A critic of the thesis that asceticism and celibacy are central to mysticism might well turn for support to the Buddhist and Hindu tantras, whose practices often are assumed to involve ‘sex in the service of enlightenment’. I will attempt to show that the issue is not nearly so simple, by demonstrating the ambiguity of sexual imagery in Buddhist tantric texts and the historical ambivalence of the tantric tradition itself regarding the place and meaning of sexuality. After presenting three highly encoded ‘performance-songs’ (caryāgīti) of the Indian Buddhist adept Kāṇha (11th century), I will discuss the nature of interpretation in the tantric tradition, then the various ways in which the sexual imagery in Kāṇha’s performance songs may be read. There appear to be at least four possible levels of interpretation: (1) literal, where sexuality is overt, (2) symbolic, where the surface sexuality is a metaphor for certain meditative achievements, (3) ‘higher’ literal, where the symbolized meditative achievements are actualized by ritual sexuality, and (4) yogic, where sexual rites are revealed to entail sublimation rather than indulgence, asceticism rather than eroticism. By way of conclusion, I will address some possible criticisms of my analysis, and suggest broader comparative issues arising from it.