Celibacy and the Tranquil Life

‘I have seen the misery of pleasures.
I have seen the security involved in renouncing them:
So now I will go.
I will go into the struggle.
This is to my mind delight.
This is where my mind finds bliss.’ – The Buddha

To someone who has experienced the sensual pleasures of sex, giving them up for celibacy can be a Herculean task indeed. Yet there are women who are able to master themselves once they understand that virtue leads to happiness and is consistent with the needs of the soul.

In 1996, Sister Siripannà, from the Amaravati monastic community in England, conducted a weekend workshop at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies entitled “Renunciation: The Highest Happiness.” Here is an excerpt: “There is a part of us that feels renunciation means to lose everything we love; having to deprive ourselves of what is pleasant and enjoyable in life. . .  Renunciation can sound like passivity, a “door-mat” philosophy, but actually it is the opposite.” She clarifies that it is not that sensual pleasure is in itself evil, but in the context of suffering which the Buddha sought to overcome. If one has the wrong relationship to the sense realm, there can only be dissatisfaction and therefore suffering.  For he said: “Whatever bliss in the world is found in sensual pleasures, and whatever there is of heavenly bliss – These are not worth one sixteenth part of the bliss that comes with craving’s end.”  Sister Siripanna  speaks of how the monastic life and the practice of sense restraint has given her a tremendous sense of freedom and relief.  No longer is she running after the world.  She is sometimes plagued by the little wanting voice that whispers (and sometimes screams!) “I want that.  I want it,” but she knows that it is not something she can trust anymore.

We need to let ourselves indulge once in a while, she adds, but this must be without the feeling of guilt.  If one knows that one must not do it, yet does it, one is sure to feel guilty.  If we do indulge, we have to watch the effect.  Does it feel as good as you thought it would?  Was it worth it?  What are the consequences to yourself and to others?  On the other hand, she speaks of those who confuse sense restraint with withdrawing from the world and shunning difficult or complex experiences.  These can be people who meditate in excess or those who become so obsessed with their spiritual path that they become frightened of being stimulated by life and want to get away from it.  This she says, is a most fearful, contracted, and ‘un-alive’ form of living and should be guarded against.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana from Sri Lanka, in a fascinating interview with Simeon Alev from the ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ magazine, says: “And therefore in his gradual teaching, he [The Buddha] 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.” Celibacy requires the ability and an attitude of self-mastery which are signs of inner freedom, of responsibility towards oneself, and others.   Spiritual practitioners have long known the benefits celibacy brings: those of improved concentration and purity.  Purity feeds the soul just as food feeds the body and a healthy and happy individual needs to feed both body and spirit.

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