The Holy See
back up

Celibacy: the view of a Zen monk

from Japan


Soko Morinaga

Buddist monk. Rector of Hanazono University


Examples of the marriage of monks in Japan can be found as early as the Heian period (794-1185). Moreover, beginning from the time of Shinran (1173-1262) and Ippen (1239-1289), who were known as hijiri, or wandering mendicants, there are many examples of the marriage of monks during the Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi (1336-1570), and Edo periods (1600-1867). So from the point of view of ordinary Japanese people, the marriage of monks was not regarded as something out of the ordinary.


An edict, number 133, issued by the new Meiji government in 1872 ordered that monks should be free to «eat meat, take wives, and shave their heads» as they chose. From that time, the secularization of monks proceeded rapidly. In Taisho in 1920 the Jodo (Pure Land) School of Buddhism issued a set of Regulations for Temple Families. From this time, the treatment of temple families became an important issue. In this way, the marriage of monks, instead of being viewed as a question of doctrine or the precepts of monastic life, came to be taken up as a problem of personal attraction of temple management, or as a matter affecting the lives of temple families. The problem, then, became less a strictly religious one, and more a matter of how to deal with the inheritance of temple headships and the social status, rights, and property of temple families.


The issue of monastic celibacy differs for each sect of Japanese Buddhism and for each individual monk. We cannot say that the social issues I have outlined above reflect the definitive state of contemporary Japanese Buddhism but it is true that where these various problems do exist, they arise from the marriage of monks. Moreover, in thinking about this question, we should not overlook the fact that nuns are usually neglected and that an exclusively male-centred point of view is argued.


In this brief essay, however, I would like to discuss the issue of monastic celibacy not from this social angle, but from the personal point of view of my own religious experiences as a Zen monk, and on the basis of ‘faith’, in terms of Zen teaching and the monastic precepts.


What is essential for the Buddhist is the self-awakening of and to the ‘three treasures’: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha community. Rather than being an object of faith in the context of a lord-servant relationship such as that of a creator and the ones that are saved, Buddha designates that which lets exist everything that is. In Zen, this is also called ‘One Mind’ or ‘Buddha-nature’. Dharma signifies the matrix of impermanence and cause-effect in which Buddha as a phenomenon ceaselessly undergoes creation, change, birth and death. Finally, sangha denotes the subtle order and harmony among the phenomena. Thus, with the self-awakening of and to reality as it truly is — which is expressed by the term ‘three treasures’ — it becomes clear that all existence is originally without any subjective ‘I’ and without any object an ‘I’ could possess. However, in terms of public life, sangha also designates a group of Buddhists whose members attempt to transmit by their own self-awakening the very Buddha-nature which the Buddha awakened to.


A person who wants to become a monk or nun must go through a specific process. In the initial ordination ceremony, the precepts are accepted. As a condition for this acceptance of the precepts, one must first express one’s resolve to leave one’s home which forms a root of attachment. Furthermore, one must be more than 20 years of age, and it is absolutely required that one’s parents approve one’s leaving home. Thus a monk or nun is, as a member of the sangha, a person who has left his or her home’ and is either celibate from the outset or becomes celibate upon entering monastic life. This is also a practical expression of one’s faith in the three treasures (no ‘I’, and no object).


While the establishment of religious faith is, needless to say, a very personal and internal event, the social status of ‘monk’ or ‘nun’ presupposes a monastic community called sangha. Both from the point of view of the establishment of one’s own faith and from that of a harmonious effort in the sangha community to help each other towards self-awakening, the monks’ and nuns’ lack of possessions is an essential condition.


Although the inner effort to deepen the ‘faith’ in one’s heart and the altruistic effort to help others to attain religious peace of mind are in essence just two sides of one coin, one must recognize that historically, in the monastic community (sang/ia), the former endeavour did not necessarily form a unity with the altruistic effort that aims at saving members of the secular society.


In Southeast Asian Buddhism, the monastic community is still central; in contrast, the various forms of Mahayana Buddhism in China and Japan tend towards secularism. In the trend of historical secularization of modern civilisation throughout the world, one may in Japan sometimes have trouble speaking to communities of home-leavers. Nevertheless, and in spite of the limited number of such vocations, I can say as one member of the Japanese Buddhist sangha that in this day and age there are in fact still Zen monks and nuns who consciously choose to remain celibate for life.


With regard to the corpus of scriptures on monastic precepts, one finds that the history of the institutionalization of monastic precepts can also be called a history of the breaking of these rules. The repeated addition of more detailed rules was necessary precisely because the precepts were broken, and it served to prevent just that. Paradoxically, the attempt to kill off desires and attachments inside the monastic community by way of precepts, produced more evil ways of breaking these precepts; and while sight was lost of the gist of the teaching, superficial hypocrisy and self-righteous interpretations became rampant.


The Buddhist monk Saichô (767-822) dared to abrogate the multitude of traditional small precepts in favour of the sole precept to «awaken to the fundamental one-mind of Mahayana». He established a ceremony for the taking of this precept and built a Mahayana ordination platform for the purpose on Mount Hiei near Kyoto. Since then, various branches of Japanese Buddhism have adhered to this. But Zen, following in the steps of its Chinese tradition, upheld an original structure of mutual complementarity of the monastic and secular communities and thus did not completely give way to lay Buddhism. Although this was a contradictory compromise of a kind that is again different from that of Southeast Asian Buddhism, one can say that the realization of this kind of contradiction bears potential for the future. However, it also proved to be a cause for confusion in monastic Japanese Buddhism.


At any rate, the specific character of Japanese Buddhism, formed through the abolition of the small precepts in favour of the Precept of Mahayana One-Mind and the view that both personal and altruistic practice appear naturally, is an active response to the problems of secular society. Wanting to contribute to world peace and wellbeing, Japanese Buddhism shows an increasingly strong tendency to this worldly benefit. At the same time, it acquires more and more the character of a lay community rather than that of a monastic one. In particular, the a-religious tendency of modern civilization — and along with it the loss of family ethics, the contempt for life, and the anthropocentric resources and world-wide destruction of the environment — has led to an extreme situation which ultimately can not be dealt with in terms of superficial this-worldly profit thinking. It is true that the home-leavers, too, tend to strive more for secular fortune than for the faith arising from the self-awakening of the three treasures. They view the monastic community that ought to be their basis lightly and disregard its rules, and they are drawn into the secular world with a household and private property before having finished their own spiritual quest.


If I may relate here my personal experience: After leaving home and being ordained, I spent a period of 20 years (from age 20 to age 40) in personal practice to establish that faith which is called satori. Since then I have been involved in practices to benefit others in the secular world, and celibacy has always seemed most natural to me. I do not feel at all constrained by the precepts and have not felt any grave hindrance due to desire. Ever since I became a monk, the faith in connection with the self-awakening of the three treasures and the abstinence from personal possessions has seemed natural to me. I think that my way of being a Zen monk would have long ago come to a dead end if I had had to uphold by force a voluntary precept or a related threat of punishment for these two conditions for being a religious person: faith on the inside, and a life without material possessions on the outside.


When the Japanese Buddhist Saint Hônen (1133-1212) was asked whether a Buddhist religious person should be celibate or not, he said: «If it is easier for him or her to express faith by reciting the Buddha’s name alone, he or she should be celibate. If it is easier to do that with a spouse, it is better to marry. What is important is only how one expresses one’s faith in reciting the Buddha’s name.»


The establishment of religious faith cannot but be personal, and in this sense I fully agree with H6nen. However, as a Zen monk who has entered a monastic community in order to accomplish both personal religious practice and help for others, I feel that it was easier to do this without a family and the ensuing necessity to have personal property; so for me the choice of celibacy and poverty was a natural and joyful one. I certainly am not the only person who feels joy about celibate life; already in the old Theravada Buddhist tradition of Southeast Asia one finds many poems that sing of the joy of celibacy. Although there may be desires such as sexual desires, this joy protects celibate life.


It is rather difficult to speak of both the views held in the

history of Buddhism and my personal experience in just a few pages, but in conclusion I would like to emphasize that the life of a true religious person does not ban desire by inner will power or by outer pressure. Rather, it is due to a natural manifestation of Buddha-mind that life without possessions becomes a joy accompanying both activities for one’s own benefit and activity for the benefit of others.


Since the majority of the monks and nuns that constitute the sangha have not yet realized this, inner effort of will and vows and outer rules become necessary. Wherever there is coercion to conform to such rules, be it from the inside or the outside, there is bound to be hypocrisy and transgression. From a historical point of view, too, it is clear how meaningless it is to try to eradicate this contradiction by systematic reform. There is only one way to completely transcend this contradiction, and that is by the joy of the monk’s and nun’s own self-awakened faith. If they ignore this joy of faith and attempt to preserve a sangha that relies on some system, the sangha will surely at some point perish. But even if that kind of sangha perishes, the three treasures will not perish. Just as the green leaves of spring sprout after the autumn leaves have been burnt, the Buddha dharma will with certainty appear anew in a different form.






1. ‘Leaving home’ is the literal rendering of the Sino-Japanese expression used when someone enters a Buddhist monastery.