For These Buddhist Monks, Sex Ed Starts With Safe Masturbation

Discussion in 'Mental, Medical and Sexual Health' started by OckyDub, Oct 29, 2021.

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    Sunshine pours in through the monastery classroom window as monks in crimson robes lock their gaze in rapt attention at the chalkboard. Their instructor smiles warmly and asks them what they know about the use of a condom.

    Defying expectations, these monks in the eastern Trashiyangtse district of Bhutan are among hundreds learning how to teach sex education in the Buddhist Himalayan kingdom. The practice is a rarity among other South Asian Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where sex education programs in school curriculums have been met with backlash from monastic groups.

    “In most monastries, there are uneducated monks so then they don’t know about sex education or about topics such as masturbation, even though some are indulging in it,” Choki Gyeltshen, a monk from the Thimphu Gonpa monastery in Bhutan, told VICE World News.

    As the program progressed, Gyeltshen noticed a change in attitude among his fellow monks. “Before the training, some would initially say that masturbation is sinful, but now they have learnt that it is not.”

    Once considered an embarassing subject, sex education has been institutionalized in Buddhist monasteries and nunneries across the country since 2014.

    The curriculum covers the ins and outs of sex education 101 ranging from masturbation, sexual consent, menstruation, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases.

    “You'd think that it would be awkward, but it turns out it's the opposite. I'm amazed that we take it so lightly actually. We haven’t faced any worries or problems. We joke about it,” Lam Ngodup Dorji, a senior monk from the Buddhist Longchenpa Center, told VICE World News.

    More than 350 heads of monastic institutions and 1500 nuns, many of whom have taken a vow of abstinence, have received the training and are further imparting their knowledge to communities where sex education is scarce.

    “Sex was looked at as something bad but now, we have come to a stage where we believe that sex should be practiced safely and that we have to advise our children as to how to go about it rather than saying it’s taboo and not giving them adequate knowledge about it,” said Dorji.

    The program is supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in an initiative to spread awareness about sexual and reproductive health in the country. It has been largely successful in transforming previously unyielding attitudes about sex and sexuality.

    “It is very crucial for religious leaders to engage in topics about sexuality because they are very effective agents of change in altering behavior and attitudes of people related to sexuality in the community,” UNFPA adolescent, youth and gender consultant Jigme Choden told VICE World News. In the Buddhist-majority country, monks and nuns wield considerable influence in shaping cultural and lifestyle beliefs. “They are the ones that families turn to, to conduct rituals or to seek advice not only on religion but in daily challenges.”

    The sex education curriculum also aims to address the unmet sexual health needs of thousands of young monks and nuns themselves, many of whom lack any formal education. Children as young as five are able to enroll in the monasteries and nunneries.

    “Especially in the monastic institutions, they partake in [masturbation] but it is very secretive. They will not talk at all about it, but now they are comfortable and talk about it and ask questions themselves about whether or not it is medically discouraged. They had a lot of discomfort when they had wet dreams and experienced shame because of it,” said Choden.

    “One monk shared that he believed [masturbation] to be sinful but now, due to the training, they understand that there is nothing to be shy of because this is something that is part of puberty and part of growing up. They are provided with scientifically accurate information about it so they find it quite useful,” Choden said.

    The monks attribute acceptance of sex education to Bhutan’s Queen Mother Gyalyum Sangay Choden Wangchuck, who spearheaded reproductive health rights for two decades and involved religious groups as well as military and government organizations in family planning activities and HIV/Aids awareness campaigns. In the ‘90s, her advocacy efforts contributed to Bhutan's religious chief saying that contraception is not against Buddhist principles. By 2018, contraception use rates in the country had more than doubled.

    The situation in Bhutan contrasts with some other South Asian countries, where Buddhist monastic circles have strongly opposed efforts to improve sex education in public institutions.

    In Sri Lanka, the approach to sexual and reproductive health education has largely been built around abstinence. Numerous attempts to include sex education in the national curriculum have been met with challenges from religious and cultural leaders.

    In 2019, an attempt by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education to introduce a sex ed textbook to 12-year-old students as a part of the curriculum was blocked after it drew criticism from a group of Buddhist monks, who claimed the book was “age-inappropriate” because it discussed masturbation.

    In a media briefing in December 2019, Buddhist monk and educator Medagoda Abhayatiss Thera called the book a conspiracy by the previous government to “corrupt the minds of children,” and called for a presidential inquiry into the production of the book.

    A parliamentary committee eventually ordered to discontinue the use of the textbook, agreeing that it was inappropriate for 12-year-olds. Incidentally, Buddhist monk Akuretiye Nanda Thero, chancellor of the University of Ruhuna, opposed the decision.

    “I do not believe the textbook had anything inappropriate for children,” Nanda Thero told VICE World News. “This education is necessary for these children. It was compiled by specialists in the field. You can see from what is happening in the country today that it is essential that children be educated on this,” he said in reference to the rise in rape and child abuse cases in the country at the time.

    “The challenges that were brought up hid behind the lies of safeguarding a culture,” Nanda Thero added, pointing out that unlike monks, ordinary people are not expected to abstain from sex or stay celibate. “Laws that govern monks do not apply to laymen, according to Buddhism.”

    Similarly, in Myanmar, the government's plan to introduce sex education to the high school curriculum was shelved after some Buddhist monks objected.

    The subject was considered “shameful” and “in violation of Myanmar tradition" by the nationalist monks. A 31-year-old doctor w

    For These Buddhist Monks, Sex Ed Starts With Safe Masturbation
     
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