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No sex during the day for Buddhists?

posted by Greg Zwahlen
Buddhist academic and translator Jose Cabezon has a great article in the latest issue of Buddhadharma about some of the peculiar ideas many Buddhist traditions have about sex (about which most Western practioners are unaware), and how he reconciles those ideas with the love and esteem he feels for the textual tradition as a scholar. And he quotes Salt-N-Pepa.
You can read the beginning of the article free here, but it is totally worth buying the issue to read the whole thing.
The Buddha himself, in the early Sutra Pitika, did not attempt to micromanage anyone’s sex life. As Cabezon describes it, sexual misconduct “was simply understood as adultery.” However, later Indian Mahayana heavies like Asanga and Vasubandhu, through to Tibetan luminaries of all traditions such as Gampopa, Tsongkhapa, and Dza Patrul, got a lot more, er, involved when it came ot making rules for the laity. Among their lists of dos and don’ts:

  • No gay sex, period.
  • No oral or anal for straights–keep it very vanilla, folks
  • No masturbation
  • No sex during the daytime
  • Five orgasm per night limit for dudes.

Rather generous that last one, at least. Oh, and hookers are no prob. 
This list is, I’m sure, more than a little onerous for everyone, but as a gay man Cabezon was really feeling the squeeze. I guess he’s expected to just hold out for fun dreams once in while.
He resists the temptation to blow off the texts causally, however. What he recommends is much more interesting–a three step process of 1) becoming as familiar with the textual tradition as possible, because ignoring or refusing to confront it is not an option 2) reflecting critically on it, to see if it accords with reason and our sense of right and wrong, and 3) using modern critical tools to assess the context in which these rules were formulated, to get a sense of why they make have been instituted (monks who thought too much in vinaya-like terms and got carried away, in this case), and what the spirit of the law may have been. As he writes
When we put together these various aspects–philological, historical, rationalist–this is where I believe we end up: First, there is no scriptural warrant for the more restrictive, scholastic formulation of the doctrine. It was elaborated by celibate monks who inappropriately read monastic norms into lay sexuality. The individuals who did this were great scholars and saints, but on this issue, they simply got it wrong. . . Second, the doctrine is androcentric and therefore unjust . . and third . .  . the more elaborate doctrine cannot be justified on rational grounds.
Have to say I’m with him on this one.

Comments read comments(8)
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Julia May

posted June 2, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Five orgasms per night per man!
I want to meet a man above 24 who feels restricted by that limit.
To talk to him. About what that is like. While talking.

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Your Name

posted June 2, 2009 at 6:04 pm

It’s interesting that the writer’s name in spanish means “big head”.
But I guess that’s not the topic at hand….. or is it?
In other words I just can take that seriously.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 6:05 pm

I just “can’t” take that seriously.
I wrote the comment above.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 6:15 pm

This is awesome. There are many “textual” ethical commentaries that are way out of date.
I want to read more from Cabezon.
And yes, 5 orgasms a night, wow. Of course, Viagra is very similar to the sanskrit word for “Tiger” so maybe they had a little help from medicine back in the day that we don’t know about.

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Charles Cosimano

posted June 3, 2009 at 2:11 am

Texts are made to be ignored, or in this case, laughed at.

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bhiksuni Ratana

posted June 3, 2009 at 3:31 am

The list here given pertains specifically to the Himalayan or Tibetan traditions. One of the lists with so-called bodhisattva vows as used in this tradition is rather specific on the subject. The Tibetan tradition centers mainly around commentaries written by Indian and Tibetan commentators, and around these bodhisattva vows of later years. We do not find these very specific details in the early Small Vehicle text, i.e. not in the Pali canon, not the Chinese Agama, and probably not even the Tibetan Kanjur, the sutras. Which is to say that prohibitions of the kind described by Cabezon are basically culturally influenced. Compare it with the “obligation” of wearing the chador by Muslim women. This rule is nowhere found in the Qu’ran, and yet it’s presented as a “the Prophet says …” This is not to say that there are no general guidelines on sexualtity in the early canons. These rules pertain solely to the communities of monks and nuns, and do not have any bearing on the communities of lay-followers. In these guidelines, that are inclued in the “vinaya”, the rules of conduct for monastics, we indeed find a prohibition on sexual activity in all its forms and shapes. If you do, you’re out. Further minor rules speak e.g. about the prohibition of “using a lack”, i.e. masturbation.
The problem with Buddhism in the West is that lay-followers think they should incorporate the conduct and practice of the monastics into their own lives. This is not the case. Even the five Precepts are no “rules” to be followed, but rather advice on how one could conduct oneself if one desires to make progress on the path to enlightenment. That is to say, Rule 1 does not say: Thou shalt not kill. It rather says, I promise myself that I shall not kill. And so on.
After so many years in the West these things should be clarified. There are two interrelated paths towards the goal. One path is that of the monastic – it has rules. Another path is that of the lay-follower – it has advice. It would be well if Buddhist magazines devoted some space on these different paths.

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posted June 3, 2009 at 9:29 am

Yes Bhiksuni Ratana, you are correct that this pertains specifically to Indian and Tibetan Mahayana Buddhists, as I clearly state in the article.
However, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Gampopa, Tsongkhapa and Dza Patrul are made rules specifically for the laity. I edited the post lightly to make this more clear. You are correct that this would not apply to Theravada at all.

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Paul Griffin

posted June 3, 2009 at 10:21 am

Here’s to say, I’m with you on this one, Greg. Human sexuality is an odd geometry, and as Nietzsche said, my sexuality reaches into the utmost pinnacle of my spirit. I’ll trust my personal conscience, and not ancient texts written by celibates, to be my guide.

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