Thoughts. Experiences. Inspiration.

Celibacy and Buddhist monks

July 2, 2013 0

A friend asked me today why celibacy is so important to Buddhist monks. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked this question, but it is the first time I’ve been able to spend some time on my response. I was quite (but not totally) happy with my answer; if the rest of my email to him wasn’t so long already, I’d have added a lot more to this (especially on my third point, which I could’ve done a much better job to elaborate upon)!

celibacyexam In any case, this was my reply to him, cleaned up ever so slightly for easier reading because my original response was rethought and retyped so many times, it took a lot for me to prevent it from turning into a huge rambling mess! It’s a hodge podge composite of all of the wonderful teachings Rinpoche has given me over the years on various topics including impermanence, emptiness, the value of dissociating our gross body from our subtle mind, sex and relationships, and the importance of vows, ordination or otherwise. I will expand on the below one day because I’m sure today’s not the last time I’ve been asked that question!

Celibacy is important to Buddhist monks because sex leads to and feeds desire, which is the very thing we try to eliminate in Buddhist practice because desire leads to craving and attachment, which leads to suffering. How so? In its most simplistic form, when you have attachment to something and you can’t receive it, it leads to unhappiness. With sex, when people get it and then don’t get anymore of it, it really bothers them.

On a more complex level, we can examine the phrase “I need to have sex”. There are at least three things wrong in that sentence. First of all, Buddhism teaches there is no real ‘I’. The ‘I’ is a construct – where do YOU really exist? Is (insert your name) your brain, your heart, your lungs, your eyes, etc? And when (insert your name) dies, what happens to everything that made you (insert your name)? The memories, experiences, pains, joys, are gone; ‘(insert your name)’ is gone (and this is where reincarnation comes into play. Were your life’s experiences wasted? Was it all for nothing? Or is there something after ‘(insert your name)’?).

To see the ‘I’ as permanent also reflects a false attachment to one’s body as being permanent – ‘I’ am my body. Even on a biological level, our bodies are not permanent – I am not the person I was a second ago, because the cells in my body have changed. As a simple example of how this leads to suffering, consider the popularity of Botox and cosmetic surgery. “I am not beautiful because I do not look the way I did 20 years ago. So I must have Botox, otherwise I am not me and I’m not happy.” If I relate to my body as a physically permanent structure, as I grow older, that perspective will cause me suffering because my body WILL change. And when I die, I will have to leave my body behind but if I have spent decades being attached to it, primping and preening it, and taking care of it, leaving it behind will be difficult. In Buddhism, that kind of attachment to the body can lead to all sorts of problems at the time of death.

The false ‘I’ is something we develop as we grow older because it’s the illusion the world teaches us. And when we view the ‘I’ as something that is permanent and tangible, we suffer because the world around us is as equally impermanent as we are (we’re always changing, remember?). Things don’t always respond in the ways we’ve been led to believe they should (it’s the illusion we’ve been taught). So first of all, how can you be the lone permanent entity in an impermanent world? And how can you use a falsely permanent concept to exist in an impermanent environment, and expect everything to respond to you in a predictable fashion? Predictability is something only permanent phenomena can give you. Gravity, for example, is an indisputable law of nature that is predictable.

Second, ‘need’. I haven’t got enough fingers and toes to count how many times people have abandoned their spiritual practice because of their preoccupation with sex. One of the many reasons why we maintain a partner is access to sexual intimacy and well, maintaining a partner takes time and effort. Going back to the impermanence of existence, it means we do not know when our existence will end because it is impermanent and therefore unpredictable. Since we never know when we will die (how many times have you heard about people whose hearts simply stopped beating?), how much time do we have left to devote to spiritual practice? It’s not something any of us can determine for sure. So it’s a matter of priorities – do I spend 24 hours a day on spiritual practice, or 20 hours a day on spiritual practice and 4 hours a day related to something that will lead to sex?

It is for that reason why celibacy is so important to monks and nuns. To take your ordination vows is to declare you want to spend 24 hours a day on developing your mind, rather than just 20 hours a day. Ordination is recognition that the methods society has tried for the last two millennia, and the goals society says are important have not led people to more happiness. That’s why monks and nuns have 253 / 256 vows. It is to free them from such societal ‘obligations’ and from society’s approved methods, and serve as reminders against the negative habituations that lead to our suffering.

Third, consider why people say they need to have sex – they need it to feel happy, or to complete them somehow. Sex as an external, isolated phenomena, is not wrong. In fact, in advanced levels of Buddhist practice when a person’s desire is already under control, sex can be used as a means of advancing one’s spiritual practice. The scriptures describe a split second during an orgasm when your mind reaches clear light emptiness. It is the same clear light that you experience at the moment of death. These higher levels of Buddhist practice describe meditations where you move the winds in your channels to experience and prolong this state of enlightenment, in preparation for that moment in death when you can prolong the moment then, and then take a controlled and positive rebirth.

But that’s where a lot of Western literature have misinterpreted the scriptures, leading to people to form false views about Eastern spiritual practices, and criticise the karma sutra or Buddhist iconography as being very sexual. That’s all a misconception – the images in tantric form are actually the iconographical representation of the bliss of liberation. It’s got nothing to do with how everyone can have rampant sex and become enlightened that way! So what is ‘wrong’ with sex is the attachment that arises as a result from having it, and not sex itself.

[Ed. Note: one argument I’ve heard about why it would be beneficial to allow ordained members of any clergy to marry is because if they don’t experience relationships for themselves, they are not in any position to counsel those having issues. So in this paragraph, I was addressing that point people make which, on first glance, appears to be logical] I’ve heard people ask how monks can counsel anyone in relationships, why they themselves are celibate. Honestly, it doesn’t take actual sexual experience for a person understand the complexities and sufferings that arise from it. Like Rinpoche always says, “What am I, a dating service?” because the number of people who come to him about their relationship issues, asking him how they can keep their spouses, how they can have sons, etc. is in the hundreds of thousands. And after thousands upon thousands of such people, patterns of behaviour become very evident. I really hate to reduce the human experience to such a statement – what a stereotypically psychological thing to do! – but unfortunately, it is true and Rinpoche himself has grown to become an excellent counsellor for such issues.

Reflections and Teachings

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