Essay: Thich Nhat Hanh on love and sex

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen master, activist and poet who taught mindfulness to people from all over the world after being exiled from his home country Vietnam, passed away on January 22, 2022, at the age of 95. After a week of memorial ceremonies in Vietnam, France and the United States, his casket made its journey to the cremation grounds on January 29, to the accompaniment of texts, poems and songs offered by his senior monastic disciples.

The man, who was respectfully addressed as “Thay” (meaning ‘teacher’), is the author of over a hundred books. While he is typically cited as an authoritative voice on mindfulness and Engaged Buddhism, Thay also wrote about love, intimacy, relationships, and sexuality. His reflections of him on these subjects are refreshing, and merit the attention of all who are interested in a spiritual practice that engages with the quotidian concerns of samsaric life.

On standing steady in love’s torrential waves

(2009) is a wondrous book, far from what you might expect from a monk. He opens up about the time when he was 24, and desperately fellly in love with a nun who was four years his junior. He found it hard to sleep, and his nights were spent writing poetry for the object of his affection. In June 1992, Thay decided to share this experience during his dharma talks at a retreat in France. This book grew out of those.

In the foreword, poet Natalie Goldberg who participated in the 1992 retreat, writes, “We’ve all been struck by love, but what do we do with it? Most of us tumble willy-nilly into it and lose clear perception, perspective, or common sense. Often what began with joy becomes a pitfall. But in the Dharma Nectar Hall in Plum Village, I listened to Thich Nhat Hanh, who stood steady in love’s torrential waves, scrutinized it, and grounded it in deep practice.”

Thay met the 20-year-old nun, who is not named for obvious reasons, at the Temple of Complete Awakening in the highlands of Vietnam. When Thay saw her for the first time, he felt the freshness of a breeze blowing across her face. He writes, “There was a great peace in her de ella, the fruit of sincere practice, which was not present in others. She had been practicing in her nunnery de ella in Hue, and she appeared as peaceful as the Buddha sitting on the grass.

Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Shutterstock)
Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Shutterstock)

Thay recalls that she looked like Quan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion – calm, compassionate and beautiful. He struggled to share his feelings of her with her. When he did, she was not sure if she understood what he meant. When he was eventually able to communicate clearly, Thay realized that his love for her “was like a storm” and that she was “being caught and carried away” in it. He writes, “she had tried to resist, but she could n’t, and she finally accepted.”

This was a difficult time for both of them. They were drawn to each other while harboring “the deepest desire to be a monk and a nun.” They had cherished this spiritual aspiration for a long time, and did not want to veer away from the path, but love had indeed caught them unawares. In one of the poems that came out of this troubled state of mind, he writes, “Spring has come/ to every corner of the ten directions. /Its song, alas, is only the song/ of departure.”

Thay clarifies that this was not sexual attraction, and that he never felt like holding her hands or even kissing her on the forehead. He saw her as the embodiment of all that he cherished – compassion, loving kindness, peace, reconciliation. He notes that what he felt was “sacred”, therefore, “holding her hand de ella or kissing her on the forehead would have been a violation.” It is moving to read about the heavy heart with which they embraced for the first and last time.

The monk and the nun went their separate ways. Thay recited her name when he missed her, and he also wrote letters. Over time, he was able to transform these feelings through his practice of him, and expand the love to include all the monastics and lay people that he supported. He writes, “When you are stuck in the notion of a self, a person, a living being, or a life span, you cannot understand the nature of my true love, which is reverence, trust, and faith.”

This story is powerful because it shows a spiritual leader working through a challenging situation – acknowledging the strong pull of his feelings, and also being steadfast with respect to his monastic vows. Would the nun have told the same story differently? Maybe. Perhaps not. Thay has not written this book to persuade lay practitioners to opt for celibacy, or to depict sexuality as sinful. His intention of him is simply to foreground how strong the currents of love can be, how they can unsettle us, what they can teach us, and how we can love well.

On how love can become possessive.
On how love can become possessive.

In a book titled The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (1998), Thay writes about how love can become possessive without upeksha. It is a Sanskrit word, sometimes translated as equanimity or non-attachment. He writes, “A summer breeze can be very refreshing; but if we try to put it in a tin can so we can have it entirely for ourselves, the breeze will die. Our beloved is the same.” This insight rings true for me, and I suspect for many others too.

Thay points out how people rob their beloved of freedom. They use the beloved to fulfill all of their own needs, up to a point where this person feels imprisoned. This, according to him, is not loving; it is destroying, since it shows no regard for the beloved’s needs and difficulties. This advice sounds particularly useful for people who compel or guilt their partners into having sex. Thay writes, “Loneliness cannot be alleviated just by the coming together of two bodies, unless there is also good communication, understanding, and loving kindness.”

On how to offer happiness
On how to offer happiness

He returns to this subject with a detailed exposition in his book how to love (2014). He invites us to learn how to offer happiness. The starting point is to have it for oneself. This is where mindfulness comes in – not only on the cushion but while drinking tea, sitting, eating, walking, enjoying nature, and listening to people who want to share their suffering. His view of offering happiness does not involve fixing anyone; it is about presence and acceptance.

He writes, “Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one.” These remarks are grounded in the concept of “interbeing”, which challenges conventional ideas of a solid, separate, independently existing self that is at war with everything outside.

He quotes from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince (1942), who wrote, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward in the same direction.” Thay has a humorous spin on this image. He writes, “When two people suffer and look in the same direction, it is often the direction of the television.” He offers guidance on cultivating the courage to turn off the television, and to make time to listen and speak to each other.

He writes about the practice of “flower watering”, which is based on the view that every person has both flowers and garbage inside them so we ought to water the flowers in our beloved and not bring them more garbage. If flowers don’t grow well, we take care of them. We try to understand how much water and sunshine they need to grow, and act accordingly.

Thay uses examples that would resonate with anyone who is or has been romantically involved with someone or married. He points out how we end up speaking “clumsily” at times and creating “internal knots in others.” Later, we do say something along the lines of “I was just telling the truth.” This truth-telling is unskillful. Thay writes, “Consider each word carefully before you say anything, so that your speech is ‘right’ in both form and content.”

I could identify my own behavior patterns when I read his thoughts on how we try to punish the person we hold responsible for our suffering. We rarely stop to consider how their speech or behavior might stem from something that they are struggling with. We respond to unkind speech with more unkind speech. Thay offers a mantra that can be used with our loved ones: “Sorry, my dear, allow me to tell you tomorrow or the next day. I am not at my best today. I’m afraid I’ll say things that are unkind. Allow me to tell you about this another day.”

Selections from Thich Nhat Hanh's talks
Selections from Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks

He advocates the practice of conscious breathing to recognize and embrace anger instead of fighting or suppressing it, or wallowing in guilt in shame for holding on to anger. According to Thay, only acceptance of our feelings can release us from being a victim of our anger. When we learn to accept ourselves, we gradually learn the skills to accept others too.

In the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet (2021), which was put together by his disciples from talks delivered over several years, Thay asks a pertinent question, “We don’t know who we are, so how can we expect the other person to know?” He recommends cultivating an attitude of openness and curiosity, which can help partners understand themselves and each other. In doing so, they can stop being afraid. They can start to heal.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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