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Lions Roar : January 2005
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 73 IN BUDDHISM THERE’S no suchthing as sin. The most overt expression of this I know of is the Japanese attitude toward sex. A quick trip to any well-stocked Tokyo bookstore or video shop will bring this attitude graphically into view. Magazines full of nekkid ladies flash their lurid covers right there on the lowest shelves where kiddies browse. Bondage fetishists the world over know the most explicit S&M porn comes from the Land of the Rising Sun and the high-rise leather boot. One of the funniest cartoon shows in Japan fea- tures a five-year-old boy who’s constantly trying to look up ladies’ dresses and making awkward passes at his mother’s cute friends. This isn’t some ironic postmodern late-night cable show for adults either; it runs in the early evening—prime chil- dren’s viewing hours in Japan. All this is because sex, in Buddhist Japan, has never been con- sidered sinful. But while Buddhism doesn’t consider sex itself to be sinful, there is a fundamental Buddhist precept against the misuse of sexuality. Some forms of Buddhism explicitly define what counts as “misuse of sexuality.” For example, the vinaya—a set of ancient rules for moral conduct among Buddhist monks and nuns—says that for celibate monks the “intentional emission of semen, except during a dream, is an offence requiring a formal meeting of the Sangha.” These rules also state that it doesn’t vio- late a monk’s vow of celibacy if he is asleep and therefore does not know that a woman is having sex with him. (I wonder if anyone has ever tried to use this excuse.) By contrast, the Japanese Zen tradition leaves the matter of sexual misconduct deliberately vague. Monks are free to marry or to conduct themselves in pretty much any manner they choose as regards sex, so long as their conduct doesn’t cause too much trouble. But even the vinaya’s regulations regarding the celibacy of monks don’t classify these “offenses” as sinful in the Western sense of the word. They are not acts that go against the will of God or Buddha, and they are not applied to the population in general. A monk or nun, by definition, is someone who has agreed to abide by a certain set of regulations, the same as members of a local lodge agree to wear goofy hats. Showing up at the lodge without your hat means you risk being kicked out of the club; violating the precepts regarding sexual conduct means you risk getting kicked out of the Buddhist monks or nuns club. Nothing more. Some religions advocate various ideals of sexual purity. While the idea of purity sounds good, it often leads to trouble. True believers want to see their religious leaders as the living embodiment of some kind of ideal. Ideals are always matters of mind, and in the pure world of mind, unsullied as it is by messy things like bodies with wee-wees and pee-pees attached, there is no sex. So spiritual beings should not boink. When we project our expectations onto real people, what else can we hope for but bitter disappointment? This religious attitude towards sexual purity just replaces society’s extreme views on the matter with another set of equal- ly extreme views. The real problem—that we act so extremely with regard to anything at all—remains unaddressed. To view sex as a vile act that the pure of heart dare not even dream of is, in its own way, just as unbalanced as spending all your time, energy and cash on trying to get some hot man-meat or some tender nookie (or both if you’re so inclined). For people from countries where it is taken for granted that there really are sins and that most of them involve sex, the Buddhist attitude towards sex and sin can be really hard (heh- heh) to grasp (heh-heh). We try to shove what we hear about the What’s So Special about Sex? B R A D WA R N E R looks at the Zen attitude toward sex, and finds the issue is not sin or sex per se, but attachment, extreme views and others’ welfare—same as with everything else. BRAD WARNER is the author of Hardcore Zen: PunkRock, Monster Movies and the Truth about Reality. He works in film and television in Tokyo and lectures and leads Zen retreats. ILLUSTRATIONBYLEYAEVELYN