New Media Project: Monk Celibacy in the Media

Posted on May 16, 2013 by


In the history of Buddhism, there has always been a conflict, which occasionally bubbles to the surface about whether a life that includes the sexual components is conductive to enlightenment. In many traditions of Buddhism, notably Theravada Buddhism and also some Mahayana schools of Buddhism, the idea is that you cannot become enlightened until you become a celibate monastic. Usually in those traditions you have to become a celibate monk and being a celibate nun will not do, meaning women are closed off from becoming enlightened. The Five Precepts constitute the basic Buddhist code of ethics, undertaken by lay followers of the Buddha in the Theravada as well as in Mahayana traditions. The precepts in both traditions are essentially identical and are commitments to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Undertaking the five precepts is part of both lay Buddhist initiation and regular lay Buddhist devotional practices.

The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) statue at the Kotoku-in temple, Kamakura, Japan

As a non-Buddhist, I question whether these 5 precepts given to us by Buddha are a strict set of laws to follow or more like guidelines to use while we all live out our daily lives. Within the Buddhist community it is said that these precepts are a course of training; and training, by definition, implies imperfection and a gradual process of development. The 5 precepts are rules of moral conduct and the following is more in theory than actual practice. When reading through the list, some precepts appear to be more difficult to follow than the rest and reading these challenges might make one hesitant in their attempt to keep the precepts. Knowing that one will not be condemned to Hell for disobeying one of these precepts makes it easier to not be discouraged from practicing them. Self-reliance and responsibility are important features of the practice of Buddhist morality and therefore by being mindful the body will be harmonized with the mind. While murder and theft are heavy topics within the media, few front-page articles deal with the subject of sex.

I will be focusing on the 3rd precept, which states abstention from sexual misconduct. This is a rather complex issue involving ramifications in emotional, social, and moral fields. The problem is a cause for concern in modern times, especially in the West where materialism has for so long been the philosophy of life. The third moral precept advises against all forms of sexual misconduct, which include rape, adultery, promiscuity, paraphilia, and sexual perversions and an emphasizes adultery more than anything else. Taking into account the purpose and intention of the precept, it is clear that the precept is intended to cover all improper behavior with regard to sex. It aims at promoting proper sexual behavior and a sense of social decency in a human civilization where monogamy is commonly practiced and self-restraint is a cherished moral value. Among the monk community, remaining celibate and devoting your life to prayer and worship is a strict covenant. A monk that has been found to have broken their vow of celibacy can be expelled from his church.

Joshu Sasaki, a Zen Buddhist monk who groped and sexually harassed female students

A bhikkhu, or fully ordained monk in the Theravada tradition takes upon himself a set of 227 rules of conduct. The aim of all of these is to enable him to conduct himself in such a way as is most conducive to the attaining of Enlightenment. The rules are voluntarily undertaken, and if a monk feels unable to live up to them, he is free to leave the Order, which is considered much more honorable than hypocritically remaining in the robe while knowingly infringing the rule. This tells me that no one is forcing anyone to joint he monastery and those who commit are doing so on their own free will. As of late there has been a large concern in the media with the Buddhist monk rule that deals with sexual intercourse. Complete sexual continence is considered an essential feature of the monastic life and intercourse is automatically a Parajika offense. We all know that nobody is perfect and that we can easily succumb to our desires even devote monks. Some might believe that this vow of celibacy is nonsense and even spiritual people should be able to have sexual experience. If you tell someone that they can’t do something, chances are they will become curious and then either indulge or go some extreme. This problem has presented itself in the media as of recent, such as Joshu Sasaki, a Zen Buddhist monk who groped and sexually harassed female students for decades, taking advantage of their loyalty to a famously charismatic roshi, or master. These allegations have upset Zen Buddhist across the country. As such an honorable figure in the community, skepticism has risen for others in this position. 

In 2013, there have been numerous stories in the media regarding the Buddhist monastic community and their desire for sexual interaction. Warning signs of risky behavior among monks first appeared in 2009, when a report on risks and vulnerabilities of adolescents revealed that monks were engaging in “thigh sex” in which a man uses another man’s clenched thighs for intercourse. As of late, many news articles have been released regarding Bhutan and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV among young monks who are supposed to be celibate. Bhutan, a landlocked nation of about 700,000 people sandwiched between India and China, is the world’s only officially Buddhist country, and has about 388 monastic schools with 7,240 monks and 5,149 nuns. Health officials in the tiny Buddhist kingdom of are making condoms available at all monastic schools in a bid to stem the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV among young monks who are supposed to be celibate. It makes me wonder if the monastic community has given in to their virtues for the sake of safe sex. If the officials are providing condoms that gives the appearance that slowing the growth of STDs within Bhutan is trumping these monks keeping their religious vows.

A Buddhist monk sits cross-legged in meditation

Another story that has been buzzing around the media as of late involves a Massachusetts woman named Maya Men. She has recently filed a lawsuit regarding the distribution of a sex tape between her and a Buddhist monk from the community of Khmer. Men has been heavily involved in the Buddhist community by helping fundraise funds for a new temple in Lowell, Massachusetts. According to various news articles, the sexual act occurred within a temple in Chelmsford. From all that I have read regarding Buddhist celibacy, this encounter has many things wrong with it. Since the release of this information, the outrage and angry that has followed is immense. The video has circulated within the Cambodian community and has also shown up on YouTube for the week following its release. Community members can be quoted saying they are disgusted with the video because Buddhist monks are supposed to be celibate. There are varying views on how this should be handled. Some believe that this should be dealt with privately and that the head monk that was involved in the sex scandal should be supported through this fiasco while others say that he has caused pain and suffering in the community and should be gone.

I can only imagine what other difficulties have arisen with these controversy. The head monk is someone who is greatly respected and is seen as a spiritual and astute leader. We all know that sex sells in the West and most of us can probably name at least one celebrity we know skyrocketed to fame with the help of a sex tape. This latest sex tape and other sexual stories popping up in the media are offering up some unwanted fame. One might question how feasible it actually is to maintain a life of celibacy. Is it even possible to free oneself of the game of attraction, choosing not to act on instinct, and grow as a person of religion rather than interact with an agenda? Some believe that living a life devoted to celibacy for religious purposes can be fully embraced. It is safe to say for the most part that sex and romantic love don’t make up most of the contemplative space at the monastery but I can imagine that more goes on behind closed doors than meets the eye. The main issue that is being addressed in the media is the idea of acting on impulse and being indulgent in the act. As humans, we all show symptoms of severe stress and many with experience in the practice will say these symptoms will especially show up when monks are undergoing long periods of meditation. The idea that Buddhist monks are being overindulgent is saddening to those who follow the Buddha’s teachings but it is also educating those who follow the Buddhist religion that Buddhism, when practiced to the extreme, ceases to be Buddhism. Enlightenment comes from discovering the Middle Way but those who choose the monastic path must first examine their motivation.

Two young monks from Bhutan

This increase of media attention to monks breaking their vow of celibacy has brought notice to the growing commercial sex work among female sex workers, evidence of men having sex with men, growing evidence of drug use and risky behavior, growing evidence of risky behavior among youth, and multi-partner sex practices and low condom use. With all the recent media attention there may need to either be a crack down or some reform. It appears that as of now, officials have turned to means of safe sex rather than trying to stop it from happening.



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de Castella, Tom. “Is it even possible to live a celibate life?.” BBC News. n. Web. 8 May. 2013. <;.

Hansson, Mia. “The celibate life in a Zen monastery works for both men and women.” Guardian. Web. <;.

“Maya Men Buddhist Monk Sex Tape: Massachusetts Woman Sues Over Video.” Huffington Post. n. page. Web. 8 May. 2013. <;.

Oppenheimer, Mark. “Zen Groups Distressed by Accusations Against Teacher.” Huffington Post. n. page. Web. 13 May. 2013. <;.

Wangdi, Nima. “Global AIDS Response Progress Reporting 2012: Bhutan.” Unaids. n. page. Web. 8 May. 2013. <;.

Winton , Higgins. “Buddhist Sexual Ethics .” Buddha Net Magazine. n. page. Web. 8 May. 2013. <;.



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