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[ Ethical Culture and Self Discipline ]

Sex and the Lay Buddhist

See also the discussion: Cracking the Code

This is a subject that has not been discussed much on the Buddhist discussion boards.

Until the time comes when one has actually seen rebirth as it is, seen for one's own self that one has experienced virtually every single life form and style of being, and has seen that this is a process which has gone on forever and ever into the past, one does not really see Dukkha as it really is.

It is possible here and now for an ordinary intelligent individual to see that life carries with it certain misery and that it ends inevitably in death.

It is possible to understand intellectually that ending is something that cannot be avoided by that which comes to be (we can understand that that which has come to be is subject to Time, and that Time dictates beginning, middle, and end).

What we cannot know by imagining it is what it feels like[1] to consciously become aware of the experience of the utter crushing boredom (not to mention the terror) of the process.

In the same way as in almost every case the black box retrieved after an airline crash reveals the last words of the pilots to be "Shit!", the last words of a being about to be reborn are almost always: "Oh, No! Not Again!"

That is the Real Dukkha.[2]

Abstaining from sex has nothing to do with guilt.

I, for the most part, eat one meal a day from one bowl (a huge enameled metal plate ... haha), before noon. Since I am under no obligation to anyone, or by oath or vow to do this, there are occasions when I eat twice in a day or more often or in another way break the pattern. At such a time I experience exactly the same sensations that I was raised in this society to believe are the guilty feelings associated with indulging in sex. Utterly incorrect.

It is not really important to analyze the components of this "emotion." I believe that it is unconscious awareness that a path leading to the unknown has been abandoned for a path leading to the known ... i.e. "again becoming" bhava.

For the Buddhist Bhikkhu, there is no arguing with the rules laid out by Gotama.[3] The Bhikkhu, who, without resigning from the Order first, penetrates mouth, anus, or vagina (of female, male, monkey or other animal, or deva, etc. — or who, if female or male, allows such) to even a tiny degree[4] is banished from the Saṅgha, never to be allowed back again in this life.[5]

Masturbation is considered to be a serious offence within the rules of the Saṅgha. For the layman it is a matter of logic that masturbation is a lesser involvement than intercourse, so if you are working on the issue you can consider it progress to have moved in that direction.[6]

These rules are laid on for two types of reasons: the first is for the sake of producing an atmosphere within the order most conducive to attaining the goal. The second is to cut off possible criticisms by the laity (who wish their gifts in support to be as advantageous as possible and therefore to be in support of those willing to undertake the course in its entirety.)

For the Buddhist Bhikkhu, the issue is not guilt over having indulged in sex, it is an issue of having broken one's oath and the way that that must be dealt with in order for an individual's misconduct not to reflect on the Order proper.

Abstaining from sex has everything to do with avoiding rebirth.

Sexual indulgence is the pathway to rebirth. But this is not to be understood to mean that one becomes one's own child or that sort of thing (although we are dealing with a world whose limits are set only by the imagination, thus such a thing is possible and has been heard of before). What is to be understood by this is that sexual indulgence "conditions" a yielding to sexual indulgence.

At death, after the break up of the elements, the consciousness element, attached to a personal identification to seeking after food (Āhara), either material food, sense stimulation, intention, or consciousness, is in what we would call a "very plastic" condition. It is not limited to "my body", but is free to flow toward its objective unhindered by normal laws of physics, or social norms. "Flow" being the operative term.

The individual who has not practiced abstention for a long while, or who is one who has not attained Arahantship, is, in this "fantasy" state, highly subject to the temptations of his secret desires should they present themselves, or to reaction to the fear he is experiencing upon discovering that he is disembodied and "dead". In both cases consciousness hastens to attach itself to those little guys and gals that are the building blocks of renewed life.[6a]

The real issue is training to abstain:
the one big difference between Buddhism and other religions.

If one accepts the Truth of Dukkha, then there is one major difference between Buddhism and other religions: Other religions make one promise on which they cannot deliver: everlasting life in bliss.

From the view of one who is actually seeing Dukkha as it really is, but who has not yet ... um ... penetrated through to the knowledge of the ending of Dukkha and the way to do it, there is only one reaction to discovering that one has been following the path of someone who has been making false promises of eternal salvation: at best one can see for such an individual only a path to damnation for having misled one in such a serious matter.

Here, in this Dhamma and Discipline, we are told the unpleasant truth and when we fail to abide by the behavior indicated, and consequently fail to attain the goal, we do not blame the teacher, but our own weaknesses.

This is a blessing beyond calculation: that is to say that when we fail, we can retain faith in the system and not turn to anger, hedonistic self indulgence and nihilistic beliefs, but can simply start again.

The Lay of the Land

Because procreation by human beings is a source of opportunity for one's ancestors seeking life, the individual of little faith and understanding is encouraged when considering engaging in sexual intercourse to do it with the intent of producing offspring. The other course, engaging in sexual indulgence for pleasure's sake alone is discouraged on two grounds: it is a waste of energy (that could be used to produce and care for offspring), and such an individual is not training himself for the goal.[7]

Short of entering the Order on the one side and participating in family life on the other side, the lay individual who is dedicated to the path should look after his parents and train himself in abstention.

Failing absolute abstention: he delights in memories and thoughts of women.

Failing satisfaction with memories and thoughts of women: he delights in sights and sounds of women.

Failing satisfaction with sights and sounds of women: he delights in the touch, scent and taste of women.

Failing satisfaction with the touch, scent and taste of women while abstaining from sexual intercourse, he should consider participating in family life, or immediately commence once again to train himself in abstention. (And similarly for women.)[8]




M: Is it in actual practice that it is comparatively easier to abstain from sexual intercourse than to abstain from touch? And comparatively easier to abstain from touch than to abstain from delighting in sight, sounds and scents? And abstaining from delight in memories and thoughts of women being the most difficult?

This grouping is organized according to the degree of attachment involved at each level - in other words, yes, each level is more difficult to give up than the one before.

To attain the level of Non-Returner and above, sexual intercourse proper will have to have been given up; to become Arahant, even attachment to the memories and thoughts, sights and sounds, touch, scent and taste of a woman will have been given up.

M: This means, theoretically at least, it is possible for those who engage in sexual intercourse (read people in family life) to achieve levels of Streamwinner and Once Returner. But is it really possible in practice for lay people to achieve those levels?

There are hundreds of examples of lay Streamwinners in the suttas (there are not that many Once Returners mentioned, which has lead some to the belief that this was a category of late origin). Additionally, there are examples of lay non-returners and even lay Arahants (but these latter two will have given up sexual attachments and the other attachments that are the signs of these levels).

There are a lot of myths that have arisen over the difficulty of various aspects of the Pāḷi path. We in the so called "west" have been told for a hundred years now that we could never understand the eastern mind, that Buddhism will never become established in the west; Buddhists have been being told that the jhānas are unattainable, that Arahantship became unattainable after 500 years after the Buddhas death; that magic powers are unattainable; that Stream-entry is beyond reach, let alone the higher stages. Let us just say that there are quite a few groups that profit from such myths, and that those who depend on the views of others for an explanation of their own weaknesses find them convenient.

Forget those ideas; why would the Buddha himself have taken such pains that this material be preserved so accurately if it was going to be impossible to attain? And why would he have said that it could be done? And why would he have said: "Let not the world be without Arahants"? And on and on and on. You, yourself have said (see link just below): "Please do not misunderstand me for asking this question, I know that I have not abandoned the lower three fetters and thus cannot be a Streamwinner ..." This remark indicates an understanding of the most critical factors of Streamwinning. How far from being a Streamwinner can you be with such an understanding? How difficult is it for us to say of you: "Possessing such understanding and such desire for achievement, is this man not clearly on the path to Streamwinning? Does this not make him a Streamwinner according to the definition discussed at:
Four Characteristics of the Streamwinner?"

In that discussion and in numerous other places, the Streamwinner is described as an individual with such faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Saṇgha that he cannot be shaken from this faith. (In other words, all that is really required is that he not cling to views of self; not that he clearly see non-self).

So the answer is, yes it is really possible in practice for people to achieve these levels; it has been done before, I am sure it is being done now, and I am sure it will be done for a long time into the future. We have not even come close to that time when there are only one or two lines of true Dhamma left out there.[9]

M: Speaking for myself from my personal experience, I find delighting in sight and thought of females to be most difficult an hurdle to overcome.

Right from the time when I was young to the present, I "delighted" in the above two sense impressions more than the others. I thought nothing much about my tendencies but now they make more sense. Could you please suggest specific ways to help overcome this hurdle because I find myself battling against it all the time and not always winning.

When confronted with something humorous, we are permitted to smile if we do not show our teeth or raise the corners of our mouths more than about a quarter inch. ...

First and foremost I suggest you let go of any worry or guilt about this matter. That does not mean let go of your effort, but it sounds to me as though you are carrying extra weight that has nothing to do with the actual task.

Second, I suggest you consider the order of the attachments;[10] while not giving up your efforts to abstain, your first priority should be to secure your position as a Streamwinner — namely to be working on a solid foundation free from:

Sakkaya-ditthi: The One Truth View: Holding the view that any one way of seeing the self is the one true way and that all other ways are false.

Vicikiccha: Doubt (specifically about Dukkha, about the origin of Dukkha, about the ending of Dukkha, and about the Way)

Silabbataparamaso: Foolish beliefs that good deeds, ethical culture, ritual or ceremony will bring an end to Dukkha, Pain, or will free one from the effects of Kamma.

It is from here that a certain degree of safety is assured that will make the rest of the job easier.

Now, to answer your question: A couple of techniques I find very effective:

At the very first sign of sexual thinking entering your mind, switch immediately to something else (Dhamma study is very helpful — Review the disadvantages), do not allow the thought to enter, banish it. And, additionally, don't spend a lot of time banishing it!

Get rid of anything you are able to get rid of[11] that is associated with sexual thoughts.

For both of these you need to be very aware of yourself: This being, that becomes; this absent, that does not become.

Find others who are making this same effort and avoid those who would encourage you in the Other direction.

Simultaneously refine your taste in women excluding even the thought of being satisfied with less than the perfect object of desire while developing a keen observation of the unpleasant factors associated with womankind. (Women should do the converse.)

Is that ten steps yet? No. You get the idea: work at it, get creative with it: working at it and getting creative with it are occupying your mind with something else. That's the trick.

When you fail in your efforts do not give it a second thought but immediately start again.

I have found the statement that the Buddha made about the fact that he who indulges in pleasures of the senses is simply a fool to be a very helpful spur to waking me up to the fact that what is really going on when yielding to sensual thoughts is just simply foolish self-indulgence. I dislike thinking of myself as a fool.


[1] Meaning not the sensations, but the emotional reaction.

[2] Since this was written I have modified my position with regard to making such absolute statements. Dukkha is dukkha; meaning that pain is pain however it is experienced. My intent here remains: to caution one and all against thinking that what one now experiences as pain is acceptable given its discomfort relative to the pleasures of life: Pain is pain, but what one experiences as pain is not necessarily the full scope of pain.

[3] In this Dhamma and Discipline, the students do not dictate to the teachers.

[4] The length of the width of three hairs.

[5] The rule does not apply if he or she is raped unless during the course of the rape they begin to willingly participate (and, just to be clear, that does not mean just simply the enjoyment of the sensations that may happen to occur — I have heard that women who have been raped find one of the most difficult things to comprehend is the fact that they experienced orgasms during the course of the rape; this is not considered participation — for participation there must be intent to participate, such as with a willful, deliberate movement intended to stimulate, increase or continue the pleasure; this body is not one's own! It will react to stimulation, whether one participates or not).

[6] This is not generally the case in this society today (USA Saturday, March 08, 2003 9:19 AM) although with the growing consciousness of the deadly dangers of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, and with the increased financial strains caused to the state by broken families and single parent families, there is a growing understanding that masturbation is a better alternative than pre-marital sex. Earlier here, and still in many countries around the world, it was generally considered worse to masturbate than to have consensual sex outside of marriage (as with a prostitute ... no relief being provided for women except early marriage and a blind eye to the fact that they too have masturbation as an option).

[6a] Well, this is for human and some animal births, in the case of other forms of life the identification is made with other things or may just be made with the future form to be assumed.

[7] There is another set of reasons given in the discussion of the training precept not to engage in sexual intercourse that is prohibited: This is sexual intercourse that creates anger in another or in the community, such as:
intercourse with another man's wife or under age daughter or
with a woman who is engaged to be married, or
with a child still living with its parents or
with a child living under the protection of "the stick" — what we would call the Protection of the State — or
with a woman who is considered to belong to a powerful individual.
These reasons have more to do with living without creating bad kamma than they have to do with training one's self for the goal.

[8] [AN 7 47]

Outright Indulgence [italicized headings inserted]
Having sexual relations.
Enjoying being rubbed, massaged, bathed, shampooed.
Enjoys joking, jesting, making merry with the opposite sex.
Eye on Eye they burn for each other
Enjoys listening to them laugh talk, sing or weep from behind a wall
Memory and Thought
Recollects the laughter, talk, singing or weeping, jesting of former times
He watches another enjoying the pleasures of the senses in full
He lives celibate with the desire of rebirth amongst gods who experience pleasure.

Any one of these seven signs is taken to be indicative of involvement with sexual desire and being not beyond rebirth and dukkha.

And, M quotes:

From the section on "Compendium of Bases" on pgs 144-145 of "A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, The Abhidhammattha Sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha" of which Bhikkhu Bodhi is General Editor: "In the fine-material world the three bases of nose, tongue and body — the supports for the corresponding types of sensuous experience — are absent, since these types of sense experience are coarser in quality than the other two (sight and hearing) and thus are excluded from this elevated plane."

[9] See: DhammaTalk: Sasana for discussion of the time when True Dhamma is said to have come to an end.

[10] See "The Ten Fundamental Attachments)

[11] Here I am not just speaking of thoughts: here in the USA our newspapers and magazines are filled with sexually provocative pictures — unsubscribe; avoid TV; watch your diet! many foods and most herbal supplements and drugs stimulate sexual desire — this is partly by their nature and partly by conditioning: the manner in which we habitually use extra energy, however we get it; if the porno e-mail solicitations on your computer are too tempting to let go, give up the computer, or at least take drastic measures to set up an e-mail account that is free from such annoyances ... the list is very long!

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