Certain Daoist and Tantric cultures sought to tap the power of sexuality to cultivate elevated spiritual states of awareness and achieve immortality. These practices appear to have originated in China and India and later spread to Tibet and elsewhere in Asia. Daoism and Tantrism are both experiential approaches to life, and share similar microcosmic-macrocosmic theories of the human body as an inner mirror of outer Nature. The body-centered cosmology of each has led to a spectrum of sexual practices that range from ritualized physical sexual intercourse to celibacy accompanied by conscious subtle-body lovemaking.
Both posit a multi-dimensional universe governed by divine, all pervading polar energies identified in Tantra as Shakti-Shiva deities or in Daoism as the yin-yang forces of Heaven and Earth. These polar forces arise from a mysterious non-dual unity, whose dance within the physical plane follows a five-fold pattern of harmony governed by five families of deities or five phase principles. Both offer alchemical maps, often hidden within mandalas interiorized within the body – yantras in Tantra and I Ching (Yijing) patterns in Daoism – that can be fully understood only by the initiated adept. These subtle body maps allow the adept to navigate the apparent chaos of conflicting physical and sexual desires to find the way to the true self at the still center of the drama of creation. Despite these underlying similarities in their cosmology, the Tantric and Daoist methods of sexual cultivation, both physical and subtle body, are radically different.
Tantrics and Daoists have often assumed the role of rebelling against the prevailing social and sexual values, which were dominated by a strict caste system in India and overtly anti-female values of Confucianism in China. Tantrics and Daoists were also early experimenters with “external alchemy”, the use of mind-altering natural substances to quicken one’s spiritual evolution.