Never Let Passion Override Compassion
Photo by Dmitri Leiciu

Never Let Passion Override Compassion

Discussion date: Thu, Apr 11, 2024 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite together the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on the third training, True Love. As I was writing up the announcement for this week, I sat with the text of the third training for a while, just feeling whether there was a phrase or an underlying theme that had for me some energy, something I wanted to share with others. The beginning of the second sentence, “Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others” emerged, perhaps because of the clear distinction between actions that arise out of love and those that arise out of craving. As I sometimes do when I have a theme, I put the phrase I was interested in into a Google search. One of the first items found was a Still Water announcement I wrote in 2018. It was an announcement I rather liked. So I am offering it again below, unchanged except for some minor editing, updating the Third Mindfulness Training to the current version, and the addition of an excerpt from a recent article by Dharma Teacher Shantum Seth. I hope you find it interesting and helpful.

The original lay trainings offered by the Buddha were very sparsely worded. The third training encouraged lay practitioners to satisfy their sensual desires only in appropriate or wholesome ways. Although the term used for sensual desire, kemesu, refers to all the yearnings of the body, including cravings for food, drink, warmth, and comfort, in practice the focus seemed to be on sexual desire.

The British scholar, M. O’C. Walshe, explained in his 1975 article, “Buddhism and Sex,” that Gotama, the future Buddha, “was brought up surrounded by concubines and dancing-girls. . . . It was not expected that young men would lead a life of much restraint.” Later, after his enlightenment, although the Buddha generally encouraged self-discipline, and established monastic rules that insisted on strict celibacy, his training for lay followers was accommodating of the prevailing attitudes. The primary concern at the time seemed to be inappropriate partners. As the Buddha explained in the Saleyyaka Sutra:

[A male practitioner] avoids unlawful sexual intercourse, abstains from it. He has no intercourse with girls who are still under the protection of father or mother, brother, sister, or relative; nor with married women, nor female convicts; nor lastly with betrothed girls.

Thầy (Thích Nhất Hạnh), in his expansion of the third training, rather than focusing on categories of partners, directs attention to the motivating energy and establishes an ideal or aspirational standard:

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 mutual consent, true love, and a deep, long-term commitment.

As Thầy explained in a 1998 Question and Answer session, he was concerned with the inability of so many to skillfully manage their sexual energy.

“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. …

The sexual act can be very sacred, very beautiful, and also very spiritual, if it goes together with deep understanding, deep aspiration. We know that sexuality is also to assure the continuation of our species, and the sexual energy in each person is just the natural tendency of the species. There are many people who get in trouble, because the sexual energy in them is too overwhelming, too strong. It is a kind of energy that you should know how to manage, to take care of, otherwise it will not let you be peaceful, it will push you to do and to say things that can cause a lot of damage. Many families have been destroyed, many children have been abused and will have to suffer all their lives, because people do not know how to handle their sexual energy.

Over the years, many practitioners have shared with me that while they are in agreement with Thích Nhất Hạnh’s thoughts about the sacredness of sexual intimacy and the harmful consequences of empty sex, the counsel that there be no sexual relations without “mutual consent, true love, and a deep, long-term commitment” seemed too limiting (and too shame inducing) for modern life. While these practitioners may agree that a long-term committed relationship may be desirable, it is too much a one-size-fits-everyone-at-all-times recommendation. In particular, they say, it doesn’t allow for youthful exploration or for sexual activity to be part of the deepening of a relationship.

This Thursday, after our sitting and recitation, we’ll have an opportunity to discuss what mindful sexuality means to us. If we were asked to advise a young person, or rewrite the training, what would we advise or include? What are the implicit guidelines we actually follow?

Walshe ended his “Buddhism and Sex” article with a golden rule: “Never let passion override compassion.” For me, this encapsulates the essence of the third training. It is also a maxim readily grasped by young people and with enough depth to guide us throughout life.

You are warmly invited to join us.

The full text of Thích Nhất Hạnh’s third training and an excerpt from an article by Shantum Seth are below.

Many blessings,
Mitchell Ratner

The Third Mindfulness Training: True Love
(revised by the Plum Village monastic community in 2022)

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 mutual consent, true love, and a deep, long-term commitment. I resolve to find spiritual support for the integrity of my relationship from family members, friends, and sangha with whom there is support and trust. 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 interrelated, I am committed to learn appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and to cultivate the four basic elements of true love – loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness – for the greater happiness of myself and others. Recognizing the diversity of human experience, I am committed not to discriminate against any form of gender identity or sexual orientation. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.


From “True Love” by Shantum Seth, Lion’s Roar, January 2, 2024

It was after studying and receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Thich Nhat Hanh on Vulture Peak in Rajgir, India, in 1988 that I became much more attentive to my sexual behavior and its effects on others and myself. …

When I began practicing True Love, the change was profound—to me and my newly forged relationships, as well as to my family and friends. The hedonistic lifestyle of my youth fell away, and healthier, happier relationships ensued. Pleasure with multiple partners had always been mutual, but I came to realize that sexual relations without love created painful mental states of attachment and clinging. There’s a deep bond between body and mind. When love is not a prerequisite for physical pleasure, what often ensues is resentment, jealousy, and anger.

Sexual attraction can be born of the physical or the intellectual. It can also be instigated by consumerism; advertising and social media water the seeds of craving. Many advertisers work on desire to sell their products, which they promise will bring us sexual prowess and partners. It’s truly fitting that many perfumes have names like Poison and Samsara!

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Apr 11, 2024


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