Sunday, April 8, 2012

"Sex and Buddhism," Part 2: Lay Buddhists

Maurice O'C Walshe, Buddhist Publication Society (, Wisdom Quarterly edit
This is the further revised version of the original Sangha Guide on Buddhism and Sex published by the English Sangha Trust, Dhammpadipa, London NW3. The greater part of it also appeared in the journal Sangha. I have felt very conscious of my temerity in trying to write something on this subject which younger people might be willing to read. I am very grateful to Alan and Jacqui James for giving me the benefit of their criticism being both wise in the Dhamma and at the same time much closer in age to the younger generation who may read this. — M. O'C Walshe, March 1975
Buddhism and Sex
This is an age in which sexual matters are discussed with great openness. There are many who are puzzled [and want] to know what the Buddhist attitude towards sex is... In keeping with the principle of the Middle Way, would avoid puritanism and permissiveness, but this is not helpful without further specification.

In the first place, we must distinguish between the rules voluntarily undertaken by Buddhist monastics and the guiding principles for lay people.

(HEARTStephyHEART's photography/

Ancient India
It may be helpful get a glimpse of the sexual mores of India in the Buddha's time. Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama), as a prince, was brought up surrounded by concubines and dancing-girls as a matter of course. Polygamy was common.

Ambapali, the courtesan from whom the Buddha accepted gifts, was a rich and powerful person. It was not expected that young men would lead a life of much restraint, and the Buddha [Siddhartha after his enlightenment] with his profound understanding of human nature knew well what demands could be made of people in this respect. Thus we find the following formulation of what a man [and implicitly a woman] should avoid as "sexual misconduct":

  • One avoids unlawful sexual intercourse, abstains from it. One has no intercourse with girls [or boys] who are still under the protection of mother or father, brother, sister, or relative; nor with married persons, nor [those protected by law]; nor lastly with betrothed persons.

If a person could observe greater restraint than this, so much the better. The Buddha's outlook on this question was, then, realistic for his geographical and historical period, and we should endeavor to view the subject as realistically as possible in the light of modern conditions.

The Lay Buddhist
The third of the Five Precepts undertaken by lay Buddhists runs: "I undertake the course of training of refraining from wrongdoing with respect to sensuality."

Some laypeople who, usually only for a specified period, undertake more than the usual Five Precepts, take this rule in the stricter form of chastity (full celibacy, brahmacariya) which commits them, for the duration of the undertaking, to observe the same restraint as monastics. With these obvious rules we are also not further concerned, as their position is clear.

But for the average layperson, the third precept is on exactly the same footing as the other four. There is, in the Buddhist view, nothing uniquely wicked about sexual offenses or failings.

Those inclined to develop a guilt-complex about their sex life should realize that failure in this respect is neither more nor, on the other hand, less serious than failure to live up to any other precept.

In point of fact, the most difficult precept of all for nearly everybody to live up to is the fourth -- to refrain from all forms of wrong speech (which often includes uncharitable comments on other people's real, imagined, or alleged sexual failings).

What precisely, then, does the third precept imply for the ordinary lay Buddhist?

First, in common with all the other precepts, it is a training rule not a "commandment" from the Buddha, God, Church Fathers, or anyone else saying: "Thou shalt not..." There are no such commandments in Buddhism.

The precepts are an undertaking by you to yourself, to do your best to observe a certain type of restraint, because you understand that it is a good (karmically and socially beneficial) thing to do. This must be clearly understood.

If you don't think it is a good thing to do, you should not undertake it. If you do think it is a good thing to do, but doubt your ability to keep to it, you should do your best, and probably, you can get some help and instruction to make it easier.

If you feel it is a good thing to attempt to tread the Buddhist path, you may undertake this and the other precepts with sincerity in this spirit.


Second, what is the scope and purpose of this precept? The Pali and Sanskrit word kama (as in Kama Sutra) means "sensual desire," which is not exclusively sexual desire. It is here (in kamesu) used in a plural form which comes close to what is meant by the Biblical expression "the lusts of the flesh."

Greed for food (gluttony) and other sensual pleasures are also included. Most people who are strongly addicted to sexual indulgence are also much drawn to other sense pleasures. Though we are here only concerned with the sexual aspect, this point should be noted. For those with any grasp at all of Buddhist principles, the basic reason for such an injunction should be immediately obvious.

Our disappointment (dukkha) -- our feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction with life -- is rooted in our desires and cravings. The more these can be brought under control, the less dukkha we experience. It is as simple as that. Of course, that which is simple is not necessarily easy.

So while there is, so to speak, a considerable overlap in the content of the third precept with the Judeo-Christian commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery," there is a big difference in the spirit and approach.

Since most people in the West have some Christian conditioning, even if only indirectly, it is good to be clear about this.

[Christian intercourse]
The traditional Christian view is that sexual intercourse is permissible only within marriage. Even then the implication is that, except as a necessary means for the procreation of children, it is really rather a bad thing and should be restricted as far as possible.

Therefore we have so much debate about "the pill" and the like. Certain things such as contraception, homosexual activity, and so on are often looked on with horror and declared "unnatural" (which cannot be entirely correct since, after all, they happen!)

Some of these prohibitions may today be more honored in the breach than the observance, but there is no doubt that rigid views of this sort are still widely held and officially propagated. [Think of First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign or Second Lady Tipper Gore's PMRC, or all the busybodies in Washington, DC.]

The inevitable reaction, encouraged by some real or alleged psychological experts [and by some Neopagans, anti-theists, and at least one astrophysicist], is towards an attitude of total permissiveness, in which "anything goes." As was said earlier, rigid puritanism and total permissiveness are extreme views, to neither of which the Buddhist teaching subscribes.

The one is merely an inadequate reaction against the other. What we have to do -- what Buddhism in fact teaches us to do -- is to map out a sane course between the two. More

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