Celibacy in Buddhism

Why Most Buddhist Nuns and Monks Are Celibate

The temptation of the Buddha
The temptation of the Buddha by Mara's daughters, Pakistan, 2nd–4th century CE. Public Domain

You may have heard that Buddhist monks and nuns take vows of celibacy. This is mostly true, although there are exceptions.

The largest exception is Japan; the Emperor abolished celibacy in the 19th century, and since then Japanese clergy have been more often married than not. This is true also of Japanese Buddhist schools that have been imported into the West.

During the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 20th century some Korean monks copied Japanese practice and married, but married monastic life doesn't seem to have caught on permanently in Korea. Nearly all Korean monastic orders remain officially celibate.

Within the Tibetan Nyingmapa tradition, there are both celibate and non-celibate sub-schools. The Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism has been headed by the same aristocratic, non-celibate clan since the 11th century; leadership positions pass from father to son. However, even within celibate orders, there may be spiritual marriages between tantric practitioners, discussed below.

Some monastic orders in Mongolia—closely related to but operationally separate from Tibetan Buddhism—are celibate, and others are not.

The ordained clergy of all other schools of Buddhism are celibate, however, This has been true since the time of the historical Buddha. The large majority of Tibetan monks and nuns are celibate, as are all of the monastic orders of Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Note that in Buddhism the monastic orders are not separate from ​the priesthood, as is the case in Catholicism. Most orders have two levels of ordination, beginner, and full ordination. A fully ordained Buddhist nun or monk is the same thing as a priest.

Celibacy in the Vinaya

The Buddha's rules for the monastic orders he founded are recorded in a collection of texts called the Vinaya, or sometimes Vinaya-pitaka. As Buddhism spread through Asia over the centuries there came to be at least three somewhat different versions of the Vinaya, but they all maintain the rules of monastic celibacy. It appears the celibacy rules have been in place from the very beginning of Buddhism, 25 centuries ago.

The Buddha did not establish celibacy because there is something shameful or sinful about sex, but because sensual desire is a fetter to enlightenment, and for most people, sexual desire is the most nagging and persistent of desires. The ideal is for the desire itself to drop away, and celibacy—in this case, refraining from any form of sexual gratification—is understood to be a prerequisite for that.

In Theravada Buddhism monks are not permitted to so much as shake hands with a woman; nor may a nun touch a man. The revered Thai monk Ajaan Fuang (1915-1986) said, "The reason the Buddha didn't allow monks to touch women is not that there's anything wrong with women. It's because there's something wrong with the monks: They still have mental defilements, which is why they have to be kept under control." Mahayana celibate orders generally are not quite so strict about not touching.

About Tantra

The spiritual marriages spoken of earlier are part of higher Tibetan tantra, which is quite esoteric. Tantra employs sexual imagery and visualizations as a means to channel the energy of desire into enlightenment, but teachings and practices of the higher levels are not shared with the public. Some Tibetan tantra masters say no actual sex goes on, although others hint that maybe it does.

For most of us, the important point is that, whatever goes on in them, the tantric marriages are (a) between two highly advanced practitioners and spiritual equals who probably have been fully ordained for many years; and (b) not kept secret from their orders. When a senior monastic takes a partner who is much younger and not previously initiated into higher tantra, this is not traditional; it's sexual predation. And ordained practitioners simply do not pair off with each other without their superiors in the order knowing and giving approval. If you are practicing with any Vajrayana group that tells you otherwise, be advised that something seriously non-traditional and probably exploitative is going on. Proceed at your own risk.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Celibacy in Buddhism." Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/celibacy-in-buddhism-449596. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 25). Celibacy in Buddhism. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/celibacy-in-buddhism-449596 O'Brien, Barbara. "Celibacy in Buddhism." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/celibacy-in-buddhism-449596 (accessed May 29, 2023).