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Buddhism and sexuality

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Buddhism and sexuality

In the Buddha's first discourse he identifies craving (tanha) as the cause of suffering (dukkha). He then identifies three objects of craving: the craving for existence; the craving for non-existence and the craving for sense pleasures (kama). Kama is identified as one of five hindrances to the attainment of jhana according to the Buddha's teaching. Throughout the Sutta Pitaka Buddha often compares sexual pleasure to arrows or darts. So in the Kama Sutta from the Sutta Nipata Buddha explains that craving sexual pleasure is a cause of suffering.

If one, longing for sexual pleasure, achieves it, yes, he's enraptured at heart. The mortal gets what he wants. But if for that person — longing, desiring — the pleasures diminish, he's shattered, as if shot with an arrow.
—Kama Sutta, Sutta Nipata[1]

Buddha then goes on to say:

So one, always mindful, should avoid sexual desires. Letting them go, he will cross over the flood like one who, having bailed out the boat, has reached the far shore.

The 'flood' refers to the deluge of human suffering. The 'far shore' is nibbana, a state in which there is no sexual desire.

The meaning of the Kama Sutta is that sexual desire, like any habitual sense pleasure, brings suffering. To lay people Buddha advised that they should at least avoid sexual misconduct which meant following generally accepted norms of sexual morality and behavior. From Buddha's full-time disciples, the ordained monks and nuns, strict celibacy (called brahmacarya) has always been required.


Former Vice President of the Buddhist Society and Chairman of the English Sangha Trust, Maurice Walshe, wrote an essay called 'Buddhism and Sex' in which he presented Buddha's essential teaching on human sexuality and its relationship to the goal (nibbana). The third of the five precepts states:

Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami,

The literal meaning of this statement is, "I undertake the course of training in refraining from wrong-doing in respect of sensuality." Walshe comments,

There is, in the Buddhist view, nothing uniquely wicked about sexual offenses or failings. Those inclined to develop a guilt-complex about their sex-life should realize that failure in this respect is neither more, nor, on the other hand, less serious than failure to live up to any other precept. In point of fact, the most difficult precept of all for nearly everybody to live up to is the fourth — to refrain from all forms of wrong speech (which often includes uncharitable comments on other people's real or alleged sexual failings!)...What precisely, then, does the Third Precept imply for the ordinary lay Buddhist? Firstly, in common with all the other precepts, it is a rule of training. It is not a "commandment" from God, the Buddha, or anyone else saying: "Thou shalt not..." There are no such commandments in Buddhism. It is an undertaking by you to yourself, to do your best to observe a certain type of restraint, because you understand that it is a good thing to do. This must be clearly understood. If you don't think it is a good thing to do, you should not undertake it. If you do think it is a good thing to do, but doubt your ability to keep it, you should do your best, and probably, you can get some help and instruction to make it easier. If you feel it is a good thing to attempt to tread the Buddhist path, you may undertake this and the other precepts, with sincerity, in this spirit.[2]

Buddha's teaching arises out of a wish for others to be free from suffering. According to the doctrine he taught, freedom from suffering involves freedom from sexual desires and the training (Pali: sikkha) to get rid of the craving involves to a great extent abstaining from those desires. This is based on the understanding that indulging in such desires perpetuates the underlying craving.

Celibacy and monasticism

Those who choose to practice Buddhism as ordained monks and nuns, also choose to live in celibacy.[3]

Sex is seen as a serious monastic transgression. Within Theravada Buddhism there are four principal transgressions which entail expulsion from the monastic Sangha: sex, theft, murder, and falsely boasting of superhuman perfections.[4] Sexual misconduct for monks and nuns includes masturbation.[5] In the case of monasticism, abstaining completely from sex is seen as a necessity in order to reach enlightenment. Buddha's criticism of a monk who broke his celibate vows—without having disrobed first—is as follows:

"'Worthless man, [sexual intercourse] is unseemly, out of line, unsuitable, and unworthy of a contemplative; improper and not to be done... Haven't I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the sake of dispassion and not for passion; for unfettering and not for fettering; for freedom from clinging and not for clinging? Yet here, while I have taught the Dhamma for dispassion, you set your heart on passion; while I have taught the Dhamma for unfettering, you set your heart on being fettered; while I have taught the Dhamma for freedom from clinging, you set your heart on clinging. "'Worthless man, haven't I taught the Dhamma in many ways for the fading of passion, the sobering of intoxication, the subduing of thirst, the destruction of attachment, the severing of the round, the ending of craving, dispassion, cessation, unbinding? Haven't I in many ways advocated abandoning sensual pleasures, comprehending sensual perceptions, subduing sensual thirst, destroying sensual thoughts, calming sensual fevers? Worthless man, it would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a poisonous snake than into a woman's vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into the mouth of a black viper than into a woman's vagina. It would be better that your penis be stuck into a pit of burning embers, blazing and glowing, than into a woman's vagina. Why is that? For that reason you would undergo death or death-like suffering, but you would not on that account, at the break-up of the body, after death, fall into deprivation, the bad destination, the abyss, hell... "'Worthless man, this neither inspires faith in the faithless nor increases the faithful. Rather, it inspires lack of faith in the faithless and wavering in some of the faithful.'" [6]

Lay Buddhism

The most common formulation of Buddhist ethics are the Five Precepts and the Eightfold Path, which say that one should neither be attached to nor crave sensual pleasure. These precepts take the form of voluntary, personal undertakings, not divine mandate or instruction. The third of the Five Precepts is "To refrain from committing sexual misconduct.[7]

Fornication, or sex outside of marriage is seen as a violation of the Brahmacharya vow from the Five Precepts.

According to the Theravada traditions there are some statements attributed to Gautama Buddha on the nature of sexual misconduct. In Everyman's Ethics, a collection of four specific suttas compiled and translated by Narada Thera, it is said that adultery is one of four evils the wise will never praise.[8] Within the Anguttara Nikaya on his teachings to Cunda the Silversmith this scope of misconduct is described:
" has intercourse with those under the protection of father, mother, brother, sister, relatives or clan, or of their religious community; or with those promised to someone else, protected by law, and even with those betrothed with a garland" [9]
This and other teachings within the Pali Canon are important and fundamental guidance for Theravada Buddhists.

Sexual Yoga

According to some Tibetan authorities, the physical practice of sexual yoga is necessary at the highest level for the attainment of Buddhahood.[10] The use of sexual yoga is highly regulated. It is only permitted after years of training.[11] The physical practice of sexual yoga is and has historically been extremely rare.[12] A great majority of Tibetans believe that the only proper practice of tantric texts is metaphorically, not physically, in rituals and during meditative visualizations.[12] The dominant Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism holds that sexual yoga as an actual physical practice is the only way to attain Buddhahood in one lifetime. The founder of the sect Tsongkhapa did not, according to tradition, engage in this practice, but instead attained complete enlightenment at the moment of death, that being according to this school the nearest possible without sexual yoga. The school also taught that they are only appropriate for the most elite practitioners, who had directly realized emptiness and who had unusually strong compassion. The next largest school in Tibet, the Nyingma, holds that this is not necessary to achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime.[13] The fourteenth Dalai Lama of the Gelug sect, holds that the practice should only be done as a visualization.[12]


Among Buddhists there is a wide diversity of opinion about homosexuality. Buddhism teaches that sensual enjoyment and desire in general, and sexual pleasure in particular, are hindrances to enlightenment, and inferior to the kinds of pleasure (see, e.g. pīti, a Pāli word often translated as "rapture") that are integral to the practice of jhāna.

Some Buddhist texts advise Buddhists to avoid contact with third-gendered individuals and consider same-sex relations as sexual misconduct.[14][15]

Some Buddhist leaders, like the 14th Dalai Lama[16][17][18] and Chan master Hsuan Hua, have explicitly spoken against the act of homosexuality, which is considered harmful to the individual. Though the Dalai Lama explained "sexual misconduct" from the point of view of classical Indian texts, and as they are usually explained in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism e.g. by Tsongkhapa, the Dalai Lama expressed also “the possibility of understanding these precepts in the context of time, culture and society … If homosexuality is part of accepted norms [today], it is possible that it may be acceptable … However, no single person or teacher can redefine precepts. I do not have the authority to redefine these precepts since no one can make a unilateral decision or issue a decree … Such a redefinition can only come out of sangha discussions within the various Buddhist traditions. It is not unprecedented in the history of Buddhism to redefine [moral] issues, but it has to be done on the collective level.”; and the Dalai Lama called for further research and dialogue on this topic, "and concluded by reiterating the fact that, however the notion of sexual misconduct comes to be defined, it can never be used to justify discrimination against sexual minorities."[19] However, when interviewed by Canadian TV news anchor Evan Solomon on CBC News: Sunday about whether or not homosexuality is acceptable in Buddhism, the Dalai Lama responded that "it is sexual misconduct".[20] This was an echo of an earlier response in a 2004 Vancouver Sun interview when asked about homosexulity in Buddhism, where the Dalai Lama replied "for a Buddhist, the same sex, that is sexual misconduct"[21]

"Sexual misconduct" is a broad term, subject to interpretation according to followers' social norms. Early Buddhism appears to have been silent regarding homosexual relations.[22] However, Buddhists of Asian background, who form the majority of Buddhists in the world, consider homosexuality and transgenderism as part of sexual misconduct and usually disapprove of it.

The situation is different for monastics. For them, the Vinaya (code of monastic discipline) bans all sexual activity, but does so in purely physiological terms, making no moral distinctions among the many possible forms of intercourse.[23]

Some Buddhist orders may specifically prohibit transgender, homosexually active, or homosexually oriented people from ordination but accept homosexuality among laypersons.

Regarding transsexual people, the earliest texts mention the possibility of a person supernaturally changing sexes; such a person is not barred from ordination, and if already ordained, simply changes orders.[24]

Western Buddhism

Western Buddhism is often relatively gay-friendly,[25] often carrying these views prior to their conversion to Buddhism, and the interpretation of what is sexual misconduct is an individual decision and not subject to judgment by any central authority. A notion of accepting all peoples while rejecting certain types of sexual acts is more predominant.[26]

When applying Buddhist philosophy to the question of homosexuality, Western Buddhists often emphasize the importance Buddha placed on tolerance, compassion, and seeking answers within one's mind.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Kama Sutta, Sutta Nipata 4.1
  2. ^ "Buddhism and Sex". 2012-12-01. Retrieved 2013-09-14. 
  3. ^ Saddhatissa, Hammalawa (December 1987). Buddhist Ethics: The Path to Nirvana. Wisdom Pubns; New Ed edition. p. 88. ISBN . 
  4. ^ Lopez, Donald S. Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2005
  5. ^ Olson, Carl. The Different Paths of Buddhism: A Narrative-Historical Introduction. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 2005
  6. ^ "Introduction". The Buddhist Monastic Code I: The Patimokkha Training Rules Translated and Explained. Access to Insight. Retrieved 18 August 2012. 
  7. ^ Higgins, Winton. "Buddhist Sexual Ethics". BuddhaNet Magazine. Retrieved 2007-01-15. 
  8. ^ Thera, Narada. "Everyman's Ethics Four Discourses of the Buddha". Buddhist Publication Society. Retrieved 2010-04-16. 
  9. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu. "Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2010-04-16. 
  10. ^ Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, page 781
  11. ^ An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues - Peter Harvey - Google Boeken. 2000-06-22. Retrieved 2013-09-14. 
  12. ^ a b c The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama - Thomas Laird - Google Boeken. Retrieved 2013-09-14. 
  13. ^ Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, page 781; the briefer statement in this article by Powers should be understood in the light of his fuller statement in his book Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion, 1995, pages 252f
  14. ^ Harvey, Peter (2000). An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 421–. ISBN . 
  15. ^ Lotus Sutra: Leon Hurvitz, trans., Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), p. 209
  16. ^ "Even with your wife, using one's mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one's hand, that is sexual misconduct". (Dalai Lama, at a meeting with lesbian and gay Buddhists, June 11, 1997). Reported widely, including in: Dalai Lama Speaks on Gay Sex – He says it's wrong for Buddhists but not for society. By Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer, Tuesday, June 11, 1997, San Francisco Chronicle. Text online
  17. ^ Dalai Lama urges "respect, compassion, and full human rights for all", including gays, by Dennis Conkin, Bay Area Reporter, June 19, 1997. Text online
  18. ^ Dalai Lama says 'oral and anal sex' not acceptable, Jack Nichols, May 13, 1997. Text online
  19. ^ Thinking through Texts: Toward a Critical Buddhist Theology of Sexuality by José Ignacio Cabezón, Public Lecture, Naropa University, September 23, 2008
  20. ^ The Huffington Post, 07/13/09, Gay Marriage: What Would Buddha Do?,
  21. ^ LifeSiteNews, 11/02/07/, The Dalai Lama, Like the Pope, Says Gay Sex is “Sexual Misconduct”,
  22. ^ James William Coleman, The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. Oxford University Press 2002, page 146.
  23. ^ George E. Haggerty, Gay histories and cultures: an encyclopedia. Taylor and Francis 2000, pages 146–147.
  24. ^ Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2000, page 412.
  25. ^ "Buddhism and homosexuality". Retrieved 2013-09-14. 
  26. ^ a b "BuddhaNet Magazine Article: Buddhist Sexual Ethics". Retrieved 2013-09-14. 

External links

  • Issues in Buddhist Sexual Ethics – Alexander Berzin
  • Introduction to Buddhist Sexual Ethics: Having Sex with Someone Else's Partner – Alexander Berzin
  • Thinking through Texts: Toward a Critical Buddhist Theology of Sexuality by José Ignacio Cabezón, Public Lecture, Naropa University, September 23, 2008
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