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Did the Buddha teach consent?

Amy Langenberg claims in Tricycle that the answer is “no”:

And makes a strong case for importing the idea into Buddhism anyway.

As Viveka said in Bridging the two vehicles:

Most Buddhists will rankle at the provocative tone of Professor Langenberg’s article, and indeed she received pushback on it—some more respectful than others.

It seems to me that Buddhist reformers generally have more success claiming their innovations are revivals / returns to authenticity (see e.g. Bhikkhuni ordination or Vipassana) than just straight-up admitting they’re importing / reacting to foreign ideas.

So I’m curious what y’all think: did the Buddha really not teach consent? And what do y’all make of Prof Langenberg’s rhetorical approach? How would you frame the historical fact of Buddhism’s reaction to modernity from the conservative, emic perspective?

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This is my guidepost : MN61

…‘Does this act with the body that I want to do lead to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both? Is it unskillful, with suffering as its outcome and result?’ If, while checking in this way, you know: ‘This act with the body that I want to do leads to hurting myself, hurting others, or hurting both. It’s unskillful, with suffering as its outcome and result.’ To the best of your ability, Rāhula, you should not do such a deed. …

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But when it came to defining the third precept in terms of “the Golden Rule” (“Do unto others…”) the Buddha didn’t talk about consent / rape but only adultery:

a noble disciple reflects: ‘If someone were to have sexual relations with my wives, I wouldn’t like it. But if I were to have sexual relations with someone else’s wives, he wouldn’t like that either. The thing that is disliked by me is also disliked by others. Since I dislike this thing, how can I inflict it on others?’ Reflecting in this way, they give up sexual misconduct themselves. And they encourage others to give up sexual misconduct, praising the giving up of sexual misconduct. So their bodily behavior is purified
~ SN 55.7

As I talked about before, leaving ethical discussions at a super high level, and not getting into the details, leaves the door open for bad Buddhist teachers to say and do horrible things, as documented cases demonstrate.

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IMO this perspective only makes sense if you want ‘Buddhism’ to be some kind of catch-all guide to wordly life, for all people in all circumstances. I don’t think this was the Buddhas Purpose in teaching. He taught the Path to enlightenment… (for those with little dust in their eyes) and all aspects within those teachings were there for the purpose of furthering this aim.

SN56.11 (exerpt)
‘This is the noble truth of the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering.’ Such was the vision that arose in me … 8.2‘This noble truth of the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering should be developed.’ Such was the vision that arose in me … 8.3‘This noble truth of the practice that leads to the cessation of suffering has been developed.’ Such was the vision, knowledge, wisdom, realization, and light that arose in me regarding teachings not learned before from another.

9.1As long as my true knowledge and vision about these four noble truths was not fully purified in these three perspectives and twelve respects, I didn’t announce my supreme perfect awakening in this world with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans.

10.1But when my true knowledge and vision about these four noble truths was fully purified in these three perspectives and twelve respects, I announced my supreme perfect awakening in this world with its gods, Māras, and Brahmās, this population with its ascetics and brahmins, its gods and humans.

10.2Knowledge and vision arose in me: 10.3‘My freedom is unshakable; this is my last rebirth; now there’ll be no more future lives.’”

I think that it is worthwhile exploring what drives the expectation or desire by some, to mould the Buddhas teachings in ways beyond what was the original intention.

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The author is certainly involved in this topic:

https://fairbank.fas.harvard.edu/events/amy-langenberg-and-ann-gleig-from-sudinna-to-the-sangha-sutra-classical-and-contemporary-buddhist-responses-to-sexual-misconduct/

I like that take! But let’s run with it for a second to see if it has legs: Why would the Buddha talk about adultery and theft and murder without talking about rape? Is it really categorically different from the other, explicitly proscribed, actions?

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Taking what’s not given is considered breaking the precept of theft.

Therefore “giving” means consent. If something is given to you, that is consent for you to use it. The object of what is given is irrelevant in terms of consent, whether it’s food or a physical body in terms of sex.

So yes, the Buddha taught consent.

(2) Having abandoned the taking of what is not given, he abstains from taking what is not given … (3) Having abandoned sexual misconduct, he abstains from sexual misconduct …

Notice sexual misconduct comes right after taking what’s not given…

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I extend the consent to mean protection by oneself.

I’ve also heard of someone who said that rape is covered by protection by law. However, I think this is too arbitrary and dependent on the law of the day whereas consent is more universal ethics.

Outside of the 5 precepts, as general what the Buddha taught, he did heavily condemn people who raped Bhikkhunis as to not able to receive ordination. The consideration of parajika for the sexual intercourse rule, states that if a monk is raped, and doesn’t give consent, he didn’t broke the rule. So the concept of consent is implicit in there.

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Spoken like a true Theravada scholar!

This has also been my usual response too, but it’s a bit unsatisfying. Why is it burried in the interpretation of a part of a commentary and not a top-level concern? As you mentioned, it’s not like rape is unknown to the Pāli Canon.

Oo! Thanks @Thito! I love it! “Make the second precept Great Again!™” :joy: #M2GA Spoken like a true reformer: “it’s been there all along!”


Perhaps both these approaches just need a little apologetics for the context: perhaps it was taboo in ancient India to talk so bluntly with lay people about rape? Therefore it had to be implied, except in the Vinaya, where monastics could talk among themselves about monastic victims a bit more openly?

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There are indeed situations in the EBT where rape occurs and the Buddha is recorded to respond ( the rape and murder of Sundari - Ud4.8, the rape of the nun Subha -Thig 14.1 , but the response is not as modern day ‘western/ pseudo-western’ cultures would expect. Why should it be? Times were different. Social mores were different. People had different rights and responsibilities.

Things change. Cultures evolve. What was considered simply reprehensible 2500 years ago might be considered differently in a time and culture far removed. And those future others might look back at their ancestors with revulsion and disgust. What might people 2500 years from now think of our barbaric practices (eg killing and eating animals, physical sex… ewww :wink:)?! Who knows, they might even consider the Death sentence for such offences?

The Buddha was not a social reformer or a zealot. He was not into revenge or hate or gender politics. He simply understood that people’s actions are conditioned. Without assigning blame for past action (What’s the use of that? Penance by the Guilty? Doesn’t change what occurred does it?), he taught people the way to wisely consider their current situation and actions so as to achieve better results in future for oneself as well as others. Timeless, compassionate wisdom, applicable across cultures.

An uncomfortable, triggering thing to consider

The status of women in India in 2500 B.C. was that of being ‘in the custody’ of parents, of husband etc. So consent had to be given not by the woman, but by the custodian. BTW, this is no different to the historical status of women in western culture till a few hundred years ago. I don’t think it was right. But that is how it unfortunately was. Humankind has much to regret. But whom do they answer to, other than themselves?

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Just to add that in the time of the Buddha very few people ‘owned’ their own body and a few privileged people owned many bodies. In recent times humanity does not considered that appropriate and (much of) the world now regards the owning of slaves, human chattels, bondsmen, thralls, etc., illegal. It’s only because we (society) now insists that each person ‘owns’ their own body, that we have the concept of consent with regards to our own bodies.

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That is an interesting story, in that it also implies but doesn’t explicitly say that she was raped. :thinking: Perhaps further evidence for the “taboo”?

I don’t see the Buddha’s response here?

:100: I hope we’re so evolved by then!

Idk: ordaining Bhikkhunis was pretty radical, no? I always remember with fondness the rule about young women being allowed to escape arranged marriages.

Again, the question is why rape is treated differently than e.g. murder in the five precepts. I’m interested: why did you immediately jump to “revenge or hate” or “blame”? Was there something in the tone or content of Amy Langenberg’s piece (or my post??) specifically that you feel was hate-filled?

Ah! So you’re siding with Prof Langenberg, then? That rape was indeed a blind spot for early Buddhism, and since culture has evolved, it is our duty to practice and teach Buddhism according to the prevalent, modern culture?

And you justify that move by pointing out that the Buddha taught timeless frameworks for ethical thinking, and left many details for future disciples to work out (the Great Standards, etc)?

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Bikkhu Bodhi describing right action of the noble eightfold path:

“any case of forced, violent, or coercive sexual union constitutes a transgression. But in such a case the violation falls only on the offender, not on the one compelled to submit.”

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is a great teacher and human being, indeed!

But do you happen to know how he justified that? Is there a citation or explanation there?

I guess the problem here is a culture clash between 1) the academy, which rejects revisionist readings of the (practical) canon as ahistorical and 2) conservative Buddhism, which rejects “improvements” to the Buddha’s teachings as delusional.

It’s fascinating to me that even though they can agree (that rape is wrong), progressive Buddhists and traditional Buddhists can still fight so passionately over how to justify that.

Given the tensions, it seems the “middle way” here is some good old fashioned kettle logic:

The Buddha did teach consent, and he didn’t because of the culture of his day.

:joy:

I think the Buddha did not emphasize consent because it elevates desire as the main criteria to determine what is wholesome.

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:thinking: Hmmm… “consent” doesn’t stress the (impossible to guess) internal mental state of the prospective partner, but rather encourages dialogue between the involved parties. I think @Thito’s parallel with the second precept is apt here.

Example (might be triggering)

Even if I am attracted to you and full of lust, if I say “no” and you have sex with me anyway, that’s rape. My desire being beside the point.

But perhaps there is something to that: the Buddha did shy away from positive moral obligations for lay people and a too-explicit description of “good sex” might give people the wrong idea that such a thing exists! :rofl:

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Negotiating sex/seducing is part of generating consent. The whole thing is based on perceiving the other as an object of desire. The relevance to the second precept has to do with the idea of ownership. As far as i know, we are encouraged to take ownership of our actions/kamma which involves developing detachment towards the more conventional use of the term.

I think the author might be reflecting on issues facing modern women mostly in western societies. There has been a shift in institutional power where central governments took over many of the duties of traditional families. Marriage as an institution puts more focus on duty than desire. Also the emphasis on consent have to do with modern ways of dating where men and women get drunk to alleviate any sense of guilt or shame associated with the sexual act, and to regret it (mostly by women) later on.

The guardianship of family is relevant to Buddhist sexual ethics and goes against the grain of focusing on the individual choice of women.

Who knows, maybe putting too much faith in institutional solutions to suffering is not wise. The solution is not to seek confirmations from the dhamma to legitimize bad choices.

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Yes. There is an element of Buddhist “freedom from desire” versus Western “freedom to desire” here. Hence my comment about “no good sex”

There’s also perhaps a flavor here of trying to legitimate non-celibate Buddhist teachers by proposing an alternative to the sexual ethics of brahmacariya in the ongoing fight by Western secular institutions to take over the traditional role of the celibate monastic sangha. So far, they’ve copyrighted our texts and put our shrines in museums, but they still haven’t fully appropriated the status of our teachers*. In that light, this is a typical marketing** strategy: make a problem so you can step in and solve it.

But, all that said: rape is still bad!! And Buddhist teachers (of all stripes) legitimately could do more to talk about it. Here in Thailand, for a non-Western example, rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence are big problems and the monks are basically silent on the issue.

*

Here I’m deliberately lumping together people who would not normally be grouped: teachers like Noah Levine and Western academics like Prof Langenberg. Both are non-celibate lay people in America trying to make a career teaching Buddhism. In this way, I reject strongly the academic pretense of standing outside history and emphasize their role as agents of colonialism.

**

I literally mean “market making” — Taking that which was previously a public good, privatizing it, and then profiting off its commodification and sale.

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From the article:

On the face of it, the patriarchal, monastic, and enlightenment-focused nature of early Buddhism does not seem too helpful in generating a robust sexual ethic suitable for our time.

Is this really a problem though? Why would a spiritual framework that entails abandoning and transcending sensuality be helpful in generating a robust sexual ethic for our time?

…The high value placed on celibacy in the early tradition means that discussions about adults incorporating sexuality into their lives in a responsible, loving, and positive manner is relatively undeveloped.

But is this something that should be developed?

E.g. Snp2.14 (italics mine):

Let the intelligent person live a celibate life,
as one would avoid a pit of glowing coals;
but being unable to live the celibate life,
go not beyond the bounds with others’ partners.

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Yeah… Western missionaries have been accusing us of being out-of-touch, world-denying nihilists for a long time :joy: Sad to see a “progressive,” 21st century, Buddhist scholar repeating long-discredited, 19th century slander but it’s okay. They can have the “unable.” I’ll keep “the intelligent.” :wink:

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