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Monastic sexuality

The analysis in the previous post gave me a fresh perspective on the monks’ aversion to the feeling mind: it arose from their own thought-dominance. In spite of their rigorous meditation training, they had not truly democratized their minds. They saw the experiences that threatened thought as dangerous. Instead of nourishing their emotional and sensual selves, and thereby restraining their thinking minds, the monks were in fact stoking it, and perpetuating the mental imbalance that meditation aimed to correct.

Prior to visiting the temple I’d naively imagined that Buddhists celebrated the feeling mind. I’d heard of an ancient Indian sex manual, the Kama Sutra, and knew it appeared about the same time as Buddhism. I thought discomfort with sensuality to be exclusively Western, especially Christian. Now I found it in Buddhism. I learned at the temple that the monks renounced sex just like Catholic priests. They had no outlet for any erotic or romantic desires. Several incidents at the temple suggested they were more even uptight about sex than Catholic Fathers.

The first occurred at the temple’s communal bath, an open small pool behind the temple’s male lodging area. A bather had to submerge a bucket in the water and then pour it over his body. Doing this naked breached temple rules. Everyone had to wear a longyi, a plain cotton fabric wrapped around the waist and tied in a knot, like a sarong. Exposing your genitals even in an all-male bathing area was forbidden.

The second incident happened in the dining room. At each meal at the temple everyone filed into the eating area in the order of seniority, with the head monk first, the senior monks next, the newbie monks toward the end, and the students like me the last in line. We then sat on benches at low tables where reverent servers placed our food. One day I noticed that some of the junior monks sitting opposite me lowered their heads below the table. Curious, I did the same and saw nothing out of the ordinary. It then occurred to me that they were looking up my longyi which I regularly wore at mealtime. I wore no underwear that day because I had just washed them and they were drying in the sun. Were the monks trying to get a view of my genitals? That seemed too weird to be true.

Then a few days later, a toothless elder monk took me aside as I left the dining room. Wagging his finder at me and shaking his head in disapproval he said: “Underneath your longyi you are naked.” This confirmed my suspicion about the junior monks. They had been looking up my garment. The monks who had to contort themselves to do that were blameless; I transgressed for not making my genitals impossible to see.

A third incident occurred when I left the temple. A monk helped me stow my backpack in a luggage compartment on the roof of a bus. When a woman tried to hand her backpack to the monk he declined, insisting that I take her pack and then hand it to him. Monks are forbidden to have even indirect contact with a woman.

These negative attitudes to parts of the human body and half the human race struck me as highly conducive to suffering, not the liberation from it that the monks claimed.

I’d witnessed similar negative attitudes before in the West toward nudity, sexuality and women, and not just in Christianity but also in secular institutions like the law. I’d never understood why. My meditation suggested to me the underlying reason: thought-dominance. The enemy of the erotic self is not religion, rather something much bigger and more pervasive in every human culture, the mental condition the Buddhists called papanca. It is ubiquitous, present even in the meditative culture that first identified it and which invented powerful tools to root it out.

Sex is the most potent of our feelings. A mind in the grip of thought-dominance would be most intensely averse to our erotic impulses. But papanca would also answer the question I’d be pondering for several years: why the pervasive lack of interest everywhere in human feelings and specifically, happiness? In the grip of thought-dominance we would feel especially uncomfortable with sexuality, but the whole range of our emotional and sensual life would provoke similar but lesser negativity. But why are we thought-dominant? Is that an inevitable condition of human life or only in specific cultural environments?

These big questions excited me. I wanted to answer them. For the first time I saw myself as a wellbeing detective, trying to identify the mostly hidden dark forces that undermine human happiness. I’ve dedicated much of my life since then to that pursuit, as you will read.

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