Reflections on Sexuality
By Daniel Moreau
A commentary on the transcript of
“Thinking Through Texts: Toward a Critical Buddhist Theology of Sexuality”
By José Ignacio Cabezón
A talk delivered at Naropa University, September 28, 2008
One of the pivotal factors in my decision to take up the serious study of Buddhism (aside from the flirt with the philosophy which was being discussed at uni, way back when) was the perceived level of tolerance and acceptance of my own personal way of life. Indeed, I had been led to believe that my lifestyle presented no conflict. However, since that time and after reading innumerable commentaries and texts, I was forced to concede, with some trepidation, that not all of Buddhism would embrace me as an openly gay man. I remember, more than once, being dismayed by some rather (I call them) unfortunate writings by some of the best known Buddhist thinkers through the ages. By then, it had been explained to me that nothing was to be taken for granted as truth unless I could reconcile all the arguments, both pro and con, to my own satisfaction. Therefore, I began an eager search to find out what the Buddha himself has said on the subject. I continue to search, however, Senór Cabezón has eased my search somewhat, in this talk, delivered on the occasion of the Frederick P. Lenz Distinguished Lecture, held at Naropa University in September, 2008.
I cannot possibly do justice to his talk in a two-page synopsis, however, I can relay the impact that it has had on me.
The following is a summary of some of the main points of the lecture.
In June of 1997, a meeting between HH Dalai Lama and a group of gay and lesbian Buddhists was held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. Here is some of what HH had to say on this occasion: “It is wrong for society to reject people on the basis of their sexual orientation.” “In a society at large there is no harm in mutually agreeable sexual acts…It is wrong for anyone to look down on gay people.” The main discussion turned to the specific, i.e. what is acceptable (or not) in the Buddhist tradition. Tsong kha pa’s formulation (in the Lam Rim Chen mo) prohibits solitary masturbation, both hetero- and homosexual oral and anal intercourse, and even sex during daylight hours. …similar formulations are found (by) Gampopa and Dza Patrul. HH spoke about “the possibility of understanding these precepts in the context of time, culture and society…” and added: “ I do not have the authority to redefine these precepts…a redefinition can only come out of sangha discussions…it has to be done on the collective level.”
JIC has taken up HH’s call for more scholarly research on the issue of sexuality. This required an examination of what Indian and Tibetan texts have to say about such things as the differentiation of the sexes in the Buddhist cosmological narratives, the nature of the body and of the sexual act, the psychology of sexual arousal, the classical interventions for dealing with sexual desire, and the doctrinal construction of sexual ‘deviance,’ or ‘queerness’. To his astonishment, JIC discovered that there is no single classical work that deals with sexuality in its entirety, so he had to collect materials from a variety of individual texts of
different periods and genres and subject them to critical scrutiny.
Buddhist scholastic literature ‘lists’ inappropriate partners, organs, times and places and then goes into exquisite detail about when, where, how and with whom Buddhists may and may not have sex. In other sources we find long lists of both men and women who are to be denied Buddhist ordination on the basis of their sexual preferences, gender identity, and sexual anatomy. So…lists there are aplenty. Western
Buddhists were either unaware of what the classical Indian and Tibetan tradition had to say about sexuality,or else, when not unaware, were ready to dismiss it because it did not jive with their preconceptions of what the Buddhist tradition is all about. JIC came to see a fundamental disconnect between what the classical Buddhist tradition has to say about sexuality and what contemporary Western Buddhists believe
about the subject.
Indian and Tibetan (literary) sources tell us:
-that male homosexuality is prohibited, but that lesbianism is not (not even acknowledged).
-that nothing but penile-vaginal coitus is permissible, and then only at night
-that it is acceptable for married men to hire prostitutes
-that polygamy is allowed
-that men have the right to their wives’ bodies at all times except for one – when the wife has taken the one-day precepts (if she has received prior permission to do so)
-and finally, that a variety of individuals are to be denied ordination on the basis of their sexual/gender identity or anatomical characteristics.
JIC asks the question: “…is this really the kind of sexual ethics we want to buy into – a life dictated by centuries-old Indian norms? ...how do we justify a different (more just) sexual ethic?”
…three problems that needed to be addressed:
(1) pervasive misinformation about what the traditional
(2) a tendency to dismiss the textual tradition in and ad hoc fashion, and
(3) when not dismissed, to accept the tradition literally without any felt need to engage in critical reflection.
At the centre is a more fundamental problem that confronts all religions: the issue of authority. What hold should these doctrines and tenets have on our lives? JIC’s method can be outlined in three basic points:
(1) …commit ourselves to learning the Dharma. Atisha says, we must be ever willing to ‘seek more learning.’ …refusing to confront the textual tradition…is not an option…nor is it an option…to sweep under the rug…all those aspects of the textual tradition that make us uncomfortable. It is incumbent on us to learn the classical tradition.
(2) Buddhists…should not be content to be spoon-fed the truth by those who claim to be representing and interpreting the tradition…they should subject the theological interventions of specialists to analysis…making them accountable both to the tradition and to reason. The higher type of faith…is one that begins…with skepticism. We must appropriate the tradition critically.
(3) Critical reflection…is a process of analysis that tests doctrines by determining whether they are consistent with our perceptions of the world, and whether they are rational. …the tradition is not inerrant…something is true and worthy of our allegiance, when, in the words of Tsong kha pa, “it has been analyzed with and stood the test of stainless reasoning.”
JIC: “When I sometimes find…disagreement with Tsong kha pa, Asanga, or Buddha, I remind myself that these great men themselves disagreed with others that came before them…and…none of them asked us to follow them blindly. We should approach analysis using all the tools at our disposal, including the tools of modern scholarship.
HHDL’s comments…opened up the possibility of rethinking the doctrine of sexual misconduct as a whole.
Our scholastic authors tell us that sex is unethical if it involves: Inappropriate partners (“protected” women). The list of inappropriate partners explicitly excludes prostitutes; inappropriate organs (mouth, anus, the hand, and between the thighs of one’s partner); inappropriate time (refers both to the daylight hours and…for example, when the woman is menstruating, breastfeeding or when she has
taken the one-day precepts), but also the number of times that orgasm is permitted (up to five times in a night).
Critically reflecting on such a doctrine involves paying attention to the subtleties of the text, including its gaps, i.e. the presumed audience here is ONLY men. What constitutes sexual misconduct for women was simply not considered. Critical appraisal involves understanding the context in which these ideas are elaborated. It was thought that when a man takes a young girl or the wife of another as a sexual
partner, the party whose rights have been violated are the guardians: the parents of the girl and the husband. …rape is not explicitly mentioned. The ancient authors were operating under a very different set of presuppositions than those that we operate under today.
The earliest mentions of sexual misconduct in the Buddhist canon know nothing of the fourfold division into partners, organs/orifices, time and place. In the sutras – sexual misconduct is understood simply as adultery. The women’s agency is disregarded (no mention is made of women taking married men as sexual partners).
The obvious historical question then becomes this: If the early doctrine of sexual misconduct is so simple and elegant, when and why did it get so complex and restrictive? We don’t find any examples of the more elaborate formulation…before the third century CE. Those authors are, first of all, celibate monks, and secondly, scholastic philosophers…who used familiar terms…because they were the categories used to discuss the breaking of rules in the monastic code. In their exuberance to
elaborate, they went overboard, inappropriately reading lay sexual ethics through the filter of monastic discipline…to make lay sexuality increasingly more restrictive and monastic-like.
Why should lay people refrain from engaging in sexual misconduct? To avoid actions that are harmful to oneself, and…to others. What reason can be given for restricting sex to penile-vaginal penetrative intercourse performed only at night? What possible Buddhist reason could be given for dooming gay men (and more generally, people who work at night) to a life of celibacy while allowing heterosexual men five orgasms per night, and lesbians complete sexual freedom? Is this rational or just?
1. That there is no scriptural warrant for the more restrictive, scholastic formulation of the doctrine. That it was the concoction of celibate monks who inappropriately read monastic norms into lay sexuality. The individuals who did this were great scholars and saints, but on this issue, they simply got it wrong.
2. That the doctrine, both in its earlier simplified version and in its later, more elaborate scholastic one, is androcentric (it privileges men), and is therefore unjust. Any sexual ethic worth its salt must see women and transgender people as moral agents.
3. And finally, quite independently of historical or other criteria, the more elaborate doctrine cannot be justified on rational grounds.
It leaves us with the task of having to rethink sexual ethics in a way that is both rational and just…and that does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexual tastes or anatomies…while acknowledging that sexual pleasure (like all sense-pleasure) can be a source of attachment. Such an ethic must be based on general Buddhist principles like the commitment not to do harm.