Monks in the West 2 / 2006


Authentic Practices of Celibacy and Intimacy in Monastic Communities of Men

The first session dealt with Theory, the “why” of celibacy. Buddhist participants explained that their
teachings focus on seeing how suffering is created and cured. Attachments give rise to suffering,
so advancement in the spiritual life requires letting go of one’s attachments. Attachment to
desires, among which are sexual desires, is a hindrance to spiritual progress.

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From the Conference:

Celibacy in The Serene Reflection (Soto Zen) Tradition as defined by the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives
 by Rev. Jisho Perry

History of Celibacy in the Soto Sect in Japan and at Shasta Abbey and The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives:

After the Meiji Emperor was restored to power in the later part of the 19th Century, an edict was made to weaken the power of Buddhism, as it had been a dominant force during the Tokugawa Shogunate from the 16th to the 19th Centuries. Buddhism was viewed as a foreign influence which those in power wanted to remove, or at least, to weaken. The edict said that no religion could require celibacy. The result was that priests began to marry and the temples became family “businesses” passed on from father to son. This meant that most of the people becoming priests were inheriting a family obligation and were not strictly speaking volunteers. It also meant that the priest had the responsibility of raising a family as well as doing his or her own spiritual training. This meant that priests had to be concerned with the financial and practical realities of raising and supporting children, in addition to exploring their spiritual lives and performing the duties of priests. It is not surprising that having to provide financially for a family and spend the time and energy necessary to have a married life and raise children, left less time for developing a spiritual practice in addition to performing the duties of priests. Also it meant that monastic communities were not the central focus of the practice, but small parish temples were the predominant place of practice. The ordained members of the Sangha would spend short periods of intense training in a monastery similar to seminary training. The monastic setting was not necessarily a life long commitment. Many of the priests who were officers of the big training monasteries also had their own temples. This also created a division of time and attention. Up until just recently all the female monastics in Japan were celibate. This has been changing in recent years.

The result of having married priests in Japan has caused the religion to decline in popularity. Thousands of temples do not have priests as the numbers of people wanting to enter the monastic Sangha have seriously declined. If reports from people who have lived in Japan are to be believed, the Buddhist priests are not treated with great respect, but are seen as any other lay persons, in contrast to the way priests were seen in past centuries. Apparently, the edict of the Emperor has had the desired effect.

Although the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives traces its spiritual lineage through the Soto Zen Church in Japan, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, the founder of the Order, was ordained initially in the Chinese Mahayana tradition prior to going to Japan. This tradition has the practice of celibacy. In Japan she was the disciple of Keido Chisan, Koho Zenji, the Abbot of Sojiji, one of the two headquarter temples of the Soto Zen church in Japan. Koho Zenji was celibate and never married. He was very instrumental in fostering the education of women in Japan, founding many schools for girls and women from pre-school through university. He invited Rev. Jiyu-Kennett, a Western woman, to attend a previously all male seminary program at Sojiji. Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett was a life long celibate.

After the death of her teacher she came to the West and settled in America. Because of the tradition in Japan, she initially allowed monastic trainees to marry and she ordained married couples. However, it became apparent that having a monastic commitment and a family commitment simultaneously created a conflict in priorities. Financial and practical considerations made the single-minded devotion to the spiritual life extremely difficult. The decision to return to the traditional rule of celibacy for Buddhist monastics was made about 20 years ago. It has allowed us to clarify our spiritual purpose. Although it also may have initially limited the attractiveness of the monastery as a training place for those who would prefer to pursue a sexual life, those who are members of the Order have made a clear commitment to the spiritual life. The practice of celibacy is essential for the conversion of desire and for reaching the highest spiritual levels of understanding. The purity of practice is dependent on the single-minded pursuit of the spiritual life. Sexuality and the emotional consequences that follow from its pursuit are a serious distraction and many abuses have occurred when monastics attempt to maintain an active sexual life.

The Order of Buddhist Contemplatives is made up of the disciples and grand disciples of Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett. There are about 100 monastic members and several hundred lay ministers with approximately eight temples in the U.S., three in Canada, one in the West Indies, nine in the U.K., two in Holland and one in Germany.

How I see The Reason for Celibacy

The movement of the body’s energy in meditation flows up the spine and over the head and can be likened to a spiritual generator. The movement of this energy is invigorating and leads to deeper spiritual awakening, while the use of the same energy in the sexual act takes the energy down and out leaving one feeling spent and feeding the delusion that pursuing this pleasure is necessary. The strength of the sexual act on the mind is not unlike the habitual dependency one finds in addictive drugs. To be successful in the spiritual life requires being able to let go of one’s attachments. Sexuality works to create attachments.

Great Master Dogen who brought this meditation tradition from China to Japan in the 13th Century mentions: “there are four needs, not five.” The traditional needs for monastics are expressed as food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The fifth one, presumably, was sex. The body can get along quite well without it, as long as the person does so willingly and freely.

Within our Order the refraining from sexuality is not seen so much as a moral prohibition, but an aspect of the renunciation of the world in order to put an end to suffering. A major aspect of this training is the relinquishment of the attachment to desire. It is very difficult to give up desire while actively pursing sexual gratification. As expressed in the Scripture of Brahma’s Net: the prohibition is about “not entertaining” lustfulness. The fact that desire arises is not the problem, but how it is greeted, nurtured, entertained or simply allowed to depart without acting on it determines the consequences. The spiritual expression of not coveting found in the Kyojukaimon explains that spiritual adequacy is found in letting go of desire. If one knows one’s true adequacy there is nothing more to be desired. Indeed, all of human desires can be seen as an expression of the one desire to know True Peace, the fundamental tranquility of the Buddha Nature. Meister Eckhart expressed this in his definition of spiritual poverty: “To want nothing, to know nothing and to have nothing.” The Buddhist expression of this is: “To live a normal life in the world, to want nothing, have nothing, and know nothing, to be serene in all trouble and compassionate to all life, is to be Buddha, an iron being.” In Buddhism this “nothing” has many meanings and is expressed in a multitude of ways. It is, however, not a negative void, but more of an expression of what can be called “Emptiness”, “Ultimate Truth”, “Mu”, “Buddha Nature”, “The Unborn”, “The Lord of the House”, “The Deathless” and many other terms. My teacher, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett, referred to It as the “Fullest Emptiness you will ever know.” It can be experienced as the giving up of desire, knowing the Truth, casting off of body and mind, dissolving into the universe, the giving up of the self and many other expressions, which are very similar in all the mystical traditions of religions. The spiritual aspiration in Buddhism is to work for the good of all living things and is expressed in the monastic commitment to renounce the world, for which celibacy is supremely beneficial, if not essential. If celibacy is seen as a repression of sexuality, it would be harmful. Without accepting desire as a natural part of the human condition, one cannot transcend it. “Nothing to be desired” has multiple meanings, one of which is to see all of our desires as the desire to know this “nothing” of Meister Ekhart or the “nada” of St. John of the Cross.

One of the meanings of “nirvana” is to have no hindrances or no desires. Having had experience of sexuality is not a hindrance to eventually knowing a complete understanding of The Truth, as the life of the Buddha demonstrates. He was married and had a child before renouncing the world and becoming a monk. Attachment to desire, however, is a hindrance to spiritual progress. The whole-hearted commitment required of the monastic life requires the relinquishment of all the distractions that create a barrier or hindrance to spiritual development. Celibacy is a powerful force to allow one to see through the delusion of desire and know True Peace. Celibacy allows the energy of the body and mind to be used in harmony to go deeper into spiritual understanding and know both Great Compassion and Great Wisdom. The difficulties and conflicts created by and with self-restraint are clarified by spiritual insight and understanding that comes as a result of the training. One has to be able to find a True Refuge in the spiritual practice in order to do this. It is necessary to find that one is more at peace by not engaging in sexual relations than by doing so. The cultural delusion being sold to all in the West is that sex is necessary, pleasurable, essential to good health and has no harmful consequences. My own experience has proved this to be otherwise, especially the parts about being essential and having no harmful consequences. One who is at peace can see others without regard to gender, attractiveness, likes or dislikes, expectation, jealousy, hurt feelings and all the other emotional consequences of attachments which generally follow from sexual contact. Without looking at others through the filter of desire, one can see everyone as a Buddha.

The sexual act with another person involves the most powerful form of contact. This contact is central to the grasping that creates attachment. That grasping is the source of suffering. The Buddhist teachings are focused on seeing how suffering is created and how suffering is cured. Letting go of the things that have, in the past, created attachments and suffering is essential to a successful Buddhist practice. Celibacy plays an important part in the conversion of our ignorance with regard to desire. I think that one must have a clear sense of spiritual purpose to be able to relinquish sexual desire in order to know one’s “True Wish”. I don’t think it is helpful to see sex as bad or harmful; it is more important to know that there is something far better.

At a recent monastic conference for Western Buddhist monks1, one of the Tibetans mentioned that one of the things that is relinquished when renouncing the world is one’s gender. It may be important to look at and discuss the issue of gender and its relinquishment in both spiritual development and how celibacy may contribute to letting go of one’s attachments. When there are separate monastic traditions and separate monasteries for men and women does it create or foster a opportunity to discriminate against women?

With regard to the issue of “intimacy” within monastic communities:

Great Master Dogen says: “Within the monastic Sangha there is a greater intimacy than most people have with themselves.” To live in a monastic community is to be constantly confronted by the presence of our old habits of like and dislike, fear and anger, and all the emotions produced by previous unenlightened actions. There is a natural friction in rubbing up against the things in others that we have yet to resolve within ourselves. This creates an atmosphere where nothing is hidden, unless we refuse to look at ourselves. This intimacy is found in the necessity of accepting the fears, desires, angers and all the aspects of suffering as seen in others and found also resonating within oneself. Monastic training brings this suffering to the surface, as that is where the karmic consequences, feelings, are manifested. By learning to be spiritually still when desire, anger, fear or any delusion arises and allow that feeling to just pass through is how I understand that the karmic consequences are converted or cleansed. When a person acts on any of the three poisons of greed, anger or delusion, there are consequences manifested as feelings which we experience as “suffering”. One of the ways of defining suffering is “wanting things to be other than they are.” Accepting of these feelings without either acting on them or repressing them, but just letting them pass through, is central to the practice of meditation and results in spiritual growth. The intimacy of the Sangha is found in knowing both ourselves and others and accepting all beings as they are. This acceptance is not a passive act but an active spiritual process of changing our relationship to feelings of suffering, feelings of desire, anger, fear, etc. These are the doorways of ignorance through which we are able to learn if we can change our behavior and grow in understanding through self-restraint. Celibacy is a necessary aspect of creating the intimacy that Dogen was referring to. When people are opening their heart in order to know the Unborn, they are quite vulnerable and need the protection of celibacy to allow the heart to be fully open. To confuse this intimacy with sexual contact would be quite damaging to the opening of the heart for spiritual growth.

At Shasta Abbey and in the temples of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives both men and women can train together. Although the traditional view might be that single gender communities are less distracting, creating an artificial separation can also have problems of exaggerating the fear of sexual desire, fostering a tendency to gender discrimination, and creating a false sense of protection from desire. Having a mixed gender community allows beings of either gender and any sexual preference to benefit from accepting all beings as Buddhas without looking through a filter of desire. This can only be done successfully within a community committed to celibacy.


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