Which acts breach the third precept of the Five Precepts and Eight Precepts?

Which acts specifically breach the third precepts, which pertain to sexual misconduct and sexual activity, in the Five Precepts and the Eight Precepts for laypeople? This is not a question regarding the classes of women in the Five Precepts but the actual acts themselves which constitute a breach of these precepts. For monks and nuns, the different sexual offenses are defined very precisely (at each level of offense, the factors involved, which acts correspond with which offense, etc.) but for laypeople they seem somewhat more ambiguous.

According to Ñanavara Thera’s Uposatha Q&A, the relevant factors in the commentaries are “maggena maggappatipatti — sexual contact through that adhivasanam effort” and “maggena maggap-pati-padanam — sexual contact through any one of the ‘paths’ (i.e., genitals, anus or mouth).” In terms of correspondence to the monastic vinaya, at the very least this would seem to correspond to methunadhamma in the parajika offense (all interactions between genitals, anus, and mouth except mouth to mouth). However, this seems perhaps too restrictive, since abrahmacariya (abstaining from sexual activity) in the third of the Eight Precepts is conventionally understood to refer to abstinence from self-masturbation as well. This would suggest that maggena maggap-pati-padanam refers to any sexual contact with any of the magga—genitals, mouth, or anus. This would imply that mouth-mouth, mouth-hand, hand-genital, hand-anus combinations are likewise breaches of these precepts. For instance, would handkissing (a la the Italian greeting) therefore constitute a breach? I suppose it may depend on whether lustful intent is present.

Another complication is that, according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu in The Buddhist Monastic Code I, the inclusion of mukha (mouth) among the maggas in the Commentaries is mistaken: “Unfortunately, the Vibhanga’s summary is couched in technical terminology, using magga (path) to mean either the genitals or the anal orifice, and amagga (not-path) to mean the mouth. The Commentary, in discussing the summary, mistakenly classifies the mouth as a magga as well, and so has to invent a different meaning for amagga: a wound bordering on one of the three maggas.” Would, for example, mouth-mouth contact therefore constitute a breach? I suppose this is problematic to reason from since we would simultaneously (a) use the commentaries to define a breach but (b) regard that the commentary’s definition of a key term (magga) is faulty.

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My comments are based on what’s available in the suttas.

For sexual misconduct/kāmesu micchācāra (in the five precepts):

They commit sexual misconduct. They have sexual relations with women who have their mother, father, both mother and father, brother, sister, relatives, or clan as guardian. They have sexual relations with a woman who is protected on principle, or who has a husband, or whose violation is punishable by law, or even one who has been garlanded as a token of betrothal. (AN10.211)

Essentially this means sexual acts with someone who does not or cannot consent; who has taken a vow of some kind (like a Bhikkhu/nī); who is in a committed partnership; or who is protected by law.

For unchastity/abrahmacariya:

As long as they live, the perfected ones give up unchastity. They are celibate, set apart, avoiding the common practice of sex (AN8.41)

At a bare minimum, this is usually interpreted as sexual intercourse.

The intention behind the precept is of course to abstain from any kind of act that stimulates sexual desire—to behave like an enlightened being would.


Thank you, @Sumano. My question is mainly pertaining to how exactly “sexual relations” and “sexual intercourse” are defined. The Vinaya defines sets of sexual offenses for monks and nuns in clear physical terms, but I’m not sure I understand how exactly they correspond to the layperson’s precepts. Does it correspond to the definition of sexual intercourse in the relevant parajika offense? That seems too exclusive for the reasons mentioned in the original post.

A cautious approach would be to include in that basket all of the possible ways things can take place.

Hence, it would be prudent to cast a net as wide as all permutations found under the analysis of the relevant parajika which are labelled or taken as some sort of offense. Link here.

Note however that it does not make much sense to take the lay precepts in the same way the monastic vows are. This is because one cannot be expelled from the condition of a lay householder. It is already the lowest bar possible! :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:

When a householder / layperson does the opposite of what is prescribed in the precepts he/she should be seeking to up to keep, he / she is left alone to deal with the radical contradiction between their choices and their commitments.

Surely, above all, whatever is unlawful by consensus and context should be addressed by the local law and consensus. And should remain separate to and come first than one’s religion / spiritual choices.

P.S.: @AnUpasaka , may I suggest we move this topic to the Discussion category? I dont think a clear cut single answer will be found to your questions.


Thank you, @Gabriel_L ! Taking the cautious approach seems reasonable. In the original version of this post, I thought perhaps you meant only those acts constituting parajika should be included, but upon re-reading, including the mentioned saṃ­ghā­di­sesassā offenses likewise seems exhaustive, since doing so also addresses, for example, hand-mouth interaction.

Moving this to Discussion seems reasonable; I was debating this myself, but I thought there might be a definitive answer in the Pali Canon that I was not aware of.