Thursday, February 9, 2012

Attachment, Sexuality, and Spirituality (Part 1 of 2)

Let me be clear from the start that the term attachment as used here is in reference to that of the so-called three poisons of attachment, aversion, and delusion spoken of amongst Buddhists, and not that of attachment theory as furthered by the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and considered at length by counselors, psychologists, and developmental theorists. Come to think of it, there is probably much that can be said about the relationship between this Buddhist concept of attachment and the secure, avoidant, and ambivalent attachment styles that manifest during childrearing; for now, though, I must proceed with a narrower scope. Attachment, then, for the remainder of this post, will refer to that which is pointed to by the various terms and descriptions discussed previously: greed, lust, desire, craving, yearning, longing, grasping, covetousness, cupidity, and avarice; having hunger, thirst, affection, fondness, passion and/or sympathy for, or taking interest and/or delight in someone or something (Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon search for lobha and raga; Rahula, 1956, p. 145; Sangarakshita, 1980, p. 129; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 7; Young, 1998-2010; with synonyms included where appropriate). Recall, also, that attachment encompasses aspects of “the desire to experience something frequently and repeatedly” (Chakrabarti, 1999, p. 52) or “the drive to repeat pleasant sensations” (Young, 1998-2010).

Perhaps it would be helpful to have a formal definition of what it means to be attached in the Buddhist sense. Toward that end, I propose the following for discussion and amendment as appropriate:

Attachment, in the Buddhist sense, is the existence within the individual of some latent or active desire for the experience of pleasure, satisfaction, or the release of tension. A particular attachment could be a yearning to re-experience conditions that were previously enjoyable, or it might be a yearning for certain conditions to exist based upon the imagined enjoyment that they will bring. Attachment at its most basic level arises from the view of the self as a separate entity, lacking in some way, which must obtain something that it does not presently have in order to feel complete, or at least better than before. The ‘something’ that the self feels it must obtain might be viewed as being outside the self in the mundane way that we speak of our physical environment and that which is contained therein, but it might also be something that we are more likely to view as being inside of ourselves, such as a meditative state or a spiritual experience, for instance. Attachment is usually viewed as being negative in that it is indicative of existence within the samsaric cycle of birth and death and all of the suffering contained therein. It is also considered a hindrance with respect to our experiencing the true peace of equanimity.

Now, given the definition above and my recent exploration of equanimity, it might be easy enough to quickly conclude that pleasure in all of its forms is bad and must be given up in order to live a spiritual life. However, Shinzen Young (1998-2010) makes an interesting point when he observes that it is the “hankering for mental and physical pleasure, not the pleasure itself [that is the] source of suffering.” This is a true enough statement, and one that we should keep in mind as we further contemplate attachment. This distinction might be more firmly rooted in practical reality, though, by noting as well that the addict does not suffer when he is adequately “fixed”, he only suffers when the effects of the drug of choice wear off and he begins, yet again, to experience withdrawal. Yes, it is possible to give oneself over completely to great pleasure without ever craving to recreate the same experience or a similar one. Thus, it is possible for pleasure to be experienced without the suffering of attachment. It’s just that we all know how difficult that can be. To greet and experience great pleasure with no further hankering to re-experience it would essentially require the same equanimity of mind that it would take in order to greet and experience great pain with no further aversion to it. Are we there yet? Besides, the focus of this post is sexual attachment, and sex is generally not something that we simply ‘find ourselves having’ – let alone being something that we might experience with great pleasure before walking away and never yearning for it ever again. No, it’s generally the case that we ‘find ourselves having’ sex precisely because we’ve been yearning for it.

John Daido Loori (2004) spoke on this issue of attachment as viewed within the context of the ultimate reality of emptiness, or sunyata (see also Heart Sutra and the Nature of Emptiness), when he said:

You need two things in order to have attachment: the thing you’re attaching to, and the person who’s attaching. In nonattachment, on the other hand, there’s unity. There’s unity because there’s nothing to attach to. If you have unified with the whole universe, there’s nothing outside of you, so the notion of attachment becomes absurd. Who will attach to what?

Ah, but even in light of the deep truth of these words, there is danger in us diving headlong into the realm of sexual hedonism because, after all, we are merely the universe being the universe, aren’t we? And that is precisely why I posed what I called the “fundamental question” in last week’s post:

If we are indeed the entire universe as the mystics of the many wisdom traditions so frequently describe, then why should we need to engage in austere spiritual practices involving self-denial, the severing of attachments, and the curtailment of aversions in order to realize it?

The answer, of course, relates to the fact that it is precisely because we view the world in terms of self and other that we have attachment and aversion. If we can refrain from falling into such deluded conceptions of self and other we can reside in equanimity – not needing anything or pushing anything away. Okay, I think we’re ready to dive into the deep, dark abyss of attachment, sexuality, and spirituality!

By the way, a song that I think very poignantly captures the yearning nature of romantic love as a quest for wholeness and completeness is David Bowie's version of Wild is the Wind from his Station To Station release. Written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington, this song is a masterpiece of the genre.


Sexuality has rather commonly been viewed throughout the ages as a hindrance to spiritual progress; hence the concept of renunciation, priestly celibacy, etc. Even lay people have been known to practice celibacy for the sake of furthering the practice of their faith. The Shaker sect of Christianity, for example, mentioned in my previous post, essentially died out because the celibacy of its members hindered its perpetuation and renewal! It’s also interesting to note that the Ashram system of Hindu culture productively incorporates this view of sexuality and worldly attachment by breaking up the normal human lifespan into four stages wherein the individual successively: 1) enjoys childhood and the process of acquiring both secular and spiritual knowledge; 2) adopts a householder life of duty to family and society; 3) begins a process of withdrawal from secular life, perhaps teaching on matters of spiritual import; 4) enjoys complete renunciation of all attachments whatsoever. In other words, there is a season of life that is most appropriate for each of these respective pursuits. Our modern Western tendency, however, is to want to have it all – intensely fulfilling sexual experience and the spiritual realization of the sages, each within close temporal proximity of the other, or better yet, at the very same time!

Western secular culture has long considered the state of “being in love” to be one of the most joyful states of being, perhaps second only to that much more intensely ecstatic but shorter-lived experience of “falling in love.” Depictions of these are so ubiquitous in our music, literature, and visual arts that it is difficult to even contemplate that they might not necessarily represent phenomena that are universally valued by all human beings. Sure, we might acknowledge, there are cultures that still value the potential strengthening of interfamilial connections and the enhancement of economic and social standing over the actual strength of the affection between two individuals when determining whether or not a union between those individuals should be sanctioned. Those cultures, however, seem only to exist in the slow moving waters of civilization pushed aside by the rushing onslaught of modernity and its idealization of romantic (sexual) love. Just how long can such thinking hold out, anyway, against the inexorable progression of the human spirit and the expansion of consciousness? And, yet, part of us might still wonder whether romantic love really deserves to be thought of as existing at the forefront of this progression. Perhaps romantic love merely signifies the strengthening of ego in a hyper-individualistic modern world, a world in which our sense of self has become so keenly refined that there could be but one individual who could possibly mesh with who we are – our “soul mate”, if you will.

So, just what is the true nature of this thing called romantic love and all of the sexual chemistry that percolates therein? Is it merely karma, or is it a manifestation of spirit? Is it an attachment, a hindrance, a stumbling block along the path of deepening spirituality, or is it a vehicle in its own right that with appropriate intention might actually propel us along that path of deepening spirituality? Of course, quite often we do speak of love as being in the realm of the spirit – with romantic love being an even more personal manifestation of that spirit. Sexual expression, furthermore, is spoken of as the physical embodiment of the most glorious romantic love that the spirit intends to make manifest. According to Merriam-Webster, to consummate something is to make it perfect or complete. Likewise, the act of consummating a marriage or relationship by having sexual intercourse is an act of perfection or completion. Are we deluded when we speak of sexual activity in this way? Are we merely whitewashing with pretty spiritual talk what is at its core a purely procreative biological activity that feels good because the evolutionary process hit upon the utility of there being a reward to go along with the risk of becoming so distracted in a dangerous world? And if it turns out that sexuality and spirituality are indeed in conflict with each other, then must we choose one, or is it possible to remain in a romantic (and presumably sexual) relationship while at the same time treading a spiritual path that warns of the hindrance of attachment? How can we even begin to reconcile these two apparently conflicting paths? Argh, my head is beginning to hurt! Let’s bring this discussion back down to earth…


I had a workmate once with whom I enjoyed many a good lunchtime conversation – the most memorable of which were those pertaining to romantic relationships. One of those in particular had to do with the relative importance of the sexual chemistry between two partners. Now, I should probably also say that my friend possessed an earthy wisdom of such matters born of his long tenure in a relationship with an incredibly gorgeous woman with whom he did not otherwise seem all that compatible. Anyway, it was his contention that a strong mutual sexual attraction was absolutely imperative in order to bring a couple back together again after those inevitable larger squabbles that would surely have individuals with a weaker mutual attraction spiraling off to different corners of the galaxy. In other words, he was advocating that attachment be as strong as possible for the sake of the longevity of the relationship. In spite of the commonsensical ring of truth of my friend’s theory, I nevertheless held firm to my conviction that sexual attraction was not nearly as important as many other factors such as shared values and interests, communication style, personality, and so forth. I have to admit, though, that that was long before my list of “failed” relationships had grown anywhere near its present length!

It’s been interesting to contemplate these matters at this stage of life, just as I’m in the midst of falling in love once again. No, scratch that…, I’ve already fallen! For years I’ve wondered whether such a state of existence belonged only to a previous lifetime; and, yet, here I am – loving again for the very first time. Am I attached? Yes, I’m afraid so. Interestingly, though, this new attachment arrives at a time when both of us are the most spiritually “in tune” that we’ve ever been. This topic of attachment, then, is one that we’ve been discussing together at length, even as we realize how very easy it is to settle into an existence wherein mutual pleasure becomes the raison d'ĂȘtre of relationship! So, how does a Buddhist who’s taken a bodhisattva vow to save all beings and a Christian minister devoted to a life of service reconcile their chosen spiritual paths with this present state of romantic love and the yearning that exists to allow it physical manifestation? Well, I suppose I can only speak for the Buddhist, so here goes…

Oh, look, we’re completely out of time! {wink} Seriously, I’ve already prattled on long enough, and the hour is late. Until next week!


Chakrabarti, K. K. (1999). Classical Indian philosophy of mind, The Nyaya dualist tradition. State University of New York Press.

Conze, E. (1967). Buddhist thought in India, Three phases of Buddhist philosophy. Ann Arbor Paperbacks, The University of Michigan Press.

Conze, E., Horner, I. B., Snellgrove, D., & Waley, A. (1964). Buddhist texts through the ages. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Hamel, S., Leclerc, G., & Lefrancois, R. (2003). A psychological outlook on the concept of transcendent actualization. The International Journal For The Psychology of Religion, 13(1), pp. 3-15.

Khantipalo, Bhikkhu (2010). Practical advice for meditators. Access to Insight, 7 June 2010,

Kornfield, J. (1993). A path with heart – A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. Bantam Books.

Loori, J. (2004). The whole earth is medicine. Featured in Mountain Record 22.3, Spring 2004.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality, 3rd edition. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., as excerpted in Notable Selections in Human Development, 2nd Edition (Diessner, R. and Tiegs, J., eds.) McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. Grove Press, New York.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Thanissaro, Bhikkhu (2011). Head & heart together: Bringing wisdom to the brahma-viharas. Access to Insight, 17 April 2011,

Yoshida, R. (1979). Verse of repentance (tr. Yoshida, R.). Missouri Zen Center website.

Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.

Young, S. (1998-2010). How meditation works: An introductory overview of techniques for mental development within the Buddhist traditions of Theravada, Tantra and Zen and including reference to Christian contemplative practice.

Zimmer, H. (1956). Philosophies of India (ed. Campbell, J.). Meridian Books, New York.

Image Credits

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Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank


  1. This new turn of events in your life is going to make your book sell even more copies! ;-). You couldn't have planned it better if you tried.

  2. Stacey, you have the mind of a marketing professional! Gosh, I hope there isn't any deep, dark karma buried within me that would have such mercenary motivations as to have contrived all of this. I have extended an invitation to a potential guest blogger, however. :D