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The Brahmacariya Life
& Emotional Intimacy
Ven. Sativihari 
A talk given to an audience of monastics, August 2001)

If you are a monastic, a question that you have probably been asked more than once by a lay person is: “Isn’t celibacy difficult?”  

When we are asked this question it is important to find out what the questioner means by “celibacy.”   On the surface, most people think of celibacy as simply abstaining from sexual behavior.   The more deeply we explore, though, we  find that in their minds sexual behavior is often connected to a variety of social and emotional experiences that are found in mutually supportive, honest, caring relationships.  These social and emotional qualities have been described in popular culture as “emotional intimacy.”  In the experience of many lay people, emotional intimacy and sexual behavior are so interwoven that the question “isn’t celibacy difficult?”  may carry within it  hidden meanings.  The unasked question may be something like,  “How are you able to live without any caring, supportive relationships in your life?”

Brahmacariya is often simply translated as “celibate life.”  But brahmacariya is much more than simply abstaining from sexual contact.  In Buddhist thought, brahmacariya has always signified the renunciation of certain kinds of relationships for the purpose of pursuing other kinds of relationships, specifically those of religious community life,  the relationship with our teacher and fellow monastics.  Dhamma and Vinaya guide us in how to develop these relationships to their fullest potential.  To make certain that we not underestimate the importance of this issue, Buddha emphasized to Ananda that spiritual friendships are not just ‘half’ of the holy life; they are the ‘whole’ of it. 

A very important point that is seldom discussed in this area is that the relationships we develop within the monastic community can (among other benefits) provide us with a profound experience of what popular culture calls emotional intimacy.  The path to emotional intimacy, whether in a marriage or in a monastery, is spiritual friendship.  We can think of the act of being a spiritual friend (kalyanamitra) as a particular kind of practice that we can take up in monastic life, one that like any  practice requires training, time, discipline, and patience if we are to become skillful at it. 

In lay life, marriage has some similarities to kalyanamitra practice.  As two separate individuals try to adjust to one another, a multitude of problems can arise.  Sometimes one is having a difficult day, and speaks harshly to the other.  Or one doesn’t genuinely listen while the other is talking. Or one express anger toward the other in passive ways,  like imposing a cold silence.  Or one takes control of making all the decisions instead of working together with the other to reach mutual agreements.  The list could go on and on.  It is through correcting these negative habits  and building healthier relationship skills that a successful marriage is built.  Like kalyanamitra practice it takes considerable good will, time, and patience. 

Of course, the same sorts of interpersonal problems that arise in marriages can arise in monasteries as well.  We may enter the monastery with only our robes and bowl, but we carry with us a lot of invisible karmic baggage:  We bring all of the personal and interpersonal habits that we have learned over countless lifetimes.   Some of these habits may be quite wholesome and skillful, while others may be quite “neurotic” and destructive.  It’s a mixed bag.  Sooner or later we begin to unpack these invisible bags, expressing these habits in our relationships with our teacher and our fellow monastics.  Our selfishness becomes clear. And this creates opportunities for interpersonal growth, opportunities that are no less real than those available within married life.   And when we practice well, facing and resolving our interpersonal kilesa, and learning more healthy ways to relate to our Dhamma brothers and sisters, we enjoy emotionally satisfying relationships as a natural consequence.  We experience the rewards of emotional intimacy.  We feel understood, cared for, and supported in our lives, in our practice. 

 

As monastics we leave the household life behind.  But in doing so, we don’t leave behind our responsibility to develop as  social beings.  In fact, the monastic needs to develop all of the same interpersonal skills that are required in successful married life.   He or she needs to become an expert at listening empathically, at resolving conflicts, at providing an emotionally safe atmosphere that helps others to speak honestly about their joys, weaknesses, and problems.  Just as importantly, he or she must also develop skill at receiving such care as it is offered by others – that is, skill at disclosing personal concerns and problems and receiving support and guidance from others.  In the monastery, just as in a marriage, these practices are all the more challenging since the people involved live together 24 hours a day.  It’s much easier to be empathic and constructive with someone you only see on a part time basis.  As in any practice, sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail.  But as long as we do our best, we continue to develop our relationship skills.  

As we develop interpersonally in these ways, we also face the same risks as lay persons do of becoming trapped in unhealthy dependencies or attachments.  One common potential obstacle in this type of practice is the arising of feelings of exclusivity.  Any time we begin to want to support or be supported by one member or segment of the community to the exclusion of others, we are beginning to move in a sansaric direction in our relationship practice.  When this happens, we face an important opportunity, to learn the skill of removing the attachment.  We establish mindfulness and implement whatever restraints are necessary to maintain it, extending our attention to other members of the community, perhaps discussing the situation with our teacher, etc..   Of course it is true that some people will understand us better than others.  The challenge is to appreciate such people without trying to possess them by forming exclusive bonds in our minds. Another common obstacle to this type of practice is simple aversion: the desire to exclude from your relationship practice that one certain Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni who really rubs you the wrong way.  If we are open to the possibilities, the monastery can be quite a marvelous laboratory for interpersonal development, especially since we all share an understanding of how these practices contribute to our common goal, the purification of our minds.

An important general principle which guides us in our relationship practice is the maintenance of  balance between mindful self-awareness and compassionately extending ourselves to others.   These two factors are dynamically related.   We cannot “specialize” in one to the exclusion of the other or our practice, our mind, and our relationships become imbalanced.  But when we practice mindfulness and compassion together it becomes clear how in caring for ourselves we are simoultaneously caring for others and how in caring for others we are simoultaneously caring for ourselves.  (See the wonderful story about this principle in Satipatthanasamyutta V. 19 (9), “The Acrobats”.)

Getting back to the original question,  living a celibate life in itself doesn’t mean that monastics don’t enjoy quality interpersonal relationships.  And this is part of what makes celibacy less difficult than many lay persons imagine.  Monastics can indeed enjoy the benefits of emotional intimacy when  they are open to discovering the Dhamma in the pesky little emotional details of their relationships with one another.  Celibacy is one aspect of a larger monastic lifestyle, one that can include very rewarding spiritual/emotional friendships.  Explaining these distinctions may help the lay questioner better understand the nature of brahmacariya and give them a more realistic view of monastic life.

Sangha has important lessons to teach the world about  sexuality.  In our society, much behavior that is understood as being based on “sexual need”  is actually seeking emotional intimacy and the spiritual friendship on which it is based.  Sexual feelings become easily confused with the need to be open about one’s thoughts and feelings, to be listened to, comforted, and understood, and to care for others in these same ways.  This confusion occurs because the sexual act can produce such strong feelings of closeness and comfort, feelings that imitate the emotional tone of quality interpersonal relationships.  Sexually based feelings of closeness are deceptive, however, because they are not based on a genuine understanding of the person.  Genuine understanding comes only as a result of  patient, honest, respectful, mutual communication, and that requires considerable practice to attain.   Individuals who are particularly unskilled in these interpersonal areas tend to confuse sexual contact with emotional intimacy more easily than others.    If we can help these persons to understand their needs more deeply and to develop greater skill in their communication with others,  we give them an excellent means of preventing sexual misconduct.

Sangha also has vital insights to share about the key obstacles in the path of emotional intimacy.  Open, honest communication can be a wonderful thing.  But openess without mindful self-awareness and awareness of what will be helpful in a particular situation can have disasterous results.  For that reason there is often wisdom in restraint.   Through mindful examination of our own hearts we come to know our intentions before we open our mouths.  Then,  after clearly establishing that there are no unwholesome motives directing us, we make further discriminations about what to say (if anything), when to say it, and how to say it.  

Sometimes married couples in our temples may have the idea, “What could we possibly learn from these monks and nuns about our relationship difficulties?”  Unfortunately, sometimes they are right!  But the more our Dhamma practice extends to include the personal territory of our relationships, the more real help we have to offer parishioners. The Sangha should function in society as an example of an ideal human community.  Lay people should be able to look to us to find good examples of healthy relationship skills that they can practice in their friendships and marriages.  We ourselves need to be confident that our celibacy does not limit our ability to be effective in this area.  Our effectiveness in this area depends mostly on our own experience with emotional intimacy, and that in turn depends on the quality of our kalyanamitra practice with one another.  One of the practical benefits of this practice is that when lay people come to our temples for counseling about their relationship difficulties, we have more than just an idea of what they are talking about.  We have actual experience in the development of relationships.

Our practice in this area sends a good message to our society about the nature of spirituality.  In the West, people often come to our temples in search of sublime states, and exotic spiritual attainments.  They may be depressed. Their marriages may be failing.  But they are more concerned with how to experience miracles than with how to improve their capacity to love themselves and others.  This is a distorted view of spiritual practice.  If our practice is not improving our everyday emotional stability and our interpersonal qualities, then how does it help us to develop these more unusual capacities?   Attraction to the exotic is often motivated by a desire to flee our real existence in the here and now with all of its difficulties.  But good spiritual practice remains grounded in the here and now, in our present existence with all of its vulnerabilities.  Before it aspires to developing more unusual capacities, spiritual practice has to be concerned with curing what in the West would be called our “neuroses,”  the problems in our minds that create suffering.   It is helpful for lay persons to understand that in the monastery monks and nuns spend very little time learning to levitate but a great deal of time developing good personal and interpersonal qualities.

One strategy for developing kalyanamitra practice used by the abbot of our Michigan (U.S.A.) temple is to hold regular “open meetings” with all of the monks.  In these meetings, which are very relaxed and informal, everyone is encouraged to open up and speak of their concerns.  Interpersonal conflicts between monks are discussed openly without criticism.  Misunderstandings are clarified. A safe forum is created for exploring  the many thoughts and feelings and problems that arise in living and working together.  This practice increases emotional intimacy with others and helps the monks to function more harmoniously as a team.  It also stimulates mindfulness of mental contents that are sometimes quite difficult to access outside of interactions with others. 

The brahmacarya journey was never meant to be a lonely one.  We have to take care of one another as Sangha.  We have to help one another to live and enjoy the Holy Life.  To do this, we need to develop a supportive emotional intimacy with one another.  This is an integral part of our monastic life.  The kalyanamitra experience creates a very special Sangha energy when we are together.  We need to develop that energy, so that it can strengthen us and inspire us to live the Holy Life, so that we can truly become “an incomparable field of merits to the world” (anuttaram puññak-khettam lokassa ti).

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