Recently, The Dali Lama gave an interview in which he said he found women attractive. Over at PsychCentral, there’s an interesting response to the media’s shock that The Dali Lama made such a confession:
I confess I find articles like this both vexing and laugh-out-loud funny. The article is a summary of Piers Morgan’s exclusive interview with the Dali Lama.
The interview itself is fairly wide-ranging, but apparently the most shocking and surprising thing for the editors of CNN.com is that the Dali Lama (and perhaps, gentle reader, you should sit down for this)…
…finds women attractive!
(The headline, as of this writing, is “Dali Lama Interview: Women alluring? “Yes.” I can just imagine the shock in the press room. “STOP THE PRESSES BOYS! WE GOT US AN EXCLUSIVE. Women are attractive? Well, Damn! Whooda thunk it?!? Thank heavens the Dali Lama pointed that out for us.”)
Why is it surprising to people that religious people in general, and celibates in particular, experience sexual attraction? In Buddhism, bramachariya is the practice of monastic abstinence from sex. It is done, not out of a hatred for sex or sexuality, but because there are certain things even more desirable than sexual union.
For the Buddhist, that thing which is more desirable is enlightenment. Simply put, Buddhism teaches that sexual intercourse makes it difficult to quiet the mind and to pursue the detachment that is necessary for true enlightment.
Likewise, for the Catholic priest or religious sisters or brothers, celibacy is not a condemnation of sex. It is a positive witness to the world of two things. First, celibacy points to the Eternal Wedding Feast that is Heaven. The celibate person is a reminder to the world that there are delights beyond that of the body and those delights are so profound, they are worth making sacrifices to attain.
Secondly, the celibate is free to serve the whole world wherever and whenever he or she is needed in ways that a married person simply cannot do. That doesn’t make the priesthood or religious life better than marriage. It just makes it more versitile.
Regardless, no person takes on celibacy because they don’t have a sexuality. Every human person is sexual. Even religious persons. Even religious persons committed to a life of holiness and service. The celibate person still experiences attraction to others. But the celibate learns to channel that generative energy into those activities that lead to, well, holiness and service. (For a wonderful reflection on the positive understanding of sexuality and heaven that celibacy points to, check out this article–Is There Sex In Heaven– by Boston College professor Peter Kreeft)
Obviously, celibacy calls for incredible self-discipline, but that’s the point. Some things are worth waiting for. In their own ways, albeit to somewhat different ends, Buddhist monks and nuns, and Catholic priests, brothers and nuns all exist to remind the world that there are deeper mysteries that we are all called to encounter in our own way and those mysteries are worth making sacrifices for.
Which brings us back to why I always chuckle when I see articles like the one from CNN that inspired this post. The surprising thing isn’t that the Dali Lama experiences sexual arousal from time to time–he is a human being after all. The truly surprising is that unlike most of the rest of us, he is able–like all healthy celibates of any faith–to view sexual energy as a catalyst for transcendence instead of viewing it as a pressure that must be released.
As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is love”), properly understood, “Eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.”
The celibate doesn’t renounce sex. He or she announces that by harnessing the sexual impulse, a deeper mystical, and even nuptial union with both the Divine and all of humanity is not only desirable, but possible.