Several years ago I found myself wondering just why the arena of sex was so important, not only to me but to just about everyone I knew. Why is this basic and universal drive the source of so much drama? Why is sex so difficult to talk about? And more to the point, why did I still find it so difficult to talk about? When I looked at sex in my life, I saw a nagging source of anxiety and confusion as much as a source of pleasure and intimacy. When I looked at sex in the world, I saw an absurdly ordinary activity that for aeons has been the stuff of epics and war.

American culture has a proliferation of sexual images. But the sex we see here is unrelentingly adolescent. We are inured to sex, but the American sexual appetite is characterized as much by repulsion and fear as by fascination.

I can look at my cultural heritage as a white American and understand part of why Americans find sex such a problematic subject. To look at sex openly in this culture invites censure. For most of the last four years, I’ve been studying and writing about sex. I’ve brought dinner table conversations to dead halts by mentioning my research. I’ve heard a lot of nervous jokes (the same ones, again and again), and been looked at askance by people who otherwise have nothing in common with each other. I’m familiar with the belief a lot of people have that sex is too private a matter for discussion, but I think this usually disguises a more inarticulate feeling that a serious interest in sex is untoward—that I should not be interested.

Being a Buddhist, per se, is no cure. American Buddhists are no more free of their historical heritage than any other Americans. I’ve been an active member of a large Soto Zen sangha for twelve years; we’ve talked about euthanasia, animal rights, divorce, abortion, child abuse, civil disobedience, and alcoholism, but we haven’t talked much about sex. It’s hard to know where to start such conversations, of course; we feel an urge to protect our tender feelings and the tender feelings of others, and steer clear of those rocky waters, but silence on the subject was no help to  me.

When I approached sex as a Buddhist student, turning to the texts, I found a sadly familiar attitude. This surprised me years ago when I first started looking for sex in the indices of long Buddhist works, both old and new, and found nothing listed. And it still surprises me—if anyone would have equanimity of mind when it comes to a common human sensation, it would seem to be Buddhists. But alas, no. Virtually all aspects of human life are discussed in the Buddhist texts with quietude and patience except sex. Many of our greatest teachers were simply silent about sex. They wrote as monks, and to a large extent, they wrote to monks, who were admonished to be celibate. And apparently that was that, as though the vow of celibacy were a vow of forgetfulness.

I’ve come to believe that there is something in the nature of sex itself that is capable of disturbing the most disinterested of minds. Of all human desires, sexual desire is the one most entangled with all the others. It doesn’t ever exist alone, singly, rising in reaction to one event or apart from the rest of our life. Sexual desire is a matter of psyche, the body, the emotions, the ego, and animating life energy together. It is irrationally inconvenient, often unexpected, and sometimes so illogical, so overwhelming, as to seem mad.

My personal concern with sex spurred my professional interest, but professional study had an effect on my feelings, too. I needed courage that I haven’t always had. I needed to find simple neutrality, evenhandedness. I needed to be willing to be my own subject without flinching. I’ve been reminded again and again that I’m not alone with this troubling part of being a human. I’ve read works of folklore, history, anthropology, and sociology as well as so-called “dirty” books by the dozen. I begin to see that my own private worries and the people around me and my culture at large share latent neuroses, that they are in fact the worries and neuroses of human history. For the vast majority of people, sex matters.  It matters in different ways, to differing degrees, but it matters. Sex is an inevitable concern.

Something else happened as I listened to people talk about their sexual selves. I saw how knee-jerk I could be about the subject. I saw my presumptions and stereotypes, my attachment to a particular political position or historical belief. I was uncomfortably confronted with my self-righteousness, directed both at myself and at all kinds of other people. I saw, and had to start giving up, value judgments and assumptions I hadn’t known I had. I started respecting the complexity of sexuality, the difficulty all thoughtful people have in making sexual choices for themselves.

One of the more widely told Zen stories concerns the monk who carries a woman across a river. A while later, the monks companion chastises him for touching a woman, thus breaking one of the rules of his monastic order. ”I put the woman down a long time ago,” he replies. “Why are you still carrying her?’ This story is usually used as a metaphor for clinging of many different kinds. But I like to read it straight. As long as we avoid talking about sex with each other, we’re stuck in sex. Pointedly not talking about it is merely another kind of sexual obsession. When sex is mentioned in Buddhist texts, it’s almost always discussed in terms of “misconduct,” or “obsession,” or “exploitation.” If we never talk about sexuality at all, if we don’t know what sexual rightness might be, how will we know what constitutes misconduct or exploitation?

Sex can be renounced—but sexuality cannot. We can’t avoid sexual issues by avoiding sex, or by dismissing its importance, or by showing disrespect to our own or other people’s sexual feelings.

Sexual desire is undoubtedly a base sensation. But base is not the same as bad—it is just base. Grasping after a sensation and averting from a sensation are equal links in the chain of delusion. It’s easy to forget that aversion can take a lot of forms, including the morbid fascination at the heart of Puritanism. It is aversion I sense in some of the ancient Buddhist texts, as well as in some more recent writing—the sense of wanting to extinguish not the grasping after sexual pleasure, but the existence of sexual desire in the body. Buddhist training isn’t a method for transcending our basic nature—our nature isn’t the trap. Aversion and grasping together are the trap, and nondiscrimination the way out.

Sexual desire is simply sensation—a remarkably complicated and complicating sensation, but only sensation, after all. We can’t rid ourselves of its arising any more than we can rid ourselves of the appetite for food or sleep. Sex can be renounced—but sexuality cannot. We can’t avoid sexual issues by avoiding sex, or by dismissing its importance, or by showing disrespect to our own or other people’s sexual feelings. Turning from my own sexual feelings, I turn away from anyone to whom I might feel sexually attracted, anyone who feels attracted to me. I extend my aversion to anyone who behaves in ways that touch my uncomfortable feelings. Significantly, I become averse to my own body. Some of us come to Buddhist training with histories of substance abuse, eating disorders, radical self-hatred, internalized homophobia, or an inability to receive love or intimacy in any form—an unwillingness, for whatever reason, to feel the natural life of our body without fear.

The only way out of the problem is to face the problem. “Trying to suppress delusion is delusion too,” said Zen master Bankei.  “Delusions have no original existence, they’re only things you create yourself by indulging in discrimination.” What I search for now is non-attachment. Sometimes I’m interested in sex, and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m bored by sex and sometimes I feel wildly sexual. Over and over, like bricks lay along a path, I come back from one extreme to the other to the Middle.

“Compassion has nothing to do with achievement at all,” wrote the late Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa. “It is spacious and very generous. When a person develops real compassion, he is uncertain whether he is being generous to others or to himself, because compassion is environmental generosity, without direction, without ‘for me’ and without ‘for them.”‘

With compassion as our guide, we must each of us decide what we consider the limits of our sexual behavior. For some of us this may mean monogamous marriage, for others, solitary celibacy, and for others, some­ thing else. Limits are unavoidable, but one must find a way to discriminate about behavior without judgment, define limits without dividing. I can’t expect anyone else to agree with me about sex-about anything. I can’t collapse anyone else’s world into mine. I want to be sincerely accepting of the enormous variations in human behavior. Buddhism places so much importance on individual responsibility that the act of making up one’s own mind about what it means to be a Buddhist is an essentially Buddhist act.

The Kiss (1907), Constantin Brancusi

The problem of gender is inevitably tied into any question of sexuality. No one knows what the Buddha really said, but a number of sources claim he said a number of bothersome things about women, about the essential inferiority of women and their negative effect on the transmission of dharma—not to mention on a male monk’s equanimity. I have come away from a lot of venerable texts with a stock of unrepentant misogyny, sexual confusion, and Puritanism. But the Buddha is also supposed to have said that his followers ought not to believe what he says simply because he says it, but instead to find out the Truth for themselves.

Gender inequities can’t be avoided; they may seem a tiresome topic for conversation at times, but they are real and they cause harm. Male and female as forms are no more important than dark and light, hot and cold. They rise and fall in the cycle of lives like a breath. And gender has been repeatedly used by human society as the palimpsest for a wide variety of ills. When I read Buddhist texts, I try to accept the human limitations in the writers, try to trust my own understanding, try to find the ways that I create division.

Last year, people living in my state were passionately, painfully split apart by Measure 9, a constitutional amendment that mandated anti-gay discrimination. The amendment almost passed. This year, the same political group that sponsored Measure 9 has proposed Measure 13, with the same purpose. It has an excellent chance of passing.

Homophobia, it seems to me, should offend us as Buddhists to the same extent and in the same way as racism offends. But the nature of homophobia is such that to ally oneself with the gay and bisexual community can be terrifying. These initiatives have forced a lot of people to choose sides, because they leave no room in which not to take a position. Not to protest is to acquiesce. To protest is to face a well-founded fear of discrimination and even violence.

Last year, with tremendous trepidation, I came out to members of my sangha. I came out as a woman unsure of what to call she, of which label to apply, but knowing that “heterosexual” just didn’t work. I was struggling with how I wanted to live with my sexual orientation, whatever it was called. Even now, I can’t explain why I was so afraid. I felt that I was coming into my body in a new way, into troubling sexual feelings, as well as a sexual identity—and in the process, coming out into my training, into a new sense of my original nature, a new sense of Truth, and a permanently altered relationship with Sangha. It was a profound confession for me, even in its garbled state.

A year of consideration has brought me a lot of peace. I am most comfortable calling myself—and in this divided world, we have to call ourselves something sometimes—bisexual. It feels most inclusive, most wholehearted and correct, as labels go. But what I really want to come out as is simply sexual. Human.

And what a relief that is. I find, buried beneath these layers of anxiety and distress, tremendous gratitude for this condition, for this great gift of a human birth, for this particular body and all its graces and flaws.

Sometimes I think of sex as a kind of mirage. When we turn away, it grows in size and nearness, but when we turn to look, it disappears. Like a shimmer in the air, it fades away into the background, not important, not unimportant, leaving only emptiness. Nothing special.

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