Finding Safe Harbor: Buddhist Sexual Ethics in America

Article excerpt

When the Buddha left home in search of spiritual understanding, he left behind his wife and presumably the pleasures of sex. After his enlightenment, he encouraged others to do the same: renounce the world of the senses to seek liberation from suffering. The monks and nuns that followed the Buddhas teachings formed a kind of sexless society, a society that did not reproduce itself biologically. (1) By abstaining from sexual relations, Buddhist monastics intended to reduce attachment and model an alternative to lay life. Buddhist society would continue via transmission of the teachings, a spiritual form of continuity not dependent on sex.

But of course, the Buddha was teaching ordinary people with ordinary appetites for sexual contact. And these appetites could really get in the way of spiritual progress; thus we find no shortage of Buddhist commentary on sexuality and its ramifications. And despite 2,500 years of wisdom on this subject, Buddhist teachers and students are still blundering into sexual contacts that undermine their own progress and often the progress of others. Clearly this is not a human fallibility that can be corrected by setting up some simple rules. In fact, sexuality is one of the most deeply hard-wired neurological drives of the human organism, not easily uprooted even for lofty spiritual ideals.

From a Buddhist perspective, working with sexuality is working with attachment. How can we understand that attachment in its biological origins? In A Natural History of Sex, Adrian Forsyth describes in vivid detail the ecology and evolution of mating behavior in the animal kingdom. (2) In sixteen chapters that cover every biological strategy you can imagine--from incest to role reversal, infanticide to sex change--the author shows how costly sex can be to individual organisms. Though sex is not the only means of reproduction, it certainly involves the most complex behaviors, anatomical variations, social choices, and in a few cases, the risk of death. What can possibly merit such a great investment in momentary pleasure (if indeed it is pleasurable for some animals)? The evolutionary answer is, genetically variable offspring. Variation is the key to surviving calamity as a species. If all animals of a species were genetically identical, they would be terribly vulnerable to single events that exploited their weaknesses. But with variation, there is always a chance that some will make it through and go on to survive the new conditions (post-earthquake, fire, icestorm, plague, etc.).

Seen from the long view of evolution, sexuality is the key to survival of the species. So it is not surprising that sexual conditioning affects the entire human brain, a fact well known to human adolescents. To see how much conditioning must be addressed by Buddhist practice, we can look briefly at the neural map of the human brain. The part of the cortex that responds to touch is wrapped around the cerebrum, with specific areas registering touch in the different parts of the body. The area taken up by the genitals is about as large as the rest of the chest, abdomen, and back put together. It is equivalent to the area used for the hands or the lips, two parts of the body where touch is crucial for finding and managing food. Rita Carter, in Mapping the Mind, points out that "connections from the sex-sniffing, sex-seeking and sex-reactive areas of the limbic systems radiate to almost every corner of every cortical lobe, feeding the urge to our conscious minds," (3) Sexual activity involves not only touch and high-level visual recognition but also emotion, thought, and, in the frontal lobes, morality--some of our most sophisticated and abstract thought processes.

It is clear that sexuality presents no small challenge to religious practice, How has Buddhism attempted to work with this deep biological conditioning? The central guidelines for Buddhist ethics can be found in the five foundational precepts. …