The Difference Between Buddhism and Christianity II: Sexual Ethics

Classic Tantra Yab Yum Position

Yab yum symbolism in tantric Buddhist art (Tibet, Nepal, India) is a classic representation of mystical bodily experience and divine union through polar opposites

Christian sexual ethics are fairly simple: Don’t. But if you can’t help yourself, get married first. And then only do it with your spouse, and as often as is necessary to prevent either from straying from the marriage (1 Corinthians 7: 1-39).

Buddhist sexual ethics on the other hand, are more flexible. In general, Buddhist morality is driven by one idea – Do No Harm – that is articulated in five precepts: 1) Abstain from killing 2) Abstain from taking what is not given 3) Avoid sexual misconduct 4) Abstain from false speech 5) Abstain from drinking intoxicants.

Clearly then, the 3rd precept simply means to carry out sex in a way that it causes no harm. Specifically, the Buddha advised men not to sleep with another man’s wife. And that’s it. Buddhism doesn’t find anything inherently wrong with sex.

In practice, though, Buddhist sexual ethics are complicated by its monastic code (Vinaya) and its demands for celibacy. The Buddha himself was married and had a son by his wife, whom he named Rahula.  If nomenclature signifies anything, Rahula means fetter. The Buddha abandoned his wife and son to follow the ascetic life of a forest-dweller. As we know from his biography, the Buddha was not successful in finding what he was looking for as an ascetic. Once he returned from the forest, he accepted his son into the monastic order that developed around him, and kept up good relations with his wife.  However celibacy as tied to religious striving was, by the time of the Buddha, well incorporated into social practice and the Buddhist order preserved it.

In Therevada (Hinayana), the potential to achieve nirvana is restricted to those who enter the monastic order (Mahayana overturned this orthodoxy), and a monk who lives a life free from all attachment represents the ideal.

He who has realized the Truth, Nirvana, is the happiest being in the world. He is free from all complexes and obsessions, the worries and troubles that torment others. His mental health is perfect. He does not repent the past, nor does he brood over the future. He lives fully in the present. Therefore he appreciates and enjoys things in the purest sense without self-projections. He is joyful, exultant, enjoying the pure life, his faculties pleased, free from anxiety, serene and peaceful.

As he is free from selfish desire, hatred, ignorance, conceit, pride, and all such defilements, he is pure and gentle, full of universal love, compassion, kindness, sympathy, understanding and tolerance. His service to others is of the purest, for he has no thought of self. He gains nothing, accumulates nothing, not even anything spiritual, because he is free from the illusion of Self, and the ‘thirst’ for becoming (Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught).

As a result, Buddhism is divided between an “uncompromising moral rigorousness” and the need to awaken to the truth of desire in order to “transmute” it (Bernard Faure, The Red Thread). In other words non-attachment hangs in recognition and observance between sexual repression and sexual indulgence, or, as in all things Buddhist, between craving and aversion.

Nagarjuna further elaborated Buddhism’s fundamental paradox, by introducing the Two Truths doctrine in his famous Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, or Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way.  He interpreted the Buddha’s teachings to suggest that two truths, the conventional and the ultimate, exist. Neither violates the other, meaning both are equally true, however, ultimate truth transcends the perspective of conventional, or “all-too-human” mundane, truth. Nagarjuna and Madhyamika (Middle Way school) sit at the fault lines between all the major schools of Buddhism. He’s not called the second Buddha for nothing: on one hand his dynamic thought cast Buddhism forward into a massive transformation, on the other hand he introduced a duality that sits in uneasy tension with the Buddha’s insistence that that truth (Dharma) is innate and available to everyone.  Nagarjuna’s resolution to this problem of course is distinctly Buddhist, but too complicated to express here.

Of note, in the full blossoming of Mahayana, the ultimate truth can be achieved through moral transgression, and it can be found in the mundane details of life. As a result, Mahayana sutras contain many stories of people who lived outrageously licentious lifestyles but still achieved nirvana, while others who lived piously were unsuccessful.

Vimalakirti SutraThe Vimalakīrti Sutra is a prime example of Buddhist thinking on this topic. It was written around 100 AD to clarify the Mahayana principle of non-duality. In it, prostitutes, even, can be bodhisattvas, able to use skillful means within this role to help others achieve enlightenment.

He may manifest himself as a prostitute. Enticing those who enjoy sensuality. First enticing them with desire, and later causing them to enter the wisdom of the Buddha (VIII:32)

Notice the emphasis on transformation, time and meeting people where they are at in their view of the world. Of course, the sutra takes the perspective of an enlightened person (bodhisattva) ‘looking down’ with compassion on those who suffer in order to help them find greater awareness. Yes, Buddhism is aristocratic, it was formulated by a man from India’s warrior caste, but in this sutra, there is no point in life for anyone at which transformation, healing and freedom cannot begin. Sex, in this context is as good as any other place to start. And if there is a progression from it and onto another level of awareness, that is good too.

More yab yum at tantric temples in Khajuraho, India

Famous yab yum at UNESCO World Heritage Site Khajuraho, India.

Vajrayana, tied the sexual aspects (among other things) of Indian tantra to the Mahayana system (innate Buddha nature)  – in the esoteric schools and Tibetan Buddhism (700 AD).

The monastic orders focus on symbolic union of principles, rather than on any actual mystical sexual encounters (though I hear there is quite a bit more sex going on in Tibetan Buddhism than we generally think), so this type of Buddhism has traveled quite far from the fundamental doctrine of anatman, or no self, or non-essentialism, but they still identify as Buddhist.

Myself, I don’t know if women would want to embrace this type of Buddhism, because of the pressure to essentialize and the typical attribution of passivity to the female principle (or nature) and activity to the male principle. But Vajrayana is one of the few Buddhist traditions openly appreciative of women.

As for the new age sexual practices associated with it …. anything that makes a better lover is fine with me.



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