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A New Buddhist Ethics

 copyright Robert Ellis 2008. Also available as a paperback book or pdf download.

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Chapter 3: Sexual Ethics

Sexual relationships and celibacy

The vast majority of normal mature human beings of either gender are subject to sexual desire, and it is perhaps the most powerful instinct we have and the most difficult to bring under self-conscious control. Traditional social morality has concentrated so much on the need to control this instinct through strong social conventions - even taboos - that many still associate the term “morality” immediately with sexual morality. However, in Buddhist ethics we are aiming to get to grips with reality, not necessarily to accept social morality for its own sake. We need to assess social attitudes to sex in relation to the Middle Way, neither immediately accepting nor immediately rejecting them.


Traditional Buddhism also leaves us another challenge in the area of sexual morality: that of celibate monastic life. Since the ideal in traditional Buddhism has been seen as a state of enlightenment that goes beyond sexual differentiation, those who pursued this goal most directly have been encouraged to abstain from all sexual activity. In the monastic rules not only are monks and nuns required to abstain from sexual intercourse, but even situations which might give rise to the slightest temptation, like touching a person of the opposite sex or being alone with them.


Deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition though this practice may be, nevertheless our first responsibility from the standpoint of practical Buddhist ethics is to assess whether it works. Does the practice of celibacy actually help us to get to grips with the conditioning imposed on us by sexual instincts? Does it lead us into happy and balanced relationships? Does it help us to encounter the reality of others rather than the illusions that we often have of them?


From one standpoint, celibacy seems the obvious strategy to avoid indulging and thus developing our sexual instincts. Insofar as sexual desire is a habit, we can change that habit by subjecting it to the deliberate discipline of abstention. If we can change the habit of relating to others as sexual objects, we are able to begin relating to them more straightforwardly as people. The world might well be a more compassionate place without sexual attraction in it: if instead of seeing sexual attractiveness I were to perceive the usual mixture of pleasure and suffering to be found in every person, I would have removed a source both of craving and of the hatred born of frustration when I cannot have the sexual object I crave.


However, whether celibacy works at bringing about this goal, when we look at the evidence impartially, is another matter. Certainly the discipline of celibacy, based on a vow, can help to change habits of thought, feeling, and action; but sexual feelings do not seem to be only a matter of habit. They also seem to be part of our genetic make-up, part of the very structure of our bodies. Even if we completely isolate ourselves from all sources of sexual stimulation (which, practically speaking, is very difficult), new objects may start to become attractive, or we may simply start fantasising based on previous experience.


So sexual desire is not easily overcome simply by denying its fulfilment. This is not to say that celibacy never works or that, whether adopted temporarily or permanently, it might not help people to change their habits in the way that sexual instinct is channelled. However, it seems that celibacy is not merely a matter of abstention, but requires constant active awareness and vigilance in regard to the direction of one’s energies. For a celibate, energies that are habitually diverted into sexual channels need to be constantly diverted into more subtle channels before they reach a sexual form of expression. This is a very demanding practice for which few of us are ready.


It also seems to be very easy to deceive oneself about one’s readiness for celibacy, and to adopt it prematurely or simply to fit a social expectation. When this happens it seems to become a dangerous practice liable to lead to hypocrisy at best, extremes such as child abuse at worst (as has been seen recently in many cases involving Roman Catholic priests). There seems to be evidence of hypocrisy developing in the Buddhist monastic tradition as well as in the Christian[14].


To conclude on the issue of celibacy, then, it seems that to have a religious institution such as monasticism requiring celibacy is contrary to the Middle Way, for although there may well be some monks or nuns capable of practising celibacy well and beneficially, that institution seems bound to lead many to adopt it prematurely in order to seek the other goals and benefits of monastic life, with hypocritical and possibly dangerous results. For this reason, if no other, the opportunity for formal commitment to the spiritual life needs to be decoupled from the requirement for celibacy, as has been done in the Western Buddhist Order.


For the majority of people who are not ready to go down the path of celibacy, then, sexual ethics remains, not as an avoidance of any sexual activity, but as the duty to follow the Middle Way within sexual activity. This is expressed in the lay tradition of Buddhism in the third of the five precepts: to abstain from sexual misconduct. Whilst this is a useful reminder for Buddhists around the world to remain aware of their actions in sexual activity, the precept itself tells us nothing about what good or bad actions consist in. For this we need to apply the Middle Way.


The Middle Way will need to be worked out in relation to a wide variety of possible contexts and types of sexual activity. There is heterosexual and homosexual activity; there is sexual activity within marriage, within a committed relationship, on a casual basis with many partners, or by oneself (masturbation); there is sexual activity that is intended to produce a child, or sexual activity using contraception; there is sexual activity with and without the free consent of both parties, or with consent but as a commercial arrangement (prostitution). All of these types of cases will be discussed to some extent in the remainder of this chapter. In all of them the principles applied will be similar to those for social relationships generally: the avoidance of dogmatic assumptions including the value of “selfishness” or “self-sacrifice”, and the need for a general extension of ego-identification. Specific to the issue of sexual relationships will be the particular condition at work here: the power of our sexual instincts, and the need to take this power into account without merely yielding to it on the one hand or merely denying its existence on the other.


Sexual relationships and power

One way in which the third precept in lay Buddhism is often interpreted is that it requires us to avoid harmful or coercive sexual activity. This can be readily justified using the Middle Way, for harmful or coercive sexual activity denies or ignores a very basic condition which is present: the existence of another human being like oneself involved in a sexual act. The denial of another in this way is not only very painful for them, but shuts off a whole area of potential sensitivity and sympathy in our own experience.


This obviously rules out the extremes of violent sexual activity such as rape, which involve no recognition of the victim as a person but treat them absolutely and literally as a sexual object. However, in less extreme cases there is often great difficulty in deciding whether or not a person consented to sexual intercourse. This is a moral difficulty which has transferred itself from morality into law and the difficulties in judging instances of so-called “date rape”, where each party has an entirely different interpretation of events. There is a similar ambiguity about many other sexual relationships and whether they can be readily identified as coercive or harmful. Our feelings about each other and about our sexual desires are notoriously unstable, and what we want one minute we may not want the next. To complicate matters we may or may not have communicated our wishes clearly to the sexual partner concerned. Even if we really did want sex to take place, and communicated it clearly, it may be harmful to us because it is psychologically or physically damaging, or carries unreasonable risks.


We tread through this minefield of ambiguities at great peril. One can make a good case for the idea that all forms of sexual activity are coercive to some extent: because we cannot tell what the other is really feeling (perhaps even they can’t) and can never truly know that they consent fully. At any moment we run the risk of quite serious bad consequences for ourselves or for someone else. Sex is not for the faint-hearted. The alternative, of course, is to run away and not engage in sexual activity, not because of a deliberate and mature choice for the alternative of celibacy, but because we cannot face up to the possibility of upsetting people so much and coming into such close, raw contact with another. But most of us are driven by a need to at least explore sexual relationships, as a whole area of human experience that will leave us immature and unfulfilled if not explored. Once one is mature enough, having the courage to begin sexual activity in some cases can be the key to many positive benefits.


So, we have to make a judgement about what kinds of sexual activity or sexual relationship are coercive or harmful. It seems fairly clear that a sexual relationship is coercive when a threat of violence or other bad consequences is involved, or when other good consequences would not be achieved without sex: for example, when a male boss takes advantage of a female employee.  Another related situation where coercion seems very likely is where there is a great imbalance of power or experience in the sexual relationship: for example, between teachers and students or between mature adults and adolescents. Regardless of the legal situation or the social conventions regarding such relationships, the weaker party is very likely to be consciously or unconsciously afraid of the stronger and avoiding bad consequences or seeking good ones, whilst the stronger party is unlikely to fully recognise the personhood or the long-term interests of the weaker. In extreme cases, such as the sexual abuse of children, it is clear that long-term psychological damage is also often inflicted.


Imbalances of power can also often occur in sexual relationships that are socially acceptable, and perhaps sanctified by marriage. The most common example of this is a man dominating a woman who has low self-esteem. In these cases the sexual relationship is coercive, not because the woman has not consented, but because her whole life has been subjugated to the man’s needs so much that she has not been able to develop her own life sufficiently. In other cases a man may be very much manipulated by a cleverer woman, so that the sexual relationship helps her develop her life and personality much more than his. The extremes of either feminist or anti-feminist dogma on this all need to be avoided so as to get to the basic need for a reasonable equality in sexual relationships.


Such equality is not to be pursued for its own sake, and can never be achieved in an absolutely pure form, but it does set up the best sorts of conditions for an extension of ego-identification. Each partner needs to accept as much as possible of him/herself and of the other. Certainly in sexual relationships either “selfishness” or “self-sacrifice” are signals of a whole person, or an important aspect of a person, not being taken into account, which is likely to lead to the long-term suffering of both. Any kind of dishonesty or lack of openness in the relationship can also have a coercive effect, since one partner is led into a relationship based on a false impression of the other, who has deliberately manipulated them into doing so.


A particular case of power inequality in sexual activity is that of prostitution, where one partner has sex with another in exchange for money. The main objection that can be made to this, it seems to me, is not the idea that selling sex is wrong in itself, but the power inequality that is involved. One can imagine some possible circumstances where selling sex might be a relatively straightforward and even friendly transaction, but in most actual cases the seller is only driven to offer their body through poverty, drug addiction, or the exploitation of a pimp. Those who take advantage of this situation are just using the coercion of money rather than other forms of coercion to gain short-term sexual satisfaction, and probably regarding the prostitute solely as a sex object. It could still be argued here that the prostitute prefers to have customers rather than not, which shows the exploitation to be systemic rather than individual. However, as I shall argue in the next chapter in relation to economic issues, a systemic exploitation is not generally more justifiable than an individual one.


A sexual relationship can also be harmful even if it is totally free of coercion. A person who knowingly runs a risk of passing on the HIV virus (or any other sexually-transmitted disease) to an innocent partner, for example, is running great risk of doing harm through the relationship. Even someone who fails to get tested when there is reason to believe they might have it and pass it on runs a similar risk of doing harm. In this kind of case it is not so much the person’s personhood that is being ignored as their long-term welfare. The Kantian test as to whether we would want other people to act in that way towards us also reveals the unjustifiability of this way of acting.


A relatively justifiable sexual relationship, then, is a voluntary and harmless one, based on as much openness and equality with the partner as possible. Probably no relationship is perfectly open and perfectly equal in every respect, and it seems inevitable that painful mistakes will be made. However, if we are to be open to the potentialities that sexual relationships open up in us, we are obliged to take the risk of beginning a sexual relationship when relative openness and equality are possible.


This probably means that sexual relationships are more likely to succeed with those quite similar to us: similar for example in intelligence, energy, taste, social confidence, income and physical attractiveness. Any of these things (and others) are possible areas for inequality, and hence for manipulation or for feelings of superiority or inferiority, which will bring coercive elements into the relationship. Of course that does not mean that inequality in one area can’t be counterbalanced in another, or that sufficient awareness can’t be brought to it to overcome the likely difficulties. People from very different backgrounds can be relatively equal in many of these respects, but to neglect the basic power-conditions operating in sexual relationships is to create conditions for coercion. The Middle Way seems to require us to take account of as many of these conditions as possible, and then take a risky leap into intimacy with another.


This will certainly sound calculating when compared with the Romantic ideal of finding one’s soul-mate, instantaneously falling in love with them, and then being happy ever after. This is not a story that very often fits in with the complex conditions surrounding sexual relationships. Romantic feelings certainly form part of the conditions that we should take into account, but they should not determine our judgement. In many respects the pattern in traditional societies, where parents made (or still make) the key decisions about the compatibility of their offspring, is more likely to lead to relatively objective decisions about compatibility than Romantic love (the modern equivalent of the traditional parental match, the dating agency, perhaps offers many similar advantages). Unfortunately the traditional pattern often involves other kinds of coercion, which I shall return to later in discussing marriage.



Homosexuality is frequently an object of moral discussion, particularly in relation to Christianity, yet from a Buddhist standpoint there is really relatively little to say about it, except to reject the dogmatic basis on which all objections to it are based. If one separates homosexuality per se from any issues about coercion in sexual relationships (discussed above) or about the degree of commitment given to them (discussed below), there is no reason to treat homosexual relationships any differently from heterosexual ones. Homosexual relationships are just as complex and variable as heterosexual ones, and may be long-term and/or short-term, voluntary or coercive to a greater or lesser extent, as heterosexual ones may.


The most common philosophical or religious objection to homosexuality is based on an appeal to natural law. This claims either that God designed men and women to have purely heterosexual relationships, or that it is only natural and therefore justifiable to have sexual relationships which might potentially produce children, which homosexual relationships (barring the application of recent advances in stem-cell technology) cannot. The appeal to God’s design obviously involves an unjustifiable dogmatic assumption: for even if you believe in God and the idea of design itself, it is just as plausible to argue that God designed some people to be homosexual. The argument that heterosexual relationships are more “natural” because they can produce children makes infertile heterosexual relationships just as “unnatural”. In any case, our estimation of what is “natural” in human relationships seems to be so much subject to our culture and upbringing that it seems to mean merely “socially acceptable” (for more discussion on the term “nature”, see the beginning of chapter 5). As gay rights campaigners often point out, homosexuality has been freely accepted in many societies, particularly that of ancient Greece. The fact that homosexuality is not (traditionally) acceptable in Western society thus tells us nothing about whether it is universally acceptable or “natural”.


Even if every society ever had always disapproved of homosexuality, it would not prove it to be wrong. Applying the Middle Way, it would need to neglect some important condition or rest on a dogmatic assumption in order to be wrong. Perhaps if the world’s human population were in danger of dying out, and it were proved that homosexuality is largely a matter of active choice rather than (as seems more likely) of deep-rooted conditioning, we could make some case that it neglected some important conditions, but neither of these is the case. Thus there is no justification whatsoever for traditionally minded Buddhists to give social convention in their societies priority over the Middle Way by calling the moral justifiability of homosexuality into question.


More positively, it seems that Buddhists should encourage homosexuals and those who know them to acknowledge and accept their sexual orientation. If those who are homosexual are to accept that aspect of themselves, it is just as important for them to do so as for heterosexuals to acknowledge their sexual desires. The extension of ego-identification, then, requires homosexuals to be able to express their sexuality and engage in sexual relationships just as freely as heterosexuals, and for heterosexuals to acknowledge them freely, as well as being open to homosexual feelings in their own experience.



By “contraception”, here, I mean any artificial means used to prevent sexual intercourse leading to pregnancy. Some forms of contraceptive, such as the condom, prevent fertilisation; some, like the pill, prevent ovulation; and others, such as the IUD, prevent a fertilised egg from implanting in the womb and beginning a pregnancy. There have been two types of moral objection to contraception.


One, represented by the Roman Catholic teaching, claims that all types of artificial contraception are wrong because they deliberately interfere with the natural purpose of sexual intercourse, which is believed to be the procreation of children. This type of objection involves an absolute rejection of the use of condoms, even when they can prevent the spread of HIV and venereal diseases as well as preventing pregnancy. This type of objection clearly rests on a dogmatic assumption of what is “natural” and also assumes that ideas about the design of our bodies by God should override all other considerations in dictating our attitudes to sexual behaviour. The results of this dogmatism may well be millions of unnecessary deaths worldwide, as Catholics that follow the Church’s teaching continue to spread HIV, when they could easily avoid doing so by using a condom. It seems quite appropriate for Buddhists to join secular critics in condemning this Catholic teaching in the strongest terms, not only for its dogmatism but for its apparent indifference to human suffering.


The second type of moral objection raises no objection to condoms or the pill, but objects to contraceptives that prevent implantation in the womb, on the grounds that these deliberately prevent a fertilised egg with a complete set of human genes from developing into a person. Those who raise this type of objection tend to be anti-abortionists who believe that human personhood begins at conception, so that as soon as a sperm fertilises an egg we should treat the resulting creature as a person. For those who take this view, the use of a condom or the pill is guiltless, but the use of a morning-after pill or an IUD, like the use of abortion later in a pregnancy, is murder, for it deliberately eliminates a person or persons.


There may well be traditional Buddhists who also take this view, since in traditional Buddhist rebirth belief, a person transmigrating from an old life enters a new body at the point of fertilisation. If you take this belief literally, as soon as a sperm fertilises an egg, a set of karmic formations from another life also enters the new creature. A prevention of implantation, then, will prevent that new being developing, and will certainly be viewed as an act of violence, if not as a murder.


Here we must face a clear contradiction between a traditional Buddhist belief and the Middle Way, and make up our minds which takes precedence. We need to consider whether the traditional Buddhist belief interpreted in this way appears to make sense: not only whether it appears true in the light of scientific observation, but whether it is consistent with other key Buddhist doctrines. Scientific observation tells us that the fertilised egg is a cluster of cells, genetically human but undifferentiated and microscopic. It could turn into one individual or more than one, or in many cases naturally fail to implant in the womb. More basic and important Buddhist teachings than the rebirth doctrine also tell us that this creature has no essence: it is neither completely a person nor not completely a person, just as an adult person has no absolute fixed identity.


In these circumstances the Middle Way requires us to follow a moral policy that takes the real conditions into account as fully as possible, rather than relying on a dogmatic interpretation. The idea that the fertilised egg is already a person, whether or not this is coupled with a belief in rebirth, certainly seems to be such a dogmatic interpretation. The real conditions so far as we can determine them seem to be that the fertilised egg, despite having a unique potentiality, is not actually a person in any sense. It does not experience pleasure or pain or any degree of consciousness, is not yet a single individual, and may well perish before it begins to realise its potential to turn into a person. Nevertheless, it does have a reasonable chance of becoming a person, and this should be taken into account.


The reality of pre-natal life, as I shall also discuss later (in chapter 8) in relation to abortion, appears to be one of gradual development. A sperm or an egg by itself is one stage of development on the way to a person, a fertilised egg is the next, an implanted embryo the next, and so on. We constantly try to simplify the complexity of the world around us by dividing things into clear categories, but it seems nearer to reality (and therefore less ignorant) to recognise gradations and intermediate stages as far as we can. Scientific observation gives us the opportunity to do this much more than traditional Buddhists were ever able to do. The most basic principles of Buddhism require us not to think of a fertilised human egg as a person (or indeed, as a complete non-person).


This thought also needs to be held in relation to a recognition of all the other conditions that surround decisions about contraception. As I have already discussed in the previous chapter in relation to having children, it may well be of great moral importance to prevent pregnancy in order to avoid overpopulation and/or the birth of children who will not receive optimal care. There are other, less morally debatable, ways of preventing pregnancy, such as abstention from sex, practising only non-penetrative sex, or other methods of contraception, and these are to be preferred whenever possible, as avoiding the unnecessary elimination of fertilised human eggs. However, other circumstances may make forms of contraception that prevent implantation the only practicable ones.


The most common example of such circumstances probably involves the attitudes of sexual partners. The urge towards straightforward penetrative sex is certainly one which can be modified and controlled into more refined and safer types of sexual expression which bring just as much pleasure, but this takes self-control and practice which not everyone has yet developed. Even the use of a condom involves too much self-control for some people, and to argue simply that they should have this self-control is irrelevant and idealistic, not taking the real conditions into account. It is reasoning like this, for example, which might justify the use of Depo-Provera, the injectable contraceptive which prevents implantation as well as inhibiting ovulation and fertilisation, for young women with severe learning difficulties. Similarly, under-age teenagers need to be given access to both condoms and morning-after pills to prevent pregnancy and the spread of HIV, whether or not they should be having sex at all. It is certainly better for people to be educated into practices which prevent them needing contraceptives whenever realistically possible, but it is ignoring important conditions simply to demand that they should conform to an ideal morality which they are not at all likely to conform to. What is more, this type of idealism demands a great and unnecessary price in human suffering.


So, overall, the Middle Way seems to suggest that we avoid eternalist objections to contraception based on over-idealistic and dogmatic assumptions, but that nevertheless we take into account the moral differences between types of contraceptive, and also avoid the nihilistic view that fertilised human eggs have no value or that sexual pleasure may be indulged at any cost. In our own conduct we should try to avoid contraceptives which prevent implantation where realistically possible, and to develop our character and habits in a way which allows us to move to barrier methods, to non-penetrative sexual activity, and perhaps ultimately to celibacy. However, our behaviour and our attitudes to others should realistically take into account our habitual sexual behaviour, psychology and motivation, and give priority to avoiding inappropriate pregnancy and the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. 



“Don’t knock masturbation,” Woody Allen is famously supposed to have said, “it’s sex with someone you love.” The only possible objection to it is perhaps that this is not always true. We may think of masturbation as a “selfish” activity, and certainly its self-pleasuring nature is what gives rise to social disapproval of it, but the occasions when it is not so advisable are ones when it does not show concern or regard for every part of ourselves, but rather provides a distraction from the need to give attention to our own emotional states.


The Roman Catholic objection to masturbation, as interfering with the divinely designed purpose of sexual activity, can quickly be dismissed, along with the associated objection to condom use discussed above, due to its dogmatic basis. So, there is no reason for masturbation to give rise to unreasonable guilt for Buddhists. As a sexual activity it is very unlikely to give rise to many of the types of harm that may be involved in sexual activity with a partner: there will be no inappropriate pregnancy, no sexually-transmitted diseases, and no emotional coercion of another. It is the safest possible form of sexual activity. It is this very safety, however, which may make it too easy to indulge on some occasions.


Despite the fact that another person is not involved, masturbation is still mentally and physically a sexual act. From a Buddhist perspective, where acts of the mind are not considered insignificant even if they do not appear to have a direct effect on the world, masturbation is still morally significant. It sets up habitual ways of relating to sexual activity and habitual ways of using solitary time and energy, which continue to affect our whole character. As a way of relating to sexual activity, it may set up habits of auto-eroticism that may alter the ways in which we are sexually stimulated by others. As a way of using time and energy, it may divert us from more reflective solitary activities that aid in the development of spiritual practice. Because of the overwhelming sensations of orgasm it stimulates, masturbation can be very tempting as a diversion from difficult emotions that we actually need to be aware of and to reflect upon.


These possible drawbacks to masturbation are subtle and long-term ones, but will still need to be considered. In many cases, though, masturbation must be compared to a sexual relationship with another person, and for some it may be preferable. It may help some to disengage from a relationship that has not been morally successful, or others to tolerate a gap without an active sexual relationship when they are not yet ready for celibacy. Masturbation is most likely to be a drawback when it is used for distraction, when it prevents engagement in sexual relationships which are actually needed to develop maturity, or when it delays a move towards genuine celibacy. The Middle Way, then, will involve avoiding either a censorious disapproval of masturbation or an unthinking indulgence in it, but instead cultivating aware reflection on its appropriateness in a particular personal situation.



One final area of sexual morality that relates closely to the issues surrounding social relationships is the question of whether there is a moral requirement for sexual relationships to take place within the formalised and committed relationship of marriage. Should marriage exist at all? If so, should it necessarily consist in a union of one man and one woman? Should all sex take place within it? Should all children be born within it? In the final section of this chapter I shall also consider the permanency of marriage and the issues surrounding divorce.


As a formalisation of sexual relationships, marriage appears to fulfil certain vital social needs. One of these needs is for stable and reliable care in the upbringing of children, and marriage helps to ensure this by identifying paternity clearly and ensuring that a couple are committed to staying together to provide this care. Another need is to provide reliable mutual support for each half of a couple themselves right into old age. The formalisation of a relationship geared to meet these needs, it may be argued, enlists broad social support for it to be maintained, and brings social pressure to bear against it being broken. Perhaps we need marriage as a mechanism by which society can help protect the interests of its weaker members when they are financially or emotionally dependent on the changeable wishes of stronger members. It can also be argued that marriage helps to meet personal needs, by creating a context of mutual commitment in which trust and openness can be more readily experienced than in a relationship without such a commitment.


This traditional argument has been weakened during the twentieth century by the arguments of those who have seen marriage as a mechanism of power by which the strong dominate the weak, most often as a means by which men bind women into their domestic service and ensure identifiable ownership of their children. To claim that marriage always operates in this way seems an exaggeration, but these arguments have the merit of pointing out that marriage does not always function so as to protect the interests of the weak. It also does not always support trust and openness, but rather creates a context for exploitation. An institution that might sometimes have had a socially or individually beneficial function has gathered a momentum of tradition and social convention, and depending on individual conditions may sometimes be oppressive to individuals and at other times socially vital to their welfare.


If we think in terms of the spiritual development of an individual’s character over the course of a lifetime, one can easily find cases both where marriage has assisted in this process and where it has held it back. In cases where making commitment to others, developing close relationships and caring for children have been prime areas for the growth of maturity and responsibility, marriage may very often have been more helpful than not. However, for some of a more individualistic temperament, following a social expectation of marriage may well have led either into a situation of inner or outward conflict into a life which seems closed and oppressed, without options for further individual development. This seems possible for both sexes, as a closed and oppressed life may be one devoted solely to heavy domestic responsibilities, or to earning money to support a family.


These kinds of difficulties highlight how great an undertaking marriage is, and how much it depends on the initial compatibility of the partners (see earlier in this chapter), their degree of maturity, the integration of their desires, and their worldly resources. The number of modern marriages that fail seems to have merely revealed how few people are really ready for it when they undertake it, and how much marriages in traditional society have depended on social pressure.


So, let us try to apply the Middle Way to the first question posed earlier. Should marriage exist at all? It merely existing does not necessarily make marriage oppressive, and even if as an institution it only served a minority, it would still justify the existence of marriage as an option. So, to those who wish it, there seems no reason why marriage should not be available as a socially supported mutual commitment built around a sexual relationship. How much social pressure should be used to support this institution, and how far it should be considered a necessary part of a normal course of life, is another matter.


Should it necessarily consist of a union of one man and one woman? This pattern in the West is primarily a matter of Christian tradition, and does not necessarily fit the traditions of other cultures. Polygyny and polyandry have been tolerated in other cultures (including Buddhist ones), and homosexual marriage (or something very close to it) is beginning to develop in the West, and has recently been legally recognised in the UK. Whilst polygamous relationships seem to frequently create practical problems of jealousy between spouses of the same sex, and polygyny often seems to accompany reduced status for women, there seems no reason why any of these variant forms of marriage should be considered intrinsically wrong in any way. They need to be considered on a case-by-case basis in their practical context.


Perhaps the key question, if one acknowledges the need for the existence of marriage as an institution, is how far sex should be constrained within it. The traditional arguments against sex before marriage stress the ways in which young people are not ready for the responsibilities brought by a sexual relationship (let alone children), and how premature sexualisation may undermine the development of other aspects of the character. Certainly control over one’s sexual behaviour in early life can set up good habits of civilised and restrained social behaviour and make more space for a creative, reflective or spiritual life to emerge.


However, such arguments often fail to recognise the great range of other conditions in addition to sexual restraint which are needed to develop these beneficial traits of character, and how these virtues may nevertheless still be developed in spite of the lack of it. Early sexual restraint may still generally be a good idea, but promoting marriage gives no guarantee of it, and in many cases may give rise to hypocrisy. One common instance of such hypocrisy is for such a requirement to be unequally applied to men and women, with young women’s virginity being over-emphasised and early male sexual activity hypocritically tolerated. So, in the absence of a broad culture of early sexual restraint, openly and consistently applied, there is little value in a moral ban on sexual activity beyond mid to late adolescence.


A stronger point here is that if young people are often ill prepared for sexual relationships, they are even less well prepared for marriage. Sexual relationships prior to marriage have the great value of allowing experimentation, so that young people can find out through experience how sexual relationships work, whether they are suited to them, and who they are suited to have relationships with. The guidance of adults is rarely an adequate substitute for such experience. This kind of experimentation, indeed, enables young people to decide whether they should marry at all. Though this experimentation is not without its dangers, the development of contraception and sex education has minimised them to a reasonable degree. On the whole it seems preferable, both as a way of helping characters to develop and as a way of addressing the conditions of modern life, for such experimentation to be encouraged rather than disapproved by society.


It would therefore be very unhelpful for society to try to prevent sex before marriage. If Buddhists are to support marriage as an institution, it needs to be as a mature considered choice, not as a premature social requirement. The disapproval expressed by some traditional Buddhists of sex before marriage seems to be the result of the unthinking adoption of assumptions from traditional Buddhist society, not the application of the Middle Way.


Should all children be born within marriage? Here there does seem to be a stronger case for a more traditional perspective. The secure upbringing of children does not have to be seen as the only function of marriage, but it certainly seems to be the most important one. If financial and emotional security is agreed to be an important precondition for the upbringing of children, some kind of formal agreement between the parents, at least, may well help to make sure this is provided for them. Family arrangements might still be perfectly successful whilst being very unconventional, but some measure of security in them needs to be provided.


So, it would be going too far to suggest that it is always wrong for children to be born outside marriage, but it does seem morally important that a couple who are considering having children should consider either marriage or some other kind of formal agreement which will help to provide them with a stable upbringing. Such an agreement does not, of course, guarantee that a stable, happy or successful upbringing will take place, but it provides one of the conditions that may help encourage it. Whilst single parents can also bring up children with complete success, their task is made much harder by the absence of any such agreement.


Where marriage has taken place, adultery then becomes possible. The moral blameworthiness of adultery probably depends very much on the precise arrangements involved in the marriage, and the feelings and attitudes of the partners towards sexual continence. It is problematic because it breaks the marital agreement, which is normally based on an assumption of exclusivity, is likely to create emotional suffering for the partner who is betrayed, and to give rise to strong emotions of jealousy which can be very disruptive. It can also lead to deception and secrecy between the partners. Whilst “open” relationships are possible, it is very easy to deceive oneself that one will not have feelings of jealousy that are actually very likely, and thus ignore important emotional conditions that would actually be better served by a “closed” marriage.


Sexual continence within marriage is a discipline which we probably benefit from, and it is a way of providing appropriate channelling for unruly sexual instincts. However, if we cannot maintain that continence it may be better to re-negotiate or end the marriage than multiply the future harm by deception.

This brings up issues about ending a marriage which will be discussed in the next section.


In summary, then, marriage can be seen in Buddhist terms as a negotiable contract undertaken for entirely practical reasons, of which probably the chief is the support of children. It does not need to be seen as religiously sanctioned, but certainly involves social recognition and support for a formalised sexual relationship. It could conceivably take a variety of different forms according to the circumstances. To insist, in the context of the modern world, that marriage should take a certain fixed form or that all sex should take place within it, is likely to be an eternalist position that over-idealises and fails to take all the real conditions into account. On the other hand, to claim that marriage should be entirely abolished or that it has no role in society is probably a nihilist position that fails to recognise the social need for such structures, contingent though they may be.




If we acknowledge the need for marriage and that some people will enter into marriage commitments, should they be permitted to go back on them and dissolve them? The absolute or eternalist position here would say that marriages should never be dissolved, as they are lifelong commitments. If people are allowed to dissolve lifelong commitments in this way due to passing feelings, they will no longer be lifelong. The opposed position would simply see marriage as a contract between two people, which can justifiably be dissolved by mutual agreement or when the relationship otherwise has clearly broken down.


From the position on marriage outlined in the previous section, it should be clear that Buddhists cannot regard marriage as an absolute institution. However, this by itself would not rule out the possibility of a lifelong commitment. There is no reason why people should not make lifelong and irrevocable commitments if they wish, but this is probably a greater and a higher kind of commitment than that required for marriage. If marriage is a contractual arrangement entered for practical purposes, and those purposes do not require it to be lifelong, it does not need to be lifelong. So, much depends on whether the partners regard marriage as an arrangement for the upbringing of children or for lifelong mutual security. The former might well cease or be re-negotiated when the last child reaches adulthood, but the latter needs by necessity to be lifelong. It seems a good idea for this to be specified and agreed by the partners at the time of the marriage.


In practice, the idea of a lifelong commitment flies in the face of the truth of impermanence, a core teaching of Buddhism. Who can really commit him or herself in forty or fifty years’ time, in full recognition of what this means? Even such “lifelong” agreements, it seems, in practice really ought to have an exit clause allowing for unexpected contingencies. Such an exit clause does not prevent each partner being subject to the discipline of sexual continence and personal loyalty, but it does allow for major changes in character that may make the partnership unsustainable at a later stage.


So, to object to divorce in any circumstances certainly seems to be an over-idealistic, eternalist approach. However, to object to any attempt at lifelong commitment by those who wish to make such commitment is perhaps nihilistic, and undermines the value of the discipline which the couple are undertaking in their relationship. However, the Middle Way seems to require that no marriage should be totally without an exit clause of some kind. Undoubtedly, when there are still dependent children around, such an exit clause should be used only in the greatest need when there seems to be no alternative, but there are certainly situations where children are better off with divorced parents than ones in perpetual conflict. The likelihood of such a situation can be greatly reduced by sufficient circumspection in getting married in the first place.


If marriage was a sufficiently flexible and realistically organised social institution, used with sufficient discretion, there would probably be no need for divorce, let alone painful and unpleasant contested divorces that can greatly disrupt the lives of children. However, while marriage as an institution in the West is still strongly influenced by the eternalist assumptions of Christianity and by Romantic beliefs about marriage, it is likely that people will tend to over-commit themselves and that divorce will be a natural, though regrettable, outcome which sometimes indicates a righting of the balance towards the Middle Way. In many cases divorce allows individuals who have not made an initial success of the marriage relationship to gain a new and more balanced perspective, and then approach marriage anew with more skill and care, or alternatively to then leave it behind as unsuited to their temperament.


[14] For example, see Sangharakshita’s account of his disillusionment with traditional monasticism in Forty-Three Years Ago pub. Windhorse

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A New Buddhist Ethics: quick links to other pages


1. What is Buddhist Ethics?

2. Relationships

3. Sexual Ethics

4. Economic Issues

5. Environmental Issues

6. Animals

7. Scientific Issues

8. Medical Ethics

9. Political Ethics

10. Violence

11. Arts

12. Conclusion


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