Did the Buddha teach consent?

Interesting topic. My thoughts:

  • The Buddha said developing a heart of metta for a finger snap is more meritorious than taking the five precepts. See AN 9:20. Surely rape violates the spirit of Metta?
  • According to MN 136, The Longer Analysis of Deeds, it would seems as though the 5 precepts alone aren’t enough to assure a good birth. Mental deeds like thoughts of maliciousness, covetousness, and wrong view can also send someone to hell. Would it be possible to rape someone without thoughts of “maliciousness” and/or “covetousness”? I doubt it.
  • Similarly, MN 135, “The Shorter Analysis of Deeds,” talks about how things not covered by the 5 precepts (like jealously and anger) can result in bad karma.
  • Related to the above points, but there are places in the nikayas where morality is defined in ways other than the 5 precepts. The 10-fold list given in MN 136 is given in lots of other places, including, not surprisingly, the AN book of Tens.

I suppose the point of what I’m trying to say is that, even if rape isn’t forbidden by the 5 precepts, there are other reasons to not rape on Buddhist grounds. We shouldn’t overrate the 5 precepts — Buddhist morality is more than that.

My guess is that the 5-precepts were singled out the way they were because they were the “low hanging fruit” for people in that particular culture to understand. At least that’s the case for the first 4 — In the the famous Kalama Sutta, the Buddha and his interlocutors seem to take for granted that abstaining from killing, stealing, lying, and sexual misconduct are “skillful, blameless, praised by sensible people” (italics mine). But just because the precepts are the most societally acknowledged in the Buddha’s time and place doesn’t mean they are the be-all-end-all, karmically.

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@Javier these are goods points. It’s worth noting that MN 41 and MN 114 both use the 10-point formula for morality, not the 5 precepts.

Indeed, because the five precepts are not a complete account of ethics.

This is similar to how, as Sujato pointed out,

kamma is not a complete account of ethics

However, I still think that rape is covered by the five precepts in some way or another.

Sure, but main ideas found in the five precepts are still in there. Alternatively, one could argue that the ten wholesome actions are a more complete account of ethics than the five precepts. Or that they are complementary teachings.

I was actually arguing that precepts (particularly the 5 precepts) aren’t a complete account of kamma — it’s clear enough from various suttas that one can produce bad kamma from things that aren’t covered by the 5 precepts. Discussion about whether ethics goes beyond kamma strikes me as a different matter (and I can’t say I agree with Bhante @sujato entirely in regards to that blog post, but that’s a different story that isn’t relevant to this topic).

I don’t know whether rape is covered in the 5 precepts, but it’s a bad thing to do.

Rape is about sexual assault without consent. It should be covered in the 5 precepts for laypersons:

I take the precept to abstaining from taking what is not given (or from stealing, adinnādānā).
I take the precept to abstaining from wrong behaviour in sensual pleasure (or from sexual misconduct, kāmesu micchācārā).
I take the precept to abstaining from false speech (musāvādā).

The issue and hidden context, assumed from the first post here is that the definition of sexual misconduct seems to left out protected by oneself.

Typically it says a man shouldn’t have sex with a woman protected by family, dhamma (nuns), in prison (no choice), etc… There seems to be lacking protected by oneself (consent). Which is what I take it to be extended by implication here.

This precept can be broken by oneself
only—no one can break it for another. It is
broken when the following four conditions
are all present:

  1. The forbidden person.
  2. Intention to have sexual intercourse
    with the person.
  3. Effort made in committing the sexual act.
  4. Consent to the sexual act. (Here means that the person initiating it wants it, consents to it, doesn’t state about the person receiving it.)

The forbidden person can only refer to
the opposite sex and not to the same sex. For
males this person may be:

  1. A female who is under protection,
    such one who is unmarried, engaged
    or protected by [law with threat of]
  2. A female who is married to or is
    cohabiting with another male,
    including a prostitute whose services
    are currently contracted to another

In the case of females, three categories of
males are forbidden:

  1. For a married or cohabiting female,
    any male other than her husband or
    cohabitant respectively.
  2. For an engaged female, any male
    other than the one she is engaged to.42 The Importance of Being Morally Virtuous
  3. For a female protected by [law with
    threat of] penalty, any male prohibited by the law.
    In our modern context, “a female protected by [law with threat of] penalty” would
    refer to any female decreed by law to be a forbidden sexual partner, e.g. a female convict, a
    close female relative, someone under the age
    of consent.
    From: The Importance of Being Morally Virtuous | Sāsanārakkha Buddhist Sanctuary (sasanarakkha.org)

Some way of strictly following the details leads to this gender imbalance: Issue of gender imbalance in 3rd precept on forbidden partners - Q & A - Discuss & Discover (suttacentral.net)

Come to think of it, since female prisoners are forbidden, then that’s one way of seeing that consent as opposed to forced sex is important.


I interpret the words kāmesu micchācārā (“from wrong behaviour in sensual pleasure, or from sexual misconduct”) as any sexual behaviour that brings harm to oneself (yourself and other) physically, mentally, and socially.

When and where did the concept of sexual consent develop? Was it current in India 2500 years ago? Would the Buddha have taught a concept that was irrelevant to ordained people following celibacy, and which would have made no sense to the lay people according to the societal norms of the time? I submit that the answer is “No” to all of these.

Consent as we understand today is a startling modern concept:

In the late 1980s, [my emphasis] academic Lois Pineau argued that society must move towards a more communicative model of sexuality so that consent becomes more explicit and clear, objective and layered, with a more comprehensive model than “no means no” or “yes means yes”.[3]. (Wikipedia.)

Historically, in much of the world, rape was seen as a crime or tort of theft of a man’s property (usually either a husband or father). In this case, property damage meant that the crime was not legally recognized as damaging to the victim, but instead to her father or husband’s property. (Wikipedia.)

Consent within marriage received support from law in Australia only in1981, the UK in 1991, the USA also very late (I think the European countries have done a little better). The current Wikipedia entry for India heartbreakingly reads,

In India there are no law provisions related to the marital rape and are being demanded by the commission to enact laws to bring it in the criminal jurisdiction.[163]

It boggles my mind that it could be suggested that The Buddha might have taught about consent, when it was a concept that didn’t exist in time to be eplained to my own generation when we were teenagers in the 1950s and 60s. Yet - despite the vast difference between society in the Buddha’s day and in our own - I think that we can and should use the Buddha’s teaching to inform our 21st century ethics. Two comments made above absolutely nail it.


It really seems that simple. How can it be more complex?


I thoroughly agree. Good points.


Given that rape is sexual assault and battery, and given that assault and battery always involves harming another living being, and given that the Buddha condemned harming other living beings, I don’t understand why there is any controversy over this issue.


I second that!
In another thread on “why do you read the EBT” (or so) I’ve been tempted to answer: “because I’m not confronted with musings about “killing without emotion” (or so) or whether “the buddha [did] teach consent” (in the sense of sexual activity/of rape)”. Or with similar fruitless triggers.

I fill the gap now here, at your similar comment. I took as my avatar-name “Nessie”, alluding to that unseen monster in the Loch Ness, which takes the most time of its life to dive down underwater and study the EBT in quietness&silence and only some little times at rare occasions to come up and be existent when no photographers are around … :slight_smile:


Welcome David to D&D! :wave:t3::grin:


Folks, I am late to this party, but I’m sorry this is all missing an important point.

Did the Buddha teach consent?

Yes. Consent is fundamental to the discussion of sexual morality as found in the Vinaya, which is the only place in the early Buddhist texts to discuss sexual morality in detail. In particular, the precept against sexual intercourse for nuns was modified from that for monks specifically to state that a nun is innocent if she has sex without consent (chandaso). In the monks rule, this is made clear in the analysis, but for the nuns, it is in the rule itself. The rape of a nun is regarded as one of the most heinous crimes possible.

The relative paucity of mention of consent in the Suttas is because sexual morality is not discussed extensively there. Nonetheless, the Buddha did emphasize, for example, in teaching the Vajjians, that protection of the womenfolk from attack was an essential pillar of a stable society.


Isn’t Kamesu micchachara wrongful behavior by way of sensual lust and craving (of mind, sight, sound, smell, taste, touch) for form or sensual objects? Kamesu micchachara imho implies sensual/sexual misconducts as in adultery, rape, gluttony, pornography, violence and such.

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For the context of 5 precepts, it’s defined as broken when the following conditions are met.

  1. It must be a man or a woman with whom it is improper to have sexual intercourse.
    (under protection by family/friends, attached/married, and under religious vows)
  2. There must be an intention to have such sexual misconduct with such man or woman.
  3. There must be an act done to have such intercourse.
  4. There must be enjoyment of the contact of the organs.

So, gluttony, porn, violence are not covered. Sexual violence is under rape.

In higher level training, sure, stop all those too.


I see lot of ‘must be’. This is a narrow and fixed minded interpretation of the five mind trainings. Please cite the ‘source’.

Does sexual misconduct happen with anyone not under protection (above legal age of consent 16 or 18 years)? Over 80-90% of rape happens with a non-stranger, acquaintance, or family member.

The original article actually says:

one can find in canonical texts—in particular, the Vinaya or monastic discipline—another notion of consent, one based more on inner affective states than verbal permission. As a clear standard for ethical sex, this Buddhist consent falls short of the affirmative consent upheld by many institutions today, but it also challenges our contemporary approach to sexual ethics in healthy ways. Indeed, each idea of consent reveals the other’s strengths and shortcomings.

Which I think most can agree to. So, the author’s title seems a bit like click-bait (she acknowledges that the Buddha did teach consent in the Vinaya), but her real point, which I think is accurate, is that the Buddha is never recorded as specifically recommending only proceeding with sexual acts after receiving verbal affirmation that those acts are welcome.

As for why we have no records of him ever saying that, or more broadly giving any sort of sutta on the detailed ethics of consent for laypersons, I think there’s two categories of explanation: explanations of why he wouldn’t have touched on the topic, and explanations of why any such suttas wouldn’t have survived to the present day.

So far as I am aware, the Buddha never gives any advice on how to have sex at all. He describes sex (such as when confirming that sex between a mother and father is a necessary cause for human life), and advises against it, but that’s it. It’s possible that nobody ever thought it was an appropriate question to ask.

It is also possible that at one point he did advise laypeople on how to have consensual sex free of misconduct, and that sutta was irrelevant to the monastics, and probably also not terribly well received by the laymen. If the buddha had said, “only proceed with sexual acts after receiving verbal affirmation that those acts are welcome” who would have memorized it and passed it down? It’s conceivable that a layperson did ask the Buddha for this sort of advice, and then promptly ignored it and continued to engage in marital rape with his multiple wives.

What is clear however is that his reason for not addressing this was not approval of marital rape or any other form of rape not already covered by the five precepts. Because such a teaching (approving of non-consensual sex) is not in line with his other teachings (most crucially - he does not approve of those who mortify others).


Thanks, that’s a helpful clarification. I haven’t looked into this in detail, it would be an interesting study.

In many modern Asian countries (including Buddhist ones) sex is still a taboo subject. Children (even adult children) don’t talk to their parents about it, and vice versa. Sex education doesn’t exist. Men will talk to their male friends about it, and I sure women talk about it among themselves, as well. However, there is no public dialogue about sex in most Asian countries. Even certain aspects of women’s health is not spoken of much in Asia. I knew more about women’s bodies than my mainland Chinese girlfriend did. I had to tell her things about her own body that even she didn’t know. The only thing she had ever been told by anyone was one time, while in middle school, she and the other girls were taken aside and told, “Your body is going to change soon,” and that was it. When she got her first period, she had no idea what was going on. Even her mother never said anything to her about it. Within a religious context, lay people don’t go asking monks for advice about sex, including what can be regarded as consent. That would be unthinkable. I’m sure the same goes for women and nuns. It would be seen as wildly inappropriate by both sides to do that.

Modern India is still very conservative when it comes to sex. I don’t see why ancient India would have been any different. So I think asking why the Buddha didn’t teach sexual consent in the way we modern people understand it reveals a lack of understanding about not just ancient India, but also modern Asia. I think even modern Asian people would become very uncomfortable, and find it inappropriate, if a monk started talking about sex in anyway other than the 5th precept. So I’m pretty sure people would have responded the same way to the Buddha doing it 2,500 years ago.


I agree with your overall point here, but I think the “Victorianism” of modern Asia regarding sex is in fact “Victorian”. It was not so long ago that the “orient” was perceived by the west as a land of forbidden sensuality and risque openness in the varieties of desire; Kāmasūtra, anyone?

While not disagreeing with the idea that we shouldn’t impose modern standards on ancient texts, it remains the fact that Buddhist texts, especially the Vinaya, are entirely unembarrassed and explicit in the way they talk about sex. Even taboos that are still unmentionable in the west are discussed entirely matter-of-factly. There’s a whole passage in the Vinaya that discusses the degree to which a corpse must be decomposed before it is no longer considered “intercourse” to have sex with it. It was the English translators of these passages who decided they were unmentionable.

And I don’t see any evidence that this is an outlier, historically speaking. The ending of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, for example, discusses the different methods of having intercourse in order to control the kind of child one gets. The horse sacrifice, on which that text is based, includes a bawdy and very public sexual or pseudo-sexual encounter between the queen and a dead horse. I could go on, but it would get weird!