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Freedom Through the Third Precept

By Gil Fronsdal

The avoidance of sexual misconduct is the third of the five cardinal Buddhist ethical practices. Sexual feelings and behavior are deeply rooted in our biology, psychology, and social life. After puberty, many people spend significant amounts of time thinking about and involved with their sexuality. Even celibate monastics can devote much energy addressing their sexual feelings.

As an ethical precept, the avoidance of sexual misconduct means striving to refrain from causing harm through our sexuality, even unintentionally. Rather than defining sexual misconduct in terms of any specific sexual behavior, the emphasis is on considering the impact the behavior can have on others and oneself. It means taking into account much more than the particular sexual activity one may be involved in.

Practicing with the third precept requires bringing mindfulness to some of the most intimate and personal areas of our lives. As such, great care and respect is warranted as we bring greater attention to our sexuality. In terms of sexual relationships, mindfulness includes considering the intentions, expectations, and commitments of everyone involved. Without clarity about these it is easy for people to feel disappointed, hurt, or betrayed. Mindfulness in sexual relationships also includes awareness and acknowledgment of any emotional vulnerabilities our partner may have. Past hurts may be re-triggered from what may, on first impressions, appear to be appropriate sexual relations. Mindfulness can also be extended to awareness of the wider social contexts for our behavior. Are commitments being broken with our sexual activity? Are there others — partners or relatives — who would be hurt?

Because the sexual drive can be strong enough to override a person’s wisdom, compassion, and common sense, help is sometimes needed to avoid engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior. The commitment to the third precept can provide this help. It is a safeguard from unexamined, impulsive sexual behavior. It is also a protection from later regrets or worse.

Our sexuality can be a part of the Buddhist path to liberation. Rather than something that is outside the purview of Buddhist practice, sexuality can be a rich arena for practice when we bring mindfulness and investigation to it. One way to do this is to consider our sexuality through the perspective of the Eightfold Path, the Buddha’s most common description of the path to liberation. These eight practices are comprehensive enough to address the complexity of our sexual lives. Together they contribute to “Right Sexuality”.

Right View, the first practice of the Eightfold Path, is applying the perspective of the Four Noble Truths to our sexual intentions and behavior. The first Noble Truth asks each of us to consider whether there is any actual or potential suffering — to ourself or to others — connected to our sexual behavior. The second Noble Truth asks us to notice any craving or compulsion that may be part of sexual desire. The third Noble Truth is learning to recognize — even if just as a potential — the possibility of the cessation of any and all suffering connected with our sexual desires. It means to realize a peace and deep abiding sense of fulfillment that dissolves sexual compulsion. The fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path; it is a set of practices that can bring this fulfillment.

Through practicing Right View we use our awareness of suffering to help us become free of suffering. When suffering and craving are not recognized, suffering can remain the backdrop for ones’ life. Recognized, we can begin to dissolve the backdrop.

The second practice of the Eightfold Path is Right Intention. Discovering the deeper and often subconscious motivations that drive sexual behavior and feelings is one of the very important ways to have Buddhist practice become thoroughly integrated into one’s life.

Right Intention means to avoid three forms of wrong motivations. These are intentions motivated by cruelty, ill will, and lust. Rape, coerced sex, and sexual aggression are examples of extreme sexual behavior that can be motivated by cruelty. Asserting oneself on one’s partner or ignoring his or her well-being can be driven by anger or hostility. Objectifying and disrespecting one’s partner can be a consequence of dominating lust.

Applying Right Intention in our sexual lives involves having our sexual behavior motivated by compassion, loving-kindness, and renunciation. Sexual behavior can be a valuable way of expressing appreciation, love, care, and respect for others. Having these as part of our sexual behavior ensures that sexual relationships are more than skin-deep affairs. They can be nourishing and nurturing of some of the best qualities of our hearts.

Renunciation is an important part of healthy sexuality. Renunciation is the capacity to let go of any desire which might cause suffering and hurt. Without being able to let go of sexual desire, there is no freedom. Spiritual freedom is not to be free to act on our desires; it is being free to choose wisely which desires to act on. It is to be free of compulsive desires.

The third step of the Eightfold Path is Right Speech. For our sexual lives to be an integral part of the Buddhist path it is crucial that we tell the truth. Sexual misconduct often involves deceit and secrecy, activities which undermine efforts to be mindful and transparent. To practice Right Speech in relationship to our sexuality means to be honest. Sexual relationships between people in committed relationships may not appear to have sexual misconduct, but, if there is no honesty, it cannot serve as part of the path of practice.

Next is Right Action. This is usually explained by the first three precepts, not to kill, not to take what is not given, and not to engage in sexual misconduct. To not take what is not given is very important in sexual relationships. It means not expecting or requiring one’s partner to agree to one’s sexual advances. It means avoiding any assertiveness in which one forces oneself on an unwilling partner.

Right Action is followed by the practice of Right Livelihood. This means we participate in the economic life of our society in ways that avoid causing harm. When Right Livelihood is applied to our sexual behavior it includes not paying for sex or pornography. It also means not participating in a line of work that perpetuates harmful sexual behavior and attitudes. For example, someone pursuing a path of liberation would not create sexualized advertisements. Also, they would not facilitate the sexual exploitation and dehumanization of others.

The next step in the Eightfold Path is Right Effort. One way of practicing this is to make an effort at cultivating skillful, positive states of mind such as happiness, contentment, calmness, compassion, and equanimity. These and other positive states are the primary source for having an abiding sense of inner fulfillment and well-being. In terms of our sexuality, developing these positive states of mind is an antidote to using sex to fill an inner void, anxiety, or depression. When we have the pleasure of positive mind states, the physical pleasure of sex may be less alluring or even necessary. Instead of a pursuit of pleasure, sexual activity can then be an expression of love and appreciation.

The seventh Eightfold Path practice is Mindfulness. Sexual behavior and sexual relationships are among the most complicated, multifaceted aspects of our inner psychological life and outer inter-personal life. Sex and sexuality involves hormones, social conditioning, beliefs, motivations, emotions, and the mysterious activity of “chemistry” between people. Sex is seldom about simple pleasure. To be mindful of our sexuality is to begin to unpack all the complexity it comes with. As the different aspects of this complex stew are seen clearly, we can learn where our freedom is found in relationship to it.

Right Concentration is the eighth and final element of the Eightfold Path. Here concentration is synonymous with a profound sense of calm and well-being. The mind that is settled and concentrated is said to be unified. This means there is a strong sense of integration or wholeness when we are concentrated. These benefits of concentration practice have a direct effect on our sexual lives. On one hand, we are much less likely to have our sexual desires motivated by the desire for recognition, belonging, security, approval, pleasure; or to avoid anxiety or unhappiness. On the other hand, it can support sexual intimacy as a vehicle for deep communication, respect, and love for our partner.

In Buddhism, monastics practice celibacy, a path which can be a meaningful and healthy path to freedom. The task for sexually active lay practitioners is to discover how their sexuality can be a meaningful and healthy part of their path to freedom. One way to do this is to apply the Eightfold Path towards a thorough investigation of our sexual lives.

—Gil Fronsdal