I was looking forward to sitting in the office today. But when the time came my thoughts kept circling back to the various sex scandals whose echoes are ricocheting around the Zen community. It is depressing to think that we can’t seem to keep sex out of the zendo. Articles like this from the New York Times make it seem like our lives are dominated by the sex instinct, no matter what our preferences are. So however civilized we may seem, we really haven’t gone far at all from our days in the caves, the trees, the bottom of the ocean. Thanissaro Bhikkhu said:

The Pali Vinaya is extremely clear on this: a monk who has sex is out for life; a monk who even suggests that another person would benefit from having sex with him is on probation until the community senses that he was learned the error of his ways. It would be good to have similar standards throughout the Buddhist world. For lay teachers, this would mean no extramarital sex; for monastics, no sex at all. Whether an affair is consensual doesn’t matter: Other people are sure to be hurt.

Yes, other people will be hurt, like the families and children of those involved. Or do our selfish deisres outweigh our desire to do no harm? “I couldn’t help it.”  It’s so easy and so satisfying to be a victim of our own wrongdoing. But then I would react to this despondent feeling and condemn myself for being a Puritan. It’s just sex, what’s the big deal? You know, when people are starving and dictatorships are toppling.

In Living with the Devil and elsewhere, Stephen Batchelor argues that the Three Poisons (or Three Fires, to stick to the metaphor the Buddha used) of Greed, Anger, and Delusion are wired into the reptilian part of our brain, so a lot of sitting and intensive practice is not going to simply extinguish them. Even if we were to become enlightened, they would keep popping up now and then and just have to be dealt with.

In the Pali Canon the Buddha speaks of forgoing or giving up lesser pleasures in order to get greater pleasures, meaning ultimately, the peace of nirvana. (This makes me think of a kid walking by a candy store with a nickel burning a hole in his pocket, because he’s saving up for a bike or something. Candy hasn’t cost a nickel in fifty years, but somehow this is a clearer illustration than anything contemporary I can think of.) Giving up the lesser pleasure for the greater strikes me today as one of the core ideas of practice. Is that real happiness?

Discuss this challenge and Real Happiness in the Tricycle Book Club.

Image: Brian W. Tobin

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