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A Buddhist Perspective on Sexuality

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Buddhism has no issues with sex or sexuality – it's a natural function of the body. There are basic moral guidelines for householders, which are to be kind to one another, not to abuse sex or abuse somebody else: the basis is consenting partners. Then there are renunciant guidelines which are based on celibacy. For a Theravadin monastic, complete celibacy is required: sexual intercourse is a disrobing offence and masturbation is a very serious offence.


Training the mind

In the monastery I live in, part of the training is to go on alms-round or begging for food that we can eat that day. In Asia this would be done every day early in the morning by the whole community. In the UK it's usually done in pairs standing outside or near a supermarket on the local high street. We can't ask, we just have our bowls and our eyes downcast, silent but receptive. So what I do is watch the mind and the interaction between mind and society and my own personal conditioning. So there I am watching myself, listening, attentive, looking at feet really, small or big, and at shoes. I watch my mind create the person. A petite little pair of shoes, stockings, ah woman! And then on another occasion I would watch my eyes move, I call it tracking, something from afar moves, the eyes move first (periphery vision), then head moves, mind moves, legs – woman in mini-skirt, mind moves – lust, desire ... and then she passes. The mind still goes on, and then the lust passes and then after hopefully getting some food and eating, I go back to the monastery. Now if that image was strong, the mind likes to play tricks. It recalls the images and starts to ask the question, well, she could have been the one, you should have, she might have, and so on.


Maybe reading this you are thinking that this is a bit sadomasochistic, but the essence of Buddhism is to understand, to know the way things are. It is getting a perspective on the very natural bodily functions and seeing them for what they are. This perspective is so that we don't get unnecessarily manipulated by these energies. For example, you see an advert with a scantily clothed woman or man selling something, and you get drawn in. This is not a moral judgement about scantily clothed people, it's the ignorance of the manipulation that is the problem. It's like puberty, this happens to you regardless of what religion, background or society you come from. It happens to you and you can let it overtake you, or you can try and get some perspective on it, understand it, learn to flow with it, rather than get caught up in it.


So if sex is natural, why not follow it? Why be celibate?

In Asian thought, the force or energy of sex is used for the spiritual journey. This is where it gets a bit technical because some Buddhist sects say that you can use sexual relationships in what are called tantric practices and the other sects say you need to sublimate it; use the energy in a different way – for example, unconditional love. The tantra form of sex requires no emission of fluids, that is, you use your mind to control your bodily functions. The point of it is to understand the union between partners, the experience of unity – divinity – oneness. As I've not practised this I can't tell you more. Tantra is open to so much abuse you need a very wise teacher to practise it. The celibate way is to understand the energies within oneself, which have a female and male quality, and use them to free yourself from them. This is not suppression it's a way of really getting to know what sex, sexuality and intimacy are.

There are so many questions and issues about sex and sexuality. Are male and female equal? Is oral or anal sex okay? Should same-sex relations be allowed? Confusions exist between personal love and unconditional love, intimacy and healthy boundaries, craving and contentment. The reason Buddha – which means to be awake – did not focus his energy on this is that these are conventions or concepts. They all involve a sense of self and Buddhism is about being free from self – not getting rid of it but knowing it.

So how can you be awake to self?

The best way is to start to explore what self is, what is sexuality, both in an educational and spiritual way? For example, if you have a strong reaction to homosexuals, notice that there is firstly a sense of self, then a belief, based on what? And so on. Buddhism empowers you to explore these issues. Why might you feel guilty about sex? What is moderation in sex? What is abusive? Why is it that we can't use the proper words for our genitals in public? The way we compartmentalize people – 'nice legs'. Have you ever noticed that you cannot see your bum with your eyes directly – so how do you know it exists?

There are so many social/cultural/political taboos about sex, some probably based on ideas of protecting children from incest and others based on puritanical ideas. In Buddhism your original nature, your true self is pure, is innocent, and nobody can take that away from you. What you do with your actions comes from a cause and will have an effect. By having an appreciation of this you can moderate/understand what you do and then see how to behave. As a celibate monk I have really come to appreciate and understand sexual energy, noticing how it arises and ceases, how it can lead to different mental states and start a cycle of sexual fantasy, which distracts you from the here and now. As with all the Buddha's teaching this is for investigation by yourself, to be considered based on intellectual knowledge and silent witnessing.


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