“Sex, Sin and Zen,” by Brad Warner

“Sex, Sin and Zen,” by Brad Warner

Zen teacher and writer Brad Warner tells a story about the origins of this book. When Warner was visiting Montreal to deliver a talk on Zen, a rather eccentric member of the audience asked him: “Are Buddhists allowed to jack off?” He swiftly gave the short answer: “They’re encouraged to.”

The book “Sex, Sin and Zen” could be seen as the long answer to the same question. Or rather, to all the questions about Buddhism and its attitudes toward sex – if indeed such specific Buddhist attitudes exist.

Brad Warner has acquired a certain reputation as the “punk Buddhist” – a rock bass player turned Zen Buddhist and teacher – who sometimes writes about Zen-related topics on the punk/goth themed softcore porn site Suicide Girls (you know, naked girls with tattoos and piercings). If this makes him sound like some superficial self-styled “bad boy” of Zen, think again. Reading this book I was reassured that not only does Warner know his way around Buddhism – he also writes about it as plainly and intelligibly as any author I’ve read.

Title: Sex, Sin and Zen
Author: Brad Warner
Publisher: New World Library
ISBN: 978-1-57731-910-8
Available from: New World Library, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Not only that, but the book is a fun read – although it definitely helps if you enjoy silly double entendres and hard rock references. So if you don’t get why a mention of the Buddhist state of Nirvana obviously leads to praise for the rock band Them Crooked Vultures you may need to pick up a copy of Rolling Stone magazine.

Warner spends a lot of time delightfully debunking popular misconceptions about Buddhism, giving his personal (and very thoughtful) takes on concepts such as “suffering” and “non-attachment”. And while he’s at it, he pokes fun at other pet peeves such as touchy-feely new age-ism, mindfulness and guided meditation. And while I may not agree with all his conclusions, at least his arguments are provocative enough to make you reconsider your own positions once more.

As for the sex part, first of all he clarifies that there is no concept of “sin” in Buddhism, focusing instead on the precept against “misuse of sexuality” – while making it very clear that there is no common consensus on what this means. Warner instead refers to historical evidence – what little there actually is – and carefully considers possible interpretations: Is celibacy helpful? Is sex a distraction – or do strict rules against sex do more harm than good? In other words, what kind of sexual practices are compatible with a Buddhist lifestyle?

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Sadly, this is where the book goes slightly astray. Warner doesn’t deny that he enjoys sex – a lot – to the extent that I suspect he wrote this book to come to terms with his own sex drive. But he also reveals a surprisingly prudish streak, leading him to issue strange and rather unfounded warnings against certain sexual practices – like polyamory and BDSM.

Luckily, though, porn star, sex therapist and Zen Buddhist Nina Hartley comes to the rescue – as Warner quotes extensively from an interview he did with her. And not only does Ms. Hartley offer some sharp insights of her own – Mr. Warner also happily allows her to relate her own positive experiences of a polyamorous BDSM relationship.

While the book is largely undogmatic (some practising Buddhists may find it positively anti-dogmatic), Warner’s American Zen background shines through occasionally. To a Scandinavian, not-particularly-Buddhist, sometimes-meditator such as this reviewer, the stories of sanghas and zazen are merely interesting – though slightly alien. But Warner’s attitude towards authority is a bit baffling. One minute he praises the anti-authoritarian stance of Zen – while the next he’s asking his Roshi for advice – and accepting it at face value. Warner (who’s clearly more of a Zen master than a logic major) even defends a rather anti-gay statement from said roshi with the weakest defence I ever read: “But he only said this because I asked him.”

(Mind you, I’m not poking fun at Warner’s roshi – he likes the Suicide Girls website, so he can’t be all bad)

So no, I don’t agree with everything said in this book – but frankly, I don’t think Brad Warner would want his readers to simply agree. The point is rather to throw some ideas around, voice his own arguments and leave it to you to make up your own mind.

Most of the time the book made me both laugh (well, snicker or groan, mostly) as well as think. There were times when I’d wish Warner had hired Nina Hartley to write it instead – she comes across as that eloquent. But most of all it made me wish that I could have the author over for a chat. And surely, that should be a recommendation in itself?

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Tlalocantecuhtli
    November 2, 2010 2:24 pm

    I cannot understand how such kind of Works may be useful for a true, authentic spiritual progress. People try to adapt Dharma to their life and not to adapt their life to Dharma. There is no chance to be delivered from suffering following the auto-indulgence way. The non-attachment way is only for the braves.

  • Dharma is life, desire is life. Brad is a guy utterly bereft of pretense who tackles a topic here that most Buddhist writers avoid. Because he assiduously avoids pretense, his personality emerges naturally in the book. He’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, because no one is.

    What he does do is take a detailed look at what it means to be a Buddhist now with regard to sexual conduct. To be sure, we need more books like this to encompass everyone’s view, but to criticize Brad for his view because it doesn’t fit with yours is simple ignorance, Sit Down and Shut Up.

    • I’d just like to point out that you appear to be criticizing someone else because their view doesn’t fit with yours. According to your own logic that’s — what was it again? — “pure ignorance.” Of course disagreeing with someone’s point of view is not “pure ignorance” — it’s simply disagreeing with someone’s point of view. Mature people are able to disagree.

      Also, to tell someone to “sit down and shut up” because they disagree with you (or your idol) is highly immature. Just because you disagree with someone’s view, you think you can issue an edict to tell them to stop expressing their disagreements?

      Now it’s time for you to unleash a stream of vitriol. Or perhaps you’ll be able to muster some emotional and intellectual maturity. It’s your call.

  • I’m kind of wondering why there are so few articles about sex here on wildmind – I think its an area most people struggle with and could use guidance on. I guess that’s just me wishing for this myself, and wanting to understand what “misuse of sexuality” is, etc.

    • I can only speak for myself, but it’s honestly not something I think about a huge deal. I’ll give it some thought, though, since it’s obviously a big topic and something we should be writing about more. I’ll ask a few of our contributors if they can reflect on this area, and perhaps we can have a month devoted to sex. If you know what I mean.

  • Having grown up as a child in a western Buddhist family in Australia, I am noticing more and more that I was not exposed to Judeo-Christian conditioning around sex and sexuality. I am noticing more and more as I take my Buddhist practice deeper in my adult life, that many western Buddhists are still holding relatively negative attitudes towards sex – mainly that it can not be used as a positive form of self-expression, especially if it involves using the body to make money. I was so happy to see a practising Buddhist – Brad Warner – to explore many of the different realms of sex and sexuality. I feel it is a necessary dialogue for the eastern and western Buddhist world, and an important step for western Buddhists to let go of Judeo-Christian values. If this step is not taken I think we are at risk of misunderstanding the 3rd Precept.

    I enjoyed what Brad Warner had to say about sex and sexual ethics. He attempted to cover a very broad range of issues including masturbation, relationship structures, gender inequality, relationships with spiritual teachers and porn. I appreciated the way he it made it clear when it was his personal view or opinion about a topic, or when it was a view from the Buddhist tradition and texts. I don’t think Brad expects all his views to be considered “right view” in the Buddhist sense, but I do think he has done his best to open a discourse about subjects that could easily become taboo in the Buddhist world. I hope that this leads to further explorations from other Buddhist practitioners.

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