10 December 2010

The Third Precept

MY ESSAY ON THE FIFTH PRECEPT gained the most ever comments of any post on this blog. So I thought I might continue that theme with an analysis of the third precept.

Kāmesu micchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi

I undertake the training principle of abstaining
from wrong behaviour with respect to pleasure.

This precept, like the fifth precept, excites a lot of emotion, perhaps because kāma is usually translated as 'sex' or 'sexual desire', though this is only one aspect of the word in Pāli. However PED does suggest that it is cognate with the English word whore, which originally meant 'lover', via the Gothic hōrs. In both Pāli and Sanskrit the word kāma fundamentally refers to the pleasures of the senses, to the hedonic pleasures. Of course sex is amongst the more intense sense pleasures. The use of the form kāmesu is interesting - it is a locative plural - as a literal rendering would be 'amongst pleasures'.

I wrote about micchā in one of my earlier blog posts. Contrasted with sammā (Sanskrit samyak) it means 'to go against the flow' - a metaphor drawn from the serpent-like coils of the river making it's way across the plains. It is combined with the word cāra from √car 'to move'. The IE root is *√kwel 'to roll, to move around, wheel'. In comes into Latin as colere 'to frequent, dwell in, cultivate' hence E. cultivate, colonise (L. colonus); and cult which originally meant 'tended'. The IE root also gives us the Greek polos ‘axis’, hence E. pole-star, north-pole. The Pāli cāra is an action noun meaning "walking, going, doing, behaviour". So kāmesu micchācāra is literally 'going the wrong way amongst the pleasures of the senses', or perhaps 'running amok in pleasure'.

So why do we tend to think of kāma in terms of sex? The suttas themselves already explain the third precept in terms of sex (AN 10.176, PTS v.266)

Kāmesumicchācāraṃ pahāya, kāmesumicchācārā paṭivirato hoti yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu na cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.

Giving up going the wrong way amongst the pleasures of the senses, he abstains from going the wrong way amongst the pleasures of the senses: he has no sexual intercourse [1] [with a women] who is under the protection (rakkhita) of mother, or father, or both mother and father, or brother, or sister, or relatives, or clan, rightly protected, married, or one forbidden by law [2], nor even betrothed girls. [3]

The context is a discussion between the Buddha and Cunda on the 'ten purities' (soceyyā) - which are also called 'the ten good actions' (dasa-kusala-kamma), and in the Triratna Order 'the ten precepts'. We see Indian morality of some bygone era here - women were not (wholly) autonomous, and were usually considered to be under a man's protection. One word for 'husband' was pati, which means both 'protector' and 'provider' and is cognate with English words such as pastor, pasture, and foster; and with food, forage and pantry; but also with potent, power and posse.

Viewing the third precept in terms of sex is reinforced in the Pāli Vinaya. For instance in the Alagaddūpama Sutta (MN 22) a monk called Ariṭṭha doesn't accept the Buddha's instruction that the pursuit of pleasure (kāma) is an obstacle to the spiritual life though it is not explained how that played out in his life. In Vinaya version of this story (Vin ii.25-27) Ariṭṭha is expelled from the saṅgha for refusing to renounce his wrong view. Modern exegetes assume that this was because he was having sex, even though this is not explicit in either the Alagaddūpama Sutta or the Vinaya, presumably because few other types of behaviour warrant such a severe sanction. Where the rule is codified (Vin iv.133-6) Thanissaro comments "…although the origin story makes clear that it refers at the very least to the sexual act." The Buddhist Monastic Code (chp. 8.7 #68) [my italics].

The Buddhist tradition has been largely taught and passed on by celibate men for most of it's history, and not surprisingly, it often reflects the concerns of a community of celibates. So we have a double job here in translating the precept: on one hand we have to render the actual words, with the Pāli context in mind; and on the other we need to take into account our own social mores and lifestyles to make the precept relevant to us, here and now.

In the Triratna community when we chant the precepts we follow them with positive counterparts in English, composed by the founder of our Order, Sangharakshita. The counterpart for the third precept is:

With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body.

Here we get to the nub of it. It's not so much about sex, as about our relationship to sensuous pleasures. While negatively we avoid intoxication with the sense pleasures; positively we actively seek equanimity and contentment which 'purifies' us. The point is not moralistic in the narrow sense, but aimed at preparing our minds for developing insight. A troubled or disturbed mind is not the right preparation for insight, which requires us to be still and calm, and able to stay that way for longish periods at a stretch.

The Third Precept in Practice.

In my blog post on the fifth precept I dwelt on the negative effects of alcohol from a number of different points of view. I want to look at the third precept from a different perspective. I see the precepts as attempts to make us reflect on the consequences of our actions. Often we must do this in retrospect, but as we get more experience we can usually become more pro-active. In the west we live in a glut of sensory stimulation - with the internet, the media, advertising, gross surpluses of food and ever present sexual imagery. In our world it is hard not to be intoxicated with sensory input, and in any case such intoxication is glorified - we could say that hedonism is the real religion of the West at present. So, without without attempting to be comprehensive or exhaustive, I want to look at a few ways of working with the third precept which illustrate the principle.


These days the trend in society seems to be to be to do whatever you want with no thought for the impact of your actions on others. This is evident in the ways we dress. Recently I watched a series of documentaries on young Amish people and one of the concerns expressed by the girls was not to stimulate sexual tension in the boys through dressing immodestly. I though this was quite wise, though it should work both ways. These days we are bombarded by sexual imagery, and dress codes tend towards flaunting of bodies and emphasising erogenous zones, with consequent (often intentional) stimulation of sexual desire. I find this quite difficult myself, quite counter-productive in terms of cultivating contentment. We could usefully reinvigorate modesty as a virtue for both men and women. I think this would foster contentment in society generally. It doesn't mean driving sex underground, but I do think we need to counter the prevailing trend of explicit sex everywhere you look.

However we should not confuse modesty with piety. Recently I listened to a Muslim woman on the radio claiming that wearing the hijab (a covering that leaves only the face showing) was liberating because of the gaze of men, and being judged by her looks. However in her case it meant that she, and her children, had to regularly endure verbal abuse while walking the streets. I do not for a minute condone such ignoble behaviour, but I thought she failed to see that her dress code was not modest, that on a British street a woman covered head to toe with only her face showing stands out. She was not being modest by the standards of the society she lives in, she was being ostentatious and drawing attention to her piety. It would be relatively easy to dress down and not be noticed, but in sticking to a medieval Arabian dress code she achieved precisely the opposite. I often think this of Buddhist monks. The robe was once the most humble of garments, rough cloth stained with mud to reduce it's value to nothing. But monks' robes are not modest or humble by western standards, and along with the elaborate titles that monks often adopt, seem to operate as a status symbol.

Sex in the Saṅgha

I want to say something about sex in the sangha since it's always a hot topic, and the Buddhist blogosphere has seen a lot of writing about it in the latter part of 2010. There is a disturbing tendency in the blogosphere to assume that teachers bear all of the responsibility in the relationship with their students. It's as though when we become Buddhists, when we begin to learn from a teacher, we abdicate our hard earned adult status, hand over responsibility for ourselves to these people. It seems to be assumed that the spiritual student-teacher relationship is aptly characterised in terms of unequal power. The contemporary discourse (influenced by a variety of ideologies especially the big four: Freudian, Foucauldian, Feminist, and Marxist) which characteres all relationships in terms of power goes unchallenged - the political equivalent would be an unquestioning acceptance of a Marxist doctrine that history is all about class struggle, or a Feminist argument that history is all about the oppression of women by men. These are partial views and in conflict with each other (though of course there are Marxist-Feminists as well!). Where is the critical thinking about relationships, especially teacher/pupil relationships and what they signify in Buddhist terms? Some writers have problematised seeing spiritual teachers as saints, which on one hand is useful, but on the other seems to play into a reactionary anti-authoritarian stances taken by many. The extremes are unhelpful.

Of course there are teachers who exploit their kudos to get sexual partners. But I'm also aware that students sometimes seduce teachers, or attempt to. I know that some people use sex, or the offer of it, to manipulate others. I know that people enter into sexual relationships with teachers with the expectation of receiving special status or favours. At the very least we often send out mixed signals. On the other hand I'm also aware of sexual relationships between adults students and teachers, or between sangha members, that have come entirely unproblematic. The complexity of human sexual behaviour is left out of internet discussions of sex within sanghas.

The recent responses to accusations of impropriety seem to bear none of the hallmarks of a Buddhist approach to deluded people - there is little evidence of compassion in some of the remarks being made; or at best they are strongly partisan against authority figures. On the other hand the Western values of justice are not served either - there is no day in court, no impartial weighing of the evidence, and people accused of sexual misconduct are not innocent until proven guilty. The right to a fair trial (affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Constitution) is suspended and something more like mob justice seems to dominate the proceedings.

Eating and Food

Recently I watched the film All the Presidents Men (1976), and apart from the content of the film one thing that struck me is that there were no fat people in it. I don't just mean the stars, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, I mean the supporting actors and the extras as well. I did not see one fat person. Nowadays so many of us are not just fat, but obese. I've written about the so-called 'obesity epidemic' in the UK. For the vast majority being fat means that we eat too much, and we eat the wrong kinds of foods (allowing that for some it will be a genuine medical condition). I don't advocate one meal a day or a starvation diet, but the third precept does require us to think about what we eat and why. I myself have become over-weight in the last few years and in trying to lose weight recently I have noticed a very distinct difference between hunger and craving. Eating just enough to satisfy the former is quite wholesome, responding to the latter by eating only increases dissatisfaction. It's a simple proposition, though difficult to follow through on.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

One of Sangharakshita's best known aphorisms is that Triratna Order members should "reduce input". This is related to the third precept. Constant stimulation, constant over stimulation is not good for us - and I think rising levels of mental health problems in the Western World, not to mention malaises like chronic fatigue and repetitive strain injuries, reflect this. Being ethical is it's own reward in many ways, but it also helps to prepare the mind for meditation. Over-stimulation leads to restlessness; or cycling between restlessness and torpor. By reducing the amount of input - sensory stimulation - we create a space to wind down, to allow our level of emotional arousal to return to normal. A lot of contemporary entertainment - and in this I include all forms of media including so-called 'news' - is aimed at stimulating a narrow set of emotions: fear, disgust, and anger. It's quite a pernicious influence. It's best to avoid artificially stimulating these emotions, because a mind disturbed by them is not a happy mind. I noticed after my four month ordination retreat that I could no longer stomach any movie violence. I became aware that when I watched ersatz violence, I responded as if the violence was real to some extent. On the other hand I notice that watching a wholesome comedy has a very positive effect on my mood and chronic pain.

There's a kind of story we moderns tell ourselves: that we must, through art and entertainment, confront ourselves with the most brutal and bestial side of human life. We must not flinch from depicting, and consuming the depictions of, the worst kinds of violence, the darkest side of human nature. I think this is bullshit. Art can uplift us, it can communicate a sense of positive value, it can help us to refine our sensibilities and make us more aware of others, and of virtue. Most of us don't need to wallow in the negative emotions, we need more experience of the positive emotions. I do accept that our shadow side, unacknowledged and unexamined, can be a problem, but do we go about dealing with it in the best way - aren't practices like the mindfulness of breath and mettābhavanā the way to go?


I think the main thing is to take the time to observe the cause and effect of stimuli. Does a particular kind of stimulus, or a particular activity lead to more contentment, or to less? Does it lead to a reduction in craving or an increase? We Buddhists need to address our constant intoxication with the senses. We have an imperative to approach life this way. We're simply not going to make progress without seriously asking, and soberly answering, these questions. As I always say "there are no rules in Buddhism", but what we do have is the stark realisation that every action of body, speech and mind has consequences, and that we ourselves are responsible for the consequences of our actions. We are responsible for the state of our mind, not matter what life throws at us.


  1. cārittaṃ āpajjitā 'going to meet with', a Pāli euphemism for sex!
  2. Nyanatiloka translates saparidaṇḍā as "female convict", but I follow PED "a cert. class of women, the use of whom renders a person liable to punishment". Prostitutes are not mentioned, though they certainly existed.
  3. mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi 'under the protection of a garland', where offering a garland was a proposal of marriage.
image: psyche and eros.
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