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What’s Wrong With Sex? A Buddhist Perspective

What’s Wrong With Sex? A Buddhist Perspective

Scholar and Zen teacher David Loy looks at historical clues from the Buddha’s time to ask: what’s up with all this sex-negativity?

As Buddhism infiltrates the West, one of the important and interesting points of contention is sexuality. Buddhism in Asia has been largely a cultural force for celibacy (among monastics) and sexual restraint, so how is Western Buddhism adapting to the sexual revolution?

Today many people in contemporary Western societies are sexually “liberated” – liberated, however, in a somewhat different fashion than the Buddhist tradition has usually understood liberation. We still have many problems with sex, but nowadays they are less likely to involve guilt and repression than various types of sexual obsession such as addiction to pornography. Since the 1960s, our lifestyles and customs have become very different from those with which patriarchal societies regulated sexual urges – often providing outlets for men while strictly controlling women and procreation. Our culture is saturated with sexuality, not only because sex is commodified in every possible way (being indispensable for grabbing our attention) but also because preoccupation with sexual gratification helps to fill up the void left by the collapse of any larger meaning. The importance of sex has ballooned because we are not sure what else is important in a Godless world that often seems intent on destroying itself.

This is not to demean the pleasures of sex, or the libidinal freedoms we enjoy today. Despite new kinds of social pressure, most of us benefit from many more options. The liberation of sexual preference means that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals can come out of the closet, leading to an important reduction in collective social dukkha. Premarital sex is more or less taken for granted and marriage itself is no longer a matter of course. It has become a decision that many choose not to take, or to take and retake. Thanks to effective contraception, children,, too have become a matter of choice. Some people decry the self-centeredness of those who decide not to raise children and some others decry the self-centeredness of those who do. Yet Buddhism, unique among the major religions, is not pro-natalist. There is no doctrinal encouragement that we should have lots of children, which is another aspect of the Dharma to appreciate, given our overpopulation of the earth. The emphasis on monasticism works the other way, encouraging an alternative to procreation. The Buddha, like Jesus, was not a big proponent of “family values”.

But how does Buddhism fit into our freewheeling ways today? Well, many of us aren’t sure. Western monastics continue to follow the established regulations of their own tradition, or at least appear to do so (like some of their Asian counterparts, no doubt). However, most serious practitioners in the West, and probably in Asia, are lay. Since sexual morality is also a matter of karma rather than God’s commandment – “Do this or else!” – for the most part we continue to do what we want to do. And is there anything wrong with that?

Keep reading the essay (adapted from David’s book, Money Sex War Karma, and published in the journal Sexual and Relationship Therapy) here, and check out David’s web site for more of his writings.

Comments (7)

  • Richard Modiano

    Missing from Dr. Loy’s essay is a consideration of the social-economic function of sexual liberalism. What are the institutional arrangements that encourage and reproduce the emotional belief that sex and romance will fulfill up our sense of lack? How is this related to commodity consumption that also claims to fulfill our sense of lack? And hasn’t sex and romance become commodified?

  • Rachel

    Not sure what David’s answer would be and I think the institution that most encourages the fulfillment of our sense of lack is marriage. Once we’ve found The One, we’ll live happily ever after. This becomes even clearer when we’re not married, as unmarried people are considered somehow deficient – either because we don’t have a partner (“poor them”) or there’s something wrong with us and that’s why we don’t have a partner.

    And while there are direct commodifications of sex and romance (prostitution falls into this, imo), there is a ton of consumption around marriage – from the run-up to the wedding, the wedding itself, and then the consumption expectations afterwards (move into a new place together, preferably a house that requires more furniture).

  • Jacob

    The denial of sex (i.e. celibacy) is as much a preoccupation with sex, I believe, as any normal non-reproductive sexual interrelationships. Sex can be reinforcement of bonding between dedicated, supportive couples, but it can also be equivalent to a drug addiction since it is based on the stimulation of hormones, dopamine, endorphins, adrenalin, etc. in the body. Sexuality and such intimate relations is probably the most intense and extensive source of complications and conditioned suffering for most people, in so many different ways. Of course there is an aesthetic to mating, as with listening (Avalokiteshvara) and this highest intention can be honored and justified.

  • Enji

    I don’t know if Loy is just being careful in a scholarly way, not trying to get to complex in his treatment of the subject, but it seems to me there’s a lot left out of this article.

    If we want to examine the system, I think you’re right, Rachel, we need to look at marriage. Very much bound up in the myth of the one and only is an idea of ownership. This one is MY spouse, MY partner, MY significant other. I think Loy is right in mentioning this: I think the precept about sexuality is about karma and not a prescription. That certainly fits with how I was taught in my Soto Zen Euro-American-centric temple.

    My karma, and my understanding in keeping this precept of not misusing sexuality is deeply accepting and understanding I do NOT own my spouse, and I DO NOT have a place in telling my spouse who he can be intimate with. Nor does he me.

    If my Zen teacher changed his teaching and told me, if you are to keep this precept you must go back to a monogamous lifestyle, I could not. There are too many ways that I find monogamy to be a coercion, and I have found polyamory to be as liberating as Buddhism has been in my life. I don’t expect others to find their karma in this precept in this way, but I would also hope to see more leaders address polyamory, or ethical non-monogamy, with respect to this precept. Perhaps there is nothing more effective in examining the system than stepping outside it. When I became actively polyamorous, I learned a whole lot more about monogamy and how it is simply a form, not necessarily the most virtuous.

    Another thing I see left out is a more sophisticated understanding of the biological role of sex in our full health. Loy mentions the happy brain chemicals, but ties it back to disappointment in the arc of a relationship. As we now do have scientific knowledge of how love chemicals affect our feelings and thoughts, let’s go deeper into discussion of how these affect our understanding of this precept. AND how we can work with them rather than get trapped in dukkha because of them. Here is where we can find true commitment in a relationship…finding it surviving beyond sex and its neurochemicals.

    Loy talks of the benefits of celibacy, and temporary celibacy, when it comes to deepening the practice. How about talking about how they could help deepen the practice? Personally I have found they help me look dukkha straight in the face and understand it, and thus understand how not to get trapped in it. How about talking about how those practices can be detrimental to one’s health? It’s not just about babies. These neurochemicals contribute to our overall health. What about the non-duality of health body equals healthy mind?

    What is wrong with sex? Our deeply ingrained attitudes, I think. Even while he examines the structure with which we view sex in this modern world, Loy reflects it, saying, “but also because preoccupation with sexual gratification helps to fill up the void left by the collapse of any larger meaning.” This judgment buys into a one-track view of sexual gratification. Sex can be life-giving, life-affirming, sacred connection, as well as addictive, yet the focus is only on the addictive aspect. What if it brings meaning rather than simply fills a void?

    I would say, let go and let love, whether sex is involved or not.

  • michelle

    with consistent communication and responsibility for what’s understood and agreed on, there doesn’t need to be so much anguish. Dialogue.

  • Bezi

    and what about Tantra? Not that I think sex is all there is to Tantra. But doesn’t it include spiritual sublimation of sexual impulses with ummm… sexual practices of various sorts?

  • Kurt

    I agree with Enji that it is very easy to assume conventional models for relationships are the only ones available or acceptable. Buddhists can do much more to show how compassion and love, including sexual love, overflows our socially-conditioned models for personal relationships. We need a broader discussion of how and when relationship styles are compassionate and when and how they may be harmful. Like with so many moral decisions the conclusions may be very fact-specific and particular to circumstances. But at least sometimes having multiple partners will be beneficial for those involved, and sometimes – for some people – adhering to a monogamous model will be positively harmful. Loy and many other very thoughtful Buddhist writers seem reluctant to entertain these possibilities.

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