The Third Precept: Abstain from Sexual Misconduct

This is from a book on the precepts for lay people which was written by Shi Faxun, who has kindly given permission for us to serialise it over the coming weeks.

The Precept

Kāmesu micchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.

Conditions Under Which A Violation Is Considered to Have Occurred

• Object: An illicit partner
• Intention: Lustful intention
• The Act: The act of engaging in union
• Consequence: The acceptance of union

Sexual misconduct occurs when one has sexual relations with an illicit partner with lustful intentions. The key question is who qualifies as an illicit partner? According to the Pali text, an illicit partner is:

(1) a woman  who is under the protection of her parents or guardian, for example, a young girl .
(2)  a woman who is married or engaged to another man.  (For married women, any man other than her husband is an illicit partner.)
(3) a woman prohibited by custom and tradition, for example nuns who observe celibacy are prohibited partners under the religious rule.

Having sexual relationships with underage children constitutes sexual misconduct.  Such sexual abuse of children is extremely damaging to the child’s physical and psychological well-being. Similarly human trafficking, particularly women and children in the sex trade, is reprehensible and shows a lack of human respect and compassion. Many women and young girls are forced or sold into prostitution due to poverty.

Other times they are tricked with the promise of a job and then sold to a pimp who controls her and forces her to have sex with numerous customers. As a society we should do our best to prevent and correct such situations.

Adultery is a form of sexual misconduct because when one marries, one promises one’s spouse to be loyal to them. By committing adultery, we break that promise and betray our partner’s trust.

Sexual activity should not take place under any force, violence, or coercion, whether physical or psychological pressure. Such sexual acts are irresponsible; they are expressions of craving, violence and disrespect. When there is the element of disrespect, sex become destructive; it causes pain and suffering to both parties. Rape is not only sexual misconduct, it is also violence. The victim of rape is not to be blamed or humiliated, but treated with compassion.

Sexual activity should only take place between two mutually consenting partners and with love, respect, gentleness, compassion and loving kindness – a true expression of love.

It is also sexual misconduct when one engages a partner at an inappropriate time, such as when a woman is pregnant, or when she is nursing. It is unethical to take the mother away from the baby for sex. It is also misconduct to have sex at inappropriate places, such as at places of worship.


When the person in question is:

• Unconscious
• In a deep sleep
• Does not accept the act (non-acceptance)

If one is unconscious, in deep sleep or does not want to have intercourse, he or she does not violate the precept if someone has sex with them. However the person who forced the other person to have intercourse violates the precept.

There was a recorded incident about a Bhikkhuni who was raped. She told the Buddha about it. The Buddha asked how she felt at the time of intercourse and she replied, “Pain – like fire burning.” The Buddha then explained to her that she had not violated the precept. In fact, the man who had raped her violated the precept.

In a situation where a woman or a man is raped, if the victim permits and enjoys the intercourse, the sexual act becomes consensual and the precept is violated. However, in general, a rape victim does not enjoy this violent act. Therefore, we should avoid blaming the victim and instead teach proper sexual ethics to children as they are growing up so that they do not become perpetrators of rape.

The Intensity / Severity of Violation

• The degree of lust
• The qualities of the victims

The underlying root of violating this precept is always greed accompanied by delusion. The severity of violation is dependent on the degree of lust and the qualities of the person against whom the transgression is committed. If the lust is strong, and force is used, it is certainly more serious than when lust is weak and no force is used. The violation is certainly more severe when the transgression involves someone of high spiritual qualities rather than a partner with less developed qualities. The most serious violation is when one rapes an arahant/arahantini.

The Purpose of the Precept

• Respect for self and others’ sexual rights
• Prevention of abduction, rape and adultery
• Giving others a sense of security
• Guarding against lust and sexual desire

There are various reasons for keeping this precept. At a personal spiritual level, it is to guard against our attachment, prevent ourselves from falling into the temptations of harmful and overwhelming lust and sexual desire. At the level of personal ethics, it establishes our respect for our sexual rights and those of our sex partner. We should be responsible for our actions, and guard against irresponsible sexual relationships, that will only cause pain to both ourselves and others. For that reason, it is best if sexual activity is within the confines of love and long-term commitment.

Quotes from Scriptures

Furthermore, abandoning sexual misconduct, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from sexual misconduct. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the third gift… (AN8.39)

Third Mindfulness Training by Thich Nhat Hanh

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a long-term commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Third Precept

Is this precept still relevant in contemporary society? How should we understand the precept of sexual misconduct? What if one chooses sex outside of marriage?

With the passing of time, society changes – there are changes in family structure, in value systems and so forth. Traditionally, marriage and building a family were almost compulsory. Life was considered incomplete without marriage and family. With modernisation, such a value system has changed. Women in modern society are independent; many do not need to depend on a husband for financial and social security. It has now become a trend that marriage is no longer compulsory, but rather an option.

Regardless of societal changes, we still need to be responsible for our actions. Sex should be an expression of love and long-term commitment between two parties contributing to mental and emotional well-being. In traditional Asian societies, a “long-term commitment” was built on customary/traditional marriages. As societies modernised, legal marriages replaced traditional ones.

Today, when people choose not to marry and still want to have sex; there needs to be a sense of responsibility and commitment towards each other, and also a sense of commitment in raising offspring (in case of pregnancy), and ensuring their happiness.

We also need to value the other person and show respect towards him/her, because a sexual relationship is one that involves two people trying to bond their lives. They will share ups and downs in life; they will share a sense of intimacy beyond superficial sexual attraction.

We should use our sexuality wisely and kindly. This means abandoning any activities that could hurt others physically or emotionally. We need to check and be mindful of one’s motivation and attitude towards sex.

How do we relate to our own and others’ sexual needs? Is sexual activity an expression of love, or an expression of craving for sensual pleasure? Irresponsible sexual relationships will only cause pain and suffering to both self and others.

Most of my friends are sexually active. If I don’t act like them, they will think I am odd.

Traditionally, talking about sex has been taboo in many societies, and religion set ethical guidelines for sexual matters. As societies evolved, religion has lost much of its influence over society. Attitudes towards sex have also changed considerably over the years, with more liberal views becoming the norm, such as sex outside of marriage. In the name of “sexual liberation,” casual sex and one-night stands are openly discussed and almost encouraged. It will be helpful to reflect deeply on our own attitude towards sex and moral values – what are our influences, who is doing the talking, are these attitudes our own, or simply what society or our peers consider “cool.” Do we simply follow?

Many young people may think that a sexual act is just like any other thing they do for fun and enjoyment, and so long as both parties agree, it is okay. However, the reality is, many young people have told me that they regretted having casual sex. When we are not mentally ready enough for a sexual relationship, casual sex can increase the risk of destroying what could have been a good friendship and even our lives. Imagine what could happen if a baby was not just born, but born premature? Just like a premature baby, the hurt resulting from premature sex could be deep-seated and could remain unhealed for many years. Some young people have expressed that they lost joy in their lives as a result of the mental wounds from having a sexual relationship they were not ready for.

Just as there are restricted zones on the roads, so too do our bodies. We only allow very special persons whom we trust completely, to enter these restricted zones. It takes time to build trust and intimacy.

We need to be mindful and check ourselves, our mental attitudes, and values. Choose wisely the values you want to be influenced by – the social norms set by magazines, or the ones offered by the wise sages. Which ones will lead you to genuine happiness?

Many of my friends, including myself, have two or three sexual partners. How do you suggest I can keep the Third Precept?

(taken from Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to Be Possible, 2007, Appendix 1, p107)

When you do two or three things at the same time, like eating your dinner, watching television, and having a conversation with friends at the dinner table, you do not do any of the three things deeply. You cannot truly taste and enjoy each morsel of food that your beloved one prepared for you. You cannot give your full attention to the television programme, and you will be unable to listen carefully to what your friends are saying. It is even more difficult if you have several sexual partners at the same time. Please examine this deeply. None of your relationships will be profound. Ask your heart whether you are really happy. It may seem all right now, but are you certain that you are not causing suffering to yourself or your partners? A superficial, non-committed relationship never leads to real happiness or peace.

Shi Faxun

Shi Faxun

VENERABLE FAXUN graduated from Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1989 where she was President of the Buddhist Society. She was ordained in Taiwan in 1992 by Venerable Wu Yin of Luminary of Bhikkhuni Sangha and underwent five years o f basic monastic education in the Luminary Buddhist Institute, also in Taiwan. Upon completion of her monastic training, Venerable Faxun returned to Singapore in 1997 and served in the Sagaramudra Buddhist Society, where she conducted adult’s and children’s Dharma classes in English and Mandarin. In 2001, Venerable continued to pursue her education by doing a Bachelor of Arts and Education degree at the University of Western Australia, where she majored in linguistics and Asian studies. While in Australia, she also taught meditation at the Sagaramudra branch in Perth, which she helped to manage. In 2009, she completed her Honours Degree with a thesis entitled The “Other” Path: The Bhikkhuni Quest for Liberation. Since then, Venerable has been teaching at various Buddhist centres in Singapore, Malaysia and Western Australia, and contributing articles to Buddhist magazines.

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