Thursday, March 19, 2009

Buddhism's "Sexual Misconduct" Defined

WQ editors

What is "sexual misconduct" (kamesu micchacara)? Here are two definitions in the Buddha's own words.

"One conducts oneself wrongly in matters of sex; one has intercourse with those under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister, relatives or clan, or of their religious community; or with those promised to someone else, protected by law, and even with those betrothed with a garland" (Book of Tens, Anguttara Nikaya, X, 206).

"Abandoning sexual misconduct, one abstains from sexual misconduct; he does not have intercourse with women who are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, or with those already engaged" (See Bhikkhu Bodhi translation, In the Buddha's Words, p. 159, based on MN41; Saleyyaka Sutra; I 286-90).

Sexual misconduct or "wrong sensual indulgence" is karmically harmful behavior. On account of karma it will result in suffering and unsatisfactoriness now and/or in the future.

Kama [not to be confused with karma] denotes pleasure associated with the senses, particularly sexual pleasure -- as in the legendary Sanskrit classic, the Kama Sutra. Sensual misconduct is wrongdoing for the sake of satisfying sensual desire. This harm may be to oneself or others. For example, there can be harm by overindulgence, such as gluttony/obesity or alcoholic intoxication. This is because craving arises, and one habitually tries to satisfy it in an ultimately unsatisfactory manner.

Any excessive or addictive sensual (kamesu) indulgence can constitute "misconduct" (miccachara). Strictly speaking, however, the term "sensual misconduct" is defined only in sexual terms, as the Buddha made clear by his definition.

Right Speech Example
This limited definition makes sense when sex is viewed as representative of sensuality in general – much in the way as the ordinary Buddhist thinks that Right Speech (samma vaca), the third factor of the Noble Eightfold Path, means only abstaining from lying. But lying is simply the grossest form of verbal misconduct. In fact, Right Speech refers to "speech that is timely, true, gentle, purposeful, and uttered kind-heartedly" (Anguttara Nikaya, Book of the Fives, 198).

Right Speech is abstaining from speaking unseasonably (at the wrong moment), falsely, harshly, idly, or maliciously. After all, the honest truth -- or the situation as one sees it and claims it to be -- may be more harmful when spoken in any of these other ways than even a fib or silence.

The problem with thinking that kamesu micchacara only refers to sex is that one soon becomes accustomed to the shorthand and neglects to consider that kamesu really refers to all five senses.

Moreover, "sexual misconduct" has been hastily defined by early English, German, and French scholars based on Judeo-Christian thinking as "fornication and adultery." But the Buddha did not teach that householders should abstain from sex, nor did he proclaim that they should engage in sex only in the context of marriage as many Christian sects teach.

It is mistaken and off-putting to confuse the Puritanical teachings of other religions with the ethical universals taught by the Buddha.

Consenting individuals not under the protection of others are free to engage in and enjoy sex without being admonished. What is important is that in so doing they are neither being harmed nor causing harm to others.

"Sexting," harmless child's play or worrisome trend?

Therefore, definitively speaking "sexual misconduct" means engaging in sex with a non-consenting individual (as in rape, coercion, or fraud) or consensual sex with anyone under protection. This means any dependent supported by parents, guardians, the community, state, or a spouse or fiancee.

The state (or monarch) may decree someone as "off limits," such as the common early English translation of a "female convict." This meant someone who was not free under a mandate, for example, a court edict or royal decree.

It would be clearly be harmful to engage in sexual intercourse with someone under duress. That would be harmful to all three parties -- oneself, another, and both (which means the community). In the same way, to a lesser degree, harm is being done when one has sex with someone promised [by parents or guardians] to another, betrothed, formally engaged, or married.

In brief, one avoids doing harm by abstaining, not from sex, but from "misconduct." To over extend or distort the meaning of misconduct leads to hypocrisy and even guilt for those trying to live as Buddhists.

Complete abstinence (brahmacariya) is said to be the supreme-life. It is only incumbent on those who willingly adopt such a stringent rule. That usually refers to Buddhist monastics, but it also refers to laypeople who choose to keep more than Five Precepts for a limited period of time, for example, during a meditation retreat.

Celibacy is not imposed on independent adults. It is sometimes voluntarily adopted as a form of training and self-discipline to bring craving under control.

Final Word
But the fact of the matter is that one best advised to follow the customs and sensibilities of one’s era and culture -- not because these are right but because one avoids reproach, hurt feelings, and many unnecessary troubles by doing so. This is in fact what many monks advise. Keep in mind what the Buddha taught; in addition, be mindful of what your society teaches.


Russell said...

And sexual misconduct doesn't include things such as Polyamory or Swinging, so long as both partners in the marriage and happy with it and everyone is consenting.
Misconduct happens when lies are told or bullying happens. So you can go to a Swingers party with your partner, you can both have multiple sexual partners and Sexual Misconduct will not happen.

Wei Jer said...

Lets say someone did find themselves in a mutually consenting relationship and wanted to go to a swingers party or engage multiple even random sexual partners. While it might not be sexual misconduct in the first instance, might that if developed into an accustomed habit over expose oneself sensually? To keep with the spirit of Dharma would it be better to let go of craving or is it neither-here-nor-there to cultivate such culture?

Anonymous said...

I don't know about that, I mean technically you are right but that just doesn't seem like the right thing to do...

Anonymous said...

Well. Having multiple sexual partners would lead one to overdevelopment of the sensual self.
If the goal of Buddhism is to eliminate craving, we can see where sex would be a problem.
One does not stop craving sex by having it.
And ones desire would have to be rather high if one is seeking out other partners for sexual pleasure. Fetishes and sexual practices come from a need to feel "more" sexual excitement, more pleasure.
Thus orgies and many other sexual activities fall into the realm of earthly lust. Committing these activities keeps one tied down in kama.
The 4 precepts are a simple guide for lay Buddhists to get along in society. So not having sex with promised or enslaved people serves the purpose of not inducing rage or sadness in people. And while technically an orgy with consenting parties wouldnt be sexual misconduct you must ask yourself.... is this actiom creating craving ? Does this action come from craving?
One of the roadblocks to enlightenment is thst we often want to excuse our own actions.
Another thing that Buddha admonished was delusion. We must fight self delusion continuously!

Anonymous said...

Having sex is ok, but only if there is a need for that and it's in front of you. If you keep craving for sex and then try other fetishes, then you are just chasing your sensations. And the sensations always comes and goes away quickly. So you are wasting your time in fulfilling sensations which will go away eventually. Also if you full one sensation, then a new sensation will arise waiting to get fulfilled and it will keep going on like this. You have to break the cycle and be with the person you love and even though both parties agree to swingers stuff, don't do it otherwise you will keep chasing which is eventually going to pass away, and you will be stuck in that cycle of misery.

Hope that helps

Unknown said...

Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Really helpful.

Anonymous said...

If one practices regular meditation and buddhist ethics of non-harm in relationship through practice of unbounded maitri for all living beings, the craving for physical sex subsides naturally, just like any other cravings or thirst (tanha). Swinging is not going against the stream of sensual desire of 'samsara'. If your goal is to end suffering and attain unshakable freedom of mind by gaining a foothold in 'noble life' then 'swinging' is 'Not the way".

Anonymous said...

Swinging and polyamory are against "the Way"? Bullshit. They're just things people do that yr uncomfortable with, so therefore "those" people have too much desire, they couldn't be as "enlightened" as you, surely not.....

The idea that orgiastic sex and spirituality are mutually exclusive is almost laughable when you consider that there are respectable spiritual traditions that make it an integral part of their ritual and worship, even within Buddhism, although usually in symbolic form.

You say that such a lifestyle is indicative of extreme craving, but thats just judgement. Swingers are just being open and honest with their partners and the world about their sexuality. This is likely to lead to REDUCED suffering. Who's doing more to overcome their egoic desires, the renunciate who swears off all sex to meditate for years, or the orgiast who overcomes jealousy and monogamy to please their partner? Yr just pissed that someone may be having group sex and realizing the Infinite at the same time, while you spent 20 years in a cave.

Stay True said...

Exactly... People assume that multiple partners=more attachment/more craving, but I have experienced the opposite... Craving/Posessiveness/Attachment is common in monogamous relationships

Stay True said...

Neither swinging nor not swinging is the way... Attachment to either is probably not going to serve

Anonymous said...

Does watching porn count as sexual miscondcut?