Monasticism: Celibacy and Companionship are not only compatible, but crucial

Condoms are being distributed in Bhutanese monasteries to stop the spread of STDs among boys and young men. Monks are sending lewd DMs to female monastics (I have seen these for myself, and many others have their own evidence). There are rumors, corroborated by different parties, of abuses of power in certain universities and monasteries. And, of course, most Buddhists know about high-profile and explosive cases of prominent masters accused of relationships with students, or monastics caught in inappropriate association with each other.

Until a Buddhist neighborhood gets its own Spotlight team of investigative reporters (from the excellent 2015 film of the same name), scandals will remain difficult to confirm and to quantify. However, the fact that these occurrences are regularly whispered about among Buddhist circles, means that even if every scandal in the Buddhist world could be disproven, there are evidently psychological and sexual hangups among the community of monastics that threaten its image of sanctity, as well as the personal honor of its members.

The greatest mistake Ananda ever committed was forgetting to ask the Buddha how celibacy could be managed in a healthy way by future generations of monks and nuns (especially monks). His lack of foresight and cluelessness was as remarkable as his fabled beauty. We are looking, after all, at the monk that failed to pick up on his own cousin, the Buddha’s, hint that he could stay in the world longer and was the last among the Hearers (sravaka) to become an arhat. It is a true waste given how Ananda’s good looks are said to have attracted women to his Dhamma talks. No doubt the earliest bhikkhunis enjoyed having their new community in Ananda’s hands (he was the women’s spiritual guide). The longing for human connection, the fact that human beings are sexual beings, is admitted in the story of Ananda. Yet the Vinaya, while containing plenty of injunctions to prevent sexual acts, was silent on how to sublimate rather than suppress natural longings and urges. Since this was not a matter for Buddhist law, this was left to the living community and its successors to figure out.

Men and women that join the monastic sangha renounce the two things that everyone understands, as Francis Urquhart from House of Cards observes: sex and money. Even more so than money today (since everyone needs a bank account), celibacy is the one and only true marker of monastic identity and lifestyle. The simplest argument for maintaining it is that the Buddha upheld it, and the entire institution of the sangha hinges on it being taken seriously. Yet to use some Internet parlance, there is some “incel” behavior being exhibited by a minority of monks. Incels are young men that feel they have no chance at a relationship with a woman or sexual and romantic interaction. Some of them lash out online and in real life. When it comes to monks behaving like incels, their activities can range from harassment of nuns over the Internet to sexual acts that even if consensual (and some are not), remain inappropriate and unethical because they are supposed to be celibate.

Opposite to the incel category are “volcels” – the voluntarily celibate. On the outside, they are just like incels, but their inner being could not be more different. Monks could be said to have been the original volcels. Monastics should be behaving like happy volcels, rather than incels desperate for sex. The disconnect occurs when monastics know they should be happy, yet do not feel happy. This is because the injunction toward celibate practice is not being handled deftly. Feelings are not being sublimated but rather suppressed or avoided. Elders do their best, but without psychological insight and an appreciation of natural longings, the Middle Way is lost to either the extreme of repressed blockages or the extreme of clandestine immorality.

Most pastoral ministers, psychotherapists, and counselors will conclude that this is a recipe for anger, resentment, and an attraction to the taboo. It will lead to more fascination and obsession with possible objects of sexual interest. Developing a healthy disposition to treating women and men as human beings rather than generalizing their experiences can become more difficult. And rather than cultivating prudence, the temptation to indulge in anti-social belief systems like misogyny or sexism – or attempt relationships in secret – will grow stronger.

The Buddha’s preferred source of sublimation was actually people-centered, appearing in the form of kalyāṇa-mittatā, “noble friends.” In most communities today, the meaning of the term has been slightly degraded, referring to relations between monks and laypeople or among laity alone. What I believe Buddhist communities worldwide need is a radical revival and expansion of the kalyāṇa-mittatā idea: not only among monks and nuns, but also between them. Monks and nuns need great spiritual companions, both male and female, to be with each other, as companions, comrades, and collaborators. Human beings yearn for love more than sex, and even though one can survive without sex, it is almost impossible to live happily without genuine human connection and affection.

The kalyāṇa-mittatā relationship, critically, does not exclude these modes of relating, only physical sexual acts and the mental unskilfulness of attachment. If monastics are empowered to love one another as noble friends, the quality of companionship and bonding will bring strength and clarity to their shared goals as celibate monastics. These goals were defined by none other than Ananda himself (we come full circle) in the Kalyāṇamittasutta as helping one to cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path and realize the end of suffering.

The implications would be big. They would include a rethink by temples on gender segregation and reducing it in creative and appropriate ways. Perhaps monks and nuns could have get-togethers or monastic socials when it is time for festivals. To help facilitate emotional closeness, there could be “noble friend meet-ups,” in which male-only monasteries and nunneries bring its members together, to share in small groups about their work, collaborative ideas, and problems and struggles. The idea is to face down the shadow side of “temptation,” which is as much clinging as abandoning celibacy would be. As long as the guardrails of kalyāṇa-mittatā are in place, the possibilities are near-limitless. The main guardrail is the principle that monks and nuns, in connecting, are to engage in platonic companionships, with all human attraction and chemistry sublimated into shared love for and desire to serve the Dharma and all beings. Why should this joyful spiritual work not be shared with noble friends?

Sanghas must be prepared for monks and nuns that, due to human nature, end up disrobing to enter legitimately into a marriage. Even so, the minority of monastics that become wives and husbands as laity would still represent the Buddha’s original vision better than the current glut of scandals, of clandestine pleasure-seeking and outright abuse. Monks and nuns are human beings and need love and connection, the only difference being that they are “volcels.” Voluntary celibates do not suddenly lose their ability and desire for companionship. That this companionship can be noble should mean that the yearning for someone to share the Buddhist path with is, far from unskilful or deplorable, actually worth serious facilitation.

To have someone as a kalyāṇa-mittatā is to see them in their full humanity, accepting them as they are while also seeing Buddha Nature in them. For decades and even centuries, monks and nuns alike have been denied this opportunity for each other. This has led to the present difficulties, with scandals being the shadow of lost chances of sublimation. New models of monastic relations need to be considered if the Buddhist Order is to move on to a healthier path.     

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