Practicing With Sexuality

Sex is not an obstacle on the Zen path, but rather an opportunity to enhance awareness.

Reprinted from "At Home in Muddy Water: A Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos" with permission of Shambhala Publications.

A young Zen student realized he had some sexual difficulties. He thought about going to his teacher for help but felt a lot of hesitation: “Maybe it’s not appropriate to talk to my teacher about sex. What’s he going to think of me?” He went to the teacher anyway and described the situation. The teacher told him, “We must struggle with desire. Go back to your cushion and learn what it means to struggle with desire.”

The dutiful and persevering student went back to his cushion and struggled with his desire. But for some reason he didn’t get very far. In fact, it seemed like his problem became even worse. So he decided to go to another teacher. This time he went to a teacher who was very famous for his deep Zen wisdom. He told the teacher about his situation. The teacher peered at him in an inscrutable Zen way and said, “No sex. No not-sex. Not one. Not two.” And he rang his bell, dismissing the student.

The student was impressed by this teaching, but when he got back to his cushion, he had no idea what to do with it. Finally he decided to go to another teacher, one famous for his ardent devotion to practice. This teacher said, “Okay, this is what you need to do. Whenever your sexual difficulty arises in your mind, you just stop whatever you’re doing and do one hundred and eight full prostrations, thinking only of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.” The student really liked this advice, because now he had something he could do.

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The student followed the third teacher’s advice and became very, very good at bowing. But after some time, he felt as though he were squeezing a balloon right in the middle: as the middle would scrunch up, both ends were close to bursting at the seams.

Even though the student was discouraged, he decided to go to yet another teacher. He saw that maybe he was trying too hard, so he decided to see a teacher who was famous for being laid back. “No problem. Just be one with it. Just let it go,” that teacher said. At this point, the student was becoming cynical. He realized this advice was just words. But still, he had a real aspiration to deal with his situation. Again, he found a new teacher. And finally, in this last teacher’s reply, he understood what all the other teachers were telling him: “We don’t talk about sex here.”

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