How Can We Help the Children in Vietnam?

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In many regions of Vietnam the social infrastructure is non-existent. In mountainous areas parents are forced to work long hours in order to scrape a living from the stony soil. Young parents who work on tea and coffee plantations in the central and northern highlands are not able to care for their children as they are working. Moreover the elderly relatives who could help are often living very far away. At a very young age children are left alone for the whole day. There is a serious risk that they may drown in ponds or puddles, be bitten by snakes, fall and hurt themselves, and so on.

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Any help we can contribute for the care and education of young children in poor areas of Vietnam is very precious. Our help for the schools includes facing the issue of malnutrition, from which sixty percent of young Vietnamese suffer. In our schools children are given a midday meal and a glass of soy milk. Education provides families with hope that they can improve the lot of their children in the future and find relief from grinding poverty.

  • $15 a month will provide a child with a nourishing meal once a day and an education in nursery school or primary or high
  • $30 a month pays the salary of a school teacher who will teach twentyfive children in a remote

We are in great need of your help to continue this work. Please send your donation to one of the addresses below. We depend on you to continue this beautiful and noble service.

U.S.A.
Make a check to “UBC Deer Park”
and mail to:
Deer Park Monastery
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido CA 92026 USA
Or transfer funds directly to account of
Deer Park Monastery,
029-1314078,
Wells Fargo Bank,
145 Escondido Blvd.,
Escondido CA 92025
routing transit number 121-04-28-82.

France
Make a check to “EBU Village des Pruniers” and mail to:
Loving Kindness Temple
13 Martineau
33580 Dieulivol
France
Attn: Sister Chan Khong

Europe and Asia
Transfer funds to UBS Bank,
Aeschenvorstadt 1, CH
Basel, Switzerland;
account of Sister CAO N.P.F. Chan Khong for the Unified Buddhist Church;
attn: Mr. Guy Forster;
0233-405 317 60 D in USD,
405 31701 N in Swiss Francs, and
405 317 61 F in Euros;
Swift Code: UBS WCH ZH 40A

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The New Gurudharmas for Monks

 

 

By Sister Annabel, Chan Duc

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Before the Sangha traveled to Vietnam, Thay wrote a code of conduct for monks with regards to nuns, to update the ancient code of conduct for nuns with regards to monks. Sister Annabel graciously wrote this commentary for the Mindfulness Bell.

The Sangha of the Buddha is known as the Fourfold Sangha. It comprises bhikshus (fully-ordained monks), bhikshunis (fullyordained nuns), laymen, and laywomen. The bhikshuni component of the Sangha was added last of all.

Tradition has it that it was not an easy matter for women to be accepted as monastic members of the Sangha. If the tradition, which says that the Buddha hesitated in receiving women as monastic disciples, is true, it is not something difficult to understand.

Surely the Buddha must have been taken by surprise when his dear aunt and a large number of Sakyan ladies arrived in Vaishali with swollen and bleeding feet after walking hundreds of miles barefoot to prove that women too could lead the life of wandering monks? No doubt he was also moved. His aunt Mahagotami had previously asked permission to ordain as a nun when the Buddha was in Kapilavastu and had been told that the time was not yet right for women to ordain.

It was not that the Buddha saw women as of inferior intellectual or spiritual properties that he hesitated to allow them to follow the monastic vocation. The reservations of the Buddha had to do with the cultural and social situation in which the Sangha of his time found itself.

Concerns of the Buddha

First of all the Buddha wanted his disciples to have the best conditions to realise the practice. His monk disciples spent the night at the foot of trees and begged for alms in the towns and villages. This could have been very dangerous for women to do. According to the Indian custom of that time women were always to stay in a house where they were under the protection of their father, husband, elder brother, or son. The only women who did not have that protection were courtesans and loose women. The Buddha feared that his nun disciples would be branded as such and in fact this often happened. It also happened that on a couple of occasions when nuns unusually stepped out of the monastery alone they were sexually assaulted.

The second question the Buddha must have asked himself was how the monks he had already ordained would accept nuns as fellow members of the same spiritual family. Were the monks sufficiently free of their cultural and social prejudice to offer protection to nuns and support them in their practice?

The third question for the Buddha concerned the relationship of the nun Sangha to the monk Sangha. The Buddha taught that the recognition of seniority was essential for harmony in the Sangha (Culavagga VI, 6). Westerners should remember that seniority is not hierarchy. Seniority is a matter of protocol and mutual respect but the ways juniors have of showing respect to seniors differ from the ways seniors have of showing respect to juniors. The Buddha made it clear that the nuns were juniors. The nuns after all had had no education. They joined the Sangha after the monks had already been practicing for many years. The monks had already memorized the precepts and discourses of the Buddha. Many had become teachers in their own right. It was only natural that the nuns should show respect to the monks as their seniors.

The Original Gurudharmas

These facts are the basis for the eight original gurudharmas (practices of respect) to be practiced by nuns. They were as follows:

  1. A bhikshuni should always greet a bhikshu with respect even though she is senior in years of ordination to the bhikshu.
  2. Bhikshunis should practice the annual three-month Rains’ Retreat in a place where there is a bhikshu Sangha for them to take refuge in and learn from.
  3. Twice a month the nuns should send a nun (with a second body) to invite the monk Sangha to let them know on what day they should recite the precepts1 and to send them a monk to give them teachings and exhortations concerning their practice.
  4. At the end of the Rains’ Retreat the nuns have to request shining light from the monks as well as from the other nuns. (This meant that if the monks had seen, heard, and suspected anything untoward in the nuns’ practice they could let the nuns know and give suggestions for the nuns’ practice.)
  5. If a bhikshuni breaks a Sanghavasesa precept, she has to confess the offense to and be purified of the offense by the bhikshu as well as the bhikshuni Sangha.
  6. A nun can only receive the full ordination from monks as well as nuns.
  7. A nun cannot malign or criticize a monk.
  8. A nun cannot admonish a monk for improper conduct.2

These eight practices of respect have sometimes led people to think that Buddhism discriminates against women. Although there is no small number of individual monks, nuns, and laypeople who believe that to be a woman is a disadvantage for progress on the spiritual path, this is certainly not what the Buddha taught. After the Buddha’s parinirvana, some monks took the opportunity to promulgate their culturally ingrained prejudices. The Buddha said clearly that the fruits of the practice that can be realised by women are no less than those realised by men. In accepting women as nuns the Buddha has opened up a way for hundreds of thousands of women to realise the fruits of the monastic path.

What is needed now is to continue the career of the Buddha by making it clear to Buddhists and non-Buddhists that the bhikshuni Sangha is an equal partner of the bhikshu Sangha in the Buddhist community. The eight gurudharmas for monks that Thay has given us have already been practiced in many Buddhist communities for years. We only need to acknowledge that this is our practice and will continue to be so, so that people no longer have doubts about the status of Buddhist nuns.

Interpreting the New Practices

The first gurudharma for bhikshus is equivalent to that for bhikshunis. Thay has added the fact that each bhikshuni is a representative of the whole bhikshuni Sangha. In bowing to her one is bowing to the whole bhikshuni Sangha. The concept of partnership is also mentioned. It means a spirit of cooperation between monks and nuns in continuing the career of the Buddha.

The second gurudharma for bhikshus is to clarify that it is not a handicap to be a woman. This is an illusion to which women as well as men are subject. Women themselves sometimes also believe that they have been born women because they have not laid down sufficient wholesome roots in past lives.

The third gurudharma for bhikshus is a re-wording of a teaching given by the Buddha (SN IV,3,127). It means that our practice community needs to be a family. Here Thay makes it clear how we can support the members of our spiritual family. Just as the monk practices to see the nun as his mother and so on, so the nun practices to see the monk as her father, brother, or son depending on his age.

The fourth gurudharma for monks is equivalent to the seventh gurudharma for nuns. Thay has added the practice of looking at oneself and at the nun as a bodhisattva. This helps us to recognize the enlightened nature in each other and support wholeheartedly each other’s practice.

The fifth is equivalent to the second gurudharma for nuns. There are mutual advantages for both the bhikshu and bhikshuni Sangha when they practice in proximity to each other.

The sixth is perhaps the most revolutionary. Many monks still hesitate to listen to a nun teaching, let alone invite her to teach them.

The seventh is a continuation of what the Buddha wanted. In the pratimoksha3 there are already precepts forbidding nuns to act as servants to monks. Here we see that in physical work as well as in spiritual practice, the monks are to give the nuns a hand.

The eighth new gurudharma reiterates the need for mutual care and concern if the Sangha is to function as a family.

Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, was abbess of  Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. She is currently assisting Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

1 The precepts had to be recited at the full and new moon. There were no calendars and the educated monks knew how to calculate when the full and new moon days fell.

2 We should know that lay women who were strong in their practice did sometimes admonish monks with the concurrence of the Buddha who also made some precepts for monks at the suggestion of the lady Visakha. This gurudharma is to keep harmony between monks and nuns.

3 The pratimoksha is the disciplinary code of fully-ordained monks and nuns.

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Caring for Our Children by Caring for Ourselves

By John R. Snyder

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On the occasions when I slow down enough to actually think about it, it occurs to me that my job as a Montessori teacher is too hard for someone of my limited abilities––i.e., someone who is still dependent on food, sleep, and occasional recreation. The demands never seem to stop, and if they do happen to slow down from time to time, I have a huge backlog of practice-improvement projects to fill the gaps.

Parents sometimes ask with a certain awe, “How do you do it?” How, indeed? How does one not only keep going, but do so with good cheer, grace, a sense of perspective, and, more often than not, a calm presence in the classroom?

I am happy to share at least part of “how I do it.” I suspect that behind every successful teacher is a similar practice of self-care and reflection, although we seldom talk about these things with each other. Perhaps we should.

The crux of the matter is that less is more. At the center of the hurricane of teacherly activity, there must be a still center, a place of repose in the heart and the mind. This, I am convinced, can only be maintained through the regular, disciplined practice of stopping, paying quiet attention to one’s inner voices, and reconnecting with one’s highest self. One could call it a practice of prayer, or meditation, or affirmation, or self-reflection; the point is that it must be a regular period of quiet time, free from interruptions, an appointment one keeps with oneself.

I think of this quiet time both as a gift to myself and as a period of spiritual conditioning that keeps me emotionally prepared for whatever comes my way in and out of the classroom. Although the children do not know of my practice of reflection, I am certain they could identify which days I have failed to keep my appointment with myself.

My anchor, the backbone of my daily preparation for the classroom, is a practice found in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Teachings on Love. It is his version of a 1,500-year-old text from Sri Lanka:

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May I be safe and free from injury.
May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

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Just as a good weightlifting routine works all the major muscle groups, I find that these nine lines exercise all the psycho-spiritual “muscles” I need to strengthen for my work with children, parents, and colleagues. I start my day with these lines, and I keep a copy in the front cover of my lesson-planning book so that when I feel myself slipping away, I can read them to re-center and refresh myself.

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

I appreciate that this meditation starts with a clear statement of the desired state, the end result of the practice. Sitting quietly, following my breath, I can bring my body and mind back from their habitual agitation and anxiety to the place of peace, happiness, and lightness that is gradually becoming a habit through years of this practice. Like a tennis player mentally rehearsing her stroke, I can mentally rehearse, noticing the places of tension and disconnection in me and shifting them to calm connectedness. What could be more useful and important to someone working intensively with children?

May I be safe and free from injury.

I have come to realize over the years that every kind of progress in the classroom depends upon all members of the community feeling safe and free from injury. This line reminds me of that, and allows me to renew my intent to provide physical and emotional safety for myself so I can better provide it for the community. This hallows the many mundane things I do every day to insure the safety of the community, from giving lessons on the safe use of science equipment, to keeping the first-aid kit well stocked, to mediating conflict on the playground, to honoring the children’s efforts instead of their products. Looking a little more deeply, I also see that part of my practice is to know how to take care of myself and others when injuries do happen. Having the confidence that comes from being prepared, I believe, allows me to take appropriate risks on behalf of the community. So, far from being an invitation to always “play it safe,” this line stretches me and allows me to walk away from fearful states of mind.

May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

It is so helpful to have such a clear list of the major obstacles I face in my relationships with children, parents, and colleagues. It is even more helpful to have time to envision myself free of these obstacles and look calmly at the roots of these problems. I can, for example, rededicate myself to my practice of noticing when anger and fear are arising in me and not acting on them until I have had a chance to calm myself and inquire into what the emotions are telling me. My experience has been that simply acknowledging the presence of anger, fear, anxiety, craving, jealousy, and the like, greatly diminishes the urgency and force with which they batter my body and mind. The function of these emotions is to call my attention to something I need to take care of, and when I calmly give them my full attention, their job is done and they can relax.

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.

This line is priceless because it goes straight to the heart of so much self-inflicted pain, and it also helps to remove one of the biggest obstacles between me and the relationships that I need to build in a peaceful classroom. Behind this line is the wisdom that until we understand, accept, and love ourselves, we cannot adequately understand, accept, and love others. Indeed, whenever we think that other people are making us miserable with their foolishness and bad behavior, it is very likely that we are projecting onto them some self-criticism or fearful insecurity that has taken root in us. To our chagrin, we find those hypercritical, perfectionistic voices that chatter in our own heads speaking through our mouths to inflict harm on others. How wonderful to be able to practice stepping out of that cycle of injury by beginning to extend to ourselves the compassion that will allow us to connect compassionately with others!

May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.

This line comes from a view of human nature as being like a garden in which are planted all kinds of seeds––each one representing a capacity of body and mind. In each of us are the seeds of great evil, suffering, and destruction, side by side with the seeds of great goodness, joy, courage, and the highest states of being. Some of these seeds we inherited; some have been planted by our culture and personal history. The seeds we water and tend, whether wholesome or otherwise, grow to crowd out the others, coming to dominate our internal gardens and our very lives. I find this outlook to be completely aligned with Dr. Montessori’s views on the richness and essential goodness of human nature, and the importance of the environment in the self-construction of the human being. The salient point in this line is that, although it is easy to lose sight of it when we are in the grip of some negative emotion, the seeds of joy and happiness are still there. We do not have to wait for our lives (or even just our classrooms!) to be perfect before we can be genuinely happy.

May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.

Now we go beyond a clear intent to be free of anger, fear, and anxiety to search for the roots of these negative forces in our lives. Quietly, deeply, consistently looking at these things while not being carried away by them, gives us the chance to see the patterns, to understand the ways these things work in our particular minds. Seeing clearly, we have a chance to reorient our thinking and rebuild our habits into something more positive and free. To me, this line moves beyond intending and visualizing to doing something about the situation.

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.

Continuing the metaphor of seeds and the intent to learn to view and treat ourselves with compassion, this line invites us to take concrete action on our own behalf. The positive seeds are there, so how can I water them? I have gradually developed a mental list of very concrete ways that I can touch the seeds of joy and peace in myself, and I try to do some of these things every day. Here are a few of my touchstones: taking a slow walk in nature; really seeing and experiencing a blue sky, a flower, a stone, or a child’s face; thinking of someone I love; enjoying a quiet cup of tea; giving my full attention to a great piece of music or art; holding my dog in my lap; reading a good poem or science magazine. Your list might be very different, but you can make one by noticing the things that give you joy. In particular, instead of reacting mindlessly out of anger, irritability, or fear, I try to stop and do one or more of my “joy things” to ground myself again in my best nature before responding to a situation.

May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

As a teacher, I often think of this line as a description of the opposite of burnout. Surrounded as I am by the freshness of children, may I be able to find that freshness in myself. May I be solid enough to withstand the winds and waves of experience, stable enough to provide the consistent strength of purpose it takes to build a good community. May I live as a free person, not a thrall to my faulty perceptions, fearful attachments and aversions, public personae, or life history.

May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

Montessorians are passionate people, the idealistic followers of a passionate and visionary leader. We have great expectations and bold plans. We have strong feelings about many things, strong likes and dislikes, long lists of both shibboleths and taboos. And yet, these attachments and aversions are often our undoing, the very things that get in the way of our realizing our vision. This line, when regularly rehearsed, helps me let go of my certainties, both positive and negative, and helps me live instead with the kind of openness that Montessori herself exhibited; she allowed a group of young children from the Roman slums to completely change her culturally conditioned views of who children are and what they can do. It reminds me that the opposite of passionate attachment and ego investment is not indifference, but mindfulness: holding my perceptions and beliefs lightly and being fully present to whatever the moment brings.

Now for the best part. Having taken good care of myself, I take the time to traverse these nine lines again, but this time the energy is directed outward to the community.

May the children [or a specific child] be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May the children be safe and free from injury.
May the children be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
Etc.

For me, this closes the circle, and I am ready to enter the classroom again to see what great good can be wrought from whatever raw materials the day brings.

mb65-Caring4John Snyder, True Precious Goodness, taught nine-to twelve-year-olds and was an administrator at Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas. This article was written in 2008, when John was still teaching. He practices with Plum Blossom Sangha. You can reach him at jsnyder@pobox.com.

This work by John R. Snyder is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.

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Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

Every one of us is trying to find our true home. We know that our true home is inside, and with the energy of mindfulness, we can go back to our true home in the here and the now. Sangha is our true home.

In Vietnamese, the husband calls the wife “my home.” And the wife calls the husband her home. Nha toi means my house, my home. When a gentleman is asked “Where is your wife?” he will say, “My home is now at the post office.” And if a guest said to the wife, “Your home is beautiful; who decorated it?” she would answer, “It’s my home who decorated it,” meaning, “my husband.” When the husband calls his wife, he says, “Nha oi,” my home. And she says, “Here I am.” Nha oi. Nha toi.

When you are in such a relationship, the other person is your true home. And you should be a true home for him or for her. First you need to be your own true home so that you can be the home of your beloved. We should practice so we can be a true home for ourselves and for the one that we love. How? We need the practice of mindfulness.

In Plum Village, every time you hear the bell, you stop thinking, you stop talking, you stop doing things. You pay attention to your in-breath as you breathe in and you say, “I listen, I listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” My true home is inside. My true home is in the here and the now. So practicing going home is what we do all day long, because we are only comfortable in our true home. Our true home is available, and we can go home every moment. Our home should be safe, intimate, and cozy, and it is we who make it that way.

Last week I had tea with a couple who came from the United Kingdom. They spent two weeks in Plum Village, with the monks in the Upper Hamlet. The lady said, “It’s strange. It’s the first time that I’ve lived in a place where there are hundreds of men and no women, and I feel very safe in the Upper Hamlet. I have never felt safe like that.” In the Upper Hamlet she was the only woman, and she felt very safe. And if she feels safe, the place is her home, because home should provide that kind of safety. Are you a safe place for him or for her? Do you have enough stability, strength, protection for the one you love?

And the gentleman said, “The last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.” That is because of the work of Sangha building. When you build a Sangha, you build a home for yourself. And in that place, you feel at home, you feel at ease, you feel safe. If you don’t feel safe within yourself, you are not a home for your own self, and you cannot provide your loved one a home. That is why it’s very important to go back to yourself and make it safe for you and for the ones you love.

If you feel lonely, if you feel cut off, if you suffer, if you need healing, you cannot expect to heal by having a sexual relationship with another person. That cannot heal you. You will create more suffering for him, for her, and for yourself. In the Third Mindfulness Training, we learn that sexual desire is not love. And without love, sexual activities can only bring suffering to you and to the other person. Loneliness cannot be dissipated by sexual activity; you cannot heal yourself by having sex. You have to learn how to heal yourself, to be comfortable within, and then you begin to create a home. Then you have something to offer to the other person. The other person also has to heal, so that she will feel at ease, and she can become your home. Otherwise, what she has to share is only her loneliness, her sickness, her suffering. That cannot help heal you at all.

Three Kinds of Intimacy

There are three kinds of intimacy. The first one is physical and sexual. The second is emotional. And the third one is spiritual. Sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy. They go together. And if spiritual intimacy is there, the physical, sexual intimacy will have meaning and will be healthy and healing. Otherwise it will be destructive.

Every one of us is seeking emotional intimacy. We want to have real communication, mutual understanding, communion. In the light of Buddhist practice, you have to listen to your own suffering. There is suffering inside of you, and there is suffering inside of the other person. If you do not listen to your own suffering, you will not understand it, and you will not have compassion for yourself; and compassion is the element that helps you heal.

The first thing the Buddha talked about is the suffering inside. Many of us are fearful. We don’t want to go back to ourselves, because we believe that we will encounter the block of suffering inside, and that we will be overwhelmed. Instead, we try to cover it up by means of consumption. We consume food, we consume music, we consume many other things, and we consume sex. But that does not help. That is why the Buddha proposed that we go home to ourselves with courage, in order to recognize and listen deeply to the suffering inside. We can use the energy of mindfulness, generated by conscious breathing and walking, to embrace it tenderly. “My suffering, I know you are there. I am home. And I will take care of you.”

There are times when we suffer but we don’t know the nature of the suffering. Our ancestors, our parents may not have been able to transform their suffering, and they have transmitted it to us. And now, because we have encountered the Buddhadharma, we have a chance to recognize it, embrace it, and transform it for ourselves and our ancestors, our parents. “Dear ancestors, dear father, dear mother, I have received this block of suffering from you. I know the Dharma, I know the practice. I will learn to recognize this block of suffering that has been transmitted to me, and with love I will try to accept and to transform it.” You can do it out of love. You do it for your parents, for your ancestors, because we are our ancestors.

According to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, unless you listen to your suffering, unless you look deeply into your suffering,and embrace it tenderly with your energy of mindfulness, you cannot understand the roots of your suffering. When you begin to understand the roots of your suffering, suddenly the energy of compassion, of understanding, arises. And understanding and compassion have the power to heal. By embracing and listening to your suffering, you bring about understanding and compassion. And when the nectar of compassion is born in you, you suffer less, you feel less lonely. You begin to feel the warmth within yourself; you are building a home inside yourself. The Buddha recommends that we build a home inside, an island within ourselves. Be an island unto yourself. You’ll feel comfortable, you’ll feel warm, and you can be a refuge for the other person too.

When you have understood your own suffering, your own loneliness, you feel lighter and you can listen to the suffering of the other person. Your suffering carries within itself the suffering of your ancestors, of the world, of society. Interbeing means that my suffering is in your suffering, and your suffering is in my suffering. That is why, when I have understood my suffering, it is easier for me to understand your suffering. When you understand someone’s suffering, that is a great gift that you can offer to him or to her. The other person feels for the first time that she is understood. To offer understanding means to offer love. And understanding another person is not possible without understanding self. Home-building begins with yourself. Your partner too builds a home within, and then you can call her your home, and she can call you her home.

In the Upper Hamlet, we build a Sangha as our home. You build your family as a Sangha too, because Sangha means simply “community.” The most noble task is to build a Sangha. After enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha taught us was to look for elements to build a Sangha. A Sangha is a refuge for ourselves and for many people.

So we go home to ourselves, we listen to the suffering inside of us. We embrace our pain, our sorrow, our loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. And that kind of understanding, that kind of insight will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter, we begin to feel warmth and peace inside. And then when the other person joins you in building home, you have an ally. You are helping him and he is helping you. And together you have home. You have home in yourself, you have home in him, in her also. If that kind of intimacy does not exist, then a sexual relationship can cause a lot of damage. That is why  earlier I said that physical, sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy.

Between the spiritual and the emotional there is a link. Spirituality is not just a belief in a teaching; it is a practice. And the practice always brings  relief, communication, transformation. Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in his or her life. Without a spiritual dimension in our life, we cannot deal with the difficulties that we encounter. We should have a spiritual practice, a Dharma life. We learn how to put the Dharma into practice. With that kind of practice, we can deal with the difficulties we encounter in our daily life.

Your spiritual practice can help you a lot in dealing with your emotions, helping you to listen, to embrace your own suffering, and to recognize and embrace the suffering of the other person. That is why these two forms of intimacy inter-are. You know how to deal with a strong emotion, like fear, anger, despair. Because you know how to do that, you can feel more peaceful within yourself. That spiritual practice helps you build a home within yourself, for your sake and for the sake of the other person. That is why emotional intimacy cannot be separated from spiritual intimacy. The three kinds of intimacy inter-are.

Reverence for the Body

Sexual activity without love is empty sex. It is prevalent in our society and is causing a lot of suffering for our young people. If you are schoolteachers, if you are parents, you should help your children and your students to avoid empty sex. Empty sex is bringing a lot of damage to their minds and their bodies. Damage will emerge later on in the forms of depression, mental disorders, suicide. Many young people don’t see the connection between empty sex and these physical and mental disorders in themselves.

What happens in the body will have an effect on the mind and vice versa. Mind relies on the body to manifest and body relies on mind to be alive, to be possible. When you love someone, you have to respect not only her mind but also her body. You respect your own body, and you respect his body. True love should have the nature of reverence, respect. In the Asian tradition you have to treat your spouse with respect, like a guest. And in order to respect her, you have to respect yourself first. Reverence should be the nature of our love.

In my country, parents are proud to introduce their child to a guest. The guest will usually ask, “Do you love your father, your mother?” The child says, “Yes! I love my father, I love my mother.” The next question is: “Where do you put your love?” The child has been instructed to answer: “My love, I put it on my head.” Not “in my heart,” but “on my head.” When a monk is about to put on his sanghati, the saffron robe, for a ceremony, he’s holding his sanghati with reverence, the same as when handling a scripture. If you approach the monk and you bow to him, and if he does not find any decent place to put his sanghati, he will put it on his head because this is a noble place; it is like the altar. That is why in Vietnamese good manners, you should not touch the head of another person if you don’t know him or her well. This is one of the sacred places of the body, because the head is the altar to worship ancestors and the Buddha.

There are other parts of the body that are also sacred that you should not touch. It’s like inside the Imperial City, there is the Purple City* where the family of the king lives. And you are not supposed to go in that area. If you do, they will arrest you and cut off your head. In a person’s body there are areas that are forbidden to touch. And if you don’t show respect, if you touch that part of the body, you are penetrating the Purple City. When a child is sexually abused, she suffers, he suffers very deeply. Someone has violated her Purple City and she did not have the ability to protect herself. There are children who have been abused at the age of eight, nine, ten, and they suffer very deeply. They blame their parents for not having protected them, and their relationship with their parents becomes difficult. Then their relationship with their friends and their future lovers will also be very difficult. The wounds are always there.

Sexual abuse of children is overwhelming. It is said that in the U.S. from five to fifteen percent of young boys are abused sexually and from fifteen to thirty-five percent of little girls are abused sexually. That’s a lot. And when a child is abused like that, she or he will suffer all her life from many things, because her body hasn’t been respected.

In school, and in the family, we need to teach them to respect themselves, to respect their own body, and to respect the body of the other person. If you are religious leaders, if you are politicians, if you are parents or teachers, if you are educators, please think about it. We can learn from the teaching of the Buddha to organize our life in the family, in the school, in society in such a way that we can be protected and our child will be always protected.

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

We said earlier that sensual pleasure, sexual desire, is not love, but our society is organized in such a way that sensual pleasure becomes the most important thing. To sell their products, corporations create advertisements that water the seeds of craving in you. They want you to consume so that you will develop a craving for sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. What we need is mutual understanding, trust, love, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy. But we don’t have the opportunity to meet that kind of deep need in us.

There are women’s fashion magazines that tell us that in order to succeed, you have to look a certain way, and use a certain product. Many young people in our society want to have cosmetic surgery in order to meet that standard of beauty. They suffer very much, because they cannot accept their bodies. When you do not accept your body as it is, you are not your true home. Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. Your body is a kind of flower, and flowers differ from one another. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. If you can accept your body, then you have a chance to see your body as home. If you don’t accept your body, you cannot have a home. If you cannot accept your mind, you cannot be a home to yourself. And there are many young people who do not accept their body, who do not accept who they are; they want to be someone else. We have to tell young people they are already beautiful as they are; they don’t have to be another person.

Thay has a calligraphy: “Be beautiful; be yourself.” That is a very important practice. You have to accept yourself as you are. And when you practice building a home in yourself, you’ll become more and more beautiful. You have peace, you have warmth, you have joy. You feel wonderful within yourself. And people will recognize the beauty of your flower.

Mindfulness is the kind of energy that can help you to go home to yourself, to be in the here and the now, so that you know what to do and what not to do, in order to preserve yourself, in order to build your true home, in order to transform your own afflictions, and to be a home for other people. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete way of practicing mindfulness. In the Buddhist tradition, holiness is made of mindfulness. And mindfulness brings within itself the energy of concentration and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight make you holy.

Holiness does not exist only with celibacy. There are those who are celibate but who are not holy, because they don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. There are those who live a conjugal life, but if they have mindfulness and concentration and insight, they have the element of holiness in them. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise it will be very  destructive. A sutra describes the moment when Queen Mahamaya was pregnant with the Buddha. Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant whose trunk was holding a lotus flower. The elephant touched her with the lotus flower and entered into her very, very softly, and she was pregnant with Siddhartha. That is the way they describe a sexual relationship, in the palace before Siddhartha was conceived: gentleness, beauty. Sexual intimacy should not occur before there is communion, understanding, sharing on the emotional and spiritual level. And then the physical, sexual intimacy can also become holy.

To practice Buddhism as a monk is always easier than to practice as a layperson. There is a Vietnamese saying: to practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a layperson is much more difficult. So to refrain from all sexual activities is much easier than to have a sexual relationship. To have a sexual relationship in the context of mutual understanding and love, you need a lot of practice. Otherwise you create suffering for him, for you, for her.

There is a woman doctor in Switzerland who came to practice in Plum Village. She had suffered several times because of relationships. Since she was young, every time she was asked to have a sexual relationship with a man, she felt she had to say yes even if she did not feel ready, because she was afraid. Many teenagers in our time feel that way. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, they don’t feel ready for it, but they do not dare to say no, because they are afraid to be looked upon as weird, as abnormal. They don’t want to be rejected; they want to be accepted. That is a psychological fact parents and teachers have to be aware of. We have to tell the young people that they can learn to say no when they are not ready, when they are afraid. Otherwise they will destroy their body and their mind. Please listen to the young people, be compassionate, help them. We have to help them find skillful ways to say no.

When she came to Plum Village, the woman from Switzerland learned skillful ways to say no. In her last relationship, she was able to say no. She said, “I need you, my beloved. We need to understand each other. I need your presence. I need someone to help me when I have difficulties, to understand me.” They spent one year and a half together without having a sexual relationship. And when we went to her country for a Dharma talk, she proudly introduced her husband to us. Their relationship was wonderful, very successful, because she was able to say no until she was ready, and together they could build the kind of relationship that is lasting.

* In China and Vietnam, the Imperial City contained an enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City.

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