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body and soul

Perspectives on the celibate life

Buddhist monk Geshe Tsetan (left), Hindu Swami Tyagananda, and Howard Gray, SJ. By Lee Pellegrini A Jesuit priest, a Buddhist monk, and a Hindu swami meet in McGuinn Hall one spring evening to share their respective theological traditions and mull a single question: Why celibacy? The occasion, which draws about 100 students, faculty, and visitors, is part of a series of talks on "Sexuality and the Christian Tradition," presented by BC's Church in the 21st Century initiative. (It follows by five days another discussion with an equally jaunty title: "Why Get Married?")

For the laypeople in the room this night—that is, most of us—the occasion has the potential to satisfy curiosities, to be an evening at the circus, a fact noted by Howard Gray, SJ, rector at John Carroll University (and formerly of BC), who slyly reads the thoughts of many in the audience: "I don't mind you doing the high dive, but I don't want to be a part of it." Gray speaks eloquently of the pope's injunction to see celibacy as part of the sexual asceticism of the entire Church—an ideal on a spectrum that includes the chastity of marriage. And he tells the audience that without love, as it is embodied in the compassion and humanity of Christ, renunciation can become "an endurance contest," mere "narcissistic spiritual athleticism." Yet to see celibacy as a symbol of living for the kingdom of God reduces reality to an abstraction; celibates do not cease being people, he notes.

As Fr. Gray speaks, dressed in his Roman collar, his priestly black garb topped by a tweed jacket, Swami Tyagananda listens with his eyes closed. The Hindu chaplain at MIT and Harvard, head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston, he wears a peach robe braided around his body, and sensible black loafers. Swami begins his talk by expounding on the Hindu conception of reality. A trail of Sanskrit and English profundities float over my head, rose petals without scent. The Sanskrit word for celibacy means "dwelling in Brahman," which is best described by the word sat-cit-ananda, "Being, Consciousness, Bliss Absolute." The true self is Atman, but the "body/mind complex" covers over this divine me. To achieve Atman is to be enlightened, in a state of brahmacarya. But so many obstacles intervene: hunger and thirst, rest and work, joy and sorrow, ambition and frustration—and yes, most of all, sex.

The swami then shifts from theology to a somewhat more earthbound discourse that sounds both New Age and redolent of ancient wisdom. The yoga tradition, he explains, attempts to check and control sexual energy and convert it into ojas, a refined and subtle power. If one practices brahmacarya for 12 years, a special nerve is developed, granting the capacity to grasp the subtle realities of life. Having practiced celibacy formally for 27 years, the swami says, he can vouch for the validity of these claims.

Answering the "how" question, and not just the "why," Swami goes on to proffer utilitarian tips from the first spiritual head of his order, Swami Brahmananda (1863-1922): "Avoid exciting food, oversleep, overexercise, laziness, bad company, and useless conversation." Smiling for the first time this evening, Swami construes "exciting food" as those, like onion and garlic, that stimulate passions and restlessness.

Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Tsetan. By Lee Pellegrini The third speaker is Geshe Tsetan, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who wears a burgundy robe and golden sash, BC colors in a new twist. His shaved head and one bare arm are reminders that the body is the reason we are in the room at all. He wears a perpetual smile and, on his feet, sporty black slip-ons both hip and elfin. As he takes the podium he closes his eyes and begins to chant in Tibetan, hands clasped in prayer. He finishes suddenly; his eyes open, and he smiles, flashing white teeth. I'm smitten. Something about this man speaks to my heart, and it cannot be entirely his words. He apologizes for a "language problem"—and indeed his strong accent threatens to overwhelm his presentation. But in his case, the medium is the massage.

While the swami's voice had washed over me gently, the vivacious Geshe makes me sit at attention. He punches out the key ideas: "ocean of existence," "ego," "self-concern." "OK?" he stops to ask. OK. We are all free to become Buddhas, he promises: Each of us has a pure, clean, and luminous mind covered with emotions like anger, jealousy, desire, ignorance. These create bad karma, bad actions. Then we circle in the cycle of existence.

As Geshe becomes increasingly animated, his hands work like windshield wipers. "Fight your enemy. You must give up many things to become better soldiers." I hear the words "weapons and bullets—strong ones." With a slicing motion, he says we must "cut at the root of secular existence." But the next words I catch are "compassion and love." Fr. Gray has his head down and takes notes. Swami's eyes are open but his lids are heavy. "Understand me?" Geshe says earnestly. The audience nods, captivated by his charisma, if secretly wondering, What's celibacy got to do with it?

Geshe uses stories to make his points. One is of a teacher, and the punch line is, "You're not different than the groundhog." Later he says, with esoteric charm, "All beings are mothers," and tells of a man cooking a fish and throwing a stone at a dog. I'm not sure how, but the fish ends up being his father and the dog his mother. I think I get the point. We are all one. Gray's Love, Swami's Bliss Absolute, and now Geshe says, beaming, "Don't worry. Make yourself happy, useful, meaningful. If you are happy, peaceful, and calm, your family and friends will be happy, too, and so will your society. You have the power to bring peace," he promises us. "The target is not outside but inside," and his hands shoot out and then back again to his own breast.

Stunned and not sure where we have ended up, the audience directs all questions to Fr. Gray and the swami. The queries are oddly scholastic: Can you elaborate on the notion of "consciousness," relating it to Husserl? Can you speak about Gregorian reform as it affected celibacy and land inheritance in the Catholic Church? Do you mean Orthodox priests don't have the gift of celibacy that Latin priests do? No one questions the premise that the body is the enemy; no one asks if celibacy has any part to play in priestly sexual abuse, the elephant in the room that has scarcely been mentioned tonight.

Like spectators watching a high-wire act, we wonder still, "How do they do it?" Avoiding garlic, shaving the head, living in community: These help, but in the end, we are still left high and dry, lost in a desert of abstraction. Perhaps the answer to the question of the evening cannot be unpacked by either analysis or stories. Perhaps it lies, palpable as flesh, in the very presences of these three holy men: Geshe radiating joy, Swami in the repose born of discipline, and Gray solid with integrity.

Clare Dunsford

Clare Dunsford is associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Photos (from top):

Buddhist monk Geshe Tsetan (left), Hindu Swami Tyagananda, and Howard Gray, SJ. By Lee Pellegrini

Tibetan Buddhist monk Geshe Tsetan. By Lee Pellegrini

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