Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stephen Batchelor

Because it is lingering in my mind like the scent of incense long since burned out, I return to Stephen Batchelor's small essay, "Buddhism and Sex: The Bigger Picture." I read it first yesterday.

On the one hand, the entire sex/power/religion topic is like being around the nagging child in the "use condoms" ad ... whining, complaining, beseeching and ultimately infuriating.

On the other hand, I have cared about spiritual endeavor for a long time. Its usefulness is, to me, as undeniable as its capacity for bullshit. I may wish as much as I like that this caring would "shut the fuck up," but like some maiden aunt who is hard of hearing, it refuses and hovers and insists. OK, I give up: I like it, however insufferably boring and off-topic it can be.

Once, when I was in the publicity department at a New York book publisher, I wrote a press release for some book and headlined it with a single, bold-faced, large-type word: SEX. I was in the business of trying to bring attention to the publisher's products and, well, "sex" was a good word for those purposes. And when you put sex together with religion (especially here in the good ol' U.S. of prurient A.) ... well, how about that for a cheap-date attention-getter?! We have, I would say, a winnah!

I don't doubt for a minute that everyone interested in Buddhism has an appreciation of the sex/power dynamic that has grievously wounded so many and sent others running for the psychobabble 'healing' hills. There is sorrow, there is fury, there is righteousness, there is ersatz compassion and there is a lot more ... and I have been-there-and-done-that and may yet again. I don't fault any of it since it seems to me to be true.

But what Batchelor's essay did for me was to underscore what I have strongly felt for a long time: If you can't burn it to the ground, spiritual endeavor will always remain about as useful as tits on a bull. There is no burning it down until it actually burns down, but knowing that it is not yet burned down is a good indicator that a much-valued spiritual endeavor has not yet achieved its most useful function. Burn it down: The institutions, the ritual, the support mechanisms, the tears, the bliss, the enlightenment, the compassion, the emptiness, the robes and beads and bells ... all gone. The fire-bombing of Dresden was as nothing compared to this inferno ... an inferno that invites one and all to warm themselves and perhaps toast marshmallows.

Laying claim to a scorched earth is not the same as scorching this earth.

For me, Batchelor's essay lit a bright match.


  1. Hi Adam,

    I thought Batchelor's article missed the point entirely.

    While I agree that spirituality as an institution should be slashed and burned (if for nothing else than because institutions reify spiritual practices into forms that are little better than likenesses of the original sold as "the real thing"), I do not see the institutionalization of religion as the directly relevant to the subject of clerical misconduct.

    Religious institutions may contribute to and even formalize power disparities, but neither power nor the disparities between, say, teacher and student, or clergy and parishioner, are abusive unless they are used in ways that violate someone else.

  2. OK ... maybe the issue is one of which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg. Either way we're still stuck with the clucks.

  3. I've read two today lately that addresses the issue of "Buddhism and Sex: The Bigger Picture."

    One I found quite surprising as it makes the level of inappropriate behavior of Joshu Sasaki match and perhaps exceeds Shimano's.

    The other was refreshingly street smart and down to earth.

    When I arrived at Mt. Baldy, I realized that the monastic Abbess also served as Roshi’s mistress. Soon after my arrival, they apparently had a falling-out due to Roshi’s sexual exploits with another female student. I was to learn that Roshi was quite the horny old fellow, and that sanzen for many female students consisted of a lot of fondling and sex play. Moreover, several of the students were also sexually active with each other, so it came as no surprise that, when one person contracted a sexually transmitted disease, some of the other students eventually got it. It was even suggested that it had started with Roshi.

    Excerpt from Zen and the Emotional/Sexual Contraction by Bob O’Hearn

    Years ago, during a practice period in Japan with eleven other women, I learned just how confusing “foreign context” could be. Standing in the garden of a Zen temple with four other women, a Japanese lay visitor to the temple put both of his hands on my friend’s breasts, and squeezed them while muttering some non-recognizable Japanese. We were all momentarily stunned into silence and inaction while he smiled, squeezed and muttered away. Since I was the only one who spoke any Japanese, one woman in the group asked me: “What does it mean?” The question woke me up. I said: “It means the same thing in any language,” as I slapped his arms off of her chest and forcibly pushed him away....
    A Zen Woman's Personal Perspective on Sexual Grouping, Seual Harassment and other abuses by Grace Shireson

  4. Opps. I hit publish instead of preview. Editing was not finished.

  5. "Anonymous" -- Go ahead and finish up. Repost and I will delete the first one.

  6. You are a misguided person who are not practicing Buddhism and trying to influence other people away from practice the right Dharma. You are a demon dressed in "Buddhist" robes sitting on cushions...