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section introduction

In putting together this issue, we were intrigued to discover that celibacy is a more taboo subject than is tantric sexuality. The more we looked, the more apparent it became that, generally speaking, the subject of celibacy does not often arise for the spiritually inclined. In fact, in the postmodern spiritual marketplace, talk of renunciation of any kind is rarely heard. Considering that there is an ever growing interest in Buddhism, which has a 2500-year monastic tradition; that the hallowed name of the modern Indian saint and legendary renunciate Ramana Maharshi evokes awe in the hearts and minds of an ever greater number of seekers; that Jesus himself is believed to have lived a chaste life; and that the Dalai Lama, a celibate monk, is universally recognized to be a living embodiment of purity and compassion; it is peculiar that so few modern seekers even think about the role of celibacy in spiritual life.

What is the role of celibacy on the spiritual path? We asked three extraordinary individuals who have dedicated themselves completely to the spiritual life to speak candidly about their own experience of the significance of celibacy. We purposely chose to speak with those rare individuals who are not only living examples of success on the spiritual path, but who are also lifelong celibates, because we felt that they alone would truly be able to shed some light on this rarely discussed and often misunderstood subject. What they had to say is challenging to the ultimate degree to anyone who sincerely endeavors to embark on the spiritual path.

Father Thomas Keating, Trappist monk, former abbot and cofounder of the centering prayer movement, who has been celibate for over fifty years, movingly explains: "Chastity enhances and extends the power to love. It enables us to perceive the sacredness of everything that is, especially of other people. But to reach that, one has to go through a process away from the experience of conventional intimacy with others and toward another kind of intimacy, which . . . loves them not for any physical purpose of one's own. And as a consequence of that, one respects the dignity of other persons and couldn't possibly use them for sexual or emotional fulfillment."

The greatly revered Swami Chidananda, successor of the late Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, cautions: "The spiritual life starts with your recognition that as long as you keep going headlong in the pursuit of sense satisfaction and pleasure, you are not going to move one step. You will not have even started. The beginning stage itself of the spiritual life is a turning away from sense experience and sense indulgence, and starting to move in the opposite direction."

And finally, seventy-year-old Buddhist abbot and scholar Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, who has been celibate since he was twelve, unequivocally states: "The Buddha taught that as long as one is engaged in sexual activity, then one would not be interested in practicing spiritual life; these two just don't go together."

With an ancient legacy of celibacy left by many of the world's greatest realizers to back them up, the words of these contemporary celibates certainly deserve our consideration. But is the practice of celibacy essential to ultimate success for all those who long for spiritual liberation in this birth? We must admit we have some doubts, but one thing's for sure—we've all got a lot to think about.


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Our Sex Issue