The Dalai Lama—potentially the happiest person on earth—has been known to advocate celibacy, not just for monks or priests or ascetics, but for everybody. Sex, love, marriage, and child-rearing, he argues, are forms of attachment that lead to misery, and sometimes, as he points out, murder and suicide. We’d all do better just to call the whole thing off.
It seems odd that the most important behaviors for the perpetuation of our species, finding a mate, having sex, raising children, could be such impediments to our spiritual growth. If we all followed the Tibetan Buddhist path to enlightenment, our species would die out in a generation.
In the Dalai Lama’s view, sex and romantic love are unhealthy addictions that should be relinquished, much like junk food or television. Like all worldly attachments, we value it more than its actual worth and imbue it with all kinds of meanings that stem from our own state of mind more than from the act itself.
Once we relinquish our unhealthy attachments, we see them for what they really are, unadorned by our compulsive fascinations with them. That box of cookies is a concoction of highly processed flour and sugar and chemically-altered oils. Those people on the reality television show are not our familiar acquaintances but particularly inane and narcissistic strangers.
And sex—well it’s really just a lot of groping and banging around of genitals that happens to cause a powerful wave of addictive chemicals to pour through our bloodstream, much like the cookies do. And as with the cookies, once we give up sex, and the chase that precedes it, and the commitment that follows it, perhaps our lives will be healthier. As with cookies and cigarettes and television and college, perhaps we will think of it wistfully from time to time, with that nostalgia we reserve for things that we once loved but which we now know were bad for us.
On the other hand, my other spiritual guru, sex columnist Dan Savage, believes that repressing or denying our sexuality can lead us to act out in inappropriate ways, like priests who molest children or closeted gay U.S. senators who harass young male interns. If these men would allow themselves—or if their respective institutions (the Catholic Church, the Republican Party) would allow them—to be in loving relationships with partners of their choosing, they would not feel the compulsion to impose their sexuality on innocent bystanders.
That is the fear about a life of celibacy, that in trying to maintain a healthy diet, we are in fact unconsciously starving our bodies and minds of something we need, a process that could turn us sicker than we were before we began trying to heal ourselves.
This raises the question: is sex and love something we can really renounce? Or is it something that will manifest itself in our lives in one way or another, something that will turn rancid if we don’t direct our energies towards healthy partners and relationships that make us happy? Is what the Dalai Lama advocates more like renouncing junk food or renouncing food itself?