Buddhism and the Male Self.

We have just returned from a retreat at the lovely, though chilly Origins Centre at Balingup. This centre supports and is supported by the Coorain Buddhist Centre on the next property. It was a very wonderful and reflective time, though not without some challenges. The outer forms of these challenges were several men who were also there. The inner, most important, aspect of course is my own.

When I was a teenager several things (besides the pull of Magic) stopped me becoming very involved in Buddhism. One was the erroneous belief I would have to sit in hard to attain postures. Another was the quality of the men who seem to proliferate in Buddhist circles. I never wanted to end up like that. M, also on retreat with me, described it well: “spineless, boundary-less, all over the place and spacey”. My judgement is that this state of affairs is not just normal ungroundedness, but something else. There seems such an effort, conscious or otherwise, to display only positive qualities that the life force is muted or distorted.

Despite all the problems I have with the Pagan community, at least the men there are solid and you know what you are getting. You may not like it, but it is right there before you. The young (and not so young) men in Buddhism are often, in my experience, different. I actually find it hard to spend much time in their company, which I know says more about me than about them.

I find it curious that the actual leaders of the traditions these men practice are entirely lacking in these qualities that I perceive and disturb me. Leaders like Lama Chime, Ven. Thubten Lodey. Lama Zopa Rinpoche are gusty, vital, compassionate and solid men.

There are two interrelated issues here that I think may result in this situation. These are, of course, the concept of the self and sex. In Paganism the self is viewed very differently than in Buddhism and is rarely deconstructed so thoroughly, and often unwisely as occurs with young eager Buddhist men. The Pagan male self is also intimately connected with the sacred sexual force, the self being a vehicle to express this force within the world – the ‘I’ that comes into being when we desire sex with someone else. Now I think most Pagans get a lot of this wrong and some Pagan circles are as murky as a nightclub when the American Fleet is in, but at least Pagan men are expressing something.

The misunderstanding of the Buddhist concept of no-self by young men is one of the core issues here. I’ve talked about this before (this post) so won’t say much, other than by attempting not to ‘have’ a self, whether consciously or unconsciously, nothing results other than distortion.  Similarly with the sexual force, the most divine force in our embodied life. Our western culture, I believe, still cannot easily make the super-fine distinction between transmutation of the sexual force (for example, Buddhist Tantra) and repression (for example, Catholic celibacy).

Over half of the western Buddhists ordained as nuns and monks give back their vows within a few years, and often because of the sex issue. Our culture does not support healthy celibacy, let alone complete sexual transmutation without any physical expression. Tibetan Buddhism, despite some of it schools requiring celibate Sangha, was never sexually negative in the same way as most Christian traditions have been. The iconography, the very heart of Tantra itself is replete with sexual imagery and explicit descriptions.

It takes a lot of retraining to go beyond a culture and so many of these young Western men are trying to transmute via the way of Tantra but subconsciously repressing like a Catholic monk. The results are not edifying. At least to my mind and perceptions. Thoughts anyone?

7 comments

  1. Brian · July 23, 2008

    I disagree, or perhaps I didn’t get your true meaning of your post, on Buddhism – specifically Tibetan Mahyana Buddhism. The schools of Tibet (i.e. Gelug) do not have sexual tantric practices. This is a misconception in the West, that is thouroughly abused in writings, and teachings. Tantra to Buddhism has as much to do with sex, as blood rituals do with general magic. Both seem to be facets that the world loves to fixate on in movies and media, and neither one of those concepts is really part of the system. Sure some buddhist someplace practices a sexual tantra that is outside the teachings of Buddhism… and some occultist somewhere practices blood rituals. But they are not necessary components to their respective systems.

    Regarding the concept you bring up of ‘no self’ this sounds like a confusion of the concept of Emptiness… which is not about negating one’s self… but rather understanding (and perhaps someday directly percieving) that nothing has self existence. Things exist, but not from their own “side” – rather they exist as perceptions of the viewer. True reality, being a projection of a Buddha. Karma is the paint that colors this emptiness… one’s karma dictates how one perceives any situation. A bad boss is empty. To one it’s a bad boss, to another a great boss. The boss is empty of any real nature… rather it is the perception of the boss each is seeing… a perception contingent upon each viewers own karma. If you have the karma to see a great boss, you will see it… and vice versa. A Mahayana Buddhist doesn’t strive to not exist, but rather to recognize they themselves are empty. To strive to directly see this emptiness.

    The Gelug school… speaks about handling sexual desires in The Dalai Lama’s commentary of Shantideva’s work in, “A flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night.” Sexuality of monks is not expressed in Tantra… rather they are taught to see the real nature of flesh bodies…

    Tantra in Mahayana Buddhism is specific to one concept: Secret Teachings.

    There is a recording of a monk who sat down with a westerner who wanted to talk to them about Tantra, and pulled out a book of sexual practices. The little Tibetan monk said he got up and ran.

  2. Peregrin · July 23, 2008

    Hello Brian,

    Thanks for the comments. I think maybe my post was unclear or you misunderstood certain aspects of it.

    Basically i agree with what you are saying.

    I did NOT say that Tibetan Tantra used physical sexual practices, only that Tantra transmutes the sexual force.

    Saying that Tantra is simply the secret teachings is however, I feel, a bit limiting. Tantra has many aspects. Various Vajrayana techniques ARE seen as transforming the sexual energy of the practitioner. Many books and sources (including His Holiness) mention this, as does the teaching from my own Gelugpa Tantric master.

    Yes, I agree about the way you describe the misunderstanding of ‘no self’ – this is detailed in the post I referred to, where I say almost exactly what you say 🙂

    However, all this said we need to be clear too that some Tantra does involve visualizing oneself as the deity in sexual embrace with a consort, as a way of sacralising and transmuting the sexual energy. And actual use of sexual intercourse, the taking of a form consort, while very, very limited to the highest practitioners, is not unknown. The Dalai Lama himself refers to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama authorizing a small number of monks to practice with a form consort.

    Thanks,

    Peregrin 🙂

  3. darktcmdoc · July 25, 2008

    Hummm.

    I was a Benedictine monk in my youth. Although the monastery where I trained was not your typical chant & pray centre (there was a medical clinic, research library and a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility attached), I would venture to say that sexual instincts were not repressed but rather sublimated.

    It has been mentioned that “some Tantra does involve visualizing oneself as the deity in sexual embrace with a consort, as a way of sacralising and transmuting the sexual energy”. In our chapel, there was a statue of the Virgin where, if one was troubled, monks went to kneel and pray to the virgin and reported feeling embraced and comforted… the chapel was built on a major energy centre.

    I received major training in that monastery and had a fairly busy schedule. The monastery was closed for political reasons and I was transfered to a more mainstream establishment. There, I spent weekdays scrubbing the floor as penance or standing in for ancient priests at troublesome parishes and weekends listening to naughty confessions from repressed catholic ladies; no medical clinic, research library and pharmaceutical manufacturing facility; as I had been transfered, none of the academic training I received was recognized. I put up with that for 6 months and left. and yes, in my new environment, the sex thing was becoming a problem.

    All this to say that before automatically assuming that ” repressing like a Catholic monk” in the context of a discussion on tantric practices is a good description of christian monastic practices one should perhaps peruse Hildegard of Bingen to find that there is indeed documented practices that are very similar to the much touted and not always functional oriental tantra.

  4. hijinks · August 4, 2008

    Enjoyed this article very much. When you use the term ‘Western Buddhism’, you may be describing ‘American Buddhism’. I studied Buddhism in Italy, and the monks and nuns, male and female, were lusty, passionate, and very strong presences. I wholeheartedly agree with you, that a Buddhist ethos is bumping into a Christian ethos. For years, I danced around the Buddhist Atisha saying, ‘drive all blames into oneself’. Originally, I took it to mean that I was essentially flawed, and should have some ongoing guilt about my very existence, a distorted Judeo-Christian point of view. From a Buddhist point of view, Atisha’s admonition is really about emptiness and karma. Also, in Buddhism, one can ‘confess’ to a teacher, or to oneself. It is not a whipping, but a way to acknowledge samsaric patterns. When the Brits colonized India, they destroyed a lot of vibrant, sexual statues. That speaks volumes.

  5. Peregrin · August 4, 2008

    Dear Hijinks,

    thank you for your comment and pointing out my cultural bias and assumptions. I was largely talking of Australian Buddhist men, and the Americans i have met, yes.

    Your anecdote about the Italian Sangha is very interesting and has made me think. Thanks.

    Peregrin 🙂

  6. Frank Owen · November 17, 2008

    Very interesting piece.

    I think there is a spectrum to what you are talking about, just as there is a spectrum of Buddhism and Buddhist practice.

    For instance, on the one hand, you have Thich Nhat Hanh, who is this very soft and gentle being, even bordering on frail at times (not because of his age) but who manifests a very quiet, immovable and transcendent strength.

    On the other hand, I’ve spent time with some Japanese Buddhists (who still seem to manifest some of the bold qualities of the samurai) and Tibetan teachers (including those who were non-monastic ngakpas who manifest very rugged qualities reminiscent of some of the Lakota shamans I’ve been around).

    Incidentally, I’ve seen a similar phenomenon in Paganism, namely Pagan individuals in rural Ireland working with unbridled “warrior energies” (and the eviscerating powers of their Cailleach~initiatory battle-hag goddess), to males in American Pagan circles who seem to have been emasculated in their process of hugging the trees and worshipping the Goddess.

    I wonder if what we’re talking about here isn’t something about balance, but also, perhaps, the very real possibility that there are very different energy reservoirs that people tap into depending upon “where they are at,” not unlike the martial arts where we have hard-styles and soft-styles, hard break-fall styles and quiet, internal styles (Bagua, T’ai Chi).

  7. jake · January 9, 2011

    subscribing- thank you!

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