Now, I'm fully aware that Buddhism has branched out in many different directions over the centuries, and that its practice has many different manifestations. Tachikawa Ryu is described as a "legendary secret Buddhist sect that taught: The highest spiritual attainments are best achieved through the physical act of sex." Stevens's short, seductive, and charmingly lyrical book is based on this esoteric tradition, as revealed in the erotic story of the Shingon monk Dai-en and the courtesan--and later Zen practitioner--Lady Hotoke. A footnote explains that it is "based on actual events, real historical figures, and authentic Tantric tradition in Japan."
My nutshell--and therefore certainly simplistic--understanding of the Tantric tradition is that the ecstatic coupling of male and female represents the ultimate human experience of non-duality, the mystery of creation, and union with the cosmos. And surely most of us have experienced that blissful moment at some point in our lives. I wonder, though, whether the Buddha himself would see this as a true path to awakening, or simply as another of those delightful illusions to which we like to cling?
Is the road to enlightenment paved with orgasmic experiences? Did the Buddha actually teach the practice of Tantra, as the book's title suggests? Or was this the construction of some of those who added their own slant to his teachings? Would he have approved of their adaptation? I'm actually unqualified to answer these or any of the other questions Stevens's book raised, but I remain skeptical. The basic test I have learned to apply to sexual activity, in the Buddhist tradition that I follow, is this: does it cause harm to myself or others? If it does, don't do it.
What Stevens (seductively!) describes is love-making as a religious ritual act, both between two consenting individuals--monks and nuns, whose strict training is a part of the narrative--and among freely interchanging groups of lay people. Well, I love ritual. I love sex. But to take it out of the bed (or where ever else we mortals choose to do it) and into the sacrosanct precincts of the temple is to turn it into an idealized, spiritual experience rather than the profane expression of simple and delectable lust--or the desire to procreate. This risks sublimating its fallible, human aspect and, with it, the emotional context in which it is most frequently performed. Between highly-trained, Zen-focused monk and nun, such a pure, dispassionate consummation may be possible. For us lay folk, though--and for the villagers Stevens describes as participating in free-love, consort-sharing sanghas--I suspect that the emotional context is unavoidable, with all the accompanying possessiveness, jealousy, gossip-mongering, and the consequent harm such sexual profligacy involves.
Is it possible to achieve such generous, esoteric, pure-hearted not-selfness when it comes to sex? Could it be practiced in this way without causing harm? Am I alone in my skepticism? I confess that the book challenged, interestingly, all my inbred Puritan instincts, and I needed to separate these out from an authentically thoughtful, critical response. I would not have missed the chance to read this book, even though--well, actually because--my gut reaction fought against it.
I had a couple of other reservations about "Tantra of the Tachiwara Ryu." The first has to do with the fact that the physical aspect of its subject matter is awfully difficult to write about without getting coy. The image of "the little Buddha" entering "the jade gate" is a little quaint for my own taste, as are numerous other euphemisms for the organs and postures involved in the coital act. Good eroticism is more difficult to effect in words, in my opinion, than in pictures. My second reservation has to do with the absence of historical and cultural context for all this. While the book's back cover informs us that "the sect was banished in Japan and went underground hundreds of years ago"--I wonder why?--it suggests, rather coyly again, that "many believe it is still active" to this day. Surely, in the wake of all this titillation, we are entitled to a more honest accounting of the sect's history and its current standing? Some of us, after all, might want to join it...