Buddhist Sexual Ethics: An Historical Perspective

Buddhist Sexual Ethics within the Context of the Four Noble Truths

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, and this is the first noble truth: 

  • The true suffering of unhappiness and pain
  • The suffering of our ordinary happiness that 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 
  • 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 experiencing this unhappiness or ordinary happiness. 

The second noble truth, the true cause of all that suffering, is: 

  • Our unawareness of cause and effect and of reality
  • The disturbing emotions that are generated by that unawareness
  • 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 that it’s possible to achieve a true stopping of the suffering by getting rid of the true causes so that they never recur. 

The fourth noble truth 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 pathway of mind, which will enable us to achieve that true stopping.

That’s the basic structure of the Buddhist teachings. When we speak about sexual ethics, we need to understand the place of sexual behavior in terms of true causes for suffering. 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 the difficult aspects of our sexual behavior.

Discriminating between Appropriate and Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

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 Abrahamic religions or 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. No one is saying that we have to avoid certain types of behavior that will cause suffering and problems; it’s our choice. If we want to avoid suffering and get rid of it forever, then Buddha indicated that, to start with, we need to rid ourselves of these types of behavior. Then, it’s our choice. It’s not a matter of being a good or bad person or obeying rules, and there’s no concept of guilt; guilt is what we feel if we break a law.

The whole discussion of sexual ethics, then, is centered around discriminating awareness. If we are not able to avoid a certain type of problematic sexual behavior, there are many, many factors that will lessen the amount of suffering that behavior will produce for us. So, what we try to do is to minimize the heaviness of any 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.

All Sexual Behavior Is Destructive 

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 they are not recommended for us to do. 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; others are prohibited uncommendable (bcas-pa’i kha-na ma-tho-ba), actions that Buddha recommended for certain people to avoid in certain situations. 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 we are a monk or a nun and we want to meditate with a clear mind at night and the next morning, then it is best to avoid eating after noon.

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, we purify ourselves of their karmic aftermath. 

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 texts, and I’m sure that we can confirm this from our experience – it causes disturbing emotions to increase. If we want to gain liberation from samsara, we need 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.

If we look at the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra, they explain that orgasm is the root of samsara. The way to orgasm increases our desire and attachment. We want to have that orgasm, and when we have the orgasm, and it’s finished, then we have anger because it’s gone; we don’t want it to be gone. Then after that, we sink into a state of naivety because we get completely dull. This is what it says in the texts, 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. At some point, if we really want to achieve liberation, we’re going to have to stop all sexual behavior. Those are the facts.

Most of us are certainly not ready to be at that stage where we give up all sexual behavior. Let’s not fool ourselves: Buddhism is not filled with romantic ideas of how wonderful sex is and that having sex with someone can be an expression of love. That is not what Buddhism says, sorry. Buddhism would classify that as incorrect consideration, considering suffering as happiness. When we have sexual behavior with somebody, trying to make that person happy, we are just bringing them the second type of suffering, the ordinary happiness that will go away, 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 about 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 is involved with it. Don’t idealize it; enjoy it for what it is, but don’t make a big deal out of it.

Understanding the Meaning of “Inappropriate” Sexual Behavior

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.” 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, the suffering of change. Appropriate sexual behavior would be vaginal sex with our marriage partner in a heterosexual marriage. 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.

What is inappropriate sexual behavior? When we have the list of the ten destructive actions, this is the sexual behavior that is listed there. 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 the list was elaborated more and more. Was it just expanded 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 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 a clue as to what is heavier and what is less heavy. If something has been emphasized from the 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 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. However, “contrary sexual behavior” – what’s contrary to appropriate – is awkward. 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.”

Historical Overview of Buddhist Sexual Ethics

The Vinaya Presentation

The vinaya texts deal with monastic discipline for monks and nuns, and one of the vows for both monks and nuns is that a monk or a nun is to refrain from acting as a go-between to arrange either a marriage or sexual liaison. For monks, there is usually a long list of different types of women, and some of the vinayas also list a similar type of men for whom a monk or nun should not make such arrangements. The type of women that are listed here are those who are married or 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 a girl not being allowed to make her own decisions – everything is dictated by the guardian. Remember, we’re talking about ancient India, so there was no concept whatsoever of women’s liberation or women’s rights. 

That same list appears in the Theravada suttas as the types of women who would be an inappropriate partner to have sex with; it’s the same list. We can see from very early on, from the very beginning, that there is a very close relation between the sexual ethics for monks and nuns and the sexual ethics for laypeople.

The Theravada suttas explain that these women are inappropriate partners, basically because having sex with any of them leads to committing many other destructive actions. It can lead us to lie about it, and if the guardian or husband finds out, then we might even kill that person, or we might have to steal in order to give them a bribe, or it could lead to having arguments within our own family. Like this, having sex with any type of woman on this list will lead to many problems. 

The later Pali literature, the commentaries to the Theravada suttas, explain that if we 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 – in other words, if the woman receives permission from the guardian or her husband – then there is no karmic transgression for either the man or the woman. If the parents say, “Well, it’s OK for my daughter to be sexually active,” then that’s OK. However, if the parents would be very much against it, then that’s a karmic transgression. We can see how that could be so because we 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 how many problems does our sexual behavior produce? It has nothing to do with being good or bad. There’s no mention here, however, as to whether the woman whose guardian or husband allows to have sex with others wants to have sex or not. From our point of view, we would look at this and say, “Hey, what about these parents in Southeast Asia who are so poor that they sell their daughter into prostitution. Is that OK because the girl has permission from her parents?” That Pali text does not mention whether, in such a case, 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. Again, we need to use our discriminating awareness here to analyze.

If we look in the vinayas of some of the other early traditions – there were 18 Hinayana traditions, and each of them had their own vinaya – we find a few more categories of inappropriate partners listed. Some of these vinayas add a nun, who is under the guardianship of her vows of chastity, and a prisoner. To have sex with a prisoner is inappropriate, since such a person is under the guardianship of the king. In almost all of them, however, the whole discussion of sexual ethics is only described from the point of view of a man. 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 we would have to draw a parallel list for women. 

One of these Hinayana traditions is Sarvastivada. The Vaibhashika and Sautrantika tenet systems studied at the Indian monastic universities such as Nalanda derive from Sarvastivada, and the vinaya that the Tibetans follow, Mulasarvastivada, is a later tradition within Sarvastivada.

One of the very early Sarvastivada abhidharma texts adds helpless travelers to the list of inappropriate partners. 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. According to this definition, keeping celibacy doesn’t exclude masturbation, whereas keeping chastity includes it. However, 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. Having sex with a prostitute is OK, according to this, so long as we pay her. We would need to add the caveat, here, as we did before, that the person is not forced or sold into prostitution against their will. If we analyze the point of these guidelines regarding inappropriate partners, we see that it is really just an extension of the precept regarding stealing – taking what has not been given, what is not ours. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not we are married. The tradition here is not talking about adultery, being unfaithful to our wife or our husband; it’s about having sex with somebody that’s not given to us. Marriage, as something sacred, is completely culturally specific. We find it in our Abrahamic religions, and we find it in Hinduism, but it certainly is not in Buddhism. 

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

Again, this is something that we as Westerners 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. The point is not to glorify love, marriage and things like this the way that we do in our romantic notions in the West and not make it into something sacred and holy. If we do have a partner, whether we’re married to them or not, have a realistic view of what’s involved. As anybody in a relationship knows, a relationship is difficult, it’s not easy. Buddhism is not saying, “Don’t have any intimate relationships.” Buddhism is saying, “Have a realistic attitude about it; don’t be naive.” 

The Early Sarvastivada Abhidharma Presentation

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

Vasubandhu’s Presentation

The first elaboration of all this we find is the Abhidharmakosha, A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge, by Vasubandhu; this is studied by everybody in the Tibetan and Chinese traditions. Here, there’s an elaboration of those types of inappropriate sexual added in the earlier Sarvastivada abhidharma texts. For inappropriate partner, it gives the same list that we had in the vinaya and earlier sutras: all these types of women who are either married or under a guardianship. Then, Vasubandhu adds, even if it’s sexual behavior with our own wife, an inappropriate part of the body is either the anus or the mouth. To have sex in that orifice can only be motivated by desire; we are not going to have a child that way.

As for an inappropriate place, Vasubandhu elaborates, “Visible to others.” That means outdoors, where anybody can see us, or by a stupa or by a temple. Having sex in such places is disrespectful either to others or to religious objects. Out of respect, we wouldn’t have sex in front of them. Inappropriate times would be when a woman is pregnant or nursing a baby or has one-day vows of chastity. One Indian commentary to Vasubandhu’s text 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.

Asanga’s Presentation

The next text we find is the Abhidharmasamuccaya – An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge – by Asanga. This is a Mahayana text, Chittamatra specifically. All the Tibetans study it, as do all the Chinese Buddhists as well. The text just gives the list of inappropriate types of sexual behavior: inappropriate partner, part of the body, place, and time. It doesn’t elaborate. Similarly, the main Indian commentary also provides only the list, also without elaborating. 

The Abhidharmasamuccaya, however, adds three more inappropriate types of sexual behavior that we don’t find earlier. “Inappropriate measure” is added, but that is not explained. It’s only in Tibet, with Geshe Sharawa and Gampopa, that we get an explanation of inappropriate measure, which is having sex more than five times in a row. The second additional one is “inappropriate action applied,” and again, this is not elaborated, and it’s only later, with Gampopa, that we get that it refers to beating the person – sado-masochism – and having sex by force, rape. The third thing that is added is – and now this is specified for men – all males, including castrated males, eunuchs. This is the first and actually only explicit mention of homosexuality in all the Indian texts that I have consulted.

Ashvaghosha’s Presentation

In a later Indian text on the ten destructive actions by the second Ashvaghosha, he includes “inappropriate place” and elaborates a little bit more: where there are Dharma texts, where there’s a stupa, a Buddha statue, where bodhisattvas are living, and in front of an abbot or our teacher or our parents. For “inappropriate time,” he follows Vasubandhu, but in addition to when the woman is pregnant, nursing or is holding the one-day vow, also 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 had died. 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 rather it would be implicit in the whole idea of trying to minimize the problems and suffering that we cause.

Then, for “inappropriate part of the body,” in addition to the anus and mouth, Ashvaghosha, for the first time, adds more. He adds with a child, 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 to what we find in the monks’ and nuns’ vinaya. There, we find two different types of vows. One vow, if we break it, then it’s called a “defeat” (pham-pa) – we are no longer a monk or a nun – and this is the vow not to have sex in one of the three orifices: vagina, anus and mouth. There’s another vow, which is not to have sex between the thighs or with our hand, and that’s of lesser heaviness. If we break that, it’s called a “remainder” (lhag-ma), which means we still have a remainder left of the vow as a basis for training in ethical self-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, take a vow of chastity 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, mouth, hand and between the thighs are out, that doesn’t leave very much left for homosexual sexual behavior. Again, we shouldn’t approach all of this in terms of being a lawyer, trying to find a loophole to get around these restrictions to find some way, “Well, they didn’t say underneath your arm, so that’s OK.” Again, we need to use our discriminating awareness here. 

Atisha’s Presentation

Atisha has for “inappropriate place” the same list as Ashvaghosha, but just adds “in a place where people do pujas.” For “inappropriate time,” he adds to the list “during the day” and “against someone’s wishes.” For “inappropriate part of the body,” it’s the same as Ashvaghosha, but he omits between the thighs and, for with a child, he elaborates, the front or rear orifice of a young boy or girl. 

For “inappropriate partner,” he doesn’t explicitly mention males, but they would be excluded in terms of inappropriate part of the body. And he adds animals, but that doesn’t mean that up until then, it was OK to have sex with a donkey, but now it’s not OK. 

Geshe Sharawa’s Presentation

We can see there’s a whole evolution here in India, and it becomes very interesting when it goes to Tibet. One of the earliest versions is in the early Kadamapa Geshe Sharawa’s Lam-rim text. For “inappropriate place,” he also follows Ashvaghosha’s list, but adds where visible to many people – so, in public – and where the ground will cause harm to them, such as when rocky or hard. 

For “inappropriate time,” he follows Atisha’s list and adds excessive measure, referring to Asanga’s “inappropriate measure,” and explains it as more than five times in a row, which is difficult to really understand. Especially if our criterion here is that types of sexual behavior are inappropriate if they increase disturbing emotions. Does that mean that someone who has sex four times in a row doesn’t have obsession with sex, but someone who does it five times in a row does? 

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

For “inappropriate part of the body,” Geshe Sharawa follows Atisha’s list. For “inappropriate partner,” he presents the standard list, including a prostitute so long as we’ve paid her, adding someone related within seven generations and, like Atisha, omitting males, but unlike Atisha, also omitting with animals. 

Gampopa’s Presentation

Gampopa, a contemporary of Geshe Sharawa, elaborates on inappropriate sexual behavior in his early Kagyu text, Jewel Ornament of Liberation. For “inappropriate partner,” he gives the standard list of different types of women. For “inappropriate part of the body,” all he says is mouth or anus of a male or a eunuch. For “inappropriate place,” he adds, “where many people gather.” Then, in his list of “inappropriate time,” he includes “when visible.”

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

Gampopa omits when the person is sick, has mental sorrow, is menstruating or when they don’t want to have sex; but adds excessive measure. Also, Gampopa elaborates on “action applied,” so he talks about beating or with force.  

Longchenpa’s Presentation

Longchenpa, the early Nyingma master, 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 lists, like the Pali Theravada, the different types of inappropriate women. 

Tsongkhapa’s Presentation

In Lam-rim chen-mo by Tsongkhapa, the early Gelugpa text, for “inappropriate partner,” he has the standard list of inappropriate women and includes not only those protected by their mother, but also the mother herself. Here’s the first mention, actually, of incest. He also includes in this list all men, both self and others, and men who are castrated. For “inappropriate part” of the body, he says anything other than the vagina and quotes Ashvaghosha and Atisha for what are included here. 

For “inappropriate place,” Tsongkhapa follows Geshe Sharawa’s list. Then, in terms of “inappropriate time,” he omits when the woman doesn’t want to. Regarding when the woman is pregnant, he explains pregnant as meaning the end of the term of pregnancy, and that means the last three months of pregnancy. This is a very similar phrase in Tibetan to the word for “full moon.” He’s talking about the “full moon” of the pregnancy. Some translators have mistranslated this, and this has 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. 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 be available to dissolve into the central channel. 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 get to that.

Unlike Gampopa, Tsongkhapa does not mention anything about beating someone and forcing them to have sex. 

Dza Patrul’s Presentation

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 Patrul, which is Words of My Precious Teacher. For “inappropriate persons,” in addition to the usual list of others’ wives and women under the guardianship of others, he specifies prepubescent girls. He does not mention men or eunuchs but does specify masturbation. For “inappropriate time,” he adds to the usual list women right after giving birth and, following Atisha, includes during the day. “Inappropriate place” is also the standard list, but without any mention of on a rocky or hard ground. For “inappropriate part of the body,” he gives only mouth, anus and hand. 

Analysis of the Evolution of Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

Just to sum up, from this history and the survey we can see that there are a lot of variants of what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior. Again, does that mean that these masters are adding things to the original list of what is inappropriate? Was everything they added implicitly meant? For a while, I thought maybe we could say that sexual ethics were culturally specific; in other words, they are relative to the culture. In our culture, adultery in terms of not being faithful to our wife or our husband is inappropriate, even though it’s never mentioned in the Buddhist texts. Also, the Buddhist texts were written from the point of view of men in ancient India, who got married at the age of ten or twelve, so they don’t address the situation of a single adult, unless they were a monk or a nun. However, when I discussed this with the Geshes, they say that it can’t be the case that Buddhist sexual ethics was culturally specific. Because if it were culturally specific, then inappropriate sexual behavior would be in the category of prohibited uncommendable actions – actions uncommendable only for a certain group of people – but not for everybody. But inappropriate sexual behavior is a naturally uncommendable action. So, it 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 that is valid would be that there’s a lot that is implicit in the original formulation, and all of that is being drawn out in the commentaries. 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 our wife or husband, being forced into prostitution, consciously transmitting some sexually transmissible disease – AIDS or whatever. There are many things that could be expanded that we could say are also implicit in the formulation.

I had long discussions about this with Geshe Wangchen; he’s the tutor of the reincarnation of Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche, who was 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. He used an analogy, that it’s like if we have a fruit orchard and we want to protect it, then we would put a fence around it at a great distance, not just directly around the trees. That’s because, by setting a wide area of safety around it, then we would 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 avoid everything specified, then at least we are going to avoid harming 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, by way of contrast, is not going to easily lead to that. 

The whole idea here is that we don’t want to be just animals, so that any time we have a sexual urge we just act it out. In other words, we don’t want to allow ourselves to come under the control of sexual desire, regardless of anything. What we would want to do, if we are aiming for liberation from the disturbing emotions, is to set some limits. Whatever limits we set, that’s very good; that’s very helpful. At least, we are beginning to exercise discriminating awareness and self-control.

Lay Vows

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 texts. Whether it’s Gampopa’s version, or Tsongkhapa’s version, or Dza Patrul’s version – I haven’t found a Sakya version, but it must be similar – they are all similar. Just because Gampopa doesn’t mention explicitly masturbation, we could think that if we like that, we’ll take the vows from a Kagyu lama and not from a Gelugpa one; that’s not the way to do it. The point is if we 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 our 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 we 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 restraint that we may pledge to keep. There’s a vow, or vowed restraint, which would be specifically to refrain from certain types of destructive behavior or proscribed uncommendable behavior. There’s an avowed non-restraint, with which we pledge to always do a destructive action, like when we join the army, “I’m always going to kill.” Then, there is an intermediate restraint, and this would be, for instance, vowing to avoid some of these types of inappropriate sexual behavior, but not the whole package. This is how Geshe Wangchen explained it. We don’t have to take the whole vow, but we could avoid, let’s say, having sex with someone else’s partner, but not masturbation or oral sex or whatever it is that we like. So, we take one of these “intermediate vows.” That is not creating as strong a positive force for us as it would if we took the whole vow, but it generates a much more positive force than if we didn’t take any vow at all and just avoided a specific type of sexual behavior sometimes.


Now, about tantra, the point that I was saying about the sexual ethics is that sex is naturally 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 anuyoga, desire is used 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? First of all, this type of practice is something we may do only when we are extremely, extremely advanced. It is when we have already gained perfect zhinay, a stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha, perfect concentration; and, of course, bodhichitta and a correct understanding of voidness, renunciation – all of that. We have already mastered the generation stage practice with its complex visualizations, and, with complete stage practices, we have already gained control over the energy-winds in the body, having gained the ability to perfectly visualize the channels from our mastery of the generation stage. We have mastered everything perfectly so that, with complete control of our energy-winds, there is no danger whatever of having an orgasm. We are not a beginner who tries to control the energies and just makes themself sick with prostate problems and so on, because of not being qualified to do this kind of practice. Once we reach this stage of mastery and have already dissolved most of the energy-winds into the heart chakra in the central channel, then it is permitted to practice with a partner to dissolve the remaining energy-winds. This practice is not at all ordinary sex, but a special type of yoga to generate a blissful awareness that will dissolve these energy-winds. 

Bear in mind, we 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-winds, which are at the level of the skin, so that we can get to and access the clear light level of mind by having all these energies dissolved. It’s these energies, these winds, that carry the disturbing emotions, so this is how we can get rid of desire. When we dissolve the energy-winds that carry them, we get rid of desire and other disturbing emotions as well as the conceptual level of mind. Bringing in our understanding of voidness that we have gained already, we 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 having it, we’ll be able to stay there forever, and that’s enlightenment.

We should not at all think that the sex that is involved with tantra and that is represented by the couple in union in tantric paintings has anything to do with ordinary sex. In fact, it’s breaking one of the root tantric vows if we think that ordinary sex is a path to liberation and enlightenment. That’s why if we’re going to have ordinary sex, just have sex and be realistic about it. Don’t think it’s some great spiritual act and that if we 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 an orgasm. It’s for both men and women, so it’s not referring specifically to male ejaculation. That’s referring to, again, when we are super advanced – the same as what we were speaking about before on the complete stage, and we’re able to bring all the energy-winds into the central channel – we don’t want to have an orgasm that will only shoot out of our body all the energy-winds externally, If that happens, we lose the opportunity to bring these energy-winds into the central channel. So, we’re not talking about earlier stages of practice; it’s specifically at this stage of practice that this type of practice is relevant.

Factors That Influence Karmic Results

There is one more thing that I wanted to explain. The general principle regarding sexual ethics is – if we’re not ready to become a monk or nun – to try to minimize any problematic aspects of our sexual behavior; in other words, any aspects that are going to cause the problems that result to be greater. 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 them heavy. 

In general, there has to be a basis involved, so if it’s somebody else’s partner, an unmistaken distinguishing that we know it’s someone else’s partner. However, 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 it is still a fault, even if we did not recognize correctly.

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 ourselves less heavy than with another man. 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. As we’ve also seen from the monks’ vows, having sex with ourselves by using our hand is a remainder, whereas having sex through someone else’s orifices is a defeat and results in losing our vows.

Then, for it to be a defeat, there has to be the motivating intention, and one of the disturbing emotions needs to be involved, and the action has to be there – the two organs meet – and the finale must take place, which I initially misunderstood as to 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 – that it actually refers to just experiencing pleasure at the contact of the sexual organs. If we’re raped, or something like that, and there’s no pleasure involved, it’s just painful, then the action is not complete.

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 of the amount of harm caused to ourselves 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 our lust and desire is, or our anger. It could either be to hurt this person, like raping, or we’re not necessarily angry with the woman, but we want to hurt her husband, or something like that, so the strength of that anger; or the strength of our naivety, thinking that it’s OK to have sex with anyone.

The third one is a distorted, compelling drive that compels us into the action. That’s referring to thinking that there’s nothing detrimental about this type of inappropriate behavior; that it’s perfectly OK, and we are going to argue with anybody that says anything different. Then, the next factor is the actual action involved, which refers to the amount of suffering caused to the other person or to ourselves when the action is done. If we’re doing it with force, rape, or sadomasochism, that’s much worse, and hurting the person by having sex on a hard, rocky 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 our 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. 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 our 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 we repeat it in the future; and then the presence, or absence, of counterbalancing forces. 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 to a sex club or something like that, how does that reflect on our teachers? How does that reflect on our Buddhist practice?


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. We shouldn’t fool ourselves – any sexual behavior is going to increase desire, and that’s the opposite of trying to get free from desire. So, we need to be honest with ourselves: “I’m not at that stage where I’m ready to work really for liberation. I will try to exercise at least some limitations, some boundaries in terms of what I do.” 

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 to try to overcome being just compulsively under the influence of lust and desire. If we follow those general guidelines, 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