Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam War in an attempt to apply traditional Buddhist morality to contemporary issues.


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The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: Right Conduct from Interbeing

(For lay members): Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, we must be aware of future suffering that may be caused.

We know that to preserve the happiness of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. And we will treat our bodies with respect and preserve our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realisation of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings. …

In Buddhism, we speak of the oneness of body and spirit. What happens to the body also happens to the spirit. The sanity of the body is the sanity of the spirit; the violation of the body is the violation of the spirit. The union of two bodies can only be positive when there is also understanding and communion on the level of the spirit.

Sexual communion should be a ritual performed in mindfulness with great respect, care, and love. True love contains care and respect. It is deep, beautiful, and whole. In my tradition, husband and wife are expected to respect each other as guests, and when they practice this kind of respect, their love and happiness will continue for a long time. In sexual relationships, respect is one of the most important elements.

True love also includes a sense of responsibility, accepting the other person as they are, with all their strengths and weaknesses. The expression “long-term commitment” helps us understand the word “love.” A long-term commitment between two people is only the beginning. For a tree to be strong, it needs to send many roots deep into the soil. If a tree has only one root, it will be blown over by the wind.

The life of a couple also needs to be supported by many elements – families, friends, ideals, practice, and Sangha. Understanding this training in the context of community is very important.

“Responsibility” is the key word. We need mindfulness in order to have that sense of responsibility. In a community of practice, if there is no sexual misconduct…there will be stability and peace. We refrain from sexual misconduct because we are responsible for the well-being of so many people…

We need to discuss problems relating to the practice of this training, like loneliness, advertising, and even the sex industry. The feeling of loneliness is universal in our society. When there is no communication between ourselves and other people, even in the family, the feeling of loneliness may push us into having sexual relationships. The belief that having a sexual relationship will help us feel less lonely is a kind of superstition. In fact, we will be more lonely afterwards.

When there is not enough communication on the level of heart and spirit, a sexual relationship will only widen the gap and destroy us both. Our relationships will be stormy, and we will make each other suffer.

In practicing the 14th Mindfulness Training, we should always look into the nature of our love to see and not be fooled by our feelings. Sometimes we feel that we have love for the other person, but maybe that love is only an attempt to satisfy our egoistic needs. Maybe we have not looked deeply enough to see the needs of the other person. He or she should not be looked on as an object of our desire or some kind of commercial item.

Sex is used in our society pervasively as a means of selling products. There is also the sex industry. These things are obstacles to our practice. We must remember to look at one another as human beings with the capacity of becoming a Buddha.

After several years of ascetic practice, Shakyamuni Buddha realised that mistreating the body was a mistake, and he abandoned that practice. He saw that both indulging in sensual pleasure and mistreating the body were extremes to be avoided, that both led to degeneration of mind and body. As a result, he adopted the Middle Way between the two extremes.

In Asia, we say that there are three sources of energy—sexual, breath, and spirit. Sexual energy is the type of energy that we expend during sexual intercourse. Vital breath energy is the energy we expend when we speak too much or breathe too little. Spirit energy is the energy we expend when we worry too much.

We need to know how to maintain the balance, or we may act irresponsibly. According to Oriental medicine, if these three sources of energy are depleted, the body will weaken and disease will appear. Then it will be more difficult to practice.

In Taoism and also in the martial arts, there are practices for preserving and nourishing these three sources of energy. When practicing conscious breathing—counting the breath or following the breath—we do not waste the vital breath energy, instead we strengthen it. Concentration and the enjoyment of meditation do not expend spirit, but strengthen it.

You can learn ways to channel your sexual energy into deep realizations in the domains of art and meditation. In the Buddha’s time, a typical monk was a quiet person who practiced walking and sitting meditation both day and night…

This way of life enabled him to preserve both vital breath and spirit. In the time of the Buddha, the main reason for monks abstaining from sexual activity was to preserve energy. This is a point of commonality between Buddhism and most other Eastern spiritual traditions.

During the most difficult periods of nonviolent struggles, Mahatma Gandhi also practiced abstinence, and he advised his colleagues to do the same in coping with tense, difficult situations. Strength of spirit depends on these three sources of energy.

In Vietnam, the word “spiritual” is formed by combining the words for sexual energy and spirit. The material and the spiritual are no longer distinct, and the name of each is used for the other. Those who have fasted know that if the three sources of energy are not preserved, you cannot fast for long. In 1966, the monk Thich Tri Quang fasted in Vietnam for one hundred days, because he knew how to preserve his three sources of energy.

A second reason that monks in the Buddha’s time refrained from sexuality was to cut off the “chain of rebirth.” (samsara) The first meaning of rebirth means to be reborn in our offspring…

During the time of the Buddha, much more so than in our own time, poverty and disease were the common lot for most people. This situation is reflected in the First Noble Truth. Imagine a family with too many children, all of them frail and ill. There is a permanent shortage of food, no medicine, and no means of contraception. Each year a new child is born. This is still common in many parts of our world, and both parents and children suffer.

Rebirth must be understood in this context and with this background. For these people, a new birth is often not a joy, but a catastrophe. To give birth to a child is to perpetuate the cycle of hunger and disease. This is the continuation of samsara. The mindfulness training for celibacy during the time of the Buddha also aimed at preventing childbirth; it had a birth-control function. Therefore, this mindfulness training is directly related to issues of population, hunger, and economic development.

The presence of Buddhist monks in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China…and Japan for more than 20 centuries has contributed significantly to reducing the world’s population by billions. The population explosion is one of the most serious problems of our day. Hunger leads to war and, in our times, wars are incredibly destructive.

Countries that cannot control their populations cannot overcome poverty. And there is the threat of nuclear holocaust. Parents must be aware of the actual situation in the world. We should know the future into which we are sending our children, to motivate us to act and live in a way that can create a better future for ourselves and our children. We must be clearly aware of the responsibility we bear in bringing new life into the world. The answer is not to stop having children, but to make the world a better place.

The future of the Earth and our children depends on the way we live today. If we continue to exploit and destroy our ecosystems, if we allow the arms race to continue, if we do not curb the growth of the world’s population, the Earth and humankind will not have a future. Each of our ways of life can be a brick for building a future of peace. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training is vast…

Nhất Hạnh, and Fred Eppsteiner. 1987. Interbeing: fourteen guidelines for engaged Buddhism. Berkeley, Calif: Parallax Press.