Thich Nhat Hanh on love, desire, and intimacy

In this short teaching from the Plum Village App, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about true love, sensual desire, and different levels of intimacy.

[The transcript below is edited for readability.]


Sensual pleasures and sexual desire are not love – but our society is organized in such a way that these things have become most important. 

Because they want to sell their products, advertisers water the seed of craving in you; they want you to consume so that you will have sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. 

What we need is understanding: mutual understanding, trust, love, and emotional and spiritual intimacy. But we don’t have opportunities to meet that deep need in us.

Many young people in our society want to have cosmetic surgery in order to meet contemporary standards of beauty. Women’s fashion magazines tell us that in order to succeed, you have to look like this, and to use these kinds of products. And that is why many young people suffer very much, because they cannot accept their body; they want their bodies to be otherwise, because people expect another kind of body. That is why they want to have surgery to transform their body; when you do not accept your body as it is, you are not your true home. 

Your body is a kind of flower; every man, every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. And the flowers differ from each other. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. Everyone must accept themselves as a different kind of flower from the others.

If you 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 don’t accept your mind, you cannot be a home to yourself.

Be home for yourself

There are many young people who do not accept their body, who do not accept who they are. They want to be someone else. But then, how can you be home for yourself? And how can you be home for another person? That is why, in educational circles, we have to tell people that they are already beautiful as they are; that they don’t have to be another person. 

Be beautiful, be yourself. That is a very important practice. You have to accept yourself as you are. When you practice building a home in yourself, you 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.

When they receive the bikkshu or the bikkshuni precepts, monks and nuns want to live a holy life. If you see that a monk is beautiful, it’s because he has brought the spiritual element into his life. If you see a beautiful nun, it is because she has brought a spirituality into her life – spirituality here meaning mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are recommended for everyone; not just for monastics, but also for lay people. Mindfulness is an energy that can help you 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 very concrete way of practicing mindfulness. And they make you holy.

People speak of holiness, but do not know exactly what it means to be holy. In the Buddhist tradition, holiness is made of mindfulness. And mindfulness brings within itself the energies of concentration and insight.

Mindfulness, concentration, and insight make you holy. So holiness is possible not only for monks and nuns, but also for the lay people who practice the precepts.

Holiness does not exist through celibacy alone. There are those who are celibate but 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, concentration, and insight, they have the element of holiness in them.

If monks observe celibacy by not having sexual relationships, that does not mean that sexual relationships cannot be holy. But monks have to observe celibacy. 

It’s like astronauts: going into the sky, you should not be pregnant. If you are, you cannot be an astronaut – but not because being pregnant is something bad.

The human body can be something very beautiful; it is a real flower. We can see many beautiful things around us. A tree can be very beautiful. A flower can be very beautiful. The snow, the river, the willow… many beautiful things. A bird, a swan, a horse, a deer can be very beautiful. And the human body is one of the most beautiful things that we can see – but we have to learn how to treat beauty. 

We are afraid to contemplate beauty. But we should not behave in such a way that destroys beauty. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise, it will be very destructive. 

In the sutra they describe the moment when Queen Maha Maya became pregnant with the Buddha. She dreamt of a very gentle white elephant. It touched her with a lotus flower held in its trunk, and entered into her very, very softly. And she was pregnant with Siddhartha. That is the way the sexual relationship in the palace is described before Siddhartha was conceived: gentle, beautiful.

But as we have learned: sexual intimacy should not occur before there is communion and understanding; the sharing of an emotional and spiritual level. Then the physical, sexual intimacy can also become holy.

To practice Buddhism as a monk is easier than practicing as a lay person. As in the Vietnamese saying, “To practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a lay person is much more difficult.” To refrain from sexual activities altogether is much easier than to have sexual relationships, because having sexual relationships in the context of mutual understanding and love requires a lot of practice. Otherwise you create suffering for him, for you, for her.

Fidelity 

In Buddhism, we speak of the teaching of the four elements of true love, the Four Bramaviharas: love without frontiers.

There is a journalist who had four lovers at the same time, in France. One in Bordeaux, one in Lyon, one in Marseille, and one who lived in Paris, who loved him very much. And he told her very frankly that he had four lovers, and that she was only one of them. That lady truly loved him, but one day, before he wanted to sleep with her, she said: “Now, let’s sit together and breathe, and look deeply to see what we really need. Darling, I really need you. I need you to be by my side, to understand me, to take care of me, to help me when I have difficulties. That’s what I need. And when you are not there, I suffer.” 

Several sessions of sitting like that helped him to understand [that what he had been doing] is not love. It is only desire. And because she’s a practitioner, she helped him to understand. And finally, he decided to marry her and release the other three people. 

There is a doctor in Switzerland who came to practice in Plum Village, who had suffered several times because of relationships. She could not say no when men asked for sexual relationships. Since she was young, every time she was asked to have a sexual relationship with a man, she said 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 strange, as abnormal. Many young people are afraid of it, but do not dare to say no. They don’t want to be rejected; they want to be accepted.

That is a psychological fact that parents and teachers have to be aware of. We have to teach the young people – our children, our students – to say no when they are not ready, when they are afraid. Otherwise, they will destroy their body and their mind. In our time, it is very difficult for them to say no.     


You can watch the full teaching below.

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