The Paradoxes of the married Zen Priest

“What is healthy sexuality? This question I’m investigating with my group of High School age teenagers in Clouds in Water Zen Center’s T.R.U.S.T. program. Even at my old age, it’s still a ripe question. Buddha thought enough about it to include sexuality as one of our precepts – Do not misuse sexuality.

As I delve into my thoughts and feelings on this, there are a lot of contradictions. Certainly in our society with the onslaught of media representation of sexuality, we are inundated with different views and most of them unhealthy.

Even within my thoughts in the Zen world, I’m finding tension. I am a Zen Priest who is married and has a family. I am not celibate. I have always thought, because of group-think, that this situation makes me a second-class priest. A REAL priest would be celibate like the Theravadins (and almost all the other Buddhists Priests in the world, in accord with the monastic tradition.) Japanese Zen Buddhism has this anomaly- we can marry. The Theravadins are very strict – some of them not even able to touch a women. The Tibetan Buddhists directly look at sexual energy and its use to spirituality in their Tantric Tradition. A wide range of points of view abound.

There has been historic references to married Japanese Zen priests since the 12th century in Japan. But the major reference I have heard about is in 1877, the Meiji Government made a decree that Zen monks should “eat meat, take a wife, and shave their heads as they choose.” I have always been told that this decree was an effort of the Meiji Government to lessen the power that the Buddhist Temples had. It was an effort to deconstruct the Zen priest’s power. I have never heard it being spoken about positively. It is usually discussed in the “watering down of Zen” conversation.

The going mind set in my training and in my head is that Zen priest’s ability to marry lessens our commitment and our power. It waters down Buddhism and secularizes our Way. This uninvestigated thought has come up as I’m teaching sexuality to the teens. Does my marriage, does my sexual energy, lessen me? Does it interfere with my Way?

I have spent my whole life trying to heal my sexuality, which was damaged by abuse as a child. I have spent a lot of time finding my sexual energy and allowing it to bloom. I have always wanted to feel like a whole woman. Yet, because of my commitment to being a Zen priest; I have often looked like a man with short or shaven head and I have not worn adornments like make-up or jewelry. I have on a rare occasion when I broke the rules, found myself hiding my painted toenails under the zabuton while bowing.

In the end, what I have discovered is my sexual energy is the same as my zazen energy and is part of the energy body. If sexual energy is shut down or overused, either extreme, it shows up in our energy body or Sambogakaya body. Of course, to understand Buddhist wisdom we also have to enter the Dharmakaya body, the body that is larger than our individual energy.   But nevertheless, Buddha didn’t skip or shut down the Sambogakaya Body.

As a feminists, It is part of the reinvestigation of the past to uncover where women, family, children, blood, earth, messiness, procreation was ignored or put down.   I want to teach my teenagers that sex is wonderful and dangerous because it is so powerful. It can enliven our lives or, if misused, it can hurt both others and ourselves. We have to discern and use wisdom and the precepts, to decide how to precede with its beauty and power.

Most of the Zen koans that are about sex, oddly, are pro-sex or, at least, not taking a rigid viewpoint of “against”. They do not seem to me to be strictures about sexuality or admonitions for celibacy. Maybe these are hand-selected koans by Westerners and that’s why I can find them. Even if this is true, these voices are different then the celibacy rules found in the Theravadin Vinaya.

The Mahayana seems to have a different take on things.

When the Japanese Buddhist Saint Hônen (1133-1212) was asked whether a Buddhist religious person should be celibate or not, he said: «If it is easier for him or her to express faith by reciting the Buddha’s name alone, he or she should be celibate. If it is easier to do that with a spouse, it is better to marry.  What is important is only how one expresses one’s faith in reciting the Buddha’s name.»

In this quote above, obviously Honen was a chanter of Buddha’s name, probably in the Pure Land School of Japanese Buddhism. But even if you substitute chanting with quiet sitting, the point is- What is important is how you express your faith and spirituality in action.

The shadow side of celibacy is the underground sexuality of the monasteries. From what I have gathered, the Japanese monasteries were also sexual. In what I consider the most grievous aspects, the young, new monks became the sex objects of the older monks. Sometimes, the children were expressly taken into the monasteries for this objective. This practice is surely something we do not want to emulate.

There are several koan about sex that I want to bring forth in this and other blogs.

This koan is coming from the book “Three : Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan” by John Stevens. Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) is a very renowned and beloved teacher even though he is one of the most eccentric. He was acknowledged as a genius in his time. He was revered enough to be the Abbot of important Zen temples but in his unusual nature, he hated the hypocrisy and rule-bound nature of his fellow monastics and is famous for breaking the rules, living freely and wandering through life in his own style. He describes his own “living freely” as “better look for me in a fish stall, a sake shop, or a brothel.” He also is described as taking long retreats in remote tumbledown hermitages, devoting himself to old-fashioned Zen training.

One of the stories about Ikkyu, goes as follows:

One day Ikkyu was traveling in an isolated area when he happened upon a naked woman preparing to bathe in a river. Ikkyu stopped, bowed reverently toward her, and continued on his way. Several passersby who witnessed this unusual scene ran after Ikkyu for an explanation of his strange behavior.  “An ordinary man would have ogled that naked woman. Why did you bow to her naked body and sexuality?” they asked.  Ikkyu replied, “Women are the source from which every being has come, including the Buddha and Bodhidharma!”

How wonderful. This is also the truth not spoken of in the old Buddhist cultural style of celibacy where women were considered dangerous and to be avoided. Every human being has come through the miracle of the sex act and through women’s bodies. What is there not to praise and bow to?

Now, I feel like I’m changing my views about being a married women priest. It is not “less then.” I feel like this mixed up life of mine is actually a gift. I have had a full and thorough life of being a human being with all its issues and problems and chaos of raising children. AND I have had the wonderful commitment and support of others to delve into the Dharma in the deepest way I can because I have the title of “priest”. What a splendid combination! What a gift. How much I appreciate this great chance I’ve had and its expression of the wholeness of human life.