Buddhist Sexual Ethics: Main Issues

The traditional classic texts on Buddhist sexual ethics include a wide variety of inappropriate forms of sexual behavior. Motivated by disturbing emotions, such as obsessive desire, they build up karmic potentials that ripen into future unhappiness. Here we explore whether certain forms of sexual behavior are inappropriate due merely to cultural considerations or do they inevitably lead to problems. How much leeway do we have to amend Buddhist sexual ethics to fit in with the mores of our modern Western societies?

 Western Legalistic and Humanistic Ethical Systems

The topic for tonight is the Buddhist view toward sexual ethics. In general, in Buddhism, we always try to follow a middle path, and so regarding sexuality, we want to avoid two extremes. One extreme is that of being very strict and severe. This view looks at sexuality as something dirty and, basically, bad. But, then, we also want to avoid the other extreme, which is the attitude toward sex that anything is okay: “Just express yourself.”

The Buddhist middle path that teaches an ethical approach toward sexuality avoids these two extremes. To follow it, however, we need to understand the Buddhist view of ethics. As there are many different ethical systems, we need to be careful not to project our own systems of ethics onto Buddhism. For example, Biblical ethics teaches a set of laws given by a higher authority, by God. Ethical behavior, then, is an issue of obedience to the laws. If we obey God’s laws, we are “good persons” and will be rewarded. If we disobey them, we are “bad” and will be punished.

Another major ethical system that we inherit in the West is from ancient Greece. It’s quite similar to the Biblical one, but instead of the laws being given by God, they are given by a legislature of people elected to the government. And again, ethics is an issue of obedience. If we obey the civil laws, we are “good citizens”; if we disobey them, we are “bad citizens.” We are criminals and are put in jail.

We can see that both these legalistic ethical systems involve and cause us to feel guilt. In other words, both are based on judgment. There are certain acts that are morally judged as “bad” and others that are morally judged as “good.” If we commit something “bad,” we are guilty. When we transpose this type of judgmental ethical approach onto sexuality, then often feelings of guilt accompany our sexual behavior, even if no one catches us doing something “naughty.” This is because we become the judges and we judge ourselves, even if nobody else is judging us.

A third form of Western ethics is the modern humanistic one. This is based on the principle of not causing harm to others. Whatever we do is okay, so long as we do not cause harm. If we cause harm, it’s unethical. Usually, we mix humanistic and legalistic ethics together, so that if we hurt someone, we feel very bad and guilty about that.

Nonjudgmental Buddhist Ethics

Buddhist ethics is completely different from all three. It is not based on obeying laws. Nor is it based on merely trying to avoid hurting others, although of course we try our best not to cause harm. But it goes deeper than that. According to Buddhism, the basis for being an ethical person is avoiding actions motivated by longing desire, anger, or naivety, and having correct discriminating awareness. The latter means the ability to discriminate between which motivations and actions are constructive and which ones are destructive. Constructive and destructive motivations and behavior, here, refer to ones that build up karmic potentials on our mental continuums that at some time in the future will cause us to experience happiness or suffering as their consequence (See also: What Is Ethics?).

Nobody has made up the rules as to what is constructive or destructive. It’s just the natural way of the universe that some actions cause us suffering and others do not. For example, if we stick our hand in the fire, we’re going to get burned and it’s going to hurt. That’s a destructive action, namely self-destructive, right? Nobody made up that rule: it’s just the natural way things are. So, if somebody wants to stick their hand in the fire, that doesn’t make them a bad person. It makes them perhaps a foolish person or a person who doesn’t understand cause and effect, but it certainly doesn’t make them a “bad” person.

The basic thrust of Buddhist ethics, then, is to try to understand which types of motivation and behavior are destructive and which types are constructive. In other words, we need to learn to discriminate between what’s going to cause us unhappiness and what’s going to bring us happiness. And then, it’s up to us; it’s our responsibility what we will experience in the future. It’s like, for instance, we learn about the dangers of smoking and then it’s up to us whether or not we smoke. If somebody acts destructively and causes themselves harm, they are appropriate objects of compassion. It’s inappropriate to look down on them self-righteously and pity them. That’s not the Buddhist attitude. It’s sad that they don’t understand reality.

Buddhism takes this same approach to sexual ethics. It’s nonjudgmental. Certain types of sexual behavior and motivations are destructive and cause us unhappiness, while others are constructive and bring us happiness. And again, it’s up to us. If we want to have lots of problems from our sexual behavior, go ahead and indulge. But, if we don’t want to have problems, then there are certain things that we need to avoid.

We can understand the difference quite easily from an example. If we want to have unprotected sex with a prostitute, well, that’s naive and very foolish as we run the risk of probably getting infected with AIDS. But that doesn’t make us a bad person. It’s our choice. You see, it’s quite a different attitude toward sex. That’s the whole key to understanding the Buddhist approach.

Discriminating between Constructive and Destructive Behavior

In order to look at Buddhist sexual ethics in detail, we need to understand the difference between what’s constructive and what’s destructive according to the Buddhist view. In general, Buddhism differentiates between actions that are tainted with confusion and those that are without confusion. Those terms are usually translated as “contaminated” and “uncontaminated” actions – contaminated with confusion about the nature of ourselves, others, and reality in general. The contaminating confusion leads to longing desire, anger, or simply naivety, which then motivates our actions.

Actions without confusion require non-conceptual cognition of voidness – the understanding that our projected fantasies about reality do not refer to anything real. That kind of understanding is very difficult to have, even conceptually. So, for most of us, all of our actions are tainted with confusion. They arise from confusion and are accompanied by confusion. These are the types of actions involved with what we call “karma.” They cause us to continue experiencing uncontrollably recurring rebirth – samsara – filled with problems.

Confused actions can be destructive, constructive, or unspecified by Buddha to be either of the two.

  • Destructive actions – these are always tainted with confusion and ripen into unhappiness.
  • Constructive actions tainted with confusion – these ripen into our ordinary types of happiness that don’t last and never satisfy.
  • Unspecified actions – in and of themselves, these actions are ethically neutral. However, depending on the motivation that accompanies them, they may become either constructive or destructive. Nevertheless, even without any specific accompanying constructive or destructive motivation, unspecified actions may also be tainted with confusion. In such cases, they merely perpetuate our samsaric existence, but do not ripen into either happiness or unhappiness.

We’ve already seen an example of a destructive action, namely, having unprotected sex with a prostitute. Such behavior is clearly tainted with confusion about reality, naivety, and usually longing desire.

As for an example of a constructive one tainted with confusion, consider the case of the mother of a 24 year-old son who always tries to do kind things for him, such as preparing nice meals. Nurturing her son is an act of love and a constructive deed. It will ripen into her experiencing happiness and well-being. However, she also cooks for him because it makes her feel useful and needed. This is where the confusion comes in. The 24 year-old son might not want to be treated like a child who, when he doesn’t come home for meals, gets accosted with, “Why didn’t you come home? I made such a nice meal for you. You’re so inconsiderate.” Her preparing the meal was tainted with the confusion of grasping at “me, me, me. I want to feel useful, I want to feel needed.” Self-centered concern underlay her constructive action and kind motivation. Any happiness she might feel as a result of her kind actions will be precarious and unstable. It will never last and will never be satisfying. In addition, her self-centered motivation will inevitably bring her frustration, unhappiness, and suffering.

An unspecified, neutral action, such as brushing our teeth, may be tainted with the confusion of a disturbing attitude. We might think that, by brushing them, we can really make our breath truly clean and ourselves truly good-looking. But, we can never make our breath ultimately clean, since very quickly our teeth will become dirty again and our breath foul-smelling. There is confusion here about reality, a certain level of naivety, and a strong self-centered concern about how we look. Thus, because of the disturbing attitude accompanying our brushing our teeth, our action brings on the unhappiness of always being dissatisfied.

Brushing our teeth in and of itself, however, is a neutral act: we are merely doing what needs to be done. Nevertheless, it perpetuates our samsaric situation even if it lacks any particular naivety behind it. This is because it is tainted with the grasping of feeling “I have to brush my teeth,” as if there were a “me” who owned the teeth as its possession, as “mine,” and had the responsibility to brush them every day. Don’t misunderstand this point. It doesn’t mean that the best course of action is to stop brushing our teeth. It’s simply that the neutral repetitive actions of taking care of our samsaric bodies, when mixed with grasping for a solid “me,” perpetuate our repetitive samsaric existence, with all its problems.

The Ripening of Karma and the Law of Certainty

We need to understand more clearly what Buddhism means by the statement that actions tainted with confusion “ripen” into unhappiness or ordinary samsaric happiness, or simply perpetuate our samsaric existence. This principle pertains to all our ordinary behavior, including our sexual behavior as well.

Buddhism speaks of the law of certainty of karma. It is certain that destructive actions will ripen into unhappiness, unless we purify ourselves of the negative karmic potentials they have built up. Or, the other way around, if we’re experiencing unhappiness now, this experience has ripened from the karmic potentials built up by our own destructive behavior in the past. The same law is true regarding our usual happiness ripening from positive karmic potentials built up by our constructive actions tainted with confusion.

The important word to understand in the law of certainty is the word “ripen.” “To ripen” into suffering is not just simply “to result” in feeling happy or unhappy. This is because our actions have many results, and most of them are uncertain. For instance, it’s uncertain whether, while doing an action, we’re going to experience happiness or unhappiness. Consider stepping on a cockroach. We may step on it and really take great pleasure in killing what we consider a horrible thing. Or, while stepping on it, we may feel horror and disgust. While helping someone carry out a difficult task, we may feel happy or we may feel resentful of the hard work.

It’s also uncertain what we’re going to feel immediately following our action. After having unprotected sex with a prostitute, we may feel happy about having had sex or frightened that we might have become infected with AIDS. After giving someone a gift of money, we might rejoice with happiness or feel regret and unhappy about it. The short-term results of our actions are also uncertain. If we rob a bank, we may get caught by the police, or we may never get caught. If we are honest in our work, we may get a promotion and be happy, or despite our good work, we may be laid off and be miserable. All these types of result are uncertain. The law of certainty of karma is not talking about them.

It’s not even certain whether our act is going to cause happiness or unhappiness to the person we commit it against – whether during our act, immediately afterwards, in the short term, or in the long run. We may lie to someone about their abilities, telling them they are more competent than they actually are. This may make them happy, both while speaking with them and immediately afterwards. In the short term, and even in the long run, it might give them the self-confidence to succeed. But, it might make them feel bad instead, because they know we are only trying to flatter them and what we say is untrue. Even if they believe us, they may overextend themselves as a result, and fail miserably in their future work. On the other hand, if we tell them the truth, they may feel depressed and, lacking any self-confidence, fail in whatever they endeavor to accomplish. Or, they might feel happy that we were truthful with them and, applying themselves to less challenging tasks in life, succeed very well and be happy.

It is completely uncertain, then, what will happen regarding these types of results of our actions. This is why we say that Buddhist ethics are not simply based on not causing harm to others. It’s because we can never guarantee what the effects of our actions will be on them. We try not to cause harm to others, of course. But, unless we are Buddhas, we can never know what these effects will be.

So, when we talk about destructive actions “ripening” into unhappiness, we’re talking about a complex process through which our ways of acting, speaking, and thinking build up certain potentials on our mental continuums that are going to affect how we feel in the future. For instance, if we have extramarital affairs, we build up karmic causes for experiencing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with our future sexual partners and thus reinforce the tendency of always going from one to another.

Being dissatisfied and restless regarding our sex life is an experience of unhappiness, isn’t it? And then, if we’re never going to be satisfied with our marriage partners and will be unhappy in those relationships, we’re also not going to be satisfied with our lovers. Those relationships won’t last either, and we will continue looking for another. Moreover, our partners will also be unfaithful. Why should they stay faithful to us, if we’re not faithful to them? So there are many long-term repercussions and lots of problems that come about. That’s what’s certain from acting destructively.

Motivations for Destructive Behavior

Let’s look a little more closely about what is destructive – what’s going to bring about negative potentials that give rise to our long-term future unhappiness. The main factor that determines whether or not an action is destructive is the state of mind that motivates it. Destructive actions may be motivated by longing desire – for instance, an obsession with sex, which causes someone to go from one sexual adventure to another. They may also be motivated by anger or hostility, like in the case of somebody who rapes many women because he’s angry with women and wants to hurt them. Or destructive behavior may be motivated by naivety – either naivety about cause and effect, or about reality, such as the example we cited before of unprotected sex with a prostitute. Naivety is often mixed with obsessive desire or hostility.

Other fundamental attitudes also always accompany destructive actions. These are having no sense of moral self-dignity – not caring about how our behavior reflects on us – and having no concern about how our behavior reflects on others, such as on our families, spiritual teachers, fellow countrymen, and so on. We can understand this if we think of the example of President Clinton and his extramarital affair which has caused so much scandal.

Other disturbing emotions, such as jealousy, that accompany these destructive motivations are likewise destructive, as are the actions themselves that are motivated by them. Then in general, we would also say that samsara – uncontrollably recurring rebirth – is destructive.

Causal and Contemporaneous Motivations

The Buddhist presentation of ethics also differentiates between the causal motivation and the contemporaneous one. The causal motivation is the one that initially draws us to an action. The contemporaneous motivation occurs right at the time of acting. In the case of actions that are ethically neutral by nature – Buddha did not specify them as either constructive or destructive – it is the contemporaneous motivation that determines whether the action is constructive or destructive, not the original causal one. In the case of actions that Buddha did specify as constructive or destructive, the contemporaneous motivation is the one that has the stronger effect on the heaviness or lightness of the karmic result.

Consider having sex with our partner, which in and of itself is an ethically neutral act. We may be causally motivated to have sex for a constructive reason. We may want to make our partner happy or we may want to have a child. But, when we actually start to have the sexual act, if obsession with pleasure and desire takes over as our contemporaneous motivation, the action becomes destructive despite the original positive causal motivation. Making love with an obsession for sex builds up a negative potential that, in the long run, will cause us unhappiness.

The causal motivation itself may also be destructive. Obsession with sex might draw us into having sex and be the contemporaneous motivation as well. The causal motivation, however, may also be neutral. We might want to have sex in order to fall asleep more easily. But then, when we actually start to make love, we become overwhelmed with desire and our obsession with it. Again, the sexual act becomes destructive.

Obsessive Longing Desire and Incorrect Consideration

Since for most people the disturbing emotion that is going to make a sexual action destructive is obsessive longing desire, let’s take a closer look at what that state of mind means.

Longing desire is a disturbing emotion aimed at something we don’t possess and is the strong wish to possess it, based on overestimating the good qualities of the object.

This can occur either when we do not have any amount of that object or when we already have some amount and are greedy for more. Attachment is similar. It is a disturbing emotion aimed at something we already have and, based on overestimating the good qualities of the object, does not want to let go of it.

In addition to aggrandizing the good qualities of something with such attitudes as, “You’re the most beautiful, perfect person in the world,” longing desire projects onto the object qualities that it doesn’t possess. In Buddhist terminology, longing desire is accompanied with “incorrect consideration.”

An example of incorrect consideration regarding a sexual partner is considering something dirty as clean. On a very tame level, it’s exemplified by the attitude, “If it’s my lover’s cup, it’s clean. I’ll gladly take a sip from it. If it’s the worker’s cup, it’s dirty; it would be disgusting even to touch it to my lips.” If we think about it, there’s no difference between the two cups here. Both of them are someone else’s cup out of which the other person has drunk a part.

Or if you excuse a more drastic example, we might think it’s so wonderful if our lover sticks their tongue in our mouth when kissing us, but if that person were to spit into our mouth, which is pretty much the same, we would find it disgusting. Sticking their tongue in our mouth while kissing is an example both of exaggerating the qualities of something, making it the most wonderful sexy act, and incorrectly considering it as clean, or at least as not dirty.

Another type of incorrect consideration is considering suffering as happiness. For instance, if our loved one rubs our hand, we think that’s wonderful. But, if they continue to rub the exact same spot for five minutes, it’s going to get very sore. Nevertheless, we might still consider it happiness and not ask our loved one to stop. Or I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of lying down embracing somebody and our arm falls asleep underneath the person. It becomes very uncomfortable, but we continue lying there anyway. Or we embrace somebody while trying to fall asleep next to the person, and then we’re completely uncomfortable and can’t fall asleep, but we don’t want to stop embracing them. That’s “considering suffering as happiness” – an example of incorrect consideration which is accompanying an obsession with physical contact and sexual embrace.

Biological Desire versus Obsessive Desire

It’s important to differentiate here between obsessive longing desire and biological desire. These are two quite different things. It’s like with food. When we have biological hunger, satisfying our desire for food is not destructive. We can do that without exaggerating the good qualities of the food or having incorrect consideration of it. But, if we have obsessive longing for a certain food, such as chocolate, and aggrandize it into the most delicious thing in the world and then stuff ourselves with it, that’s destructive. It’s going to lead to many problems: we become overweight and might even make ourselves sick by overeating.

It’s the same thing with sex. Normal biological desire for sex based on hormones is different from obsessive desire for it. Buddhism is not saying that satisfying the biological drive, without exaggerating its good qualities, is destructive. But, like eating, it’s part of samsara: it’s what comes with having a samsaric body and will cause problems inevitably on some level. Even if we remain celibate, the drive for sex continues. And if we are not celibate, then we’re never going to have enough sex. Having it just once will never suffice, the same as if we only ate once. We want to have it again and again. So, that’s a samsaric situation – an uncontrollably recurring situation that never satisfies. That’s obviously a form of suffering.

In fact, if we look at the tantric vows concerning sexual behavior, the main one is not to consider sex as a path to liberation or enlightenment. It’s simply a samsaric act! Engaging in sex with the modern idea that if we could only achieve the perfect orgasm, it will solve all our problems is a good example of how we would violate our tantric vows. Acting that way is total confusion about reality and about behavioral cause and effect. Even if we do not have tantric vows, avoiding this aggrandizement of sex will need to be the main focus for most of us as Buddhist practitioners. We’re not going out and raping all the people in a city that we’ve conquered in a war.

The Historical Development of What Is Considered Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

When we look into the details of the Buddhist enumeration of the different types of inappropriate sexual behavior, we discover that having sex more than five times successively is considered destructive, because it’s obsessive. This implies that having it four times successively is not obsessive. Now, it’s not clearly specified whether this statement is referring to four or five times in a row during one sexual encounter, or to four or five days in a row. If it’s the former, as some people interpret it, it implies a very strange idea of what is obsessive. Similarly, to masturbate or to have oral sex once is destructive, also because that would be obsessive. Clearly, obsession with sex is a complex issue and cultural criteria for defining it may be involved.

To understand this issue, it might be helpful to look at the historical development within Buddhist literature concerning what is a destructive or inappropriate sexual act. Such a study may give us a clue about how to interpret Buddhist sexual ethics within our modern society. Many Western Buddhists would like to revise several aspects of Buddhist ethics to fit our present-day mentality. But, we need to be very careful in attempting to do so. If we do it at all, we need to do it based on knowledge of the full scope of the Buddhist teachings on ethics and of how they’ve developed historically and been applied in the various Asian societies to which Buddhism has spread.

In early Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist literature in Sri Lanka and India, the only thing specified as inappropriate concerning sexual behavior is having sex with an inappropriate partner. The main emphasis is on inappropriate women. They would include married or betrothed women, or ones who are restrained by someone else, such as an unmarried daughter restrained by her parents or nuns restrained by their vows. If a man were to have sex with any of these types of women, the motivation would usually be obsessive desire. Although the woman is an inappropriate person with whom to have sex, even by the societal standards of the time and culture, yet because the man’s desire is so obsessive, he insists on having sex with her. The texts make no mention about whether the man already has a partner or about what the wishes of the inappropriate woman might be.

At the end of the first century of the modern era, a Fourth Buddhist Council took place in Kashmir. A central Asian dynasty was ruling the area from northwestern India to eastern Iran at the time. Representatives from the Buddhist areas in what is present-day Afghanistan came to the council and reported certain Persian cultural customs in their homeland that they found contrary to the spirit of Buddhist ethics. They felt that explicit mention of them needed to be included in the Buddhist texts concerning ethics that were being compiled at that time. Starting from this point, various customs found socially acceptable in certain non-Indian cultures slowly came to be added to the list of destructive types of behavior; for example, euthanasia and incest. Although many of these actions must have been occurring in India already, they were never discussed openly. Hearing of them in foreign cultures, however, provided the circumstance for mentioning them explicitly in the Buddhist texts, without losing “social face.”

Consequently, in terms of unwise sexual behavior, the already extensive list of inappropriate partners was expanded to include one’s mother and daughter. Gradually, other forms of sexual behavior were added as being inappropriate. For instance, certain orifices of the body were listed as inappropriate for sexual intercourse, such as the mouth and the anus, even with one’s own wife. The rationale behind this was undoubtedly that having sex in an inappropriate orifice would be motivated by obsessive desire. Dissatisfied with vaginal sex with one’s wife, one would become a sexual explorer and adventurer, and feel that one had to try every posture and every orifice in order to have more pleasure.

Inappropriate times for sex were also added, such as when a woman is pregnant or when she’s nursing. Mothers always slept with their babies, and so it would be inappropriate to take them away from their babies in order to have sex. And then there were also inappropriate places for having sex, such as in a temple, and inappropriate times, such as during daylight when someone could walk into your room, to the embarrassment of everyone. Even today among Tibetans, hardly anyone locks their door when they are in their room, and Tibetans never knock before entering. Homosexuality and masturbation soon joined the list of inappropriate sexual behavior as well.

When the Buddhist texts were translated into Chinese, the concubines of others were added to the list of inappropriate partners. This is a clear example of how the translators and masters modified the texts on ethics so that they related to the new society to which Buddhism was spreading. Traditional Chinese society allowed men to have several wives and concubines. This was not inappropriate. Only having sex with someone else’s concubine was inappropriate. In Tibet as well, both polygamy and polyandry were commonly practiced. Having several wives or several husbands was never regarded as having sex with inappropriate partners.

Throughout this process, what’s always happening is that more and more things got added to the list of what’s inappropriate. Nowadays, many of us would like things eliminated from the list, but in fact historically things have always been added. The difficult question with this, however, is whether these additions were culturally influenced and, earlier, the acts mentioned were not considered inappropriate, or whether they were always considered inappropriate, but just not mentioned explicitly. Or, it could be that additions were made to the lists ad hoc, only when difficulties arose within the Buddhist community over certain issues. This, after all, was how Buddha gradually expanded the monastic vows.

Inappropriate Sexual Behavior for Women

If we ask what further new amendments might need to be made to the list of types of inappropriate sexual behavior so as now to accord with the modern West, we can learn another lesson from Buddhist textual history. According to the vinaya texts on monastic discipline, monastics are not allowed to act as go-betweens to arrange marriages with certain types of women. The lists of such women correspond to the lists of inappropriate sexual partners for laypersons. Among the vinaya texts of five of the 18 schools of Hinayana that I have examined, two of the lists are exclusively from the point of view of a man and indicate only inappropriate women. These are the vinayas of two of the three Hinayana traditions extant today – Theravada (followed in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia) and Sarvastivada (the Mulasarvastivada branch of which is followed by the Tibetans and Mongols).

Now, this omission doesn’t mean that according to these two traditions, there are only inappropriate women for men and that there’s no such thing as an inappropriate man for a woman. It’s just that the ethical codes have been written in these two traditions only from the point of view of a man. The other three vinaya traditions I’ve examined, however, specify lists of inappropriate men corresponding to their lists of inappropriate women. That implies that sexual ethics are relative to the persons involved – men, women, and so on – and need to be specified in terms of each type of person. Based on that textual evidence, then, I believe it would be totally reasonable to add to any list of inappropriate sexual partners those that would be inappropriate from the point of view of women.


Also, by the same line of reasoning, the texts in all these traditions have been written from the point of view of a heterosexual male. And so if a heterosexual male already has a partner – or even if he currently has none – and then, because of obsessive desire and dissatisfaction, goes exploring and has sex with not only all sorts of women that are under the guardianship or are the partners of somebody else, but also with men and sheep and who knows what else, then obviously that’s destructive. But, in addition, I think that we can also revise the whole system to speak about what would be destructive or constructive sexual behavior for male or female homosexuals as well; bisexuals too. This is because having sex with somebody else’s partner and so on would be destructive for these types of person as well. It seems totally within the spirit of the Buddhist teachings on dependent arising to assert that any ethical guideline needs to be formulated relative to each and every group to which it would pertain.

It’s quite interesting, during his travels, His Holiness the Dalai Lama sometimes meets with homosexual groups, particularly in San Francisco and New York. These groups were extremely upset about the usual Buddhist presentation of homosexuality as inappropriate sexual behavior. His Holiness has replied that he can’t rewrite the texts on his own, but he thinks that this is the type of issue that needs to be discussed by a council of Buddhist elders. Only such a council can amend issues concerning vinaya and ethics. His Holiness recommends the same procedure concerning the issue of the equality of women, particularly in monastic rituals and ceremonies. This also needs to be reconsidered and revised. So it seems His Holiness also thinks there may be something problematic and open to question within the traditional Buddhist presentation of sexual ethics.

Inappropriate Orifices for Sex

The inclusion of the mouth and anus as inappropriate orifices for sexual intercourse was undoubtedly also made with heterosexual men in mind who already had a female partner. From a Buddhist point of view, such persons would be prompted to indulge in oral or anal sex because of boredom and dissatisfaction with vaginal sex. They could feel that vaginal sex was either an insufficient way to gain or give pleasure, or an insufficient way to show love and affection. In both cases, the conduct would be motivated by dissatisfaction, an attitude that inevitably brings unhappiness and problems.

This becomes a much more complicated issue, however, if we consider these forms of sexual behavior in the context of homosexual couples. The question is whether these orifices are inappropriate by nature, or just specified as inappropriate for certain persons in certain situations? If we say that the problem with the mouth and anus as sexual orifices is that they are unclean, this objection would pertain equally to the vagina as well. This is not a simple matter.

But what about sex for someone paralyzed from the neck down? The only form of sexual behavior that they can have is oral. So, again, I think that we need to make the distinction of what’s appropriate and inappropriate in relation to specific groups of persons. I don’t think we could say that it’s obsessive for someone paralyzed from the neck down to have oral sex.


I think a similar argument can be made concerning masturbation. One has to see the traditional Buddhist position regarding this in its original social context. In ancient India at the time when these points of ethics were formulated, people got married at puberty, or even before. So, if we are married and are so obsessed with sex that it’s not enough to have sex with our partner, we need also to masturbate, that would be considered as an obsession with sex.

Nowadays, however, people in the West do not get married at the onset of puberty, and some people remain single till late in life or even for their entire lifetime. We need to think about the issue of masturbation from the perspective of such people who do not have partners at all or who are not in a committed sexual relationship with anyone. If the alternatives are being promiscuous, going to prostitutes, or being totally celibate, then masturbation is quite a different issue for such persons than in the case of a married person. The same thing is true concerning a married person whose partner is very sick and is in the hospital for months. What are they supposed to do, go to a prostitute? No.

So, I believe it is consistent with the Buddhist teachings that everything has to be considered relative to a context. This is because, remember, what makes an ethically neutral samsaric act such as having sex destructive is its being motivated by a disturbing emotion – dissatisfaction, obsession with sex, and so on. That’s what’s going to cause unhappiness and problems. Sexual behavior not mixed with obsessive disturbing emotions is not going to cause the same kinds of problems. It will just cause the general problem that we’re never going to be completely satisfied by it, and undoubtedly will want to do it again – and again, and again. And we can never guarantee how we will feel after a sexual act.


One of the most interesting points about the traditional Buddhist presentation of inappropriate sexual conduct, if we are looking to see how it can be modified for the modern West, concerns what is not included, and how this may be culturally influenced. Consider, for example, the discussion about having sex with a prostitute. In both the Indian and the Tibetan texts, having sex with a prostitute is perfectly okay, even for a married man, so long as the man pays for the prostitute. A prostitute is an inappropriate partner only if she is someone else’s and you haven’t paid for her yourself. Even more puzzling is that if the parents don’t give permission to their daughter to have sex with someone, then the daughter is an inappropriate person to have sex with. But if the parents do give permission – as sometimes happens in Asia when poor parents sell their daughters into prostitution – not a word is said.

Also, as mentioned before, the Chinese translations added as an inappropriate partner someone else’s concubine. This implies that it is perfectly okay for a married man to have sex with his own concubines. And among the Tibetans, it is perfectly okay to have more than one wife or more than one husband. In fact, it seems to be perfectly okay for a married man to have sex with any woman who does not fall into the category of an inappropriate partner, such as an unmarried independent woman who is neither betrothed nor a nun.

It’s hard for us to understand the mentality behind this. Either all of this was perfectly acceptable in these societies and all the women felt perfectly fine about their husbands having sex with other women, or the married women didn’t feel fine about this, but kept their mouths shut. But certainly that’s not the case nowadays in the modern world. And so it would seem as though, again, the list of inappropriate sexual behavior needs to be expanded, rather than contracted, to include all these different forms of sexual relationships that cause problems, are destructive, and are based on obsession.

Sexual Discontent and the Wish for Variety

The issues, then, with inappropriate sexual behavior are not just incorrect consideration and confusion, such as how we regard certain orifices of the body, but it’s more about discontent and being overly desirous. We want to explore and experience more and more. So the issue is obsession: discontent and obsession. Because of that, I think we need to expand the list of inappropriate behavior to include such things as indulging in high-risk sexual activity, engaging in activity in which we can transmit or contract a sexually transmitted disease, and so on.

Also, when we talk about the issue of sex and discontent, we need to keep the cultural context in mind. If we look at average traditional Indians or average traditional Tibetans, for example, most are perfectly content to eat the exact same thing every day of their lives – such as rice and dhal (lentils) or noodle soup. Modern Western people are not similarly inclined. Western people like to be individual and they like to have variety. It’s part of our culture. So, the same thing goes with respect to sexuality, just like with food. If the normal thing in our society is to eat the same thing every day, then if we were to want to eat something else, that would be considered a case of being overly desirous and obsessive about food. It’s understandable, then, that people in such a society would have the same attitude toward sexuality. Mind you, we’re not talking here about the few traditional Indians and Tibetans who would have been familiar with the Kamasutra and the “64 arts of love.” Most, after all, were illiterate and lived with many relatives all in one room.

What I mean is that suppose we have a certain mutually agreed form of sexual comportment with a partner. Of course, we could expand this to take into consideration the relativity that we discussed before. We have one way of having sex with our partner, whether the partner is of the opposite gender or the same gender, whether we are paralyzed or our partner is, or even whether we have no partner and our form of sexual behavior is masturbation. If we have one preferred standard way of having sex, then from a traditional Asian cultural point of view, wanting to have something different would be only because of over-desire and obsession with sex.

Of course, if that preferred form of sex is one that produces a lot of pain and harm to the other person or to ourselves, some sort of sado-masochistic thing – in the texts they talk about having sex on the cold wet ground with rocks underneath you, while in the West we’re more imaginative with sado-masochism – that of course is not a healthy form of sex. That’s destructive. But, given we have a preferred form of performing a sexual act with someone that’s not harmful like that, still, for us Westerners, we would like some variety in our sexual life. That doesn’t have to mean a variety of partners, but a variety of ways of expressing our love and affection and having pleasure with the other person. So, it would seem to me that we would need to take that into consideration in speaking about what is destructive from a Western point of view. I think that we need to make a difference between our normal cultural wish for variety, on the one hand, and being obsessive and trying just anything because of discontent and boredom, on the other.

Although a sexual repertoire needs to be mutually decided upon within a couple relationship, the question is, “What are the limits?” Could the repertoire include having sex in the so-called “inappropriate orifices?” But in any case, whatever those limits might be, when we become completely discontent and obsessive, and go beyond them, then we start getting into problematic areas and destructive sexual behavior that leads to the unhappiness of dissatisaction. That’s my personal idea.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Guidelines Concerning Inappropriate Sexual Behavior

Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern Vietnamese Buddhist master, has given a very interesting and I think helpful guideline concerning Buddhist sexual ethics in our modern times. Taking into consideration that we do not have our marriages arranged for us by our parents, as many people in traditional Asia still do, and that we choose our own marriage partners, and that many of us have sex before we get married, he said that an inappropriate partner would be someone with whom we would not be willing to spend the rest of our life, if we had to. In other words, if we’re going to have sex with somebody, it should be with someone that, if we needed to, we would be willing to spend the rest of our life with, let’s say if the person got pregnant. And we would be happy to do so and not just do so out of a sense of duty. It doesn’t mean that we do have to spend the rest of our life with this person. Also, the example of pregnancy is just an example, because there are obviously older single persons who are no longer able to have babies, but who do engage in sexual activity with partners. The same guideline would apply.

Although I don’t know of any scriptural reference upon which this is based, I think this is a very useful guideline for our modern times. It means that we need to avoid having casual sex with just anybody we happen to meet, because of our obsession with sex, and without really caring about the other person or about having a deeper relationship with her or him. In most cases, this guideline would take care of the issue of having sex with a prostitute. Although, of course, there could be the case in which a serious committed love relationship develops with a prostitute.

Not Overestimating Sex

It is important not to overestimate sex. For instance, suppose our motivation is to give to someone temporary happiness and pleasure as an expression of love, and not just to the other person, but to ourselves as well. Then, as long as we don’t naively deny the discomforts that go along with it and the reality of what’s inside somebody’s body – in other words, if we have a realistic view of the limitations of sex – and, again, as long as we stay within a mutually decided set of boundaries with the person – then I personally think that this is not a grossly destructive act, except for it perpetuating our samsara. In fact, having this type of healthy sexual relationship may be a positive developmental stage for someone in terms of developing an attitude of giving and caring, and showing affection and concern.

Even concerning masturbation, many Western psychologists say that it is a part of healthy child development. If an adolescent gets in contact with his or her own sexuality, and can show affection to himself or herself and be relaxed and enjoy it, that helps the person to enjoy and be able to relate sexually in a more healthy way to others.

That of course is quite a Western point of view, but I think it has a certain validity, especially if we take into consideration our way of raising children. Western babies don’t have the almost constant body contact that a traditional Asian baby has. Most traditional Asian mothers have their babies strapped to their backs during the day and have them sleep with them at night. As Western babies, on the other hand, we are typically left alone in a crib or a carriage, and many of us feel alienated from our bodies. Masturbation, then, is a possible step for overcoming that alienation. But again, what’s important is not to overestimate the whole area of sexuality.

Fear of Sex

Now a question can be asked, what if we are obsessively against sex? In other words, what about somebody who is afraid of sex or is frigid? Such an attitude is also unhealthy, I believe. It also causes problems.

But we need to make a difference here. Being afraid of killing and being afraid of sex are not the same. If, for example, somebody is afraid of killing, that doesn’t imply it would be healthier for that person to kill. So I think we need to differentiate between an obsessive fear of the biological desire for sex and a fear of being obsessed with sex. What’s unhealthy, I think, is fear of the biological drive.

This is an important point in terms of people who decide to take vows of total celibacy as a monk or a nun. If we give up sex based on the feeling that every form of sex is destructive and are completely terrified of it, then this attitude undoubtedly produces many problems. I think we can see that. Very often this attitude in monks and nuns, not only in the Buddhist tradition, but in our Christian traditions as well, makes them very, very uptight, filled with guilt, and all these sorts of things. They feel guilty for their biological sexual desires.

But, from the Buddhist point of view, what would be more appropriate is to fear one’s own obsession with sex. “Fear,” here, is not the right word. Fear is also not the healthiest motivation, since it implies making a big solid thing out of an obsession. “Dread” is a better word, since it implies merely a strong wish not to have this obsession. If one wants to overcome that obsession with sex and therefore decides to become a monk or a nun, that’s something quite different. That’s a healthier attitude. Such persons then become a monk or a nun because they don’t want to be distracted by family obligations, and so on, and they want to be in a situation in which their sexual desire will be minimized. They don’t want the external circumstances around them that would sexually stimulate them.


The final issues that I want to speak a little bit about concerning sex are the issues of birth control and abortion. When we speak about abortion, from a Buddhist point of view, it falls in the category of the destructive action of taking a life. There is no denying that; it is terminating the life of another being. Nevertheless, there may be various types of motivation involved with taking that life. If the motivation is selfish concern, like not wanting the obligation to take care of a baby, or not losing one’s figure, or something like that, this makes the act a heavy destructive one of killing. This is because both the motivation and the act itself are destructive.

So, we really need to look at the causal motivation here. What is the reason that would motivate us to have an abortion? Our motivation may be naivety, thinking that we can’t give the baby a good home, or we can’t afford yet another baby. But, maybe our parents or another relative could give the baby a good home, or we could give the baby up for adoption.

On the other hand, our motivation may be a positive one of compassion. If the baby will be severely deformed or mentally deficient, then wishing the child to avoid all the problems and suffering that would follow, we might think to have an abortion. After all, there is the secondary bodhisattva vow to avoid not committing a destructive action when the motivation is love and compassion. In such cases, however, we need to be perfectly willing to accept on ourselves whatever suffering consequences we might experience ourselves in future lives in order to spare the unborn child its suffering. With such an attitude, the suffering consequences of the destructive action of taking a life will be less intense.

This is tricky, however, since we have no idea whether or not the child will be happy and no idea of how much the child may be able to overcome his or her handicaps. Also, it is very difficult to have love and compassion as our sole motivation. It might easily be mixed with the selfish wish to avoid all the problems and suffering we would have as the parent of such a handicapped child.

Another very difficult situation is when we have to choose between saving our own life as the pregnant woman or that of the fetus. If going through with the pregnancy or even going through with the actual birthing process will, in sound medical opinion, result in our death as the mother, our causal motivation for having an abortion might be to save our own life. Although, by definition, such a motivation is one of self-concern over concern for the unborn child, each case would be slightly different. So many factors and circumstances would affect the decision and the heaviness of the karmic consequences that would follow.

Although there are many causal motivations that can be involved, the Buddhist teachings say that what really affects the heaviness of the karmic consequences is our contemporaneous motivation. Therefore, if we do decide to have an abortion for whatever reason, we really need to be careful about what’s going on in our minds and hearts right at the start of the operation. That is more crucial than what motivated us to go to the clinic.

Consider, for example, the case of a 13-year-old girl who becomes pregnant as the result of being sexually abused by her father. The girl and the family may decide for a large complex of reasons to terminate the pregnancy. What I am trying to emphasize here is the attitude of the family, and especially of the girl, at the time of the abortion. It’s very important that it not be an attitude of hatred and hostility, especially not toward the baby that’s being aborted. It’s not that baby’s fault.

And so what’s very important at that time of having the abortion is to have loving thoughts toward the baby that’s being aborted. One needs to wish it well in a future lifetime and, in a sense, apologize for the situation that has arisen. That doesn’t make having an abortion a constructive act. Killing is killing. But it certainly minimizes the suffering consequences that will follow. At minimum, I think that it’s almost impossible for a woman to have an abortion and not later on in her life to have the suffering of wondering, “What would that baby have been like? If the baby had lived, it would be such-and-such an age now.” Certainly, I think that almost every woman who has had an abortion has had that sort of suffering. So, even within this lifetime, we can see that abortion is a destructive act, since it causes suffering. After all, the definition of a destructive action is one that ripens into unhappiness for the person who committed it.

Some Buddhist traditions conduct ceremonies for the aborted fetus, something like a funeral service. This is extremely helpful for the mother, the rest of the family, and certainly for the aborted child. It’s based on respect for this being as a sentient being. One gives it a name and sends it off with prayers for the well-being of its future lives. Women who have had this done find it very healing, very helpful.

Birth Control

The issue of abortion connects with the issue of birth control. The real question here is, “When does life begin?” From a Western scientific point of view, only when an embryo is about 21 days old is the physical matter of the embryo sufficiently developed so that it can support neural transmission of information. One could argue that this is the beginning of life, since, in a sense, this is the beginning of mental activity. From the Buddhist point of view, on the other hand, after the continuity of the subtlest mind of someone who has died has passed through an intermediate period (a bardo), its next life begins when it connects with the physical substance of its next body.

Then the question is, “In the Buddhist explanation, when does that connecting happen?” The traditional Buddhist explanation is that the consciousness of the bardo being who will be reborn enters the future father’s mouth, goes down through the father’s body, enters his sperm, and passes with it into the future mother’s body. Now, this is something that obviously needs examination. This explanation derives from the Guhyasamaja Tantra, and is given so that the process for generating the mandala of the deities in the womb of the visualized consort is analogous to the rebirth process. But, is this description to be taken literally as the explanation of how a life begins?

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said many times, if the scientists can disprove certain explanations given in Buddhism, he’s very happy to drop them and to adopt the scientific explanation. So, we need to examine with logic the traditional Buddhist presentation of how and when a life begins. How we decide these questions will have far-reaching ethical implications. Obviously, if the consciousness of a future child is already there in the sperm even before conception, then any form of birth control is abortion. But then, what about the fact that the egg might not fertilize? And even if it does fertilize, it might not implant in the uterus wall. Does the consciousness somehow know what will happen before it enters the father’s mouth? Or is there some sort of karmic mechanism whereby it wouldn’t enter the father’s mouth unless there was karmic certainty that successful conception would take place? And what about artificial insemination, test tube babies, and cloning? These become difficult to explain with the Buddhist theory, unless we classify them under the categories of birth from heat and water.

The more we investigate when life begins, the more complicated it becomes. According to the Buddhist explanation of the 12 links of dependent arising, when the consciousness of the future being enters the physical basis for its future body, it merely has the potential for mental activity. That activity is not yet functioning. Only with the next link, that of nameable faculties with or without form, do the potentials of the consciousness start to activate, step by step, and begin to function. Does this mean that all fertilized eggs have the potential to develop into a child, or only some? If only some, then from a scientific point of view, what needs to be present to differentiate those that have the potential to develop and those that do not – for instance those that do not implant in the uterus wall?

So, we can see it’s very difficult to answer the question, “When does the consciousness actually enter the physical substance of a next rebirth so that if you terminate the rebirth after that point, it’s taking a life?” Also, from a Buddhist point of view, if contraception occurs in such a way that it prevents the consciousness from entering the physical substance of a next rebirth, then it’s not an issue of taking a life. The ethical issue of killing, then, has nothing to do with it. One just needs to watch out for inappropriate sexual behavior.

Also, in terms of inappropriate sexual behavior, one needs to avoid the possibility of transmitting or contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Does this mean that all persons with such diseases need to remain celibate for the rest of their lives, even people with herpes? If using a condom were unethical, even for such persons, then the only alternative would be for them to remain celibate.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, these issues of abortion and contraception need a great deal of further investigation before anything really can be decided. So, whether we use contraception or we don’t use contraception, again we go back to the same issue as before. What is the motivation? Are we using contraception so that we can indulge fully in our obsession with sex? Then surely, our sexual behavior is destructive. But, in that case, it’s destructive because of the obsession, not because of the contraception.

What questions do you have?


What is your personal opinion about the monastic vows of chastity? Doesn’t keeping chastity go against nature? Shouldn’t we, as a society, be well over that by now?

Keeping chastity is certainly going against samsara. But, as for going against nature, we need to take a closer look at what the Buddhist point of view is toward what is “natural.” Biological drives, although part of what we in the West would call “natural,” are, from the Buddhist viewpoint, part of the mechanism of samsara. What we want to do in Buddhism is to overcome being under the control of these instinctive drives that perpetuate the suffering and problems of our uncontrollably repeating samsaric existence. Along the way to gaining liberation from these biological drives, we want to become less and less dependent on them and not be ruled by them. Despite our biological drives, we can still be of help to others, so long as we are not ruled by them.

Many people in the West do not hold God as sacred, but instead regard Nature as sacred. This means regarding biology as sacred. They think that whatever is natural is automatically good. Buddhism, on the other hand, is suspicious of what comes naturally, since many disturbing emotions and attitudes arise automatically, as do urges to act destructively. We need to discriminate carefully.

Usually those who become monks or nuns are either people with very low sex drives, so that celibacy is no big deal for them, or those who are obsessed with sex and who want to overcome the suffering that their obsession has been causing them. But even in the latter case, one doesn’t want merely to suppress biological drives such as sex. In trying to do that, the danger remains that at some point one will explode and go wild. Ideally, such monastics try to work on the longing desire and attachment that make their sexual drives compulsive and obsessive. Also, with tantra methods of transformation of the subtle energies, one can transform that sexual energy and channel it toward a more constructive use to further one’s spiritual path. That’s not so easy to do, however.

Also, I think we need to keep in mind that Tibetans and Indians, for example, show physical affection to people of the same gender, without that having any sexual connotation. Because monks and nuns commonly put their arms around each other and hold hands when walking, these types of physical contact help them to satisfy their need for physical contact and affection. Total celibacy does not include refraining from any physical contact with others or from shows of affection.

When we decide to have sexual contact with somebody, that very act generates karma. So, from the Buddhist perspective, what consequences follow in the chain of karmic events after making that decision? What are the advantages of celibacy?

If we decide to have sex with someone and then actually engage sexually with the person, we certainly establish a strong link with the person that will continue in future lives. But the type of link and relationship that will follow depend on the type of sexual relationship we have with the person, on our own motivation and attitudes, on our partners’ motivation and attitudes, and so on. Many factors will affect it.

And just because one is celibate doesn’t mean that one avoids all sorts of karmic consequences with regard to sexuality. Somebody who’s celibate could spend a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about sex with a great deal of desire and attachment. Such a monastic could think about having sex with someone, but not carry out the act. This does not build up the karmic consequences of a physical act, but it still builds up the karmic consequences of a mental act. Everything depends, really, on the state of mind – on the level of disturbing emotions and attitudes one has or on the level of freedom one has from them.


Let’s end with a dedication. We think that whatever understanding or insight we might have gained, and whatever positive force has resulted from listening to this lecture and thinking about it – may they grow more and more so that we can overcome our confusion about sex. May we be able to use whatever level or type of sexuality that we are drawn to in a healthy way. May we do this by not making sex the most important thing in life, but just another part of life. May we overcome any obsession we may have with sex, so that we can use our potentials and talents more fully, and avoid unnecessary problems, so that we can be of best help to ourselves and to others. Thank you.


The whole issue of sexuality in Buddhism revolves around the issue of the types of attitude and motivation we have concerning it and which of these are destructive ones that bring unhappiness and problems. If we want to avoid the problems, we need to avoid those destructive attitudes.

One of the things that can help a lot is to have a realistic attitude about sex and not make such a big deal out of it. Having sex is not just the same as eating. There is something more to it than just fulfilling a biological need. It is a way of showing affection, love, concern, comfort, and so on. But again, if we think that having good sex is going to solve everybody’s problems, that’s being naive. On the other hand, to think that there’s something inherently “bad” about it is also naive. Just be realistic about it.