Buddhism teaches a lot about unconditional love and loving-kindness. Engaging in a simple loving-kindness or metta meditation allows you to see someone you love, a stranger, a difficult person, and yourself on equal ground. But I can love a husband and a barista at my local coffee shop in very different ways. So what’s the deal with Buddhism and sex? Let’s start with romantic love.
Can Buddhists Succeed at Romantic Love?
If the root of suffering is attachment is there room for romantic love?
Popular culture goes crazy for romantic love. Art, literature, music, and film all appear to be inspired and energized by the highs and lows of “falling in love.”
But that’s just it. The more I observe societal patterns of love the more I parallel the romantics with the addicts. The highs and lows quite literally translate to the cyclical process of substance abuse. Sounds dark doesn’t it?
Think about the impactful ballads that have marked our culture with what it means to be in love. If you don’t believe me, check out this Rolling Stone article about the parallels between love and drug addiction, “Your Love Is a Drug: 20 Great Narcotic Love Songs“. We can’t forget about classic lines like:
I can’t live without you.
You’re my everything.
You make me feel alive.
Clinging and Attachment in Romantic Love
If you compare your romantic relationship to a drug trip, chances are it’s not that healthy. A healthy romantic relationship should have healthy boundaries to match. This means that although you may not want to live without the other person, you’re capable of doing so. You maintain your independence and you’re not terrified of losing the relationship (or clinging to it desperately). Let’s break it down.
Clinging to a Romantic Relationship
- You spend all of your time with the person and start losing friends
- You will refrain from bringing up conflict in order to preserve the relationship
- You feel anxious when you don’t hear from them for hours at a time
- You vow to stay in the relationship no matter what
Boundaries in a Romantic Relationship
- You have your own life and maintain your friendships
- You feel comfortable being honest even if it starts a fight
- You’re okay with not being in constant contact
- You have deal-breakers and ensure that the relationship respects these
What’s the Deal with Buddhism and Sex?
There’s another big difference between your relationship with you husband and your favourite barista, you’re probably only having sex with one of them. What did the Buddha think of sex? In the Buddha’s first discourse he identifies craving (tanha) as the cause of suffering (dukkha). He then identifies three objects of craving:
- The craving for existence;
- The craving for non-existence;
- The craving for sense pleasures (kama).
Kama is identified as one of five hindrances to the attainment of jhana according to the Buddha’s teaching. So in the Kama Sutta from the Sutta Nipata the Buddha explains that craving sexual pleasure is a cause of suffering. 1
“If one, longing for sexual pleasure, achieves it, yes, he’s enraptured at heart. The mortal gets what he wants. But if for that person — longing, desiring — the pleasures diminish, he’s shattered, as if shot with an arrow.”
— Kama Sutta, Sutta Nipata. 2
Sexual Desire Versus Sex
Basically, sex exists as a part of human experience in the material world like clothes, food, and lamborghinis. Although we may need one of these (food) and not others (lamborghinis) to survive, we don’t have to grow overly attached to either.
My interpretation is that it’s not so much the sex part that’s the problem, it’s the desire part. Buddhism encourages people to release desires that are tied to our external environment. We can seek happiness from within but will inevitably suffer if we depend on outer circumstances and material fulfillment for our well-being.
If fulfilling your sexual needs is the scale in which you measure your overall well-being and contentment, then Buddhism might say your attachment is going to result in suffering.
Living with Balance and Love
In my own life I believe that achieving balance is an important pathway to well-being. The material world or world of the form is a necessary part of our human experience but does not enhance our consciousness.
Our true Buddha nature is always loving, bright, and radiant regardless of how many clothes we buy, how few lamborghinis we’ve driven, or how much sex we are (or aren’t) having. Overcoming suffering means coming to terms with this fact and resting in our soul instead of our body.
- Buddhism and Sexuality. Wikipedia. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_and_sexuality.
- Kama Sutta, Sutta Nipata 4.1