Buddhist Sexual Ethics: An Historical Perspective

This evening, we’re going to talk about Buddhist sexual ethics. As with any Buddhist teaching, we need to see how it fits into the basic structure of Buddhism, which is the four noble truths. Very briefly, Buddha spoke about true sufferings that we are all experiencing – this is the first noble truth. So, the true suffering of unhappiness and pain, the suffering of our ordinary happiness which never lasts and changes into unhappiness – like when we continue to eat our favorite food, the happiness that we first got from that turns into unhappiness as we get full.

Then there is the all-pervasive suffering, which is the basis for experiencing these first two, which is our uncontrollably recurring rebirth, with a body and mind that is going to be the basis for this unhappiness or ordinary happiness. And, the true cause of all of that is our unawareness of cause and effect and of reality, and the disturbing emotions that are generated by that, and the karmic behavior that’s generated by those disturbing emotions – both destructive behavior as well as constructive behavior, as even our constructive behavior, when it is mixed with naivety about how we exist and how everything exists, continues to perpetuate our samsara.

The third noble truth is it’s possible to achieve a true stopping of the suffering by getting rid of the true causes, so that they never recur again. And the fourth is the true pathway of mind – in other words, the true way of thinking, but also the true way of acting and speaking generated by that, which will enable us to achieve that true stopping.

That’s the basic structure of the Buddhist teachings. So, when we speak about sexual ethics, we have to understand the place of sexual behavior in terms of true causes for suffering. And if we want to achieve a true stopping of suffering – specifically our continuing samsaric rebirth as the basis that will also include the suffering of unhappiness as well as the suffering of our ordinary happiness – then we are going to need to overcome what are the difficult aspects of our sexual behavior.

Now, from a Buddhist point of view, when we speak about ethics and ethical self-discipline, it’s not a matter of having a set of laws and obeying them; that’s our Western concept either coming from the biblical religions or from civil law. The whole basis of ethics in Buddhism is structured according to discriminating awareness. In other words, the foundation for our ethical behavior is not obedience to laws, but rather it’s discriminating between what is helpful and what’s harmful. So, no one is saying that we have to avoid certain type of behavior that will cause suffering and problems; it’s our choice. If you want to avoid suffering, get rid of it, then Buddha indicated these are the type of behaviors that we need to get rid of. Then it’s your choice. So, it’s not a matter of being a good or bad person or obeying rules, and there’s no concept of guilt; guilt is if you break a law.

So, the whole discussion of sexual ethics, then, is centered around this whole aspect of discriminating awareness. And, if we are not able to avoid a certain type of problematic sexual behavior, then there are many, many factors which will affect the amount of suffering that behavior will produce for us. And so, what we try to do is to minimize the heaviness of that inappropriate sexual act. That involves discriminating between what will make the action have heavier consequences and what will make it have lighter consequences, and trying to make the consequences as light as possible.

Now, we need to understand certain categories that are used to classify different types of behavior. There are uncommendable actions (kha-na ma-tho-ba). “Uncommendable” means you wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. They are not praiseworthy and they are going to produce some problems. Some are naturally uncommendable (rang-bzhin kha-na ma-tho-ba), so they would be uncommendable for anybody; and some are prohibited uncommendable (bcas-pa’i kha-na ma-tho-ba), they’re called, which Buddha recommended that for certain people, in certain situations, they avoid this. And these are basically ethically neutral actions, for example a monk or a nun eating after noon. Eating after noon is an ethically neutral action, but if you are a monk or a nun and you want to meditate with a clear mind at night and in the morning, then it is best to avoid eating after noon.

Now, in contrast to these prohibited uncommendable actions which are ethically neutral, the naturally uncommendable ones are destructive. “Destructive” means that they will result in suffering – unless of course you purify it. Now, all sexual behavior is naturally uncommendable. That’s not something that we as Westerns like to hear. But why is all sexual behavior destructive is the important question. All sexual behavior is destructive because – according to the text and I’m sure that we can confirm this from our experience – it causes disturbing emotions to increase. And if we want to gain liberation from samsara, we have to overcome disturbing emotions. So if we want to gain liberation, we are eventually going to have to give up all types of behavior that will cause the disturbing emotions to increase.

And so, if we look at the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra, it explains that sexual behavior and the way to orgasm increases your desire and attachment. You want to have that orgasm. And when you have the orgasm and it’s finished, then you have anger because it’s gone, you don’t want it to be gone. And then after that, you sink into a state of naivety because you get completely dull. So, this is what is says in the text and probably if we examine ourselves honestly, that’s what happens.

We know that according to the teachings not everyone has to be a monk or a nun in order to achieve liberation and enlightenment. We can also be a householder. So what does a householder mean? A householder means someone with a wife or a husband and children and a house. It doesn’t mean somebody that is sexually active. So, at some point, if we really want to achieve liberation, we’re going to have to stop all sexual behavior. Those are the facts.

Now, most of us are certainly not ready to be at that stage where we give up all sexual behavior. But let’s not fool ourselves: Buddhism is not filled with romantic ideas of how wonderful sex is and giving happiness to somebody else. That is not what Buddhism says, sorry. Buddhism would classify that as incorrect consideration: considering suffering as happiness. Because with sexual behavior toward somebody else, we are trying to make that person happy, but that is the second type of suffering, the ordinary happiness that will go away, it won’t last, and will just cause their disturbing emotions to increase.

The point is I think it’s very important not to be naive of what sex is from the Buddhist point of view. If we are going to engage in sexual behavior – whatever type of behavior that might be – at least understand what on the deepest level is involved with it. And don’t idealize it; enjoy it for what it is, but don’t make a big deal out of it.

Now, within that category of all sexual behavior, what’s naturally uncommendable, we have two divisions: what is called inappropriate sexual behavior (log-g.yem), and what is not inappropriate (log-g.yem ma-yin-pa), which I guess we would call “appropriate sexual behavior.” So that means that the suffering generated by inappropriate sexual behavior is greater than the suffering generated by appropriate sexual behavior. Now mind you, nobody is denying that sexual behavior brings us ordinary happiness. Of course it does, but that’s a type of suffering.

So, appropriate sexual behavior would be with your marriage partner in just standard penis-vagina sex. Anything else can only really be for a reason of attachment and desire. This first type of sex at least could be for making a child, so from that point of view, it is less heavy.

So, what is inappropriate sexual behavior? When we have the list of the ten destructive actions, this is the sexual behavior that is listed in that list. Now, there’s a long history of the development of what actually constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior, and obviously there can be many problems in understanding how this has evolved over history, and why was it more and more elaborated? Was that just added by puritanical monks later on, in India – I mean all of it evolved in India – or were the later elaborations implicit in the earliest enumerations and the later commentators just drew out the meaning? The Tibetan masters will say it was all implicit there from the beginning. Nevertheless, it is quite interesting to see what has been specified and when and by whom, because it also gives us a little bit of clue of what is heavier and what is less heavy. If something has been emphasized from the very, very beginning, then we can be sure that this is the heaviest of the different types of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Even this word “inappropriate” (log-pa) here – this is an extremely difficult word to translate. It’s the same word that we find in “distorted views”; it’s the word that in other contexts is translated as “distorted.” But we certainly can’t translate it as “distorted,” because in our languages that means “perverted,” and we’re certainly not talking about that. Sometimes in other contexts this word really just means “opposite,” and I think “opposite” is closest to the meaning here. It is opposite, in other words whatever is not the appropriate behavior. Or “contrary sexual behavior” – what’s contrary to the first one – is awkward. And, sometimes I’ve translated it as “unwise sexual behavior” and sometimes as “inappropriate.” None of them are good translations, but at the moment I am using “inappropriate,” although that may be an inappropriate choice of words. The meaning is “everything that is not appropriate.”

Now, the vinaya texts deal with monastic discipline for monks and nuns, and in that, one of the vows for both monks and nuns is that a monk or a nun is not supposed to act as an in-between to arrange either a marriage or sexual liaison for certain people. For monks, it’s usually a long list of different types of women, and in some of the vinayas, it also lists a similar type of men. The type of women that are listed here are those who are married or they are under the guardianship of somebody, and there’s a long list: the father or the mother, or the sister or the brother, etc. “Under the guardianship” is explained as the girl is not allowed to make her own decisions – that everything is dictated by the guardian. Remember, we’re talking about ancient India, so no concept whatsoever of women’s lib or women’s rights here.

That same list, then, is going to appear in the Theravada sutras as the type of person that would be an inappropriate partner to have sex with; it’s the same list. So we can see from very early on, from the very beginning, there is a very close relation between the sexual ethics for monks and nuns and the sexual ethics for lay people.

In the suttas themselves – the Theravada suttas, that’s in Pali – it explains that these are inappropriate partners, basically because having sex with any of them leads you to commit many other destructive actions. It can lead you to lying about it, and if the guardian or husband finds out, then you might even kill that person or you might have to steal in order to give them a bribe; or it could lead to having arguments within your own family. And like this, it can be too many different types of destructive actions. This is the whole list of them that is given in the Pali suttas.

If we look in the later Pali literature, in the commentaries, it explains that if you have sex with a woman, whose guardian does not give permission, then only the man has a karmic transgression. The woman does not have a karmic transgression unless before or during the act she develops desire and attachment. This is parallel to one of the regulations having to do with monks and nuns. If a nun is raped, unless she develops desire and attachment during the rape, she does not lose her vows. So it is similar: if the woman is raped and does not develop any desire or attachment, she does not have any karmic transgression. What’s also added here, which I’ve never found in any other Buddhist text from any of the Buddhist traditions is, if the couple receives permission – if the woman receives permission from the guardian or the husband – then there is no karmic transgression for either the man or the woman. So if the parents say, “Well, it’s OK, my daughter is sexually active,” then that’s OK. But if the parents would be really very much against it, then that’s a karmic transgression. And you can see how that could be so, because you might have to lie about it. It could cause arguments and big problems if the parents find out.

Remember, the whole issue here is how much suffering and problems does your sexual behavior produce? There’s nothing to do with being good or bad. But there’s no mention here as to whether the woman in this case wants to have sex or not. So, from our point of view, we would look at this and say, “Hey, what about these parents in Southeast Asia who are so poor and they give permission and sell their daughter into prostitution. Is that OK because the girl has permission from her parents?” It’s not specified in the texts whether it is dependent on whether the woman wants sex or not. So obviously this is a case, as I was explaining before, that just because it’s not mentioned, it doesn’t mean that it’s not implicit in the description.

So again, one has to use one’s discriminating awareness here to analyze.

Now, if we look in the vinayas of some of the other early traditions – there were eighteen Hinayana traditions, each of them has their own vinaya – we find a few more categories of inappropriate partners listed. You see, this is also a big issue here, the whole discussion of sexual ethics is only described from the point of view of a man. And so, does that mean, just because it’s not explained in terms of inappropriate partners for a woman, that there’s no sexual ethics for women? Obviously not. It would be implicit in the explanation that you would have to draw a parallel list with women. In some of these vinayas, they add a nun, with a vow not to have sex, and prisoners – a prisoner is somebody in jail that the king is keeping there, and for you to take that person out and have sex would be inappropriate; that prisoner belongs to the king.

Now, one of these Hinayana traditions is the Sarvastivada. The Tibetan tradition is basically coming from that tradition, in terms of its vinaya and in terms of its discussion of Hinayana tenets, Vaibashika and Sautrantika – all of this is within Sarvastivada. And the vinaya that the Tibetans follow is Mula-sarvastivada, which is a later tradition within Sarvastivada.

In one of its very early texts, it also adds to the list of inappropriate partners helpless travelers. This refers to taking advantage of somebody traveling alone on the road, unprotected by anyone. It also adds students. Here we have the use of another technical term: “celibate conduct” (tshangs-spyod), “brahmacharya” in Sanskrit. Literally, it means “clean or pure conduct.” Within inappropriate sexual behavior, there are two categories: non-celibate conduct (mi-tshangs-spyod) and, literally, “not non-celibate conduct” (mi-tshangs-spyod ma-yin-pa). Let's call the latter “non-chaste” conduct.  In traditional India, according to Hindu customs, students were required to keep celibacy while studying with a spiritual teacher. Non-celibate sexual conduct refers to having sex with someone else through any of the three orifices. That means through either a vagina, a mouth, or an anus. And so according to this definition, keeping celibacy doesn’t exclude masturbation, whereas keeping chastity includes it. But, since students keeping celibacy are not to have sex through any of the three orifices, they’re inappropriate sexual partners.

A further addition to the list of inappropriate partners that we find in this early Sarvastivada text is an unpaid prostitute. So prostitutes are OK, according to this, so long as you pay them. So if we analyze and see what are they talking about here, what they’re talking about in terms of the sexual ethics is really just an extension of the ethics having to do with stealing. It’s taking what has not been given, what is not yours. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether you are married or not. So, the tradition here is not talking about adultery – being unfaithful to your wife or your husband; it’s having sex with somebody that’s not given to you, or that doesn’t want to. Marriage, as something sacred, is completely culturally specific. We find it in our Biblical religions, we find it in Hinduism, but it certainly is not in Buddhism.

If we look at the sutras of The Close Placement of Close Mindfulness – in Pali the version is quite well known, The Satipatthana Sutra – it speaks in terms of your marriage partner: they can’t share the karmic consequences of your actions, they can’t share death and so on, and they just produce obstacles and problems. So it’s a fairly negative view toward marriage and marriage partners. And there is much advice in terms of how to lessen your attachment and desire for your marriage partner, with the famous meditations that appear throughout the Buddhist literature in terms of imagining what’s inside their stomach, and etc.

So again, this is something that we as Westerns don’t really want to hear and don’t like to hear. But it is one of the bodhisattva vows not to pick and choose in the Dharma just the pieces that we like and ignore the pieces that we don’t like. But the point being not to glorify love and marriage and things like this the way that we do in our romantic notions in the West, or not to make it into something sacred and holy. And if we do have a partner, whether we’re married or not married, to have a realistic view of what’s involved. As anybody in a relationship knows, a relationship is difficult, not easy. So Buddhism is not saying, “Don’t have any relationships.” Buddhism is saying, “Have a realistic attitude about it; don’t be naive.”

Now, as we look at the evolution of the abhidharma literature in Sarvastivada, then we find more and more things specified as the history unfolds. The first thing that appears in the commentary is one’s own wife can be inappropriate in terms of an inappropriate time for sex. But doesn’t specify what that means. The next commentary that appeared adds inappropriate place for having sex. And, the next commentary adds inappropriate orifice, but it doesn’t elaborate.

So the first elaboration of all this we find is the Abhidharmakosha, which is Treasury of Abhidharma by Vasubandhu – this is studied by everybody in the Tibetan traditions, everybody in the Chinese traditions; everybody studies this. “Abhidharma” just means special themes of knowledge. So here there’s an elaboration of these things that were just added in the earlier Sarvastivada commentaries. So, inappropriate partner – it gives the same type of list that we had in the vinaya and earlier sutras: all these types of women who are either married or under a guardian. Even if it’s your own wife, an inappropriate part of the body is either the anus or the mouth. We can only be motivated by desire; we are not going to have a child that way.

And then, an inappropriate place, Vasubandhu elaborates. He says “visible to others” – that means out of doors, where anybody can see you; and by a stupa or by a temple, because of showing respect to others and respect to religious objects. Out of respect, you wouldn’t have sex in front of them. Inappropriate time would be when the woman is pregnant, or nursing a baby, or has one-day vows of not having sex. And in one Indian commentary to this text, it explains that having sex with a pregnant woman is inappropriate because it causes harm to the baby inside her womb, and with a woman who is nursing an infant, it decreases her ability to give milk. So, the consideration here is the harm that it produces to the third party, the baby.

Now, the next text we find is the Abhidharmasamucchaya – that means A Compendium of Abhidharma, by Asanga – and this is a Mahayana text, Chittamatra specifically. All the Tibetans study it and all the Chinese study it as well, so they study these two major abhidharma texts. And here it just gives the list, it doesn’t elaborate. Similarly in the main Indian commentary – so it lists, without elaborating, inappropriate partner. It just says that, and that would undoubtedly refer to the standard list of women. Inappropriate part of the body, without elaborating; inappropriate place; inappropriate time – not elaborated.

But it adds three more categories which we don’t find earlier. “Inappropriate measure” and that is not explained. It’s only in Tibet, with Gampopa, that you get an explanation of that, which is more than five times in a row. Second one is “inappropriate action applied,” and again, this is not elaborated, and it’s only later in Gampopa that he explains this as meaning beating the person – so sado-masochism – and having sex by force – so rape. The third thing that is added is – and now this is specified for men – all males or castrated males, eunuchs. So this is the first and actually only explicit mention of homosexuality in all the Indian texts that I consulted.

Then we have two later Indian texts, one by the second Ashvaghosha and one by Atisha, and this is quite late in the Indian Buddhism. So Ashvaghosha says again “inappropriate place,” and he elaborates a little bit more: So where there are Dharma texts; where there’s a stupa; a Buddha statue; where bodhisattvas are living; in front of an abbot or your teacher or your parents. “Inappropriate time” – he adds, in addition to pregnancy and nursing and the one-day vow, it adds when the woman is menstruating, when she is sick, and when she has great mental sorrow. For instance, she might be in mourning that somebody died. So again, I think we can see that it would be hard to say that this was added as something just made up and new, but this would be implicit in the whole idea of trying to minimize the amount of problems and suffering that you cause.

Then for inappropriate part of the body, in addition to the anus and mouth, for the first time Ashvaghosha adds more. He adds between the partner’s thighs, and with the hand, so masturbation. This is the first time that that’s mentioned here, and what’s interesting is that it seems again to be added as a parallel thing to what you find in the monks’ and nuns’ vinaya, because there what we find is that you have two different types of vows. One vow, if you break it, then it’s called a “defeat” (pham-pa) – you are no longer a monk or a nun. And this is having sex in one of the three orifices: vagina, anus and mouth. Well, for a monk or a nun, they would obviously include vagina any way, since they don’t have any sexual partners, but mouth and anus are included here as well. And there’s another vow, which is not between the thighs or with your hand, and that’s of lesser heaviness. If you break that it’s called a “remainder” (lhag-ma), which means you still have a remainder left of the vow as a basis for training in ethical discipline, but the vow is weakened

This fits in with the division within inappropriate sexual behavior between non-celibate and non-chaste conduct that we mentioned in reference to spiritual students in traditional India. Monks and nuns, of course, vow to avoid all sexual behavior, both inappropriate and so-called “appropriate.” Nevertheless within inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s less heavy for them to commit a celibate sexual act such as masturbation, than a non-celibate one by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex with someone.

Ashvaghosha doesn’t mention specifically homosexuality. But if anus and mouth and hand and thighs are out, that doesn’t leave very much left for homosexual sexual behavior. Now again, one shouldn’t approach all of this in terms of being a lawyer, and trying to find a loophole to get around this to find someway, “Well, they didn’t say underneath your arm, so that’s OK.” So again one needs to use one’s discriminating awareness here. And then there’s also the list of safeguarded by others.

Atisha has for “inappropriate place” the same list as Ashvaghosha, but just adds “in a place where people do pujas” as an inappropriate place. For “inappropriate time,” he adds to the list “during the day” and “against someone’s wishes.” And for “inappropriate part of the body,” it’s the same as Ashvaghosha, but he omits between the thighs and adds instead “with children,” and says, “The front or rear of a young boy or girl.” Now, this is clearly because of a misspelling in the text. The difference between Ashvaghosha and Atisha clearly arose because of a textural error. One letter in the word is the different in the word “thigh” and “children.” Children are included in the list of “inappropriate partners,” but here it’s thrown in with “inappropriate part of the body” so that’s clearly from a scribes mistake. And then the Tibetans took it literally and elaborated it as well.

“Inappropriate partner” – he doesn’t mention males, but that would be included if you take anus, mouth and hand. And he adds animals. So that doesn’t mean that up until now it was OK to have sex with a donkey, but now it’s not OK. So you can see there’s a whole evolution here in India, and it becomes very interesting when it goes to Tibet. The earliest one we find is Gampopa, his Jewel Ornament of Liberation. It’s a Kagyu text. “Inappropriate partner” – the standard list of different types of women. “Inappropriate part of the body” – all he says is mouth and anus; he doesn’t say hand and thighs. “Inappropriate place” – he adds “where many people gather.” Then, “inappropriate time” – “when visible.”

Now, “when visible,” this is interesting because then you see that there are two possible interpretations of “when visible.” Vasubandhu interprets it as being outside, out of doors, when you’re visible. Atisha took it to mean during the day, which of course is very different if you work all night and have a partner. And Tsongkhapa points out that Atisha misunderstood these words; when it refers to outdoors, it doesn’t refer to during the day.

So, again we can see, there are some discrepancies here that come in and, very often, it comes from how do you understand the words? Gampopa omits when the person is sick, or has mental sorrow, or when they don’t want to have sex; he doesn’t mention it. But he elaborates on what you have in Abhidharmasamucchaya – the measure, he says, is more than five times in a row, which is difficult to really understand. Especially if our criterion here is increasing disturbing emotions, I mean somebody who would have five times in a row or four times – four times is OK, five times is not – how much obsession with sex do they have?

One theory that I heard to explain this was that the consideration was the king with a harem of many wives – that was OK, by the way, you could have many wives because they all belonged to you – so not to insult the king who could have so many wives and so obviously could have sex many times in a night. Then it was stipulated like this. But that was just a guess by somebody.

And he elaborates on “action applied,” so he talks about beating or with force, and includes all men and eunuchs. So, Gampopa omits having sex with your hand, so he omits masturbation, but includes homosexuality.

Longchenpa, the early Nyingma master, in his text, only lists like the Pali Theravada the inappropriate women. So, in his lam-rim style text, Rest and Restoration in the Nature of the Mind – it’s been translated in English as Kindly Bent to Ease Us – only mentioned this list of ladies.

Now, Lam-rim chen-mo by Tsongkhapa, the early Gelugpa text, for “inappropriate partner” he has not only those protected by their mother, but also the mother. And so here’s the first mention, actually, of incest. And he includes in this list all men, both yourself and others, and men who are castrated. For “inappropriate part” of the body, he says just anything other than the vagina. And then he quotes Ashvaghosha and Atisha. And so, there is the first time that we have in the Tibetan text of the mention of masturbation.

“Inappropriate place” – where seen by many people, this is how Tsongkhapa understands “visible.” He doesn’t understand it as necessarily out of doors and certainly not just during the day, but where you can be seen by many people, so in public. And he adds, as “inappropriate place,” on “hard or uneven ground.” So now he’s taking into consideration, is it going to harm the person who’s on the bottom?

And, then in terms of inappropriate time, he includes pregnant, and he explains pregnant. What he explains it as meaning is the end of the term of pregnancy – that means the last three months of pregnancy. Now, this is a very similar phrase in Tibetan to the word for “full moon.” He’s talking about the “full-moon” of the pregnancy. And so some translators have mistranslated this, and this has then become widespread in the West, that what is inappropriate is to have sex during the full moon. Although there is a mention in the Kalachakra Tantra that there’s a certain energy that circulates in the body during the course of the lunar month, and at each day of the lunar month, that energy is centered in a different part of the body. And at the full moon it is centered at the place where it could go into the central channel, and therefore it recommends not having sex on that day, because then the energy would go out rather than being able to dissolve. But that’s clearly referring to those who are at the stage in practice where this would make a difference – which brings up another topic, but let me just finish what Tsongkhapa says before I say that.

“Inappropriate time” – at the end of the pregnancy, nursing, one-day vows, sick, more than five times. So, he includes here both masturbation and homosexuality explicitly, but he leaves out when the woman doesn’t want to, and he leaves out beating and force. But he specifies that a prostitute is OK, so long you pay. If you take somebody else’s prostitute without paying, that’s taking what is not given.

Let me just mention the last text before I go back to what I wanted to mention about tantra, and this is the later Nyingma text by Dza Paltrul, which is Words of My Precious Teacher. He also has inappropriate persons – others’ partners, or safeguarded, and he specifies children. For time, he understands it like Atisha had it, so during the day. And then the usual list one-day precepts, sick, mental sorrow, pregnant, menstruating, and nursing. The place is again the usual list of inappropriate places – by a stupa, etc.; and part of the body – mouth, anus and hand. So there’s is no specific mention of homosexuality, but as we discussed before, if mouth, anus and hand are out, that does leave very much left.

Just to sum up, from this history and the survey, we can see that there are a lot of variants here of what would be inappropriate sexual behavior. So again, does that mean that these guys are adding things to it, was it implicit? For a while, I thought well maybe we could say that the sexual ethics was culturally specific – in other words, it was relative to the culture. So in our culture, adultery in terms of not being faithful to your wife or your husband – that would be inappropriate, even though it’s never mentioned here. And, the text was written from the point of view of men in ancient India, who got married at the age of ten or twelve, so there’s not the situation of a single person, a single adult, unless you were a monk or a nun. But when you discuss this with the Geshes, that can’t be the case, that it was culturally specific. Because if it were culturally specific, then the inappropriate sexual behavior would be in the category of prohibited uncommendable actions – that are only uncommendable for a certain group of people – but not for everybody.

So, that is not a correct analysis, to say that we can use the criteria for what is culturally specific to determine what is appropriate and inappropriate. The only criterion which is valid would be that there’s a lot which is implicit in the original formulation, and all of that is being drawn out in the commentaries. And rather than leaving out some that we don’t particularly like, because we are attached to that form of sexual behavior, probably we can add more – specifically being unfaithful to your wife or husband, prostitution, being forced into prostitution, consciously transmitting some sexually transmissible disease – AIDS or whatever. There are many things that could be expanded; that you could say is also implicit in the formulation.

I had long discussions about this with Geshe Wangchen – he’s the tutor of the incarnation of Ling Rinpoche, who’s the senior teacher of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so that means he is the most learned of all the Geshes in the Gelug tradition. What he said is that what we need to see is that – he used the analogy, it’s like if you have a fruit orchard, and you want to protect it, then you would put a fence that’s around it at a great distance – not just directly around the trees – because by setting a wide area of safety around it, then you make the trees inside more protected. So, by setting a very wide scope of inappropriate sexual behavior, then we make sure that if we can’t keep all of that, avoid all of that, then at least we are going to avoid the fruit trees in the middle, which is having sex with somebody else’s partner. Because that is mentioned in absolutely every text.

Why is the "fruit orchard" in his analogy having sex with someone else’s partner? As it says in the Pali suttas, because that can lead to many other destructive actions: lying, killing, stealing, etc; masturbation is not going to easily lead to that. The whole idea here is that we don’t want to be just animals – that any time we have a sexual urge we just act it out. In other words, we allow ourselves to come under the control of sexual desire, regardless of anything. And, what we would want to do, if we are aiming for liberation from the disturbing emotions, is set some limits. Whatever limits we set – that’s very, very good, that’s very helpful. At least, we are beginning to exercise discriminating awareness.

Now, if we are going to take the lay vow of avoiding inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s very clear how it is described in the Tibetan text. So, whether it’s Gampopa’s version, or Tsongkhapa’s version, or Dza Paltrul’s version – I haven’t found a Sakya version, but it must be similar – they are all similar. And just because Gampopa doesn’t mention explicitly masturbation, so if we like that, we’ll take the vows from the Kagyu and not from the Gelugpa – that’s not the way to do it. The point is if you take the vow, it’s the whole thing. We can’t give our own interpretation and just choose the pieces that we like and throw away the pieces we don’t like. There’s a specific bodhisattva vow against that.

Also, I need to point out that there are two levels of lay vows: lay vows with celibacy and the general lay vows without celibacy. The general lay vow of avoiding inappropriate sexual behavior doesn’t exclude appropriate sexual behavior with your own partner of the opposite sex. But such behavior is also excluded for someone who takes the celibate lay vows, whereas a celibate layman (tshangs-spyod dge-bsnyen) adds having sex through any of the three orifices of anyone, including his partner, to the list of inappropriate sexual behavior that he avoids. Actually, if you want to be more precise, a celibate layman adds as inappropriate having vaginal sex with his partner – it’s already inappropriate for all laymen to have oral or anal sex with anyone, whether someone else’s partner or their own.

Now, according to abhidharma, there are three types of vows. There’s a vow which would be specifically something that Buddha set – to avoid a certain type of destructive behavior, or uncommendable behavior. And there’s an anti-vow, in which you vow to always do a destructive action, like when you join the army, “I’m always going to kill.” And then, something which is in between, and this would be vowing to avoid some of these types of inappropriate sexual behavior, but not the whole package. This is how Geshe Wangchen explained it. You don’t have to take the whole vow. Don’t take the vow, but you could avoid, let’s say, having sex with someone else’s partner, but “I’m attached to masturbation, or oral sex,” or whatever it is that you like. So, you take one of these “in between category vows.” That is not as strong positive force as if you took the whole vow, but it’s much more positive force, than if you didn’t take any vow at all, and just avoided it sometimes.

Now, about tantra. The point that I was saying about the sexual ethics is that it is uncommendable because it increases disturbing emotions. In the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, or in the Nyingma system, specifically I suppose it would be in maha-, anu- and atiyoga, but particularly anuyoga, you use desire as part of the path. However, there it’s using desire to destroy desire. That’s the phrase that’s used over and over and over again.

How is that so? It’s because what you have in this type of practice is when you are extremely, extremely advanced, so you have mastered the generation stage: perfect visualization; perfect zhinay a stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha, perfect concentration; and of course bodhichitta and understanding of voidness, renunciation, all of that; and you have already gained control over the energy winds in the body and can visualize the channels and everything perfectly, so that there is no danger whatever of having an orgasm because you can control all these energies without being some beginner who tries to control the energies and just makes themselves sick because of not being qualified to do that, making prostate problems and all sorts of problems. At that point, one practices with a partner, but it is not at all sex, our ordinary concept of sex, it’s merely joining the two organs – nothing more than that – and that generates a certain blissful sensation, which then generates a blissful awareness associated with the energy winds in the central channel. That’s where you feel it.

And it acts as a circumstance for being able to dissolve the other energy winds in the body into the central channel. And this is very specific. You already have been able to dissolve the other energy winds into the central channel, and this is specifically to dissolve the most difficult to dissolve energy, which is at the level of the skin, so that you can get to and access the clear light level of mind by having all these energies dissolved. And it’s these energies, these winds that carry the disturbing emotions, so this is how you can get rid of desire. So when you dissolve them, you get rid of the desire and other disturbing emotions as well as the conceptual level of mind. And, bringing in your understanding of voidness that you have already, you have that understanding of voidness together with that clear light mind – that blissful clear light mind – and with enough familiarity with that state of mind, and have it, you’ll be able to stay there forever and that’s enlightenment.

So, we should not at all think that the sex that is involved with tantra and that’s symbolized or represented by the couple in union in these paintings, that this has anything to do with ordinary sex. In fact, it’s breaking one of the root tantric vows if you think that ordinary sex is a path to liberation and enlightenment. That’s why if you’re going to have sex, just have sex and be realistic about it. Don’t think it’s some great spiritual act, that if you have the perfect orgasm then that’s enlightenment.

Also, there are tantric vows not to release – it’s usually called “jasmine” or “moon” liquid or something like that, which means not to have orgasm. For both men and women, so it’s not referring specifically to male ejaculation. And that’s referring to, again, when you are super advanced, the same as what we were speaking about before on the complete stage, and you’re able to bring all the energies into the central channel, you don’t want to have this orgasm which shoots all the energy externally, because that ends that situation or opportunity of bringing the winds into the central channel. So, we’re not talking about earlier stages of practice; it’s specifically at this stage of practice that that’s relevant.

Now, one more thing that I wanted to explain. General principle here then to do with sexual ethics, then, is – if we’re not ready to become a monk or nun – to try to minimize any problematic aspect of our sexual behavior; in other words, any aspect that’s going to cause a greater problem. So, for this, there are the factors that are involved with making the karmic results full or complete, and then another list in terms of making it heavy. In general, there has to be a basis involved, if it’s somebody else’s partner, an unmistaken distinguishing – that you know it’s someone else’s partner. But in some texts, it says that if the woman is someone else’s partner and she lies, she doesn’t tell you, that’s still a problem, because if somebody finds out, obviously there’ll be big trouble. In some commentaries, it says that is still a fault, even if you did not recognize correctly.

Now although it’s not mentioned explicitly in the texts, it would also seem, regarding the basis involved in inappropriate sexual behavior, that for men, inappropriate sexual behavior with a man is less heavy than with a woman; and with yourself less heavy than with another man. Now I’m deducing this from the second of the remainder vows for monks, which is to avoid touching with lust a woman’s body or hair. For a monk to touch with lust a man’s body or hair is considered just similar to a remainder, but it’s not a complete remainder. It weakens the monk’s vows, but not as much as does touching a woman with lust. And, as we’ve also seen from the monks’ vows, having sex with yourself by using your hand is a remainder, whereas having sex through someone else’s orifices is a defeat and results in losing your vows.

Then, there has to be the motivating intention, and one of the disturbing emotions needs to be involved, and the action has to be there – that the two organs meet – and the finale of it, I misunderstood what it meant. I thought that it meant orgasm, because the Tibetan word means either “bliss” or “pleasure,” so I understood it as “bliss of orgasm,” and it’s very difficult to ask a Tibetan monk what it actually means. Nevertheless, I did succeed in finding out – again, from the discussion of this in the vinaya – and it actually refers to just experiencing pleasure at the contact of the sexual organs. And so, if you’re raped, or something like that, and there’s no pleasure involved, it’s just painful, then the action is not completed.

Where this point comes from, by the way, is from the vinaya texts explaining the monks’ vows. For a monk to commit a defeat in terms of transgressing the vow of not having any sexual behavior, he merely needs to experience pleasure after his organ enters any of the three orifices and, in the case of vaginal sex, when it touches the woman’s organ. A defeat doesn’t actually require the monk experiencing an orgasm or ejaculating semen. Similarly, for a monk to commit a remainder by masturbating, he merely needs to experience the pleasure of having the semen reach the base of his organ and, similar to a defeat, he doesn’t need to experience an orgasm or ejaculating the semen.

Then there are factors affecting the strength of the ripening of the karma. The first is the nature of the action involved, and this is in terms the amount of harm caused to yourself or the other person in general by the nature of the act. Oral or anal sex is much heavier than masturbation, so there’s a distinction here. This also follows in analogy to the monks’ vows. As we’ve seen, having oral or anal sex constitutes a defeat, whereas masturbating constitutes only a remainder.

Then, one of the most important ones is the strength of the disturbing emotion that’s involved – how strong your lust and desire is, or your anger. It could either be to hurt this person, like raping, or you’re not necessarily angry with the woman, but you want to hurt her husband, or stuff like that, so the strength of that anger; or the strength of your naivety, thinking that it’s OK to have sex with anyone.

The third one is a distorted compelling drive that compels you into the action. That’s referring to thinking that there’s nothing detrimental about this type of inappropriate behavior; that’s perfectly OK and you are going to argue with anybody that says anything different. Then the actual action involved. The amount of suffering caused to the other person or to yourself when the action is done. So if you’re doing it with force, and rape or sado-masochism, that’s much worse; hurt the person by having sex on a hard, wet ground so they are going to get sick.

Then the basis at which the action is aimed: that has to do with the amount of benefit we or others have received from this person in the past, present or future – so it’s heavier to have sex with your mother than it is with somebody else’s wife – or the good qualities of the being – so it’s heavier to have sex with a nun than with a laywoman. The next one is the status of the other person, and that’s referring to if that person is sick or blind or mentally disabled or a child, then it’s much heavier. And then the level of consideration, this is the amount of respect that one would have toward this person or toward their partner. To have sex with your best friend’s wife or husband is much heavier than having sex with a stranger’s wife or husband.

Then the supportive condition, whether or not we have a vow to avoid inappropriate sexual behavior; frequency, how often we do it; then the number of people involved – gang rape is much heavier than singular rape; the follow up, whether you repeat it in the future; and then the presence, or absence, of counterbalancing forces. So, it becomes heavier if we take joy in it, if we have no regret, if we have no intention to stop, if we have no sense of moral self-dignity, or care for how our actions reflect on others. If we’re supposed to be a great Dharma practitioner, but we go into a sex club or something like that, how does that reflect on our teachers? How does that reflect on our Buddhist practice, etc.?

In summary, the main point here is not to act just blindly out of our disturbing emotions, but to have some sort of discriminating awareness, some sort of understanding in terms of our sexual behavior. Don’t fool ourselves – any sexual behavior is going to increase desire and that’s the opposite of trying to get free from desire – but be honest with yourself: “I’m not at that stage where I’m ready to work really for liberation. So I will try to exercise at least some limitations, some boundaries in terms of what I do.” And I think many of us do have certain boundaries or limits that we’ve set for ourselves; we’ll do certain things, but some things we won’t do. So this is very good. Have that be more decisive, and the sexual behavior that we do have, try to minimize the heaviness of it. Remember, the main thing is try to overcome being just compulsively under the influence of lust and desire. And if we follow that general guides, those general principles, then although we might not gain liberation just like that, at least we are going in the direction of minimizing our problems.

Original Audio from the Seminar