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Brahmacarya and the Future of the Western Buddhist Order

by Kamalashila

Brahmacarya

(and the Future of the Western Buddhist Order)

by Kamalashila

Talk given at WBO Day 1992, London

When Arthadarshin phoned me with the request from Bhante to give this talk, I said yes
of course. But inwardly I groaned. The subject is such a huge one. Not only Brahmacarya
– a big enough topic on its own – but the future of the Western Buddhist Order! In spite
of much experience of both Brahmacarya and the ever-unfolding future of the Western
Buddhist Order, I have not fully clarified my thinking about either of these topics,
certainly not the first.

I had the feeling, I don't know if it's true, that Bhante might have been trying to get me to
clarify my ideas about Brahmacarya. Well, the approaching deadline of this talk has
certainly made me want to do that.

I'm rather afraid of the topic of Brahmacarya. It is a topic about which one can say much
from a standpoint of theory, yet completely fail to live up to it in practice. In the area of
sexual life, public pronouncement and private actions can sometimes be completely
different things. In giving this talk I feel my own ignorance and inexperience very deeply
and would like to request your lenience just in case I happen to tread too heavily upon
your delicate parts. In this area more than any other it is seemingly impossible to be 'all
things to all men' … and all things to all women. There, I've done it already.

Some of you will know that I gave a talk on Brahmacarya on the Order Convention in
1985. It was called ‘The Brahma Life’. I thought it had potential, and in my ambition I
evolved this talk into a somewhat lengthy paper that I read in one or two places over the
following year. I tried to synthesise my understanding of the principles of traditional
Buddhist monastic life with Bhante's ideas, mostly I think from the 'Ten Pillars', about
Brahmacarya, the dhyanas, and insight, together with some personal observations about
sexual relationships and sexual continence. I struggled with this paper over that whole
period, and as I did, it became even more lengthy and increasingly dry.

I don't think the paper had to be as dry as it became – on re-reading it, the core arguments
seem sound enough. The dryness was my dryness. For as I wrote, I lost some of my faith
in the Brahma Life.

I never bothered to complete the paper, partly because its message seemed to be
increasingly irrelevant at Vajraloka. Even though we had always been a monastic
community of sorts, the idea of monastic life had not really been 'in' at Vajraloka for
some time.

To some extent we were forced in this direction by circumstances. The various other
FWBO Centres always insisted that we must support ourselves financially through
getting men to go on retreat. So the notorious, and very unpopular, 'quota system' was
evolved, by which centres undertook to underwrite a certain number of retreat places. In
response to this situation, we felt that we should provide more teaching and give
ourselves a higher profile.

To some extent the community felt that the monastic life was not an attractive basis for
promoting these activities. Though I was not a member of the community at that time, I
did not agree with this. I thought that if it was lived in the right spirit, such a community
could be very attractive. But I was in a minority, and so felt in danger of getting isolated
from my fellow chapter members. In any case I felt that my position might be extreme. I
found it hard to know what was best. And in the climate of those days I felt that I needed
to make a tactical withdrawal.

There was indeed a particular climate then. As the 80's drew towards the 90's people
everywhere – not just in the FWBO, but apparently throughout British society – seemed
to be getting into serious sexual relationships. It was the decade in which AIDS had to be
taken seriously. Mrs. Thatcher was preaching the virtues of marriage and the family, and
at that level – the Daily Mail level – her message seemed to be getting through. In the
FWBO and the WBO the era of promiscuity that had flowered – and deflowered – in the
early part of the decade was over. Now, more and more people wanted to be in
monogamous sexual relationships.

In my isolated position, I was not unaffected by this climate myself. I had been practising
Brahmacarya since before my ordination. Obviously at times there had been conflict, but
there had been many benefits. But I wasn't completely sure about my relationships with
others, which at that time were a little strained. What's the point, I thought, in insisting on
being different. Is this really helping my communication? Why be rigid? Why not do
something new and maybe learn something? Maybe I was premature in deciding to go
celibate in my 20s. Can I really profess to know about the benefits of the Brahma Life
without some sexual experience in my more mature years? Thus I eventually decided,
well, if you can't beat them, join them! Maybe, I thought, this is an opportunity for me to
do some experimentation.Everyone else in the Order has been experimenting – so
maybe they know something that I don't!

Whether my disrobing was a useful skilful means or a spiritual disaster, time alone will
tell. I do think that it was useful, for me, from some points of view. I'm doubtful as to
whether it was useful for anyone else. More recently I have resumed the Brahmacarya
vow for a year, and … well, we'll have to see!

But anyway the paper about monastic life and Brahmacarya died a death. It just seemed
to proliferate more and more ideas that I couldn't tie together. And that was what I was
afraid would happen with this talk too. It seems somehow typical of this topic. Sex is a
topic to which there seems to be no end, no resolution. And no doubt there isn't, on its
own level.

In the FWBO, the ideal of Brahmacharya has been hailed as the resolution of the sexual
dilemma. In traditional Buddhism, Brahmacharya is praised as the way of life most suited
to developing inner harmony and insight into reality. But most people cannot see it in
those terms – or rather, they may be able to see it in those terms. What they find difficult
is seeing how the ideal of Brahmacarya squares with their own life.

Clearly, what we need is some more clearly defined vision of Brahmacarya – of this
much-extolled resolution of the sexual dilemma. What is the path to its resolution, how
can we approach that resolution?

In some recent Order meetings at Vajraloka we have been discussing issues raised by
Brahmacharya. Once or twice I have watched us talking – me included – and I have
thought, “we really don't know very much about what we're talking about”.

I don't think this reflects particularly on our chapter. On the whole, I think this is human
nature. Here we are, discussing these things so intelligently and openly, but we don't
really know. All our knowledge comes from our limited experience, and that experience
is of relating sexually. We actually have very little experience of Brahmacharya. We
don't actually know very much about the larger possibilities of the spiritual life. As
spiritual beings, we are still unhatched, just embryos. We are speaking from inside the
eggshell of ignorance. We are still inside the egg, waiting to be born, waiting to see what
is on the outside, in the real world.

This is one approach to resolving the sexual dilemma. Looking at where we're at, looking
at the human condition.

To do this, we need to start with some very basic facts. I hope you're prepared for this.
These facts are the ones that your mummy or your daddy might, or might not, have
provided you with at a certain tender age. Of course we know these things very, very well
indeed, but let's just go over the basics. I think that we may need to get these 'facts of life'
in a more Dharmic perspective.

When we talk about resolving the sexual dilemma, we need to be very clear in our minds
about what sexuality is. Sexuality is a form of conditioning. And very fundamental to this
conditioning is the fact that there is a body. A certain type of body. As I'm sure you've
noticed, there are two broad types of body: male and female. Conditioned by the type of
body, and lots of other things too of course, arise certain mental states – certain feelings
and certain emotions – that you'll be very familiar with.

Of course, within those two broad types, there are many variants of sexual conditioning.
Now that sexuality is so much more acknowledged than it used to be – though still,
perhaps, not as much as it should be – it has also become more acknowledged that there
are very great variations in sexual feelings. And it seems that these differences are so
great – since you have to make so much allowance for these differences in your dealings
with people – that it could almost be said that the human species divides into not just two
but four different sexes. There's heterosexual male and female, and homosexual male and
female. The members of each of these 'sexes' (to use that term) have very different
feelings ...

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