Skip to main content

Selling Celibacy? I Don't Buy It.

Sometime, somewhere, Tenshin Reb Anderson said that those who stay home can practice the way, and those who leave home can practice the way, but we are all renunciates. I don't remember what he said we're suppose to renounce, but I'd say it's the view that anything we perceive is anything other than mind. The Lankavatara says:

"Mahamati, as for their attachment to codes, how do srota-apannas cease their attachment to codes? When they become adept at seeing the suffering where they might be reborn, they cease attachment. Attachment, Mahamati, refers to how foolish beings resolve to undertake ascetic practices for the sake of attaining greater bliss. Hence, they seek rebirth. But when they are not attached and [they] turn instead toward undertaking those practices and upholding those precepts that are free from projection and passion and that lead to the peerless realm of personal realization..."

"Attachment, Mahamati, refers to how foolish beings resolve to undertake ascetic practices for the sake of attaining greater bliss." brings me to the words celibacy and sublimation. This came up for me when I attended a Zen Center event, a discussion about relationships and intimacy with Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and Zen Center's President, Ze Sho Susan O'Connell, and David Bullard, PhD. 

During this discussion, Robert Thurman stated that when he was a monastic practicing celibacy for three or four years, he experienced happiness, described a sublimation of sexual energy, mentioned that Daido Loori wasn't celibate but referred to himself as a Zen monk, and that Zen Center could be a real force for bringing back the celibate tradition to Soto Zen. 

Susan O'Connell kept it pretty simple; she said having non-celibate residents and married priests has ensured that men and women receive equal religious training. 

I told this to my Buddhist academic friend, and he said,  "HHDL is a strong supporter of equal education (and has recently awarded the first female Geshe degree), and he is not looking to end monastic celibacy." 

But it's 2013 and Geshe Kelsang Wangmo received this honor in 2011, the first geshe degree being awarded in 1101, so it took a little over 900 years for this to happen.  And a quick search  shows that Tibetan nunneries are not supported in the same way that male monastic communities are; they farm, work, and operate small business to sustain their life, while their male counter parts are largely supported by the lay sangha. 


 German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann inspires this thought; There's a strange request that our mothers remain virgins through immaculate conception. There's a strange expectation that human spirituality or Buddhist practice can and should some how transcend humanness. And that when a male becomes celibate he distances himself from women, and therefore distances himself from a patriarchal symbol of weakness (women).

Does that mean celibacy isn't a legitimate practice? Of course not- I know a few long term celibate Zen priests (voluntary in our tradition) who really benefit from the practice. I personally benefit from my sexual renunciations, which means being monogamous with my wife (although we weren't always monogamous, experimenting with bisexuality and poly-amory- a thorough exploration of our hetronormativity, and today we feel very queer together). I benefit from the renunciation of porn; but does this mean you will? No. I could never say what practices of renunciation would be good for you. 

I can say that I did spend one year as a celibate resident and it would be hard to parse out the causes and conditions of that year and explain why it wasn't beneficial for me. But I think it's rooted in my home leaving roots. I've written before about what it was like to be a military brat and to experience my parents separation and the sense of having two dads, two moms, two homes. I'm the one who was moving out before my high school graduation; I'm the one who didn't call home; my practice is calling home and remembering my family. It's far too easy for me to avoid it. 

It's easy to call the Soto Zen approach to celibacy an aberrant political issue from the Meji era. But Neither Monk Nor Layman points out that Zen monks were were having sex with women long before 1870. As a result, when a Roshi died, the mysterious children and women living at the temple would be left homeless. And more controversially was the pederast tradition of nanshoku - a an age-structured system of homosexuality among priests. Other "aberrant" traditions could include the Tibetan tradition of Yab-yum or Karmamudra or the history of songyum, "celibate" Lamas' secret consorts who appear as nothing more than a nun. 

Missteps abound whether celibate, poly-amorous, or monogamous. How could anyone offer a universal admonition? Kosho, a Zen teacher in Austin, Texas told me before I got married, that whether I chose a celibate or monogamous path, I would be choosing my own suffering. Liberation could only come from continual awareness of that path. 

Maybe this is why in the Soto Zen tradition we fall back on "Chop wood, carry water." To talk about the bliss of some practice is to insinuate its assurance of your bliss and happiness should you proceed in lock step. It's just not so. I sign off with the Blue Cliff Record's 3rd case's admonition: 

"One device, one object; one word, one phrase-the intent is that you'll have a place to enter; still this is gouging a wound in healthy flesh-it can become a nest or a den. The Great Function appears without abiding by fixed principles-the intent is that you'll realize there is something transcendental; it covers the sky and covers the earth, yet it cannot be grasped. This way will do, not this way will do too-this is too diffuse. This way won't do, not this way won't do either-this is too cut off. Without treading these two paths, what would be right? Please test; I cite this for you to see."


  1. "There's a strange expectation that human spirituality or Buddhist practice can and should some how transcend humanness."

    It's not so strange if humanness means doing what evolution implies we ought to do. Vegetarianism, in that light, is "inhuman". Any code of ethics or precepts goes beyond the instinctual encoding. If you hit me, and I don't hit you back (by choice), maybe that's inhuman...

    There's a precept against intoxicants, but if one has no interest in intoxicants, can one be considered to "practice" the precept? Is practice only something you don't otherwise want to do? If so, then the practice of celibacy is misguided. Celibacy seems to be more of an effect than a cause.

    1. Dear Dave St. Germain,

      Good questions: If one never had a home or a family can one leave it? I think you're right; these precepts are better if their not hard and fast but support inquiry and exploration of those dangerous edges of a human being.

      I'm currently practice without pursuing meat or drink, but accepting when it's given. I've been trying to make a vow to make choices that will support awakening, while bowing to the delusion of that vow, and bowing to delusion itself when it comes in the form of red wine, a bacon cheese burger.

      I think the most valid question is: does this reduce my suffering? Might it reduce the suffering of others? Tough questions on gross and subtle levels, but helpful for me.

      Deep bow,

    2. "If one never had a home or a family can one leave it?"

      The texts abound with admonishments against those who leave home physically but not in their hearts.

      "I'm currently practice without pursuing meat or drink, but accepting when it's given."

      That loophole may have made sense 1000 years ago, when monks were dependent on donations to survive, and animals weren't tortured in factory farms. I'm sure you know all that, which makes your statement sound surprising to me.
      (also, I don't see how intoxicants fall into that loophole -- surely, if someone passes the crack pipe, you say "no, thanks"?)

      Your questions might help provide a compass, but what are the answers? How does the bacon cheeseburger fit in, and how does a wife fit in? (I'm trying to figure these things out, too [well, not about the bacon cheeseburger]) Plenty of people will just assert that it's so; I never read or hear about the process of discovery that lead to such an assertion.

      In one respect, boulders are the most virtuous creatures; how does one become a boulder who gets up and goes to town?

    3. Dear Dave,

      SFZC is dependent upon donations to survive more than are work-wearied bodyminds would like to admit. But, we do have the giver, receiver and gift as one practice.

      And you're right, I wouldn't smoke crack, or a cigarette for that matter, as I never have and it feels genuine without a trace remaining. However, it doesn't feel genuine to refuse cheesburgers or wine. That's just me.

  2. Thanks for posting this (says the former poly Zen priest).

    1. Dear Al,

      No problem. Thanks for stopping by.

      Deep bow,

  3. "I don't remember what he said we're suppose to renounce, but I'd say it's the view that anything we perceive is anything other than mind."

    Maybe once in "graduate school", but for most of us here on Earth, it's much more basic:
    greed, envy, and hatred, to be specific.


    1. Dear Bob,

      Greed, envy, and hatred sound good, too.

      Deep bow,

  4. the 3rd case of the blue cliff record is one of the most beautiful bits of writing in zen

    Great Master Ba was seriously ill. The abbott of the monastery asked him,

    "Master, how are you feeling these days?"

    Great Master said,

    "Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha"


    that's such a wonderful clear space of understanding and detachment about himself and his life, you only get that with celibacy I am afraid !

    the point is for that beauty you have to devote your life completely to what this about, married with kids cannot and really the failure of zen practice now is no better illustrated than the crowds of zen practitioners with family and relationship responsibilities loudly proclaiming through their usual clichéd nonsense that you can do two very difficult things at once !!!!!!!!!!!!

    there is no expectation in the zen and chan histories of lay people developing much understanding, you can quote layman pang, but he became penniless and his children died ............... hardly encouraging

    the proof of the pudding is the vain repetitious numbskullness that comes out of zen now, none of the beauty of sun face buddha, moon face buddha anywhere !

    1. Dear Andrew,

      We will all become penniless and die.

      Deep bow,

    2. kogen , you don't have any value of yourself as "special", that specialness resides in your natural talents and not the conformance to a social construct like zen !

      you just need to get more functional, a suitable partner can/is helping with that !

      everybody has their own agenda, women, centers, (religions!) you me, parents ................... it's very hard to get some space in that and sort out what zen is about ! :o()

    3. I'd say by all accounts rev. Myogen Steve Stuckey is doing a pretty damn good sun faced Buddha moon faced Buddha. And he lays on his death bed with wife and children by his side.

    4. lulu, according to the conventional view yes !

      however there is another space from which things look very different in which he is a misguided man dying in a conventional human way !

      years ago travelling around zen centers in the usa I was struck by the appalling levels of health problems and since returning to new zealand/australia have invested quite abit of time in addressing and solving those problems for myself and others...........

      zen has pretty well collapsed from it's heights of the 70.s and 80's because of the very poor quality of transmitted teachers, the system doesn't and perhaps never did work !

      the sense and reality and love of this very different space makes one rejected by the human................

      I think both you and kogen have a strong sense of this place, it's just you don't recognize or value it enough because the conventional zen view doesn't..........

    5. Dear Andrew,

      I never know what you are talking about.


    6. yeah, it's English so it seems like you should understand it, but one can't !

      I used to have the same problem with toni packer and listened to some of her talk tapes endlessly..................... but I think the/a/the shift does occur after awhile !

      I listened to john loori as well, but I finally figured he didn't know what he was on about and just used the usual zen crafting of voynich to give the appearance of familiarity and knowledge...........................

      it really has taken me twenty years to get a bead on crafty and not so crafty rubbish presented as true :o)

      I think that's actually what zen is about, there's a sort of quantum leap into a completely different frame of reference...................... !!!

      it is a puzzle of sorts, if you do the work, it will open up !

      of course in stead of dissing it, one could say "well what is it I don't understand ?"

      endless people go through zen and come out knowing less than when they went in, sort of like smoking pot for so many years instead of looking at non toxic to the brain things that actually help with the real needs of what to do for better sleep and that sort of thing !

      the real zen is alive and sparkling and creative, the dogs roll in corpses of course, lol, is that the real meaning of does a dog have Buddha nature, ie can a dog change?

      can you change? have I changed or was it always that we were non -dogs !?






      am saying




      anon/ a non









      ? . . . .




  5. Andrew,

    Believe what you want to, but liberation isn't bound by forms.

    1. "liberation" is voynich and a form ! any one can write something of course, a screen doesn't cry when rubbish is written on it..................


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

We Are The Ones Who Can Die

This is me hunting hogs with a semi-automatic weapon. This was a past life( about 8 years ago.)

A lot can change in 8 years.

I grew up around guns. I received my first when I was 10 years old. I went to a high school with a shooting range in the basement, for the high school competitive rifle team. My dad, a career Marine, gave thorough instruction, you better believe. And for most of my life I could take them or leave them. I wasn't into guns like a lot of my friends, but I knew how to shoulder a carbine so the shell didn't eject and hit me in the eye.

That was in Pennsylvania. New Orleans was a completely different scene and the reality of gun violence really hit home (sometimes too literally). I have friends who have been shot in street violence and in combat zones. I have been threatened with a weapon and I have loaded guns with a notion of self defense.

And I used to believe that it was my right to do so.

But today I'm sad and I want to touch that sadness. I lost my …

The Transformation of Ceremony

Ordination Day

I want to say something about the transformational aspect of a ceremony. Like wine to blood, from person to priest, practice enlightenment as transmogrification. Like cucumbers to pickles, surprise! 
I underestimated the ceremony. After pursuing ordination for nine years I had visualized it into nothing. Having junior monks pass me by, then disrobe, then put the robe back on before I even got to wear it once lent a sobering perspective. Imagination dispensed. I sat and stitched and lived practice in a way where oryoki wasn't a treat, Zazen wasn't something I could talk about, and robes started to have gravity- they were not without weight. 
And I think that's the first element of my ceremony: a period of discernment and someone to discern with. In the case of ordination, my teacher, our tanto, and other priests served as mirrors and sounding boards for these two questions: Why do I want to be a priest and what is a priest? It was about as clear as wine tran…

Boredom and Buddhism

To say I feel bored feels disrespectful. How could that be? I have a three month old daughter, I'm training for a demanding job in the temple, I'm a wilderness medic responding to incidents every 4 days or so, and I'm sewing my priest robes for ordination. And I have this sense of disinterest.

I have a few theories as to why I feel bored. One could be the natural come down from having the baby and becoming stable in our schedule. Another come down plays out in the adrenaline crash after responding to a medical emergency or the general up keep work I do at the temple when compared to fixing something crucial to operations. When I hear there's a fire in the area I'm pretty excited to be mobilized for stay and defend duty. I feel pretty guilty about that, too.

So I read Beyond Boredom and Depression by Ajahn Jagaro and I was reminded to be careful about looking outward by this passage:

So what is boredom? It is a subjective experience that occurs when the mind is not i…