Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Third Precept

There were many things that attracted me to Buddhism, but perhaps none was more persuasive than the Third Precept.

The Third Precept states: Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, (in Pali) “I undertake the course of training in refraining from wrong-doing in respect of sensuality.”

More simply put, it guides one to refrain from wrongful sexual conduct. However, let’s not lose sight of the issue of ‘sensuality” as this involves much more than just sex. That may be discussed another day.

I have a much fuller understanding now of what those five words mean – refrain from wrongful sexual conduct – than when I first heard them, but even upon my first inkling of what was entailed in the notion of “wrongful sexual conduct,” I felt like I had finally found a home. Of course, while the meaning of these words was and remains crystal clear to me, it is nonetheless the focus of an endless debate within the Buddhist community. And comments by the Dalai Lama have perplexed what might be described as the more liberal, Western, element of Buddhism. As James Shaheen writes in his blog for The Huffington Post:

“At a conference some 12 years ago, when gay leaders met with him (the Dalai Lama) in San Francisco to discuss the Tibetan Buddhist proscriptions against gay sex, he reiterated the traditional view that gay sex was ‘sexual misconduct.’ This view was based on restrictions found in Tibetan texts that he could not and would not change. He did, however, advise gay Buddhist leaders to investigate further, discuss the issue, and suggested that change might come through some sort of theological consensus.”

Jeff Wilson from Tricycle (Shaheen is Tricycle’s editor) writes an excellent follow-up blog that I strongly recommend you read. But suffice it to say that, unlike what many Westerners think (particularly Westerners who only have a passing knowledge of Buddhism), the Dalai Lama’s word on Buddhist doctrine is hardly the last. I’m frequently asked about this when I reveal that I practice Buddhism, and each time I reply that the Dalai Lama is an important Buddhist leader, but he does not lead all Buddhists.

But I digress.

When I first learned of the Third Precept, the words were spoken by an Anglo-American monk at a dhammasala near Lansing, Mich., during a Dhamma talk for the celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. He laid things out quite simply; that sex is sex, regardless of whether it involves two men, two women, or a man and a woman. Buddhist doctrine does not prohibit sex for lay people. What matters is whether the behavior, and the motive, was skillful.

Skillful? Does that mean only good sex is OK, and bad sex is not? As silly as that may sound, it seemed an odd way to speak about this. Yet, the choice of the word “skillful,” I soon learned, was both deliberate and correct. In fact, the precept could be read to say, “To refrain from unskillful sexual conduct.” Because use of the English word “wrongful” in most Buddhist references has nothing to do with some moral code (although Buddhism does promote living by a moral code).

What confuses many people, I think, is that the Third Precept is also occasionally presented with these words: “To refrain from sexual misconduct.” As a gay man who grew up under an oppressive Christian doctrine and Catholic hegemony that portrayed homosexuals as sinners doomed to eternal damnation, I really needed to understand the nuances of how this precept was being presented. Because the more you study the Dhamma, the more it becomes apparent that nuance is very important.

As I soon learned from that monk I first heard speak about the Third Precept, it often helps to ask the question, “What did the Buddha say about this?” Because many Buddhists have much to say about homosexuality and sex, but not every Buddhist has his or her opinion well-grounded in what the Buddha actually said.

For example, in the Sammaditthi Sutta: The Discourse on Right View, from the Majjhima Nikaya (MN9), the Buddha explains what is skillful and unskillful, identifying sexual misconduct as unskillful, refraining from such conduct as skillful. And in the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta: To Cunda the Silversmith, from the Anguttara Nikaya (AN 10.176), the Buddha is more explicit in his description of sexual misconduct. Speaking of a skillful man, the Buddha says:

“He does not get sexually involved with those who are protected by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters, their relatives, or their Dhamma; those with husbands, those who entail punishments, or even those crowned with flowers by another man.”

As I learned through attending Dhamma classes, the Third Precept is very closely linked with the Second Precept: To refrain from taking what is not given. Obviously, forced sex was very unskillful – it’s rape. But even having willing sex with someone married or “attached” with someone else was unskillful. As was sex with minors; minors were still under the protection of “their mothers, their fathers, their brothers, their sisters,” etc. And someone betrothed to another was off limits as well.

So it became clear to me that having sex, per se, was not the problem, nor was the gender of my partner: the issue was whether the sexual activity was a form of taking something that was not freely given. This was all basic common sense, really, when you think about it.

I started to think that I was going to like this Buddhism thing. But there was a point that bothered me. I could understand the relationship between the Second and Third precepts, but did that mean I could have all the sex I wanted, with whomever I wanted, as long as it was freely given? Of course, I quickly learned that unrestrained sexual activity was just as unskillful as having sex with the wrong person.

Those peculiar words again, skillful and unskillful. Promiscuity was not a sin, or wrong, in a Buddhist sense, but it was unskillful. And thinking about my past activities and the consequences they brought, I began to understand what this skillful and unskillful meant.

Buddhist talk about wrong actions, but an action is not wrong because it offends a law laid down by some deity. An action can be wrong if it’s unskillful, and an action is unskillful if it brings you pain, suffering, loneliness, depression, anxiety, any of these negative feelings. And it’s unskillful when the consequences also include pursuit by the police, the courts, a jealous boyfriend, or contracting a disease.

And there it was; something very important was arising within me. I began to realize that any pain and suffering, loneliness and self-pity I had experienced in life was largely my own responsibility. I created all this through my unskillful acts, it wasn’t the outside world against me. And if all the times that I felt bad were the result of my unskillful acts, then I could reduce my bad feelings, my suffering, by choosing to act more skillfully.

What a novel idea.


  1. Great post. I commented on this issue a few times and while my opinions were probably not the most informed, I did get some commentors that had some good insights.


  2. I'm enjoying your blog. Keep it up!


  3. The purpose of engaging in Dharma practices is to learn to uproot attachments to desire, anger and ignorance. It doesn’t matter if it’s homosexual, heterosexual or quasi-sexual, overt indulgence in desire and the resulting attachment to pleasure, is just furthering suffering for one’s self and the object(s) of attachments. One has to tame the desire within the mind. The mind is where those attachments originate and dwell.

    One has to ask the tough questions: Am I bringing suffering to myself by indulging in this act? Am I bringing suffering to others by indulging in my desires? Serious contemplation on desire and attachments results in questioning of behaviors and second thoughts about one’s actions. From your post, it sounds like you have reached this state of awareness of one's actions.

    You really have to be honest with yourself and your practice. Another question to ask is: Am I entertaining supportive arguments in my mind to justify my behaviors?

    Armed with the Dharma, one should be able to stop the processes or at least slow down the impulsive reactions and make a more informed decision to act differently or to even act on those impulses at all. The Dharma really comes to life when through contemplation and meditation, we choose to stop suffering for ourselves and others.

    I won't go into the details but this lesson came to me from the consequences of my own actions. All I will say is, regret is a lonely place.

  4. Thank you for your comment, GK! You have inspired me!

  5. I must thank you first! It was your writing that brought that to the surface, as I had been contemplating along the same lines for a few weeks now.

    A wonderfully insightful new post by the way! Many Blessings to you!