Nourishing Intimate Relationships

Nourishing Intimate Relationships

Discussion date: Thu, Dec 03, 2020 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
December 3, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening
December 4, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

The Third Mindfulness Training addresses sexual misconduct, suffering, and true love. We are encouraged to act in ways that are most beneficial for ourselves, for those around us, and for our communities. This effort leads us to look deeply at our longings, desires, and passions, as well as our understanding of what is often seen as natural and desirable. That is a lot to work with.

One approach that helps me understand the intent of the third training is to trace its evolution over time. During the Buddha’s lifetime, lay practitioners asked him for rules of training that would help them develop their mindfulness and let go of their fears and anxieties. Like the rules of training the Buddha offered to his monastic students, the rules indicate the behavior that was expected if one was to remain in good standing in the community. For example, both the monastic Sangha and the lay community proscribed lying, stealing, killing, and the use of intoxicants.

The original, now 2600-year-old, Third Mindfulness Training was: I undertake the rule of training to refrain from wrong conduct in sexual pleasures. “Wrong conduct” referred primarily to sexual activity with inappropriate partners: those committed to someone else through vows, those who were under the guardianship of others (such as minors), and non-consensual relations (such as with enslaved people). This training and the other original trainings focused on the minimal requirements. The Buddha, of course, did not stop there. Many other of his teachings focused on how to fully live a life that was mindful, moral, clear-sighted, and wise.

In the 1980s, when Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) began transmitting the Five Mindfulness Trainings to lay students, he rewrote them to make explicit the contemporary implications. He also wanted to infuse them with a Mahayana energy: that our happiness and suffering is inextricably bound with the happiness and suffering of others, and that we practice for the liberation of all beings.

In 1989, when I first began practicing in the Plum Village tradition, the text of the Third Mindfulness Training (then called the Third Precept) was:

Sexual expression should not take place without love and a long-term commitment. Be fully aware of the suffering you may cause others as a result of your conduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others.

Since 1989, the Five Mindfulness Trainings trainings have gone through several major rewrites and multiple edits. Over the years they have become longer, more explicit, and more connected to core elements in Thay’s teachings, such as interbeing and the four aspects of true love. The current Third Mindfulness Training, as it appears on the Plum Village website is:

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.

I also have the sense that a lot of the sexual caution in the training is related to Thay’s life. He entered the monastery when he was sixteen and has been a monk-counselor since his twenties. Practitioners do not come to a monastic to talk about the pleasures of intimate relationships. They come when they are in anguish, when they want to talk about the harm they have suffered: childhood sexual abuse, empty sex, rape, sexual betrayal, and living with physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive partners.

The Third Mindfulness Training is imbued with the sexually related suffering Thay has heard over the decades, and, also, his advocacy for truly loving relationships, both in committed sexual relationships, and apart from them. He writes in the Mindfulness Survival Guide:

The Third Mindfulness Training is a reminder that we can love people from a place of understanding and compassion, not just out of need. When we love someone, we have to see that we are one with that person. Their suffering is our suffering and our suffering is theirs. We can’t exclude the other person from our own happiness and suffering. …

Love is a process of discovery. The Third Mindfulness Training reminds us that when we seek empty pleasure through sexual activity, we destroy happiness and we destroy love. Ill-considered sexual relations without true love make people feel they have lost something very precious in their lives. …

Everyone has sexual energy. Sexual energy in itself is not unwholesome. When sexual energy leads to activity that causes suffering, it is unwholesome. The Third Mindfulness Training reminds us to commit to learn ways of taking care of the sexual energy in ourselves.

This Thursday and Friday evenings we will focus our evenings on the Third Mindfulness Training. Our Dharma sharing will begin with these questions:

  • In what ways does the Third Mindfulness Training provide a helpful perspective on true love and intimate relationships?
  • If you were to rewrite it, what would you add in or leave out?
  • In what ways do the other four mindfulness trainings inform our understanding of true love and intimate relationships?

You are invited to join us.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

This Thursday and Friday evening’s program serves as one of the preparatory classes for practitioners who wish to formally receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings on January 2, 2021. More information about the classes and the transmission ceremony is available on the Still Water website.
in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Dec 03, 2020