By Ven. Thubten Gyatso
It is 1972, in Jalalabad, and travellers on their journey to the east, stranded in Afghanistan by the Indo-Pakistani war, are partying. A heavily made-up and very camp Afro-American, who played himself in Fellini’s Satyricon, waltzes into a room where straight couples sit in stoned silence. “Hmmmph,” he says, his nose in the air and with a wicked smile, “heterosexual hang-ups,” and returns to the main room where the action is happening. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and inhibitions were the modern-day leprosy. An Australian newspaper columnist expressed the view of pop psychology: “I consider celibacy to be the ultimate perversion.”
And yet, many Westerners who participated in that revolution have taken vows as Buddhist monks and nuns, which include celibacy. Why did they do it? Mainly it was because the teachings of Buddhism confirmed their experience that no matter how much sex, drugs, and rock and roll they enjoyed, there was no satisfaction and no contentment in their lives. And Buddha’s explanation of the reason why – uncontrolled emotions of pride, desire, and anger, all arising from a serious case of neurotic self-centredness – were all too clear.
Secondly, inspiration to take ordination came from the Lamas themselves.
On the road, the hippies were welcomed and treated by everyone as children. Hashish was sold in shops, marijuana grew everywhere, the flower-children thought they had discovered paradise, and considered themselves Lords of the Road. Then they met the Tibetan Lamas.
“Your heads are full of shit,” they were told, in as many words. Normally we would walk away from somebody who says this, but the Lamas themselves were too cool to be ignored. They had the humor, the freedom, the calm that everybody was looking for. The hippies swallowed their pride and asked the Lamas, “What are you on about?” And so began the ongoing process of Tibetan Buddhism making a big impression on Western society.
If you want to achieve the stages of the Buddhist path, celibacy is not essential. It is simply an aid. The main objective of the path to nirvana is to abandon desire for sensory pleasure – not sensory pleasure itself, but the desire for it. Such abandonment is achieved on the basis of morality, meditation, and wisdom. Morality means a lifestyle where one does not deliberately harm others by any means. Killing, stealing, and lying are obvious ways of harming others. Sexual relations with one’s own partner are neither negative karma nor immoral. Until we overcome desire, however, there is always the urge to take somebody else’s partner as well, and this is negative karma because a third party will be hurt. On top of this, every time we experience pleasure we increase our desire to have that pleasure again, so it will be difficult to attain meditative concentration because our mind will be distracted by fantasies arising from desire. Not that monks and nuns are free from fantasies, but their vows give space in the mind to easily let go – because they have already made the decision to abandon sexuality. In this way, vows are a source of strength, not of weakness, as some think. Also, by not having a husband or a wife, one does not have the responsibility of looking after a family. Of course, it is excellent karma to look after a family with love, but there is no time or energy left for study and meditation.
Undistracted concentration is needed because concentration, in turn, is the foundation for the special wisdom which is the antidote to self-centred ignorance, the root of all our troubles. This wisdom is the doorway to nirvana. The attainment of nirvana, however, is not the only goal of the Buddhist path. Born from universal compassion, the supreme goal is to lead all living beings out of suffering. Working for others starts at the beginning of the path to enlightenment, with the intention to use every action of one’s body, speech, and mind for the benefit of others.
To escape the misery of the wheel of life, people must abandon their mistaken belief that enjoying the sensory world is ultimate happiness. Intellectual reasoning is not strong enough for people to abandon desire for sexual pleasure. They also need faith. This is achieved by the inspiring example of monks and nuns whose pure lifestyle and inner attainment of peace show that renunciation is possible. Just as the Tibetan lamas inspired the hippies through their personal example, people today need the inspiring example of Western monks and nuns to generate faith that they too can follow the paths to nirvana and enlightenment.
This is the best purpose for living the celibate life of a Buddhist monk or nun. And it is the reason why Buddha said that his teachings would remain alive wherever there was a group of monks or nuns keeping pure vows; and wherever there were no monks or nuns, his teachings would not exist.