Friday, March 16, 2007

Bad Buddhist vs. The Third Precept

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. — Thich Nhat Hanh

All right, yeeow, the Third Precept! The juicy one — sexual misconduct. Time for some bad Buddhism!

So far my impression of the Buddha and his ultimate Guide for Dummies has been that he's basically right all the time. Not because a divine being or bush or birdie told him what to say, but just because he was good at seeing what kinds of things made people happy and what kinds of things made people miserable.

He also took a long view: something might make you happy right now, this instant, but if the real cost of that indulgence makes you miserable the next moment — or, as is often the case, becomes a pattern that ossifies and systematizes into unhappiness in your life — or, worse, sucks other people in and creates an environment of distrust and disharmony for everyone around you — then he recommended abstaining from it. Period. As a matter of practice, so you don't even have to waste time on the "well, maybe I could just this once" trip.

So when I read the third precept, I'm predisposed to agree. I don't need the Buddha to tell me that cheating is bad; I already thought so, wouldn't do it and wouldn't want my guy to do it.

But I did read a letter in Andrea Nemerson's column recently that adds something else into the mix. The letter was from a woman who was pretty sure she never wanted to have sex with her husband again. The response was, basically, that the woman should therefore be prepared to turn a blind eye when her husband looked elsewhere for sexual contact. I've seen similar advice from Dan Savage, who advocates partners being "good, giving and game" — or else giving up their exclusive rights over their partner's sex life.

So in these cases, cheating could be what allows two married people to stay married. I don't think that's what Thich Nhat Hanh had in mind for "prevent couples and families from being broken." But what if the "sexual misconduct" threatening to destroy a family is one person's demand for the other's sexual nullification?

And furthermore, regarding "not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment" — isn't that nullifying single people? I guess this one comes down to the word "love," or more importantly, "without love." The Buddha saw that casual sex could be a way for people to exploit and hurt each other, and that's not good for people or communities. But if you treat your hookup du jour or booty-call-person with all possible caring, human decency and respect, then might that fulfill the notion of "sex with love"? (And what if the hookup or callee doesn't want you to care?)

But all of this is just me skirting the real issue. I want the Buddha and Thich Nhat Hanh to be right about this — to the letter — because that will give me permission to SMACK THE LITTLE TART who likes to flirt with my boyfriend in front of me. (Not in front of me is fine, but the lack of sensible boundaries here raises eyebrows, and not just mine. Getting asked about the tart's behavior by my friends is also tiresome.)

It's not that she's a vamp or a homewrecker or anything. Some of the guys she habitually flirts with are her other friends' boyfriends, I'm sorry to report; but she's not actually trying to get any real nookie from them. She never tries to look or dress sexy; instead she goes for "cute" in the androgynous bookish hipster way, which is wise on her part. Use what you've got, right? She's just a plain girl who craves a certain kind of ego-boost; her flirting style is safely platonic-ironic, not too original, and nothing that calls attention to her as a woman per se.

So why does this bug me so much?

Perhaps the problem is magnified by the fact that I can't "just walk away" from the situation. I belong, by necessity rather than choice, to a community that includes her, her boyfriend (how I'd love to ask what he thinks of all of this), and assorted others who share important connections beyond the merely social. So I can't really make a fuss without disturbing the whole ecosystem.

Still, her behavior is plain obnoxious, even if it is carefully low-key: lots of arm-touching, latching on at parties, wedging herself between me and him at the bar or on the couch. Enough to be noticed, but not enough to be confronted. Her protean signals are more pronounced, but she can't help it if her face lights up when a flirt-worthy guy walks in the room. And he's definitely flirt-worthy. I see why she digs him!

And I'm not anti-flirting in principle. Flirting is good: it keeps conversation lively, it makes us feel witty and sexy and young (or witty and sexy and wise), and it's fun. Third-Precept-wise, I'd say a reasonable degree of flirtatious behavior should be no biggie.

However, what happens when the flirting does start to bother someone? Who gets to invoke Third Precept privileges here? Me, because she's violating the Girl Code? Or her, because the community is more important than me and my piddly little wish to be annoyed less?

If she read this, she'd probably say I'm just a jealous girlfriend. That would get her off the hook, right? It's my problem, not hers, right?

Well, yeah, it is my problem—because I find the disingenuous, manipulative, passive-aggressive aspects of her behavior really revolting. I know she knows I know, and I know she likes getting away with just a little bit, right in front of me. It's this weird reverse-territoriality thing, like she just needs to show me she can. And I know exactly how mortified and disbelieving and oh my god I would never, ever, ever she'd be if she were ever to get busted by someone with less patience than I have, and it's all just so, so, so disgusting.

But it's hopeless. We're all friends here. It gets kind of surreal sometimes, like I'm trapped in one of those movie scenes where someone has a gun held surreptitiously to someone else's back, and the person has to smile and look normal while being hustled out through the crowd. And at the same time, I know it's silly to let it bother me — what, am I in seventh grade or something? Jesus. Grow up.

And stop fantasizing about putting her in Third Precept Jail. There is no Third Precept Jail. None.

In case anyone wants to brush up on technique

If this is your flirting technique, perhaps you might consider purchasing the abovementioned book.

This handy guide, called Our Deportment: The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society, published in 1882, has this to say about flirting: “It is only the contemptible flirt that keeps an honorable man in suspense for the purpose of glorifying herself by his attentions in the eyes of friends. Nor would any but a frivolous or vicious girl boast of the offer she has received and rejected.” See? I'm not crazy, right? Contemptible! Vicious! It says so right here! Of course, if I'm looking to the Victorians for moral support, I clearly have bigger problems than I thought...

But this one is pretty bad, right? I mean, if you saw this chick acting like that around your significant other, what would you think? Be honest.