Thursday, January 12, 2012

Enlightenment and the Erotic

Something I rarely talk about except specifically in relation to GLBT issues is the subject of sexuality overall and the ethical precepts people hold about it. Premarital sex is seen by many Christians as immoral, or at least taboo. Sex outside of marriage at all, even consensual, is evil, or at least wrong, for the same reason that Christians believe adultery is evil, since marriage is fundamentally believed to be the only good way to pair people off on an intimate level. Of course you also have the technicality in the Bible that, unless your partner dies or is unfaithful, you are not permitted to divorce them and remarry, since that’s cheating on them in God’s eyes. Homosexuality has been discussed many times in this blog and only a minority of Christians sees it as equal in the possibility of both good and bad use between consenting or non consenting adults. And then there’s masturbation, which is only confronted in the Bible in a nominal sense with the story of Onan, but is argued to be immoral because of the self stimulating and egocentric nature of the act instead of the unitive practice of sex between two consenting partners. Buddhism, on the other hand, has some agreement, but mostly dissonance, with Christian strictness on sexual ethics. This is not to say it condones rape, adultery, or any exploitation of humans as a means for sexual pleasure. Those would definitely be condemned for almost the same reasons: they violate another human being’s innate rights as a free agent. But homosexuality, premarital sex, masturbation and sexual desire are all seen in a different light from a Buddhist and nontheistic perspective by association. I won’t even get into the issues of gender in Buddhism, though I want to talk about it in the future, since Buddhism is often painted as very egalitarian, but is a bit ambivalent according to various texts in terms of that broad claim. Sex in Buddhism is the focus here, not gender.

Unlike Christianity, there are not commandments about sex so much as principles. Since there is not a creator in Buddhist cosmology, there is not a divine mandate about how sex should be handled. This is not to say there are not limits upon sexual behavior, but they are more implicit than explicit in that they fall under more general ethical restrictions on behavior. In Buddhism, you are expected to not be coercive, deceptive or abusive towards yourself or other human beings, and this could extend to sentient beings as well, since they feel pain in some sense as well. Sex is a mutually reciprocating act in many cases, excluding masturbation, which does not mean it is automatically deviant. Any sort of act involving sexual desire is not viewed as bad in and of itself, but instead is judged so based on the intent of the person performing the act. If I decide to have an open relationship with my future wife, we would have certain boundaries about our sexual liaisons. We use protection, we don’t coerce people into sex, and we certainly don’t rape people or have sex with people who are already involved in a monogamous relationship. And monogamous relationships are a good thing because of the similar virtue involved in all romantic pairings: fidelity. You are devoted to this person and will not betray their trust because you made a promise and commitment to that person; God isn’t necessary to make the partnership binding on both parties. And this extends to both homosexual and heterosexual couplings for reasons I’ll discuss shortly. In short, the act of sex and even desire for sex are not evil things in themselves at all. But there are differences in how we control our behavior depending on context and our own individual characters. If you are able to restrain yourself easier, then there is not so much of a bad thing in having a polyamorous sex life where you have multiple partners with no strings attached. You understand that you should not be attached to sex as an end in itself or a means to any greater end beyond pleasure unless you are willing to settle down and commit to a monogamous relationship or an open relationship with basic limits on your sexual life. Promiscuity and lust are not strictly evil, but they do tend towards excess, so there is advice in Buddhist texts to avoid such things as prostitutes or overly sexualized contexts. This is not to say laypeople cannot engage in such things as prostitutes or strip clubs, but they are expected to be responsible and prudent in their participation. I’ve brought up the Japanese monk Ikkyu Soujun before and he has a saying, “Those who keep the precepts become donkeys, those who break them become human,” Ikkyu was notorious for keeping company with ladies of the evening and wrote haiku that had very sexualized content about the male and female genitals and how they could lead one to enlightenment. It’s a paradoxical statement to claim that in embracing sex you can abandon it and no longer need it, but think of it like smoking. If you expose someone to a lot of negative reinforcement for smoking, like smoking a whole pack of cigarettes and getting horribly sick, then they will not want to smoke ever again because of the aversion they would feel at the resurfacing memories of that bad experience. Understanding the fleeting nature of sexual pleasure by directly experiencing it is the best way to start towards moderation of sexual behavior or in some people’s cases, retain their celibacy as is done in Buddhist monasteries as much as Christian ones. Sex is to be embraced, but not clung to.

There are various issues we could discuss about sexual ethics, but the most common ones include premarital sex and masturbation in terms of improper sexual acts and homosexuality as disordered sexual acts. The first two are bad for slightly different reasons than the third. Homosexuality is similar to premarital sex in the condemnation, since it is said to disrespect the marriage covenant more in not being able to bring forth children. Premarital sex is jumping the gun on marriage, homosexuality is spitting in its face, if we were to suggest a comparison and contrast. Masturbation is self directed and is considered dangerous to the development of intimacy between a couple. But Buddhists see all this in a different light and wouldn’t outright condone premarital sex, masturbation or homosexuality in all contexts, since they are not all the same.

Homosexuality has been condemned by Buddhists in particular contexts, including the Dalai Lama in certain interviews. But fundamentally, to say Buddhism believes homosexuality is disordered is missing the point of what the precept against sexual misconduct implies. It doesn’t explicitly list what acts are considered misconduct, but leaves this to discretion based on Buddhist ethics as a whole, which considers the individual as a free agent who is able to make choices with the knowledge of their karmic gravity upon themselves or others. Homosexuality as practiced in prison rape or irresponsible promiscuity are bad because they either violate a person’s consent or they risk invading into a person’s private life as they might be committed to someone else. But there are plenty of committed homosexual couples that show the value of fidelity in a romantic relationship is not something exclusive to heterosexual couples. This value of trust between two people that love each other is far more important than whether they can bring forth children or are considered normal in the eyes of a commonly heterosexual society.

Premarital sex has a similar sort of flavor that we can approach it with. Some premarital sex is bad because it is done without consideration of the risks involved, such as pregnancies that you are not able to confront as a responsible adult and future parent or STDs that are just as preventable. If you are not ready for such a result or do not wish to contract dangerous illnesses like AIDS, then using protection is a prudent practice for couples cohabitating. Marriage itself is technically a social institution, but one does not need to be married legally to act as if one is already married to the person. Making the commitment to each other in public is certainly a reflection of a communal relationship of the couple to the community as a whole, but if the couple merely makes those vows without getting a marriage license, why are they suddenly less married? I suppose there are Christians who have similar sorts of views, saying that making the commitment before God is more important than being legally bound together by civil magistrates, but if the couple behaves in such a way without even making much more than a basic announcement to friends and family that they are in a committed relationship, why should we see their eventual sexual consummation as less significant or even wrong if they behave responsibly?

Masturbation is probably the most contentious in a sense, since it is the most personal of these issues next to homosexuality. One’s personal self stimulation is not necessarily by any means wrong or misguided sexually speaking. Is it not natural to explore what makes us feel good? The difference between a hobby of reading comics and self pleasuring is that the addiction to one can be more damaging than the other. When one mindfully considers what pleasure masturbation gives one and some benefits that may result from it, such as stress relief in part and lower blood pressure by association, then the most basic boundary one can place upon oneself is self discipline about how much one does it. Excess or deficit can be damaging, but the simple act of self pleasuring oneself is not evil unless you exclude the future possibility and enjoyment of sharing the pleasure with another in an intimate partnership. In that case, it falls under the same issues of attachment to sex that I spoke about at the beginning of the article. Sex itself is not evil or wrong, it is misuse or misguided ideas about sexual behavior that are damaging.

I can’t say this article is representative of all Buddhists, especially with my secular background and general approach to Gautama’s teachings of skepticism, ethics and psychology, among other things. But even the Dalai Lama has said things to this effect, at least concerning homosexuality. The value of marriage in Buddhism may exist, but not to the exclusion of otherwise faithful relationships that don’t meet the strict requirements of marriage even by Asian standards of which I am not aware of. Sex is something we should appreciate, but neither be attached to nor take for granted as something that will always exist in a limited bubble of what we’re comfortable with. I might be more comfortable with much of this than my parents are, especially gay marriage. Interracial marriage was one hurdle, next will be this. This is not to say there aren’t instances where there is sexual behavior both Buddhists and Christians would find horrific. Rape in particular is where much agreement would exist, as well as adultery: having sex with someone who is already involved with someone else in a monogamous relationship. But since Buddhist sexual ethics are more focused on intent and the virtues of love that are connected with sex instead of the institution of marriage and childrearing as absolutely intertwined with it, there is more permissibility of things that are considered taboo or immoral to many others. But inclusiveness does not imply looseness of morality. It means flexibility with some rigidity of discipline without becoming overbearing. Sex should be a disciplined approach in some sense, but should also be open to consensual love between parties that we would otherwise not acknowledge. And even self love can be a precursor to love of others. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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