I always thought of Zen as a rather grim tradition–maybe because I viewed it through the lense of my own (paradoxically) pleasureless American culture.
But perhaps I was misinformed, as this story suggests:
“Won Hyo, nicknamed the Unbridled Monk, was a Korean master of the seventh century. He is venerated as that country’s most profound and creative thinker. One day, one of Won Hyo’s masters took him to a brothel. It is not good for a monk to live in heaven all the time, the master said to Won Hyo. It is necessary to visit hell once in a while to assist the inmates there, too.
“After spending the night with the prettiest girl in the house, Won Hyo cast off his robes and danced through the street, singing The universe is just like this! Won Hyo had the characters no obstacle embroidered on the crotch of his trousers and entertained any lady who desired his company. He later became the lover of Princess Kwa, and she bore his child. Won Hyo’s motto was Only one with no worries and no fears can conquer life, death, and transmigration.”
[Excerpted from Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, by John Stevens. (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1990.) As included in The Basket of Tolerance, the Epitome of Traditional Wisdom list, section "on controlling the vital", by Adi Da Samraj.]
Update May 2013: Please note that I don’t believe this story is intended to encourage prostitution or promiscuity. The story most likely took place after many years of living like a saint. My own interpretation of the story is that he realized that no part of himself was an “obstacle”, and perhaps it helped free him from looking down on others. Perhaps this incident helped him remove the “deadly sin” of pride.
Even in this story, it’s interesting that women still seem to play a secondary role–serving the desires of men in the brothel rather than having their own desires served, and it being a story about a man’s spiritual realization rather than also women’s.
Questions for consideration:
- How important was the company of women for Korea’s “most profound thinker”, according to this passage?
- It seems many human beings have very negative ideas about women and pleasure, or feel pleasure is somehow opposed to spirituality. Do you think this is in fact accurate? Where do we get these ideas from?
- Living during difficult economic times, some might think pleasure is an unaffordable luxury– “well, perhaps we should all be unhappy and grim”. But how many bank notes does it cost to enjoy a hot cup of tea with a friend, to pleasure your wife, to feel the sun on your face, or to give someone a relaxing massage?