By: David Xi-Ken Shi
I recently received an email from a subscriber that stated, “Where Buddhism differs noticeable from other religious is in its lack of a list of forbidden sexual practices. Unlike other religions that forbid certain practices … Buddhism does not list forbidden sexual practices directly.” He goes on to mention abortion practices and what constitutes “the beginning of life”. He ends his email by asking for our lessons that reflects a contemporary perspective.
Actually we get this subject raised often and it is one that all Buddhists teachers and monks should ponder because of its immense relationship to the Four Noble Truths and lessons on human compassionate action. Here is a portion of my response to him:
You raise very important questions for us monks, especially since sex and associated issues are not yet fully outlined by American society at large like in many European countries where it is handled easier within the culture. For example, the issue surrounding the right to choose who we love and the same gender couples legal rights in a democratic society, that is being debated in America now. Americans are quite confused, really, about the whole issue as a culture. There are many things still to be figured out in the States as we move away from categorical views of sex (traditional religion “dos and don’ts”) and an over-radicalized view of sex as an “expression of independence” — which it is not; sex is always about me AND the other person(s) involved, making it a relational concern, not a personal one. As Buddhists we are responsible for the other people involved, including how the intimacy we employ affects them after the acts of intimacy are completed. There are many people who engage in certain sexual circumstances out of prior trauma — a fact that is relatively unknown by the public at large but is squarely established in psychological/medical circles. For example, many rape victims or victims of child molestation exhibit hyperactive sexual impulses specifically with people who “prey” on victims. It is a very odd reality but it is much more prevalent than ever believed. It has to do with a deep misunderstanding and ultimately fear of certain kind of connection/relationship with others. Sex becomes very informal and causal, and the type of people who TEND to engage in repetitive sexual exploits are also the least likely to expect long-term close relationships, making the situation oddly functional. Though not healthy or positive. The sex addict is often attracted to sex because it can remain a way to get close to people without emotional commitment and connection, keeping them “safe” from those fears. Again, very odd but accurate.
Sexual affairs are most often driven by a failure of the person having the affair to connection in a meaningful, emotional way with their partner. It may NOT be about attraction and sex, even though the people they will choose are attractive to them, and they are enticed by the sex. It is about a need for closeness with another human being, and when it is not happening with someone they are in a relationship (usually because of not being able or willing to overcome personal inhibitors preventing it), they feel “justified” in finding the intimacy elsewhere. Again, the affair is about a psychological misunderstanding and ultimate lack of connection to the person they are in a relationship with rather than the sex itself. It is precisely the real intimacy that a couple for example shares with each other that prevents them from engaging in sex with other people, and it is not because they are not attracted to other people; we are biological critters from womb to grave.
The issue with traditional religious views is that it attempts to outline the rules of sex according to philosophical theory without appropriate consideration of the biological impetus of sex and implications thereof. Thus, when people explore sexuality outside traditional guidelines which happens with most according to the statistics — traditional religion has a less than appropriate response as it ignores the naturalistic and biological considerations, leaving those involved uncertain of appropriate sexual behavior into their adulthood. Sex becomes a “thing” outside of us rather than a means of creating and exhibiting a special kind of intimacy with another human being. Traditional religion can make teenagers and young adults feel “guilty” for blurring boundaries, and unproductive approach for people who are already confused about themselves.
From a biological standpoint, even when sex if viewed simply as reproduction, the sex act is an assertion of one’s respect or attraction to the unique self-expression of another member of the species. It is a selective process when driven by biological impetus (addiction not included here), whereby those involved identify characteristics about each other that are preferred, and thus whether consciously or not, those characteristics are then preserved into the future; sex becomes a statement of selection and preference for something found attractive, whether it is physical beauty, mental fitness, social standing, etc. As human beings, we can take sex to another level, by using it to affirm and reaffirm one’s deep attraction to a significant other. Sex of course, can be abused, and can be used as a means of disrupting or destroying one’s sense of self and confidence, or social status. Forced sex can be used by the aggressor as a way of exerting control because of the closeness of the physical contact, and this is possible because of the unique role sex plays for us humans, where it is seen not just as a biological necessity but means of affirming an intimate appreciation for another person.
Now for Pragmatic Buddhism. Remember that just because Buddhism does not have specific “rules” about something, that is not a positive assertion that Buddhism endorsees it. It only means what it means, which is that Buddhism does not adequately address it from a Buddhist canticle context. So because specific sexual rules (viewed from a 21st century point of view) are not identified in detail as a part of Buddhist moral precepts, the basic situational moral teachings should be applied, as always, to everything we do, so the Three Pure Precepts must be regarded when we apply them to general relations with people and sexually intimate ones (do no harm, do only good, do good for others). If having sex with another person honors the Three Pure Precepts, as in a devoted and caring relationship should, then the sex act is fully endorsed. Additionally, the five lay precepts outline a prohibition against sexual exploitation that does harm, so in the sense Buddhism does address the issue. A rather simple application!
Abortion is tough, but not as tough as the current debate seems. Like you point out it is circumstantial in the end, but some initial considerations will point us down one path or the other. Buddhism — because it is built around the realization of causal reality — sees a fetus as a person sooner than science does, because the process of becoming-a-person is always a process, not an event. Once things are in motion, once the sperm meets the egg, the cells are in the process of becoming-the-individual. Christianity sees the initial contact between egg and sperm as the creation of the soul-body relationship, whereas Buddhism sees the causal connections of the egg and sperm as the process of human-making; remember that adults are still the combined results of the parent’s egg and sperm, with half our genes from dad and half from mom. When we look at an acorn — as Roger Ames pointed out in his YouTube video — it is both an acorn and the future tree in one. A fetus is the same.
Pragmatic considerations and Buddhist thought has in the past endorsed abortion under limited conditions when the fetus is in the first (preferred) or second trimester (one cannot support third trimester abortions as at this point the fetus is fully mature and has a functioning brain) and one of the following conditions are met: 1) threatens the life of the mother; the mother’s life comes first because she is self-aware whereas the fetus is not (modern medical science may now contradict this notion), 2) or bring exceptional hardship to the mother/parents; insufficient mental health to care for the child, or because the child is the product of a sexual trauma (rape) and brings exceptional hardship to the mother, forcing her to relive the trauma. But, too, if a person just doesn’t want a child yet but could care for it, the Buddhist must support the pregnancy, or at the very least remain silent on the issue, and not advocate its destruction if it could develop a good life. This is why Buddhists support early sex education and appropriate discussions about healthy relationships; we have to provide education to thwart the strong natural urge to do stupid things like having unprotected sex. Again, tough issue but very important for monks to consider. While I personally honor a women’s right to choose, I also strongly support and hope the decision she makes is to choose life.
We want to be careful about saying “it is a person’s right to do with their body as they please” because as soon as someone has intentional sex with another person then becomes pregnant, it is no longer them alone who is impacted (dependent origination). When we hear about the body as one’s property, it is more materialistic than Buddhism sees the human person, and we cannot forget that certain decisions we make about our bodies impact our families, community, not to mention the fetus. In an interconnected/interdependent world, it is not as simple as “my body, my choice.” If I want to inject myself with anthrax, my community rightfully prevents me from doing so because I will infect them also. When we have sex and get pregnant, we make decisions that consider the father as well as future life of the infant, so keep this in mind and be sure to also question conventional ideas about ethical issues from the understanding you gain from your dedicated Buddhist practice. Most people do not think about the causal nature of all things, and embrace short-sighted ethical practices.