11 November 2011

The Undiscussables – Two: Sex

I will formulate a training rule for the bhikkhus with ten aims in mind: the excellence of the Community, the comfort of the Community, the curbing of the impudent, the comfort of well-behaved bhikkhus, the restraint of effluents related to the present life, the prevention of effluents related to the next life, the arousing of faith in the faithless, the increase of the faithful, the establishment of the true Dhamma, and the fostering of discipline.
- The Buddha
We have Ven. Sudinna to thank for the first rule of the Vinaya.  Seems Sudinna had become a bhikkhu after he had married.  His parents tried getting him to return to lay life to no avail.  He had not fathered any children, so his mother, hoping at least to secure the family line through a grandson, asked him to impregnate the wife he had left.  He agreed.  The bhikkhus were scandalized and reported the incident to the Buddha.  Sudinna was upbraided ("worthless man"), and the Buddha laid down the first pārājika rule, one that entails defeat for the bhikkhu and his expulsion from the sangha: the injunction against sexual intercourse.

This rule, like the others concerning sexual matters that followed, is not meant simply to avoid scandal and insure harmony in the sangha but to help the bhikkhu on his path to attainment.  Contrary to some feminist readings, these rules are not straightforwardly misogynist, either, since sex with animals as well as the emission of semen through contact with a fellow bhikkhu, etc. are also addressed.  No, this has to do with the raw facts of sexual craving and the attempts at its satisfaction.

Enter the Mahāyāna.  At the forefront of the precepts now is the injunction against killing.  "Sexual impropriety" or "misuse of sexuality" replaces all talk of intercourse, masturbation, semen emission and genitals, and the precept comes in at number three on the list.  Bodhidharma and Dōgen aren't terribly clear here, either:
Bodhidharma: Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the ungilded Dharma, not creating a veneer of attachment is called the Precept of Not Misusing Sex.
Dōgen Zenji: The Three Wheels are pure and clear. When you have nothing to desire, you follow the way of all Buddhas.
There has been a sea change, it would seem, but how is one to take one's bearings?

I'm going to be pretty honest.  There's a lot connected with sexuality that wouldn't constitute "misuse" by most prevailing standards but is still a significant stumbling-block on my path, and I know it.  Focusing on being "caring and respectful" doesn't really cut to the core of the number that greed, anger and ignorance play on my comportment and meditation and wisdom where sex is concerned, either.

I suppose if I were a Buddhist layman I wouldn't worry about this so much.  As an ordained, even as one ordained as a "priest" rather than a bhikkhu, I have not only my growth in wisdom to attend to but the wellbeing of the sangha and its individual members as well.

I have to wonder if passing up the specificity of the Vinaya for the expansive-mindedness of the Bodhisattva Precepts hasn't had the consequence of taking the nitty-gritty of the effect of sex on practice off the table.  If I'm a bhikkhu, I have to confess fortnightly whether I've broken any number of sex-related precepts, and, depending on which ones they are, the sangha will have something to say about it to me.  If I'm a Mahāyānist, I never have to own up to anything publicly; instead, I simply keep affirming my resolve to be "caring and respectful."

I've read all kinds of first-hand accounts of modern bhikkhus' struggles with sex; I've read of all kinds of contemporary Zen teachers who never talked about their issues with sex and practice, only to be caught in some impropriety or another.  Perhaps we don't want to read the Buddha telling Sudinna that it would have been better had he put his penis in the mouth of a venomous snake rather than having vaginal sex with the woman who had been his wife, but the rather carefully-maintained cloud of ambiguity that currently reigns in contemporary practice isn't particularly helpful, either.

1 comment:

  1. "yo pana bhikkhu bikkhūnaṃ sikkhāsājīva samāpanno sikkhaṃ appaccakkhaya dubbalyaṃ anāvikatvā methunaṃ dhammaṃ paṭiseveyya, antamaso tiracchāna gatāyapi, pārājiko hoti asaṃvāso."

    Not to have sexual intercourse. If a bhikkhu puts his sex in the sex, anus or mouth of a human being, man or woman – as well as in his own anus or in his own mouth –, an animal (male or female) or a dead body even if it is of the length of a sesame seed, he looses his status as a bhikkhu (for life).

    Even if he does it while having his sex in plaster, in a condom, wearing the clothes of a layman, or being fully naked or not feeling any sensation (due to loss of tactile sensation on the sexual parts of the body for example), in the same way, he looses his status as a bhikkhu.

    There are six cases when the pārājika 1 is not committed:

    When the bhikkhu is sleeping or in all other cases when he is not aware of the sexual intercourse when it takes place.
    When the bhikkhu is not consenting.
    When the bhikkhu has fallen into unconsciousness or is in a state of insanity.
    When the bhikkhu, being possessed by another spirit, can no longer control himself.
    When the bhikkhu is afflicted by an unbearable pain.
    When the bhikkhu has committed this action before the rules have been established.

    Note: This rule is partly included within the third among the ten precepts.