Hardcore Zen: Sexual Preferences? Sexual Schmeferences!
Oct 2010 12

Hardcore Zen: Sexual Preferences? Sexual Schmeferences!

Posted In Blog,Love,Relationships,Sex

by Brad Warner

Hello SuicideGirls! It’s been a while! But I’m back. As some of you may recall, I used to do a regular “Hardcore Zen” blog here at SG on all manner of topics relating to Zen. I’m a Zen Buddhist monk and I just published my forth book, Sex, Sin and Zen.

Recently the Buddhist news and culture site Shambhala Sun Space posted an excerpt from that book. Here is the part they used:

There’s a famous Chinese poem called “Faith Mind Inscription.” In spite of its lousy title, it’s one of the most profound pieces of literature in all of Zen. The first verse sets forth the premise right away: “The Great Way is not difficult, just avoid preferences. When love and hate are absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.”

Of course, when talking about sex and preferences, the first thing people think of is so-called “sexual preferences” and all the nonsense our culture has piled on top of the matter of who a person prefers to fuck. I talk about that elsewhere in Sex, Sin, and Zen, so let’s look at some other issues involved with the Zen idea of avoiding preferences.

I suspect most people, when they first hear this notion of avoiding preferences, think of it the way I did when I first heard it. You think, “Oh, my God! I like vanilla better than chocolate! I like the Ramones better than Air Supply! I like lying on the beach better than getting hit in the face with a two-by-four! I have so many preferences! What am I going to do?”

In other words, you think, as I did, that preferences are a solid thing that must be gotten rid of. You imagine that some kind of bizarre mental gymnastics must be involved in forever ridding yourself of all like and dislike so that someday when you go to Ben & Jerry’s and they ask you what flavor you want, you’ll just smile beatifically and say, “Give me whatever you like, for lo, I am free from preferences.”

But that’s not really what the poem means. We’re actually talking about something very immediate and direct. It’s related to the question every Zen teacher is asked more often than just about any other, the one that goes, “My brain is all clogged up and scattered when I do zazen. Am I doing it wrong?”

But here’s the deal. Your brain is all cloudy, but you’d prefer that it not be. The difference between what you are and what you think you ought to be causes your imagination to leap wildly. You want to go from where you actually are to some idealized state your confused mind has created. But it’s a losing battle, because the attempt to change from what you are to what you think you should be is the very problem.

The solution is to simply forgo preferences. Don’t make any effort to be what you’re not. Just allow what you are to fully manifest. Keep your posture and stay still. Sit with it. Don’t go against it. Don’t go for it. Only sit and let it be.

In terms of sex, we all have lots of preferences. This goes for people of all “sexual preferences,” by the way. It’s not just a matter of which gender you prefer to shag. Sex brings out all of our loves and hates in a very big way.

For example, we’re not in love, and we hate that. Or we’re in love, but things are going wrong and we hate that. Or we’re in love with this girl/guy/stuffed animal, but we want to sleep with that other one, too, and girl/guy/stuffed animal #1 isn’t into the whole polyamory thing. Or we can’t get enough sex. Or we’re getting too much sex. And on and on and on it goes.

Sex is such a hot-button area in terms of getting us into our various likes and dislikes that this is certainly one of the reasons Buddha recommended that his monks be celibate. But this is a book mainly for people who are interested in Buddhism but not in celibacy. So what are we gonna do about preferences if we want to keep on getting laid?

One bit of good news is that the more we can get beyond our preferences, the better our sex lives will be. Instead of wallowing in how things aren’t the way we want them to be, we can dive right in to what we have at this moment and enjoy it thoroughly.

Part of avoiding preferences is learning to like the very fact that you dislike something. In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation there’s a scene in which Data, the android character, is given a special computer chip that, for the first time in his robotic life, allows him to have preferences. He orders a drink, gulps it down, and goes, “I hate this! Give me another!” He’s never disliked anything before, and this itself is a source of great joy and fascination.

The idea of avoiding preferences doesn’t mean that we need to be complacent and leave even the worst situations in life just as they are. The first step in effectively changing something that clearly needs to be changed is accepting the way it actually is. Then we can do what needs doing to make things different without wasting a lot of energy wishing things already were different. For example, you may find yourself in a relationship that’s bad and you gotta either make it better or end it. If you sit around wishing things were different and wallowing in your malaise, you’ll never do anything to fix it.

But bringing the matter of avoiding preferences into even tighter focus than that, being without preference means that when you have preferences – and you always will – you let go of any notion that you should not have them. You let go of your preference for being free of preferences. Even having preferences is not a problem. The real root of our problems as human beings is the way we fly off into imagining how things could, or should, be.

One of the readers over at Shambala Sun Space took issue with the use of the term “sexual preferences,” stating:

The term “sexual preference” belittles the agony that gays and lesbians often must go through in order to become honest with themselves and others about who they are. Many don’t make it that far, and they lose their lives. Others lose their lives through murder, at the hands of psychopaths who cannot tolerate their honesty. If sexual orientation were a simple matter of preference, and if people could just choose to “be without preference,” as Brad suggests, then we wouldn’t see a suicide rate among gay teens that’s up to four times higher than that among heterosexual teens. Most of those kids, I assure you, aren’t at peace with their “preferences” — and they would probably choose differently, at that stage, if they had the power. They have “preferences” about the kinds of clothes they wear and the music they listen to and the movies they see and the places they hang out, but sexual identity is on another order of magnitude in terms of complexity. Its causes and conditions, as far as we understand (which, frankly, isn’t very far), encompass both biology and psychology, nature and nurture.

Here is how I replied:

An interesting discussion! The word “preference” here is indeed unfortunate. In the portion of the book excepted above I was trying to look at the Buddhist idea of “avoiding preferences.” And so I was riffing on this word. I don’t believe that one chooses to be gay rather than straight the same way one chooses to order strawberry ice cream instead of vanilla and I make that clear elsewhere in the book.

One of the many interesting aspects of Zen practice for me personally has been the discovery that there is a tremendous amount of variety in the thoughts and desires that arise in my mind once I stop working so hard at defining myself to myself. Among the many things I discovered was the fact that my own personal sexual orientation was not a fixed and rigid thing. Some of the stuff I recognized about myself was truly disturbing. That I could occasionally be sexually attracted to men was no big deal, especially by comparison.

The point I’m clumsily trying to get at here is that sexual orientation — hetero, homo, bi, trans, queer, etc. — seems to me to be just one of a big stew of things we use to constantly define and reinforce our provisional sense of self. Ultimately it’s all delusion, even when it’s a provisionally useful delusion. Some of it may even be true as far as it goes. But it still falls short of who we really are.

In the end, though, I’m still as hetero as I ever was. As Dennis points out, it’s part of my personal karma. In spite of what I found through my practice, I can’t just flip to the other side through an act of will. In my own case I’m lucky that there is no societal pressure to do so. It must be really horrible when there is.

But I find I’m more personally at ease with myself because I’ve been able to drop some of the very hard clinging I did to my sexual identity – among many other aspects of identity. I imagine a lot of people could do with discovering these things about themselves. This is especially true for hetero folks like me, I think. And here’s why.

We need to treat everyone we meet with respect and dignity regardless of their orientation. That’s for sure! I believe that the Buddhist practice can help establish that by allowing more people to see how fluid their own identity – sexual or otherwise – actually is. Then we cease to view others as eternally different from ourselves.

And that’s what I said to my reader at Shambhala Sun Space. The reason I’ve decided to share this with you folks at Suicide Girls is because I feel it’s a good way to begin a dialogue here about these subjects. So please feel free to leave questions and comments and I’ll do my best to address them.

***

I’m doing two events in New York this week:

The first is a book signing at 7 pm on October 15th at the Iinterdependence Project in the East Village. Be there!

The following two days, October 16th and 17th, we’re having a two-day non-residential retreat at the Interdependence Project in the East Village. This is a terrific opportunity for anyone who wants to get a real taste of what zazen is all about. The retreat is open to beginners, no experience necessary.

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

Buy the new CD by his band Zero Defex at CD Baby now!

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