Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Lust and Celibacy (part 2)

As the caterpillar chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs on, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys. —William Blake's Devil, who apparently was ignorant of fundamental principles of entomology

(This part is, probably enough, more politically incorrect than part 1. Just saying.)

     I ended the first part of this article, or essay, or whatever it is, with some reflections on my own personal case with regard to the trials of celibacy, and so I may as well begin this part with more of the same. I have been diagnosed as having a "dumbbell-shaped spirit": my spiritual end has undergone some development, and my carnal, lustful end is naturally well-developed, but most of what lies between these two ends is somewhat shriveled—I have little interest in ordinary stuff like money, cars, houses, politics, the news, socializing, collecting electronic gadgets, raising children, clothes, social trends and fashions, etc. etc. So my ideal of fulfillment would be something like living a rough, simple life in a cave meditating with a beautiful, voluptuous, affectionate woman. Or at least to have a spiritual mate who would help me to Wake Up while still being very willing to sleep with me every night with no pajamas on. But thus far it hasn't happened; I have had to choose between wisdom and sex, and chose wisdom.
     My sexual desire has tended to be rather strong, though it seems to be waning somewhat in my old age, and my mindfulness is not strong enough always to observe lust as it arises and to neutralize it through detachment. I often simply don't want to detach from it, because it is so enjoyable. Also, mere repression of these urges tends to be miserable in the long run, as was touched upon in part 1. So in my case I have opted for a kind of partial retreat, a flexible defense: continuing with military images, I've adopted the strategy of yielding limited ground without totally breaking ranks. I read a book on military strategy once that said this type of defense is often much more effective than a rigid, unyielding defense, especially when dealing with a very strong opponent. So I think lustful thoughts sometimes, and look at pornography occasionally, and work on an erotic poem sometimes, and not exactly "spank the puppy," but pet it a little now and then.
     Some may argue that if one's celibacy is imperfect like this, if one cannot be celibate "without blemish," then one would do better to drop out of the monkhood, for one's own benefit as well as for the benefit of the Sangha. But would they say the same thing to an alcoholic? "If you feel you have to drink two beers a day to stay sober, you might as well go back to getting stinking drunk every weekend." Or would they say it to a former narcotics addict? "You're smoking marijuana in order to stay off heroin? You're still taking drugs! You may as well start shooting up again! And here you are counseling others. Shame on you." I would guess that most of these people wouldn't give such advice in these other cases. And they also probably break rules. The less charitable attitude toward lust is partly a result of that sex neurosis that I discussed in part 1, and also of the idea that libido is controllable, also combined perhaps with some vague and not entirely realistic notions about what it is like to be a monk. 
     There is a discourse in the Aguttara Nikāya listing various ways in which a monk's celibacy is impure. I don't have a copy of the Aguttara handy, and have very limited Internet access nowadays, so I won't give precise details, but I will mention a few examples that I remember from the sutta. One imperfection of celibacy or "the Holy Life" is if a monk enjoys talking and laughing with women. I do that sometimes. Another one is if a monk enjoys looking deeply into a woman's eyes. I have done that one also, especially with certain women that I like. (Another one that isn't mentioned in the discourse is the case of a monk looking deeply into a woman's blouse when she is bowing, in the hopes of seeing her breasts.) One rather sad one, which I can't remember ever doing, is the case of a monk who hides behind a wall listening to a woman talking or singing or laughing or crying. The image of that seems really sad to me for some reason. It seems like an act of desperation. I also consider it significant that the discourse mentions a woman's crying, as on some men at least the sound of female crying can have a profound emotional effect. Anyway, monks who are not wholly convinced in their celibacy have apparently existed for a long time, and there are plenty nowadays also, including some famous teachers, so "spotless, unblemished" celibacy may actually be the exception to the rule. After all, if we were already perfect and enlightened, we wouldn't need to become monks in the first place. Renunciation would be completely superfluous. 
     There are a number of reflections which have been very helpful in "protecting" me from disrobing (in both senses of the word) and ceasing to be celibate, reflections which remind me of the disadvantages of being an overtly sexually active person. And there certainly are some pretty weighty disadvantages. Some of these reflections, hopefully at least not all of them, may be considered offensive by some women, since after all they are reasons why a man might be better off without them; but again, I mean no disrespect toward women. I am aware that men are just as messed up and foolish as the female half of our species. For example, stereotypically masculine aggression is just as unskillful and harmful, though arguably not more so, as stereotypically feminine fear and insecurity—despite the fact that fear is much more politically correct nowadays than aggression. (This state of affairs is a very recent development in the human race; a hundred years ago and more, extending all the way back into prehistoric times, "valor" was admired, sometimes even positively required, and "cowardice" was rejected as utterly disgraceful.) So women could come up with equally valid reasons for why they might be better off without men, since B is exactly as far away from A as A is from B, and these kinds of reflections can definitely go both ways. Besides, I'm committed to avoiding Political Correctness Dishonesty, and to calling a spade a spade. So please be patient. You have received fair warning of what follows. I mean you no harm.
     One major reminder for me has been that if you get a woman, you don't just get a woman: a woman is part of a very large package deal. If you have a woman, you should provide her with a good home, or at least pitch in your fair share in providing it. Then you have to have a good job, and then there are insurance payments and other bills to pay. If nature takes its course, and it usually does, you wind up with children (remember what makes women's pupils dilate)—little egomaniacs who practically enslave you for years until they are grown up enough to leave home, and when they are little they scream, have icky liquids squirting out of both ends, get diseases through a complete ignorance of basic principles of hygiene, and occasionally clumsily stumble and hit their head on the corner of the coffee table. The whole situation becomes huge grounds for attachment and worry, and tends to enmesh one deeply in Samsara. Instead of cultivating bliss in an unattached state, one may find oneself sitting on a chair engaged in long, drawn-out conversations about what kind of curtains to get for the living room.
     In my earlier days as a monk I used to say that the times when I was happiest about being a monk were the times when I heard the sound of a screaming baby. Here's Charles Darwin on the subject:
The earliest and almost sole expression seen during the first days of infancy, and then often exhibited, is that displayed during the act of screaming; and screaming is excited, both at first and for some time afterwards, by every distressing or displeasing sensation and emotion,—by hunger, pain, anger, jealousy, fear, &c.
I really appreciate peace and quiet. Yet making babies is the biological main purpose of the sex act. That's ultimately what it is for.
     Then there is the thought that women themselves are very subject to the law of anicca, impermanence. Women change, and not always for the better. A wise friend once told me a saying to the effect that, when a man and a woman get married, the woman always wants the man to change, and he never does, and the man always wants the woman to stay the same, and she never does. It may not be applicable to all cases, but it does describe a general trend in human affairs.
     Which leads to the reflection that women often want to change, or even to control, a man. Women seem much more likely to try to change someone than men are, especially against the will of the person they want to change. (Men seem to be more likely simply to dismiss someone whose behavior they disapprove of.) Several years ago I read a novel by Pierre Louys entitled Aphrodite, which I freely admit is not appropriate reading for a celibate monk, as it is graphically and literally pornographic, being written about prostitutes in 1st century B.C. Alexandria. To my credit, I had no idea that it would be so lavishly explicit of a novel when I picked it up, considering that it was written in the late 1890's and is considered a minor classic. But once I start reading a book, I don't like to leave it unfinished….Anyway, there's a scene in which a Greek sculptor named Demetrios, lover to Queen Berenice of Egypt (elder sister of the much more famous Cleopatra) is rebuking a beautiful courtesan (beautiful on the outside, rather hideous on the inside) named Chrysis, who has fallen in love with him.
Slavery! This is the true name of love. You women all have but one dream, a single idea in your brain: to use your weakness so as to break a man's strength, to make your futility rule over his intelligence. What you desire, as soon as your breasts start growing, is not to love or be loved but to tie a man to your ankles, to humble him, to make him bow his head so you can put your sandal on it. Then you are able, each according to your ambition, to snatch his sword from him or his chisel or compass, break everything you don't understand, emasculate what frightens you, lead Hercules by the nostrils and make him spin wool.
Now, I fully realize that not all women are like this, and that old Demetrios worded it all rather harshly (after all, he was angry when he said it). But there is a kernel of truth to it, and it applies to many, possibly even most, women to some degree. Some women even brag about how they control their man, perhaps without the man even realizing it. Furthermore, Western women especially may be more inclined to be this way than were women in the 1890's or the 1st century B.C.E. Some appear to feel that the right to insist that a man change is a token of their newly empowered state; and if a man refuses to give in to their pressure, they may be thoroughly outraged by this, feeling that he is trying to deprive them of their empowered rights. 
     Ironically, one main motive of this kind of female "empowered" behavior is insecurity and the desire to feel safe; and I consider it plausible that, for lack of a more descriptive and better word, "nagging," let alone insecurity, is a natural instinct in the human female. For almost the entirety of our existence as a species, and extending back well beyond that into the hazy distance of our tree-dwelling ape ancestry, females have been dominated by males, practically considered as property, and males enforced this attitude without much difficulty, as they can easily be physically twice as large as the females (for instance, 100kg men and 50kg women are not rare). So while human nature was evolving, our females developed a way of getting what they wanted primarily by using their voice, i.e. by persuasion. At one extreme there are sweet-tempered females (and if they are beautiful besides, then the situation can become pretty much ideal) who use affection to get what they want—after a man is thoroughly pleased and glowing with satisfaction, then his mate shares her belief that the house should be painted a different color. At the other extreme there are vitriolic-tempered women who bully their men into giving them their way through shrill, angry complaint ("bitching"), sometimes even working things up into bouts of shouting and the throwing of dishes, so that the man gives in for the sake of calming the inferno, until next time. The Old Testament of the Bible says that it is better for a man to live on top of the roof than under it with such a woman. But the average approach, the middle of the statistical bell-shaped curve of feminine persuasion, is persistent urging, or "nagging." Now, there is nothing at all wrong with giving advice, and it is the duty of a married couple to advise each other; but if A gives B some advice, and B chooses not to take that advice, possibly even giving a detailed explanation of why he chooses not to take it, and then A continues bringing up the same issue, in the same way, again and again, and again…and again, then that's no longer advising—that's nagging. And finally B may give in and let A have her way out of a heartfelt desire for some peace and quiet, plus maybe out of the hopes that it will inspire A to become more affectionate. Again, certainly not all women are like this, but a man might not find out for sure until after the honeymoon is over, and then it may be too late. And it may well be an inborn, automatic instinct in many female humans.
     What all of these mating-conditioned phenomena amount to, is loss of freedom. Women tend to crave security, and security is practically the opposite of freedom. But freedom is essential to living a truly dharmic life. Some unhappily married men may become philosophers and thereby gain some inner freedom at least.
     Another major consideration is that almost everyone is sexually active, and at the same time almost everyone is unhappy. So being sexually active is obviously unlikely to make people much happier. It's more just a matter of scratching a chronic, exasperating itch. On the other hand, wise and happy people are often celibate. This is an easily seen and very sobering reflection.
     One consideration that is applicable to any person who has practiced intensive Dharma for years, male or female, is that if the opposite gender was so psychologically challenged and/or challenging as to dissatisfy one and inspire one to renounce the world and become celibate in the first place, then it is unlikely that these same challenged/challenging non-meditators or beginning meditators would be much more satisfying after years of one's intensive practice and clarity and "chilling out." At least the veteran Dharma practitioner would probably have more patience and compassion for interacting with such an undeveloped mate. And developed ones are hard to find, though not impossible.
     Yet another reflection, one that may or may not have any persuasive effect depending on one's metaphysical point of view, is that, ultimately, the way things really are, we are not separate from anyone else. Thus my essence, in a sense the same "me," is in every rock star and porn star and virgin in love on her wedding night. I'm ultimately doing all of that, in a way, even though I may be a grey-haired recluse living in a cave. Everyone is doing just about everything, and through compassion and spiritual connection we share in all of it. And upon enlightenment, we have direct, conscious access to this infinite experience. Enlightenment is INFINITELY beyond mere orgasm or mere romance. It is beyond the wildest orgy in an Emperor's palace, and is beyond finding your true soul mate and living happily ever after. And all of us have access to that. It's here already, but we're not quite awake enough to notice.
     An alternative to settling down with a mate is sexual promiscuity, consorting with easy dates, "party girls," and/or whores. But this leads to rather intense karmic and moral complications, plus probably emotional ones also. Even if you stay away from the wives of other men, there are sexually transmitted diseases that are not good to have. There are also accidental babies to be born—what do you do if a drunken, emotionally very challenged party girl, clearly the wrong girl for you, informs you that you got her pregnant? Refuse to take responsibility for your own child? Pay for her abortion? Do the "honorable thing" and marry her? Any of these choices results in humungous karma. And what if this drunken, confused person informs you that she's in love with you, that you are the only man she has ever really loved, or that has ever treated her with respect and consideration, as another human being and not as a mere sex object? What do you do then? Brush her off and break her heart worse than anyone ever has before? Things get very messy very easily with that lifestyle. Trying to do it spiritually is playing with big fire.
     So if you don't have a deep need for constant, close companionship, or children (not such a good idea nowadays anyway with the world the way it is), or a live-in cook and housekeeper (and many Western women are too busy for very much of that), or someone to keep you out of trouble and to see that you "behave," then you may be better off celibate, with or without pornography and masturbation, even setting aside the issue of Nirvana in this very life.
     On the other hand, if you can find a mate who yearns for Freedom, who truly loves you—and not with the mere mating instinct and insecure, conditional emotional attachment which inspired the author of Ecclesiastes to declare a woman's love to be like snares and nets, and her arms around you to be like chains—who supports you on your spiritual Path, yet who challenges you, and who thereby helps you to Wake Up (plus, well, being totally, breathtakingly uninhibited in bed), then you are truly blessed. In one of Ram Dass's earlier books he said that the ONLY valid reason for a spiritual seeker to take a mate is if the marriage would actually help that person, or both, to become enlightened. If enlightenment is your top priority in life, then the deciding question should be, "Will this help me to Wake Up?" And it seems probable that some people make better spiritual progress by having a mate and even by having sex. Plus some people just plain can't live without it.
     Sometimes in the past I used to think that the case was a hopeless one—sexuality and lust have been bred into us through literally hundreds of millions of years of evolution, assuming that biological science is true, while spiritual seeking is a much more recent phenomenon. How can something relatively new and superficial compete with something bred right into the nuclei of our cells? I used to think like that, especially when I was growing frustrated and discouraged. But finally I realized that the situation is really the other way round, practically the opposite: Ultimate Reality, the goal of Dharma practice, saturates us, and is closer to us than the marrow of our own bones, constantly accessible, while lust and all other mental/physical states are just ephemeral forms, and only relatively real. So now I know that spirituality is stronger than lust, infinitely stronger; but lust is so goddam much fun that we just don't want to let go of it.

detail from Aguera, "Temptations of Buddha"



  1. I thought this two part essay was pretty awesome, and delightfully honest. My own list of reasons for not ordaining, which seem now like an infinite list, includes the exact predicaments you've described.

    I've gone very close to settling down and aborted, with three partners, because of my libido and enjoyment of the friendship of intelligent women, and my true love for them, and each time the fear of losing my freedom to investigate the truth stares at me like a prison sentence. Add to that the need to conform to a life of a house in the suburbs, 2.5 kids and 3 cars, and it looks like hell fire.

    Your observation about the predicament of having to turn down an emotionally weak woman who is madly in love and respects me as the first man to not use her sexually is very close to the truth. After several attempts to ignore bad and crazy behaviour on her part, I had to steel my heart and break off. I had several painful and agonising moments over turning her down, and watching her threaten suicide, which I was confident she wouldn't carry out, but still.

  2. There are moments when I feel like I have all the freedom I want inside my head, wu wei, or stillness in motion and all that. I become very confident that Zen is found even in a life in the suburbs with 2.5 kids and 3 cars and a career in the valley - but that moment of confidence soon passes.

    One time that moment lasted a little too long - about two months of utter confidence - togetherness, equanimity and capability - making me pretty certain that I could expertly balance both material and spiritual life - and after plans were made - boom, it was gone, and I was back to thirsting for freedom.

    It left my then partner very confused. I think this kind of insight somersault is a huge challenge for any partner. The spiritual life hasn't even begun cooking until one has done a few backflips on ideas within a year or two.

    To an ordinary woman, or even an unseasoned spiritual practitioner, this begins to look like indecision and unwillingness to commit.