Intimacy and Enlightenment

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday, after our sitting meditation, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings offered by Thich Nhat Hanh and focus our discussion on the Third Mindfulness Training, True Love:

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society.

Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.

For me, the essence of the Buddha’s middle way is learning how to wisely respond to our humanness: our urges, cravings, hopes, and fears. On one side is denial and suppression, a turning against ourselves and our human appetites. On the other side is indulgence and addiction, a turning away from the consequences of our actions for ourselves and others. In the middle is the path of skillful means: accepting our humanness and using it to cultivate love, compassion, and wisdom.

My experience is that learning to understand and skillfully express our sexuality and our desire for intimacy is a life-long journey. These yearnings are so deeply rooted in our being, so driving, and so intertwined with other urges and desires.

In the original Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Buddha simply advised his lay disciples not to engage in sexual misconduct. In other words, “engage your sexuality in ways that are approved of in your culture, and devote yourself to to living mindfully.”

Later the Zen tradition embraced everyday life and the natural world as sources of enlightenment. Rather than avoiding sexuality, or merely tolerating it, some Zen teachers saw that sexuality and intimacy could be aids to awakening. In Lust for Enlightenment, John Stevens tells a tender story about Yamaoka Tesshu, a famous 19th century Japanese samurai and Zen master:

One of Tesshu’s married disciples once said to him, “in order to really practice zen, it is necessary to cut off sexual passion.”

“That’s quite an exalted state you are aiming for,” laughed Tesshu. “Sexual passion is the root of all existence. How do you propose to cut it off?'”

“By separating from my wife and keeping totally away from all other women; then sexual temptations will not arise.”

“That’s rather selfish, isn’t it? What will happen to your wife, a faithful companion for twenty years? That is no way to cut off sexual passion — that is merely avoiding it.”

“Then what should I do to eradicate sexual passion?”

“Throw yourself into the world of sexual passion, exhaust its possibilities, and then you will find release. Love your wife with all your might and seek enlightenment in the very midst of life – that is the meaning of zen.”

Thich Nhat Hanh often expresses concern that in modern life the ennobling, liberating potential of sexuality is not appreciated. For many people it is simply a physical act:

“Empty sex” means sex without love, without commitment, without communion or mutual understanding between the two parties. In our modern society sometimes very young people, twelve or thirteen, fourteen years old are already having sex. It seems to me that this is very dangerous, because that sex may be described as “empty sex.” Once empty sex has been experienced, the chance of having deep communication, deep engagement, will be rare. . . .

There is a tendency to believe that the feeling of loneliness in you can only be dissolved when you come together very close in a sexual relationship. I have even heard one person say that the best way to know a person is to have sex with him or her. When there is no sharing about deepest concerns, when there is no real communication, no mutual understanding of each other, and no serious commitment, I believe that sex is something very destructive. . . .

The sexual act can be very sacred, very beautiful, and also very spiritual, if it goes together with deep understanding, deep aspiration.

(From a Question and Answer session on July 27, 1998.)

You are invited to join us this Thursday for our meditation and our recitation of the Trainings. Our Dharma sharing will focus on the fifth training, True Love, and especially on the role of sexual and non-sexual physical intimacy. In what ways has intimacy with others helped you to open your heart and deepen your practice? In what ways has it been a hindrance? What have you learned about intimacy and enlightenment?

I hope you can be with us.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner