The third of the five precepts—Buddhist guidelines for an ethical life—is to refrain from sexual misconduct. Lay Buddhists are not expected to be celibate like most Buddhist monastics, so the third precept is not a total ban on sex. It does, however, explicitly forbid adultery, rape, or sex with someone who is engaged to another, imprisoned, or ordained. But in many instances that are important to us today but would be unrecognizable to the historical Buddha, such as workplace harassment, relational power dynamics, and even dating apps, early Buddhist texts do not provide specific guidance beyond what we can extrapolate from the traditional restrictions.
For this reason, and because the Buddha generally advised his followers to abide by their society’s laws, how the third precept is understood changes from country to country and culture to culture.
Some later Buddhist texts outlined with precision several activities that constitute sexual misconduct, including having anal or oral sex and exceeding the maximum number of orgasms allowed per night (five). In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in particular, the understanding of homosexual sex as a violation has caused friction with Western practitioners who take issue with this view. In recent years, Buddhist teachers have generally tended to understand such strictures as cultural more than canonical.
Buddhism does not hold a particular view on marriage or monogamy, although there are teachers who stress the importance of monogamous commitment in the context of the third precept. (Polygamy, concubines, and courtesans—fixtures of the Buddha’s time—have little relevance to practitioners today.) Contraception and family planning are not forbidden by the third precept.
Practitioners often ask what Buddhism has to say about pornography, prostitution, kinky practices, and other sex-related topics. The third precept does not offer a comprehensive answer, but since the precepts are meant to be taken as a whole, sexual misconduct is often defined in relation to other ethical guidelines. Are your sexual choices deceitful (fourth precept)? Do they involve taking that which has not been given to you (second)? Do you have a sex or porn addiction (fifth)? Are your sexual relationships causing harm to yourself or others, or are they a source of harmony and goodwill (first)?
Despite the third precept, sexual scandals in Western monastic and lay Buddhist communities that have come to light recently as part of the #MeToo movement are raising questions about women’s rights and sexual ethics in a religious tradition that has been shaped largely by patriarchal societies.
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