Yab-Yum: The anti-erotic images of Buddhist iconography
Yab-Yum – literally ‘father-mother’ – are pairs of male and female deities depicted in sexual union. These paired figures express a fundamental concept of Buddhism, the essential process of joining insight with compassion, also referred to as the union of wisdom and skilful means of action. The male figure, who embodies compassion, embraces the female, who represents transcendent wisdom. The development and marriage of wisdom and compassion are necessary for transcending the self-concerns that hinder progress towards understanding the ultimate nature of reality: that of non-duality, which leads to enlightenment.
The couples of Buddhist iconography celebrate this deep harmony of the sexes. The purpose of this dynamic is the creation of partnerships devoted to the realization of the ultimate truth.
The yab-yum icons of Tantric Buddhism often strike the layman as hedonistic celebrations of eroticism. Showing Buddhist deities and their consorts in copulation, yab-yum icons in fact are meditational devices a sadhaka (the Tantric adept worshipper) uses, among other tools, to achieve the religious experience of liberation from the misery of being chained to the false realities perceived by the human senses. The sadhaka's meditations and scholarship inform him, through conventional logic, that the nirvana he seeks is non-existence, the great bliss of The Void. Sexual sensations are therefore among the miserable, false realities that he knows man must learn to recognize for what they are. His use of sexual imagery to achieve his goal of liberation thus becomes all the more perplexing to us laymen. To him, however, sexual imagery is simply an esoteric language that can only be understood by being an adept properly directed by a more experienced Tantric teacher, or guru.
The adept's use of sexual imagery forms part of a profound psycho-magical effort -- "experiment" might be a better term -- aimed at achieving a "personal" experience of being one with the single and true reality: nothingness. To him the true reality of The Void is attained by observing and experiencing the oneness of diametric opposites: the union of passive and dynamic, mind and matter, male and female, the base and the sublime. To the outsider, whose system of language proceeds from a materialistic view of reality, the paradoxes of Tantric Buddhism (and Buddhism itself) will often make very little sense. But in idealistic cultures -- where the idea of The Void is as "real" as a tangible object (another contradiction) -- no problems of understanding are posed by such concepts.
One yab-yum icon is that of the "Eternal Thunderbolt" deity Hevajra (in Tibetan, Kyerdorje) in union with his consort Vajra-yogini. A popular deity in Tibetized communities, Hevajra belongs to that class of deities called yid-dam. These are "guardian" and "tutelary" deities from whose ranks come the gods that Tantric Buddhist sadhaka choose as their personal mystic mentor-protector (something like the Roman Catholic guardian angel or patron saint). The subject of the Hevajra Tantra, one of the canonical texts of both Hindu and Buddhist Tantrism, Hevajra is portrayed in iconography with eight heads, wearing a crown studded with skulls, in the center of which is a head of the Buddha Aksobhya. A sage who became a Buddha, Aksobhya is often associated by some Indian and Tibetan scholars with Mongolia. (It is said that because of this association the Yuan-Mongol Emperor of China, Kublai Khan, became a Buddhist convert.) Hevajra has four legs and sixteen arms, with each hand holding a kapala (skull cup). These serve as daises for other Buddhist deities and their mounts. In Tantric Buddhism, the yab-yum icon always shows the male, yab, as the dynamic of compassion; the female, yum, is shown as wisdom, the spiritual consummation.
Like the Tantric Hindu, the goal of all the meditative and spiritual exercises practised by the Tantric Buddhist is freedom from the misery of attachment. Tantric Buddhists belong to the Mahayana school of Buddhism. But the non-Tantric Mahayana Buddhist in working out his escape from the miseries of attachment, tends to withdraw from world existence as if he did not believe that worldly existence and nirvana, The Void, belong to one and the same reality. The Tantric Buddhist, on the contrary, dares to use the things of this world, which he recognizes to be nothing more than fleeting (and thus half-truth) images of the absolute reality, to achieve release from attachment. Thus, the Tantric Buddhist will -- through contemplation and ritual, including psycho-sexual ritual -- seek what philosophers have called "enstasy."
A difficult term that embraces both ecstasy and profound attainment of wisdom, the state of enstasy is, in fact, that state of nirvana when one recognizes The Void, the absolute reality that everything is nothing.
Whether they are deluding
themselves or not is a different matter. But in the Himalayas as well as in
India, "enstasy" has been sought by generations of Tantric and non-Tantric
mystics as a means of catching a glimpse of "heaven." Drugs have been used too
to reach the "enstatic" state of wisdom.
The view that is considered "orthodox" in Hindu and Buddhist circles is that enstatic wisdom can be reached only through the long, disciplined obedience to "church" -- approved rituals, ascetic practices, prayers. The Tantrics -- who, growing bodies of scholarship seem to show, have roots deeper than the Vedic canons and reach back to India's pre-Aryan past -- hold that intellectual knowledge of the canons and expertness in yogic disciplines are enough to serve as tools for a "short cut" method of achieving enstatic information (i.e., of what is and how to be absolute reality).
And the "short-cut" is, of course, the Tantric life, which includes psycho-sexual experiments. In this, the yab-yum icons play the most vital part.
In Tantric Buddhist practice, the adept is supposed to have done all his discursive studies and meditations before he qualifies to do the yogic disciplines. When he goes through the various Tantric rituals, utters the many prayers, and conducts his psycho-sexual experiments, he goes several steps farther than the discursive use of the mind.
Rather than asking his body to subdue its senses, he heightens their power and then harnesses these to attain longer and longer and finally lasting states of enstasy. The enstatic wisdom -- or information -- that the Tantric adept is supposed to attain (and help release him forever from the miseries of attachment born out of ignorance) is the knowledge of the non-duality of reality. This wisdom is not only reasoned knowledge but -- for lack of a better term -- felt and intuitive knowledge as well.
The yab-yum images (literally, Honorable Father-Honorable Mother) portray -- in symbolic terms -- various enstatic states. Yum, the Mother, represents prajna, supreme wisdom, which is also sunya, The Void, nothingness. Yab, the Father, represents upaya, the method (the particular, fleeting existences), which is also karuna, or the dynamic of compassion. When the two become one, the highest state is reached. Upaya is bondage without prajna. And Prajna, too, is bondage without Upaya.
In the less esoteric Buddhist sects, the Tantric rituals involving the adept's experiments to reach the enstatic realization of the union of yab and yum in his person is purely metaphorical. In the more esoteric ones, the instructions are taken literally as laboratory and consecrated use of the sexual sensations. The latter is either done alone (with a symbolic partner) or together with a real partner. What is often disregarded by the outsider is that the "congress of the holy" -- if we may call it that -- is precisely performed to negate sexuality: the mind and the senses are brought to the highest "madness, mind-blowing" stage and held there: orgasm is not allowed to occur.
In yoga, which forms a principal element of Tantrism (Hindu or Buddhist), there is a theoretical secondary anatomy in every man. This abstract somatic system has centers, circles or lotuses located along an abstract spinal column. This anatomical model is purely an aid to meditation and is not supposed to correspond to the adept's biological body. That is the reason differing descriptions of this secondary body exist in various yogic books. And a teacher is most likely to describe this secondary somatic system one way to a particular neophyte and another way to someone else, because he knows that people respond in different ways to various psychological stimuli.
Three ducts are supposed to pass through the spinal column. In animals and ordinary humans (meaning to say, Tantric uninitiates) the central duct is closed. What opens it is correct meditation. Thus opened, the duct will then allow a mystic power -- the Hindu Tantrics call it kundalini (the coiled one), the Buddhist call it avadhuti or in Tibetan kun dar ma (the purified one) -- to rise from its sanctuary, which is placed between the anal and genital regions and is supposed to be the lowest of the centers.
On its ascent, this mystic power pierces the other centers along the spine until it reaches and fuses with the highest center, which is in the brain.
The other two ducts function in all living beings. But the Tantric adept tries to put these ducts under control by breathing and other exercises. Enstasy is reached by immobilizing the three ducts. In some Tantric Buddhist sects it is stated quite clinically (although as usual code terms are used) that control of mind, breath and sperm leads to enstasy.
Breath control, the easiest to achieve, presupposes ability to control involuntary physical processes. Seminal fluid control is tantamount to control of passions and desires. Mind control is the supreme achievement through which one ceases to perceive oneself as different or separate from absolute reality: The Void.
The Tantric Buddhists refer to the state of enstasy attained through this threefold control as mahasukha, great bliss, which is their most complete nirvana. Far from making the Tantric Buddhist a champion of eroticism, the yab-yum images in fact make him, as the Buddha before him, a conqueror of the mundane.
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