In a wide-ranging conversation with Ajahn Thaniya, we explore the Buddha’s teachings on sexuality. Originally from New Zealand, Ajahn Thaniya was ordained in 1993 as a siladhara (ten-precept nun) by Ajahn Sumedho, the senior Western disciple of Thai master Ajahn Chah. She is currently the senior nun at Cittaviveka Monastery in England. Inquiring Mind managing editor Dennis Crean interviewed Ajahn Thaniya in November 2006 while she was visiting Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California.
Ajahn Thaniya: Waking up to what it means to experience energy in a sexual way helps free our life energy so that it’s not contorted—either through repression or denial. It also involves guarding against being captured by the power of sexual desire. One of the primary inquiries becomes exploring how the natural energy of existence can support true freedom and aliveness.
Inquiring Mind: When undertaken consciously, sexual union can be an expression of deep love and commitment. Did the Buddha speak about that?
AT: I don’t recollect that the Buddha spoke of a union with the beloved or used the terms you mention, but in places in the Pali scriptures one can sense an appreciation for intimacy. In one passage, a very devoted husband and wife ask the Buddha, “We have such deep love for each other, can we not be together in the next life?” The Buddha teaches them how to generate the conditions for such a rebirth. In the Jataka stories, we read of the Buddha’s relationship with his own wife, which had manifested in many lifetimes. So I imagine that the Buddha knew that people understood the loveliness of being able to express their devotion physically, but he emphasized instead the suffering of desire because that’s what people really need to get a handle on.
IM: So what advice does the Buddha offer for skillfully relating to one’s sexual energy?
AT: The Buddha suggests we look at what’s unwholesome and unhelpful. When speaking with those in the monastic community avowed to celibacy, he emphasized the danger in being swept away by desire and voluntarily engaging in sexual intercourse. Images such as hot coals and poisonous snakes were used as strong deterrents against following desire and recklessly abandoning the training. In relation to this he would say that the teachings are given for the sake of the waning of passion, for freedom from sense desire, not for their increase.
For laypeople, a basic teaching on practicing with sexual desire is the third of the Five Precepts—refraining from sexual misconduct. This precept is essentially about not using sexuality in a harmful or mindless way. The Buddha taught to refrain from incest; from involvement with somebody who’s already committed in another relationship, such as someone betrothed; and from coercive sexual relationships. Even when people might seem to be in complete agreement about engaging in sexual relations, that’s not always the case. I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever been in a sexual situation that’s a bit murky or confusing, it can be very disturbing. This doesn’t support calming and opening the mind. It might even lead to blocking things out and not looking at what is happening. That’s the danger of unskillful actions. They breed ignorance.
In a world where sex has been so degraded, it’s helpful to have a practice that encourages us to reassess our relationship to it, to understand desire and sexual energy. We might ask, is casual sex really not hurting anybody? We have to check it out. On some level, does it hurt our heart to be relating to our self, let alone someone else, with such casualness? Have we been swept up by the power of desire and lost reference to the values of loving and cherishing and honoring? Are we with someone who cares about us, who isn’t relating to us simply as an object of desire? This is something to explore, so that we’re not selling ourselves out to a desire. It’s a powerful force.
The Buddha also encouraged householders to practice the Eight Precepts once a fortnight, which includes abstaining from any kind of sexual activity for that one day. In this way, he said, one can gladden the mind, thinking “I’m practicing the way the buddhas and their disciples practiced,” thereby entering a current of practice. This creates the opportunity to be present to, without acting on, sexual desire; to feel the energies—the tugging and wanting—and to gain a bit of freedom around them. When you compulsively act on something, you often don’t understand it very well. You don’t feel the edges. What is it like to be with someone you love deeply without engaging sexually? You have to find other ways, bring other possibilities into the relationship.
IM: So when practicing with the precepts or, in your case, with a commitment to celibacy as a Buddhist nun, how can one work with the feelings of sexual desire that naturally arise?
AT: When I feel strong sexual energy arise, I just open and feel what the energy is asking for. It’s often a craving for oneness or unity. By being still, allowing the energy to move as energy rather than being shaped by desire, consciously being with it in that way, the energy resolves itself. Rather than needing an object for sexual expression, coming into presence is enough. Sometimes it’s very dramatic, saying, “Just one kiss, or I’ll die”—there’s an intensity, a desperation. The voices cry out, and if they’re not responded to, they’ll get so they crave even the tiniest fragment. But eventually they change. I’ve seen this same process with a teaspoon of honey. Desire can grasp hold and manipulate us, but if the energy is not followed, the desire changes. For me it’s strengthening to trust in the power of awareness. It is transformative to simply know the desire—that’s “the Buddha knowing the Dhamma,” or awareness knowing the way things are—without needing to act.
Here’s another example. Some time ago, after an all-night meditation vigil, I was working away by myself in our workshop. Somebody came in. They smelled like someone who’d been asleep—smell can be very potent for me—and bang, my whole system illuminated. It was fascinating; I could hear my mind go crazy. It said, “Just touch their hand; it will be all right.” But actually, to touch somebody out of desire is a serious offense for a nun. So I said to myself, “I’d better get the heck out of here.” By the time I’d gotten down to my hut, the heavens had burst. There was a colossal electrical storm—raging winds and rain—and I realized I’d been affected by the elements. It was the middle of the summer, very hot with a big electrical buildup, and I’d been part of it. Sexual energy just flashed.
IM: I think we all know that little voice of temptation that says, “It’s okay.” [Laughter]
AT: So what I try to do is remove myself and reassess things. Once the mind has cooled down, such impulses may turn out to be suitable, but more often they won’t. Sexual energy can be very deluding because of the “chemistry” that’s happening. Desire to be close is so powerful that it’s hard not to act on it, so it’s often helpful to move out of range. Later, if we want to move back into the relationship, fine. We’re no longer reacting to the energy of the moment, which in this case is the very powerful energy of creating. As practitioners, we’re trying to move toward the uncreated, the unborn, the unoriginated, so we have to be especially awake around such a strong force of holding, having, creating.
IM: What do you feel you’ve gained by choosing a celibate lifestyle?
AT: The first thing to say is that celibacy is a practice that must be deliberately picked up. It’s different from saying, “Well, right now I haven’t got a sexual partner.” At this time I’ve chosen celibacy. It simplifies my life. My primary commitment is to the spiritual path. When I was married, I had a commitment to my husband, so my relationship to practice had to be negotiated—consequently, going on retreat was difficult. Now I can make choices based on what’s most supportive for awakening. Choosing celibacy makes it clear what you’ve committed your life energy to. It’s something that you’ve really got to give yourself to, otherwise the whole thing’s unbearable.
There’s a revealing verse in the Dhammapada: “Having given up home and family, why not leave your anger behind?” So, if you’ve already given up this potential for sexual intimacy, which can have so much that is wholesome and precious connected to it, then it’s much easier to give up what is unwholesome.
IM: Does choosing a celibate lifestyle mean you no longer have personal relationships?
AT: It certainly means giving up relating from a sexual basis. But I do have very deep personal relationships. I’ve lived in community with some people for sixteen years. I meditate with them, I eat breakfast with them, I know the sound of their footsteps coming down the corridor. And with some people there is a natural affinity. It’s not that I’m not “related”; I’m just not related through the mechanisms of sexual desire or wanting. It opens up a really lovely space.
Living together with people in a way that really supports each other is a great blessing. Whereas in my experience of people in committed relationships, it’s the rare couple whose relationship is truly strengthening them in wholesome ways. More often, it’s conflicted. There’s pain from neediness and codependence. There can be desires within the relationship that haven’t been understood. Consequently, they reduce the quality of that relationship. It’s very hard to really understand desire. So one of the powerful things about being consciously celibate is getting to know sexual desire by letting it move through the whole system without acting on it. That’s very freeing.
IM: You mentioned that you were previously married. How has your understanding of sexual desire changed since then?
AT: I got married quite young, and my understanding of sexuality was naive, shaped by our culture’s neuroses. I only had a vague sense of the difference between feminine and masculine sexuality. Now my understanding of feminine sexuality is much clearer in terms of the dynamic between love and sexual energy, where they meet and where they don’t meet. As most of us know, there are times when sex can generate tremendous closeness and a great depth of meeting. But that’s not always the case; sometimes it’s a way of hiding from intimacy. It’s become clearer to me that my feelings of sexual desire aren’t about physical appearance or sexual gratification; they’re about emotional connection. I think this is true for many people. To generalize, men seem to be more attracted by physical appearance. I sometimes hear the monks talk about the effect it has on them when beautiful women visit the monastery. But if you asked the sisters, they probably couldn’t remember a “beautiful man” visiting the monastery. Instead, beauty comes through relationship; physicality is secondary. Just knowing that more clearly I’ve found helpful.
Being celibate, I feel freer to relate to others without sexual expectations. I notice now that gender, shape and sexual orientation aren’t determining factors in how intimacy develops in relationships for me. My sense of comradeship with women practitioners has strengthened in a way that wasn’t possible before because of my unexamined conditioning around relating. This is a benefit of contemplating sexual energy.
In a monastery, you may not have much energy arising in a sexual way as it’s not being deliberately stimulated through visual imagery, etc. The energy can be shaping itself through devotional channels.
In my experience, devotional energy is a kind of life energy. Some people might call this sexual energy, but it is something more. It arises within the mind or heart itself, not in the sexual organs. It happens through the whole physicality. It is seeking to give itself to what is loved—awakening itself—rather than trying to get anything. So transmuting sexual energy in this way is essential if you are celibate, otherwise the life force can be blocked. Devotional practices are helpful with handling this energy, so they are worth cultivating.
IM: What would you say to those who might think that choosing celibacy is denying what it means to be human or repressing one’s sexuality, or is simply a lonely and miserable lifestyle? [Laughter]
AT: Well, those things can be true, can’t they? [Laughter] It’s really a challenge. Am I giving up everything in order to live an experience of loneliness and depression? If that turned out to be true, I don’t think anyone would do it for very long! To really wake up the heart, you need the whole of yourself. If you cut off sections of yourself, you won’t have enough strength. It’s really important that sexuality doesn’t close down and distort the heart. You can’t wake up if your heart’s closed.
Through the practice, we can wake up to where the heart’s closed. For instance, celibacy can be a rich exploration of loneliness and aloneness. What is it like when there’s no one beside you to share the beautiful moments in life? I found that very challenging in the beginning. There can certainly be a sense of loss. But I also remember His Holiness the Dalai Lama saying that as Tibet was being taken over by the Chinese, he would pour out his problems to whomever was there with him, including the sweepers in his room. We often censor ourselves, sharing our most intimate thoughts and feelings with those “special” to us. We’re only half available most of the time. Not that I have to reveal everything to everyone who comes along, but one of the questions for me is how to be more available to whomever I’m with. It’s an inquiry.
The danger is in crushing our life energy, sexual energy—to think those feelings are not all right—rather than acknowledging how natural they are. There’s also a danger in making sexuality wrong or bad, which, by the way, usually means women are also made bad. We see this around the world in many religious traditions.
IM: Monasticism is a strong element in the Buddhist tradition. One might easily infer that sexual relationships are considered lesser and that serious seekers should be celibate.
AT: Certainly, renunciation is seen as one of the primary supports for spiritual cultivation, whether in lay or monastic life. Because sexual energy is so strong, the renunciation of sexual activity gives great strength to the practice. It also frees one from the complexities and responsibilities of sexual activity and relationships. When one’s heart is primarily set on fulfilling the teachings in this lifetime, then the monastic life can be a great support. Those of us engaged in it have to keep checking out if monasticism is still working for us—in terms of celibacy or, indeed, any of its other characteristics, such as the place of women within it.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible in some other context to develop deep insight in one’s practice. I have three sisters, and we’re all in different places along the spectrum of relationships. We’re all consciously making spiritual journeys. My twin sister’s raising two little kids right now and is deeply committed to practice. I can’t say that she’s working with any less diligence than I am.
There’s a fascinating sutta about two great friends who are “once-returners.” One lives a household life, rides around in a carriage, has a wife. The other is celibate and lives quite an austere life. When the daughter of the celibate disciple challenges the Buddha about whether her father’s friend who is married and lives the life of householder can truly be as far along the path as her renunciate father, the Buddha really tells her off. What I take from this is that one can’t simply look at somebody’s lifestyle to determine their level of cultivation.
What can be said is that if you don’t add fuel to a burning fire, it dies down. The renunciate precepts are about not putting more fuel on the fire of desire. Undertaken with compassion and self-love, renunciation supports clear seeing. As spiritual practice deepens, the life energy reorients itself away from habits rooted in desire that agitate and confuse, and towards simplicity and a life that calms and settles the mind. The teachings are offered out of compassion and should be picked up in that way.
A foundation has been set up to support the nuns of Amaravati and Chithurst monasteries in traveling to and teaching in America. For more information, visit www.saranaloka.org.
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