Promiscuity, Polyamory & Buddhism

Last night I watched the livestream Noah Levine put up on Instagram about the upcoming closure of Against The Stream (ATS) and the events that led to it. Spoiler alert in case you didn’t watch: He didn’t say much. A lot of words came out of his mouth, but they didn’t add up to much in the way of new information about what happened or why.

I don’t want to dissect Noah’s speech. But there is one thing he said last night that I think I ought to address because I feel partially responsible for him saying it.

During his speech, Noah said that one of the folks at ATS told him that as far as she (or he, I think it was a she) was concerned Noah was guilty of sexual misconduct because he was sexually promiscuous. To which Noah replied that there is nothing in Buddhism that says promiscuity is wrong.

I don’t think Noah Levine reads my books. But I did write one of the very few books that addresses what Buddhism has to say about contemporary manifestations of sexuality, Sex Sin and Zen. I think that book may have influenced even people who haven’t read it. So I feel responsible to a certain extent for him saying this. Because in that book I said that most of contemporary Buddhism doesn’t have a lot of specific rules regarding sex. Instead there is the Third Precept which simply says, “Do not misuse sexuality.”

In the Christian Bible, homosexuality is a sin. We can read there that, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination” (Leviticus 20:13) and “Be not deceived … abusers of themselves with mankind … shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Furthermore, not only is promiscuity condemned in the Bible, but even thinking about being promiscuous is a sin. Jesus says, “But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).

You can’t find anything like that even in the earliest forms of Buddhism. Monks, both male and female, were expected to be completely celibate. But for non-monastics (called “householders”) there were only five kinds of sex that were forbidden. The Buddha reportedly told a group of male householders that they should not have sex with 1) girls under the guardianship of their parents (i.e. underaged), 2) women protected by Dhamma (nuns or those who have taken a vow of celibacy), 3) married women, 4) those undergoing punishment (i.e. prisoners) or 5) those bedecked in garlands (i.e. engaged to be married). You can modify these categories to apply to women or to homosexuals, bisexuals and whatever other -sexuals may exist now or in the future. And, of course, since violence is forbidden, rape is also considered a violation of the precepts. You can read more about this here

There’s nothing in that list that specifically prohibits promiscuity or polyamory.

But there is also a more important precept that supersedes even these. Dogen expresses this as shoaku makusa, which is usually translated as “do not do wrong.” In my book Don’t Be a Jerk, I rephrased this as “don’t be a jerk.”

When it comes to promiscuity or polyamory that means that each and every person within a group of people who are having sexual relations with each other must be completely OK with whatever sexual relations every other member of that group is having with anyone else. And that is a tall order! Personally, I doubt it ever really happens.

When there are only two people involved with each other, this is much easier to negotiate. Of course, even then it can still go wrong. It’s entirely possible for a one spouse to rape another, for example. Still, negotiating acceptable sexual boundaries is easier the fewer people are involved in the negotiations. This is true for any kind of negotiations about anything.

The more complicated your sex life is, the more likely you are to find yourself guilty of violating the precept of not misusing sexuality.

So, while promiscuity and polyamory are not forbidden to Buddhists, they are certainly not advisable.

It’s come to my attention recently that there are a few Buddhist teachers out there preaching about the joys of polyamory. Noah Levine is not one of them, by the way (at least as far as I am aware). When I heard about these Buddhist teachers extolling the joy of polyamory during dharma talks, I felt really bad. I felt like maybe I had influenced these teachers to do so by not taking a stronger stance on the matter when I wrote Sex Sin and Zen.

It’s obviously not entirely my fault. I’m certainly not regarded as any kind of great authority among Buddhists in America. And as I mentioned in one of my YouTube videos, Buddhism was first embraced in America by the hippie generation. Those folks not only enjoyed their drugs but also advocated free love. And the free love movement of the 60’s and 70’s crashed later on in a manner very similar to the way the whole “tune in, turn on, drop out” thing crashed.

Still, I wish I’d been more firm in my book about the problems inherent in promiscuity and polyamory.

Nishijima Roshi, my teacher, once told me that he believed Buddhist monks should either be married or celibate. This is probably good advice. Although forcing religious teachers to take vows of celibacy hasn’t worked out very well either for the Catholic church or for Buddhists. The word “homosexual” didn’t exist in Japanese until recently. The nearest equivalent was a word that literally means “temple boy.” This says something about how well Japanese Buddhist monks were able to keep their vows of celibacy before the custom of having them take vows of celibacy was abolished in the 19th century.

If I had it to do over again, I’d be much clearer in my book about the dangers of violating the precept of not misusing sexuality when engaged in promiscuous or polyamorous sexual relationships. I’m not sure that would have been enough to prevent the closure of Against The Stream. But I’m sad to see that place shut down, and I feel I played a minor role in making it happen. I regret this.



Friday Oct. 12, 2018 CLEVELAND, OHIO 7:00pm UU Church 2728 Lancashire Rd., Cleveland Heights, OH 44106



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