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SEX, CELIBACY and the SPIRITUAL LIFE
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
[was titled "WHAT THE BUDDHA TAUGHT: An interview with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana"
by Simeon Alev
Reprinted with permission from What Is Enlightenment? Magazine (WIE)]
In a perfect world, the opening line of this introduction would have read: "This issue of What Is Enlightenment? would not be complete without the following interview with the Buddha." This is not a perfect world, of course, but What Is Enlightenment? always strives for perfection, and we felt certain that, as one of history's most illustrious celibates, the Buddha would have had more than a few enlightening things to tell us about the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, and no shortage of comments on the decline of celibacy and the increasing popularity of tantra in the modern spiritual world. How, we wondered, would our issue ever be complete without him?
But when we spoke with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana-or "Bhante G," as he is affectionately called by his students-he put our minds at ease. Ordained a celibate Buddhist monk at the age of twelve in Sri Lanka, the country of his birth, Bhante Gunaratana is today, at seventy, a renowned Buddhist scholar and author and the spiritual leader of the Bhavana Society, a monastic retreat center in West Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. According to the Bhante, our interview with the Buddha would have yielded no real surprises because where spirituality and sex are concerned, things haven't really changed that much since the Buddha's time. In our time there are still, relatively speaking, just a few monks, still many householders, and still-as the Bhante feels there always will be-more than a few adventurous souls who are convinced that sex, not renunciation, is going to lead them to the highest peaks of human consciousness. And the Buddha, in the course of his life, gave teachings, precepts and admonitions to address the spiritual needs of individuals in all three of these categories. What, then, were the Buddha's views on spirituality and sex? Steeped in the Dhamma [spiritual teaching] since his youth, Bhante Gunaratana answered all of our questions with a conviction that was utterly doubtless and a gentle and infectious humor that made it an unqualified pleasure to speak with him. And as the hour he had reserved for us drew to a close, he described his own lifelong experience of celibacy-its challenges and rewards-with a sweetness and enthusiasm born of the certainty that in a life of absolute renunciation there is absolutely nothing missing.
WIE: In the course of planning for this interview we were joking that if we could actually interview the Buddha himself that would be ideal, but that speaking with you about what the Buddha taught would be the next best thing.
Bhante Gunaratana (BG): I wish we all could meet Buddha and ask him these questions!
WIE: One fact that most everyone who is interested in Buddhism these days is aware of is that the Buddha was a monk who founded a monastic tradition; and of course it is this very tradition that you yourself have devoted so much time and energy to bringing to the West. Why did the Buddha put so much emphasis on celibacy? Why did he feel it was so important?
BG: Because those who want to attain liberation from dukkha, from suffering, have to observe certain principles. In fact, for those who want to live a monastic life, celibacy is mandatory. Because if they are engaged in all kinds of sexual activities, then they are no different from laypeople, who are engrossed in various types of problems related to sex. Also, those who are interested in monastic life want to live a very simple life-which is what all monastic traditions are set up for-because in the final analysis, it is only when we get rid of our greed, lust and craving that we can liberate ourselves from suffering. You see, if our intention is to get rid of suffering, then we have to get rid of the cause of suffering, and lust is definitely the cause of suffering. So those who want to live the monastic life have to get rid of that so that they can live a life that does not nourish the root of craving.
WIE: Would it be fair to say then that if someone was not living a monastic life, if they were a layperson, it would be much more difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for them to do that?
BG: Even laypeople have to live a disciplined life; they have to exercise a certain restraint. And that's why for laypeople there are the precepts to observe; but ordinary laypeople are not supposed to observe celibacy. Laypeople can attain certain stages of enlightenment-what we call "stream-enterer" and "once-returner"-before they have realized for themselves that there are inherent difficulties and problems involved in sexual activities. And laypeople can attain even the third stage of sainthood, which is called the "never-returner" stage. But soon after they attain that stage they themselves will decide from their own experience, from their own understanding, that involvement in sexuality is going to block the progress of their spiritual practice, and when they realize this they will voluntarily give up sexual activities. So you see, celibacy is not something that can be imposed upon us by force or command.
WIE: Could you go into a little more detail about why it is that sex itself has to be transcended in order for one to progress on the spiritual path?
BG: Because as long as you are in it, your mind will be cluttered, clouded and confused and you will get involved in jealousy, fear, hatred, tension and so forth-all the worries that arise from lust. Therefore if you want to be liberated from all of that, you first haveto get rid of lust. Actually, some people don't like the phrase "get rid of"; some people prefer words like "transcending" or "transforming." "Surely," they say, "we can transform 'lust' into 'nonlust'!"
WIE: What is the distinction between "transcending" and "getting rid of"?
BG: Some terms are a little closer to the real meaning, and others are what you call euphemistic terms, rather than very strong negative terms. These people like to say "transcending" or "transforming" rather than "getting rid of" because they need sugarcoated words that make them feel better.
WIE: But what we're actually talking about is getting rid of lust?
BG: Right. But when you say, "Get rid of it," it's so strong, so negative, that people wonder, "How can I get rid of anything?" So if you say, "Let us transform it into something else," then they can relate to it.
WIE: In the Buddha's teachings on sexuality, was sex considered inherently negative?
BG: Buddha taught that as long as one is engaged in sexual activity, one would not be interested in practicing spiritual life; these two just don't go together. But when he gave his gradual enlightenment teaching, he also said that the sensation of lust, of sexuality, has pleasure. He did not deny the pleasure. It has pleasure. But then, you see, that very pleasure turns into displeasure, and gradually, slowly, as the initial fever of lust wears out, people begin to fight. Because out of lust arises fear; out of lust arises greed; out of lust arises jealousy, anger, hatred, confusion and fighting; all these negative things arise from lust. And therefore these negative things are inherent in lust.
And if we want to see this, you know, we don't have to look any further than our own society. Just open your eyes and look around. How many millions of people are fighting? And it is only based on their lust and greed-husbands, wives; boyfriends, girlfriends; boyfriends, boyfriends; girlfriends, girlfriends-and so on, you see? Whether you are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, it doesn't matter. As long as you are in it, it is inevitable that you will have these problems-fighting, disappointment, anger, hatred, killing-all these are involved. Therefore, because he saw the inherent problem in sexuality, Buddha said that it is better to control and discipline our senses in order to have a calm and peaceful life. But one has to do this gradually, slowly, only through understanding and not abruptly. It cannot be forced. It has to be done gradually and with deep understanding. If people do not understand this and try to stop it all of a sudden, they will get more frustration, more fear and so forth. And therefore in his gradual teaching, he said that first there is the pleasure in sexual activities, and then there are the disadvantages, then there are the problems. And only when you see the problems, only then do you begin to realize that these disadvantages, this negativity, are inherent in sexuality-they are intrinsic. These troubles, these problems, are intrinsic to lust.
WIE: Especially nowadays, that would be considered a very radical view.
BG: Oh, surely. But you know, it is only when people turn away from these things, it is only when they stay away from this kind of teaching and are gone in time and space a million miles away, that when they turn back and look at the root of their problem it appears to be radical. They have turned their backs for so long, gone so far away in time and space, that when they look back they think, "Oh boy, how can I get rid of this now? I've gone so far and I'm so deeply involved in it." Therefore this appears to them to be radical. Surely it is radical!
WIE: I found myself thinking, as you were speaking, that because you spent very little time on the pleasure of sex and so much more on all the disadvantages, many people-
BG: Yes! For that little pleasure, a lot of pain, right?
BG: But you're right. People don't want to think about that. People always want to hear what they like to hear. But we don't want to say that! Whether the people like it or not, we want to tell the truth. And we shouldn't be afraid of telling the truth. Whether the world will accept it or not . . . now that's a different issue. What can we do?
WIE: When we were looking for a quote from the Buddha about his feelings with regard to sexuality, we came across this passage, from The Life of the Buddha: "Misguided man, it were better for you (as one gone forth) that your member should enter the mouth of a hideous, venomous viper or cobra than that it should enter a woman. It were better for you that your member should enter a pit of coals burning, blazing and glowing than that it should enter a woman. Why is that? For the former reason you would risk death or deadly suffering, but you would not, on the dissolution of the body after death, reappear in a state of privation, in an unhappy destination, in perdition, even in hell." Now I think one gets a pretty clear impression from this how the Buddha felt about sex. But as you know, in the West today there are many variations of Buddhism being taught and practiced, and many Western Buddhist practitioners seem to disagree with the Buddha's assertion that lust-which as you said earlier he viewed as a manifestation of craving-must by definition be transcended in order to achieve enlightenment. In addition, the liberal climate in contemporary American society as a whole tends to regard sexuality as a very good, a very healthy, and a very natural expression of our humanity-and not only our humanity, but our spirituality. What do you think the Buddha would have to say about this?
BG: Before I say anything I want to add a little footnote to that translation. You know that when Buddha talked about celibacy he was not talking only about the celibacy of a man, but the celibacy of a woman also. So when he said, for example, that it is better to swallow a red-hot iron ball than to engage in sexual activity, that goes for women, too. We have to make that clear; otherwise women will get upset. They might think that Buddha hated women and that that is why he wanted to keep men away from women and asked men to observe celibacy. But if a woman wants to observe celibacy, then by the same token she should keep away from men. That's the first point I want to make clear. The second point is that living a household life, having a spouse and so forth-Buddha did not condemn that; a healthy sexual family life is permitted for laypeople, even though, as I said, this can never lead to full enlightenment.
But to answer your question: Not only in contemporary society, but also in Buddha's time, there were people who believed that sexuality is something holy, something noble, something sacred, something miraculous. So this is not only a modern, twentieth century social phenomenon. The mentality of people has always been the same from time immemorial, up to now, and into the future. There are always some people who think that through sexuality they can attain liberation, and that is what we call a distorted perception, distorted thinking.
WIE: This "distorted perception," as you call it, seems to be particularly prevalent nowadays, perennial though it may be. I'm referring to the increasingly popular notion that sexuality in and of itself, if it's pursued to the end, would be the very expression of enlightenment-and that because sexuality is the road to liberation, if you avoid it in any way, then you don't really have any hope of reaching the final goal. If possible I'd like to get a very clear indication of how the Buddha would have responded to that point of view.
BG: I am quite familiar with that. He said - and I am translating from Pali: "No matter what you may do or attain - you may live in a cave, in a solitary place, and you may have learned entire sutras; you may be a very erudite speaker; you may even practice morality and so forth and so on-no matter what else you do, until you get rid of your lust, your hatred, your ignorance, you will never attain enlightenment." This is the Buddha's teaching. So the more you engage in sexual activities the deeper you go in your lust, the deeper you get in your confusion, and the deeper you get in your jealousy. When a person, whether male or female, wants to get involved in sexual activities with so many different persons at the same time, then by the same token there are so many different ways that that person will suffer: from jealousy, fear, tension, worry. This is a very unhealthy, very unhealthy life. If somebody thinks of having sexual activities with all kinds of people in all different manners all the time, then that person would be dead very soon as a result of such unhealthy behavior. Now of course you have to understand at the same time that moderate, wise, healthy sexual activity is permissible. But all attaining enlightenment through sexuality means is: you go and engage in sexual activities until you die! And you will be dead before you reach that enlightenment!
WIE: How does all this play out then in the context of actual spiritual practice, for example in tantric Buddhism?
BG: I'm a Theravada Buddhist - you know that, right?
WIE: Yes, I do.
BG: Now, I'm sometimes sorry to say these things, but Theravada Buddhists don't consider tantra to be Buddhism. Nowhere in the original Buddhist literature can you find "tantric Buddhism." Tantra is a later development. There is no such thing as tantric Buddhism in original Buddhism. There's never been such a thing as tantric Buddhism. Tantra is tantra, Buddhism is Buddhism, and these two will never go together. But some people who were so engrossed in sex and so distorted in their perception wanted to glorify sex by adding Buddhism to that. And that is why they combined tantra with Buddhism. People may hate me for saying this, but still I had to say it.
WIE: We've noticed in the course of our research not only that the notion of sacred sexuality has been increasing in popularity, but also that celibacy is often viewed with a great deal of fear and suspicion by people in Western culture. Why do you think that might be?
BG: If celibacy is strictly observed, that is good only for the person observing it. You cannot open an institute of celibacy. Celibacy is not something that can be institutionalized. It cannot be organized. We cannot have a celibate society. It is a totally personal, individual practice. And therefore if people object to it, they may be objecting to the organization of celibacy.
WIE: It seems, though, that any monastic discipline would have to be organized to some extent. In fact, we were fascinated and even shocked to discover, as we were reading the Patimokkha Training Rules for Monks, that the Buddha apparently had to make a whole series of rules that prohibited his monks from engaging in sexual contact with-just to give you a few examples which I'm sure you're aware of anyway-skulls, dead bodies, animals . . . that kind of thing. Now as far as we know, this type of behavior doesn't go on today-although that isn't necessarily true, I suppose!-so we were just wondering: Was the Buddha, by making these rules, responding to things that people were actually doing?-even his own students and followers?
BG: Right. When Buddha introduced one rule, the monks in those days soon found another way of doing the same thing. They wanted to commit sexual activities in one way or another. So when Buddha introduced one rule, they did not break that rule, but they found out some other way to commit sexual activity. And then Buddha had to introduce another rule to stop them. It's just like the police and the criminals-when there is a law, criminals will find a way to go around it and commit the crime, and then we have to introduce another law. This is what happened in the time of Buddha. When more and more people got into the Order, they started doing all sorts of things, and for all these things he had to make a rule. That is why these rules are there. It was not in anticipation of the future that he introduced these rules.
WIE: And now here we are, in the future, and because you have gone out of your way to bring the Buddha's monastic tradition to the West, I'm curious to know what your experience has been of the Westerners who come to you for teaching. How do modern Westerners take to monastic life? Do you find that they have more difficulty with it, for example, thanpeople from your own culture?
BG: You know, that's a good question. We really screen people before we accept them into monastic life. We put them under a sort of a probation for two years to find out whether or not they are really sincerely serious about getting involved. Because sometimes people come just for the fun of it, and because our place is very quiet and peaceful and so forth, they think that they might like to stay here and become monks. But then later on they will change their minds. And therefore we don't want to play some sort of game; we want to know whether they are really sincerely serious. If they are serious, we accept them. But these are only a few. Many come here, many write letters to us-and these days they even send us e-mails!- asking us to allow them to become monks and live here in the monastery. But we don't accept all of them because we know that later on they will lose interest. Still, there are some very sincere people who really do want to become monks and nuns. And this is not some new phenomenon. Even in the olden days, out of millions of people, only a very few entered the monasteries. Even today in Buddhist countries not everybody goes to the monastery. In some countries, like Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and so forth, they have in their tradition a custom: they enter the monastery for a short period of time. But of those who enter the monastery for a short period of time, most of them disrobe and go back. Only a handful of people actually stay there. In the Western countries, where there is no such tradition, those who come to the monasteries are even fewer. And of those, still fewer will actually remain in monastic life. But that is more or less true all over the world, and has been in all times. In the West, you know, more and more people are tired of society pressing in upon them-really, really tired-and so they want to get away. But only a very few of them will stay, and most will go back again to the society. But we established our Center with this understanding because this has always been the same everywhere.
WIE: I'd like to know, if possible, a little more about you and your own life as a monk. For example, how has being celibate affected your spiritual development?
BG: My friend, it gives me tremendous peace. And I'm speaking honestly, you see? Because I can live with all human beings without any problem. Not one particular woman or one particular girl, one particular boy, one particular man, because my celibacy helps me to accept all other human beings equally. And that helps me to have a peaceful mind. And I think this is what the Buddha wanted us to have-a friendly, peaceful relationship with all beings. So it affects my life so positively.
WIE: You've been a monk, I understand, since you were ...
BG: Twelve. And now I am seventy. Fifty-eight years I have been in this robe!
WIE: If you were advising someone who was considering a commitment to celibacy as a spiritual practice, what would you tell them?
BG: I'd tell them, "If you honestly, sincerely want to live a peaceful life, a mindful life, a life free of trouble, a life devoted to the service of others without discrimination, then a celibate life is a very good life because when you are celibate you can really practice true loving-kindness, true compassion. You can appreciate whatever is in front of you. You can have an equanimous, unbiased state of mind. But when you are bound by one person or another, you cannot have all this. And therefore, if you are a person who honestly, sincerely wants to practice these things, then you have to think seriously about becoming celibate." But they should never accept it on faith or because somebody forces it upon them. One has to have serious understanding and think very carefully about celibacy before one gets involved in it.
WIE: You have to go in with your eyes open.
WIE: And should the individual also expect to experience many challenges?
BG: Sure, sure. When you practice celibacy you are always facing challenges. There are so many who would like to get involved with you, so many others who would like to get close to you and break your celibacy. Because others know that you are not corrupt. You are not doing all sorts of hanky-panky things, you are not getting involved in wrong things and getting all kinds of diseases and so forth. People understand that you are a very decent person, a neat person. And some people like to be with a very neat individual, and that is a challenge. You've got to face it.
WIE: You've been practicing celibacy, as you said, for fifty-eight years. How has your experience of the practice changed or deepened over time?
BG: You know, at first it was very difficult, very difficult, especially when I was young, as a teenager and up until my late twenties. It was a real challenge. But because of the training that I received, I developed a sense of responsibility for my duties, my work, my commitment to the Dhamma and, moreover, respect for my teachers and parents. Teachers and parents, we love them very much, and we don't want to be disloyal to them, disrespectful to them. So that went on for many years until I really fully matured. And then I began to understand for myself the true meaning of celibacy.
Source: Bhavana Society, USA, https://www.bhavanasociety.org/ (Reprinted with permission from
What Is Enlightenment? Magazine)
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