Sexual misconduct in the EBTs

I have often noticed lots of questions & debates about the standard definition of sexual misconduct from the suttas, namely:

And how is one made impure in three ways by bodily action? He gets sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man. AN 10.176

While AN 10.176 seems to say sexual misconduct makes a person “impure” and right sexual conduct makes a person “pure”, MN 41 goes further in relation to sexual conduct, by stating refraining from sexual misconduct leads to rebirth in the heavenly world:

Householders, it’s by reason of un-Dhamma conduct, dissonant conduct that some beings here, with the break-up of the body, after death, reappear in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. It’s by reason of Dhamma conduct, harmonious conduct that some beings here, with the break-up of the body, after death, reappear in the good destinations, in the heavenly world. MN 41

In the cultural context of 500BC, just as Gotama did, I assume it was a social norm for Indian people to marry when they were very young, whilst still living protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters & their relatives. I trust there might be some social norms written in the Brahman Vedas. For example, the Pali suttas state:

Nakula’s father said to the Blessed One: “Lord, ever since Nakula’s mother as a young girl was brought to me [to be my wife] when I was just a young boy, I am not conscious of being unfaithful to her even in mind, much less in body”. SN 4.55

In five ways, young householder, the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:… (iv) they arrange a suitable marriage… DN 31

Generally, I have always found the teachings in the EBTs to be very straightforward, at least for me, except on sexual misconduct.

For example, it is difficult for me to accept or believe that engaging in sex in many of the myriad ways exempted by the standard definition would automatically lead to rebirth in a heavenly world.

I have read & heard the older generation of Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhadasa & possibly Dalai Lama essentially say marriagec/commitment is the appropriate sphere for sexual relations. To me, AN 4.55 does appear to express the Buddha’s most lofty “ideal” about sexual relations (for lay people).

However, in the EBTs, unlike the Abrahmic religions, it seems obvious ‘marital sex’ was not simply given as the precept.

Therefore, is there any information from the period 500BC that would explain the social circumstances or norms for why such a definition of sexual misconduct was given (e.g. concubines; upper class norms; non-Brahman norms; etc).


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Not exactly what you were asking for, but in SNP 2.14, a sutta given explicitly to lay followers, the Buddha says that [regarding how a lay follower is virtuous]

A wise man should avoid unchastity as (he would avoid falling into) a pit of glowing charcoal. If unable to lead a celibate life, he should not go to another’s wife.

So I think celibacy is the loftiest ideal for lay people.

The standard definition of sexual misconduct lists specific women that a man is prohibited from engaging in sex with. This leaves open many other women, men, persons, animals & things that are not listed as prohibited sexual partners. It would seem obvious having sex with the other women, men, persons, animals & things that are not listed will not automatically lead to the “pure morality” (AN 10.176) or “rebirth in a heavenly world” (MN 41) that is the goal of the respective suttas.

Therefore, I am inquiring was there any known or documented specific cultural/social norms that lead to this definition of sexual misconduct, which only lists prohibited persons but leaves open inferences or areas of non-prohibition.

In short, the definition is not exactly clear or overt. At least to me, it is ambiguous.


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It’s about stealing, stealing a property from the owner.
Here is a noteworthy article.

The real rule that is not being passed down in English is: You need the woman’s consent and the Protector’s consent (Parent or Guardian and Government Laws) to engage in sexual activities (including oral sex) at any age. If not, you are breaking the third precept of sexual misconduct, even if you are married in some cases, such as eloping. Government law also comes into effect as a “”protector” and the definition of consent or ability to consent. The consequences outside or, in addition to the law, are kamma. theravada buddhism and sexual misconduct

“Engaging in sex in many of the myriad ways” means he is a rake(Itthi duttho). It is mentioned as a factor of down-fall in ‘Parabhava Sutta’.

To be a rake, a drunkard, a gambler, and to squander all one earns — this is a cause of one’s downfall. Parabhava Sutta: Downfall

My apologies for going off topic.

I’ve only ever heard the term “sexual misconduct” in Buddhist circles. That association is what I think of when I read or hear that term.

I have been amused that “sexual misconduct” has been adopted as a commonly used terms by the news media.

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Bhante Subhūti, while the explanation you offer for sexual misconduct involving theft seems correct, parts of it also seem somewhat archaic. But i do not think the idea of sexual misconduct is archaic, for reasons i describe below.

It does not seem to be just a contemporary view to reject seeing human beings (of any gender) as property. The flavor of the Dhamma is liberation. IMO one reason rebirth remains contemporarily relevant is to avoid attachment to a sense of identity.

Theft in any form involves issues of non-consent, harm, greed. All of these issues remain relevant imo in understanding and avoiding sexual misconduct. Force, coersion, manipulation, deceit, possible abuse of authority or trust, negligence of risks (physical, psychological, social)… these are all techniques or habits involved with sexual misconduct.

There may be Buddhists who expect to have their parents arrange marriage for them, or who expect to arrange marriage for their children. There may be people for whom marriage still involves family inheritance or diplomatic alliances as well. But i suspect this is rare in this age, and its absence does not constitute misconduct or negligence imo.

Many governments no longer allow the marriage of children, not even with parents’ consent, not even without consumation until adulthood. It seems partly to be due to an understanding that self determination has value. These “new” ideas do not seem to me to be inconsistent with the flavor of the Dhamma.

I have my doubts that even all traditional Buddhists ask, or insist their potential partner ask, the guardians of women (or men) for permission for sexual activity.

Just as we can understand garlands in a contemporary way as commitment, we can understand consent, and avoidance of harm to others and one’s own life, as essential in avoiding sexual misconduct.

I would rather be able to talk with lay people about sexual misconduct in a manner which is accessible, understandable, and resonating with the positive choices involved in living the N8FP. I very much doubt “property” is going to open minds. And i don’t think it is the core, in this.

May all be freed from suffering.

edit adding tag, because thoughtful response would be most welcome @thang :anjal: