Put on the red light

Over on DJ Buddha, I read about the upcoming Women in American Buddhism convention, something that I feel is getting too little attention in the Buddhist community. Women and “not enough coverage” were the themes of another post I’d attempted to write in June. Cambodian sex workers had staged a protest at a Buddhist temple, taking issue with the government’s recent crackdown. 

These news stories were accompanied by comments of disgust and repulsion: Prostitutes and Buddhism don’t go together. But there is more overlap than one might otherwise imagine.

The above news story reminded me of an earlier discussion I’d had with Vu Ha Thu, who directed the film Kieu. In her film (very loosely based on the epic Vietnamese poem Truyện Kiều) there was a scene of a prostitute cutting out pictures of Quan Âm for a temple celebration. Thu told me that the scene was based on the intense spirituality she had encountered among many of the sex workers who’d been consulted for her film. This scene had let loose a wave of emotion in me, a flood of memories of a similar spiritual devotion I’d seen among older women of my family’s people who’d been forced into prostitution during war.

The Suttapiṭaka similarly mentions the stories of prostitutes who were drawn to the Dharma and who even became nuns. Namely Addhakāsī, Vimalā and Ambapālī (see also here and here). I find Ambapālī’s story, from the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, to be the most moving. Here, Lord Buddha honors his commitment to let the courtesan serve him lunch, rather than take up the later invitation to a luxurious lunch with the Licchavi princes. Moral: Lord Buddha recognizes and blesses a sincere gesture, even from the most humble of individuals.

I bring up the topic of prostitution precisely because it’s a major issue that’s not at the forefront of the the Buddhist community’s public concerns. It’s a delicate subject that plays into the topic of morality, and it’s more common in the Buddhist community than many affluent Buddhists (regardless of race) would like to admit. Sex workers are commonly visited by married individuals — who thereby break the third precept — and sex workers are themselves often married.

What does the Buddha Dharma have to say about this?

In the epic poem Truyện Kiều (Tale of Kieu), the virtuous girl Kiều is forced into sex work, and this plight is presented as the balance of a previous life’s bad deeds. (Three times, she manages to break free from the brothel, and she takes refuge in a temple. A true refuge.) But is modern day sex work really like the Tale of Kieu? Is prostitution actually a choice or a misfortune?

I really don’t have answers, and worse off, I barely know how to begin to approach this issue. For me, what sets this issue apart is that, unlike international human rights causes, sex work can’t be cast in a narrative of Us versus Them. We have to look within our own communities, examine our own hearts and discuss complex issues like poverty, opportunity and discrimination. There is no single enemy to conquer, no seismic revolution after which we can put down our banners and walk away.

And I wonder, is the Buddhist American community actually up to such a challenge?

(For a more thorough discussion of this, I strongly recommend reading Nicholas Kristof and his blog.)