Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is one too many and a hundred not enough?

First, let’s get the abject apology out of the way. Seriously, I haven’t been blogging lately. And maybe you’ve been wondering, “What’s that My Buddha is Pink dude been up to? He hasn’t posted anything in, like, for-ever!” And you’d be right to wonder that. But I have to admit, I’ve been stymied.

I ran into a discussion on my Facebook page (and if you haven’t visited, please do and help me get some discussions going, I mean seriously, all day I’m talking to people about successful use of social media and my Facebook page is a black hole for silence) that positively left me clueless as to a response. And it was about sex for goodness sake! Me clueless and unable to give a response about sex? I may have to give my toaster back! (you may only get that last reference if you were a diligent viewer of Ellen DeGeneres’ ill-fated TV series, you know, before she became the talk-show goddess that she is today)

Ellen, can you hear me? Can you feel me near you? Ellen, can you feel me? Can I help to cheer you? Ooo-oo-oo, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen.

OK, enough references to 1960s rock operas (but seriously, don’t you think Tommy was just a tad gay?)

Someone had posited that having multiple sex partners was fine and within the intention of the Third Precept as long as everything was consensual. Why would there be a preference inferred within the Third Precept for monogamy over polygamy or polyamory? And I have to say when this question was asked, I had no easy response. Instead, I asked more questions. And one of the questions I asked was whether this individual (who I know will read this because it will be posted to my Facebook page) had read any of the Buddhist literature, such as the Pali canon.

His reply was he had not.

His position that as long as one was behaving through proper social norms, having multiple sex partners would be within the intent of the Third Precept; just don’t be possessive of another and make sure that it’s consensual. I have to admit it’s a very beguiling argument, but my gut told me it was specious nonetheless. But what to say?

Look, I’ve never presented myself as an “expert” on Buddhism. I’ve “studied” a lot of the literature, and while my grounding is in the Thai Forest tradition, I’ve read a great deal of other publications in the Mahayana sphere. But I’m no academic, and I’m certainly no monk. Although, I have to admit that I’ve met some monks that my initial reaction was to think, “How can I get this monk to disrobe?” And I mean that both metaphorically and literally.

But I digress.

I had to agree that if one remained uncommitted, multiple sexual partners under the rubric of everything being consensual was probably not necessarily a violation of the Third Precept. But was such activity skillful? That was what was troubling me. Because my gut said no, it is not skillful, and it holds tremendous potential for future pain, suffering, anguish, misunderstanding, mistrust, and – not to forget – some nasty little diseases that may crop up.

Having said that, I needed something to back me up, to support my conclusion. Because sometimes the trouble with Buddhism is there are a lot of people who will identify as Buddhist who really don’t know much about what the Buddha taught. And it just seemed prudent to me that if you are going to identify as Buddhist, it would be wise to know something about the subject before deciding what is considered skillful Buddhist behavior.

I’m just sayin’.

And finally, I found my response. All it took was me picking up my copy of the Majjhima Nikāya and start reading it again. You see, I had stopped reading it regularly. In fact, I had stopped reading any Buddhist doctrine or literature on a regular basis. My practice had become irrelevant. It was time to make it relevant.

And what I found was the Ratthapala Sutta! Oh yeah, this guy Ratthapala had it goin’ on! While I’m sure there are other suttas that will address this question more specifically, I found Ratthapala’s discussion on the four teachings of the Buddha that attracted him to Buddhism very, how shall we say? – Enlightening.

The first: The world is swept away. It does not endure.

The second: The world is without shelter, without protector.

The third: The world is without ownership. One has to pass on, leaving everything behind.

The fourth: The world is insufficient, insatiable, a slave to craving.

When I read these, I was like, whoa! And the fourth item is what really clicked with me regarding my dilemma over multiple sexual partners.

When asked what he meant when he said, “The world is insufficient, insatiable, a slave to craving,” Ratthapala asked King Koravya if he was informed of another rich country that he could conquer and add to his own kingdom, what would he do? The king replied he would attack and conquer that country. And if another? He would conquer that too. On and on and to what end?

So, for someone who believes it’s OK to have multiple sexual partners as a regular lifestyle, someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, I know this hot dude who’d love to meet you.” Would you want to meet him? And if so, what if someone else comes along and says, “Hey this hot dude wants to get with you?’ Hey, why the heck not? And then maybe even this hot dude says, “Hey, I know this really hot guy who’d love a threesome.” Are you gonna go for it?

It’s all well and good except for one thing: you remain a slave to sensuality. You remain a slave to sensual indulgences. You think you’re free, but in reality, you’re a slave.

The other issue is the lack of intimacy in these relationships. I know someone who fits this, who told me he thinks he found someone he could “make a relationship with,” although it was clear to me there was no love. It was a matter of convenience. And even after saying he was interested in this guy, he was still sleeping with other men.

Now, lest you think that I am some holier-than-thou puritan of gay sex, let me make clear I am not. But I am seeking someone who can be a true partner. I don’t want multiple sex partners as much fun as it is. I’m like Hedwig. I seek my other half. And even as I say that, I realize that the fact that I am searching for that, for that man, means I still cling to sensuality.

But I accept that. I am fully aware that my desire to be with someone – one man – to share what’s left of my life means that I remain bound to the cycle of birth, life, and death. Despite that, this is how I believe a skillful lay person should live, even if you’re not getting laid much.

As I said earlier, I’m not a monk. Don’t even want to be one. And maybe my sentiment is condescending to those who accept a polyamorous lifestyle. But don’t you think there is more skill in wanting to make up your mind than in refusing to make up your mind?

Challenge me. I like it.


  1. "I have to admit that I’ve met some monks that my initial reaction was to think, “How can I get this monk to disrobe?” And I mean that both metaphorically and literally."
    My first reaction was, ? Then some laughter, and Finally a 'Bad, bad...'

    And as for people not really knowing much of what the Buddha taught - I agree. But it will be a perennial problem, I'm afraid. Even in the Buddha's time, as in the Simile of the Snake, some people will get a bit of the teaching and grasp them by the wrong end.

    And also regarding sensuality - agreed. How this plays out is different for each of us, maybe some people can have three partners and not ever want a fourth. And indeed in some cultures polyandry and polygyny do work. But, as with even monogamy, be careful. If multiple partnerships are based on growing love and mutual respect, all the better. But if they're based on chasing sensuality, you're in trouble.

    Beware the hedonic treadmill.

  2. I know, I can be kinda bad sometimes, huh? :P

    I guess I should be more open to polygyny and polyandry, not as an option for myself, but more willing to accept it as an option for others. I guess I was being judgmental, although I do believe that those options are not suitable for me.

  3. Hi Richard,

    I would like to propose something...

    I have found that conversations on polyamory/polygyny/polyandry and monogamy have often veered toward either defensive rationalisations of one over the other (i.e. This relationship model has these pros, That relationship model has these cons, This relationship model is more sophisticated for everyone in these ways, That relationship model is exploitative/oppressive/not-intimate-enough/too-demanding/etc. etc.).

    For me, it is important here to consider that both MultiplePartnerships and Monogamous Couplehood have clearly not worked for ALL people at ALL times throughout ALL cultures. Clearly, at various circumstances in our lives, we have chosen, consciously or otherwise, to relate to our partner or partners in varying configurations and with various motivations.

    Without becoming totally relativistic, I'd say that there is no need to judge ourselves for our previous histories of sex or sexuality or relationship configuration. Many of us regret histories of multiple partners, but many of us also regret remaining married to one person throughout our whole lives!

    And remember, of course, that there are men who have lots of partners in their lives, and have one core partner whom they love dearly, and who then sometimes leave that all behind as well, catalysing, no doubt, a tremendous amount of suffering for all he has left behind...

    Typically, we call these guys "bastards," but occasionally, one of them we call "Buddha."

    As you've put it "I am fully aware that my desire to be with someone – one man – to share what’s left of my life means that I remain bound to the cycle of birth, life, and death." But I disagree with you on your construction of what is skillful: "[being with a single partner] is how I believe a skillful lay person should live, even if you’re not getting laid much."

    I know that, without any prior sexual experience in my life, it would have been impossible to even REACH the point of single partnership. Using the idea of interdependency, this means that even if I am monogamous and with just one man, this partnership has been partially conditioned by a history of FULL EMBRACE of my non-monogamous history. Does that make sense?

    To herald one relationship model in a prescriptive way for all people is to deny the interdependency of ALL relationships, and that all configurations of any (like any phenomenon at all), is impermanent, and ultimately empty. Even the craving for FULL independence (i.e. without any residual craving for partnership left) is itself a form of suffering.

    1. I know you're right, but I also seek to strive for finding that one guy. I'm not going to live in a tower until I find him, which necessarily means I will be with many men. And I must admit I do at times feel condescension toward those who live a polygamous or polyandrous life. That's my issue, not theirs. I believe I know what is right for me. It is arrogant of me to think I know what is right for them.