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The Science Behind an Intimate Act

Urban Sadhu Exploration August 2023

Oṃ ṭarē tutarē turē sōha

Meaning: Om. Goddess Green Tara, to you, embodiment of all the Buddha’s actions [compassion and wisdom], I prostrate myself before you – whether in happy or unhappy circumstances. – Translation: Austin Sanderson

The Buddha taught that for enlightenment to happen, a person must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. In the Buddhist tradition wisdom and compassion are sometimes compared to two wings that work together to enable flying, but in its most provocative metaphor, wisdom and compassion are represented as a couple in the act of sexual intercourse. This Buddhist Tantric image from Tibet is called Yab-yum, literality meaning “father-mother”; the highly sexually charged image represents the primordial union of wisdom and compassion and its coalescence of two energetics merging into one, kissing, arms embracing, legs wrapped around in an erotic proclamation.

The “male” figure is linked to “compassion” (karuṇā) and the “female” partner is linked to "wisdom" (prajñā), and it is important to point out that the image has nothing to do with contemporary self-help “Neo-Tantra/New Age” couple intimacy relationship theory… so let’s not get all worked-up over the erotic quality of the image. For most Westerners, the idea that “compassion” is in “male” form and “wisdom” is in “female” form is strange. In the West, we're taught that "wisdom" is something that is primarily intellectual and "compassion" is an emotion-based idea; we see the two things as incompatible and separate. We are even taught in the West to believe that fuzzy, sappy, heartfelt emotions such as "compassion" get in the way of clear, logical, brain-thinking “wisdom.” In truth, we cannot start to understand the deep spiritual message of Yab-yum by observing it through the Western gaze. We have to let go of all our cultural hang-ups.

The Sanskrit word prajñā – translated most often as "wisdom" – can also be translated as "consciousness," "discernment," or "insight." The Sanskrit word karuṇā – translated most often as "compassion" – is understood to mean “willingness to offer active sympathy” or a “willingness to bear the pain of others.” In practice, prajna gives rise to karuna, and karuna gives rise to prajna. They are intertwined, like a couple during the act of lovemaking. In Buddhism, the concept of the practice is to selflessly act to alleviate suffering of all other beings (“selflessly act” being the key). One can argue that it is impossible to eliminate the suffering of all beings, and yet the practice calls for us to make the effort to do so daily. Enlightenment itself is manifested only though an asserted effort and repetition.

In The Essence of the Heart Sutra, His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes: "According to Buddhism, compassion is an aspiration, a state of mind, wanting others to be free from suffering. It's not passive — it's not empathy alone — but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering. Genuine compassion must have both wisdom and lovingkindness. That is to say, one must understand the nature of the suffering from which we wish to free others (this is wisdom), and one must experience deep intimacy and empathy with other sentient beings (this is lovingkindness)."

When exploring any practice that asks us to be selfless, compassionate, and wise to all beings, we may not be feeling especially wise nor compassionate, and the whole practice may lead to a lot of self-doubts and self-loathing. It is true that compassion has no great expectations of reward or recognition, but in order to have compassion for others we have to have compassion for ourselves.

There are many ways we can start to develop compassion for ourselves; in particular, in the Tibetan Buddhism tradition there is a practice called Tonglen meditation practice that helps us connect to our own suffering and the suffering of others. Tonglen meditation reverses the meditator’s personal patterns of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In the process, the meditator becomes liberated from selfishness created by the pleasure-seeking ego. Practitioners begins to feel love, empathy and compassion both for themselves and others and start to take care of themselves and then all other beings. Tonglen meditation awakens our innate compassion and introduces us to a far larger view of reality that encompasses greater wisdom.

The process of Tonglen meditation is simple. Sitting in an upright position, with the eyes closed, the meditator focuses on the breath, visualizing on each inhalation taking in the pain and suffering of all other beings. With the breath, the practitioner draws that pain and suffering into their own body and on each exhale releases the pain and suffering and exhales out unconditional love, compassion, and kindness to all sentient beings. The practitioner becomes aware of being able to tap into an endless well of love and compassion that is available not only to oneself but to all who share this planet. When practiced with complete sincerity, this also becomes a profound experience of tapping into the boundless inner wisdom we all possess. We find that compassion and wisdom are united in a loving embrace.

Liberation from suffering is the goal of all yoga practices. This is the wisdom of the spiritual teachings. The great Buddhist monk and advocate of nonviolence Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “When I understand my suffering, I love myself, and I know how not to keep nourishing the suffering, how to transform the suffering. I get lighter, I become more compassionate, and with that kind of freedom and compassion, I feel liberated.” May all sentient beings be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some small way to that happiness and freedom for all sentient beings – that is the embodiment of wisdom and compassion.

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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