“Ageing, spirituality and sexuality – an oxymoron?”

Old couple walking“Ageing, spirituality and sexuality – an oxymoron?”

Conclusion:    Age is no barrier to sexuality; on the contrary in virtue of life’s experience, sexuality acquires its most overwhelming intensity. There is no oxymoron in combining age, sexuality and spirituality. On the contrary, these become identical.

 Presentation by John Dupuche at Tantra Conference April 2016 Janssen Spirituality Centre, Boronia


The dichotomy of ‘old’ and ‘young’

The prospect of growing old can be dreadful. The eyesight fails, the limbs creak; we slow down, excitement ceases, doors begin to close. Language itself views age negatively, with terms such as ‘old-fashioned’, ‘old-hat’, ‘old-people’s home’. ‘out of date’. ‘Ageism’ categorises people as irrelevant, an obstacle, and a burden on society. Retirement is an added issue, for the old live off their earnings or worse, by means of the pension system, use up the income of others. This is resented. Shouldn’t they bow out gracefully?

The Bible itself describes the dread of old age:

“when strong men are bent, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 5when one is afraid of heights, and desire fails; when the pitcher is broken at the fountain, 7and the dust returns to the earth as it was, 8Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.”[1]

By contrast, youth has all the accolades. It is a time of beauty and energy, empowerment and pleasure, of individuation and self-discovery, of sexual prowess and resilience, full of possibilities and prospects. “Faster, higher, stronger” is the motto of the Olympic Games.

The Bible likewise praises youth.

“Rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes …”[2]

What possible value can there be to ageing? Since time immemorial people have sought after the elixir of youth, the ambrosia of the gods? Better food and exercise will prolong youth. Medication will counter the effects of ageing. This is good, but is it all?


However, the question can also be asked: is it an illusion to idolize the young and turn away from age? Isn’t this reaction a typical example of suffering, as taught by Buddhism? We desire youth and reject old age, whereas the Buddha proposes neither craving nor aversion.

This suffering is particularly evident in the area of sexuality, where the fires of youth grow cool, the excitement of falling in love loses its charm, the delights of love-making become jaded. What is the place of sexuality in old-age? Is it not embarrassing to see old people falling in love even as their flesh sags and their limbs creak? Is it not ridiculous to see the old trying to be young?

So the title of this talk is seem to be an oxymoron. How can sexuality and spirituality have a place in the ageing process?

I will start by presenting the teaching of tantra, and go on to show how it can resolve this oxymoron. I will then go on to show what the Christian dimension also contributes to the issue and how, ultimately the most intense pleasures of sexuality go beyond the categories of youth and age.



  1. The essential requirement

Tantra is commonly misunderstood in the West. The images on the internet give an altogether false impression of the richness of the tantric tradition. While this ‘Californian tantra’ does promote the discovery of a deeper experience of sexuality, it does not explore the possibilities provided by the Kula tradition, which is the most extreme form of tantra.

First of all, the Kula tradition rejects the divisive categories of pure and impure, licit and illicit. It also holds that the divisive concepts of youth and age are irrelevant. Such categories only demonstrate a limitation of consciousness.

In the description of the Kaula tantric ritual, the question is asked about the essential character of the sexual partner. What must she be like? The commentator Jayaratha, who is skillful in explaining the text, quotes poems that describe two types of women. He describes the first as follows:

“Let him, then, bring a sexual partner … her eyes reeling with desire; … her eyes like those of a trembling fawn; … her face, with the lovely charm of the full moon, ravishes the heart; … her speech is beautiful like the many stammering cries of the goose … she dances, she sings and makes cries of pleasure (sīt), she plays and pretends to repulse a lover’s caress; … she is the sexual partner, the enchantress, …”[3]

Then he presents an altogether different type of woman, far more demure.

“She virtuous, obedient to her teacher’s command; her speech is agreeable, her form is pleasing, she is placid, free from attachment; … she abhors nothing, she is clearly wise; … her smile is beautiful; very affectionate and modest, she always attends to the well-being of guests; … she is unsullied, without ego; … she is truly content in all circumstances … “[4]

Jayaratha then gives a quote that expostulates

A sexual partner with [all the qualities] listed in that way is unobtainable.”[5]

and so introduces Abhinavagupta’s teaching:

“The characteristic quality of a Śakti is that she is in no way separated from him who possesses her. Let him, therefore, bring [a śakti] of this sort, but without regard to castes etc.”[6]

The crucial description of the sexual partner is that she is “is no way separated from him”. She is fully united to him. Note that Abhinavagupta, who is writing one thousand years ago sees things from a male perspective. We need to add that the male is also in no way separate from the female.

He adds without regard to castes etc.” Given the divisive nature of the caste system in his day as in our own, the unity is set at the most sublime level. Jayaratha explains that “the word ‘etc.’ implies all the characteristics such as youth and so on.”[7]

Thus the most extreme of the tantric rituals is properly practiced between a man and a woman without regard to age, beauty, caste etc. as long as they are completely united.

The tantric ritual, therefore, is not concerned with the excitement of youth or the advntages of wealth or social status. It focuses on the innermost quality of soul.

Is this just a case of ‘sour grapes’, claiming that youth is not the goal and purpose of existence? Is it just make-believe, a process of denial? Is it a really just envy and jealousy, desire and frustration, regret and pining for the good old times?

  1. The signs

The issue of pleasure is tackled by another set of teachings from Abhinavagupta.

He speaks of the various signs of the śaktipāta, the descent of the energy of the goddess into the practitioner.

Entering – as a result of a descent of energy classified as intense etc. – into the mind, space, subtle-breath, internal and external bodies of the student who is being cleansed by her, the rudraśakti produces the following respective results: bliss, lightness, trembling, sleep and a reeling in the body.[8]

Abhinavagupta teaches that there are various levels of being, listed in descending order as “mind, space, subtle-breath, internal and external bodies”. In this system, the higher levels such as ‘mind’ are the source of the lower levels such as ‘body’. The divine energy produces different effect at these different levels, which Abhinavagupta lists respectively as “bliss, lightness, trembling, sleep and a reeling in the body”. In the external body there is the spectacular effect of “reeling”, while in the mind the effect is “bliss’. In other words, the more eye-catching effects are found in the more external aspects of the person. While the ‘reeling’ is visible, the ‘bliss’ is not, except for those who can see, for the blissful perceive bliss. Therefore for those whose attention is focussed on the external body only, there may seem to be no value in the experience of bliss. The orgy, which is enticing to many, and is transformed in some modern views into sacred ritual, is concerned with spectacular mind-blowing experiences. The most extreme tantra, however, is concerned with bliss.

The word for ‘bliss’ in Sanskrit, ānanda, is supremely significant since it refers to what the god and the goddess experience in their lovemaking. It is pleasure at the divine level. The supreme reality in fact consists of the god and goddess united in an everlasting intercourse whose earthly counterpart is the union of the couple.

Is our modern attitude completely focused on the visible and the physical, and therefore on the spectacular, on film stars and athletes? While this is not to be

rejected, of course, it does not represent the highest form of experience, which is that of ānanda.

The aim of modern tantra is to experience intense physical and emotional and spiritual pleasure and so to open up the consciousness and come to an awareness of one’s identity as god and goddess united in intercourse. However, it presumes that this means starting from the lower and moving to the higher. This paper questions this presumption, which seems to be fixed in the modern mind.

  1. The levels of consciousness

What then is consciousness? In the teaching of Kashmir Shaivism there are five levels.

The level is jāgrat, which is the objective level of consciousness, that level which everyone sees. It is the domain of public knowledge, the evidence that can be proven in court and demonstrated in the sciences. It is the level of visibility. In the West this form of knowledge counts as real; the rest is fabulation.

In Kashmir Shaivism and in Hindu thought generally, jāgrat is the least valuable in terms of coming to true self-knowledge. More significant is the level of svapna, ‘dreaming sleep’. Modern psychology would now agree, since it is in dreams that the true psyche of the person becomes evident. The public persona can be a mask that hides the real self.

The third stage is suṣupta, ‘deep sleep’, which has no dreams and which touches on the very nature of the person. It is the mind of the new-born child, indeed of the foetus, before any impressions have come from outside to orient the developing consciousness and so to limit its universal plasticity. ‘Deep sleep’ is used in re-birthing techniques where the patient can go back before any trauma, and start again, so to speak. The suṣupta is at the level of essential human nature.

Lovemaking employs these three levels. The couple ‘sleep together’. This use of language is interesting, for it shows that the couple, by their outer activity eventually come to unite in a place beyond action, beyond sensation, beyond thought, beyond dreams, where they form one mind and heart together. Their love-making moves from the outer levels to the very essence of their being.

According to Kashmir Shaivism, there are two further levels, tūrya and tūryātīta. The level of tūrya, is the level of the divine goddess from whom all reality proceeds. The couple is the result of the goddess’s freedom. In other words their union is ‘made in heaven’ and takes them to heaven itself. In their union they experience the divine intercourse of the god and the goddess.

The final level, tūryātīta, is that of Śiva, the god, supreme consciousness with whom the goddess is in undivided union.

In other words, the most profound experience of sexuality is not in the visible but in the invisible, not in the outer activity but the inner experience, not just at the human level but at the divine level also. If sexual activity does not lead to this point it remains unsatisfying.

  1. Three levels of being

There are the three levels of sthūla, sukṣma and para. The term sthūla (‘gross’) refers to the visible objective world, the material, outer level of things. The term sukṣma (subtle) refers to level of the emotions, knowledge, reason and so on. The term para (‘supreme’) refers to heaven itself. The famous psychologist Carl Jung could speak of the first two, but he says “I do not speak of the parā aspect because that is what Professor Hauer calls the metaphysical I must confess that there the mist begins for me – I do not risk myself there.”[9] The parā level was beyond the level of the archetypes which are Jung’s focus. The divine level is experienced; it is not captured by the categories of the mind.

In short, the teaching of the tantric tradition is that Kaula lovers experience the most intense pleasure, the divine bliss, which has nothing to do with social status, age and beauty. By their Kaula ritual they are taken into the divine state and experience the eternal love-making of the divine couple. All other forms of love-making are assessed according to this ultimate stage. All other love-making is a lesser form of this highest loving.


  1. The teaching of St Paul

The scene now shifts to the Christian dimension.

St Paul says

11”When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”[10]

This can be expanded to read, ‘when I was a youth I thought like a youth, but now that I am old, I put an end to youthful ways.’ St Paul could say that the point of youth, indeed the point of lovemaking, is to go beyond all limitations to achieve what is most intense, most sublime, most powerful, lasting and total.

In fact, he says:

12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.[11]

The purpose of sex is not just procreation or pleasure but also divinization, where ‘I know as fully as I am known’, where subject and object are one.


TEXT 1           Youth

The couple, therefore, progress through various stages. There is, in adolescence, the wakening to the world of sex, falling in love with the possibility of love. People must have their fill of the sparkle of youth. To refuse it is a mistake, for if they do not enjoy the outer element of things, their progress to the more intense state will not take place. There will be a hidden regret, unfinished business, and a longing for what was not experienced. Youth must be youthful. But youth is also the road to more intense feelings, which are less spectacular but more fulfilling. If sexuality is experienced only in a youthful manner, it will not satisfy since the person has greater capacities that need to be fulfilled as well. Love, which remains only at the physical level, is counterproductive. Love, which penetrates to the soul, is enriching. Those who refuse this experience of penetrating to the soul will in fact find themselves becoming shallow.

A quotation provided by Jayaratha is relevant here:

“When the lower states move to a higher level,          … [there is] an acquisition of knowledge. And the states which are in the higher circle, if they go to a lower level, then there is possession by a Piśāca [demon]…”[12]

The rising is a penetration to the soul, to the inmost being, where the couple can be fully united. This process is not easy. Hinduism, like every other religious system, holds that the spiritual path also involves a time of testing, or tapas. A Sanskrit term, which can be translated as ‘austerity’. It is connected with the word for ‘heat’. The time of austerity increases the fire and the fervour.

  1. St John of the Cross

This path of rising to a higher level can be linked with the process of the dark nights mentioned by St John of the Cross. These can be set out as follows:

  1. Night of the senses
    1. Active:
      1. purification, mortification of the appetites;
      2. looking at faults and virtues;
    2. Passive:
      1. dryness, distaste, learning to trust;
    3. Night of the soul
      1. Active:
        1. purification through the theological virtues of faith, hope and love;
      2. Passive:
        1. night of intelligence – “faith only”
        2. night of memory     – “hope only”
  • night of the will     – “thy will be done”


At the first stage in the spiritual journey, there is excitement at finding a path that gives so much joy and fulfilment. In terms of the couple this could be related to the time of courtship and honeymoon, where strong bonds are forged and the couple do already experience transcendent bliss, and do become images of the divine. It is a time of the discovery of their wonder, each of the other, of their complementarity and fulfilment. They allow each other to see their inner person; they open the windows of their souls and show their beauty. There is already a taste of the Godhead, but it can be developed.


TEXT 3           Active and Passive Night of the senses

This time of joyful beginning is followed by a time of purification where the lovers learn to live together and to give up any annoying aspects of their personality. It is the ‘active night of the senses’.

There is also the ‘passive night of the senses’ where God is the agent, and things happen by the gift of grace alone. The excitement and pleasure of earlier times lose their novelty. The ‘honeymoon period’ is over. It is a time of testing, which not all survive, especially if they are mindlessly attached to the sensations of lovemaking and do not seek a deeper relationship. It is a difficult time for the couples, especially if they are misled by the images of love that are one-sidedly emphasised in the media.


TEXT 4           Active and Passive Night of the soul

But there is further stage of testing, called ‘the dark night of the soul’. In the ‘active stage’ of dark night of the soul, the lovers are increasingly transformed by the qualities of faith, hope and love. They place their faith in each other, totally, trusting each other, appreciating each other, believing in each other, knowing the quality of each other’s soul, learning to perceive each other with complete clarity, seeing the depths that they have attained, the strength of their commitment. They hope in each other, looking forward to the capacities that are coming to the surface, infinitely patient with each other, knowing that the true self is being revealed. They love the other with the full passion of their soul, with their very substance. They are willing to die for each other. They love each other’s love; they want only their love. As a result every action, every word, and every touch become charged with meaning.

They become faith, hope and love, and give each other the title ‘love’. St Bernard of Clairvaux says:

“Love is self-sufficient; it is pleasing to itself and on its own account. Love is its own payment, its own reward. Love needs no extrinsic cause or result. Love is the result of love, it is intrinsically valuable. I love because I love; I love in order to love.”[13]

There is the ‘passive’ stage where God is the agent, and things happen by grace alone. On this John of the Cross writes:

  • “‘Night’ is where the real change in the person occurs.”
  • “The soul must enter into the tomb of hidden death if the spiritual resurrection which it awaits is to come about.” (Dark Night II, 6)
  • “Nothing is worth a single act of faith made in dryness.”
  • “Faith, where we love God without understanding him ….” (Spiritual Canticle)
  • The will adheres to God “in emptiness and in the absence of emotions”;



TEXT 5           This affects their whole person,

It is at this final stage, that their love has reached its fullness. Their love has grown and has become firm and reliable, dependable and totally honest. This gives quality and real pleasure. They have no fear; they know they have been tested and have become worthy of each other. They have discovered pools of love they never knew existed. They have discovered that they themselves are each other’s purpose. They know they are each other’s destiny.

They have known the sparkle of youth; they have known the stability of age. They do not reject youth or age; they have been young and now they are old; they are neither young nor old, for they have gone beyond time. They have come to an eternal love, the essence of relationship. They are beautiful, and they know they are truly empowered. As they look at each other, heaven opens its doors, for they manifest heaven to each other. Their every look is conscious, aware, penetrating, attractive, meaningful, a window onto infinity.

The pleasure that is found there is not the same as the pleasure of the beginners’ love, but is more intense, for it touches the deepest level of their being. The couple who have reached this stage look fondly on the joy of a young couple and will be reminded of their own early love, but they also know that the young couple will be tested and hopefully will come to the love that fully satisfies the heart. They are glad they have gone through the testing and have flourished.

These lovers experience the intensity of their relationship. There is a thrill, which is physical, but differently physical from the thrill of youth, for it penetrates to the soul. It touches every fibre of their being, to the very finger tips. It involves their whole history, their memories, the highs and lows of their relationship, the good times and bad, the health and sickness, the troubles and success. The lovers bring heaven and earth together.


Age is no barrier to sexuality; on the contrary in virtue of life’s experience, sexuality acquires its most overwhelming intensity. There is no oxymoron in combining age, sexuality and spirituality. On the contrary, these become identical.

In terms of Kashmir Shaivism the lovers see themselves as Śiva and Śakti. In Christian terms they see themselves as Word and Spirit. In their perfect complementarity they come to know the One from whom all things come. They are complementary to each other, they proceed from the One. They have acquired the divine mind. They come to know the Communion of the Three

[1] Ecclesiastes 12:3, 5-8.

[2] Ecclesiastes 11:9.

[3] Qt.100b.5.

[4] Qt.100b.6.

[5] Jr.100b.7.

[6] TA 29.100b-101a.

[7] Jr.101b.2

[8] 29.207-208.

[9] C. G. Jung, The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, Sonu Shamdasani (ed.), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. pp. 6-7.

[10] 1 Cor 13.11.

[11] 1 Cor 13:12.

[12] Qt.239b.1.

[13] The Divine Office, Vol.3. Sydney: E.J. Dwyer, 1973. pp.204*-206*.

About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
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