Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sexual Desire and the Platform Sutra

The root cause of purity
is the lust nature,
For once rid of lust,
the substance of the nature is pure.
Each of you, within your natures;
abandon the five desires.
In an instant, see your nature–
it is true.

from Hui Neng's Platform Sutra

Over at my other blog, I have been writing a lot about romantic relationships. It's kind of an endless topic if you think about, all the things that can and do happen between people who come together and make some form of partnership, however long or short, strong or weak it may be.

This morning's dharma talk at Zen Center referenced some lines from the Platform Sutra that sparked my interest. They were not those I have quoted above; in fact, when I heard them at 10 o'clock this morning, romantic relationships were not on my mind. However, as I took a look at the Platform Sutra this afternoon, I came across the quotation above, which comes almost at the end. (I flipped to the end for some reason.) And when I saw what you read above, something clicked in.

What, you may ask?

The fact that my mind still too often views "getting rid of" as meaning just that when it comes to sexual desire.

That my actions around sexual desire are still too often subtle shifts of avoidance or indulgence - and not coming from a liberation from those two.

Notice in Hui Neng's words the centrality of lust, of sexual desire - how it's considered the "root cause of purity." This is a long way from the land of prohibitions and shame that tend to follow from religious moral codes, even amongst some Buddhists.

Hatred and disgust of the body, and all that seems to come from it, are easy to locate in spiritual teachings. And of course, there is plenty of the opposite in the "everyday world" - obsession and indulgence of the body, and all that seems to come from it.

So, I see Hui Neng's words zeroing in on that dichotomy, and seeing it as a platform for complete liberation. For how could anyone truly be "rid of" sexual desire that has already arisen? Where could I possibly toss this albatross of energy that has already engulfed this body?

The five desires referenced in the last part of the quote above are basically these: comfort, sex, food, sleep, and good reputation. There are other slightly different translations of them, but this one seems to be the most flexible, but also easy to work with one.

When I think about romantic relationships, and consider those I have had in the past, all five of these desires played a role. More specifically, I can see how attachments to, or aversions towards, one or more of these played roles in causing a lot of suffering in those relationships. My attachments and aversions, and my partner's attachments and aversions.

For example, my early years as a vegetarian coincided with the first long term relationship I ever had. My girlfriend was neither vegetarian, nor terribly health conscious around food. And so, we often struggled around eating together. I judged her choices; she was irritated by mine, or felt guilty about mine. It was pretty damned unpleasant.

During the same relationship, I am well aware of times when I placed my own comfort over the well being of my girlfriend or the relationship itself. Once, having grown tired of staying in her parent's messy and noisy house, I basically made my girlfriend drive me home. We were nearly three hours away, and it was during the middle of winter. Not the proudest moment in my book.

In a more recent relationship, I frequently worried about my reputation as an ESL teacher because my girlfriend had been a student of mine. Never mind that she had long since left my classroom, I still wondered if my bosses and others at the school I worked at would judge me harshly for being with her.

These examples, and many others, are one of the reasons I see intimate partnerships as one of the most powerful practices a lay person can engage in. Both their presence and absence can be powerful catalysts, provided you approach intimate relationships as deep practices. In that way, they are like a monastery for us, exposing all the rough edges and hidden qualities - just as monks and nuns do in practicing and living together in monastic settings.

Even for those of us lay practitioners who are currently outside of those partnerships, there are still the memories of the past, the fantasies of the future, and the desires of the now to practice with.

The form of intimate partnership may or may not be present; the material coming up still seems to be fairly similar, doesn't it?

What are your thoughts?


Brikoleur said...

Ideally, a romantic/sexual partnership is also a spiritual one, in the sense that the partners grow together and help each other grow.

And yes, growing is painful. Sometimes.

Nathan said...

"Ideally, a romantic/sexual partnership is also a spiritual one, in the sense that the partners grow together and help each other grow."

I totally agree.

Jeanne Desy said...

Hui-neng's words - "once rid of lust" - made me think to complete that "you're dead." I am just reading the portion you posted, not in context, so I probably don't understand it. But it made me want to say that I do believe liberation lies in freely having our desires, enjoying having them, and not being bound to fulfilling them, or unhappy if we don't.

Nathan said...

I think it's partly a translation issue. Although even with that translation, it can be taken as saying being rid of our attachments and hangups around sexual desire. And I also believe being rid of lust means transforming it - bringing that energy fully into your life, as opposed to what lust tends to be, an energy fixed on a particular person or object. Lust is incomplete and separated.