Sujato's thought of the day: on desire

Cowards, fearing their own desires, magnify their pride by legislating the desires of others.


O, It sounds a bit like… Nietzsche-esque!


That’s very good.
It’s so good that it could end up in Fake Buddha Quotes.


Good Chinese aphorism:

Outside noisy,
Inside empty

Plato quotation:

Poets utter great and wise
things which they do not
themselves understand


Or Foucault,

Discipline and Punish!


In what specific context, bhante Sujato?

Well, it could be anything. Or, it could be this.

Sigh. Marx wasn’t that wrong about religion, I’d say.

He certainly had a point. What he missed, I think, is the fact that religions do serve humanity in a deep way, offering a sense of meaning. The problem is that this becomes weaponized by corrupt forces who run the things. Which is, of course, exactly what happened to the communists. :man_shrugging: (except in Kerala!)

But the whole thing with the obsession by modern religionists with policing other people’s sexuality: it’s so weird. I find myself just cringing for those people, like, “OMG TMI, keep your kinks to yourself, we don’t need to know.”


Like when Cardinal Coccopalmerio got busted at a cocaine fueled gay sex party in the Vatican a couple of years ago? But still keeps his title? But Jane Doe of Our Lady of Hypocrisy got fired from her teaching position at the parish school because she had the temerity to put a pic of her and her monogamous same sex partner up as their facebook profile photo for their 20 year anniversary.

I don’t miss being catholic. At all.


Absolutely, as long as abuse of power is left out.

I understand what you mean, Bhante.
It is cringing.

But isn’t banning sexuality also policing it?
Take my Buddhist community with so many
lovely people. No one there will ever discuss
sexuality. And if it’s being talked about,
it is always in a context of sexual misconduct.
But why do we never talk about sexuality
as an expression of love and respect?
As a wholesome part of our human nature?
Why is it that we find it so hard to make peace with our sexuality?


All good questions! And they deserve a respectful discussion.

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Because for the larger part of human history, love and respect in sexual expression was seen as by far secondary to the sexual output, which was progeny, and the social stability and advancement that marriage brought in clan and tribe based societies. If love and respect were even considered at all. I don’t think people realize just how much our conceptions around sex and relationships have changed in the past 50 years, compared to even the, like, the past 5000. Ingrained social structures take time to change, all we can do is keep steering the boat in the right direction.

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The history of marriage is very interesting and predictable.
It’s an invention of men in power who wanted a guarantee
that their offspring is their offspring. A painful truth, but
marriage isn’t a way to create stability for all people.
Originally, it was (still is in many cultures) a way to control women.

You seem to be talking about marriages of convenience.
But love and respect are not an invention of modern times.
Take Antony and Cleopatra, Sir Lancelot and Guinevere,
Adam and Eve… mythology is full of love stories from earlier times,
outside marriages.

Yes, very much. It’s essential to discuss them.

Desire or Kama is not present in anything, but it is the result of thoughts in the person/s. Sankappa raga purisassa kama. Nathe kamayani vichithrani Loke.

No one can legalise desire of another.

The whole sentence reads:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

So maybe not missing as much as one might think?


Thanks, that’s a beautiful passage.


And then a great silence filled the place.
Some went sitting, others went running
and some stared into the nothingness.


Lol, so very true!

Let me then begin by responding to some recent news articles such as this one:

The history in the West goes something like this: the pagans were pretty much cool with sex (or so we imagine). The Christians came along and got all weird about it. This led to a lot of repressions, homophobia and the like, and along the way birthed western psychology as Freud started uncovering the messed-up-ness that extremes of repression and denial bring.

This started a gradual change, both paralleling and contributing to the decline of religion in the West, and in the 60s there was a sexual revolution. Suddenly sex wasn’t bad, it was good. So were drugs and stuff! The boundaries and strictures around sex were just fuddy-duddy stuff best abandoned. This led to lots of fun times. Mostly, it turns out, for straight men. Apparently if you enable free sex in a world where men are privileged in every way they use it to take advantage of women. Whoda guessed!

Anyway, lots of folks—men, women, straight and queer—were still happy to have some of the yoke of Christian judgmentalism lifted. Some women argued that the so-called sexual liberation was harmful for women, but this was contested. We began to understand better the ways that a patriarchal and hetero-normative world causes young people to internalize discriminatory ideals, resulting in heightened rates of anxiety, bodily dysmorphia, and the like. We learned such words as “objectification” and “male gaze”. So a sex-positive movement began, telling everyone they are beautiful in their own way and have a right to enjoy their bodies and their sexuality without shame.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the institutions that profit from sexuality and those that judge it were still controlled by men. The #metoo movement highlighted the shocking incidence of sexual violence, but even in such high profile cases, only a tiny fraction of offenders were sent to jail, while, in the US, rapists were still elected President and appointed to the Supreme Court, and in Australia, a culture of vile sexual harassment was exposed in Parliament itself. Meanwhile, young people seek out depictions of sex in porn, whose excesses are often not explained or contextualized by responsible adults. Not least because it is adults, including parents, who are the target audience and primary consumers of extreme content.

While the prevalence of sexualized pop culture and the radical shift towards a greater acceptance of diverse sexual identities and lifestyles among the young might give the impression of a licentious generation, the data shows a rather drastic drop in sexual activity among young people. This applies across the board, including masturbation and porn consumption, and whether relatedly or not, also to drug use. The reasons are unclear, but all of the above, plus the massive expansion in the availability of non-sex distractions like tiktok and tv, are likely to be contributing factors. Unclear in all this is the role of concomitant biological changes, especially the possible global decline in sperm counts, which is itself contested both in its facts and implications. Meanwhile the forces of repression, who have been there all along, are busy dredging back up the hate that we thought we had left behind; this in fact being the immediate prompt for my original post.

Looming over all is the specter of climate change, which has birthed a new anti-natalism among the young.

Regardless of the causes, we see a new generation that has more opportunities than ever for sexual exploration, yet is more concerned with issues of consent and acceptance, and when given the choice, often chooses to relax on the couch watching telly and scrolling their phones.

This is, of course, a highly western-centric potted history, and each nation or culture has its own story to tell.

Meanwhile, in Buddhism, we are, or should be, offering a different perspective. We shouldn’t be caught up in tides and changes in attitudes, but offering something better.

The Buddha didn’t get in to the whole thing of shaming people of different sexualities, nor of going around judging bodies and all that toxic nonsense. He never expected people to just stop doing it, and indeed regarded the enjoyment of sensual pleasures as a normal part of life. He did, however, point out that such pleasures were limited and bound up with pain; and that their excessive indulgence led to moral decadence.

There is a middle way between “don’t do it, you’ll go to hell” and “do whatever you want, it’s all good”. And that is the way of moderation, responsibility, respect, and compassion. People will always seek pleasure, it is natural and inevitable; it’s what makes the world go round. But there is no form of pleasure—least of all the most potent—whose unbridled pursuit comes without consequences.

Boundaries around sexual behaviors are there for a reason: because pleasure and desire are incredibly potent forces, and if we allow them to be unleashed they will devour all before them, leaving nothing behind. In the past, these boundaries were imposed by religion, but now they are imposed by individuals, reinforced by the peer community of the internet.

As Buddhists, we have the opportunity to present a perspective on sexual morality that is untainted by the distortions of European history. We won’t be able to offer that, however, if we fall into the two traps: internalizing (often outdated Victorian) Christian judgmentalism in the mistaken belief that it is Buddhist; or following “sex-positive” Boomerism that ends up as a cover for sexual exploitation of the vulnerable—including students of Buddhism.

Buddhist sex education should be frank, realistic, and grounded in the facts. It should emphasize respect and responsibility, and encourage young people to see each other with compassion as full human beings, not as collections of body parts. It should be accepting of different sexual identities and choices, and should support making better choices through empathetic education. It should speak to young people where they are, and begin with the absolute assumption of respect for young people, for that is what we are asking them to show each other. That means not just lecturing to young people, but learning from them; they are getting a lot of things right that we royally screwed up.

The Buddha was, of course, celibate by choice. And he created the Sangha as an opportunity for those who wished to follow the same lifestyle; who wished to no longer pay the cost of sensual pleasure. This is the ultimate expression of sexual choice and freedom: the freedom to not do it. This is not just sloganeering. If you cannot choose to not do it, you are an addict, trapped by your own desires. Given the choice between harmful, unhealthy sexuality and none at all, you will choose self-harm.

Periods of time in meditation and on retreat offer a support for this. We can show people that they can be happy—a lot more happy—just being at peace with themselves. Of course, most people will get back to their lives. But they will never forget that it is possible to be free.

The third precept has nothing to do with the kind of sexual acts you perform or the kind of person you perform them with. It’s about honesty and respect. Note that it does not require love; the Buddha, always a realist, did not assume that all sexual activity be part of a long term relationship. That might be the ideal for some people, for others not. What is always required though, is mutual consent and respect, honesty and care.

And most of all, the understanding that sex and sexuality do not define a person. You are bigger than that; it is a part of you, you are not a part of it. Take pleasure in a life of meaning and purpose, and then you can find a way of expressing your sexuality in a healthy and joyful way.


It does you great credit that you take
the trouble to share your ideas, Bhante.

My friend here is grinning, knowing full well
that it will take me a little time to formulate
a response in English that is on par with a Buddhist monk’s eloquence on sexuality.