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The 3rd precept is:

I undertake the training rule to avoid sexual misconduct.

How is this precept explained?

Marriage is defined differently in different cultures, so are the commonly accepted rules in a given society considered as non-misconduct? If not, how should one determine the scope of misconduct according to the precept?

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Buddhist are advised to stay celibate until they get married and limit themselves to one partner afterwards. That should probably close any possible loopholes one might try to find in the 3rd precept. –  Sankha Kulathantille Jun 25 at 15:30

4 Answers 4

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In MN 41 (and elsewhere), the Buddha describes sexual misconduct as follows:

He is given over to misconduct in sexual desires: he has intercourse with such (women) as are protected by the mother, father, (mother and father), brother, sister, relatives, as have a husband, as entail a penalty, and also with those that are garlanded in token of betrothal.

(Ñanamoli, Trans)

The commentary explains this passage as follows:

Māturakkhitātiādīsu yaṃ pitari naṭṭhe vā mate vā ghāsacchādanādīhi paṭijaggamānā, vayapattaṃ kulaghare dassāmīti mātā rakkhati, ayaṃ māturakkhitā nāma. Etenupāyena piturakkhitādayopi veditabbā. Sabhāgakulāni pana kucchigatesupi gabbhesu katikaṃ karonti – ‘‘sace mayhaṃ putto hoti, tuyhaṃ dhītā, aññattha gantuṃ na labhissati, mayhaṃ puttasseva hotū’’ti. Evaṃ gabbhepi pariggahitā sassāmikā nāma. ‘‘Yo itthannāmaṃ itthiṃ gacchati, tassa ettako daṇḍo’’ti evaṃ gāmaṃ vā gehaṃ vā vīthiṃ vā uddissa ṭhapitadaṇḍā, pana saparidaṇḍā nāma. Antamaso mālāguṇaparikkhittāpīti yā sabbantimena paricchedena, ‘‘esā me bhariyā bhavissatī’’ti saññāya tassā upari kenaci mālāguṇaṃ khipantena mālāguṇamattenāpi parikkhittā hoti.

Rough translation:

In the case where the father is gone, or the mother provides support such as food and clothing, the mother guards [her] thinking "I will give [her] to a good family when she comes of age." This is called "protected by the mother". By the same means "protected by the father", etc., should be understood.

When families come together and, even when the fetuses have just reached the womb, make an agreement - "If I have a son and you a daughter, let there be no getting to go to another; let her be for my son." Even in the case of a fetus that is protected thus, it is called "having a husband".

"Whoever goes to a woman of such and such a name, such a penalty is for him." Thus, a penalty is established by a village or a house, or a street; this is called "as entail a penalty."

"Even to the extent of those who are garlanded" - to the last extreme of all, with the perception that "This woman will be my wife", by tossing some garland over her head, there is "those that are garlanded".

Soooo, it doesn't seem all that culturally dependent. Some points of note are:

  1. Polygamy isn't included in the precept at all;
  2. State-condoned prostitution doesn't seem to be considered immoral either. Illegal prostitution is considered wrong, but only because of the penalty it brings.
  3. Infidelity doesn't appear either; in the Sigalovada Sutta however, the Buddha says that a wife is to be attended to "by being faithful to her". It seems likely, therefore, that the reverse of the description here is to be considered as implied; if you are in any one of the protected situations yourself, engaging in a breach, even with a woman who is not so guarded, would be immoral.

Basically, the point is that breaching an existing relationship, including parental guardianship, is a breach of the precept. It doesn't seem likely that this would be affected by cultural norms; as the Buddha notes, as long as there is a claim and it is breached, it is wrong sexuality.

It's worth noting, of course, that in (Theravada) Buddhism all intentional sexual activity is inherently immoral; this precept just attempts to lay down some general principles for those unable to commit to celibacy.

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"It's worth noting, of course, that in Buddhism all intentional sexual activity is inherently immoral; this precept just attempts to lay down some general principles for those unable to commit to celibacy." Can you give a citation for that? –  jarlemag Jun 25 at 21:06
    
Any mind state associated with sensual desire is inherently unwholesome; I guess if you could intentionally have sex without desire, it wouldn't be unwholesome, but for all intents and purposes, sex is unwholesome. –  yuttadhammo Jun 25 at 23:17
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I'm not asking about your opinion, I am asking for a source to back up the statement that "all intentional sexual activity is inherently immoral" according to buddhist doctrine. (Also, you just switched from "immoral" to "unwholesome", which are rather different terms.) –  jarlemag Jun 26 at 0:10
    
I wasn't really stating a personal opinion. Immoral and unwholesome are two translations of the same concept in Buddhism. I guess a quick source off the top of my head would be the Buddha's words that all arahants live a life of complete celibacy. –  yuttadhammo Jun 26 at 0:16
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In Theravada Buddhism, immoral and unwholesome are indeed interchangeable; on an ultimate level they refer to the same thing. –  yuttadhammo Jun 26 at 14:31

In short, sexual misconduct means performing any sexual act that will be harmful to yourself and/or others. Just because the act is consensual does not necessarily mean it won't hurt someone, as example in the case of adultery, the two people performing the act may consent to it, but it hurts another person and family. If the spouse consents and/or participates(like swinger couples for example), then it is not considered misconduct.

The Buddha advised against sexual activity with those who are "under the protection" of their family(minors), a promised or engaged person, dhamma(monks/nuns) etc.

"He avoids unlawful sexual intercourse, abstains from it. He has no intercourse with girls who are still under the protection of father or mother, brother, sister, or relative; nor with married women, nor female convicts; nor lastly with betrothed girls."

These are all situations that can cause much wide ranging trouble beyond the couple engaged in the act.

This link may be helpful for learning more about the 3rd precept, as there is much more to this precept then sexual misconduct.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/walshe/wheel225.html

"What precisely, then, does the Third Precept imply for the ordinary lay Buddhist? Firstly, in common with all the other precepts, it is a rule of training. It is not a "commandment" from God, the Buddha, or anyone else saying: "Thou shalt not..." There are no such commandments in Buddhism. It is an undertaking by you to yourself, to do your best to observe a certain type of restraint, because you understand that it is a good thing to do. This must be clearly understood. If you don't think it is a good thing to do, you should not undertake it. If you do think it is a good thing to do, but doubt your ability to keep it, you should do your best, and probably, you can get some help and instruction to make it easier. If you feel it is a good thing to attempt to tread the Buddhist path, you may undertake this and the other precepts, with sincerity, in this spirit.

Secondly, what is the scope and purpose of this precept? The word kama means in Pali "sensual desire," which is not exclusively sexual. It is here used in a plural form which comes close to what is meant by the Biblical expression "the lusts of the flesh." Greed for food and other sensual pleasure is also included. Most people who are strongly addicted to sexual indulgence are also much drawn to other sense-pleasures. Though we are here only concerned with the sexual aspect, this point should be noted. For those with any grasp at all of Buddhist principles, the basic reason for such an injunction should be immediately obvious. Our dukkha — our feeling, of frustration and dissatisfaction with life — is rooted in our desires and cravings. The more these can be brought under control, the less dukkha we shall experience. It is as simple as that. But of course, that which is simple is not necessarily easy."

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Sīlabbata-parāmāso is a fetter. Sīlabbata-parāmāso means, morality based on conformity to a social or religious standard of behavior. Based on this I would not compare the precept to "the commonly accepted rules in the society".

Combing two other answers,

In short, sexual misconduct means performing any sexual act that will be harmful to yourself and/or others.

and

The meaning of third precept is that one's actions must never be motivated by desire of sensual pleasure.

These two go hand in hand. When an individual is motivated by desire or sensual pleasure it can often be at the expense of hurting themselves and others.

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The meaning of third precept is that one's actions must never be motivated by desire of sensual pleasure.

The Pali text for third precept says:

Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi is a standard phrase that means "I undertake the training rule to abstain from ..."

The key therefore is Kāmesumicchācāra, or, parsed out, Kamesu-Micchacara.

Kam-e-su is usually translated as "sexual" and Miccha-cara as "misconduct". Such a translation, however, is severely misreading a simple literal phrase.

Miccha, the antonym of samma, generally means "wrong", "low quality", "sloppy" and literally "opposite", "contrary". Cara means "conduct", or literally "going about", "walking". So far so good.

Kama, the root of kamesu, is often translated "lust" or "sensual pleasure" but its more precise meaning is fondness (combining such elements as love, desire, and taking pleasure in) for an object of material senses -- in other words "sensual fondness" -- not sexual but sensual!

The key to understanding this phrase though is -e-su in Kam-e-su, which gives it the meaning of "out of".

Together, the phrase reads "Misbehaving out of sensual fondness" (or "Going astray out of ..."). This gives it a very different meaning than "sexual misconduct".

The idea is, when one's mind is obsessed by an object of sensual pleasure, one's ability to reason about results and side-effects of one's acts gets severely impaired. One is then prone to making bad decisions, creating suffering for oneself and others. Instead, one should never act out of mere "sensual fondness"! One should act out of right understanding, out of compassion etc.

A natural question is, why did Buddha himself explained this rule by giving examples of crude sexual misconduct? The answer is simple: he was addressing lay audience!

The monks in Buddha's sangha, as is well known, were completely prohibited from engaging in sexual intercourse (see Vinaya). More than that, they were not even allowed to be in private with persons of opposite gender! Why would Buddha make "refraining from sexual misconduct" a training rule, one of the Five Precepts(!) if it was not even applicable to his monks? The answer is clear: because this rule had a different meaning for monks than it did for laity.

Indeed, in overall context of Buddha-Dharma, abstaining from letting one's sensual urges determine one's behavior makes a lot more sense as a training rule than abstaining from sexual misconduct, especially given absolute prohibition of sex in sangha.

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