Bohemian Buddhist Review

Buddhist Ethics, Chapter Four: Sexuality


"The principle of ahimsa [non-harming] would require that one should not intentionally harm another person [or non-human being] physically or emotionally, thus precluding rape, pedophilia, sexual harassment, and incest. Furthermore, all relationships, including sexual ones, should be informed by virtues of loving-kindness and compassion."

Imagine what a different world we'd have if everyone lived by the above!

Some of the touchiest, ouchiest hot button issues of our time -- like abortion and homosexuality -- come under the heading of sexuality. What does Buddhism have to say about them, as well as other issues?

Damien Keown, author of this particular and pithy Oxford University Press offering, proposes that there are some misleading ideas on sex and sexuality in the West due to depictions of Tibetan tantric sex and what looks like erotic art. They "only reinforce the impression that Buddhism has a more 'liberated' view of sexual ethics" than Christianity.

'Tain't necessarily so. "Westerners who turn to Buddhism in the hope of finding the endorsement of a hippy-like attitude to 'free love,' however, are likely to be disappointed." At least as far as monks and nuns are concerned, sex is taboo, and candid conversations about it are generally off limits in the somewhat more sexually-conservative Asian countries. (Not that their practices are necessarily conservative, just their conversations about it.)

Promiscuity is not approved of and so marriage is seen as the answer if one simply cannot control one's sexual desires. Interestingly, "Buddhism itself has never evolved a form of marriage ceremony and there is no 'official' Buddhist marriage service as such." Western Buddhists often cobble together a service because this is how most of us are used to tying the knot. 

Homosexuality takes us into deeper waters. While it is clearly prohibited between monks, with who knows what efficacy, Buddhism's approach to modern culture leaves the area fairly vague. HHDL has said that Buddhism adapts to its time and place. Keown writes that "As traditional Buddhism encounters a hedonistic West, where celibacy is not much in vogue [to put it mildly], this remains an urgent area for further investigation."

Whether Western Buddhists like it or not, there is much similarity between Buddhism and Christianity in terms of sexual ethics. Irresponsibility in sex can lead to great suffering, so we must examine it closely in our lives. Are we sexually grasping? Is sex a means to an end? Are we treating our potential partners as sex objects?

Also, since Buddhists believe life begins at conception, abortion is a serious matter, but the Dalai Lama has gone on record as being pro-birth control and emphasizing that the decision about whether or not to abort belongs to the mother.

In this, as in other areas, Buddhism supposes a follower who is capable of critical, independent thinking, and of applying the principle of ahimsa to oneself as well as to others.