Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Q: Is "Swinging" Sexual Misconduct?

Wisdom Quarterly (EDITORIAL)

Q: "Let's say someone did find themselves in a mutually consenting relationship and wanted to go to a swinger's [sex] party or engage [with] multiple, even random, sexual partners. While it might not be sexual misconduct in the first instance, might [it become] that if [it] developed into an accustomed habit over expos[ing] oneself sensually? To keep with the spirit of the Dharma, would it be better to let go of craving, or is it neither-here-nor-there to cultivate such [a habit]?"
-Wei Jer
A: This is gorgeous and candid question (inspired by the article Buddhism's "Sexual Misconduct" Defined) to keep the editing team on their toes. Let's take it in pieces.
What is sexual misconduct (kamesu micchacara)?  Technically, the Buddha defined it in terms of intercourse with 10 kinds of people:
  • Sexual misconduct: conducting oneself in a detrimental manner (to oneself, another person, or both (society?) with regard to sensuality. Namely, one has intercourse with those under the protection of (1) father, (2) mother, (3) parents, (4) brother, (5) sister, (6) relatives or clan, or of (7) their religious community; or with (8) those promised to someone else, (9) protected by law, and even with (10) those betrothed with a garland" (Book of the Tens, AN, X.206).
"Think about it; you don't have to answer now."
What do these mean? Since this list is from The Book of the Tens, it stretches and contracts like an accordion, even at the risk of being redundant, to add up to ten. Let's summarize: 
It refers to any person under the protection or guardianship (meaning that someone is responsible for said person in addition to the person being responsible for him or herself) of someone else. It also covers those protected by law or decree (such as those incapable of giving consent due to their stage or condition) and those who are already engaged, dating, or promised to someone else. Societal and historical factors come into play, and it should be remembered that while the Buddha was speaking to ancient India, he was revealing a universally applicable, karmically effective principle: 
Let us do no harm
as we pursue our sensuality.
For to do so harms us as well and harms even those not directly involved. He was concerned with the agent, the passive recipient(s), the parents, the guardians, and the society as a whole. In the West we are prone to think only of the other person and sometimes only of ourselves. We rarely think of all the rest of those we affect.

What is being talked about? According to the "spirit" of the law, kamesu refers to sensuality
Sex and Buddhism (
Sex represents (epitomizes) the entire class. But gluttony, a more common form of sensual abuse nowadays, is included as are all other abuses of our healthy senses. Who's to say what's "healthy"? We are -- unless we are under protection, in which case our guardian is. We are ultimately responsible for ourselves, but so is that person until we become independent. So let us defer to them then start doing whatever we want when we come of age. Or we can just do whatever we want right now -- but then let's not call that wise karma or Buddhism or even a smart or responsible thing to do.

Many of us have terrible parents, but we can't judge. We don't know they are "terrible" until we better understand the world and the danger we are protected from in our blissful ignorance. Everyone wants to do what s/he wants (by definition). Being willful is neither the way to wellness nor wisdom. Learn from teachers, the first of which are our parents and/or guardians even if we later look back and say they are fools. Why? There's an ancient Eastern saying:
"The wise person learns more from the fool than the fool ever learns from the wise."

As we read the Buddha's advice on sensuality, one overriding thing has to be kept in mind: 
Buddha at Thiksey (Ragg Burns Imaging/Flickr)
What is my goal? If my goal is the straight path to enlightenment and nirvana, it is wise to abandon sexuality and sensuality -- at least temporarily -- until something better comes are along.
What could be better than sensuality? There is a supersensual pleasure, bliss, that comes from virtue and concentration (sila and samadhi) that cannot be explained to those sunk in sensuality. It can. But who would believe it? Try it. It's better. It's superior to sensuality and sexuality. The Buddha never asked anyone to give up a greater thing for a lesser thing, always only the other way around.
This bliss or joy (piti) guided Siddhartha to right concentration -- the development of the first four absorptions (jhanas). It established him on the firm foundation of samadhi, which makes insight practice yield great results. So if the goal is the ultimate, do not settle for the immediate.
Most of us, however, are in no rush to reach the end of all suffering. We imagine we have time and a temperament for more suffering. That being the case, we know little relief from it other than sensuality. In this case, the Buddha advises us to avoid the dark karma trap of "misconduct." But conduct is okay. We may engage in things, but how will we keep from getting sucked in, "addicted," accustomed, trapped? It is possible so long as we go in with care and remain mindful of others as well as ourselves..
What is conduct? What is behavior, what is choice, what is action? Karma. Karma is bright, dark, neutral, and everything in between.
If it becomes an "accustomed habit," that does not make it misconduct. "Misconduct" technically refers whom we choose as partner(s). The ten to be avoided are those dependent on another, unable to give consent, and those promised to another. By avoiding these, we avoid blame and harm. Consenting individuals, if they can be found, pose no problem. Nor is sensual experience the problem with independent partner(s).
The real question is this: "To keep with the spirit of the Dharma, would it be better to let go of craving, or is it neither-here-nor-there to cultivate such [a habit]?"

Yes, it would be better to let go of craving. That is easy to do. First, one develops the habit of giving, which is a kind of letting go. We cultivates non-clinging or detachment. One takes a sober look at what one is holding onto and abandons the craving for it, first by sharing, then by giving away, then by not picking up the object. This will never lead to real letting go! Real letting go does itself when we develop insight:
Christy Turlington (
Wise reflection (yoniso manasikara), contemplation (anussati), and insight-meditation (vipassana) takes the serene and concentrated mind and brings it to the object. What do we cling to? We might be clinging to anything, but generally we cling to ten general things. Whereas the first five are difficult to let go of, the next five are almost impossible to let go of because we never think to reflect on them as foreign, not ours, painful and distressing, impersonal, and wise to relinquish.

The first five are the "five strands of sensuality" -- what is experienced as pleasurable by way of sights, sounds, tangibles, tastes, and fragrances. The other five are the Five Aggregates of Clinging -- physical form, feeling, perceptions, (50) mental formations, and consciousness.

When the absorption-purified mind/heart knows-and-sees things as they really are (impermanent, impersonal, and suffering), it lets go. The temporarily-released heart (freed by concentration) is permanently released by wisdom.

So do what you want. Avoid hypocrisy. Avoid harming anyone in the process. And it should be okay, we say. Oh and, most importantly, call and invite us to the party: (555) WIS-DOM Q.

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