Does applying Buddhist principles of compassion and kindness make you a walking doormat at the workplace? How about attractive colleagues at work? PJ Teh, a former Strategic Planning manager at EDB, challenges that view and gives us points to ponder under this mini-article series.
The last section of this mini-article series deals with conducting oneself. Missed the first two? We’ve got your back!
TLDR: How should we conduct ourselves at work. What is better than focusing on improving on our faults? How do we deal with attraction at the workplace when we are in a committed relationship?
In particular, it is important to cultivate one’s own mind correctly. Personally, I think the most pertinent would be the use of the Metta sutta.
Loving Kindness is one of the most important qualities to cultivate in the Dhamma, and it helps tremendously in removing many of the largest defilements such as ill-will.
That is the reason why I deliberately recited the Metta Sutta when I was studying in Copenhagen: it helped me with coping with the road rage on the bike lanes during Peak hours!
Two kinds of thoughts
But in addition, it is also important to focus correctly on one’s own wholesome attributes. Remember Buddha’s teaching on two kinds of thoughts:
Whatever a mendicant frequently thinks about and considers becomes their heart’s inclination.
If they often think about and consider sensual thoughts, they’ve given up the thought of renunciation to cultivate sensual thought. Their mind inclines to sensual thoughts.
If they often think about and consider malicious thoughts … their mind inclines to malicious thoughts. If they often think about and consider cruel thoughts … their mind inclines to cruel thoughts.
So whatever you focus and dwell on about yourself, that’s what your mind will incline towards.
There is a tendency (due to our societal conditioning, especially education) to focus on our faults and to also focus on using willpower to overcome our faults.
What is truly right effort?
On the surface, this might seem to be aligned with the Sixth Factor of the Eightfold Path, Right Effort. But if you read the details of Right Effort, it is quite clear that the Buddha’s description of Right Effort is NOT the use of willpower, but about using wisdom-power to grow wholesome mental qualities and reduce unwholesome ones.
Each of these Right Efforts requires seeing and understanding correctly, not about powering through or simply wishing for one’s mind to not have unwholesome states.
“And what, mendicants, is the effort to restrain? When a mendicant sees a sight with their eyes…When they hear a sound with their ears … When they smell an odour with their nose … When they taste a flavour with their tongue … When they feel a touch with their body … When they know a thought with their mind, they don’t get caught up in the features and details. If the faculty of mind were left unrestrained, bad unskillful qualities of desire and aversion would become overwhelming.
And what, mendicants, is the effort to give up? It’s when a mendicant doesn’t tolerate a sensual, malicious, or cruel thought that’s arisen, but gives it up, gets rid of it, eliminates it, and obliterates it
And what, mendicants, is the effort to develop? It’s when a mendicant develops the awakening factors of mindfulness, investigation of principles, energy, rapture, tranquillity, immersion, and equanimity, which rely on seclusion, fading away, and cessation, and ripen as letting go.
And what, mendicants, is the effort to preserve? It’s when a mendicant preserves a meditation subject that’s a fine foundation of immersion: the perception of a skeleton, a worm-infested corpse, a livid corpse, a split open corpse, or a bloated corpse.”
The same four Right Efforts are applicable in the workplace. E.g. assume you’re married but you meet an attractive new colleague of your desired sex.
The tendency will be for your mind to cling to one aspect that you find attractive (e.g. their hairstyle). How should you react to that?
– Restraint: recognise that if you allow your focus to just go wherever desire tells it to go, you will just end up feeling more and more desire for the person, maybe threatening your own relationship. So, direct your attention to some unattractive part of the person e.g. the pimple on their face.
– Giving up: when the desire arises, don’t indulge in the desire or fantasies, but instead focus on getting to a more balanced mental state
Similarly, if your bias is towards aversion, then focus on cultivating what you truly admire about the person, in order to get to a more balanced mental state.
A smart quail vs an arrogant hawk
The last excerpt from a sutta that I want to cover is a recent text I encountered, which is a great strategy for an individual in a workplace.
Basically, find your own territory where you have a competitive advantage over others. Even a quail, with the right conditions, can beat a hawk, as the Buddha spoke about in this text:
“Once upon a time, mendicants, a hawk suddenly swooped down and grabbed a quail. And as the quail was being carried off he wailed, ‘I’m so unlucky, so unfortunate, to have roamed out of my territory into the domain of others. If today I’d roamed within my own territory, the domain of my fathers, this hawk wouldn’t have been able to beat me by fighting.’
‘So, quail, what is your own territory, the domain of your fathers?’
‘It’s a ploughed field covered with clods of earth.’
Confident in her own strength, the hawk was not daunted or intimidated. She released the quail, saying, ‘Go now, quail. But even there you won’t escape me!’
Then the quail went to a ploughed field covered with clods of earth. He climbed up a big clod, and standing there, he said to the hawk: ‘Come get me, hawk! Come get me, hawk!’
Confident in her own strength, the hawk was not daunted or intimidated. She folded her wings and suddenly swooped down on the quail. When the quail knew that the hawk was nearly there, he slipped under that clod. But the hawk crashed chest-first right there.
That’s what happens when you roam out of your territory into the domain of others.
So, mendicants, don’t roam out of your own territory into the domain of others. If you roam out of your own territory into the domain of others, Māra will find a vulnerability and get hold of you. “
There are many other sutta texts which have great applicability to the workplace, illustrating and applying many Buddhist principles that are useful to human beings. I hope this has sparked some interest for you to explore the sutta texts in more detail, and please do share with me when you encounter something interesting or relevant!
Wishing you happiness, health and peace of mind and body.
Ponder about how we can apply right effort at the workplace. It’s not about using willpower, but understanding and learning to see with wisdom. What would you restrain & give up?
Which areas at work do we have a competitive advantage, like the quail vs. the hawk? Ask your close colleagues what they think you are excellent at doing, which is very natural or effortless for you to do.
Hao is an avid practicing Buddhist based in Sydney Australia. He currently works as a Technology Consultant developing Mobile Apps for a Government agency. He has had two startups prior. Hao is the Asian Ariana Grande who has been in 7 relationships. After many trials and tribulations, he finally found the one.
At a grand old age of “42”, Kyle, a creative director has been single all his life. While he has given up his search for the one, he still wishes to be found. As a Buddhist, his outlook of love is broader. He tries to love every sentient being equally as much as he could. You might have seen his design for various temples or read his articles on Handful of Leaves.
Kai Xin 00:08
Hey friends! Welcome to another episode of the Handful Of Leaves podcast where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. In this episode, we are going to shake things up a little by discussing topics about relationship and sex.
And we have a super house of panel: myself, Kai Xin, Kyle, and Hao. I I think it’s going to get wild here! Let me briefly introduce them. Kyle identifies as an uncomplicated single. Kai Xin is near that spectrum, and is single by choice, and Hao would be on the opposite side of it. After several relationships, Hao finally found the one. And myself? I’m a hopeless romantic seeking for true love.
Kai Xin 00:54
True love. Is that even such a thing? Well, with our profiles being so diverse, I’m pretty sure we have a lot of different things to share on the topic. So without further ado, let’s dive right in!
Here’s a starting question for you, Hao, how would you know when to pursue a relationship and whether the person is the one for you?
A partner is actually a very good friend. There was this Chinese emperor who actually said that a good friend is like a mirror. If you meet a person whom you have a good communication with, who is always there for you, whom you know would have your back and at the same time gives you honest advice, then I feel that you should be in a relationship with that person. Otherwise, just be happy staying single. Rather than forcing a relationship, be single until you find someone whom you can really connect with. When I first started going into different relationships, I saw relationships as defining factor to who I was. And that is the reason why I jumped from relationship to relationship to relationship. I didn’t know that as I wasn’t very mindful then. But after a while, there were a couple of times when I took a year break from relationships in order to get to know myself better as a person. I realised that I was very unstable as a person. And it takes a little bit of self actualisation to know that.
I think you brought up a really good point there. Don’t settle into relationship with just anyone because of your own lack or your own insecurities. Rather, work on yourself. And when the right person comes along, it will be a relationship that empowers and uplifts you.
Yes. In one of my relationships, I almost fell into that pitfall. It was the relationship just before my current girlfriend. I was so disillusioned with relationships such that my baseline for a partner was: have two hands, two legs, non-religious, and that’s it. I thought that I just needed a person that I can potentially live with. Everything else is okay and I can make it work. And that was obviously a very bad precursor to enter into relationships. So, I met this girl on the apps, and then we hit it off conversationally. But after the dating her for a couple of months in, it became very frustrating for me because she would say things like, ‘Stop chewing so loudly. Pluck your eyebrows. Pluck your nose hair.’. It’s good that she’s caring about my image, but I felt like it was just controlling. And I tried to live with it. I tried to see another way around it. I thought to myself that couples argue all the time, so this is fine. It’s like the meme of the dog drinking tea while the building is burning.
I just thought that was fine. Afterwards, when she moved to another state, I felt relief. You just wanting to be away from the person, that isn’t how a relationship should be. That’s not a good thing. So, in the end, we had a conversation and we broke up.
I wish I can say something. But I have never been in a relationship to comment on that.
But that’s the bullet you dodged Kyle. By not being in a relationship, you don’t have to experience this (suffering).
But doesn’t Buddhism say that you need to suffer to be awakened?
That was my exact thoughts when I was just enduring with the relationship. I was just thinking that it was okay. ‘This is fine. It can be worse’. So, there is a danger for some Buddhists (to think in this way). Especially If you don’t really have your friends to tell you that this is not working out, that this is actually changing you and you’re just settling. But I’ve also seen the total opposite of where these people have a 20- point checklist of what they want in the partner, and that becomes super rigid. (If a potential partner only checked 19 out of the 20, they would not go ahead.) That’s the other extreme. We need to take the middle path. There’s somewhere in between. You need a rough checklist of what you want and what you don’t want in a relationship, but at the same time, don’t settle.
Thank you for sharing. You might have misinterpreted what I said about being awakened by suffering. I meant that I wish that I would have been in a relationship to understand how that works, and how that suffering is like. From that, I would probably know and compare how is it like to be single and how it is like to be in a relationship.
Shall I simulate that for you Kyle? (joking)
No, no, thank you. Unless he checks my 20 checklist. I’m kidding. But if I haven’t suffered from being in a relationship, how would I know what it is? So that was what I meant. I didn’t mean it in a sadistic way where someone is already telling me to change and yet, I’m still thinking that this is the time to be awakened right now. Not like that.
I think we all acknowledge that to a certain extent, being in a relationship does bring us Dukkha (suffering). On a surface level, there’s the arguments or disagreements. On a higher level, it is adding another level of attachment to your life. So, Hao, you are a practising Buddhist. How do you justify adding an extra attachment to your life to bring you happiness?
In one of Ajahn Brahm’s talks that I attended, he shared that there were two sisters, one was unmarried and another was married, who and both went to him. One complained about how life sucks being single and another would complain about how life with a husband really sucks. So he asked them why don’t they swap? So, no matter what position you’re in, there will definitely be some form of suffering. Not wanting to be in a relationship because there’s an aversion towards suffering is not the way. Biologically, you are inclined towards being in a relationship, then there is a certain level of suffering. Yes, there is a certain level of freedom restriction, obviously. But at the same time, which suffering is worse for you? Which one is something you can live with? If being in relationship causes your heart to ache every day and your partner always goes out, sleeps with other people and drinks all the time, and is just a totally incoherent person, that is gonna wreck the rest of your life. Thinking about how much you love this person (despite the heartache) is just unproductive. And I know how serious a relationship can wreck a person’s life. Some people commit suicide because of it. Romeo and Juliet are perfect examples. They killed themselves because their relationship was unable to continue. So, it really depends. If it’s with the right person, and you’re not causing great harm physically, mentally, to each other every day, why not?
For me, I feel that attachment is always ongoing. But you would have that defining moment (when you figure out if) it is something worth attaching to or not. I think that was what Hao was trying to explain. Because when he met someone, and when he found THE one, although there is an extra attachment, it is an attachment worth attaching to. Perhaps because that person fulfils certain kind of needs and wants, which you can’t get from anyone else. So, we got to ask ourselves if that extra attachment is worth it or not. Because whether you’re single or not, we are attached to things, isn’t it? So, I’m saying that if it happens, it happens.
Kai Xin 08:34
I am reminded of an analogy of a monkey swinging from one vine to another vine, to explain how sometimes that an attachment can be asked to the end of attachment. If we are the monkey, in order to move ahead, we have to grab onto the next vine, and we have to attach to it first. But it’s also important to know when to let go in order to swing forward and to cross over to another side.
And I think it boils down to why people enter a relationship. If it’s more of wanting to own the other party, because the other person makes you feel good, then it can be very dangerous. Because there are days when the person can’t make you feel that way. It’s not always pleasurable. So, it’s important to ask if you are attached to the feeling or if you are in the relationship because you see yourself growing with that person spiritually. If it’s the latter, then I think it can be quite wholesome. But I would say that I’m quite a sceptic. A lot of relationships stems from a place of lack. For example, if I feel lonely, I see myself wanting a partner to feel my life to make it more colourful. And if I can’t stand being alone. Hence I have to find somebody else. And that’s where a lot of problem would surface. For me, I believe that you don’t necessarily have to be with another person to actually appreciate them. Let’s say if I have good feelings about another person, what is the reason? Am I attracted to a particular quality this person has such as generosity and kindness? If so, is that something I’m lacking in myself? Can I develop that so that I’m self sufficient? And of course, if a partner comes along and then you know, we vibe very well, and we can see each other grow, then that’s a plus. That would be a bonus. So, I’d say that intention is very important.
Yeah, there’s a very good point. Because I realised also that some of my relationships, especially the earlier ones, were all driven by my need for validation. I thought having a girlfriend would show to my friends or people that I want to impress that I am worthy of someone, that someone actually wants me, and that I’m not single unit. But as most people our age start to travel a bit further on in life, we would realise that that sort of validation is not needed. And that’s why I seem to see a trend where many people would prefer to be single. (But) especially for women, there is that additional pressure to have kids or that additional pressure to get married after 25. In China, they have a term 剩女 (Sheng Nu), which means to leftover women or women left on the shelf. I cannot say how much I really disagree with the use of that term, and I think that’s that’s one of the driving factors for people to quickly get married. And then after that, they realise, oh, man, I really can’t live with this person, and they divorce because of that. So I’d rather you make sure that your shot counts: make sure that you’re together with a person, get married at a later age, rather than (rushing to get) married young, to then realise that you are incompatible.
Like what Kai Xin says, it really also depends on what you need, and want from a relationship. Because if you and your partner does not share the same intention, there will be a compatibility issue isn’t it? But most of the time, I feel like because we do not really understand and know ourselves. That’s why we go with what the society wants us to be. And I also feel like the only way to love anything, is to realise I don’t have to own that.
There is a quote that says, “If you love a flower, you don’t have to pluck it. If you really love the flower, you water it and let it grow and nurture it.”.
But also, I can’t help but feel that what Kai Xin shared could be a little bit idealistic. I mean probably nine out of ten relationships would have started because there’s an element of loneliness. Maybe that is not the main reason why people enter a relationship, but there’s probably an element of loneliness, and an amount of lack that requires certain needs to be fulfilled by someone else. We can maybe feel a little bit insecure or have anxious or avoidant attachment styles. We all have imperfections: blind sides and biases. So, realistically, knowing that we are all imperfect, how can we make a relationship healthy and as successful as possible? The definition of success here is one where both parties get to thrive and get to grow in the spiritual path, as well as in their personal development.
I think at the end of the day, the most important thing is whether you know yourself. I think that that is the backbone of any good relationship. If the relationship starts when you’re looking for something external, (it might not last). For example, some people would say, ‘Oh, let’s have a sexual relationship. This is purely sexual.’ After a while, maybe one one of them is not able to be so sexually active and because the whole basis of relationship is based on sex, the (relationship won’t work). So, once again, do you know yourself?
So, my partner and I, we met on a dating app. I was very transparent with her about my history, who I am and all that because I knew that I wanted to have a long term partner and someone that shares the same values. Being on apps, you meet random people who have a different perspectives of life, so I wanted to let them know who I am so they can decide whether or not we continue. I think that really helps because a relationship that starts on lies (isn’t healthy). And I’m not referring to lies such as covering up the fact that you have a side chick or side girlfriend. Lies can be as simple as putting on this show where I would always open a door for the person every time I meet you or give you a rose that sort of thing. I don’t know if I’m insulting the hopeless romantic here. (Laughs) So, the very first time you meet a person, the first few days, try and be as normal as possible. I know you may want to impress the person. You can do a little bit of that but not too much.
So some people joke that if you really wanted to get to know a girl, bring them to eat KFC so you can see that how they eat with their hands. The second part of this joke is that after eating KFC, you bring them swimming so all their makeup would wash away and we can see the person as who they really are. But obviously there’s waterproof mascara. These are meant to be jokes. Bottomline is to be as real as you can. Of couse not to the point where you tell the person all your deepest darkest fears and your all your secrets for the first few dates because that would be too much. Rather, be as comfortable as you can. From there, you can tell if you are comfortable with that person’s present, and then you can see if you can work from there.
Kai Xin 15:30
I’ve heard of another test. Besides swimming, go through very, very hard times together. This is an advice from a cab driver. He said that going camping with a person will allow you to see their true colours. Are they impatient? Do they take care of you? Are they considerate? Etc, etc. And I just want to clarify that it’s not that we have to find the one and to enter a relationship where there is no trace of loneliness, or to have another person to fill that gap. But it’s to recognise the full picture. Rather than just looking at the good side, also look at the negative side and the imperfections. Let’s say you went swimming or hiking with that person that person. And you saw all those flaws. And you say to yourself that if you were to magnify this times 100, or 1000, you would still be able to love this person, then that is a sign that you can enter into the relationship because you are prepared for the worst, and you are able to stick till the end. This is an advice given by a friend.
So, what Hao mentioned is based on how you see the person from the external factor, how he or she looks like. But for Kai Xin, she talked more about looking at the internal factor — how they behave when you’re going through tough times. If I can share with you, as a backpacker for almost about 16 years, I will always tell every couple that I meet along the way that (just by looking at how they travel together) I already know whether they can make it or not (in the relationship. And my predictions always come true. So, if you really want to find if that is the right partner for you, go backpacking together for three months, around Europe or Southeast Asia. You will get to understand each other, understand how they make decision, how they plan things, and how they react to negative situations, who is going to take care of each other when they fall sick, etc. So, I think backpacking for three months might be a good way for any couple who are going for marriage (to know if they should get married).
Or you can live together first before marriage and then see how that plays out.
Right! You’d know each other from whether you close the cap off the toothpaste or whether you put the toilet seat down or up. A side note: For me, it’s toilet seat down. Just to let you know.
Yeah, I think that’s that’s one way. You know, I know that it was a bit controversial. My dad, I think was a bit hesitant when my partner was moving in without getting married. But I think he could see that we’re not moving in just like a normal boyfriend, girlfriend, but we’re actually having the intention of actually getting married or actually settling down. So I think after a while we’re starting to see. And the difficulties that we face was like, you know, cleaning the house together, designing the house together, fortunately, was very, very smooth sailing, having renovations and everything going on, there was no screaming matches, there was none of that. So I think that actually, we took that as a good sign.
Kai Xin 18:25
I think it’s part of an Asian culture for parents to not be so accepting of partners moving in together. However, I think it’s so important. If you’re always staying under the same roof as our parents and the housework is done by them, it’s very difficult to know your partner holistically just on a date, which is outside the house context. Who is going do the house chores? Who is going to clean up the mess, etc. And I personally know of people who actually enter into conflict when they move in together after marriage, or the defining moment is wedding planning, right? Why then you have to settle on both sides. And this is where the stress test is, can you actually been a major event with so many different stakeholders with different needs at once, but still be able to communicate effectively with the care and not just saying that, ah, you know, every everything is a compromise, etc.
Since everyone was talking about the way the stress test and to assess whether couples can work, well, there’s this very interesting research. I’m not sure if you guys heard of it before, it’s called Gottman Institute. They did a study on many couples and found that when couples communicate in these four ways, it’s a surefire way for divorce. They name them the Four Horsemen. The first is criticism. You know, when the partner they use a kind of personal attack, or they complain about you, then that’s really like a number one way where you’re just bringing the relationship down or divorce in a couple of years. Second is contempt, where you use sarcasm, you ridicule them, you call them names, and the respect is lacking there. And then the third one is defensiveness, and that’s usually a response to criticism. For example, you answer a question with a defensive question. Then the fourth one is stonewalling. This is when you shut down towards your partner, and when you turn away when they try to communicate with you. So these are the surefire predictors of which relationships are going towards divorce.
That’s really very interesting because I know of people from the older generation who will actually say that if you’re not arguing you’re not doing a relationship. They believe that you need to argue, and that you need to have a sort of tension between you and your partner. Well, I get enough tension from work. I don’t need to be arguing my partners. And this saying is something that I’ve been always wondering if it is really true. On another hand, if it is a situation where a partner keeps quiet, like the fourth point — stonewalling, then I fully agree. (Perhaps it’s better off arguing about matters). Because sometimes when one totally stonewalls, keeps quiet, and does his/her own stuff, it really kills a relationship. So, I think it has to be somewhere in between. Conflict is inevitable. It is good to at least talk about the issue and then deal with the conflict, rather than brushing it underneath the carpet. At the same time, don’t go and find problems because from a Buddhist perspective, you’re creating and enhancing the fault-finding mind.
Thanks for sharing, I have to say that this blew my mind a little bit: we are defining communication in details right now! I guess in some ways, many times big problems arise due to an accumulation of smaller issues. This is what I see so far from a relationship. That’s why when couples argue, and when they try to defend themselves, they would use what happened in the past to support their arguments. So, as a Buddhist, why don’t we see the problem as the way as it is?
Kai Xin 21:47
I highly recommend to the Book ‘Seven Principles of making a marriage work’. It has a very detailed explanation of the Four Horsemen and communication. I think their findings and recommendations can be applied to any form of relationship, whether it’s with family or with friends. In the book, they also differentiate a complain and a criticism. For example, if my partner comes home and leaves things around thereby making the house very messy, rather than saying, ‘Hey, you are so lazy. Can you stop putting things around?’, that be a criticism, which isn’t constructive. Instead, I can say, ‘When you come home, and you don’t put things at the right place, I feel stressed because I’ve had a long day. Could you put the things back to their original places?’. Or I could say, ‘when you are untidy, it makes me feel that you don’t care. I would appreciate that you do X, Y, and Z.’ So, first, you call out the behaviour. Then, how it makes you feel. Finally, the corrective action. And most of the time in the book, it says that your partner will apologise. But of course, there are situations where maybe a relationship has already turned sour, people can get defensive or stonewall etc. So, I think it really takes a lot of active effort to make it work. And it’s important to communicate from a standpoint what I can offer to the person and how we can grow together, rather than what the person should do for me.
Well, that was actually really good. It reminded me of the time when I was running my startup. I had this guy who came in as a lawyer, who is also a motivational speaker. And one of the things he said was that everyone breaks trust every day, in minor forms, and all the way to like, really devastating ways. He gave a perfect example of a person being late for a workshop that we organised. The trust was broken . And one thing he said was that people always apologise and say sorry, but no one takes the next step. The next step is to build back the trust. In the example of being late, you can say ‘okay, I will set my clock five minutes earlier, so that I will be back on time.’. This way, you’re actually creating a pathway towards a success of not having that problem repeat again. And that’s how you build that trust. So, it’s not just about breaking trust and apologising. It’s about how you build back trust. And he said that this is how the relationship can be maintained. And this applies not only to relationships between two persons, but also between businesses. Exactly. And these things that we are talking about, these are all skillful means. These are Kusala. When I heard from what you were sharing, it reminded me of the course that I went: Non-Violent Communication (NVC).
They cover the same points about trying not to criticise, and to see what it is, then say how you feel, and to know what you want to get from there after that. It’s just beautiful. These communication skills, everyone should learn this from school.
Kai Xin 24:48
Yeah. I think school can actually teach us a lot of things. Things like how to be in a good relationship or sexual education. I think this is something in the Asian context, we don’t have enough. I’m not so sure about the schools that you guys went to, I remember the school that I was in, the sexual education was pretty much like, ‘Oh, don’t have sex, otherwise you get this and that disease.’ And they showed us the gory pictures. And I think it kind of stigmatised or paint sex in a very bad light. And when I was listening to some podcast in the West, I was very shocked to hear that they actually learn how to put on a condom in high school. I can’t imagine Singapore education having that at all.
Well, I was in a Christian school. So yeah, I definitely had none of that. And I would think my family is traditional. Even with my parents, I realised that I’ve never had the birds and the bees discussion with them. And I’m 32 years old right now. It was more me them asking me to go find out for myself. Well, a dad is probably the best person to learn from rather than learning from friends who are probably just as clueless as you are. They might end up teaching you all the wrong things.
I also went to a Christian school. And I think I was 16 years old when the school showed us the movie ’16 and pregnant’, which showed all the horrifying consequences of being a single mother. The main takeaway for everyone seemed to be: be straight, and have sex after you get married. I do remember that my family actually sat us down and talk about sex, but in a very, very awkward manner. And of course, the idea was all about, you know, (only) having sex after you get married. And I think the proposal for the us was that if we hold it in, when we get married, we get to have sex for like 60 years straight. So, it was just awkward and basically pointless in a way,
And obviously, being Asian, I grew up with the same narrative as all of you: It(your virginity) is very precious. And going through the Christian School, it is (portrayed to be) even more precious. After that, I also changed from being so coveted to, yeah, whatever. It (the narrative) made sense last time because I was still figuring out my sexuality. Because the whole idea of virginity is penetration, isn’t it? You break the hymen. I thought I was straight and it made sense. But then once I realised and once I came to terms that I’m not straight, it doesn’t really make sense anymore.
I believe so as well. You know, just be who you really are. Don’t hide yourself and become a person whom the society wants you to be. You know, many people get very depressed inside because there’s always a part of them that they cannot reveal to the society. If you’re a lesbian, you’re gay or transsexual, asexual, go for it. As long as you don’t hurt anyone, and you don’t harm anyone. That’s the key thing. Stop hiding everyone. Stop hiding.
I used to also believe that you should save your virginity till marriage. It made me controlling it made me jealous. I thought about what if someone else takes her (my partner’s) virginity and the whole point of getting married is to have sex and to have this virginity which no one else has tainted touch before putting on a pedestal actually creates more suffering? Then, I wondered to myself, ‘what’s the point?’. So after that, I start to look at it in a more mellowed out sort of light and not as a pedestal where this is the one thing that a relationship is all centred around: the virginity, the All Knowing Virginity.
And, I would also say that, I lost my virginity at 33. So, the idea of it was the same as you, I just wanted to feel that, you know, I’m keeping it for myself. But the main difference was that I did not have the same kind of anger that you have, and I wasn’t controlling of others. That’s because I was doing it for myself, not for others. So that was the part where I realised that if I want to do something, if I’m going to keep my virginity, it’s not for others, it’s for myself. Ultimately, it’s all depends on the intention that you set. If you’re having sex before marriage, what was the intention? Why do you want to do that? Is it because of your own self-indulgence? Is it because of your own needs? If the person is not attached, not married and independent, and if both of you have consensus about a sexual relationship, then ultimately it falls back on your intention. What you want to get out from that action, and how well are you prepared for the consequences.
Does that mean that sexual activity that is just based off of lust is unwholesome? Must there be a deeper purpose such as to foster intimacy between two people, for it to be acceptable and okay?
I don’t think sex is unwholesome. If there is no sex how are you here? Where does the population come from? Sex is not unwholesome, it is the way you have sex. In a wrong or unmindful way, that can be unwholesome. For instance, when you are drunk and you have sex with somebody (whom you shouldn’t), when you realise that you have a very sick mind – perhaps because of your personal upbringing, you’ve been abused by somebody, and you decided to rape somebody. Having sex in that mindstate is unwholesome. So, sex is not unwholesome, it is the way people do it and the intention behind the act, and whether it harms someone or not, then personally, I would consider that to be unwholesome.
That you could not have put it in a better way. So, if let’s say if someone sees virginity as a very important thing, and it ties to their life values, whereas for you, it may not be. If you force yourself onto that person, then obviously, it will create a lot of a lot of suffering. Most of the time, it’s, it’s both parties who will be interested. If not, it’s called rape, isn’t it? And we’re still humans, you know. That’s why there is some form of satisfaction (from sex). It is the same as craving for some kind of food, but it’s obviously a lot, a lot larger craving. So I do agree with Kyle. I don’t see it as a tainted sort of thing. Because we’re all born with genitals. If it was something that we will not be using, it will slowly be phased out through the theory of Darwinism, and evolution. So it’s something that we still use it and I feel it should not be seen as a dirty sort of thing.
I’d like to tie back to the concept of training the mind. A sexual activity needs to have the mental state of lust right? So, if you do that a lot, then obviously you are cultivating lust and that lust it leaves an imprint, right? It will increase every time you do it.
To lust for someone can be even holding a person’s hand, that is okay. To kiss someone is normal in a relationship. So, where is the line that? I guess the only reason why sex is seen as a little bit more dangerous in that sense is because there is a potential between a heterosexual couple to get a baby, have unwanted pregnancy, or might have STDs and all that. But for me, personally, I don’t I don’t see myself as a person that just care about sex all day, unable to run a business, and unable to do everything else. It’s like the mind, you have different moments, and the mind is always in flux. So when there is the emotion, and both sides are consensual, then I don’t see why not.
And I would also like to share that sometimes when you kiss someone it is because you love someone. You do it out of love. You don’t do it because you want to have sex with that person. And when you want to have sex, sometimes we also call it making love. It’s a form of bonding and intimacy. But if you’re talking about lust, then you definitely will have lust, that lust is like a desire, right? But ultimately, it is the intention behind acting upon the lust and how you actually feel(, that is important.) For example: Is it destroying my life right now because I’m so obsessed with it?
Kai Xin 33:13
It’s so interesting to listen to all the different viewpoints. And as we come to the end of the episode, I’m just wondering whether we can take turns to share our key takeaways?
Just be honest and true to yourself. Whatever relationship you’re in, be more patient. I know we say that everything is impermanent, anicca, but you do really have a lot of time on your hand to discover who you really are. And the last thing you want is to just rush it out. You can make some silly mistakes, but you make it because you have somehow know who you are. Then, that will help you a little bit more to gain a clearer picture. And is all the things we want in a relationship: transparency. And I’m single by the way. I’m still available.
Kai Xin 34:06
We will drop his contact details in the show notes. If you want to hit Kyle up, you know where to look.
You might only have a few more years before I become a monk. If you’re lucky, get me. If not, that’s it.
Fully agree with Kyle in terms of getting to know yourself. It took me a long period of time to really get myself. There was an ego that was blocking me at first. I always thought that you must accept me for who I am. But upon digging a bit deeper, I realised that that’s the ego speaking. Who would want to be around a person that’s like that? So, I started to move towards wanting to be the partner that would be perfect for the partner I wish to attract. And if anything, it always starts with yourself. Who do you want to attract? And what is the gap in between? Then, slowly make your way towards there.
Kai Xin 34:57
The takeaway I have is to first have a very good relationship with ourselves. Then, when we are full, we can give more to others. And communication is a very big part of it. Whatever type of dynamic we want with our partner, it’s really for nobody else to judge. We have to first search inside ourselves to question our own intention. Is it beneficial? Is it serving us? And is it helping us to find more peace or to have more joy? And from there, I think from a spiritual perspective, we can all grow and blossom.
I think my takeaway was that being single or being in a relationship also has Dukkha. And that is something that changed a little bit because I used to think that all people in relationships are in a place of only suffering. And it hurts. That’s because of my own blueprint. My parents always quarrel a lot. It also gives me back the ownership that I have the power to define how the relationship could be. I have the power of change, if I’m able to hold steadfast in the practice and then show up in a way that I want in a relationship that lessens my my own suffering. So that’s my sharing and thanks so much for your time. Yep, that’s a wrap. Thank you, everybody.
Kai Xin 36:17
Thanks, listeners, once again, for tuning in. We hope you got as much value as with it. This is Pride Month! It’s a month when we celebrate diversity, inclusion, and most importantly, acceptance. We believe that everyone has the right to love and to be loved, regardless of sexual orientation or ability. In this episode, we would like to give a shout out to RainBodhi, an LGBTQIA plus Buddhist community, which is now expanding in Singapore. And Kyle, our guest, is one of the community members leading this group here. RainBodhi offers meditation, Dhamma, discussion and social events in a very safe and supportive environment. Everyone regardless of your race, gender, sexuality, or ability or even faith, you’re welcome to join. And this is across all Buddhist traditions. If you’re interested, more information is in the show notes. There are also links to various resources as to how you can be an LGBTQIA+ ally and what you can do to make a difference to develop a more loving and inclusive society. Finally to end off this episode, regardless of whether you’re single whether you’re married or attached, may your capacity to love yourself and others grow in every passing day. And remember to stay happy and wise!
TLDR: Premarital sex, simply put, is sexual activity between people who are unmarried to each other. In contrast, abstinence and chastity are ideals that have been largely promoted in society and form a large part of our education systems, in particular when it comes to sexual education. Where did the Buddha stand on this?
But why is premarital sex such a big deal?
The idea of sex can be considered as a sacred act between people. In the Asian tradition, marriage and family are thought to be valuable and central to our society. Hence, everything that falls under the umbrella of marriage and family is viewed similarly. Remaining as a virgin until marriage can be seen as the symbol of purity, like a complete package deal to your husband/wife-to-be. This is generally the perception of the society at large when it comes to pre-marital sex.
In the Buddhist context, lay Buddhists would follow the moral code of conduct, specifically, the five precepts. Sexual acts would therefore tie in with the third of the five precepts, namely, undertaking the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
So what is misconduct in Buddhist context?
Broadly, sexual misconduct can be considered as having sex with an underage person, one in spiritual training/sworn on celibacy, married, or engaged person, or any act that is prohibited by the law (e.g. rape).
The purpose of precepts is to prevent us from causing harm and pain to others driven by one’s lust and gratification.
By extension, following the precepts empower us to live a life free from guilt and remorse.
Ultimately, we got to ask ourselves what the intention and purpose of the act is. The concept of misconduct or sexual activity in itself could cascade into the poisons of suffering, as described by the Buddha (greed, hatred, and delusion). This broader definition of misconduct is relevant when we examine the relationship between pre-marital sex and Buddhist values.
So in short, up to this point, yes you can. However, nothing in this world comes easy right? Likewise, ‘T&C’ applies.
So do these definitions answer the question?
We have now defined both pre-marital sex and the relevant precepts in Buddhism. In the Buddha’s time, pre-marital sex is not an issue as women were not allowed in public without a chaperone. Hence, the third precept was meant to protect women in that period. Naturally, nothing in Buddhism that we have defined so far outright prohibits pre-marital sex. Of course, this definition is non-exhaustive, but in the most general sense of the precepts, this is what they imply.
Also in general, Buddhism is a free religion in that although there is a fixed set of principles, the practitioners are at liberty to decide if they wish to adhere to them, depending on their desire to progress further in their spiritual path of practice.
The precepts are general guidelines of not harming both oneself and others.
So at least until now, there are no direct contradictions between the precepts and the act of pre-marital sex. Nevertheless, the reality is usually not that simple because there are still many indirect consequences of any act that we do, i.e. kamma.
What are the possible consequences?
While the act of pre-marital sex itself does not directly contradict Buddhist values, it is also not an action without consequences.
One obvious unintended outcome is an unplanned pregnancy.
While the pregnancy itself is fine, an unplanned one may lead to abortion, which constitutes an act of killing in Buddhism, breaking the first of the five precepts (to abstain from taking the life of another being).
Regardless of any decisions made post-pregnancy, the pregnancy itself could lead to social stigma, and that could negatively impact one’s lifestyle, especially the emotional and mental wellness aspects.
There could also be objections from the family, leading to possible tension and in the worst-case scenario, the breaking up of a family as a new one is formed.
Depending on the stage of life in which the involved parties are in, it could also be detrimental to one’s career, both for the baby carrier and the partner. The impact on the one who is pregnant is obvious, but even for the partner, who may not have to literally carry the baby, might still have to make difficult decisions, i.e. if the individual is studying and needs to work to make ends meet.
It is important to realise that often shotgun marriages can also be a shotgun aimed at others, shattering the target and resulting in third party damage too.
There is a complexity that comes with unplanned pregnancies and can quickly cause things to spiral downhill. Both parties in a relationship need to be prepared to shoulder any responsibilities and a conversation needs to be had with regard to how comfortable everyone is with the risk.
Unplanned pregnancies are not the only possible consequence of pre-marital sex; it is simply the most commonly discussed subject matter.
Its purpose here is to inform us that while the act of pre-marital sex itself is not forbidden, chances of subsequent not-so-ideal results are high. This would contradict the Buddhists principles.
Are these consequences deal breakers?
Well, at the end of the day it depends on how comfortable each person is with the stakes involved; all hell breaks loose versus the value and pleasure of sex as part of a relationship. There are ways to mitigate these repercussions as well.
These need not be deal breakers because there are mitigating factors, like education and mutually agreed upon possible ramifications*.
*For example, in scenarios where the parties involved have communicated and are aware of the implications. As such, it will be okay if they are willing to take the risks and (possibly) responsibilities while having a comprehensive understanding of what pre-marital sex entails.
How to overcome lust?
Sexual desire is a form of craving which leads to more suffering (dukkha), and therefore needs to be minimised and extricated as a precondition for bringing dukkha to an end.
If the above factors are a “deal-breaker” for you, you can consider the following methods to rein in your biological urges or animalistic instinct.
The most common antidote taught by the Buddha for learning how to train your (inner) dragon is to contemplate on the 32 body parts and its unattractiveness during meditation.
The goal of this contemplation of the 32 body parts meditation method is to weaken your inner dragon by robbing it of reasons to find a person attractive. This allows us to see the body in a deconstructed manner, with a probing scrutiny grounded in dispassion, handicapping the dragon to regard the body as beautiful or desirable. With the right effort, infatuation can be countered.
The basis for this meditation lies in the idea that beauty is not something that one should be chasing after as the body is not permanent as we like it to be. This message is emphasised in the story of a beautiful courtesan where nobody desires her dead decaying maggot-filled corpse. Men in the kingdom would bid huge amounts for her services when she was alive but once she passed away, no one would even pay a cent to be near her body.
Alternatively, we can also examine the impermanence of the body.
This body of ours that is born is subjected to old age, sickness and eventually, death. Whatever that we viewed as appealing right now will one day change, be it whether it is due to internal or external factors.
Intricately linked to this is another story where a beauty-obsessed Queen witnessed for herself a young beautiful lady turning sickly, old and ugly and realised the valueless of the body. In the short run, we run after beauty only to be disappointed when we age.
Consequently, satisfying one’s sexual urges right now would lead to more craving, causing disappointment when the impermanent body changes.
So what does this mean in the grand scheme of things?
You are the owner and heir of your actions/kamma, it follows you like a shadow. At the end of the day, your life is your choice. The rule of thumb, if you want to uphold your precepts, is that when in doubt/scare/worried, the answer is don’t do it.
Premarital sex is a personal activity and decision, involving at least two parties. Buddhism is generally a free religion, just stay away from harming yourself and others. Avoid evil, do good, and if possible, purify your minds.
Be kind; stay safe, well and happy! Suki hontu! …
If you are in a intimate relationship (pre-marriage), have a conversation about sex with your partner to ensure you two are aware of the consequences and also the personal boundaries
Recall that while you two may be fine with it, there are ramifications beyond you two (family/school/career/social circles)
When in doubt, refrain from doing it
Want to learn how to meditate?
Check out our handy ‘Meditation 101’ guide that explores the basics of Buddhist meditation which can help us better manage stresses for a happier and a fuller life.
Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.
2 stories for you today!
The week of love is coming up! We take a creative (maybe contrarian) spin this week on sharing a broken love can lead to the Dhamma and how to love our work.
1. How my husband’s affair led me to the Dhamma
2. How to love your work
How my husband’s affair led me to the Dhamma
What’s going on here
Venerable Pema Chodron, a famous Tibetan Nun & author of “When Things Fall Apart“, shares how she became a Buddhist! How something really dark in her life transformed her into a Dhamma practitioner.
Why we like it
We can sometimes think of monastics as people who led comfortable lives and decided to renounce all worldly possessions. However, some come to the Dhamma and monastic life from a deeply traumatic experience. This shows the humanising part of Sangha and an eye-opener to how she dealt with the pain when she was enjoying the heights of her career and life.
“What i was feeling (anger & negativity) was a key to something rather than an obstacle to something.”
When things fall apart, where do we turn to? Do we allow ourselves to feel the pain or numb it away?
School of Life (SOL) makes a video on how we can have a better relationship with our work. The five mins video touches on aspirations and finding meaning in our work. Loving your work, SOL argues, doesn’t start with your work.
Why we like it
With 1 in 4 Singaporeans planning to resign within the next few months, this matter more than ever. This video is easy to digest and makes us think deeper about what we want. It challenges us to drop the expectations of comparison with others’ lives.
” Work cannot fix the deficit of love. We should enjoy work on its own terms”
Are you in a slump? Maybe it is time to slow down and acknowledge where you feel unsatisfied about your work-life. Asking yourself much needed questions about work and career can spark new insights!