Sex & Buddhism

Robin Kornman argues that, unlike other religions, Buddhism doesn’t view sex as a particularly important spiritual issue.

Robin Kornman
1 July 1999
Illustration by Paul Hannon.

Robin Kornman argues that, unlike other religions, Buddhism doesn’t view sex as a particularly important spiritual issue.

I saw a Neil Simon movie in which a kindly old man taught his grandson what he called “the philosophy of batting.” The joke was half serious, because of course there is something profound about being able to hit a fastball—profound the way anything can be profound if you just give it enough attention.

It’s the same with sex, at least so far as Buddhist thought is concerned. Making love is not an important topic in the Buddhist scriptures; in fact almost nothing is said about it at all.

That’s surprising when you think of how much space Western religions give to the topic. Judaism has numerous prohibitions about how one should make love, who can do it with whom, and when it should be done. Christianity adds to this complex notions of the relationship between sex, love and marriage.

Plato and Aristotle wrote profound works on love and friendship, and Plato in particular dared to figure out in the Symposium what might be the connection between sexual desire and spiritual love. From this work, and Christian thoughts about the kind of love that Jesus taught, has grown the vast Western corpus of works on sexual philosophy. Personally, I think that D.H. Lawrence was the culmination of the Western achievement. His works explore sexuality in vivid detail and then look at its place in marriage with unrivaled precision.

But there are no general Buddhist provisions about any of these topics. Making love, as we like to call it, is in itself no more profound than any other activity.

Of course, one can make a big deal out of sex by giving it special attention. There are special tantric yogas which can transmute the mundane act of fornication into a meditation practice, but of course everything can be transmuted that way. There are contemplative approaches to eating, to walking, to calligraphy, to, in fact, everything. There is a yogic way of taking a nap and a yogic way of decorating a room. Anything can be turned into a yogic exercise if it is given special attention. Dogen Zenji’s Shobogenzo even lays down regulations for dental hygiene.

But the activities that are really important to Buddhism, and which need to be regulated, are listed as the Eightfold Path. There is, for example, Right Livelihood—prescriptions for how you make a living—and certainly there is Right Meditation and Right Mindfulness. But there is no ninth moral area called Right Sex, just as there is no Right Relationship, Right Loving or Right Marriage. These are concerns that Western religion cherishes, but towards which Buddhist religion is utterly neutral, because they do not relate directly to the path which leads to enlightenment. Being a bad lover, an adulterous lover, an unfaithful lover, a crude lover, a sick, twisted lover or an inept lover will not per se delay one’s progress on the path. Being a skilled lover, an honest lover, a direct, frank and kind lover, will not speed one along the path.

This, I believe, is the fundamental Buddhist approach to sexuality. It is seen as an activity that does not especially relate to the spiritual path, although it may be bent in that direction in the way any human activity can be made into a yoga. For this reason, in the general Buddhist moral system there are few rules about sex one way or the other. In fact, sex is hardly a topic in any Buddhist scripture, just as marriage is almost never mentioned by Buddhist texts in a moral context.

Of course, some people think that because Buddhist monks cannot make love, this means the general Buddhist view is that sex is bad. This might be implied in the general Christian views of monasticism, but it is not the Buddhist approach. The monastic code is not a moral imperative for lay people. When Buddhist monks turn away from sex, they are not turning their backs on evil.
Buddhist monks shun sexuality in the same way they shun all ordinary activities. Their clothes are regulated to a single three- piece garment; their meals are regulated to just breakfast and lunch; their commercial life is regulated to nothing. This is not because Buddhist doctrine thinks there is anything innately bad or immoral about fashionable clothes, business or sex, but just because the monastic approach is to drop life activities in order to increase concentration on meditation practice.

The idea behind Christian monasticism may be different. The Christian monk’s decision to forego sex seems to be eschewing evil and embracing good, turning away from the post-lapsarian (after the fall) world to God’s world. Certainly reading St. Paul’s letters to his congregations, one gets the idea that people make a moral choice when they decide to have sex or marry, rather than direct all their love through charity and faith to God and his children at large. There is a sense among many Christian sects of a moral imperative to abandon individual love for a more ascetic life.

This approach is based on a distinction Plato made which was embraced by the Christians as well—the difference between eros, or sexual love, and agape, divine love. That the two are related Plato had not doubt—eros and agape are both love of beauty— but agape is love of the highest beauty, beauty in itself, unconnected with the inconvenient flesh. And so, as Socrates’ instructor tells him, it’s best to transcend young boys and turn to the highest pure beauty.

St. Paul seems to follow Plato when he evokes agape and not eros in his famous “First Letter to the Corinthians,” verse 13, one of the most beautiful things ever written about love. Christians should abandon the lower love, or perhaps transmute it into the higher love—to let sexual desire grow into “true love,” and that into “godly love.”

But Buddhism has no such ladder to the stars; it does not cherish such distinctions. It seems that Buddhists are simply saying, “We think you can leave sex out of religion. You can be involved in sex and confused by it your whole life and still make good spiritual progress. You do not have to get rid of every philosophical conundrum to be a buddha.”

How could Buddhist philosophers get along without having an opinion on a subject which is so central to Western morality? It is because of how Buddhism defines identity. Judaism, for example, is very concerned with regulating sexual activity to the most pro- creative contexts because it is very important to semetic religions to keep track of who the father is. To know your family is the first step in knowing yourself, and unless you know your father, you cannot know your family. From this point of view, the purpose of marriage is to control sexual activity which, if left unregulated, would take away a person’s identity.

But in Buddhist narratives identity does not flow from the family, but from previous incarnations and membership in a community of practitioners. When the original disciples became monks, they left their castes and their patriarchally defined families, and entered the family of the Buddha. This was so important to Buddhism that in the Uttaratantra Shastra, buddhanature itself was called “the family”—the rig in Tibetan, the gotra in Sanskrit. Since this family is the important one, and lineal descent from a guru or a previous incarnation provides the truly important aspect of a person’s identity, sex and marriage—the determiners of family identity— need not be regulated.

There are, of course, places in the Buddhist commentaries where sexual laws are laid down. We do not discuss them very much because the prohibitions are hard to take seriously—they seem half-hearted and plagued with idiosyncrasy. For example, Patrul Rinpoche evinces a few sexual rules in The Words of My Perfect Teacher. One should not make inappropriate sex; this would include fornicating in the daylight and masturbation. Patrul Rinpoche is very specific about the negative karmic consequences of masturbation. This must give one pause.

Buddhist tantra, on the other hand, does seem to emphasize physical sex a great deal, a misapprehension that has excited generations of frustrated and horny Western scholars. Compassion alone would dictate that we correct their view. It must be terrible to think of one’s sex life—an innately confused and complicated thing—as a spiritual matter, transferring the unavoidable complexities of sex to the spiritual path.

The problem Westerners have in reading Buddhist tantra is that they cannot tell allegory from literal speech. In the nineteenth century, the West discovered the existence of Hindu and Buddhist tantra—paths that like Western alchemy emphasize transmutation of the ordinary into the spiritual. Tantric iconography includes representations of fornicating deities, usually with multiple heads and limbs (although strangely enough, their sexual organs are always true to life), and it was perhaps for this reason that Western scholars thought tantra had something to do with sex.

This misunderstanding has since passed in and out of fashion in the West. In the 1970s, it was customary to say that sex in tantra was merely allegorical, a matter of abstract metaphysical ideas represented in an iconic code of fantastically shaped bodies. But in the 1990s, the old Victorian misapprehension that tantric iconography is about sex has moved back into fashion, as people seek endorsement in tantra for their own sexual liberalism.

The sexual thangkas are just as allegorical as the thangkas that show wrathful deities sacrificing live animals and eating human flesh. If these things were even 1% literal, Buddhism would be a religion of enraged, horny maniacs.

We would not make the same mistake about Western religion’s use of sexual imagery. The “Song of Solomon” is indeed a sexy work; in many of the songs a woman seeks her lover, yearns after him, and finally lays down with him in love. St. John of the Cross imitates the “Song of Songs” in his “Spiritual Canticle,” when he evokes the monk’s search in prayer for union with God. St. John represents himself as the bride and God as the groom; the element of sex represents the intensity of the seeker’s desire and the penetrating, explosive quality of the union with the divine, not sensual experience.

Understanding the allegory, we do not think that St. John of the Cross was a lascivious cross-dresser racing across the Spanish countryside in search of likely men. Not understanding the code, we misread Buddhist texts that use sexual imagery. The rows of male and female deities “in union” that we see in Tibetan temples are allegorical representations of states of enlightenment, coded descriptions of the nature of absolute mind and the phenomenal world.

There is indeed a secret sexual yoga. When all allegories are removed, the fact remains that a few people do have a very hidden practice that should never have been discussed in public—a practice in which the act of fornication is turned into a meditation practice. I am sure this is possible, because I do a practice in which eating is converted into meditation, and if eating can work that way, anything can.

But I do not trust the public books on tantric sexual yoga. It is a practice done so rarely that I do not know for a fact that I have ever met anyone who did it. From what I know of the secret texts, every public book I have ever read is wrong—a fanciful blending of wishful thinking, Hindu sex postures, and bits from the Hindu tantras which have been translated into English.

It may be that Tibetan Buddhists know something about the relationship between the psychic channels and sexual experience. The nadis (channels) regulate most biological activities—breathing, defecation, even thinking—and it would be interesting to delve into tantra enough to discover what this science says about sex. This is, however, secret material, and the few scholars who are learned enough to produce translations of the secrets have not done so.

Jeffrey Hopkins, in his two books on tantric sex, seems to give away secrets, but he does not. His first book, Tibetan Arts of Love, is a a translation of a speculative commentary on Hindu sex manuals by a lay scholar famous for his innovative thought in Tibetan philosophy and historiography, Gendün Chöpel. Hopkins’ translation does not tell us what the traditional Buddhist tantric view of sex might have been, because the work he is translating, written in this century, is in every way an innovation. It is quite interesting, however. What it tells us is that we should reread the Kama Sutra, and delve more deeply into Hindu approaches to sexual enjoyment. Gendün Chöpel’s work is fascinating and belongs on the shelf next to other modernist thinkers, such as D.H. Lawrence and Alfred North Whitehead.

Hopkins’ second book, Sex, Orgasm, and the Mind of Clear Light is his own speculation based on Gendün Chöpel and the Hindu sex manuals. A close examination of the book finds very few ideas which can really be traced back to Buddhism. The interesting thing about the book is Hopkins’ translation of Hindu heterosexual sex postures into “gay male love” postures. It does not represent Tibetan ideas about sex and would certainly shock any Tibetan lama, but, in the spirit of Gendun, it is very creative. This is Hopkins’ own work, not the tradition, and it should be judged on its own merits.

There is one section with which I must disagree. Here it is: “On the walls of Tibetan temples there are paintings of males with erect phallus and paintings of male/female couples in sexual union. Sex is clearly not separate from religion. Why this religion is so sex-friendly stems first of all from a recognition that everyone wants happiness and does not want suffering.”

Hopkins is wrong to take those paintings on the walls of Tibetan temples as a sign that Buddhism sees sex as a road to happiness. They are there as code representations of metaphysical doctrines. Sex is not a road to happiness, any more than eating or watching television is a road to happiness. He is wrong to call Buddhism sex-friendly; it is sex-neutral. To a person concerned with Western obstructions to sexual activity, neutrality may seem a tremendously positive thing, but if the Tibetans were really friendly towards sex, they would not have to rely on Hindu sex manuals when they wanted to be scholarly about sex.

Ordinarily, I would not criticize a man of Hopkins’ scholarship, intelligence, integrity and creativity. But in this case his recent writings join a host of more blamable works that have all tended to give a false impression of Buddhist sexuality. For instance, I was recently interviewed by an Austrian radio station seeking an opinion on one of the more misleading works of this genre—an insane 800-page diatribe about the Dalai Lama, sexuality, mind control, and the Kalachakra Tantra.

The work is a psychotic fantasy, but we have to go to the trouble to refute it. A decade ago I could have simply said that no serious scholar would ever associate the teachings of the Dalai Lama’s tradition with ordinary human sexuality. Now, the recent innovative writings of Tibetanists—writers who seek the unnecessary endorsement of tantra for their positions on feminism, liberated gender roles, or free sexual activity— have set the stage for the more grotesque misreadings which have now begun to multiply.

Robin Kornman

Robin Kornman

Robin Kornman, PH.D., was a professor of comparative literature and a Tibetan Buddhist translator. He studied Slavic literature and Eastern European government, and was a Library of Congress fellow in international studies.