July             2008                             2551                      Number     84
The Forest Sangha is a worldwide Buddhist monastic
community in the Thai forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

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Celibacy & Sublimation

ajahn thanasanti


The following reflections, originally published in the book
Freeing the Heart, are taken from a talk given by

Ajahn Thanasanti

To those interested
in understanding the end of suffering, the Buddha recommended seeing the value of celibacy. It is a powerful tool for understanding desire and coming to terms with the nature of attachment. It isn’t an easy path, but it can be very helpful because one has to consciously face the habitual patterns of this deep-seated energy.

Celibacy isn’t meant to be a repression or denial of one’s sexual being, nor a condemnation of sexuality or of sexual relationships. It is not a life-denying experience. The standards of behaviour are clear: our pathway is through insight and understanding, and for me, love. When lived to its full potential, celibacy is a vital, embracing and creative lifestyle in which one is aware of sexuality in all of its manifestations and aware of the way it can be transformed into other types of energy. With celibacy, one is at ease with life as a human being.

Sometimes people think meditation is all about developing clarity, concentration and kindness, and is divorced from coming to terms with primordial energies like sexuality and aggression. Understanding these energies, seeing what sets them off, what brings them into balance, how much they are part and parcel of having a human body and how they can be used once transformed, is important in our aspiration for freedom. Rejecting any aspect of what it is to be alive and to be a human being can be profoundly destructive and affect the way we see and relate to others and ourselves; it has a direct connection to our physical and mental well-being.

Therefore, working with restraint requires that one become familiar with the experience of these feelings and the skilful means one can develop to work with them. Awareness is the key – you first need to allow your attention to rest with the experience. Feel the physical sensations directly in the body: the tightness, increased warmth, change in the texture of the breath. Let your attention rest there. Feel the unpleasantness, the mind contracting, and notice the desire not to experience these feelings. When you can see things as they arise and let your attention rest there, you need not be a slave to your aversions or your desire for fulfilment. You can be aware of the experience as it arises and watch as it changes and ends of its own accord, or is channelled through skilful sublimation. Once there is mindfulness and a clear comprehension of what is being experienced, options open up.

The energy doesn't have to be blocked or forced. One can allow it to flow through awareness, with attention focused on the whole body or the breath. It is important to know the difference between repression, which doesn't allow the energy to flow, and sublimation, which allows the energy to move through skilful channelling.

By bringing awareness and attention to the breath, release comes from exhalation and vitality from inhalation. When the whole body is kept in mind, energy can flow and become a source of vitality, creativity and radiance. Energy can be released or sublimated through the breath, physical work, long walks or devotional practice. It’s important to appreciate how much patience, skill and kindness toward oneself is needed to find one's way through this predicament. Humour helps a lot, but sometimes tears are inevitable.

Even as one becomes more skilful at allowing energy to flow throughout the system, it is necessary to see that ultimately when there is desire, there is suffering – there is ‘me’ here who wants and something out there that is supposed to satisfy. It’s important to recognize whether one is sublimating in a skilful way and working to transform desire into something useful. There is suffering as long as there is a ‘me’ here and something out there that we either need to grasp or get rid of.

Sexuality and the way aggression is experienced and expressed need to be understood in order to open up the field of one's experience, and come to terms with what it is to be fully human. It’s scary because it takes people into a realm where they feel out of control and where they are confronting things about themselves that aren't congruent with what they think they should be experiencing.

If we want to free the heart from suffering, we need to question our relationship with sexuality in a sincere and genuine way. We need to have the courage to look carefully at the way desire, attachment and power are embedded within our experience. We must see for ourselves what is appropriate and how mindfulness, understanding and restraint can be further cultivated. We must ask ourselves if there is room for more honesty and integrity.

Each of us has issues that are more difficult to resolve than others and we need to know what they are. I grew up in an environment where being hostile and aggressive wasn’t O.K. Coming to terms with these aspects in myself has been difficult because they were not congruent with my view of being a loving, giving and caring person. When there is a lack of familiarity with the energy of anger, it gets screened through thoughts like, ‘I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to know about it, I don’t want to deal with it, I don’t want it to be there. ‘ Sometimes the thoughts aren’t conscious and one suppresses the unacceptable form of energy until one has the courage and strength of mind to wake up to these energies and embrace them with awareness. Then when anger comes it is familiar and no longer terrifies, nor is it used against oneself or others. It doesn’t have to go underground.

So what does this have to do with compassion and loving-kindness? Classically it is taught that we first need to have loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves before we are in any position to spread it outwardly. Awareness has an all-embracing quality – whatever the experience, awareness can embrace, know and receive it. Judgement isn’t needed; resistance isn’t needed. As moods, feelings, bodily sensations, tensions and struggles are held in awareness, the reactive qualities of wanting and not wanting the experience diminish. Compassion comes from opening to suffering with the right perspective. It is not the all-glorious compassion of loving a million people in a distant land. It is the nitty-gritty compassion of being at ease with the things that we experience, whether or not they are to our liking. True loving-kindness isn’t the construction of a thought or a feeling. It is the ability to be present with experience on a moment-to-moment basis with awareness – from this perspective, loving-kindness is awareness.

It is important to see that within all experience there is a direct path to the stillness of the heart. Be it rage or the coarsest desire for gratification, within each there is a direct path to the stillness of the heart. A profound change takes place when there is sufficient strength of mind to let awareness embrace the feeling, without either rejecting it or believing it, and without becoming absorbed in it. The identification with experience we normally have eases up. We no longer need to get something, get rid of something or change our experience in some way in order to find peace, fulfilment and rest; by simply resting in the awareness of the experience, peace, fulfilment and rest are found.

This still, loving heart isn’t a lovey-dovey sweet, marshmallow smear one spreads all over the universe – metta (loving-kindness) is not a kind of goo. This still, loving heart is real; it is connected and appropriate. This arises when we understand the appropriate actions of body and speech and feel at ease with the full range of what it is to be a human being. As long as one remains cut off from sexuality or aggression, one is denied full access to the heart. Cut off doesn’t mean an inability to act out; it means an inability to fully feel and understand the energy, and to allow it to flow and transform. It seems to me that spiritual maturity is when we can see through the veils of the world, the great range of our human experiences, and let everything bring us back to the stillness of the loving heart.

My experience is that the heart does open. Energy that used to be expressed in a sexual or aggressive way still manifests through the heart but is not coloured with the desire for gratification, possession or control. The heart is just open – it’s allowing, it’s receptive and it’s universal. There is no focus on the one that ‘I ‘ love or the one that pleases ‘me. ‘ It is a bit like loving the whole universe rather than an individual person; it’s not the glittery kind of being in love that rejects things that don’t fit. It’s abiding in love – a still, alive, vital place, a place of rest.

We’re not trying to get anybody’s attention. We’re not trying to dominate or control. We’re not trying to live up to the culturally accepted norm of what a woman or a man should be. Within a clearly defined boundary of restraint, we have the encouragement, teachings and support to let the body be the way it is, to allow the energies to be the way they are, to understand them and be at peace with them. We are given the encouragement to know what it is to be alive, to be a human being, to be a woman, to be a man, and to know it fully and completely – not so much so that we can take this as our identity, but so that this knowing can take us to the stillness of a loving and peaceful heart. One of the many blessings of this celibate life is that one doesn’t need to be tied up like a pretzel. One can be fully human, utterly alive, and be in peace.



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