Monks and Masturbation

A newly ordained Western monastic disciple asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Sir, in the monks’ precepts, it says we are not supposed to have sex. It says we can’t even masturbate, because of ejaculation. But, sometimes… this urge is really hard to resist. What should I do when this feeling comes over me, the feeling to masturbate?”

Michelangelo, “Dying Slave” (1513-1516)

“Simply let that feeling go,” the Zen master replied, smiling. “Put it all down, and let it pass.”

“…But, sometimes I really can’t put it down. It’s so strong sometimes,” the monk said.

“So, then pick it up. Then you will get something, and that ‘something’ will teach you.”

What a practical, wide minded teaching about how to “manage“ a basic human impulse, perhaps even a need. It is not based on a myth or some repressive fear. The Zen Master‘s first response is merely to encourage that the student observe, and not to attach automatically to the illusory passing phenomenon of desire.

When the student claims that this might not always be possible, the follow-up teaching is full of flexibility and trust in the student learning from their lived experience. Following through on this passing desire, an experience is attained. And then this attainment of what was wished for — its insubstantial ungraspability, its hollowed-out vacuity — May possibly instruct him better than any rule of the Buddha or Teacher might.

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