I’ve been asked to speak today about Buddhist sexual ethics. Sexuality is obviously a topic that is of great interest to a lot of people. Especially when living in a close community in the countryside, as you are here, there can be a lot of confusion about sexuality and sexual relations. A lot of pain can arise from our own or our partner’s unwise sexual behavior. It can be helpful to look at the advice Buddhism has to offer in this area.
I’d like to make the discussion today rather informal. So I’ll speak for a while and, as we go along, if you have questions, please ask. Later in the afternoon, I think it would be good to have a discussion with questions and an exchange of ideas.
Western Ethical Heritage
In general, the approach to ethics in Buddhism is very different from the Western approach. In Western culture, we basically have a blend of two ethical systems. One is from the Biblical background and the other is from Ancient Greece.
From the Biblical background, there is a set of laws concerning ethics that has been given by a higher authority. To be ethical means basically to obey the laws. If we obey the laws, we are “good” – we are “good people.” We will be rewarded in heaven. If we don’t obey these laws, we are “bad” and will be punished in our afterlife. And so ethics is really a matter of obedience to this higher authority. We’re always looking for “what should I do?” There’s always this idea of “should” – “I should do this, but I’m not doing this, so I’m ‘bad’, I’m guilty.” We become uncertain of ourselves and insecure, because we always want to know what should I do?
In Ancient Greece, we also have a set of laws, but not commandments given by divine authority. Citizens make them. Representatives of the citizens come together in a legislature and make laws for the good and welfare of society. Then it’s a matter of, again, obedience. We need to follow the laws. And it’s not that, by doing so, we are simply good moral persons; now we’re also “good citizens.” If we don’t follow the laws, we’re “bad” persons and we need to pay a fine or go to jail.
So our Western ethics is a combination of these two systems. Both are based on obedience to laws. Buddhist ethics are not like that at all. We get confused as Westerners approaching Buddhism, because we want Buddhism to tell us what we “should” do and what we “shouldn’t” do. Because of that, when we look at the Buddhist teachings on ethics, we tend to understand them in terms of something like Biblical commandments or judicial laws.
Buddhist Ethics and Renunciation
The basis of Buddhist ethics is completely different. Buddhist ethics are based on Buddha’s main teaching – the Four Noble Truths or four facts of life. Basically, life is tough; life is difficult. But there’s a cause for that, and if we want to get rid of difficulties in life, we need to eliminate the cause. So what Buddha taught in this context was that there are certain types of behavior that are going to cause us problems and unhappiness. If we want to avoid suffering for ourselves, we need to refrain from those types of behavior. If we don’t care about the amount of problems we create for ourselves, fine. Go ahead and continue acting in that way. It’s everybody’s choice (See also What Is Ethics?).
Buddha didn’t give any moral commandments like in the Bible. Buddha never said, “You should do this and if you don’t, you’re bad.” But rather, Buddha said, “If you do this, you’re going to make problems for yourself. If you don’t want those problems, stop doing it.” If we continue doing what will bring us problems, that doesn’t make us a “bad person.” If we don’t do it, if we refrain, it doesn’t make us a “good person.” If we continue acting in a way that creates problems for ourselves, we’re foolish and it’s sad. If we stop acting in that way, we’re wise. That’s all.
Buddhist ethics, then, is very much a matter of choice concerning what we do. With the Buddhist training, we’re aiming to develop constructive attitudes such as “renunciation.” We look at our problems and decide, “This is not fun. I don’t want this anymore.” Then, with renunciation, we decide, with determination, that we must get free of these problems. More specifically, we decide to free ourselves from them. No one is going to free us but ourselves. Therefore, we have to further renounce the causes of the problems within ourselves. We’re going to stop creating the causes, so that the problems that come from them will no longer arise.
For instance, if our problems are coming from our terrible anger or obsessive attachment, then since we want to stop experiencing these problems, we renounce them and their causes. We develop the determination that thinks, “I’m going to try to change. I’m willing to give up my bad temper and anger. I’m willing to give up my attachment. I’m going to try to do it.” Without being willing to give up our negative personality traits, there’s no way that we’re going to make any progress in Buddhist practice.
Merely reciting and performing the ritual of a puja, but without being willing to give up our attachment or anger, is hardly going to have an effect on our destructive personality traits such as anger. This is because we’re not going to apply to our daily lives any of the positive attitudes that we’re developing in the puja. The ritual is just going to be like some side thing that we do for fun, like watching a television program every night. So if we are truly interested in gaining liberation from our problems, the issue of Buddhist ethics becomes central.
Being Honest about Our Aims
It’s important to avoid being a hypocrite in Buddhist practice. Most people who come into contact with Buddhism, if they examine themselves honestly, what are they really aiming for? Most people are not really aiming for enlightenment. They’re not even aiming for liberation. Most people just want to make their samsaric situation – their normal everyday lives – a little bit better.
Now, that’s okay. Buddha taught methods for improving samsara: namely, how to get a better rebirth. That is part of the Buddhist teaching. Most of us, however, don’t even believe in future lives, let alone have the interest in improving them. We want is to improve our samsara just in this lifetime, right now. That’s okay too. But we shouldn’t pretend and be dishonest, saying, “I’m working to become a Buddha for the sake of all sentient beings,” when that’s really not at all our aim. Of course, the ethics we need to follow in order to reach enlightenment and in order to improve our samsara of this lifetime are the same. But, if we are realistic and honest about what we’re aiming for, we’re not going to have so many difficulties in following Buddhist ethics.
One of the issues we need to deal with here is, again, that most of us are approaching Buddhism from a Judeo-Christian background. So we tend to think, “I should work for enlightenment, because then I will be a good person, a good disciple, a good Buddhist. If I don’t work to become a Buddha and help everyone, but just think to improve my samsara, I’m a bad person; I’m a bad disciple, a bad Buddhist.” Again the emphasis is on “should.” We’re looking at what we “should” do.
It’s not like that in Buddhism. We progress according to what is appropriate to us, at the stage where we are. There’s no “should.” There’s no “if you do this, you’re good and if you’re at an earlier level, it’s bad.” We can’t say, “If you’re an adult it’s good and if you’re a child, it’s bad. So even if you’re still a spiritual child, you should be a spiritual adult and act like one.”
The main issue, then, in trying to follow Buddhist ethics is to try to understand the relation between behavioral cause and effect: the relation between our behavior and the level of happiness or suffering that we experience as a consequence. That’s crucial. Without conviction in that relationship, there’s no reason to follow the Buddhist system of ethics.
Destructive Behavior and Its Effects
If we look at what Buddhism calls “destructive behavior,” it is behavior that is motivated by anger, attachment or greed, or naivety. These are the main disturbing emotions – emotions or mental states that disturb our peace of mind and cause us to lose self-control. Some explanations add that no sense of moral self-dignity and no concern about how our behavior reflects on others, such as on our parents and spiritual teachers, also always accompany destructive behavior. What is definite from the point of view of karma is that behavior motivated by these disturbing emotions and such states of mind is going to produce suffering. It’s going to “ripen” into suffering.
Now, we have to understand this statement. It’s not so simple. We’re not talking about what the effects of our actions are on somebody else, because that’s uncertain. With a great deal of love, we can give flowers to someone, and it gives them a terrible allergy attack and they get very sick. We could steal somebody’s car and it makes the other person extremely happy because the person wanted to get rid of it and now he or she can collect the insurance money and buy a new one. So it’s not certain what effects our actions are going to have in regard to producing happiness or unhappiness in somebody else. Although obviously we try not to hurt others, nevertheless we can never tell what they will experience. We cook somebody a wonderful meal and our guest chokes to death on it. How do we know what’s going to happen?
But, what is certain from our actions, according to the Buddhist teachings, is the result they will have on us. We’re not talking about the immediate effect. If we rape somebody, immediately upon raping the person we may experience the pleasure of a sexual orgasm. We’re not talking about that resultant level of happiness from the act. We’re talking about something we experience in the long term – the long-term effect on our minds and on what we’re going to experience in general in the future as the result of propensities and habits that we are building up.
For example, we may have an extramarital affair and, at that moment, we may enjoy the pleasure of being with that other partner. Later on, however, leave aside problems in partner relationships in future lives, in this life we’re undoubtedly going to have a lot of problems with our own families. So we’re not talking about the immediate pleasure that we might get in a sexual affair; we’re talking about the long-term effect.
The Motivation for Sexual Behavior
The main point to look at in Buddhist ethics concerning sexuality, then, is the motivation for our sexual behavior. Sexual activity is not terribly different, as an act, from eating, in the sense that it is a biological function that comes from having this type of body. If we have this type of body, it’s going to get hungry. We have to feed it. Likewise, when we have this type of body, there are going to be sexual hormones. There’s going to be a biological function regarding sex that we somehow have to deal with. There’s a big difference, however, between satisfying sexual hunger and satisfying hunger for food. We can live without sex, but we can’t live without food.
Sexual activity, like eating, can be motivated by a disturbing emotion or attitude, a constructive one, or a neutral one. Based on the motivation, the act of having sex or eating likewise becomes destructive, constructive, or neutral. For instance, if we eat out of tremendous greed and attachment – just stuff ourselves like a pig – it’s self-destructive. If we eat because we need to be strong in order to take care of our families – in order to have the strength and energy to work, and so on – that’s a positive motivation; the eating is constructive. If we eat just because it’s time to eat and everybody else is eating, it’s ethically neutral.
The same thing is true with sex. If we have sex because we have tremendous attachment and desire, or because of anger like when soldiers rape their enemy’s wives and daughters, it’s destructive. If we’re having sex in order to show affection and help somebody – an appropriate person – with the hope that this will make the person feel a little better, it’s constructive. If we have sex just because we can’t fall asleep and it’ll make us tired so that we can fall asleep faster, then it’s neutral.
The result of what we experience from the same act is different according to the motivation. “Destructive” means that it’s going to produce problems for us in the future. For most people, the negative motivation for sex that would make it destructive and cause problems for them in the future is usually attachment and longing desire. What we need to work on, in the context of renunciation, is not the sexual act itself, but rather this attachment and longing desire.
Let’s give an example. Suppose we are looking for the perfect orgasm. Such a quest causes us always to be dissatisfied with the sexual experience that we have. We’re always looking for a better one. We’re always longing for something more, and can never really enjoy what we have. Such an attitude makes us frustrated and miserable. It leads to never having a satisfying sexual experience.
The same is the case if we’re always looking for the perfect sexual partner. We’re never going to find the perfect partner. We’re always going to be dissatisfied; our attitude is always going to make us unhappy. Sexual activity driven by these types of attitudes is destructive – it’s self-destructive. When we talk about destructive, it’s always self-destructive.
So that’s what we have to renounce – the myth of a perfect partner and a perfect orgasm, and the longing desire that this myth generates. Our longing desire is based on the naive confusion of “somewhere out there is going to be the perfect partner with whom I will have the perfect orgasm.” That’s a myth. It’s a child’s fairy tale. It’s never going to happen. Sorry.
Having Sex with Someone Else’s Partner
We need to approach sexuality with a more realistic attitude. When we look at the teachings on what types of sexual behavior are destructive, we find all sorts of lists. What appears on all lists, however, is having sex with someone else’s partner. When we examine that, we need to try to understand why this is destructive; why does this cause us problems? There are two situations in which this destructive action might occur – either we already have a sexual partner, or we don’t have one. Let’s look at the first of these two.
If we say that it’s destructive because we’ll get into trouble with our own partner – our own partner will be hurt by this – or if we say the partner of the other person may be hurt by this, that’s one level of unhappiness that would arise. But that’s not certain. Maybe we’re in a relationship in which our partner says it’s okay. Maybe the other person is in a relationship in which their partner says it’s okay. That could be possible.
But we have to be very sensitive about this point, because our partner might say, “Oh, it’s okay for you to have sex with somebody else. I don’t mind,” but in fact the woman or man who’s saying that might be saying it simply because they don’t want to lose us. If they object, they might lose us and so they feel it’s better to shut up and say it’s okay. But inside they’re very hurt. It’s extremely crucial to be sensitive to our partner to see if they are really sincere in saying that it’s okay.
And if it’s okay only one way: it’s okay with our partner if we have sex with somebody else, but it’s not okay with us if our partner has sex with somebody else, then there’s obviously something not so stable here. And to think about the person, with whom we’re having sex, “Well, as long as their partner doesn’t find out – and they’re not going to find out – it’s okay,” is shortsighted. Inevitably, the other person’s partner does find out.
According to the Buddhist texts, the main result that comes from having sex with someone else’s partner is that our own partner relations will become unstable. Our own partners will be unfaithful. Even if we don’t have a partner now, this may happen in our future relationships. Also, although our partner’s being unfaithful might not necessarily happen in this lifetime, the consequences of our adultery may take the form, in this lifetime, of a divorce and all the problems that go with it.
According to the texts, a further thing that happens when we have sex with someone else’s partner is that doing so becomes a cause for committing so many other destructive actions. For example, we have to lie about our affair. We may even have to kill or steal if somebody starts to blackmail us about it, so that they don’t tell our partner or cause us to lose our job. We have to get rid of the blackmailer so they won’t expose us. An unwanted pregnancy with the extramarital partner might cause us to abort the fetus. Such things can happen, although of course there is no certainty that they will happen.
In the discussion of inappropriate sexual partners, the classical Buddhist texts don’t seem to differentiate between our already having a sexual partner and our not having one. However, I think that we would have to say, especially in the modern Western context, that negative consequences, like the ones I just mentioned, would follow in both situations. Similarly, the classical texts do not mention negative consequences that would occur when we already have a partner and we have sex with someone else who does not have partner or who is not restrained by parents or vows from having sex. But, I think here too, we would have to say that the same types of suffering consequences would also occur.
If we examine deeply, we discover that what makes having sex with somebody else’s partner destructive is dissatisfaction. If we already have a partner, it’s our underlying dissatisfaction with our own partner that causes us to look for another one. Even if we don’t have a partner, we are driven to have sex with someone else’s partner because we are dissatisfied with finding a partner among those with whom it would be appropriate to have such a relationship. Maybe we haven’t even tried.
Dissatisfaction is the main culprit behind almost all forms of inappropriate sexual behavior mentioned in the classical texts – having sex in inappropriate orifices of the body, at inappropriate times, in inappropriate places, and so on. The point behind all of them is dissatisfaction. For example, let’s say we can have sex in the privacy of our own bedroom at night when nobody’s going to come and knock at the door. But we’re dissatisfied with that – it’s not exciting enough. So we decide to have sex outside in our backyard in the middle of the day, when anybody might come along, see us, and cause all sorts of embarrassment or scandal. Or we might have sex in the middle of the living room floor in the middle of the day, when the children could walk in at any time and see us. This could cause a big trauma for the child.
Dissatisfaction may take many forms. Basically, we’re dissatisfied with what we have and we want more. For example, we have a certain established sexual etiquette with our partner in terms of having sex in certain mutually agreed upon postures and ways. It doesn’t need to be puritanically strict: there’s only one posture and that’s it. But let’s say that we have an established repertoire of forms.
First of all, for such a repertoire to be an appropriate one, it cannot include forms of sex that are conventionally destructive either to our partner or to us. If our established repertoire is that we bind the other person in chains and torture them before or while having sex with them, such sadomasochistic sexual behavior is unacceptable. Or if we have unprotected sex with someone from whom we might catch a sexually transmitted disease, or to whom we might transmit such a disease if we are infected, that also would be destructive and unacceptable. The forms of our sexual acts need to be, on a conventional level, ones that are reasonable and healthy.
Of course, there can be many opinions, both individual and cultural, as to what forms of sex are reasonable and healthy, and what forms are destructive, but let’s leave that discussion aside. What makes the sexual act destructive here is that we are dissatisfied with our mutually agreed non-destructive pattern and, for instance, we need to look in manuals of exotic, esoteric sex and try a hundred different postures to make sex more exciting. We might even think, “Let’s have sex while standing on our heads,” because we’re looking for some ideal pleasure that we are never going to find – never. We are looking for some sort of ideal sexual experience, and that’s simply a myth, like the myth of the perfect partner and the perfect orgasm. It’s never going to happen.
That’s the real troublemaker, dissatisfaction, this longing for something more, more; something better, better. That longing is based on grasping for “me, me, I have to have more.” Especially in places like this, where a community of people with warm affection for each other live closely together, far away from town, and where sometimes people who already are in a partner relationship have sexual relations with other people’s partners, it’s important to examine the motivation for such behavior. It’s important to look if it’s based on dissatisfaction with one’s own partner and looking for something better, better, better.
If it is based on such an attitude, it’s going to be self-destructive. It’s going inevitably to cause us problems and unhappiness. Whether it produces happiness or unhappiness for our new partner or for our old one is another issue. It will inevitably produce problems for us. It’s our choice. If we want to continue to be unhappy and frustrated – because this type of search is doomed to frustration – then continue. Fine, that’s our choice. But if we want to stop this unhappiness, this anxiety of constant frustration and always looking for something better, we need to refrain from this type of activity.
“The Body Beautiful” and Free Love
Another point is that we could be deceiving ourselves about what constitutes innocent sexual behavior. In the West, we have the idea of “the body beautiful.” Body worship is perhaps our heritage from Ancient Greece and then the Renaissance. You know the attitude, “The young body is so beautiful and perfect” and we almost worship it. With this sort of attitude toward the body, then if we have sex, we see it as a wonderful and beautiful thing. We believe that it’s really going to bring the other person and us great happiness. We’re talking about a typically Western idea of “free love,” which some people have.
For example, we might already be in a sexual relationship with a partner and we meet someone at a party whom we find attractive and sexy. We might think, “I’m not actually dissatisfied with my partner. But this person’s body is so beautiful; I’ve got to caress it. We’ve got to make love and celebrate the beauty of our bodies. Making love will be so beautiful.” We might even think, “Making love will be so spiritual.” Such naive thinking is really a case of self-deception. Underlying our belief that sex is “free” and completely innocent, beautiful, and even spiritual, can be a great deal of desire, greed, and attachment, supported by our naive worship of the body beautiful.
As Westerners, most of us don’t like the Buddhist teachings concerning mindfulness of what lies underneath the skin, what’s inside the stomach and intestines, and so on. But, when we ignore the reality of what’s inside the body, we fall prey to the myth of the body beautiful, and the body then becomes an object of obsessive desire.
Buddhism explains longing desire as a disturbing emotion that is based on a misconception of its object. More specifically, it’s based on an exaggeration of the good qualities or attractiveness of its object. In the case of the object being the body, longing desire considers something that is basically unclean to be clean and wonderful. Just go for a week in the summer without washing or without brushing the teeth and see how clean the body is. Or longing desire considers something that basically is going to produce problems to be the source of ultimate happiness. Or something that is impermanent to be permanent. Or something that is without a solid essence to have a solid essence. When we are acting under the influence of such naive misconception, we produce problems for ourselves.
So again, if we want to avoid unhappiness as a result of our sexual behavior, what we need to do is avoid idealizing sex. It doesn’t mean that we have to stop having sex. But don’t idealize it. In other words, be realistic about the other person’s body and about our own. Feet often sweat and smell bad. That’s what’s there, so don’t pretend that it’s not there and that the body is always so beautiful and marvelous like out of a Hollywood movie – it’s not!
And sex is not going to bring ultimate happiness to this other person or to us. So if we think, “Oh, I’m going to have sex with this other person and it’s going to solve all their problems and make them happy,” or “It will solve all my problems and make me happy,” that’s a myth. It’s not going to do that, obviously. Maybe it’s going to bring them or us some temporary relief from tension, but be realistic about it. The relief is only temporary. It’s nothing profound. It’s no big deal. It’s not going to last, obviously. So we shouldn’t deceive ourselves about it.
And if we lie with our arms around the other person, well the arm that’s underneath is eventually going to fall asleep. There are all sorts of uncomfortable things that inevitably happen. We have to accept all of that as part of the general problems of samsara. We have this type of body, which is mixed with confusion and which causes problems. The same is true with having sex. It too will inevitably be fraught with problems. So, if we romanticize and idealize sex, we’re going to have a lot of unhappiness about it. We need to be realistic.
One last point before we open the session for discussion is the question of how to show affection to others. Whether or not we are in a relationship and have a partner, if we feel very strong affection for someone else, what is the appropriate way to show that affection? Some people may think that the only real way to show that affection is in some sort of sexual manner. It might not be by engaging in an actual sexual act with the person to the point of orgasm, but it might be by intentionally interacting in a sexually stimulating manner – stimulating to us, to them, or to both. But obviously we wouldn’t think to apply such methods to everyone we have affection for. I have great affection for my dog, for instance, and often show that affection by petting it. But I wouldn’t think to have sex with my dog and I wouldn’t think to sexually stimulate it.
This becomes an interesting question when we start to look at how the issue of showing affection can be culturally affected. For instance, when Westerners go to India or the Middle East, they sometimes become confused about the signs of affection of the local people. This is because in India and most of the Middle East, two friends of the same gender will walk holding hands or will hold hands for a very long time. Such conduct in the West would be thought of in a different way. In India and the Middle East, it doesn’t have a sexual connotation. In those cultures, holding hands is an appropriate sign of showing affection and friendship to someone of the same gender; whereas in British or American culture, that would be considered as having a sexual connotation and therefore as inappropriate behavior for heterosexuals.
Another example is in Western European cultures, when a man greets a woman, he kisses her on the cheek one, two, three, or even four times, depending on the culture, and this has no sexual connotation whatever. Actually, he just presses his cheek against hers and doesn’t actually touch his lips to her face. But in India, for instance, men would never do even that. In fact, in the Islamic Middle East, men greet men in this manner, also with absolutely no sexual connotation.
Another interesting point is that Western people seem to have this compulsion to say, “I love you.” It’s as if expressing our love in words can make it real. It’s as if the words could give our love true existence. And if you say it to me that you love me, then that too would make the love real. On the other hand, if you don’t say “I love you,” or you don’t say it often enough, that implies that you don’t really love me. It’s interesting, from the point of view of voidness, to see how we falsely imagine that words can establish or prove the true existence of our emotions.
But if we look at traditional Indian society, people don’t say “I love you” to each other, not even to their spouse or their children. In Tibetan, there isn’t even the expression “I love you.” One demonstrates one’s love and one’s affections by one’s actions, not by one’s words.
The relevance of this is, in order to express our strong affection for somebody, do we need to have sexual contact with the person? If we think that we do, we may be deceiving ourselves. Our motivation may in fact not only be naivety, but also longing desire. Here, the naivety would be, “I have to have sex with you in order to demonstrate and prove my affection. This is the only way to really express my love.” Even if we do not think in such an extreme manner, we might feel the compulsion to express our love by kissing the person passionately on the lips. This is an important topic to think about. Does kissing someone passionately on the lips really express and demonstrate our love, and is this the only way to communicate it? This is a very interesting point, really, especially as we go deeper and deeper in examining the motivations for our sexual activity.
But, maybe that’s enough for the initial presentation. Let’s discuss some of the issues.
Sex, Fun, and Variety
What about fun? Sex is also fun and something beautiful for both people. Also, to stay with the analogy of food and hunger, I don’t want to live on bread and water alone, every day. So I try to cook a nice meal sometimes or go out to eat now and then, just to make it interesting by adding some change. Isn’t that a reasonable attitude to have in order to keep healthy and content?
There are two points that come from your question. The first is that sex is fun. Yes, sex can be fun. The problem comes when we idealize sex and imagine that it is the perfect thing to make us happy. What will produce the least amount of problems here is to enjoy sex for what it is, and not to make it into something bigger than it is. Sure, it’s fun. But it’s not everlasting ideal happiness. Eating is enjoyable and even fun; but when we’ve finished eating, after a couple of hours we’re hungry again. The same is true with having sex.
Your second point concerns the analogy that we would get tired of eating just bread and water all the time, so sometimes it’s natural to want something more interesting. To think like that about sex says quite a lot about the sexual relationship we have with our partner. If that sexual relationship seems to us just like bread and water, then there’s something wrong with that relationship. Having exotic forms of sex – like cooking a nice meal – or sex with someone else as a change – like going out to eat – will not solve the problem. It will probably make it worse.
I’ve mentioned this example only because of your analogy of hunger for food with sexual hunger. It’s good and beautiful to eat bread and water, but not every day if we want to keep the fun alive.
This raises a very interesting point. What is fun? Fun is a very difficult thing to define. Would anyone like to give a definition of “fun?” I remember, just to give you an example, once I was with my teacher Serkong Rinpoche in Holland. We were staying with some very rich people who had a large yacht. They kept it in an extremely small Dutch lake, and one day they took us for a ride in it. It felt as though we were sailing in a bathtub. All we could do was go in a circle around this small lake, staying in line with maybe 50 other large boats all doing the same. Serkong Rinpoche’s comment to me in Tibetan about this whole event was, “This is what they call fun?”
So what is “fun”? Is it fun to go on a roller coaster that makes us sick and completely frightened? Is that really happiness?
Dissatisfaction and Boredom
In any case, let’s get back to the point about sexuality and making it interesting. This gets us into the whole discussion of what is boredom and why does boredom arise? I think that boredom comes from having too many choices available and therefore the expectation of variety. We are taught to expect variety as a child in the modern West. A Western child is always asked, “What do you want? What do you want to wear today? What do you want to eat today?” From an early age, a Western child is taught to make choices within a large variety of possibilities. Naturally, the child comes to expect that variety and choices will always be available.
Consider, for instance, Western supermarkets and the number of channels on the television. There are hundreds of choices. Based on the expectation of finding something interesting among the variety of available choices, boredom soon arises, since we are never satisfied with what we have. We are always hoping for something new or different that will be more interesting or more delicious.
This expectation for variety, and the boredom that often accompanies it, seem to carry over into our modern Western attitudes toward sexuality. As modern Westerners, we seem to like variety in our sexuality, since we tend to get bored with the same thing every time. That variety could be in terms of different postures with our partner, or it could be in terms of having different partners. So we need to think about the role of boredom in our quest for having more fun with sex. We need to think about what is interesting and what isn’t interesting any more, and what are the limits for each and why?
As for how we in the modern West can best deal with our acquired expectation and need for variety, I think that, as we were saying before, a repertoire with our established sexual partner can be the solution, rather than having sexual affairs with others outside our relationship. If our partner and we have a certain mutually agreed upon sexual regime, which is not just one posture, but let’s say contains a repertoire of several, then that gives us a little bit of variety. The thing that causes trouble even in having this variety with our partner is if we are constantly searching for the perfect new way to make love. Such a search is based on dissatisfaction and constant frustration, so that we don’t enjoy what we have. That attitude is the troublemaker.
I don’t think we can say that it is inherently destructive to have sex in several different postures with our partner and that this will ripen into unhappiness and suffering. The problem is the attitude of boredom, dissatisfaction, and the unending search for something more interesting, something more fun. This is true as well if we think to taste something different and hopefully more fun with another partner, even only once in a while, and then to return to our usual sexual diet.
Could you say something more about dissatisfaction?
Dissatisfaction and expectation are linked closely together. They come from projecting and grasping for something that doesn’t exist. Here, what we project is the ideal, perfect partner. There’s going to be a Prince or Princess Charming on a white horse, who is going to be perfect. We’ll have sex and there’ll be French horns and fireworks in the background and we’ll have won the jackpot. This is a complete fantasy. It’s never going to happen. So the dissatisfaction comes from believing in the myth, in the fairy tale that Prince or Princess Charming is waiting for us out there, and that a jackpot orgasm exists.
Making a Difficult Home Situation Lighter
When we have sex with another person who doesn’t share our everyday life with all its everyday problems, and who isn’t tired at the end of a hard day at work or with the children, it’s much easier. It’s much lighter if we go outside the relationship with our usual partner. There’s a big difference in the quality of this sexual experience with someone else.
Well, what’s the motivation?
Relief and making our situation lighter.
Well, again I think that there are various ways of easing the situation. We need to take into consideration cause and effect. We could go jogging, do some sport, go to a movie, masturbate in the bathroom, or have sex with a prostitute, a single person, or someone else’s partner. In our quest to lighten our situation, which of these choices would be the less destructive, which would be more? Are they all equal?
One form of unawareness or ignorance concerns karmic cause and effect. We might think that there will be no consequences from our actions, or we just don’t want to think about them. But, we need to think about the effects our behavior in this situation will have, not only on ourselves, but also on our partner, the other person’s partner if he or she has one, and on any children involved. We even have to think about the consequences on the community as a whole, since you live in such a close small community. In some cases, if we taste an exotic fruit and then go back to bread and water, we’re even more unhappy.
Of course, a lot depends on the individual situation. But we need to really examine our motivation, all the people involved and their feelings, and, on a more basic level, our relationship with our partner. We need to examine the consequences of each of the choices available. It’s not so easy. Is it possible to get that relief, that lightening of the situation, in ways other than seeking and having a sexual affair with someone else? Or is that the only way? And if we think that that is the only way, then it becomes an important question, why is that the only way? Is having a sexual affair a way of showing affection to this other person, because we have deep loving feelings for the person; or will we have sex with just anybody who’s willing and available? That’s also an interesting question.
Also, we need to look at what level we’re aiming for in our spiritual practice. Are we aiming for total liberation or enlightenment? In that case, we want to avoid anything that’s going to cause suffering or limit our ability to help others. So, we would refrain from any extramarital affair, since it will certainly bring more problems, which, in the end, will make others distrust us. Or are we aiming to improve samsara? In that case, we would try to choose the least heavy of the destructive actions, and, even better, try to find an ethically neutral solution. The same is true even if we are not pursuing a spiritual path.
If we’re aiming for liberation, for example, does it mean that we have to stay in a situation in which we feel unsatisfied or really unhappy? How can we know when it’s time to get out of the relationship?
When a relationship is mutually destructive and we’ve been unable to remedy it, it’s certainly time to end the relationship. The Buddhist teachings never say that we have to stay in a bad or negative situation. But it’s important to be honest with the other person. If we’re going to get out of the relationship, get out of the relationship. Don’t stay in the relationship and be with somebody outside at the same time, because that’s likely just to make the situation worse.
I think one of the reasons for unsatisfying relationships and huge problems in them is entering a relationship with the expectation that it will last forever. You know, the idea of “until death do us part.”
From the Buddhist point of view, we think in terms of countless past and future lives. A close relationship with someone isn’t something limited to just the bounds of one lifetime. If we have a strong relationship with someone, it’s because of a karmic connection from previous lives. Likewise, when we end a relationship by parting from each other, the karmic connection doesn’t just go to zero and we’ll never meet or have any relation with that person in future lives. We can’t throw somebody away in the garbage like throwing away an old cabbage that’s gone rotten.
So, if our partner and we decide it’s best to end the relationship, let’s say get a divorce or stop living together or stop having sex, it’s best to try to end it on a positive note, not on a negative one. If possible, we would try to maintain some sort of friendly relationship afterwards, even if only with our attitude toward the other person. This is especially important if there are children involved. And if we both are still living in the same small community, then when we meet, we need to try to be friendly. If we are hostile toward each other, it inevitably has a negative effect on others around us.
Do I understand correctly, then, that being karmically linked with someone doesn’t come to an end by ending an intimate relationship with the person? The relationship merely changes its expression? The link changes form, so even when I’m mean and hostile toward my former partner, I’m still relating to the person? So you’re saying it’s better to relate to the person in some positive, but less intense and intimate way. That’s allowing the form to change by keeping in mind the idea of there being a chain of life and a continuation of karma. Do I understand correctly?
Yes, although it might not be easy, especially if our partner is the one who initiated the breakup and we still feel hurt or sad. But, somehow, we need to overcome that hurt and try to develop a more positive frame of mind. The main thing is to go on with our lives, without getting stuck in thoughts of the past. We have no choice anyway. Life goes on.
If we are still identifying ourselves as a member of an unsatisfying or bad relationship, we will continue to feel hurt and have negative feelings toward our former partner. But, if we have started a new chapter in our lives and identify with that – whether it’s a new chapter as a single person or as someone in another relationship – we will be in a much more stable emotional framework. With more emotional stability and self-confidence in our ability to go on with our lives, we’ll be able to have some sort of positive attitude toward our former partner. We’ll be able to focus more on the person’s good qualities, rather than on their shortcomings and the difficulties we had together.
The Need for Meditation to Deal with Desire That Suddenly Arises
What about the situation of dealing with desire in the immediacy of the moment when it arises, this grasping for pleasure that comes up all of a sudden? For example, we meet somebody; feel close to the person; and have a nice way of understanding each other. Then it happens that we feel attracted and want to have sex. That’s a very common situation that I think everybody knows. It’s easy to understand, to share, and to follow all the ideas you’ve explained. But in that moment, we don’t want to see them. We trust this emotion that’s coming up and we think it’s okay to follow it out. How can we deal with it then, in the moment? As you said before, sexuality itself is not the problem; it’s the emotion behind it that we need to work with.
Well, you know, this problem is not limited to sex. For example, the children misbehave and, in that moment, we get angry and yell at them. We know intellectually that that’s not going to help; it’s not the best way of handling the situation. But the immediacy of the situation is so strong, we just instinctively get angry and yell. The same thing is the case with having sex with someone. There’s no great difference in terms of dealing with the emotion of the moment.
In both cases, the only thing that helps is having done a lot of meditation before. With meditation, we build up a more beneficial habit of being attentive, mindful of what’s going on, applying opponents, and so on. With enough familiarity, our new habits will also arise in that moment when desire comes up and we will be able to apply them.
The “Starved Dog Syndrome” and Feeding the Demon
There’s another factor that can affect our difficulty in controlling sexual desire that comes up all of a sudden in the moment when we’re with someone. This may not be relevant to everybody, but some people have the feeling that “here’s an opportunity to have sex with somebody” and they unconsciously feel themselves to be like a starved dog. Whether or not they already have a sexual partner, they think, “If I don’t take advantage of this opportunity, I’m not going to get another one.” So even if the person is not the best choice of partners, they take what they can get. A variation on this syndrome often occurs with people experiencing a mid-life crisis, with the feeling that this is their last chance for exciting sex before they become too old and unattractive.
If we’ve experienced this type of syndrome, it can be very revealing to examine why we feel like the starved dog. We need to explore the grasping for a solid “me” that underlies our feeling starved for affection – the attitudes of “I deserve to have affection,” “Why does everyone else get affection and not me,” “Nobody loves me,” and so on.
One helpful way to overcome this syndrome is the method developed by Tsultrim Allione, called “feeding the demon.” It’s an adaptation she developed from the Buddhist chod practice to cut off attachment to the self by feeding one’s body to the demons.
The method is to place a pillow in front of us and then sitting facing it, to identify some difficult emotional problem that we have, let’s say of being starved for affection. This feeling of being starved has been making us wander around compulsively trying to find other partners. We imagine and try to feel that the problem is lurking inside us, like some sort of demon haunting us. We then try to imagine what that demon looks like. What type of shape and color does it have? Is it slimy? Does it have a thousand arms and hands, all grasping out for someone? Does it have sharp spikes on its back and pointed fangs? Is it big and fat, or small and emaciated?
We then imagine that the demon comes out from us and sits on the pillow. We then ask it, “What do you want?” Then, we either imagine the demon answering, or we actually go and sit on the pillow and look back where we were and answer, “I want affection. I want to be able to have affection without anybody interrupting or taking it away from me,” or whatever it is that the demon wants.
We then go back to where we were sitting, if we had moved to the pillow, and in our imagination, we feed the demon. We give the demon what it wants – in this case, physical affection – and we give it from ourselves. We feed it an unlimited amount, until the demon has had enough. This can be very effective. Tsultrim Allione has seen great benefits from this method, especially with AIDS and cancer patients. It seems to help strengthen the immune system. Please try it now with whatever problems you might have.
[Pause for practice]
The Effects of Feeding the Demon
Do you have any comments or questions about the practice?
I found a great richness when practicing this. I really felt able to give everything, because normally I don’t feel like that. But when I did this meditation, I really felt there’s so much I can give. I think that this is a significant side effect. Besides feeding this demon and dealing with this problem, it also brings a feeling that there’s so much richness that can be given.
This feeling of richness is similar to what comes in tantra practice when we consecrate the offerings. First we purify the objects we are offering, such as flowers, incense, candles, or food, with our understanding of voidness (emptiness). Then we transform them into nectars and other pure forms. Finally, we multiply them to become infinite in quantity, so that then we can make the offerings in an unlimited manner. They will never run out. If we really internalize this procedure when making offerings, then in this practice of feeding the demon, we feel we have an infinite amount of affection to give, or attention, or whatever it is that our own particular demon wants.
I also found that it comes very naturally to give the demon what it wants. Once it gets it, then it goes away. But how do we come to that? Before, we’re so identified with the demon inside us, we don’t want to give anything to anyone. It’s really strange.
It is strange. It works, because we’re giving the demon what we ourselves want and need, and that’s very healing. Giving to others what we ourselves need is the solution here. If we have had a bad relationship with one or both of our parents, for instance, the only real way to overcome that is to be a good parent to our own children and to other children. We need to give them what we wanted to be given to us, but hopefully not in a neurotic way, but in a positive one. That can be very healing. Many people follow this procedure in terms of giving their children the material advantages and opportunities that they lacked as children. But, more psychologically important is to give them the attention and affection that we might have lacked.
Giving to the demon gives me a sense of great satisfaction.
I think that this is because we gain from the practice the self-confidence that we are able to give. We do have something to offer, and being able to give it to someone who will accept it, namely the demon, gives us a greater sense of self-worth.
A deeper reason why the practice works is because, in a sense, as in the chod practice, we are cutting off the solid “me.” We’re cutting off the solid “me,” because we’re identifying our problem with the demon, which represents the identity of the solid “me.” For instance, if the demon wants to be loved and we give it unlimited love and understanding so that the demon becomes satisfied and goes away, that solid “me” that identified with the demon is no longer there. This provides the opportunity to reinforce a healthy sense of a “me.” Having demonstrated to ourselves that we are capable of giving, our sense of self-worth based on this healthy sense of a “me” grows stronger. This enables us to give freely to others what we had so desperately needed ourselves. That’s the whole point of the chod practice, to cut off the solid “me.”
When doing the exercise, my demon was the feeling of anxiety I experience within myself that makes me compulsively try to figure out what other people expect of me. What I gave the demon was the space to be itself, without having always to please others. It felt very liberating.
This is a good example of how to deal with the underlying problem that might drive us to have sexual affairs outside our partner relationship. We might feel that within our partner relationship, we always have to do what our partner expects from us. So, feeling claustrophobic, we compulsively have to find an outside partner with whom we can relax. As someone was saying before, we can have fun with them and not have all the pressures and problems that we feel at home. But if we have given the demon, and thus ourselves, the space to be ourselves, our feeling of claustrophobia starts to go away. We can then be more relaxed even in a difficult home situation. It also enables us to give our partner space as well.
So, it’s types of meditation practices like this that are very helpful for dealing with dissatisfaction in sexual relations that would drive us compulsively always to look for more, more, and more. This compulsion is a demon, so feed the demon!
Dealing with Physical Attraction to Beauty
Do you think that being attracted to other people is nearly always behind being dissatisfied in our relationships?
No, not necessarily. It’s possible to gain tremendous pleasure from the beauty of others without it ever making us anxious, so long as we don’t grasp for the person. Just enjoy the beauty. We don’t have to touch everything that we find beautiful, for instance a beautiful sunset or a campfire.
Seeing and enjoying beauty doesn’t have to be disturbing. When our minds are filled with grasping, based on the feeling of a solid “me” who maybe feels deprived of love, it actually disturbs us to encounter beauty in another person. This means that we can’t enjoy that beauty purely, free from confusion.
In tantra practice, we make another transformation concerning the offerings. We imagine that we are able to enjoy them in a pure way, without any confusion. To build this up as a beneficial habit is one of the reasons for making so many offerings in tantric rituals. We imagine enjoying these offerings without any disturbance, in a manner free of confusion, the way that a Buddha would. And then we try to actually enjoy them in that way. With enough practice and familiarity, we’ll be able to enjoy the beauty of other people without our seeing them making us uneasy. We no longer feel that we have to touch the person, or that we have to have a sexual encounter with them. With this more relaxed and open attitude, we actually gain more pleasure.
To understand what I mean here, think of the example of how relaxed we feel when we can enjoy the beauty of a wild bird we see in a field, without grasping to have it as “mine.” If we grasp at its beauty, we become uptight. We try to catch it, and if we succeed, we put it in a cage in our homes. The poor bird is now in a prison. How happy do you think it feels?
The Drive to Touch Someone
We’re dealing with different senses here. We could understand the whole issue as meaning that seeing is okay, but touching is not okay. How come touching makes such as big difference, especially if we can close our hand around something and feel the shape of it?
That’s a very interesting and important question. In terms of voidness analysis, if we touch something, does that make it real? Does touching it make us real? We need to investigate that deeply. After all, there are psychologically disturbed people who compulsively feel they have to touch everything, like all the clothes on the racks in a store.
As for holding something in our hand, if we think about grasping for true existence, grasping is a strong way of mentally holding on to an object. When, in addition to that mental hold, we physically hold something in our hand, our physical grasp reinforces our mental grasp. That’s why we feel more secure when we hold on to something, or when we hug someone, or when someone hugs us. We even feel more secure when we feel a blanket wrapped around us. Although, in Buddhist cognition theory, we say that eye consciousness takes hold of sights, ear of sounds, and so on, we do not consciously experience the cognition as a physical hold on its object.
There’s also a big difference between touching or holding a piece of clothing and touching or holding someone’s hand or caressing a part of their body. The difference has to do with the biological and psychological need that humans and most animals have for physical contact with another being and for affection. Doctors have shown that a lack of human physical contact and affection seriously hampers the development of a child. With adults as well, and especially with the elderly, human physical contact and affection play an important role in strengthening the immune system for good health and longevity. So, in the case of wanting to touch or hold someone, biological factors contribute to our drive.
Nevertheless, there is a difference between healthy physical contact and obsession or compulsion for it. We still need to discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate manners of physical contact in relation to the wide variety of people we meet and know.
The Drive for Experiencing the Pleasure of Orgasm
Sometimes hugging someone is not enough. All of a sudden it leads to having sex. What to do when we feel hugging is not enough?
We need to examine very carefully our drive to experience orgasm. When men have an orgasm, it heralds the end of their sexual pleasure. The experience of orgasm is a blissful release of tension that builds up before and during the sexual act, but it not only brings an end to the tension, it also brings an end to the bliss. So, if the man is seeking prolonged pleasure in the experience, having an orgasm is self-defeating. In the case of women, although they can experience multiple orgasms and their bliss does not end with the first of them; nevertheless, the blissful energy also will eventually come to an end after its release.
The interesting question then becomes, what is it that we really want? Do we want that orgasm, which is then going to end the whole event, or do we want the affection and physical contact that goes on beforehand? For many people, the latter is more important than the final orgasm, especially as we get older. Even though it’s not as dramatic, it’s in many ways more satisfying. And if you say that after orgasm, we can lie together and still share affection, well that may be the case. But smokers usually feel they have to have a cigarette, and most people, in general, quickly fall asleep.
It’s very interesting to compare an orgasm with an itch. If we practice mindfulness meditation and focus our attention on an itch, we discover that an itch is actually a blissful sensation. But it’s too blissful, and so we compulsively feel we have to scratch and eliminate it. It’s too much, and so we destroy the blissful feeling. What happens with an orgasm is quite similar. As the sexual pleasure increases as we approach the peak of an orgasm, we are compulsively drawn to bring the bliss to the point where it’s going to end. We are actually destroying the blissful awareness, like destroying an itch. It’s very interesting.
If we analyze like this our compulsive drive for experiencing an orgasm, it may help us to be satisfied with more appropriate ways of showing and receiving affection from other person’s partners, or from people in general who are outside our partner relationship. Being affectionate with someone doesn’t need to lead to a sexual act and orgasm.
Dealing with Sexual Tension
I’ve read in the newspaper that falling in love and having sex in that euphoric state of mind releases certain hormones in the body that are addictive. Because of that, we become addicted to these euphoric states. In a relationship in which we no longer are in love with our partner and having sex is no longer exciting, but merely routine, the hormone release is not so strong. So we look for a new high. This drives us to find another, more exciting partner outside the relationship.
Think of the example of two magnets. If we hold two magnets slightly apart, the tension and, in a sense, the excitement are greater than if the magnets touch. If we’re looking for the type of hormone high that the newspapers describe, it can be far more exciting to simply be in the company of a person we find attractive, but who would be an inappropriate sexual partner, rather than being intimate with them in bed.
Think about it. When we have a strong attraction to someone and we’re looking at them, they very much occupy our field of attention. But if we embrace the person for a long time, we’re looking at the wall or the bed, not at the person; or we have our eyes closed. As the hug goes on, in most cases we find that we get slightly bored. Our mind begins to wander. It’s very hard to keep our attention focused on the other person. We might even start to fantasize about someone else. On the other hand, if we were a few feet away from the person, we would be very focused on them. There’s something like a magnetic tension between us.
The trick is to enjoy that magnetic tension, without the obsession to destroy it, like we would destroy an itch or the growing tension of an orgasm. It’s like overcoming being ticklish. Many people go crazy with being ticklish, but actually, by being ticklish, we’re preventing ourselves from enjoying the pleasurable sensation of being tickled. What we have to do is decide that we’re not ticklish. Understanding that it’s only a matter of our attitude, we no longer identify ourselves as a ticklish person. With a change of attitude, we can relax and enjoy the tickling sensation.
We can do a similar thing with the tension of seeing a beautiful stranger who excites and turns us on, or the tension of being with the person if they become a friend, or even the tension of having affectionate contact with them. We can simply enjoy the exciting pleasure – whether or not we describe it in terms of a hormone rush – without having to destroy it by inappropriate sexual behavior.
I think I’ve had a similar experience in yoga when we have partner exercises. Sometimes we touch our partner and it’s good to touch, but we call it “empty touch.” It’s a kind of touching with awareness of the hand and feelings, but without pushing or pulling, and without the pollution of attraction or attachment in it. Just being with the contact and feeling the relatedness, warmth, and good will that’s in the touch. I can enjoy that very much, without it having to become sexual.
That’s a good example of what we’ve been talking about. So, as you see, such ways of dealing with drives for inappropriate sexual behavior are possible.
These are, I think, some of the crucial points of Buddhist sexual ethics concerning how to minimize the amount of problems and unhappiness that we cause ourselves with our sexual behavior. We need to examine very honestly the motivation for our sexual activity, both with our own partners and with others’ partners if we are drawn to that type of activity. We also need to examine closely how we regard sex. Are we idealizing it or are we looking at it in a more realistic way? If we are interested in becoming liberated from our problems – or even if we’re not interested in such a lofty goal, but are simply interested in improving samsara and having fewer problems in this life - we need to try to avoid sexual behavior motivated by a disturbing emotion or some fantasy. Then of course we need to try our best not to cause problems for the other person through our sexual behavior, despite it being very difficult to guarantee what the effects of our actions will be on someone else.
Remember, there’s nothing in the Buddhist ethics that says, “You should do like this and you shouldn’t do like that.” It’s all a question of wanting to stop causing ourselves problems and of having a realistic understanding of behavioral cause and effect.