I was taught and trained by Catholic monks and nuns for twelve years. Later on, I became a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I have experience of celibacy.
I took my vow willingly, and for several reasons. First, it was the price of admission to the spiritual elite of Tibetan Buddhism. Secondly, ignominiously, I hoped to escape the agonies of love and my social ineptitude. Thirdly and more hopefully, I craved the payoff promised by my teachers: increased meditative energy, greater clarity, Enlightenment with a big, beautiful capital E.
After eight years of celibacy I landed back in the real world with the emotional maturity of a teenager. This affected not just my ability to relate to women but my relationships with everyone, and with life itself. I was half a man. It took me decades to grow whole. Many of the former monks and nuns I knew were, and some still are, similarly damaged. You might blame this on the celibate life, but more likely these are the reasons they adopted it in the first place.
The sex drive is built in to our animal body, but
there’s also the mammalian drive for intimacy
I admit I was concerned on the day of my ordination, but I was also blessed with great powers of denial and rationalization. If others could do it, I figured, it couldn’t be that hard; it must get easier with practice.
We sanitize eating and defecating, but you can’t do that with sex. We dance around it with courtship rituals and legal agreements, but the act itself reduces us to our animal nature. For those who need to maintain the illusion of being a rational, chosen species, that’s problematic.
Civilization’s most crucial virtue may be non-violence, but celibacy is its toughest. The enemy is within, never really vanquished — and it doesn’t end there. The sex drive is built in to our animal body, but there’s also the mammalian drive for intimacy. We need to connect, to trust and to love. It often scares us.
If celibacy is pure, then sex must be dirty
Which moves some people to thwart those drives. It’s certainly a sacrifice — but is it healthy, and where on earth does purity come into it? If celibacy is pure, then sex must be dirty. Catholicism supposedly sanctifies it within marriage, but that’s just a way of buying off the laity; the priesthood remains de facto superior. The other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam, mostly consider celibacy unnatural.
Asian religions place it in even higher regard. For Buddhists and Hindus celibacy not just a source of moral purity but also of meditative prowess. In the tantric traditions, to lose semen is to squander spiritual energy. Women, of course, are hardly in a position to retain their semen, but that’s of no matter in misogynistic cultures.
For the first time, celibacy is under general attack because it’s become public knowledge that many ‘celibates’ aren’t avoiding sex at all. Some are evil and duplicitous about it, but many are basically decent people unable to master their own drives and tortured by guilt. Add to that the burden of having to be paragons of virtue, and you can only imagine the toxicity they exude. The communities in which they operate have built-in safeguards against discovery that are only somewhat less effective in these days of total exposure. They continue to encourage denial and spread deceit.
Celibate teachers think they’re sublimely qualified to lead
sexually whole people on their quest for the purpose of life
When scandal does finally erupt, people like Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Father Tom Donovan are simply characterized as failed, weak individuals. The recent exposés of teacher Sogyal Lakar and Sasaki Roshi, and the revelations of the abused young Kalu Rinpoche reveal as much unchaste havoc in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism as in the Catholic church. Some commentators claim the issue is not about sex at all, but about mistreating people. This is a weak attempt at apologetics. When shrouded in guilt and secrecy, frustrated sexuality fosters bad behavior. The two are connected.
The blame falls rightly on the priests and cardinals, the Tibetan and Zen masters who can’t keep their libido to themselves, but to close the case at that point is an abdication of responsibility. Both those who attack and those who defend these individuals restrict the debate to the assignment of blame and, at best, mechanisms of prevention. No one questions the practice of celibacy, or its sanity. It’s so ancient an institution that to challenge it threatens catastrophe for the traditions that enshrine it.
Celibates shove a part of themselves into the
shadows and then claim to pursue the light
Whether the target is one person or a whole complicit community, you never hear anyone within these traditions suggesting that celibacy is a sick idea, that spiritual teachers and leaders need to experience intimate relationships. Sometimes intimacy goes wrong and sometimes it’s a celebration of life, but what do celibates know of this? Those who promote abstinence for ulterior motives, as I did, who spin it as a source of purity or of power, shove a part of themselves into the shadows and then claim to pursue the light. They think they’re sublimely qualified to lead sexually whole people on their quest for the purpose of life.
In a recent interview with Piers Morgan, the Dalai Lama portrays sexual thoughts as ‘dirty,’ and makes wisecracks about marriage being troublesome. He’d be wiser to cite his lack of experience and say, ‘no comment,’ rather than describe marriage in such a cartoonish way, but he really doesn’t have that freedom. The monastic tradition he represents is a society founded entirely on celibacy. He’s as cornered as the pope.
I long ago declared myself unable to follow Christ within the Catholic Church, or Buddha under the constraints of any Buddhist tradition. It was the only decision for me, but there are those within who are able to rise above it. Thomas Merton comes to mind, and Gendun Chopel. Unlike the Dalai Lama, these were not institutional leaders but low-profile monks who maintained their integrity and pushed the envelope in ways that are not available to those at the top. Where are their modern-day equivalents?
P.S. As some people have noted here and elsewhere, I was imprecise in this post with my examples, Neither Sogyal nor Sasaki were ever bound by monastic vows, so their abusive behavior can’t be blamed on failed celibacy. I included them because they are nevertheless examples of what happens when sexuality is disconnected from one’s spiritual and moral practice.