Was a Zen Master a Sex Addict?

Master Ikkyu was a Buddhist monk who sang the praises of sex. Was he addicted?

Posted Jun 15, 2014

In the book, “Zen Sex: The Way of Making Love”, Philip Toshio Sudo introduces many to Zen master Ikkyu Sojun, who lived 1394-1481. According to the text, Ikkyu was known to frequent brothels and bars (Sudo, 2000). These quotes by Ikkyu, “This lust my ceaseless koan” (pg.13) and “I dream of a girl’s boudoir, that’s my nature” (pg.14) illustrate his defiance of traditional Zen tenets with his passion for sex.  An argument could be made that Master Ikkyu had a sexual addiction.

Sexual addiction is a controversial topic. Many view it as nothing more than an excuse for (most often men’s) infidelity. Many do not believe it is an actual disorder. Of course, some do not believe in any addiction. But sexual addiction is especially prone to disbelief. To complicate matters, the American Psychiatric Association, in its publication the “DSM 5”, does not list it as a disorder.

Those that do believe in sexual addiction prefer the term hypersexuality disorder. According to the National Association of Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, approximately three to six percent of the population suffers from some form of sex addiction (Berry, Ramnath; 2014). There are a number of treatment centers for sexual addiction, and several self-help support groups that assist people who believe they have an addiction to sex.

Throughout the book “Zen Sex”, Sudo references Ikkyu’s unconventional attitude toward sex. The book has many examples and allusions to how Ikkyu engaged in sexual activity, including masturbation, all of which was against traditional Zen teaching (including teaching by Buddha). Ikkyu was also noted to drink too much at times, and according to the author, “mocked the rules of the monasteries and their extremes of self-denial. In poem after poem, he sang the praises of wine and physical love, of taking a lover and frequenting brothels.” Historically, Ikkyu was initially passed over for another for the authority to receive the Dharma (teaching) and be heir due to his behavior. He then left that monastery and went on his own. Some of  Ikkyu’s behavior may meet the criteria for sexual addiction.

There are a number of ways sexual addiction can be defined. Hook, Hook, and Hines (2008), purport that the following criteria best describe someone with sex addiction: The individual experiences persistent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors. The sexual fantasies, urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in at least one important area of functioning. Symptoms are present for at least a six-month duration. The condition is not due to another medical condition or better explained by another disorder. According to Patrick Carnes in his seminal work, “Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction”, “an addictive experience progresses through a four-step cycle” (pg. 9). This cycle includes preoccupation with thoughts of sex; the addicts own ritualized routine that leads to and intensifies the sexual behavior; the compulsive sexual behavior; and then despair about their powerlessness over the sexual behavior.

If we look at Master Ikkyu’s history in this light, he certainly seemed preoccupied with sex. A Zen Buddhist monk who writes so frequently about the wonders of women and sex would certainly meet that criterion. His symptoms lasted his lifetime, as at an old age he reported, “It’s too difficult to stop being aware of the fair sex; Though my hair is snow white, desires still sing through my body. I cannot control all the weeds that grow in my garden.” (Sudo, pg. 162). This doesn’t indicate he is a sex addict, only that strong desires continued for his entire life.

However, there are several important criteria Ikkyu does not meet. Nowhere have I read of remorse, guilt, shame, or despair over powerlessness in regard to his sexual behavior. Along with this, and a criterion for most mental health disorders, is the absence of any distress or impairment as a result of his sexual behavior.

This culture has a strong desire for labels. Everything has to fit neatly into categories. Life rarely cooperates with this idea though. People are individuals, and behaviors that might indicate an addiction for one, can be an unhealthy coping strategy for another. Some people benefit from therapy and 12-Step support groups. Others stop of their own volition and manage their lives differently. Whether or not one wants to believe in sexual addiction, some people have a problem with controlling their sexual desires. Others, possibly like Ikkyu, use it as a path toward enlightenment. (See my very first Psychology Today post, “Having Sex? Here is Your Chance To Reach Enlightenment”). In both the spirit of Zen, and in the philosophy of only using diagnosis to help the client (as I argue in, "Does Diagnosing Occur to Make The Clinician Comfortable"), I would not diagnose Master Ikkyu as a sex addict.

As an interesting aside, when I was reading the reviews of “Zen Sex”, I came across an interesting discussion of Zen. One reviewer bashed the book, and how the author misrepresents Zen. He argued Master Ikkyu would not be considered a master at all, and that he was an outcast. The next commenter argued that Ikkyu was indeed a master, and had been an abbot of a famous Rinzai monastery late in his life. A third commenter put the others in checkmate. He proclaimed, “Those who know Zen know that there is no Zen master and there is no knowledge of Zen.” We might all benefit from being more like this, and simply experiencing, rather than being what a Zen saying proclaims, “just another finger pointing at the moon.”

Copyright William Berry, 2014


Berry, W., Ramnath, R.; 2014; Addiction: A Human Experience, Ed. 2; Cognella Publishing.

Carnes, P.; 1983; Out Of The Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction; CompCare Publishing.

Hook, J.N., Hook, J.P., and Hines, S.; 2008; Reach Out or Act Out: Long Term Group Therapy for Sexual Addiction; Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, 15, 217-232. 

Sudo, P.T.; 2000; Zen Sex: The Way of Making Love; Harper.

Review of “Zen Sex” retrieved from: http://www.amazon.com/review/R1M69E5KY48YAM

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