Buddhist Sexual Ethics » A Rejoinder
Religious traditions help us to find our basic orientations in many aspects of our lives. The most important aspect of our lives is how we interact with others. Among other things, this means religions often have a lot to say about sexual ethics. What sexual ethics does Buddhism promote? In this area our tradition speaks more quietly than others, which can leave newcomers wondering if it addresses the subject at all. In fact it speaks quite firmly. In opening up the subject I'll highlight those questions that bear on the issues raised by various liberation movements - by the women's movement, by gays and lesbians, and by the smaller sexual minorities. I don't think I could be too wide off the mark in saying that all these movements whatever else they are about, are engaging with various forms of prejudice, and with violence and violations based on those prejudices.
against women and against sexual minorities are usually reinforced
by certain standard features of social psychology, such as intolerance
of difference and the often deep-seated insecurities of those who
regard themselves as 'normal' but aren't quite sure. An important
ingredient in this nasty little cocktail, however, is various forms
of prejudice, inhibition and repression associated with theistic religious
all religions, Buddhism takes a strong ethical stand in human affairs
and sexual behaviour in particular. The most common formulation of
Buddhist ethics are the five precents:
undertake the training precept of:
Refraining from harming living beings/practising loving kindness
precepts take the form of voluntary, personal undertakings. They are
not commandments; there is no god in Buddhism, so none to issue any.
The precepts express basic principles rather than fixed, legalistic rules that any one action falls inside or outside of. Like any non-fundamentalist ethical system, Buddhism provides us with general guiding principles while in no way relieving us of the obligation to make appropriate moral judgements in each morally significant situation we come across. Moral judgement is never a question of blindly applying a rule.
five precepts constitute an integrated set - each precept supports
the others. To know what 'sexual misconduct' means you look at the
other precepts. 'Sexual misconduct', in the spirit of the precepts
as a job lot, means any sexual conduct involving violence, manipulation
or deceit - conduct that therefore leads to suffering and trouble.
By contrast good sexual conduct is based on loving kindness, generosity,
honesty, and mental and emotional clarity - conduct that has good
third precept about sexual misconduct is strictly superfluous - if
in our sexual lives we act non-violently, do not take what is not
freely given, do not deceive and do not act out of delusive and irresponsible
mindstates, we cannot fall foul of the third precept anyway. Buddhism's
very tough sexual ethic would be complete without the third precept.
It's really there for the sake of emphasis. Sexuality is a very strong
energy, the focus of many cravings, vanities and delusions. It calls
for its very own precept! If we have a propensity to make fools of
ourselves, to act stupidly and destructively - and we all do have
this propensity - then we are likely to manifest it in our sex lives.
On the other hand, each of us also has the opposite propensity to
act out of friendliness, generosity and wisdom. With moral and meditative
training our sex lives can powerfully express this propensity too.
Hence the third precept expresses a tough and challenging sexual ethic.
Not least for anyone who has grown up male and straight in a society
like this one, with all its training in objectifying and predatory
attitudes towards women, and deep fears of so-called deviance!
look at the spirit of the precepts as a whole before returning to
sexuality. Freedom is the ultimate promise of Buddhist practice -
of the moral training as well as the other two great trainings, in
mediation and wisdom. Freedom means letting go of the obsessions,
compulsions and inhibitions of our psychological conditioning, and
so freeing ourselves to respond appropriately in any and every situation.
Often freedom takes the form of restraint, the ability to say no to
an habitual or received compulsion, craving, fashion or dependency.
Sometimes freedom takes the form of saying yes, a yes that overrides
habitual or received fears, prejudices and inhibitions.
the precept's ambit, especially today, is obviously much wider and
covers violating behaviours that the women's movement among others
has rightly politicised. An important example is sexual harassment,
so prevalent these days when women and men share public space - workplaces,
universities etc. Where power relations are prevalent, the power relations
themselves have a gender component, and opportunities and cultural
encouragement for abuse are ubiquitous. Among other things, sexual
harassment is harming and involves taking the non-given, based on
a deep-seated presumption - and delusion - in male conditioning about
the constant sexual availability of women.
Rape in marriage is strikingly similar. Also violent and misogynist pornography which creates a hostile and unsafe environment for women and induces moronic and demonic mindstates in men, including delusions about the nature of women and what they want. So both sexes suffer harm. Publication or use of pornography which eroticises women's subordination thus plainly contravenes the third precept. But by no mean all pornography does so, and other sexually explicit material might be equally innocent.
Religion and Social Engineering
far in this account I don't think Buddhism in practice comes to startlingly
different conclusions about sexual conduct from those of balanced
versions of other major religions. But the other religions also have
lists of no-no's, of forbidden sexual practices. Some object to partial
or total nudity, or masturbation, or cross-dressing, or sado-masochism,
or homosexuality, or fetishism, or premarital sex, or oral, anal or
group sex, or contracepted sex. Buddhism is notorious for its habit
of putting points of practice and doctrine into lists. So where is
Buddhism's list of naughty sexual practices?
answer is short and sweet. Buddhism doesn't (for once!) have a list.
The reason it doesn't have a list is significant. There are two 'pure
types' of religion - ethnic ones and universal ones. Ethnic religion
seeks to regulate many civic aspects of a particular tribe or people,
and especially to regulate the biological and cultural reproduction
of the tribe. It thus stipulates all sorts of rules to do with marriage,
family, sex roles, bringing up children, etc. Judaism could well stand
as a sophisticated example of an ethnic religion.
ethnic religion contains what we might call - in our secular modern
mode - a social engineering element. Social engineers, both the religious
and the secular ones, make it their business to regulate relations
between the sexes so that plenty of babies are born to reproduce and
even expand the tribe, and to see that the children are looked after
and properly inducted into the folkways and traditional (gender and
other) roles of the tribe. Social engineers want to manipulate people
so that their sexual energies are channelled into babymaking, and
not frittered away on non-procreative sexual activity (what today's
media calls 'recreational sex'). A social engineering God or state
tends to promulgate laws that criminalise, stigmatise and pathologise
for instance, is a universal religion in the new testament, but has
attached to it many of social engineering elements of an ethnic religion
contained in the old testament, which abominates (I gather) such non-procreative
activities as adultery, masturbation, sodomy and so on. So Christianity
offers a split perspective. Some old testamentarians make careers
as the scourges of all non-baby-making sex, its pleasures and its
practitioners. At the same time other Christian leaders openly live
in lesbian or gay relationships and courageously fly the flag of tolerance.
Buddhism is a pure case of universal religion, with no social engineering
element. So much so that it does not even have a marriage service.
Marriage is a civil matter in Buddhist countries, it has nothing to
do with spiritual practice as such. Nor does the Buddhist canon contain
a 'holy family' with prescribed sex roles that subordinate women.
you want to get married in a Buddhist country, the civil authorities
provide the appropriate official celebration. Afterwards the bridal
couple can go, as many do, to a monastic and ask for her or his blessing,
which usually consists in a relaxed word of advice about how to make
the match actually work. Ajahn Chah, the great Buddhist meditation
master of modern Thailand, had a stream of newly-weds come to his
monastery for this purpose. He would tell them: 'You have given your
hand in marriage. Your hand has five fingers. Think of them as the
five precepts. Practice the precepts in your marriage, and it will
be a happy one. That is all you need.'
The Buddha was in fact a social engineer's worst nightmare. Not only did he not waste a word of condemnation on non-procreative sex (hence no list of no-no's), but he inspired thousands to ordain into celibate monasticism and so leave babymaking behind altogether. This was not because he disapproved of sex or babies, but in an era when a non-celibate usually ended up with many children to feed, clothe and house and so had little freedom or time for spiritual pursuits, celibacy made a lot of practical sense for many people with a spiritual urge. Needless to say, the choice is not nearly as stark in developed countries today, where contraception is available and earning a living is a good deal easier.
Buddhism and Tolerance
has nothing against sex as such. Practised skilfully in the spirit
of the precepts, it can bring a lot of happiness. As one of my favourite
meditation teachers sums it up, there's nothing wrong with dancing
lightly with your desires, so long as both can hear the music and
all hearts are open. Indeed, I think Buddhism probably improves our
sex life in meditation training, where we learn the core skill of
mindfulness - of keeping our heart, mind and body in the same place
at the same time. So when your body is having a wonderful time with
a cuddly friend, your mind is not having a miserable time obsessing
about the details of your tax return, for instance - it is free to
come to the party too.
the years I have gained some familiarity with a number of English-speaking
Dhamma centres in western countries, and I'm struck by the unproblematic
presence of gays and lesbians in them. In keeping with tradition their
sexuality is not an issue and this aspect of their identity is affirmed
as straightforwardly as anyone else's. Everyone's structure of sexual
desire is unique, and when we leave social engineering considerations
behind, there is no warrant for setting one structure of desire above
the rest, so long as all can be lived out within the spirit of the
appropriate Buddhist attitude to other sexual minorities is just the
same. I tested this by visiting the website of Salon Kitty, a very
fastidious local establishment which describes itself as 'one of the
world's leading BDSM houses.' BDSM stands for bondage, discipline
and sado-masochism. On Salon Kitty's main menu is a statement of ethics,
which the duty of care and overall responsibility ' the dominant'
owes 'the submissive,' not least around the obviously crucial issue
of consent. In part the statement of ethics says: Implied in consent
is the responsibility of the dominant partner in any BDSM scene to
monitor the wellbeing of the submissive to ensure that the submissive
is stable and that the consent is still operative.
is also the responsibility of the dominant to ensure that the submissive
is not consenting to an act that is not in his or her best longterm
interests.Neither party should indulge in heavy drinking or drug taking
as this can impair judgement
Then the statement of ethics resumes: In order to enjoy the possibilities that the world of BDSM offers, one must first discover respect and trust both of oneself and of others. Elements of all five precepts are there, including the last. On the basis of this statement we can conclude that Salon Kitty comes closer to Dhamma than fundamentalist, social engineering killjoys of various religious persuasions!
does have a strong sexual ethic, but not a repressive one. The main
point of this ethic is non-harming in an area of life where we can
do a lot of damage by acting violently, manipulatively or deceitfully.
These and breaches of the other precepts - ill will, taking the non-given,
lying and stupefaction - are the Buddhist no-no's in sexual practice.
Because of its universalistic character, Buddhism as such certainly
does not buy into prejudices and inhibitions associated with social
engineering, the reproduction of the tribe.
course, one can meet Buddhists from traditional backgrounds that do
have a problem with non-procreative sex like homosexuality, just as
we run into ones that are still challenged by gender equality. But
this sort of inhibition or prejudice comes from a particular ethnic
culture or national tradition only. You can confidently tell anyone
who expresses these sorts of attitudes that they have nothing to do
with Dhamma as such.
At the same time each of us has to exercise a personal judgement about how much energy and time we should give over to sex, however skilful our sexual practice. Where does it rank in the inevitably tight order of priorities we have to apply in our busy lives when most of us are struggling to find time to sit daily, get to a regular weekly group sit and to go on retreat? Part of the answer will depend on the moral significance of our commitment to our so-called sexual partner(s). Many people strive to make these commitments and relationships central focuses of moral meaning in their lives, as Ajahn Chah suggests we should. This seems to be the best way to lead an integrated life as a spiritual practitioner and a sexual being.
talk given to Unibuds, Queer Dharma, The Macquarie University Buddhist
Society and the Friends of the Wat).