What Buddhism Teaches About Sex

A buddhist monk smokes by Chieow Laan lake
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Most religions have rigid, elaborate rules about sexual conduct. Buddhists have the Third Precept—in Pali, Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami—which is most commonly translated as "Do not indulge in sexual misconduct" or "Do not misuse sex." However, for laypeople, the early scriptures are hazy about what constitutes "sexual misconduct."

Monastic Rules

Most monks and nuns follow the many rules of the Vinaya Pitaka. For example, monks and nuns who engage in sexual intercourse are "defeated" and are expelled automatically from the order. If a monk makes sexually suggestive comments to a woman, the community of monks must meet and address the transgression. A monk should avoid even the appearance of impropriety by being alone with a woman. Nuns may not allow men to touch, rub, or fondle them anywhere between the collar-bone and the knees.

Clerics of most schools of Buddhism in Asia continue to follow the Vinaya Pitaka, with the exception of Japan.

Shinran Shonin (1173-1262), founder of the Jodo Shinshu school of Japanese Pure Land, married, and he also authorized Jodo Shinshu priests to marry. In the centuries after his death, the marriage of Japanese Buddhist monks may not have been the rule, but it was a not-infrequent exception.

In 1872, the Meiji government of Japan decreed that Buddhist monks and priests (but not nuns) should be free to marry if they choose to do so. Soon "temple families" became commonplace (they had existed before the decree, but people pretended not to notice) and the administration of temples and monasteries often became family businesses, handed down from fathers to sons. In Japan today—and in schools of Buddhism imported to the West from Japan—the issue of monastic celibacy is decided differently from sect to sect and from monk to monk.

The Challenge for Lay Buddhists

Lay Buddhists—those who are not monks or nuns—must also decide for themselves whether the vague precaution against "sexual misconduct" should be interpreted as an endorsement of celibacy. People mostly take cues about what constitutes "misconduct" from their own culture, and we see this in much of Asian Buddhism.

We can all agree, without further discussion, that non-consensual or exploitative sex is "misconduct." Beyond that, what constitutes "misconduct" within Buddhism is less clear. The philosophy challenges us to think about sexual ethics very differently from how most of us have been taught.

Living the Precepts

The precepts of Buddhism are not commandments. They are followed as a personal commitment to Buddhist practice. Falling short is unskillful (akusala) but not sinful—after all, there is no God to sin against.​

Furthermore, the precepts are principles, not rules, and it is up to individual Buddhists to decide how to apply them. This takes a greater degree of discipline and self-honesty than the legalistic, "just follow the rules and don't ask questions" approach to ethics. The Buddha said, "be a refuge unto yourself." He taught us to use our own judgment when it comes to religious and moral teachings.

Followers of other religions often argue that without clear, explicit rules, people will behave selfishly and do whatever they want. This sells humanity short. Buddhism shows us that we can reduce our selfishness, greed, and attachments, that we can cultivate loving kindness and compassion—and in doing so, we can increase the amount of good in the world.

A person who remains in the grip of self-centered views and who has little compassion in his heart is not a moral person, no matter how many rules he follows. Such a person always finds a way to bend the rules to disregard and exploit others.

Specific Sexual Issues

Marriage. Most religions and moral codes of the West draw a clear, bright line around marriage. Sex inside the line is good, while sex outside the line is bad. Although monogamous marriage is ideal, Buddhism generally takes the attitude that sex between two people who love each other is moral, whether they are married or not. On the other hand, sex within marriages can be abusive, and marriage doesn't make that abuse moral.

Homosexuality. You can find anti-homosexual teachings in some schools of Buddhism, but most of these reflect local cultural attitudes more than they do Buddhism itself. In the several schools of Buddhism today, only Tibetan Buddhism specifically discourages sex between men (though not between women). The prohibition comes from the work of a 15th-century scholar named Tsongkhapa, who probably based his ideas on earlier Tibetan texts.

Desire. The Second Noble Truth teaches that the cause of suffering is craving or thirst (tanha). This doesn't mean cravings should be repressed or denied. Instead, in Buddhist practice, we acknowledge our passions and learn to see that they are empty, so they no longer control us. This is true for hate, greed, and other negative emotions. Sexual desire is no different.

In "The Mind of Clover: Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics," Robert Aitken Roshi says that "[f]or all its ecstatic nature, for all its power, sex is just another human drive. If we avoid it just because it is more difficult to integrate than anger or fear, then we are simply saying that when the chips are down we cannot follow our own practice. This is dishonest and unhealthy."

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the energy of desire is redirected as a way to achieve enlightenment.

The Middle Way

Western culture at the moment seems to be at war with itself over sex, with rigid puritanism on one side and licentiousness on the other. Always, Buddhism teaches us to avoid extremes and to find a middle way. As individuals, we may make different decisions, but it is wisdom (prajna) and loving-kindness (metta), not lists of rules, that show us the path.