José Cabezón, PhD, Speaks at Maitripa College on Sexuality in Early and Contemporary Buddhist Life

Fifty people gathered on Thursday, September 29, 2016 for an engaging public talk, “Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender,” by José Cabezón, PhD, as part of the Maitripa College Words Like Gold lecture series. These lectures invite Buddhist scholar-practitioners to reflect upon controversial topics in the transmission of Buddhist to contemporary Western culture.

Dr. Cabezón’s presentation of sexuality in the social worlds of ancient Buddhist texts and institutions was drawn from his forthcoming book, Sexuality in South Asian Buddhism (Wisdom Publications). He concluded the evening with stories that illustrate how defining sexual categories and the nature of desire and gender, which has been elaborated largely in monastic texts over time, continues to exert influence and power in Buddhist societies in the modern era. The audience engaged him about implications of these views for our lives as westerners interested in Buddhist thought and practice.

If one wants to understand what Buddha may have originally said about sex and sexuality, Cabezón began, one has to consult numerous Indian texts, most of them written before the eighth century. As this ascetic tradition involves celibacy, congregations of monks needed to know what, exactly, it was that they were not permitted to do (and, as the authors were celibate, this sometimes put monks and nuns in the position of having to elaborate on aspects of human experience that they were not that familiar with).

To construct a Buddhist ontology of sexuality, Dr. Cabezón posed several questions:

What conditions make sexuality possible? Does sex require a body? Does everyone with a body have the capacity for sexual pleasure? Do non-human beings enjoy sex? How many human biological sexes and genders are there?

In summary, while one needs a body to engage in sex, what sex means can vary for non-humans like gods, who’s more subtle bodies experience pleasure with less effort and less contact than humans, and are said to achieve orgasm with a touch or a smile. However, gods are so completely overwhelmed by various constant pleasures that they rarely turn their minds to anything spiritual whatsoever.

Furthermore, not all beings with a body have capacity to enjoy sex, as both mental and physical pre-conditions are required to stimulate and engage desire. The accomplished renunciant, for instance, has very little sexual desire, and it is totally transformed in the enlightened state.  Finally, the Abidharma texts mention four biological sexes (male, female, both, and neither), and three genders (male, female, and “neuter/queer”), which begin from conception. People who are neuter/queer are further subdivided into ten categories that are only somewhat related to sexual orientation. The five male-sexed queers have to do with non-standard desires, while the five female-sexed queer categories are constructed anatomically, with relation to pregnancy, child birth, and receptivity to penetration by a male; these have nothing to with desire (female desire is generally unacknowledged as existent, although a few sources imagine it to be only vicarious via relation to the male partner’s pleasure).

The audience members asked several questions about the nature of queer identity, and about views of homosexuals, and how the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct is understood today. Incorrect forms of sexual activity have been enumerated in detail, but this starts almost a thousand years after the Buddha, Dr. Cabezón explained. In the earliest texts, however, there is “no concern with micromanaging sexuality” and one finds sexual misconduct defined only as adultery.

The near universality of sexuality yielded a psychology of desire that acknowledges pleasure is powerful, and hence the need to control the desire for that pleasure. Sexuality and desire are not moral evils, they are morally neutral. There are techniques, such as equanimity meditations, to lessen the power of desire if one so chooses, but there is nothing wrong with the choice to be a sexual person. “Buddhism,” Dr. Cabezón said, “does not reduce sexuality to procreation at all. Sex is for pleasure…and sometimes procreation happens!”


José Cabezón, PhD is the XIVth Dalai Lama Professor of Tibetan Buddhism at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a member of the Board of Trustees of Maitripa College. Cabezón is the author or editor of a dozen books and many more articles on various aspects of Tibetan religion and religious studies. Most recently, he has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and an American Council of Learned Societies/Ho Foundation grant to complete three-decades long research on the history of Sera Monastery.   >more