The Buddha seems to have seen sex and sexuality as being a big issue, even a problem. He offered one solution to it for those who are prepared to renounce family life — to join a celibate order of men or women. Then you spend most of your time in single sex situations, and when you are with members of the opposite sex, you are very careful because you have taken a vow not to get sexually involved, and if you break that vow you will be thrown out of the monastic order. Of course this does not work so well if you are sexually attracted to members of your own gender, and I will come back to that later.
Some people say that the main reason that the Buddha asked his monks and nuns to be celibate was simply because he wanted them to be free to wander, to practise meditation, to teach the Dharma, without any family responsibilities. In those days, men and women having sex meant almost certainly having children. So for the monks and nuns, sex is not an ethical issue, but it is one of defining the institution of the monastic Sangha. It is a legal point, and even if the sex involves no craving, it is still banned. This is a point made by Janet Gyatso in a survey of sex in Buddhism [in Lopez, Critical Terms in Buddhism, 2005].
If you are not a monk or nun, it would be assumed that you would eventually find a partner and have children, and there is plenty of advice for people in that situation, which I will come on to below. But it is interesting that the Buddha strongly encouraged people, if they could, not to have a family, and devote all their energies to practising and spreading the Dharma. This may be unique amongst the world religions, most of which encourage family life; the Buddhist attitude is called ‘anti-natalism’. People are often shocked when they hear of the Buddha himself leaving home when his son was still a tiny baby.
Nowadays, contraception means that you can be sexually active and still probably not have children, if you want to. So is monastic celibacy a thing of the past? There is a new kind of Buddhist, who David Loy describes as “less than monastic in lifestyle… More devoted to practise than the laity have usually been” [Money, Sex, War, Karma, 2008]. David Loy is an American scholar, and he says that monasticism is not attractive to most Buddhists in America, but many are practising very sincerely. In fact this is the model adopted in the Triratna Buddhist Order, which is described as “neither monastic nor lay”. For example, I am trying my best to be a full-time practitioner and teacher of Buddhism, and yet I do have a partner: and I’m glad to say that she is also very dedicated to her Buddhist practice.
Nevertheless, maybe we should not write off monasticism too quickly. Because I am not celibate, I definitely do feel a tension. Bonding together as a couple is such a strong pull. And in some ways that pull can compete with one’s attempts to have an open network of connections in the Sangha, and to be with one’s own gender. At the moment I’m living alone. But part of me would love to set up a home with my partner, and if we had been younger I expect we would have considered children. Yet I would love even more to set up a men’s community, since we don’t have one in West London where I live.
This is a tension, and of course if you gave up sex altogether, you would have to face other tensions. But as well as tensions there are potential negative difficulties in the Sangha if there are a lot of sexual relationships. Most Sanghas have been affected by this. In the Triratna Order, the founder of the order gave up being a celibate Buddhist monk and started being sexually active. Perhaps inevitably, his love affairs happened mainly with his own disciples, and this has caused some quite serious problems in the order, because it seems quite dangerous for a teacher to be sexually and romantically involved with his own disciples.
Can sex be spiritual?
On the other hand, Miranda Shaw, in her book Passionate Enlightenment says that Tantric Buddhism does not take this view of relationships in the Sangha. Even in the early days of Tantric Buddhism, which started in India about 1500 years ago, most practitioners found a sexual partner, lived a simple village life, made pilgrimages, and meditated intensively. “The seekers pursued a distinctive religious path that finds its most characteristic and nuanced expression in an intimate and sexual relationship.” So a woman alongside a man is (writes Shaw) the ideal Tantric pattern. Tantric practice could only get into the Tibetan monastic system by sublimating the imagery and practices, so that for Tibetan monks and nuns, the sexual themes of Tantric practice are regarded as symbolic.
But for some branches of tantra, sexual activity became a carefully regulated spiritual practice. Before you get too excited about this, I should say that usually it was very important not to come to a climax, and the man had to ensure he did not ejaculate. The intense pleasure had to be let go of, as one saw that like everything else it dissolves into complete openness. The sexual energy was thus supposed to be sublimated into a spiritual energy which brings alive the subtle visionary body of the practitioner. You arouse intense sexual desire, and then try to emulate the spacious calm of Nirvana by not acting on that desire.
Incidentally, Miranda Shaw says that the crucial role of women in the rise of Tantric Buddhism has not been recognized because “the study of other cultures continues to be undertaken from the perspective of providing documentation of the universality of oppression against women” — to legitimate current male dominance. Tantric Buddhism shows a society in which women were not necessarily being oppressed. (Passionate Enlightenment, 195-6.) I will try to publish something on gender in Buddhism soon.
Sexual ethics for those who are sexually active?
Celibacy for monks and nuns is a rule, even a law, to preserve the institution. But if you are not a monastic, is it unskilful to have sex? Skilfulness is the word that applies to ethics in Buddhism. It says that ethics itself is not a matter of rules and regulations, it is a matter of the mental state that your behaviour comes from, and what effects your behaviour has on others. You try to make sure that you act from mental states of love, clarity, stillness of mind, generosity, awareness and so on. And you try to make sure that you bring benefit rather than harm to other people through your actions.
How does sex fit with this? Does sex benefit other people or is it entirely selfish? Can it come from these skilful mental states or can it only come from longing, inner emptiness, frustration and craving? Well, traditional Buddhism definitely sees that sex is a normal part of life, and it tells you about skilful and unskilful sex. The third precept says: “I undertake as a part of my training to abstain from sexual misconduct”. Any sex involving violence or coercion is obviously extreme sexual misconduct. But the most widespread kind is to endanger an existing relationship through your sexual behaviour.
There is no condemnation of sex outside marriage, it’s sex inside marriage when you’re not the married person that is the problem! I mean coming between a committed couple by having sex with one of them. Also being unfaithful to your own partner breaks the third precept. And marriage doesn’t mean having gone through a particular ceremony; it means having made some kind of a commitment to another person, even if it’s only for one night. So it would be sexual misconduct to sleep with someone else who you know had made even the briefest commitment to another partner, because of the hurt and confusion you cause.
The great Buddhist teacher Nargarjuna says: “the pleasure of husband and wife is to be two bodies but one flesh; to take away one who another loves and destroy this deep sentiment is a crime.” (Peter Harvey, Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, 71.) Anyway, it seems quite reasonable to look carefully at your sexual life, and to see whether you can make it less self-centred, and more considerate of your effect on others.
Sex and negative mental states
For myself, I still do come back to this rather uncomfortable question, as to whether it is possible to have sex without unskilful mental states being involved, even if you are being very careful not to hurt the other person. Is sex primarily a selfish activity? That is an excellent introductory book on Buddhism by Roger Corless called The Vision of Buddhism, and he says: “Sex is an all-consuming passion. When we are involved in it our minds become muddy and confused. This precept warns us to watch out for the mental turbulence which often attends sex and, when in doubt, to refrain from it.” He goes on to suggest that ordinary life, with all its wants and fears, which is known as Samsara in Buddhism, is a drug we are addicted to. We can easily mistake a samsaric phenomenon for a means of escaping Samsara, and hence bind ourselves to the decay, disappearance and repetitive meaninglessness of that phenomenon. Perhaps sex can be rather like this. In fact traditionally it is seen as potentially strongly addictive. The middle way is to ask how liable one is to becoming addicted to sex if one indulges in it; remembering that a part of the addiction is denying that we are addicted (delusion, avidya). So strong self-interest, and overpowering craving are things to look out for in sex.
I think even Roger Corless’s view does not go far enough, because sex is not just about the slightly messy and potentially addictive things that go on under the bed covers. It is also about bonding together with another person in a romantic couple relationship. Nowadays we see sex as necessary for happiness, and we expect personal fulfilment through romance and sexual intimacy. Buddhism questions this expectation. It is quite hard to consider the possibility that sex is mainly an appetite driven by biology, not a marvellous and sacred thing! Because my bond with my partner feels unique, it floats me above my isolation, or so it seems. But then very often eventually the relationship is not as satisfying and fulfilling as we expect, and when it goes wrong we become very bitter and disillusioned. In fact, nobody else can make us feel complete. David Loy calls romance a “delusive cycle of infatuation and disappointment followed by a different infatuation” — when we look again for the right person. Of course committed relationships can be a great joy, but it’s important not to expect what they cannot give: they cannot fill our sense of lack. But I do believe that the Buddhist path shows how it is possible to fill that sense of lack in a far more effective way.
Exactly the same points about unskilful sex and the dangers of romantic entanglements apply to homosexual sex. As far as I can see, early Buddhism doesn’t see anything wrong with sexual attraction within one’s own gender. Highly sexed gay men sometimes tried to join the order of monks for the wrong reasons, and there were rules to try to stop that. Later on, different Buddhist schools took different approaches. The Dalai Lama’s school of Tibetan Buddhism, at least in theory, was rather intolerant, but he is very open-minded about talking things through with other people, and gay men and women have talked to him about it, and he feels that his school should relax its position.
I will give the last word to Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Western Tibetan nun, who has no regrets about giving up sex. She loves being a celibate, saying that it avoids the cycle of “clinging, unfulfilled expectation, the pain of separation… [in relationships, where] often, the longing for a companion is a wish to complement one’s missing or undeveloped qualities… Celibacy, on the other hand, represents the decision to rely on one’s own inner authority. It is an attempt to achieve a balance and wholeness within, independent of the feedback of another person…. [and enables one to go beyond sexual attachment,] the major force that propels beings from one rebirth to the next ” (Tsomo, 1988, in Sakhayaditha, 55-6).