Author Nancy Baker is currently leading a Tricycle community discussion about sexual misconduct and the third Zen precept. You can join the discussion here.

Photograph by Saya Chontang, Gallery Carte Blanche
Photograph by Saya Chontang, Gallery Carte Blanche

This is a time of great sexual freedom, which most people think is a good thing. Sex is everywhere these days—in newspapers, on TV, in advertising, in literature, in movies, in the classroom, in jokes, on the Internet, in our conversations. There is no avoiding it—not that anyone wants to. And along with these sex stories, sexual misconduct is frequently discussed. This includes both ordinary and scandalous infidelities as well as downright criminal behavior. We human beings are fascinated by the misdeeds of others, particularly when they are sexual.

The third Zen precept, refraining from impure sexuality, probably originated in a monastic setting where celibacy was practiced. As laypeople who are not tempted to engage in physically violent sexual misconduct, such as rape, or psychologically violent sexual misconduct, such as the abuse of young children, we might wonder how this precept relates to our lives. In fact, if we look more closely, it is a subtle and interesting precept; there is more to it than first meets the eye. There are several different translations of its subject matter: “adultery,” “impure sexuality,” “sexual misconduct,” “unchaste conduct,” and “misuse of sex.” What causes the misconduct and the impurity has been translated as “attachment,” “greed,” “grasping,” and “desire.” A consideration of some of the differences among these translations actually allows us to see the richness of the precept. Here, I will examine two ways of understanding this precept: sexual misconduct and misuse of sex.

First, we should consider the notion of sexual misconduct. Misconduct invites condemnation, whether legal, moral, or social. When it comes to violence, rape is the far end of a spectrum. Closer to the middle of that spectrum is what Robert Aitken Roshi in his book The Mind of Clover called “boorishness.” I laughed when I first read the term—it seems like such a 1950s word. Nowadays we have the word “groping,” which has actually become a legal term. I remember a few blind dates in college where I was returned to my dorm in the dead of winter in an unheated car driven by a “groper.” Not pleasant! I don’t know if young men are “boorish” any more. Now we have date rape. I was watching the news recently, and a woman was asked if it was true that she had had a sexual encounter with a certain man. She said, “Yes, it was consensual—and brutal.” We may consent to a sexual encounter, but what that encounter turns out to be may not be what we expected. “Consensual” doesn’t always mean mutual or shared or mutually generous. And what seems consensual may not actually be so. What about sexual relations between teacher and student? Or between therapist and client? Or between two adulterers? Are these consensual? Here, perhaps, what we need to look at—on both sides—is self-deception and motive, particularly unconscious motives. We then might see what the unintended consequences could be before it’s too late. All this is to say that there are forms of sexual violence that are much closer to home than we realize. Failing to speak up in all these cases, whether we are speaking for ourselves or for others, is a serious failing.

Photograph © Don Smith/Getty Images
Photograph © Don Smith/Getty Images

While sexual misconduct addresses our treatment of people—our conscious and unconscious impulses to take advantage of the susceptibility of others for our own emotional or physical gratification—misuse of sexuality addresses our relationship to our own sexuality. If we look at the translations of the word for the causes of sexual misconduct—greed, attachment, grasping, desire—we see some interesting differences. “Sex addiction,” for which people get treatment, is our contemporary version of repetitive grasping, a must-have. Then there is addiction to pornography, which (thanks to the Internet) is increasingly and easily accessible. One of my undergraduate female students told me that many of her male contemporaries are not only addicted to pornography but actually learn about sex from it. She said it does not make them good lovers. In the case of “desire,” which sounds less harmful to the other than “greed,” there might be desire for someone else’s spouse or partner and actually acting on that desire. On the surface that might not appear harmful to the object of your desire, but what about the harm done to the spouse or partner of the other or to your own?

Infidelity, and not speaking up about the possible abuse of others, relate to both the third precept and the fourth precept, non-lying. Another intersection of the third and fourth precepts is demonstrated by Jean-Paul Sartre’s “bad faith” scenario, in which a woman in a restaurant wants to hold hands with the man she is with. Instead of acknowledging and assuming responsibility for her desire, she puts her arm on the table between them, basically treating her hand as an object. It is very common that we arrange for ourselves to be seduced and thus not conscious subjects of our own desire. Instead of lying to our partner, as in the case of adultery, we lie to ourselves.

Photograph by Alex Emmons, 2008
Photograph by Alex Emmons, 2008

One of the best treatments of sexuality that I know of is in a chapter called “The Body and the Earth” in Wendell Berry’s splendid book The Unsettling of America. Berry points out that we are all in some sense attracted to everyone; to deny that and to deny it of our partner is to practice not fidelity toward that partner, but rather possessiveness. We then end up in what he calls “a sexual cul-de-sac.” Most importantly, he talks about sexuality as energy, like a renewable energy, to be used with great care and consciousness. The so-called sexual revolution that made birth control so easily available has enabled us to use its methods as a way of avoiding consciousness of our sexuality and of the valuable energy it is.

We might even say that sex is a sacred energy. It keeps the life of the world renewing itself. Without it we wouldn’t be here. All religious traditions know this deeply, and some actually use sexual symbols and sexual practices to tap into this sacred energy. These practices have hardly anything to do with our ordinary experience of sexuality. In fact, sacred sexual energy and its transformations are well known by those who engage at a deep and mature level in the practice of celibacy. It is important to realize that our human sexuality is not like animal sexuality. It is highly cognitive, with many conceptual dimensions. Sigmund Freud wrote at great length about the Oedipal stage of development, in which the child has a passionate attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and has to work through a very complicated step in his or her development. As far as I know, no one gets through that perfectly, which contributes to the unconscious patterns found in our particular conditioning.

What would it be like to be fully in touch with, fully honoring that sacred energy? Perhaps it is easier to ask what it is like not to be in touch with it. Consider the differences between our relationship to pleasure and our relationship to pain. We’re pretty good at dealing with pain. We know that if we avoid pain and want it over with, we only make it worse. Our various practices have taught us that if we can be right here, present with the pain, we will discover something about it. Even modern medicine has begun to use this wisdom. But we don’t tend to think of pleasure in these terms. When it occurs, even when just eating a cookie, our attention is focused on having more, or, in the case of sexual pleasure, on the outcome. Yet the practice of actually trying to be present from moment to moment is to give up any goal—any efforts, ideas, control, or self-images.

Being present with pleasure is to be fully in touch with that sacred energy and the generous sharing of it with another. As Bodhidharma’s One-Mind Precept puts it: “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous. In the dharma where there is nothing to grasp, not giving rise to attachment is called the precept of refraining from impure sexuality.” The translation makes it sound as if “not giving rise to attachment” and “refraining” are things that we do or ought to do. Actually, “where there is nothing to grasp,” there is oneness and therefore there is no refraining and no not-refraining. Zen Master Dogen’s version is: “When the three wheels are empty [body, mouth, and consciousness], there is nothing to desire. This is the Way of the Buddhas.” Namely, the Way of Oneness, which is not the same as the merging of self and other.

Much of the language around sexuality has to do with fire: “in the heat of passion”; “a burning desire”; “she has a new flame.” This is the fire of creation. It’s not just my sacred energy I need to be in touch with and aware of, it is the fire of all creation from moment to moment to moment. It is continual creation. And we are part of that, being created from moment to moment, being manifested. It is the love that burns the world into existence, and our sexuality brings us in touch with it, however we experience it—in action, in celibacy, in life, in power, in charisma, in making love.

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