A Buddhist’s Guide to Safe Sex
In our capacity as Buddhist teachers we are sometimes asked questions regarding the role of sex in Buddhist practice. In the last few months, we have also received several requests for us to write a post on this subject. The nature of these questions and/or requests generally relate to misunderstandings as to the Buddhist teachings on this subject. Specifically, it appears that there is uncertainty over what appear to be conflicting Buddhist teachings regarding how a Buddhist practitioner should relate to sex so that it does not become an obstacle to spiritual awakening. Therefore, in today’s post we provide our perspective on the role of sex in Buddhist practice and provide five recommendations to help individuals contextualise and/or engage in sexual activity in a manner that is conducive to spiritual practice:
1. Have sex responsibly: The Buddha did not provide extensive details as to what constitutes having responsible sex and what sexual activity was acceptable or inappropriate. However, the sentiment of the Buddha’s teachings on sex (and on life more generally) were that nobody should ever be hurt or abused as a result of a sexual encounter. This not only includes the individuals having sexual intercourse but also includes anybody else that might be adversely affected. For example, before two people have sex together, they should ensure that an unwanted child will not be born as a result of their actions. Similarly, promiscuous sex should also be avoided because it invariably causes suffering for all concerned. We have always taught that sex within the context of a loving and stable relationship is the most ideal situation. However, if this is not possible then it is important to at least make sure that nobody is taken advantage of or hurt as a result of a sexual encounter.
2. Don’t turn sex into something it isn’t: We are not sure whether any credible research has been conducted to determine the average number of people per day in the world that have sexual intercourse. However, since there are credible estimates of the number of babies born each day in the world, then we can be fairly certain that at least twice this number of people in the world have sex on any given day. For example, current estimates place the birth rate at approximately 370,000 new born babies each day. This means that about nine months prior to this, approximately 740,000 people had sexual intercourse (this does not take into account babies that were born due to artificial insemination, premature births, or instances where twins or triplets were born). However, common sense tells us that in reality, the figure is much higher because not all acts of sexual intercourse result in the birth of a child. Some explanations for this might be that: (i) the act of sexual intercourse was between individuals of the same sex, (ii) contraception was used, (iii) one or both of the individuals had fertility issues, and (iv) there was a miscarriage or the foetus was aborted.
The reason for emphasising the fact that sex is very common is to help us see sex for what it is and not to assign it more importance than it warrants. As human beings, we have certain biological needs. We need to eat, drink water, sleep, and go to the toilet. At the point human beings reach the pubescent stage, the human body also has a biological need to discharge sexual energy. If any of the aforementioned biological needs are not addressed in one way or another, then sooner or later discomfort and pain arise. There are various ways an individual can deal with the build-up of sexual energy in the body, of which having sexual intercourse or masturbation are probably the most obvious (but there are also other means depending on a person’s level of meditative awareness and their familiarity with the various gross and subtle energies in their body). Nevertheless, the point is that just like eating or going to the toilet, sex is neither a wholesome nor an unwholesome act, and it is neither important nor unimportant. The way in which sex is viewed by an individual (and society) depends entirely on the level of importance and meaning they assign to it. The energy that is created and discharged during sex can be incredibly pleasurable, and sex is also necessary for bringing new life into the world. However, it seems to us that sex is afforded too much significance in modern society and this has actually cheapened this otherwise natural and neutral aspect of human behaviour. In other words, sex has become such a big part of peoples’ thoughts and conversation and has been given so much importance, that it has been debased and become unimportant.
3. Practice mindful sex: Research demonstrates that there are various health benefits associated with practising mindfulness. The Buddha did not teach that the idea was to practice mindfulness when engaging in some activities but not in others. Rather, he taught that mindfulness should be practised at all times. Therefore, when you are having sex, try to do so mindfully. We are not aware of a program of empirical research that has investigated whether mindful sex heightens sexual pleasure, but there are preliminary research findings indicating that mindfulness can improve sexual dysfunction (see further reading list below). The way to practice mindful sex is – as with all other forms of mindfulness practice – to be fully aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily movements, and bodily sensations during and after sexual intercourse. In other words, mindful sex involves the individual becoming a participating observer. They fully participate in the act of having sex but allow a certain perceptual distance to be introduced between them and the psychosomatic experience of sexual intercourse. This prevents the act of sex and the powerful feelings and sensations that it produces from causing the spiritual practitioner to lose their meditative awareness and to succumb to mindless ways of thinking and behaving.
4. Don’t reject the experience of having sex: Some Buddhist practitioners take vows of celibacy in relation to sexual activity. If, for example, a Buddhist nun or monk has taken a vow of celibacy, then it is very important that they honour that vow. However, for individuals that have not taken such vows, it is essential not to consider the act of having sex as something that happens outside of one’s spiritual practice. The Buddha taught that a mind intoxicated with desire for sensual and/or sexual pleasure is not conducive to spiritual awakening. Despite this, the Buddha certainly never implied that the act of having sex was wrong in and of itself. As we discussed in our post on False Spiritual Economy, the crucial point is not to become attached to any objects or experiences that we encounter – including sex. Attachment and/or desire are considered to be primary mental poisons in Buddhism and will definitely present an obstacle to spiritual growth. In fact, as our colleague and friend Professor Mark Griffiths has written extensively about on his own blog, it is actually possible for people to become so preoccupied with sex that they eventually become addicted to it.
The exact same principle applies to being averse to having sex as it does to being attached to it. If a person rejects the sexual feelings and energy that they experience, then they are effectively rejecting a part of their being and introducing a degree of conflict or resistance into their mind. It is for this reason that in place of the path of celibacy advocated by certain Buddhist monastic traditions, other (mostly tantric) Buddhist approaches advocate accepting sexual energy and using it as a means of making spiritual progress. The point in tantric Buddhism is for the spiritual practitioner to accept and work with sexual energy but in such a manner that they use it as a means of realising the inherent emptiness of all that exists (including feelings of sexual pleasure). However, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the fairly graphic nature of some of the tantric Buddhist teachings means that they can be easily abused or misunderstood. The tantric teachings relating to sex and sexual energy are intended for experienced meditation practitioners that have already acquired advanced levels of spiritual insight and that are already well on the path to enlightenment. Despite this and due to not keeping their egos under control, some Buddhist practitioners and teachers automatically assume that they are already at an advanced stage of meditation practice and use these tantric teachings as an excuse to behave irresponsibly (i.e., they think they can go around sleeping with anybody and everybody and they lose sight of their original goal).
5. Enjoy the wonder of sex: As discussed above, the way in which we relate to sex largely depends on the level of meaning and importance that we assign to it. In other words, it is basically up to us whether sex and our thoughts and behaviours in relation to it becomes something that advances spiritual development or impedes it. Given this choice, it is completely within the power of every spiritual practitioner to turn sex into a wholesome practice and conduct. The way to do this is to load the act of having sex not just with mindful awareness but with positive and compassionate intentions. Sex can be a way for people to be intimate together, to be naked as human beings, and to show love and kindness. If one loads the act of having sex with such positive intentions and awareness, then it becomes a spiritual act. The same applies to everything we do. If a person eats or goes to the toilet with spiritual awareness and a compassionate intention, then these actions also become spiritually productive.
We sometimes observe Buddhist teachers attempt to side-step questions or requests for advice relating to sex. However, sex is a part of human existence and so we definitely don’t need to be afraid of it or steer away from talking about it just because we consider ourselves to be spiritual practitioners. Becoming comfortable with sex and knowing how to relate to it helps us to grow in wisdom and confidence as spiritual practitioners. In other words, if we are a person that wants to take spiritual practice seriously, we have to accept, love, and be comfortable talking and working with everything that we encounter in life. Therefore, if a Buddhist practitioner so wishes, they can certainly make use of sex as part of their spiritual practice. They can also fully enjoy and intricately experience the natural wonder of sex. This is very different than the person that becomes preoccupied with sex and uses it as an excuse to engender lustful, disrespectful, or smutty thoughts.
A great deal has been written about sex and Buddhism, including a lot of misinformation. The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive but we hope they will provide some food for thought for individuals seeking to make sense of this subject. The main thing to remember is to always have virtuous thoughts and intentions. If one can do this then having sex will certainly become an aid rather than a hindrance to spiritual awakening.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
Barker, M. (2014). How social is your mindfulness? Towards a mindful sex and relationship therapy. In: Bazzano, Manu (ed). After Mindfulness: New Perspectives on Psychology and Meditation. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 81-100.
Brotto, L. A., & Heiman, J. R. (2007). .Mindfulness in sex therapy: Applications for women with sexual difficulties following gynecologic cancer. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 22, 3-11.
Laurent, H., Laurent, S., Hertz, R., Egan-Wright, D., & Granger, D. A. (2013). Sex-specific effects of mindfulness on romantic partners’ cortisol responses to conflict and relations with psychological adjustment. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38, 2905-2913.
McCarthy, B., & Wald, L. M. (2013). Mindfulness and good enough sex. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 28, 39-47.
Trungpa, C. (2011). Work, sex, money: Real life on the path of mindfulness. Boston: Shambala