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Cheri was asked to write the following article for a German periodical, InterSein, or InterBeing in English.  The topic of this particular issue was the Third Precept, or, as they refer to it, the Third Mindfulness Training.  As it is stated in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen-Master Thich Nhat Hanh:

The Third Mindfulness Training: 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 to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.
Thoughts on the Third Precept
by Cheri Huber
(First published in German magazine "Intersein", 2004

When we offer a retreat on the Buddhist Precepts, people usually attend to find out what they can and cannot do in terms of the Precepts. Most of us were raised with at least a nodding acquaintance with the Ten Commandments. "Thou shalt..." "Thou shalt not..." It's pretty straightforward. You do or you don't. You're doing the right thing and being the right person or you're not. Of course, you can't be sure, but the promise is that eventually you will receive the Final Judgment, and then you'll know exactly how well you did or did not do. It may be too late, but at least you'll know. In the meantime, you try to do the best you can and hope for leniency (and hope the Judge has a sense of humor).

In the tradition I follow, the precept on sexuality is stated, "Not to commit or participate in unchaste conduct." Each of our precepts is stated in an equally open-ended, non-specific, you're going to have to figure this out for yourself sort of way. And that's what we're expected-required-to do. No Zen authority tells us what any of this means. "Well, does this precept mean I can or can't...?" My response is invariably along the lines of, "What do you see when you look at that?"

That response is either infuriating or liberating, depending on one's outlook at the moment. If I am identified as a small illusion-of-a-separate-self-who-suffers, I just want to know what the rules are so I can either keep them or break them with certainty. What I don't want is to have to pay attention, become aware, take responsibility-in other words, what I don't want to do is to identify myself with something larger than this suffering little ego.

But Buddhism is a process of ending suffering. Ending suffering! Not getting a good report card, not getting a pat on the back as we cruise across the finish line-ending suffering. Repression, suppression, and depression don't get us extra points. Freedom is freedom. Looking good and acting as if   I am free is not freedom.

Ending suffering requires us not to look as if we're free, but actually to be free. How can we be fee? We can be free by getting to the bottom of our beliefs and assumptions about ourselves and life. We are free, we are willing to let go of suffering, when we have exhausted all possibility that greed, hate, and delusion will bring us fulfillment. What makes this a path of heroes is that we must go into all the dark and scary places of desire in order to prove to ourselves that it is not a matter of not choosing these things because they're bad, it is a matter of not choosing these things because we don't want them.

Whether we are dealing with a precept such as "Not to commit or participate in unchaste conduct" or the "Third Mindfulness Training," we are being required, in our pursuit of the ending of suffering, to give up all ideas of right/wrong good/bad, all our childhood conditioning, all we have invested in being the person we should be, all our survival strategies-everything to which we cling in order to remain who we are. All of it. We must let it go. Give it up. Know nothing. Have no point of view.

Then what do we have? Nothing. Everything. In this moment, conscious, compassionate awareness lives us completely.

Every encouragement we have not to know is an invaluable aid in ending suffering. The moment we think we know what something means, we stop paying attention. When a goal is defined, we can easily fail to explore the source of the goal and what that goal entails. Who is this "I" who commits to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society? What is responsibility? What is protection? What is safety? What is integrity? Who are these people this "I" will do this for? Who is it who would be determined? What is love? What is long-term? What does commitment mean? What is happiness and how can it be preserved? What does it mean to respect commitments? What is "my power"? What does it mean to protect children from sexual abuse? What is sexual abuse? How would I protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct?

What does any of that mean? For whom does it have meaning, and what meaning is assigned?

These are not questions for the head. These are questions only the heart, only center, only this moment can consider. Does the heart consider? Does center, authentic nature, have an opinion? Does it know?

We are about a tricky business. There is nothing to know yet we must attempt to know it. There is no one to know yet effort to wake up must be made. I must pursue awakening with every ounce of strength available to me, knowing that my very effort keeps me from what I seek. I exhaust myself trying, aware there is nothing to do, aware I must try.

The very "I" making the effort is the problem that needs to be solved. Putting "I" in charge of ending suffering is truly putting the fox in charge of the hens. Egocentric, karmic conditioning is going to take on the task of figuring out how to save the world from sexual misconduct. Who else would take it on?

We are in a troubling conundrum. I cannot make it work. I cannot quit. "What am I to do?" wails egocentric, karmic conditioning. "I have to do something," determines the suffering self through gritted teeth.

Blessedly, awareness practice has a not-doing for us to do. We can pay attention to everything. We can not believe any of it. We can stop taking any of it personally. As we sit and notice, the murky water settles. We can find clarity. We can be clarity. Clarity is. Clarity.


When I encounter a lofty ambition such as "Not to commit or participate in unchaste conduct" or the "Third Mindfulness Training," one thing is immediately clear to me: willpower is not going to carry the day. Most of us have repeatedly tried and failed to follow through on an intention or an inspiration or even on a "good idea" such as regular exercise or healthy eating. Eventually, we may become hesitant to commit to anything, fearing we will not follow through. Often our failure to keep a commitment leads us directly to internal beatings and self-hatred.

Where does that leave us? If I know I fail at follow-through more often than I succeed, yet there is a commitment I really want to keep, is the answer a more strenuous regimen of internal castigation? No. The answer is to use the dualistic dance executed by the part   of me who wants to keep a commitment, and the part of me who does not, as an opportunity to see through a process that has kept many people trapped in a lifetime of suffering.

How I set about keeping this intention to let go my karmically conditioned thoughts, emotions, and behaviors around the subject of sex and sexuality has to be what I hope to have as a result of keeping this intention and it has to express that which originally inspired a desire to keep this intention. If I want to let go of my conditioning around sexuality, how I go about doing that, and what I want as a result of having done that, have to be the same thing. In other words, the means and the end are the same thing. If I want to be more present and compassionate as a result of letting go of my conditioning around sexuality, I must be present and compassionate as I am letting go.

When it first occurred to me that my unconscious, unexamined, conditioned reactions to sexuality were a source of suffering, that clarity came in a moment of presence. If only for a split second, I was not asleep. For that little gap, I was here, awake, and present enough to see beyond the delusion ego lives in. "Ah, I see. I don't want to be that way anymore." In that clarity there is no self-judgment, no self-hatred. The self-judgment might arise within seconds, but in that initial moment of clarity, criticism, judgment, and punishment were not a part of the seeing. It is with that clear, accepting, nonjudgmental attitude of mind that we will practice bringing conscious, compassionate awareness to every aspect of sexuality.

Only egocentric, karmic conditioning makes contests; keeps score; is invested in outcome; believes there is something wrong; thinks there is somewhere to "get;" maintains an identity; uses criticism, threats, and fear to control; and attempts to argue that punishment makes people good. If we want to end suffering, if we are to live our lives from conscious, compassionate awareness rather than ego and delusion, we must embrace into conscious, compassionate awareness the only suffering human we can ever truly know-ourselves.



1. We have been conditioned from before birth to hold beliefs and assumptions about everything in life, including sexuality-ours and everyone else's. We can bring conscious, compassionate awareness to these beliefs and assumptions. We can practice asking ourselves, repeatedly, as thoughts and conclusions arise, "How do I know that?" "Is that true?" "What if that perception is erroneous?"

2. We can bring attention to our projections. All day long we are creating the world we live in through projecting our beliefs and assumptions out onto others, and then believing that what we're seeing is reality, based on our interpretation of what we're seeing. Again, we can question ourselves closely, "How do I know my perceptions of that person are accurate? I know that is true for me, I'm the one who thought of it, but what if it is not true for that person?"

3. We can watch how conditioned self-judgment and self-hatred keep us from being aware. If we are judged because of what we see about ourselves, we will stop looking.

4. We can become acquainted with the cast of characters who make up the person we each call "I," recognize their various viewpoints, realize how they maintain the world of duality through their opposing opinions, and practice observing them rather than identifying with them.

5. In our sitting practice we can learn to sense the difference between ego identity maintenance and conscious, compassionate awareness. We can realize that the survival of the "separate self" is the non-stop, full-throttle activity of the conditioned human being-ourselves and everyone else. This realization can be a source of great compassion for us all.

(This article is from In Our Practice, a quarterly newsletter published by the Zen Monastery Practice Center. If you would like to subscribe, please visit:


Copyright 2003-2011 Cheri Huber