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Tackling a misunderstanding of the third precept
January 17th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Tackling a misunderstanding of the third precept
(a misunderstanding leading to the condemnation of prostitutes)

The third of the five precepts (pañca-sīlāni) of Buddhist ethics is to "refrain from sexual misconduct." Several authors have elaborated on what constitutes such a misconduct (either according to the texts in relation to North-Eastern India twenty-five centuries ago, or in a modern context) but I'll elaborate below on the usage of precepts.

A quote from Ven. Dhammika has been brought to my attention recently, which for me exemplifies how not to use precepts:
"Roughly speaking, we can say that there are two types of prostitutes: (1) those forced into prostitution by poverty or social deprivation and (2) those who choose to do it because they feel it is a convenient and easy way to make money. This first type of prostitute is called a harlot (vesiya) or a streetwalker (bandhakã) in the Buddhist scriptures while the second type is called a courtesan (ganika or nagarasobhini). The intention of the first is probably just to survive and is therefore kammically far less negative than the second whose motive might be greed, laziness or lack of self-respect. The first is not willingly involved in wrong livelihood while the second clearly is."

The quote from Ven. Dhammika refers to a general description of prostitution. As such, the quote is an example of generalisation Buddhism warns us against: it is a case of "mental fabrications" (making up categories and discriminating between them, as if these categories were 'intrinsic' and 'independent' from the context and circumstances, or as if 'intrinsic' traits and characteristics could be attached —in direct contradiction with anattā, anicca and śūnyatā).
Moreover, the quote morally condemns to various degrees all prostitutes and courtesans for "wrong livelihood", regardless of circumstances. So let's be very clear here: "the intention of the first is probably just to survive and is therefore kammically far less negative [but nonetheless negative] than the second whose motive might be greed, laziness or lack of self-respect" is an expression of misogynistic prejudice and a disgrace for any serious buddhist who would allow himself to think along the same line.

For starters, the precepts are for ourselves. Their purpose is not to condemn others (this is explicitly said in relation to the fourth precept, also included in "right livelihood"!).
Moreover, it is inappropriate to condemn anyone in relation to a vow they did not take: if a prostitute takes the third vow, then you can always ask her why she's not keeping her word… but if she didn't take the vow, then the quote is merely imposing some external precept where it does not belong. Precepts are not to be imposed on people! They are for our own cultivation, and ours only. If other people share vows with us, we can support one another, but that's conditioned by us agreeing on the method.

One has to be extremely careful with condemnations of women in Buddhism because most monks (including very senior monks) are not free from their long-ingrained sexism! Kamma relates to habits, and until a man is Awakened, he might still carry the habit of blaming women. This is notably true in Theravāda (in Thailand, because the government reinforced sexism in the saṅgha decades ago by law, but also in Myanmar and Sri Lanka) and in Tibetan Buddhism, but other forms (e.g. Zen) have not been completely immune either. The books I most recommend on this are "Dignity & Discipline — Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns" edited by Thea Mohr and Jampa Tsedroen, and "Zen Women — Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters" by Grace Schireson.

Instead of Ven. Dhammika, let's have a look at the Buddha himself.

The Buddha accepted (street) prostitutes as nuns. The Buddha also accepted courtesans as nuns (in particular many of them among the first 500 ordained nuns, because many were 'widows' after their 'husbands' had become monks!). According to the sūtras, most of these early-adopter women became arhats (so there is no particularly-negative karma associated to ex-prostitution or ex-courtesan).
The Buddha also gave precedence to a courtesan (Ambapali) over royals (the Licchavis) in the Mahaparinibbana sutta (DN 16) showing that considerations of birth, circumstances, easy survival vs. uneasy survival, are no reason to rank people. He had said so before, but he acted accordingly too. Does the Buddha condone "greed, laziness or lack of self-respect" by accepting the invitation of Ambapali? Clearly not!

What can be inferred from the commentaries on the "sexual misconduct" precept is that women were normally "under the protection" of a male (parent, brother, husband, son…) at the time and in the local context of the Buddha. So the Buddha does not condemn women for relying on prostitution: if selling sex becomes needed, it is likely a sign of failure of the 'protector', not a failure of the poor woman who suddenly has to find new ways to survive. The unwholesome habit here is likely to be on the side of the slack protector who doesn't take his responsibilities seriously.
I think the Buddha would definitely reject the transition from the prostitution, as a means for survival, to the quote of Ven. Dhammika which assigns karmic negativity onto the victim rather than the mindless 'protector'. The first of the 'perfections' of Buddhism is 'generosity': what is unwholesome is to let a woman become a prostitute simply because one refuses to share wealth with her. Lack of compassion and generosity is what is unwholesome here. Most self-righteous 'spiritual' people should prefer, if they can, employing an extra servant rather than letting her become a street prostitute! Survival is neither wholesome nor unwholesome, but turning a blind eye is unwholesome.

"Easy money" in prostitution is far from easy in reality, the personal price is high, and this notion of "easy money" is just a case of ignorance. Since when do we condemn ignorance in Buddhism? We should have compassion for an ignorant person, not issue 'karmic' judgements about them (judgements that the Buddha himself did not issue). If seeing a prostitute triggers something in you, don't blame her, but help her get off the streets. Help her for real (not just by giving a bit of money which would barely ensure her survival to the next day, just to buy yourself a conscience. If you don't, you don't! But then don't play the 'righteous' one).

Prostitutes and courtesans are suffering like everyone else. They are not temptresses, but victims of ignorance and/or victims of physical abuse. Most of what everybody does in this life is based on "greed, laziness or lack of self-respect" so let's not kid ourselves and judge others for doing so! In terms of precepts, "refrain from false speech" (4th precept) includes refraining from slander. If someone's karma is tested here, it is not the prostitute's karma but yours: are you compassionate and helping? or are you just playing the righteous card in order to wash your hands and blame an ignorant being and/or victim for her own suffering?

At the end of the day, the precepts are just a declination of one major principle, "do not harm!"
We can say: 1. do not kill, 2. do not steal, 3. do not have sexual misconduct, 4. do not slander, do not lie and 5. do not drink (because it might weaken your awareness and make you more prone to harm someone).
But all these are only an elaboration of a major unique principle: "do not harm"!

Any condemnation of another human being for her lifestyle —notably if forced, but even if 'freely' chosen (out of ignorance)— is against the primary ethical principle of Buddhism. Precepts are for our own practice, to assess and correct ourselves when looking in the mirror, and only ourselves, never others!

Take a long look in the mirror before commenting on the 'negative' karma of someone else!

#Buddhism   #Dharma   #buddhistcircle  
[ photo from  (interesting article, because from a location where there is no cultural condemnation of sex, so the article only focuses on the right question: "Is there harm? from who? by who?")]