Adultery in Buddhism


Traditional Buddhism treats adultery—sexual relations out of wedlock—as a serious transgression that furthers suffering. Viewed as harmful to oneself and others, it is typically contextualized within the framework of the third of five fundamental precepts of Buddhist morality: Buddhists must refrain from taking life, committing theft, indulging in sexual misconduct, giving false speech, and using intoxicants. These guidelines form the basis of Buddhist morality for both the laity and the clergy, and what defines sexual misconduct varies between the two groups. Monks and nuns are expected to be chaste, while the laity is, above all, enjoined to avoid sex with another’s partner—marriage or a formalized union being the proper context for sexual relations between two people. With married couples, sexual misconduct is more largely construed beyond sex and out of wedlock to include such misbehaviors as intercourse with or through an improper part of the body, at an improper place or time, or with an instrument. Overall, the primary focus of the third rule is twofold: to avoid causing harm to others through one’s sexual and deceitful behavior, and to constrain one’s own sexual desire.

The rule is contextualized by the larger Buddhist goal of minimizing all craving—that is, desire motivated by greed and selfishness, and the karmic acts that follow. The goal of freedom from craving, resulting in selflessness and compassion, operates in the sexual and interpersonal realm as in all other realms of life.

For monks or nuns to have sexual relations with another person, married or not, necessitates that the clergy member be defrocked. This insistence on celibacy and chastity among the clergy in Buddhism serves several related purposes, both religious and societal—monasteries serve as spaces for the exchange of goods between the laity and clergy, the laity providing material goods for the clergy in order that the clergy can provide spiritual goods for the laity. Celibacy facilitates the spiritual advancement of monks and nuns by freeing them from physical and mental preoccupations and attachment. Besides ministering to the needs of the laity, the clergy thus offer themselves as spiritual exemplars. The purity of the clergy enhances the spiritual benefits of the gift, thereby encouraging further largesse from the laity.

The definition of marriage for Buddhist adherents varies owing to the wide geographical and chronological expanse of the religion. As with monks and nuns, individuals in marriage are expected to give of themselves and constrain their cravings. In traditional Buddhist societies, marriage is not a religious institution but a secular one—no pan-Buddhist laws exist regulating marriage and family life. Besides monogamy, Buddhist cultures have permitted polyandry and polygamy. But despite those types of relationships, expectations hold that infidelity is not permitted for reasons that transcend cultural boundaries.

The best-known scriptural advice to the laity is the Sigalovada sutta or the “Discourse to Sigala.” Here the Buddha counsels a young man, Sigalovada, how to be successful in life according to Buddhist teachings, stating that among ways to a man’s ruin is “going to women who are dear unto others as their own lives.” In the same scripture, Buddha specifies the five ways in which a husband and wife are to interact; at the heart of the list is for each spouse to be faithful. Rather than blindly following the commandment against adultery, the motivation to be faithful lies in understanding that it is only through compassion and selflessness that one benefits others and attains salvation for oneself.

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