We’re joined this week by Insight meditation teacher and engaged activist Christopher Titmuss. Our main topic of exploration is the place of sexuality, eros, and love in the practice of Dharma. Contained within that topic we explore what is often meant by the word ‘desire’ in English, and how that differs from the what the Buddha taught as the source of suffering, tanha (often translated as thirst or craving).
Christopher explains some of the historical reasons that Buddhism has not be able to provide many helpful suggestions concerning sexuality, and also challenges what he sees as a common orthodox among Western teachers and practitioners in regards to sexuality and relationships. We conclude our conversation by exploring the importance—in a cultural climate where long-term monogamous relationships are becoming more and more rare—of treating the ending of relationships with greater care. “How,” Christopher asks, “if we are ending a relationship, can we make a transition from intimacy to that of a caring friendship?”
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Working with Sexual Energy.
Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vincent Horn and I am here today joined by a very special guest in the UK, Christopher Titmuss. Christopher, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with the Buddhist Geeks today, I appreciate it.
Christopher: Thank you.
Vince: And I just want to share a little background as I usually do, for the people that aren’t familiar with you. You’re a former monk in the Theravada tradition. You spent time in Thailand and India, and that was back probably in the Sixties and Seventies right?
Christopher: Yes, so I left England and got on the hippie trail to India and that was 1967. And [in] 1970 I took ordination as a Theravada Buddhist monk as you mentioned and then I disrobed six years later in 1976.
Vince: Nice, and since then you’ve been teaching meditation around the world. You’ve been leading retreats all over the place, including an annual retreat you do in Bodh Gaya, India, which you’ve been doing since 1975—it’s like a month long retreat. And you’re also an engaged activist. You’re part of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, on the advisory council.
Christopher: Yes. I don’t regard much difference between the inner and the outer. So to utilize the meditative of life and the created initiatives of the outer I think is a dynamic part of what the exploration of the Dharma is about.
Vince: Beautiful, and that ties really nicely into the topic that we wanted to explore with you today, which is basically sexuality and the dharma. But before I jump in I wanted to sort of ask you a little bit about a process you do called dharma inquiry. Because the reason I thought this would be a fun topic to explore with you is that I heard you in conversation on retreat with a young man who was asking you about sexuality, and asking you about desire. And in this conversation it wasn’t simply a Q&A. He was actually up there with you in front of everyone and you guys were doing what is called a dharma inquiry. And I was wondering if you could sort of share what that is and how that’s different than a traditional dharma talk?
Christopher: Yes, I’d be delighted to. Essentially around 20 years ago, I kept the dialogues, the inquiries, to either the one-to-one meeting, and on the larger groups, perhaps 6 or 7, and had some dialogue in the exchange. And from time to time, a person or persons would say, “Ah, Christopher it would’ve been lovely if that dialogue where you had…would’ve been of such interest to everybody in the whole.” So the outcome of that got me thinking. And I thought, well, could it be transferred into the whole, and sitting well with the silent meditation retreat? So then for a while I did some experiments. And then from that made the period of time for about an hour possibly up to an hour and a half, and I would put out an invitation in the whole to anyone to come and sit beside me at the cushion, beside yet in front of the whole, and from that the dharma inquiry got underway. So the person, as you refer to the guy who asked me about sexuality, the person would come up and ask me a question. I’d find ways to avoid answering, especially the difficult ones, and turned it around and asked that person some questions. With the view and the intention to contribute to insights and understanding for the person who is inquiring, for myself as the questioner and responder, and also to others listening in the whole as well. So over the last couple of decades, it’s now fitted in fairly seamlessly, I would say, into the rhythm of the retreat.
Vince: Nice and just as I was listening to some of your Dharma inquiries I was thinking, wow, it’s really neat. It’s so different to see people’s wisdom kind of being invited out in front of the whole group instead of maybe just the teacher being the holder of wisdom and sharing it. I thought that was interesting.
Christopher: I have to agree 110% on that. I know from the exchanging and the sharing…some of the insights and realizations and things that are being pointed out by the person I’m speaking to, I find for myself, inspirational. I learn a lot. I find it very beneficial, and for those who are listening as well, because many stories and accounts of the person who’s in the inquiry with myself, and I’m sharing my own experiences as well, of course, are also the stories and experiences of other people. So it’s a real collective gathering of the sangha, engaged in looking into some of the major issues of life.
Vince: Nice, nice. And in this particular conversation I was listening to, the young man asked you what seems like a really common question about something, like, if the Buddhist path is to end desire, and sexuality is clearly one of the most powerful ways we feel desire, how to work with sexual energy? That was kind of the beginning of the question, and I was surprised by your answer. It wasn’t sort of a simple, pat answer that I’ve sometimes heard, and no disrespect to the people who, you know, answer it in that way. But just that basically the Buddhist stance is, “We don’t harm people with our energy.” And that’s pretty much it, and there might be some guidelines around that. But I was wondering if you could share a little bit about the way that you approach that topic and that particular question?
Christopher: Yes. It is, clearly, a vitally important question, and it’s a question, which requires our deep interest in ethics, which some teachers very appropriately will make a reference to. But it’s more than that. That’s a foundation and a principle of exploration. But the act of making love…communication with another human being, whether you’re of the opposite sex, or of the same sex. What emerges after that dynamic, whether it’s in a short-term relationship or a long-term relationship—these are all areas of the heart, of energy, of the place of the erotic, which I find is precious, and beautiful in life, and the dynamic of the interaction. And that requires a lot of exploration and attention. Therefore, some of the inquiries are looking at that, and looking at the challenge of that, and the confusion. And it’s a kind of central confusion. The key, or the buzzword, is the word “desire”, which has such different kind of meaning in the language of the Buddha and the use of the language in the West. The word “desire” in the Pali language is tanha, T-A-N-H-A. It has a specific connotation to it.
It’s desire with other factors that are going along with it, which in some way or other are unhealthy. To take what’s called the three poisons of the mind: greed, it’s got desire in it, obviously; anger, violence, it has desire in it; fear, has desire in it; confusion, has desire in it. So, replication of the word is “desire” is something which is problematic, which has an impact on our own life. Stress has desire in it, worry has desire in it, anxiety, etc. And it also has its impacting consequence on others.
So when we use the word “desire”, [in the] British language, it has something unhealthy, unwise, unskillful, unclear about it. Problem is, [in the] English language, we use “desire” more freestyle. So we say, “Oh, I want to go to the toilet.” Or, “I want a cup of tea.” Or, “I have a desire to read the newspaper,” etc. So then it’s going back to love. Normal mind will say, “Oh, there has to be desire.” One of the teachers at Spirit Rock said to me, “Oh, you need desire to make love.” And I said, “Of course you don’t need desire to make love. To make love you need love.” [It’s] different.
So in other words, sometimes desire corrupts the act of making love. You know, in its most gross form, it would be rape, it would be sexual abuse, it would be a manipulation. Where is desire in the act of touch, or in the act of making love? When desire, in that corrupt way that the Buddha uses the word, is not in the picture, then the act of making love is precious, it’s loving, it’s got passion to it, it’s got Eros to it, it’s respectful, it’s sensitive, there is a deep mutual awareness. All of that doesn’t require desire in it, you get the picture?
Vince: Yes, yes
Vince: Yes, there’s a distinction there for sure.
Christopher: Okay, that’s the distinction. So the act of making love can get corrupted with desire, and therefore it’s just having sex. No respect for how the people fit—the person feels—so to speak. And, the act of making love can be totally clear, pure and not corrupted with desire. And that’s the distinction, and it’s the critical distinction. The Buddhist world tends to confuse the two.
Vince: And, would you say a little bit about why you think that’s the case.
Christopher: A little bit historical. Initially, the tradition started off with men, and then, after […] resistance from the Buddha, but he overcame his resistance to women, as well. Going from the confinement, and it was a confinement, of the cast and home life—a very restricted way of life—and the men were expected to follow their father’s trade or whatever. Women were expected just to be mothers, and stay indoors, too. And a radical, and rather refreshing way, encouraged men and women to go from home to homeless. And, that also, for a whole variety of reasons, men and women [who] went into that way of life, abstained from sexuality—that was the tradition of India. It was a celibate way of life. Two and a half thousand years later, that hard and rather black and white division between the householder’s life and the homeless life—contemporary language called them monks and nuns—seems to me that division, that women and men have worked very very hard to dissolve that division.
Today, women and men can live a homeless way of life—they go wandering, they go traveling, they go to India, or whatever it may be. Men and women can also engage in close intimate sexual relationships, have the benefits on contraception, if they wish to use, and can engage in those activities in a loving and caring way. An opportunity which simply was not available two and a half thousand years ago. It is today and, therefore, sexual life for those men and women who are living a sexual life still requires the dharma of ethics, the dharma of respect, of sensitivity, passion, and a general insight and understanding of that whole dynamic.
Vince: And I guess my next question has to do with the specifics, like as a practitioner I hear that there is this possibility of making love that’s kind of free of what you’re calling tanha. But then it’s so clear the gap between how I currently experience myself as a sexual being and that possibility, there’s a gap there. How do I close the gap as a practitioner?
Christopher: Yes, it isn’t an easy area, quite a few Buddhist teachers, Western Buddhist teachers, and of course I’ve known plenty over the years and also in the ordained sangha as well… There’s a certain orthodoxy. And the orthodoxy for some men and women isn’t very helpful. What I mean by that is there is a tendency to view being in a relationship as something which, if it’s successful, it will be for the long term, that it should be absolutely monogamous, and it should fit into the kind of Western values and culture.
[…] a good sound, “moral” (quote, unquote”) reason for that.
But it’s not always quite that simple. Women and men of any age—and what I mean by that [is] the power of love, falling in love, of closeness, of intimacy—really has to be put, for some—as it were—in the heart of practice. And that means that, as the Buddha constantly pointed out, the […] element is both inner and outer. So it’s not only engaging in closeness and possibly touch and sexual intimacy with another, and to know what’s going, so to speak, within oneself (which is a challenge enough) but equally what is happening for the other. And that outer awareness matters as much. So in other words, one man or one woman can feel very clear, very comfortable in the act of making love, and the steps, or the process, or the procedure, or the development that brings two people to being lovers.
But, for the other person, the act of making love can carry all sorts of significances. It could be it shows the beginnings of a long term commitment, or it could bring the feeling of vulnerability or uncertainty. A person makes love, and then the following morning could be full of regret, or self-doubt, or confusion, or feeling manipulated, or whatever. So for two people to engage in the process towards intimacy, and in the act of it, have to know each other rather well to ensure that the dynamic of it isn’t going to generate a lot of dukkha, a lot of unhappiness and disappointment and feeling hurt. And the attitude towards that and after the act, or acts, of making love matter a great deal. And that whole process I do feel is important. Rather than just taking the view, Oh relationships should be for the long term, etc.—well, I don’t know how it is in the United States—but for we Europeans, I don’t think that’s a common view at all. The “until death do us part” view has shifted immensely in the last generation of people.
Vince: Right. I’d say it’s probably the same here looking at the divorce rates, for sure
Christopher: Exactly. Yes, exactly. And divorce is one thing…and so, a relationship, whether it lasts for one week, or one month, or one year, or one decade, or half a century, itself, may…and I can speak from experience here. I’ve had some wonderful and precious relationships over the years. The […] relationship, of course, over years for varying lengths of time. And it’s a constant exploration. So when your relationship comes to an end…I mean for some people it might be marriage and divorce, like you mentioned. It may be that it just comes to an end for multiple conditions. Just as the beginning of a relationship is important, equally important, if the relationship comes to an end (and figures show that most will), how do I meet the transition wisely and skillfully, in seeing impermanence, from intimacy to friendship, from lovers to an ongoing friendly communication? Even though there’ll be some heartache afterwards, some doubt or some sadness or whatever, yet keeping, [you] could say, a real metta, a real kindness ongoing, no matter what happens. And that beginning, middle and end of relationship, the arising, the staying, and the passing, as the Buddha would say, matters as much in a relationship as in any other area of life, and that’s part of our practice.
Vince: That’s so interesting. I’ve never really heard anyone talk specifically about the end of relationships and skillfulness around that.
Christopher: It’s a major one because relationships, and I’m talking personally for the moment, for about the past 12 to 13 years I had the privilege of being in three relationships. And three years, three years and two years over the period of time. And relationships come to an end. And sometimes it’s not because of any real conflict between two people. And I think in the Dharma world, and I can see this in myself as well, that sometimes the two people in the relationship, anyway, may be at different points in their evolution, where they are. Sometimes, in my case, the beautiful, very beautiful, I might add, women I had been in a relationship…at one point, they, being in their 30’s, have felt that urge to be parents, to be a mother. And I have a daughter and have no wish to increase the population any further.
Christopher: So, the outcome of that was a change. Sometimes, it’s geographical. I had one partner from Australia and I’m living here. That’s another factor. Sometimes, one person just wishes to move on for all sorts of extremely good reasons, or the two people agree. So, in the dynamics of change, whether it’s some personal conflict between the two people, whether it’s other factors which are arising from outer, biological, can we handle working with the endings well? And I think the major one is to go from being lovers, short or long term to being friends and making that shift. And I think it’s an essential part of the Dharma practice.