What is Celibacy?
Celibacy is refraining from the pleasure of sexual activity. Some critics of Buddhism say that The Teaching goes against Nature and they claim that sex life is natural and therefore necessary.
Buddhism is not against sex, it is a natural sensual pleasure and very much a part of the worldly life. One may ask, why then did the Buddha advocate celibacy as 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 at that time also had introduced this practice. Even today, some other religionists, like the Hindus and Catholics do observe this as a vow.
Buddhists who have renounced the worldly life voluntarily 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. The married life can affect or curtail spiritual development when craving for sex and attachment occupies the mind and temptation eclipses the peace and purity of the mind.
Significance of Celibacy
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 the worldly life?”
One must remember that renunciation is not compulsory in Buddhism. It is not obligatory to renounce the worldly life totally in order to practice Buddhism. You can adjust your way of life according to your understanding by practicing certain religious principles and qualities. You can develop your 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 ofspiritual values and 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. Renunciation should come through a complete understanding of the illusory nature of the self, of the unsatisfactory nature of all sense pleasures.
Celibacy versus Responsibility — The Buddha’s Experience
The Buddha experienced his worldly life as a prince, husband and a father before his Renunciation and he knew what married life entailed. People may question the Buddha’s renunciation by saying that he was selfish and cruel and that it was not fair for him to desert his wife and child. In actual fact, the Buddha did not desert his family without a sense of responsibility.
He never had any misunderstanding with his wife. He too had the same love and attachment towards his wife and child as any normal man 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 all 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 palace, his service would have been confined to only his own family or his kingdom. That was why he decided to renounce everything m order to maintain peace and purity to gain Enlightenment and then to enlighten others who were suffering in ignorance.
One of the Buddha’s earliest tasks after gaining his Enlightenment was to return to his palace to enlighten the members of his family. In fact, when his young son, Rahula asked the Buddha for his inheritance, the Buddha said that Rahula was heir to the richest wealth, the treasure of the Dhamma. In this way, the Buddha served his family, and he paved the way for their salvation, peace and happiness. Therefore, no one can say that the Buddha was a cruel or selfish father. He was in fact more compassionate and self-sacrificing than anybody else. 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.
Another important fact was that the Buddha knew that his wife and son would not starve in his absence. During the time of the Buddha it was considered quite normal and honorable for a young man to retire from the life of a householder. Other members of the family would willingly look after his dependents. When he gained his enlightenment, he was able to give them something no other father could give — the freedom from slavery to attachment.
by Ven K Sri Dhammananda