By Richard Brady The Third Precept: Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
Teaching a ninth-grade course on sex and sexuality has given me an opportunity to learn more about the Third Precept and to experience the support of my Sangha in doing so. During the first part of the course, Joan, my teaching partner, and I engaged the class in a discussion of gender stereotyping, showed an episode of a TV program that dealt with retaining virginity, invited a victim of date rape to speak to the class, and gave the class an article on teen sex to read and discuss. The students kept a journal and later shared their reactions with the class.
The discussion was distressing. Students dismissed the video as simplistic and the article as preachy. Our guest was seen as genuine, but no one cared to comment on her message. Finally, one young man told us that we were missing the entire point of the topic, namely love. "Love is beautiful," he said, "and sexual relations are a natural expression of this beautiful connection." But most of the students did not participate in this discussion. Those who did were primarily boys who spoke but seemed uninterested in listening to others' points of view.
Joan and I were at a loss as to how to proceed. But before our next planning meeting, my Sangha met for its Sunday evening meditation and Dharma discussion, which always included an invitation to Sangha members to bring up problematic life situations for the Sangha's wisdom. When I did, Mitchell commented that in our hopes of getting the students to talk openly with each other, Joan and I had abdicated our role of sharing our own mature perspective and understanding with them. Pam related the rewarding experience of discussing Thay's commentary on the Third Precept with her own teenager. And Grace volunteered to speak to our class about the evolution of her own understanding of sexual relationships.
It was with a strong sense of support that I shared the Sangha's discussion with Joan. We went on to read the journal entries from the previous class: "We've already studied this and aren't learning anything," was a typical comment from the vocal boys. William, who felt differently than his peers, said he had decided to go along with them rather than be ridiculed. Several of the girls said that they would not participate in discussions because they did not feel respected by the boys. Mitchell was right. We needed to step in and give the class some overdue guidance, but we needed to avoid preaching. Thay always says that all of the precepts boil down to just one: "Be mindful!" Mindfulness in relationships and all that this implies felt like the right basis for a Dharma talk to the class the following day. I volunteered to give it. Before preparing my notes that evening, I read Thay's commentary on the Third Precept from For a Future to Be Possible and found in it the conclusion for my talk.
"Sometime in your life you will probably be involved in a sexual relationship," I began. "As your teacher, there is one message I want to give each of you—that, whatever the circumstances, in order to be successful, it will be vitally important for you to look deeply at your relationship, to really understand it so as to be able to act well in it. This means looking deeply at who you are, examining your values and attitudes. If you find yourself reacting negatively to a class presentation, don't dismiss it. Look inside and try to understand more about who it is that is reacting to it. Looking at a relationship also means looking at your partner. If you get involved in a heterosexual relationship, it will be with a person who has grown up receiving very different messages about sex and sexuality than you have. In any case, your partner will be different from you. Take advantage of the precious opportunity this class affords to really listen to how others, especially others who are really different from you, feel about this intimate subject" Finally, I underscored Alex's remark about the fundamental role of love by reading Thay's description of two kinds of love: tinh, passionate, self-absorbing love, and nghia, sustaining, solid, giving love. "Love is beautiful," I agreed, "but when you are in love, in order to handle your relationship well, it is necessary to look deeply to understand the nature of your love." This time the students really heard the message about mindfulness. Shennan, one of the least patient with our earlier efforts, expressed his special appreciation of Thay's comments on mindfulness and love.
A couple of months before the course began, Grace, the Sangha member who volunteered to talk to our class, had shared with the Sangha what a challenge it was for her as a single woman in our society to practice the Third Precept. She said that when she looked deeply at who she was, it was exactly that precept that she needed. Most teenagers do not yet have the experience or the ability to see why the Third Precept is so important, but they are clearly ready to accept the challenge of being more mindful about their relationships.
Richard Brady, a mathematics teacher who is on sabbatical this year, is one of the founders of the Washington Mindfulness Community