Andrew Yip and Sarah-Jane Page: Understanding Young Buddhists | Living Out Ethical Journeys | Chapter 4: Interweaving Spirituality and Sexuality

Interweaving Spirituality and Sexuality


Having explored in the previous chapter the various dimensions of the participants’ present spiritual orientations and practices, we shall in this chapter extend the exploration by relating spirituality to sexuality. There are two primary reasons for this formulation. First, as we have mentioned in Chapter 1, this book is based on a broader project on religious young adults and sexuality. Therefore, we have generated a substantial and insightful corpus of data on sexuality, as it constituted one of the major research aims. Second, these Buddhist participants also, on their own volition, reflected upon significant issues such as the sexualisation of society and the marketisation of sexuality – especially in relation to youth culture – in interviews and video diaries. Thus, we would like to offer them the well-deserved space to articulate their voices pertaining to such issues.

This chapter will begin with a broad overview of the participants’ attitudes toward sexuality, especially in relation to their Buddhist faith. We shall then examine the fundamental and primary principle of the avoidance of sexual misconduct, which all participants considered the guiding principle and ideal for their sexual lives. Of course, they also acknowledged the challenges of practising this guiding principle, precisely because of the highly-sexualised youth culture which they inhabited. In the third theme, we shall illuminate how the participants negotiated their spirituality and sexuality, focusing on the management of, for instance, intimacy, sexual desire, romance, and relationship. The final theme of the chapter will shed light on the lived experiences of lgbt participants. Collectively, these themes will show that while sexuality remains a challenging aspect of life that the participants constantly negotiated, their attempts to interweave their spirituality and sexuality was largely an empowering and growth-inducing experience.

Setting the Context: Sexual Attitudes and Buddhist Faith


In the main, the participants considered Buddhism positive towards sexuality. For instance, the vast majority of them (75.0%) ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’ with the questionnaire statement, ‘My religion restricts my sexual expression’;[1] and only 10.0% of them ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’ with the statement, ‘My religion is positive towards sexuality’.[2] Given this generally positive association between their Buddhist faith and sexuality, it is not surprising that 65.8% of them ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement, ‘My religious faith is significant in shaping my attitudes towards sex and sexuality’.[3] This positive association is also reflected in the following questionnaire quotes:
[My sexuality] doesn’t define me and it doesn’t really affect my life at all. I think mostly because it isn’t conflicting to my religious beliefs in the slightest. | alison, a 18-year-old bisexual café worker in England; associated with the Nichiren Daishonin tradition

Like religion, [sexuality] is an integral part of me and I am truthful with myself about my sexuality. But it’s not as big a deal as the media makes out – there is more to a person than their sexuality. | zara, a 24-year-old bisexual therapist in the southeast of England; associated with tbc/fwbo

It is telling that both Alison and Zara were bisexual. As research evidence has consistently shown, bisexuality is often a much-misunderstood sexuality in heterosexual as well as lesbian and gay communities, primarily because it problematizes ‘monosexuality’ (i.e. sexual attraction to either a woman or a man exclusively, but not both), and the taken-for-granted assumptions that underlined ‘compulsory coupledom/monogamy’ (e.g. Barker, Richards, Jones, Bowes-Cotton and Plowman, with Yockney and Morgan, 2012; Enstedt, 2015; Klesse, 2007; Kristal and Szymanski, 2006; Maliepaard, 2015; Ochs, 2009; Toft and Yip, Forthcoming; Wilkinson, 2013). Yet, Alison and Zara seemed to be rather at ease with their sexuality, primarily because it did not cause any conflict with their spiritual lives. As we shall argue in the following, and the last, sections of this chapter, this openness to sexual diversity is closely associated with Buddhist sexual ethics, as the participants understood it (see also Chapter 2). Throughout this chapter, we shall illuminate how the participants’ Buddhist faith informed their sexual attitudes and practices, in diverse ways. In response to a closed-ended question in the questionnaire that invited them to rank various factors that influenced their sexual values and attitudes, 35.1% of the participants identified ‘religious faith’ as ‘the most important’, followed by ‘parents/caregivers’ (27.0%), ‘friends’ (18.9%), then ‘partner’ and ‘intellectual knowledge’ (5.4% respectively).[4] These factors are of course not mutuallyexclusive. In fact, as it will become clear later, they are mutually-constitutive and mutually-reinforcing.

The Fundamental: The Avoidance of Sexual Misconduct

Our findings indisputably demonstrate that the fundamental principle that undergirded the participants’ attitudes towards sexuality was the avoidance of sexual misconduct or sexual harm, in relation to themselves and others. This is typified by the account below, extracted from the video diary of George, a 21-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England, who was associated with the Theravada tradition:
So one of the things I guess I should bring up, because it is relevant, is the five precepts. The precepts in Buddhism are five guidelines about how to live ethically, and the [third] one is translated either as to avoid from sexual misconduct or from sensual misconduct. And really sexual misconduct in Buddhism would be looked upon as probably an extreme, but still only a form of sexual misconduct in the sense that it’s getting physical pleasure… It is an ethical code but it is more about the effects that it has on you and your mind rather than being ethical. So it is all [very] well saying it is how to live ethically so you don’t harm others, which is true, but it is there because not taking those precepts and not following them has a detrimental effect on your development mentally. So sensual misconduct then could be anything from eating chocolate to having sex. And the misconduct bit is… having sex in itself is not a problem in Buddhism but the problem is attachment to the pleasure that you get from sex. So it would be [misconduct] if you think that sex will make you happy and you think you need sex to make you happy… Otherwise, if you are craving sex, that is going to cause you suffering if you cannot get sex which at some point is going to be the case. So that is the real basis behind it, and there is an ethical aspect behind it, because [it is about] not taking physical pleasure over the harming of others [which is] also going to be detrimental to you.

In the same vein, Caroline, a 23-year-old undergraduate Buddhist, also argued in the interview that Buddhist sexual ethics did not promote a free-for-all self-centredness:
It’s not like that [Buddhism] allows you to do anything [you want]. There are the four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path: the right intention, right speech, right truthfulness etc. These are all instructions as well. You can see that they teach you and guide you… I don’t think me being gay or straight or whatever come into conflict with these rules that have been laid out, because I can see it doesn’t come into any of the eight ways and so in that sense Buddhism isn’t exactly like a self-centred free-for-all. Just occasionally you have certain guiding principles and you follow them and… As long as you practise the right way, speech and things, and try and be the best person you can… as long as you are a good person at heart and as long as you do not harm others. Yes, as long as you don’t harm others.

George’s and Caroline’s reflections highlight some salient points about their understandings of Buddhist ethics, which also typified those of other participants. First, the avoidance of sexual misconduct does not necessarily mean the avoidance of sex. Thus, it does not mean sexual abstinence. Second, sexual expression itself is intrinsically unproblematic. It is the effects that matter. In other words, the type of gendered and sexed bodies that are sexually-engaged does not matter. What matters is the effects of such a sexual expression, on oneself and others. Third, the negative effect of sexual expression that makes it a misconduct or harm is the generation of attachment, and the resulting suffering (e.g. Corless, 1998, 2000; Gross, 2015; Harvey, 2000, 2013; Keown, 2003; Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016). Taken together, these salient factors that informed the participants’ sexual ethics led to many participants’ acceptance of nonnormative sexualities and openness towards the issue of sexual difference and diversity. This will be elaborated in the last section.

Meaningful Sexuality: Emotionality and Personal Responsibility

On the basis of the principle of avoidance of sexual misconduct, what constituted meaningful or ‘harm-free’ sexuality is mindful sexuality: sexual feelings, desires, and actions that cause no harm to all parties involved in the sexual encounter. Here, we see once again the prominence of mindfulness, extended to the intimate dimension of life. Tim, a 24-year-old administrator in the northwest of England, who was associated with the Theravada tradition, asserted this point in the interview:
Well, I’m by no means enlightened. I just enjoy sex just the same way I guess as anybody else. I try and maintain mindfulness as much as possible. But I think I’m still quite lazy in that respect. I could do a lot more to maintain it in my daily life. But I think it’s always at the back at my mind now. I must have maybe at least scratched the surface somewhere because it’s always in my mind that it’s an impermanent experience regardless of what it is, whether it be painful or pleasurable or whatever. And that’s more like, it kind of grounds you in the present moment but in some cases you do get carried away with it and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong in that. In Buddhism there’s no demonising of any actions. It’s more like skilful or unskilful and then the results of those actions are in accordance with them. It’s not like an evil action or just because it’s pleasurable or anything like that so that avoids a lot of feelings of guilt perhaps [that] I think a lot of people might get into because of the conditioning that you have in a Christian society.

To many participants, one of the important ingredients of sexuality that is meaningful and mindful – or as Tim put it, ‘skilful’ – is emotionality. In this formulation, sex must not be about physical pleasure and bodily satisfaction only. Rather, it must involve emotion, a deeper connection between people that makes the sexual encounter enriching and life-affirming. Anya, a 24-year-old unemployed mixed-faith participant in the midlands of England, emphasised this:
I think lust is a primitive feeling and it is a lack of control of yourself. You see a bit of food and you grab it and eat it. [Sex] is one and the same, just the other end of the spectrum. Just because you want something it doesn’t mean you should have it. I think when I was younger, maybe I was like that… but in the process of evolution, if it doesn’t mean anything emotionally and I can’t connect emotionally… If I’m not emotionally there I don’t want to be there. I think sex has a power…. and for that reason I think if people had that kind of view that sex is something that links to a real emotion, love, then maybe certain things in the world would be different… I think it is recognising where my actions might take me. So in terms of a mental discipline, to try and evaluate everything that I do. Once you have done something it is very hard to take it back… I think your thoughts can destroy you… I have done stuff that I wouldn’t say I was proud of. I’ve made mistakes, and as [I am older now], I am not prepared to make them again. And I think frivolous sex always has a price, however small. I think it always comes back on you. The people that I surround myself with, they generally have similar attitudes to me. That is the sort of people we are friends with; we’re friends who reflect our attitude.

The other important characteristic of meaningful sexuality pertains to the concomitant of the freedom and flexibility that Buddhist ethics seems to offer, namely, the exercising of personal responsibility. Acknowledging the absence of institutional strictures and the privileging of personal freedom in Buddhist ethics, many participants acknowledged the heightened salience of personal responsibility, as articulated by Elisabeth, a 23-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England. Defining herself as Christian-Buddhist, she clearly preferred, in this respect, Buddhist to Christian sexual ethics:
I think Buddhism is generally very positive towards experiencing life… Buddhism is also about experiencing joy… You are pretty much free to do whatever you feel like when you are a young Buddhist. I think… in Buddhism you are free to do with your sexuality whatever you want to do. So I always felt quite unrestricted then. So I felt quite happy with it… So I think Buddhism has a positive attitude to sexuality because the framework of Buddhism allows for that all. It’s just your own responsibility so sometimes it can also be a heavy burden on your sexuality. Whereas [in the Christian tradition], I can kind of put away all that responsibility and whenever I think, ‘Now, that was wrong’, I just go to confession and go like, ‘Sorry’… No. I prefer to carry my own responsibility… I can only change these [Christian] structures when I am within these structures. As long as I am an outsider and scream, ‘Guys, you are wrong’ from the outside, nobody is going to listen.

It is indeed striking to observe Elisabeth’s positioning of Buddhism and Christianity as opposites in terms of their empowerment of individual agency in exercising personal responsibility. Finding Christianity (specifically Catholicism in her case) rule-bound and authoritarian, she relished the freedom that Buddhism offered her to exercise personal responsibility to work on her own ethical bearings. As we have discussed in Chapter 2, Elisabeth had also found Buddhism a more conducive and enabling space for her living out her sexual identity as bisexual.

Sex before Marriage and Casual Sex

As we and other scholars have argued, for many young adults of religious faith (especially those of Abrahamic faiths), one of the key issues they must negotiate is sex before marriage, because of explicit religious prohibitions against it (e.g. Gardner, 2011; Rasberry and Goodson, 2009; Stoppa, Espinosa-Hernandez and Gillen, 2014; van Eerdewijk, 2012; White, 2012; Yip and Page, 2013). Seemingly free from this constraint, our participants demonstrated different attitudes and experiences. Only 18.2% of them ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the questionnaire statement, ‘Ideally sex should take place only within the context of marriage’.[5] However, the percentage for the statement, ‘Sex could be fulfilling outside of marriage, as long as it is within a loving context’, was 93.0%.[6] Furthermore, only 5.1% of the participants,[7] and only 2.5% of them,[8] ‘strongly agreed’ and ‘agreed’ respectively with the statements, ‘It is important that I am a virgin when I get married’, and ‘It is important that my partner is a virgin when I get married’.

Taking these findings together, we would assert that, to the vast majority of the participants, the ‘sex-before-marriage’ stricture so predominantly present in Abrahamic religions, was not a significant issue. What they emphasised was the loving context within which the sexual expression should occur. This attitude not only is consistent with the mindfulness in sexuality in order to avoid sexual misconduct which we have discussed above, it also reflects their freedom from what often is a significant source of conflict and contention for young adults of Abrahamic faiths (e.g. Couch, Mulcare, Pitts, Smith and Mitchell, 2008; Rasberry and Goodson, 2009; van Eerdewijk, 2012; Yip and Page, 2013). George, a 23-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England who practised the Theravada tradition, articulated this point emphatically in one of his video dairy entries:
In some religions sex before marriage is not acceptable, and it seems that there is a judgement about people who do have sex before marriage, and they are bad people for doing that. But I don’t think you have got that in Buddhism, whatever your attitude is… Buddhism is not teaching against sex for any magical reason or any higher force. It is just the implications that it has for yourself. And yet I think it is quite an important thing because being driven by cravings for things, not just sex, material possessions… it can cause a lot of suffering… So I don’t really feel that Buddhism has a prohibitive effect on me at all… [T]he things I don’t do because I follow Buddhism… because on some deeper level I think that I understand that they are going to make me happier by not doing them than possibly doing them. And the things I do do I am more confident about. I have thought this through and so you can really enjoy it more because you don’t have anymore fears. Yeah that’s it really… Like I said, I was brought up Christian and I suppose you could see it quite a big issue in Christianity, especially in orthodox… sex before marriage.

The other related issue we explored with the participants in this respect was casual sex. As we have mentioned in Chapter 1, 45.5% of them were single, with the rest in unmarried cross-sex or same-sex relationships. A vast majority of them (93.2%) ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the questionnaire statement, ‘Consenting adults should be allowed to express their sexuality however they wish’.[9] Here, we see their assertion of another significant characteristic of meaningful and mindful sex: mutual consent. In addition, 81.0% of the participants also considered themselves ‘sexually-active’;[10] and 24.4% of them engaged in casual sex.[11] The participants’ responses to the statement, ‘Casual sex is detrimental to one’s being’ was particularly interesting, with 39.5% ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’, 37.2% ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’, and 23.3% ‘uncertain’.[12] Here, we can see the ambivalence expressed by almost a quarter of the sample, and the remaining three quarters were fairly equally polarized in this respect. We think that this interesting finding reflects the contentious nature of the term ‘casual sex’. Traditionally, ‘casual’ denotes sex outside of the context of a (presumably committed and fulfilling) couple relationship, driven by a short-lived, no-strings-attached, and pleasure-seeking ethos, devoid of emotional attachment and a sense of responsibility. Our qualitative data shows that this loaded understanding was contested amongst some participants. Stefan, a 25-year-old undergraduate in the southwest of England, who was associated with ‘Early Buddhism’, wrote eloquently in the questionnaire his contestation of the dominant cultural discourse of ‘casual sex’:
I disagreed with the formulation of ‘casual sex’. You cannot simply assume the category of ‘casual’ vs. ‘serious’ means the same to everybody, or that everybody accepts the same rational-cultural category as valid at all. It’s obviously a highly culturally relative category, and I for example do not believe in it. I don’t believe the reality of sexual relationships is that easily simplified at all. I see many ‘serious couples’ in ‘long term relationships’ who actually have little or no intimacy or psychosocially secure bonding, and I have personal experience of what is a conventionally ‘casual’ relationship with a woman ‘friend with benefits’ which is much more deeply intimate and emotionally healing and growing and meaningful to us both than the conventional categories allow for. For me, my sexuality is the most crucial, most important way that I experience and practise my need to be loving… I prefer tangible, practical, albeit passionate forms of love, and rather despise rationalised, disembodied, abstract and vacuous forms of ‘love’. In fact I doubt, probably excessively, whether they are even real, or just ‘pharisaic’. With my current friend with benefits, my overwhelming feeling is of gratitude for the opportunity to practise being loving, in a tangible physical and sexual form. We’re quite wild (we met through experimenting with bdsm), which is partly our way of taking revenge on the disembodiment frustration we experience from modern culture.

As we can see above, Stefan emphasised the nurturing effect of sexual expression in a loving context, rather than its particular form (e.g. within a couple relationship, ‘friends with benefits’ underpinned by mutual consent). By contesting this, he also problematised the hegemony of couple relationships as the most fulfilling and meaningful context for sexual expression. Therefore, he encouraged us to adopt a more open approach to the understanding of intimacy, love and sex, reminiscent of Plummer’s (2015) formulation of ‘cosmopolitan sexualities’ that values – despite the challenges in practice – the messiness, multiplicity, and hybridity of sexuality, and its diverse expressions.

On the other hand, some participants did express a caution against the potential of casual sex undermining the principle of the avoidance of sexual misconduct, as argued by George, a 21-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England, who practised the Theravada tradition. He reflected on this issue in multiple entries to the video diary, which we have re-arranged to enhance discursive flow and clarity:
I think it [the issue of casual sex] is quite thin-ice because while there is nothing wrong with having a one-night stand because there is no reason why you should be in a relationship, everything about it is that you are only doing it for the physical pleasure, if it really is a one-night stand. And that isn’t going to make you have lasting happiness. And possibly by having a one-night stand and getting temporary physical pleasure it is going to be like a drug, and I think that is how Buddhism would treat all sort of physical pleasures… Talking about casual sex and one-night stands, I think as a young person there is pressure to do that… If you are single you certainly can feel under pressure to have one-night stands. I am talking from a male perspective here, the influence of your friends to seem manly. But I am quite happy with not doing [it]… I mean, I am not saying that I wouldn’t or don’t but I don’t feel… through Buddhism and through having an opinion on whether it’s productive or not, is important to me because it means that I can have a lot more choice over whether I do or not, not pressured into something that I may not otherwise do… There is skilful and unskilful [sex]. So engaging in casual sex maybe unskilful because it will cause suffering as a whole and get attached to sex and suffer when you can’t get what you want.

The seemingly contrasting views on casual sex that Stefan and George articulated, on closer inspection, actually share a common ethical principle that reflects their commitment to Buddhist sexual ethics: the appropriateness of a sexual encounter is determined not by its type, but by its effects.

Relationship and (Non)monogamy

While British society has achieved much progress in the legal and social recognition of gender and sexual diversity and difference, the legal and cultural hegemony of couple relationships persists (e.g. Budgeon, 2008; Hockey, Meah and Robinson, 2007; Jackson and Scott, 2004a). One of the primary idealised features of this kind of ‘compulsory coupledom’ (Wilkinson, 2013) is ‘compulsory monogamy’. Toft and Yip (Forthcoming) have argued that, ‘“Compulsory monogamy” is powerful precisely because it is constructed as the normative cornerstone for couple relationships that supposedly reflects “commitment”, “faithfulness” – and, most of all, “love”. To many, it is a non-negotiable sine qua non of romantic love: to love one’s partner is to remain monogamous’. Indeed, despite the minority practice of polyamory, which often attracts moralistic opprobrium (e.g. Anapol, 2012; Barker, 2005; Barker and Langdridge, 2010a, 2010b; Calder and Beaman, 2014; Page, 2016a; Sheff, 2014), ‘compulsory monogamy’ – as an aspirational narrative and a cultural norm – continues to hold sway as the defining characteristic of an ‘authentic’, ‘committed’ and ‘fulfilling’ couple relationship.

Given the powerful currency of monogamy, this was a significant issue to the participants’ reflections and ‘practices of intimacy’.[13] Overall, 66.7%[14] and 65.1%[15] of them ‘strongly agreed’ and ‘agreed’ respectively with the questionnaire statements, ‘Monogamy should be the ideal for a partnered relationship’, and ‘Monogamy is a good ideal for a partnered relationship, but it is increasingly difficult to achieve that’. These findings show that, while the majority of the participants upheld monogamy as the ideal for a couple relationship, they recognised the increasing challenge in achieving it in practice.

The qualitative data demonstrates varied views about this issue. In general, there are voices that exalted the value of monogamy, precisely because non-monogamy would constitute sexual misconduct in terms of causing suffering at least to some parties. The following video diary narrative illustrates this:
The aim of Buddhism [is] to make you a happier person and to end suffering. So that is how it affects my opinion on sexuality in terms of ethics and doing anything unethical. Having sex outside of your own relationship, or knowingly having sex with someone else who is in a relationship, that would cause suffering because not only are you causing other people suffering, you have all aspects of guilt and responsibility and implications of what other people are going to think of you. | george, a 21-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England, who practised the Theravada tradition

Reflecting on his own relationship, George further articulated in the interview how his Buddhist faith had informed his decision to be monogamous:
My religious faith absolutely enriches my sexuality. For example, I’m faithful to my partner and obviously with her being in Spain, if there was ever a time when we were going to be unfaithful it would probably be now because we have been separated for so long. I’m not saying that without Buddhism I would have cheated on her but Buddhism certainly has made me think about how important it is to have that trust and be faithful and also the same the other way. Buddhism has helped me be more confident that my partner would be faithful and be less worried about it… [Buddhism] has made me think about things because being faithful is very important to me personally but Buddhism made me think in terms of that you have a choice that you can control. I can’t control whether she would be faithful or unfaithful but then I would have a choice whether to split up with her or not. And it has made me less worried about it because it is something that I can’t control, and so it works both ways as well.

It is interesting to observe that some participants who were in a relationship did practise monogamy, but not because they were averse to non-monogamy, but because of their commitment to their partner who aspired to this ideal. Thus, for them, practising monogamy in this case was a strategy to avoid committing sexual misconduct towards their partner. Zara, a 24-year-old therapist in the southeast of England, who was associated with the tbc/fwbo, explained this in the interview:
Yeah, I’m completely monogamous. I wouldn’t cheat on him or anything like that. Yeah, and so is he. But I think, to be honest, I think I’ve kind of adopted that because that’s the way he is. So because he wants monogamy, I’m happy to give him monogamy. But I don’t think I’d particularly be that bothered if there were like, say, three people in our relationship. I mean it’s hard to say, I’ve never been in that sort of relationship so obviously there’s a dynamic there. But theoretically, I don’t feel so strongly about monogamy for any particular reason other than not being monogamous would cause him harm.

In the same vein, Maddie, a 23-year-old postgraduate in the midlands of England who defined herself as ‘Quaker-Buddhist-Pagan’, had been in a polyamorous relationship with one offline (primary) partner and one online (secondary) partner. In the long quote below, she problematized the cultural value accorded to monogamous relationships, drawing from Quakerism, Buddhism and secular feminism:
I’m convinced for myself that I can be non-monogamous if that’s appropriate to the situation. So in some circumstances I’d identify as polyamorous or interested in open relationships or something. Just as a matter of acknowledging that capacity I suppose… Being polyamorous is better than having an affair as you aren’t lying to people, basically. So I’m relatively open about [it]… But the polyamory community as it exists like on the internet for example, is very much in favour of people having full agency of everybody communicating properly. Of everybody being properly honest with each other. And I think things like that are in line both with my feminist principles which would say, women should have agency, everybody should be honest and you know, we can break down sex role stereotypes about men always want to have as much sex as possible and women don’t care or whatever. But also with my Quaker principles which are very much about honesty and being open with people, and knowing yourself and knowing where your boundaries are and things. So I don’t think polyamory is sort of essentially feminist in any way but I think it can be done in a way that’s in line with feminist principles… I agree that it’s difficult to do it [a polyamorous relationship] without harming people, but I also think that it’s more difficult than is usually reckoned to have a monogamous relationship without harming people. In my experience, when people have been hurt by relationships, that’s as often, it’s especially by monogamous relationships, which are assumed to run to a script where one party is running to one script and the other party is running to a subtly different social script. Because they both feel there is a script and they don’t need to talk about it or make it explicit. That can cause a lot of harm. Misunderstandings and stuff. So I think, you know, I agree that polyamorous relationships can cause harm if not done very carefully but I think in the polyamorous community in which I would include quite a lot of people who are actually only practising monogamy at the moment but are interested in the discourse around polyamory and being more honest in improving communication skills as part of having better relationships, that there’s sort of an attention to the right issues than there’s in monogamous relationships… But I guess I see it as a harm reduction strategy both for polyamorous and monogamous relationships. And so I’d fit it in with Buddhist ethics in that kind of way.

Maddie’s narrative is significant, because it contests the hegemonic status of monogamy and challenges the taken-for-granted assumption that nonmonogamous relationships are inherently problematic (e.g. Calder and Beaman, 2014). We would contend that her critical reflections of such entrenched social norms was a product of the reflexive freedom that Buddhism accorded her. This radical interpretation of sexuality differs from a normative liberal position. Instead, her values were derived from the principle of avoiding sexual misconduct or harm, rather than having as the starting point the permissibility, or otherwise, of certain sexual practices.

To recap, this long section has engaged with what the participants considered the fundamental principle of Buddhist sexual ethics: the avoidance of sexual misconduct or sexual harm. As we have discussed, this ideal significantly informed the participants’ understandings of the constitution of meaningful and mindful sexuality. They were also highly aware of the challenges of living out this commitment. In the following section, we further illustrate their experiences of managing the intersection of sexuality and spirituality.

Negotiating the Intersection between Religious and Sexual Identities

Thus far, this chapter has shown that, for the participants in general, the intersection between spirituality and sexuality engendered a host of creative and enriching reflections which were characterised not by institutional restrictions and conflict, but by a sexual ethics underpinned by the principle of avoidance of sexual misconduct or harm which emphasised personal responsibility, emotional connection, and mutual consent. In this section, we present more nuances and layers of this enriching and empowering intersection by highlighting the stories of three participants, who encountered significant moments of different kind (see also Chapter 5).

We shall start with Ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate in the southeast of England, who defined himself as ‘Anglican-Buddhist’. We shall focus on his multiple video diary entries, re-organised to enhance narrative flow and clarity. Ralph broke up with his girlfriend four months prior to participating in the research, which set off a torrent of reflections on sexuality, intimacy, and relationship. In the narrative below Ralph recounted how the break-up of the relationship had broadened his reflections on sexuality and intimacy:
Yeah I can’t quite put my finger on why it [the break-up] hurts, but it really [does]… When I kind of consider my sexuality deeply and read lots of stuff like I did last night, it churns lots of things up in me and lots of things about that break-up and things around my sexuality in general. And it makes me feel slightly lost as to how to go about it. There is so much more to sex than just kind of trying not to have sex inappropriately and only having sex in a loving relationship. And it is so much more than that. It can still go wrong in a loving relationship. And it is still very complicated even then. But I really want sex to be something beautiful and sacred and I think it can be. And that is what I really hope for a future relationship really, that sex is about the meeting of kind of the most intimate parts of two people in a loving way. In a way that takes care of each other’s vulnerabilities, each other’s weaknesses. And yet somehow it is not somewhere where people feel that they have to live up to standards. It is not somewhere where people are being judged. It is not somewhere where people will have to feel like they have to perform and make the other person orgasm, or it has to be done in a certain way… I would really like my sexuality to become something which doesn’t objectify women and doesn’t impose anything on them and doesn’t look at them when they don’t want to be looked at. And deeply respects them and deeply reveres them and cares for them. And that is not all… [but] because I am a human that is not always going to happen.

In the related account below, Ralph considered also his attitude towards sexual pleasure and management of sexual practice:
I want to work with my sexual energy… In order to be happy I don’t need to orgasm. And actually just this method of Tantra,[16] which is a particular set of techniques for controlling your sexual energy. Sometimes Tantra is about having very spiritual sex but sometimes it is also just about controlling your sexual energy when you are on your own… I have been starting to practise to get better control over my sexual energy… It is a really interesting way of doing that, coming very close to orgasm and stopping, and still being entirely happy is a very powerful way to question the idea that I need to orgasm in order to be happy… And [knowing] that satisfying yourself sexually is only one very, very small part of a much larger happiness. But I was reflecting on the scriptures and reading about the temptations of Jesus in Luke, I think Chapter 4, maybe Chapter 2. And there Jesus’ response to the temptation of material pleasures, which is bread, is that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of god. And I think that is a really, really interesting way… He doesn’t say that bread is bad and that we shouldn’t have it, but he acknowledges that there is more to being human than material satisfaction. And to me that is a useful approach to sexuality as well. Yes, my sexuality is good and there isn’t nothing innately wrong in it, although there are dark sides to it.

In the accounts above, Ralph demonstrated the adoption of a positive approach which valued the sanctity of sexuality, and simultaneously emphasised the personal responsibility to express it meaningfully. The emphasis was on transformation and self-improvement in the management of his sexuality in relation to spirituality, and not the adherence to particular institutional strictures on specific sexual expressions. Interestingly, he creatively drew from both Buddhism and Christianity to substantiate his rationalisation, demonstrating a pluralistic and pragmatic approach. The narrative below encapsulates well his aspiration and hope for the development of a deeper, relational, responsible, and reciprocal – in a nutshell, more mindful – sexuality that is inextricably enmeshed with his spirituality:
I really like the idea that sex can be a vehicle to some sort of… and a symbol, almost somewhere where god is manifest very deeply. And I agree with that. I think that sex… when it is done well, exposes our vulnerabilities and if it is done in a loving and considerate way it can be one of the most beautiful things that humans can ever do. The pure bodiliness of the interaction makes it incredibly sacred… I find it challenging but quite exciting… that my sexuality could be transformed, and my future sexual relations with a partner could be something quite incredible. And I want to concentrate on transforming my sexuality in order for it to be more content with itself and more in touch with itself, and more able to control itself… So it doesn’t need external arousal and need to pressure someone into giving me an orgasm in anyway. So it can be something very giving and something very beautiful that makes me feel satisfied even without coming. I can just be satisfied in the being with another person. So I really like Tantra as a vehicle to developing that… I prefer an approach that is much more grounded in the love of god, this very earthly humanity which is full of sinfulness and problems, but still is beautiful anyway… Actually thinking about sexuality is not something just about my penis and my head. It is really something about my heart. And that is kind of what I am doing with the masturbation, is not focusing on mental images and not focussing on the exact tiny sensation of my penis, as I really want to orgasm. But about the whole sensation of my body, the whole feeling of who I am, how relaxed I am, how content I am, how nice it feels. I think I really want my sexuality in general to be really an expression of who I am. Who I am I feel is very deeply connected to god at this level… I feel a very deep connection with god and a deep sense of calling to live a holy life. And I just feel very, very connected at that level and very open, very loving… And I guess that is the approach I want to take. I want to integrate [sexuality] more into my spiritual practice and a sense of who I am. It doesn’t mean that everything I am going to do will revolve around sex. In fact that is the opposite of what I want to do. But it’s… somehow that sexual energy, that deep desire within me is integrated into my sense of peace and contentment and peace or god, and god of me, and of other people.

The multiple accounts above illustrate the depth and breadth of Ralph’s reflections on his desire to develop a more embodied and holistic sexuality, and the intersection between his spirituality and sexuality. Drawing from Buddhism as well as Christianity, he articulated how his spirituality enhanced his management of relationship, intimacy, and sexual expression. Ralph’s story encapsulates the fluidity and pragmatism that some of our participants employed in amalgamating diverse sources to develop an integrated and holistic spiritual/sexual wholeness.

The second story we would like to present is taken from the multiple entries in the video diary of Jessica, an 18-year-old A-level student in the southeast of England, who was associated with the tbc/fwbo. Like Ralph, Jessica’s reflection on sexuality and intimacy was intertwined inextricably with spirituality. In the specific account below, she focused on the cultural constructions of love and romance, and critiqued how they were intertwined with the discourse of a ‘complete’ and fulfilling life:
I was reading about… our constant craving… You might find it in a piece of toast or go and eat loads of food, like I just did. At the time you know it is not going to fulfil the gap inside yourself, something else is missing. But you still do it, and it is really hard. People can recognise that, but when it comes to love there is an exception, like that will fulfil me… the constant craving and needing to find something else out there. There is evidence time and time again that it doesn’t work. There is evidence time and time again that it doesn’t work. You can’t become whole because of another person, it doesn’t end with that… Satisfaction doesn’t come through another being… Even though I am practising Buddhism and knowing what I do think is to be the highest of loves and what I know to cultivate to mean that I can become satisfied with the unsatisfactory nature of things, I still crave romantic love. And I still watch Pride and Prejudice. I know it is silly, and feel a sense of joy when they get together at the end, and the relief that everything will be OK… So I was talking about still hankering over love. Even though I know that I need to be content within myself rather than looking for something outside of myself to make me feel whole. I guess I see it in other people but it is like really difficult when it comes to your own case. Even though I know that I need to work on my practices as a Buddhist and my spiritual development, and cultivating love and kindness and mettā,[17] the ultimate form of love to other beings, it is still romantic love that keeps pulling at me. And a big part of me still desires and believes that that will… once I do find that I will be completely happy… I know on an intellectual level that that is not going to be the case, there will always be something missing if I only fill up my gap with something conditional like romantic love.

In the account above, we can see clearly that Jessica problematised love and romance – so inextricably linked to coupledom – in relation to her Buddhism-informed ideals. She acknowledged the consequent and persistent ambivalence and tension in her ongoing efforts to manage this situation. Resolution seems a hard-to-reach destination, which reflects the powerfully and relentlessly entrenched nature of love and romance, as discursivelyproduced cultural ideals that constitute individual subjectivities (e.g. Evans, 2003; Illouz, 2012; Kaufmann, 2011; Luhmann, 2010). Research evidence also shows that the impact of these cultural ideals on individuals is gendered, with women being more implicated than men in the imagining, reflecting, and cultivating efforts to approximate the cultural ideals of romance and love (e.g. Evans, 2003; Freitas, 2008; Ingraham, 2005, 2008; Johnson, 2005; Luhmann, 2010). Continuing her reflections on the broad area of sexuality and intimacy in relation to spirituality, the narrative below focuses on Jessica’s reflection on sex, celibacy, and happiness, once again demonstrating her awareness of the challenges of living out Buddhist ideals in this respect against a cultural back-drop that seemingly propelled people to strive for the opposite direction:
And sex too. It is really hard to break away from that. I was reading that it is sort of like this idea of being inside each other, to put it that way, you are inside me and I am inside you; together we are whole. That is the need for sex there. It kind of makes rational sense: yeah we are whole. But it is not going to make you whole. It doesn’t make you become content and happy in the long run and ultimately I want to be able to make myself happy and content and truly alive rather than putting it onto someone else to have to do it for me. Because that ultimately ends in pain and disaster and more suffering, which is what you were initially trying to get away from. The suffering of being lonely which is a really painful state to be in… I think I will just read this. This is like the end of the chapter [of a book] that I was just reading which sums it up: what I am trying to get to. I have been thinking about celibacy, this is what I am trying to get across: ‘I would like one day to become happily celibate to let any future lover go their way with good grace and well wishing. I would like to be deeply content with my life within myself and not try to get someone else to do it for me. I would like to live life fully as it actually happens without some future promise for sweetness. The education of the heart takes time’.[18]

Jessica, through the multiple accounts above, demonstrated clearly that the intersection between spirituality and sexuality could generate empowering and creative reflections on her own positioning against dominant cultural ideals on romance, sex, love, and relationship. But this intersection also engendered ambivalence and tension, illustrating the challenges that young adults must embrace in their strenuous effort to construct a coherent and meaningful ethical framework. The final narrative we present in this respect is taken from the interview with Tim, a 24-year-old administrator in the northwest of England, who was associated with the Theravada tradition. Tim’s reflection on sexuality and spirituality focuses on the expression and repression of sexual desire, as well as the use of pornography, in relation to the notions of mindfulness and harm.

I think that [sexual] desires [are] in the mind and to repress them in a forceful way can actually be quite harmful. I think it’s only natural that we are actually made to perform sexual acts and I don’t think that to say that that’s wrong or anti-social or whatever you want to call it; I think that’s a bit of an unrealistic way to looking at things and can cause psychological problems in people at a later stage perhaps. Even within Buddhism and within monastic communities, if you aren’t practising the right way and you are repressing certain desires, it can surface in actual physical actions. And there’s been loads of cases where that has occurred and certain monks have been expelled from the order [due to sexual misconduct] and I think that’s true of any religion really. So, it’s really about changing or gaining wisdom and changing your perspective on it because otherwise it’s still there isn’t it, behind the facades. But I think the use of pornography, I think it’s fine but you have to be careful and as long as you don’t hurt yourself and you don’t harm anyone else then it’s not considered an unskilful act but obviously that’s on a worldly level. If you’re a practising Buddhist and you’re aiming at the ultimate goal you would know that viewing it and masturbation or whatever is just enhancing your desire really. That’s obviously more you assess it according to your individual way, really, individually. That’s how I see it anyway. But maybe other Buddhists would argue a different case but I think that’s what I understand to be how other Buddhists generally to look at it.

Tim’s account above illustrates his acknowledgment of the power of sexual desire, and the importance of managing it not in a repressive and unreflexive fashion, but in a way guided by mindfulness and that avoids harm. Taken together, the three stories we have presented further showcase how some young Buddhists exercised their agency to construct an ethics for their lives that integrates their spirituality and sexuality. While there is ambivalence and tension, it also instigates creativity in, and commitment to, the construction of meaningful life journeys. We shall expand  this point fully in Chapter  6.

lgbt Buddhists: Living Integrated and Meaningful Lives

We have mentioned on several occasions in this chapter that, from the participants’ perspectives – regardless of their sexual identifications[19] – Buddhism was supportive of sexual diversity and difference. Emphasis was not on the type or form of the gendered and sexed bodies involved in a sexual encounter. Rather, the emphasis was placed on the effect of the sexual expression – whether it engendered harm (see also Faure, 1998; Leyland, 1998, 2000). In this last section, we would like to elaborate this first of all by providing an overview of their attitudes, followed by personal stories.

In response to the questionnaire statements, ‘Heterosexuality should be the only expression of human sexuality’ and ‘Heterosexuality is the ideal for human sexuality’, 93.0%[20] and 81.4%[21] ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’ with the respective statements. The findings show that the vast majority of the participants were not supportive of the hegemonic status of heterosexuality. This denotes the participants’ generally positive attitude towards nonnormative sexualities, which was also reflected in their responses to statements specifically on homosexuality and bisexuality. Overall, 86.4% of them ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement, ‘Heterosexuality and homosexuality should be treated equally’.[22] In terms of bisexuality, 76.7% of the participants ‘strongly disagreed’ or ‘disagreed’ that, ‘Bisexuality is a confused sexuality. Bisexuals should choose to be either heterosexual or homosexual’.[23] Furthermore, 68.2% of them ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that, ‘Bisexuality is a distinct sexual orientation, just like homosexuality and heterosexuality’.[24] On this specific statement, it is interesting to note that 29.5% of the participants were ‘uncertain’, which reflects the cultural and discursive ambivalence surrounding bisexuality – as opposed to heterosexuality and homosexuality – due to the ideologies of ‘monosexism’ and ‘compulsory coupledom’ (and the associated ‘compulsory monogamy’), which we have discussed earlier on in this chapter. Overall though, we can see that, amongst the participants, there was a sense of openness to, and acceptance of, sexual difference and diversity. This is reflected in the interview quotes below, drawn from two heterosexual participants:
There is not a huge amount that I have come across in Buddhism that directly says about sexuality but there is a very important idea in Buddhism which is intent … It doesn’t matter if it is two men, a man and a woman or two women. To me, sexuality is more about how you feel for the person… As long as the intention is the same, it is not a huge… it is not really an issue… If I was homosexual I would probably be more inclined to be Buddhist because as I see it, it is very accepting of homosexuality. | George, a 21-year-old undergraduate in the midlands of England, associated with the Theravada tradition

I guess I feel that people don’t really have a choice… It’s surely god has made them because it would be incredibly cruel of god to make people homosexuals and not let them [be]… I think also that sex is not purely about reproduction and that the existence of the female clitoris indicates very clearly that humans are supposed to enjoy sex and not always for reproduction… I don’t think homosexual sex is an issue at all… I think that it’s a gross unkindness to take a negative view of homosexual relations towards those people… I think sexuality is just something so complicated and so personal that it’s not something that we should be so clear cut on, that we should you know have things that we’re trying to strive for and those should be fidelity and kind of not making others suffer. But I don’t see that homosexuality does that. | ralph, a 20-year-old undergraduate, Anglican-Buddhist, in the southeast of England

George’s and Ralph’s narratives clearly demonstrated their Buddhism-informed attitude towards sexual difference and diversity. They emphasised a significant point that we have reiterated throughout the chapter, that what really matters is the quality and effect of sexuality, not the particular sexual type. Notwithstanding this openness in Buddhist sexual ethics, some participants also issued a cautionary note, that the essence of such diversity and difference-welcoming sexual ethics could be compromised by cultural norms and practices that are heterosexuality-privileging and hegemonising. This is reflected in the narratives below, extracted from interviews with two gay Buddhists:
The uk is a particularly open place to be gay but having travelled I’ve realised that it’s really just a small island of more liberal views, because some places, especially in Asia that I’ve been to are just really scary places to be. You couldn’t easily be yourself… Actually, from a Theravadan point of view, I have never encountered [homophobia], but I know Thai society, Thai culture in itself might have some prejudices against homosexuals. But that’s a culture; it’s tradition. It’s not what Buddhism teaches. [But] I think it’s difficult to find strands of Buddhism which haven’t got cultural trimmings [on] all these things. I suppose this applies again to all religions [which] are mixed with cultural norms. What’s accepted into a culture can be very different from what the religion teaches. I know the Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama himself has said that intercourse should not take place between two people of the same sex. But again this is a typical Tibetan cultural thing that homosexuality is not viewed as a correct way of living. So the Buddha never mentioned himself that homosexuality was wrong. Again it’s the desire aspect in the mind; it doesn’t matter what you desire… We’re just fortunate to be living in this country… it’s becoming acceptable. | tim, a 24-year-old administrator in the northwest of England, associated with the Theravada tradition

As the Buddhist texts are massive, I haven’t had the chance to read all of it, but from the texts that I have read of the Tripitaka and stuff, the Buddha never said anything about you shouldn’t have sex with another man. He just said you shouldn’t have sex if it’s harmful to another person.

So I think that if you took it back to source it would be very openminded… Well the Buddhism that you see that I have experienced from like the internet and knowing about the ideas going through all of the uk seem to be, or a lot of Europe, seem to be very forward thinking, openminded. You can be gay, you can be straight, whatever, we don’t mind, and it’s not important in the path to enlightenment. So it doesn’t really matter. But a lot of the ideas from the more traditional countries like China and Taiwan and Korea and stuff, a lot of the Buddhists there seem to be very conservative and very against homosexuality. So I think there’s like a difference in opinion between the west and the east… But I think it’s more of a cultural thing [regarding the opposition to homosexuality] over in the eastern countries, than a religious thing. | danny, an 18-year-old A-level student in Northern Ireland, practising the Theravada tradition

In the same vein, Emma, a 20-year-old trans woman and undergraduate in Scotland, who was associated with the Vajrayana and Gelugpa Rimé schools of the Tibetan tradition, also articulated the same observation:
A lot of people, especially in the west don’t even realise [homosexuality and Buddhism] are even issues. There is generally not much [debate about it]. You can say you are gay and you won’t get kicked out of any Buddhist institution that I know of. It is not about what you are, it is about what you do. So when the Dali Lama went to San Francisco to give a conference, he was called by the lgbt community to clarify his views.[25] He said you can be gay or lesbian, that is fine, it is all about what you do. So he still reiterated his point that gay sex, any sex which isn’t between penis and vagina is immoral. But this is only within one of the traditions… this is within the Tibetan tradition. But generally, one of the precepts for laypeople is do not [engage] in improper sexual relations, which includes adultery and everything.

The above narratives are significant in highlighting the inextricable link between religion (i.e. precepts and theology) and the interpretation and practice of it that are mediated through heterosexuality-hegemonising cultural norms. They also alert us to the salience of time and space in the interpretation and living out of Buddhist sexual ethics, for they are not neutral, monolithic, and static. Religious texts, therefore, are subjected to the interpretation of the reader who approaches them from a particular standpoint, of which she/ he may or may not be conscious, reflective of her/his socio-cultural circumstances (see also Gross, 2015; Jaspal, 2012; Page and Yip, 2012a, 2016; Rahman, 2014;Yip, 2005, 2012; Yip and Page 2013). These narratives also seem to signpost the perceived divide between the Global North and the Global South in terms of the level of acceptance of non-normative sexualities (specifically homosexuality). While there is strong evidence that, compared to the Global South, the Global North does generally demonstrate evidence of homosexualityaffirming legislative development and social attitudes, we must also be cautious against the essentialisation of the Global North-Global South divide in this respect. This is because empirical research evidence has continuously shown that the road to acceptance of homosexuality across the Global North is uneven, and there is an undeniable emergence of homosexuality-friendly online and offline spaces in the Global South (e.g. Berry, Martin and Yue, 2003; Downing and Gillett, 2011; Gerhards, 2010; Rahman, 2014; Shipley, 2014; Sullivan and Jackson, 2001; Trappolin, Gasparini and Wintemute, 2012; Yue and Zubillaga-Pow, 2012).

The experiences of many lgbt participants confirmed that there was much openness within Buddhism and Buddhist spaces for them to thrive (see also Gross, 2015). In addition to gay participants such as Tim and Danny quoted above, there have been other similar voices, such as the one below, extracted from the interview with a bisexual woman, in which the absence of institutional strictures was exalted, and personal responsibility emphasised:
I’m bisexual, and I always have been… Yeah, I mean obviously I couldn’t be part of a religion that didn’t accept me, me being I suppose, in a sexual sense, bisexual… [Buddhism] is so safe that I haven’t even thought about it [potential biphobia in Buddhism]. It hasn’t even crossed my mind that that’s not acceptable in Buddhism, until you kind of asked that question… So I suppose [Buddhism and bisexuality] are very interlinked. Otherwise I just wouldn’t be a Buddhist. | zara, a 24-year-old therapist in the southeast of England, associated with the tbc/fwbo

Inspired by the Buddhist teachings of impermanence and non-identitarian existence (e.g. Smith, 2012; Tweed, 2011), some participants also highlighted the limitation of sexual categorisation, and indeed problematised its necessity in social organisation. Caroline, a 23-year-old undergraduate with a BuddhistChristian background, argued passionately in the interview why she chose not to define her sexuality; and how, compared to her decreasingly-significant Christian background, she was drawn to the Buddhist approach to sexuality:

You know how the whole Kinsey scale of the sexuality… it’s very rare that someone is 100% gay or 100% straight, I totally agree with that. I am pretty much in the middle I think but maybe more gay, I’m not sure… People shouldn’t label themselves so specifically and put themselves in boxes because ultimately it is about the connection you have with the person and it doesn’t matter if they are… but I do understand people obviously have inclinations to either sex… There are a lot of negative connotations with the word ‘bisexual’, especially for females. It is nowadays a popular notion. They can hook up with girls just to impress the guys, or something like that. There is the whole idea of that, and that bisexuals cannot make up their mind or something. I just don’t like that… I’m not sure ‘bisexual’ is the right term to use so I don’t really like to… I definitely see the link between when I was more exposed to Christianity, I was very, very afraid to come out as gay or bisexual… Obviously my [Christian] school always discouraged it. It was very no, no, it is evil and… So I progressively became more Buddhist. Also, I notice that I progressively am beginning to accept myself and coming out more, and trying to be myself, and this is my sexuality, and coming more to terms with it. And Buddhism helps me to come to terms with it I think. I’m not sure if it has formed it exactly but I can see the link actually… I feel more comfortable. It is not an awkward fit. It is a good fit. I think Buddhism has helped me accept myself.

In the same vein, Poppy, a 25-year-old postgraduate in the northeast of England, who was associated with the tbc/fwbo, also articulated her Buddhisminformed reluctance to label herself as ‘bisexual’, for the purpose of our research:
I still don’t really like the word ‘bisexual’ so if I had to choose, you know, if I had to tick a box I would say ‘bisexual’… My mum said to me, ‘What do you think you will end up with?’ And I said, ‘You know, if I went out with a black guy and then a white guy, nobody would say to me what colour do you think you will end up with’. [So] why does gender or sex… why is that the defining thing of who your partner is or who you are attracted to… [and] who you will end up with?… I had been practising Buddhism for a good while [when] I met [current boyfriend]… so I ended up just kind of thinking about well if something so, so core to my identity can change, well how do I know that I’m serious about my practice? And then I kind of realised that one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism is change, is impermanence. I was like, well that kind of reaffirms what my belief is, what my faith is, so it kind of means I have to keep that… I can’t rely on my own identity because that is going to change, so that was actually quite a positive thing. So yes I’ve talked about that quite a bit, this kind of sense of impermanence being something that is a source of fear but also a source of faith because you can’t rely on these kind of constructed identities that we, you know people like to label but actually, you know, it is all fluid, there is parallels there between kind of like the dharma and queer theory in some ways which I think is quite interesting. So yes it’s been an interesting journey.

Caroline’s and Poppy’s narratives demonstrate their reflections on impermanence and non-identitarian existence, inspired by their Buddhist faith. Such inspirations were also evident in a couple of participants who defined themselves as ‘asexual’.[26] José, a 21-year-old charity worker within a tbc/fwbo community in the southeast of England, explained in the interview why despite his identification the label of ‘asexual’, the identification was beset with ongoing critique, in line with his Buddhism-informed reflection:
I do not have a sexual interest in people… [or] have sexual fantasies on my mind. It’s something that does not happen to me… Yeah, I’m still wondering why…. I have this pressure on myself to try and define myself… But to know what I want I need to know what I am… I [came across] a website and I just found this how they talk about their asexuality. Well, they’re trying to defend themselves, to have their sexuality as an orientation, [that] asexuality could be a normal thing… I joined the website but I don’t have too much contact with it. I think that I don’t like [sexual] labels. So I still have problems to try to put me definitely in the label of asexual…. [But] it’s the label that fits me more. But maybe it’s not the last one… Yes, definitely, I think that everyone says that Buddhism tastes like freedom. So definitely for me Buddhism has been the freedom to do anything. For example here in this Buddhist community, you can say that as a movement we are very, very open… giving me the opportunity and the freedom to think that I can relate with people in lots of different ways and not just in a sexual way… So yeah definitely something in Buddhism I feel more free to just explore. To just move everywhere… I don’t want to identify myself completely as an asexual. I identify at the moment as asexual but in this exploration… I will explore… And I know that something could happen after a while. But definitely at the moment it’s not the way I want to relate to people. Because I don’t just want to go to bed with people… The people who are more experienced in Buddhism, they just don’t care and are happy. But with other young Buddhists I found that they are more, yeah like trying to explain like from psychology. They just think that I’m still very confused because I’m still too young. So even in my community I found that. Generally they have been very open. But still in the community I think there is some idea that maybe I’m too young. So maybe I still have things to discover and stuff like that. But generally I think that if it would be a place for asexuals then it would be this movement.

José’s story shows his deep awareness of change and impermanence as the foundational principle of life. Thus, he offered himself the space to learn and unlearn as he progressed in his life’s journey. In this journey, Buddhism offered him the resources to contest highly-sexualised cultural norms and cultivate a sacred space that accommodated his counter-normative asexual identity (see also Chapter 2).

Emma, a 20-year-old trans woman in Scotland, also defined herself as ‘asexual’ for our research. But she also made it clear that sometimes she refused to define her sexuality, or she used the label ‘bisexual’ as an alternative:
It [‘asexual’] is a bit of a tricky term. Sometimes I put ‘bisexual’, sometimes I put ‘asexual’ but I am not really attracted to anyone because of their bodies, which is how I define anything ending with sexual to be. I never really wanted to look for love. When I found my partner now, four years ago, it was by complete chance and I really wouldn’t care if overnight they changed into a woman or into anything really because I would still love them exactly the same. To me saying that you are gay, or you are straight, is making an assertion which is basically saying I love you but if you turn into a man overnight I won’t love you anymore, which is something I can’t get my head around, because I am not attracted to people based on what they can offer me physically. I met my partner and he was just a really nice guy. So it was more of a complete accident that we ended up going out in the first place.

Unlike José who emphatically argued his absence of sexual desire, Emma displayed an ideological commitment to deconstruct sexual and gender systems of categorisations; in other words, to queer them. The views articulated by Caroline, Poppy, José, and Emma above alert us to the prevalence and power of essentialist and homogenising discourse of gender and sexuality that demands neat categorisation and rigid labelling. This dominant discourse is limiting and unconducive to the recognition of diversity and change (see also Hines and Taylor, 2012; Hines and Sanger, 2010; Jackson and Scott, 2004b; Lutz, Vivar and Supik, 2011; Rahman and Jackson, 2010; Yip and Nynäs, 2012; Yip and Page, 2013).

Overall, this section has highlighted an important point about how Buddhist ethics underpinned the generally positive attitude heterosexual participants held towards sexual difference and diversity. Furthermore, this general accepting culture and milieu had also made a positive contribution to the integration of sexuality and spirituality for participants with nonnormative sexual identities. This is an important finding, as it offers some food for thought for some other institutional religions – especially the Abrahamic religions – which continue to be embroiled in the contestation of human sexuality (e.g. Browne, Munt and Yip, 2010; Greenberg, 2005; Hunt, 2010, 2015; Hunt and Yip, 2012; Kugle, 2014; Rahman 2014; Ream and Rodriguez, 2014; Shneer and Aviv, 2002; Taylor, 2016; Taylor and Snowdon, 2014; Yip and Page, 2013). Nonetheless, we must also caution against the western propensity to idealise and romanticise Buddhism (as opposed to, say, Islam and Christianity). The development of western Buddhism is historically, philosophically, and organisationally specific, privileging, broadly, the more egalitarian and lay-oriented Mahayana tradition over the more institutionalised, stratified and monasticoriented Theravada tradition (e.g. Batchelor, 1994; Bluck, 2006; Coleman, 2001; Possamai, 2009; Thanissaro, 2012, 2013; Yu, 2014). Even while focusing on internally-heterogeneous western Buddhist spaces, we must be sensitive to the fact that sexuality inextricably intersects with other axes of difference such as class, race/ethnicity, and gender in the productions of social relations (e.g. Cadge, 2005; Chappell, 2000; Cheah, 2011; Gross, 2015; Smith, 2008, 2012; Smith and Munt, 2010; Smith, Munt and Yip, 2016; Yip and Smith, 2010).


In this chapter, we have provided a detailed and in-depth exploration of the participants’ understandings of their sexuality in relation to their Buddhist faith; and their attempts to interweave them in their intimate lives. We have argued that they largely considered Buddhist sexual ethics sexualitypositive, agency-enhancing, as well as diversity and difference-affirming. Seemingly free from the shackles of institutional religious strictures on the (in)appropriateness of sexual type, the participants were highly committed to the fundamental principle of the avoidance of sexual misconduct, and the cultivation of a mindful, consensual, emotionally-engaged and responsible sexuality. Some participants also problematised taken-for-granted and entrenched cultural norms underpinning casual sex, couple relationships, and monogamy.

Nonetheless, this seemingly individualised process was also socially and culturally embedded, so that their assessment consciously and explicitly took into account, for example, the views of their significant others. Indeed, we would argue that the influence of such significant others could also be unconscious and implicit, as Smart (2007) outlines in her ‘connectedness thesis’ pertaining to the construction of personal life. She argues that:
To live a personal life is to have agency and to make choices, but the personhood implicit in the concept requires the presence of others to respond to and to contextualize those actions and choices. Personal life is a reflexive state, but it is not private and it is lived out in relation to one’s class position, ethnicity, gender and so on… [I]t does not incorporate the idea of individually crafted biographies as if people are free-floating agents with sufficient resources to achieve their goals… [It] recognizes the importance of memory and generation or cultural transmission and is alert to the extent to which people are embedded in both sedimented structures and the imaginary. (2007: 28–29; see also may, 2011, 2012, 2013)

We have also found it striking that factors such as ‘the internet’, ‘religious texts’, and ‘religious leaders’ were not featured prominently as sources of influence. The attempts to live out Buddhist sexual ethics, however, were beset with ambivalence and tension, owing to the counter-cultural Buddhist constructions of, for instance, love, romance, as well as sexual desire and practice. Overall, heterosexual participants demonstrated a high level of acceptance of sexual diversity and difference. This is consistent with the narratives of lgbt participants, which highlight the pervasively accepting character of Buddhist spaces. Overall, the intrinsic openness of Buddhist sexual ethics to variety and multiplicity – but subjected to the same ethical principle – underlined the participants’ understandings and practices of sexuality. In this respect, they demonstrated characteristics that approximate what Plummer (2015) calls ‘cosmopolitan sexualities’ which emphasise inter-connectedness, multiplicity, hybridity, and messiness. In the following chapter, we shall discuss how our participants managed and positioned themselves as Buddhists within wider society, such as educational contexts, the workplace, as well as family and friendship networks.



[1] The total number of valid cases is 40.
[2] The total number of valid cases is 40.
[3]  The total number of valid cases is 38.
[4] The total number of valid cases is 37.
[5] The total number of valid cases is 44.
[6] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[7] The total number of valid cases is 39.
[8] The total number of valid cases is 40.
[9] The total number of valid cases is 44.
[10] The total number of valid cases is 42.
[11] The total number of valid cases is 41.
[12] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[13] Following Jamieson (2011), we conceptualise ‘intimacy’ as ‘being’ (i.e. a quality, an emotional state of close connections) and ‘doing’ (i.e. acts and enactments, which can be mediated through objects and activities, to cultivate closeness). See also, for example, Gabb and Fink (2015), Layder (2009), Morgan (2011), and Zelizer (2005).
[14] The total number of valid cases is 42.
[15] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[16] For a detailed discussion of Tantra and sexuality, see e.g. Richardson (2003) and Sarita (2011). For a general discussion of Tantric Buddhism, see e.g. Harvey (2013).
[17] Mettā is a Pali word that has been variedly translated as, for instance, benevolence, goodwill, kindness, fellowship and amity. See e.g. Harvey (2013), Keown (2003), and Smith, Munt and Yip (2016).
[18] Jessica was reading from Maitreyabandhu (2001). Thicker than Blood: Friendship on the Buddhist Path (p. 98). Cambridge: Windhouse Publications.
[19] As mentioned in Chapter 1, 44.2% of the participants self-defined as ‘heterosexual’, 11.6% chose not to define their sexuality, and the remaining 44.2% adopted non-normative identifications such as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, and ‘asexual’. The total number of valid cases is 43.
[20] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[21] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[22] The total number of valid cases is 44.
[23] The total number of valid cases is 43.
[24] The total number of valid cases is 44.
[25] The Dalai Lama has expressed his views on the issue of homosexuality on several occasions, specifically to the lgbt community and generally to a broader audience. His comments in his book Beyond Dogma (1996), which seem to suggest that homosexual acts are improper, have generated much debate. He has clarified his views on many  occasions since then, and called for compassion for all humankind. See, for example, in a gathering held in India in March 2015, his answer to a question about his stance on homo sexuality: -teaching-from-nagarjunas-fundamental-wisdom [Accessed 16 September 2016].
[26] Asexuality is a grossly under-researched area, shrouded with misunderstandings. For a detailed discussion, see e.g. Bogaert (2015), Decker (2014), and Scott and Dawson (2015). See also the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (aven) – home/.

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