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  • Buddhist and Catholic Monks Talk about Celibacy
  • Thomas Ryan, CSP

The electronic sign at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport was flashing "Orange Alert" as a dozen Buddhist monks arrived in their burnt orange robes from around the country for three days of dialogue on celibacy with a similar number of Catholic monastics come together from various monasteries at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. As he opened the October 26–29, 2006, meeting, Rev. William Skudlarek, executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID), said, "You (Buddhists) have been at this for some five-to-seven hundred years longer than we have. We have something to learn."

This was the second Monks in the West interreligious dialogue. The first took place in 2004 at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in northern California. On the Catholic side, the participants came from the Benedictine, Cistercian, and Camaldolese monasteries. On the Buddhist side, they came from the Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan traditions. Through the event, participants began the day with an hour of quiet sitting in meditation and joined the monastic community at St. John's for their rhythm of daily prayer.

The first session dealt with theory, the "why" of celibacy. Buddhist participants explained that their teachings focus on seeing how suffering is created and cured. Attachments give rise to suffering, so advancement in the spiritual life requires letting go of one's attachments. Attachment to desires, among which are sexual desires, is a hindrance to spiritual progress. "Raging desire takes away choice, freedom," said Rev. Kusala Bhikshu, a Buddhist chaplain at UCLA, in his opening presentation. "The senses must be controlled in order to be free."

Brother Gregory Perron from St. Procopius monastery in Indiana spoke of how monastic life demands a profound understanding and acceptance of solitude. "Celibacy is a tool," offered Perron, "a skillful means like intentional simplicity of life, by which our heart is burrowed out and the core of our being laid bare. By embracing it, the monk accepts the aloneness that characterizes every human being."

In response to Buddhist reflections on the illusory nature of the body, Catholic participants pointed out Christianity's remarkably positive evaluation of the [End Page 143] body in the doctrines of the Incarnation, the bodily Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Both sides acknowledged balancing points of reference as well, such as, in Christianity, Paul's "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24). Though humankind ranks eighth from the bottom in Buddhism's thirty-two-realm cosmology, that level is the only one where spiritual growth can happen. Thus human form is in the end praised by the Buddha.

In the second session, the participants moved from theory to practice. Rev. Jisho Perry from the Shasta Buddhist Abbey in California said that "the whole thrust of training is not to give in to desire that arises." He described the Buddhist method of accepting sexual feelings without either acting on them or repressing them, but just letting them pass through. "The right use of will is willingness, not willpower—the willingness to sit there and let that feeling pass through," he said.

Fr. Skudlarek expressed appreciation for this Buddhist approach to transforming the sexual energy. "I never got a sense in our training of accepting the feeling with awareness and letting it pass without acting on it. You had to fight it! And the more you resisted, the stronger it got!"

Rev. Heng Sure, who teaches at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, presented celibacy as the first step in a three-step process that goes from celibacy to stillness to insight. "It should not be seen just as a difficult adjunct to the spiritual path, but as essential to it," he said. The practice of meditation represents daily periods when the senses are stilled and not allowed to pursue sense objects. "Something happens to the energy in the stillness; the pressure goes away." In married life, he explained, spiritual practice is "partial and piecemeal," making celibacy a more effective means to move toward insight and the peace and happiness that flow from it. In the discussion, Benedictine Fr. Mark...