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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 9 66 reason why the classical formulation of sexual ethics needs to be rethought. Critical appraisal of the doctrine also involves understanding the context in which these ideas were elaborated. For example, we cannot take for granted that the rules found here were being put forward for the same reasons that make these actions inappropriate for us today. Though many of the elements mentioned in the texts make sense to us as moderns—such as children and oth- ers’ wives being off limits as sexual part- ners—we cannot presume that ancient Indian thinkers were operating with the same assumptions that make such things as pedophilia and adultery prob- lematic for us today. Specifically, there is no indication that the texts have any- thing like a notion of “sexual abuse”— where it is, for example, the child who is the victim. rather, when a man takes a young girl or the wife of another as a sexual partner, the party whose rights have been violated are the guardians: the parents of the girl and the husband, respectively. Today we operate under a different worldview that sees children and women as agents, a worldview that also understands the long-term effects of things like child sexual abuse. But this was not the same worldview motivat- ing our authors, and understanding this aspect of context is an important part of the critical process. Notice also that there are a number of morally reprehensible actions that we take for granted that are simply not men- tioned in this formulation. For example, rape is not explicitly mentioned. while some texts do speak of inappropriate “ways” of obtaining a sexual partner (such as guile, and, yes, force), a hus- band’s right to his wife’s body was taken for granted, making impossible any notion of marital rape. The same appears to be true of a man’s right to a prosti- tute whom he has already paid. Once a woman “belongs” to a man—whether it is permanently (through marriage) or temporarily (through a sexual contract)— a woman simply loses her right to say no. Once again, the ancient authors were operating under a very different set of presuppositions than those that we oper- ate under today. The broader point is that a close read- ing which is open to gaps and committed to the unpacking of context is important in the process of critical reflection. So too, of course, is historical analysis. what do we find when the doctrine of sexual mis- conduct is subjected to historical scrutiny? This, to my mind, is one of the most inter- esting results of my research. To make a long and complex story short, what we find is that the earliest mentions of sexual misconduct in the Buddhist canon know nothing of the fourfold division into partners, organs/orifices, times, and places. Instead, in the earliest scriptural sources—the sutras—sexual misconduct is understood simply as adultery: a man taking another’s wife as a sexual partner. while still androcentric in that women’s agency is disregarded (no mention is made of women taking married men as sexual partners), this simpler formulation of the doctrine is, at least to my mind, more elegant and also more effective. I see the attempt to micromanage people’s sexual lives as a losing strategy. Lists of minute proscriptions simply kick people’s imaginations into high gear, as they begin to think about ways of getting around the letter of the law. The obvious historical question then becomes this: If the early doctrine of sex- ual misconduct is so simple and elegant, when and why did it get so complex and restrictive? That is, when do we find the transition to organ/orifice mode? The answer to when is simple. we don’t find any examples of the more elaborate for- mulation of sexual misconduct before the third century. The answer to why requires us to think about the identity of the Indian authors who compiled the more complex versions of the doctrine. Those authors were, first of all, celibate monks, and secondly, scholastic philos- ophers—men who thought in terms of lists, and who wanted to cover all the bases. And why did theologians like Asanga, Vasubandhu, and others begin to elaborate lay sexual ethics precisely as they did? I believe that they chose these terms—partners, organs, orifices, ➤ Finding Happiness in an Age of Anxiety Embracing Change and Finding Freedom Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche with Eric Swanson Rinpoche teaches us how to overcome the problems of everyday life and experience a profound sense of well-being. Visit mingyur.org for Rinpoche’s U.S. teaching and tour schedule and to learn more Also available on audio and as an eBook Harmony Books The New York Times bestselling authors of The Joy of Living