Tuesday, May 05, 2009

José Cabezón - Rethinking Buddhism and Sex

From the Shambhala SunSpace, a teaser article from the upcoming issue of Buddhadharma. The article mentions some of the more conservative issues regarding sexuality for Buddhists and urges not to dismiss them out of hand, but to examine them critically.

This is one area (among many) where I think the premodern Buddhist worldview needs to be jettisoned in favor of a more compassionate worldview based on the concept of doing no harm. Being gay should not be a sin in Buddhism any more than it should be in Christianity. Accepting something because it is tradition is silly - a critical assessment of the old Buddhist stances on sexuality would reveal cultural biases that no longer hold in a modern or even postmodern world. Cabezón may get to that stance, but it is not evident here.

Rethinking Buddhism and Sex

When it comes to sex, Western Buddhists tend to be fairly liberal. But as scholar José Cabezón explains in the Summer issue of Buddhadharma, Buddhist tradition takes a much more conservative approach, prohibiting, among other things, oral or anal sex, male homosexuality, and even sex during daylight. Surprised? For more about Buddhism’s fine print on matters of sexuality and why Cabezon says we shouldn’t just dismiss these views but rather critically examine them, read this excerpt from his article. (The Summer issue goes on newsstands May 17.)

* * *

Rethinking Buddhism and Sex

By José Cabezón

I love texts. Of all the wonderful gifts my Tibetan teachers have bestowed on me, none is more dear than the training I have received in reading texts. I don’t mean simply the ability to read the great texts of Indian and Tibetan Buddhism in their original languages, though this is no small thing, but the ability to think through them: to think about what they mean, and what the world means in light of them, to come to an understanding of the world—what we are, what our responsibilities are, and what constitutes a meaningful life.

This, I learned from my teachers, does not mean simply understanding the literal meaning, but also engaging the classic tradition critically: questioning it, using reasoning to determine whether it is valid and, if so, how, and being willing to wrestle with the great thinkers of the past in a spirit of free inquiry. The texts are not the endpoint of reflection, but rather the beginning of it, and the great masters of old are not irrelevant “dead brown men,” but living conversation partners whose thought, as reflected in their writings, can help us reconstruct our lives so that they lead to the flourishing of self, of others, and of the communities in which we live.
I want to make a case for the importance of this enterprise through a specific lens—one focusing on sexuality and sexual ethics. It is particularly useful lens because of the issues it forces us as Buddhists to grapple with. And now, in the words of Salt-N-Pepa, “Let’s talk about sex!”

On a warm June day in 1997 I walked into the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A group of gay and lesbian Buddhists had requested the audience with His Holiness to discuss his views on homosexuality and to ask for clarifications about statements he had made, statements that the organizers saw as disconcerting. The Dalai Lama began the hour-long meeting by reiterating his opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and his commitment to “full human rights” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

But then the discussion turned from the general to the specific—from what is acceptable in society at large to what is acceptable in Buddhist tradition. Relying on a detailed text from the fifteenth-century Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa, His Holiness explained what the work has to say about “sexual misconduct”—the type of sex that, as one of the ten nonvirtues, is considered a moral evil. Among other things, Tsongkhapa’s formulation prohibits sex between men, solitary masturbation, oral or anal intercourse, and even sex during daylight. On the other hand, it does not prohibit sex between women, or men employing the services of prostitutes, and it permits heterosexual men up to five orgasms per night. Lest it be thought that this delineation of the boundaries between permissible and illicit sex is idiosyncratic to Tsongkhapa, I should point out that similar formulations are found in important Tibetan texts written before and after him, including works by Gampopa and Dza Patrul. More important, every element in Tsongkhapa’s formulation has a basis in the Indian Buddhist sources.

Having explained Tsongkhapa’s text, His Holiness went on to speak about “the possibility of understanding these precepts in the context of time, culture, and society… If homosexuality is part of accepted norms [today], it is possible that it may be acceptable … However, no single person or teacher can redefine precepts. I do not have the authority to redefine these precepts since no one can make a unilateral decision or issue a decree… Such a redefinition can only come out of sangha discussions within the various Buddhist traditions. It is not unprecedented in the history of Buddhism to redefine [moral] issues, but it has to be done on the collective level.” His Holiness called for further research and dialogue on the topic, and concluded by reiterating that, however sexual misconduct comes to be defined, it can never be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation.

In the years following this meeting with the Dalai Lama I have taken up His Holiness’s call for more scholarly research on the issue of sexuality, and am close to completing a monograph on the subject. During the course of my research I came to realize that the Tibetan position on what constitutes sexual misconduct could be understood only by first understanding what Tibetan scholars took for granted—their views of the human body, sex, and sexual desire in general. That broader treatment, I further realized, would require examining what Indian and Tibetan texts 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, we might say, of “queerness.” In this way, what began as a fairly narrow study of the historical evolution of one specific doctrine—that of sexual misconduct—has evolved into a much broader book on sexuality in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

Now as important as the issue of sexuality is to the Buddhist tradition, there is no single classical work that deals with sexuality in its entirety. While there are compilations or compendia, called samgraha, on a variety of topics in the Indian and Tibetan literature, there is nothing like a maithunasamgraha (a compendium on sex). My first task was to collect material from texts from different periods and genres. This was the fodder for my study. But understanding what the texts have to say about sexuality is only half the battle. The other half, of course, is to assess this material: to subject it to critical scrutiny. More on what I mean by that in a moment.

As I was beginning to put together the pieces of the sexual puzzle in Buddhist texts, it occurred to me that contemporary Western Buddhists must already have come to some conclusions about these issues, and so I turned to that font of all knowledge, the Internet, to see what people were saying about Buddhism and sexuality. Here are three examples that illustrate what I found:

One commentator writes: “So where is Buddhism’s list of naughty sexual practices? The answer is short and sweet. Buddhism doesn’t (for once!) have a list.”

Another tells us, “Where Buddhism differs noticeably from other religions, is in its lack of a list of forbidden sexual practices. Unlike other religions that forbid homosexuality, contracepted sex, cross-dressing, etc., Buddhism does not list forbidden sexual practices.”

Each of these writers is clearly unaware of the extensive Buddhist scholastic literature on sexual misconduct—a literature that “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 still other sources we find long lists of men and women who are to be denied Buddhist ordination on the basis of their sexual preferences, gender identity, or sexual anatomy. So, contrary to what these bloggers think, lists there are aplenty.

In the third example, the writer is aware of the detailed treatment of sexual misconduct found in the scholastic sources because, in fact, it is a review of the translation of Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo on Amazon.com. The writer states of Tsongkhapa’s instructions:

I felt that they were not the true teachings that I have come to learn about Buddhism. For example, in the teaching about sexuality… I’m not sure how true to the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism [Tsongkhapa’s work] is.

When confronted with the reality of the scholastic treatment of sexual ethics, this writer’s response is to dismiss it. “Surely this can’t be what Tibetan Buddhism is about.” How ironic then that almost six hundred years after Tsongkhapa wrote his famous text, arguably the most prominent representative of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, should be opening this very volume when he is about to engage Western Buddhists in discussions of sexuality. Obviously, one representative of the Tibetan tradition still thinks that the Lamrim Chenmo is “true to the tradition.”

Overall, what I found in my peregrinations through the Web was that Western Buddhists were either unaware of what the classical Indian and Tibetan tradition had to say about sexuality, or, when not unaware, were ready to dismiss it because it did not jibe with their preconceptions of what the Buddhist tradition is all about.

As my research evolved and as I began to share my findings with audiences of nonspecialists (for example, lay Western Buddhists in dharma centers), I discovered a similar pattern playing itself out. I found, first, that many people were uninformed about—or simply uninterested in—what the great texts say about sexuality. Having been written in a place and time far removed from us, many Western Buddhists, I came to realize, simply see these texts as having little relevance to our sexual lives in the here and now.

I have often asked myself why my co-religionists are so willing, and indeed keen, to adopt the minute meditation instructions of the classical masters, and so quick to slough off the advice of these same masters when it comes to matters of sex.

Be that as it may, I have come to see a fundamental disconnect between what the classical Buddhist tradition has to say about sexuality and what Western Buddhists believe about the subject. I realized that much of the background and many of the ideas I was taking for granted were either unknown to my audience or were summarily rejected as “un-Buddhist.”

As I began to interact with Buddhist communities in the West, I found three problems that needed to be addressed: pervasive misinformation about what the traditional texts said; a tendency to dismiss the textual tradition; and, when not dismissed, accepting the tradition literally without feeling any need to engage in critical reflection.

At the center of these issues is a more fundamental problem that confronts all religions: the issue of authority. How much credence should we give to the ancient teachings of the tradition? What hold should these doctrines and tenets have on our lives? Before continuing with the topic of sexual ethics, here is what I believe to be one way—my way, but I believe also a Buddhist way—of dealing with the issue of authority. My method is simple to state, but often difficult to put into practice. It can be outlined in three basic points.

First, as Buddhists, we commit ourselves to learning about dharma, about doctrine. While our teachers are, for the most part, the purveyors of this information, we should not simply stop at what our teachers tell us, but rather, as the great saint Atisha said, we must always be willing “to seek more learning.” The classical texts of India and Tibet form the basis for this learning.

To turn our back on this great textual tradition—either by refusing to study it or by simply dismissing what we have learned—is to turn our back on the jewel of the doctrine, the true source of refuge. Just as important, it creates an irreconcilable rift between Western forms of Buddhism and those of Buddhist Asia, most of which use the texts as an important source of guidance.

Hiding our heads in the sand and refusing to confront the textual tradition—as difficult as this is in some cases—is not an option in my view. Nor is it an option to study the texts and then to sweep under the rug all those aspects of the textual tradition that make us uncomfortable. When we take refuge as Buddhists, we are in a sense marrying the tradition. We are committing to this tradition as a whole, with all its imperfections, the way we commit to a partner as a whole person in a relationship. This does not mean that we become blind to the imperfections of the tradition, or that we might not work for its betterment—just the contrary—but it does mean at some level accepting the tradition as a whole, for better and for worse.

Second, once we find out what the tradition has to say, we must reflect critically on this. This is chiefly the responsibility of Buddhist intellectuals—or we might say of Buddhist “theologians.” But Buddhist believers/practitioners who aren’t scholars should not be content to be spoon-fed the truth by those who say they are representing and interpreting the tradition—like baby birds being nourished with the regurgitated food from the gullets of their mothers. Rather, they should subject the theological interventions of specialists to analysis, keeping theologians honest, and making them accountable both to the tradition and to reason.

This entry was created by Tynette Deveaux, posted on May 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.


James said...

I'm interested in hearing about this: 'what Indian and Tibetan texts 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,”' I don't think we can really evaluate the teachings on sexual misconduct, or say that they are uncompassionate or merely cultural biases, without first giving the tradition a fair shake.

This touches on one of the differences I've noticed between Eastern and Western Buddhists: Asian practitioners seem to treat Buddhism as a body of teachings and practices to internalize and pass on unaltered to future generations of practitioners, hence the importance of the student-teacher relationship. Western Buddhists too often think of the Dharma as another thing to enhance their lives. While it is good to be happy, we should not treat this sacred tradition in such a way; we must really give ourselves to it and allow it to transform us. That is what taking refuge is all about, in my understanding--really trusting that the Buddha is smarter than us, because we are still in samsara and he is not! I am not saying that you have done any of these things, and I trust your sincerity, but we must be aware of the way our own cultural biases condition the way we are receiving the Dharma. So I think we in the West should approach this issue with more humility and be very careful about how we proceed, as there is danger in removing something essential from the Dharma, and we cannot assume that we already know what is essential and what is not.

william harryman said...

Hey James,

Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I can see where you are coming from.

From my perspective, however, I want to separate the wisdom and technology of enlightenment from the cultural context in which it arose.

Within the Buddhist tradition, there are the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, both of which offer almost all we need to know to change our lives. It's not about being happier (nice side effect though), it's about ending our own suffering and the suffering of others. We need that technology, not the cultural baggage that comes with it.

I respect that Easterners simply accept the teachings on sexuality - it's their culture. BUT I do not think we are obliged to do the same in our own culture. We are importing the Buddhist technology of transcendence, and the example of the Buddha. That is all.


Anonymous said...

In the end of your post--before quoting the opening paragraphs of Cabezón's article--you say: "Accepting something because it is tradition is silly - a critical assessment of the old Buddhist stances on sexuality would reveal cultural biases that no longer hold in a modern or even postmodern world. Cabezón may get to that stance, but it is not evident here."

Indeed, Cabezón does argue for that position; please read the remainder of Cabezón's entire piece, because I think you will be warmed and inspired by what his astute scholarship and critical scrutiny the doctinal texts themselves, but also of how their composition's cultural contexts affected their stances.

Buddhism--and the Dalai Lama himself--has always advocated that the Dharma must change to be applicable to practitioners in varied times, cultures, and countries. We need look no further than the differing historical and cultural nuances between Buddhist traditions within Asia: Tibet, China, Korea, Japan, Laos, etc.

There is no reason to think that masters or doctrine of the past can not, should not, and would not be challenged, questioned, and have the potential to be disproved or revised by contemporary practitioners and scholars, like Cabezón and others.

As a Buddhist practitioner and university professor myself (as well as a student and scholar of gender and queer studies) I applaud Cabezón for lighting our way in showing how the dharma DOES advocate for equal rights for all people, as the Dalai Lama himself urges us to proceed and work to ensure. We must use, as the Dalai Lama has always asserted--and as Cabezón DOES in practice in this article--logic, study, critical analysis, and debate with the masters of different geographies, contexts, and cultures to challenge ideas previously held to be sacrosanct, and do our current work of ensuring the dharma's contemporaneity and inclusion of all people.

Please do read Cabezón's piece. I believe you will find an advocate for Buddhism's inclusiveness for all practitioners.