So we’re moving along in our precepts course, we’ve mastered (cue ironic string section) not harming, honesty, and not stealing, which is the practice of really being satisfied with what we have. There’s a logical next step which is to be satisfied with what we have, and then be wise with sexual energy. For a monk this is really simple, it means celibacy. There’s nothing else really to say. The practice is celibacy and that’s what you do. For the householder this is a little more complex. This is what I hope we can explore today. I could cite all kinds of places in the Pali Canon where there are rules about how a monk should practice. But I think they might sound far away and foreign and not as applicable to those of us who are not monks or nuns. So our approach today is to explore what it means to recognize sexual energy and to be able to work wisely with it. And I can’t help but referring to my own training in psychology where early on, Freud thought that when you encounter energies that are unconscious, one of the ways it first manifests is as sexual energy. And although his theories changed, especially in the first 15 years of his career, sexual energy for Freud was a problem when it wasn’t handled well and that never changed. We all know this, right? We live in a culture where sex appears everywhere, and yet somehow it’s still something that is hard to talk about. Maybe we value friendships or relationships where sexual energy is something we can talk about, but sometimes those are rare. Maybe sexual energy is still as unconscious as it was in Vienna a century ago.
Brahmacharya literally translated means to live like brahma, the creator God. Whenever I think of brahma I think of a two stroke motorcycle engine that goes brrrmm, brrmm. It means acceleration and to have pistons fire and to build cities and make art and neighbours and architecture and grow things. It’s to live like brahma which is to take creative energy and to do something with it. What is sexual energy? Biologically, it’s also creative energy. To live like brahma is to do something with that energy, to build with it. That’s why Thich Nhat Hahn’s encourages us to be aware of what we’re creating. This is true even in queer sexual relations. Every time you engage sexually you’re planting something. It may not literally be a baby but you’re making something. Luce Irigiray has a wonderful line where she says a family begins with two. Not with three, but with two. As soon as you have two people together you’ve created a family. And the effect of your action reverberates, and every way that it reverberates is the making of a family.
3 Levels: Literal, Compassion, Koan
We’re going to talk about how to take sexual energy and work with it in mind, body and speech, internally and externally. And at the same time there are the three levels of the precepts that we’ve always been looking at. The first is the literal, the second is the compassionate level and the third is the koan or mystery level. I thought we would start today with a koan. I came across this koan by typing into Google the words “sex koan.” What showed up was a list of all the koans where women are the main characters, and it only ran about two pages. There are very few koans that feature women, and this is one of them.
**The Old Lady’s Enlightenment**
One morning an old lady experienced an awakening while cleaning up after breakfast. She rushed over and announced to Master Hakuin, “The Buddha has filled my body! The whole universe radiates! How marvelous!”
“Nonsense!” Hakuin retorted, “Does it shine up your asshole?”
The old lady gave Hakuin a shove and shouted, “What do you know about enlightenment?”
They both roared with laughter.
The opening line suggests something pretty radical. The old lady who gets enlightened is not a usual candidate, she’s obviously not a nun. If she is cleaning up after breakfast, usually it means she has a family, and she’s working so that one day, when the nest is empty and she doesn’t have to be a householder, then she can wake up. And she’s waking up in the middle of cleaning up after breakfast. That’s a beautiful line right there. And maybe historically more radical than we can appreciate. Then she rushes over to Hakuin. Now most of you know Hakuin, he’s the person who commented on the Heart Sutra and wrote about beads on a tray. He’s a really problematic guy, hard and intense, he was someone who liked to poke at everything. He was also one of the important calligraphers in Japan. He would be the person you’d go to, to see if your awakening is real or not. Immediately she goes to him and says the Buddha has filled my body, the whole universe radiates. Hakuin tests her and says it’s nonsense. She gives him a shove back, and they both fall over laughing. They’re equal now. What I love about this story is that the awakening also happens inside your asshole. When was the last time you looked in there? I don’t want you to answer that. Maybe we’ll get to that later. Awakening, or being awake, penetrates everywhere.
Trungpa Rinpoche used to have this line: “Dharma practice is a laxative not a sedative.” That goes well with the asshole koan. It opens you up to a wider spectrum of what can move through you. Wherever you’re tight or contracted or have repression, the energy will flow there. Sexual energy is just one energy amongst many that will flow.
Traditionally in Buddhism, especially in early Buddhism, there are three different levels that our practice happens at. The first is the unconscious level, practice is taking place in a realm that you can’t see and don’t know. Something is working on you, but you don’t even know how it’s working. And I like to think of this in terms of… Have you ever woken up from a dream, and you can’t remember it but you feel like something’s shifted? It’s as if you had psychic tectonic plates that start shifting, but you can’t talk about it to yourself. You can’t name what’s happened. Practice happens at this unconscious level, and the precepts work at this level too. When we become aware of the kind of energy that moves through us, it moulds us at a deep level that’s maybe preverbal.
1. The first is latent or unconscious; we can’t see it.
2. The second is what’s arising in direct awareness. This is what we access in meditation.
3. The third is what they call a surging stage, where it’s out of control. We’re just carried away, whatever the emotion is. Much of the time emotion moves from latent to surging without any awareness.
Sexual energy is an energy, like anger energy, envy energy, jealousy energy. When sexual energy arises, usually the first thing we do with it, like we do with every kind of sensation, is we have attachment or aversion towards it. Either it’s pleasurable and we want to repeat it, or we have aversion, oh no, this is bad. Not now. This is dirty. And once we have expressed attachment or aversion, we think it’s mine. That’s my sexual energy. For there to be a subject, a me, there has to be an object. Whether it happens in body, in speech or mind, when we’re caught in sexual energy, thinking it’s my sexual energy, then there has to be something out there. This is how ignorance operates, how avidya (not seeing clearly) operates. Avidya always takes process and turns it into a noun. It’s turning whatever is showing up into something reifiable (into an object), and whenever you get reification you get deification. And then sexual energy is an object, it’s a deity, it’s something that is too big to contend with and omnipotent.
I think this is the problem that most of us fall into. It’s my sexual energy so I better do something with it. Or not do something with it. I better act on it, or I better get rid of it. And then we don’t actually get to see what it is. When sexual energy arises, it arises physically as feeling and sensation, and then it has stories. Layers and layers of stories. The stories flow through gender, culture, through your history. Now the key with sexual energy is that it’s impersonal. It’s the natural world in human form. The key in our practice is just to hold it, with really open hands. Not to contract around it. There is nothing wrong with sexual desire, it’s a fantastic thing. If people have sexual desire that they have never spend time with, and they try to push it away, it grows roots in other places, and will show up somehow.
Carl Jung says that if you don’t make something that is unconscious conscious, then you risk falling into a hole backwards. Has anyone ever fallen into a hole backwards? Like with any energy, if you repress it, it goes into the compost and starts growing and multiplying and getting smelly, rich and fertile. What I like about this koan is that it’s a reminder that when you’re awake, you’re awake to everything, even to your asshole.
Sometimes there are certain energies, or parts of sexual energies, that we don’t want to be awake to. Like certain layers of sexual energy are allowed (that’s me), while others are unacceptable. But the problem is not the sexual energy, the problem is the clinging and the craving and the attachment to outcome.
**On Wisdom and Sexual Energy**
Brahmacharya is most frequently translated as “the wise use of sexual energy”. Yet the term “wise” leaves the teaching a bit ambiguous. What is considered wise? Do we take the familiar view of sex as sin? Are we to be celibate like Buddhist monks and nuns? For me, brahmacharya becomes clear in reference to the other precepts. Is it hurting yourself or another? Is it dishonest? Are you being greedy? Are you taking something which is not being freely given? Non-harming, honesty, non-greed, and non-stealing become the filters through which sexual energy must pass in order to be considered wise.
**Zen lands in America**
Early on in American Buddhist practice there was a real obsession with meditation. People just wanted to go on retreat and sit. The focus of practice was meditation, and it also happens that in those first 40 years there were a lot of scandals in Buddhist organizations, one after another. Often the scandals involved students with each other and teachers with students. Actually it’s still going on. Just last year Eido Shimano Roshi was finally thrown out of his Zen centre in upstate New York for having numerous affairs with his students.
**Eido Shimano Roshi**
“Perhaps the best way to describe this is to share what happened to me when I learned about Eido Roshi’s affairs. It was three or four years after I’d been practicing at the NY Zendo, many years ago. I was shocked, stunned, couldn’t eat or sleep for several days. Beside myself, I talked about it to a dear sangha member, Kushu, (no longer alive). We were up at Dai Bosatsu Mountain. I said to him, ‘How can this be? The Zen practice here is so profound, the zazen so powerful, the teisho’s incredible… the dokusan piercing. I don’t understand it. I loved Eido Roshi so much, and now this!!’ Kushu’s answer was very straightforward and simple. It changed my life.
He said, ‘You only think you loved him. But you only loved your dreams about him. When you can see not just your dreams about a person, not just what you want him to be, but all of who he truly is, and still love him, then you’re doing something! That’s love.’ That became my life koan. I returned home from the mountain that day forever changed. That is my practice… to see everything about a person and still love and accept them. Eido Roshi has shown great, great patience with me, and with others. Our zazen practice is hard. We all fall down over and over. Doesn’t he deserve great patience as well? Deep, heartfelt gasshos to all, Eshin Brenda Shoshanna”
“Having moved beyond the fairy tale of dharma transmission, Zen communities can begin work on truly thorny questions. Why did so many of the Asian ‘masters’ who came to America, especially during the Sixties, behave in ways that to the objective beholder seem narcissistic, even sociopathic? What was their experience coming to maturity in monasteries and ashrams? Were they damaged in some way as children? And how, today, can the traditional Hindu and Buddhist emphasis on ‘non-attachment’ be meaningfully taught in an America where many suffer ‘attachment disorders’ – an inability to receive or return love?
To matter much in America, Zen must undergo its own painful Protestant Reformation – the deconstruction of lineage. This will free practitioners to learn from trained and accountable teachers in the spirit of the Buddha’s final admonition: “Therefore, O Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not to assistance to anyone besides yourselves.’” (http://genkaku-again.blogspot.com/2011/02/eido-tai-shimano-continued.html)
“…To put it simply, Eido Shimano is an embarrassment to Buddhism, including all of Zen Buddhism, and Japanese Buddhism, in particular. I am concerned that if you, as his Board and monks do not take action, we will be sanctioning this kind of egregious abusive, gender-biased, predatory, misogynistic behavior in our temples and monasteries. We vow, as Buddhists to do no harm. I urge you to end the harm, and end it now.
The sexual abuse of women is no small matter globally. It takes profound commitment to deal with this issue. Humbly, i feel that we as Buddhists need to clean up the scene in our own backyard, and clean it up now. We all share this karma, and we must share the correction process as well. Compassion tells us that, and we have to not only listen but as well to act. Thus these letters you are currently receiving……. Please heed them, and heed them well.
I do feel deeply about this issue since so many women have passed through my zendo diminished and damaged as a result of having been subjected to sexual boundary violations by their teachers; some have been physically abused; others have been psychologically intimidated and then forced into sex. Some women were plainly deluded and hungry for acknowledgment, and in some way, power; others were coerced, shamed, and some were threatened; others were entranced and tricked. In the end, after all is said and done, most have wanted to abandon their Buddhist practice, finding Buddhism too passive and uncaring, if not dangerous…” (Letter from Roshi Joan regarding Eido Shimano, December 31, 2010)
“”Most certainly this matter has raised intense reflection and questioning of ‘institutional’ Buddhism. It is possible that ‘The Shimano Affair’ may provide the catalyst for bringing about a revolution of transparency within World Zen in America and Japan. We are perhaps witnessing the making of a revolution in Buddhism.” Rev. Kobutsu Malone, Sedgwick, Maine”)
One thing that was happening in his community, which I think is a lesson that a lot of other communities learned, is that Asian teachers would come over from Asian cultures alone into this culture with no teacher or community or colleagues. So when the focus of the practice was so much about what the students wanted, which was meditation, and the ethics were left out… As the practice started showing up on this soil, no one wanted to learn about ethics, they wanted to get concentrated and achieve nirvana. But over time what happened was that after these scandals started, more and more of these Buddhist communities started to have boards. They would set up a board of directors and the teacher would be employed by the board, who would keep an eye on what the teacher was doing. I think that model has really helped American Buddhism. These kind of scandals are still going on, but not like they were in the 1970s and 1980s. A great book on this topic is called Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center by Michael Downing.
Amazon.com review: Why did the richest, most influential, highest flying Zen center in America crash and burn in 1983? Novelist Michael Downing wondered the same thing, and after three years of interviewing members and poring over documents, his Shoes Outside the Door tells the story. Womanizing, BMW-driving Richard Baker was the abbot and visionary behind the rapid growth of the San Francisco Zen Center, but in many ways he was the antithesis of his teacher and predecessor, the inimitable and revered Shunryu Suzuki, who would choose the bruised apples out of compassion. After the early death of Suzuki, a blind and driven cult formed around Baker, seemingly filling the void until this ‘Dick Nixon of Zen’ finally slept with his best friend’s wife and brought his world crashing to the ground. Working with direct quotations from students and workers of the Center and its many enterprises, Downing delivers a page-turning exposé of a community that is as laudable as it is laughable. And as an outsider to both the community and Buddhism, he does it with wit and an even hand. Brian Bruya
Buddhadharma: Of Buddhism’s three trainings – sila, samadhi, prajna (often translated as morality, meditation and wisdom) – there has been less emphasis on sila in the West. Would you agree?
Lama Palden Drolma: Thrangu Rinpoche, one of the top scholar-yogis, explained sila as meaning “cool.” He likened it to a cool breeze in a hot country. It brings relief and happiness, since it cools he fire of desire that’s burning us up. Since our runaway desire isn’t ultimately going to fulfill us, the contentment with what is and with what we have brings a breath of fresh air. Paying attention to ethics, to integrity, brings us more in alignment with our true nature. It provides the conditions for awakening by aligning us more with our inherent buddhanature. Acting in an ethical way, having conduct that is beneficial to oneself and others, creates the karma and the conditions that help us awaken… It’s a sense of alignment with deeper principles of truth and reality and with our fundamental nature, which is basic goodness. In the traditions that most of us in the West grew up in, there is usually the sense that there is some problem at the core of who we are.
Andrew Olendzki: Rules in the context of sila also afford refuge. The laws of cause and effect mean that the harm you do is going to not only hurt the people around you but come back and hurt you. Even if you feel disinclined to obey them, having a set of rules that you sign on to gives you a kind of protection from yourself, as well as a protection for everyone else. It’s a gift of harmlessness that you give the people around you. Seeing sila as a refuge and a gift takes some of the edginess out of the ‘you must obey the rules or else’ point of view… The Buddha emphasized intention as the driving force of karma. What you do is less important than the intention behind how you do it…
Lama Palden: The understanding of interconnectedness that is at the heart of the dharma, and the practice of equanimity that springs from it, offered a huge breakthrough in human consciousness – a transcendence of the principle of preserving one’s tribe, which is the source of so many ethical codes. Today we’re finding that it’s more relevant than ever as we’re becoming so aware of our interconnectedness. The highest alignment within our hearts is to understand our interconnectedness and appreciate that we really want to protect and try to enhance the life of every sentient being.” (Sex, Lies and Buddhism, Buddhadharma, The Practitioners Quarterly, Summer 2010)