While it’s true that one can practice in a relationship, it’s more difficult to counteract attachment when one lives in an environment permeated by it. If lay life were the most effective way to practice, the Buddha himself would not have been a monastic.
Remaining Celibate in an Environment of Attachment
By Ven. Thubten Chodron
“Love makes the world go ’round,” say the lyrics of a song from my parents’ generation. This does not refer to the impartial love we try to generate in our Dharma practice, but to romantic or sexualized “love,” which from a Buddhist viewpoint is primarily attachment. “What’s the problem with romantic attachment?” people ask. “It makes us happy.”
In the Four Noble Truths, attachment is the principal example of the true origin of suffering, even though ignorance is the root of cyclic existence. Why? At the time of death, attachment manifests as craving and grasping which propel our future samsaric rebirths. As our chief distraction Dharma practice, attachment ensnares us in the eight worldly concerns. The greater our attachment, the angrier we become when our desires are not met. Furthermore, we become involved in many negative actions to procure and protect our objects of attachment.
Sexual attachment is our strongest attachment. This isn’t just the physical sensations of sexual contact. The emotional security of being the special person that someone else loves plays a big part, as does the social security of fitting in with society by being in a couple relationship. All these angles pertain to our precepts regarding sexuality. They lead us to look at our loneliness, our need for others’ approval, and our relationship with our body.
For most of us the precepts involving sexuality are the most difficult to keep. When Shantideva talked about being courageous in combat with disturbing emotions, he’s talking precisely about these dicey areas. We need to look at them honestly, without repressing or avoiding them.
As we start to explore these areas, we become aware of the protection from attachment that living in precepts offers. Many of our precepts have to do with sexuality in one way or another. The precepts to avoid wearing ornaments, singing, dancing, and watching entertainment protect against ego’s sneakily attracting a special someone. The precept prohibiting matchmaking and performing wedding ceremonies guards us from fantasizing about couples’ lives. The precept to wear robes guards against subtly flirting with those we’re attracted to. Precepts make us aware of how we walk, speak, and use our eyes to communicate, because attachment can hijack all of these everyday activities.
Factors Stimulating Attachment
Lamrim speaks of six factors causing disturbing emotions to arise: 1) dependent basis, 2) object, 3) detrimental influences, 4) verbal stimuli, 5) habit, and 6) inappropriate attention. Let’s look at these in terms of how they related to romantic love-attachment to the physical, emotional, and social “benefits” of being in a couple relationship-and then examine how to work with the issues we uncover.
The first factor is the dependent basis, i.e. the seed of attachment that exists in our samsaric mindstream. The seed of attachment provides the continuity from one incident of attachment to another. Although romantic attachment may not be a big issue for us today, as long as the seed exists in our mindstream, there is the potential for attachment to disturb us in the future.
This seed is deeply rooted. Although we can weaken it, we don’t begin to eliminate it until the path of seeing. Thus smugly thinking, “Loneliness is not an issue for me,” or “I can control my sexual desire,” isn’t appropriate. We have to be honest, admit, and accept the potential for attachment within us. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
The second factor is the object stimulating attachment to arise. This refers specifically to people we are romantically attracted to. The Buddha recommended that when a disturbing emotion is very strong within us and easily overpowers us, we stay away from objects that stimulate it. For this reason, as monastics we need to keep a respectful distance from those we are romantically attracted to.
This can be challenging, and some people are clumsy or hurtful in their effort to avoid the object of their attachment. They blame the opposite gender or are rude to them as a way to avoid looking at their own attachment. We need to treat people with kindness and respect as well as circumvent unneeded contact that could arouse attachment. For this reason, we monastics politely avoid visiting others in their rooms, going for long solitary walks with them, or meeting them in town. We remain friendly but form our close friendships with people we won’t feel romantic towards.
Some people who disrobe say, “The romantic feelings snuck up on me and I wasn’t aware of them until I was in love.” To prevent this, we need to train ourselves to not only be sensitive to the arising of attachment but also to admit it to ourselves. My experience has been that I know very well when romantic feelings begin. The problem is I don’t want to admit that they’re there because they are so enticing. “Finally someone understands me. Now there’s someone I can really share the Dharma with.” The mind concocts all sorts of reasons not to keep a respectful distance. We need to repeatedly remember the disadvantages of romantic relationships and of attachment in general. In addition, continuously setting a strong aspiration to keep the precepts for our entire life helps us to stay on our monastic course.
The third factor is detrimental influences, in particular wrong friends. These are people who say, for example, “Monastics are just avoiding relationships. They don’t deal with their sexuality. Dharma can be practiced in any situation, and an intimate relationship is an excellent way to confront our ego, learn to share, and relinquish our self-preoccupation.”
Although they mean well, people holding this view lack a deep understanding of the origin of suffering and the path to liberation. While it’s true that one can practice in a relationship, it’s more difficult to counteract attachment when one lives in an environment permeated by it. If lay life were the most effective way to practice, the Buddha himself would not have been a monastic. Nor would he have established the monastic community.
The fourth factor is verbal stimuli-literature and media, such as newspapers, TV, movies, advertisements, magazines, music, the Internet. These constantly bombard us with sexual provocation. For this reason, it’s essential that monastics reduce our contact with the media. Watching TV, reading novels, going to the cinema, flipping through magazines are activities that we have to monitor closely. What is our motivation for doing this? Are we seeking distraction? Amusement? Excitement? Even when we begin to watch or read something with a Dharma motivation, how does it affect our mind?
The fifth factor is habit. We’ve had years of conditioning from family, media, and society in general to enter into sexual and romantic relationships. Our mind is habituated with thinking couple relationships are ultimate happiness and having children gives meaning to life. We have habitual energy from pre-ordination days to get involved in relationships. It’s essential to notice these habits of body, speech, and mind and to take care not to follow them.
I find wearing robes and shaving my head great protection in this area. Men know I’m off limits. Also, my appearance reminds me of the purpose of my life, my positive aims, and the way I want to direct my life energy. Being a monastic, we represent the Three Jewels. If we flirt, it destroys others’ faith in the Dharma. Remembering this, we are aware of our body language and restrain ourselves from standing, smiling, and talking in ways that show we are romantically attracted to someone.
The sixth factor is inappropriate attention. This is the mind that makes up stories, “This person is so good looking/ sensitive/ artistic/ athletic/ intelligent/ rich/ interesting/ knowledgeable in the Dharma.” With inappropriate attention, we forget that people and relationships are impermanent and seek security in them. “This person will fulfill my needs. He/she will never leave me; we love each other so much.” Inappropriate attention makes us regard another’s body as attractive and desirable; we forget what’s inside of it. With inappropriate attention we believe a relationship will bring real happiness and abolish loneliness; we’ve mistaken what is unsatisfactory in nature for happiness. Inappropriate attention is tricky: as Dharma practitioners, we know all the right words about impermanence, emptiness, samsaric suffering, and impurity of the body, but we don’t always recognize these misconceptions when they arise in our mind.
Meditating on these six factors that spark the arising of attachment is extremely helpful. Seeing examples of them in our lives helps us understand the workings of our mind better. This increases our mindfulness and conscientiousness, and consequently, we become happier and more peaceful.
Working with Attachment
One challenge is handling the physical energy behind sexuality. For this Lama Yeshe recommended the seed syllable meditation. I also find directing that energy into visualization of the Buddhas and deities helpful.
Another challenge is subduing the mental energy that produces spectacular visualizations of spending time with attractive people. Visualizing the insides of the body works wonders to subdue these. These are described in Vinaya as well as Shantideva’s Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. If we do them, they work. The problem is we usually talk about these meditations but are resistant to contemplating the blood and guts inside the body.
A third challenge is loneliness and feelings of insecurity. To counteract this, remember that whenever we seek refuge in another fallible human being, we set ourselves up for disappointment and pain. When our practice is going well and we’re putting energy into Lamrim and thought transformation, we feel close to the Three Jewels and our spiritual mentors. This closeness fills the emotional hole and inspires us to practice more. Also, meditating on bodhicitta opens our heart to others, and feelings of being cut off from them vanish.
A fourth is societal expectations to be in a couple relationship. We may have bought into these expectations without being aware of it. The antidote for this is to remember impermanence, death, and the disadvantages of cyclic existence. When we understand these well, our priorities become clear; we know deep in our hearts that enlightenment is what we really seek.
Monastics often find sexuality and emotional involvement difficult to discuss. Sometimes we fear that if we admit to these feelings, others will think we aren’t good practitioners. Let’s be frank. We all have those feelings, at least until we’ve attained high levels of the path. If we shamefully hide them, they fester under the surface and sabotage our Dharma practice and our well-being. If we accept and admit their presence, we can work with them. All the great practitioners of the past have had these same difficulties and have dealt with them successfully. If they can do it, so can we.
While we need to be alert to the arising of loneliness, attachment, and sexual desire, let’s not get down on ourselves when they are present. When we deeply investigate how they operate, we may even see the humor in them. After all, when our mind is under the sway of a disturbing emotion, isn’t its way of thinking hilarious? Not taking ourselves or our issues so seriously brings a certain light-heartedness and joy to our practice and to our lives.