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Merely engaging in sex, or attempting more intimacy as my Poconos friends did, doesn't deserve the name tantra, according to Jeffrey Hopkins, PhD, professor of Tibetan Buddhist studies at the University of Virginia and author or translator of 31 books on the subject. "Traditional tantric teachings are aimed at overcoming lust and desire, as opposed to an excuse for having sex," says Hopkins. "Sex is used only as a technique to have a powerfully blissful encounter with another person, to utilize a more deeply concentrated mind that in turn will overcome lust and afflictive desire. The aim is to use lust to overcome lust. It is counterintuitive." In her book about adolescent love, The Ripening Seed, the French novelist Colette referred to sensory objects and experiences as "these pleasures so lightly called physical" because they affect us on more than just a tactile, tangible level. I wonder whether such a concept would have much meaning to that 14-to-25-year-old audience so fascinated by tantric sex, although it would seem that the potentially transformative nature of physical intimacy is the secret of real tantra. "White tantra" seems to be code for a more chaste educational experience in the workshop world. But it's a minefield out there, even if your motivation is pure and you choose a literary route to enlightenment.

"There are many good, dull books about tantra and many that are bad but interesting," wrote Wendy Doniger in the London Times Literary Supplement. "This is true of many areas of knowledge, but tantra is particularly susceptible both to juicy sensationalism and to an overcompensating academic desiccation." Doniger goes on to say that the book she was reviewing, Kiss of the Yogini, by David Gordon White, berates Americans who "cobbled together the pathetic hybrid of New Age 'tantric sex,'" who "blend together Indian erotics, erotic art, techniques of massage, Ayurveda, and yoga into a single invented tradition." This amalgam, White contends, "is to medieval tantra what finger painting is to fine art."

So, what if you wanted to find the real thing? There seems to be a prosaic truth about tantra hidden by the hype: Just like religion, it's been commercialized, and just like ads for toothpaste or automobiles, it's been overly sexualized, but there's a great deal more to it than the physical. "Contrary to popular view, tantric practice is not primarily about sexual practices with a partner," warns Robert Sachs, a clinical social worker who wrote The Passionate Buddha: Wisdom on Intimacy and Enduring Love. "As prerequisites to tantric lovemaking, mutuality and an affectionate, loving bond between the partners are essential. From the Buddhist point of view, working with subtle energies in the body must be rooted in a morality that demonstrates a caring and regard for all beings, especially our partner." Caring and regard on the floor of a Pocono lodge? I don't think so....

Sachs advises: "Beware of any seminar or crash course promising to make you a tantric lover in one weekend," which reminds me of Thoreau's advisory: "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes." I'd amend that to: "Beware of all enterprises that require no clothes."

Aimee Lee Ball is a regular contributor to O.

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