Sexuality : (Avoiding) the Repression of the Senses


Part 3

It is not as a sensational or a sensible but as a sensuous matter that sexuality is an important question of philosophy. A tradition’s discourse on sexuality can reveal two almost radically opposite loci. On the one hand, the more conservative stance argues that succumbing to the pleasures of the senses may constitute the greatest hindrance to the spiritual development of the mind. On the other hand, singular practitioners – much more than the institution as a whole – at times bypass this association of the senses in order to reach a deeper experience of unity with their own being or with another person. The topic of sexuality brings together perhaps the best and the worst of a tradition : its institutional taboos and dissimulations and the profound non-duality of its most advanced practitioners. This is what should appear from this brief exploration of the views on sexuality in Buddhism and Christianity.

Though a religion known to be valorising moderation, Buddhism did not start with a particularly open position on sexuality. One of the foundational moments of realisation of Shakyamuni was precisely that of the temporariness and the suffering of the human condition, even when covered with this impression of happiness which we call sex. He stepped away from the self-destructive practices of the Five Ascetics, but remained an advocate of sexual continence, an attitude he also expected from the members of the growing Saṃgha. Sexuality was a no-go, as the perfect example of the human being led by her or his desires, with no capacity to control them, thus standing at the antipodes of Buddha’s path to liberation. This view would be translated into the constitution of the rigorous rules of the Vinaya, the Pātimokkha : 227 prohibitions for the male Bhikkhus and 311 for the female Bhikkhunis. Numbers of them consisted in the condemnation of a variety of sexual practices or desires. It must be kept in mind that Buddha originally did not wish to impose a set of such rules, but they all came out of specific situations : the Pātimokkha does not only present the rule and the punishment, but also the original instance after which it became a prohibition. Nonetheless, sexuality remained an absolute crime in the Vinaya-influenced Hīnāyana Buddhism : having a sexual intercourse is the first of the four fundamental prohibitions, the Dhamma Pārajikas, resulting in the direct exclusion of the monk or nun.

Along with this strong depreciation of sexuality, one cannot forget the spirit of misogyny of early Buddhism. The Buddha himself was reluctant to open his orders to women, but it is in the growing Saṃgha, after his death, that the anti-women stances would turn to be particularly intense. Beyond the very meticulous rules regarding the sexual prohibitions of nuns (going as far as regulations on how to clean their private parts), a general discourse targeting the woman body as body of pleasure, could not be missed : “may the female novice hate her impure body like a prison in which she is locked, like a cesspit in which she fell.” 1 It is with Mahāyāna Buddhism, and its more authentic non-dualist philosophy, that a more moderate view of sexuality and the senses would emerge – yet still, within the limitations of an institutional Buddhism that had to maintain certain discourses of prohibitions for its members.

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In his poems, Ikkyū celebrated the feminine body and the pleasures of the flesh, as an inherent part of the path to liberation. In one piece, he makes fun of Ananda, the faithful but austere disciple of the Buddha, when he writes : “This Arahata, detached from all passions, is not near to become a Buddha / A walk to the brothel would give him the great wisdom.”

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Interestingly, Buddhist literature has retained the prowess of its more unconventional characters, and such, in a very explicit language. It is said that the yogi Kun Legs, an enlightened alcoholic, purified, through sex, even female demons, with his redoubtable penis. 2 In his poems, Ikkyū celebrated the feminine body and the pleasures of the flesh, as an inherent part of the path to liberation. In one piece, he makes fun of Ananda, the faithful but austere disciple of the Buddha, when he writes : “This Arahata, detached from all passions, is not near to become a Buddha / A walk to the brothel would give him the great wisdom.” 3 In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the character of the Arahata, a dedicated practitioner focusing only on his enlightenment, would be replaced with that of the Bodhisattva, who sacrificed his own attainment of Nirvana in order to help others reaching it before him. It is in this context that numbers of monks saw sexual practice – a compassionate and respectful practice – also possibly as a means to help other humans to reach higher levels of spiritual life. For Asanga, in doing this, “there is no fault, in the contrary, it brings a lot of merits.” 4 But through this rather sudden switch to a more liberal context, certain excesses would still occur. Popular Chinese literature attests of monasteries becoming known as shelters for sexual practitioners, including certain forms of aristocratic homosexuality. Still by and large forbidden from having an access to women, many monks turned to their own mignons. Certain Bhikkhunis also became, practically, prostitutes.

The development of a more refined rapport between Buddhism and sexuality would be particularly central to the Tibetan traditions. Vajrayāna, also known as Tantric Buddhism, believes that human sexuality is the expression of a profound energy that is not, in nature, negative. The effort to provide resides in turning this energy towards practices that explore all its potentialities. Indeed, Buddhism would not be reductive to the incredibly severe condemnations of sexuality in Hīnāyana, or to the cases of particularly extravagant monks in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Through its evolution, Buddhism opened up to a more moderate understanding of human sexuality:

… Rather than askesis and renouncement, it is comprehension and ability that are at stakes here, and the sexual activity is justified as belonging to the domain of the upaya (useful means). It is not anymore about negating but transmuting, metamorphosing passions and drives, or rather, to reveal in them the pure nature of the great desire of awakening. The wish of sexuality – the fusion of the complementaries – is here considered and transcended in order to make the great nirvanic unity emerge. 5

In the Christian tradition, the variation of views on sexuality would appear to be much narrower. Institutional Christianity would maintain its hold on the believers and condemn any step outside of the strict rules and regulations. Before the emergence of the Christ, the roots of the Christian view of sexuality would start with the olded Hebraic tradition. The Genesis is precisely the scene of the fall of man, an innocently naked humanity, into the pitfalls of passion. From this would sprout a tradition, as portrayed in the Ancient Testament, extremely negative towards anything sexual, and particularly misogynistic, with the husband being the master (baal) of his wife, as well as adultery being condemned by death sentence, while on the other hand husbands were allowed to have sex with prostitutes or non-married women. 6 At best, sexuality was invoked and valorised only as a means to fecundity. It is with this misogynistic background that Jesus’s behaviour would radically contrast : he allowed women to become his disciples, ate with them, praised their good deeds, took their defence. Asked by the conservative Pharisees regarding the possibility of repudiating one’s wife for any reason, Jesus replied that it was not originally so even in the old tradition, and that it is only because of the rigidity of their heart that Moses allowed them to do so. 7

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With the Church Fathers, the discourse changes slightly : since the Kingdom of God is still awaited, the community settles and must get organised to develop and last. Sexuality in marriage is back to being accepted for the sake of procreation.

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Jesus’ disciples would not show the same inspiration, as they understood the coming of the Kingdom, dearly awaited, as the main reason for their celibacy : if God is about to come, why bothering with another human being ? This may also explain why Jesus, unlike in the Judaic tradition, did not insist on a call for procreation : “indeed, one cannot at the same time announce the end of times for his generation” 8 and invite to start another one. As noted by Albert Schweitzer, his ethics is “interim” 9 : it is “the ethics of an exceptional situation in the brief time that separates us from the end of the world.” 10 Saint Paul would be particularly faithful and radical to this direction, seeing in Eve the human seduced by Satan, and defending the subjection of women to men : “The chief of the man is the Christ; the chief of the woman is the man.” 11 With the Church Fathers, the discourse changes slightly : since the Kingdom of God is still awaited, the community settles and must get organised to develop and last. Sexuality in marriage is back to being accepted for the sake of procreation. But the Greek interferences would deepen the anti-pleasure ideology: “the influence of Platonism reinforced the distrust towards corporal realities, and that of Stoicism, the austerity with regards to the diverse sexual practices, judged degrading.” 12 The establishment of monastic orders would further apply an ideal of continence, trying to initiate a community of consecrated virgins. With Augustine, the original scene becomes one of a primal sexual sin, and “since then, sexuality is sinful, it transmits the stain of our very parents.” 13 The desert Fathers would extend this conception of a spiritual purity by condemning even sensual thoughts. In the Graeco-Latin world, the restrictive policy on sexuality, until then pagan, would be rigidified into what was considered as the Word of God. In the Middle Age, major figures such as St Thomas of Aquinas would attempt to reduce the extent of the accusation, by considering sexual pleasure as a byproduct of the act of reproduction, thus being morally acceptable if the pleasure was not aimed at, as the final end of it.

This strict, official position on sexuality was, expectably, contrasted with the actual practices of the people. As in any society, adultery, lust or homosexuality would be widespread, but simply hidden and taboo : “Ultimately, everyone was Christian in his own way, which was not that of the theologians or ours.” 14 The spirit of the Revolution, in the 18th century, would change this popular practice, with the legalisation of divorce in 1792 and the development of contraceptive techniques. Influenced by more moderate theologians, the Vatican could not avoid, in the council of 1964, to argue that the Christian marriage is equally based on mutual love and on procreation. Today’s Church remains original and at times surprisingly reactionary in its views on sexuality : condemnation of the condom, disapproval of contraception, resistance to the legitimisation of homosexuality and reinforced affirmation of the celibacy of priests, in spite of the number of sexual scandals involving members of the clergy.

It would be inaccurate to extend to Buddhism as a whole the moderate and progressive understanding of sexuality of some of its masters. But the stories seem to add up to indicate that Buddhism, more often than Christianity, would be accepting sexuality and incorporating it within the path of spiritual growth. Perhaps this distance can be understood with regards to the differences of institutionalisation of the two religions. Buddhism remained a minority cult in several Hīnāyana countries, while merging widely with local beliefs in the Mahāyāna regions. This flexible nature was not prone to come along with a particularly rigid set of rules, not only for its monks and nuns but also for its population – a population that would rarely be exclusively Buddhist. By contrast, Christianity became the religion of the majority in Europe, enlarging its influence far beyond the walls of the monasteries. This power, coupled with the “switching off” of the senses proper of Platonism, Stoicism and Neoplatonism, would contribute towards the emergence of a tradition of Christianity particularly intolerant with all things sexual.


All quotations from the Bible are excerpted from:

Bible de Jérusalem. Paris: Cerf, 2000.

Asanga. La Somme du Grand Véhicule d’Asanga (Mahayanasamgraha). Translated by Etienne Lamotte. Louvain: Institut Orientalist, 1973.

De Magdebourg, Mechthild. La Lumière fluente de la Divinité. Translated by Waltraud Verlaguet. Paris: Jérôme Millon, 2001.

Delaye, Alain. Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus. Paris: Accarias/L’Originel, 2007.

Dogen. Busshô, Shôbôgenzô. Paris: Encre Marine, 2002.

Drewermann, Eugen. Dieu Immédiat. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1995.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis. “La vie sexuelle dans l’ancienne société.” In Sexualités Occidentales, edited by Philippe Ariès and André Béjin. Paris: Seuil, 1981.

Houang-Po. Les Entretiens de Houang-Po. Translated by Patrick Carré. Paris: Les Deux Océans, 1985.

Houei Neng. Discours et sermons. Translated by Lucien Houlné. Paris: Albin Michel, 1963.

Jean de la Croix. Oeuvres Complètes. Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1991.

Lamotte, Etienne. Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien. Louvain: La Neuve, 1976.

Lin-Tsi. Entretiens. Translated by Paul Demiéville. Paris: Fayard, 1972.

Merton, Thomas. Zen, Tao, Nirvana. Paris: Fayard, 1970.

Néher, André. “La philosophie hébraïque et juive dans l’Antiquité.” In Histoire de la Philosophie, edited by Brice Parain, 50-81. Paris: Gallimard, 1969.

Rubeinstein, Richard. Le jour où Jésus devint Dieu. Paris: Editions de la Découverte, 2001.

Schweitzer, Albert. Geschichete der leben – Jesu – Forshung. Berlin: UTB, 1984.

Silburn, Liliane. Le Bouddhisme. Paris: Fayard, 1977.

Weil, Simone. Attente de Dieu. Paris: Fayard, 1966.

Wieger, Léon. Bouddhisme chinois: Vinaya, Monarchisme et Discipline. Paris: Cathasia, 1951.

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  1. Léon Wieger, Bouddhisme Chinois: Vinaya, Monarchisme et Discipline (Paris: Cathasia, 1951), 189.
  2. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 193.
  3. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 193.
  4. Les Degrés du Bodhisattva (Bodhisattva-Bhûma), quoted in Asanga, La Somme du Grand Véhicule d’Asanga.
  5. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 197-198.
  6. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 205.
  7. Matthew 19:1 and Mark 10:5.
  8. Mark 13:30.
  9. Albert Schweitzer, Geschichete der leben – Jesu – Forshung (Berlin: UTB, 1984), 411, 423, 628.
  10. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 207.
  11. 1 Corinthians 11:3s.
  12. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 210.
  13. Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 211.
  14. Jean-Louis Flandrin, “La vie sexuelle dans l’ancienne société,” in Sexualités occidentales, ed. Philippe Ariès and André Béhin (Paris: Seuil, 1981), 14.