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What the Buddha Taught

An interview with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
by Simeon Alev



In a perfect world, the opening line of this introduction would have read: "This issue of What Is Enlightenment? would not be complete without the following interview with the Buddha." This is not a perfect world, of course, but What Is Enlightenment? always strives for perfection, and we felt certain that, as one of history's most illustrious celibates, the Buddha would have had more than a few enlightening things to tell us about the relationship between sexuality and spirituality, and no shortage of comments on the decline of celibacy and the increasing popularity of tantra in the modern spiritual world. How, we wondered, would our issue ever be complete without him?

But when we spoke with Bhante Henepola Gunaratana—or "Bhanteji," as he is affectionately called by his students—he put our minds at ease. Ordained a celibate Buddhist monk at the age of twelve in Sri Lanka, the country of his birth, Bhante Gunaratana is today, at seventy, a renowned Buddhist scholar and author and the spiritual leader of the Bhavana Society, a monastic retreat center in West Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. According to the Bhante, our interview with the Buddha would have yielded no real surprises because where spirituality and sex are concerned, things haven't really changed that much since the Buddha's time. In our time there are still, relatively speaking, just a few monks, still many householders, and still—as the Bhante feels there always will be—more than a few adventurous souls who are convinced that sex, not renunciation, is going to lead them to the highest peaks of human consciousness. And the Buddha, in the course of his life, gave teachings, precepts and admonitions to address the spiritual needs of individuals in all three of these categories.

What, then, were the Buddha's views on spirituality and sex? Steeped in the dharma [spiritual teaching] since his youth, Bhante Gunaratana answered all of our questions with a conviction that was utterly doubtless and a gentle and infectious humor that made it an unqualified pleasure to speak with him. And as the hour he had reserved for us drew to a close, he described his own lifelong experience of celibacy—its challenges and rewards—with a sweetness and enthusiasm born of the certainty that in a life of absolute renunciation there is absolutely nothing missing.


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