In the religious background of the Western world, we have in the main two traditions: One Semitic and one Greek. So far as the Semitic tradition is concerned, the material world and sexuality are definitely good things. Both Jews and Muslims think that God’s creation of beautiful women was a grand idea! In the Arabic book, which is the Islamic version of the Kama Sutra, known as The Perfumed Garden, the book opens with a prayer to Allah, which is a very full, detailed thanksgiving for the loveliness of women, with which Allah has blessed mankind. And in the book of Proverbs, we are enjoined to enjoy our wives while they are young. But on the whole, it is the Semitic belief that sexuality is justified solely for purposes of reproduction of the species. This makes it good in the eyes of God and sexual energy should not really be wasted for other purposes. That’s the limitation put on it.

Now on the other hand, we have a Greek tradition, which is peculiar in that it is strongly influenced by a dualistic view of the universe, in which material existance is conceived as a trap, as a fall into turgid, clogging matter which is antagonistic to the lightness and freedom of the spirit. And therefore, for certain kinds of Greek religion, among which we must name the Orphic Mysteries, the Neoplatonic point of view, and the later Gnostic points of view, being saved means being delivered from material existance into a purely spiritual state. From this point of view, sexual involvement is the very archetype of material involvement. Martyr, mother, mater, matter, are really the same word. And so, the love of woman is the great snare. This is incidentally a doctrine invented by men. And it goes back to the words of Adam: “The woman that thou gavest me, SHE tempted me! And I did eat.”


[…] They say the Church has repressed sex. But actually, if you look at its symbolism, it is nothing but an expression of sex. Everything is reduced to libido as the fundamental reality. And the Church replies: “It’s nothing of the kind. We deny this! We think that this reduction of everything to sex is just a way of attacking holy things and, on the contrary, we would say that people who are fascinated with sex and make it their God are repressing religion.” Now, the problem in this debate is that everybody missed the boat. The chruch should have been in the position to say to Freud: “Well of course! Thank you very much. Yes indeed, our symbolism is sexual. The steeples on our churches. The vesicle-shaped windows and heraldic shields on which we put images of the crucifix or the virgin mother of God. These are all, quite plainly, sexual. But you see, the sexual biology, in its term, reveals the mysteries of the universe. Sex is not mere sex. Sex is a holy thing and is one of the most marvelous revelations of the divine.” But imagine, the Church just couldn’t say that.

If you look at Tibetan Buddhist iconography, their images, or you look in Hindu temples, you will find things that Europeans and Americans have never been able to understand. Here are images of Buddhas and of the Gods enaged in amazing diversions with their female counterparts. And everybody thinks that these are kind of dirty sculptures. Now, they are nothing of the kind. They are saying, to the people who look at them: The play of man and woman is, on that level, on the level of biology, a reflection of the fundamental play of the cosmos. The play of the positive and negative principles, of the light and the dark, of the mental and the material. They all play together. And the function of sexual play is not merely the survival and utilitarian function of reproducing the species, as it is among animals to a very large extent. What peculiarly distinguishes human sexuality is that it brings the partners closer and closer to each other, in an intense state of united feeling. In other words, it is a sacrament, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace bringing about love.

Falling in love, although considered by practical people to be a sort of madness, is actually the same sort of thing as the mystical vision, a grace, and in its light we see people in their divine aspect. When, as the song says “Every little breeze whispers Louise”, there is a sort of extraordinary state of mystical intoxication in which the ideal woman has become the Goddess. Which is, from one point of view, what every woman is, if you see her with the scales off your eyes. And likewise every man, seen with the scales off her eyes.


So what happened then, as a result of this historical situation, was mutual name-calling between the proponents of religion and the proponents of scientific naturalism such as Freud and Havelock Ellis, and in our own time Albert Ellis, and people of that kind. They’ve never got together. Because they’ve never understood. Neither the Church nor the opponents of the Church have clearly understood that the secret or unconscious motivation of sexual repression is to make it all the more interesting. And on the other side, it has not been clearly understood that sexual biology and all that goes with it is a figuring forth on the level of biology of what the whole universe is about: ecstatic play.

So, as a result, there has been a kind of compromise. Today, in ecclesiastical circles, sex is being damned with faint praise. People are saying: “After all, yes, sex was made by God and we should remember the Jewish point of view. And it is perhaps for something more than reproduction. To bring about the cementing of the marriage ties between husband and wive. But, still, in practise, it remains the frightening taboo.” On the other hand, the opposition to Christian prudery goes overboard and always moves in the direction of total license. You see, what’s going on is a contest between the people who want the skirts pulled down to the floor and the people who want them pulled up to the neck. And you know you ‘got to draw the line somewhere. But the play between these forces is: where are we gonna draw it? Well that’s very exciting, provide neither side wins. I mean, imagine what it would be like if the libertines won and they took over the Church. So that on Wednesday evenings, the young Presbyterian group would meet for prayer-through-sex. Every child would go to the school physician for a course in hygienics and they’d have classes and they’d have plastic models and all the children would do it in class in very clean hygienic circumstances, all sprayed with rubbing alcohol. Imagine how boring it would all become! So you see, the people who say “No, modesty is important!” have something right about them. But they mustn’t be allowed to get away with it. But they mustn’t be obliterated. See, life works that way.


Let’s take an entirely different analogy: Let’s take a given biological group, a species we’ll call A. It has a natural enemy B. Now, one day A gets furious at the natural enemy B and says: let’s obliterate it. And they gather their forces and they knock out their natural enemy. Well, suddenly, after a while, they begin to get weak. They get overpopulated. There’s nobody around to eat up their surplus creatures and they don’t have to keep their muscles tense against any enemy. And they begin to fall apart because they destroyed their enemy. What they should do is cultivate the enemy. That’s the real meaning of “love your enemy”. There is such a thing as a beloved enemy. And if you don’t have a beloved enemy, in other words, if the flies and the spiders don’t go together, there are gonna be too many spiders or too many flies. And these balances keep the course of nature going. Well, it’s exactly the same thing as between the libertines and the prudes. They need each other. If you’ve got a prudish father and mother, you should be very grateful to them for having made sex so interesting. So don’t defy them completely. Don’t go around campus with placards bearing four-letter words. Because that’s going to spoil the show. But every generation must react to the one before, you see, to keep this tension going. And it is by this tension, this play of the opposites, that we have the love that makes the world go round.

Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960–1980 by Alan Watts

2 thoughts on “Sex

  1. baselfasel says:

    “[…] Naturally, when you love someone very much indeed, in the enthusiasm and ardour of youth, you say things that are hardly logical or rational. You stand up before an altar and you say ´My darling, my sweetheart, my perfect pet. I adore you so much that I will live with you forever and ever ’till death do us part.´ And that’s the way you feel at the time. In a rather similar mood, ancient peoples would hail their kings and say “Oh King, live forever!” Obviously, this was not literally meant. They were just wishing him a long life. But to live forever? No sir, no mortal does that. So, the trouble was, you see, that, when certain kinds of extravagant poetic expressions got in the hands of people like Augustine and Tertullian, who were rather influenced by Roman literalness, they wrote it into the law books! And so this amazing situation came about. […]”

    Alan Watts, ibid.

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