I am confused why in many versions of the 5 precepts I have encountered that the 5th precept is seemingly beneficial about "refraining from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness." but compared to this the 3rd precept is seemingly only about "refraining from sexual misconduct" or "refraining from sensual misconduct".

It seems to me one is to refrain from the use of intoxicating substances but sexual activity of some sort is permitted? Why is some sexual activity permitted?

I've been confused about the 5 precepts because to me it seems possible that in some instances one can cause oneself more suffering through engaging in sexual activity than through using intoxicating substances e.g. a) if I engaged in an all day oral-sex marathon compared to b) if I for pleasure went into the garden and picked 2 leaves of Melissa officinalis and made cold-brewed tea with those 2 leaves using rainwater that I had collected (brewing time 2 minutes) and had a sip of that tea.

To my knowledge option b) would be less suffering for me but wouldn't I be breaking the 5th precept ("refraining from intoxicants") if I did option b)? but if I chose option a) then according to some interpretations I would be keeping the 3rd precept ("refraining from sexual misconduct") but to me it seems I would be suffering more?

So why would it according to some interpretations of the 5 precepts seemingly be possible to keep the 5 precepts but seemingly cause myself more suffering than breaking that interpretation of the 5 precepts and choosing option b) and seemingly suffering less?

If the 3rd precept is interpreted as meaning "refraining from sensual misconduct" then what does that mean one is to refrain from besides the "prohibited sexual acts" mentioned in the suttas?

It seems that there would still be the "irrational prioritization" I described with option a) and option b) if "sensual misconduct" is defined only as the sexual acts that are explicitly prohibited as written in the suttas.

If "sensual misconduct" means something more than the sexual acts that are explicitly prohibited in the suttas then what does it mean? It seems vague (?).

If the 3rd of the 5 precepts is interpreted as meaning only "sexual misconduct" then is anything else prohibited besides what is listed as "sexual misconduct" in the suttas I know of.

Why isn't the "3rd precept" of the 5 precepts "I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual activity."?

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    In my understanding, these precepts are mainly to avoid causing damage or suffering to other through unethical and mindless deeds. It's not so much a guide to aliviatr suffering in itself; that's the purpose of the Noble Eightfold Path, with the precepts being an implicit part of the Right Action/Conduct. Kind regards! Commented Jun 28, 2019 at 23:14
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    @BrianDíazFlores Because that's an answer it would be better posted as an answer than a comment.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 5:53

8 Answers 8


Sexual misconduct is described in MN 41:

He misconducts himself in sensual pleasures; he has intercourse with women who are protected by their mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, or relatives, who have a husband, who are protected by law, and even with those who are garlanded in token of betrothal.

Firstly, this only applies to lay people.

Some of these are phrased in such a way that it applies to the cultural context of 5th century BCE India.

However, if I translate it to the modern context of today and making it gender-neutral, it is something like:

  • Sex with an underage person, who are under the guardianship of their parents by law
  • Sex with those who are under the guardianship of their relatives (i.e. they are not independent adults even if they are adults)
  • Sex with people who are married to others
  • Sex with people who are engaged to others or in a committed relationship with others
  • Sex with those not allowed by the law, for e.g. prisoners. I think this could also apply to sex with members of the monastic order. This may also apply to other contexts like teachers with their students etc.

Hence, consensual casual sex between two unmarried unattached independent lay adults, doesn't seem to be covered by this precept.

Also, using legalized prostitution doesn't seem to be covered by this precept. However, prostitutes themselves (and others working in other roles in the industry) would be violating Right Livelihood as a trade of the flesh.

The purpose of the third precept is in my opinion, to avoid and eradicate the negative states of mind (especially deception, guilt and remorse) created by cheating on a relationship or by having sex in a relationship that is forbidden or inappropriate. Somebody who cheats on their partner tends to also lie to the partner, which violates another precept on speaking the truth.

What about alcohol and drugs? The context here is that under the influence of intoxicating substances, one temporarily loses the mental capacity to discriminate between right and wrong i.e. one becomes heedless and acts without self-control. The purpose of the fifth precept is to prevent loss of self-control.

If you need to consume intoxicating substances in small quantities for medicinal reasons, in such a way that it doesn't make you heedless, then I don't see how this would violate the precept.

You must remember that the five precepts are the bare minimum when it comes to virtues.

Sensual enjoyment of the sexual act with a spouse is not forbidden for lay people. Also, alcohol and drugs are not covered by the precept for the sensual enjoyment potential, but rather for the loss of self-control. So, it is not sensual enjoyment that is the target of the Five Precepts. Sensual enjoyment is targeted by the Eight Precepts and Ten Precepts.

  • I marked this answer down because to me it did not actually translate it to the modern context of today. It just repeated what is written in the suttas. Regards Commented Jun 29, 2019 at 5:34

In the Buddha's time, for the most part, children were married off to a suitable partner by their parents when the children came of age (DN 31; AN 4.55). Until the girl was married, she did not engage in sex and was "protected" by her family, per the wording in the 3rd precept (AN 10.176). The young wife went to live in the family or clan of the husband (SN 37.3). They had children and spent their lives attending to family and clan duties. The 3rd precept was spoken in this cultural social context. It was not spoken to reflect the sexual hedonism of birth controlled sterilized 21st century society. In summary, once upon a time, women got pregnant easily when they had sex, therefore they were looked upon as wives & mothers rather than as sex objects and probably sex was engaged in relatively infrequently & cautiously (to control and avoid pregnancy). Obviously, in the Buddha's time, only relatively few people (such as the upper classes) engaged in an all day sex marathons. Therefore, there is no problem with the precepts. The problem is not discerning and understanding how freaky and abnormal 21st century dystopian sexual norms are.

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    It seems obviously the 3rd precept as written does not apply to homosexuality. The Buddha was silent on homosexuality. Therefore, homosexuality according to Buddhism will follow general principles. The general principles of Buddhism are: (i) actions primarily motivated by lust & (ii) not primarily motivated by real love & compassion; (iii) are unwholesome & will lead to suffering results. The general principles are heavy indulgence in sensuality brings little real happiness & much disappointment. Thus homosexual relationships should focus on fidelity, real love, commitment & skilful qualities Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 1:23
  • "are: (i) actions primarily motivated by lust & (ii) not primarily motivated by real love & compassion; (iii) are unwholesome & will lead to suffering results. The general principles are heavy indulgence in sensuality brings little real happiness & much disappointment." love this explanation.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 10:06
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    The need or urge for "sex" is a biological mental pressure that afflicts beings. "Marriage" is a method to deal with the urge or need so it doesn't make a greater mess or problem. In "marriage", two people learn to help, support & care for eachother, thus developing skilful qualities. Also, men & women have families with children; which helps them mature as selfless giving people. These "marriage" arrangements are better than promiscuity, where there is the continual chronic search for sexual partners & the associated despair (called "hungry ghost" in Buddhism"). Kind regards Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 21:12
  • A "loophole" certainly exists but the goal of Buddhism is not to look for loopholes. Commented Jun 30, 2019 at 21:14
  • The Buddha obviously did not focus on teaching homosexuals and others outside of the family orientated society; as shown by the teachings given in DN 31. That is why, if a person is homosexual and interested in Buddhism, they must use the general principles for guidance. The general principle is if an act is primarily motivated by lust, it is an unwholesome action. This also applies to non-married hetereosexuals. The 3rd precept is highlighting family relationships. Regards Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 1:39

In the 3rd precept is that if you are under care or protection of another party as a partner, guardian, government, religious vows, family or oneself one should not engage in sexual acts. If one bring the other person under ones care or protection through marriage then one is free to have sex provided the the other party is willing (other party does not want to protect her self from advances).

The 5th precept is that one does not take anything will reduces ones deligence, mindfulness or concentration. This also may lead to breaking the other precepts.


Householder Angus, interested,

- Namo tassa bhagavato arahato sammā-sambuddhassa -

first of all, precepts, as a means of harmlessness and therefore freedom of remorse, which is required to gain concentration, wisdom and release, has layers, starting by the most outwardly, keeping conventions in relationships outwardly, are then observed in more and more refined stages, turning more inwardly. Only once ones own mind and it's quality is known, precepts become non-hypocritical in all aspects and only if the Dhamma has been realiced, precepts become naturally.

The five precepts focus is that of a worldling (faith, dhamma-follower) to possible arrive at the path at lifetime or to gain good next existance, and the path of Dhamma is actually the observance of eight precepts, at least part-time, observing the Brahma-caria, abstaining from sense-pleasures, beginning with the Uposatha on Uposatha days and permanent for Yogies. The eight are the obsevances of a Dhammika, Upasaka, Upasika, real insiders.

For learning to observe precepts, one may take on this talk given: Obsering the (5) precepts - Einhalten der (5) Tugendregeln

A person outwardly the Dhamma-Vinaya (not instructed with the good Dhamma) might observe what ever precepts good for his particulary relationships, but this virtue is seldom the virtue of the Noble Ones and merely always hypocritical, taking side for own interests and own relations for gains.

The first stage is that of a faith-follower, simply using them as no-go by faith, as far and as often he remembers them, to make decitions. He trust that the 6 senses and it's objects are not real, no refuge and therefore harming on their sake would not have much value.

The second person is that of a Dhamma-follower, who understands by logic that the six senses and objects are not real, no refuge, and so follows likewise the first person.

Only the stream enter, one who has actually realized that the senses and there objects, and all phenomenas arising related (feeling, touch...) to them, are not real, no refuge, not satifying, subject of decay, not worthy to give into, is a person with purified virtue, keeps precepts out of understanding. Yet he still might break in not fatal amout out of affect-actions, quickly see the fault, not hide them, pardon for them, and walk on.

Only an Arahat has perfect virtue since he has not only abound holding on things, but also no more taking on them at first place.

On that matter my person had given more extended explainings in a requested Dhammatalk: Perfect virtue. (one may feel given to take birth, an account, to access)

Let my person continue here later for now.

Now let us look on the 3 prectept, which starts by not harming societies harmony, yet it is a society that nevertheless engages in sexuality. By indulging in the sense-pleasure without unfare trade, without harming the partner, without acting disturbing and fear increasing for society and others, it is enought at this point. Don't forget that intercourse means actually "marriage" and taking on responsibilities, having caused relationship. On a more refined stage, one that abstains from sensual pleasures, it becomes a matter of Brahmacariya, holy life, and also here are stages, seven counted by the Buddha, ending at the last unvirtuose life for the sake of heavenly unification:

AN 7.47: Methuna Sutta — The Discourse on Coupling

The Buddha explains that the bondage of sexuality is not just a matter of sexual intercourse. In this discourse he describe a certain Brahman the seven levels of bondage out of drive for unification.

This practice beyond just physical intercourses is that of one having reached the path to once-returner till Arahatship. Even within this seven stages, there are many aspects, only seen by one knowing mind. Engaging in normal sozialisation is also a-brahmacariya.

Now the same counts for indoxication, the 5th precept, which cause heedlessness or lack of shame and fear of wrongdoing. The pleasure of indoxicating, in and of itself, is not really that bad, but the actions which follow easy can be very harmfull. For oneself indoxication has the result that being never respected by others, that it cause stupidy and lazyness, leading to poorness in all aspects.

It starts by taking means that cause lose of moral shame, alcohol, certain drugs penetrating the body via mouth, blood or beath. Physical indoxication that causes heedlessness, lack of conscious. Intensive indulgence in sense pleasures, by the strong addiction, can cause heedlessness as well, thinking on stealing, killing... for the sake of strong beloved sense pleasure. Only if sense-desire has overcome, all indoxications, causing more or lesser shamelessness, are abound.

On the most refined level there are the three indoxications:

  • indoxication with youth
  • indoxication with health
  • indoxication with life

As long one is drunken in not seeing the first Noble truth, aging, sickness and death, the dangers and meaningless grasping after senses and there objects, one will not be perfect in leading the holy life, Brahmacariya.

Seeing now that there are so many stages and aspects, it's hard to distinguish and compare the levels of virtue beyound the three levels of still attached to sensuality, abound sensuality, and abound all desires for the world of all senses.

One possible way to distinguish those levels are the five kind of beings and six kinds in the world:

  • virtue of a worldling heading downwardly
  • virtue of a worldling heading upwardly
  • virtue of a streamwinner
  • virtue of aonce-returner
  • virtue of a no-returner
  • virtue of an Arahat

Vipassana starts with observing Silas, body, speech, and it's realted intentions. One who observes Silas serious in daily life, following the pattern given in the teachings to the Buddhas son, Rahula, is sure to arrive at Unbond and release.

Now, if having already taken refuge, taken precepts, it's good to express encouragement, possible to take refuge on it, to take Silas by heart on it, as well.

Sīlena sugatiṃ yanti. Through virtue they go to a good bourn.

Sīlena bhoga-sampadā. Through virtue is wealth attained.

Sīlena nibbutiṃ yanti. Through virtue they go to Liberation.

Tasmā sīlaṃ visodhaye. Therefore we should purify our virtue.

A possible extented, revised and more detail answer as well as given proper space to ask further and discuss, has been given here: [Q&A] Confusion about the equal value, priority, of the single 5 precepts

(Note that this gift of Dhamma is not dedicated for trade, exchange, stacks or entertainment but as a means to make merits toward release from this wheel)

  • Why is a person allowed to engage in sexual activity but not allowed to drink a small cup of weak tea?
    – Angus
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 13:35
  • One can do what ever one whats, householder Angus. One faithful observes or not, or reached integrity, doing it "naturally". As for indoxicants causing lack of shame and fear of wrong doing, especially the wrong in relation or even harmful sex-matters are fast conducted..
    – user11235
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 13:44
  • The main and always mentioned, are the first 4, the fifth is a protective addition as support of the first four.
    – user11235
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 13:46
  • Much better, of course, and more benefits from it, replacing kama, fleshly wrong engagement with abrahmacariya. Here, how ever, the 10 akusala actions, taught to a householder asking in regard of becoming in "heavens" or "hells". More benefit for one is to focus on that one does and does not like to abound and steady seeks justification why not... (self-honesty, most importand). Being able to let go of any relation-interaction for joy but not able to give up sensepleasure in this or that? Good to investigate what drives.
    – user11235
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 14:27
  • my person does not know what "weak coldbrewed tea" is. Certain fermented nourishment or medicine, actually containing small amout of alcohol, are allowed for monks and so also kind of meassure for lay-practice. Nurishment, medicine, not falling into shamelessness and fearlessness of doing wrong.
    – user11235
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 14:34

If you’re struggling with what the precepts are getting at, then they are serving their purpose. The precepts are factories of insight as much as they are training rules.

  • Sadhu, so is it: observing Silas is doing Vipassana.
    – user11235
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 3:36

The Pali Canon lays out general guidelines for goodness in AN4.201.

And what is a good person? It’s someone who doesn’t kill living creatures, steal, commit sexual misconduct, lie, or use alcoholic drinks that cause negligence.

And (SN55.37) defines the ethical conduct of a lay follower of the Buddha:

“When a lay follower doesn’t kill living creatures, steal, commit sexual misconduct, lie, or consume alcoholic drinks that cause negligence, they’re considered to be an ethical lay follower.”

Monks have their own precepts, which are stricter. For example, celibacy is required rather than simply refraining from sexual misconduct.

Precepts are guidelines for conduct. They help us become aware of and restrain non-ethical behavior. The more we live with them the more our understanding evolves. Consider sexual misconduct. If we have sex with a spouse while driving, that is sexual misconduct. If we drink cough medicine with some alcohol, it generally does not cause negligence--if it did, we would stop using that medicine. Precepts help us step back from the impulse of the moment. They help us be mindful and ethical. And because of this, they help us lessen suffering.


Perhaps it depends on whether it's the "five precepts" or "eight precepts":

The Eight Precepts are based on the Five Precepts, with the third precept extended to prohibit all sexual activity and an additional three precepts that are especially supportive to meditation practice.

Perhaps the first precepts are at least partly to protect or benefit other people -- i.e. don't kill, don't steal, don't lie, and don't break up other people's families.


In my understanding of the 3rd precept, kamesu micchacara means "acting out of fondness for sensual pleasure".

So, the rule is very clear. You should not act out of desire to indulge, but only for a noble cause. Meaning, you can have sex, or get a massage, or eat food - what matters is why. If you are getting it in order to enjoy - you are in violation.

When it comes to sex, for lay people, this translates to only having sex for procreation, and perhaps for bonding between husband and wife - but not for mere lust&pleasure. Hence the elaboration that explains that no extramarital sex is allowed, etc. - because it would obviously be for pleasure.

For monks, this translates into having no sex at all, because they have no goal of procreation or bonding, and when you eliminate these two, why else would you have sex if not for pleasure?

This also explains why high Tibetan Lamas consider it a valid spiritual practice to engage in unmarried sex with lay women. Their goal is to impregnate the women with genes that have higher odds of having an aptitude for Dharma, which makes this act motivated by a noble cause and not mere sensual desire.

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