Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Third Precept

Sexual behaviour (kama or methuna) is any actions motivated by erotic desire and usually involving the genital region. This includes all forms of coitus, intercrural sex, masturbation, sexual fondling and perhaps even voyeurism. The third of the five Precepts, the basic principles of Buddhist ethics, says that one should avoid sexual misconduct (kamesu micchacara). What would make a sexual (kama) behaviour (cara) wrong (miccha)?
Once, while addressing an audience of brahmans the Buddha said that intercourse with (1) girls under the guardianship of their parents (maturakkhita, piturakkhita), i.e. under-aged; (2) protected by Dhamma (dhammarakkhita), nuns or those who have taken a vow of celibacy; (3) married (sassamika); (4) undergoing punishment, (saparidanda), i.e. prisoners; or those (5) bedecked in garlands (malagunaparikkhitta), i.e. engaged to be married, would be wrong (A.V,264). Because this discourse was addressed to men the Buddha spoke only of female sexual partners. Had he been addressing to women he would of course had spoken of male equivalents.
A child is unlikely to have the maturity or experience to make an informed decision concerning sex while having sex with 2, 3 and 5 would involve them in breaking a solemn vow or promise, i.e. lying. An incarcerated person can be cohered into doing something they really don’t wish to do and thus cannot make a genuinely free choice. It is clear from this that sex involving exploitation, dishonesty or cohersion or that is in any way non-concentual, would be breaking the third Precept. Although not mentioned here, using or threatening physical force (i.e. rape) to compel someone to have sex, and intercourse with an intoxicated or a mentally disabled person would also qualify as sexual misconduct. From the Buddhist perspective therefore, sex before marriage or during menstruation (forbidden in Hinduism and Islam), masturbation, homosexuality, with a person of a lower caste (forbidden in Hinduism) or sexual gluttony, while perhaps being inadvisable, socially unacceptable or not conducive to spiritual development, would not per ce be breaking the third Precept.
As in many societies, sex in ancient India was surrounded by numerous superstitions, restrictions and taboos. Brahmans believed that having intercourse when one's wife was pregnant would defile the foetus (atimilhaja) or when she was nursing make her milk impure and thereby defile the baby (asucipatipita). They taught that it was proper to have sex only to produce offspring and not for pleasure (kama), for sport (dava) or out of sensual delight (rati). They also believed that it was wrong for a couple to have sex during the wife's menstruation (utuni). The Buddha praised brahmans who followed such rules, not because he agreed with them, but because they were being true to what they preached (A.II,226). There are no examples of where he subscribed to any sexual superstitions or taught them to his disciples. Another widespread belief was that indulging in too much sex could cause cough (kasa), asthma (sasa), joint pain (daram) and lack of judgment (balaym, Ja,VI,295).
While accepting that sex is a normal part of lay life, the Buddha generally had a poor opinion of it. He dismissed it as ‘a village thing’ (gama dhamma, D.I,4); i.e. common, unsophisticated and worldly. He understood that a heightened desire for sensual pleasure (kamacchanda) causes physical and psychological restlessness and that this diverts one’s attention from spiritual aspirations and hinders meditation. He encouraged his more serious disciples to limit their sexual behaviour or to embrace celibacy (brahmacariya). Monks and nuns, of course, are required to be celibate. However, experience shows that taking a vow of celibacy when one is not ready for it can be anything but helpful. Constantly struggling against and denying sexual desire can create more problems than it solves and in fact can even be psychologically harmful.


theChief said...

Thank you for a wonderful explenation of sexual misconduct. I look forward to your following postings. I was a buddhist monk for 2 and 1/2 years, when I met my partner at a weekend retreat. We have now been together for 11 years. As a gay couple, I am always curious as to how my chosen belief system views my realtionship. We are monogamous, and our relationship is based as much on positive support and love for one another as much as our sexual identity. More indepth history on this subject would be appreciated.


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Gary,
I am happy that you have found your life-partner and that the Dhamma guides your relationship. There will be a posting on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I hope you find them interesting and look forward to any comments or observations on them you might have.

alan said...

Dear Shravasti Dhammika,

How refreshing to read such well informed, truthful and honest insights into human nature in all its diversity reflecting the light of balanced reason and the warmth of kindness and understanding in areas which are so often confused by muddled thinking, hidden prejudices and humbug.

Ancient history whether of East or West often appears quite radical and challenging when confronted by the myths contemporary society. As Socrates says -an unexamined life is not worth living.

I will continue to read your blog with genuine interest.

It is indeed reassuring to discover once again that the Buddha's Dhamma is big enough to include all conditioned phenomena and all people who search within themselves for release from ignorance, craving and aversion whether as lay people trying to keep to the five precepts within the context of a loving relationship with a member of the same or opposite sex or as celibate monastics enjoying the support of lay friends.

as the Metta Sutta says

May all being be at ease, let non deceive another or despise any being in any state........

with respect and kindest regards


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Dear Alan,
There is nothing like a few bouquets to keep you blogging. Thanks very much.

kelvin khor said...

Dear Bhante,

Thank you so much for such a detailed and comprehensible explanation on the third precept. Just want to make sure that I get the right understanding of your explanation, so,it is concluded that the laypeople`s 3rd precept is not violated by the act of masturbation?
To be honest, I am quite surprised after reading your explanation. I asked the identical question to a Mahayana teacher before and he strictly said that the act of masturbation is clearly a violation to the Panca Sila`s 3rd precept,due to the reasons that the act is lowly, socially abnormal and causing embarrassment. I am not convinced by his arguments, and based on his arguments, I deduce that all Mahayana practitioners denounce this act,which prompted me then to seek for a Theravada monk`s explanation.
Anyhow, do you think that other Theravada monks, especially those from Eastern countries may differ with you about this issue? For example, would you think that a famous Burmese meditation teacher may agree or disagree with you that masturbation is not transgression of the 3rd precept?
Thanks very much for your explanation.

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Ravi said...

Dear Bhante,
I found something related to the third precept pericope in the canon which might refer to rape. Bhante Sujato was kind enough to publish if in his blog. Can you have a look and share your opinion?


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