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.
(Dhammapada 121, tr. Fronsdal)

The third precept, the training in awareness of our sexual energies, is no more or less important than the other four precepts. It is considered equally dangerous to hit or kill sentient beings, to steal, to lie, or to get so intoxicated we can’t control ourselves, as it is to participate in unwholesome sexual activities. The key goal is to learn, specifically, how 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 not to hurt oneself or others. If we honestly and carefully apply this rule to our own actions, we will avoid harming anyone and will create peace and confidence in our inner world.

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 you have done in the past (even in past lifetimes) affects the circumstances in which you find yourself now. Note that I say “affects” and not “determines”. You are also building kamma afresh with each action you take. If you accept the cause and effect model of ethical outcomes, the importance of staying conscious of your 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 you cause a little hurt, expressing a momentary jealousy for example, the result is negative, but not necessarily deep and lasting. If you cause a big hurt, such as resorting to force in sexual relations, the harm is enormous, to yourself 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 really make a difference. Seeing one’s own intentions and the results of one’s actions are the most important (though not always the most enjoyable) activities we can undertake.

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

The relationship between sex and love
The happiest situation is when sexual activity is an expression of love within a committed relationship. A healthy sex life can lovingly bind two people together for many years. It is often a barometer for the emotional well-being of the partners. It can provide the motivation to let go of unnecessary negativity, and also be the reward for letting go. A mutually satisfying sex life can be a reflection of sharing, of trust, of mutual acceptance and understanding.

A successful partnership is strengthened if the participants share goals or activities that are important to both. Being with someone who loves what you love is an enduring basis for relationship. The deepest bonds are formed between people whose most cherished desires and goals are shared. If you are lucky enough to experience such a relationship, you have reason to be grateful.

In the Mangala Sutta, the Buddha describes the many ways in which blessings arrive. In this verse, he describes doing one’s family duty as a gift or blessing:

The support of mother and father,
The welfare of spouse and children,
Engaging in unconflicting livelihood;
This is the greatest blessing.
– (excerpt) Sn 2.4 tr. John Kelly

The Buddha describes above a wholesome situation, and the actions that make it wholesome.

And what if you don’t have an exclusive partner? In many modern cultures, sexual experimentation is taken for granted. Consider celibacy as an option. It will keep you from making any major mistakes, at least. But the general rule is to have only one partner at a time, and that deception has no part in the relationship. Honesty and truthfulness are essential in intimate relations.

Breaking and keeping the precept
Any sexual action (of body or speech) that causes harm, uses violence or force, or humiliates anyone is a failure to live up to the precept.

To keep the precept, the Buddha recommends the following:
“Abandoning misconduct in sensual pleasures, he abstains from misconduct in sensual pleasures; 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 who are garlanded in token of betrothal.” (MN41.12 Nanamoli/Bodhi)

This excerpt is addressed to males, but the recommendation to females is easy enough to deduce: abstain from intercourse with people who are committed to another partner, or who are vulnerable in some way. Don’t take advantage of or abuse people sexually.

Below the Buddha describes a couple of instances of breaking the precept, and their results:
“Not to be contented with one’s own wife, and to be seen with harlots and the wives of others — this is a cause of one’s downfall.
Being past one’s youth, to take a young wife and to be unable to sleep for jealousy of her — this is a cause of one’s downfall.” (SN1.6, tr. Narada Thera)

These are just two ways that disregarding the third precept can harm you. The second verse reminds me of a popular song in the 1960’s:

If you want to be happy for the rest of your life,
Never make a pretty woman your wife.
So from my personal point of view,
Get an ugly girl to marry you. (Jimmy Soul)

It’s a funny song with a serious point: beauty causes problems along with the pleasures. If you take in the whole picture — the envy of others, vanity, fear, jealousy – maybe that superficial beauty isn’t worth the trouble. Maybe looking more deeply will bring more satisfaction. Happiness isn’t just enjoying your partner’s sex appeal. It comes from caring and being cared for, and from trust.

Sad story
Someone close to me told me about a group conversation he was involved in at work one day. Several young people were talking about their plans for the weekend coming up. One young woman said she couldn’t wait for Friday night so she could go to a pub, get smashed (drunk), find a guy and get laid. My friend was pretty upset by this statement and didn’t know what to say. My heart went out to him. What can you do when faced with someone who has such a low opinion of herself, and seeks support for insupportable behavior? This is one way we create suffering for ourselves and others.

If you are more than 30 years old, you can probably look back over your own behavior and recall actions in the realm of sexual activity that had painful consequences. It is easy to hurt someone else’s feelings, and to have one’s own feelings hurt. Take the time to consider whatever past event comes to mind. Did you learn something? Did your behavior change? Is it unlikely that you would do something similar now?

With this precept, the Buddha is offering us a way to be more present with “what is”, to interrupt thoughts or actions that could lead to painful consequences. It is a gift that can prevent us from hurting ourselves and others, and provide protection.

Ways to cause harm with sexuality
There are a few general ways that we cause harm with our sexuality. The most egregious way is through coercion: rape, making sex the cost of a promotion or job retention, intimidation, blackmail, and bullying. There is not even a pretense of love in these actions.

At a more intimate level, the betrayal of trust is a second way of causing harm. If you are acting in ways that you need to hide, that you wouldn’t want your partner to see, then you are harming yourself and your partner. Flirting with someone other than your partner, in your partner’s presence, is hurtful. Lying to your partner – ouch!

And finally, probably the most common way that harm is caused with sexuality is by leading someone on. This happens when one person is interested and the other is not, but pretends to be. The pretender gives an insincere commitment, or none at all, and takes advantage of the (wishful) partner’s hopes and desires. Twice I have encountered men who cohabited with women whom they didn’t acknowledge publicly. Friends and acquaintances discovered (during the breakup) that there had been a hidden partner for years. Meanwhile, the guys had behaved as if they were single. How much dishonesty is required for that situation to develop? How could such a person be considered trustworthy? How can the hidden partner recover from such humiliation?

There is an infinite number of ways we can harm each other with our sexual energy. Using care, we can prevent all of them. We try to avoid harming others and also avoid being harmed ourselves. As newspaper advice columnist Ann Landers often said: “Ask yourself, ‘am I better off with or without this person?’” It’s a question to ask yourself more than once in the course of a relationship.

The great illusion
“…the interesting thing for us to note is how sex — like everything else — is a purely impersonal force. We tend to think of it in intensely personal terms, but in actual fact it is a force that just flows through us and uses our most wonderful and inspiring emotions for its own ends, which are totally concerned with the continuance of the race as a whole. The idea that it is just a private and wonderful thing between you and me is merely a part of our general illusion. Altogether, it is a prolific breeder of illusions. It can lead a man to think he has found the most wonderful woman in the whole world while everybody else is thinking, “What on earth can he possibly see in her?” “(Maurice Walshe, Buddhism and Sex.)

Key to seeing this great illusion is knowing when our mind is colored by lust and when it isn’t. In the example above, the man doesn’t realize his perceptions are being distorted by sexual desire, but the observers, unaffected by lust, see more clearly.

“… a bhikkhu [practitioner] understands mind affected by lust as mind affected by lust, and mind unaffected by lust as mind unaffected by lust.” (MN10, Nanamoli/Bodhi)

As with the other four precepts, this one is a mindfulness exercise. It is an invitation to observe our own actions and motivations more closely, as they happen.

On the positive side
There are two ways to work with the third precept. The first is to remember the precept before you take any action that might lead you into a situation that is likely to cause harm. If you’re tempted to begin an adulterous affair, think seriously about what would happen as a result – after the first passionate encounter – weeks and months later. Can you imagine an outcome where everyone is happy and no one is hurt? If a desire to confess an attraction to an inappropriate person arises, remember the third precept. Can you just wait and breathe until the urge passes?

The second way the third precept works is to help you appreciate the wholesomeness in the relationships you have. If you have a primary partnership, you can use a contemplation of the third precept to help keep your relationship focused on the wholesome.

Non-sexual relationships can be close and have significant wholesome elements in them. If you broaden the idea of sensual energy to include all of the energies you exchange with others, a rich field for contemplation opens up. You start to see how speech is a means of exchanging energy, and also touch, and simply being present with someone else. These are all non-sexual ways to interact with others that can express and build intimacy, trust, and love.