“I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct (unless you’re a monastic, in which case you don’t get any sex, at all) –The third precept of Buddhism
I’ve spent the bulk of the last three weeks conducting extensive research, as well as taking some math refresher courses, because I’d begun to question whether the number three does, indeed, follow the number two. The reason I’d begun to doubt my numerical literacy was because if the number three does follow the number two, then that would mean that after already addressing the first and second precepts, I’d have to discuss the third (sex!)… So, I embarked on a massive research process to determine if the number three in Sanskrit, or Pali (the language closest to what the Buddha probably spoke) didn’t mean something like “the number following 5,365, 482,001.” Oh, well… Finally, after unexpectedly posting a piece on Donald Trump earlier this week, I decided that if I can discuss him on my blog, I can discuss anything…
Many people are under the impression that the Buddha didn’t think too highly of sex. If this has been your impression, you are greatly misinformed. The Buddha’s father was a king named Suddhodana, and the Lord Buddha, (prior to becoming the Lord Buddha), was known as Prince Siddhartha. Soon after the birth Prince Siddartha, a holy man informed King Suddhodana that Siddhartha would either be a ‘Buddha’ or a great king; but like any king, Suddhodana wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, eventually taking his place. So, the king set out to make sure that Prince Siddhartha wanted for no material happiness and that he was always too distracted by pleasure to think about such annoying trivialities as Oneness with the Atman, or human suffering. These distractions eventually included not only an unbelievably beautiful wife, but a very large harem, i.e., other women with whom he could engage with sexually whenever he desired. In addition to wanting for nothing, the king also made sure that his son had no exposure to the external world and its truths: old age, sickness, death, impermanence, etc. So, it’s fair to say that for a good while, Prince Siddhartha was probably happier than most people.
Supposedly, it wasn’t until Prince Siddhartha was nearly 29 that he decided to leave the palace and go on a day trip, accompanied by his friend and personal charioteer, Channa. It was during this trip that he encountered for the first time in his entire life, what today are known as “The Four Sights,” i.e., (1) an old man; (2) a person suffering from a terminal illness; (3) a dead body; and (4) an ascetic whose quest was to find the cause of “human suffering” (refer to sights one through three). Shocked that people aged; sickened that they became ill and died in the middle of the street (quite literally); and just not ‘feeling’ that dead body, or the fact that such was his fate, Siddhartha saw great value in following the example of the ascetic (the fourth sight), as it appeared to him that he was the only person he’d encountered that day who, for some reason, was not suffering. Finally, to put the icing on the Gulab Jamun, upon returning to the palace, the king, just to be sure Siddhartha hadn’t discovered temperance earlier in the day, arranged for beautiful dancing girls to welcome him back… as only “dancing” girls can do. This might have worked to lift Siddhartha’s spirits except for the fact that after the after-party, as he was walking back to his digs, he observed the dancing girls, exhausted, perhaps intoxicated, sprawled on the floor in varying states of unconscious disarray and disrobement, snoring, drooling, and no longer sporting that Cover Girl look with their sweat-smeared makeup . Not so sexy. Not sexy at all…
So, how, wondered Prince Siddhartha, do we deal with the ruthless, never-ending, unrelenting forces of change, i.e., impermanence? How to deal with the fact that he, himself, would soon look like the sick old man on the side of the road? How to deal with the fact that his dancing girls, who could now “drop it like it’s hot,” would soon, simply be dropping dead? Clearly, it would take some alone time, not to mention very deep thought, to work this out… Soon enough, he began to see his wife, his newborn child, his father’s political ambitions for him, and his dancing girls for what they were: distractions. And all of a sudden, he realized that despite all he had, he wasn’t happy anymore, or more likely, had never truly been…
Fast forward a couple years and Siddhartha is now an ascetic, observing the practices of not only denying his body all pleasure, and just about all nourishment, but also observing such special meditation practices as sitting by corpses, at charnel grounds, or on the side of the road where these unfortunate people had died without hope of cremation, much less being laid out at a charnel ground. This type of meditation, known as “corpse contemplation,” is still practiced today by some, but now with photographs, or visits to morgues. The point of such meditations, in a pistachio nutshell, was to expose them to the truth, i.e., that sexy as we may be today, tomorrow we’ll be wrinkled, literally tripping over a fair number of our appendages, and much less able to hide the fact that we are little more than “skin sacs” of blood, feces, and urine, soon to be riddled with maggots. And did I mention pus? Well, the Buddha did; so, I really needn’t have bothered…
So, you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get to the “sex,” and what all this talk of pus and maggots has to do with sex? Well, let’s fast-forward, once more, and just say that the Buddha eventually had to lay down some hard law regarding sexual abstinence. This is why you will find, in the Buddhist Canon, some amazingly detailed and shocking examples of what NOT to do. You see, sex with women was a huge no-no, but sleeping with dead women, which had not previously been overtly stated, seemed to require some extra detail for some… Boys will be boys… And I truly don’t mean to be sexist, but it would be a bit difficult for a woman to perform the same type of act with a dead man, if you know what I mean…
Sex with farm animals was also a no-no. And interestingly enough, there was even a hierarchy of what was worse than what. Please keep in mind that these various sexual proclivities, sometimes activated by pure “horniness,” are not Buddhist practices, but simply the Buddha’s acknowledgement of what was happening around him. Truly, the Lord Buddha was the personification of “keeping it real.”It’s fairly surprising that the Buddha was as cool about sex as he was because others’ sex drives were somewhat problematic. One example is the case of Sudinna, one of the Buddha’s monks. Supposedly, fairly early in the Siddhartha’s career as The Buddha, Sudinna had yielded to his mother’s request that he “provide a seed,” by laying with his former wife, so that the family’s bloodline could be continued and the family’s wealth not be lost to the government. Apparently, the Buddha was not happy about this ‘entanglement,’ and soon after laid down the law on celibacy for monks known as the vinaya, i.e., monastic disciplinary code. In one part of the vinaya, it says:
“Whatever monk should indulge in sexual intercourse is one who is defeated [parajika], he is no longer in communion [with the monastic order].”
Fast forward several more years, and Prince Siddhartha is now The Enlightened One, The Buddha. Even after everything he’d been through, he never said that sex was “bad.” He just didn’t think it was good for… monastics. And he knew that not everyone wanted to be a monastic, and certainly didn’t expect that. Terms such as “lay person” and “householder” came to represent those who followed the “faith,” but still elected to live “in the world,” i.e., marrying, working, bearing and raising children, and having sex… The monastic’s goal, liberation/nirvana, could, arguably, not be achieved on a part-time basis, when children, spouses, career demands (or just plain eeking out a miserable subsistence) also competed for one’s time and attention. The holy life was about freeing oneself of attachments, not daily acquiring more of them.
In the above quotation, the term “parajika” refers to an offense serious enough to require immediate expulsion from the monastic order. Examples of parajikas include:
“A monk commits parajika if he engages in consensual penetration of various orifices of a living female (human, animal or spirit), a person with non-conventional sexual characteristics, another monk, or even himself (cases of one monk’s supple back and another’s pliable penis are cited.”
–The Problem with Sex According to Buddha, Paul David Numrich
Yes, you heard me “right.”
“Penetration of a decomposed corpse is also parajika, but penetration of an almost fully decomposed corpse is only thullaccaya, a third level offense…”
–The Problem with Sex According to Buddha, Paul David Numrich
Note: The term “third level” offense in the above quotation is an example of the “hierarchy” of offenses to which I referred priorly.
Obviously, there were a few folks who, though living the “holy life,” weren’t quite ready to give up the sexual aspects of the lay life (no pun intended)… I suppose it’s a little difficult to “rape” a corpse, or call it “consensual” sex, or even “non-consensual,” for that matter.. So, for numerous reasons, the Buddha was compelled to be detailed in his requirements for the comportment of his monastics. But as for the rest of us, not so much.
Now this is where it truly gets interesting. There was no condemnation of homosexual behavior in early Buddhism. This came later, way after the Buddha had died. As far as we can tell, for the Buddha, sex was sex, and if you wanted to be a monastic, you couldn’t partake in any type of it. As for “householders” (non-monastic/lay Buddhists), sex was fine. So, when lay Buddhists “take” the third precept, they say that they will abstain from “sexual misconduct”; whereas, the monastic version of this precept requires vowing to abstain from sexual activity of any type. Ever. The exception to this rule is when lay Buddhists visit monasteries for extended periods of time, which I did last year. While there, besides removing all my piercings (bodily decoration also being prohibited in one of the precepts), I also had to take the monastic version of the Third Precept (not to engage in any type of sexual activity, at all). Upon leaving the monastery, I was free to continue in that fashion, or not.
As a result, lay Buddhists can be homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or even automonosexual (those who are sexually attracted to themselves, alone). Additionally, “misconduct” for lay Buddhists is also quite different than it is for monastics. For example, if a married couple (gay or straight) decide that they want to have an “open” marriage, it’s fine so long as both partners agree that that is what they want to do. Of course, we know that this is easier said than done. Too often, one partner consents to such an arrangement out of fear of losing the other. Additionally, if two married couples decide to engage in “swinging” with each other, it must be with the full consent of all four individuals because the concepts of “cheating,” and “consensual” do exist. So, it is not enough that the sex be consensual between two people if other spouses, boos, or other committed individuals are involved with one of those two individuals.
Abstaining from all sexual activity has generally been considered to be necessary for those Buddhists whose sole goal in life is to achieve liberation. Nonetheless, there are a great many contemporary articles and discussions that claim that one need not be unmarried or celibate to “become enlightened.” And there are those say the same with a slight twist, i.e., that it will take those who are married, or sexually active, longer to become enlightened because they, quite literally, carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and in their responsibilities to family, employers, and others.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not, once again, address the topic of homosexuality during this especially difficult election season when States are suing President Obama for relief as a result of what are now known as the “bathroom laws,” among other things, with regard to restroom accommodations for transgender(ed) individuals. The Buddha, apparently unlike Jesus, or anybody else, did not have anything to say about this. There are some references to individuals who were rather “undecided,” sexually, or both undecided and prostituting, but one would have to have studied some Pali and probably be a monastic to even know where to start with that. These issues only became “hot topics” in Buddhism after the Buddha’s death — rather in the way that it often seems to be the most homophobic lawmakers, and even monastics of all faiths, who eventually get caught in the back seats of cars with under-aged boys.
So much for “brief commentary.”