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Buddhadharma : Winter 2017
108 Buddhadharma: The PracTiTioner's QuarTerly Although not his primary purpose, Cabezón’s book could be taken as a primer on how to understand the Dalai Lama’s perspective in that fateful meet- ing. Cabezón corroborates the truth that the Dalai Lama does not have unilateral authority to redefine ethical norms or change precepts. Such changes can only come about through sangha discussions among various groups. For readers unfa- miliar with the scope of Buddhism’s tradi- tional scholastic and authority structures, this disavowal may seem disingenuous, especially given the misguided tendency to project Roman Catholic pope-like powers onto the Dalai Lama. As Cabezón demonstrates, there is no singular Buddhist tradition or source of authority on sexual morality—or practi- cally anything else, for that matter. Thus the Dalai Lama was right to position him- self as only one contributor to a much larger discourse. For over two millennia, the collection of traditions we call Bud- dhism has been an enormous, sprawling conversation among many voices, all of whom claim a degree of authority and rec- ognize or challenge the authority of oth- ers. Different Buddhist masters such as not only Tsongkhapa but also the Sri Lankan Theravadan Buddhaghosa and the Indian Mahayanist Shantideva would all today be considered “sex-negative,” each in their own idiosyncratic way and for their own reasons. Each had differing views of what constituted sexual misconduct, and while there were common threads—misogyny, prejudice against queers, condemnation of sexual violence, wariness about sexual passions in general, and the belief that only a narrow band of sexual behaviors was acceptable—there was no universally recognized code of Buddhist sexual ethics. One of the few points of general agree- ment was that certain behaviors lead to punishment in one of the many hell realms described in Buddhist cosmology. Remind- ing readers that “throughout most of Bud- dhist history, and in many contemporary Buddhist communities, the hell literature was and still is taken seriously, and usually literally,” Cabezón offers a lengthy explo- ration of sex in relation to the heavenly and hellish realms. He quotes and paraphrases many descriptions of the incredible tortures in the hell realms awaiting those who com- mit oral or anal sex, incest, rape, adultery, or masturbation, revealing a general trend for the descriptions of these punishments to become more elaborate over time, with increasing detail about the various behav- iors that will land you in this or that hell realm. In a dry understatement, Cabezón notes, “Buddhism clearly comes off as a religion that is deeply skeptical about sexed bodies and sexual acts. Sentient beings, these texts tell us, were better off in their androgynous phase at the beginning of the world cycle than they are now; and they are far better off in the upper reaches of the universe—in the higher-god realms, where one does not have to worry about sex—than in the realm of desire.” He adds, “Our biologically-sexed bodies, rampant sexual desires, and polysensual sexuality are clearly seen as obstacles to the goal of human perfection.” In other words, sex gets in the way of buddhahood. Behind sex, of course, lies desire. Cabezón explores Buddhist theories of desire in great detail, offering this basic summary: experiencing pleasure “creates a predisposition to desire that pleasure again—to put ourselves, consciously or not, in situations where the pleasure can once again be enjoyed. The greater the pleasure, the stronger the imprint it leaves on the mind, and the more likely we are to seek it anew. And the more often we experience the pleasure, the more this becomes an