Buddhism, Sex, Lion's Roar

Revisiting the Traditional Buddhist Views on Sex and Sexuality

When it comes to sex, Western Buddhists tend to be fairly liberal. But as scholar José Cabezón explains, Buddhist tradition takes a much more conservative approach, prohibiting, among other things, oral or anal sex, male homosexuality, and even sex during daylight hours. 
He challenges us not to dismiss traditional Buddhist views on sexuality but rather to critically examine them, beginning with the study of sexual ethics in Buddhist texts.

By José Ignacio Cabezón

Illustration by Alejandro Sierra.

I love texts. Of all the wonderful gifts my Tibetan teachers have bestowed on me, none is more dear than the training I have received in reading texts. I don’t mean simply the ability to read the great texts of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism in their original languages, though this is no small thing, but the ability to think through them: to think about what they mean, and what the world means in light of them, to come to an understanding of the world—what we are, what our responsibilities are, and what constitutes a meaningful life.

This, I learned from my teachers, does not mean simply understanding the literal meaning, but also engaging the classic tradition critically: questioning it, using reasoning to determine whether it is valid and, if so, how, and being willing to wrestle with the great thinkers of the past in a spirit of free inquiry. The texts are not the endpoint of reflection, but rather the beginning of it, and the great masters of old are not irrelevant “dead brown men,” but living conversation partners whose thought, as reflected in their writings, can help us reconstruct our lives so that they lead to the flourishing of self, of others, and of the communities in which we live.

I want to make a case for the importance of this enterprise through a specific lens—one focusing on sexuality and sexual ethics. It is particularly useful lens because of the issues it forces us as Buddhists to grapple with.

And now, in the words of Salt-N-Pepa, “Let’s talk about sex!”

On a warm June day in 1997 I walked into the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A group of gay and lesbian Buddhists had requested the audience with His Holiness to discuss his views on homosexuality and to ask for clarifications about statements he had made, statements that the organizers saw as disconcerting. The Dalai Lama began the hour-long meeting by reiterating his opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and his commitment to “full human rights” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

But then the discussion turned from the general to the specific—from what is acceptable in society at large to what is acceptable in Buddhist tradition. Relying on a detailed text from the fifteenth-century Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa, His Holiness explained what the work has to say about “sexual misconduct”—the type of sex that, as one of the ten nonvirtues, is considered a moral evil. Among other things, Tsongkhapa’s formulation prohibits sex between men, solitary masturbation, oral or anal intercourse, and even sex during daylight. On the other hand, it does not prohibit sex between women, or men employing the services of prostitutes, and it permits heterosexual men up to five orgasms per night. Lest it be thought that this delineation of the boundaries between permissible and illicit sex is idiosyncratic to Tsongkhapa, I should point out that similar formulations are found in important Tibetan texts written before and after him, including works by Gampopa and Dza Patrul. More important, every element in Tsongkhapa’s formulation has a basis in the Indian Buddhist sources.

Understanding what the texts have to say about sexuality is only half the battle.

Having explained Tsongkhapa’s text, His Holiness went on to speak about “the possibility of understanding these precepts in the context of time, culture, and society… If homosexuality is part of accepted norms [today], it is possible that it may be acceptable … However, no single person or teacher can redefine precepts. I do not have the authority to redefine these precepts since no one can make a unilateral decision or issue a decree… Such a redefinition can only come out of sangha discussions within the various Buddhist traditions. It is not unprecedented in the history of Buddhism to redefine [moral] issues, but it has to be done on the collective level.” His Holiness called for further research and dialogue on the topic, and concluded by reiterating that, however sexual misconduct comes to be defined, it can never be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In the years following this meeting with the Dalai Lama I have taken up His Holiness’s call for more scholarly research on the issue of sexuality, and am close to completing a monograph on the subject. During the course of my research I came to realize that the Tibetan position on what constitutes sexual misconduct could be understood only by first understanding what Tibetan scholars took for granted—their views of the human body, sex, and sexual desire in general. That broader treatment, I further realized, would require examining what Indian and Tibetan texts say about such things as the differentiation of the sexes in the Buddhist cosmological narratives, the nature of the body and of the sexual act, the psychology of sexual arousal, the classical interventions for dealing with sexual desire, and the doctrinal construction of sexual “deviance,” or, we might say, of “queerness.” In this way, what began as a fairly narrow study of the historical evolution of one specific doctrine—that of sexual misconduct—has evolved into a much broader book on sexuality in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Now as important as the issue of sexuality is to the Buddhist tradition, there is no single classical work that deals with sexuality in its entirety. While there are compilations or compendia, called samgraha, on a variety of topics in the Indian and Tibetan literature, there is nothing like a maithunasamgraha (a compendium on sex). My first task was to collect material from texts from different periods and genres. This was the fodder for my study. But understanding what the texts have to say about sexuality is only half the battle. The other half, of course, is to assess this material: to subject it to critical scrutiny. More on what I mean by that in a moment.

As I was beginning to put together the pieces of the sexual puzzle in Buddhist texts, it occurred to me that contemporary Western Buddhists must already have come to some conclusions about these issues, and so I turned to that font of all knowledge, the internet, to see what people were saying about Buddhism and sexuality. Here are three examples that illustrate what I found. One commentator writes: “So where is Buddhism’s list of naughty sexual practices? The answer is short and sweet. Buddhism doesn’t (for once!) have a list.” Another tells us, “Where Buddhism differs noticeably from other religions, is in its lack of a list of forbidden sexual practices. Unlike other religions that forbid homosexuality, contracepted sex, cross-dressing, etc., Buddhism does not list forbidden sexual practices.”

Each of these writers is clearly unaware of the extensive Buddhist scholastic literature on sexual misconduct—a literature that “lists” inappropriate partners, organs, times and places, and then goes into exquisite detail about when, where, how, and with whom Buddhists may and may not have sex. In still other sources we find long lists of men and women who are to be denied Buddhist ordination on the basis of their sexual preferences, gender identity, or sexual anatomy. So, contrary to what these bloggers think, lists there are aplenty.

In the third example, the writer is aware of the detailed treatment of sexual misconduct found in the scholastic sources because, in fact, it is a review of the translation of Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo on Amazon.com. The writer states of Tsongkhapa’s instructions:

I felt that they were not the true teachings that I have come to learn about Buddhism. For example, in the teaching about sexuality… I’m not sure how true to the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism [Tsongkhapa’s work] is.

When confronted with the reality of the scholastic treatment of sexual ethics, this writer’s response is to dismiss it. “Surely this can’t be what Tibetan Buddhism is about.” How ironic then that almost six hundred years after Tsongkhapa wrote his famous text, arguably the most prominent representative of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, should be opening this very volume when he is about to engage Western Buddhists in discussions of sexuality. Obviously, one representative of the Tibetan tradition still thinks that the Lamrim Chenmo is “true to the tradition.”

Overall, what I found in my peregrinations through the Web was that Western Buddhists were either unaware of what the classical Indian and Tibetan tradition had to say about sexuality, or, when not unaware, were ready to dismiss it because it did not jibe with their preconceptions of what the Buddhist tradition is all about.

As my research evolved and as I began to share my findings with audiences of nonspecialists (for example, lay Western Buddhists in dharma centers), I discovered a similar pattern playing itself out. I found, first, that many people were uninformed about—or simply uninterested in—what the great texts say about sexuality. Having been written in a place and time far removed from us, many Western Buddhists, I came to realize, simply see these texts as having little relevance to our sexual lives in the here and now.

I have often asked myself why my co-religionists are so willing, and indeed keen, to adopt the minute meditation instructions of the classical masters, and so quick to slough off the advice of these same masters when it comes to matters of sex.

Be that as it may, I have come to see a fundamental disconnect between what the classical Buddhist tradition has to say about sexuality and what Western Buddhists believe about the subject. I realized that much of the background and many of the ideas I was taking for granted were either unknown to my audience or were summarily rejected as “un-Buddhist.”

As I began to interact with Buddhist communities in the West, I found three problems that needed to be addressed: pervasive misinformation about what the traditional texts said; a tendency to dismiss the textual tradition; and, when not dismissed, accepting the tradition literally without feeling any need to engage in critical reflection.

At the center of these issues is a more fundamental problem that confronts all religions: the issue of authority. How much credence should we give to the ancient teachings of the tradition? What hold should these doctrines and tenets have on our lives? Before continuing with the topic of sexual ethics, here is what I believe to be one way—my way, but I believe also a Buddhist way—of dealing with the issue of authority. My method is simple to state, but often difficult to put into practice. It can be outlined in three basic points.

First, as Buddhists, we commit ourselves to learning about dharma, about doctrine. While our teachers are, for the most part, the purveyors of this information, we should not simply stop at what our teachers tell us, but rather, as the great saint Atisha said, we must always be willing “to seek more learning.” The classical texts of India and Tibet form the basis for this learning.

To turn our back on this great textual tradition—either by refusing to study it or by simply dismissing what we have learned—is to turn our back on the jewel of the doctrine, the true source of refuge. Just as important, it creates an irreconcilable rift between Western forms of Buddhism and those of Buddhist Asia, most of which use the texts as an important source of guidance.

Hiding our heads in the sand and refusing to confront the textual tradition—as difficult as this is in some cases—is not an option in my view. Nor is it an option to study the texts and then to sweep under the rug all those aspects of the textual tradition that make us uncomfortable. When we take refuge as Buddhists, we are in a sense marrying the tradition. We are committing to this tradition as a whole, with all its imperfections, the way we commit to a partner as a whole person in a relationship. This does not mean that we become blind to the imperfections of the tradition, or that we might not work for its betterment—just the contrary—but it does mean at some level accepting the tradition as a whole, for better and for worse.

Second, once we find out what the tradition has to say, we must reflect critically on this. This is chiefly the responsibility of Buddhist intellectuals—or we might say of Buddhist “theologians.” But Buddhist believers/practitioners who aren’t scholars should not be content to be spoon-fed the truth by those who say they are representing and interpreting the tradition—like baby birds being nourished with the regurgitated food from the gullets of their mothers. Rather, they should subject the theological interventions of specialists to analysis, keeping theologians honest, and making them accountable both to the tradition and to reason.

This is not to downplay the importance of faith, but as the great Indian sage Haribhadhra, commenting on Maitreya’s Ornament of Realization, reminds us, there are different types of faith. The type of faith that immediately accepts whatever one hears—even when it comes from an authoritative source, like one’s master—is considered a lesser type of faith. The higher type of faith, by contrast, is one that begins not with immediate belief but with skepticism. It is a faith that begins in doubt and then uses the power of reason to overcome that doubt and to ascertain the truth. This higher type of faith, unlike the former, is considered unshakeable. Nothing can destroy it. And once we have come to this unwavering kind of faith about a certain point of doctrine, then of course we must internalize the truth of the doctrine through the practice of meditation, so that our lives become seamless expressions of this truth.

When I sometimes find myself in disagreement with Tsongkhapa, Asanga, or Buddha, I remind myself that these great men disagreed with others who came before them, that they spoke up about what they believed, and that none asked us to follow them blindly.

Third, the process of critical reflection, as traditionally understood, is relatively narrow. Critical reflection—what in Sanskrit is called cintā—is a process of analysis that tests doctrines by determining whether they are consistent with our perceptions of the world, and whether they are rational—that is, whether good reasons can be given for accepting them.

I would argue that today we have at our disposal other tools, such as historical analysis and other concepts not found to any great extent in classical Buddhism—the concepts of justice and equality, for instance—that are just as important in the task of critically appraising the tradition. What’s more, many of the critical tools that have been developed in the West over the past decades—in fields like discourse analysis, gender studies, queer theory, and cultural studies—can be useful when critically reflecting on Buddhist doctrines, though here I think we have to be cautious in the way we appropriate these theoretical perspectives.

In the end, the authority of a Buddhist doctrinal or ethical claim—whether we are warranted in believing something or in living our lives on the basis of a certain principle—is determined by whether it passes unscathed through the critical gauntlet. This puts us at times in the position of arguing with our own teachers, with the great saints of India, and even with the Buddha himself. But so be it. When I sometimes find myself in disagreement with Tsongkhapa, Asanga, or Buddha, I remind myself that these great men disagreed with others who came before them, that they spoke up about what they believed, and that none asked us to follow them blindly.

When the Dalai Lama suggested at our meeting in San Francisco that certain aspects of the doctrine of sexual misconduct were problematic by today’s standards (such as the acceptability of married men buying the services of prostitutes), he was of course suggesting that this doctrine contained elements that were culturally and historically specific, elements that by today’s standards we would consider not only anachronistic, but indeed ethically difficult. More generally, His Holiness’s comments, it seems to me, opened up the possibility of rethinking the doctrine of sexual misconduct as a whole, encouraging us to subject the ethical norms found in the classical texts to the same type of critical scrutiny that we would any other aspect of the Buddhist tradition.

Let us recall how the doctrine of sexual misconduct was formulated in its most elaborate version. Our scholastic authors tell us that sex is unethical if it involves inappropriate partners, organs, times, or places. “Inappropriate partners,” these texts tell us, are all “protected women” (such as married women or girls who are under the protection of their parents); but inappropriate partners also include boys, men, and hermaphrodites. The list of inappropriate partners explicitly excludes prostitutes or courtesans, at least so long as they are hired directly and not through an intermediary. “Inappropriate organs” refers to the mouth, anus, hands, and in between the thighs of one’s partner—by which is meant the insertion of the penis into any orifice or fold of skin other than the vagina. “Inappropriate times” refers both to the daylight hours and to specific times in the life of one’s female partner, such as when she is menstruating, breastfeeding, or has taken the one-day precepts. Finally, under “inappropriate places,” we find a list of sites where sex is not permitted—a list that includes sacred sites, public spaces, but also the number of times that orgasm is permitted.

Part of the process of critically reflecting on such a doctrine involves paying attention to the subtleties of the text, including its gaps, what is missing. For example, something that is not at all obvious at first blush is that the presumed audience here is men. From the language used in these texts it is clear that only men are being addressed. The case of what constitutes sexual misconduct for women was simply not considered by classical Indian or Tibetan authors. That in itself is a good reason why the classical formulation of sexual ethics needs to be rethought.

Critical appraisal of the doctrine also involves understanding the context in which these ideas were elaborated. For example, we cannot take for granted that the rules found here were being put forward for the same reasons that make these actions inappropriate for us today. Though many of the elements mentioned in the texts make sense to us as moderns—such as children and others’ wives being off limits as sexual partners—we cannot presume that ancient Indian thinkers were operating with the same assumptions that make such things as pedophilia and adultery problematic for us today. Specifically, there is no indication that the texts have anything like a notion of “sexual abuse”—where it is, for example, the child who is the victim. Rather, when a man takes a young girl or the wife of another as a sexual partner, the party whose rights have been violated are the guardians: the parents of the girl and the husband, respectively. Today we operate under a different worldview that sees children and women as agents, a worldview that also understands the long-term effects of things like child sexual abuse. But this was not the same worldview motivating our authors, and understanding this aspect of context is an important part of the critical process.

Notice also that there are a number of morally reprehensible actions that we take for granted that are simply not mentioned in this formulation. For example, rape is not explicitly mentioned. While some texts do speak of inappropriate “ways” of obtaining a sexual partner (such as guile, and, yes, force), a husband’s right to his wife’s body was taken for granted, making impossible any notion of marital rape. The same appears to be true of a man’s right to a prostitute whom he has already paid. Once a woman “belongs” to a man—whether it is permanently (through marriage) or temporarily (through a sexual contract)—a woman simply loses her right to say no. Once again, the ancient authors were operating under a very different set of presuppositions than those that we operate under today.

The broader point is that a close reading which is open to gaps and committed to the unpacking of context is important in the process of critical reflection. So too, of course, is historical analysis. What do we find when the doctrine of sexual misconduct is subjected to historical scrutiny? This, to my mind, is one of the most interesting results of my research. To make a long and complex story short, what we find is that the earliest mentions of sexual misconduct in the Buddhist canon know nothing of the fourfold division into partners, organs/orifices, times, and places. Instead, in the earliest scriptural sources—the sutras—sexual misconduct is understood simply as adultery: a man taking another’s wife as a sexual partner. While still androcentric in that women’s agency is disregarded (no mention is made of women taking married men as sexual partners), this simpler formulation of the doctrine is, at least to my mind, more elegant and also more effective. I see the attempt to micromanage people’s sexual lives as a losing strategy. Lists of minute proscriptions simply kick people’s imaginations into high gear, as they begin to think about ways of getting around the letter of the law.

The obvious historical question then becomes this: If the early doctrine of sexual misconduct is so simple and elegant, when and why did it get so complex and restrictive? That is, when do we find the transition to organ/orifice mode? The answer to when is simple. We don’t find any examples of the more elaborate formulation of sexual misconduct before the third century. The answer to why requires us to think about the identity of the Indian authors who compiled the more complex versions of the doctrine. Those authors were, first of all, celibate monks, and secondly, scholastic philosophers—men who thought in terms of lists, and who wanted to cover all the bases. And why did theologians like Asanga, Vasubandhu, and others begin to elaborate lay sexual ethics precisely as they did? I believe that they chose these terms—partners, organs, orifices, times, and places—because these are the terms with which they were familiar. And why were they familiar with these categories? Because they were the categories used to discuss the breaking of rules in the monastic code, the Vinaya.

So what an historical analysis shows us is that Indian authors began to read lay sexual ethics through the lens of monastic discipline, reading monastic norms (like where penises can and cannot be inserted) into lay behavioral codes. In their exuberance to elaborate, I would argue, they went overboard, on the one hand leaving behind the earlier, more elegant, and simpler formulation of sexual misconduct, and on the other inappropriately reading lay sexual ethics through the filter of monastic discipline. The result was to make lay sexuality increasingly more restrictive and monastic-like. Now even after we’ve completed our various analyses of the subtleties of the texts, their context and history, there still remains the task of subjecting the doctrine to rational scrutiny. This obviously can take many forms. Let me give you an example so you see what I have in mind.

What, we might ask, is the purpose of the doctrine in the first place? Why should lay people refrain from engaging in sexual misconduct? The answer is probably twofold: to avoid actions that are harmful to oneself, and to avoid actions that are harmful to others. Now it is clear why an act like adultery might be considered a moral evil. It harms others by leading to psychological pain and in many cases to the breakup of stable relationships. It is harmful to oneself because it puts one’s own short-term gratification before others’ welfare. Refraining from adultery also, of course, has social benefits. But what benefits are forthcoming from the more elaborate and restrictive scholastic sexual code? What reasons can be given for restricting sex to penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse performed only at night? What possible Buddhist reason could be given for dooming gay men (and people who work at night!) to a life of celibacy while allowing heterosexual men five orgasms per night, and lesbians complete sexual freedom? Is this rational? Is it just? These are the types of questions that a reasoned analysis of the doctrine must ask.

When we put together these various aspects—philological, historical, rationalist—this is where I believe we end up: First, that there is no scriptural warrant for the more restrictive, scholastic formulation of the doctrine. It was elaborated by celibate monks who inappropriately read monastic norms into lay sexuality. The individuals who did this were great scholars and saints, but on this issue, they simply got it wrong.

Second, the doctrine, both in its earlier simplified version and in its later, more elaborate scholastic one, is androcentric (it privileges men), and is therefore unjust. Any sexual ethic worth its salt must see women and transgender people as moral agents.

And third, independent of historical or other criteria, the more elaborate doctrine cannot be justified on rational grounds.

Where Does This Leave Us?

It leaves us with the task of having to rethink sexual ethics in a way that is both rational and just—in a way that does not privilege heterosexual men, that considers the agency of women and queer people, and that does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexual tastes or anatomies. The details of this more just sexual ethics are of course something that still needs to be worked out, but at a minimum, it seems to me, it must be based on general principles like gender egalitarianism and pan-Buddhist doctrinal positions—for example, acknowledging that the body is a vehicle for pleasure, but that sexual pleasure (like all sense-pleasure) can be a source of attachment.

Such an ethic must also be based on general Buddhist moral principles like the commitment not to do harm. These are of course not full-blown answers, but hints about what a just Buddhist sexual ethic for our time should look like. Hopefully they will whet the reader’s appetite for thinking about sexuality through the medium of the great Buddhist textual tradition.

José Ignacio Cabezón

José Ignacio Cabezón

José Ignacio Cabezón is a professor of religious studies and the XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Chair in Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This teaching is adapted from his Frederick P. Lenz Distinguished Lecture given at Naropa University last September.