One of our oldest friends wrote in with a great question: “What do you do with your sexual energy in celibate life?” Later we’ll examine the assumptions hidden in the wording of the question. But to prepare for that, first we have to understand that there is a difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhism, or ‘Buddha-ism’.
-ism: suffix forming nouns denoting a system, principle or ideological movement.
We’re not part of any ideological movement; we’re simply following the Buddha’s original teaching. So even though I am an ordained monk in the Theravāda tradition of Sri Lanka I don’t consider myself a ‘Buddhist’, although perhaps others might. The Buddha’s original teaching in the Suttas is there for everyone to read and benefit from. Of course it helps to have a good teacher and good association, and that’s the main reason I became a monk. But there’s really no need for all the baggage of ‘Buddha-ism’.
Our interest is in what the Buddha said. So, what is the Buddha’s teaching? In our opinion, the Buddha’s teaching is a phenomenological methodology for eradicating suffering. What do I mean by that? Well, if you reviewed our Matrix Learning series, you would already know how to deal with specialized technical terminology.
Briefly, phenomenological means an approach concentrating on the study of consciousness and direct experience, rather than theory and philosophy. Religious people start from a theory, and try to reason from the theory to the facts. Phenomenology starts from the experience—the facts and what we can see—and it goes on from there to build a theory.
A methodology is simply a collection of methods used in the pursuit of a particular area of study or activity. It’s simply an array of methods, and the Buddha’s teaching certainly contains a large selection of phenomenological methods for the study of consciousness and direct experience.
So we’re not ‘Buddhists’, we’re phenomenologists; and we’re not practicing a religion, we’re applying the Buddha’s methodology. And according to the Buddha himself, the purpose of his methodology is the elimination of suffering. Now, believe it or not, this leads directly to our topic.
Most people engage in sexual acts to try to reduce their suffering. Similarly most people take intoxication to reduce their suffering; they involve themselves in economic activity to reduce their suffering. Reducing or eliminating suffering is really the root motivation of most of our activities.
Despite this, in our experience, even after doing all these things we’re still suffering. So from a phenomenological perspective, our efforts are only temporarily effective at best. Why? Because clearly, activity is not the way to eliminate suffering. So we are suffering.
The First Noble Truth is “There is suffering.” Something must be causing this suffering, therefore the Second Noble Truth is “There is a cause of suffering.” And what is that cause? The Buddha says it is “the assumption of a self or clinging to a self.” [see SN 22.47, SN 22.89, MN 11 etc.]
So when somebody asks, “What do you do with your sexual energy in celibate life?” that question contains a number of assumptions. It assumes, for example, that a ‘self’ exists, that the self ‘has’ a body, that the body has a ‘sexual function’, that function generates ‘sexual energy’, and we have to ‘do something’ with that energy.
But all these are merely assumptions; none of them is necessarily true. Let’s look at the first assumption, that we are a ‘self’. The Buddha says that ‘self’ is simply an assumption. If you actually try to find a ‘self’ in your experience, you cannot find it anywhere. Yet we think, speak and act as if a ‘self’ exists. The Buddha calls this egoistic conceit [see SN 35.207, SN 36.3, MN 9 etc.]. We think that ‘I’ must be a ‘self’; but actually there is no real need for a self or ego. In fact we’re so much happier if we don’t have a ‘self’ or cling to it, or create all kinds of false stories about it.
Our so-called ‘self’ is like an actor who invents a very popular character—Mr. Spock from Star Trek for example. Once Leonard Nimoy created Spock, the character took on a life of its own. For years, people related to Nimoy as if he really was Spock. And he grew to hate it; it was a source of suffering for him. Poor Leonard Nimoy! People became so obsessed with stories about Spock that he even had to write a book titled I am not Spock!
Similarly, the ‘self’ that we assume we are is concocted—it’s fabricated. And as the Buddha said, “All fabrications are subject to cessation.” In fact those were his final words before his Unbinding. All fabrications are going to wither away and die.
What happens when your body becomes incapable of sex life because of old age and disease? Then what is going to happen to the ‘self’ you have fabricated to have sex? You have to look into yourself: who is desiring sex? Who is having sex? Who is that person, that ‘self’? It is some ‘I’ that we fabricated.
I’m speaking from experience here. And by the way, I have a principle about that: I only speak or write about things from my own experience. It comes from the phenomenological approach we discussed above.
I’ve had personal experience with this problem of sex in spiritual life. It was very difficult for me to give up sex life. My mother was a Tantrik priestess! So, I was born with a ferocious clinging to sex. But then it became clear that sex is a cause of suffering, and if I wanted to get rid of my suffering, I was going to have to transcend it.
That realization led to a deep exploration of existentialism and ontology, which we documented in our series Being in the World. That led to the Buddha’s teaching, and the Buddha said, “Don’t cling to a self.” So I tried it—and guess what—it worked! As soon as I practiced the meditations recommended by the Buddha, in a short time I lost my clinging to sex.
Speaking from experience, this is the cure for the problem of sex. You may not like to hear this; but the Third Noble Truth is “There is cessation of suffering.” And the Fourth Noble Truth is, “The way leading to the cessation of suffering is this very Noble Eightfold Path.” So this is the method that leads to the solution of all problems of life.
The ignorant assumption that we have to have a ‘self’ is the origin of suffering. The process of Dependent Origination of our suffering from the assumption of a ‘self’ creates a chain of cause and effect that inevitably leads to suffering. In India during the rainy season, all the rivers flood. Suffering is compared to a flooding river. It happens all by itself; suddenly we’re overwhelmed with suffering and we don’t know why.
But the Third Noble Truth says there is an end to suffering. It’s possible—you can end your suffering—and the Fourth Noble Truth gives the path: how we can end our suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path is a specific methodology that we treat in detail in The Dharmasar Solution. It is like a raft that enables us to cross over the flooded river of unwanted suffering born of egotism, and attain the blissful state of no-self.