The precept about sex

I undertake the training rule to refrain from sensual (sexual) misconduct (the third precept)

Don’t disregard evil, thinking,
“It won’t come back to me!”
With dripping drops of water
Even a water jug is filled.
Little by little,
A fool is filled with evil.

Don’t disregard merit, thinking,
“It won’t come back to me!”
With dripping drops of water
Even a water jug is filled.
Little by little,
A sage is filled with merit.
(Dhammapada 121, 122 tr. Fronsdal)

The third precept, the training in awareness of our sexual energies, is consistent with the other four precepts. The key goal is to learn specific ways to avoid harming oneself and others.

In most cultures it is hard to separate the idea of sex from the idea of guilt. There are so many powerful feelings associated with sex and sexual activity, it may be hard to think clearly about them. But let’s try to set that aside and consider what the Buddha actually said about sexual activity.

The Buddha was concerned with actions. He taught that it is by our actions of body, speech and mind that we create wholesomeness and happiness or their opposites. He wasn’t interested in philosophy or opinions for their own sake. He only looked for agreement on the most basic principle: that it is good to help rather than hurt oneself and others.

Ancient but not irrelevant
In the time and place that the Buddha lived (~500 B.C., northern India), polygamy was common. Women and children were regarded by many as valuable possessions, similar to cattle or land. Although we live in a time and place with different rules and assumptions, we can still listen to the Buddha’s instruction and see if it applies to our situation. We can decide whether it would be useful and helpful to us today.

Sin vs. kamma
The Buddha did not use the sin/redemption framework for understanding morality. Rather, his foundation is the law of kamma (Sanskrit: karma), or action. What we have done in the past (even in past lifetimes) affects the circumstances in which we find ourselves now. Note that I say “affects” and not “determines”. We are also building kamma afresh with each new action. If we accept the cause and effect model of ethical outcomes, the importance of staying conscious of our actions comes into focus. Harmful actions bring harmful consequences. Extremely harmful actions generate powerful negative results. Harmless actions bring beneficial consequences. Extremely beneficial actions generate powerful positive results. It really is that simple.

So if we cause a little hurt, expressing a momentary jealousy for example, the result is negative, but not necessarily deep and lasting. If we cause a big hurt, such as resorting to force in sexual relations, the harm is enormous, to us and to the other person, and it may take a very long time for both to recover.

In Buddhism, marriage is not a sacrament but a commitment to a particular set of actions (more on this in a later topic). Buddhism often has the “holy/unholy” dichotomy projected onto it, but it doesn’t fit well. One’s kamma is whole. There are beautiful, wholesome bits and ugly, hurtful bits. More bits than anyone can count. The bits in the past are unreachable; the bits in the future are likewise inaccessible. But in the present, with our considered actions, we can make a difference. Seeing one’s own intentions and the results of one’s actions are the most important (though not always the easiest) activities we can undertake.

Golden Rule: Never let Passion override Compassion (M. O’C. Walshe, Buddhism and Sex 1975)

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