Sujato's thought of the day: on desire

These Christian values seem to have seeped in so deeply though. I’m not sure most people even recognise them. I grew up with non-religious hippie-boomer parents and it certainly didn’t stop me internalising all sorts of judgement.

Even some of the monastics I live with who grew up in Malaysia, Singapore Sri Lanka and Philippines say that things like Christian guilt/shame is something they internalised either from their schooling or society.

I guess this is how all of this horrible religious discrimination bill stuff can have legs. Yet I feel like over the past few decades we have made such progress in being more open and inclusive to all sorts of diversity. Maybe kids these days don’t have so much of this. Gosh I feel old! I have no idea about kids these days. I disappeared into a bubble just before Australia started getting ugly with the marriage equality debate and feel like I don’t have my finger on the pulse about so many things.


It’s funny how these things work. I have a very clear and distinct memory, from when I was probably fifteen. I was standing on the corner of Barrack St and Murray St in Perth, waiting for the lights to change while on my way to a guitar lesson. I had been thinking about God—I was going to a Catholic school—and had recently decided that he didn’t exist.

Suddenly it struck me, how deeply conditioned my whole society was by the idea of God as inculcated by the Church. I realized that it wasn’t enough to just not believe in God, you had to dig down. If all our lives, our morality, our values and institutions were based on this fundamental idea that, it turns out, simply was not true, then what does that mean? Surely it means that the errors of theism will be baked through it all? And if you wanted to be free of that error, you had to question everything, understand how it worked, and make sure to rip it out wherever you find it.

So that’s what I did. First stop: Nietzsche! I found The Antichrist in a second hand bookshop, and it supplemented my usual reading material of Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke.


It has been a while but I’m coming back to some of your thoughts, Bhante.

You summed up many valid reasons.
The number one cause seems to me digital culture.
Human connectivity needs lots of time offline.
Sexuality is mainly about bounding and unfortunately,
we’re all massively disconnecting.
If sex were only about pleasure,
there would be less offences, I believe.
Most offenders are themselves victims.

On top of that, sex is a most risky thing.
You can get hurt cause you’re vulnerable after all.
And if there’s something not cool today, it’s vulnerability.
Worldly success needs a hard shell.

The opposite is also true. If you can’t choose to do it, you may be trapped by your own willpower. Most people, I assume, who choose to live celibate haven’t chosen so because they wanted to avoid before all healthy sexual relationships, but because they wanted to avoid the painful ones.


Also a very good point! In fact, this is something we see in spiritual circles: people who are driven by an aversion and fear of their own desires. That way leads to a particularly painful darkness.


I’m curious if I’m understanding you correctly here, my apologies if I’m not. In my own experience as a celibate layperson and in conversation with other laypeople who have chosen celibacy as part of their Buddhist practice, it’s more about avoiding the attachment and entanglement with sensory desire that arises with sexual relationships.

This can happen in healthy relationships and in unhealthy ones, so it’s not necessarily a decision driven by wanting to avoid pain. There is freedom in letting go of the desire for sex, just like there’s freedom in other kinds of renunciation.

As Bhante @sujato wisely said:

I bring this point up specifically because I think there’s sometimes a tendency to assume that laypeople who have chosen to be celibate are having an avoidant reaction due to bad relationships in their past or that they have negative attitudes about sex. And that’s not necessarily true; it may be unusual outside the monastic context, but for some laypeople, there’s a benefit to celibacy that outweighs the benefits even of healthy and pleasurable sexual relationships.

The world’s pretty things stay just as they are, but a wise one removes desire for them. (AN 6.63)

Let me first wish you all a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Absolutely, Ekay, I respect your choice.
Abstinence creates great opportunities for spiritual growth.
Just as having sex in moderation also creates such opportunities.

I think of sexuality as neutral - it’s a reality, after all -
but focus on someone’s motivations. If I choose celibacy
because I reject myself, then my choice won’t help me.
If I accept myself, then celibacy can propel me spiritually.
Since most people unfortunately reject themselves,
I’m in favor of moderation rather than of renunciation.

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