Yab-Yum is a symbol of the tantric union of male and female in Tibetan Buddhism, and literally means “mother-father.” The representations, contrary to popular belief, and also in opposition to the many non-Buddhist workshops that abound, are not primarily sexual in nature, and in fact, tantric deities were not publicly displayed around those who were not initiated. So-called tantric workshops which revolve around sexual play are not Buddhist, and not a formal spirituality, but a sex workshop (not that there is anything wrong with that, just calling it by what it really is.)
In Vajaryana Buddhism the male figure represents the paramita of skillful means, upaya, in union with insight or intuitive realms, prajna, represented by the female; together they embody enlightenment. Tantra practice begins within the practitioners body-mind,and only after years of meditation practice does it evolve into union with another person.
Other common symbols that embody all or part of these principles are the yin-yang symbol (Taoist), the bell and dorje (Tibetan), and certain mandalas or yantras (Buddhist and Hindu.)
Hindu versions are also called “Shiva-Shakti,” and the embracing posture represents the divine creation.
In our Samantabhadra Yab-Yum, below, Buddha is sitting in a lotus posture with his consort on his lap. Other common postures are standing with the dakini (female) wrapped around his waist.
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