Saturday, 10 August 2013

Mindfulness and Sexual Activity

"There are three kinds of intimacy: physical, emotional, and spiritual." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), p15.
"Sex, in itself, is... not good or bad. Everything owes its birth and life to the coming together of the natural energy of male and female. But some people make this attraction the precious treasure of their deluded minds." - Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen (1997), p72.
"One who does what should not be done, and fails to do what should be done, who gives up the quest and pursues the sensual pleasures, will envy the people who devote themselves in cultivation of Way." - The Buddha, Dharmapada Sutra (Narada Translation, 1959), Chapter 16: Affection, Pleasing, Sorrow, Attachments (209-217). 

Calligraphy by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the book Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes the following of Plum Village; his monastery in France, p89:
"In Plum Village we have many young monks and nuns who have sexual energy like everyone else."
I felt I witnessed this first-hand during my stay there - teenage Vietnamese immigrant monks and nuns appeared to flirt in ways one would see in an average liberal highschool in any country. I was not surprised to hear that, even though the men and womens' respective self-contained 'hamlets' are separated by many fields, a young monk and nun had fallen in love and had left the monastery not so long before - people were still talking about it. Even in other monastery settings where men and women are even more strictly separated - to the point of no contact at all, it is apparently deeply naïve to assume that no sexual activity takes place - whether when individuals are alone, or whether it is homosexual activity.

This is easy enough to expect, since all living organisms have an instinct to perpetuate life via sexual activity of a sort, and humans are especially geared up to exist and enjoy interaction in large social groups in all that they do. Thich Nhat Hanh recognises this in Fidelity, p17:
"Every living thing wants to continue into the future. This is true of humans, as well as of all other animals. Sex and sexual reproduction are part of life. Sex can bring great pleasure and enrich a deep connection between two people. We shouldn’t be against sex, but we also shouldn’t confuse it with love. True love doesn’t necessarily have to do with sex. We can love perfectly without sex and we can have sex without love."
The fact that a person can have sex without love, coupled with the additional phenomenon that it is very easy to confuse sex with love, lays down the conditions for a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering to appear. People often experience significant levels of romantic emotional and physical intimacy with another person before they have the necessary skills to manage the deep attachment and further appetites that come with those powerful events. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the following first paragraph of the Buddhist teaching; Sutra on the Net of Sensual Love, to present this common scenario in Fidelity, p105:
"When the mind goes in the direction of sensual love, the tree of sexual love springs up and quickly sprouts buds. The mind becomes dispersed because the object of sensual love generates a violent fire in us. Those who look for sensual love are like monkeys jumping from branch to branch in search of fruits."
This "violent fire", otherwise known as lust, was apparently said by the Buddha to be one of the most difficult forms of desire to see through. Partners, or even any person found attractive, can become treated like an object of gratification - existing only for one's personal indulgence, and out of that a deeply unwholesome dimension easily emerges, as the Korean Zen teacher, Seung Sahn (1927-2004), writes in The Compass of Zen (1997), p72:
"...[people] just have sex with others for their own enjoyment: this is dirty. This is why we call someone “filthy” if they only have sex mindlessly, like an animal."
This appears to be something commonplace in modern times - even celebrated and encouraged in some domains. Feeling that there is no true consensus or practical philosophy of any meaningful depth on the subject, the matter is not challenged, and so cycles of desperate craving; suffering, are perpetuated. Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this in Fidelity, p45:
"Most of us have tasted the suffering of sexual craving. We feel stuck in our relationship, in our work, and we think that satisfying our sensual desire will set us free. But it is this desire that is causing our worries and misfortunes. Worries and misfortunes are always there when we are ruled by sensual love. Even money and power will not protect us."
Lacking support and inspiration in other areas of life, a person can easily lose themselves in satisfying sexual desire, or any other craving; digging themselves deeper into hopless situations, again here is Fidelity, p37.
"All of us feel lonely and empty inside sometimes. When we have these feelings, we try to fill the vacuum by consuming food or alcohol, or by engaging in sexual activity. Yet, even while we are enjoying these things, the empty feeling not only persists but becomes deeper than before."
Fidelity places emphasis on how humans use casual sex as a temporary medicine for spiritual and emotional loneliness, p58:
"Sometimes we think that if we have sexual relations with someone else, we’ll feel less lonely. But the truth is that such sex doesn’t relieve the feeling of loneliness; it makes it worse."
One of the saddest aspects is that people quickly learn from such mistakes, and yet they repeat them all the same, since the craving caused by lust - desire out of control - is so strong, as is stated in Fidelity, p43:
"We have wisdom; we have understanding. We know that if we drink the poisonous water, we will die. But we drink it anyway. There are many of us like that, ready to die for something that seems very appealing. Yet there are so many sources that could satisfy our thirst without endangering us."
It is very easy for a person to conceptually detach their sexual misconduct from those who are involved, but as Thich Nhat Hanh states, there will always be an emotional dimension - humans are hard-wired for such emotionally-driven social interaction, p15:
"Physical intimacy can’t be separated from emotional intimacy; we always feel some emotional intimacy when we’re sexual, even if we profess not to."
When much suffering created by lust has become too intense - whether social guilt or suffocating attachment, throughout history many people have traditionally used celibacy - especially through monasticism - to channel their energies more appropriately.

Another approach was taken in Ancient India and China - that of 'sexual yoga' to channel sexual energies into reinforcing one's health. Whether this stemmed from observation and evidence of vaginal prolapse in older women (the 'use it or lose it' scenario), or from prostate and urinary issues in older men is apparently unknown.

Daoist practitioner Eva Wong, author of Taoism: An essential guide (2011), explains a traditional ancient Chinese Daoist approach as follows, p184-185:
"In the Paired Path, sexual techniques are used to accomplish alchemical transformations. The practice of Taoist sexual alchemy, rarely understood, has been sensationalized and abused. Sexual alchemy has been a part of Taoist internal alchemy since the times of Wei Po-yang in the second century CE. It is different from the “bedchamber techniques” that advise the correct management of one’s sexual and energetic resources. While the bedchamber techniques are methods for making the best use of sexual energy, sexual alchemy is designed to gather generative energy for the transmutation of ching into ch’i. Taoist sexual alchemy is a technique for cultivating health and longevity. It is not a pursuit of pleasure. Pragmatics, not ethics or pleasure, govern its practice. Even in the seventh century bce , it was known that the decay of health was associated with the loss of ching, or generative energy. Thus, medical treatises such as the Huang-ti nei-ching (Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine) counsels that the conservation of ching is the key to health and longevity. Herein lies the paradox of the role of sexual techniques in cultivating longevity. If sexual activity leads to the loss of generative energy and health, how can health be gained by using techniques that involve sex? The answer to this paradox lies in the act of sex itself. If sex is used to satisfy the desire for pleasure, it drains generative energy and is detrimental to health. On the other hand, if sex is used to gather energy from a partner to replenish one’s own generative energy, it can enhance longevity. How can one use sex to gather generative energy? The Taoist texts of sexual alchemy state that generative energy is produced in sexual arousal. However, if the arousal ends in ejaculation or orgasm, generative energy is dissipated from the body and lost. Thus, to conserve generative energy, one must be sexually aroused but not emit the procreative substance. In fact, in sexual alchemy, tremendous self-control needs to be exercised to turn the energy back into the body just before an ejaculation or an orgasm is about to occur. Moreover, sexual alchemy can be used to absorb generative energy from a partner."
It can be confusing to consider sexual arousal without pleasure, but it seems Wong is talking of the ultimate goal not being one of sensual pleasure - that sexual climax was not sought. She continues, p186:
"Although labeled as a “crooked path” by internal alchemists of the Singular Path, sexual alchemy had always been a part of the Taoist arts of longevity. Practiced by the early alchemists, it was seen as one of the many techniques of longevity. It was practiced by the Shang-ch’ing Taoists in their religious rituals and by internal alchemists of the Sung dynasty (for example, by Chang Po-tuan), who regarded it as a pragmatic way of gathering generative energy, especially for those who are no longer young and healthy. [...] In closing, it must be said that the practice of sexual alchemy is not without its risks. To do it properly, one needs the guidance of a teacher, and because traditionally these techniques have been practiced in secret, it is difficult to find a bona fide teacher. Moreover, to practice sexual alchemy, one must be totally free from sexual desire. Otherwise, the efforts of gathering energy will result in the loss of one’s own energy."
So beyond these difficult, secretive teacher-led practices; requiring one to eliminate sexual desire whilst allowing oneself to become aroused - an apparent oxymoron, it seems the alternative method of not falling prey to lust in ancient China was to head for a Buddhist monastery where there was a similar goal - that of understanding and 'managing' sexual desire.

In the ancient Zen Buddhist monasteries of the East, living was reduced to focusing on procuring four necessities for sustenance: shelter, clothing, food, and medicine. Sex was absoloutely prohibited, as Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253) wrote in his book Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p927:
"Now, what the Buddhas and Ancestors in India and China have authentically Transmitted is leaving home life behind in order to put the Dharma into practice. Those who spend their life without leaving the monastery even once are supplied with these four necessities so that they may put the Dharma into practice. This is what I call ‘practicing the four necessities’. Should someone alter this by trying to establish a fifth necessity [sex], you need to know that this is a false teaching. Who could accept it in good faith? Who could bear to hear such a thing? What the Buddhas and Ancestors have correctly Transmitted, that is the true Teaching."
This requirement was to remain famously difficult - and still is, it seems, especially when one considers the scandals associated with Buddhist institutions in modern times. Was it the case in more ancient times that such scandals were more easily covered up, or were they, in their scientific ignorance, more driven by blind faith and therefore more focused?

There appear to have been few teachers of repute in recent times who are willing to go into the details on the role of sex within traditional Eastern mindfulness practices. A lot seemed to depend upon the teacher, and whether a firm foundation and discipline could be installed at the beginning. Dōgen writes the following of beginners in Soto Zen in Japan, in Shobogenzo, p977:
"When bodhisattvas are beginners, many regress or wander off because they do not have a genuine Master. If they do not have a genuine Master, they do not hear the true Teaching, and if they do not hear the true Teaching, they are apt to deny causality, along with denying the end of suffering, the Three Treasures, and all thoughts and things in the three temporal worlds. Vainly craving the five fleeting desires of property, sexual involvement, food and drink, fame, and sleep in the present, they forget the merits of enlightenment in the future"
In the context of practicing mindfulness, however, sexual involvement does not mean that one cannot remain mindful, it is just more difficult, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains in Fidelity, p11:
"People often ask if it is difficult to be a celibate monk or nun, but to practice mindfulness as a monastic is in many ways easier than to practice as a layperson. To refrain from sexual activity altogether is much easier than to have a healthy sexual relationship. As monastics, we spend our time in practice and in nature. We don’t watch television, read romantic novels, or look at images in movies or magazines that give rise to sensual desire. Meanwhile, laypeople are always bombarded with images and music that feed sexual craving. To have all that stimulus and still have a healthy sexual relationship with mutual understanding and love, you need constant practice."
There have been, and still are, famous mindfulness teachers who have been married and had children - Shunryu Syzuki Roshi having been one of them, and among the laypeople who are said to have been 'successful' in their mindfulness practices, Layman Pang (740-808) is quite famous. This possibility of living a happy mindful life while still engaging in sexual activity - to some extent - is referred to by the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), in the text attributed to him called  The Bloodstream Sermon:
"People who see that their mind is the Buddha don’t need to shave their head" Laymen are Buddhas too. Unless they see their nature, people who shave their head are simply fanatics. [...] I only talk about seeing your nature. I don’t talk about sex simply because you don’t see your nature. Once you see your nature, sex is basically immaterial. It ends along with your delight in it. Even if some habits remain, they can’t harm you, because your nature is essentially pure. Despite dwelling in a material body of four elements, your nature is basically pure. It can’t be corrupted."
It may also be worth mentioning the following phenomenon in the Mahayana Buddhist Avatamsaka Sutra (1st Century CE); there is mention of a prostitute called Vasumitra who uses skillful sexual interaction to teach the way of the Buddha(!). Here is a reference from Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (2nd Ed) (2008), p136:
"Of particular interest is Vasumitra, the prostitute. She is nonetheless an advanced Bodhisattva. The doctrine of skill-in-means apparently knows no bounds. For some suffering sentient beings the best way to receive the teaching of the Buddha is through Vasumitra’s technique of embraces and kisses: ‘Some, with only an embrace, obtain renunciation of passion and attain the Bodhisattva meditation. . . . Some, with only a kiss . . .’. Religion, it seems, can be fun."
Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn also referred to this story in The Compass of Zen, p72:
"There are many other stories about the use of such skillful means. In itself, sex is not good or bad: the most important thing is, why do you do something? Is it only for yourself or for all beings?
And Thich Nhat Hanh supports this skillful approach in Fidelity when he says, p89:
"We can even use sexual energy to support us on the spiritual path. Digging up the root of sensual love doesn’t mean we eliminate our sexual energy. Instead insight and compassion allow us to handle our sexual energy with skill."
All this being the case, there is still not any apparent tried and tested 'formal' path for lay couples to adhere to beyond that which is written in books like Fidelity by Thich Nhat Hanh. Concerning Thich Nhat Hanh's noble efforts, many people may have objections to statements made by a celibate monk on how others can approach sexual activity. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck points to this problem in her book Everyday Zen (1997), pvii:
"Successful living means functioning well in love and work, declared Sigmund Freud. Yet most Zen teaching derives from a monastic tradition that is far removed from the ordinary world of romantic and sexual love, family and home life, ordinary jobs and careers."
Who knows, as time goes on, and secular mindfulness practice is more deeply developed and supported with modern scientific exploration, and the useful essence of Zen practice is separated from any impurities that were incorporated into it through simple 'ignorances of the times', maybe the kind of equanimity reported by MBSR teachers and Zen masters will be easily accessed while maintaining a degree of sexual activity - mindful sexual activity. There is nothing suggesting this cannot happen, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, p15:
"When spiritual intimacy is there, then physical and emotional intimacy can be healthy, healing, and pleasurable."
This necessity for "spiritual intimacy" between sexual partners appears to be a standard prerequisite for healthy sexual encounters, according to all mindfulness teachers who talk on the subject. The kind of spirituality they speak of, of course, is that which incorporates a mindfulness practice. Here are a few quotes echoing this view pulled from Thich Nhat Hanh's Fidelity:
"Spiritual awakening isn’t the exclusive provenance of celibacy. There are people who are celibate but who don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. When people in intimate relationships have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, their relationships have an element of holiness. Sexual intimacy shouldn’t occur before there is communion, understanding, and sharing on the emotional and spiritual level." - p17.
"Sexuality should be accompanied by understanding and love. Without understanding and love, sex is empty." - p59.
"True love is made of loving kindness (maitri), compassion (karuna), joy (mudita), and equanimity (upeksha). True love brings joy and peace, and relieves suffering. [...] When you practice the four qualities of true love, your love is healing and transformative, and it has the element of holiness in it. Then sexual intimacy becomes something very beautiful. Love is a wonderful thing. It gives us the ability to offer joy and happiness, relieve suffering, and transcend all kinds of separation and barriers." - p75.
 Seung Sahn lends additional support to this in The Compass of Zen, p72:
"Men and women should be partners in life, not merely instruments of each other’s physical enjoyment. They should be good dharma friends. If they are helping each other understand their true selves, and are deeply committed to this in every way, having no thought for themselves, then having sex is no problem. It can also be a Dharma. The name for this is do ban, a “companion on the Path.” But this is extremely difficult practice for most people [...] The most important thing is, how do you consider sexual relations? The way you think about sex makes it either pure or impure."
The standard mindfulness teachings common to MBSR and Zen suggest that the way to deal with the potential "violent fire in us" is to accept it as a natural yet not functionally necessary part of our human makeup, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, p10:
"Mindfulness practice doesn’t sweep away or bring an end to sensual desire. To bring such a thing to an end would make us no longer human. We practice in order to have the capacity to deal with desire, to smile with desire, so that we may be free from it."
Recognising that without that potential burning fire of lust, our human DNA would not have made it to it's present state - that it remains as an evolutionary 'backup system' ready to perpetuate our genetic material should the necessary conditions for other human genetic survival strategies not manifest, then we can smile to our sexual desire when it is noticed; befriend it in peaceful recognition, and thus undermine any habitual triggering of the sympathetic nervous system which causes unhealthy, 'feral' lustful desire to become ignited. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of identifying our ancestral inheritance and identifying such habitual responses thus, p28:
"With the practice of mindfulness, we recognize the habitual nature of our desire. Mindfulness and concentration can help us look and find the roots of our actions. Our actions may have been inspired by something that happened yesterday, or they may have been inspired by something three hundred years old that has its roots in one of our ancestors."
As part of an interview titled Meditation Is not the Business of Monks Alone on, he says we can neutralize such habit energy as follows:
"We only need to breathe in, to breathe out mindfully, and say, "Hello, my old habit energy, I know you are there, I will take good care of you." That is enough in order to keep your habit energy not exactly in control but to embrace it, and not to let it leap away. Because in you, there is the energy of habit energy, but there is something else, there is the energy of mindfulness. The energy of mindfulness is holding tenderly the habit energy and taking care of it like a big sister taking care of the younger sister, and then, you'll be safe. And after, every time your habit energy is recognized and embraced tenderly like that, it will lose some of its strength. And the next time, when it appears, it will be a little bit weaker. And if you practice like that for a certain time, you'll be able to reduce that energy to a minimum. And you will not feel that it is stronger than you anymore."
He emphises the key role mindfulness practice has to play in noticing when habits arise in Fidelity, p28-29:
"When we’re able to smile at a provocation or direct our sexual energy towards something positive, we can be aware of our ability, appreciate it, and continue in this way. The key is to be aware of our actions. Our mindfulness will help us understand where our actions are coming from."
In amongst all this it can be seen that there is a big difference between feeling desire and suffering desire, and that the ancient Buddha would have had desire still present within him, p9:
"The Buddha had enough love, as well as enough mental responsibility and awakening, to be able to manage his sexual energy. We can do this as well"
Not being at the mercy of habitual responses, and being sensitive to all tension, he remained in skillful control of his being. This was because he had patiently watched the natural unfolding of his heart with tremendous focus, and thus had insight on his side. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Fidelity, this is a powerful resource, p90:
"Awakening is a matter of insight. Once we have insight, although we still have the energy of sexual desire, we can manage it easily. The sutra talks about uprooting the energy of sexual desire. This doesn’t mean we harshly cut this down or completely eliminate it. When restless sexual desire arises, we pay attention to it with enough understanding and enough love that it dissipates and does not grow."
Until one gains adequate proficiency, however, dedicated training is necessary. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the following mindfulness training - specifically orientated towards managing sexual activity for the benefit of all other sentient beings, as a kind of personal mindfulness oath, p119:


Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness—which are the four basic elements of true love—for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future."
Here is a poem attributed to Layman Pang (740-808):
"The past is already past.
Don’t try to regain it.
The present does not stay.
Don’t try to touch it.
From moment to moment.
The future has not come;
Don’t think about it
Whatever comes to the eye,
Leave it be.
There are no commandments
To be kept;
There’s no filth to be cleansed.
With empty mind really
Penetrated, the dharmas
Have no life.
When you can be like this,
You’ve completed
The ultimate attainment."


  1. i was having trouble trying to figure this one out. this has helped immensely. thank you for this.

  2. Thank you, this was very helpful. I wonder where i could find more information on the techniques of Taoist alchemy.

  3. Deepak that’s just inappropriate lol. Thank you for writing this blog post. It has given me many great book ideas to read and keep my urges under control of zen