Significance of celibacy

by Dr. D P Atukorale

(August 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Celibacy is deliberate refraining from sexual activity usually in connection with a religious role or practice. It has existed in some form in most world religions and may indicate a person’s ritual purity, or may be adopted to facilitate spiritual advancement. In shamanistic religions, shamans are often celibate. In Hinduism "holy men/women", who have left ordinary secular life to seek final liberation are celibate.

Islam has no institutional celibacy, but individuals may embrace it for personal spiritual advancement. Judaism has prescribed periods of abstinence, but long-term celibacy has not played a large role. The early Christian Church tended to regard celibacy as superior to marriage. Since the 12th Century, it has been the role for the Roman Catholic clergy, though clerical celibacy was never adopted by Protestantism.

Did Buddha advocate celibacy?

Buddhism is not against sex; it is natural sensual pleasure and very much a part of the worldly life. One may ask, why then did the Buddha advocate celibacy as I a precept? Is it not unfair and against nature?

Well the observance of celibacy for spiritual development was not a new religious precept at the time of the Buddha. All the other existing religions in India during the time of the Buddha also had introduced this practice. Even today, some Hindus and Catholics do observe this as a vow.

Buddhists who have renounced the worldly life voluntarily as in case of bhikkus and bhikkunis and some "upasikas" observe this precept because they are fully aware of the commitments and disturbances which come along if one commits oneself to the life of a family person. It is common knowledge that married life can affect or curtail spiritual development when craving for sex and attachment occupies the mind and temptation eclipses peace and purity of the mind.

Significance of celibacy in Buddhism

People tend to ask, "If the Buddha did not preach against married life, why then did He advocate celibacy as one of the important precepts to be observed, and why did He advise people to avoid sex and renounce worldly life".

It is noteworthy that renunciation is not compulsory in Buddhism. It is not obligatory to renounce the wordly life totally in order to practice Buddhism. One can develop his or her religious principles according to the needs of a lay life. However, when you have progressed and attained greater wisdom and realize that the layman’s way of life is not conducive for the ultimate development of the purification of the mind, you may choose to renounce the worldly life and concentrate more on spiritual development.

The Buddha recommended celibacy because sex and marriage are not conducive to ultimate peace and purity of the mind and renunciation is necessary if one wishes to gain spiritual development and perfection at the highest level. But this renunciation should come naturally and must never be forced.

Celibacy versus responsibility

The Buddha experienced his worldly life as a prince, husband and a father before his renunciation and he knew what married life entailed. Some non-Buddhists say that Prince Siddhartha was selfish and cruel and that it was not fair for him to desert his wife and child. In actual fact, Prince Siddhartha did not desert his family without a sense of responsibility.

He never had any misunderstanding with his wife. He had same love and attachment towards his wife and child as any normal person would have, perhaps, even greater.

The difference was that his love was not mere physical and selfish love. He had the courage and understanding to detach that emotional and selfish love for a good cause His sacrifice is considered the more noble, because he set aside his personal needs and desires in order to serve all of mankind for all time.

The main aim of his renunciation was not only for his own happiness, peace or salvation, but for the sake of mankind. Had he remained in the royal household, his service would have been confined to only his family or his kingdom and that is why he decided to renounce everything in order to gain enlightenment and then to enlighten others who were suffering in ignorance.

Thus one of Buddha’s earliest tasks after gaining Enlightenment was to return to his palace to enlighten the members of his family, including his wife and son. Buddha served his family and paved the way for their salvation, peace and happiness . Therefore, no one can say that Buddha was a cruel or selfish man. With his high degree of spiritual development, the Buddha knew that marriage was a temporary phase, while Enlightenment was eternal and for the good of all mankind.

The Buddha knew that his wife and son would not starve in his absence and that other members of his family would willingly look after his dependants. When He gained Enlightenment, he was able to give his family something no other man could have given, namely the freedom from slavery to attachment.

1. Encyclopedia Britannica,

2. Happy Married Life by Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda

- Sri Lanka Guardian