Would the Buddha Look at Porn?

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About Keith Andresen

Keith Andresen is an Army Veteran, a Fire Fighter/EMT, and a Buddhist. He lives and works in Austin, TX. You can email this budding Buddhist directly at newtobuddhism at gmail.com.

Comments

  1. thank you for this, keith! as a young man who is becoming a buddhist, this is actually something i have been thinking about a lot. i have found that watching porn does encourage dissatisfaction and discontentment with both my body and the bodies of my lovers and creates a kind of mental escape, a fleeting indulgence that only takes me away from being present and mindful. i really like what you said about not treating this as a “Buddhist commandment” or something like that, but just using the awareness and insight that comes from a buddhist perspective to see things as they really are in order to make decisions. i wish you all the best on your path

  2. wellokaythen says:

    I’m curious to see where you might draw a boundary here. Are you renouncing porn but still okay with other sexually explicit material? Is porn out but erotica still in? I suppose it could be a case by case basis based on what your inner guide is telling you. Just curious.

    • Thanks for the question. Yeah, I was just thinking about this the other day. There is a great deal of erotica out there that is tasteful and that I wouldn’t consider to be a product of the porn industry. However, my personal opinion is that it still falls into a category of things that are counterproductive to my spiritual and moral discipline. The American man in me loves porn, the Buddhist in me knows better. So, my personal decision is not to get caught up creating rules about what is or isn’t porn and thus ‘off-limits.’ I just make a point of staying away from anything designed for prurient interests. I have enough of a hard time controlling my imagination as it is, I don’t need any supplemental material to make things worse.

  3. A great article. I think that use of porn is something that should be contemplated not just by buddhists but people of all faiths. Often we don’t see how watching these images can undermine true and real relationships. Sadly, porn can’t capture love and it is like having a pure diet of junk food, instantly gratifying but not satisfying our true desires.

  4. As someone who has also struggled to reconcile my Buddhist-influenced beliefs (forever a budding Buddhist) and the beliefs, habits and patterns from non-Buddhist sources that have also influenced me, I thank you for this insightful article. I applaud that you took the time and effort to examine this issue thoroughly and based your decision on that introspection. Were I a better Buddhist, more committed to the Precepts and the Path, I can see myself arriving at the same conclusion you have laid out here. I am flawed; there are many worldly pleasures I have not put effort into renouncing in pursuit of Enlightenment. I admire the example you set; you have given me much to think about.

    I am curious, too, of your answer to wellokaythen’s question above me; there are forms of sexual material that are not as explicit or exploitative as ‘true p0rn’ (whatever that means), yet get lumped together as ‘adult entertainment.’ Do you find it useful to make a distinction between erotica of a fictional nature, like a written story, and mainstream, ‘true’ p0rn like what you described? Not looking for loopholes necessarily – like wellokaythen, just curious what your reaction to these mediums is.

    • Hey KKZ, thanks for the comment and question! So, as a Buddhist Layperson I adhere to the Five Precepts and for me, this means staying away from porn. However, I’m not a monk and I don’t live on a mountain – I like my HBO just like everyone else. When it comes to making distinctions with sexual material, I basically just look at content and context. For instance, an instructional video for lovers may have the content but it has a very different context than a film produced by Evil Angel. That’s about it – I don’t really have a system or anything. My basic rule is just to stay off Youporn – as long as I do that I’m alright.

  5. Hank Vandeburgh says:

    I’m still struck by Kerouac’s quote from Gary Synder (Dharma Bums) about how Tibetan lamas and nuns were capable of having detached sex. I’m not convinced that this set of beliefs need be all that Appolonian. Seems like everyone’s always trying to smuggle St. Augustine in through the back door. I don’t think Buddha would have been swayed much by porn, one way or the other. He doubtlessly would have been able to read the pathological subetxt it sometimes carries.

  6. Finally a belief that accepts others and doesn’t demonize them over it. I respect that greatly.

    The argument about it being an industry that exploits, does that mean no decent Buddhist would be a banker, miner, soldier, etc as those industries/occupations can have a lot of exploitation?

    • Archy: Yes. It is unlikely that a Buddhist would consider those occupations to be ‘right livelihood’. Google the ‘eightfold path’.

  7. Your argument against porn applies to nearly 100% of the entertainment industry, movies, TV, and music, with the possible exception of sports. To be consistent to your principles, which are respectable, you should give up those other forms of entertainment as well.

    • Hey Eric, thanks for the comment. I’m not sure I understand your statement. I hardly think that my argument applies to ‘nearly 100%’ of all entertainment. I say this because 0% of the entertainment that I watch, read, or listen to has anything to with porn. Could you give me an example?

      • This statement, in particular, certainly applies to nearly 100% of entertainment, since it’s almost all fictional fantasy, and has harmed countless lives in drug addiction, violence, and crime. And, many of your other objections apply equally. This, in particular, though:

        “nothing more than an indulgence that distracts me from more important things. It really is nothing more than an intangible, fleeting fantasy that does more harm than good. Do I want to waste my time in a dream world when I could be using that energy to cultivate the mindful awareness and appreciation needed to find real satisfaction and happiness?”

        Think of how many “stars” have sacrificed their principles pursing stardom, ending up getting hooked on drugs, arrested, involved in crime, been in and out and back in rehab, and died young. Much of your objection to porn applies to “nearly 100%” of other fictional entertainment. So, if you really, truly believe this you would avoid most other entertainment as well.

        • Thanks for your response Eric. I understand the logic behind your argument, but it just seems a little extreme. This idea that because I don’t watch porn, I somehow can’t watch ‘Man vs. Wild’ just doesn’t translate. However, as a Buddhist I do have to pick and choose my entertainment options wisely. For the most part, I am on a pretty low-media diet so it’s not that big of a deal. Have a good weekend!

          • I appreciate people who lay out principled reasons for their decisions, which is what you have done. However, when one does that, the implication is that the their decisions will follow those said principles. That is why I made the statements that I did above.

            I usually choose my words carefully, which is why I 1) didn’t mention any specific programs, and 2) I quoted your “fictional fantasy” comment as being part of your argument. Programs such as “Man vs. Wild” (I think) are not fictional. It is a reality show, not fictional. So, that wouldn’t fall into the category “fictional fantasy”, but most movies and TV shows do. What you do is up to you, of course.. However, I am just pointing out what your stated principle really says about your consumption of fictional entertainment..

            You have a good weekend too!

            • Hi Eric: I think that this kind of reasoning might be true for extremely orthodox Buddhist practitioners; however, there is something, in all forms of Buddhism, called Skillful Means. See, what is wrong with a “fictional fantasy”? Well, Keith points out here a number of things in pornography which all lead to suffering – so, while this is a fictional fantasy, it is also a fantasy which seems to be mainly harmful. But not all fictional fantasies lead to suffering – in fact, many of them are very beautiful, creative, inspiring, educating, etc. It would be like saying you can’t read Shakespeare because that’s entertainment. Think about it: not all actors are on drugs, in fact, most aren’t; almost all of them made the lifestyle choice; while there is plenty of vapid entertainment, there is also plenty of highly instructive, culturally significant, and I would argue “important” fictions out there.

            • alanrossi, many people film themselves having sex and post those videos on the Internet because they want to. They get no money, charge no money, and have no contact with anyone to post them. They just do. They are not harmed or harming anyone.

              So, you can’t make a blanket statement about all porn, that the people involved are always or even usually harmed in some way. That is simply not true. Nor can you make a blanket statement that people in mainstream movies aren’t even harmed or exploited. That simply is not true.

              The fact is, the same arguments about porn can and so apply to all fictional forms of entertainment. I’m not saying what you can or can’t do. However, the arguments made here about porn also apply to other “fictional fantasy” forms of entertainment if you consider the actual facts.

            • Hi Eric, if you read my post again, you’ll see there are no blanket statements made: “Many,” “most”, “almost all”, “plenty”, “number of things”, “mainly”. I didn’t make a blanket statement about porn being completely harmful or mainstream movies being harm or exploitation free. I would say you’ve misrepresented what I said here, but it’s all good. Have a good night.

            • alanrossi, you made the statement, “there are a number of things in pornography which ALL lead to suffering. . .”, which you used as your foundation to paint porn as, “mainly harmful.” By contrast, in referring to other fictional fantasy you used expressions such as, “very beautiful, creative, inspiring, educating, etc.”

              So, not you didn’t make all absolute statements, but the message would lead a reader to conclude that porn is bad, whereas other stuff is good. Instead of saying that any entertainment can be bad, neutral, or good. One must apply their principles to each piece to determine whether it’s worth watching or not.

            • Uh, I think we’re saying the same thing just in different ways. But really, I mean, this is still not accurately portraying what I’m saying. I’m not saying nor did I say that porn is bad at all, though it really seems like you want me to be saying that – I’m saying that the number of things that Keith brings up seem to be mainly harmful. Those things, that number of things, you know, the stuff he brings up, those things seem to ALL lead to suffering – this is radically different than saying ALL things in porn mainly lead to suffering. Read the sentence you quoted again – am I really saying that porn is bad there? There are a number of things in porn which all lead to suffering; there are a number of things in porn; there are these certain, specific things, not all porn, but certain things, not all porn. LIkewise, when that stuff, those number of things show up in mainstream entertainment, same deal, harmful – but I’d argue that it happens less.

              In any case, I’m tired from soccer today. Goodnight.

        • Veronica Grace says:

          Eric, it seems that you were not sincerely asking about mainstream media but rather setting up a test for Keith but I still wanted to respond.

          I do believe that the mainstream media machine causes people suffering and I do abstain from most of it. We watch Nova and other science programs but for the most part we abstain from mainstream media for many of the same reasons Keith mentioned in regards to porn.

          The issue is that when you are working toward being mindful you have to examine things just as Keith has done here. Then you have to determine if you feel that you are contributing to the suffering of others. Buddhism doesn’t give you a set of rules and say follow these or you are going to hell(at least not in my Sangha) Buddhism gives you things to practice. “here…try this, see if it makes you more free.” As we practice we grow along a path, at this point in Keith’s journey he has come to a practice of abstaining from porn. That may lead to other things later or it may not. There is a reason it’s called practice, at least for me. All we can do is our best to be skillful and mindful about the suffering we cause. We are all far from being able to say we cause no suffering, the steps we take along the way are still significant.

  8. Thanks for the comment Archy. So in regards to your question, as a Buddhist, one of the things I live by is the Noble Eightfold Path. A big part of that is ‘Right Livelihood,’ and this means we shouldn’t make a profit from weapons, meat, human exploitation, alcohol/intoxicants, and poisons. Now, my personal opinion is that a decent Buddhist could be a banker or a miner, but he/she would have to be an extremely ethical one. The reason the Buddha advised against these professions is not because they are ‘forbidden’ by God, it’s because they help create and promote human suffering. That is the issue. If you are involved in a profession that does this, it is a problem. I personally dealt with this when I was learning about Buddhism as a soldier. On one hand, there is nothing wrong with fighting to defend your homeland. On the other hand, being a professional soldier who just goes and does whatever he/she is told to do is another thing entirely. Because of this, I waited to take Refuge until after I had been discharged.

  9. I enjoyed this article Keith and appreciate the thoughtfulness behind it. I took a series of classes at a local Buddhist temple and I feel strongly influenced by Buddhism though I am not a practicing Buddhist. One idea that stuck with me is the need to be mindful of the positive or negative consequences of our thoughts and actions. We always have a choice and we should choose the course of action that is compassionate and will help lift ourselves and others up, rather than contributing to an endless cycle that pulls ourselves and everyone down. Sounds like you’ve made a compassionate choice.

  10. wellokaythen says:

    Forty days under a tree is a long time. Gautama didn’t pass that time with any porn at all? He was a better man than me.

  11. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    I’m much more attracted to zen as opposed to greater vehicle type Buddhisms. For people on the zen end of things, my hunch is that issues like “porn” become meaningless. I think that that’s actually less socially harmful, because it’s a more direct road toward eliminating the antimonies and distractions that come from taking “ethical” positions.

    • Thanks for your comments Hank. You are right about the Zen perspective. I also agree that porn is meaningless. This is why I give it no attention. As far as the Buddha not being swayed, I am not sure about that. I say this based on my understanding of the Pali Canon, the oldest collection of early Buddhist scriptures. When we read through these texts, we find an almost comical situation where the Buddha was constantly being forced to deal with monks who were figuring out new and creative ways to have sex without breaking their vows. This included masturbation, training female monkeys, etc. If the Buddha was around today, I feel confident in saying monks would definitely not be allowed to watch porn and I also think that would go for Laypersons as well. This is just my interpretation, but I don’t think I’m far off based on the literature.

    • Hi Hank. As a student and practitioner of Zen in the Soto tradition, issues like “porn” are meaningless and are also not meaningless. The problem with thinking that an issue like “porn” is meaningless is a slippery slope; all issues become meaningless. The greater problem here is that this type of thinking, that zen practitioners would see the issue of porn as “meaningless” is indicative of how zen is perceived. While from a certain perspective (the absolute or universal) something like “porn” is meaningless, this is not helpful in our every day lives in any way (the relative). In zen, we are always finding the place where the absolute and relative meet – thus, one has ethical positions and at the same time understands that these are simply viewpoints, empty of any universal reality. Still, though a viewpoint is empty, we still take positions because we also live in a relative world. So, yes, zennies do take ethical positions and these are not seen as distractions unless we believe that our positions are “right.” It is not the positions that are distracting, you see; it is clinging to the position as true or right that is distracting. So, in my tradition it is imperative to have viewpoints, to make cases like the one made above, but to also be open to other interpretations and understandings and to hold our views lightly, always willing to let the relative flow into the universal.

  12. The Wet One says:

    So my comment didn’t make it past the censors?

    Ah well.

    You win some, you lose some. C’est la vie. N’est ce pas?

  13. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    Can we get someone to look at the new comments people have made here?

  14. curiouserandcuriouser says:

    so you stay away from pr0n because it pollutes your mind? you need to ask why it pollutes your mind and your relationships. and I am still unclear how you can argue *for* certain types of pr0n when they *all* pollute?

    the only reason to be anti-pr0n is because it harms women.

    • Interesting stuff you bring up curiouserandcuriouser. I don’t think that I am anti-porn, I just don’t believe that it is conducive to a positive, Buddhist lifestyle. If I was anti-porn I would have made an argument that it needs to be made illegal. I have chosen not to watch it because I believe it causes and promotes suffering, but as an American I tolerate it as a form of expression and entertainment. Now, as far as your comment about porn being harmful to women, I couldn’t agree more. However, I would take it up a notch and argue that it is harmful to people in general. This is one of the main points I was trying to make in my article. Have a good Veteran’s Day!

  15. Hank Vandenburgh says:

    “How do we know whether to refrain from something or go toward it? My answer is, just practice what comes naturally at the time. If the first commitment, refraining, seems like it would be the most helpful, do that. But if you feel that you can keep your heart and mind open a little longer to someone [or something] who’s irritating you or triggering your impatience, then follow your instinct and do that. Then maybe, based on having been able to stay open a little longer in that situation, you’ll begin to get a sense of what it would mean to not turn away at all.”

  16. I’ve often had conflicted feelings about porn myself, but the notion that it should be abstained from because of exploitation in the industry is not valid reason for doing so for me.

    The reality is this goes for most commercial outlets. Just about any food one eats is fed by exploitation. Such exploitation encompasses just about everything we do in the modern world.
    Cows get injected with all sorts of crap that shortens their lifespan and promotes produce. They artificially inseminate them to make them have as many babies as possible within the shortest time, which exhausts the cow to death. The babies are pulled out of the cow forcefully and then taken away from their mothers instantly. The cows are so malnourished and all around unhealthy that the milk they produce is full of all sorts of chemicals, blood and puss, stuff you most certainly would not want to drink as is. Then they ferment it to make it consumable for humans. The male cows and female cows that are no longer of use are then put in crates, cramped as possible to soften the meat, beaten to further soften the meat, and killed.
    To fatten them up, cows are often kept in place with a hook through their nose, and pumped up with gallons of water, which is excruciatingly painful.

    That’s just how we get our milk.

    However, I still drink milk; because the damage has been done and a lot of suffering has been inflicted so that milk could be brought here.

    Thus, as most industries today feed suffering one way or another, to my mind this is not logical reasoning to abstain. The most logical reason for letting go of porn that I’ve personally come to, is as you said:

    “The Buddha teaches that one of our causes of suffering is discontent, or being unhappy with what we have or don’t have. The problem with porn is that it has the very real power to destroy a person’s contentment with themselves”

    I used to have a hobby of collecting old consoles and games. People couldn’t understand why I would still be playing Super Nintendo or Genesis/Mega Drive when I could be playing the Xbox.
    The reason for this is the same reason I watch old black and white movies, or silent movies. I watch old black and white movies because I don’t need high definition color and high quality sound to enjoy a movie, I watch silent movies because I don’t need sound to enjoy a movie.
    As at the time I couldn’t see myself giving up games altogether, I went for the next best thing.
    This is the principle I live my life by, less is more. If I can go without it, I go without it.

    To me, everything we hold onto is reliance and unnecessary baggage.
    Everything is done for a reason (or rather, not necessarily for ‘a’ reason, but with reasoning).
    If I keep talking to you, it’s because I am relying on you to talk to. I’m getting something from it.
    Everything we do, we rely on.

    My mission is to cast aside all unnecessary baggage and rely on ‘myself’, on what is.

    • Weird. I live a few hundred meters from some cows in Australia, we get our meat from open grazing animals. Lots of grass here, grows very quick since there is a lot of rain. I’ve been to the local dairy farms too and they just graze all day then come in to get attached to a mechanical milker, then go back out to do whatever. As far as I know we don’t have any factory farms locally. So the meat I consume is free-range.

  17. Well, Australia is less of a slum than Britain is these days. Animal cruelty isn’t as big a problem in Australia is many other countries, though that’s not to say it doesn’t happen.

    http://www.jpost.com/Enviro-Tech/Animal-rights-activists-fight-abuse-electrocution-of-lambs-and-calves-321707
    http://www.peta.org/tv/videos/graphic/69271245001.aspx

    This behaviour is quite common in a lot of countries, particularly in many countries in asia as they’re not so big on rights over there (don’t ever go to a zoo in China or Korea). This kind of behaviour also pervades tons of commercial industries, and it is practically impossible to survive without feeding them in some way.

    • We’re kinda lucky because it’s a wide open country, lots of space per person although drought + water tables rising in farming land making the ground too salty is taking back land. Hopefully bio-meats will be the future and need far less land and resources. :P

      I’ve also heard insects provide a lot of protein and farm pretty easy…..

      • On that note, I recently read about New York banning the sale of shark fins. Sharks are primarily killed not for their meat but for their tasteless fins. Just for a fancy dish at a banquet or whatever.

        This is what bothers me about the amount of cruelty inflicted on animals, it’s unnecessary. It’s the same deal with pets – cats and dogs make ideal companions because they are suited to live alongside humans, as are many animals; yet people insist on snatching some rare or unique animal from its home and forcing them to live in an unnatural habitat, just so one can say they have one.

        Likewise, most of us have more than enough to survive. Yet people insist on having something particular.

  18. Would the Buddha look at porn?

    In point of fact, the Buddha looked at everything.

    If you read about the temptation of the Buddha by the King of the Maras, you see how it is similiar to the temptation of Jesus and also how it was different. (Let’s talk about these as archetypal tales, and not get sidetracked on issues of historicity).

    Anyway…the Mara King (aka Satan) sent his three daughters to tempt Gotama as he was sitting under the Tree of Awakening. They took on amazing forms, including the form that we might associate with a porn star, as well as one we would associate with terror.

    But where Jesus resisted and rejected Satan, Gotama did the opposite. Each time form manifested to him, he said “THIS IS ME”.

    He did the same thing, taking his disciples out to the charnel grounds (town dump) where bodies were thrown to be devoured by animals and birds. They would sit there, looking at the rotting corpses, doing a meditation called “Skin, Flesh, Bones”.

    Hesse, in “Siddhartha”, plays on the same themes of entering fully into embodiment when the protagonist spends a portion of his life with a sacred prostitute.

    Further, sexual abstention precepts are NOT part of all Buddhist traditions – not in the least. They are part of some schools, not all schools.

    Further, sex work is not, in and of itself, illegitimate work. If you want to talk about right versus wrong livelihood, I’d say going to Harvard, getting an MBA, and then going to work at a hedge fund on Wall St causes a lot more harm to a lot more people than anything Nina Hartley has ever done. In fact, I would argue that she, and other enlightened sex workers, do a lot of good in the world – and that is their view of their work as well.

    Further, if you are at all familiar with Buddhist art, there is a rich and deep thread of sacred erotica – just as there is in Hinduism. Really, there is nothing substantially different between this (an ancient celebration of sexuality) and straight vanilla depictions of sex in porn, per se.

    So…while you can certainly decide to abstain from watching porn – or erotica – if your conscience tells you to, there is no reason that everybody – or every Buddhist – should do the same – just as there is no reason why no Buddhist should eat meat (the Buddha himself ate everything people put in his beggar’s bowl), or abstain from joining the armed services.

    As with everything Buddhist, the key is to examine whether or not your acts create bad karma in your life, or not. There is no one size fits all answer. Everybody has to find his own way.

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