Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Objectified Bodies; Sexual Puritanisms

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Buddhism and the lack of attention many of us pay to the body Heady Zen, No Body.. Not long after that, the new BuddhaDharma magazine arrived in my mailbox, containing an article entitled "Start With Your Body." Apparently, this is on a lot of people's minds right now. Here is an except from the article you can check out, if you don't have the magazine. Start with your body

I haven't finished the article, but I would like to offer some reflections based upon what I have read so far. In my opinion, this is an essential issue to address in our practice, especially as Buddhism is unfolding in its newer, non-Asian dominant homes.

The mind/body split that has been so strong in "Western" countries since at least the enlightenment period, and probably could be easily traced back to figures like St. Augustine (354-430), is slowly being examined. In fact, I would argue that part of the appeal we convert Buddhists have to the practice is that the teachings seem to address this very split. However, attraction to holistic teachings is one thing, and implementing them in a holistic way, both individually and collectively, is quite another.

In the article cited above, Reggie Ray, who has spent years developing practices around meditation and the body, said that in "our Western culture" we "objectify the body as somehow separate from our awareness, separate from our minds." Now, I'm wary of his totalizing language about culture. There is no single "Western" culture. Think of all the different subgroups of people just in the U.S. - they don't all believe and behave in the same ways. But I would say there is a dominent strain of thought that does help create this objectification Ray speaks of.

The body as sex object. The body as an advertising method, and sales tool. The body as a machine. The body as a workhorse, means of obtaining income through labor. The body as powerhouse athlete. These are a few examples of the ways in which we objectify our bodies, splitting it off from the mind, and our spiritual lives.

Frankly, the first of these, the body as sex object, tells so very much about the state of things. There is a lot of hand wringing over following the third precept, for example, and what it means in a non-monastic, not quite fully lay oriented practice. Once you get past the issues of rape, incest, and pedifilia, which most people agree are not healthy nor in accord with Buddha's teachings, then all hell breaks loose. What about adultery? That seems to be time and time again rejected in Buddhist teachings, and yet a fair number of the sex scandals in "Western" sanghas have involved adultery. What I find interesting about the issue is adultery is that it instantly brings up impermanence. Our relationships don't last, at least in the way we want them to, even the ones that do last until one or both partners die. The obsession with an ever-lasting monogamy in the "West" seems to really be tripped up when you start to dig deeply into the ways in which our lives actually unfold.

I, myself, desire a long-term monogamous relationship, and hope the next one is the one that lasts for the rest of my life. But experience tells me that it's probably more likely that the next one won't be the last one. I don't think this is being sour or pessimistic - it's reality. So, given the tension between our desires and what actually happens, what's an intelligent, maybe even dharmic way to proceed?

The whole movement for Gay Marriage feels like another example of this tension between the storybook stories we have and realities. On the one hand, it's wonderful that the love of couples, regardless of gender, is starting to move into the mainstream. And along with this movement, an effort to equalize the playing field when it comes to the social/economic benefits of marriage. I support these changes wholeheartedly.

And yet, at the same time, it's still focused on a certain type of relationship, and specifically the one kind of relationship held up as THE BEST and often the only form of acceptable relationship in Western societies. Which leads to the question of those queer folk, or for that matter, straight folk, who choose to commit themselves to others in a different way. Where do they stand? Where does the couple that chooses not to marry stand? Where do those people who view love differently from "death do us part" fit in? Are their decisions not as worthy or loving as those who choose to marry?

And what about all the problems that arise when people feel they have to get married to be able to live together, or to have access to economic and social benefits, or to live in the country their partner is from?

How do we address this in light of the Buddhist precepts? In other words, what do we mean when we vow to "not misuse sexuality"? And I'm specifically pointing at that "We" because I think we in the convert Buddhist communities haven't really looked at these issues enough to have any clear answers.

And why? Because talking about sex, sexuality, and how it impacts our spiritual lives isn't something a whole lot of us are comfortable with. Which takes us back to the whole mind/body split - even though we talk a good game about believing in the interconnectedness of all things, how we really believe that out of the mud of our lives, the lotus will grow, when it comes to sex and sexuality, it all falls apart. Sure, we do a good job lamenting with others how terrible it is that everything is sexualized, or how today's children are learning about sex "too quickly" or "from the "wrong sources" - in other words, we convert Buddhists can bitch with the best of them about social ills.

But really, are we collectively, as a spiritual group, any more enlightened about sex and sexuality than say, the evangelical Christians so many of us like to lambast?

How many sexual puritanisms have we, consciously or unconsciously, incorporated in our efforts to establish sanghas and Buddhist practice in the "West?"

I'm pushing the envelope because it needs to be pushed. Dishonest, greedy, controlling, unexamined sex lives bring an enormous amount of suffering into the world. It seems to me that if you really take the Buddha's teachings seriously, this has to include deeply examining issues of sex and sexuality. And I think this has to happen individually, with those we have relationships with, and in our broader spiritual communities.

Hopefully, I'll have more to write about when I finish the article. But for now, that will have to do. Enjoy!

1 comment:

Algernon said...

What's more, the current issue of Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, focuses on sexuality. Intriguing serendipity here.