Janie Rezner makes many excellent points in her interesting article ‘The Journey of the Soul into the Mother’. I’ve been researching the subject of renunciation for a while and would indeed agree that, in many cases, religious celibacy can be traced back to a fear of the feminine and the power of sexuality per se.
However, I feel that Janie has misinterpreted the Buddhist concept of ‘non-attachment’ somewhat. Non-attachment is not to be confused with ‘detachment’, the latter meaning avoiding emotional involvement altogether. In contrast, non-attachment does not equal non-involvement; rather, it is the understanding that everything on earth is impermanent and that it is therefore futile to cling to it. It consists of being calm and collected, even in stressful and painful situations; not attaching oneself to either pleasure or pain, as both will pass eventually.
In his book ‘The Path to Love’, Deepak Chopra explains the difference between love and attachment as follows:
‘Attachment is a form of dependency based on ego; love is non-attachment based on spirit. The more non-attached you are, the more you can truly love. Action that does not bind comes directly from love; all other action comes indirectly from the past. ‘
Non-attachment means to love fully, without conditions and with an open heart. It means to let another person be who s/he is without attaching my needs, desires and expectations onto them. It means to love purely for the joy of loving and giving, even if that does not conform to my version of how things (and people) ought to be.
Nevertheless, I do believe that some monks and other renunciates have turned the original philosophy of non-attachment into a form of detachment, and cope by removing themselves completely from their families and loved ones, as in the Hindu sannyas traditions.
Despite my personal views and preferences about how I want to live my life, I would not necessarily say that the monk (or nun) lives only ‘half a life’. I think that the life of a renunciate is simply different - there are benefits and deficits in both ways of being. The renunciate dedicates his or her entire life to the service of the Divine, and in some traditions it is thought that sexual activities can distract from a peaceful life of contemplation and service. Furthermore, some traditions believe that the sexual act, because it is so pleasant, can never be selfless, but is merely performed to fulfill self-centered gratifications. Hence, sometimes, a man filled with destructive desires or egocentric lust may choose to become celibate to become more (and not less) respectful towards women.
In the yogic tradition, the state of union with the Divine the yogi/ni achieves in deep meditation can be more blissful and ecstatic than that of sexual intercourse. There are certain strands of Tibetan Buddhism that never actually practice the sexual act in the flesh but whose ecstatic meditations center on making love with Dakinis and Goddesses in intricate detail. In many monasteries, great love and devotion exists between master and disciple, and although the relationship may not be sexual, it carries challenges similar or sometimes even greater than that between husband and wife.
A life of a sannyasi (renunciate) can actually be very rewarding. After much spiritual practice, the hearts of some people are so filled with love for everybody that they choose to devote their lives to care for the many, without reserving a large part of that love for a partner and/or children alone. Just think of Mother Theresa, for example. A renunciate friend of mine once told me ‘I don’t want to dry the tears of just one person – I want to dry the tears of thousands’. This is not to say that there is ‘one right way’, but what I am getting at is that it is an individual lifestyle choice. Some people might simply not desire to have sexual relationships and/or children, whereas others may view sexuality as a pathway to the Divine. The problem arises when people believe that they have the monopoly on truth and try to tell others how to live their lives (like in the case of the Dalai Lama, who labels sex as ‘trouble’ per se). And clearly, there are many people who avoid sexuality and intimate relationships due to patriarchal belief systems, old hurts and an inherent mistrust of the opposite sex. I just don’t think that this can be generalized. There are many paths to God/dess; whether they include sexuality or not.
However, as Janie points out, the majority of religious patriarchal structures tends to deny the body and the Goddess, and does not value the joy and transformation a deep loving relationship can bring to one’s life. A healthy sexuality is derided as ‘lust’ and ‘animal instincts’, women are viewed as ‘temptresses’ and ‘distractions’, and the ancient sacred link between sexuality and the Divine is rejected. Abuse of power and perversity are often the result of repressed sexuality, and this should not be underestimated either.
Another point I want to respond to is the remark Janie makes about Khalil Gibran’s beautiful poem, ‘On Children’. If we look at the poem, it says:
Your children are not your children.They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.
I feel that this poem does not advocate detachment from our children, as implied by Janie’s article, but non-attachment in the form of letting them be who they truly are, as illustrated in the lines ‘You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts.’ And ‘You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you’. This poem is actually a passionate ode to true, free love. It acknowledges that yes, we give birth to our children, but that they are beings of love and light in their own right, and we are just vessels through which they pass. And of course we love our children deeply, but that is not the point the poem is trying to make.
I am not denying the validity of much of what Janie writes, (in fact, many of her points are very convincing), but at the same time, there are many enlightened beings who radiate pure love and compassion and have not ‘walled-off their hearts’ simply because they choose not to be in a 1:1 relationship. And for those that have, due to their own pain and patriarchal upbringing, do they not deserve our love and compassion, rather than our judgment and anger? Remember that men, not only women, have been wounded deeply by patriarchy as well and that we are all finding our way back to the Mother gradually.