There wasn’t any sex in the monastery that I’m aware of. There was instead a concerted effort on the part of all resident monks and nuns to see to it that there be none. The monastery community had sworn itself to celibacy, thereby giving rise to a worried prevention of sexual feelings, the suppression of which required a constant vigilance. I’d never before seen a community more preoccupied with sex.
I need to tell you that I have a great affection and respect for the residents of this small monastery. They’re devoted to their practice and wise in certain specific ways not characteristic of lay communities. Most notably, they live a life of voluntary simplicity where want never outstrips need. The monks have few personal possessions; instead everything is shared among them. They’ve thrown their lives together, a fact that has bonded them each to each in mutual need. This Soto Zen monastery community located in the mountains of western United States is comprised of about half men and women. The title of “nun” has been discarded and all residents are indentified as “monks.” Monastic leadership and responsibilities are conducted with a total regard for gender equality. To enter the monastery for a period of training is to enter a place of welcoming warmth and support, yet the vow of celibacy has taken a toll on the otherwise intelligent, capable, sincere, good people of the community.
This small community of monks don’t’ spend their days immobilized in hours of meditation but are physically active. They tend a large subsistence garden, split firewood for the winter months, repair and service the single truck and few automobiles they have, maintain a well equipped maintenance shop for carpentry, plumbing, and other domestic needs. In addition to these, the monks sweep the walks, scrub floors, cook their meals, and wash up after themselves. But while they honor and depend upon the capacity of their bodies to such an extent, the monastery monks came somehow to judge negatively of the body’s sexual capacities.
This particular development has a history that’s revealing of the need for the degree of protective measures undertaken to ward off this assumed threat. At the beginning, the monastery wasn’t celibate and there were several married couples that were fully robed monks of the order. But as it was explained to me upon inquiry, the presence of the married couples “bedding together” (as it was put) was a distraction to others who weren’t married and “bedding together.” “Particularly the young novices,” I was told. The apparent concern was that the desire to “bed together” –a euphemism particularly revealing for its avoidance of even the ordinary language of sex– was impairment to the spiritual aims of the community. I can imagine that it might very well be difficult for a potentially romantic and sexually responsive youth of either gender to put out of thought their own desire for someone to have sex with.
The question I would ask of celibate monastic communities is by what reasoning is sexual intimacy to be judged as antithetical to religious pursuits? I don’t know if that question was ever asked before the monastery adopted a celibate life or if traditional monkish celibacy was simply assumed to be beneficial. But what happened was that married couples were required to leave the monastery. Several of these couples were designated “lay ministers” and still participate in some, albeit reduced, monastery practices. But none are allowed to be resident and so have found outside residence nearby.
By the time I first visited the monastery, celibacy was the established practice and a number of safeguards against possible sexual temptations were in place. For one thing, visitors were forbidden to wear shorts even in the heat of the summer and shirts and blouses must have normal length sleeves so as to avoid too much visible exposure. It was over a hundred degrees when I asked if this rule could be waived for outdoor tasks such as mid-day gardening or putting firewood up for the winter. But I was told that such “skimpy” clothing might prove “disturbing” to those involved in serious Buddhist training. Other such safeguards included a rule that no monk could travel alone outside the monastery without taking along a second monk as witness, nor could a man and woman travel together regardless of their ages or years of celibate practice. The point seemed to be that one must also have eyes upon him or her as a sort of deterrent chaperonage. These rules applied whether you were driving into the nearby town for groceries or 150 miles downstate to lead a retreat at a dharma center.
But how serious can the training be if it survives by a protective exclusion of natural bodily appetites. What these rules reveal more than anything is the distrust of self (and I must conclude of each other) to control one’s own sexual behavior. Sex is being treated here as an enemy to one’s body. These gentle people of modest aims and open heart take on the character of something like a clenched fist whenever the vow of celibacy is at stake.
The monastery monks will point out quite rightfully that romantic sexual relationships are often difficult involving appetites that lead to possessiveness, jealousy, dependency, envy, and requiring continuous emotional adjustments of one sort or another. And that’s true. Of all the potentially disruptive elements of a relationship, I can think of few as consequent of alternate bliss and misery as that of sexuality. But sexual attraction and mating is central to all animal life. What sense does it make for the monks to exclude sex from their religious experience when all other aspects of relationship are absorbed and dealt with as a fundamental aspect of religious training? The monastery monks formed a functional community that dealt realistically and effectively with the difficulties stemming from human greed and hatred; they brought their angers, resentments, jealousies, envies, fears, and delusions of all sorts onto the path. They knew these afflictions from within the ethics and practice of their own intimate experience. But resultant of their own arbitrary exclusion, they knew little or nothing of the responsibilities and ethics of sexuality. This particular bodily appetite was left outside where its very absence troubled the mind.
What is true of sex is true of virtually all human experience: we must fully enter our places of greed, hatred, anger, fear, wrongful temptations of all sorts. This is not to say that we act on such feelings but rather engage them when they surface negatively in our behavior. To deny the presence of a greed or anger or sexual arousal is to deny the very self-awareness essential to making an experienced and appropriate decision about what to do with such feelings. It’s humanizing to recognize one’s anger toward another and the monastery monks have done this well, but it’s equally humanizing to recognize one’s lust for an inappropriate partner. And the one who knows first hand the consequences of anger and lust is best able to deal kindly and modestly with these circumstances.
Still, it must be acknowledged that the chastity toward which celibacy aims shares a common nature with the ancient Greek practice of agape, a disinterested love that asks nothing for itself in return. It is a pure unconditional love without need to possess the loved one either bodily or emotionally. It is a love that stands outside preferences of any sort and so applies to all equally. This may sound like a merely theoretical love, but I reason that those monks practicing celibacy within a community of intimate, ongoing relationships must understand something of a love outside personal need. But wouldn’t the understanding run even more deeply were it experienced within the sexuality of lovers who give their bodies to each other for the other’s sake. A fully disinterested love can’t be based on a bodily denial that’s aimed at spiritual gain. The measure of agape is that it invests no interest in personal gain. The monks at best stand to realize only a guarded and partial understanding of selfless love, a knowledge that paradoxically can only be known to those who risk the self fully in love’s embrace.
The married lay ministers expelled from the monastery live nearby in an enclave of their own where sexuality is just another element in their practice of living kindly and selflessly. They’re the ones most likely to know that being sexually abstinent isn’t necessarily being chaste, and that a vow of celibacy only confuses the distinction. Being chaste can involve abstaining from sex but it can also involve being sexually faithful and even more pointedly being pure in thought and deed. The monastery monks in their enforced celibacy are anything but chaste; they are instead caught up in a system of rules and denial exclusive of any genuine chasteness of heart and mind. They’ve put themselves in command of the very bodies they were gifted with, an approach lacking modesty and wonderment. In respect to their inherent sexuality, they’ve forgotten that being chaste means being plainly and honestly yourself. It means being sincerely who you are.