Aging & Dying, Zen & Dharma

Sex under the full moon

It is the full moon, and our monthly Zen Fusatsu service. During fusatsu we renew the ten basic lay precepts. We commit to ethical and responsible action, with an eye toward serving all beings.

We bow and we chant and we vow and for the most part i am totally down with it. It is easy enough to get behind not killing or lying or stealing, although even those precepts are subject to endless argument and hair-splitting. It is easy to agree, but the act of wrestling with the underlying concepts and their real-life applications presents the chewy nugget of the buddhist way.

I do fine until we get to Precept #3: “A disciple of Buddha does not engage in sexual misconduct.” What does this mean, exactly? Sure, sex is big, but given that buddhism has no moral stance on the rightness or wrongness of sex, what is so special about it that it deserves its own Precept?

I’ve read articles and listened to dharma talks on the third precept, but it still has me a little stumped. I feel like even the best teachers get slippery when the subject comes up.

We know that sexuality is a powerful force and a potential powder keg. Sex is the most powerful animal drive, numero uno on the hierarchy of needs. Until recently, like all living things, we humans have existed in order to spawn. The pleasure of sex is just been nature’s trick; the candy coating to lure us to perpetuate our DNA. Sexual energy can be manipulated to control others; in particular, those more vulnerable or naive than ourselves. Sex is strong medicine. But sex isn’t the only powerful and seductive energy we have in our toolkit: we have money, politics, gasoline, consumer goods. We have plenty of ways to abuse ourselves and each other, sexuality among them. So I ask again—why is its use and misuse such an especially big deal?

We certainly place excessive value on sexual attractiveness and prowess, inflating it to overshadow all other qualities. As David Loy writes in Money Sex War Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (most kickass buddhist book EVER), “the importance of sex has ballooned because we are not sure what else is important in a God-less world that often seems intent on destroying itself.” Ironically, the less urgent our imperative to procreate, the more we cling to an act which has lost its real biological impetus. We cling to sex like a life-raft, and in fact it has been the raft of life since the first cel floating in an endless ocean took the notion to divide in half and hook up with another amoeba. Even though wild proliferation always leads to extinction, sex is what connects us to life. It provides us with genetic perseverence, ensures the survival of our tribe, and gives us the illusion of immortality as evidenced in the grandchildren whose photos we carry in our wallets and proudly flaunt at every opportunity.

I remember being at Burning Man, and noticing that of the 5,000 workshops and activities and theme camps on offer, about 4,750 concerned sex. I wondered why, and it occured to me that maybe the whole massive merry convergence was just a desperate ruse to deny our aging and dying bodies by fixating on sex. We use sex to fend off the reality of death.

OK so, please don’t be thinking I am anti-sex. I’m not, and you don’t need to convince me. Sex is good for the skin, and I’ve heard it boosts the immune system. Sex can be a transformative act of communication and intimacy. Sex brings people into lasting partnerships that can have positive spinoffs far beyond the sperm’n’egg variety. Sex is fun. When there is affection, attraction and respect, sex can be completely positive, whether the relationship lasts for an evening or a lifetime. Good sex leads to self-knowledge. I think we can all agree that in general, sex is good–or at least, it’s not bad. So… what’s the deal with Precept #3?

I am floating the idea that the specificity of the precept is mostly a holdover from a day not long past when unbridled sexual behavior resulted inevitably in unwanted babies. In olden times and especially within monastic communities, accidental offspring could cause emotional, social, and economic turmoil for the individual and the community. But for the most part, we don’t live in that world any more. We have reproductive freedom, and we are much less bound to the societal convention of marriage.

The bigger danger now is that we coat sexuality with the gloss of “romance,” by which we validate ourselves only as objects of desire. Our pop songs and advertisements confirm this over and over again, until we are convinced that we are utterly worthless if we are not getting laid. Our sense of need is as much social and emotional as it is physical, and this applies to men as much as women. Because we lack a deep sense of innate self-worth we go out looking for it in lingerie and online dating sites and Cialis. We use sex addictively to escape from intimacy with self. Sexual obsession is a one-way ticket to dukkaville.

So alright, I guess I can see where misuse of sexuality can lead, and it ain’t good. But I still get nervous at Precept #3. Wondering if the Man from California counts for or against. Thinking that when I am hired to re-write the Precepts I will  lump #3 in with #5, “A disciple of the buddha refrains from using intoxicants.” Which also makes everyone in the room twitch a little. I will write: A disciple of the buddha refrains from using activities or substances in ways which distract and cloud the mind. In other words, addictively. This would encompass alcohol and food and marijuana. And Facebook. And sex.

For now, until I get that job, I continue to take the third precept. I simply bow, forehead to the mat, raising the buddha’s feet above my head.

3 Comments on “Sex under the full moon

  1. Very well written and thought through piece.I suppose the precepts were originally directed to celibate monks, and the connection of desire to suffering being a major obstacle to enlightenment . I rather like the Zen story of the two monks walking down the path and coming to a swollen stream where a girl is hesitating to cross. One of the monks lifts her across and later as they continue on their way, one says to the other, you broke a vow not to touch women. The culprit answers, yes , but I have put her down.
    So the issue of being attached to what comes up releasing and so it no longer becomes self is what meditation is about . Having just found your site through Resurgence magazine , I look forward to your coming blogs .PLG ( peace, love, gratitude. ) Tony

  2. Tony (dude) that is the same story I was just remembering. And Carmen, great, great piece. You could tag this one under “Twitch Factor”, where you keep all the posts about unexpected challenges in underlying principles.

  3. One advantage of aging (among several) is it gets easier to “Don’t shake the tree when the fruit ain’t ripe”….
    Thanks for the well though out post,

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