I won’t mince words. I’m celibate. And it’s because of the dharma.
I’m not sure why writing that feels so exhibitionistic, so confessional. That the statement is extremely personal goes without saying. I’ve never sought to discuss all the sex I’m not having (as a friend likes to joke) publicly. But in the time I’ve been a student of Buddhism, well over half my life, it’s the one detail of my practice that ever made anyone balk, or that got treated as a problematic behavior. If the subject of my nonexistent love life comes up, I often hear from friends or colleagues, including some Buddhist ones, that I’m probably still shaken by the demise of my marriage (seven years ago), that I’ll change my mind, that I don’t know what irresistible liaison the future could bring, that I’m squelching my real feelings.
Refraining from all sexual activity is one of the eight precepts taken by lay Buddhists during lunar observance days or by dedicated practitioners, usually affiliated with monasteries, who want to devote all their energy to meditation and study. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that taking up this precept strikes people as aberrant. Most of us operate with the deeply ingrained assumption that we should go around in twos, that it’s our best shot at happiness. We share a pervasive psychotherapeutic view that people become effective social beings via healthy romantic relationships. Our word celibacy, in fact, goes back to an Indo-European compound meaning “to be alone.” As a culture, aloneness is not something we go for.
But for as long as human beings have been organizing themselves into religious communities, there have been celibate contemplatives, in search of seclusion, and the very earliest chronicles of their spiritual activities show them defending their lives of renunciation and simplicity to disapproving parents and community members. The Theragatha and Therigatha, the collections of verses by the Buddha’s elder monks and nuns, and the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct, are peppered with stories about families who tried to bribe, trick, or cajole their sons and daughters to return to marriage and householder life. There’s the poem of Subha, the goldsmith’s daughter, whose relatives offered her gold coins and bullion to leave the monastic sangha. In fact, the Buddha instituted the celibacy rule for monks and nuns—a fundamental practice for dissolving sensual passion—in direct response to a monk whose family persuaded him to sleep with his former wife.
Nowhere in the Buddha’s teachings did he forbid laypeople from having sex, or tell them that celibacy was a prerequisite to pursuing the path to awakening. To the contrary, the canon is full of anecdotes about the benefits of practice within the bounds of a stable, respectful relationship. The late Thai master Ajahn Maha Boowa likened conjugal sensuality to a kitchen fire: “Both are necessary to establishing and maintaining a successful family,” he said. “Marriage is necessarily a sexual partnership, while a kitchen fire is indispensable for preparing the family’s food. If both are used carefully, with proper circumspection, they can sufficiently fulfill people’s basic needs in life.” Certainly Buddhists in such a successful union can attest to the power of the bond to keep you on the straight and narrow, in a good way; a safe arena from which to observe the lure of outside influences—lust and other distractions—as they arise and pass away. Families in the 21st century come in infinite variety, and there are all kinds of units in which to be emotionally content and spiritually engaged, including couples that have decided to be celibate for the sake of religious practice.
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