"After fifteen years of radical activity, something broke up inside me. I saw no political reality in any part of the world that I could embrace."
In 1969, at the age of 17, I was arrested with other anarchists and accused of a bloody attack on a bank in Milan. We were innocent, but it took years and years of hard work and the commitment of many people to persuade the judges and public that the bombs had not been set by us. It was during a student demonstration in 1968 that I had bought an anarchist magazine. A few days later, I visited the magazine’s offices to ask for more information on the anarchist movement. Soon after, at the end of an angry discussion, my father said to me in a hurt and critical voice, "So you’re an anarchist!" I started going into poor neighborhoods several afternoons a week for after-school activities with children. Then at five o’clock we’d visit construction sites to talk to the workers as they left the job. At home, although the situation with my family was getting worse, we’d discuss major international issues and talk about our aspirations for a world where everyone was free and equal—"with no God, no state, no servants, no masters." Fearing a radical turn to the right, even the creation of a fascist regime like the one in Greece at that time, many Italians—and not just those of my generation—were turning to the use of weapons. On December 14, 1969, I was arrested together with other anarchists, accused of attacking a bank in Milan two days earlier and planting bombs in Rome. My first imprisonment lasted three years. After three long days of questioning, just before entering jail for two months of isolation, I found out that one of my comrades, Giuseppe Pinelli, had "committed suicide" by jumping from a window in Milan’s police headquarters. After that first three-year confinement, I was arrested again and again. In 1971, a jailbreak attempt by inmates in my prison turned into a revolt. Though I had been locked in my cell the entire time, I was considered the instigator. There were more violent encounters with the authorities and more jail sentences, and always the only response I felt capable of was a stronger commitment to political militancy and more rigid ideological positions.
When I finally got out of prison, I moved to Milan and worked to express solidarity with political prisoners in Western Europe, especially in Franco’s Spain. Looking back, I remember believing that two visions of the world were clashing and it was my duty to fight against Fascism in black shirts, white shirts, or any other form it took. "Too simple!" I’d say today, but so it seemed to me back then.
By the early eighties, after fifteen years of radical activity, something broke up inside me. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I saw no political reality unfolding in any part of the world that I could embrace. What I found most unbearable was the hatred of one’s neighbors—the common tendency among revolutionary groups to blame each other for their own defeats. So I went "underground" again, this time for a different purpose. My brother had spoken very highly of Aikido and I wished to try it. Practicing a martial art was still unacceptable for a full-time political activist, but quietly and secretly, making up odd excuses each time, I managed to go to the gym and get on the tatami mat. It was then I finally found the energy and the strength to make a final break with political militancy. Suddenly I found myself in a new and unknown dimension, without the reference points on which I had based my life for fifteen years. At the University of Rome, I started following the lessons of Corrado Pensa, a professor and teacher of Vipassana meditation. The following year I started practicing sitting meditation regularly and doing retreats with him and other teachers, including Christina Feldman, and Stephen and Martine Batchelor. Little by little, my life began to fall into place and a different understanding slowly appeared, in what I consider to be a real process of purification. Those were not always easy years, but they were full of a new warmth. I wound up working as a high school janitor. It was a hard job to accept, as I had no other interests to occupy me. But eventually I came to appreciate working in a stress-free, if monotonous, environment, and the opportunities it gave me for practice. It was a deep experience of freedom, sustained by the relationships I developed with my co-workers that went beyond the rigid rules of radical trade-unionism. Not that we didn’t make every attempt to defend our rights when we had to, but I found that when the perception of conflict changes, you sometimes find new and unexpected solutions. Sitting meditation and the practice of awareness in everyday life were wonderful training for non-violent conflict resolution, because they helped develop attitudes of equanimity and non-separation. These are the doors through which our true nature emerges, enabling us to accept the truth of things as they are. When I first heard the American Vietnam veteran Claude Thomas speak, I realized his words about war and violence related to me as well as to soldiers like him. To touch suffering means speaking not just about the violence of war and prison, but also about the violence that comes before and after war and prison. For we all have to look with awareness and compassion at our own inner suffering and violence. I believe this is the only way to set ourselves free from the automatic behaviors that so often govern our lives. In 1996, while practicing and studying Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Precepts, I decided together with some friends to give birth to an association called La Rete di Indra (Indra’s Net). Its aim is to promote the practice of mindfulness among those working in the caring professions or with volunteer organizations. We also offer people already on a spiritual path opportunities to come into direct contact with the suffering of others, so that they may offer their help. We have focused on assistance to the terminally ill, healing the wounds of violence, and raising funds for social activities in Cambodia and Vietnam. Involvement in La Rete di Indra has called on some of my past skills. Practical organization comes naturally to me; it is what I did in politics. But rather than trying to define our exact identity as an organization, we do our best to experience in a dynamic way the relationships that are developing one by one. We try to feel part of a true network, witnessing who we really are through the response and work of other people. Though my wife is American, I am still unable to get a visa to the U.S. due to my previous activities. I would dearly like to visit those American spiritual centers I’ve only read about in books. During the 1998 Zen Peacemaker Order retreat at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, I vowed to "learn to really look deeply," and wrote that as an offering for the small altar we had built near the railway tracks at Birkenau. Today I wish to practice a policy of total and unilateral disarmament.
Roberto Mander is president of La Rete di Indra (Indra’s Net), a network of socially engaged Buddhist organizations in Italy associated with the Peacemaker Community. You can reach La Rete di Indra at
The Peacemaker Community can be reached at
The web site is www.peacemakercommunity.org.
Memoirs of a Revolutionist (ex)., Roberto Mander, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.
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Quiet, decorously polite, shamanistic Alex Grey met me at the door of his Brooklyn loft studio. With long graying hair like an Indian chief, thin compassionate face with luminous skin, and blue-gray eyes suggesting depths of experience, here was a person I was fascinated to meet, an explorer, experimenter, craftsman, and teacher on the path of art.
Encouraged to draw by his artist father, and being especially good at it, Alex Grey felt early on that his mission in life was to be an artist. Since then his dedication to making art has been steady, his vision of art expansive. His work has ranged from writing (two books) and teaching, to ritualistic performance art, multi-media installations, and a rich legacy of paintings and sculpture that has brought him international recognition.
His work has a strong, demanding presence. His painting is an unusual combination of mystical naiveté and almost scientific hyper-realism. You know you’re seeing something you haven’t seen before, but you can’t easily say what it is. The intensity of Alex Grey’s visionary art is an unexpected shock.
He writes in his new book, The Mission of Art: Visionary art is the creative expression of glimpses into the sacred unconscious, spanning the most searing shadow imagery of tortured souls in hell, the mythic archetypes of demonic and heroically compassionate forces that seem to guide and influence our feelings, and the luminous transpersonal heaven realms. Visionary art offers bizarre and unsettling insights, convincing us by its compelling internal truth.
As he put it more simply in our interview, I am in the pickle of a contemporary artist attempting to personally experience the transcendental and bring that into the work. Early in his career, he mostly abandoned painting and turned to performance art to clarify and expand his artistic goals. He created many controversial performance pieces, some of which he now considers morally ambiguous, even unethical. Like a shaman praying to be possessed, he was always physically at the center of these pieces, often using materials that no one would get near, his morbidness, his seriousness, his obsessiveness, all nakedly exposed.
Sometime in the late seventies, Grey began to take psychic risks on his path of art that went beyond public notoriety and controversy. He confronted demons and angels within himself, going to the edge of a dark abyss of insanity and absolute evil. Answering to his fears, a deep spiritual conscience was aroused within him. Humble and receptive, he vowed to make more positive statements with his art, turning away from an almost pathological nihilism to a more redemptive idealism and spirituality. This profound decision has left a lasting mark on his art of the last twenty years. So has meeting his wife Alyson, a painter, who has collaborated on many of his projects and whom he considers a gift of god on his artistic path.
Grey seems to have an insatiable curiosity about the human mind and its mysteries, the human soul and its mission, and God, not to mention space, matter and energy. He is a thoroughly modern man who celebrates the way of artistic understanding in the sacred traditions of the past, as well as in the most advanced technologies of today.
An art of universal spirituality, acknowledging all spiritual paths, drawing upon the image bank of the world and not from the limits of one culture over another, this is what Alex Grey is working toward. Discovering the sacred truths that underlie all the wisdom traditions, accessing transpersonal archetypes in vision states and bringing them back for us in the most authentic and iconic way possible, this is, in his words, his mission as an artist. -Steve Brooks
Brooks: What is your understanding of sacred art?
Grey: I think the mission of art is to embrace some personal sense of the transpersonal. Sacred art crystallizes a kind of revelatory power that reinforces our own sense of the depth of the meaning of life and our predicament here. When art can do that, not just expressing the small self, but expressing the larger collective soul and helping to entrain people to a greater reality, it’s beneficial. Art looks at the deepest level, which involves intensive self-examination and examination of the world, so that one can gear into spiritual domains.
Art is a reflection of who we think we are and what a culture is. It’s a reflection of cultures and individuals, and how they resonate. Art is the way a culture embeds its sacred truths so that they can be passed on, either the next day or centuries from that time. It’s the way we have preserved our cultural memory of who and what we are.
Brooks: How is this view reflected in your own art? Grey: My art is related to the visionary tradition of the sacred arts. I spend months, if not years, on a work which is based on a flash of a vision that can occur in less than a minute.
There is a lot of time in my work that’s spent in self-examination, although not in a morbid sense. I hope that the energy embedded in the work brings about some kind of self-reflection in the viewer, and perhaps crystallizes a complex of forces for them, as it did for me in the moment that I had the vision. I want to bring the viewer back to that spot, to the initial vision, and lay it gently in their stream of consciousness to dissolve over time or collect thought-energy, if that’s useful.
But imagery in our culture is now so plentiful, there’s endless generation of photography, clip-art, video, film, that keeping focused on the vision is a struggle. It becomes devotional labor, not unlike the labor in other sacred art traditions such as Tibetan thangka painting or Christian icon painting, requiring much time to complete. My labor is to pray, bring forward my best, and to keep on conforming to the image of my vision.
Brooks: You did not begin your artistic career with this kind of goal. Grey: My teenage and post-adolescent world view was permeated by a sense of the absurdity of existence. The meaninglessness of life was something that was very strong in me, and I struggled existentially with the question: what is art?
In the early seventies I came upon the performance art scene. It was a time of radical experimentalism. You could have yourself shot in the arm or slaughter a calf and spill its guts all over people, and call it art. If the artist called it art, it was art. Picasso was sort of the father of this tireless experimentalism, the constant reinvention of art, which in some sense mirrors scientific invention in the twentieth century. As contemporary artists we are inheritors of this tireless experimentalism. Yet I’ve come to see the search for new forms, of Art for art’s sake, as a shallow reason to perform and work.
Brooks: Is this how you see most art today? Grey: All the forces of tradition and the history of art come like a locomotive into the mind of a young artist. What is he or she supposed to do? Nowadays the artist has the widest range of possible modes of expression. Instead of tireless experimenting, I say, bring back the artist to what they are doing. Ask them: why are you making what you are making? What is the sense of it all?
This time of experimentation, modernism, post-modernism, all the previous romantic and impressionist and other approaches, had to do with the engagement of the artist with themselves, to individuate them from their culture, in a sense. This rebellion was necessary to establish art as a free agent of expression, not tied to one ideology or another. Art was an agency whereby you could be totally free to express who or what you are or aren’t. As egoic as it is, that is modernism’s hard won freedom, but it comes with no sort of requirements of conscience or consciousness.
Brooks:In light of that, do you have hope that sacred art has a future?
Grey:I think our task in the twentieth century has been to integrate the Eastern and Western approaches to our path in art. We’re at a time when we can access the many spiritual paths, each of which has a unique kind of sacred art. Today, artists are collaborating with each other all over the world, and there’s potential for a universal spiritual art, individually based but able to tap the archetypes of the collective.
This work demands its own kind of sacred space, instead of a normal art gallery. There’s a tremendous amount of religious art in a place like the Metropolitan Museum, it’s seething with spiritual fervor, in a sense, but it is like a butterfly that’s been pinned to the mount. It’s not necessarily expressly placed there for its transcendent function. It’s not specifically oriented toward that.
I feel that creation of sacred space, sacred architecture for the sacred arts, is an essential move in the twenty-first century. This why I want to build a chapel I’ve been calling Enthion, a place to discover the spirit within. You could call it interfaith or post-denominational. It would be a place inclusive of all spiritual paths which addresses the transpersonal or spiritual reality through contemplation of works of art that elicit immersion in the transcendental ground of being.
So the spiritual art of the twenty-first century and beyond can do these things, orient us to reverence for life and make a new kind of universal spiritual statement that underscores the value and meaning of life. I think that’s what’s to come.
For more on the work of Alex Grey visit his web site at: www.alexgrey.com
Alex Grey: The Mission of a Visionary Artist, Steve Brooks, Shambhala Sun, July 1999.
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NORMAN FISCHER on sex, family, love and liberation.
There is nothing more miraculous to me than the experience of looking at a baby, especially if the baby is your own, but any baby will do. The perfect fingers and toes, with their tiny precise nails, the intense face with its soulful expression devoid of defensiveness or posturing, the round soft body always alive with motion or utterly in repose: a picture of pristine humanness that delights the eye and heart.
Parents can spend hours gazing at their babies with endless fascination. How could such a creature exist and where could it have come from? How is it that it seems to look exactly like so many different relatives at once? How can its personality be already so clear and at the same time so unformed? The very nature of our lives seems to be called in question by this small person, whose fierce impulse simply to exist makes everything pale by comparison.
To really look at a baby in this way is to feel with immediacy a powerful, selfless, healing love that astonishes you with its purity and warmth. Overcome by it, you easily lose yourself in wonder. This is because the baby evokes an experience of pure human possibility. She, having only recently come up out of emptiness, bears still the marks: pure skin, soft limbs, perfect features; clear and unadulterated karma before the formation of self, with all its messy anxieties and complicated desires.
The same feeling comes over us when we fall in love. The beloved doesn’t appear as simply another person: she is rather the occasion, the location, of something unlimited, a feeling of connection and destiny that dissolves our habitual selfishness and isolation. We are overcome with a warm and enthusiastic feeling that cannot be denied, and that will distract us day and night. We exist in a special zone of delight as a result of this encounter with the unexpected force of love. All songs, soap operas, and most stories feed on whatever memory or longing we have for this feeling.
It seems to me that these experiences (which are always fleeting, though the commitments and consequences that flow from them can last a lifetime) are flashes of enlightenment, or, more exactly, of what is called in Buddhism bodhicitta, the oceanic impulse toward enlightenment not only for ourselves but for all beings.
Unlike anything else we think or experience, bodhicitta is not a creation of ego: we don’t decide to fall in love with our mate or our child; it is something that happens to us willy-nilly, a force of nature whose source is wholly unknown. The sutras call it "unproduced," which is to say, unconditioned, unlimited. We can’t even say it exists, in the ordinary sense of that word (and this is why many people doubt that it exists as anything more than a youthful delusion). It lifts us up, releases us from all that holds us to earth. Love occurs, we now know, although we don’t know what it is. We only know that we have been overcome by it.
Love is generated from twin impulses. Buddhism calls them emptiness and compassion; we could also call them wonder and warmth. Emptiness points to the miraculous nature of phenomena: that things are not what they appear to be; that they are, rather than separate, connected; that they are, rather than fixed and weighted, fluid and light. When we see a baby, when we look at the face of our beloved, we know that the way we’ve been conditioned to perceive the world isn’t right: the world is not a fearful and problematic challenge; it is, instead, a beautiful gift, and we are at its center always.
This comes to us primarily not as a thought or even as an emotion, but as a physical experience so compelling we are overcome with an impulse to merge with another, and through that other, with the whole world. We want to pour ourselves out of ourselves and into the beloved, as if our body were water. Love, then, is quite naturally and positively connected with the sexual. Minds don’t love, nor do hearts. These are abstractions. Whole bodies love, and naturally we want to cuddle, kiss, touch, hold, and feel the literal warmth of the other penetrate our body.
It is a wonderful and a necessary thing to hold your child next to your cheek or heart, to lie down with her at bedtime, kiss good night, perhaps fall asleep together. Such a thing is wonderful for parent, wonderful for child, this big feeling of peaceful security, of belonging and of transcendent warmth. A person can spend a lifetime longing to return to this feeling. In the same way, it is utterly relieving and necessary to fall into the sexual embrace with the beloved, to enter each other with warmth and delight and finally, peaceful release. It takes enormous trust to give yourself in this way, with nothing held back. It’s a form of liberation. There’s no sense of control, reserve or separateness. There’s no one there who could stand aloof.
I am sure that what I am saying here is so, but I also know that it is not what most of us experience most of the time. Sexuality may be the natural expression of a pure and selfless love, but it is also, in the deep economy of human emotion, chameleon-like; according to inner conditions, it takes on many colors. Clearly, the body only seldom operates in the pure service of selflessness. More often the liberative signals that are always potentially present, because we can at any moment fall in love with the whole world, get distorted by confusion of ego. We become conditioned to see sexuality as a replacement for so much else in our lives that we need but are unable to come into contact with. So sexuality becomes, among other things, a way to express a need for power, a way to avoid loneliness, frustration or fear. Probably nothing produces more self-deception, and when sexuality is deeply self-deceptive, it becomes dark and is the source of enormous suffering.
The Buddha respected sexuality very deeply, I think, and saw its potential for disaster. He felt that though the spiritual path naturally and beautifully contains an erotic element, the chances for perversion of the erotic are very great. Because of this he taught the practice of celibacy as the path toward love. In fact I would say that if celibacy is not a loving and warm practice it is not a true celibacy, it is only a justification for a coldness or distance that one naturally prefers, perhaps out of a fear of others. But a true celibate practitioner is free, because he or she is not attached to any one or several particular persons, to develop a universal love and warmth that includes self and everyone, all held in the basket of the Way.
For those of us who do not or cannot choose a path of celibacy, the challenge is to include our beloved or our family as a part of our practice, as exactly an avenue for the development of wide and broad love for the whole world. The fact is that there is no way that love can ever be narrow or exclusive. There is a tendency to see love in a limited way, as if, if we love or are loyal to one person or group, we cannot love or be loyal to another. But this is a perversion of love’s real nature. Love’s salient characteristic is that it is unlimited. It starts locally but always seeks to find through the local the universal. If that natural process is subverted, love becomes perverted: it must either grow or go sour. It can’t be reduced or hemmed in.
It is very common, of course, for the initial pure impulse toward love to become reduced, to find ourselves domesticating the beloved, as if they were known and predictable, subject to our needs, possessable. Once this happens there is jealousy, selfishness, disappointment, the desire to control and the fear of change. What was once love becomes a mutual conspiracy of smallness, and nothing is more common among long-lasting and seemingly successful relationships than this embattled holding on to the past in a way that is usually quite unhappy. It is debatable whether this is preferable to the endless seeking for the perfect mate that goes on among those who see divorce or breakup as the better remedy for inner restlessness.
These are, unfortunately, the usual paths that intimate relationships take, and it is astonishing to me that the power of love and longing for love is such that people keep trying in the face of such painfully poor odds.
The alternative is to see that it is absolutely necessary to practice renunciation within the context of loving relationships. This means that we are willing to give the beloved up, to recognize that we can never really know her, or, in any absolute sense, depend on her, any more than we can depend on our own body or on the weather. She is a mystery and as such unpossessable, so giving her up is not a matter of sacrifice.
If we had our eyes open from the start, we would have seen that the real vision of love was showing us this all along. All things are impermanent, created fresh each moment, and then gone. This being so, the miracle of love between two people, or within a family, is something precious and brief. In fact any human relationship is brief. We are together for a while and then inevitably we part. To love someone truly is to recognize this every day, to see the preciousness of the beloved and of the time we have together, to renounce any clinging need for or dependency on the other, and to make the effort to open our hands, so that instead of holding on we are nurturing and supporting.
People often wonder how it is possible, in the face of impermanence, to make a commitment to a relationship. It certainly seems logical that we either deny impermanence and assert our undying vow, or accept it and move on as soon as things change. But it is exactly impermanence that inspires commitment. Exactly because things always change, and we cannot prevent that, we give rise to a vow to remain faithful to love, because love is the only thing that is in harmony with change. Love is change; it is the movement and color of the world. Love is a feeling of constancy, openness, and appreciation for the wonder of the world, a feeling that we can be true to, no matter what circumstances may bring.
Although this may sounds impossibly idealistic, I believe it is quite practical. To respect the beloved, to give and ask for nothing in return, in faith that what we ourselves need will be provided without our insisting on it too much, may seem like the work of a saint, but I do not think there is any other way. In order to do it we will have to condition our ego, soften its edges, so that it becomes pliable and fearless enough to be open to what comes, and to be permissive, in the best sense of that word, for another. This is the basic spiritual practice.
It seems to me that for most of us, the journey of loving relationship, though quite difficult, is our best chance to develop bodhicitta. In mahayana Buddhism, this seemingly impossible and unlimited aspiration for the enlightenment of all is the heart of the practice, the beginning and end of it. And it seems only logical that in order to develop a love that big and thorough, it is good if we have somewhere to start, someone to practice on. To really love your lover, husband, wife, or child, taking that on as the most challenging and worthwhile of life’s projects, is a noble thing and it is possible. We know it is possible because we have all felt the compelling force of love at one time or another, even if we have forgotten it.
Originally published in the July 199 Shambhala Sun magazine. Also available in Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships, Edited by Andrea Miller and the editors of the Shambhala Sun. Click here for more information about the book.
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By Judith Simmer-Brown Judith Simmer-Brown on the role of desire in Buddhist Tantra.
When the Buddha sat under the tree of awakening, one of the primary discoveries that he made was the role of desire and passion in human life. He recognized that human life is pervaded by experiences of anxiety and sorrow, and suggested that they arise from desire, a kind of craving which drives humans into continuous experiences of pain.
All of us without exception wish to be happy and not to suffer. We pursue pleasure and devise elaborate schemes to elude painful experiences. The irony of human life is that our very desire for pleasure results in suffering: Whatever we have, we wish for more or for something different. When we do have what we want, we eventually lose it or decide it is not what we really wanted. Buddha Sakyamuni’s teaching of the four noble truths accurately pinpointed this emotional style of human beings, that this impulse toward pleasure creates an endless series of frustrating situations for us, and until we recognize how human life is driven by unfulfilled desire, we cannot experience a respite to our suffering.
But according to the view of vajrayana Buddhism, desire is also the working basis of compassion. Desire’s very eagerness to please carries intelligence, which when liberated from self-centered preoccupations, resonates with the emotional experience of others. Desire becomes empathy as we develop our capacity to recognize the different styles of suffering described in Buddhism as the six realms.
Human desire propels us into momentary psychological experiences which mirror the unrelieved ordeals of each of the other five realms of existence:
We experience moments of intense jealousy, echoing the experience of the jealous gods.
We experience raging anger or cold disdain similar to the beings of the hot and cold hells.
Like animals and god-realm beings, we fall into the numbing ignorance of daily routine or the blissful ignorance of idealism.
Like hungry ghosts, our arrogance is haunted by the yearning for satiation.
Because of these temporary empathetic experiences, we can feel the intense styles of suffering of other realms, and we are sensitized to the endless patterns of suffering and hopelessness which pervade the world. We are aware of the suffering of other beings and, if we reflect, we can feel empathy and compassion and the desire to liberate them from their suffering.
When our habitual self-centered desire turns toward care for others, a kind of spiritual transformation is possible. This is described in Buddhism as the practice of the bodhisattva, one who is committed to clarity of understanding and the welfare of others. The fuel for this practice is desire, which has been transformed into the awakened heart, a spontaneous openness and warmth which liberates habitual self-centeredness. The practice of the bodhisattva would have no fuel if it were not for the power of our desire. Accompanied by strong commitment and clarity of mind, transformed desire is a kind of contagious fever of compassion.
How do we liberate desire and turn its intelligence and intensity toward awakening for ourselves and others? In tantra, this fundamental quality of human existence is liberated with very skillful methods.
The intensity of desire can only be liberated by desire itself. As the Hevajra-tantra states, "That by which the world is bound, by that same its bonds are released, but the world is deluded and knows not this truth, and he who is deprived of this truth will not gain perfection." The passionate quality of human experience can only be liberated through desire itself; then it is described as a "mingling of passion and absence of passion."
One of the distinctive features of Tibetan vajrayana, especially in the practices of the "highest yoga tantra" (Anuttara-yoga-tantra), is its inclusiveness with regard to desire, and especially sexuality in a spiritual context. This offers a way to work directly with desire, but it requires a strong foundation of training and a selfless motivation.
According to Anuttara-yoga, training in the "three vehicles" (yanas) is essential to spiritual development, especially in the area of working with our most primitive emotional life.
In order to work with our self-centered desire, we train in the foundational vehicle, the hinayana, in which we learn self-restraint, renunciation and simplicity. "Desirelessness" is one of the treasured spiritual qualities of the practitioner who has mastered the hinayana. However, after disciplining ourselves in this way, we retain a residue of aggression: we have rejected too much of the intelligence of desire, and have cut ourselves off from the suffering of others.
In the broad vehicle, the mahayana, aggression is seen as the strongest obstacle to the practice of compassion, we cannot benefit beings if we are angry toward them or toward their suffering. With mahayana training, aggression is transformed into patience and care, and we are able to begin to relieve the suffering we encounter. But while the mahayana acknowledges the close relationship between desire and compassion, there is the danger that desire can lead to "idiot compassion," a kind of compassion tainted by our own personal agendas.
So having completed the training of the first two vehicles, we discover a residue of blindness or obliviousness which inhibits our further development. We have used our altruistic dreams to dilute the intensity of the world. In avoiding painful emotions, difficult life passages and underlying habitual patterns, we have become enamored with the idealism of our compassion.
When we continue our training in the "diamond vehicle," the vajrayana, we address directly this oblivious quality. Vajrayana training and practice give us immediate proximity to all aspects of our experience, removing the blinders which remained from the previous practices.
This time the residue that remains is passion. However, it is now said that passion need not be an obstacle to spiritual growth. By this time, it has been refined through spiritual training and represents the warm heart combined with the intensity of vajrayana experience and practice.
If desire becomes the object of contemplation, it holds great power for bringing the mind to the essential point. In the Anuttara-yoga tradition, there is really no distinction made between passion in this sense and compassion. When purified of self-centeredness, passion is expressed as devotion to others, as caring skillfully and utterly about their welfare. It is also expressed as zest in living and appreciation of the unique beauty of each moment. Experiences of realization naturally carry with them the burning heart of joy and compassion, otherwise they are not genuine realization experiences.
However, this is also a dangerous path, for if passion seeks to serve the ego, the explosive result creates havoc for both partners and for others. Hence, the dynamic of sexuality in Anuttara-yoga tantra is always pyrotechnic and potent.
According to the sacred outlook of vajrayana, the ordi- nary chemistry between men and women is a powerful expression of the fundamental dynamic of phenomena. For this reason, the realm of gender relationships is of utmost interest for the tantric practitioner, for the dynamic experienced there exposes the heart of the world.
On any ultimate level, there is no real difference between women and men. Our natures are ultimately empty of inherent existence, vast and expansive, and free of conceptual elaboration. Yet there are sacred masculine and feminine energies which are an essential part of the mind-body complex that makes up the individual.
These energies are not determined by biology, in the vajrayana view, it is more that biology has emanated from these fundamental energies of mind and phenomena. Each of us is made up of these subtle masculine and feminine energies, whatever our gender. Masculine and feminine energies flow in our minds, emotions, and subtle and physical bodies.
On an ultimate level our minds have no gender, but "feminine" insight and "masculine" skillful means intertwine in all our experience. On a subtle body level, all humans have feminine and masculine channels and winds (nadis and prana), which intermingle and which may in meditation meet in the nondual central channel. Our physical bodies have both feminine and masculine qualities, but depending upon our karma and the physical bodies we have inherited, we have different abilities to radiate feminine or masculine energies. Always, the physical body expresses the qualities which are there in the subtle body and in the mind. All three of these are interdependent.
On the level of appearance and manifestation, women and men are distinct and complementary in their physical forms and psychological experiences. From the view of vajrayana Buddhism, both feminine and masculine qualities are inherently positive, awakened and beneficial, but when accompanied by ignorance and habitual patterns they can manifest in painful ways. When powerful self-centeredness is the motivation, relationships between women and men can arouse dramatic streams of emotionality, conceptuality and fantasy, leading to pain and alienation. But whether manifested in awakened or painful ways, the qualities of feminine and masculine energies remain consistent. Feminine manifestation is associated with energetic heat and intensity; masculine manifestation is associated with steady power and groundedness. Penetrating insight as manifested in the lives of human women is a subtle, pervasive and very intelligent energy, a kind of sharpness or sensitivity. In its basic nature it is awareness, but in daily life it manifests as sensitivity, which can be quite intense and hot, related with emotionality. This sensitivity has more allegiance to dynamics than to content. There is a Tibetan saying: "Women’s intelligence is at a very sharp angle, and empty." This means that women have a heightened ability to identify problems and to penetrate them, without clinging to results.
The heat and intensity of women’s energy can trip intense emotional triggers, which can create enormous chaos. This chaos can be beneficial when intractable situations present themselves. For example, when bureaucracy becomes overbearing or when stubborn logics and habitual styles are employed, penetrating insight can liberate the ponderous environment into chaos, even when it manifests as intense emotionality.
The sensitivity of women’s intuition can see injustice, emotional subtlety, interpersonal dynamics, and hidden meanings. When there are imbalances and obstacles in specific environments, the sharp and penetrating qualities of women can identify them and adjust them. This emotionality can also be very warm, generating compassion and care for others.
However, when intense emotionality is indulged, feminine intelligence can become self-serving. When this happens, feminine wisdom can become wild and even dangerous, subverting its own intelligence. Women have a capacity for responsiveness which can be fickle and provocative in its style of expression. Its fascination with sharpness may become habitual, so that when problems are identified, feminine energy may not have a particular allegiance to solutions.
An analogy to feminine wisdom is the sharpness of a knife, which is very cutting and penetrating. But if not used properly, it can be too sharp, too sensitive, unstable and even dangerous. In this case it is important to have a complementary energy, strong and skilled, to steady that wild blade and protect those things which are not to be cut.
When skillful means manifests in the styles of human men, there is strength, solidity and resiliency. In contrast to the feminine energy, the masculine is explicit, directed toward the material world of manifestation, and action-oriented. It is also more grounded, more sleepy, and when out of balance, could be considered a stubborn, resentful presence. Generally, however, it is praised because it is strong and faithful.
In positive manifestation, masculine means are tolerant, patient and accommodating. The fundamental masculine quality is immovability and bluntness. Men may have the wisdom to know what is happening, whether just or unjust, good or bad, negative or positive, and to just let things be as they are. Masculine energy is also known for loyalty, reliability, and the ability to join in groups to achieve common goals. It is culturally associated with politics, institutions and traditions.
On the other hand, masculine energy can be too accommodating, even lazy, and tends to be dull and oblivious. Without the stimulation of feminine wisdom, the masculine can go to sleep or be lulled into merely habitual routines or bureaucratic solutions. Or, when confronted by the wild and self-serving feminine, the masculine can become stubborn, cold and stolid. When threatened, the masculine can become blunt and heavy-handed, retaliating without precision or accuracy. The masculine needs relationship with sharpness because, though it is very strong, it is not precise or incisive.
When either of these energies manifests alone in our beings, they can become an obstacle to one’s spiritual development, according to the vajrayana. One without the other creates an imbalance in the practitioner, no matter what the gender. The sharpness of our mind-body complex yearns for more grounding, and our dullness craves excitement and clarity. Unifying these two qualities and bringing them into some kind of balance is one of the goals of vajrayana practice.
As the tantric practitioner becomes more attuned to these polar energies in her or his experience, they are found to reside everywhere. For example, it is possible to see the interplay between the feminine and masculine energies in solitary meditation. We experience them as our mindfulness practice oscillates between the extremes of wildness on the one hand, and drowsiness or dullness on the other. One moment we are bothered by excess discursiveness mixed with vivid emotionality, making a settled state of mind impossible. Ten minutes later, we find ourselves nodding off to sleep, spaced out and blank. Our practice is to work with these two poles of our meditation, understanding that they come from a common root.
When we acknowledge the interrelationship between penetrating insight and skillful means, it is possible to synchronize these energies and revitalize our human experience. We could not even directly experience the world without the cooperation and interplay of the two energies. When we experience our sense perceptions, seeing the color red involves the masculine aspect. But distinguishing the vivid tone of red, its vibrating intensity, in contrast to other colors or other reds, requires the feminine quality. If we have too much masculine, we see the color but we do not discriminate it. If we have too much feminine quality, our sense perceptions jump from thing to thing without really seeing anything directly.
The relationship between these two energies is more complex in interpersonal relationships. When feminine and masculine are at war, their neurotic aspects are heightened. The "other" becomes objectified as the enemy or threat, and the imbalance is exaggerated and solidified. The feminine becomes more emotional, wild and destructive, and the masculine more obstinate, harsh and political. Even when there is attraction between the feminine and masculine, if self-centered interests predominate, suffering and alienation can result.
The vajrayana practitioner must learn to appreciate differences and acknowledge the gifts of both genders in order to maintain sacred outlook in relationships. She or he must also acknowledge the dynamic power which arises in relationship with other.
As a woman, I have a balance of masculine and feminine aspects of my mind, imagination and subtle body, though it is often difficult for me to access them. On a tangible physical level, however, I am not in balance. By virtue of the fact of having a female body, I radiate the feminine qualities more strongly, and it is natural for me to yearn for the masculine qualities. Similarly, it is natural for men to yearn for feminine qualities.
One way to wholeness in vajrayana is to discover, through desire, the interrelatedness of masculine and feminine qualities on all levels of experience. The sharp edginess of women reaches for the blunt pragmatism of men; at the same time, men yearn for the emotional intensity of women. Sexual yearning is, at its heart, no different from spiritual yearning. Appreciating contrast and complementarity is central to the tantric practitioner’s life, as is tracing the dance between men and women in ordinary discourse. And sexual passion is a central expression of this dynamic, which goes to the heart of the body and mind.
In the dynamics of sexual attraction, both explicit and implicit, powerful forces are at work. While each of us is a complete universe, on the level of tangible manifestation we are not all that complete, according to tantra, and sexual desire is an aspect of yearning for completeness.
Working with this desire in harmony with practice is a great challenge for the vajrayana practitioner. It is difficult to honor passion without being overwhelmed by self-centered desire for gratification.
Experiencing intense passion without succumbing to gratification is at the heart of practice in Anuttara-yoga and this separates sexuality in Buddhist tantra from ordinary sexuality. It is a practice which requires all the preliminary training we have described, and must be combined with a close relationship to a tantric teacher.
There are various practices that enable us to contemplate directly the nature of passion as an important part of the spiritual path. In Anuttara-yoga-tantra, three such traditional practices may be given by a tantric guru.
First, in creation phase practice one may visualize the meditational deities in sexual union, as for instance in the practices of Vajrayogini and Cakrasamvara. Second, one may practice the generation of internal heat through the subtle body practices of the vital breath moving into the central channel. Third, under extremely rare conditions one may practice so-called "sexual yoga" with a qualified and appropriate consort. Each of these practices must be taught by the authentic guru in the context of vajrayana preliminaries and commitments.
What are the benefits for the tantric practitioner of contemplating the nature of passion? These practices have often been misunderstood by the uninitiated, for they are seen to be ways to practice spirituality through self-gratification. But self-gratification is contrary to the tantric path of meditation. As the Hevajra-tantra says, "This practice is not taught for the sake of enjoyment, but for the examination of one’s own thought, whether the mind is steady or wavering."
Why would one arouse passion without self-gratification as motive and method? Generally, these practices are valued because they transform ordinary passion into the basis for the experience of great bliss, or mahasukha, which is "an actual experience of bliss, a physical, psychological, total experience of joy that comes from being completely without discursive thoughts, being completely in the realm of nonthought," as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche explained.
"Nonthought" is an experience of being completely present in nowness. It is available to everyone, but the vajrayana tradition provides powerful and skillful methods which accelerate inner development in direct and tangible ways. Ordinary methods of meditation practice may only slowly or intermittently grant the benefits of nonthought in the practitioner’s experience. Cultivating great bliss is a powerful tool which greatly hastens the removal of emotional and conceptual obscurations in one’s practice. When one is able to clear away these obscurations, wisdom and compassion arise spontaneously.
This progress is important, for it frees the practitioner to be more readily available to the needs, both spiritual and material, of the many suffering beings in the world. When one is able to turn all inner resources to the process of waking up, compassion is liberated and the spiritual benefits for all are more quickly evident.
Since desire and passion are so basic to our human life, it is important that we work with them properly, employing them as fuel for wakefulness and compassion. The purpose of the exploration of the nature of passion is bringing about realization where it has not already occurred. From this point of view, the liberation of passion and the experience of bliss is a powerful expedient in the practice of tantra.
For the material presented in this article, I am indebted to the teachings of several remarkable, realized lamas. For the material on feminine and masculine energies, especially the Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and also the Ven. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, the Ven. Khandro Rinpoche, the Ven. Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, and the Ven. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. For contemplating the nature of passion in vajrayana practice, I am also indebted to Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. All of these lamas granted me interviews on the topic of my book, Dakini’s Warm Breath: Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism, from which this article was adapted. Pure Passion, Judith Simmer-Brown, Shambhala Sun, July 1999.
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Post-Porn Priestess of Pleasure: Annie Sprinkle Takes a Sex-Positive Position
Shambhala Sun | July 1999
Post-Porn Priestess of Pleasure:
Annie Sprinkle Takes a Sex-Positive Position
Former whore and porn-star, now artist and educator, Annie Sprinkle is named to match her old signature display as the Queen of Pissing, Anywhere, Anytime. But her real specialty is the public display of a positive attitude toward sex. The old idea of the "hooker with the heart of gold" may be revealed in this lady.
Annie is like a living museum, where visitors receive a special sex-ed course on the history of sex in post-war America, presented with good cheer, humor and the wisdom of experience.
Dividing her career into two major categories, "porn" and "post-porn," Annie calls herself a "post-porn modernist." The extremes of her life mirror North American society’s own extremes. From the demure democracy of the fifties, to the goofy and naive free love of the sixties and the crass hedonism of the seventies, down to the outspoken anarchical exhibitionism of the eighties and the glossy spiritual searching and sexual "healing" of today, all are manifested in Annie’s sexual career. Her new video, "Annie Sprinkle’s Herstory of Porn: Reel to Real," and one-woman show of the same name, are interactive tours of these extremes.
The morning after her three-night, sold-out run of "Herstory of Porn in Boston," I sat with Annie in the airport as she ate cereal with milk before her flight home to San Francisco. The show drew a mostly intellectual-looking crowd, not your typical porn-house audience (whatever that is), and Annie Sprinkle doesn’t look like your typical porn star (whatever that is). In fact, she looks very ordinary, dark hair, medium height, sweater, slacks, a little bit shy. Talking politely with her breakfast partners, Annie is soft and rather wholesome, with a little lilt in her voice like Gracie Allen’s.
Just an ordinary girl, but one who played in more than 200 porn films and, at certain points in her career, made a point of having sexual encounters with anybody. Handicapped, gay, straight, bi, transsexual, dwarfs, fat, thin, male, female, you name it, she joyfully had sex with them.
"At that time, I think I was very open and, in a way, able to love anybody," she says. "Even in my ‘raunchy’ phase, that is what I wanted. I wanted people to ‘accept their raunchiness,’ or something."
In the early eighties, she worked as a professional dominatrix and was a regular fixture at New York’s infamous Hellfire Club, which during its heyday, in the last breath before AIDS hit, was the gathering place for every fetishist and kinky leather and latex bound sexual exhibition imaginable. Despite her previous success as a mainstream porn star, Annie’s activities had become too gross even for porn, and she was ostracized by many in the industry for her extreme behavior.
It’s Annie’s humor that allows her audiences to experience the dark and sometimes frightening aspects of sex and sex-culture. European audiences especially love her wacky willingness, and covet her paintings called tit-prints. During intermissions, she poses with audience members for her famous Polaroid tit-on-the-head snap shots that people can then use for greeting cards.
Annie’s job is to guide people through the dark side. "I think humor makes the medicine go down," she says. "Sex is a very difficult subject for a lot of people, and it is scary. Laughing relieves tension and makes it all more fun and pleasant to look at. I think many people take sex far too seriously, so it’s good to have a laugh about it."
Annie’s "Herstory of Porn" show is a funny, and sometimes sad, romp through her 25-year career in porn, a career that parallels the sexual evolution of her generation. "I think it’s a fairly typical evolution," she observes. "People start from the bottom, from lower, more basic sexual awareness, and work up to a more communicative, sexually-aware, spiritually-aware way of being."
This lady has done it all and seen it all, and her message has remained markedly simple from the beginning: sex is a good thing. And she means it.
What she means by "lower, more basic sexual awareness," in terms of her porn career, is the evolution from the raunchy, simplistic, "Boogie Nights" standard porn of the early seventies, to the widely-varied and more sophisticated porn available today.
"I see the porn culture as having definitely matured and become more balanced," she says. "There are even a handful of very spiritual people making porn, now. The world of pornography has enormous potential."
Annie was one of the first to push the envelope of porn when she broke ranks with the male-dominated industry and wrote, directed and starred in her own porn film. "Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle" was the number-two grossing sex film of 1982.
"Women were expected to be ‘good girls’ and not to like sex all that much," she explains. "In my movie, I was the one who wanted sex, and the men better watch out. Most male directors never gave actresses the time to have real orgasms. Lots of people at the time didn’t even believe that women actually had orgasms." Annie not only has real orgasms in the film, they’re multiple.
What characterized "Deep Inside" was Annie’s willingness to interact with the audience in a forthright and gentle manner, which she continues today in her live shows, where she delivers one-liners like a seasoned standup comic.
"In that movie I involved the viewer in an interactive way by talking directly into the camera," she says. In the film, she sort of coaxes the viewer along, saying, "Hi, I’m Annie. Would you like to come inside?" She continues the verbal hand-holding as she enters a porn theater where one of her flicks is playing, and then proceeds to get it on with various members of the audience, after politely asking them if they want to.
The film was feminist by the standards of its time, with a light touch. She made a feminist statement without really intending to, she was just being herself.
"I don’t want to assault people," she explains. "I’m not trying to clobber people over the head. I’m just trying to shake them loose a little bit, gently."
Enthusiasm about sex guides Annie. Fear, ignorance about, and problems with sex arise from cultural guilt and negativity, she says. "Basically, we are a sort of sex-negative culture, pleasure-negative culture. For instance, the words we use for people who are into sex are ‘nymphomaniac,’ ‘hedonist,’ ‘pleasure-seeker.’ They all have kind of negative connotations. While the words that are used for people who suffer are ‘martyrs’ and ‘saints.’
"Most of our monuments are for war heroes or military people who have suffered. There are no monuments for people who have had ecstatic, blissful, pleasure-filled lives. Our culture does not generally honor pleasure."
Annie Sprinkle did not grow up in the abusive or broken home that one might imagine a prostitute or porn-star to come from. She grew up as gentle, shy Ellen Steinberg, born in 1954 as the eldest of four children in a wholesome and supportive family in Philadelphia.
"There was nothing in my childhood that would have led anyone, including myself, to believe that when I grew up, sex would become my obsession," she writes in her new book, Post-Porn Modernist.
"My parents were very open-minded, liberal Democrats, intellectual, Universalist Unitarians," she says. She attributes her stability to her good upbringing, and her fascination with sex to the fact that she really, really enjoyed sex from the time she lost her virginity on. She describes the day that she "happily gave up her virginity" at age seventeen: "I couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. When you think you have found something that is great, you want to let people know about it."
A few months later, Annie took off to enjoy all of the pleasures that communal living and free love had to offer. "I was your average sixties teenage hippie girl," she says, "wanting peace, love, freedom and adventure." By the age of eighteen, she had had sex with 52 different guys, and kept a journal chronicling the details of each of her sexual adventures. By nineteen, she was a working sex-professional and a budding porn starlet.
If you look at photographs of Annie from childhood through her career in porn, the expression remains the same throughout, a fresh-faced, bright-eyed smile, a look of what appears to be genuine enthusiasm, and a kind of openness.
"For me, sex, making love, has always been my most spiritual experience. I have had my most spiritual feelings here, my feelings of connectedness to god, or the divine," she explains. "The moments of orgasm are the most pleasurable moments that most people will ever know. There are many different kinds of ecstatic moments, but not too many people have better moments than those moments during orgasm.
"Some of us have been lucky enough to study with spiritual teachers, and have spiritual moments of realization through meditation and other practices, great heart orgasm, or whatever. But for the average person, orgasm is about the closest thing to this. I am not a spiritual expert, but I do know that."
In her early thirties, Annie put herself through art school with her burlesque shows and prostitution earnings, but the study of the fine arts only reconfirmed sex and the erotic as her favorite topic of study. "I realized it wasn’t a passing phase. To me, it is the most interesting and important subject there is," she says.
As she became more accomplished as a photographer, she naturally became a pornographer in her own right. "That’s where the fun is, in terms of pornography, actually being able to film real people," she explains. "Pornography has been going on since cave painting, and everyone knows the Vatican has a huge collection of pornography. All of the great artists have painted pornography, but to actually depict real people has only been possible since Daguerre revealed the secrets of photography, and the next day there were nudes! The very next day there was some guy selling nudes. That’s a historical fact."
The advent of performance art entered Annie into her "post porn" embodiment, making her a favorite of the avant-garde art world and a feminist icon. In the mid-eighties, her now-famous performance art piece entitled "Public Cervix Announcement" was a target for right-wing politicians fighting National Endowment for the Arts funding. In this, Annie’s signature act, she inserts a speculum and invites the audience to line-up and take turns viewing her cervix by flashlight. Despite headlines like "Porno Star Puts On Disgusting X-Rated Live Shows & Your Taxes Pay for It!" (National Enquirer), Annie’s show played around the globe, and she estimates that a good 25,000 people have examined her cervix.
In her "Post-Porn" embodiment, Annie has been a sex-educator, activist, journalist and advocate for spirituality. Through lectures, workshops, and visual and performance art, Annie has conveyed some basic beliefs that she summarizes in "Annie’s Sex Guidelines for the Nineties":
Step 1: Honor your sexuality and realize its incredible value. Step 2: Do not judge yourself or others. Step 3: Get rid of any last vestiges of sexual guilt and feelings that you don’t deserve pleasure. Step 4: Realize that abstinence can be dangerous to your health. Step 5: Accept the fact that we are living in the AIDS era. Step 6: Redefine and expand your concept of sex. Step 7: Learn to consciously feel energy. Step 8: Realize that sex is like food. Step 9: Learn about breathing. Step 10: Take care of your body. Step 11: Visualize a satisfying future for your sex life and the sex lives of future generations. Step 12: Make time for enjoying sex. Step 13: Make love to the earth and sky and all things.
Through all of the facets of her career, this view of sex as essentially positive has remained Annie’s continuity. This does not mean that she went unharmed and happy all of the time. She was abused; she saw many friends die of AIDS and murdered in the line of work. For the last eight years she has been with women lovers exclusively. She jokes when asked why. "Well, ya know, I was with about 2,000 men. So it was just time for a change."
In one statistic from her wacky scrapbook of a book, Post-Porn Modernist, Annie estimates that the number of penises she sucked equals the height of the Empire State Building. (That’s 3,000 men x 6 inches =1,500 feet of penises. Empire State Building = 1,475 feet.)
She still likes men though. "I was with some fabulous guys, fantastic guys. I was also with a lot of disrespectful, unappreciative and impolite men, but I always tried to be forgiving and compassionate. My father was a very, very compassionate person. I realize how much about compassion I learned from him."
As she sits eating her cereal and milk, the humility of the woman is plain. She knows she has good intentions, but she also admits that porn is just a job, too. Like many people nowadays, Annie would like to live a more spiritual life, and she tries, but also makes no big claims at it.
"I have had phases where I felt very spiritual, but right now I don’t feel particularly spiritually-connected. I’ve made films, and that is what I do, but I have not made the perfect film. Actually, they are all just clumsy attempts at trying to make a spiritual film. That’s ultimately my goal, to make a film that really inspires people to experience a deeper kind of love. Sometimes it seems that there are so many lofty motivations, and other times it is just plugging-away, trying to make a living."
Annie certainly is "plugging-away." In addition to touring her show and releasing the video, she is finishing a sparkly underwater erotic fantasy film in which she plays a mermaid who passes the torch of sacred wisdom on to another younger mermaid. There are whimsical shots of dolphins swimming and a female jellyfish.
She also has a brand new video coming out, a minimalist film put to the sound of breath and meditation bells. Called "Zen Pussy," it’s a cinematic exploration of vulvas in extreme close-up. "I hope it isn’t offensive to any Zen Buddhists," she says.
Post-Porn Priestess of Pleasure: Annie Sprinkle Takes a Sex-Positive Position, Amy Green, Shambhala Sun, July 1999.
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