The Buddha extolled the virtues of the homeless wandering seeker. He described householders’ life as crowded and dusty while a life gone forth is wide open.” (Middle Length Discourses Sutta 36). That generalisation may have rung true then in a lifestyle of extended families living in the same building but for many of us today our homes are neither crowded nor dusty (unlike some monasteries!).
Many people in wealthy nations have the freedom to explore wide-open spaces as well. The situation has reached the ironic position today where monasteries have become crowded with monks and nuns spending much time keeping them free from dirt and dust while few homes in the West consist of three generations alongside many relatives. Householders, individuals and families can wander the world for weeks, months or even years.
In the days before contraception, relationships often led to children. The lack of contraception influenced religious views about sex and celibacy. Today condoms, the pill or a vasectomy enable a reliable separation of making love from procreation. This is a welcome development. The Buddha could not have predicted such radical changes in society. Some insist sex functions as an evolutionary function for pro-creation or treat it as the desire for an intensely pleasurable sensation. Let us not take up either view. The act of making love has the potential to reveal deep spiritual sensitivities and a profoundly erotic sharing.
The Buddha did not adopt a prudish outlook towards the body. He showed a liberal attitude around nakedness. For years, the homeless followers of the Dharma, men and women, bathed naked in the rivers, ponds, streams and beneath the waterfalls in the Sakyan and neighbouring kingdoms of northern India.
The Buddha did not appear to object to naked bathing. After all, he taught the mindfulness of seeing body as body – free from lurid projections and fantasies. The Sangha wore simple robes plus a few basic items as their wandered through countryside.
His relaxed approach to nakedness might have shocked the conservative Brahmin priests when they heard of the naked bathing. His liberal attitude might also have offended the yogis, nearly all men, who led lives of solitude. Some struggled to overcome their desires of the flesh through intensive self-punishing practices.
Years after he started teaching, the Buddha agreed to a request by Visakha, a lay woman, to provide a bathing cloth to his free spirited wanderers. Visakkha told the Buddha she could not distinguish naked men and woman who followed the Buddha from naked ascetics or courtesans (high-class prostitutes) in the palaces who bathed naked at the same well or watertanle. The courtesans would tell the younger women Dharma practitioners to abandon celibacy and become celibate much later in life so they could have the best of both worlds – worldly pleasure when young and religious feelings when they got old as men were no longer interested in their sexual favours.
Ethics, mutually respectful love and wisdom take priority in Dharma teachings rather than treating celibacy as a spiritual accomplishment, making love exclusively for pleasurable sensations or to produce offspring. Living celibate life or a life with a partner have their virtues and limits but let us not regard either as a priority.
The Sangha of contemporary practitioners have free-spirited roots, neither pursuing sexual intimacy nor fearing it.
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