Relationship and adultery

I have a question about adultery. In suttas we read that in order to keep the third precept a man should not sleep with a protected woman. And at those times they were allowed to have multiple wives.
Does it mean, that even being in a relationship with a woman men can sleep with any other women that are not protected and agree for that with no consequences? Is a commitment or a partner’s opinion have any importance in this case?
Also if a person is already in a committed relationship, does it have any effect or harm if he breaks it in order to live a free sex life?

Also what are the suggestions for women with the third precept?

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In a marriage that was entered under the premise of monogamy, adultery by either partner seems to amount to violating the fourth precept. A promise to remain faithful is immediately broken upon emotional engagement done privately with a separate party. That discrepancy is dishonesty and is ultimately a lie. That’s how I see it at least.

As for the third precept for women, I think it makes sense just to adjust the pronouns.


The precepts are ‘training rules’ meaning eventually responsibility must be accepted on the basis of the repercussions of actions. As practice grows there becomes apparent a link between actions and their effect on meditation. The first stage is ‘mental seclusion,’ and an experienced practitioner would not want to threaten that by any immoral action. This is based on the causal progression sila>samadhi>panna.

Also important to insight for the layperson is to distinguish between the path and the turning cycle of samsara. In modern life ‘villager’ means the conventional behaviour approved by the masses:

“she lives a celibate life, aloof, refraining from the sexual act that is the villager’s way.”—AN 10.99

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Greetings Vlada,

I often look to the principles underlying the teachings, especially in cases where there seems to be a difference for women and men. These things are often linked culturally and details can change, but the principles of the Dhamma hold fast. Since the process of conditionality applies equally to all Beings (as Paul1 mentioned), the principles that outline what leads to good states and progress and what leads to bad states always remains fixed. Many suttas are written from a male perspective, so taking this into account helps when relating to them from a female perspective. There have been quite a lot of discussions on this, so doing a search using the big Q on the top menu can link you to many resources.

Otherwise here is an example of what I mean… Sutta SN55.7 gives the principle behind it and talks about the unpleasant outcomes of misconduct, and that this understanding (of not wanting to cause harm) is the basis for abstaining from doing that which will be unpleasant for others.

SuttaCentral what is the explanation of the Dhamma that applies to oneself?

It’s when a noble disciple reflects: ‘I want to live and don’t want to die; I want to be happy and recoil from pain. Since this is so, if someone were to take my life, I wouldn’t like that. But others also want to live and don’t want to die; they want to be happy and recoil from pain. So if I were to take the life of someone else, they 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 someone else?’ Reflecting in this way, they give up killing living creatures themselves. And they encourage others to give up killing living creatures, praising the giving up of killing living creatures. So their bodily behavior is purified in three points.

Furthermore, a noble disciple reflects: ‘If someone were to steal from me, I wouldn’t like that. But if I were to steal from someone else, they 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 someone else?’ Reflecting in this way, they give up stealing themselves. And they encourage others to give up stealing, praising the giving up of stealing. So their bodily behavior is purified in three points.

Furthermore, a noble disciple reflects: ‘If someone were to have sexual relations with my (husbands) wives, I wouldn’t like it. But if I were to have sexual relations with someone else’s (husbands) 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 in three points.


Sources of knowledge about Indian custom include sastras in addition to Buddhist texts. I am going to give some rough answers based on the Arthasastra (3rd century BCE).

**Obviously I did not invent this social system…and neither did the Buddha. There are also class and social status factors involved too.

As the 3rd precept primarily prohibits behaviour that is also illegal in ancient law systems, the Arthasastra is a useful cross reference. Sexual behaviours tend to be illegal in ancient legal systems when a 3rd party right is violated or when social stability is threatened. As this is patriarchal system, “rights” generally means, “patriarchal rights” and social stability means, “patriarchal social stability”. The Arthasastra very clearly gives women some rights (the protection of women obviously being one of the reasons that law exists…), but these are circumscribed within the family system.

Polygyny is mostly an upper class practice historically, not a practice of the masses. EDITEDAbout 3.2% of Indian Buddhists have polygynous marriages in 2006 (slightly higher rate than Hindus…down from 7.6% in the 1960s) despite it being outlawed in the 1950s in India under a legal code that lumps Buddhists together with Jains and Hindus. The reason it could be outlawed in India was that polygyny was held to NOT be an essential part of these religions. Poverty may factor into the current polygyny rates today, as being a 2nd wife can provide social security for women who otherwise may find it hard to marry.

Additionally, the ancient legalists (sastra authors) have tended to have a more restrictive view of polygyny than the practice of the upper classes in general (polygyny with reason only).

E.g. the Arthasasatra gives the reason for taking a 2nd wife as being failure to produce a son after a set period of time. Bearing in mind that marriage in ancient India was explicitly for sons…this was the drive for marriage in the first place.

I have never seen anything about the first wife’s consent anywhere. The need for a son is considered so highly in many ancient legal systems that it is given as a reason to disobey parents. Ancient Indian legal systems also allow for fines for parents who prevent their children from having children.
So my instinctual feeling is that the 1st wife has no right to object in this case as need for son trumps even obligation to parents.

Extramarital sex (for men) is looked down on in Indian culture. It is not normalised. We can see this in Buddhist texts that discourage womanising. But I don’t know of any text where it is illegal en toto, because there is no violation of a 3rd party right (the wife not having a legally recognised independent right). :thinking:

Women could also be punished for bad behaviour, including consensual extramarital/premarital relations or disobedience.

South Asia has historically operated on the “men are like gems, women are like cloth” principle (this is a saying from Cambodia). Both are precious, but men clean up more easily if there is a stain. So social regulation of women was/is stricter. This was also before effective contraception, and in an era when the state had less policing ability in general. There was a generally recognised pressing need to prevent social chaos from unwanted babies, and the belief that best way to do this was the social control of women.

As noted by Cabezon, there are several attitudes to sexuality in Buddhism today. One is that the original values and practices of the texts still hold good unchanged. This view is widely held in Asia, but due to colonialism and other pressures, polygyny is less common.

(Although some Asian Buddhist cultures are matriarchal and clearly have local practices going on, including polyandry.)

The second is that the values of the texts are still good, but may need some modifications or adaptions.

The third view is that the whole system should be reworked, retaining only its most minimal features, like consent and spousal fidelity (following Western legal and liberal social thinking in general.)

Views no. 2 and 3 are common in English speaking circles. There is no serious Buddhist pro-polygyny lobby in the West.


Thank you for the explanation, that makes a lot more sense now! I didn’t go through this logic before, especially behind the third precept!

I am curious though why a husband thinks about this topic only from the point of other husbands? My basic logic would be: “I wouldn’t like if my partner slept with anyone else, so he wouldn’t like it either.”

But with this logic conclusion is quite different: “I wouldn’t like if any woman slept with my husband, so I won’t sleep with anyone’s husband.”


Protected is protected by parents. In that time parents arrange marriage for their daughters.

There is a big difference between Sri Lanka and South East Asia in womens’ attitude to relationships, it being tightly controlled in Sinhalese Sri Lanka, where unmarried girls with a male must be accompanied by a third person. I have observed in Cambodian villages the attitude of women to relationships with strangers is more promiscuous than the western. This results from efforts to maintain the community harmony. In that sense it may be distantly connected to their Buddhist beliefs. These people are at the poorest level of rural society, and collect stems of water hyacinth for survival, these are made into baskets:

And then the sutta goes a step further.

Because sexual misconduct, including adultery, causes harm, it is not beneficial or skillful and does not lead to good states, either for oneself or for others. So the reasons not to engage in this behaviour are based on cause and effect, rather than any specific or static moral stance. This is an underlying principle of the Path… do what leads to beneficial states, don’t do what leads to unbeneficial states. This underpins all precepts, and makes it easy to adapt to any situation :slight_smile:


I’m a husband, but I view precepts as behavior necessary for those who not only want to live virtuous but want to have that virtue stand as a basis for mindfulness. I tend to think those who remain just with the question of a moral standard when it comes to their virtue are keeping to the practice more out of sense of duty than with a plan to use that virtue to develop further. Not to mention those who would harp on a lack of specificity just to find loopholes for getting around precepts, as if keeping them is simply to build up points at a degree they deem acceptable rather than according to a criteria that would actually purify the behavior. It isn’t about fitting yourself into the precepts - it is literally about becoming that virtue for the sake of having a basis for mindfulness and eventually for freedom from suffering. That means behaviors need to be relinquished, not just altered to fit a mold. It is inevitable that things will start as a “squeeze” but eventually certain things must stop for there to be progress.

In short, actively working around precepts, either publicly or privately, is first and foremost a sign of a lack of commitment and sincerity. So anyone who would justify enjoyment in a gray area or potential workaround of the precepts is relishing in remaining dedicated to sensuality. That’s far from an accomplishment.

It really depends on what a person is trying to do with their involvement with the Dhamma. You can only “fail” to the extent that you were trying to be successful. If bringing some semblance of virtue into your experience is as far as you are willing to go, that is a choice and that person should not be ridiculed for an unwillingness to push further. It all comes down to being honest with oneself. This applies to any unwholesome behavior people try to retain or justify in their pursuit of Dhamma.

Sorry for getting a bit wordy. :zipper_mouth_face: