Sexuality in Buddhism

Sexuality plays a very important part in the lives of all animals. The desire to reproduce is a potent force and every religion has to formulate a code of conduct to regulate sexual activity among its followers. Central to this is the institution of marriage, which has taken a number of different forms.

Monogamy is widely practised especially where Christianity is the dominant faith, but in some societies there may be polygamy (one man, several wives) or polyandry (one wife, several husbands). Usually fidelity is expected between the partners, but there are examples where this is not essential.

In Buddhism, it is clearly acknowledged that we live in a sensory world and that all our senses seek out pleasant sensations. Sexuality is treated as one form of sense desire and the Buddha taught in the second Noble Truth that the desire for sense pleasures (kama-tanha) is a cause for the arising of dukkha. All forms of sense pleasure are impermanent and therefore unsatisfactory. “Monks, even pleasant sensory impressions should be seen as dukkha.” (A.III.230). At the very beginning of the Anguttara Nikaya, the first ten verses speak about the sensory attraction between a man and woman.

“Monks, I do not see even one other form that so obsesses the mind of a man as the form of a woman. The form of a woman obsesses the mind of a man.” And so on with reference to all the five external senses and in the same way a woman is attracted to a man.

Buddhism teaches us three types of training. They are usually known as:

1. Morality –(Seela)
2. Concentration – (Samadhi)
3. Wisdom – (Panna)

They are the basic routines of a Buddhist way of life. They help the followers to have a happy and secure life which gives peace of mind. They also mean to follow the Noble Eightfold Path or the Middle Way, which is one of the core teachings of the Buddha. Morality is meant to bring external happiness derived from physical well-being, while concentration is to bring internal happiness promoting mental well-being in the follower. Wisdom is the development of understanding both externally and internally of what is happening in the here and now, leading to the achievement of perfect happiness in life. In other words, it is a way to develop one’s full potential as a human being, resulting eventually in the extinction of suffering and release from the beginningless cycles of samsara.

The teachings about sex are mostly found in the basket of discipline (Vinaya Pitaka) which deals with the moral aspect of one’s life. The moral code is mainly twofold. i.e.

1. Moral code for lay persons – Gihi Seela)
2. Moral code for monks – (Pabbajja Seela)

Moral code for lay persons

In the first category, there are five fundamental rules or precepts, and one of them is to refrain from sexual misconduct. One would observe this precept as a lay follower of the Buddha like this. “I take the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct”. (Kamesumicchacara weramani sikkha padan samadiyami). The word “kamesu” is a plural form of “kama” which can have the wide meaning of all sense pleasures. However, in the context of this precept it means that one would not have illegal or unethical sexual intercourse with anyone who has taken the legal vows of marriage to someone else.

This rule teaches the follower how to lead a happy and secure sexual life with a legal partner. Here, loyalty of sexual behaviour may vary from society to another according to the laws, the cults and beliefs of those communities. Individual behaviour must be in accordance with the norms accepted by that society. This is how Buddhism explains the wrong sexual intercourse. If sexual intercourse is done in any of the ways shown below it is judged  as wrong.

  1. To have sex with one who is legally the spouse of someone else.
  2. To allow sex to be enjoyed by oneself.
  3. To want sex (mental need).
  4. To engage in sex (physical satisfaction).

According to Buddhist analysis there are three persons that can engage in sexual intercourse. They are:

  1. Human beings
  2. Non-human beings
  3. Beasts (animals, birds, etc.)

Those beings are again divided into four groups according to the nature of their biological differences:

  1. Females
  2. Trans-genders
  3. Eunuchs
  4. Males

According to this division, there are thirty places where sexual intercourse is possible. It is shown below.

N.B. There are two types of trans-genders, called male genders and female genders. According to the teachings they can have both sets of genitals but there is one set at a time. As a male he can play the role of a man and when he becomes a female she can play the role of a woman. Whatever the
way he/she has sex it is sex here.

According to the rules laid down by the Buddha sexual intercourse is completed immediately after the penis comes into contact with any of the three places mentioned i.e. the vagina, the anus and the mouth of a living or dead body where penetration takes place. That is how the act of sex is explained in the text. It also further explains if a human being engages in sex with any species smaller than a serpent among reptiles, a chicken among bipeds and cat among quadrupeds, this is not counted as sexual intercourse under the Vinaya rules because the genitals of those beings are
not of sufficient size to allow intercourse with a human being. There are a very few cases of sexual intercourse with oneself, which means that a person who is flexible and can insert his penis into his own mouth or anus. In such a case this is also ruled as having sexual intercourse.

Buddhism understands that the sex is a mental and biological need. But it does not treat it as a fundamental or essential human need in the same category as food, clothing, medicine and shelter. It is only a secondary or tertiary need. One can live without sex if he/she wishes to do so for some reason or other, but no one can live without meeting the basic needs like food and drink. Therefore, Buddhism, while respecting the human desire for sex, restricts one’s sex life to a more meaningful and protective way that one can enjoy one’s sex life while respecting the other party without causing any mental or physical damage to other members of the society. Buddhism points out the dangers and downfalls of unsafe and illegal sex and it also shows the benefits of right sex.

Itti dhutto sura dhutto akkha dhutto ca yo naro

Laddha laddhan vinaseti tan parabhavato mukhan.

Atita yobbano poso aneti timbarutthanin

Tassa issan supati tan parabhavato mukhan.

Not to be contented with one's own wife, and to be seen with harlots and the wives of others — this is a cause of one's downfall.

Being past one's youth, to take a young wife and to be unable to sleep for jealousy of her — this is a cause of one's downfall. (Parabhava Sutta)

Moral code for monks

The second category refers to monks. Since sex is not a primary need of a human being like the four main requisites mentioned above and also not essential to support the life of a bhikkhu, sexual activity is completely forbidden by the Buddhist monastic rules (vinaya). One of the four perils which a monk may encounter whilst on almsround is fierce fish. “The peril of fierce fish is a designation for women. This is called the peril of fierce fish.” (A.II.126) Therefore monkhood requires total celibacy (brahmacariya). “If a monk...... has sexual intercourse, even with an animal, he commits an offence entailing defeat. That monk is one who is defeated; he is not in communion.” (Vin.III.23)

Sensuous craving (Kamaraga) is identified as one of the fetters (Samyojana) in Buddhism. Fetters tie beings to the cycle of existence (samsara). Therefore the Buddha advised all his true followers to refrain from sensual pleasures including sexual pleasure since it hinders the way towards the true happiness of Nirvana. The Buddha uses the entire Tissametteyya Sutta in the Sutta Nipata to explain what is lost by indulging in sexual pleasures. “Both learning and the practice of the Teaching are lost to him who is given to sexual intercourse...... He who formerly fared alone but is now given to sexual intercourse, they call that uncontrolled one a low and ordinary being who is like a lurching chariot.”  (v.814-816)


There is a variety of views concerning homosexuality. For monks, of course, any kind of sexual activity is forbidden. For lay people, Buddhism teaches the value of family life, based on a stable relationship between man and wife. The outcome of this relationship is the birth of children; this is the purpose of sexual activity, it is not meant to be merely for sensual pleasure. Since homosexuality does not result in the birth of children, the practice is not encouraged, although neither is it forbidden by any of the rules in the Vinaya. Early Buddhism appears to have placed no specific stigma on homosexual relations. Today, some authorities disapprove of the practice on the grounds that it is unnatural, but other authorities – particularly in the liberal West - emphasise the importance the Buddha placed on tolerance and compassion, and regarding others without prejudice.

K. Ariyarathana.

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