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