Sexual Misconduct and the Third Zen Precept: A discussion with Nancy Baker

This post contains audio. Listen here

The Summer 2012 issue of Tricycle featured an article by Zen teacher Nancy Baker on the third Zen precept: refraining from sexual misconduct. In her article, Nancy explored the differences between "sexual misconduct" and "misuse of sex," our conscious and unconscious impulses, the sacred energy of sex, and how we can apply the third Zen precept to modern life. Nancy writes:

The third Zen precept, refraining from impure sexuality, probably originated in a monastic setting where celibacy was practiced. As laypeople who are not tempted to engage in physically violent sexual misconduct...we might wonder how this precept relates to our lives. In fact, if we look more closely, it is a subtle and interesting precept; there is more to it than first meets the eye. There are several different translations of its subject matter: “adultery,” “impure sexuality,” “sexual misconduct,” “unchaste conduct,” and “misuse of sex.” What causes the misconduct and the impurity has been translated as “attachment,” “greed,” “grasping,” and “desire.” A consideration of some of the differences among these translations actually allows us to see the richness of the precept.

In this week's Tricycle Talk, Nancy speaks with Tricycle's Rachel Hiles about sexual misconduct, our complicated relationship with pleasure, and whether Buddhists make too big of a deal about sex.

Read Nancy's article here and listen to her Tricycle Talk below, then join our week-long discussion about sexual misconduct and the third Zen precept. Nancy will be answering your questions and responding to your comments throughout the week.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.

Audio

rroserred's picture

Freud has been pretty much debunked. When you base your entire world view and view of the human mind on sexual desires (of males), you're probably in trouble. While he contributed in various ways to the development of Western psychology, his theories are not currently seen as really appropriate to the human experience generally.

That said, it would seem to me that sexual misconduct is pretty simple for the Buddhist: are you hurting someone? Do you pay attention to that? Are you going to ventilate your sexual thoughts and feelings with letting them subside and returning to the breath (or being present) or are you going to indulge in them? I had a husband, now ex, Buddhist, who rejected me in favor of one or two women a day, while married to me, and who denied me sex because when I'd get a disease from him, I'd know he had been unfaithful. He believed that since he told me he thought it was "fundamentally good" to screw anyone he pleased that that covered his moral obligation to his wife of 8 weeks. Traumatized, I went to my meditation instructor, who is now a famous author and speaker often publishing in this journal, and she said if I didn't like it I could leave (the sangha). So I did. She thought I didn't have enough compassion for the poor man. Never mind I have no children because of him, nor faith in much of anyone anymore. Never mind that I was suffering from PTSD from the abuse of this person. He went on teaching and promoting himself as an exalted dharma teacher until he was banned from teaching within our community for sexually harassing women at dharma programs he was teaching. Then he went overseas to teach. His current wife, half his age and also a favorite in the community, just has to hang in there for maybe another decade and he'll die. She'll inherit millions. How is this an expression of Buddhadharma? I'm still waiting for the explanation that demonstrates compassion.

So, tell me about sexual misconduct and Buddhists. I think Buddhists are no different from anyone else in this department. If you take the precept, it's to not cause harm. Evidently, even with precepts a Buddhist can justify harming another person sexually, and have the behavior sanctioned by the hierarchy of the organization. True practitioners probably don't have to worry. They self-examine, examine their minds, refrain from harming others, and are able to let go of judging self, of clinging to thoughts and urges, of dwelling and indulging. It's like any other human urge or need. And Buddhist practice makes it clear.

Shamans and seers who see energy report that sexual intercourse causes an energetic link in which women feed men energy. There is an evolutionary or ecological point to this in that it will tie the male to his offspring and there will be support for bringing up the next generation. The links do not provide women with increased energy. Seems to me that careful assessment of one's goals and values as a Buddhist are in order, that monogamy has a point, and that like everything else, the Buddhist considers the needs of others when choosing to act or not act. Sex addiction (not actually recognized as an addiction, but sometimes seen as one) is harmful to self and other. The honest Buddhist will take steps to apply practice to overcome things like that, however they must.

wtompepper's picture

only someone stupid enough to believe that shamans can see energy would be ignorant enough to assert that Freud has been debunked-clearly without ever having read a word of Freud.

isafakir's picture

freud has not been debunked entirely but such things as the "oedipus" complex have been replaced by bowlby's theories on bonding and loss. sexual drives, libido, do not drive social psychological personality development, but the need to experience acceptance and security. lovingkindness is the foundation of and for human psychological development and learning how to be part of a community on which one can count for succor and support and protection. so debunk is not the word but replaced he is.

azure47's picture

Thank you for your wisdom Nancy. I was a member of a Sangha and was molested in the dark after meditation by a practice council senior and when I reported my outrage at being violated in the very place that should have been one of safety and sanctity I was ignored. Somehow I was supposed to overcome my anger at this behavior with mindfulness and compassion. Being transgressed is one thing but finding you have no support speaks to a corruption of the assembly in general. I now practice in the safety of my own home and feel robbed of the community I cherished and was an integral part of. We need not look to the outside for incidences of misconduct, or speak of these issues as belonging to the "other". We can find it where vows are taken but not lived.

rroserred's picture

Yes, I too was rejected by my community for reporting the gross misconduct of my husband while he and many sangha women enjoyed sex. He may have been the teacher who molested you, for all I know. If it wasn't him, it was someone just like him. I sought help and loving kindness in my distraught state and received a rebuff. You are exactly right in saying the assembly is corrupt. It seems males still prevail in protecting themselves, and that Buddhist sanghas are no exception when it comes to excusing rape, pedophilia, adultery, sexual abuse, and so on. I also practice at home now.

My ex-husband also indulged himself with a child of 16, so invulnerable did he feel. If Buddhism is a worthy practice, I will find out in spite of the pathetic, weak excuses offered me by "senior" teachers. Some day, perhaps sanghas will evolve to truly eschew such conduct. Not likely, but one can continue to speak, practice, and be fearless in the face of sangha rejection for saying the truth. Consider me your sangha.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Animality is one of the 3 lower life-conditions. Everyone has it, even the tonsured among us.

andy.miles05's picture

A useful discussion.

Basically I agree with Nancy Baker viewpoint, but I want to add my words.

Basically, sex is not a good or bad thing, unless it is being done by forcefully, or not by complete consent
of the two partners.

The issue is that in our days, and in western society, sex has become a commodity, just like food.
There are no borders, sex is selling products... We should go back to innocence. To Conservatism....

Andy@My World

nellietinder's picture

Certainly rape, groping and "boorishness" are examples of grave sexual misconduct (along with adultery, sex with minors, etc). However, as a woman, I find often these discussions leave out a subtler perspective on the sexuality of females (because I am one) that does not place them in the role of either victim or seductress. Perhaps there is a non-gendered, non-criminal discussion of sexual appetite to be had. I found it hard to get past the assumptions about men and women in this article.

celticpassage's picture

I think it would be a good idea to start using language a bit more carefully.
Rude and insensitive behavior (boorishness) is not 'grave sexual misconduct' which ranks with rape, sex with minors etc. Nor do I think 'groping' or 'adultery' should be listed as equivalent to rape and sex with minors. Sexual misbehaviors can range from mild and minor to serious and criminal

hokuto's picture

"Grave sexual misconduct" is not so much about the act, but the context. Violation of relationships (teacher/student being the most important example, but also including issues of adultery and expectations of spiritual focus and recollection) is central to the idea of "grave sexual misconduct". The concept is not legalistic--so the legal definition of rape or sex with minors is somewhat beside the point, though they would be examples of the most grievous, heinous sort of misconduct. Rude and insensitive behavior in a particular set of circumstances may indeed qualify as "grave sexual misconduct".

celticpassage's picture

Rude and insensitive behavior is not and never could be grave sexual misconduct.
Such relativizing of behavior reminds me of the total nonsense promoted in the 70's by some where they would seriously question whether my hangnail isn't just as awful as you getting your leg blown off with a landmine. Some of these were, unsurprisingly, "therapists"

Dominic Gomez's picture

Could be the plot of a new sit-com, "Sex in the Siddhi".

wanwaimeng's picture

The sexual act is neither positive or negative but if we hurt the person we are engaging that action with it is a sexual misconduct. Of course non consensual sex too, doing it with minors who in the words of the Buddha under the protection of their guardians, and also when we engage in that action other people are hurt by it, due to us having committed ourselves to others being married or other forms of relationships that are binding.

nimbleberry's picture

Thank you, a useful discussion

tonyc827's picture

I am fairly new to Dharma talks, and while the 3 Precepts the other day there was some confusion about number 3. This article cleared u some of it for me. Thank you.

feralyung's picture

My feelings about sexual ethics are related to the fact that it is one of the most charged energies in any society/culture and each culture surrounds that energy with very stringent prescriptions/proscriptions. Part of the present difficulties are related to cultural inertia (the so called culture wars). Sexuality was always inextricably entwined with sustainability of the family, the core unit of any culture. Birth Control has changed all that drastically. The only culture that I am aware of is the Chinese tribe, the Mosuo ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosuo ), where a woman has freedom to express her sexuality without censure. In Buddhism, dependence arising is a fundamental understanding of a constructivist process philosophy and I see no reason why sexuality should be off limits to that basic understanding. Sexual freedom has been a fixation with virtually all utopian communities and has been the major source of failure of those communities. Those experiments, for the most part (like the Oneida community), predated birth control Another basic reality is the great variety of basic human personalities that are doubtless (to me) partially due to heritable traits makes prognosticating what cultural stable points might be a settling in for the future to be a very dicey proposition. I remember well (I am 63 yrs old) the angst that was the eighties regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. The prevalence of pornography on the internet has been pointed out in a TED talk by Philip Zimbardo http://www.ted.com/talks/zimchallenge.html about "the demise of guys" where he asserts that young men are doing damage to the circuits of their brains relating to social communication skills by obsessing about porn. Another fact is that male and female brains are different in critically relevant ways regarding sex and social communication. Personally, I fall back on the path with heart as Jack Kornfield puts it.If we can encourage each other to develop a very strong sense of empathy and compassion and honestly and sincerely consider the long term implications/consequences/entailments of our actions, that is probably the best we can do until we as a society/culture settle into a modus vivendi that we can all live with. It seems clear to me that the present chaos will not endure for long. People will get mad as hell and won't take it anymore. I hope I live long enough to get a glimpse to where it all might be leading.

isafakir's picture

regarding some points on the cultures of "sexuality" @feralyung...in north america, there were every range of practice among different groups from completely individual choice to strict limits in choice. in all american cultures there were several genders, some allowing one to choose and others assigning a gender in childhood. off the top of my head i can think of quite a few societies where woman made their own choices. there very word sexuality however is so culture specific as to be virtually meaningless in many parts of the world, currently or in the past. throughout most of human development before complex structured societies emerged about 10 thousand years ago, woman were the primary deciders of who got to get married with whom. and there were both formal openly acknowledged exchange systems, marriage primarily being economic agreements, and the less formalized whereby people operated outside the given norms, as we see in all societies.

my point is, that most if not all discussions of "sexuality" seem to take place in a very narrow culture specific context. when i moved to the middle east despite my anthropological and linguistic training, i was unprepared for the degree to which very little of east coast USA "sexuality" had any meaning or reference in Saudi Arabia or Oman. the first real serious case of culture shock i experienced. I had lived in Turkey for 8 years prior to moving to the Arab Gulf. in some ways i was unhinged at being a sex object to young men at over 50. I really believed I had more or less made peace with "sexuality." after decades of celibacy. how shallow and superficial decades of practice and training turned out to be just by changing a few parameters.

the political discussions Americans are having, the sex wars, as important as they are socially and economically, barely scratch the surface. as seen by the amazing number of USA roshis acting against the precepts and using their positions to act out their own private sex wars.

Nancy Baker's picture

Me, too.

williamftyler's picture

Dear Nancy,
I really appreciated the reference to Wendell Berry's chapter 'The body and the Earth' This gives me the overview I have been searching for. So many of my older male friends seem to be mistaking the desire for a deep spiritual exchange with women for a simple sexual fantasy. His writing sets a much bigger context for this exchange and what has diminished it. Any further examples (references) would be much appreciated. Thank you

Nancy Baker's picture

A careful read of that whole chapter is the best I can think of. It's quite amazing, particularly some sobering thoughts about birth control. nb

sschroll's picture

Dear Nancy,
There is a profound Chinese saying: "There is nothing as dangerous as an ignorant person who ignores her/his ignorance" Proof of this, in the news today, a guy started a fire in a gas station by testing his lighter while filling up the tank of his car. Tragedy was avoided by another customer who ran for a fire extinguisher.
Thank you for all these rich insights, for bringing our attention to this issue, on how it is playing us, for opening many doors for us to look inside an have the possibility of making conscious what so far is/was unconscious.
I think that is a big roll of educating.....getting people to think about it, have a chance to examine it.
This is an issue really talked about with this clarity

Thank you,
Sylvia

Nancy Baker's picture

Thank you, too, for your articulation. nb

jackelope65's picture

Honesty is often the key word to receive what we wish with sex or outer human encounters. Frank discussions of sexual anatomy and physiology of a parent and children at an early enough age to attract attention is the best start when possible, not when a confused forty year old is on a psychiatrist's couch. Discussion of sex and procreation is so important that children, parents, and school systems should carry it forth throughout the development process. Scientific issues need to be demystified, and our children be prepared to have frank discussions with their own partners to begin their sexual encounters with honesty.

isafakir's picture

until very recently, most humans willy nilly grew up knowing the basic facts of life as these took place fully integrated into daily life. milk was what a mother fed to her children. no mystery. today's children can't imagine what milk is it has become so packaged. and commercialized. cows goats sheeps camels buffalos milk didn't matter. it was a mother who gave it. now it is a powder you put in coffee.

we are divorced from ourselves from childhood. in the 50s in new york i was a teenager already becoming aware of sexuality before i discovered where babies come from. i saw it on a farm. the very first lesson i got at dai bosatzu from roshi was feeling the floor with my feet. literally, i had learned to live divorced from my body from the neck down. how can we be honest about sexuality when at least me for one deny our physical selves altogether. like growing up in a world where milk comes from a bottle.

Nancy Baker's picture

...and with heart, too.

williamftyler's picture

Dear Nancy,
I really appreciated the reference to Wendell Berry's chapter 'The body and the Earth' This gives me the overview I have been searching for. So many of my older male friends seem to be mistaking the desire for a deep spiritual exchange with women for a simple sexual fantasy. His writing sets a much bigger context for this exchange and what has diminished it. Any further examples (references) would be much appreciated. Thank you

Rachel's picture

Comment left by donnamariedenton

Dear Nancy,
Thank you for a very thought provoking article on sexual energies.
We often see on tv or hear of the awful uses of sex by people who are very aggressive in the use of sex to satisfy their own cravings. tThey are immune to the hurt they cause by their actions. Raw greed to control another person using any methods they can think of may well be their goal.
i like the higher goal of using that precious sacred sexual energy Nancy spoke of that lifts us as human beings to a place of caring and love between people. I wonder sometimes if we learn of that spirit by seeing it with other people or if it just comes to us when we feel that presence that brings us to a reality that there is that experience which can happen to us as human beings. What are your thoughts about this Nancy?

Nancy Baker's picture

If thinking of sexual energy as precious, even sacred, is new, then, it seems to me, really contemplaing this is worth while. It sort of reorients us. Of course, it helps if our culture can contribute to it. Thank you, Donna.

Rachel's picture

Comment left by Dominic Gomez

Buddhism clarifies the 10 life-conditions innate in each person. Sexual misconduct falls into the lower 3: hell, hunger and animality. The constant challenge for any practitioner of Buddhism is to strengthen their highest conditions of bodhisattva and buddhahood.

Nancy Baker's picture

I'm not exactly sure, Dominic, what your point is in light of the article. What I was trying to do was to get us to look at the different things we might mean by "misuse of sexuality" and "sexual misconduct." Though it is certainly true that "strengthening one's highest conditions of bodhisattva and buddhahood" should be an aspiration, to do so at the expense of really looking at and acknowledging with compassion one's own failures in regard to all the precepts, can greatly limit one's compassion for others and narrow our own lives. It is my conviction that we need to do both. Thank you for your comment.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Examining people's weaknesses with regard to religious precepts or commandments may be helpful, but it falls short of directly addressing the root of the problem. The human being him- or herself is the source of impropriety as well as its solution. As people lift themselves to the level of recognizing and honoring the dignity (aka buddha nature) of each other, we will begin to treat one another with a little more respect without having to resort to myriad rules and regs on how to "conduct" or not "misuse" power, sex, alcohol, drugs, money, guns, etc.
Buddhism's role in this endeavour is empowering the individual to discover and tap the highest life-condition available to him or her: the life condition of Buddhahood.
A Buddha would not use his position as a roshi to sexually take advantage of a student sincerely seeking the Law. But a devil (of a person) would. A mindless animal would.

Nancy Baker's picture

It's not "people's weakness" that need examining, but my own. No mattter how high my ethical standards are, whatever I reject in myself will definitely be rejected in others. Interesting to consider in this regard is the essay on Precept #7, "Not blaming others and elevating oneself." Thank you, Dominic.

isafakir's picture

amen.thanks.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is a clear mirror that allows us to see our lives. People around us, the situations we find ourselves in, are the reflection of what is inside us. Practicing Buddhism is the act of polishing the mirror that is our life. We are then able to see more clearly what it is we need to change in order to elevate ourselves.

TravellerThruKalpas's picture

Dignity is not buddha nature… we may mistakenly think so because the image of the seated Buddha imparts a sense of it to us, but it only implies a state which humans acquire on the way to buddhahood, and not the attainment itself, which is beyond human. Also, characterizing buddhahood as a "life-condition" makes it seem inappropriately materialistic, doesn't it? Positing in these ways allows us to continue anthropomorphizing the path, which is actually only provisionally human, in our case...

Nancy Baker's picture

Yes, dignity is not Buddha Nature! We might say, however, that it is one of its manifestations. Much we could both say here. nb

isafakir's picture

my human nature, my biological existence, is the only buddha nature i'll ever know. in my 20s i went to stars and even other universes sometimes chemically enhanced means of travel, sometimes not. met beings impossible to conceive in this universe. was one of them. but i can't live there [i don't believe] my nature as a homo of the species sapiens a new yorkerensis fed on various cultures from south america europe and the middle east is the only buddha i can pray to know. no?

and that buddha has its fare share of sexual handicaps which aren't going away even if its reborn in Pure Land. my hope is to celebrate that. i think. let it be.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You may be confusing dignity with pomposity. Buddhist dignity is more sublime. It has to do with being human in the fullest sense of the word. The Buddhist recognizes and values his or her own dignity as a human being. Enlightenment is recognizing and respecting other human beings as Buddhas as well. In light of the article this means treating others as you would like others to treat yourself: with the respect and dignity that befits a fellow human regardless of their race, class, gender.

Nancy Baker's picture

I think what I and the other respondent have in mind is simply distinguishing True Nature from its manifestations. True Nature is not describable, its manifestations are. It is a "faceless fellow that raises the eyebrows and blinks."

Dominic Gomez's picture

What do you believe True Nature to be? BTW, the Lotus Sutra teaches that "true nature" IS its manfestations (and vice versa). To paraphrase Flip Wilson as Geraldine, "What you see (manifestations, phenomena) is what it (true nature) is."

Rachel's picture

Comment left by myers_lloyd

Very much in agreement with this so- thoughtful discussion article.
My only distinction in viewpoint came with Sensei Nancy's example of a woman not taking responsibility for her own desires by leaving her hand available to a potential partner rather than making a gesture herself to take the other's hand.
Other considerations could be at work, and it comes down to intention. What if she is uncertain whether the other would appreciate this - whether in fact the other could be nonplussed, feel awkward? To make the hand available allows for choice for the other. It's delicate,and not necessarily less responsible.
Recently my eleven year old granddaughter told me that she'd developed a crush on a playmate, and wanted to tell him so. Her parents advised keeping the feelings she had private in case their close and valuable friendship became awkward. When she talked with me, I could sympathize with her feelings about baring her heart. It was not to "scoop" him but to allow herself honesty to reveal herself.
She solved the issue her own way by leaving him a note in his shoe, which he found, read and acknowledged. I loved her transparency and this open- spirited, independent solution.
Just my opinion, man.

Nancy Baker's picture

A lovely example! This kind of situation, of course, happens and requires great attention to the other and some delicacy. Jean Paul Sartre's example of self-deception and what he called 'bad faith' was set up to be just that in the context of a particular discussion in one of his books. I'm sure he would have appreciated its being used to illustrate something entirely different. Thank you.