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Theravada Buddhism and Sex: The Third Precept on Sexual Misconduct

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NOTE: This is a very brief version of the 25 page PDF on the subject found here:  TheravadaAndSex(extended)

The Third precept, Sexual Misconduct is often misrepresented in Buddhist circles.  Normally you will hear “sexual misconduct” refers only to rape, adultery, incest, blackmail or extortion for sex. This also includes underage sex and any type of non-consensual or having sex with one who does not have the ability to consent according to modern law definitions. Some of the better teachers say that one should be in a loving committed relationship and avoid promiscuity.

The real rule that is not being passed down in English is: You need the woman’s consent and the Protector’s consent (Parent or Guardian and Government Laws) to engage in sexual activities (including oral sex) at any age. If not, you are breaking the third precept of sexual misconduct, even if you are married in some cases, such as eloping. Government law also comes into effect as a “”protector” and the definition of consent or ability to consent. The consequences outside or, in addition to the law, are kamma.

In modern society and social norms, there is not so much of a problem if only one life is to be lived, hence the hedonistic phrase, “you only live once.” However, Buddhism, which encompasses a multi-life kamma approach, will explain why it is important to follow this rule. In short, we will not always have modern amenities, modern social norms, Internet, communication, free and stable governments and most importantly, birth control. Eventually, this modern age will all end, but the habit will continue and then the real trouble will begin. One needs to consider what the future will be like when we go back to tribal days and how a habit can not only last a lifetime, but lifetimes.

Among the many times you have come across this precept, you probably have never considered the original rule and its purpose outside of the high violations usually mentioned. Based on the original wordings, if you are unwed and sexually active, the chances are that the precept is being broken. Please pay specific attention with an open mind to the multi-life kamma viewpoint given. You are probably not going to like what you read because this article takes away the sweet tasting chocolate you have been eating without the correct knowledge. However, consider its validity and authenticity when you apply morals to your daily actions and activities that gives results in future lives. The pinnacle of wrong view is when people fail to consider the big picture of Saṁsāra. So please pay attention carefully if you are a real Buddhist.

The Rule in The Buddha’s Words

The Three Baskets of the Buddha’s Teachings (Tipitaka) work like an intertwined system. Each basket, Vinaya (The Discipline), Sutta (The Teachings of Dhamma) and Abhidhamma (The Higher Dhammas) all can reference and cross reference each other. That is why one should be skilled in all three baskets as taught by a qualified teacher before one makes judgments about the validity of one of them. Habitual kamma and its possible effects in future lives are taken indirectly from the Abhidhamma and the Commentaries. The Sutta and Vinaya baskets will be referenced for this article below.

The definition of the rule can be taken from the Saleyakka Sutta MN41.

Sources:

Aj. Thanissaro, MN 41
“He engages in sensual misconduct. He gets sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers,their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.”

Bh. Nyanamoli. MN 41
“He is given over to misconduct in sexual desires: he has intercourse with such (women) as are protected by the mother, father, (mother and father), brother, sister, relatives, as have a husband, as entail a penalty, and also with those that are garlanded in token of betrothal.”

The same thing is listed in the Anguttara Nikaya.

Definition of Sex

This is actually defined in the Vinaya Pitaka or The Discipline Basket under Pārājika 1, the first training rule ever made by the Buddha. I will be brief here and summarize what is said. There are the male and female genitals, anus, and mouth. A matrix of all of these is given and mouth to mouth combinations are excluded. Every other combination is considered sex.

In Brief: Oral, vaginal and anal sex count as sex, among other things. Anything not listed in the matrix, is not considered sex for this rule. However, any involvement with someone who is “taken” will be a very bad idea. It is like killing an animal versus injuring an animal. You do not want to do either act, though one is worse than the other.

So if you have not been given a formal wedding ceremony with the daughter’s parents’ consent. Usually, if they give consent, they are present for the wedding. That is why the father gives away the bride. Because of this, it is very possible to be married and have consensual sex and still break the third precept by eloping.

Summary

In a multi-life view, one should consider what life will be like when the modern conveniences like birth control are not available. In the old days, if you had sex enough times, someone got pregnant and the protector was responsible for that child. It was as simple as that. How many solemates do you want to have, especially if you marry the first one that comes around? Would you have sex if you knew she would get pregnant? This modern day age with the oral contraception, has changed the way women act, and dress and the way the men act upon and court them. So if you want to have sex, remember that these partners will follow you from life to life if you are not enlightened. Do you want them to come back to you in a future life? Lastly, if you have the habit to ask the parents or have the woman ask the parents for “release” from “protectorship”, then you are still developing that habit to back off if there is no permission given.

All that said, it is best to wait to become consensually married or to be celibate, or even monk. Am I hypocritical? Not really, I am telling you about the behavior from this day forward. The past is done and now you know the rule. The chances are high that you did not know the rule beforehand. Make the best of it and follow all of the 5 precepts starting today.

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About Bhikkhu Subhuti

Bhikkhu Subhuti is an American Buddhist Monk with roots in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar Forest Traditions. He currently resides in Myanmar but his heart sometimes floats back to Kauai, HI where he spent six months in 2015.
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3 thoughts on “Theravada Buddhism and Sex: The Third Precept on Sexual Misconduct

  1. Let’s stop playing games. This idea of a protector really just means this one thing: sex is always “misconduct” (immorality would be a better translation really, its the anti-religious atheist-materalist controllers of modern so-called Buddhism insisting on “misconduct” as the translation) outside of marriage. If you’re not married to the person, its sexual immorality. That’s the real rule. Traditional Buddhist sexual morality is no different from traditional Christian sexual morality, except Buddhism allowed polygammy.

    1. Sex is fine for lay people, and usually in the context of marriage. The problem is not many people are waiting until marriage. Likewise, eloping does not count as “married”. The protector usually gives the role to the new husband. “The father gives away the bride to the groom.” However, I do agree in the extreme view of celibacy being the best choice.

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