This is member-supported content from Tricycle - A useful discussion on Zen's Third Precept: Sexual Misconduct, by Nancy Baker (supporting membership required for access). You don't have to be Zen or even Buddhist to appreciate this precept - all of us should be more aware of our sexual conduct and our embodiment of sexual ethics.
The Third Zen precept - Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, "I undertake the course of training in refraining from wrong-doing in respect of sensuality." - began in the monastic world, where celibacy was required. The rules were fairly strict (from Access to Insight, Buddhism and Sex):
Complete sexual continence is considered an essential feature of the monastic life. Intercourse of a heterosexual or homosexual character is automatically a Parajika offense. A monk who performs such an act is considered to have expelled himself from the Order, and is no longer in communion with the other monks. Any acts of a sexually unbecoming nature falling short of intercourse result in suspension and require expiation. Samaneras, or novice monks, who break their training in this respect are disrobed.Laypeople who do not participate in sexual violence (rape, molestation, incest) or psychologically coercive sexual misconduct (incest, power imbalances such teacher/student, quid pro quo situations), or morally inappropriate sexual conduct (marital affairs, lying to seduce) may feel that this precept has no relevance in their lives. Nancy Baker counters that belief:
In fact, if we look more closely, it is a subtle and interesting precept; there is more to it than first meets the eye. There are several different translations of its subject matter: “adultery,” “impure sexuality,” “sexual misconduct,” “unchaste conduct,” and “misuse of sex.” What causes the misconduct and the impurity has been translated as “attachment,” “greed,” “grasping,” and “desire.” A consideration of some of the differences among these translations actually allows us to see the richness of the precept. Here, I will examine two ways of understanding this precept: sexual misconduct and misuse of sex.The sexual misconduct point is easiest to grasp - "our conscious and unconscious impulses to take advantage of the susceptibility of others for our own emotional or physical gratification" - i.e., sex that harms others in any way.
Misuse of sex, however, relates to the impact of our sexual behavior on ourselves. In the end, it comes down the the Buddhist idea of kamma (karma). Here is more from Access to Insight's article (by M. O'C. Walshe):
We may recall that a few years ago there was a song "Money is the Root of all Evil" Some people pointed out that not money, but the love for money is the root of all evil (well, of a lot of evil, anyway). And here is the snag. Sexual pleasure (like money) is not "evil" (or unskilled), but attachment to sexual pleasure (like the love of money) is. If we can experience the pleasure without attachment we are all right; if we become attached to it, we are not "hitting the mark." Now of course it is rather difficult (to put it mildly) to experience pleasure of any sort without feeling attached to it. But attachment is kamma, and unskilled kamma at that. And the results of that will inevitably, according to Buddhism, be something unpleasant in the future.It seems to me there is, in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, an emphasis on control of desire - exercising restraint in all areas of our lives, but especially sexuality, to prevent attachment. I find that when we try to control anything that is natural in our lives - sexuality, hunger, desire, emotions - that we end up in a negative relationship with that energy - it ends up controlling us either overtly or covertly.
Many people will find this explanation novel. Some will find it puzzling. Some will undoubtedly reject it — with or without investigation — with the excuse that it is overly subtle, or arbitrary, or something of the sort. What they mean is, of course, that they find it inconvenient. But it will repay a lot of consideration and mindful investigation. Careful study, in fact, should show that it is the key to the whole problem. The matter can also be considered in terms of the law of Dependent Origination: "Contact is the basis for the arising of feeling; feeling... of craving; craving... of clinging;" etc., the ultimate outcome being of course the continued process of becoming, with all the sufferings entailed.
I propose we do not try to control our cravings, desires, and feelings (I can no more repress anger than I can sexual desire), but rather, befriend them, get to know them, and understand the role they play in our lives (positive and negative, since it will never be all one or the other). This is a different approach, but I suspect it is more likely to allow us to come into "right relationship" with our sexuality, desires, and feelings.
The Third Zen Precept
Author Nancy Baker is currently leading a Tricycle community discussion about sexual misconduct and the third Zen precept. You can join the discussion here.