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Excerpt from "Sex, Sin and Zen"

by Brad Warner

Is Orgasm the Highest Form of Meditation?

When I was in San Francisco a few months back, a guy I know took me to this place where they teach something they call “Orgasmic Meditation.” I didn’t actually get a chance to see how it works — dang! But the woman who invented the technique ex-plained it. A girl lies down with her pants off. A guy kneels beside her. He diddles her until she comes. Then they call it meditation.

Okay. According to them there’s more to it than just that. They say, “Orgasmic Meditation (O.M.) is a technique that develops mindfulness, concentration, connection, and insight in the arena of human sexuality. Orgasmic Meditation can facilitate greater physical and mental health, deeper intimacy, and for some, a method for spiritual aims.” It’s grammatically weird, but that’s how they put it.*[1]

A method for spiritual aims, eh? That might just be the crux of the problem right there. Remember what I said about spirituality and aims? Zen is neither about spirituality nor about trying to get into some predetermined state.

Anyway, while I talked with the folks who ran the place I was distracted by dozens of extraordinarily pretty girls going back in the meditation room for sessions. I won’t lie to you. I woulda gone in there in a heartbeat if they’d have invited me. Hey! It’s research! But they didn’t invite me. So I have nothing to report from back there.*[2]

I did, however, get a guided tour of the dorms. Apparently most members of the group live communally in what was once a rather sleazy downtown hotel. The person who invited me to meet the leader of the organization took me up to show me his room. The members of the group are each assigned a roommate, usually of the opposite sex, with whom they share a teeny, tiny room with barely space for a single bed, which they also share. Mmm-hmm.

As we walked around the dorms we began to hear moaning coming from one of the rooms. The door was wide open, but I demurely turned away. My host said, “It’s an O.M. session. They usually don’t do them in the dorms.” It was two women; the moaner was being diddled while the diddler talked her through the process using much the tone of voice and words used by people doing guided meditations.****

Maybe I’m not the most sexually free person in the entire world. I mean, I believe very strongly in sexual freedom as a rule for people in general. Consenting adults should be allowed to do whatever they want. But me, I’m a bit conservative about some things. Loud sex with the doors open is a little much for me — even when you call it meditation.

Whether or not this technique is a form of meditation, I can’t say. Remember, friends, that in my view zazen isn’t really a form of meditation as such. In some ways what they do sounds like it could be fun, though perhaps not fun for me personally. But in any case, it doesn’t sound a bit like Buddhism. Let me tell you why.

As I briefly touched on* earlier, the idea that sexual activity is a way to establish a deepened meditative state has been around for a very long time. It’s part of what is called Tantra, a system that has made its way into both Hinduism and Buddhism. Tantra itself is not necessarily sexual. Equating Tantra with sex is an unfortunate mistake made by a lot of Westerners. A whole lot of tantric practices have nothing to do with sex. But the ancient sex-based systems that appear in certain forms of Buddhism and Hinduism come out of the tantric tradition. So the confusion of terms is not all that hard to understand.

The word Tantra actually means “continuum.” Its origins are attributed by its followers to Gotama Buddha — the historical Buddha of circa 500 bc. But it appears to date from several hundred years later. According to the definition of tantra found in The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, “this tradition [is] strongly oriented toward human experiential potential [and] describes spiritual development in terms of the categories ground, path and fruition.” Whatever that means! You tell me. Anyhow, it includes a number of practices, but even The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen admits that it “finds its strongest expression in a multi-layered sexual symbology. Transcendence of the masculine principle and the feminine principle through the union of the two is given as the key characteristic of the supreme yoga Tantra.”

According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, which is the very best place to go when searching for answers about Buddhism,** “When enacted as enjoined by the tantras, the [sexual] ritual culminates in a sublime experience of infinite awareness, by both participants.” Uh-huh. I’m sure it does. I have a couch right over here where we can try it out if you like...

I don’t know a whole lot about tantric sexual meditation — obviously. But there are a million books and websites out there all about it if you want to study up on it for yourself. However, I can tell you why I remain unconvinced that sex is a viable path to the Absolute. Sex is just too easy to abuse, and it’s too emotionally charged an activity for most people to maintain equilibrium while engaged in it.

Anyway, by now whatever may have once existed of serious tantric sexual rituals has devolved into pure debauchery. Okay, maybe — maybe — there are a few monks and nuns on a mountain in Tibet who do the practice seriously. But let’s get real here. You aren’t gonna find them on the Internet or in the back pages of the local free paper, or even in the ads section of your favorite Buddhist magazine. And they have not opened a center conveniently located in San Francisco that you can join as long as you look hot enough.* Reading a bunch of books about this or about any other practice is not the same thing as learning it for real through a genuine tradition handed down face-to-face from master to disciple over thousands of years. The folks who wrote the modern books on the subject probably don’t have a clue about the real practice. They’ve just translated a lot of other books, most of them probably also by people who did not actually do the practice. Even if you go back to the most ancient sources you have to recall that there were windbag scholars who wrote about things they didn’t really have any firsthand knowledge of even then!

I’ve never seen a single person advocating tantric sexual meditation who didn’t strike me as mainly just wanting to get his or her rocks off. And while those Orgasmic Meditation folks in San Francisco didn’t seem quite as overtly sleazy as the average bearded tantric sex dude walking down the Venice Beach boardwalk in a flowing robe with a hash pipe in one hand and a paperback copy of the Kama Sutra in the other, there was still something that seemed very clearly off about the whole business.

True tantric sex practices were extremely complex rituals that required years of training before they were to be attempted. The practices themselves were shrouded in secrecy so as to prevent those uninitiated into the deeper truths from trying them out at home. Nowadays some folks just read a book about ’em, jump right in bed to test ’em out, and then start mouthing off about how spiritual it all was.

That being said, the balanced state of body and mind that occurs through zazen practice can also occur spontaneously in other situations. As a musician I used to find it when playing onstage. All consciousness of myself and the outside world would vanish, to be replaced by a fluid state of action alone, in which thought and feeling ceased to be important and in which the sense of self and other utterly dissolved. Athletes often experience moments like this. So do artists of various kinds. So do many people involved in a whole range of activities to which they have fully devoted themselves. And so, quite often, do lovers engaged in sex.

In fact, I’d hazard to guess that there may be a lot of people who have no meditative or artistic practice, whose lives are a drab and ordinary routine dictated by society, for whom perhaps the one time when they are ever fully engaged in the present moment is while fucking.

And I do admit that fucking can be a powerful, even spiritual, thing. This is why the ancient Buddhists made such a big deal of it in the precepts. You can get into some really deep stuff during sex.

But as I said, my problem with sex as meditation is that, as a method, it’s much too prone to abuse and danger. It’s very easy for someone in the position of “spiritual master” to present himself as a tantric adept and con some young lady into participating in a bogus “holy ritual.” Cases of this abound, including one supposed “Zen master” in Los Angeles* who claimed that his spiritually charged sexual energy was too great to be contained by one person and therefore he needed to have sex with two or more women at a time.**

Sex can be a lot of things. It can be fun. It can even be recreational. It need not be heavy and need not lead to emotional commitments. But that’s not the kind of sex we’re talking about when we’re talking about sex being used as a way to access higher levels of consciousness or “sublime experiences of infinite awareness.”

That kind of sex is very heavy stuff. You cannot get into those levels of awareness unless you’re prepared to get into some very deep stuff within yourself and within the person with whom you’re engaging in your “meditation.” It is absolutely a necessary part of the territory. So sexual meditation, if it’s to be engaged in at all, needs to be handled with a lot of finesse. It’s not the kind of thing an amateur ought to attempt. And you sure as hell cannot expect to have such an experience with somebody you just met that day at an Orgasmic Meditation class.

In terms of the dangers one might encounter on this path, remember, you’re talking about a shared experience between two people (at least). Emotions and other such reactions are bound to run high. Even if the orgasmic meditative experience is euphoric, there is always a comedown. And the comedown will also be a shared experience.

Much of what we’re talking about here involves trying to reach so-called bliss states. So I should say something here about those states as they relate to Zen practice in general, even apart from sex. Unlike a lot of meditative practices, Zen is not focused on achieving states of bliss — orgasmic or otherwise. But while Zen practice is not geared toward moving you into bliss states, it can carry you through those states.

States of bliss occur when you try to turn off everything else that’s going on at a given moment and focus only on bliss. You’re going, “Oh, wow! Bliss! Far out!” But bliss is just one aspect of any given experience. It’s impossible to really turn off everything else. Everything else is still going on. You’re just focused on one aspect of the experience. And that’s an unstable position to be in. Eventually it’s going to fall apart. It has to.

And when it falls apart it’s actually worse than not having had it at all because it’s like any other kind of high. When you get high on something — including “spiritual bliss” — there is always going to be a low. The comedown is your body/mind returning to balance, or to the closest thing to balance that it knows. If you desperately crave bliss while your body/mind needs balance, you are bound to label the changeover as “feeling bad,” when in fact it is actually the best thing that can happen.

Zen practice is about not getting high on anything and in so doing getting high on absolutely everything. We then find that everything we encounter — bliss or nonbliss — possesses a tremendous depth and beauty that we usually miss.

The idea of orgasmic meditation is very attractive because it’s one of those great “something-for-nothing” games people like to play. It’s like one of those ads that tell you that you can earn $75,000 just by sitting at home watching TV or whatever. But there are plenty of suckers who fall for pitches like that, too.

Orgasmic meditation is the very opposite of Zen practice because it focuses on one aspect of life — the moment of orgasm — and says that this one specific category of experience is the way to salvation and realization. But that kind of focus just leads you to turn away from life instead of toward it. It encourages you to miss the so-called mundane aspects of existence while constantly thinking about the joys of getting your rocks off.

You can’t get your rocks off 24/7. Not even if you’re a porn star. You’ve got to take out the trash. You’ve got to go see your mom’s display at the county flower show. You’ve got to talk to your boss with the bad breath about getting a new bulletin board for the break room. There’s doing the dishes and mowing the lawn and figuring out your taxes and all the other stuff a person needs to do to live.

By focusing on just one thing, whether it’s orgasm or so-called states of bliss or whatever it might be, you train yourself to turn away from most of your life. And that’s a damned shame. Because you were put on this Earth to live that life. In a very real sense you chose to live because you wanted to experience life — all of it, not just the pleasant aspects but the unpleasant and the tedious, as well as the just plain boring. When you miss out on those things you’re really doing yourself a terrible disservice.

Zen practice includes everything. Not just having orgasms but cleaning out the cat box and raking the leaves and all the rest. You begin and end your day with your zazen practice. But you do the practice for the sake of your entire day. It’s a way to learn how not to run away from the rest of your life.

Excerpted from the book Sex, Sin, and Zen © 2010 by Brad Warner. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.

Brad Warner is a Zen priest, filmmaker, blogger, and Japanese monster-movie marketer. He’s the author of Hardcore Zen, Sit Down & Shut Up, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate and most recently Sex, Sin & Zen. His writing appears in media ranging from Tricycle and Shambhala Sun to Suicidegirls.com. Visit him online at www.hardcorezen.blogspot.com.

[1] * From the FAQ on their website, www.onetaste.us.

[2] * Seriously, though, if I had gone back it would have been with an open mind. But I would have made no secret that my dick was going along for the ride as well. I got the feeling that men were subtly encouraged to attend the proceedings as if seeing a lot of pantsless women moaning in orgasm did nothing for them sexually. I cant pretend like that. Still, I was honestly curious to see how this stuff worked out as meditation.

** ** By the way, Im not a fan of guided meditation. Meditation should never be guided.

* * Heh, heh, I said, touched on.

** ** This is sarcasm. But so many people use the darned thing as their main source of info that Im using quotes from it to illustrate general understanding about certain things. Plus, Im too damned lazy to look this up in a more reliable source.

* * I only spent a couple hours at the O.M. center, but there was not a single person in the place who was not delicious looking.

* * Where else?

** ** Im not even making this up!

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