Fourteen Precepts in Seventeen Days
Fourteenth: do not mistreat your body. Learn to handle it with respect. Do not look on your body as only an instrument. Preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of the Way. Sexual expression should not happen without love and commitment. In sexual relationships be aware of future suffering that may be caused. To preserve the happiness of others, respect the rights and commitments of others. Be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world. Meditate on the world into which you are bringing new beings.
Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh
Here we are at the last precept … which, like all the others, asks us to be aware, aware of our energies, aware of our bodies, aware of the consequences of our physical actions. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his commentary on this precept, points out that it has historical roots in both monastic celibacy and a world where a lack of birth control and high infant mortality rates linked childbirth to suffering in a way that might not seem natural to those of us living a comfortable middle-class existence here in America.
I think this one is a little tricky to write about, because in western traditions, admonitions against sexual expression tend to be rooted in an old and deep mind/body dualism that privleges the mind/spirit at the expense of the body. That is, the road to spiritual enlightenment almost always comes at the expense of the life of the body. I don’t think this is what the Buddhist precept is asking of us here, and Thich Naht Hanh notes in his commentary that the sexual liberation that has come with the advent of reliable contraception has been in many ways a good thing.
But there has also been a downside, and one of the things that really bothers me is the way a certain construct of “sexiness” has come to so pervade our society that having a “sexy” body has come to supercede so many other values. It becomes another consumer object to be acquired, whether through dieting and exercise, or plastic surgery, or whatever. And like the acquisition of the requisite sexy body, sex itself becomes a commodity — not a means to intimacy and love, but a trading card. One is supposed to have a sexy body, and to use it for “fun”, to ride in the convertible laughing at the wind. I think what this precept is asking is that in we not devalue this most intimate of human forms of contact. That we not turn it into yet another commodity. That if we can’t have mindful, loving, intimate sex with a partner to whom we are committed, then we should refrain. Not that sex itself is bad, but that bad sex, sex for sex’s sake, sex for power’s sake, sex for the sake of getting more stuff, is perhaps not a useful way to use our energies.