Desire For Sex: Our Breeding Season Lasts All Year Long

In the Temple Rules, Zen Master Seung Sahn writes: “Money and sex are like a spiteful snake. Put your concern with them far away.”This is a controversial sentence. There are often questions about it during dharma talks. Sexuality is an important element of our human body and psyche. How can we put our concern with it far away? In most cultures, sex has been surrounded by regulations and restrictions. Everywhere in the world, you can go to jail because of sexual behaviors that are considered wrong. Just what exactly is considered wrong differs between countries. Why is sex considered so dangerous? Probably because it’s the strongest desire we have, the most difficult to control and therefore capable of creating lots of suffering. I live in a village where there are a lot of cats. Every year in February and March, in their breeding season, I can see male cats walking around that are dirty, skinny, bleeding from their wounds, stressed and looking miserable. Maybe they have some short moments of pleasure, but most of the time they have to chase, run, fight and struggle. When the breeding season is over, they return to normal life, in which they have time for eating, washing and grooming themselves, and playing. And they look definitely much happier. Only the cats who have been castrated show no interest in the breeding rituals and avoid all of its pain and stress. They don’t seem to be sorry that they are missing something important, and they live approximately twice as long. I don’t think human beings are much different from cats, except our breeding season lasts all year long. Does this mean that if we all get ourselves castrated then this world would become a happier place? I don’t know, and I hope we will not need to find out. Desire for sex is part of our lives. It is present in our culture, in social life, even on spiritual paths. One of my favorite writers, Terry Pratchett, used to make a lot of fun of spirituality, and Zen in particular. He once wrote something I’ll try and recap from memory: “What would be the point of being a hermit who, after years of meditating and renouncing sex had attained great spiritual powers, if there were no young women passing by the meditation cave from time to time, who would see you and say ‘Ooooh . . .’?” Because we are human, there always exists the potential for sexual attraction between us. I even heard people say that the monks and nuns who vowed to live in celibacy are actually very sexy. Naturally, that’s not what they intend, but it’s present. So what can you do about it? Speaking of celibacy, I’m not a monk and never wanted to be one, so I don’t know how it works in their lives, and what they do about sexual desire. Maybe one of them will write something about it here one day. But some believe that celibacy is essential for making progress on a spiritual path. Still, what is the relationship between celibacy, sexual desire and spiritual practice? I believe it’s good for each of us to decide what we want to do with our desire for sex and how we are going to control it. Each of us has to face this decision, whether we want to or not. Some pretend they don’t have that ability or that there is nothing to decide. Some of us embrace this as a decision, not only to make spiritual progress, but also to live a happy life. Monastic vows are one such way to make a decision. Another is marriage, and it works for me. But even within these two choices, we still have to decide how to relate to our sexuality. There are also other ways that may work for other people. The key point, in my opinion, is to be clear about it and honest with ourselves and with others: “Am I potentially available for sex, or not?” And that’s not easy, because when playing with our desire for sex, and others’ desires too, this “maybe, who knows” approach seems much more attractive. Thus, it is more seductive to pretend we aren’t making a choice and don’t bear responsibility. So, keeping monastic vows, marriage vows or any other kind vow is not enough. Moment to moment, mindfulness is necessary, not only with keeping celibacy or being true to your wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/whatever, but with all your speech and actions, because our sexuality is always present. Fighting it makes no sense to me, because if we do, it will fight back and finally can take control of us. Keeping this spiteful snake far away is not a good idea to me, either. You may forget it’s there and one day you may step on it. I’d rather see it for what it is and act with understanding, clarity and compassion toward ourselves and others.