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. 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 in the training 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 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.
Thich Nhat Hanh, 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 true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends.
As Thich Nhat Hanh 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.
Many practitioners, however, have shared with me over the years that while they are in agreement with Thich Nhat Hanh’s thoughts about the sacredness of sexual intimacy and the harmful consequences of empty sex, the counsel that there be no sexual relations “without true love and a deep, long-term commitment made known to my family and friends” seemed too limiting (and too shame inducing) for modern life. While these practitioners may agree that a long-term committed relationships 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.
You are invited to join us this Thursday. In our discussion we will explore 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 invited to join us this Thursday evening for our recitation and our Dharma sharing.
The full text of Thich Nhat Hanh’s third training is below..
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.