Book Review: Karmamudra, The Yoga of Bliss
Review by Dr. William C. Bushell
There are few books that deserve the term revolutionary, but Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss attempts to be one of them. It explores an important subject that is controversial and complex, one that is often uncomfortable to discuss and contradicts many popular assumptions. It is about positive, proactive sexuality and its relationship to the spiritual life. It is about Indo-Tibetan Tantric sexual yoga practice, also known as Karmamudra or “the path of skillful means.” It explores a sometimes taboo topic and acknowledges unpleasant truths, in that vein it is dedicated to victims of sexual abuse around the world, especially the women and girls who make up the vast majority of those victimized, globally and throughout history.
The author is Dr. Nida Chenagtsang, a leading doctor of Tibetan Medicine, a form of medicine that combines physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual treatment for a broad spectrum of problems. Dr. Nida has been a leading licensed practitioner of Tibetan Medicine for many years and is knowledgeable about a broad range of sexual matters and their clinical treatment. Dr. Nida’s approach has combined Indo-Tibetan medical and yogic traditions with Western sexology and psychotherapy, as well as contributions from the Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese medical traditions. Dr. Nida’s teaching and practicing of medicine, psychotherapy, and yogic disciplines has been uniquely global in orientation among his peers: he has active centers in over 40 countries and, thanks in part to his expertise and confident demeanor, he is in demand for conferences around the world.
It might be of significance to know the background of the author of this review for the purpose of better evaluating the points made herein and disclosing any conflicts of interest. I have been researching religion and religious practices around the world for decades, as a medical and psychological anthropologist while affiliated with Columbia and Harvard Universities, with MIT, and as a Fulbright Scholar. My orientation has been global and cross-cultural, although for some years I have also focused on Indo-Tibetan yoga and meditation, and I have co-directed several conferences and projects with Professor Robert Thurman and HH the Dalai Lama. From a more personal perspective, in childhood I was subjected to physical and sexual/emotional abuse, which has left me with certain challenges. Several years before encountering Dr Nida, I had a transformative Tantric experience that dramatically improved the health and quality of my life. I have since been involved in exploring the Tantric dimension of human nature, which for me includes challenging patriarchy, a healthy relationship with eroticism, and embracing joyful experiences. Thus while I do not have any financial conflicts of interest relating to Dr. Nida, this topic is meaningful to me on a personal as well as academic level.
Dr. Nida writes in a comprehensive, coherent, and reader-friendly way, making accessible a potentially technical overview of the Vajrayana system of Buddhism existing in Tibet, Bhutan, and other regions. This introductory summary not only serves to contextualize and clarify the Karmamudra dimension to Vajrayana, but he explains the difference between the renunciatory approach of “classic” Sutrayana Buddhism to denying desire and the senses, and that of the Tantric approach, which embraces desire and the senses in a careful, insightful manner.
This contrast is in many ways one of the most essential and important themes and messages of the book, of Tantra, or Vajrayana itself. The dominant religious and spiritual systems of most of the world for most of history have been renunciatory or ascetic, dismissing or damning human passion. The unique value of Vajrayana and Karmamudra is the exploration and cultivation of the potential benefits of these passions. Articulating arguments that embrace human nature, especially those aspects so often rejected by many spiritual and philosophical systems, is a courageous decision by a leader in a spiritual field.
This is not the only courageous decision in the book. Dr. Nida does not shy away from topics that are controversial, provocative, complex, or highly charged. He acknowledges and emphasizes that scandals have been swirling around the Vajrayana community lately, directly related in some cases of improper teaching and practice of Karmamudra, paralleling awareness of sexual scandals emerging in Christianity. Dr. Nida chose to step into these storms of controversy and disturbance in order to support the victims and survivors, but also to attempt to distinguish true Karmamudra spiritual practice from its misuse and abusers. He explains that he is motivated by his knowledge of how powerfully elevating Karmamudra practice is, both therapeutically and spiritually, and that abuse of this power and trust is harmful on many levels.
In keeping with the concepts of Karmamudra, Dr. Nida has focused not only on the problems facing women, but their incredible achievements. He highlights the major contributions of female Karmamudra practitioners, teachers, and divine figures throughout history. He also discusses how women’s genuine, authentic, essential sexuality, when not under the onslaught and contamination of toxic masculinity, is even more aligned with the higher goals of Karmamudra than men. He argues that sexuality in women, when they feel safe, can lead to a more expansive, deep, connection to a wide spectrum of the spiritual domains of life. He posits that natural female sexuality tends to be less compartmentalized and unhealthy than that of men, and is more ready to lend itself to transcendental experiences, acting as a kind of template for Tantric practice. Dr. Nida encourages women to take a leadership role in the future progress of Karmamudra and societal change overall. He argues that a healthy approach to sexuality/eroticism is not only important for women but for men as well, who also need to heal and evolve in our predominantly patriarchal, sex-negative culture. While the book is largely focused on the heterosexual traditions of Karmamudra, Dr. Nida encourages and invites those who define their sexual and gender orientations otherwise to engage with the system.
Many books claim to be revolutionary, but few actually deserve that term. In challenging taboos and traditions, in confronting abuse in the world and inside his own tradition, and in thoughtfully exploring a topic that could easily be either dry or sensationalized, Dr. Nida Chenagtsang’s Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss earns the term revolutionary.
William C Bushell, PhD
Director of Research & Academic Liaison, ISHAR (a Chopra Institute initiative)
Biophysical Anthropology, MIT
Department of Religion, Columbia University
Scientific Advisor, Tibet House US/Menla (Cultural Center of HH the Dalai Lama)
Advisory Board, Women’s Task Force, Parliament of World Religions (2013-2015)
Senior Fellow, Center for the Study of World Religions, Harvard University (1993-4)
Fulbright Scholar (1988-9)