Sex, Sin, & Zen Reading Group: Thoughts on Identity

I’ve been taking some time the last few mornings to continue reading Sex, Sin & Zen by one of my favorite authors and Zen teachers, Brad Warner. Today I finished the chapters on BDSM and queer identity in Buddhist culture, which I’m sure you can imagine was of interest to “Bad Buddhist*” like me

The funny thing is, I didn’t really get much out of the BDSM part. I was certainly glad that he didn’t condemn the practices, but actually did more of the opposite. He pointed out that in BDSM, there are power structures obviously put into place and examined and played with. In the rest of the world, there tend to be power structures not-so-obviously put in place, and often either ignored or actively hidden-in-plain-sight. Sort of like the person who doesn’t have a title in a community, but who everyone “knows” is the person to go to in order to get things done. Sometimes this works great. Sometimes I think it gets people in lots of trouble.

Regardless, the point that I appreciated was the idea that by explicitly stating, creating, and “playing with” the power structures, BDSM in some ways became a kind of Zen practice, in that it examined the world from “a bigger container” (Charlotte Joko-Beck’s words, not Brad’s). Of course, like anything, you can take it too far – Zen is called “the middle way” for a reason. How far is too far? That, Brad says, is up to you to decide.

What tickled me was his idea that Koan practice, which is a student being given unsolvable riddles by the teacher, is a kind of masochistic practice “where the student enjoys being defeated by the master.” He draws more parallels between monastic living and D/s and, in the end, is very “Yeah, whatever,” about the whole “lifestyle.” Which, frankly, I find refreshing.

It shouldn’t be surprising, though, because in the queer identity section he continues that theme. I think it would be easy for people of various queer personas – homosexual, kinky, poly – to take umbrage at the way he talks about that identity. He actually writes about it more in his blog. What I got from his chapter, though, was a kind of mental aikido throw.

Queer folk are accustomed in this culture at being harassed or asked to deny that part of themselves that is different than the heterosexual normative fantasy. It becomes necessary to be “out”, to be “proud”, just to have the ability to actually feel your complete self some of the time. When every cultural message puts forth a “norm” that you do not fit into, you have to build strong walls against that constant buffeting. Especially when it can come from strange directions – such as a bisexual trying to like Dan Savage.

Brad’s take on it, though, is not “leave your sexual identity at the door.” Instead, it’s more “sure, take it along, there’s nothing wrong with it – but there are other things we’re going to focus on.” In terms of zen, the impression I get is that sexual identity is no more important to zen practice than, say, hair color identity. If you went into a zen monastery for a time (something I’m really starting to get interested in) and loudly said “BY THE WAY, I’M A BRUNETTE!” the abbot (or whatever power figure was in place) would probably nod, and say something like yes, yes, I can see that. Now let’s sit.


yes, you do. That’s lovely. Now, we’re going to sit-


Well, actually, he shaved his head and recommended others do so because they had a problem with lice and so it seemed to work better. We actually don’t care what color hair you have – that’s just part of you, as integral as if you were, say, gay. It’s just not what we’re here to do. Why don’t you sit, and make yourself uncomfortable?

You see what I mean? It’s not about “sin” any more – which is really, really imbalancing to someone who is used to having to fight against intolerance and judgemental and reactionary and fearful attitudes. It’s not even “dancing on the demons of ignorance” – it’s walking along, having someone point out that those cobblestones on the street are demons of ignorance, and saying “Oh. Ok. I’m walking this way, though,” and just keeping on walking.

That’s what I got out of the chapter, and it fit nicely into my own thoughts about BDSM and my queer identity. For example, for many years I’ve identified as POLYAMOROUS. This, to me, meant multiple romantic relationships with the full knowledge and support of all parties involved. It was an important part of my identity, even when it got in the way. First it set me apart from all those “mono” folks; but then again, it set me apart from “poly” folks as well. My kind of poly wasn’t their kind of poly, it seemed, no matter how we tried to talk it out.

Of late, though, I’ve begun letting go of that label. It’s not that I’m saying “I’m Monogamous!” I’m just not all that invested in being labeled “Poly”, either. It carries with it a set of assumptions and a focus on a part of life that, well, I’d rather not focus my attention on right now. I’m more interested in, well, being “Gray”, and from that seeing what happens.

I wonder how much of our struggle to establish identity takes focus away from other things. I wonder how many dominant people expend energy being DOMLY DOMS which could be used just having a better connection with their partner, their community. “We’re here; deal with it!” certainly is an effective tool to effect change and tolerance, but like anything, is it possible to take it too far?

One thought on “Sex, Sin, & Zen Reading Group: Thoughts on Identity

  • I see two approaches to this- one on an individual level, and one on a broader, political level.

    On a personal level- I suspect that most people evolve and change in their relationships with their identity. I’m hesitant to suggest that one relationship is superior, or more evolved, than another, though. If the relationship that somebody has with their identity is working for them- then hey, good for them. And if they’re actively working to modify that relationship? Good for them, too! I think that it can be useful to think about where one has been, and where one is going, but I think that it’s a personal journey.

    On a broader, political level- I think that the different philosophies/relationships compliment one another, and are both valuable. I think that, across the board, it would be detrimental to see identity only treated as a Huge Issue of Great Significance for Everybody. However, unless we find ourselves in a universally zen and accepting culture, I think that it would also be a detriment to not have out-and-proud type attitudes in addition to quieter, zen ones.

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