Why Neo-tantra isn't Tantra

It’s relevant to say that my experience with Tantra began at age 22, around 1991, after a period of 8 years relatively consistent spiritual inquiry into several different traditions. At that time I met a ‘’tantric master’’ recently returned from nearly 30 years travelling Tibet, Nepal and India in search of learning and experience that would bring enlightenment, awakening & wisdom for him. He was clear that didn’t happen because he was of the belief that if one called oneself ‘’enlightened’’ one probably wasn’t, I’m inclined to agree! I don’t know if he was or wasn’t, I don’t even know that ‘enlightened’ means any more than an idea or thought about what it might be, as opposed to what it actually is, if it even is something different to this - but that’s another article! 

He was full of love, and peace, and joy, and suffering, and pain, and eroticism, and all of life, really, as I experienced him, 30 years my senior, and also empty of it all at the same time. He had studied with Tibetan Buddhist Dakinis up in the high Himalayas who’d been shut away, by choice, in solitary huts for decades studying ancient texts and practicing. He studied with the Sadhus covered in the ash of human cremations who lived in the charnal (cremation) grounds on the banks of the Ganges in India, meditating with them sitting on top of decaying corpses waiting to be burnt. He sat at the feet of great teachers, ordinary people, tantrikas of the left and right handed paths, and then he taught me, over the course of a year in our twice or three times weekly teaching sessions, what he had distilled from that journey that I was ready to learn. I feel very fortunate to have met him, especially at such a young age.

I went on to take Bodhisattva & Samaya vows aged 24 & dive more deeply into the Daksinacara or right hand path teachings for a few years, this is a path with very strict guidelines about how to behave, how to practice, what is ‘’spiritual’’ and what is not with many aspects of ‘’western’’ life being forbidden, & seen as counter to a ‘’spiritual’’ life & practice. 

The path I had pursued with my teacher in our one-to-one sessions two to three times a week, and in later & more recent years, being Vamachara, or the left hand path, where there are, if one follows the texts, few taboos, and if one really dives in, well, actually there are no taboos, all of life is viewed as a playground, a science lab for the spiritual seeker in which anything and everything can be viewed as spiritual practice and/or inquiry in order to pursue enlightenment, awakening, liberation & to simply experience this corporeal existence. 

It’s also relevant to say that while I dabbled in neo-tantra in my 20s my experimentation with it began in earnest, and also largely ended, in my 40s after meeting & learning from & playing with many people in that community in several countries over several years, including a brief period as a teacher myself. I continued for a while to teach what’s referred to as ‘’tantra massage’’, but, don’t actually view this as in any way Tantric as there is zero reference to it in the Tantric texts or primary sources, it is simply a method of hands-on bodywork that supports greater intimacy, sexual freedom, pleasure, and emotional connection. The reasons why it works can be found in neuroscience, not Tantra. I continue to, rarely, teach this to couples & small groups as part of workshops & retreats.

When I refer to ‘’neotantra’’ what I’m referring to is that which has followed on in ‘’the west’’ mostly from the teachings of Osho. While tantra, I use the term super-loosely here!, was being taught, in similar ways to Osho in the USA prior to the 1960s (it can be traced back to Pierre Bernard from 1905) it was really he, in my opinion, who exploded the highly sexualised ‘’tantra’’ in the US which is the root of most neo-tantra around the world today, and indeed most teachers teaching neotantra in the world today can trace their learning lineage, whether they want to or not, back to Osho.

That said, tantra yoga as taught prior to Osho seems, unsurprisingly, to have been a way for teachers to have sexual relations with their students - this practice is still continuing today with many ‘’teachers’’ of sacred sexuality, tantra, sexual shamanism etc, controversially in most regards, having sex with their students. For the record, this is unacceptable in my view, the power imbalance alone is sufficient reason for it to not be appropriate between teacher and student, let alone any other reason. I do not recommend teachers of neotantra that I know engage in sexual relationships, encounters or practices with their students.

Osho, an Indian philosophy teacher, saw in the 1960s that westerners, Americans in particular, were starving for the nourishment of religious & spiritual paths that broke free from the limitations of Christianity. America was emerging towards the 'Summer of Love', away from the McCarthy era of anti-American, un-Christian, Communist witch hunts, the Vietnam war was raging and people had enough of war, pain, fear, suffering, they were sexually repressed, oppressed and desperate for a way to find freedom from that. Osho, his sexually focused, supposedly modernised & westernised, tantra teachings, provided exactly that, it’s unfortunate that 1000s upon 1000s didn’t bother to look for source materials and accepted what they wanted to accept in terms of the source of what he taught, believing it to be rooted in ancient, mystical esoteric practices and philosophies, when in actual fact it really isn’t. 

When you see a tantra workshop now that talks of relationship, that refers to sexuality, that promises deeper intimacy, connection, better sex, longer orgasms, that refers to Kundalini energy etc what you’re seeing is neotantra, a cultural mish mash of other spiritual paths & new age practices masquerading as Tantra that has been sexualised for the western palate, tantra that is a million miles away from traditional classical Tantra, in fact, all it shares in common with classical Tantra is the word, that’s where the similarities end. 

Tantra is a very wide body of religion, philosophy, history, culture and more that spans what is now several countries including India, Tibet and Nepal. It can be loosely broken into two branches, Hindu Tantra and Tibetan Buddhist Tantra, the latter springing from the former.

Technically, the word ‘’tantra’’ itself is relatively new, & was first used in the 19th century, many elements of Tantra are said to be pre-Vedic, going back to the 4th millennium BCE, but Tantric texts have only existed since the sixth century BC. However, it was between the eighth and fourteenth centuries that thousands of Tantric texts were written. 

In a nutshell, Tantra contains very few references to sexual practices, those it does reference are very specific in nature, usually to be visualised as opposed to actualised, and if actualised then only to be done so after much training & other practice over the course of years if not decades, and, crucially, not usually with ones own sexual partner, but often with someone one does not even find physically attractive in order to prove the point that one has transcended the limitations of physical desire. 

Orgasms, intimacy, connection, eye gazing, breathwork, active meditations, massage etc are to be found nowhere in the Tantric texts, they are entirely invented from the early 20th century onwards, mostly from the 1970s onwards, & do not have their roots in any Asian philosophy nor spiritual path but in new age practices & beliefs. Tantra is a spiritual path, a path of enlightenment, awakening, liberation, not a sexual path - again reinforcing the fact that I think there’s nothing wrong with sexual spiritual paths, it’s just that’s not what Tantra is! 

Yeah, I said that, even after all the above, being clear that I do not consider what most people call ‘tantra’ to be actual Tantra, I do think, and I’ve witnessed in many people, that neotantra has a place for those seeking to free themselves from the constraints of their conditioned experience of sexuality, gender, relationship etc. 

I ran over 30 Bliss Festival events & countless others over the last 30 years, many of which have had neotantra practioners holding events, giving talks & offering sessions, that’s because I see the benefit sexually, emotionally, in terms of freedom, empowerment & facilitating deeper self love, that doesn’t mean I think it’s Tantra.

Practitioners, good ones, create space for the possibility of deeper intimacy, more satisfying relationships, better & more intimate connections, and yes, very often much better sex! There is absolutely nothing wrong with that in my mind.

I’ve been working in the field of sexuality for nearly 30 years afterall, of course I’m going to be supportive of professionally held spaces in which people can access more freedom, power & love via their sexuality & relationships - however, Tantra it is not. Call it ‘’sacred sexuality’’ if you wish, call it ‘’spiritual sex’’, call it ‘’sex with bells, incense and candles’’ for all I care, but I’d love if we could loose the association with Tantra because the practices taught, the philosophy espoused in neotantra cannot be found, anywhere, in the Tantric texts, it is, frankly, unrelated. 

By calling something ‘’sacred’’ or ‘’conscious’’ we immediately set up the duality of something on the flip side of that to be‘’profane’’ or ‘’unconscious’’, it’s the nature of language, it’s the nature of the human mind when we label and identify something as one thing, when we state what we believe it is, we immediately set it apart from everything else and create its’ opposite in the very moment we speak it. 

When we call something ‘sacred sexuality’ or ‘conscious sexuality’ we therefore implicitly say that there is such a thing as ‘profane sexuality’ or ‘unconscious sexuality’. It interests me that most I’ve come across in the ‘sacred sexuality’ & ‘conscious sexuality’ worlds are of the opinion that sexuality has been or is shameful in some way in general society and they are working to reclaim it from that notion, they are working to make it ‘’sacred’’ again. Equally, it’s been my experience in the the field of sexuality where there are sex exhibitions, where porn & sex toys are de rigueur that a much more upfront expression of sexuality inhabits that world, and the opinion that sexuality must be reclaimed as sacred is not present, it is a, from my experience, entirely shameless world - so who’s maintaining the concept of shame in relation to sexuality here in this particular duality?

My spiritual lineage, and my experience now, is that everything is as sacred and as profane as everything else, everything, all that makes the distinction between the two is belief & thought, nothing is inherently sacred, nothing is inherently profane unless viewed through a filter where one believes it to be so. 

I would also caution against the use of words as an unconscious way to lessen feelings of guilt and shame. I witness many hiding behind the veils of ‘’sacred sexuality’’ and ‘’conscious sexuality’’ as if these words forgive or legitimate lust, desire, jealousy etc.

‘’It’s OK for me to have several different lovers a day, it’s OK for me to move from lover to lover with disregard for their feelings because it’s ‘’sacred’’, It’s OK for me to have sex with my students because it’s a sacred thing we do’’.

What if it were not ‘’sacred’’, would it still be OK? Why, and why not? It’s been my experience that the words ‘’sacred sexuality’’, or ‘’tantra’’ or ‘’sexual shamanism’’ are often used to give licence to behaviour that carries some shame, guilt or sense of wrong doing on some level and that a dusting of ‘’spirituality’’ is used in order to make it more palatable for all concerned & to legitimate it. Why not free oneself of all convention, or all restriction and openly, freely, honestly and shamelessly admit to one’s desires without hiding behind any labels whatsoever? 

Cultural appropriation is when one group of people, usually the more dominant, in-the-majority, financially privileged community takes elements from another culture, usually a colonised one, and adopts & uses them, often for financial profit, without actually investigating into the real meaning, context or sacredness of those elements to the original culture, with the original cultures often being those who've suffered extreme colonial devastation.

Perhaps the use of these cultural elements is offensive to those in the original culture, for example, which it is becoming moreso in India in relation to neotantra in recent years. If you’re familiar with the neo-tantra community you’ll know that it is largely, with extremely rare exception, white, middle class, & heterosexual, this is clearly all the dominant groupings within all ‘western’ countries! 

What makes it a little more distasteful for some Indians, & I have heard this directly, is that neotantra has now become very popular in the UK, even with many from the UK travelling to India to visit Osho’s ashram in Pune and hold neotantra festivals in India - think about this for a second...... the culture that colonised India, the culture that impoverished millions of Indians, stunted the growth of the economy, prevented many Indians from speaking their native languages & dressing in traditional dress, that essentially devastated the country now travelling to India to use their spiritual traditions without any, seeming, regard for the appropriateness of that or how Indian people themselves might view that?
More than a little offensive, I hope you’ll agree. 

Neotantra focusing on sex, sexuality & relationships is not Tantra, it bears no resemblance to the spiritual path, it’s not necessarily harmful in and of itself necessarily, though it can be in the hands of those who are naive, inexperienced & untrained & it can be an easy route for those who would abuse others to find willing victims. Neotantra can also be useful to many when it comes to freeing themselves from the shackles of sexual repression depending on who’s doing the teaching and how, of course, but Tantra it is not. 

Please be aware, open your eyes and see with full awareness and shameless clarity your desires, your wishes, your needs and wants in relation to your sexuality - own them, do not hide behind a spiritual path to legitimate them, I invite you to have more courage than that. 

Further Reading

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche 
(the teacher I took vows with)

Hareesh Wallis - Tantrik Studies
(Christopher has a long established academic history of studying & teaching Tantra)
(an author whose books are very accessible to non-academics or practitioners)

Originally published 22nd May 2016, last updated 14/07/2021

Beth no longer teaches neotantra or Tantra though she does incorporate many neotantric techniques & traditional Tantric philosophy into her work with couples in private sessions as well as workshops & retreats. Equally, Beth no longer describes herself as having any particular spiritual path.