A Zen’s-Eye View: Zen precepts warn against misusing sexuality

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Sexuality is as much a part of Zen practice as any other aspect of daily life. Acknowledging and honouring our sexuality creates an environment where conscious, mindful and compassionate relationships can be cultivated. The core of this precept is about avoiding attachment to sensuality.

Working with the Zen precepts is fundamentally a way of working with our minds. They are not moral imperatives that we are commanded to follow. This precept doesn’t moralize about sex. Rather it asks us to look at self-centered desire and notice how it shuts us off from others. By looking at self-centered desire, we see how breaking this precept works in concert with the other precepts. For example, sexual misconduct is often facilitated by lying to others, and self-centeredness leads to treating people like objects.

Another way we misuse sexuality is by indulging in intoxicating fantasies about sex. Most of us do this, sometimes, but I’m referring to fantasies that are indulged in to the point that they replace connection with real life. I am not saying it is wrong to have sexual fantasies, but I am saying that is it important to recognize such fantasies as delusions. If we practice with delusions they could become a path to realization.

To practice with delusions, first notice the impermanence of these states. They come and go. They are not “us” but something that arises and passes through us. We can become aware of how a particular state affects us, how we respond to it, what preceded it, and how one state leads into another. The point of the precepts isn’t to keep us from having fun, but to help us be aware of how we separate ourselves from people by turning them into objects.

So what are we to make of all this? Given the wide range of interpretations, what does it mean to not misuse sexuality? What does it mean to avoid the extremes of excess and repression?

We can begin with the root admonition: Do no harm. Certainly there is much harm with the misuse of sexuality. Our Criminal Code attests to that and much suffering has resulted from misused sexuality.

Not misusing sexuality is a particularly tricky precept since it happens in relationships. Even if we are clear about what is too much, too little or just right, in order to avoid doing harm, we need to work sex out with another person. Each of us is different. We have different gender preferences, pleasure preferences and timing preferences. We can’t assume that what is “right” for us will be right for another. In fact, we can assume that won’t be the case. The point is not to judge and condemn. It is to find out what’s true for you and to express that in a way that honors the fire inside without harming anyone else.

Suggested practice: For the next two weeks, before engaging in sexual activity ask yourself if you are about to misuse sexuality. Are you doing harm to others?

Kuya Minogue is the resident teacher at Creston’s ZenWords Zen Centre. For more information, she can be reached at 250-428-6500.