What’s the Buddhist view concerning one-night stands? Lodro Rinzler explains that and more.
Being on the spot, even if it hurts, is preferable to avoiding.
One of the best ways to see compassion in action is through the example of engaging it in our romantic and sexual relationships. We can use the lessons we learn in these relationships and apply them to all of our interactions. We have all been hurt before. You likely have touched your tender soft spot, what in Sanskrit is referred to as your bodhichitta, when you opened your heart to someone else and were ultimately disappointed. When you do get hurt, it is habitual to try to cover over your open heart. In other words, you close yourself off to others. You shut yourself off from feeling vulnerable in an attempt not to get hurt again.
After some time we all do heal, and more often than not, we once again strive to reopen our heart. There’s a level of joy that comes from connecting with other people in this way that we don’t want to miss out on.
Wanting to be in love is natural to the human experience. We all want to love. We love love. However, its highs are dizzying, its lows traumatic enough that we want to rid them from our memory. It almost seems counterintuitive to try to reach contentment and equanimity in our life while also cultivating this roller coaster of emotions.
To think that we need to sort our romantic life into one category of our being and our spiritual growth into another would be a mistake. It is through applying basic Buddhist principles that we can use relationships with others as part of our path. With care and consideration of your partner, falling in love does not have to be such a roller coaster; we just have to learn to handle our expectations.
Falling (and Staying) in Love—and Beyond
When you offer your love to a partner, at first it’s very exploratory. You are curious about your partner. You want to know more about their past, their family, and their odd little habits. You try new food at their suggestion, go to unfamiliar places, and it is all very exciting. You begin to learn all sorts of things about your partner. Elizabeth’s favorite type of ice cream is chocolate and her favorite show is Gossip Girl. She dresses in this way and likes those sorts of people and never drinks that sort of soft drink.
At some point, these aspects of your partner are likeable but they are not necessarily new and exciting anymore; you do not apply the same level of curiosity as you once did to the relationship since you already know so much about your lover. Later on down the road, you may just stop being curious about your partner altogether.
I was watching a television program the other day where an old married couple was fighting. In an attempt to ameliorate the situation, the husband brought his wife a cosmopolitan, saying he knows how much she loves them. “Oh!” she exclaimed sarcastically, “You remembered! I haven’t had one of these in twenty years!” An argument of course immediately followed, based in the all-too-simple truth that sometimes we just stop inquiring who it is we are spending our life with and, as a result, we stop noticing when things change.
Often we take our partner for granted when we should be seeing them as a principle object of our compassion. The Tibetan word for compassion is nyingje, which can be more directly translated as “noble heart.” This is a helpful term when thinking about bringing compassion into our most intimate relationships: we need to fully offer those closest to us our noble heart.
Curiosity is a form of compassion. I believe many long-term couples continue to be excited by their partner, but they don’t follow up by inquiring just how their partner has changed. We know that all things are impermanent. We have an understanding that everything shifts and is in transition around us. We have no trouble seeing our own bodies and library of knowledge develop and change. Yet to think that our partners change just as fluidly as we do can be shocking. It is the truth, though, that although we think the same dependable person we dine with every night is one solid thing, they are in fact a conglomeration of experiences and wisdom that is constantly shifting, not unlike the seasons themselves. To solidify such a person is nonsense, yet we are all guilty of falling into that trap at one point or another.
Somewhere in the midst of a relationship, certain expectations are set up. You don’t draft a contract or divvy up who does what, but at the same time you begin to believe that your partner owes you certain things. Those certain things extend beyond just loving you and being open and honest with you. A dangerous word starts to get used: “always.”
“You always get home first—why didn’t you call if you knew you were going to be late tonight?”
“You always leave the laundry for me to fold—why can’t you fold it too?”
“You always say that when I want to try something new.”
When the expectations in a relationship get too fixed, they create the same destructive power as stuck emotions. Like stuck emotions, fixed expectations drag us down, causing doubt and anxiety to fill our beings. We begin to close off our heart and fend for ourselves instead of being available to hear our partner out. We stray from the quality of unconditional openheartedness that makes us want to help the people we love, even at our own expense. We are turning away from our bodhichitta, shutting down our ability to act in a compassionate manner. When you see yourself starting to stray from compassionate activity, you know your relationship is in trouble.
At the point where you find yourself closing down from communicating openly in a relationship, you have a choice about how you would like to proceed. One way forward is to lay fresh layers of protection around your vulnerable heart. You are dampening the other person’s ability to hurt you, but you are also less able to communicate your own love genuinely. You are essentially preparing yourself for an inevitable breakup.
The alternative is loosening up your expectations and reconnecting with that curiosity you were able to offer at the beginning of the relationship. You commit to exploring where you are stuck, where you have put up that protective shielding, and how you can open yourself more to your partner. This is a way to deepen a relationship, by recommitting to applying gentle curiosity toward learning about your lover.
The same openhearted curiosity can be applied when considering a compassionate way to enter the dating scene. I have heard so many single people say that they are holding out for Mr. or Ms. Right. If only they could go to the right bar, or the right singles night, or the right website, then that Mr. or Ms. Right would be there waiting for them. As the Buddhist master Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche once said about romance, “The problem is not that the right situations don’t arise. It’s not really that. But we always have a certain expectation, we have hopes and fears. And those lead to disappointments.”
When we solidify what we hope to find in a romantic partner, we are heading for a rocky road. We can make a checklist of what we are looking for in terms of physical appearance, intelligence, sense of humor, religious preference, and so on. We think that if we can find all of those qualities in someone, then they are the perfect person for us.
If we strictly adhere to such a list, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Instead, you can remain willing to keep an open mind. You can explore everyone you encounter without a hidden agenda or a checklist. You may end up meeting someone who flies in the face of what you think you need in your life to be happy, but who is indeed the perfect person for you. Through keeping an open mind and heart, you may find true happiness where you least expect it.
Compassionate Sexual Activity
One tricky area of opening our heart revolves around sex. Sex is experienced as different things by different people. It can be used to show true love or affection. It can be used simply to have fun. It can be used to smooth things over when you have gotten into a fight with your spouse or as an excuse to indulge your laziness and not get out of bed. It can be a wonderful, painful, humiliating, and at times, I would posit, a compassionate activity.
In terms of Buddhism and sex, we know for a fact that even the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, had intercourse. While growing up in his palace, he apparently had a large harem of women. Some texts state that these women were simply dancing girls, others that they were courtesans who would please the prince in more carnal ways. In either case, we know that our friend Siddhartha had sex because his wife, Yasodhara, eventually gave birth to a son, and as far as I know, sex is generally how children are created.
Flash forward to when Siddhartha became a buddha, and suddenly he had a number of people coming to him, trying to live a spiritual life. He realized that his monastic followers would have to abide by certain rules, principle among them the five precepts.
The five precepts are: not taking the life of sentient beings, not taking what is not offered, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not using mindless speech (slander, gossip, lying, idle speech), and not ingesting intoxicants. We will be focusing on the third precept: kāmesu micchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi, or “I take the vow to abstain from engaging in sexual misconduct.”
All five of these precepts have been interpreted in numerous ways over time and in different cultures. In the West there are some Buddhist communities where monastics vow to abide by these rules, but lay practitioners do not. Some communities encourage their lay practitioners to work with the precepts on an ongoing basis, while others utilize them only in long-term retreat situations.
I think any contemplation of these precepts can be helpful for a practitioner, so long as they take them to heart. However, I cannot imagine that the Buddha laid out these precepts so that thousands of years later his followers could fight over the “right” way to utilize them. If anything, I think the story of the Buddha’s teaching career serves as a signal about how we can explore the meaning of sexual misconduct for ourselves.
As we mentioned earlier, following his enlightenment, the Buddha set out to find the handful of ascetics with whom he had practiced meditation before. They were quite down on Siddhartha Gautama because the last time they saw him, he had abandoned the path of strict asceticism, a sign that he clearly was going nowhere on the spiritual path.
As the Buddha approached his fellow meditation practitioners, they saw a marked change in his appearance. He had a great joy and presence to him, which was extremely magnetizing. They began to move closer to him, and begged him to teach them how he had achieved such mastery over his own mind. Instead of giving them precepts or set disciplines then and there, he extended an invitation by saying, “Come and see for yourself.”
With that invitation in mind, I think it is important to determine what compassionate sexual behavior is on an individual level. In fact, I would posit that we should switch a negative disciplinary idea into a positive force for our health. Instead of contemplating how we can “abstain from sexual misconduct,” we should endeavor to come up with a way to promote positive sexual relations.
Attempting to develop a path for compassionate sexual activity is not easy. It’s hard to sort through the many volumes of teachings on new ideas for making love. Furthermore, we are constantly bombarded by negative sexual imagery on television, the Internet, and magazines.
It is important to find our own style for bringing compassion into the bedroom. It can be openly communicating with your lover about what you are comfortable with. Alternatively, it can be creating a safe space within which the two of you can be fully present with each other. It is up to each of us to determine what exactly compassionate sex means to us.
One-Night Stands: View, Activity, and Fruition
One question that often comes my way is whether you can be a “good” Buddhist and still have one-night stands. Personally, I think it’s possible if you seriously consider your view, activity, and the fruition of this sort of situation.
The important thing in any sexual activity, casual or in a long-term relationship, is considering your own motivation. Are you interested in having a one-night stand because you are too busy for a relationship, but you appreciate the other person and want to make a sexual connection with them? If so, that is one motivation worth acknowledging. Another motivation might be, “I’m drunk. I’m horny. They’re hot.” That motivation strikes me as likely to lead to trouble.
Knowing your motivation before engaging in any act is important, and this is doubly so when you are involving another person in potentially risky behavior such as sex. There are emotional risks as well as physical ones, so knowing your own intention is key.
Conduct is important. In my mind there are two ways to get enlightened. The first is to sit your butt down and practice meditation nonstop until you reach full awakening. The other is to bring meditation into your conduct, applying the principles you develop on the cushion to every aspect of your life.
When it comes to sex, good conduct could mean being very open and straightforward with your partner. It could be telling them very clearly about your intentions, or making sure you practice safe sex. Being openhearted, genuine, and caring seems simple enough, but it is especially important if you are attempting to bring someone to your bed- room.
This may be the simplest marker of whether you have pulled off a compassionate one-night stand. Quite simply, you can examine how you feel the morning after. Applying curiosity to your own state, you can see if you find elation or humiliation. If it’s the latter, you likely won’t want to attempt such a thing again. It’s unfortunate if you feel this way, but mistakes along the path are helpful; now you know something you never want to do again, and you can vow not to repeat the same set of actions. If you feel elation, however, you may be one of those rare people who can casually have sex.
When it comes to sex, it seems that the looser you get in terms of the relationship structure, the more likely you are to cause harm either to yourself or your partner. Much of this harm can be prevented by openly communicating with your lover. It is essential to any relationship, no matter how long it runs the course, to remain open and curious about each other and how you are both changing with time. Keeping this curiosity allows you to refrain from developing set expectations that box your partner into a corner where they have no hope of satisfying your needs.
In sex and in love we have one tool that can uplift our situation and bring us indestructible joy: bodhichitta. Because it is inherent to all beings, we can explore how to open our heart and how we can connect with the hearts of people we love and make love to. Opening the heart, without conditions, is our path. It is the compassionate way to live in our world. We may get hurt, but if we want to grow and find true love, or strive to love all beings, bodhichitta is the way to go.
—Photo Kyle McDonald/Flickr