‘The Gethsemani Encounter’ (1997)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

3 minutes

Shortly before the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1993, the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue decided to host an interfaith dialogue session there with the fourteenth Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders.

This dialogue prompted the Dalai Lama to propose a continuation of the discussions in a monastic setting. His suggestion led to a weeklong meeting held in Gethsemani Abbey—home of Thomas Merton († 1968)—in 1996. A comprehensive report, The Gethsemani Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics (1997), is available here.

During the meeting in Gethsamani Abbey, among other things, the Dalai Lama presented his thoughts on celibacy:

“Now with this in mind I would like to say something about celibacy. This is a common practice for both Buddhist and Catholic monks and nuns. However, we have different ideas concerning the practice of celibacy. In Buddhism, our goal is moksha (liberation) or Nirvana. What is Nirvana? It is the complete elimination of afflictive emotions. Among the afflictive emotions, according to all Buddhist schools of thought, desire or attachment is one of the key factors which bind the person in the cyclic existence of suffering. In this regard, sexual desire is one of the more serious sorts of attachment. And since our goal is the overcoming of these attachments, the practice of celibacy becomes important. This is the Buddhist understanding of the practice of celibacy.

The Christian concept of celibacy may be different, but the result is the same. Both say that the monastic should not engage in sexual practice. The reasons do not matter; what is important is that the practice of celibacy in both traditions is similar. Now concerning this practice, sometimes it may appear as if it were against human nature. This is because sexuality is a natural biological force and critical for human reproduction. Therefore, celibacy is not easy. But at the same time it is spiritually very important. So, in practicing celibacy we need a firm determination on the basis of an awareness of the disadvantage of sexual practice and the advantage of celibacy.

I think that in order to gain this awareness it is useful to examine the layperson’s life-style. For example, look at those couples who have no children and worry a great deal about having a child. On the other hand, if they begin to have children, they have another worry, namely, they worry about having too many children. So, then they worry about birth control. That too is very difficult: birth control, and worst is abortion. This also brings mental troubles, mental burdens. And once you have a family, half of your freedom is already lost. So, maybe people with families or those who have love experiences have a life that is very colorful. But I think that this kind of life has too many ups and downs.

So while our life may be less colorful, our mental stability is much more steady. And in the long run, that is also good for one’s health. I think it is very useful to think of the value of celibacy along these lines. Even in the short run there are advantages, such as mental stability, to a life-style with celibacy. In the long run, celibacy is a great help in the Buddhist way to achieve freedom from cyclic existence. And in the Christian way, celibacy also is helpful to developing greater devotion to God and other aspects of the spiritual life. Here, it need not be mentioned that celibacy is helpful in the long term; and it even makes a difference in the short term.

In Buddhism, there are general rules that are for all monks and nuns, and there are also rules that are specific to particular monasteries. The same is true in Christianity where there are general rules that all monks and nuns keep, and there are also particular rules that are kept by certain monastics. For example, in this monastery I noticed that after one finishes the meal at lunchtime, each monk washes his own spoons and forks. This for me is a new experience! It is very, very important to have strict rules in monastic life. This is not a matter of imposing rules by force. Rather one first examines himself or herself to see if, because of certain reasons, there is an attraction to becoming a monk or nun. Then when one makes up his or her mind, voluntarily he or she takes on this discipline.

These rules are very important aids to pursuing the spiritual life. Since some aids are more essential to cultivating the spiritual life than others, in our type of discipline generally there are practices that must be kept tightly, and others that can be kept more loosely. Some monasteries are more strict than others. I prefer to be more strict. I think that choice is very good because when one becomes lax in the spiritual life, then it is something like a small crack and the laxity eventually becomes greater and greater. So, it is very important to be more strict right from the beginning. Here, it is not a question of the quantity of monastics but their quality. From this we can see the importance of the spiritual community in both traditions.” (pp. 118-119.)

Dalai Lama - Spiritual Guidance and the Attainment of Nirvana (1997) REDUX-BW

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.