The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
|Articles by alphabetic order|
Buddha and Eros, by Baksheesh the Madman
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The sexual urge is inseparable from the basic character of humanity. Nevertheless, the life of the spirit has often been associated with celibacy. This tendency derives from the ascetic tradition, which required that one weaken the body, and the desires associated with it, in order to gain power over the spirit. Celibacy has also been justified on the grounds that it liberates clerics from the expense, work and worry associated with caring for a family.
However, celibacy has not proven to be as attractive in practice as it might seem in theory. Celibate clerics often become caught up in the work of providing for the material needs of their spiritual family, so the labor saving concept falls by the wayside. Perhaps more important, the celibate lifestyle imposes stresses on the individual practitioner that are probably unnecessary. For most people, the fallout from attempting a celibate lifestyle is simply too much, and becomes just one more obstacle to the life of the spirit.
For your average spiritual aspirant, celibacy is highly impractical. Thus, we can consider ourselves free to explore the ways in which sexual activity can be helpful to pursuing a spiritual life. Indeed, once we take off our traditional blinders, there is every reason to believe that sex and the life of the spirit are mutually beneficial.
On a physiological level, given what we know about the way the body works, we can safely presume that the experience of orgasm releases myriads of substances into one's bloodstream that send the body an encouraging message: "Success! We have just made another contribution to the gene pool! Every reason to keep living!" The flood of neurotransmitters and other substances that begin coursing through the body at the mere thought of sex, and which crescendo at the moment of orgasm, are very likely triggers of future vitality. Far from being a precious, limited resource that we must hold for a lifetime, our sexual vitality is a resource that we are rewarded for expending. This characteristic of natural systems was described by Jesus of Nazareth in his illuminating saying: "To him that hath, more shall be given, and from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath."
Through family relations, people experience the most loving and protective emotions known to humanity. In Buddhism, the kindness and self-sacrifice that a mother shows for her offspring is routinely invoked as an example of the depth of concern that the bodhisattva feels for all sentient beings. A parent experiences this emotion directly. Experiencing concern for others provides a way to expand beyond the narrow confines of self-concern.
Fertility is the first icon of worship. The primordial neolithic stone Aphrodites are a key to the psyche of humans in that distant time. For our ancestors, life itself was the primary good. We are told that neolithic peoples had plenty of spare time, but on the other hand, they didn't live very long. A headman looking about at his tribe, facing an oncoming winter and depleted by hunting accidents, would be looking extinction right in the eye. In this environment, the sight of a woman giving birth was undoubtedly the best thing after the smell of cooking meat. Replacing the dead was an important activity. Hence the image of the pregnant goddess.
We may presume that neolithic works of art were primarily objects of devotion. How would such primordial rituals have developed? What genius turned rock into the shape of the primordial mother, and lifted it before the eyes of the tribe, that they might be inspired to live? Those early priests faced daunting challenges in their efforts to rally the minds of early humans around the central goal of survival. These works of art were not idle aesthetic expressions; rather, they were psychological anchors in a world of chaos. The very act of artificing, of changing a rock to a goddess, demonstrated an ability beyond that of any other animal. It was proof of human superiority, of our ability to turn even ordinary earth into a mirror of our own human features.
Those familiar with tantric imagery from India, China and Tibet know that explicitly sexual art has again and again found its way into mystical religions. Like the ancient Aphrodites, these works are meant to be used, and provide a mirror of the inner self. Traditionally, a meditator visualizes their own body as consisting of both a male and female deity clasped in sexual union, united by a single mantra in their unified heart. Thus, the individual experiences a simultaneous duality and unity. The inner experience that the meditator triggers by use of the visualization soon makes the image that is painted on canvas or wrought in stone a matter of small moment. Traditional sexual icons are often crudely drawn, and frankly exhibit a lack of aesthetic refinement. Sensory beauty is simply not the object of these pieces. Their raw, evocative power is simply intended as catapult for contemplation. Once having invoked the inner experience, the art object ceases to be of importance.
The Contrabandization of the Body
People are born naked. Usually, they are conceived by people who are naked during the act of conception. In a medical setting, nudity is not considered shameful. Nevertheless, modern humans routinely have embarrassing dreams in which they find themselves naked out in society. We may presume that such dreams do not afflict people who live in primitive tribes and wear little clothing.
The nudity prohibition is, however, internationally accepted. I am sure that you can get yourself thrown out of most any restaurant in any country for going around bottomless. Indeed, "no shoes, no shirt, no service," gets the idea across pretty well. So, we are all born naked, but required by law and custom to conceal ourselves. To go about wearing little is earn the name "exhibitionist," a pejorative, last I checked.
Which is not to say that nudity is unavailable. As many a standup comedian has noted, the United States seems to have developed a rash of "gentleman's clubs," where partial or total nudity is sold one dollar at a time by girls working "for tips and tips alone." Video store shelves are burgeoning with x-rated films that generate billions in revenue. Hollywood films market their own soft-core versions, having progressed from titillating by exposing the lascivious conduct of the underclass to depicting the freewheeling sex life of the affluent. All of which keeps the wheels of commerce turning.
What more can we say than that our own images have been stolen from us and licensed back in socially-approved and disapproved versions. The approved version appears as glamour, fashion, and privileged promiscuity. The disapproved version appears as pornography. This is a difference in marketing style, not a moral distinction. Hand in hand with the nudity prohibition we find pervasive and profitable commerce in images of nudity and sexual activity.
Sexual repression has turned the body itself into an item of contraband. As with the prohibition against alcohol and drugs, efforts at suppressing the illicit substance only give birth to profitable black markets. A prohibited line of business that remains profitable will attract criminals, who will conduct business in a criminal and extortionistic fashion. Compared with the tremendous financial value generated by the sale of their images, models in the pornography industry are grossly exploited. Worse is the situation for prostitutes, who face an elevated risk of being robbed, infected with venereal diseases, assaulted and murdered, all because society is unable to come to terms with its sexual appetite.
Modern western society has rid itself of many superstitions. However, the nudity prohibition remains. It is unlikely that anyone will formulate an agenda to repeal the nudity prohibition. One can hardly imagine a political platform more likely to incite obloquy. "Crackpot," would be the kindest epithet applied to a candidate who would champion such a social initiative. Which simply shows how deep rooted some prejudices are. As usual, society cannot be changed.
What can be changed is your own awareness. You are free to experience the effects of sexual art on your body and mind. You are free to do so without feelings of guilt or immorality, once you realize that these emotions are merely the artifacts impressed on your personality by the social pressure of the nudity prohibition. Consider the source of the anxiety you feel when you find yourself naked in a group of people while dreaming. Once you relax internally with the idea of nakedness, these dreams will either become less frequent, or you will find yourself surprisingly nonchalant about your nakedness. Appreciate your own body. Appreciate the bodies of others. Appreciate the genetically engineered perfection that makes us live, breathe, walk, talk, flirt, love, and mate.
Once we step off into the realm of sexual art and experience, we find ourselves in a strange new world. By exposing ourselves to greater and more diverse sources of sexual stimulation, we will likely find ourselves thinking and engaging in sex more often. The question is, where does this lead us? There are plenty of negative images already pressed into our minds by society.
As in meditation, difficult thoughts will arise, so in sex, difficult experiences will be stimulated. The sexual experience is one of vulnerability, but social norms make it difficult for men to accept vulnerability. They may substitute sexual performance for emotional tenderness, feeling obligated to satisfy their partner through stimulation. Women, on the other hand, feel obligated to protect their partner's self-image, and famously pretend to have orgasms they have never felt.
The fundamental purifying factor in sexual relationships is gentleness and empathy. Social depictions of sex, in pornography soft and hard, represents a caricature of a sexual experience. Due to generations of bad acting in film, people have exaggerated notions of how to behave in bed. Frustration and misunderstanding can bubble up in intimate moments, making a love relationship a source of embarrassment and humiliation. To navigate these experiences with a lover is the work of a relationship that is sexual in and out of the boudoir. Whether one may grow through sex without love is a matter of contention. One thing is certain -- it is an inestimable aid.
Finally, there is the business of sex. The creation of erotic images has been thrown into hyperdrive by the digital cameras and the Internet, and funding for the business of photographing naked bodies has never been more abundant. Ethical rules are needed, and notably lacking. Balanced against the right to enjoy free access to sexual art and imagery is the need for fair treatment of the human beings who work in the industry. At a very minimum, erotic art should be created in a safe, healthy, non-threatening environment in which the vulnerabilities of the models are respected. The prohibition against child-involvement in creating erotic imagery is of course fundamental. And the industry as a whole should move toward fairer compensation of the people whose images feed sales. Simply put, like any other product, sex should be cruelty free.