Mystery of Being Additions: The C Word

By David Guy


The C Word

That brings up the practice of celibacy, which is generally associated with religious purity, though I’ve never been sure why. People automatically assume, for instance, that Jesus was celibate. An itinerant teacher in that day and age was necessarily celibate? The fact that he did not have a wife and family meant that he’d never had sex? We know that? Why do we make that assumption?

A Catholic woman of my acquaintance, a fierce political activist, once said to me, “I know Jesus loved women. People who say anything else don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m certain he fucked Mary Magdalene. There’s no question in my mind.”

That statement startled me, from a woman who presented as devout (though perhaps not in the way most people use that word). But I agree with the general sentiment. Why do we assume that someone who is religious, or spiritual, or has a special relationship with God, would not want to have sex? Why are those two things opposed?

Alan Watts (who seems himself to have had as much sex as he could get, to say nothing of all the booze he could get his hands on) stated the idea most clearly when discussing the sage J. Krishnamurti: “Krishnamurti himself has never had intercourse because his every moment is a constant communion with the entire universe, through every nerve fiber [get exact quote].” The implication was that a truly enlightened being had no need for sex, because he felt no separation from anything.

But Krishnamurti did have sex with women. He famously had sex with one of his followers, who was married to another man in the group. I’m not denying that he was in touch with the entire universe at every moment, through absolutely every nerve ending. But he also apparently liked to get laid.

The idea of celibacy, as I understand it, is not that you’re constantly fighting your sexual urges, which you regard as evil, but that through celibacy you can devote your energy to a “higher” spiritual purpose. Instead of focusing on your lowly genitals, and all the emotional strain and upheaval that sexual relationships involve, you devote your energy to God.

That takes a mature person. When my wife attended Weston School of Theology, she became a kind of Mother Confessor to the young Jesuits, who got a cheap thrill by telling her how hard it was to channel their sex drives, and how often they masturbated. They got no counseling or instruction in this endeavor. One of them told me that there were gay Jesuits who had sex with each other in the Jesuit house, or who went into Boston to have sex with other men. Everybody else was left to fend for himself.

But the sexual/spiritual energy that people are conserving to devote to God is boundless and self-renewing. It may be that right after the sexual act people might need a little snooze, but before long their energy returns and they feel cleared out and refreshed, freed of the tensions that were weighing them down. It’s true that people use lots of energy pursuing sex, but that doesn’t need to be true. Emotionally healthy people—if we can find any out there—could be happy, in the absence of a partner, taking care of themselves.

There may be gender differences in regard to renewing sexual energy. Most men, once they ejaculate, are finished for the moment, may lose all interest in sex and being touched, while some women go from orgasm to orgasm and gain energy in the process. The energy renews itself.

For that reason, the two genders seem to have different attitudes toward masturbation. Men often feel they have “lost” something when they ejaculate, all that seed gone to waste (most notably Honore de Balzac, who once claimed that France had lost a masterpiece for a fortnight because he had had a wet dream the night before. He associated his seed with creative powers, as have other men). That was the actual sin of Onan, not that he jerked off, but that he spilled his seed on the ground instead of impregnating his brother’s widow. Women—at least those I’ve talked to—feel no such sense of loss (and why would they? They’re raring to go, while the man is already finished).

They also may have a different view of celibacy. When I’ve gone on meditation retreats in which we were told to abstain from sex, every man I’ve spoken to assumed that include masturbation. Women did not. “Of course you can masturbate!” one woman said to me, as if I were a moron for even asking the question. They don’t allow men to make such rules for them. Masturbation is something they do with their bodies, and it’s nobody’s business when and how they do it.

I personally have yet to meet the celibate person who is perfectly equanimous about not having sex, who engages the full energy of their entire body but only uses it for spiritual purposes. Alan Watts claimed that any celibate men he had met were invariably crabby and grouchy (and who can blame them?).

It’s often true, of course, that people who claim to be celibate actually aren’t.

Years ago, for instance, I was shocked by an article in Tricycle about a woman who claimed not only that she had had sex with Kalu Rinpoche (a renowned Tibetan teacher who had taken a vow of celibacy), but that men who surrounded him knew about the relationship and colluded with him, telling her that if she spilled the beans it would do harm to “the Dharma” (the same argument the Catholic priests used with the altar boys). Kalu Rinpoche was worshiped in Buddhist circles, his teachings revered. A prominent Buddhist publisher suspended advertising with Tricycle for a time because they published this scurrilous article, apparently believing the article did harm to the dharma. He wasn’t apparently worried about the harm done to the young woman.

Larry Rosenberg told me that his first teacher, the irrepressible and charismatic Seung Sahn, had not only had sex with female followers in this country, but back in Korea a family was raising a child that he had fathered with a Korean woman. They felt they were attaining spiritual merit, even though the child was illegitimate and begotten in conflict with religious vows.

Larry—who now teaches in the vipassana tradition, and points out that vipassna teachers don’t seem to have such a problem keeping it in their pants—sometimes asks me why all the scandals are in the Zen tradition (in which I, his former student, now practice). I tell him it’s because the Zen teachers are more vital and alive. They’re more attractive. Who would want to have sex with those pallid vipassana people?

I haven’t even mentioned the most notorious Zen teachers, Eido Roshi and Sasaki Roshi, who didn’t slip now and then but were genuine predators, carrying on affairs for years and accosting women who didn’t succumb. In contrast to these men, Chogyam Trungpa, the famously drunken and womanizing Tibetan teacher, seems comparatively principled, because he had disrobed and a monk and taken on the role of lay teacher (giving the term new meaning), and freely admitted to what he did. He wasn’t a hypocrite.

We seem a long way from the Buddha, who in the Pali Canon seems quite anti-sex, did not allow his monks even to beget a child to keep the blood line going (one monk did exactly that, and was thrown out of the order), and who famously felt that the presence of women among the monastics would set the practice back hundreds of years.

He was trying to create a situation in which people—in increasingly large numbers—could learn what he had learned under the Bodhi tree. A monk, in order to do that, can’t give in to desire; he has to watch and learn from it. The Buddha apparently thought having women right there would make all of that more difficult. The men would be tempted.

People who try to explain these outrageous behaviors go through all kinds of contortions. So and so hadn’t achieved final realization. He was an arhat but hadn’t achieved the final states of the great masters. They say that after the fact, on the evidence of what they’ve discovered.

It seems easier just to say that men like sex. I hate to make a wild generalization, but there it is. Of all the statements on this whole issue that I’ve ever heard, the most intelligent was by some guy on NPR who said—in explanation of some other set of peccadillos (the French President and his girlfriends, or that French politician who abused hotel maids, or maybe some American army general), “Men are addicted to ejaculation.” I’m slightly uncomfortable with that word addicted, but there’s plenty of evidence that they like it very much. It’s also true that they would prefer not to bring it about themselves. People like to be touched. They like friction with another body. They especially like that thing that happens at the end.

Why is that anti-religious?

I am of course opposed to anything that smacks of abuse, that involves a person of power taking advantage of someone who has less, that involves an underage child, that involves coercion or force. But it seems these things often come about because people suppress the sexual instinct. They try to tamp something down that can’t be tamped. A boy is attracted to boys, and he’s told that’s wrong, so he decides to become a priest and put himself in a place where he can’t express that desire. Then as a priest he runs into boys and the desire returns; it takes revenge because it was ignored. It would have been better if he’d expressed that desire when he originally felt it, allowed it to mature into something more acceptable (like a guy his age). Or if not, find a young looking man, or someone who’s willing to act boyish. There’s a way to handle things, but repression ain’t it.

Taking a vow of celibacy doesn’t solve the problem of sex (if sex is a problem). It draws the line in a different place. Some people draw it at one partner, some at several, some at none. The question is: do you cross the line that you yourself have drawn? Often people do, celibate people—it seems—as much as anyone.