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Celibacy: Spiritual training or spiritual trend?

Ishwari and Kogen: Sleep in separate beds, Room #6, Cloud Hall. They love to cuddle, too.

I was having dinner with a friend and we were talking about a Zen teacher we both study with and he said, “Yup, he sure seemed like he really wanted to get enlightened, but then he decided he needed a partner.”

Please suspend your disbelief that someone thinks they can get enlightened. I want to look at celibacy here, so let’s pretend that enlightenment exists without a doubt and it can come in any form you want it to.

I paused, being married and all, and wanted to investigate how sex impacts practice. I don’t know if we can talk about celibacy without talking about renunciation, what that means for the world at large, what it means for Buddhists, what it means for Soto Zen Buddhists, American zen Buddhists, and maybe even what it looked like for the Buddha.

For now, let’s look at sex through the eyes of the Theravadan, which we (Soto Zen) call the first turning of the wheel of dharma.

A quick word search brought up 186 results about sex on Access to Insight, a Theravadan data base compiled by many monks and scholars. This post may be the first of many in this investigation of the Theravadan discourse alone.

O’C Walshe says, “The aim of all of these (227 vinya rules) is to enable him to conduct himself in such a way as is most conducive to the attaining of Enlightenment.”

“Him” is referring to a monk here. Sounds like Walshe eats dinner with my friend, too.

“Complete sexual continence is considered an essential feature of the monastic life.”

Okay. First thing that comes up is what does sexual incontinence look like? Second thing is the word “complete” (red flag).

“The same principle applies to the Mahayana schools and of course, to nuns in those schools where they exist. There is no such thing as a "married monk," though in certain schools, especially in Japan, a form of "quasi-monasticism" with married teachers who retain a form of ordination is permitted under certain conditions. But all this has no relevance to the Theravada Sangha.”

Ouch! Quasi is not a nice word! Nuns where they exist? More on this later.

And now for a explanation on why monks shouldn’t have sex; Karma:

“The Pali word kamma (Sanskrit karma) literally means "action" (i.e., volition: cetana), which can be either skilled (kusala) or unskilled (akusala). The results of action (kamma) accrue to the doer as vipaka, which is pleasant when the action was skilled, unpleasant when it was unskilled (if I look before I cross the road, I shall get across safely, which is pleasant; if I don't look I may get run down, which is unpleasant). The feelings we experience are in fact of the nature of vipaka — they are dependent on past kamma. And of course we are continually creating fresh kamma for a good part of our time. It should therefore be noted that the feeling of pleasure (sexual or otherwise) is not an action, but a result. There is, therefore, nothing either "skillful" or "unskillful" about experiencing such a feeling. We should therefore not regard it as either "virtuous" or "sinful." So far, so good. Such pleasant feelings can be enjoyed with a clear conscience and no guilt feeling. If this were all, there would be no problem. The puritans would be routed and the permissivists justified. Unfortunately, there is another side to the matter. We may recall that a few years ago there was a song "Money is the Root of all Evil" Some people pointed out that not money, but the love for money is the root of all evil (well, of a lot of evil, anyway). And here is the snag. Sexual pleasure (like money) is not "evil" (or unskilled), but attachment to sexual pleasure (like the love of money) is. If we can experience the pleasure without attachment we are all right; if we become attached to it, we are not "hitting the mark." Now of course it is rather difficult (to put it mildly) to experience pleasure of any sort without feeling attached to it. But attachment is kamma, and unskilled kamma at that. And the results of that will inevitably, according to Buddhism, be something unpleasant in the future.”

So, I read, sex is not bad, loving sex is bad. Any pleasure is hard to feel without feeling attached to it. Attachment to sexual pleasure brings unskilled karma and will bring something unpleasant in the future.

So, by abstaining from sex, I won’t be attached to it?

This has not been my experience.

And while I create Karma, there is a lot karma from beginningless greed, hate, and delusion (time) I bear witness to; I don’t think it’s helpful to track down who did what, but instead to watch Karma arise, burn to fruition, and do nothing about that except show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and be open to that Karma changing.

As for attachment, it comes and goes. I have had sexual experiences that did bring something unpleasant in the future, but I might argue that my intentions had more to do with greed and delusion than having sex. Attachment dropping off has never had anything to do with me and what I wanted. It happens or it doesn’t happen.

My teacher, who has been celibate for the last 20 years or so, said we choose our own suffering. Choose to get married, choose to be celibate, choose to date- always leaping into a limited form with electric parameters we bump against and get zapped by.

I’ve got many questions about this topic; I’m not for or against, as I admire my teacher and admire Bikkhus. Of course, my fur does ruffle at the mention of quasi-monasticism, as if there is a pure and liberated, true and real version out there (instead of in here <---).

But my fur started ruffled. Currently, Bikunni may not receive full ordination officially because the lineage of nuns is said to have “died” out. Recently, starting in 2007, there has been an attempt to repair this schism in the tradition. It only took 2,000 years. However, a fully ordained Bikhunni faces imprisonment if they go to Thailand. Further, they take more vows. And I think when my friend thinks of enlightened celibate masters, he’s not thinking of women at all (the trend in Japan is for nuns to be celibate, while monks marry and have families- although even this is not officially recognized by the Soto-Shu).

My friend is thinking men, men being celibate to women so men can become enlightened, and all of this celibacy envy strikes me as a subtle aggression toward self and women (as some of aren’t even sure which category we fall in).

Aren’t the trappings of celibacy equal to the trappings of marriage? My wife and I aren’t officially monks, as we have not sat tangaryo and completed a practice period. Monk is a very flexible word in our tradition- maybe you’re a monk during practice period, you’re defintely a monk as tassajara, but maybe not a monk when you’re at GGF or SFZC, but maybe so- and none of this has anything to do with any type of oridination.

Does it even make sense to try and look at this celibacy issue and what the different traditions make of it? I’m not sure it’s fair to compare Mahayanna thought with Theravadan thought. We acknowledge the purification practices as a wonderful Dharma gate, and if a practinor chooses that tradition because it supports her self-knowledge of being celibate, I think that’s wonderful.

But don’t call us quasi-monastics. The monastery does not exisit. We are numberless fingers pointing at the moon. Keep pointing at the moon and not at our brothers and sisters (SISTERS!) in the sangha.


  1. The longer I practice in Soto land, the more I question how issues like this have been approached. As you suggest, there's a gender component at play here. It's impossible for me to ignore the history of sexism, as well as the fact that this taps into, and seems to heighten, the monastic/lay divide.

    Celibacy is really only pure and clear if one isn't attached either to wanting sexual pleasure or to celibacy itself. And actually, with the quote you pointed to above, I don't think it's wrong to love sex, if that love is the great, boundless love which isn't attached or grasping for more. The biggest problem I have with religious/spiritual attitudes that privilege celibacy is that they also tend to deny the power of liberated sexual experience, or consider sex a degraded part of life - something I fully disagree with.

    To me, a truly celibate person isn't attached to maintaining that status. And someone who is liberated sexually isn't attached to having sex, and conceivably could go years with out it.

  2. Two things.
    A few years ago Norman Fischer did a practice of writing a one-line poem every day. One of them was "Sex in middle-age - nice to know you." This seems to express love and intimacy.

    Secondly, very powerful spiritual experiences involve a release of energy, which means it is energy that has been bound. There's a lot about this in martial arts and even sports, too, with athletes supposed to refrain from sex the night before a competition. Of course, there's Kundalini yoga. And tantra. And a lot more I don't know about. From what you quote, the Theravadan writings don't seem to reference this issue of vital energy, but maybe it underlies their thinking.

  3. It may be completely naive to say so, but I always felt that the monastic traditions were started when root teachers felt like some of their students in particular needed to clear their ground a bit, cut out the obvious and major distractions so they could concentrate for a while (maybe an entire lifetime). And then things became codified, rarefied and priviledged as somehow a "better" path (than any other choices). With all the related cultural, and hopelessly gender-stultified consequences you've outlined.

    And this may be householder ego, but I have to believe there were also scads of householders, merchants, healers and other transitionary figures who studied with those root teachers, and the Dharma doors that root teacher employed to help them were for each a different, non-monastic path. And those paths were not the "door prize/home game" version, but perfectly valid and complete. They just didn't happen to get codified and turned into a formal lineage.

    Anyone want to argue that raising children didn't help Joko Beck gain the perspective and teaching frame of reference she employs so well?

    So the net of your post above for me is, no matter what arises (sex, no sex) the important thing is how we work with(in) our choices ("we choose our suffering").


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