On one occasion, the Buddha was dwelling among the Bhagga people, near Sumsumaragiri. There, the married lay followers Nakulapita and his wife, Nakulamata, asked him how they could remain together in subsequent lives. The Buddha answered, “If, householders, both wife and husband wish to be in one another’s sight so long as this life lasts and in the future life as well, they should have the same faith, the same moral discipline, the same generosity, the same wisdom” (Anguttara Nikaya 4:55, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi). The Buddha was supportive of the couple’s desire, but his reply does not necessarily mean that he approved of such romantic relationships. Elsewhere, in the Sutta Nipata, the Buddha warned: “For one who has formed bonds, there is affection; following on affection, this suffering arises. Discerning the danger born of affection, one should live alone like a rhinoceros horn.”

And so the tension regarding romantic relationships among lay Buddhists has continued down to this day. As modern practitioners we are left with many questions: is dating detrimental to the equanimity we aim to cultivate through meditation? Does being sexually active—even within a committed relationship—hinder our progress past a certain point on the path? If we haven’t ordained, should we still try to live alone like a rhinoceros horn and observe celibacy? That might feel prudish, naive, and even extreme for people living in the 21st century, but that distaste alone is not a sufficient reason to simply ignore these teachings. And since there are instances of abuse in both celibate monastic communities and traditions that allow monastics to marry and have sex, neither approach is obviously superior in this regard. Clearly, sex and romantic love on the Buddhist path can be quite tricky to navigate, but we can look to the Pali Canon to see what Buddha himself said about the subject.

The tradition of Vipassana that I practice—as taught by S. N. Goenka—is a householder tradition, with many assistant teachers who have gotten married and had children. (Goenka himself had nine sons before becoming a teacher.) We take a vow of celibacy while sitting a meditation course, but in lay life we’re encouraged to follow the five precepts, the third of which is to abstain from sexual misconduct. In the Buddha’s time, sexual misconduct was usually referred to as “going to another man’s wife.” In the Culakammavibhanga Sutta, he elaborates, defining sexual misconduct as “intercourse with women who are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, and even those already engaged (trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi).”

Times were different then. Now we associate sexual misconduct with nonconsensual sex as well as consensual adultery. Abstaining from sexual misconduct is expected of all Vipassana meditators. But as one progresses down the path, the requirements change. For instance, anyone can take a ten-day Vipassana course, but in order to be allowed to sit a 20-day course or longer in Goenka’s Vipassana tradition, one must either be in a monogamous relationship for at least one year or celibate for at least one year. (One is also encouraged to refrain from masturbation.) The idea is that as one develops dispassion, lust subsides and sex is abandoned, even within a marriage. As the nun Bhadda Kapilani—once wife of the Buddha’s disciple Mahakassapa—writes in the Therigatha: “Once we were husband and wife, but seeing the danger in the world, we both went forth, we removed our defiling compulsions, we became cool, free” (trans. Charles Hallisey).

The Buddha was particularly harsh about dissuading monks from passion, romantic relationships, and what he commonly referred to as “the coarse practice of sexual intercourse.” One of the most remarkable teachings the Buddha gave on this subject is the story of Sirima, an extremely beautiful courtesan in the city of Rajagaha. She was so desirable that men paid a thousand pieces of gold just to spend one night with her. One day she met the Buddha while he was staying in the city, and upon hearing his words she quit her profession and became a lay disciple. Afterward, she regularly used her wealth to provide food for the Buddha’s monks. One of these young monks was so captivated by Sirima’s beauty that he instantly fell in love with her. Passion arose, overwhelmed him, and he became indifferent to everything else. He went back to his monastery and curled up in a corner, refusing to eat, go on alms rounds, or perform the other duties of a monk.

On that same day, Sirima became afflicted with a disease and died later that night. When the king of the city (who was also a lay disciple) informed the Buddha of Sirima’s death, the Buddha instructed the king to not burn her body, as is custom, but lay it out in the charnel ground, and make sure dogs and crows didn’t devour it. For three days Sirima’s body lay there in the open. On the fourth it began to bloat and maggots started to ooze forth. Her body looked like “a cracked vessel of boiled rice.” Then, the Buddha instructed everyone to go and see Sirima.

During these four days the young monk who had fallen in love with Sirima didn’t know she was dead. And when he heard the Buddha’s proclamation, he jumped up to his feet and ran to the burning ground. When all monks and inhabitants of the city were gathered around her rotting corpse, the Buddha said, “Here is the beautiful courtesan Sirima. Who will pay a thousand pieces of gold for one night with her?” No one in the crowd answered. “Who will pay five hundred?” the Buddha asked. Again, everyone was silent. “Two hundred a fifty?” He went lower and lower. One hundred? Fifty? Twenty-five? Ten? Five? A penny? Still, no one made a noise. “Who will have her for nothing?” the Buddha asked. No one answered. The Buddha said, “Men used to pay one thousand for a night with her, and now no one will take her as a gift. Such was her beauty, who now has perished and gone. Behold, bhikkhus, this body diseased and corrupt.” Then the Buddha spoke these stanzas:

Look at this beautiful image
Composed of wounds amassed.
Full of sickness, yet desired by many,
It has neither permanence nor constancy.
Worn out is this body,
A frail nest of disease.
This festering mass breaks apart,
For life has death at its end.

Like gourds
Cast off in autumn
Are these gray bones.
Seeing them as such—what joy?

A fortress built of bones
Plastered with blood and skin,
Wherein are hidden
Death and decay,
Pride and pretense.

Dhammapada 147-150 (trans. Glenn Wallis)

Upon hearing these verses—and seeing the decomposing body—the young monk saw through the delusions of beauty and sexual desire. Understanding the decay and death inherent in the body, he achieved dispassion, and with such insight, he achieved the first stage of enlightenment.

In other instances, the Buddha was much more direct.

In the Patimokkha section of the Vinaya Pitaka, there is the case of the monk Sudinna, who broke his vow of celibacy by having sex with his former wife three times, and who the Buddha admonishes much more sternly: “Worthless man, it would be better for you to put your penis into the mouth of a black viper than into a woman’s vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into a pit of burning embers, blazing and glowing, than into a woman’s vagina.”

Pretty harsh. But if the whole point of going forth is to come out of passion, the worst thing a monk can do is feed passion. “When one indulges in sexual intercourse,” the Buddha says in the Tissa Metteyya Sutta, “even the teaching itself is forgotten, and he practices wrongly: this is ignoble of him.” Sex is putting more fuel on the fire, when the goal is to let the fire burn itself out. As the Buddha continued to admonish the monk Sudinna, “Worthless man, [sexual intercourse] is unseemly, out of line, unsuitable, and unworthy of a contemplative; improper and not to be done. Haven’t I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the sake of dispassion and not for passion; for unfettering and not for fettering, for freedom from clinging and not for clinging?” It was due to this situation with Sudinna that the Buddha made the monastic training rule of strict celibacy.

When it came to himself, the Buddha could be even harsher. Once, the householder Magandiya offered his beautiful daughter to be the Buddha’s spouse. In response the Buddha asked, “What would I want with this, filled with urine and excrement? I wouldn’t want to touch it even with my foot” (SN 4:9). After all, after his awakening he had seen Mara’s daughters—Discontent, Craving, and Passion—and the desire for sex did not arise, so why would he have any desire for Magandiya’s daughter? Poor girl probably cried all day, being told by the Buddha that she was basically a bag of piss and shit.

But let’s not forget that the Buddha came to this position only after having lots and lots of sex. It’s well known that before he went forth, the Buddha was married to Yasodara, with whom he had a son. But it’s less well known that he, like any prince in the region of the time, also had a harem of royal concubines. In fact, at least ten nuns who wrote the poems of the Therigatha were likely former concubines of the future Buddha, before he set out for enlightenment.

Many of the nuns in the Therigatha speak of how they suffered for so long due to sexual passion. “Pained by distracted attention and by desire for sex,” Siha writes, “I was always disturbed, without any control over my thoughts.” An unnamed nun who was Mahapajapati Gotami’s nurse said, “With no peace in my heart, dripping with sexual desire, I entered the monastery, wailing, my arms outstretched.” These nuns speak of being able to attain liberation only after the “passion for sex shriveled away, like a herb dried up in a pot,” as the Buddha told Therika.

But perhaps the most powerful conclusions about sex were spoken by the nuns Sela and Khema; when Mara encouraged each woman to enjoy sex, they replied:

The pleasures of sex are like swords and stakes,
the body, senses, and the mind
just the chopping block on which they are cut.
What you call the delights of sexual pleasure
are no delights for me now.  

Of course, many of these teachings were directed specifically at monastics. So where does this leave those of us who aren’t planning to ordain?  If I’m out in the world and am sexually attracted to someone, should I try to imagine their body as a bag of blood that will eventually be oozing maggots? I can try, but soon after the thought experiment ends, I’d probably go back to wanting to have sex anyway. Unlike Sela and Khema, I’m just not there yet.

When the Buddha condemns sexual activity, he’s not declaring, “Thou shalt not.” Rather, he’s making the argument that sexual and romantic relationships lead to dukkha [suffering]. Anyone who has been in a relationship would have a hard time disproving this claim. So if the goal is to completely eliminate suffering, the Buddha taught that one should get rid of their attachment to sexual pleasures by avoiding them altogether.

In the end, however, the issue has to be decided by personal disposition and the degree to which we want remove suffering from our lives. As someone who is not trying to become enlightened in this lifetime and does not claim any religious authority, I accept having a certain amount of suffering that arises from engaging in sex and romantic love. Celibate monastics or clerics, on the other hand, have likely decided that they want to get rid of suffering entirely. The Buddha challenges each us to examine what we’re looking to get out of sexual or romantic relationships. What’s clear is that remaining mindful of the impermanent nature of our bodies will bring us ever closer to awakening.