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A New Buddhist Ethics
copyright Robert Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.
copyright Robert Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.
The vast majority of normal mature human beings of either gender are subject to sexual desire, and it is perhaps the most powerful instinct we have and the most difficult to bring under self-conscious control. Traditional social morality has concentrated so much on the need to control this instinct through strong social conventions - even taboos - that many still associate the term “morality” immediately with sexual morality. However, in Buddhist ethics we are aiming to get to grips with reality, not necessarily to accept social morality for its own sake. We need to assess social attitudes to sex in relation to the
Traditional Buddhism also leaves us another challenge in the area of sexual morality: that of celibate monastic life. Since the ideal in traditional Buddhism has been seen as a state of enlightenment that goes beyond sexual differentiation, those who pursued this goal most directly have been encouraged to abstain from all sexual activity. In the monastic rules not only are monks and nuns required to abstain from sexual intercourse, but even situations which might give rise to the slightest temptation, like touching a person of the opposite sex or being alone with them.
Deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition though this practice may be, nevertheless our first responsibility from the standpoint of practical Buddhist ethics is to assess whether it works. Does the practice of celibacy actually help us to get to grips with the conditioning imposed on us by sexual instincts? Does it lead us into happy and balanced relationships? Does it help us to encounter the reality of others rather than the illusions that we often have of them?
From one standpoint, celibacy seems the obvious strategy to avoid indulging and thus developing our sexual instincts. Insofar as sexual desire is a habit, we can change that habit by subjecting it to the deliberate discipline of abstention. If we can change the habit of relating to others as sexual objects, we are able to begin relating to them more straightforwardly as people. The world might well be a more compassionate place without sexual attraction in it: if instead of seeing sexual attractiveness I were to perceive the usual mixture of pleasure and suffering to be found in every person, I would have removed a source both of craving and of the hatred born of frustration when I cannot have the sexual object I crave.
However, whether celibacy works at bringing about this goal, when we look at the evidence impartially, is another matter. Certainly the discipline of celibacy, based on a vow, can help to change habits of thought, feeling, and action; but sexual feelings do not seem to be only a matter of habit. They also seem to be part of our genetic make-up, part of the very structure of our bodies. Even if we completely isolate ourselves from all sources of sexual stimulation (which, practically speaking, is very difficult), new objects may start to become attractive, or we may simply start fantasising based on previous experience.
So sexual desire is not easily overcome simply by denying its fulfilment. This is not to say that celibacy never works or that, whether adopted temporarily or permanently, it might not help people to change their habits in the way that sexual instinct is channelled. However, it seems that celibacy is not merely a matter of abstention, but requires constant active awareness and vigilance in regard to the direction of one’s energies. For a celibate, energies that are habitually diverted into sexual channels need to be constantly diverted into more subtle channels before they reach a sexual form of expression. This is a very demanding practice for which few of us are ready.
It also seems to be very easy to deceive oneself about one’s readiness for celibacy, and to adopt it prematurely or simply to fit a social expectation. When this happens it seems to become a dangerous practice liable to lead to hypocrisy at best, extremes such as child abuse at worst (as has been seen recently in many cases involving Roman Catholic priests). There seems to be evidence of hypocrisy developing in the Buddhist monastic tradition as well as in the Christian.
To conclude on the issue of celibacy, then, it seems that to have a religious institution such as monasticism requiring celibacy is contrary to the Middle Way, for although there may well be some monks or nuns capable of practising celibacy well and beneficially, that institution seems bound to lead many to adopt it prematurely in order to seek the other goals and benefits of monastic life, with hypocritical and possibly dangerous results. For this reason, if no other, the opportunity for formal commitment to the spiritual life needs to be decoupled from the requirement for celibacy, as has been done in the Western Buddhist Order.
For the majority of people who are not ready to go down the path of celibacy, then, sexual ethics remains, not as an avoidance of any sexual activity, but as the duty to follow the
One way in which the third precept in lay Buddhism is often interpreted is that it requires us to avoid harmful or coercive sexual activity. This can be readily justified using the
This obviously rules out the extremes of violent sexual activity such as rape, which involve no recognition of the victim as a person but treat them absolutely and literally as a sexual object. However, in less extreme cases there is often great difficulty in deciding whether or not a person consented to sexual intercourse. This is a moral difficulty which has transferred itself from morality into law and the difficulties in judging instances of so-called “date rape”, where each party has an entirely different interpretation of events. There is a similar ambiguity about many other sexual relationships and whether they can be readily identified as coercive or harmful. Our feelings about each other and about our sexual desires are notoriously unstable, and what we want one minute we may not want the next. To complicate matters we may or may not have communicated our wishes clearly to the sexual partner concerned. Even if we really did want sex to take place, and communicated it clearly, it may be harmful to us because it is psychologically or physically damaging, or carries unreasonable risks.
We tread through this minefield of ambiguities at great peril. One can make a good case for the idea that all forms of sexual activity are coercive to some extent: because we cannot tell what the other is really feeling (perhaps even they can’t) and can never truly know that they consent fully. At any moment we run the risk of quite serious bad consequences for ourselves or for someone else. Sex is not for the faint-hearted. The alternative, of course, is to run away and not engage in sexual activity, not because of a deliberate and mature choice for the alternative of celibacy, but because we cannot face up to the possibility of upsetting people so much and coming into such close, raw contact with another. But most of us are driven by a need to at least explore sexual relationships, as a whole area of human experience that will leave us immature and unfulfilled if not explored. Once one is mature enough, having the courage to begin sexual activity in some cases can be the key to many positive benefits.
So, we have to make a judgement about what kinds of sexual activity or sexual relationship are coercive or harmful. It seems fairly clear that a sexual relationship is coercive when a threat of violence or other bad consequences is involved, or when other good consequences would not be achieved without sex: for example, when a male boss takes advantage of a female employee. Another related situation where coercion seems very likely is where there is a great imbalance of power or experience in the sexual relationship: for example, between teachers and students or between mature adults and adolescents. Regardless of the legal situation or the social conventions regarding such relationships, the weaker party is very likely to be consciously or unconsciously afraid of the stronger and avoiding bad consequences or seeking good ones, whilst the stronger party is unlikely to fully recognise the personhood or the long-term interests of the weaker. In extreme cases, such as the sexual abuse of children, it is clear that long-term psychological damage is also often inflicted.
Imbalances of power can also often occur in sexual relationships that are socially acceptable, and perhaps sanctified by marriage. The most common example of this is a man dominating a woman who has low self-esteem. In these cases the sexual relationship is coercive, not because the woman has not consented, but because her whole life has been subjugated to the man’s needs so much that she has not been able to develop her own life sufficiently. In other cases a man may be very much manipulated by a cleverer woman, so that the sexual relationship helps her develop her life and personality much more than his. The extremes of either feminist or anti-feminist dogma on this all need to be avoided so as to get to the basic need for a reasonable equality in sexual relationships.
Such equality is not to be pursued for its own sake, and can never be achieved in an absolutely pure form, but it does set up the best sorts of conditions for an extension of ego-identification. Each partner needs to accept as much as possible of him/herself and of the other. Certainly in sexual relationships either “selfishness” or “self-sacrifice” are signals of a whole person, or an important aspect of a person, not being taken into account, which is likely to lead to the long-term suffering of both. Any kind of dishonesty or lack of openness in the relationship can also have a coercive effect, since one partner is led into a relationship based on a false impression of the other, who has deliberately manipulated them into doing so.
A particular case of power inequality in sexual activity is that of prostitution, where one partner has sex with another in exchange for money. The main objection that can be made to this, it seems to me, is not the idea that selling sex is wrong in itself, but the power inequality that is involved. One can imagine some possible circumstances where selling sex might be a relatively straightforward and even friendly transaction, but in most actual cases the seller is only driven to offer their body through poverty, drug addiction, or the exploitation of a pimp. Those who take advantage of this situation are just using the coercion of money rather than other forms of coercion to gain short-term sexual satisfaction, and probably regarding the prostitute solely as a sex object. It could still be argued here that the prostitute prefers to have customers rather than not, which shows the exploitation to be systemic rather than individual. However, as I shall argue in the next chapter in relation to economic issues, a systemic exploitation is not generally more justifiable than an individual one.
A sexual relationship can also be harmful even if it is totally free of coercion. A person who knowingly runs a risk of passing on the HIV virus (or any other sexually-transmitted disease) to an innocent partner, for example, is running great risk of doing harm through the relationship. Even someone who fails to get tested when there is reason to believe they might have it and pass it on runs a similar risk of doing harm. In this kind of case it is not so much the person’s personhood that is being ignored as their long-term welfare. The Kantian test as to whether we would want other people to act in that way towards us also reveals the unjustifiability of this way of acting.
A relatively justifiable sexual relationship, then, is a voluntary and harmless one, based on as much openness and equality with the partner as possible. Probably no relationship is perfectly open and perfectly equal in every respect, and it seems inevitable that painful mistakes will be made. However, if we are to be open to the potentialities that sexual relationships open up in us, we are obliged to take the risk of beginning a sexual relationship when relative openness and equality are possible.
This probably means that sexual relationships are more likely to succeed with those quite similar to us: similar for example in intelligence, energy, taste, social confidence, income and physical attractiveness. Any of these things (and others) are possible areas for inequality, and hence for manipulation or for feelings of superiority or inferiority, which will bring coercive elements into the relationship. Of course that does not mean that inequality in one area can’t be counterbalanced in another, or that sufficient awareness can’t be brought to it to overcome the likely difficulties. People from very different backgrounds can be relatively equal in many of these respects, but to neglect the basic power-conditions operating in sexual relationships is to create conditions for coercion. The
This will certainly sound calculating when compared with the Romantic ideal of finding one’s soul-mate, instantaneously falling in love with them, and then being happy ever after. This is not a story that very often fits in with the complex conditions surrounding sexual relationships. Romantic feelings certainly form part of the conditions that we should take into account, but they should not determine our judgement. In many respects the pattern in traditional societies, where parents made (or still make) the key decisions about the compatibility of their offspring, is more likely to lead to relatively objective decisions about compatibility than Romantic love (the modern equivalent of the traditional parental match, the dating agency, perhaps offers many similar advantages). Unfortunately the traditional pattern often involves other kinds of coercion, which I shall return to later in discussing marriage.
Homosexuality is frequently an object of moral discussion, particularly in relation to Christianity, yet from a Buddhist standpoint there is really relatively little to say about it, except to reject the dogmatic basis on which all objections to it are based. If one separates homosexuality per se from any issues about coercion in sexual relationships (discussed above) or about the degree of commitment given to them (discussed below), there is no reason to treat homosexual relationships any differently from heterosexual ones. Homosexual relationships are just as complex and variable as heterosexual ones, and may be long-term and/or short-term, voluntary or coercive to a greater or lesser extent, as heterosexual ones may.
The most common philosophical or religious objection to homosexuality is based on an appeal to natural law. This claims either that God designed men and women to have purely heterosexual relationships, or that it is only natural and therefore justifiable to have sexual relationships which might potentially produce children, which homosexual relationships (barring the application of recent advances in stem-cell technology) cannot. The appeal to God’s design obviously involves an unjustifiable dogmatic assumption: for even if you believe in God and the idea of design itself, it is just as plausible to argue that God designed some people to be homosexual. The argument that heterosexual relationships are more “natural” because they can produce children makes infertile heterosexual relationships just as “unnatural”. In any case, our estimation of what is “natural” in human relationships seems to be so much subject to our culture and upbringing that it seems to mean merely “socially acceptable” (for more discussion on the term “nature”, see the beginning of chapter 5). As gay rights campaigners often point out, homosexuality has been freely accepted in many societies, particularly that of ancient
Even if every society ever had always disapproved of homosexuality, it would not prove it to be wrong. Applying the
More positively, it seems that Buddhists should encourage homosexuals and those who know them to acknowledge and accept their sexual orientation. If those who are homosexual are to accept that aspect of themselves, it is just as important for them to do so as for heterosexuals to acknowledge their sexual desires. The extension of ego-identification, then, requires homosexuals to be able to express their sexuality and engage in sexual relationships just as freely as heterosexuals, and for heterosexuals to acknowledge them freely, as well as being open to homosexual feelings in their own experience.
“Don’t knock masturbation,” Woody Allen is famously supposed to have said, “it’s sex with someone you love.” The only possible objection to it is perhaps that this is not always true. We may think of masturbation as a “selfish” activity, and certainly its self-pleasuring nature is what gives rise to social disapproval of it, but the occasions when it is not so advisable are ones when it does not show concern or regard for every part of ourselves, but rather provides a distraction from the need to give attention to our own emotional states.
The Roman Catholic objection to masturbation, as interfering with the divinely designed purpose of sexual activity, can quickly be dismissed, along with the associated objection to condom use discussed above, due to its dogmatic basis. So, there is no reason for masturbation to give rise to unreasonable guilt for Buddhists. As a sexual activity it is very unlikely to give rise to many of the types of harm that may be involved in sexual activity with a partner: there will be no inappropriate pregnancy, no sexually-transmitted diseases, and no emotional coercion of another. It is the safest possible form of sexual activity. It is this very safety, however, which may make it too easy to indulge on some occasions.
Despite the fact that another person is not involved, masturbation is still mentally and physically a sexual act. From a Buddhist perspective, where acts of the mind are not considered insignificant even if they do not appear to have a direct effect on the world, masturbation is still morally significant. It sets up habitual ways of relating to sexual activity and habitual ways of using solitary time and energy, which continue to affect our whole character. As a way of relating to sexual activity, it may set up habits of auto-eroticism that may alter the ways in which we are sexually stimulated by others. As a way of using time and energy, it may divert us from more reflective solitary activities that aid in the development of spiritual practice. Because of the overwhelming sensations of orgasm it stimulates, masturbation can be very tempting as a diversion from difficult emotions that we actually need to be aware of and to reflect upon.
These possible drawbacks to masturbation are subtle and long-term ones, but will still need to be considered. In many cases, though, masturbation must be compared to a sexual relationship with another person, and for some it may be preferable. It may help some to disengage from a relationship that has not been morally successful, or others to tolerate a gap without an active sexual relationship when they are not yet ready for celibacy. Masturbation is most likely to be a drawback when it is used for distraction, when it prevents engagement in sexual relationships which are actually needed to develop maturity, or when it delays a move towards genuine celibacy. The
If we acknowledge the need for marriage and that some people will enter into marriage commitments, should they be permitted to go back on them and dissolve them? The absolute or eternalist position here would say that marriages should never be dissolved, as they are lifelong commitments. If people are allowed to dissolve lifelong commitments in this way due to passing feelings, they will no longer be lifelong. The opposed position would simply see marriage as a contract between two people, which can justifiably be dissolved by mutual agreement or when the relationship otherwise has clearly broken down.
From the position on marriage outlined in the previous section, it should be clear that Buddhists cannot regard marriage as an absolute institution. However, this by itself would not rule out the possibility of a lifelong commitment. There is no reason why people should not make lifelong and irrevocable commitments if they wish, but this is probably a greater and a higher kind of commitment than that required for marriage. If marriage is a contractual arrangement entered for practical purposes, and those purposes do not require it to be lifelong, it does not need to be lifelong. So, much depends on whether the partners regard marriage as an arrangement for the upbringing of children or for lifelong mutual security. The former might well cease or be re-negotiated when the last child reaches adulthood, but the latter needs by necessity to be lifelong. It seems a good idea for this to be specified and agreed by the partners at the time of the marriage.
In practice, the idea of a lifelong commitment flies in the face of the truth of impermanence, a core teaching of Buddhism. Who can really commit him or herself in forty or fifty years’ time, in full recognition of what this means? Even such “lifelong” agreements, it seems, in practice really ought to have an exit clause allowing for unexpected contingencies. Such an exit clause does not prevent each partner being subject to the discipline of sexual continence and personal loyalty, but it does allow for major changes in character that may make the partnership unsustainable at a later stage.
So, to object to divorce in any circumstances certainly seems to be an over-idealistic, eternalist approach. However, to object to any attempt at lifelong commitment by those who wish to make such commitment is perhaps nihilistic, and undermines the value of the discipline which the couple are undertaking in their relationship. However, the
If marriage was a sufficiently flexible and realistically organised social institution, used with sufficient discretion, there would probably be no need for divorce, let alone painful and unpleasant contested divorces that can greatly disrupt the lives of children. However, while marriage as an institution in the West is still strongly influenced by the eternalist assumptions of Christianity and by Romantic beliefs about marriage, it is likely that people will tend to over-commit themselves and that divorce will be a natural, though regrettable, outcome which sometimes indicates a righting of the balance towards the Middle Way. In many cases divorce allows individuals who have not made an initial success of the marriage relationship to gain a new and more balanced perspective, and then approach marriage anew with more skill and care, or alternatively to then leave it behind as unsuited to their temperament.
 For example, see Sangharakshita’s account of his disillusionment with traditional monasticism in Forty-Three Years Ago pub. WindhorseIf you are making extensive use of this online text, please consider buying the book
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