The esoteric concept of “great bliss” (skt. mahasukha, jap. tairaku) was a further development of Mahayana teachings identifying birth-and-death with freedom, and delusion with awakening. In the esoteric expression, human desires are affirmed as bodhisattvic activities, while sexual drive in particular is used as metaphor for the practitioner’s yearning to unite with the deity, Great Bliss referring to the accomplishment of esoteric union with the universe, symbolized in the deity.
Actual sexual activity, present in certain popular movements combining Hindu and Buddhist elements as “tantra”, is not to be confused with symbolic sexuality in esoteric Buddhism. Orthodox lineages of Secret Mantra do not employ sexual energy in literal ways, but sexual and other drives are seen as vital sources of energy for practice. The Wisdom-Path Sutra (skt. Mahasukha-vajra-amogha-samaya-sutra, jap. Hannya Risshu Kyo), recited daily by Shingon priests, is the esoteric culmination of teachings expressed in earlier Prajnaparamita literature. Since every thing and every being is intrinsically pure, core human desires are like a lotus. In section “The Way of Supreme Joy,” the Wisdom-Path Sutra says,
Enraptured and embraced,
In the heart of the Buddha,
Receive the grace of compassion,
Enclosed in affection of the great profound love.
One who knows the purity of such true state of mutual interaction is a bodhisattva.
An arrow of the craving and eager affection shot,
Quickly reaches and touches the beloved one.
Tied with the threads of immaculate love,
Live in joy and win the mastery of will.
One who knows such purity of rapture is a bodhisattva.
Seeing the Buddha as is,
Delighting in touch with the beloved one,
Enlarging the scope of love,
Gained in heraldic dignity,
One who knows such purity of enjoyment is a bodhisattva.
Endowed with the Buddha’s wisdom,
Fulfill the happiness of mind,
Radiate the light of compassion,
Rejoice at the physical pleasure.
One who knows such purity of fulfillment is a bodhisattva.
The color you see is the Buddha.
The sound you hear is the Preaching,
The odor you smell is the fragrance of the Dharma,
the flavor you taste is the Meaning.
One who knows such purity of sensations is a bodhisattva.
Much of Buddhism stresses desire as equivalent to attachment, addiction, and craving, something negative that should be rooted out and destroyed once and for all in order that the self may be extinguished. While most contemporary public teachers downplay this basic exoteric approach, general Buddhism lists desires for possession, fame, sex, food, and sleep, as obstacles. Because these represent basic human needs for security, recognition, intimacy etc. to deny these could be to frustrate the energy of life itself.
Desires do cause attachment, since satisfying of one simply gives rise to another. However, desire is one of basic energies of our existence. Thus, in the esoteric view, the individual’s desire are all summed up in the desire for awakening, attainment of which represents the Great Bliss of genuine satisfaction.
In the mandalas of Secret Mantra, which portray hundreds of different deities, both static and dynamic, both smiling and wrathful, we recognize embodiments of various energies in their heightened, sacred dimension, all simultaneously manifestations of the all-embracing activity of Mahavairocana Buddha.
The “Manual of Five Secrets” details the process by which deluded reactions reveal themselves as pure bodhicitta. This text describes Vajrasattva (innate bodhicitta) accompanied by four attendant bodhisattvas, namely desire, sensation, love, and satisfaction. Known together as five mysteries, these figures embody deluded desires revealing their nature as awakened wisdom. Thus, Desire Vajrabodhisattva represents all human desires and appetites, and in esoteric practice this is desire for awakening that results in realization; Sensual Vajrabodhisattva represents all phenomenal senses, which are actually the faculties by which we can approach awakening; Love Vajrabodhisattva symbolizes all lust and libido, and the unfolding of compassion which is inseparable from wisdom; Satisfaction Vajrabodhisattva stands for pride and arrogance, and the joy of perfect awakening. In this esoteric view, human passions are energies directed toward the benefit of all beings. Desire becomes sadness for others’ suffering and the determination to bring them to liberation; sensation becomes approaching others in deep intimacy; love becomes compassion; and satisfaction becomes experiencing joy of their awakening. Thus, Vajrasattva and four attendant bodhisattvas together represent the fivefold deep awareness of Buddhahood.
Human sexuality can be a beautiful expression of our nature. However, misunderstanding and misuse of human potentials result in suffering. Master Kukai wrote in the Secret Key to the Heart Sutra,
How pitiful, the children long asleep, how miserable, how painful, the mad, intoxicated people. The suffering mad ones laugh at those who are not drunk. The cruel sleepers mock the awakened. Never asking the King of Medicine for his cure, when will they see Mahavairocana Buddha’s light?
Building on the concept of the individual self, early Buddhism taught that as long as there is a self, no matter how subtle or fine, it is impossible to escape from the wheel of death and rebirth. Thus, in the doctrine of no-self, liberation meant elimination of self, which creates its own suffering. The esoteric tradition, however, affirms the individual personality and the desires that motivate it as highly evolved expressions of buddha-nature. Instead of denying the self, we dissolve its limitations to reveal the great self.
Secret Mantra teaches that, from the awakened perspective, there is the perfectly realized body of self and universe continuous together, without obstruction. In the Meaning of the Syllable Hum, master Kukai wrote,
Self is Dharmadhatu, self is Dharmakaya, self is Mahavairocana Buddha, self is Vajrasattva, self is all Buddhas.
The exoteric ideal of no-desire is brought about by extinguishing the self. The esoteric teaching sees all desires as expressions of a root desire for awakening, called the great desire, which it cultivates by re-framing deluded desires into the dimension of awakening. Desire used for the benefit of self and others is not negative. It is termed the vow of the bodhisattva.
Notes from Taiko Yamasaki’s “Shingon – Japanese Esoteric Buddhism”