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Celibacy (brahmacariya) is the practice of abstaining from sexual behaviour, particularly sexual intercourse. Buddhist monks and nuns must be celibate as are lay people during the time they practice either the eight or the ten Precepts. During the Buddha's time some of the more serious lay men and women chose to be celibate while still living with their spouses (M.I,490). However, abstaining from sex is not a prerequisite for spiritual growth. The Buddha mentioned that two of his disciples, Puràna and Isidatta, both attained the first stage of enlightenment; the first was celibate while the second `lived a contented married life' (sadàrasantuññho, A.III,348). But while sex can give a great deal of pleasure and emotional fulfillment, it can also stimulate excessive fantasizing, intense desire, frustration and physical and emotional turbulence. A person trying to develop mental calm and clarity through meditation may find this a hindrance to their practice and choose to minimize it by becoming celibate, at least for certain periods.
The Buddha would have agreed with the Bible where it says that sex even within marriage can be a distraction to spiritual pursuits. `I desire to have you to be free from cares. He who is unmarried is concerned for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife' (1 Corinthians 7,1-35). Thus, Buddhism's advocacy of celibacy is not because it sees sex as dirty, animalistic or sinful, but for purely practical reasons.
The Saüyutta Nikàya suggests three strategies that those committed to celibacy can use to deal with sexual desire. One is to think of and try to imagine the unpleasant aspects of the body. Another is `to guard the doors of the senses' (indriya saüvara), i.e. to consciously avoid encounters that are likely to arouse sensual desire and to be very aware of sensory impingement. The third and most interesting way is to develop what is called the `mother mind', the `sister mind' or the `daughter mind' (màtucitta, bhaginãcitta, dhãtucitta). This refers to trying to think about and relate to any female, according to her age, as if she were one's mother, one's sister or one's daughter (S.IV,110-12). Women could, of course, develop the `father mind', `brother mind' or `son mind'.
People who decide to live celibate lives sometimes find themselves having to continually struggle against their erotic impulses. There are records from both East and West of monks and priests actually mutilating their sexual organs out of frustration at being unable to control themselves. A story in the Vinaya tells of such a monk who eventually cut off his penis in despair at his sexual urges. When the Buddha informed of this commented: `This foolish man cut off one thing when he should have cut off another,' i.e. the desires and fantasies rather than the organ that responded to them (Vin.II,110). He then made it an offence to mutilate oneself for any reason.
Like other religions in which some people are encouraged to practice celibacy, Buddhism emphasizes the negative side of sexuality and the advantages of celibacy, but has little to say about the problems of celibacy.