Have you ever wondered what the Buddhist approach to sex and sexuality is? They have the Third Precept (out of 5 key principles to live by), which in Pali is Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyama. This is usually translated as “do not indulge in sexual misconduct.”
Most monks and nuns follow the many rules of the Vinaya-pitaka. If a monk engages in sexual intercourse or makes a sexually suggestive comment to a woman, the community of monks meets to discuss the transgression. Usually the monk will be expelled automatically from the order. Monks should avoid even the smallest hint of appearing to act in a way suggestive of sexual misconduct. Nuns have similarly strict rules, not being allowed to ahve men touch, rub or fondle them anywhere between the collar-bone and the knees.
What does this mean for lay Buddhists?
What does the precaution about avoiding “sexual misconduct” mean for lay Buddhists? Because it’s not clear where the boundaries lie, Buddhists usually end up adopting the norms of behavior based on the culture they are part of.
It’s universally understood among Buddhists that non-consensual or exploitative sex is “misconduct”. Beyond this, there are a number of ideas coming from Buddhism to consider which challenge us to think differently about sexual ethics.
Living the precepts
The precepts are not commandments, they are principles to live by. It is up to the individual on how to apply them.
This takes a greater degree of discernment than the usual “just follow the rules and don’t ask questions” approach to religious frameworks. The Buddha taught how to use your own judgment about such matters.
Follows of other religions often clear and external rules are needed to avoid people being selfish and misbehaving. The Buddhist approach leaves the responsibility with the individual for cultivating loving kindness and compassion.
The person who acts without compassion is not a moral person, no matter what the rules are that they are following.
These are the principles to apply to sexuality when understanding the Buddhist approach to sex.
Specific sexual issues
Marriage. Most religions and moral codes of the West draw a clear, bright line around marriage. Although monogamous marriage is seen as most ideal, Buddhism generally takes the attitude that sex between two people who love each other is moral, whether they are married or not. On the other hand, just because sex occurs within a marriage doesn’t mean that there can’t be misconduct. What matters is that sex is loving and consensual, which can occur both inside of and outside of marriage.
Homosexuality. There are anti-homosexual teachings in some schools of Buddhism, most of these are taken from local cultural attitudes. Buddha never specifically addressed the topic of homosexuality. In the several schools of Buddhism today, only Tibetan Buddhism specifically discourages sex between men (although not women). This prohibition comes from the work of a 15th-century scholar named Tsongkhapa, who probably based his ideas on earlier Tibetan texts.
Desire. The Second Noble Truth teaches that the cause of suffering is craving or thirst (tanha). This doesn’t mean we should repress or deny our cravings. Instead, we should acknowledge our passions and learn to see they are empty, so they no longer control us. This is true for hate, greed and other emotions, and sexual desire is no different.
In The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics (1984), Robert Aitken Roshi wrote:
“For all its ecstatic nature, for all its power, sex is just another human drive. If we avoid it just because it is more difficult to integrate than anger or fear, then we are simply saying that when the chips are down we cannot follow our own practice. This is dishonest and unhealthy.”
The middle way
Buddhism has a lot to teach us about sexual desire. The principles in Buddhism teach us to focus on feeling love and compassion for other humans beings, and ensure our actions are aligned with these feelings.
This applies to how we act from feelings of sexual desire. We are not meant to repress these feelings, and we also don’t want to let them control us. What matters is maintaining a feeling of detachment from the desire while ensuring that sex is undertaken with love and compassion.
There’s a path to take where actions are aligned with deeper principles for how to live the “good life” according to the Buddhist precepts. During a time when Western culture seems at war with itself over sex – whether being with rigid puritanism on one side or complete sexual freedom on the other – Buddhist principles of sex help show us there’s a middle way to take.
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