I mentioned in a previous post that I had been reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Esalen. I am still reading it–I have started reading it straight through while still dipping in and out of whatever section catches my interest. There are a couple of through-lines that organize a somewhat disparate narrative thread and I want to jot down a few thoughts about one of them: the crossroads of sexuality, liberation, and Tantra.
Kripal highlights the importance of the encounter with Asia and a broadly Tantric stream of spirituality derived from it. I wonder if his discussion of it is skewed a little, though. While a strong connections to specific gurus and traditions in Asia played a key role, the idea of those traditions seemed equally (or maybe even more) important. What Taoism, Tantra, Zen, and Hinduism come to represent for the greater Esalen-California encounterowes much to the associations projected onto them.
This looks syncretic, where the Asian concepts and images give birth to something that is far more, for the lack of a better term, ‘Western’ and perhaps even ‘American.’ Calling the aim of Esalen the formation of a Western Tantra (as Kripal sometimes does) may put too much emphasis on Tantra and not Western. The centrality of eros and sexual liberation at Esalen is salient. While there is a sexual dimension to Tantra, the way in which sexuality comes into play at Esalen seems distinct from that.
My hunch is that this particular spiritual current sits against the broader horizon of industrial culture, that modernization is an integral part of its existence. I suspect that this horizon forms what the critical philosophers might call one if its conditions of possibility, even if the movement transcends those conditions and acquires a future distinct from them.
I don’t want to entirely shelve the question of cultural appropriation, ut the kind of material Kripal describes makes me wonder how often a problematic syncretism forms a more proper response to a spiritual experience than a push toward orthodoxy.