Is it wrong to want or have a sexual relationship if I am practicing Buddhism? If we are supposed to eliminate craving and desire then wouldn’t sex be against Buddhism?
The Four Noble Truths is one of the simplest, yet most misunderstood, philosophical concepts ever presented. The Buddha said that there is a general dissatisfaction with the world: just by the very nature of existing as a temporal being. We are generally dissatisfied (dukkha or “suffer”) because we have cravings that we cling to. There is a solution. The way to end suffering is following the Noble Eightfold Path <https://appliedbuddhism.com/the-dhamma-lists/> .
But the words of the Buddha must be clearly understood beyond our loosely translated definitions. What do we mean by suffering? What do we mean by craving? What do we mean by clinging?
If we didn’t really think about it, hunger would be a craving and misunderstood as being the root of suffering. Of course it is not—hunger is necessary to tell us that we need nourishment. Not all cravings (the Pali word is “tanha” or thirsts) are bad. There must then be some discernment to which cravings are wholesome and unwholesome.
So is sex wholesome or unwholesome? If it was good, then why did the Buddha make all the monks celibate?
The evaluation of sex being wholesome or unwholesome cannot be determined by external factors. The act of sex is amoral. It is a physical action. The morality of the act of sex is as clearly defined as mowing the lawn, going to work, or making dinner. We cannot even assume that the experience of sex is pleasurable for all people, so there cannot be assumptions of sex having a purely sensual-pleasure aspect to its activity.
The evaluation of sex being a practice conducive or unconducive to Buddhist practice must be done internally and introspectively. Are the “thirsts” that surround sexual actively promoting or disrupting your practice?
In context of the Buddha, he understood that the temptations of sensual pleasure were distractions to the work of Buddhist practice. He did not say that sex is unwholesome, but for the contemplative life all sensual pleasures were “potential” distractions: sex, music, high beds and chairs, etc. Indulging in the casual pleasures could lead to attachment or unwholesome craving for those pleasures.
As most Buddhists are living a “relational” life instead of a “renunciate” life, we have chosen to live amongst life’s temptations or television, music, romantic involvements, etc. It is therefore interesting that so many Buddhists find no problem among the other sensual experiences but struggle with the appropriateness of living sexually.
“WANTS OVER NEEDS”
In the Pali Canon, there are three types of craving: sensuality (kamatanha), wanting to be (bhavatanha), and wanting not to become (vibhavanatanha). These correlate to the three poisons of craving, delusion and aversion.
Tanha literally means “thirst” but more openly translates to “wishing to have.” The important part of that is “wish.” It is the “what if” or “only if” factor of desire. These are cravings of “needs” (like hunger) but of “wants” (like casual desires for deserts). Someone who is exhausted from a hard day at work does not have cravings for sleep but a need for sleep, whereas a teenager may just want to sleep in all day for the joy of it.
To this end, it would be hard to argue a real NEED to have sex, but easy to see the wanted craving for the sensual pleasure of sexual activity. The monastic life renounces and removes those activities.
When we choose to live a “relational” life, we choose to live in the samara world with all of its temptations. Unlike monastic life where monks renounce certain aspects of worldly living to set the parameters of a more focused practice, a relational life opens itself to more possibilities and more potential distractions.
The question arises, “if sex is not a need (outside of procreation), then can it be wholesome within the Buddhist practice?”
First we must know how to investigate how anyone can determine the difference between wholesome and unwholesome craving.
The term updadana (clinging) is dependent on tanha (unwholesome craving) in order for it to exist. However, we know that all cravings are not tanha. An immediate litmus test that can be applied to any craving is need over want. A second is whether the craving is offering or taking. A third evaluation is whether it is an action that is “alluring to the senses” as its only purpose.
We understand that our senses create a sense consciousness. From those experiences we have contact with the world and determine if our interaction is pleasurable or unpleasurable. That experience creates the volitional formations of our mind and effects our decisions through either wise discernment or the creation of cravings and suffering.
Nevertheless, when we mindfully evaluate the purposes of our actions, we can engage with the world in a wholesome manner: including sexual activity.
The negative aspects of sex would be sensual gratification, base-craving, potential abuse or rape. The positive aspects of sex would be the offering of the self as an expression of love.
The wise discernment of our motivations of sex can manifest in sexual activity with your partner that promote various paramis: generosity/giving, virtue, spiritual energy, acceptance, honesty, and metta.
The use of a successful Buddhist practice can actually enhance a sexual experience by evaluating the quality of the experience through the four exertions (padhana): restraint of the senses, abandonment of the defilements, the cultivation of practice, and preservation of mindfulness.
LUST or LOVE
Kama Tanha (sensual craving) is easy to understand in its general term: it is the desire for wanting sense pleasure. It is the excitement of the senses. It would be easy, and simplistic, to look at the Pali Canon and pull only the lessons that all sex, relationships, and desires are to be discarded for a life of non-attachment. That would be a wrong conclusion.
The concepts of non-attachment only work if there is also the equal observance of non-avoidance. The Middle Path requires both aspects to maintain the balance. With a mindful awareness, we can see the pulls of the three poisons but wisely navigate the world with wholesome intention. In the matters of sex, we can recognize the difference between lustful self-gratification and wholesome expressions of compassion, love and giving.
As relational (vice renunciant) Buddhists, we do not impose the restrictions of celibacy and so must deal with the concepts of sex with a mindful approach—not to develop an unhealthy attachment to the pleasures of the flesh while not avoiding the love that can be expressed within the act