Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Sexual Misconduct in Early Buddhist Ethics: A New Approach

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Sexual Misconduct in Early Buddhist Ethics: A New Approach

Article excerpt

The Definition of Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct (kamesu micchara), sometimes also translated as "misconduct in sensual pleasures," is an immoral act prohibited by the Third Precept of the universal Five Precepts morality in Buddhism. In a nutshell, it means a sexual relationship with certain women deemed as sexually taboo objects. What follows is from some of the earliest canonical sources:

kamesumicchacari [MN adds kho pana here.] hoti. ya ta maturakkhita 
piturakkhita matapiturakkhita bhaturakkhita bhaginirakkhita 
natirakkhita gottarakkhita dhammarakkhita sasamika saparidanda antamaso 
malagulaparikkhittapi, tatharupasu carittam apajjita hoti. (AN V 264, 
283, 292; MN I 286, III 54)
He engages in sexual misconduct. He has sexual relations with women who 
are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, 
sister, or relatives; who are protected by their Dhamma; who have a 
husband; whose violation entails a penalty; or even with one already 
engaged. (Bodhi, Numerical 1519)
The last four refer respectively to: (1) a woman protected by her 
co-religionists, (2) one already married or even promised to a husband 
at birth or in childhood, (3) one with whom sexual relations entail 
punishment, and (4) a girl who has been garlanded by a man as a sign of 
engagement. (1855)

If one reads the sutta cited above closely, one can notice that the Buddha appears to be addressing men alone. Based on such texts, Cabezon observes that the canonical sources "are silent on the question of what constitutes sexual misconduct for women" (468). Does this mean that women do not need to abstain from sexual misconduct, and that only men should be blamed for illicit relationships?

It seems not. If women were not obliged to abstain from sexual misconduct, they would have only four precepts out of five, and yet we have never heard in Buddhism of a Four Precepts morality for women. Furthermore, there is evidence showing that women are also morally responsible to abstain from sexual misconduct:

It is owing to the Blessed One that Mahapajapati Gotami abstains from 
killing living beings ... from misconduct in sensual pleasures ... from 
wine, liquor, and intoxicants, which are the basis of negligence. (MN 
III 253; Nanamoli and Bodhi 1102; emphasis added)
Bhikkhus, possessing five qualities, a female lay follower is deposited 
in heaven as if brought there. What five? She abstains from the 
destruction of life ... abstains from sexual misconduct ... abstains 
from liquor, wine, and intoxicants, the basis for heedlessness. (AN III 
276; Bodhi, Numerical 848; emphasis added)

Therefore, I do not agree with Cabezon's claim that "the doctrine of sexual misconduct is almost entirely directed at men" (469). On the contrary, I think what we need to find out is why the Buddha was silent on what sexual misconduct means for women, which I will attempt to do in the following section.

Buddhaghosa's input

Buddhaghosa, as seen in his commentaries (Sv III 1048; Ps I 199; Spk II 145; As 98), explains the different roles of men and women in sexual misconduct, which Collins sums up as follows:

Many texts give two standard lists of ten kinds of women with whom 
intercourse is forbidden, which include young women "under protection" 
as well as "wives of other men". They are agamaniyavatthu, literally 
"objects not to be gone to": Forbidden Zones. The first gives Ten Women 
(dasa itthiyo), all of whom are under some form of protection, and the 
second gives Ten Kinds of Wife (bhariya) ....
For men all Ten Women and all Ten Wives are Forbidden Zones. In the 
case of women, however, there is precise limitation: all Ten Wives are 
guilty of wrongdoing if they have sex with a man, but only the last two 
of the list of Ten Women are. This is because they [i.e., the last two 
of the list of Ten Women] have been promised to a man, and are counted 
as "having a husband" (or "owner", sassamika) . … 
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