The Joy of No Sex
Mary Talbot WINTER 2014 tricycle
A lay practitioner reveals one of the most liberating decisions of her life: celibacy.
I won’t mince words. I’m celibate. And it’s because of the dharma.
I’m not sure why writing that feels so exhibitionistic, so confessional. That the statement is extremely personal goes without saying. I’ve never sought to discuss all the sex I’m not having (as a friend likes to joke) publicly. But in the time I’ve been a student of Buddhism, well over half my life, it’s the one detail of my practice that ever made anyone balk, or that got treated as a problematic behavior. If the subject of my nonexistent love life comes up, I often hear from friends or colleagues, including some Buddhist ones, that I’m probably still shaken by the demise of my marriage (seven years ago), that I’ll change my mind, that I don’t know what irresistible liaison the future could bring, that I’m squelching my real feelings.
Refraining from all sexual activity is one of the eight precepts taken by lay Buddhists during lunar observance days or by dedicated practitioners, usually affiliated with monasteries, who want to devote all their energy to meditation and study. I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that taking up this precept strikes people as aberrant. Most of us operate with the deeply ingrained assumption that we should go around in twos, that it’s our best shot at happiness. We share a pervasive psychotherapeutic view that people become effective social beings via healthy romantic relationships. Our word celibacy, in fact, goes back to an Indo-European compound meaning “to be alone.” As a culture, aloneness is not something we go for.
But for as long as human beings have been organizing themselves into religious communities, there have been celibate contemplatives, in search of seclusion, and the very earliest chronicles of their spiritual activities show them defending their lives of renunciation and simplicity to disapproving parents and community members. The Theragatha and Therigatha, the collections of verses by the Buddha’s elder monks and nuns, and the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct, are peppered with stories about families who tried to bribe, trick, or cajole their sons and daughters to return to marriage and householder life. There’s the poem of Subha, the goldsmith’s daughter, whose relatives offered her gold coins and bullion to leave the monastic sangha. In fact, the Buddha instituted the celibacy rule for monks and nuns—a fundamental practice for dissolving sensual passion—in direct response to a monk whose family persuaded him to sleep with his former wife.
Nowhere in the Buddha’s teachings did he forbid laypeople from having sex, or tell them that celibacy was a prerequisite to pursuing the path to awakening. To the contrary, the canon is full of anecdotes about the benefits of practice within the bounds of a stable, respectful relationship. The late Thai master Ajahn Maha Boowa likened conjugal sensuality to a kitchen fire: “Both are necessary to establishing and maintaining a successful family,” he said. “Marriage is necessarily a sexual partnership, while a kitchen fire is indispensable for preparing the family’s food. If both are used carefully, with proper circumspection, they can sufficiently fulfill people’s basic needs in life.” Certainly Buddhists in such a successful union can attest to the power of the bond to keep you on the straight and narrow, in a good way; a safe arena from which to observe the lure of outside influences—lust and other distractions—as they arise and pass away. Families in the 21st century come in infinite variety, and there are all kinds of units in which to be emotionally content and spiritually engaged, including couples that have decided to be celibate for the sake of religious practice.
While a celibate life may appear drastically reduced from the outside, the renunciate’s inner life blossoms and expands exponentially.
But while the Buddha left laypeople to make their own choices in the realm of sex and romance, his view on celibacy for monastics was crystal clear. He taught that sexual activity is part and parcel of craving (kama-tanha, the craving for sensuality), described in the second noble truth as the cause of suffering, a source of clinging and attachment (upadana, or attachment to sensual pleasure), a hindrance to meditation and a fetter or obstruction to liberation. More obstructive than the object of desire itself is the mental activity we generate around it—the constant thinking and planning and anticipation about how we get the goods. When sex is involved, kama-tanha is a given. When sex is not involved, it can be easier to see how kama-tanha takes over. The Pali term for “celibacy” (in striking contrast to our own word) is brahmacariya, meaning to behave, or walk, in a divine or sublime way.
Throughout the discourses, the Buddha hammers home the drawbacks of sensuality. The Potaliya Sutta, for instance, uses a series of analogies to describe the frustration of seeking reliable happiness in sense pleasure. “Suppose a dog, overcome with weakness and hunger, were to come across a slaughterhouse, and there a dexterous butcher or butcher’s apprentice were to fling him a chain of bones—thoroughly scraped, without any flesh, smeared with blood. What do you think: Would the dog, gnawing on that chain of bones—thoroughly scraped, without any flesh, smeared with blood—appease its weakness and hunger?” Because those bones offered nothing of substance, and like all worldly things are impermanent, the dog, we understand, “would get nothing but its share of weariness and vexation.” (All translations by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.)
I can’t pinpoint when I realized I could stop gnawing on that particular chain of bones, that living singly and without sex was my ticket out of a lot of weariness and vexation, and that it made me happier than any romantic relationship I’d ever had. That I could make a vow to myself to remain in this state. Eliminating sex and romance—and more significantly, the thinking about and pursuit of those things—from my list of concerns opened up tremendous mental space that for most of my life had been given over to strategizing, analyzing, regretting, and agonizing. I was inspired by monks and nuns I know, and by the Buddha’s promise that while a celibate life may appear drastically reduced from the outside, the renunciate’s inner life blossoms and expands exponentially. My existence as an urban working mother precludes most of what monks and nuns do in the course of a day, but this is a piece of monastic life, along with meditation and seclusion, that I can practice in the privacy of my own home.
Mind you, I have had my cake and eaten it, too. I had relationships, licit and not, bore two children I’m crazy about, and didn’t give celibacy serious thought until I’d consumed a life’s worth of experiences. For most people, foregoing sex in the teens or twenties or thirties, when we marinate in hormones and hear the loud tick of our biological clocks, is a commitment of a different order, one I never considered touching at that age. In the time I’ve considered myself a Buddhist, I’ve done an awful lot of things that Buddhists shouldn’t do.
When I was younger, getting drunk, killing bugs, taking supplies from the office, telling lies, and sleeping with people I had no business sleeping with were all part of the relatively normal landscape of my days. Even the seemingly neutral activity of partnering up—cohabitating, then getting married—often went hand in hand with secrecy, deceit, resentment, and dissatisfaction. I somehow thought I could embrace the precepts intellectually and follow them when it was convenient. (There’s no shortage of popular Western Buddhist teachings that tout the precepts as suggestions, not absolutes.)
It took me a long time to see how thoroughly I was making myself suffer—and that I was dragging my loved ones along with me. I was a meditator, but like the worst horse in the parable, I couldn’t take a hint from the flick of a whip. Finally, though, I began to pay attention to the lash ripping my flesh, tearing all the way to the bone. Sticking to the precepts requires constant self-monitoring, discernment, and effort, but there comes a point when the practicality, the boon, of the thing sinks into the organic body and saturates one’s actions. Violating the precepts gets harder to do.
Copping to the fact that I could drop the project of romance—and that it could enhance my ability to follow the path—was like being unzipped from a straitjacket I didn’t know I was wearing. Or more to the point, it was like discovering I carried around a weapon with which I was constantly shooting myself, and then suddenly seeing I could put it down. I felt a profound sense of safety and assuredness in letting go the idea that I should couple up. Indeed, a sense of security is a major goal of celibacy: The Buddha extols that quality in the Mahamangala Sutta, the sermon on great protection or blessing:
seeing the Noble Truths,
This is the highest protection.
Elsewhere, celibacy is described as leading to “freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings.” My teacher often describes how the celibacy of monastics is designed to make everyone feel secure. Like Caesar’s wife, who had to look pure as well as be pure, the chaste comportment of monks and nuns helps assure the laity that they are trustworthy and creates conditions for the laity to be trustworthy, too.
In my time of being celibate, I’ve experienced a sense of levity and ease I never knew before. Encounters and relationships with other people, however complex, carry so much less of the murky ambivalence they might once have involved—much of the fantasizing and projection, my internal jockeying and feeding, is diminished. I’m reminded of a computer game called Minecraft, a favorite of my son and his cronies, in which you explore, do battle, and build constructions in a 3D world of textured cubes that generates itself incessantly, ad infinitum—like a digital version of the mind’s effluence. Players can use “resource packs,” bundles of files that modify colors, textures, sound, and type in a Minecraft world. Being celibate has been like getting a really good resource pack—the game looks and feels entirely different. My concentration has become more stable, and some of the energy in my body seems to have transformed into a deeper, brighter vitality.
Our society celebrates the ideal of sexual pleasure above all other forms of gratification—it is the fiery engine of consumer culture and permeates every aspect of cultural production. In that context, celibacy mostly has a bad rap. Certainly delusion and repression like to masquerade as chastity. And in many religious settings, most notably the Catholic Church, but in plenty of Buddhist centers, too, a counterfeit celibacy has coincided with staggering abuse and exploitation. In theory and practice, celibacy can tell us lot about who we are. “It gives us insight into a culture’s worldview, social values, gender relations, ethical implication, religious roles or offices, conception of the physical body, and its connections to its practitioner’s connection to spiritual and religious power,” writes Carl Olson, a professor of religious studies at Allegheny College, in Celibacy and Religious Traditions.
In her freewheeling survey of the subject, The History of Celibacy, the Canadian historian Elizabeth Abbot describes the special relief from sexism and patriarchy that religious celibacy held for women. In early Christianity, for example, “women seize[d] on this new doctrine as a tool to emancipate themselves from the drudgery of marriage and childbearing. Determinedly celibate, they transformed themselves into independent people who traveled extensively, studied at a time when education was a male preserve, wrote, preached, and directed their own lives, frequently in the company of like-spirited chaste women or men.” Amma Sarah, a 5th-century Desert Mother [nomadic Christian ascetic], described the relentless pressure she felt to marry and live the life of a householder: “If I prayed God that all people should approve of my conduct,” she wrote, “I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure toward all.”
Of course, the Buddha’s female disciples had figured this out half a millennium earlier. Some of the saltiest poetry in the Therigatha is attributed to awakened nuns who formerly were married. This is “Mutta” speaking:
So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! —
from three crooked things set free:
from mortar, pestle,
and crooked old husband.
Having uprooted the craving
that leads to becoming,
I’m set free from aging and death.
A nun known as “Sumangala’s Mother,” too, lists the shackles of domesticity—particularly her “moldy old pot with the water snake smell”—high on the list of conditions she gleefully jettisoned on the path.
For all the variety of sexual experience in our world, and in spite of the fact that lots of us adopt celibacy in middle age, it is a topic surprisingly hard to research, and I have encountered few other lay Buddhists living as I do (though I think they’re out there). Even the Internet, fairly glutted with Christian sites advancing the virtues of celibacy, reveals little reportage on celibacy in Buddhist lay practice, though I did find one thoughtful blog post called “Why Celibacy Is Awesome” and another that listed, among the top reasons to forgo sexual relationships, how the celibate can stop wasting money on “expensive and uncomfortable lingerie.” (We can cultivate well-being and blameless conduct, and save money at the same time? Sign me up.)
When monks and nuns take the vow of celibacy, they don’t go it alone. They are gathered up into the sangha and inexorably build close relationships with other monastics. There are strategies shared for stanching lust and doubt, and time in meditation to deconstruct the fabrication of desire, and nobody thinks it’s weird. Taking a similar step as a layperson can be lonely and isolating. When a friend who is a dharma teacher fields questions from students about whether or not they should take up celibacy, he cautions them to examine their intention very carefully. “Is this something they’re really ready for? Or are they using it to distance themselves from something painful?” The lexicon of attachment theory would term this an “avoidant.” Indeed, the mettle of the ego needs to be intact before we transform our social lives to serve our spiritual aspirations.
I do sometimes wonder if this state will feel different when my children have left home and I don’t have the constant warmth of their presence, and my attention is no longer drawn into the spinning orbits of their everyday lives. I also wonder about the pitfalls of what the Buddha called bhava—the formation of identity around a desire—inherent in being celibate. If I was once intoxicated with sex and built an identity around seeking and getting sensual pleasure, do I now risk being intoxicated with my lack of attachment to romance, and fueling my ego with that? Another dimension of my situation that gives me slight pause is that I’m not providing my kids much in the way of a role model for their own future partnering. Children learn to navigate relationships—any kind of relationship—in seeing adults interact skillfully. Mostly, mine see me alone. Still, when I let go of the worry and projection, I know that signing up for eHarmony is no guarantee of a pleasant future for any of us (I’d wager the opposite), and I hope seeing that coupledom is not the only path to fulfillment, and having a mother who is content, may be another kind of benefit to them.
I succumb, often unconsciously, to all kinds of sensuality—my fondness for pressing the snooze button on the morning alarm comes immediately to mind—but the strength I’ve gotten from other aspects of practice, including my vow of celibacy, is the inspiration to keep battling my kilesas, or defilements. I recall hearing a monk answer a student’s questions about whether there’s a difference between indulging in the sense pleasure of sex, and the sense pleasure of eating sweets. Aren’t they just points on the spectrum of craving, she asked? Yes, he replied, but they involve vastly different degrees of entanglement. “Look at it this way: I’ve known several people who were widely considered to be arahants [enlightened beings],” he said. “None of them had sex, but they all ate dessert.”
Arahantship, I’m quite sure, won’t figure in my near future, perhaps not even in my near future lives. But I will take my cues from the noble ones: I’m going to enjoy my profiteroles, in moderation, and skip the fornication. Celibacy or no, happiness comes and goes. My householder world still beckons. The moldy old pot with the water snake (or, in this case, spaghetti sauce) smell sits waiting in the sink. The kids have their homework and their stresses and demands. My rent is overdue. But the evening ahead, and my mind and my breath, are all mine.