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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex.

I was honored to review a copy of Brad Warner's new book titled, Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. I have yet to finish the book but it's a page turner, eye opener and refreshing expose on the confluence of Buddhism and sexuality. As someone who has long had sexual scars from the upbringing of the religion of my youth; I have long contemplated upon how as a Buddhist I should approach sexuality.

Until this book, most of what I have read about Buddhism and sexuality has come from celibate monks and nuns. These monastics are some of the most enlightened people on Earth yet it is still difficult for me to take sexual advice from someone who has probably never known sexuality in much of any form.

The other obstacle I have had difficulty navigating at times when dealing with sexuality and Buddhism is that it is often intertwined with traditional Asian culture, which sometimes makes it confusing for a western Buddhist (and when I say "western Buddhist" I include westerners of Asian backgrounds that might feel they can relate to their western culture sometimes more than their Asian one. Not that all do, or should. I'm just pointing out that not all "western Buddhists" are white). Anyway, It's not that I find Asian culture inferior in the least. It is a beautiful culture that I admire deeply and happily learn from daily. In fact, in many ways I find much of what Asian culture has to offer to be desperately lacking in western societies like here in America.

Still, when it comes to sexuality it was very helpful (for me) to hear it talked about in western terms, with western references to western pop culture--and from someone of my generation, Brad Warner. It's just the culture that I understand most. Please don't think I assume that only westerners understand sexuality because that's not my intention. I'm simply talking about in the way I understand most--keep that in mind. I don't mean to insult someone, so if you find anything in this post offensive; please forgive my ignorance. Something to note from the book, (I'm not dishing out all the saucy stuff here -- you have to buy the book--sorry) Warner is coming from Zen Buddhism, which sometimes is less rigid about sexuality than perhaps some other sects. In addition, it is Zen from Japan, which Warner reminds us often allows monastics to marry. So, keep that context in mind when deciding if to read it or not.

Also, a quick warning to those who might have "virgin ears" (to throw in a pun) when it comes to sexuality. This book doesn't speak about it in medical terms, and thankfully, so to those of us who aren't doctors. Warner, refreshingly, for me, uses modern terminology and examples that permeate the younger generations today. Yes, it is sometimes makes you blush but since when did sexuality become a subject you could address properly without a little sensual feeling? I adore the monks but when I hear them talk about sexuality it's been so denuded (sorry, another pun) that you can hardly tell if what they're addressing is in fact, sex!! It seems that sexuality is one topic that some Buddhists feel is taboo or unimportant. Notice I said, "some" Buddhists--not all, of course see it this way.

This book reminds me of the old, American, book, "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" that taught a lot of Americans about sexual intimacy. Except that this is the Zen Buddhist, modern punk version!! Warner addresses everything from "Are Zen Buddhists allowed to masturbate? Are they allowed to look at pornography? Is there wiggle room with celibacy? Or, Sex and Karma, Sex and Suffering, Sex and No-Self. As well as, Zen Dating and Marriage Advice. And even talk about "mindful sex!!" Incidentally, I like Warner's take on mindfulness in this book where he says perhaps a better phrase is "being present" as, "When you say, 'I am mindful of (fill in the blank),' you are already creating separation between you and your activities. True mindfulness is when you let go of the idea of mindfulness and just do whatever it is you happen to be doing" (emphasis added by James).

Warner believes as I do that it isn't the sex itself that's a problem but the clinging to sex. Or becoming so attached to sex that you can't enjoy anything else in life. Too often sex gets thrown out at the same time as the desire for it but sex can be engaged in with total awareness of everyone involved and based on the middle-way. His teacher, Gudo Nishijima Roshi rephrases the third precept as, "Do not desire too much" rather than "Do not misuse sexuality." Bodhidharma, the fifth-century Buddhist monk traditionally cited as the founder of the Zen school, said, "There is nothing to grasp. Not giving rise to attachment is the precept of not misusing sexuality."

The last thing I want to address before leaving you swirling with sex and Zen in your mind is that not all of this book is just about sex. It's so much more than that. It's above all a book of how to enjoy sexuality as a Zen Buddhist and do it with doing the least amount of harm as possible to you and others. This is where Right Intention comes in. If your intention toward sexuality is out of love and not pure selfishness then enjoy!! Buddhism isn't just austerity and reverence after all!! Believe it or not, (after seeing some of the dour, serious and painful faces on some American Buddhists in sanghas) Buddhists do allow for fun and happiness!! If someone tells you that Buddhism is no fun at all and nothing but pain then I might recommend you read Brad Warner's book.

That's all I can say because I want you to get the full barrage of Warner's nod to the sensual side of Zen Buddhist life. To give away any more of the saucy bits would be to ruin the fun!! I highly recommend this book to anyone with a sense of humor, the ability to not take life too seriously and a sincere desire to better understand sexuality in Zen Buddhism. I give it a 9.5 out of 10--one of my favorite contemporary Buddhists books in a long while.

~Peace to all beings~

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d page said...

Thank you for reviewing this book and sharing your perspective. I am a Dharma student (Vajrayana). It's been difficult to find other serious Western Dharma students to discuss the things that Brad Warner writes about. I find his material refreshing and elucidating.

David "Shinzen" Nelson said...

Thanks. I'll have to check this out.

Sophie-Anne said...

Only today, I ran across someone's blog where she was saying she was sad because Buddhism is again homosexuality. Is she correct is saying that? I am new to Buddhism and have not seen anything specific on that topic. I do think that Buddists are very tolerant of others. Can you answer the question of homosexuality v. Buddhism, please? Thanks!

They call him James Ure said...

@Sophie-Anne. Buddhism doesn't really have anything to say about homosexuality one way or the other. Buddhism appears to focus more on the intention of one's sexual life.

If one engages in sexuality honestly, with love and with good intentions not to harm others than I think one it doesn't matter whether one is gay or straight.

There might be some slight differences between Buddhist traditions but overall I don't think Buddhism is incompatible with a gay lifestyle.

I find that my tradition of Zen seems the most tolerant and accepting of homosexuals but I can't say that is always the case. For more, check out this post:

Ben said...

Yes, yes, yes... isn't about time that we all got real with sex? When we start to do that surely we shall all start to make steps towards healing our relationship with ourselves, each other and our beautiful mother Earth.

For so many buddhists sex truly is the Mud... But I have seen that sex enables the Lotus.

If you found this article interesting and/or the subject matter of Brad's book... Then you will definitely find 'the sex god - No Mud No Lotus' a compelling read.

The sex god – No Mud No Lotus is a thorough and sacred investigation into sex, love and authenticity. It’s a sexually explicit and passionate love story that follows one man’s evolution towards spiritual freedom. The story is told through his many erotic encounters. We follow him from innocence into sexual cockiness, painful infidelities, porn addiction and then onwards into deepest Tantric Love.

Hare Om

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