Buddhism and Sex

The Buddha taught that there are two goals for the religious life, what might be called a primary goal and secondary goals. The primary and ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain the peace and freedom of Nirvana. Although this can be done in the present life the Buddha was well aware that many people, probably the majority, will take time to disentangle themselves from worldly pursuits and desires. The Buddhist spiritual life is “a gradual doing, a gradual training, a gradual practice”. [1] While asking all his disciples to keep their eye on the primary goal the Buddha also taught a range of secondary goals suitable for the majority; to be a good, kindly and honest person, a loving spouse or parent, a generous donor, a hospitable host, a responsible citizen, and so on.

For those setting their course for Nirvana in the present life, the Buddha encouraged sexual restraint or even celibacy. For others he taught sexual responsibility as outlined in the third of the Five Precepts. For those intent on this first option he highlighted what he called “the dangers” in sensual indulgences and to the second he acknowledged “the satisfaction” in them [2] . Having been a husband for nearly two decades the Buddha was well aware of the positive side of sex and marriage. But as a perceptive psychologist he also saw that sensual indulgence can easily become a preoccupation leading to attachment, selfishness, boredom and carelessness of the lives of others. Having said this it is also true that some of the Buddha’s disciples attained some of the highest spiritual states while leading happily married lives, Isidatta being a good example of this [3]

The Buddha required his monks and nuns to be celibate (brahmacariya). When addressing them he often referred to sex as “a village practice” (gāma dhamma) [4] , something suitable of bumpkins and the unsophisticated. So serious did he consider the infringement of the rule of celibacy that sexual intercourse (methuna) is one of only four offences one will be dismissed from the monastic order for. [5] A monk or nun will be summarily expelled from the monastic order if they engage in sexual intercourse. So that there can be no ambiguity as to exactly what constitutes intercourse it has to be exactly defined – and it is. According to the Vinaya, sexual intercourse is deemed to have occurred if the penis enters any orifice of any being, of any gender, living or dead [6] . Other types of sexual behaviour, while serious offences with specific punishments, do not entail expulsion from the Sangha.

However, not all the Buddha’s disciples were monks and nuns, indeed the majority were not and never have been. So what did the Buddha say about sex that is relevant to lay people? The basic ethical training for lay people is the Five Precepts, the third of which is “to abstain from sexual misconduct” (kāmesu micchācārā). What makes sexual (kāma) behaviour (cāra) wrong (micchā)?

Once, while addressing an audience of Brahmans the Buddha said that having sexual relations with five types of persons, presumably with or without their consent, would be unethical. There five types are (1) females under the guardianship of their parents (māturakkhitā, piturakkhitā); this would mean underage children. (2) Those protected by Dhamma (dhammarakkhitā) which probably refers to those who have taken a vow of celibacy such as nuns. To have sex with such persons is to abet with them in breaking a solemn promise they have taken. (3) A female already married (sassāmikā), that is, to commit adultery. (4) Those undergoing punishment, (saparidaṇḍā). An incarcerated person can be physically forced or coerced into doing something they do not wish to do and thus cannot make a genuinely free choice. (5) Those bedecked in garlands (mālāguṇaparikkhittā), that is to say, someone already engaged to be married [7] .

In each case here the Buddha refers to females sexual partners. Had he been addressing women he would, of course, have spoken of male equivalents. It will be noticed that having sex with someone of the same gender is not mentioned in this list.

Another type of sexuality discussed elsewhere by the Buddha is masturbation. The Buddha made it an offence entailing confession for monks or nuns to masturbate [8] . This was not because he considered masturbation to be “unclean” or “impure” as some religions assert, or because sexual desire is only legitimate when it can lead to procreation as others maintain, but because it reinforces sensual desire, something monastics are encouraged to lessen and eventually transcend. The Buddha said nothing about masturbation to lay people, probably because like modern psychologists he accepted it as a natural and harmless expression of the sexual drive.

A type of sexual behaviour condemned by the Buddha in the strongest terms, is incest, agammagamaṇa, literally “going to what should not be gone to”, or adhamma raga, “wrong desire”. During the Buddha’s life there was an incident where a nun became infatuated with her son, a monk, and the two had sex together [9] . When informed of this the Buddha said: “Does not this foolish man know that a mother shall not lust after her son or a son after his mother?” [10] Perhaps referring to this incident the Buddha said on another occasion: “Shame and fear of blame, are the two states that protect the world. If they did not, it would be unclear who was one’s mother or mother’s sister, one’s uncle’s wife and the world would fall into confusion. The promiscuity seen amongst goats and sheep, chickens and pigs, dogs and jackals would prevail.” [11]

In the case of incest the Buddha seems to have disapproved of it because of its negative social consequences. He considered other types of sexual behaviour to be unethical when they involve either dishonesty, the breaking of agreements or coercion to one degree or another. Nowhere in the Sutta Pitaka, the huge collection of the Buddha’s discourses, did the Buddha mention homosexuality, although as we shall see, he was aware of its existence.

Beyond these sexual practices the Buddha also criticized the custom, apparently still prevalent in the wilder parts of India, of abducting girls and woman to keep as concubines or wives. He praised the Licchivies for having given up this custom [12] .

Although the Buddha never recommends married couples to be celibate, some of his more serious lay disciples chose to be [13] . For those who did not, he encouraged them to adhere to the third Precept and to abstain from all sexual activity at least on the full moon and half moon days of each month. These rules and practices stem from the Buddha’s understanding that desire, sexual desire included, is problematic and the less attention given to it the better.

Early Christianity took a similar position and for a similar reason. “I desire to have you to be free from cares. He who is unmarried is concerned for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife.” [14]

Notes

  1. Udana 54 [back]
  2. assādañ ca ādīnava, e.g. M.I,85 [back]
  3. Anguttata Nikaya III,348 [back]
  4. Anguttara Nikaya I,211 [back]
  5. The others being murder, theft and falsely claiming to have spiritual attainments [back]
  6. Vinaya III, 28 [back]
  7. Anguttara Nikaya V, 264 [back]
  8. Vinaya III,111 [back]
  9. Vinaya III,35 [back]
  10. Anguttara Nikaya III,67-8 [back]
  11. Anguttara Nikaya I,51 [back]
  12. Digha Nikaya II, 74 [back]
  13. Majjhima Nikaya I 490 [back]
  14. 1 Corinthians 7,1-35 [back]