MISA’s teachings may appear new and shocking but they are based on ancient doctrines such as Chinese alchemy, Tantra, and Western Esotericism.
by J. Gordon Melton*
*Transcript of a speech at the webinar of April 27, 2022, introducing Massimo Introvigne’s book “Sacred Eroticism: Tantra and Eros in the Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (MISA).” The spoken style has been preserved.
I have read Massimo Introvigne’s book “Sacred Eroticism: Tantra and Eros in the Movement for Spiritual Integration into the Absolute (MISA)” (Milan and Udine: Mimesis International, 2022), as a historian. I am familiar with MISA and its legal and other problems over the years.
MISA is being dismissed as a new, non-traditional, and less than serious religious community. It has been argued that it is not even a religious community at all, but a secular group that is presenting its teachings with a religious façade, so that it can practice anti-social activities under the guise of a religion, and thus, get away with them because of our love for religious freedom.
At its worst, MISA would be dismissed as a sex cult, at best as a group living under the shadow of its founder, wishing to spread sexual immorality under various pretexts.
As I approached MISA, I see it is somewhat different, in fact almost completely different. It has adopted and propagates some very ancient religious ideas, actually drawing teachings from three older traditions that have been amalgamated into one. These three traditions are South-Asian Tantric teachings, Chinese alchemical teachings, and Western Esotericism.
Chinese alchemy is characterized by a search for immortality, which takes an immediate kind of emphasis upon the extension of life, doing things that will prevent practitioners from losing their life energy. Its techniques should allow them to grow and accumulate life energy, as this would be a major step toward immortality.
Chinese alchemy, of course, has become known for its search for the Elixir of Life and magic pills for immortality. We have heard of the many attempts it has made to extend the life of emperors by giving them a magic pill that in fact, soon after it was taken, killed the emperor, because it contained poisonous mercury.
Less understood were its teachings about sexuality, in which a variety of sexual practices were offered to followers that attempted to preserve their energy. This included practices in which males had sexual relations with females but did not ejaculate.
Chinese alchemy was eventually introduced into the West, and had the first community that followed it in the early mid-nineteenth century in upstate New York, in a place called Oneida. The Oneida Community practiced a form of community marriage. All the men were married to all the women, and they had a system by which sexual relations were formed. Now, obviously, the problem they had was that if everybody was going to having relations with everybody else, what do you do with the children and the pregnancies that arrive? How do you guarantee legitimacy, so to speak?
Their answer was to adopt a form of Chinese alchemy they called “male continence.” The community continued with this system for over three decades, and they had less than half a dozen mishaps during this time. They had children that were born to the community over this time period, but these were planned births. They deviated from the order intentionally, and actually wanted these children. They also had a small number of children who were born through mishaps in their practice. That is to say, the Oneida teachings constituted a very effective system. It became very popular beyond the community, it was passed through the literature, and has fit into the teachings that MISA has adopted.
Possibly more important for MISA, however, is the Tantric system from South-Asia, Shaivite Tantra which took its own form in Buddhism, primarily in Tibet, and was concerned much more with enlightenment than with immortality.
The goal of the Tantrics was to find enlightenment—a very popular pursuit throughout what today is India. Most people pursued enlightenment through a form of denial. They denied the things of the world, which they considered as obstacles to enlightenment.
The Tantrics took quite an opposite position, saying “Let’s move through those things that other colleagues are denying, and find enlightenment through them rather than by denying them.”
And, of course, sexuality was a significant part of what Hindu and Buddhist practitioners denied, so the Tantrics learned to practice various forms of sexuality which would assist them in the process of enlightenment.
Finally, in the West, there were forms of esotericism that practiced a “sacred eroticism.” Those forms begin to multiply when esotericism reemerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation’s disruption of the medieval social order, and was given a new birth with the Enlightenment in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In the nineteenth century, it became very much available through ritual magic practices, especially at the end of the century in organizations like the Ordo Templi Orientis, which as we know had its period of fame when its leadership was taken over by a man named Aleister Crowley. Esotericists created their own forms of sexual practices, which were designed especially to mobilize power and allow that power to accomplish magical goals.
So, you have three separate forms of sacred eroticism, and all these contribute to the teachings that have been synthesized by MISA.
The first point I would like to make is that MISA is not a new group that invented a new way to think about sexuality, and to practice forms of promiscuity that are simply designed to oppose the forms that are offered in society. They are rather perpetuating old forms of spirituality that have an erotic element to them. They include the practice of sexuality and eroticism in their various forms, as they pursue their own religious life.
The second observation is that the rebirth of sacred eroticism in the West, in Europe, North America and even, to a certain extent, South America—, has come at a time when individual freedom is being rediscovered, and has been expanding through segments of population that were normally among the slowest to acquire the new freedoms, particularly women. The new sexual freedoms that were being demanded became integrated, over the years, with demands for individual freedom by different elements of the community.
In the late nineteenth century, these new issues centered upon the issues of birth control, of the spread of knowledge about how the body functions during sex, how sex can be enjoyed by all people, and how it can be separated from procreation. That is, people could have sex for goals other than having children.
Those ideas became extremely controversial through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a matter of fact, they still are, and have to do with the ongoing abortion debate here in the USA, and various ideas of sexual politics that are manifesting themselves around the country.
This emphasizes the importance to these notions. Societies—at least in our lifetime, and also in the generations immediately preceding us—have favored policies that they consider support a strong and stable family and limit deviations from monogamous marriage to very specific exceptions, generally in terms of prostitution. On the other hand, societies did not promote or accept forms of reorganizing family life such as the Mormon polygamy system or various kinds of free love. Both religious leaders and political leaders have combined their efforts to attempt to deal with these issues that are constantly before us.
These two notions, I would suggest, provide a philosophical base to the kind of actions that are being taken against MISA, and help us to understand why there has been such a vehemence directed towards the movement by various governments, including the use of witnesses who offered false testimonies, and promoting social crusades in favor of the dominant idea of morality.
I would affirm both MISA’s credentials as a religious group and MISA’s right to survive.
The context in which this should happen are the ongoing cultural wars we have over sexual behavior and the family.