The Great and Powerful Oom

As most of you know, I am very interested in the subjects of Tantra, sacred sexuality, and sex magick. I discuss these subjects in parts of my Modern Magick and, of course, in my Modern Sex Magick. Although Tantra is quite old, it’s introduction in the U.S. is relatively recent.

In fact, the introduction of the high level of Indian thought and theology is relatively new to the West. With the typical sense of Christian superiority at the time, most people thought that Hinduism was just the stupid beliefs of savages until 1893 and the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago. There, Swami Vivekananda electified the audience as he described the advanced theological and spiritual concepts found in Indian faiths. He went on to travel in the U.S. and give lectures, gaining many followers.

Tantra was introduced to the U.S. in 1905 by a man named Pierre Bernard, founder of the Tanrik Order in America. Calling himself Oom the Omnipotent, he taught Sanskrit and hatha yoga. He ended up with wealth, land, many famous followers and a virtual chain of Tantric clinics from Chicago to New York.

And soon, Tantra became associated with sexuality. A woman who had been a follower of the Order, using the pseudonym Marion Dockerill, superficially exposed some of the sexual aspects of Bernard’s group in the salacious book, My Life in a Love Cult,” published in 1928. A decade earlier, while still a supporter, Dockerill (whose real name was Alma Hirsig), introduced her sister, Leah, to Aleister Crowley. Leah became one of Crowley’s most (in)famous assistants in sexual magick. The book “exposes” some of Crowley’s rituals and rites, too.

Dr. Jonn, the Tantric Guru

Dr. Jonn Mumford

When I first started studying the occult, I wasn’t at all interested in sexuality as it applied to magick. One of the persons who changed my mind about this was Dr. Jonn Mumford. His book, Sexual Occultism (1975), bridged the seeming differences between Eastern Tantra and Western Sex Magick.

I studied the strangely shaped book (it was about twice as wide as it was tall) intently. By the time it was expanded and revised in 1988 as Ecstasy Through Tantra, I had learned so much (and been initiated into Tantric traditions) that I was honored to be able to write a chapter, “A Tantric Weekend,” that was included in Dr. Mumford’s book.

Tantra vs. Neo-Tantra

Most Westerners who have heard of Tantra as described in books (usually written by people who based what they wrote on books written by people who have never been initiated into anything Tantric) think of it as a form of sacred sexuality. In fact, most people will say that Tantra is about extending sexual pleasure and…well, that’s about it. Some more advanced teachers will say that you can achieve enlightenment that way, but don’t say how to do that. The bottom line: Tantra=”That sex stuff.”

Dr. Jonn’s books, however, are not just that sex stuff. They cover such things as chakras, kundalini, death, meditation, yoga, karma, and the amazing Magical Tatwa cards, an out of print book and set of cards that is now selling for over $100 a copy if you can find them. There’s not much of a focus on sex there, so how can they be about Tantra?

The sources of Tantra go back to pre-Hindu India, in the area known as the Indus Valley. Tantra, like modern forms of Paganism, was—and remains—a complete spiritual system, covering all aspects of life. Thus, Tantra covers the mind, physiology, theology, divination, magick, and many other topics, including sexuality. Sex, however, is just a small part of what I call Traditional Tantra.

Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, an Indian teacher realized that Westerners were looking for more freedom in sexual experience and couldn’t find guidance for it within their traditions. So he started teaching about sexuality (among other topics) from a Tantric point of view. In 1980 Bernard Gunther published a book of this man’s words that focused on sexuality called Neo-Tantra. The name of the teacher was Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and he later became known as Osho.

Osho’s take on Tantra is more accurately called Neo-Tantra. It has a strong focus on sexuality. Although it definitely is within the realm of Traditional Tantra, it is only a small part of it. As a comparison, an air filter is an important part of a modern automobile engine, but it is still only a small part of that engine. So Dr. Mumford’s take on Tantra is traditional and includes sexuality, while Osho’s Neo-Tantra focuses on the wonderful and positive effects of freeing our sexual natures.

Some Traditional Tantrics put down the Neo-Tantrics, and some Neo-Tantrics put down the Traditional Tantrics. Personally, I think there is a lot to learn from Tantra, both Traditional and Neo.

Mark Michaels and Patricia Johnson are not only senior students of Dr. Mumford, they are also the lineage holders of his system for the Americas and Europe. Michaels is also the lineage holder from one of my teachers, Sunyata Saraswati (co-author of the now classic Jewel in the Lotus) and others. Their website is here.

Mark Michaels & Patricia Johnson

Michaels and Johnson have collected rare lectures by Dr. Mumford and, with their editing and comments, published them as The Essence of Tantric Sexuality, a record of some of the earliest talks on Tantra since the early 1900s. It’s incredibly valuable both as a record of the development of Tantra in the West, and as a study of Traditional Tantric topics as presented by a Tantric initiate.

They also published Tantra for Erotic Empowerment, an award-winning book that goes far beyond mere sexual enjoyment. I’m describing their qualifications so you can value their input later.

Tantra as a Cover for Illegal Activities?

As you may have determined, I deeply value Tantra and sacred sexuality. So do many other people. Unfortunately, some aspects of sexuality are socially unacceptable to a point where laws are made against their practice. For example I believe it is 100% justifiable to make sexual activity between adults and minors illegal. Often, when such illegal behavior occurs, it is not about sacredness or love, but about exertion of power and abuse.

Certain things that are illegal, however, make me wonder. For example, if I took a date out for an expensive dinner, then to a top play, and then for drinks, I might spend several hundred dollars on her. If I then took her to a deluxe hotel and gave her a gift of expensive diamonds, and we ended up having sex, even though I might have spent $500 or $800 or more on her, our activities would be completely legal. If I simply gave her the money and we had sex, we could both be arrested, go to jail, be fined, and be listed as sexual criminals for the rest of our lives. I consider this hypocritical attitude rather weird, but currently we have to live with it.

Throughout history, to skirt such laws some people have used various ruses or covers for their activities.

Recently, in Phoenix, Arizona, a group of people appear to have allegedly used the concepts of Tantra, goddess worship, and sexual healing as a cover for illegal acts: prostitution. They called themselves the Phoenix Goddess Temple, and after six months of undercover work (I wonder how many hundreds of thousands of dollars that cost the people of Phoenix and whether the money could have been better-spent elsewhere?), the police busted the church (yes, they were a legal church) and had some of the people being arrested do a “perp walk” for TV cameras. A brief report from the police’s side can be found here. Jason Pitzi-Waters, in his Pagan-oriented blog, The Wild Hunt, gives another view of what happened at this LINK, and he follows up HERE.

But what do the Tantra and Neo-Tantra communities have to say about it? Michaels and Johnson worked with several other people to develop an open letter which they published in this blog post. I have been given permission to reproduce it here:

An Open Letter Re:
The Phoenix and Sedona Goddess Temple Arrests

We, the undersigned, have followed the arrests at and subsequent discussions surrounding the Phoenix and Sedona “Goddess Temples” with concern. We come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Notwithstanding our diversity, we feel compelled to address the situation in Arizona with one voice, especially when calls for “unity” are stifling informed dissent and creating a distorted public perception of Tantra, sex coaching, sex work, sexual surrogacy, some forms of sex education, and the ways in which they may intersect.

We recognize that many rivers lead to one ocean and respectfully offer our views for the purpose of deepening the dialogue and exchange of ideas. We invite all concerned to investigate their assumptions, question and double check their facts, think clearly, and refrain from emotionalism.

  1. We regret that law enforcement deemed it necessary to investigate and make arrests in this case and have sympathy for those who have been charged, especially those whose beliefs may be sincere but who may be misguided with regard to the legality of their actions.
  2. We support at minimum the decriminalization of sex work.
  3. Tantra is a diverse tradition. It takes many forms, including but not limited to a modern version known as Neo-Tantra. Some versions of Tantric and Neo-Tantric practice include sexual ritual as a sacrament. At the same time, many Tantric practitioners are celibate. To limit the definition of Tantra to sacred sexuality or to treat sex work, sacred or otherwise, as central to Tantric practice is both historically inaccurate and potentially offensive and damaging to the many practitioners who do not engage in these activities, as well as to many of those who do include ritual sex among an array of other practices.
  4. As far as we are aware, the exchange of sex for money is not mandated anywhere in traditional Tantric teachings, for any purpose, nor is exchanging sex for money central to the practices of most Neo-Tantric practitioners.
  5. We do not support using a religious freedom argument in the Goddess Temple cases because:
    a) It creates arbitrary divisions between sex workers who self-identify as “spiritual” and those who do not.
    b) In the very unlikely event that such a defense were successful, it would enable rather than discourage related crimes like human trafficking, forced servitude, and child prostitution. It would create an exemption that could easily be used by traffickers as a cover, since religious freedom tends to limit the degree to which government scrutinizes religious organizations.
    c) The legal precedents are clear. For religious practices to be constitutionally protected, they have to be central to the religion. For example: http://openjurist.org/46/f3d/948/bryant-v-h-gomez-d We are aware of no living religious or spiritual tradition in which sex for money is central. While it is true that the devadasi tradition persists to this day in South Asia, Human Rights Watch describes it as “sexual slavery.” Human rights implications aside, the practice is in decline and is in no way central either to Hinduism or Tantra.*
    d) American law is also clear that if there is a quid pro quo, the mere assertion that a payment is a donation does not make it so. http://supreme.justia.com/us/490/680/case.html
  6. While we understand and sympathize with the sense of outrage and injustice that many have expressed and admire the rapidity with which people have mobilized, we believe that some have acted and spoken without adequate information. We are also troubled by some of the aggressive fund-raising in support of a defense that we see as legally weak and potentially damaging to the sex-positive, sacred sexuality, and sex-worker movements. There are many ways to advance the causes of sexual freedom and/or sex worker rights. A number of established and credible organizations could use your support. We encourage all readers to do their due diligence, seek second and third opinions from people with no stake in this particular case, and choose wisely.

The defendants in the Phoenix and Sedona cases and their supporters – no matter how well intentioned – are doing a disservice to our communities by raising religious freedom as a defense. Given the legal precedents, including but not limited to those cited above, this is not the argument with which to lead if we are seeking to build a more sex positive world for all people, whether or not they think of themselves as religious or spiritual. We cannot allow our work or our efforts to be defined by the actions of a misinformed or misguided minority, even if many of us consider them to be our friends and peers and no matter how pure their intent.

Please direct serious inquiries and requests for additional information to: advocacywithawareness@gmail.com

* Paragraph 5(c) of the Open Letter was not accurate. Bryant v. Gomez, the case cited, is a 9th Circuit case, and the standard it articulated since been rejected by that circuit in Shakur v. Schirro. http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-9th-circuit/1423510.html

Nevertheless, the Arizona case, State v. Hardesty (2007), which rejected a freedom of religion claim for the use of marijuana provides a good preview of how the Arizona Court would likely handle a case involving sex work. http://lawyersusaonline.com/wp-files/pdfs/hardesty.pdf

* * * * *

Shama Helena

I showed a copy of this letter to my friend, the Tantric educator and practitioner Shama Helena. She basically agrees with the open letter, but has a slightly different approach. She gave me permission to publish her response:

Thank you for all you are doing to raise awareness on this issue. It can be challenging for those of us who walk this Tantric path to watch these goings on, take a stand for what we hold dear, and avoid judgment along the way. Freedom is such an essential element to this path, and honoring the differences as well—even those we disagree with!  How can we align with all of these precepts simultaneously?

While I would have preferred that the [Phoenix Goddess] Temple handle their public personae differently, the situation as it has has played out invokes all of us to take a stand for not only personal rights and freedom, but also to educate the public as to what this work is really about…

While I agree with most of what you have said, I also would prefer that it be said in such a way that we stay on topic about what we are FOR, in alignment with or own precepts, rather than making statements that may come across as judgmental or oppositional, (such as “… a disservice to our communities” & “…reckless actions of a misguided minority”).

Although I encourage your outreach, I hope that all of us realize that a part of this conundrum is the energy of “pushing against” that has created this situation in the first place. When pushing against, of course, there will be a backlash retort of similar or even more intense energy of pushing back.

Sex is only one of the 64 arts of Tantra, and we need to hold perspective on this as we educate.

It is my hope and prayer that we avoid the attitudes of war and fighting on this issue, but rather, set our sites on what we prefer and set our intentions and take actions in alignment with that. This situation has inspired me to look at other “movements” that have been peaceful, non-violent, and successful, so that as conscious creators we wisely step forth into this opportunity in a smart, coordinated, cooperative, and beauty way that uplifts and models the intelligent consciousness we bring to the table. There is so much wisdom for us to draw from in public relations, in strategy, and compassion for all. It is important to stay out of reaction and move to take our stand taking the high road—the road less traveled.

You can contact Shama through her website, HelenaOnLove.com, at this LINK.

* * * * *

So here are two very parallel approaches to responding to the Phoenix Incident. Both indicate that Tantra is more than sex practices. One approach is to denounce what is alleged to be prostitution in the name of religion, focusing on Tantra and the Goddess. The other suggests that we use this as a teaching opportunity to share what Tantra really is.

What do you think?

Do you agree with the open letter?

Which approach do you prefer?

Do you have another idea about this completely?

You can email them directly and post your comments here.

this: To the degree or extent indicated
re·sponse: A verbal or written answer
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Written by Donald Michael Kraig
Donald Michael Kraig graduated from UCLA with a degree in philosophy. He has also studied public speaking and music (traditional and experimental) on the university level. After a decade of personal study and practice, he began ten years of teaching courses in the Southern California area on such ...