Sex, Zen, and Rock n' Roll

As many of you know, my posts have slowed down over the last year as I moved back to the U.S, wrote a book, got engaged, started graduate school, etc. I've been extremely busy, but I want to start writing more often in this blog, because writing is my link to society, and increasingly, it is the thing I identify with most. The other day, my therapist looked me in the eye and said, "You are a writer. Your other work is to pay the bills," which I thought was a) pretty direct for a therapist, no? I mean, isn't she just supposed to nod and listen to me talk? and b) pretty incredible and validating. Okay, this is the last time I'll mention my therapist on this blog, I promise.

Over the last few weeks I've been trying to start up a sitting group again, as well as apply to the Soto Zen Buddhist Association. I'm not really sure what the SZBA does, and I'm 90% sure it's just a group of my friends that gets together once a year and hangs out without me (please correct me if I'm wrong!). Part of the application process involved writing an "ethics statement" for my temple/ organization, which builds on the traditional Zen precepts to apply more explicitly to ethics within organizations. I asked some Zen friends for templates, and for the most part all their examples seemed fine. A lot of the ethics statements seem concerned with power and boundary issues within the sangha which I definitely don't have a problem with! (jk my middle name is "boundary issues..." see this post and this post and above comment about my enduring love for my therapist. Oh crap I mentioned her again!).

As I thought about the kind of ethics I think are important, and what ethics statement I want for a group that I run, it seemed crucial to me to add two pieces that were left out or under-emphasized in the examples I received. For "right sexuality," most of the ethics statements centered around discouraging teachers from having sexual relationships with students, which, yes, let's definitely discourage that, but also, what more can and should we say? Sex is not going away, and "right sexuality" necessarily contains sex, so I thought it was important to be more explicit and clear about right sexuality. This is what I wrote:

We believe secrecy, shame, and power imbalances are breeding grounds for sexual abuse, and so we strive to create a transparent, shame-free, and ethical community where we acknowledge the role of power in our sexual lives. We are committed to a radical, ethical, feminist, and sex-positive practice of sexuality. We acknowledge the importance of sexual energy in our lives; because of sexual desire’s power and seductiveness, we strive all the more to approach our sexual relationships with honesty, communication, self-reflection, and kindness. We encourage sangha members to explore and clarify what “right sexuality” means to them, with an understanding that there is a different between “taboo” and “sexual misconduct.” We believe true right sexuality necessarily contains both ethical behavior and pleasure, and that non-monogamy does not necessarily preclude right sexuality. 

"Right sexuality" is a moving target. It changes over the course of our lives. When I was twenty years old, just beginning to discover Buddhism and the precepts, I devised my own interpretation of "right sexuality" which was "sex that does not harm myself or someone else."  I still think this is a good definition. As a twenty-year old woman, my task in right sexuality was to create sexual relationships that did not hurt myself. I think this will be the task for many (but not all) women in relationships with men. Now that I'm older, "good sex" seems to be an important part of right sexuality, and this, as I wrote about above, includes communication and departing from shame. And... some other things.

Pleasure is usually left out of the discussion of right sexuality, but especially for women, this is an important piece to acknowledge. For queer people as well, for whom sexuality is such a large part of our identities, reclaiming and exploring pleasurable sexuality is crucial to being whole and sane. So a discussion of "right sexuality" that is politely caged in euphemisms and Buddhist terminology might not be the most helpful for the majority of Buddhist practitioners.

Similarly, since shame is such a powerful tool to silence and coerce, and since it is perhaps the worst byproduct of sexual abuse, I felt it was important to name "shame" as an enemy of right-sexuality-- not the only enemy, mind you, but a powerful one. Part of departing from shame in spiritual communities is to de-stigmatize sexuality, and I think the onus is on teachers to stop pretending we are asexual beings. When teachers pretend to be asexual beings, instead of embracing a transparent, self-reflective, and sex-positive view of right sexuality, this creates an environment where people feel they cannot speak, cannot ask questions, cannot be open about sex (and by extension, cannot be open about sexual abuse). Before the Buddha was enlightened, Mara came to tempt him. The Buddha saw Mara for who he was and says, "I see you, Mara." We have to do this too, even when "Mara" is out own sexual desire and preference.

The other ethical piece I thought was important to add was one about white privilege and colonialism. Beyond striving for "diversity," it seems crucial to me that Buddhist teachers in the West take up dismantling white supremacy as a core, foundational part of community building. We must move towards an ethic of radical love. My partner and I co-wrote this:

White, male, straight and cis privilege left unchecked alienates sangha members and and creates further oppression in our communities. We acknowledge the twisted karma inherent in the conditioning received at the hands of the dominant culture in North America and strive, at all times, to examine institutional injustice and the implications and effects of privilege granted thereby. To that end teachers have an obligation to their students to educate themselves on the subjects of privilege and intersectionality.  Engaging with groups that combat white supremacy, such as #BlackLivesMatter and Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), in order to broaden the teacher’s perspective is an ethical imperative. We also are committed to studying the legacies of colonialism and globalization that brought Buddhism to the West, recognizing that no practice of Buddhism in the West is separate from this karma of domination, racism, and orientalism. Even as we honor and revere our Asian teachers, we acknowledge the role of exotification in the study and practice of Japanese Zen and strive to de-colonize our Buddhism. 

This is something I am still thinking about and mulling over for myself; I don't know how to articulate it well yet. Still, I am somewhat put off by the rhetoric in sanghas of making an effort to "include people of color" in Buddhist communities. It's similar to the common feminist concern with "including women of color in feminism." As Mia Mckenzie writes, that's not the right question. Instead of asking "how do white people include people of color in Buddhism," it seems to me that a much better line of questioning is, "what can white people do to deserve being included in Buddhism (which was invented and practiced by people of color for most of history?)" How can white people center the needs of people of color? That's a better question.

These are just some initial thoughts. And now, to play with my dog.


  1. The statement "that monogamy does not necessarily preclude sexual misconduct"seems obvious to me. Perhaps you meant to say something more about this?

    1. Hmm I think I meant to say "non-monogamy does not necessarily preclude right sexuality." But that still might be obvious to some.

  2. A Sangha insisting people support Black Lives Matter isn't "de-colonizing" Buddhism, it's the colonization of Buddhism by the left.

    1. Hello! That depends on what your definition of "colonization" and the "left" is. If by "left" you mean "people who don't want black people to die at higher rates then white people," then perhaps you are right. But under that definition, all of Buddhist clergy and anyone following the precepts should fall under that category, since non-harming and doing good are crucial ethical components of Buddhist practice.

      In terms of colonization, if your definition of that is something akin to "The policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically," then I'm afraid your claim does not hold water. My living room and the sangha that meets there is not a foreign country; it is my home and my practice space and thus it is my right and prerogative as a Buddhist teacher to enforce the ethical guidelines I see fit in that private space. I am not going to tell Japanese and Chinese Buddhists what to do. But people in my own home and my sangha, yes I will.

  3. What happens if a white male Trump supporter shows up and doesn't agree with your ethical guidelines but wants to sit. Does he get in?

    My sangha faced the same task, and I honestly think that, the more you write, the more exclusive you get. I think you should just say Everyone Is Welcome and leave it at that.

  4. Hi Dave,
    That is a great question, thank you for asking it! First of all, if a white male Trump supporter showed up to the meditation room in my living room I would be VERY confused. I would ask how he heard about the sit, but also, how did he get through the front door without me unlocking it? ;-)

    But seriously, I have a couple thoughts. First is that having an ethical guideline that holds certain things as values is not the same as saying who and who can't come. Brad has been really helpful in showing me how the precepts are guidelines and benchmarks; they're goals, and while we may never full meet those goals, we hold them up as inspiration. There's a precept against expressing anger, and how often do we break that one? And yet we keep coming back to it as a value. I think it's the same with racism and privilege. We can hold up examining white supremacy as a value with the recognition that everyone arrives at this from a different place.

    With that said, and I think this is an area where Brad and I differ, I think Buddhism is a distinct thing. A Buddhist group is different than a group of atheist meditators. I struggle with this actually in my own practice, because I'm really fucking agnostic! And so part of me is like "screw it, let's just sit and stare and a wall and not believe anything." But I have to think that's different than Buddhism. Buddhism offers up a structure and preexisting format for us to work off of. And of course people will disagree with me about this and that's fine, and they will make their own atheist meditator groups that I will support and even sit with from time to time. But what I'm talking about is different. So people coming to sit at a Buddhist group should understand that, because it is Buddhism and not atheism, that their own worldview and sense of self will be challenged. I see Zen as directly challenging (and even assaulting!) our sense of self. And that's good. Seriously though. Fuck your ego (not you, Dave, I mean everyone). "Fuck your ego" is Zen's project. So yeah, people will be uncomfortable.

    The last thing-- and this is something that I've learned from feminism-- is that language of "equality" actually excludes people. When I was in the convent it was a strict rule that everyone had to eat the same thing, and so the kitchen had to dish out the same amount of food. When I was running the kitchen I struggled because some people would come to me with allergies and preferences, and I was like "but the RULES SAY we have to eat the same things!" An older nun took who was a secret badass on the dl took me aside one day and said something that roughly translates to, "Equality begets discrimination." In other words, because everyone's body is different, treating everyone equally leads to some people getting what is harmful to them. So it's the same with discussions of race and gender. Feminism often focusing on upper class white women's needs, like birth control and fair pay in the workplace, which is cool except that the needs of working class and immigrant women is often different (like access to Spanish-speaking services, safety from police or ICE, etc.). So a really *inclusive* feminism (or Buddhism) would actually take into account difference. Some feminists say talking about race is "divisive," but again, it's actually NOT talking about race that is divisive, because that leaves people out. So I think we have to shift the balance, and look at how we are leaving people out with our language and priorities.

    Saying "Racism is bad" doesn't exclude anyone unless they want to be excluded.

    Okayyyyy and now that I've written half a novel I need to get on with me life.

  5. Thanks so much for your reply.

    I'm glad you're writing more.

  6. Gesshin,

    Just a quick note to say that I've thoroughly enjoyed reading your work, and have also found it very helpful.

    Some of what you have said has confirmed some things in my own practice - with regards to maturity, development, mixing practice with a 'normal life'...*and so on and so on* [Zizek voice*]

    I look forward to reading/engaging with more of your work, and wish you luck in your studies, and all the other exciting non-monastic stuff going on.

    All the best.


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