Watching the moon
I knew myself completely,
no part left out.
Surprisingly, the first dharma talk I heard about sex was one that I gave four years ago. Having only heard sex discussed in terms of taking the precepts before or after retreats, I began to wonder about the place of sexuality in Buddhist history, culture and the lives of practitioners. My research revealed a rich diversity of rules, guidelines, customs, stories and expressions of human sexuality.
This article will present a glimpse of sexuality across multiple traditions drawing from Buddhist myths, legends, poetry, teachings, sutras and vinaya, as well as contemporary encounters between Buddhism and sexuality. This presentation reflects my own view about the integration of sexuality and practice for laypeople, the spirit of which is expressed in “no part left out.”
Most renditions of the life of the Buddha leave sex and sexuality out. Traditional texts say that the Buddha was born of an immaculate conception, descending from the Tushita heaven into his mother’s womb. When she discovered she was pregnant, she asked to take the Eight Precepts, which included the precept of celibacy. Commentaries make it clear that for the mother of the Buddha to be sexually active would be wrong.2
At the Buddha’s birth a wise man foresaw his future and told the king: “He will either become a great king, or be a great spiritual teacher.” Wanting Gautama to follow in his footsteps, his father schemed to keep him home by surrounding him with sensual and sexual pleasures.
It’s said the king had a special chamber of love constructed for Gautama decorated with erotic art and illuminated with subdued light. . . . Captivated by sexual extravagance, the prince spent his days and nights in continual dalliance, experiencing every imaginable sensual delight of heterosexual intercourse.3
As a prince, Gautama gratified his senses through food, art, performance, alcohol and sexuality. Apparently, this was not an uncommon lifestyle for an Indian prince at that time. Yet most descriptions of his life leave this out.
In the traditional teaching, Gautama’s encounter with the four heavenly messengers—someone who’s ill, who’s old, who’s dead, and a renunciate—is what impelled him to reject his life of opulence and indulgence and pursue awakening. But an alternative version of the story emphasizes his sexual life: He awakened from a troubled sleep following a frenzied orgy. Looking at the tableau of naked and disheveled bodies increased his anxiety. Perceiving the flaws of his companions, he experienced a meaninglessness that illuminated the vacuity of his life of excess. Gautama vowed to flee the “golden cage” that night and seek awakening.4 In this story we can feel the sense of “Enough!” We can taste the dissatisfaction with the lack of lasting pleasure, and we can see how such experiences become the impetus for seeking freedom.
Leaving the palace and his life of indulgence, Gautama shifted dramatically from pro-sensuality to antisensuality. He adopted a fierce asceticism, believing that denying the pleasures of the body would lead to freedom. Ultimately, he discovered the fruitlessness of his extreme renunciation as he neared death. Realizing he needed to eat, he accepted milk from a milkmaid. This marked the Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Path, a more integrated understanding of the place of bodily life within spirituality. Preceded by a more compassionate relationship to the body his liberation unfolds.
After the Buddha awakened and began to teach, a community formed around him. Initially, there were no rules of conduct. He quickly learned that rules helped to create cohesive community and optimal conditions for enlightenment, and he began making rules in response to inappropriate or unskillful action. The rules, or vinaya, tell us about the behavior of the early sangha.
The first rule—“No sexual intercourse!”—was followed by “No foreplay!” After a time came “No sex with animals!” Eventually there were rules against having sex with corpses, pieces of fruit and even mud.5
Imagine being a youth, late teens to early twenties, full of hormones, excited about the dharma, but perhaps excited about other things, too! Imagine how difficult it would be to live in the woods with nothing to do but . . . meditate. They were trying to be celibate but not succeeding. Hence the rules.
In one story a monk, Udayan, was dressing with his ex-wife, who had become a nun. He became aroused and ejaculated into his robe. She cleaned his robe and wiped it between her legs to dry. She got pregnant. There was no rule against what they did; however, a new rule resulted. Monks and nuns shouldn’t be alone together. Udayan was punished for not cleaning his own robe, since there was a rule against that.6
To support the “dharma and discipline” the Buddha could be a strict teacher. One of the most controversial lines in the Pali Canon has to do with sexuality. Disciplining one of the monks, he said: “It is better that your penis enters the mouth of the poisonous snake or a burning pit of blazing coals than it enter a woman’s vagina.”7 Some Buddhist scholars dispute whether these are the Buddha’s own words or were added later. But we do know that some in the monastic tradition hold a strong “warrior” attitude toward sexual longing: it is to be subdued or conquered.
Ajahn Chah described battling with sexual desire as a young monk in the forest:
Regardless of the position walking or sitting that I took in meditation, an image of the female genitals kept appearing. Lust was so strong that it almost overwhelmed me. . . . I had to struggle, had to fight off the intense feelings and images. . . . [I]t was impossible to do walking meditation, as the penis became sensitive when it came into contact with the robe. I requested a walking meditation tract to be made deep in the forest, where I could not be seen. In the dark forest I rolled up my lower robe all the way to the waist, tied it and kept it up with my walking meditation. I battled the defilement for ten days before the lust and the images died down and disappeared.8
So why did the Buddha demand celibacy from his sangha if sexuality is normal or natural? In my research I found several reasons. One reason is to create a uniform community. Abstaining from sex sets the sangha, as a community, apart from “householder” life. With sex come the responsibilities of intercourse—children, family and marriage. Buddha was encouraging people to become homeless, to let go of everything. A second reason for the rules against sexual activity was to remove everything that impeded inner development and progress, to realize selflessness and to let go. Sexuality became something else to let go of. A third reason was to use the energies, the vitality of sexuality, toward awakening.
The Buddha gave his followers three basic guidelines about working with sexuality:
Unlike the teachings for monastics, sexual activity was included as a normal part of lay life and practice. While sex, commerce and the handling of money were forbidden to the robed sangha, householders were encouraged to engage in the world in a conscious and virtuous way. The principles of nonharming were to be applied to sexual expression, so the Five Precepts prohibited the misuse of sexuality along with killing, stealing, wrong speech and the use of intoxicants.
The Mahayana and Vajrayana streams of Buddhism offer different perspectives on sexuality and practice. Sex is considered one of the energies of life, part of practice, an expression of dharma. One Zen teacher said: “In order to know the way and in perfect clarity, there is one essential point you must penetrate and not avoid, the red thread of passion that cannot be severed. Few face the problem, and it is not at all easy to settle. Address it directly without hesitation, for how else can liberation come?”10
The red thread of passion is our sexuality, the eros of life. The quirky, iconoclastic tradition of Zen includes monks who enact their sexuality and celebrate their experience in poetry. The great rogue and revered Zen master Ikkyu wrote,
Rinzai’s disciples never got the Zen message,
but I the blind donkey know the truth.
Love play can make you immortal
The autumn breeze of the single night of love
is better than 100,000 years of sterile sitting meditation.11
Ikkyu writes with humor, irony and passion about sexuality. In juxtaposition to the Buddha’s verses of admonition, Ikkyu praised lovemaking and wrote poems honoring genitalia.
A Man’s Root
Eight inches strong, it is my favorite thing.
If I am alone at night, I embrace it fully.
A beautiful woman hasn’t touched it in ages.
Within my underwear, there is an entire universe.12
A Woman’s Sex
It has the original mouth but remains wordless.
It is surrounded by a magnificent mound of hair.
Sentient beings can get completely lost in it
But it is also the birthplace of all the Buddhas of the 10,000 worlds.13
Ikkyu was renowned not only for his sexual bravado but also his uncompromising Zen, unattached to form, institution and position. Even so, at the end of his life he was asked by the Zen hierarchy to become the abbot of the most prestigious monastery in Japan.
Mahayana Buddhism extols the bodhisattva archetype. A bodhisattva is devoted to awakening for the benefit of all beings. The bodhisattva ideal is considered best represented by a layperson, living in the world, bringing wisdom and compassion into the conventional life of being human—“no part left out.”
Vimalikirti, a famous lay bodhisattva feared by Buddhist monastics, challenged them to join him in the wine shop and the brothel. He discounted meditative detachment in favor of engaged, worldly non-attachment. Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, states directly, “Without entering the ocean of desire it is impossible to obtain an illumined mind.”14
In the Mahayana, compassion rather than abstinence becomes the overarching guideline in working with the energies of sexuality. One Zen story tells of an old woman in China who fed and housed a monk for twenty years. She decided to test his realization by sending a beautiful young woman, “rich in desire,” to him. The old woman told the girl: “Go embrace him and ask him suddenly, ‘What now?’” When she did so, his response was, “An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter. Nowhere is there any warmth.”
When the old woman learned of his response, she said: “To think, I fed that fellow for twenty years. He showed no consideration for your need. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he could have evidenced some compassion.” She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.15
With the development of the bodhisattva ideal, we also find women, not only as monastics but as poets, who emphasize the unity of spirituality and sensuality. Izumi Shikibu was known for her “spiritual consciousness and her intense eroticism.” Her under-standing of the dharma was expressed in beautiful, erotic poetics. Using a language of rich sensuality, she illuminated the teaching of impermanence:
The one close to me now,
even my own body,
these two will soon become clouds
floating in different directions.16
In the Vajrajana, the practice of tantra similarly reflects the idea “no part left out.” Tantric teachings understand the so-called defilements as energies that can be used in the services of awakening. This appreciation of the energies of eros used toward awakening is expressed by the Sixth Dalai Lama: “If one’s thoughts towards the dharma were of the same intensity as those of love, one would become a Buddha in this very body in this very life.”17
Some tantric texts begin with this statement: “Thus have I heard, when the Buddha was reposing in the vagina of his consort he delivered this discourse.”18 The Buddha is posited as teaching from the place of divine union. This is a long way from likening a woman’s vagina to a poisonous snake.
Buddhist tantra uses the image of male and female in sexual embrace to symbolize the union of wisdom (feminine) and compassion (masculine). In tantra, this union is seldom enacted physically. Practices using vivid imagery of sexuality are generally done through visualization. Only rarely will two practitioners reach a level of maturity where they are given those teachings to enact physically.
As Buddhism entered the West, it has been influenced by Western sensibilities. Suzuki Roshi established the San Francisco Zen Center in the 1960s during the heart of the sexual revolution. He engaged his hippie students with compassion, humor and wisdom regarding sex and sexuality. A student asked: “Roshi, I have a lot of sexual desire. When I sit I just get more sexual desire. I try to concentrate on my practice. I’m thinking of becoming celibate. Should I limit myself in this way?” Suzuki answered: “Sex is like brushing your teeth. It’s a good thing to do but not so good to do it all day long.” To another student who asked: “What is sex?” Suzuki Roshi replied: “Once you say sex, everything is sex.”19
One Zen master in the West had a student who was becoming detached and disconnected. His wife, also a student, complained about his withdrawal and his use of equanimity as a defensive strategy to avoid relating. During one sesshin the teacher gave them a special koan to work with together. “How do you discover the Buddha while making love?” The couple studied their koan many times during the retreat, and it expanded their understanding of what it means to practice the Way.20
During a three-month retreat taught in the U.S. by Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw, one woman asked what he thought about sex. Sayadaw, who was venerated in the Buddhist world, replied, “Sex is base, gross and disgusting.” West meets East! At the end of the retreat, as part of the integration week, the yogis had an evening of skits, songs and poems. This woman did an imitation of Mahasi, responding to the question with: “Sex is basic, engrossing and worth discussing.”21 East meets West!
One of the major encounters between traditional Buddhism and the West has been in relation to homosexuality. Buddhism has the same misunderstanding that many religions traditionally have had regarding homosexuality. Traditional rules hold that sex using the mouth, hands, anus or anything but genital, male-to-female sex is unwholesome. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama upholds these teachings.22
The Insight Meditation Community of teachers issued a statement a few years ago declaring:
[W]e want to state publicly that we understand that the Buddha’s teachings for laypeople do not distinguish heterosexuality from homosexuality. . . . [T]he traditional guideline the Buddha taught for sexual conduct among laypeople, refraining from causing harm to oneself or another, applies universally to all sexual activity. We welcome as the Buddha did . . . all . . . to our teachings and to the practices that liberate the heart.
This statement is not the result of a deeper understanding of Buddhism than that possessed by His Holiness. Rather, it reflects the dialectic between traditional teachings and the best values of our own culture—where the dharma teaching of nondiscrimination meets our more conventional understanding of how discrimination against others causes harm.
Sexuality encompasses a wide continuum of experience and practices: the indulgences of Siddhartha Gautama, the celibacy of the monastic community, the erotic Zen poets. Sexuality includes experiences from the most profound pain to pure bliss. The definition of “normal” differs among cultures and over time, both historically and even within the lifetime of a single person. In our practice we can investigate these instinctual energies to discover what is appropriate, compassionate and liberating.
Part of the promise of practice is that we don’t have to be at the mercy of our sexual longings. The “razor’s edge” allows us to open to our experience without repression or automatic reaction. For some this means an active and wide-awake enacting of their sexuality. Others will express their sexuality within celibacy. Engaging our sexuality fully we rediscover the energy of the life force that moves through us and of which we are an expression. We can recognize sexuality as part of the beautiful eros of life that produces all things: the flowers, the trees, the plants, the animals, humans.
No part left out.
1. The Ink Dark Moon, Jane Hirshfield with M. Aratani.
2. Lust for Enlightenment, John Stevens. (This is derived from the work of John Stevens, to whom this article is indebted. I will cite his work for reference. For those interested in primary sources, please see his footnotes and comprehensive bibliography.)
8. Forest Recollections, Kamala Tiyavanich.
9. Lust for Enlightenment.
11. Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu.
14. Lust for Enlightenment.
15. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps.
16. The Ink Dark Moon.
17. Lust for Enlightenment.
19. Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick.
20. After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield.
21. Private conversation with Jack Kornfield.
22. From Newsweek’s “Lama to the Globe” (August 16, 1999): “Although he has affirmed the dignity and rights of gays and lesbians, he has condemned homosexual acts as contrary to Buddhist ethics.”
I also want to acknowledge the help I received from Pamela Weiss, Andrea Fella and A. J. Kutchins.