DharmaSean’s Review of Brad Warner’s “Sex, Sin and Zen”

2010 September 6

My buddy Sean who is a dharma teacher here in Montreal (Dharma Punx style) has been kind enough to provide a review of the new Brad Warner book for this blog. I like Sean. He’s a smart cat who hails from the Maritimes and has a penchant for the punk rock music too. Sean’s a blogger as well and gets nice and political with what topics he writes about. As an engaged Buddhist, he participates in teaching meditation to prisoners. Yeah. He’s a pretty rad dude. I’m sure you’ll enjoy his review and it will buy me time until I put together my own review which is in the works.Do check out his blog as it’s worth reading about his journey on the path. Now for the review…

Brad Warner’s new book, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, tackles a subject that is rarely discussed in Buddhist circles: Sex! Honestly, I can only really think of two teachers that are willing to discuss this topic, Noah Levine (author of Dharma Punx and Against the Stream) and Mr. Warner himself. Before I start talking about the book, it might be interesting to some of you to first discuss how Brad has been involved in discussions on the idea of “right livelihood”. Brad was a columnist for the alternative porn site Suicide Girls, this created much criticism in many Buddhist circles, that a Zen monk would write for such a website. I have found myself “defending” Brad more times than I wish to remember, I find that people are quick to judge others on the decisions that they have taken. People seem to put their teachers on pedestals, seeing as they represent the Buddha’s teachings they are meant to be held to this unrealistic ideal, they are still human after all. Also, I find that it is the critics that are creating their own suffering by clinging to these closed views, I am sure that Brad would say that he is responsible for whatever karma he may be accumulating from this work and was completely accountable from whatever may arise from this job. I don’t really want to get into it too much here, I find that I have discussed this enough and that it is time that we move on, if it makes you feel better, he no longer does the column. Brad also has a great explanation of why he decided to do it, so go get the book and check it out for yourself, and then you can form your own opinion.

Sex is a controversial topic, but it is such an important part of our lives (I mean, most people are obsessed with sex, how could we not be? It’s so much fun and feels so great! However, it is also the source of many headaches!), and there are not many texts out there that take such an honest look at the topic in relation to the dharma. Brad covers all topics, from masturbation to the porn industry to BDSM (that’s an acronym for the S&M industry kiddies) to LGBT issues and more. I find that Brad is really coming into his own as an author, I have always been a fan of his books, but he is able to present very wise and deep teachings without losing his pop-culture references and wit! (his footnotes are still the source of most of his zingers!) I don’t want to give too much away, so I have decided to share with you all one of my favourite passage from the book in hopes to entice you to go to your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy. I am sure that Brad could use your coin!

The book begins with his retelling of a talk that he gave in Montreal (514 represent Whoot!) at Casa Del Popollo (Probably one of the best bars in Montreal, go support local businesses that create community kids!) when someone asked him if Buddhists could “jack-off”. Pretty big first question after a talk if you ask me. Brad decides to respond this question by demystifying some widely held misconceptions about Buddhism in the West. Sin is a concept that is really ingrained in our collective Psyche, we were all mostly raised Christian (at least in Canada) or in Judaism and Islam where sin plays a big role in all that is morality. What we must remember however, is that Buddhism is from the Global East and does not have the concept of sin, this is something that the West brought to morality. This can been seen by how the Japanese view porn and the other facets of the sex industry. He also takes the time to clarify that Buddhism is not a religion, you may be wondering “What about all those temples with statues etc?”, but Buddhism as such is not spirituality it is realism. (I know, this book was probably in the spirituality section of the bookstore) This makes total sense when we look at the history of philosophy, which its history can be divided into two categories: idealism and materialism. Spirituality is seen as a kind of idealism “It takes the view that the spiritual world, the world of ideas, imagination, and mental formations, is the true reality.” This brings to mind the common notion in religious circles that we are souls trapped in bodies, but this is not at all a Buddhist concept. Materialism, instead of seeing material matter as nonexistent, sees it as primary. “Materialists, on the other hand, see matter as primary and spirit either as nonexistent or, at least, as negligible.” Buddhism believes that neither materialism nor idealism is correct: “We are not immaterial spirits trapped in material bodies, nor are we mere permutations of essentially dead matter who only imagine we have a spiritual side.” I am sure, if you have dabbled in Buddhism before, that you have heard the famous line out of the Heart Sutta “Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form.” “Rather, the experiential, internal, subjective, spiritual side of our day-to-day existence and the hard, external, objective, material world we inhabit are manifestations of one underlying reality that is neither spirit nor matter.” This is how we are able to perceive Buddhism as realism; so as Brad finishes this discussion by saying that when you are jerking off, just jerk off, and when you are not, then don’t.

Brad is able to give us some real-world wisdom on a topic that is definitely controversial, but I find that he has done a great job. The book brings you on an interesting journey in the world of sex: masturbation, dating, gender identity, pornography and so much more. I must admit that I found certain passages to be very interesting, there is a chapter that discusses a group in the Bay Area (that is San Francisco, Oakland, Berkley, etc for those of you unfamiliar with California) that practice Orgasm Meditation (Some interesting observations and stories that’s for sure!). He interviews Nina Hartley (porn star from the 1980s who was raised in a Zen family and is now a registered nurse and sex activist), and I really enjoyed his defense for writing for Suicide Girls. His defense is very eloquent and well thought out, he makes a great argument that we should have much more problems with people pandering base desires with instant enlightenment seminars and meditation machines, than what is being presented on the Suicide Girls website. I find that this also goes back to our Western understanding that sex = sin. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about sex in Buddhism and is sick of always getting the same answer from their meditation teachers (you know the one that I am talking about, when they refer you to the rules of sex for monks in monastaries). Brad gives us insights and answers that we are able to apply in the real world, a much more pragmatic approach if you ask me!

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