Beyond this, I have no other business with and nothing else to say to you,” he said. Holding nothing back, he conveyed the Rinpoche’s message as follows: “It’s said that yesterday within the gompa (i.e. on the general property/within the grounds), you were watching a dirty pornographic movie. If this story is true, this is very bad. This is a Buddhist temple. It is a place solely for religious attainment, and not for doing unseemly activities like these. All of you, khenpo, tulku, lama and monks alike are exclusively monastic vow holders. I declare that from now on this sort of situation will no longer take place”

Hearing this, the khenpo was as confused as an old yak whose horn is struck with a stone. He looked around here and there, pondering and blinking his eyes (before) coming to some sort of realization. The tulku, in a whispering voice, started trying to say several things : “I’ve sat at the foot of so-and-so lama and lived at such-and-such monastery, but I’ve never once in my life experienced a meeting like this!” The Bhutanese lama and other monks, blushing furiously, were speechless and could only sit there unable to say a word. At that point, the khenpo, having come to his realization, questioned the Inji lama as follows in a loud and high voice: “Aren’t those films made to be watched?” “Yes,” the Inji lama replied, “But Rinpoche said that it isn’t good for you to watch those films inside the gompa.” After sitting there for a little with an ‘Aha!’ look on his face, he asked, laughing: “Oh yea? Then what about if you actually have sex on the gompa (premises)? Does Rinpoche have sex at the gompa? Do you have sex at the gompa?”

The Inji lama answered somewhat uncomfortably: “Yes, he does” and “Yes, I do”. Then the khenpo said again, “If you have actual physical sex at the gompa and that isn’t dirty and unseemly then why is merely watching a movie such a big crime and such a bad thing?” I’ve watched films and we’ve all watched films. I’m one of these so-called ‘viewers’. You Americans alone made all these films. When we come to America of course we’re going to watch American films. If it’s permitted to have sexual intercourse at the gompa then who made the law saying that watching films is not allowed?”

The Inji lama was stunned by these words and sat there for a little while unable to speak. “Okay, okay. I was merely entrusted with the Rinpoche’s message, I don’t know anything else!” he said, and sat staring wide-eyed and straight ahead at a thangka of Vajrasattva (and his consort) in ecstatic sexual union that was (in the room). Then the khenpo said, in a relaxed and casual voice: “Right, OK then. When you go from here, please ask the Rinpoche: If the master who founded a gompa is allowed to have actual sex in it, then why are we few short-term guests not allowed to watch a porno? If Rinpoche is really bothered by this, we will all come up to see him in person and will do whatever we can to seek the gods’ forgiveness. Also, please explain that we just wanted to watch a porno, and had no desire to enter onto the path of a ngakpa and actually have sex.” And so the Inji lama was sent off to the Rinpoche.

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(An image of the tantric Buddhist deity Rdo rje Sems dpa’ or Vajrasattva in ‘yab yum’ posture, the ‘father-mother’ posture of ecstatic sexual union)

Much of the humour and impact of this tale only makes sense as a result of longstanding tensions within Tibetan tradition about how to relate different, more or less embodied levels of religious practice. But as noted, when it comes to Buddhist tantra, those levels are not always so easy to neatly parse or disentangle. Tantric practices draw on vocabularies that at times seem to conflate the material and the subtle (something I considered in passing in this separate post on New Age literalisms). For example, rlung and byang chub sems are two technical Tibetan terms that play a central role in Tibetan religious discourse. Depending on the context, however rlung (loong) can mean either actual, external meteorological wind; the physical breath (although dbugs is often used to differentiate this); internal, medical/humoral winds that influence health and emotions; a kind of vital force of good fortune that rises and falls according to one’s horoscope and circumstances (this is more specifically called rlung rta, however, which can also mean the physical, coloured prayer flags that are hung to influence the flow of this force); or psycho-spiritual energies in the channels of the subtle body which are key to transformational yogic technologies. Similarly, Byang chub sems (jangchub sem) is on the one hand the translation for the classic Mahayana Buddhist altruistic-soteriological concept bodhicitta, the ‘mind that aspires to Buddhahood for the sake of and out of compassion for all sentient beings’, yet at other times it can refer to the thig le, the ‘seminal-drop’ which itself may at times be used to refer to actual physical semen, or to the more subtle and irreducible cosmic sexual essence for which male sexual secretions are (sometimes) a sort of vehicle or place-holder.

Tulku Wangchen (who may or may not really be a tulku)’s funny story cuts to the heart of Tibetan ambiguities and contradictions about the relative importance of embodiment and materiality in religious practice, and the ‘virtuality’ of desire and appearances in Buddhism more generally. In Je Tsongkhapa’s exegesis of advanced tantric sexual practices, the practices produce enlightenment because they allow the practitioner to dissolve their awareness into innate bliss-emptiness, where everything without exception arises as blissful and luminous, devoid of any intrinsic or substantive being beyond the plenitude of the void. And yet, to win perfect and permanent non-dual realization one needs to work with materiality – with embodied emotions and capacities, with the body’s stimulation and annihilation, with one’s own as well as other beings’ (conventional) bodies. Aside from its other subtle commentary on non-Tibetan Buddhists feeling as if they can speak for how native Tibetan practitioners should interpret things or behave, the story also points to the centrality of imagination and motivation in tantric Buddhism. We know that in Buddhist ethical treatments, ‘intentionally’ murdering someone in dream or hallucination does not necessarily have the same karmic consequences as willingly killing someone in the flesh, but we also know that waking, samsaric life is its own hallucinatory delusion and the training and refining of imagination and desire is a big part of the logic of Vajrayana, with its claims that learning how to imagine that you are a perfect, enlightened being can in fact make you so.

In his recent historical analysis of the infamous Tibetan ‘crazy lamas’ of the 15th century, David Di Valerio suggests that the hyper-material and literal enactments of tantric iconography and transgressive behaviours by these saints should be seen as a kind of ‘Tantric fundamentalism’, as strategic, historically-situated performances of ‘tantric drag’ that were part of a protest against the excessive institutionalization and political co-optation of Vajrayana by Tibetan authorities of the time. Clearly, different Tibetan Buddhist practitioners may stress the more or less material dimensions of religious practice for different strategic reasons, depending on context. It would be nice to know what the Ngakpa Rinpoche in the story thought of the khenpo’s response, but we are not provided with that opportunity.

It goes without saying that Tibetan monastics are hardly encouraged to watch porn. Still, even if one finds the khenpo’s rejoinders a little too glib, at the very least, his words point to the complexities (and epiphanies) involved in accommodating both non-celibate and celibate Buddhist orientations under the same Tibetan cultural ‘roof’.