Tantric teachings are layered onion style because existence is layered, onion style.
Tantra recognises no distinction between worldly and spiritual endeavor. One's whole life is the path, no part excepted. No need to renounce sex, power or money. Existence can provide the necessary lessons, trials, hardships and challenges in the worldly context at least as effectively as in a monastic setting.
Truth is one. The ways of approaching it are many.
In Tantra, three main archetypes, directions of approach, are known: The paths of Celibate, Householder and Tantrika. Which one is appropriate to you at any point in time, is probably the one you are doing. This distinction of directions is more about where a student is coming from than where he is going. None of them is inherently superior. All lead to the same truth.
In Christendom, celibacy is more or less synonymous with chastity. Chastity basically means no sex.
Celibacy, in the tantric context means unmarried. Just that. Nothing about regularity or irregularity of sexual activity implied. Celibates are unmarried.
The celibate has particular emphasis on her beloved being existence itself. A celibate does not make demands on a lover's availability, and is not open to demands on her availability.
Refusing the paradigm of marriage and relationship, refusing to own or be owned, the celibate becomes richly aware of the expectations and beliefs inherited from parents and culture.
Living through times of lovers and times of no lovers with no attitude of ownership forces one to face one's fears, limiting beliefs and habits without the luxury of having someone else to blame.
Relating to every lover as a gift from the beloved, from existence itself, challenges one to experience them deeply. It challenges one to engage to one's full depths and capacity. There is no sense in holding back, reserving intimacy, when the beloved is there. Adept celibates enjoy the kind of intimacy that can result from 5 years of marriage… on a first date.
The greatest danger to a celibate is using their celibacy as a way to avoid intimacy, depth and emotions. Keeping encounters with lovers shallow in a counter-productive attempt to avoid pain.
The householder's focus is relationship. Whatever the particular relationship form, it has rules, guidelines and a concept of ownership.
The householder explores the truth of attachment, need and ownership through the context of relationship.
The form of a householder's relationship can be conventionally monogamous, poly, open, swinging, gay, hetero or any other variant. However it looks, though, those involved in the relationship agree to rules and guidelines.
The rules of relationship, whatever they are, can teach external, then internal honesty. Submitting to the constraints of relationship with sincerity can ready one for the far greater submission to existence itself.
Householders also often raise children, which is one of the most intensive ways to learn the truths of love.
Relationship is a kind of training wheels for love. Learning to love one person can be far harder than loving an abstract notion like Humanity, or … Relationship. When love worthy of the name happens, the koan of the relationship is answered.
The path of the householder benefits from experimentation/renegotiation between forms of relationship and sexual skills/energy development. The greatest danger is preferring comfort to totality.
The tantrika's path is the direct exploration of the lessons of tantra, overlapping learning from teachers with learning by teaching.
Tantrikas seldom agree to monogamy, and when they do, their intention is either to complete the relationship dramas they inherited from their own parenting or to help the partner with that work. Sometimes both.
Wherever they are, and whatever they are doing, they are always in school. Always deliberately learning.
Tantrikas experiment in their own lives, trying out ideas like ownership and freedom, living at various times in communality, alone and with partner(s). Their loyalty is always to what they can learn, not to the context in which they find the lesson.
One of a tantrika's particular challenges is discerning between their own current highest understanding, that which they just glimpse – and things they know well, and can usefully teach. Another is teaching that which is easy, comfortable or profitable for too long, thus losing their own momentum.
Much of the acceleration of a tantrika's path comes from her willingness to help others. The emphasis of the tantrika is to love existence in meaningful and practical ways. The heat and pressure of this path is the experience of teaching that which one needs to learn – learning by helping.
Commonalities and differences
Most tantric paths fit one of these descriptions, at least for major stretches of their journey. Existence, however has no rigid distinctions. Some tantrikas really look like householders. Some celibates look a lot like tantrikas, some householders seem more celibate than the celibates.
In all cases, the inevitable restrictions and restraints of the path(s) chosen are used as a heat, a pressure, an acceleration and refinement of awareness.
None of them is inherently superior or faster than the others. None of them penetrates to greater truths or produces greater gurus than any other.
There is no choice to make. It is a calling kind of thing. Call it the predestined part of your existence. The choice you have is, as always, to dance with it and welcome it, or endure it in fighting and frustration.
I am perhaps a bit known for harping on about the harshness of the path, so this time, I will try to end things sweetly.
Each path has it's own particular delight. Celibates celebrate freedom. Householders celebrate connection. Tantrikas celebrate celebration, then start planning a workshop on celebration.