An attention-grabbing headline, but that is not the reason I choose to take up the subject. With the presidential campaign that is grinding to an agonizing halt, like the slow death of a pet that you cannot bear to put down, it seems necessary to grapple with sexuality. It has been brought front and center, in our face.

I would never have imagined that sex — a very touchy subject, no pun intended — would have become an issue in a presidential campaign, especially driven by the oldest candidate in the thundering herd, the oldest in history, one who is a member of my generation, I am embarrassed to admit. And therefore, one would hope, would no longer be driven by raging hormones, to the point of having no judgment as to what kind of speech and behavior is really appropriate. Been there and done that myself, as I assume many of you have, as well.

But since it has reared its head — whether you consider it ugly or not seems beside the point — let’s examine sex in the context of Zen. For those who have lived as long as I have, sex seems to occupy the center of another endless campaign — one of finding balance between the biological urge to reproduce, and the demands of society, including those imposed by our loved ones. It is not for no reason that the history of Zen has emphasized celibacy on the part of the monastics, but more for purposes of simplicity and harmony in the community, than for the sake of misguided morality, I think.

For Zen does not presuppose a morality that is based on social mores and norms as being the natural way, but one that comes from realization of nonduality, in all matters, including sexuality.

Let’s look at sex, mercifully briefly, from three perspectives: 1) the human condition; 2) the culture; and 3) Zen’s take on morality. This third, it should be noted, is referenced without recourse to Theism or God, which is the usual, implied context for morality in our culture. But in Zen, we do not take a position on the existence or non-existence of God. So how do we make reference to morality without referring to theism or religion?

As an example of the conventional wisdom, a commentator on NPR made the point that he had pursued a lifetime of looking to politics for an uplifting inspiration, until this campaign forced him to look elsewhere. He landed on God, as a refuge from the profane nature of raw politics currently on display, reduced to its basest level. This is understandable, but if our politics do not reflect the will of God, how can we expect humanity to do so, without slipping into panglossian fantasy, or hypocrisy, ourselves? This is why, in Zen, we aspire to buddha-nature, rather unrealistic expectations of human nature.

Let me quote from myself, from a prior presentation on sex as a form of addiction:

Sexuality is probably the one area in which the apparent inherent duality of our human condition, or at least our social existence, comes into sharpest focus. Sex is by turns attractive but repulsive, serious and yet silly, tragic but comic. This is why a great deal of humor, as well as scandal, is sexually oriented.

Certain points I would like to make as rather didactic assertions:

• That if anything is sexual, everything is, both as an attribute, and as an underlying drive to the dynamic of existence: yin and yang writ large.

• That the overweening focus on sex is revealing of dualistic thinking: dividing the universe into such categories as sacred and profane.

• That it is either laugh or cry: we can use dualistic thinking to get a perspective on sex, as an integral part of the great human-Buddhist tragicomedy.

• And that however ambivalent our experience of and attitude toward sex, it does not have to become, or remain, a hindrance to our practice of Zen.

Some may feel that people in a position of talking about what we prefer to conceive of as "spiritual" matters, should not talk about things like sex. Perhaps you feel that way. But in Zen, we do not separate the spiritual and the physical, the sacred and the profane. These are dualities imposed upon reality by our human society. Some would go further, and argue that this view goes deeper, that it comes with birth.

We live in a culture saturated with sex to such a degree that it becomes almost abnormal not to be obsessed with sex. About obsession, the AMA says:

A compulsion is an unreasonable need to behave in a certain way. An obsession is an unpleasant or irrational idea or thought that lodges in the mind; obsessional mental activity often leads to compulsive behavior.

Here you can see how this O-C behavior is in our wheelhouse, central to Zen.

At one time or another, most people have minor obsessions and compulsions. One day, you may not be able to get a popular tune out of your head. You may check several times to make sure you turned off the oven. However, when these thoughts and acts become so intense and persistent that they interfere with normal life, you probably need to get psychiatric help. In such cases, the person has an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Close quote.

This latter implies that obsessive-compulsive behavior is not necessarily a disorder, but part of the ambivalence of the way the monkey-mind works. So sex is part of the human condition, whether we like it or not.

But the cultural viewpoint on sex is not necessarily in accordance with its role, as regards the human condition. The two cannot be separated, of course, but should be distinguished for our purposes. We want to introduce the perspective of Zen regarding the morality of sexuality as indicated by the Precept, “Honor the body; do not engage in sexual misconduct.” What is, or would be, sexual misconduct? Beyond the conventional mores?

Culturally, the role that sex has played over time has ranged from a form of worship, as in the matriarchal societies; to extreme ambivalence, as seen in our Western aversion and attraction; to downright condemnation, as in the worst-case patriarchal societies.

The connection of sex to current social mores — our broadly accepted, if relatively unexamined, norms regarding the right and wrong, good and evil, of sexual behaviors — is probably the most fruitful avenue of exploration, reflecting our view of sex in our daily lives. Of course, major historical influences — Judaic and Christian religious worldviews, with sidebars of Greek and Roman history — play a determinative role.

But any top-down approach to simply accepting the dictates of the mores of one’s society would represent an abdication of responsibility in the quest to truly understand sexuality. This does not mean that a Zen person, in particular a priest, would feel no compunction in violating the norms of expected civility in regards to sex. But like other aspects of received wisdom, would regard convention with an appropriate degree of skepticism.

The “Zen person has no problem following the sidewalks” as Matsuoka Roshi used to say. But we would not follow them off a cliff, if that is where they lead. Zen does not promote a licentious lifestyle, but reminds us that whatever we do is clearly on us. The consequences, personal, social, medical and karmical, will surely follow.

A little research into the history of human sexuality in society throws a jaundiced light on our presumed, vaunted sense of superiority over other viewpoints. For an even broader perspective, perhaps leavened with a touch of self-deprecating humor, a bit of study of the animal and insect world, including microbiology, places our human niche in a riotous spectrum of possibilities that beggar the imagination. This is one way of relating to the idea that if anything is sexual, everything is.

Flowers, for example, are in a state of constant flagrante delicto, and all animals, other than humans, are running around stark naked. Which reminds me of a story a college friend related, reclining on the beaches of Manhattan, when a little girl ran up, wrapped in a towel, and flinging it open, revealed her naked body, shouting, “No shame! No shame!” then ran off to enlighten others. I have even read of a movement, pursued by well-intentioned Christians, to put underwear on wild animals, hiding their shame. Thankfully, it was short-lived. Or perhaps they were.

The romantic side of sex, which may be coolly conceived as a rationalization of hormones, romancing the stone, so to speak, adds to the complexity. At an early age, I, and many others of my generation, were seduced, so to speak, by the popular music and movies of the times. Then the advent of early rock and roll both obfuscated the true meaning of sex, while widely and wildly promoting its appeal to young and easily influenced minds. As a consequence, I ended up marrying my high school sweetheart at the tender age of nineteen, the only girl with whom I had had intimate relations at, seventeen. It was what you were supposed to do. Teenage actions can also have long-lived consequences.

Celibacy may be seen as an aversive reaction to sexuality, I suppose. It has been a characteristic of the traditional practice of Zen in monastic settings, but I would suggest, more as a simplification of the relationships involved, whatever one’s sexual preference, than as a proscription based upon moralistic ideals. In the context of Zen, sexuality would stand as one of the many koans, or riddles of existence, to be solved by the individual.

Among the many ancestors of Zen, Master Ikkyu, 15th Century Rinzai master, is famous for his liberal attitudes toward sex, and his critique of celibate monks, who were rather promiscuous, when it came to political and self-serving attitudes regarding their well-being from economic and political points of view. Well-intentioned abstinence in one dimension of life can be seen as hypocrisy, from the perspective of true morality. Monastic does not necessarily mean moralistic.

As my teacher would say, “Be careful of that one little thing you allow yourself.” In the context of our being so very good in so very many ways, we sometimes think it all right to slide a little in another, usually hidden, area of activity. Which reminds of another bit of received wisdom:

There was a little girl, who had a little curl,
right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very good indeed,
but when she was bad she was horrid.

Thank you, Master Longfellow. This is what will get you in the end, according to Sensei. We see it all too often in public life, wearily including politics and religion. A robe, or a tailored suit, can hide a lot of sins; but nothing is so obvious as that which is hidden.

Which brings us back to the matter of the campaign. Thank Buddha that all things are impermanent. Remembering “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Master Hans Christian Anderson, incidentally published 140 years before the founding of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, we recognize that we owe a debt of gratitude to him as well.

They say that when you are giving a public talk, or even interviewing for a new job, or find yourself in any other intimidating situation, just imagine the audience in their underwear, or naked. This relieves us of the immediate intimidation, perhaps, but inflicts us with what is perhaps an even more onerous distraction.

Just imagine the candidates in the altogether, walking on stage before an audience of millions — posturing, preening, grandstanding, and ridiculing each other — as we have witnessed. In the case of one of these POTUS wannabees, we do not have to strain our imagination too much. A lifesize, nude statue of him mysteriously appeared in Los Angeles, inviting all to admire, or at least consider, that which according to Master Dogen, “should be hidden.” It gives new meaning to the current trope, that “you can’t un-see that.”

I could go on, but for your sake, and my own sanity, we will draw this to a close. Suffice it to say that Sex and Zen are both mysteries, the former deserving capitalization at least as much as the latter. And while Ikkyu may be correct — that for him, the former helped to illuminate the latter — we can at least be confident that the latter will help us to clarify the former.

The “long red line” referenced by Ikkyu — that runs from between our legs back to the beginning of time, and woe be unto us if we disregard it — is illustrated by the ketchimyaku, Zen’s “bloodline certificate.” It traces our lineage back to Shakyamuni Buddha, through all the Ancestors of Soto Zen, including our immediate teacher. This physical side of our legacy is nothing to be ashamed of, but we should not take it for granted, either. Like all other dimensions of our existence, it is to be “examined thoroughly in practice,” thank you Dogen.

If we come to realize physical balance, or Samadhi, in zazen, then mental and emotional balance are bound to follow. Eventually, we may enter the realm of “social Samadhi,” my coinage, in which even the most complex and entangling relationships come to be seen in their true light — as impermanent, imperfect, and insubstantial. The first two may be relatively easy to accept in terms of sexuality and procreation, but the latter seems utterly impossible, with regards to our progeny. If reproduction is not substantial, what is?

It is difficult to relinquish the feeling of connection to the import, and implications, of bearing children. This may be the hidden dimension of celibacy, its true saving grace. Not to disavow our bodhisattva commitment to all others, including posterity, but to accept that our particular brand of DNA need not be passed on, in order to benefit the species. This is indeed a form of humility, one that we may wish more of our fellows would embrace. It may also represent the core of morality: that if there is to be a sacrifice, let it be me. Or at least my genes.

Returning to the cushion we find refuge from the fray, and witness the immediate impact of the X & Y chromosome dance. Did you really expect to find what you were looking for anywhere else?