Sexual Misconduct in Early Buddhist Ethics

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 26, 2019

Sexual Misconduct in Early Buddhist Ethics: A New Approach

Ven. Pandita (Burma)
University of Kelaniya

In this paper, I argue that (1) rape is not covered by the concept of sexual misconduct prohibited by the Third Precept of the universal Five Precepts morality in Buddhism; and (2) many problematic issues surrounding this precept go away when we interpret it in this way.
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7 thoughts on “Sexual Misconduct in Early Buddhist Ethics”

  1. The textual analysis is definitely interesting, historically and anthropologically speaking as well.

    But it is difficult, for me at least, to see how these analyses help to make Buddhist sexual ethics more relevant across diverse cultures and regions. (See page 156, the reference to Mahayana Acaryas who made it less relevant.) If the conclusion, as it seems to be, is that it is a matter of respecting the spirit over the letter, why bother so much about the letter, concerned with social and cultural traits of India 2500 years ago? If the letter is that important in regard to Buddhist sexual ethics, does the author expect people nowadays taking the five precepts to delve into and understand all this casuistry? With all respect.

  2. Thanks for your question, Bruno.

    (1) Textual analysis, i.e., the minute analysis of the letter, is meant to find out the spirit of the precept. In other words, the letter is only a means to discover the spirit of the precept.

    (2) The spirit, as I have found it, is more relevant because, as far as I can see, it is far more flexible than the elaborate systems of sexual ethic that Mahayana masters have devised.

    (3) Just as it is the job of the lawyers, not of an average Joe, to delve into all nuances and intricacies of modern laws, in the same way an ordinary Buddhist does not need to know all the nuances and casuistry of such a precept.

  3. Thanks for your answer, Venerable. I could guess that much from your article. I am not convinced and shall think about it.

  4. Thank you very much for this article. You have taken the courage to address highly controversial issues.

    I would like to humbly suggest considering my discussion of “sexual misconduct” in The Theory of Karman in the Abhidharmasamuccaya (Tokyo: International Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2010), pages 324-327. An addendum to the issue can be found here. (See addendum to page 326: “For the sake of clarity, I would like to emphasize two points in this context: ….”)

    Furthermore, there might be something interesting for you in my article:
    Achim Bayer, “A Case for Celibacy: The Sudinna Tale in the Pāli Vinaya and Its Interpretation” (Hamburg: Zentrum für Buddhismuskunde, 2012). The article is available for download here.

    In both contributions, I suggest that the Buddhist Sangha was–throughout its 2500 year history in Asia and its about 200 years history beyond Asia–rarely in a position to enforce its ethical norms in society. In most historical constellations, local rulers followed other ethical frameworks (Dharma;sāstra, Confucianism, tribal customs, etc.) and the Buddhist Sangha was more or less accepted but not a dominant factor in society. This implied that the ethical (/sexual) norms proposed by the Sangha should be realistic in so far as they should be acceptable in the framework of the predominant norms.

    With best regards, Achim Bayer (Kanazawa Seiryo University)

  5. Dear Professor,

    Thanks a lot for your appreciation of my paper. I also beg your pardon for my late reply; I happened to notice your comment on the JBE website only yesterday.

    As regards your suggestion: “This implied that the ethical (/sexual) norms proposed by the Sangha should be realistic in so far as they should be acceptable in the framework of the predominant norms,” I respectfully beg to differ. As far as I can see, the Buddha, or his followers, never bothered with how to implement his ethical values in the society. For example, the precept “not to kill” inevitably implies that war is unethical, the latter being nothing but the wholesale slaughter of fellow human beings. But how can a nation survive, during his times or later, with neither a will nor a means (i.e., armed forces) to fight a war? He never bothered to provide answers to such questions. But he also did not hesitate to teach the precept, even though he knew very well that governments of his times or later would not be able to abstain from the sin of killing. Just food for thought!

  6. I guess one of the rules is translated wrongly. “Saparidanda” are female prisoners. So, this rule prohibits sex with those helpless because in custody. It seems to me it is misinterpreted here as “don’t do anything that is considered illegal by law,” which would indeed not help much because by crossing borders the effect of this rule could drastically change.

  7. Dear Gido,

    thank you for your comment.

    As you see above, clearly indicate my publication and the page numbers of my analysis. The book is available on ( ) .

    If you take the time to look at the pages, you will find that there is a solid textual basis for my assertion (p. 325, n. 62). If “saparidanda” has been misunderstood in another source, that is of course regrettable, but it is unrelated to my research.

    Best regards,

    Achim Bayer.

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