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The Wheel of Time: Purity Culture, Guilt, and Buddhist Cosmology

By Bo Desmond

Growing up evangelical in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, it sometimes seems that I heard the word “purity” used as much as (if not more-so than) the name of Jesus. In a very delayed reaction against the free love and countercultural movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, evangelical churches across the United States had gone on the offensive, stepping forth into the battleground of their children’s sexuality. The movement was punctuated with the publication of Joshua Harris’ book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, the formation of the True Love Waits group, and the media hype surrounding the Jonas Brothers’ decisions to wear purity rings, which they later took off.

The aim of the movement was simple: protect our children from making foolish decisions. In application, pastors and youth pastors took to the pulpit to teach, reteach, and then repeat the Christian view of sexual purity: that marriage is heterosexual and sex is only for those who are married. Lust is wrong — always. Outside these generalities, the particulars of how we are to live in a temptation-filled world were various and ill-defined.

From my own experience growing up in the church, I can attest to the fervor with which we were incessantly encouraged to stay pure. I was taught that those who engaged in sex before marriage or gave in to lustful temptations were always unhappy with their decision, that they often found it difficult to forgive themselves, and that no good could come from their decisions. Once an act was done, there was no undoing it. Depending on the situation, some of these outcomes may be true, yet what I was taught during this period of my life was that those who failed to live up the expectations that purity culture set on us had crossed an uncrossable line, committing an unchangeable action that would stick with them for the rest of their lives. They were, to borrow an oft used expression, used, like chewed gum.

The solution the church offered young people growing up during the 90’s and the 2000’s was simple: avoidance. Avoid spending time alone with the opposite sex. Avoid spending too much time around the opposite sex. Avoid thinking about sex. Boys should feel guilty for admiring a girl. Girls should feel guilty for wearing clothes that unduly attract boys.

The variation of these teachings was wide. I am sure that some churches taught the subject better than others. I am also sure that some churches taught their young people lies that have led to hurts and constant feelings of inadequacy.

Mostly absent from these teachings was both a realistic view of the problem and an applicable solution. The view of sex the church gave me originated from a hasty reading of Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Simply thinking a wistful thought was, it seems, sin enough, on par with the sexual act itself. The church never told me that the thoughts that popped into my head and the attraction I found toward women were natural, necessary for the survival of our species. Likewise, the solution the church offered was not what I and many other young people needed. The solution we needed, the solution the church failed to offer, was an answer to this question: What do we do in order to move on? How do we proceed when we have failed to meet the church’s avoidance standards?

My aim is not to analyze the intricacies of purity culture and promote my own thoughts on how the church should approach such a nuanced and important topic. Rather, it is to share my own personal experience within this broader movement and to discuss how I found a way forward.

Impossible Expectations: My Experience with Purity Culture

The purity movement is not an official one. There are no central offices. You don’t have to register with anyone. No hierarchical structure administers reading material and collective beliefs. Nonetheless, my church saw it as their obligation to demand sexual avoidance of their young people, including avoidance from sex and from temptation. Boys should be perfect gentlemen. Girls, perfect ladies. Boys should take the initiative in all things related to the relationship. Girls should respect (re: go along with) what the boy wants to do. Boys should avoid lust at all costs.

Boys should avoid lust at all costs.

It is this last commandment that stuck with me the most. For boys growing up in the church at that time, lust was our greatest downfall. The opposite side of that same coin read “girls should avoid causing boys to lust at all costs.”

The great problem, however, was that lust was never defined. In all my years in the church and all the lessons I’ve listened to on lust, I have never heard a genuine definition. Attempts have tended toward the extreme: “if you are checking out a girl for her looks, that’s lust.” “You might see a girl you think is attractive. That’s fine, but if you spend more than a passing moment, a few seconds admiring her, that’s lust.” “If you think a girl is pretty, thank God for making her that way and move on. Don’t dwell on it.”

Missing from those “definitions” is a definition.

For myself, the insufficient nature of those definitions created in me a complex that I struggled with for years. In the span of five minutes, my thoughts could go from an attraction toward my crush to guilt for my attraction.

Then came the internet.

My generation didn’t have the luxury of wisdom passed down from a previous generation who had learned to manage such a powerful tool. Millennials were the beta testers for humanity’s largest leap forward since… well probably our largest leap forward, or backwards, or off a cliff. We still don’t know.

I wasn’t alone. A 2012 survey of nearly 1000 adolescents revealed that “66% of males and 39% of females had viewed online pornography” (Short et al., 2012). A more recent study showed that “84.4% of 14 to 18-year-old males and 57% of 14 to 18-year-old females have viewed pornography” (Wright, Paul J., 2021). With the prevalence of the internet and the proliferation of smartphones, these statistics may or may not shock you. But there’s one more statistic that stands out to me: “Approximately two-thirds (64%) of Christian men admit that they view pornography at least monthly” (“Proven Men Porn Survey,” 2014).

I used to be a data point within those statistics.

Consider the guilt I felt. I was taught that being attracted to a girl was the same as lust. I was taught to avoid lust at all costs. Lust, according to my younger self, was the unforgivable sin. Shame is too weak a word to fully describe my feelings as I realized that I had crossed a line that should never be crossed, a line that, in my mind, could never be uncrossed. I had been commanded and taught that avoidance was the only way to live. And that teaching was precisely the problem.

Avoidance became the mantra of the purity movement. For children growing up in it, avoidance was the same as salvation. Avoid the opposite sex, avoid lust, avoid temptation, avoid looking at girls, avoid thinking about girls. Avoid becoming “chewed-up gum.” Avoidance was the only way forward, and it was the lesson we were taught at each Bible study, youth group meeting, and small group meeting where they separated the boys so we could talk about lust and girls so they could talk about modesty or inner beauty. Of course, the church’s approach assumed that only boys struggled with lust and only girls needed to be modest.

These expectations demand the impossible. Avoiding sin is great. But we weren’t taught to avoid sin only. We were taught to avoid temptation, a demand that is beyond any of us.

But maybe avoidance isn’t the only lesson we can learn. If you’re like me and the rest of the 64% of Christian males from the survey above, avoidance is no longer an option. It’s too late for that, but it’s not too late to reconsider our view of sin and temptation. It has taken me 15 years, but by rethinking my failures, I have discovered a new perspective that gives me hope and allows a way forward through my sins and temptations.

It’s a perspective I learned from an interesting source. It is interesting because of its application to my perspective as a Christian and because this journal is a Christian publication. Nonetheless, this perspective has altered my views of the purity movement and my failures to live up to an impossible standard. It has changed both my view of my own failures and of others’ as well. The lesson I took so long to learn is the role failure plays in our lives, and the source of this lesson is Buddhism.

On Buddhist Cosmology

In a previous article published from The Reuleaux, Dominic Robin used Sigmund Freud as a primary source of inspiration. In his article, he points out that Freud exists on the Christian blacklist, people who should be avoided at all costs because their views are either offensive or challenge Christian beliefs. Other religions occupy a similar list.

A far too common assumption among Christians posits that little can be gained from learning about alternative faith traditions. Studying other religions is solely for combatting them.

Alternatively, I believe that Christians can gain much by reading sources that challenge our current conceptions of the world and that can reveal to us new dimensions of our own faith. Discovering truth from sources we are uncomfortable with requires us to admit fallibility and assume a posture of humility. It is a more truthful view of ourselves and expresses that we are not omniscient. We do not, in the words of Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, “have a monopoly on the truth.” Rather, we can discover truths through a variety of avenues.

One of the most beneficial things I have learned from Buddhism is the Buddist cosmology — their understanding of the cosmos and all the creatures it holds. The Buddhist cosmology is symbolically represented in the Bhavacakra, better known as the wheel of samsara or the wheel of life, depicted below.

In the wheel of life, there are six beings. At the top, the devas (gods) occupy the realm of pleasure. Next to them, the asuras (demigods) live good lives but spend their time attacking the realm of the devas in an attempt to achieve the same pleasure. Level with the demigods on the opposite side of the wheel are humans. Human lives entail pleasure but they also the suffering by which humans receive wisdom, something devas can never attain. Beneath the humans is the animal realm. Animals live their lives in ignorant peace, unaware of the possibility of attaining modes of higher existence. Opposite the animals are the pretas, the hungry ghosts. These creatures are often depicted with enormous stomachs and disproportionately small mouths or throats. They can never consume enough. They are motivated solely by their earthly pleasures but live in constant suffering which abates only in fleeting moments of physical pleasure. The last realm is the realm of demons: hell. These are beings consumed by hatred. They enter the realm through hating others, but that hatred eventually turns inward due to the unhappiness they feel inside. Their lives are pure suffering and pain. All these realms and the creatures within them make up the Buddhist cosmology. The wheel is held by Yama, the god of the dead, who controls the process of death, rebirth, and reincarnation. Yama also determines what realm on the wheel a person is reborn into.

Few Buddhists hold to a literal interpretation of the wheel. Rather, in keeping with the Buddhist preeminence of the mind as a tool to escape suffering, the wheel depicts various states of consciousness. The devas are perpetual optimists or people who never experience physical suffering. Demigods are those who work 70 hours a week so they can live like the gods. The animals are people who never concern themselves with anything more important than the newest Netflix series. Pretas are those consumed with gaining physical pleasure, never satisfied with what is enough. Lastly, demons suffer from their past sins. They are those whose lives are literal suffering, both physical and mental, those for whom there is no pleasure, only hatred. All humans exist somewhere on this wheel.

A significant detail about the wheel, a detail that has helped me throughout my feelings of impurity and guilt, is that the wheel is not static. It turns.

Buddhists believe in impermanence. Nothing stays the same forever. Contrary to a Western view of linear time, Buddhists believe that time is cyclical. This is why they depict time as a wheel. Time rotates. We are just caught up in its motion.

To illustrate this point, an ancient Japanese story tells of a samurai who came to a Zen monk and asked about the nature of heaven and hell. The monk responded by insulting the samurai’s intelligence and ability. Enraged, the samurai drew his sword to strike the monk, but the monk leaned forward and said softly, “This is hell.” Realizing the monk’s lesson, the samurai lowered his sword and was filled with wonder and gratitude. Then the monk replied “This is heaven.” The mental state of impermanence teaches that whatever state of mind we are currently in, including lust, guilt, and shame, will pass. The wheel will turn, and those whose lives are filled with what seems like continual pleasure will inevitably experience the pain of life. Likewise, those who exist in hell will have moment of respite.

In keeping with this conception of time, Buddhists believe that humans have little control of how the wheel turns and what mental state they are in. The randomness of life happens to us all, and we have little ability to determine which realm we pass through. Even though we can decide our actions in any realm, we rarely get to choose which one we enter or which one enters our minds. As the wheel turns, the gods will become demigods and then pretas, the lustful spirits. The lust they experience will lead to pain and they will continue to experience that pain until the wheel turns again. They may end up in hell, or as animals, or as demigods.

Most Buddhists are not strictly deterministic. Rather, they believe that we have only partial control over our lives. With practice, we can manage some control of the thoughts that enter our heads. Controlling these thoughts in any context is central to Buddhism and is why Buddhists meditate so devotedly. They train their minds so they can escape the wheel.

Buddhists believe that existing in the mental realm of humans is best. This is not because they believe humans are better than gods but because humans have the unique ability of experiencing both temptation and suffering without being controlled by either state. Through these experiences they can arrive at enlightenment. Because gods live in total pleasure, they never give thought to escaping that realm. Since pretas or demons live in total suffering, they only think about easing their sufferings for a moment. Humans are in the unique position to experience temptation, sin, and suffering and through these experiences recognize the need for escape. Put in Christian terms, if we had never fallen, we wouldn’t need Jesus. While not condoning sin, scripture teaches us that Jesus came not for the righteous but for the lost. For us, there is no undoing the Fall. We already failed at avoidance. But God provided a way forward through the sin. In a similar way, Buddhists see our pasts as a process whereby humans can learn fundamental truths, regarding themselves and the world.

Take for example the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Born the son of a very wealthy lord, upon the Buddha’s birth, his father received a prophecy that the boy would be either a great king or a poor sage. Wanting his son to be a king, the father built a high wall around his palace and kept Gautama within the walls at all times, surrounding him with peace, prosperity, and comfort.

One day, as a young man, Gautama left the walls and saw first a starving man and later a dead man. Unsure of what he was seeing, the Buddha returned to the palace distraught. He decided to leave his father’s house and become a sramana, an ascetic who deprives him or herself of physical pleasures. Before he could leave, however, his father arranged for beautiful women to surround the Buddha to tempt him to renounce his determination and faith in favor of worldly pleasures. The exit to the palace lay on the other side of the women. Significantly, instead of avoiding them, instead of staying back from them and remaining in his father’s house, the Buddha walked through the temptation. Only by passing through them did he move onward, leaving his father’s house and growing as an individual.


At the beginning of his ministry, Christ was baptized and embarked on a journey into the wilderness, wherein he fasted for 40 days and was tempted by the devil. The story, recorded in three of the four Gospels, is intriguing for its “down-to-earthness.” The Messiah, the son of God, allows himself to suffer the devil’s temptations. In the story, the devil tempts Christ with food, dominion over the earth, and power.

The parallel between Christ’s story and the sufferings of humankind is significant. Temptation is ubiquitous. Every one of us is tempted with physical pleasures, with the attainment of worldly power, and with the temptation to demand that God work for us instead of the other way around.

We can find parallels between Christ’s suffering and the wheel of samsara. Humans in this world experience temptation. Devas are tempted by control. Demigods will do anything to gain power. Animals seek to entertain themselves as an avoidance of pain. Pretas are tempted by physical pleasure. Demons suffer the consequences of their previous temptations. However, creatures on the wheel cannot hope to always avoid temptation, sin, or suffering.

As humans, however, we have a unique ability to gain wisdom through suffering. What was true for the Buddha is true of every human: growth comes through overcoming temptations, not avoiding them. The Buddha needed to escape the mindless comforts of his father’s house and had to do so by passing through temptation. In the same way that Christ did not avoid the suffering of his temptations but chose to be tempted in order to overcome this world, we can overcome ourselves and our temptations by recognizing the importance of our temptations and by recognizing that Christ is there with us in the process.

For Christians who lived through the rigidity of purity culture, the turning of the wheel of samsara gives us a way forward. When temptations and sin and impurity occur in our lives, when we fail to meet the standard of the church, and when our corruption meets our line of sight, we should remember the wheel. The impurity of life and the pain of our failures is built into our existence. But there is always a way forward. The lesson I learned from Buddhism and from the Buddha’s story is this: Temptation is something to learn from and to be overcome, not just avoided, and it is only through overcoming these temptations that we become who God desires for us to be. We will fail of course, but the wheel will turn, and our faith will turn to strength and maturity.

This reality holds significance for our understanding of ourselves and of others who fail to live up to the impossible standards of the purity movement. The church today would do well to recognize the value of this lesson. Perpetual purity is not an option afforded to humans. Becoming purified is. In this life, none of us have the privilege of avoiding temptation and sin. The Fall happened, and each of us reenacts it daily in our own unique and semi-pathetic ways. We cannot avoid or undo. But with Christ’s help and the church’s support, we can work through and overcome temptations we can’t avoid.

Already, the church is growing in this area. Programs like Celebrate Recovery offer a safe space for people to fail and be honest about their failures. Alcoholics Anonymous, a Christian-based program, maintains that the first step in the process toward sobriety is to admit the problem. Admission of sin follows the biblical narrative. Only when we are honest with ourselves about these failures can we move forward. After all, if asked who among us is pure, we should all, one by one, drop our stones and walk away.


  1. Brown, J. D., and K.L. L’Engle. (2009). X-rated sexual attitudes and behaviors associated with US early adolescents' exposure to sexually explicit media. Communication Research, 36, 129-151.

  2. Wright, Paul J., Bryant Paul & Debby Herbenick (2021) Preliminary Insights from a U.S. Probability Sample on Adolescents’ Pornography Exposure, Media Psychology, and Sexual Aggression, Journal of Health Communication, 26:1, 39-46, DOI: 10.1080/10810730.2021.1887980

  3. Proven Men Porn Survey (conducted by Barna Group), located at


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