Is that what people say when someone reveals something that is considered too personal or taboo to speak of in the culture? I like to investigate taboos and I believe very deeply that not being frank allows misunderstandings to fester. When a common natural function like sex carries so much cultural baggage it becomes hazardous to health and safety, it’s better to air things out than keep them in the closet. When private becomes public it is less threatening and less apt to provoke judgment, hatred and fear.
This is an opportunity for me to clarify some misconceptions I have heard reported about the vow of chastity for Buddhist monastics. We take it very seriously, sexual misconduct is one of the five disrobing offenses and what that constitutes is spelled out in detail in the texts. That discussion is not the purpose of this article. This article is about what it means to me to be celibate in this day and age in western culture.
It is a common belief that those who choose to become celibate have a problem with either sexuality or relationships. If insight into the drawbacks of either is a problem then this is correct. This leads to some frequently asked questions:
What could be the drawbacks that would lead someone to give up such an integral part of human existence? Why would anyone care if others choose to be celibate? Is celibacy harmful? Does a vow of celibacy drive people to become rapists or pedophiles? Why do many religions or spiritual quests require celibacy? Is sexual repression the inevitable result of celibacy? What are the benefits of celibacy? Can you still have meaningful relationships if you are celibate? Do Buddhists have a problem with “particular friendships?”
What could be the drawbacks that would lead someone to give up such an integral part of human existence? Historically sex has lead to pregnancy for heterosexuals, unless desired and prepared for this is a major drawback. In this day and age that is not such a problem but still occurs unexpected or unwanted. That’s the most obvious drawback. But let’s dig a little deeper. Like a drug sex can be addictive, it alters the neurohormonal chemistry of the body, it brings short term pleasure and relief of pain, it affects the physical, emotional and spiritual levels of being so can be transformative and help us to mature and become wiser and more loving beings. It is how we can relate on a very deep personal level to others and express ourselves and be creative and have fun. Why would that be a problem? It is not necessarily but if you want to do more with your life, if you want to deepen your investigation into the spiritual side of being and develop talents in that realm then the time and energy of the passion you have alway brought to sex is needed for this other pursuit.
Why would anyone care if others choose to be celibate? Some people seem to think that deviation from the norm attacks the cohesion of the community. Others see themselves being asked to make the same choice and feel threatened by that. Is that because they are so deeply judgemental that they fear being judged themselves? Many believe that choice should not be an option in our culture because sex is power to them and the choice of celibacy takes away that power.
Is celibacy harmful? Traditional Chinese medicine recognizes sexuality as a normal life function, too much or too little can indeed cause imbalance leading to disease. Excess or deficient libido are symptoms of disorders that can be corrected or adjusted as desired through lifestyle, diet, herbs and acupuncture. Harm occurs when restraint is unwanted and undesired and resisted, the struggle that then ensues causes stagnation and heat which lead to problems. When restraint is appreciated and applied in a nurturing manner it does not cause harm but enables pleasure in living and tranquility.
Does a vow of celibacy drive people to become rapists or pedophiles? The vast majority of rapists and pedophiles are men who have not taken a vow of celibacy. Those who have and then broke their vow did not do so because of the vow but because of the delusion that satisfaction could be obtained through acting out their anger/hatred or greed/lust.
Why do many religions or spiritual quests require celibacy? Did you ever see that episode of ‘Malcom in the Middle’ where Lois was on some medication that kept them from having sex for a week or two? The yard was mowed, the fence mended, the house painted...All that energy and time and care which had been applied to sex went into other areas of their life for that week. That is the obvious reason. Let’s dig a little deeper. What do we bring to sex? Creativity, affection, delight, appreciation, consideration, desire, energy, joy...what if those were applied to our spiritual pursuit, wouldn’t that benefit that dimension of life tremendously? This is a positive way to consider the benefits of celibacy.
Is sexual repression the inevitable result of celibacy? No, absolutely not except as the result of misunderstanding from closed door policies that restrict discussion of the subject. Repression is harmful, it causes rebellion and resistance that turn to stagnation and retention of heat or deep cold that kills the life force or blocks Qi. Rather these same impulses which are a natural and wonderful part of life for many people can be consciously sent in other directions.
What are the benefits of celibacy? If your intention is from now on to cause no further harm, to act in ways that benefit all beings and to attain liberation, celibacy is really essential because of the reapportionment of energy and creativity. If you are a spiritual person who has met the deity(s) or traveled in higher realms the energy and creativity retained through celibacy are really essential to continue that level of interaction. If you enjoy living without the drain of entanglements celibacy is an obvious requirement. If you choose to live consciously, to make choices with deliberate intent, to be utterly responsible for your actions and well being then celibacy is clearly a wise course, but it is not inflexible, it can be temporary. If it were not then how could it be so vital?
No such vow can ever be set in stone without harm, it is a living thing. When it is wanted it lives, if it is no longer wanted it can be released. Some do give back their vows. Currently for me this living being, which can be known as a vow of celibacy, is my friend and is a being of such beauty I could never harm it. It is a connection to perceptions of such vast expanses of wonder and awe I cannot imagine giving it up. I cherish it, and I think that is what the Buddha intended.
Can you still have meaningful relationships if you are celibate? Of course! The Buddha taught that the antidote to all five hindrances is a Noble Friend. He taught that noble friendship is not half the spiritual life but all of it. If we find a noble friend we are not to let them go, and it is our obligation to be a noble friend to all whom we meet. There is no better or more worthwhile relationship than that of noble friend. What is a Noble Friend? Someone who encourages you on the path and does not enable your failures, does not blame or judge but shows you by example how to further your practice. Someone who shares the path with you, who tames trains guards and restrains their own mind so that you are not harmed but bettered by their association. That person is a keeper. I am fortunate beyond belief to have a Noble Friend in venerable KC Daikai Madika WarEagle, bhikkhuni, and I try to be so to her as well.
Do Buddhists have a problem with “particular friendships?” Yes and no. Although Buddhism is relatively informal it remains an organized religion in some circles and in some locations and cultures or denominations the taboo against “particular friendship” holds, at least by report. But those may be in the minority, there has never been a poll that I know of. Buddhists tend to be well educated and more well to do and that sector generally is more liberal. What is a particular friendship? This term was used especially by the Catholics to support homophobia within their own community. It refers to close personal relationships that may or may not have a sexual aspect and has been a euphemism for partner or lover. Some Buddhists are rabid homophobes, some are closet queers, others are ‘out and proud’ and others have left these concerns behind.
When I was expecting to join the ordination ceremony conducted in southern California four years ago Venerable was acting in the capacity of preceptor and guide for me. The questions asked of her were what she considered inappropriate. They were clearly seeking confirmation of gossip and slander and were directed toward our past long before either of us took refuge.
I feel sorry for those who are incapable of seeing others in the light of generosity compassion and wisdom but they teach by their example and because of them I try harder, so I am grateful.
This has been a great weight to get off my chest. It has not been easy until the last few years to have given up such a facet of life especially at such a time in my life, I am just fifty two. It might be better for people who are older, as traditionally done in India, to go forth after their children are grown but I lucked into it and chose to make the best of it.
I would like to see this lifestyle be a popular option for people in the west, whether temporary or ever renewing. I fear that many make it difficult especially for women by falling into bad habits and holding disciplines to do with the robes and eating above honest introspection, and by finding loopholes in the guidelines rather than embracing the vulnerability of the pursuit of wisdom.
There are two great things about Buddhism that make all this a relatively small concern, they are that we are not an organized religion, and that we each are responsible only for our self, our own actions and our own practice. No one but us in this realm knows what is in our heart or can be a judge of that. They may try, they may think they can but they are then not minding their own ball. We can only offer them the compassion and generosity we would like to see from them.