Sexual Misconduct

I became a Buddhist because of something that really appealed to me about Buddhism: a reverence for reason. I say this not to say that Buddhism is great and other religions aren’t, because there is a tradition of reason in every religion I know of, but rather that this is something that was very accessible to me in Buddhism that made it make sense for me.

The term “thusness” or “suchness,” which you may have heard, is core to Buddhism. It is simply that things are precisely as they are, and no other way. They are thus. Thusness,. This acceptance of things-as-they-are is, in my mind, the foundation of Buddhism. It’s present in the other religions too; it just happens to be very reachable to me in Buddhism.

What does this have to do with sexual misconduct? I can’t say that I had any idea, but someone asked me about this yesterday, and it tied in with some other things that have come up recently as well as in the past, and I came to a realization about it that might be useful to share.

I studied for many years with a Lama in the Tibetan Gelukpa tradition. One of the many things he taught was a course on the Vinaya, which he translated as “vowed morality.” I’m not in love with that translation, because I think the term “morality” tends to mean something quite a bit different than what is meant in Buddhism.

In Buddhism, everything is a practice. First, you notice how things are. Then you think about how things might be improved, starting from there. Then you try to improve things, and see what happens. The same is true for “vowed morality.” My Theravada teacher refers to this as “the practice of virtue,” which I think gets closer to the heart of things, although “virtue” is still a pretty loaded word.

I’m here to talk about the practice of virtue as it pertains to one’s sexual conduct. The Gelukpa take on this is to talk about various situations in which sexual conduct is non-virtuous, and various types of sexual conduct which is non-virtuous regardless of who is doing it. Monks and nuns aren’t supposed to engage in any sort of sexual interaction, including touching a person of the opposite sex or being in a room with them and sitting closer together than a certain distance. Or looking at them.

The Dalai Lama has gotten into more than a few heated discussions with LGBT activists because the Vinaya explicitly forbids certain homosexual conduct. His take on it is that he suspects that this part of the Vinaya is cultural and not officially the teachings of the Buddha, but as a lineage holder he doesn’t feel that it is his place to contradict the lineage.

I think the Dalai Lama is right about this, but I would go quite a bit farther. In particular, I think that the wish not to contradict the lineage is a mistake that is very common in Buddhism. Buddhism either works, and can be validated, or it doesn’t.

If you want to be socially Buddhist, then the lineage is going to be important to you, and that’s fine. But if you want to practice to reach awakening, then you have to get serious, and getting serious means validating everything you are told and accepting nothing just because your teacher said it was true. This is actually one of the core teachings of Buddhism—I’m not at all going out on a limb saying this.

One thing to point out about sexual misconduct is that it’s not actually listed as one of the Ten Nonvirtues. That’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s in all of the pratimoksha vows, the vows of individual freedom. The laypersons’ vows forbid “sexual misconduct,” and that’s generally explained as adultery. The monastic vows forbid any kind of sexual misconduct. Why would that be?

I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about their “spirit animal.” It’s this idea that there is some animal you connect to that is essentially you. I think though that for all of us, the spirit animal that we are actually trying to connect with is a human. This human, the one here typing this, or the one there reading this.

It’s hard to accept our inner human, because we don’t always agree with its priorities. It has drives that we sometimes find challenging to deal with, whether it’s the drive to eat, or the drive to find stable shelter, or the drive to belong, or the drive to form sexual connections. And yet when we don’t accept our inner human, the consequences can be pretty dire.

One example of an inner human drive is the drive to seek approval of attractive people. Attractive can mean lots of different things—it doesn’t have to be (and frequently isn’t) entirely physical, although there is usually (but not always) a physical element. It ties in to the sex drive, but isn’t entirely a part of it. A person who appears sexually fit to us will definitely be an attractive person, and here I think is where the denial of the inner human comes in.

The thing is, when a person we find attractive sends approval our way, it feels really good. When they don’t send approval our way, particularly if they once did, it feels really bad. If we want their approval and aren’t getting it, it feels really bad. And this is the essence of operant conditioning: the process through which we learn new behavior. We are conditioned to repeat actions that resulted in feeling good, and to avoid actions that resulted in feeling bad. Regardless of whether these actions are “skillful” or not.

“Skillful” just means “consistent with behavior that, if everybody did it, would tend to produce good outcomes.” So lying to people might get you a good outcome this one time, but it’s not skillful, because if everybody lies all the time, it’s really hard to cooperate, and cooperation definitely seems to make things go better.

Approval gets even worse when there is mutual approval, because now there’s a feedback loop: if I approve of you, that makes you feel good, and then you approve of me, and that makes me feel good, and this can pull us down paths we wouldn’t have chosen to go down if we weren’t feeling so good because of the approval.

What does this have to do with denial of the inner human? Here is the problem. The inner human doesn’t care whether what it wants is okay. It just wants it. And it has to be okay that it wants it, because if it’s not, that leads to self-hatred. And yet, if we just uncritically accept the feelings that come from the inner human wanting things, that leads to bad outcomes. We are attracted to someone who isn’t attracted to us. We say something stupid. We get negative feedback, which feels really, really awful. We try to do something to correct the situation, but we do it based on the feelings of the inner human, and wind up making things even worse.

Or, we get approval from someone, say a co-worker, and we give it back, and we get some positive feedback. And at some point the inner human says “huh, that person would be nice to have sex with.” And because the approval feedback is new, and we aren’t used to it, that can lead to inappropriate behavior. It can also lead to happy marriages, don’t get me wrong.

The point is that it’s really hard to behave skillfully under the influence of these good and bad feelings. There’s a tendency to try to find meaning in the feelings, when really it’s just the inner human, which wants what it wants. So if things at home aren’t so great, the inner human can push us to try to solve the problem not by dealing with what is going on at home, but rather by substituting something else for it. And now you have two problems.

Or the feedback loop is there, and person A just thinks person B is really nice and interesting and a good co-worker, while person B thinks that person A is kind of hot, and wouldn’t it be nice to get together with them. And because it’s so hard to be self-reflective about what is really happening, suddenly this nice co-worker from person A’s perspective becomes a total asshole, and person B is completely surprised by how things went from good to bad so quickly. And, now we potentially have a sexual harassment incident.

Let me bring this back to one of the things my Gelukpa lama said that I found helpful. He said that the reason monks take vows of celibacy is because it simplifies things so much. If you have decided you are not going to have a sexual relationship, the answer to the observation “that nice person who approves of me seems quite hot” is very simple. “Yes, they are hot, isn’t that interesting, I wonder what I can do to help them in their practice.” The amount of mental real estate this frees up is supposed to be fantastic.

How does this impact on those of us who do not want to undertake vows of celibacy? I think that the Buddhist teachings on sexual misconduct that we have received from the lineage are completely unhelpful in our current culture. What we need to do is think about how to establish heuristics that counteract the influence of the inner human when it will result in unskillful behavior, without hating the inner human. I think that the current teachings tend to lead to self-hatred.

What to do instead? I think that we need to figure out a way to have conversations about this where we understand the whole approval-seeking behavior pattern and factor it into the discussion. Let me give you an example of a problem. I had an interaction with a co-worker yesterday who I quite like and respect as a co-worker, and also find attractive. I have zero interest in that turning into anything other than our present co-worker relationship. But she’s attractive. And part of the reason that the interaction went the way it did was because of that: because my inner human pushed me to speak when it would have been skillful to be silent.

I have no idea how the interaction was for her. Maybe she was flattered. Maybe she was offended. Maybe she didn’t even notice it as problematic. I have no clue. And I can’t ask her about it, because that could be the thing that becomes problematic for her. I kind of have to just let it lie. If she brings it up, I can respond, but I’m not comfortable opening up a conversation.

This sort of thing happens all the time at work. We have to learn how to have conversations about it. I don’t actually know how to change our culture so that we can have these conversations, but I think that if we are going to actually have a workplace that is safe for people of all genders and preferences, part of that is going to be learning a better way to communicate about this.

And to do that we have to stop hating the inner human who keeps pushing us to behave in ways that turn out to be problematic, and learn how to notice this stuff when it happens. This probably ought to start in primary school.

Ted Lemon1 Comment