Thursday, January 13, 2005

Liberation, Part 2: Buddhism and Polyamory

After years of Buddhist practice (not just meditation, but working through karma) I became less chained by conditions and conditioning, and opened up to the myriads of possibilities. I could more easily see the choice I have before I lock into conditioning because much of the conditioning had been swept away or transformed or at least revealed. Often we feel like we have no choice in our actions, but we do, always. This Buddhist practice gave me the skill and the understanding to see that. This is a lived expression of the Buddhist saying from Dogen:

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things is to remove the barriers between one's self and others.

When the myriad possibilities open up, it is the same point (I think) where one is enlightened by all things. When the conditioning no longer rules you, that is where you have forgotten the self. When you begin to act where you choose from the myriad possibilities, that is where you can truly connect with others. You can make choices based on the best possibilities, rather than the ego possibilities, the conditioned possibilities, the misguided self-preservation possibilities. As with anything that is a practice, this is not a linear process and I'm still always studying pieces of me.

OK, go from there to open loving. Societal expectations are karmic conditions. In polyamory, we dare to say that we can choose how our relationships look, we can choose the ways in which we love more than one, and we can do so with integrity. We recognize societal expectations of monogamy as conditions that we can choose or not choose. The wonderful thing is, when we choose not to limit our loving, we give ourselves many opportunities to learn and practice the letting go of self that brings us to that final part of that Buddhist formula, removing the barriers between ourselves and others. Because I had opened up to myriad possibilities, I think the possibility of polyamory came along for me, and now that I'm living it, I am learning and continuing to learn about more of those subtle barriers and how they can be dissolved. Many of those barriers have to do with debilitating judgments about others and our selves.

Finally, it is possible dissolve such judgments so much so that we can truly have love for anyone. In polyamory some call this Love of All, in Buddhism, loving-kindness. Since I have opened my heart even more in this polyamorous path, I have become more appreciative of the Buddhist practices of loving-kindness and tonglen, which are not Zen practices. I have also felt more of an aspiration to be a bodhisattva, felt myself to be a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva continually turns over her practice to the weal of the world, not for the sake of self but for the sake of enlightenment of all. One of my teachers once put it, "a bodhisattva is an enlightened codependent." I feel this especially in the practice of love. An unenlightened codependent puts others before herself as a way to establish control or because she doesn't feel she deserves anything. An enlightened codependent has no concern for self but is concerned instead for Love itself, concerned for the weal of all.

At first glance, many people think non-monogamy is not compatible with Buddhism. The second noble truth links our suffering in this life to desire, craving. While desires of the body are included in that, this noble truth really points to the attachments and aversions of an ego that seeks to keep certain formations solid. When this being, made up of heaps of body, emotions, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness, wants to preserve those heaps, that is the desire referred to.

It is easy to comprehend the attachments we form to pleasures of the body. It's also easy to ban them, as these often were for monks and nuns. It's not so easy to understand that when Buddhist sects say this is the only way to liberation, these sects have also succumbed to the traps of attachment and aversion. This human body is naturally part of myself, intimately connected to and influencing my thoughts and habits. Like any drug, the neurochemistry of love can produce addictive behavior. The question is, will I be ruled by that, or can I let go when appropriate? I am not only this biochemical machine. The practice of living this life does not necessarily spurn this body's natural function, nor does it try to hang on to it. The ideal doesn't necessarily look like celibacy, or monogamy, or polyamory. The ideal meets each moment with letting go, choosing, letting go, choosing, letting go.

The Buddhist precepts are guidelines that help us to follow the 4th Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path. In some cases they are expressed more absolutely, in other cases with room for relativity. Some people might say that non-monogamy violates the precept, "Do not misuse sexuality." Most often it is interpreted in the ways in which society accepts sexuality, but that is not necessarily the natural response to sexuality. In my tradition, one has a relationship to the precepts, and my expression of them will not look the same as my friend's, or my teacher's. Even in this, it is possible to fall into a trap that says that enlightened expressions of the precepts will look the same because there is some absolute reality to enlightenment. In my case I strongly believe that I would misuse sexuality if I demanded sexual exclusivity of my lover. I do not own him or her. In fact, to me this would violate another precept, "Do not take the gift not given (do not steal)."

In our Dharma School, we sing a song about the Buddha's life, that time when he first visited the outside world and saw sickness, old age, death, and a holy man. A line in the refrain goes, "And he found liberation, which neither comes nor goes." Buddhism is about finding that liberation, but Buddhism would not say the path to that liberation must look a certain way. Liberation is possible in any kind of life, some more difficult than others, but still possible. Because of societal biases towards monogamy and celibacy as a spiritual ideal, from the outside it looks like polyamory could be one of those more difficult paths. Now that I'm a few years into it, I find rather that it fosters spiritual connections. Practice in intimacy breeds more meaningful intimacy. When approached with mindful honesty and integrity, "many loves" becomes love of many, no conditions attached.

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