Testing the Vows of Celibacy
This segment, the second in to appear on KtB , is taken from a work-in-progress about the author’s spiritual (and not-so-spiritual) misadventures traveling around the world. An abridged version previously appeared in The Sun Magazine.
Go back to the first in the series: “Pilgrimage to Nowhere – In the Beginning.”
When you join the US Army, you sign on the dotted line, give up your rights, shave your head, receive a uniform, and submit to eight weeks of grueling physical training. When you join a Buddhist monastery – even as a Western apprentice monk just passing through the white robes – you temporarily become part of the Sangha, the great community of monks. You take vows to follow certain precepts, among them not to engage in sexual activity of any kind, not to steal, not to indulge in self-adornment, not to engage in useless speech and not to kill.
My first morning at the Doi Suthep monastery in northern Thailand, a Canadian called Phra (“monk”) Sam took me through an elaborate induction ceremony. I had to repeat back a goodly number of long and incomprehensible Thai and Pali sentences, and prostrate myself to idols and personages I wasn’t sure I believed in, while my knees and ankles hurt a lot. I was thinking: it’s all very medieval. I was thinking: No drinking or fucking? Okay. That might be good for me. No idle chatter? That one is going to be tough. No personal adornment? With no chance of fucking, why waste time trying to look good? No killing? That’s easy, that’s a freebie. I’ve never killed anyone, why would I want to start now? My knees and ankles locked up in pain, and I bowed down to the plaster Buddha statuette and scanned along with the fine print of the English translation to see what I was actually getting myself into. And I noticed that “no sexual activity” meant I couldn’t talk to any of the nuns, “no stealing” meant I wasn’t going to be able to “borrow” anyone else’s shampoo and “no killing” meant I’d have to be careful about swatting away mosquitoes. With a “Question Authority” bumper sticker tattooed to my soul since college, I chafed against such inflexibilities. Yet there was something about their pureness and hardness that drew me to them.
After the vow taking, I removed my two rings and the stud from my left ear. Phra Sam handed me a neatly folded pile of white clothing: a pair of draw string pants and two pairs of front-buttoning shirts, all made of light cotton. These were the “robes” that were to mark me as an apprentice monk.
“Are you clear on the practice?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. Then thought about it. “Well, no. Not completely.”
He demonstrated how to do the walking meditation: slow, even footfalls – each step broken into three distinct parts. I followed his form, feeling silly. It seemed more like a pantomime of walking, than walking itself.
“Vipassana is insight meditation. The original teaching of the elders,” said Sam, as he sat down in a simple Burmese meditation posture, indicating I should do the same. “All suffering is the result of ignorance and attachment,” he went on. “We overcome this through the practice of mindfulness.”
“When you meditate, thoughts, feelings will arise. Try to neither indulge them, nor suppress them.”
“The Middle Way.”
“Yes, In Vipassana, we follow always the Middle Way.”
Phra Sam was pale, his blond eyebrows invisible unless you stood close to him. He’d been in a punk band in Windsor, Ontario, I’d heard, and – bald, wiry and pale – still looked the part. Instead of combat boots and chrome-studded black leather, he now wore flip-flops and the saffron of an ordained monk. Instead of a snarl or rebel yell, his lips were pursed in a slight and permanently affixed smile. A smile of wisdom? Or a tic picked up at monk finishing school? I hoped it was the former.
“Focus on the rising and falling of the abdomen,” he instructed. “Be mindful at all times. Always be noticing…noticing. When you’re eating, be chewing…chewing. When brushing your teeth, be brushing…brushing.”
“Should I actually be saying noticing…noticing in my mind?” I asked. He looked at me, his permanent smile frowning slightly.
“Just be ‘noticing…noticing.'”
It was hard to imagine this becalmed man crashing away at his three chords back home. There was definitely something bloodless and out of place about him. He seemed somehow insubstantial, as if having traded up from the mosh pit to the dharma, he’d spent too much time in Canadian winters and basement nightclubs and neon lit interiors to ever be warmed by the red curries or sunlight of Thailand.
The daily routine at Doi Suthep was straightforward. Wake up at 4 a.m. Meditation. Breakfast at 6:30 a.m. More meditation. “Dinner” at 11:30 a.m. Even more meditation. Reporting – a short check in with Phra Sam about your progress – at 3 p.m. Yet more meditation. To bed by 10pm. At the short Zen retreats I’d done back in the U.S., meditation was a group activity, sessions marked by the sounding of a gong. At Doi Suthep each apprentice was on their own. Unless you were sleeping, eating or reporting, you were expected to be meditating – maybe as much as eight or ten hours a day. Exactly when and where were up to you.
Those first few days, knowing of only the one meditation hall, I worked exclusively there. I’d begin at one end of the room, lift my foot, pause, move my foot, pause, set it down heel first, then lift the other foot. Lift, step, down…lift, step, down, I’d try not to say inside my head, as I walked lengthwise across the room, sunlight spilling across the long floorboards. Then the prostrations: palms pressed together touching brow, then apart and flat to the ground, brow just brushing the floor. Three sequences, one after the other, not unlike a series of yoga movements. Finally the sitting: feet tucked under the calves of the opposite leg; back straight; hands cupped one inside the other, resting just below the belly button; eyes half open and cast downwards.
There was something profound about the experience: the simplicity of simply walking and breathing and being, and paying attention to that walking and breathing and being. After months – no, years – of running around, I’d finally arrived at a kind of ground zero, a sanctuary where I could stop the world. There was a gentleness as well, a feeling that if I could just sit there and be quiet and wait, reality would slowly let down its guard, step out of the shadows and lie its head in my lap.
But reality did anything but surrender. If you’ve never done it before, meditation is full of surprises. What should be the easiest thing in the world – walking around, sitting around, and breathing – is, in fact, excruciatingly difficult. Waking-up at 4 a.m., I was thick headed and disoriented much of the early morning. I found walking meditation irksome: one monotonous footfall after another – to what purpose? Sitting was no better, as, breath after breath, my back would grow sore, my knees cramp up in pain, my stomach trap air pockets of tension; all the while, my attention slipping away into some ugly corner of my mind. From the outside, I was sitting, quietly following my breath. But on the inside, those first few days, I was a roller coaster of inner turmoil.
What could be so terrible about simply sitting? Or breathing? But I wasn’t just breathing. I was noticing…noticing what was happening while I was breathing. A particularly nasty radio interview from seven months ago kept hijacking my attention. Unprepared and off my game that morning, I’d been ambushed by the right wing talk show host and his call-in cronies. I’d thought I’d put it past me – it was quite a while ago, and just one black eye among many successes that year – but during those first few days at Doi Suthep it kept coming up. I’d assume the sitting posture, begin breathing, and fwoosh, there it was – the same shame, the same anger I’d felt that day. Before I even knew what I was doing, I’d find myself spinning out revenge fantasies, rehearsing various alternate scenarios: things I could have done differently or said on-air that would have redeemed my dignity. Most disturbing was catching my mind in the middle of all this. By whose orders had it yet again had these thoughts? By its own whims, it seemed. Who was “I,” then? (And what did I and my mind have in common?) Cliché stoner talk, for sure; fodder for late-night college bull sessions. But, when observed up close and personal ten hours a day, unsettling in a visceral way.
I’d try to reel myself in, bringing my attention back to the simple rising and falling of my abdomen. Until it (or was it I?) drifted off again. This constant process was more than frustrating. All I was trying to do was be present – the simplest of tasks, one would imagine – and yet I couldn’t do it. Instead I was living in the past; I was obsessed with the past. I was also obsessed with the future, it turned out. Sitting there quietly, trying to be present, I thought incessantly about the future: about future career possibilities, about what I’d do when I got home to New York, and about girls – two in particular whom I had high hopes for back home. Would I ever hook-up with either of them? What would it be like? Might it turn into real love? And what was real anyway, in light of Buddhist notions of illusion and impermanence? Again, scenarios were rehearsed; some graphic, all involuntary. I was supposed to be focusing on the breath, on becoming enlightened, on following in the footsteps of the great Awakened One, but my mind had other things in mind.
I thought also about the rest of my trip. Did I have time to get to all the places I wanted to? How could I rejigger my itinerary to make it all work? I thought about the travel blog entries I’d put up just before coming to Doi Suthep, in particular the unexpected kudos I’d received from my travel agent, an intrepid traveler whom I admired greatly. Again and again his praise-filled email circled back upon my attention. It was a rude awakening to see myself caught up in all these little webs of seduction. “Vanity, vanity,” Ecclesiastes tells us, “all is vanity.” And there it was, and it wasn’t pretty.
Maybe worst of all, I didn’t trust my understanding of what I was trying to do. Was the walking meditation supposed to bring on a certain inner state? Because nothing was happening. Maybe my footfalls were all wrong? When sitting, was I seeking emptiness? Or happiness? Perfect focus or perfect relaxation? I knew we were supposed to practice meditation without judgment; I knew one could not be “good at” it or “bad at” it, per se. But being who I am, it was not only obvious to me that I actually was bad at it, I also couldn’t help but judge myself for not being non-judgmental about it.
When I wasn’t putting myself into severe physical and emotional pain by meditating, I was trying to be mindful of my daily activities, as Phra Sam had instructed. When I heard birds chirping in the garden, I’d be listening…listening. When I found myself scratching a mosquito bite, I’d try to notice myself scratching…scratching. I wasn’t sure how far the monks took this practice, but there were times when I found myself burping…burping and farting…farting and even licking…licking a popsicle. Besides their vows, maybe this was why monks didn’t have sex – because it would be simply too confusing, with too many things to keep track of. Overall, it was hard not to feel somewhat silly engaging in this gentle but relentless mindfulness, and feeling no different for it. Maybe, I consoled myself, it was having an invisible effect, which would only show itself cumulatively over time.
Our lives were bounded by routine, and also by the physical boundaries of the monastery itself. There was no internet, no phone, no radio, no TV, no movies, and no venturing off the grounds. While we were at Doi Suthep, it was our only world. The main monastery complex – where relics were housed, rituals held, pilgrimages made, and favors granted – occupied the summit of the great hill. With its stunning views, famous golden stupa, and delicately carved wihan roof gables, it was here that foreign tourist and native Thai alike came to look, admire and pay their respects. Just below the lip of the hill, spread along and down the hillside, were the monks’ quarters and meditation halls – ten or so buildings connected by gardens, concrete pathways, courtyards and wooden staircases. This was our little world-within-a-world, housing over 100 Thai monks, Phra Sam’s International Program, as well as a school for orphans. Visitors touring the main monastery who chose not to look too closely, might not notice our hillside complex at all. Yet it was impossible for us not to feel their presence.
The irony, of course, was that after a month backpacking across five countries and half a continent, I’d finally stopped sightseeing only to put down anchor in a tourist attraction. We’d wake up at four a.m. in darkness and silence. For the next five hours the entire hilltop and monastery were ours. At 9 a.m. the first tourists would arrive. We’d know they were on-site because of the arrhythmic sound of clanging bells. A set of ancient bronze bells, oxidized copper-green by centuries of rain, sat alongside one of the central monastery buildings. There was a plaque informing visitors that they could ring the bells if they wished. Random, and at times cacophonous, the clanging bells were like human wind chimes, enveloping our daily meditations in an odd but not unwelcome sound – and reminding us that beyond our world-within-a-world, the larger world was still there. By 6 p.m. every evening the temple doors would close to outside visitors. The bells would fall silent. The place would be ours again.
It was hard not to view these tourists with a certain kind of benign condescension. They were just passing through, while here we were: deep at it, day after day after day. For these few weeks at least, we were the locals. And we were working. Even if our job was “doing nothing,” we were at least doing something. What were they doing but taking pictures of themselves and clanging bells?
Of course, this was high hypocrisy. Had I not behaved just like them, not long ago, in a string of temples from Tokyo to Bangkok? I’d admired the architecture, peeked into forbidden nooks and crannies, and surreptitiously observed the monks at work and leisure. I’d been a drive-by voyeur then, but here at Doi Suthep it was I who was in the fishbowl. When I’d cross paths with these day-tourists, they’d stop and briefly stare. I was the freak in the religious theme park, now. An exotic farang in his white robes.
It was hard to get a bead on the place. With the beautiful view, all meals provided, and the programmed group activities, it almost felt like we were staying at a resort. But where was the beach? The tennis courts? The lounge chairs? The only sport here was pantomime walking; the only relaxation, brute force sitting. At other times, with its rough lodgings and reveille at 4 a.m., Doi Suthep felt more like a Buddhist army barracks – a boot camp for the mind. Or, maybe a cult? After all, you couldn’t talk to anyone, we all wore the same clothes, and you weren’t allowed to leave the compound. But what kind of army would make head shaving optional? And what kind of cult diddn’t want your money? Or your soul? Buddhists didn’t even believe in souls.
I woke up one morning, a few days into my stay, with a hard-on. It wasn’t the first time this had happened at Doi Suthep, but there was a particular urgency to it that morning. A very pretty apprentice nun from England had arrived the day before, and that night she’d been in my dreams, along with Cate Blanchett and three Thai prostitutes. In more than a week at Doi Suthep, I hadn’t jerked off, nor hardly touched myself, but in the shower that morning, I couldn’t help but wrap my fingers around my cock. I just stood there for a while, water pinging off my head, debating my options. I wanted to maintain at least some semblance of the precepts I’d committed myself to. I also wanted release. I wanted hard physical pleasure. I began stroking myself. I stopped. I willed myself to let go.
In the courtyard that morning I bumped into Pony-Tailed-Terri. She was in street clothes, her pack slung over her shoulder, and in a bit of a daze, having just completed the final fasting-in-isolation phase of her course.
“So, it’s off to Laos now?” I asked. “Is that the next move?”
“Yes,” she said, “but first,” and she leaned in, lowering her already low voice, “I’m going to have myself a big plate of food, a case of beer, and a beautiful male prostitute.”
Everyone, it seemed, had sex on the brain.
Tamsin, the new apprentice nun from London, had arrived the day before along with her slender figure and flashing eyes. After a few words of welcome, it was all eyes. Just a glance as we passed on the stairs, and the pheromones would come like a breath of heat. In the dream she’s wearing a bathing suit of live squid. She dives in the water. The squids stream off of her. I dive in after. In the other dream, I’m on a Pat Pong outing with three beautiful Thai girls. It turns into a love quintangle with a Mexican named Victor. I ask two of them for their hand in marriage. In the third dream, I’m having an affair with Cate Blanchett. We’re in bed together in a window display at the New York Public Library. We are impersonating animatronic blow-up-doll robots. We’re good enough at it that no one has yet figured out that it’s us. In a stilted, mannequin-ish way, I go down on her.
All through that morning, I was roiled with sexual craving, and roiled also – as I sat in posture, trying to meditate – by my efforts to make the craving go away. I could find no Middle Path. Nor could I find what Buddhists might call “right understanding” on the matter. Sex feels so natural – and when linked to love, so spiritual – where is the problem? Why the prohibitions? Is Buddha such a jealous teacher – and sex such a powerful force – that you must sign a non-compete clause before he’ll do business with you? Vipassana’s required vow of celibacy would suggest so. I could imagine setting my lusts aside for several weeks or months, as I’d begun to do at Doi Suthep, but could I do that for the rest of my life – even if Enlightenment were the pay off? And what about the Tantric arts? If I had wisely chosen to enroll myself in a Tibetan Buddhist Tantric sex cult instead of conservative Doi Suthep, none of these sexual temptations would be a problem. My erotic energy and imagination would fuel my practice. Tamsin would be my Dakini, my dancing she-Goddess incarnate. Phra Sam would be some Grand Master of the Lower Chakras, assigning lessons not from a little notebook, but from an arcane centuries-old engraved tome detailing sexual positions of a complexity and subtleness unknown even to the most advanced Western researchers in Amsterdam and San Francisco. Lust would be the royal road to spiritual transformation. Instead, I am faced with the “problem” of temptress nuns, erotic dreams and unbidden arousals.
“Does the Buddha get a hard on?” I asked Roger, the big-chested, bullet-headed man who did drop-in mediation demos and taught Buddhist-philosophy courses at the monastery’s information center.
“No,” Roger smiled. “At the highest levels of enlightenment sexual desire is completely extinguished.” Then he paused. “But it’s the strongest of the hindrances, definitely the hardest of them all to get over.”
“How do the monks here do it?”
“Some do specific exercises to shut down the sexual urge. Imagining a woman’s body as filth – composed of bones and veins and intestines.”
“I don’t suppose this helps the nun’s campaign for full ordination?”
“More than a few end up truly hating women. It’s the only way they can stay the course.”
“It doesn’t seem very Buddhist.”
Roger unfurled his upraised hands: It is what it is.
“What about you?”
“I have the opposite problem.”
Roger, it turned out, was married. His wife was from the Philippines; they’d met at a temple in Nepal. They had three kids; the youngest was 9; the eldest 16. He’d left them all back in Chicago; hadn’t seen them in months. Meanwhile, he had two girlfriends here in Thailand.
“So, you’re not celibate? In fact, you’re having lots of sex and liking it.”
“The Buddha didn’t think of celibacy as a goal in its own right. More like good training for dealing skillfully with your sexual life. I’ve done that training.”
“And now you’re enjoying that life?”
“But you could give it all up for Enlightenment?”
“I haven’t, but I could.”
Roger sounded like one of those alcoholics that keeps drinking believing they could give up any time they wanted.
“So celibacy is a means, not an end?”
“At the higher stages of enlightenment, celibacy is moot. For the rest of us, yes.”
“But it’s clearly still frowned upon for a monk to break his vows.”
“The first time a monk disrobes, they say, it is with a sweet smell. The second time, not so sweet.”
“You’re saying the Sangha might take a tolerant attitude to a younger monk who leaves the monastery to get his ya-yas out, so long as he chooses to come back and really commit?”
“But if it happens again, say, when they’re older, it’s seen as a failure?”
“More or less, yes.”
“So, where do you fit in?”
“I’m not a monk, am I?”
He wasn’t a monk, true enough. Nor did he seem to be much of a husband or father. I asked him as much.
“In Thai culture,” Roger explained, nodding philosophically, “it’s understood that there’s a ‘minor wife’ and a ‘major wife.'” He described how on his days off from Doi Suthep, he’d tool around Chiang Mai with both his minor wives on the back of his motorcycle. “Thai women are not trying to be like men, and they know exactly how to take care of you,” he continued. “Here in Thailand, women are still women, and men still men.”
“And katoys, still katoys, no doubt.”
“It works. Thai women (and Asian women in general) don’t compete to be like men the way your white Western women do.” He said your, as if it were the problem of some distant culture to which he no longer had ties.
“There’s something I like about that competition,” I said, feeling a need to hold up the banner of modern feminism and a partnership of equals in what was looking more and more like a wilderness of patriarchy and girlfriends for hire.
“That’s because it’s all you know,” he said.
Roger had gone native, a modern day Kurtz.
“But what about your kids back in Chicago, don’t they miss you? Don’t you miss them?”
“Does the frog care which tadpole is his?”
I said nothing. I looked at Roger closely. Bald and hulking, flipping his right hand slowly back and forth, muttering “male/female… female/male…,” he looked surprisingly like an unhinged and grossly overpaid Marlon Brando. A Colonel Kurtz for the Birkenstock set. He’d come too far up the river. He’d spent too much time in the spiritual and sexual playgrounds of the East, far from the company of his own kind. He’d been seduced by too many Tibetan yogi’s and mysterious Ajaan Tongs, too many perfect dark-eyed 23-year olds, gentle-souled and ready to please. Was I then, his Marlowe? Come up river, in search of answers, up through the thickening sexual schizophrenia of Thailand. Pleasure gardens of sensual commerce on one bank, celibate saffron-clad sanctuaries on the other, until these opposing banks met far upstream in a mad synthesis where a head-shaven 55-year-old ex-real estate agent made up his own rules from a philosopher’s chair.
Andrew Boyd is the author of Daily Afflictions and Life's Little Deconstruction Book (both W.W. Norton). He is founder of the satirical grass-roots media campaign Billionaires for Bush and a founding partner of Agit-Pop Communications, which creates flash animation and online video for environmental and social-justice campaigns. He lives in New York City with his wee laptop.