Sex, Celibacy and Spirituality: Why the Dalai Lama Doesn't Date
Do sexual relationships preclude peace of mind?
Posted Jul 06, 2012
CNN's Piers Morgan recently interviewed His Holiness the Dalai Lama, at one point asking him candidly about sex:
MORGAN: As a monk, you obviously subscribe to a vow of celibacy.
DALAI LAMA: Yes.
MORGAN: Is that hard?
DALAI LAMA: No. If you just, you see, physically experience, then you sometimes—you may find a certain desire. But then whole picture —I often used to telling one occasion in England, some Buddhist monk. European Buddhist monk. I told them, when we watch the people who have family, sometimes I notice my first visit, another woman, another wife. Second visit, another woman, another wife. Previous wife, some children. Then another occasion, third, third wife.
DALAI LAMA: So, these, see, really, children suffer much when divorce, when parents divorce. And I told the married people, their mental state, their emotional state, too much ups and downs. Compare that with celibate people sort of mind more steady. So, long run, we have some advantage.
MORGAN: Do you ever feel temptation when you see a woman?
DALAI LAMA: Oh, yes, sometimes see people. Oh, this is very nice. But then thinking—thinking it's a real job, then feel, too much problem—
DALAI LAMA: Too much dirty things like that.
This is why the Dalai Lama doesn't date.
Does the 14th Dalai Lama really think sex is "dirty?" Well, as the saying goes, it is when it's done right. But I don't believe he meant "dirty" as much as messy. Not necessarily physically messy. Though surely he knows having sex can lead to contracting or transmitting diseases like chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital warts, syphilis, pelvic inflammatory disease, herpes, or HIV. (Well, he may not be familiar with all STDs.) But he sees the bigger problem: Sex is psychologically messy. Emotionally messy. (See my prior posts.) Even dangerous.
This is why there is really no such thing as the oxymoron "safe sex." Sex always entails some risk, either physically or emotionally. Sure, we can and do try to minimize the risks in various ways. But, as the Dalai Lama suggests, sex and romantic love are not particularly conducive to peace of mind. Sex complicates life. And can be the source of immense suffering. As well as pleasure.
As we all know, sex and romantic love tend to wreak havoc with our emotions, not unlike a bipolar rollercoaster ride, taking us to both the heights of ecstasy and depths of despair. Sexual love can feel like having been infected with some exotic virus or possessed by some erotic spirit or demon.
Soon after meeting the beloved, the classic symptoms ensue: anxiety, sleeplessness, agitation, appetite disturbance, obsessive longing, compulsive calling, alternating elation and apprehension and countless other little signs lovers learn to live with. This potent state of intoxication is the polar opposite of psychological serenity. Daimonic passions like eros or lust tend to undermine one's peace of mind.
Of course, he wouldn't have any way of knowing about sex from personal experience. The Dalai Lama is, with his birthday being celebrated today, a 77-year-old virgin. A Buddhist monk since boyhood, the Dalai Lama believes that sex offers fleeting satisfaction but leads to trouble and tribulation, while celibacy offers a better life and "more independence, more freedom." He has noted that problems arising from sexual relationships can, in some extreme cases, lead to suicide or murder.
For the Dalai Lama and other religious practitioners like priests and nuns, the solution seems to be to avoid such disturbing drama altogether by being celibate. But obviously, this is no prescription for humanity in general. If we all became celibate, there might be more serenity, but the human race would come to a screeching halt. No procreation, no people. Not to mention no more love songs, romantic poetry, self-sacrificing acts of devotion, etc. So how can the rest of us preserve our precious peace of mind without avoiding sex and sexual entanglement entirely?
Modern life has become increasingly complicated. And nothing complicates like love and sex. Simplicity promotes peace of mind. Simplicity and the avoidance or renunciation of what Buddha called dukkha, desire or attachment, the root of most human suffering. So if we want peace of mind, and mental and emotional stability, simplifying life seems the obvious solution. Not getting overly involved in life's messiness; remaining aloof and detached from life's passionate human drama.
This is a traditional approach to spiritual practice. And one which, as we have seen in the perverse sexual escapades of supposedly celibate priests in the Catholic Church, evangelical preachers and various and sundry spiritual gurus, is dubious at best. Repressing the instinctual sexual impulse is, as Sigmund Freud insisted, a recipe for disaster.
But there are alternative approaches to sex and spirituality too. For instance, Tantric yoga uses sexuality and sexual energy to facilitate spiritual growth and has been doing so for millennia. So sex is not necessarily detrimental or antithetical to spirituality. Indeed, it could be argued that sex is an essential part of psychological, emotional, and spiritual growth and development.
Still, sex certainly makes life much more complex. The institution of marriage, monogamy, and fidelity is one way society tries to keep things simple for people regarding sexuality. Marriage attempts to control and make sex simple: One has but one sexual partner and foresakes all others.
This traditional arrangement simplifies matters significantly. Or is at least intended to. But in practice, marriage is itself a complicated relationship, typically leading to children, in-laws, power struggles, financial conflict, etc. And, in a majority of modern marriages, to disillusionment, cheating, animosity, and divorce. Which are anything but simple.
Being single and dating is an equally complicated activity today, one which can engender significant anxiety, confusion, frustration, and pain. So much so that many singles avoid dating altogether; in effect, choosing celibacy.
Is it possible to have peace of mind without avoiding sex, love, or marriage? Without choosing celibacy? This is the true challenge.
Avoiding life's complications makes maintaining peace of mind comparatively easy, as the Dalai Lama suggests. Sitting on the mountaintop or monastery contemplating one's navel unperturbed by and detached from civilization and its discontents, free from constant carnal temptation, is one thing. Not that such an austere life is easy. It takes immense self-discipline.
But it takes more courage to embrace life completely. Even the Dalai Lama cannot rise above all of life's inescapable little dramas and passion plays, as exemplified in his ongoing personal and political struggles with China regarding Tibetan independence. (See my prior post.) No one is immune. Life eventually lures us all in. Maya, the hypnotic power of illusion, cannot be completely resisted. Reality compels us to relate to life. And to each other. As does biology. Society. And psychology. This is what it means to be human.
So how can the ordinary person cultivate peace of mind, serenity, psychological and emotional stability while at the same time being fully engaged in life's incessant drama? In what Nikos Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe?"
Might it even be possible that embracing sex, love, and marriage could enhance mental and emotional stability? Some studies suggest so. (See this PT post critiquing this presumed "marriage advantage.") Certainly, this was Freud's point. Avoiding or repressing sexuality leads to neurosis, not mental stability.
The Dalai Lama understands this. To his credit, he does not deny his own sexual impulses. He consciously acknowledges his own sexual drives or urges, but chooses not to act upon them. That is part of his spiritual practice and training. And that is his prerogative. And anyone else's.
But for the rest of us, the choice is different. We choose (or perhaps, more commonly, are compelled) to involve ourselves in romantic relationships, love, and sex. (Though, except in extreme cases of compulsive sexuality, we, like the Dalai Lama, also exercise our will in limiting or restricting the expression of our libido. See, for example, my prior post on promiscuity.) Despite all the complications and suffering this brings. But why? Are we gluttons for punishment? A masochistic species?
Regarding romance, sex, and love, Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977) may have got it right:
I thought of that old joke: This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken.' And the doctor says, 'Well why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs.' Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about relationships. They're totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.
Most of us still need the eggs. Even when what we have to go through to get them is messy, complicated, destabilizing, and distressing. Detrimental to our peace of mind and mental tranquility. Meditation can help to keep us calm and centered during the sturm und drang of sex, love and romance when regularly practiced. And psychotherapy can aid in keeping things in perspective and dealing with our daimonic emotions as constructively and consciously as possible. (See my prior post.) Especially when paired together. For too many today, psychiatric medication is depended upon for mood stabilization and mental stability to weather life's and love's frequent ups and downs. But ultimately, nothing can spare us from life's supreme drama; as Arjuna, the spiritually conflicted protagonist in the Hindu holy book the Bhagavad Gita discovers.
Arjuna, the sensitive young prince, suddenly loses his nerve just before a great battle. Overlooking the bloody field of battle, he is repulsed by the violence and refuses to participate in the gory, inhumane exercise of war; in which he would be fighting against and killing his own family members among many others. And possibly being killed.
His chariot driver reveals himself to be Lord Krishna, and enters into conversation with the paralyzed prince, eventually convincing him that "action is better than inaction," and that we humans have no real choice but to play our parts in life to the best of our ability, do our biological and societal duty, without getting too attached to the outcome, be it joy or suffering, honor or shame, winning or losing, life or death.
Arjuna finally chooses to fight, bravely accepting his fate, embracing his destiny. (See my prior post on fate and destiny.) As does the Dalai Lama, who accepts his own fate and destiny as being a celibate Buddhist monk and iconic spiritual leader. His is a higher calling, one that takes precedence over his personal needs and desires, sexual or otherwise. As Shakespeare in As You Like It put it, we are all players on a stage, and required by life to fulfill our fated roles throughout the life span:
All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.
For the vast majority of us, however, this means engaging in sexual activity at some point in life. Playing the part of lover, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife. Entering into the arena of sexual relationship requires courage, the bravery of a warrior ready for battle. (See my prior post on courage.) It may be safer and more serene observing dispassionately from the sidelines. But a lot less fun.
Yes, most of us players still need the eggs. We need them to feel loved, secure, cared for, and comforted. To assuage our existential aloneness. The trick is maintaining our sanity, emotional stability, and peace of mind during the process of collecting, preparing, and consuming those eggs. Not totally losing one's self and serenity in the maelstrom of sexual intimacy.
But then, that brings to mind another egg-related metaphor: "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Sex and love may be a messy business. Unsettling. Frustrating. Risky. Painful. Even dangerous and sometimes fatal. But it is also creative, transformative, delicious, satisfies our primal appetite for human warmth and connection, and nurtures our bodies, spirit, or soul. Not to mention perpetuating the species.
Psychologically speaking, eggs symbolize sexuality, fertility, creativity, wholeness, procreation, gestation, transformation, rebirth, and renewal. Also sustenance and nutrition. Sex is, like eating, one of life's sensual pleasures and helps make life worth living. Sexual or romantic relationships can be essential to both personal and spiritual growth. Sex can assist in seeking the Self.
But be aware that, when it comes to sex, there is a delicate balance between engagement and detachment, desire and addiction. So go ahead. Get those eggs. Make that messy omelet. And savor every morsel. But do so mindfully, consciously, lovingly, willingly accepting both the positive and negative aspects of sex. The dark side of romance. The bitter with the sweet. This may help promote peace of mind even in those of us who embrace sex as an integral, indispensable, and even spiritual dimension of existence.