Monday, March 30, 2009

The Need for More Dialogue on Sexuality

Affairs between teachers and students in the United States zen community have been sadly too common over the past 30 years, and the resulting damage to those involved, including the sanghas,continues to be a legacy in need of deeper examination. I am part of such a sangha, and although other issues were at play in ours, there is still a lingering sense of relationship disharmony between teachers and students among those of us who were there at the time of the fallout from the affair.

However, this will not be a writing of condemnation. In fact, the longer I reflect upon what happened there, as well as the mistakes I have made in my own life when it comes to intimate, sexual relationships, the more questioning I do about it all.

A friend of mine at zen center said something mildly provocative: "I'm not sure I want a long term relationship ... but I'm not interested in casual sex either." There wasn't time to ask much more about this comment because he had to bow out and head to work, but it struck me as an interesting place to be.

Even as I continue to desire greatly a long-term, committed relationship, I have often wondered if, as a society, our expectations and prohibitions about romantic relationships have made it so that people do not even feel safe discussing things outside of the accepted norms. At least in public, or semi-private, open spaces.

It's clear with the proliferation of sex sites, porn and sex chat on the internet, that people are talking about sex and what are considered by most "illicit" relationships. But just like affairs, there is this issue of hiding, of covering up one's behavior out of shame, guilt, and/or a desire to get away with something. And it seems to me that it's this hiding, and the fallout that comes when the hidden are discovered, which causes the a lot of the suffering for all involved.

Buddha's path is, as much as anything, about working toward the cessation of suffering for all beings. What I wonder is how do we create relationships, and boundaries for those relationships, that respect the fact that life is constantly changing? How do we make a deep bond with another that also recognizes that those bonds might not be until death do us part? And can we develop safe spaces for people to discuss thoughts and desires that stray from their current relationship, without getting into shaming and condemning land?

I have been in two long term, committed relationships. I was faithful during both in the sense that I did not have intimate relations with another while with my partner. However, there were times when I felt strong desire for another, and didn't know what to do with such feelings. I never really considered cheating during either of these relationships, because I've always been someone that, once I make a commitment, I stick with it. Beyond those two relationships, however, there have been times when loneliness has gotten the best of me. Twice I have participated in very short affairs with women who were in breaking apart marriages. One lasted a few weeks, the other only a day, and both times I broke it off because my conscience couldn't take it. Should I have become involved with either of these women? No. And I'm aware of the reality that the driving force behind these decisions was the deep sense of separation Buddha so clearly points out to again and again in the teachings. But beyond that, I have never felt a sense that this kind of topic has a place in discussion most anywhere, even at zen centers or other spiritual organizations, beyond comments about it being wrong and to be avoided. This is not to exonerate me from my decisions, but to put up the question of how we might all work together at dealing with these issues as they come up in our lives, or in the lives of others we know.

When I think of the teachers who have crossed the line with students, I can imagine for some that there was a tremendous sense of isolation. What do you do with such desires, especially if you don't know if anyone would listen and work with you on them beyond simple declarations of wrongness. Maybe I'm being too generous here to these teachers, who have created a lot of misery through their actions. But sex scandals having to do with power figures, be they politicians or clergy, seem to continue to happen on an all too frequent basis. And I believe it is partly due to the lack of openness, honesty, and willingness on the part of us all to discuss and examine issues of intimacy, sexuality, and expectations of relationships.

When a marriage is crumbling, and another comes along that sparks a strong sense of desire, what then? When you fall for someone in a crumbling marriage, what then?

Prohibitions alone have never worked very well. Just ask any teenager or young adult who has gone through an abstinence only program. We need something more, at the very least a willingness to speak openly about our experiences, and to listen openly without rushing to condemn what is being said. Isn't this what spiritual communities are supposed to be about? Isn't shining a light on everything we've left in the dark one of our deep callings? I say yes!

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