Say “monk” and most people will answer you back: “no sex”. But celibacy is really secondary. Just like how when we send people on fasting retreats, they’ll be very nervous about the fasting. And even though we tell them that the fasting will not be difficult, they don’t believe it, before they go. But afterwards they come back declaring that the fasting was no big deal, but other matters did preoccupy them to the exclusion of everything else. Even thoughts about food. So it is with sex and celibacy in monasticism. The keyword here is “renunciation”. In Tibetan usage the word really is: “disgust”. We’re called upon to develop sufficient disgust with being in samsara to want to do something about it. And of course the most expedient way in which we can be of benefit to suffering sentient beings is to reach enlightenment quickly. It would seem that being a monastic is the most efficient way of doing so. Or at least, a life that can be regulated in such a way that sufficient practice can be had in it. This almost impossible if one is a householder, and so we need to regulate our life further: if we raise renunciation to a sufficient degree, we will start longing for a life of renunciation, the life of a monastic. Once there, we find that we want to perfect our vows, which includes the vows of a householder that we took when taking refuge. For the monastic, perfection of these vows points directly to celibacy: no “sexual misconduct”.
Keeping the vows pure (or as pure as possible) is both fruit and ground of practice. Recently I was drawn into a discussion about what is being called “American Buddhism”, or “Consensus Buddhism”: a buddhism its exponents hope will emerge from 5 decades of Buddhist practice in the West. This practice is a practice of householders who consider themselves at least, potential, monastics. Yet these practitioners still lead the life of householders. If they take ordination, it is an ordination of which the vows need a lot of reinforcement because without a monastic community that practices in a monastery it is very difficult to keep vows pure, even more difficult than it is for monastics in a monastery. There is the strange contradiction that monastic practice is the ideal, because it is considered the highest practice, yet, the full life of a monastic is not one a practitioner aspires to. And actually, Buddhists in the west often consider the devotional Buddhist practices of Asian lay Buddhists to be slightly silly, uneducated. I feel the lack of belief in rebirth is a factor in this. Because how can we believe we need to accumulate merit for future births if we don’t believe we will be born again? Indeed, how can we practice at all, if we cannot raise renunciation to a sufficient degree, based on wanting to stop uncontrolled births from happening? For others and for ourselves? The answer is, we can’t. Keeping the precepts is the bedrock of monasticism, arriving at the notion that we need to maintain an efficient and effective practice is the bedrock of being a Buddhist.