[Note: I would not frame this article around Janie Fredell and Lena Chen if I could rewrite it . My apologies to them.]
To avoid all evil, to cultivate good,
and to cleanse one’s mind—
this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
—Buddha, Dhammapada 14: 183
Last March, The New York Times Magazine published an article about Harvard’s abstinence group—True Love Revolution—showing two extremes of sexuality at Harvard. On one end was Janie Fredell, former president of True Love Revolution and a vocal advocate for abstinence. On the other was Lena Chen, author of the infamous Sex and the Ivy blog and an equally vocal advocate for—well, certainly not abstinence. The two faced off on October 25, 2007, in a debate The Harvard Crimson Magazine called, in a rather sexist and immature article, “chock-full of mutual respect” and “BORING!”
“To say that I have to care about every person I have sex with is an unreasonable expectation,” Chen explained to the Times Magazine, “It feels good!” While opposite in content, Fredell was strikingly similar in tone: “Why bond yourself so intensely when you’re not sure you’re going to spend the rest of your life with this person?” She went on to explain that there is nothing “unbalanced or irrational” about her relationships.
Before I go any further, I should say that I do not mean to critique Chen or Fredell, their lifestyles, or even their ideas; but rather, the radical poles that they have come to represent—fairly or not. And what is most striking about those poles is not their extremity or immodesty—as the Times Magazine suggested—but rather their self-absorption.
Chen is taken aback at the notion that it might be good to care about the people we sleep with—as if there is anyone, anywhere it would be bad for us to care about. What she really seems to be saying is, “It feels good…for me.” She ignores the simple fact that pursuing instant gratification alone often makes us—let alone other people—miserable. As for Fredell, she totally ignores the destructive consequences of her abstinence ethic for those of us who either wish not to or simply cannot marry. Hers is an ethic designed exclusively for straight, white, upper-class Christians. What’s more, there is something cold in her arguments. “Why bond yourself so intensely,” she asks, as if another person might not be worth the risk, as if a balanced and rational love were possible—or even desirable. For Chen, emotional intimacy is unreasonable; and for Fredell, physical intimacy is. What both women fail to really consider is the other person.
These extreme views of sexuality aren’t just a problem at Harvard, either. I went to college at the University of West Georgia—a relatively small, rural, public university. Like at Harvard, there were certainly people who fell into the middle; but, the campus culture was strongly divided between socially conservative, evangelical Christians and promiscuous, alcohol-driven fraternities and sororities. Things were stuck between physical distance and emotional distance. I always felt like a complete misfit. On one hand, I was vice-president of the campus LGBTQ group, wasn’t Christian, wasn’t saving myself for marriage, and certainly had no objections to orgasming. On the other, I was a virgin, a teetotaler, and an utterly hopeless romantic. Neither extreme fit; and frankly, they both bored me to tears.
Of course, there aren’t many other options available to people my age and younger. The culture wars have polarized America—either Girls Gone Wild and Brittney Spears, or abstinence only education and True Love Waits. Chen and Fredell represent extreme views of sexuality not just within the Harvard community, but within broader American culture. Wherever one looks there is hardly any middle ground to stand on. Instead there is just this thicket of extremes. How do we see our way out of it?
• • •
Two summers ago I knelt on the floor of my Buddhist teachers’ house at their retreat center in upstate New York with two other students, trying to mumble after them as they chanted phrases in Tibetan. Though we did not understand the words, their meaning was clear. We were taking the Five Lay Precepts, the basic ethical guidelines for non-ordained Buddhists: to refrain from taking life, to refrain from taking what is not freely given, to refrain from sexual misconduct, to refrain from incorrect or harmful speech, and to refrain from intoxicants.
After we repeated the vows three times, my teachers chanted some prayers and snapped their fingers to indicate the precise instant at which we received the precepts. We responded with the Tibetan phrase lexo—how wonderful! I was now an upasaka, or “householder,” a lay follower of the Buddha. My teachers then gave us a brief teaching on each precept, one by one, until they got to the third: “Sexual misconduct means…sexual misconduct.” Then, quickly on to the fourth. Wait…what?
I don’t know what I expected from two Tibetan Buddhist teachers in their seventies who have both been monks since before puberty. I was curious to know what exactly that meant, “sexual misconduct.” Still, I was too afraid to ask. These are, after all, my spiritual mentors. I’m not certain I could even say the word sex to them without blushing a little—call it latent Catholic guilt or southern gentility. It didn’t really matter, anyway. At the time I was both a virgin and in a committed relationship; but, now that neither of those is an issue, I’ve found myself revisiting the question of sexual misconduct.
First, I did what any healthy young man would do when faced with a question about sexuality—I reviewed the literature. The closest I could find to a definition of sexual misconduct from the Buddha himself is in the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta, where he warns against pursuing “those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma [religion]; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another [engaged].” The general idea seems to be not to take advantage of the vulnerable, the under aged, or those with prior commitments—all of which seems perfectly reasonable. Still, even Buddhism isn’t immune from Chen and Fredell’s extreme views on sexuality.
Later Indian commentators expanded the Buddha’s original definition of sexual misconduct to include activities like masturbation, anal and oral sex, sex during menstruation, same-sex activity, and even sex on the day of the full moon. These lists make Fredell look like Dr. Ruth. Even some traditional Tibetan teachers have signaled their willingness to re-examine these teachings as outdated.
The savviest contemporary Buddhist teachers seem to agree that abandoning sexual misconduct simply means not harming oneself or others—physically or emotionally—through sexuality. What is most important, they say, is the attitude and motivation that we bring to our actions. Still, when it comes to sex it’s easy to delude ourselves. Something that’s obviously harmful might not seem like such a bad idea to me when a beautiful woman is unzipping my pants. Thankfully, beautiful women don’t try to unzip my pants often; but, the question remains. How do we avoid slipping from “do no harm” into “it feels good (to me, for now),” especially in the heat of passion?
• • •
In Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, three travelers—a priest and a woodcutter who’ve just come from testifying in a court case, and a commoner—take shelter from a storm in a ruined gatehouse. As they talk about the case, the movie flashes back through four mutually exclusive, eye-witness accounts of the rape and apparent murder—including that of the dead victim himself, given through a court medium. Suddenly, the priest and woodcutter’s stories are interrupted by the sound of a crying baby who’s been abandoned at the gatehouse.
By this point the priest’s faith in humanity has been almost entirely shaken by the deception and selfishness he’s witnessed. Resolution comes not in hearing what “really happened,” however, but in a selfless act of compassion. The woodcutter picks up the crying baby and takes it home to raise as his own.
Before attaining enlightenment the Buddha was a prince. He lived in a palace surrounded by wonderful food, expensive objects, and beautiful courtesans, until suddenly he had a deep existential crises and decided to renounce his wealth to go looking for an end to suffering. For six years he practiced extreme self-denial. Finally, he realized that neither hedonism nor asceticism would bring him to contentment. Ever since his teachings have been known as the Middle Way; but, this isn’t an Aristotelean mean. It is much more like the conclusion of Rashomon. What the Buddha discovered is not equal measures of hedonism and asceticism, but a third way transcending both—something sharp and quick, like a lightning bolt that pierces were ideology alone cannot.
• • •
So, how do we live our lives? Contemplating it, I often feel like the priest at the end of Rashomon. Chen and Fredell, sloppy liberalism and uptight conservatism—in the end, it’s enough to make someone want to throw up their hands in frustration. This is why I think the Buddha was so compassionate about the precept against sexual misconduct. He’d already been to both extremes, so he knew what a thicket both idealism and nihilism were. He gave us the precept—don’t commit sexual misconduct; but, instead of a list of do’s and do not’s he gave us practices to cultivate our courage, compassion, joy, and humility.
These are the very qualities that brought clarity to Rashomon‘s despairing priest; and, they are the very ones lacking in Chen and Fredell’s opposite, but equally self-absorbed, ideologies. As Lama Bruce Newman, a contemporary Buddhist teacher, says, “Anything done with a loving heart is virtuous. If you love your partner and give pleasure to him or her as an expression of your care, that is a virtuous act.” May there be virtue.
Note: This article was originally published as Upasaka Joshua Eaton, “Revolutionary Love: On Hooking Up, Waiting, and the Buddha’s Middle Way,” HBomb Magazine 4 (2009).