TLDR: Premarital sex, simply put, is sexual activity between people who are unmarried to each other. In contrast, abstinence and chastity are ideals that have been largely promoted in society and form a large part of our education systems, in particular when it comes to sexual education. Where did the Buddha stand on this?
But why is premarital sex such a big deal?
The idea of sex can be considered as a sacred act between people. In the Asian tradition, marriage and family are thought to be valuable and central to our society. Hence, everything that falls under the umbrella of marriage and family is viewed similarly. Remaining as a virgin until marriage can be seen as the symbol of purity, like a complete package deal to your husband/wife-to-be. This is generally the perception of the society at large when it comes to pre-marital sex.
In the Buddhist context, lay Buddhists would follow the moral code of conduct, specifically, the five precepts. Sexual acts would therefore tie in with the third of the five precepts, namely, undertaking the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
So what is misconduct in this context?
Broadly, sexual misconduct can be considered as having sex with an underage person, one in spiritual training/sworn on celibacy, married, or engaged person, or any act that is prohibited by the law (e.g. rape).
The purpose of precepts is to prevent us from causing harm and pain to others driven by one’s lust and gratification.
By extension, following the precepts empower us to live a life free from guilt and remorse.
Ultimately, we got to ask ourselves what the intention and purpose of the act is. The concept of misconduct or sexual activity in itself could cascade into the poisons of suffering, as described by the Buddha (greed, hatred, and delusion). This broader definition of misconduct is relevant when we examine the relationship between pre-marital sex and Buddhist values.
So in short, up to this point, yes you can. However, nothing in this world comes easy right? Likewise, ‘T&C’ applies.
So do these definitions answer the question?
We have now defined both pre-marital sex and the relevant precepts in Buddhism. In the Buddha’s time, pre-marital sex is not an issue as women were not allowed in public without a chaperone. Hence, the third precept was meant to protect women in that period. Naturally, nothing in Buddhism that we have defined so far outright prohibits pre-marital sex. Of course, this definition is non-exhaustive, but in the most general sense of the precepts, this is what they imply.
Also in general, Buddhism is a free religion in that although there is a fixed set of principles, the practitioners are at liberty to decide if they wish to adhere to them, depending on their desire to progress further in their spiritual path of practice.
The precepts are general guidelines of not harming both oneself and others.
So at least until now, there are no direct contradictions between the precepts and the act of pre-marital sex. Nevertheless, the reality is usually not that simple because there are still many indirect consequences of any act that we do, i.e. kamma.
What are the possible consequences?
While the act of pre-marital sex itself does not directly contradict Buddhist values, it is also not an action without consequences.
One obvious unintended outcome is an unplanned pregnancy.
While the pregnancy itself is fine, an unplanned one may lead to abortion, which constitutes an act of killing in Buddhism, breaking the first of the five precepts (to abstain from taking the life of another being).
Regardless of any decisions made post-pregnancy, the pregnancy itself could lead to social stigma, and that could negatively impact one’s lifestyle, especially the emotional and mental aspects.
There could also be objections from the family, leading to possible tension and in the worst-case scenario, the breaking up of a family as a new one is formed.
Depending on the stage of life in which the involved parties are in, it could also be detrimental to one’s career, both for the baby carrier and the partner. The impact on the one who is pregnant is obvious, but even for the partner, who may not have to literally carry the baby, might still have to make difficult decisions, i.e. if the individual is studying and needs to work to make ends meet.
It is important to realise that often shotgun marriages can also be a shotgun aimed at others, shattering the target and resulting in third party damage too.
There is a complexity that comes with unplanned pregnancies and can quickly cause things to spiral downhill. Both parties in a relationship need to be prepared to shoulder any responsibilities and a conversation needs to be had with regard to how comfortable everyone is with the risk.
Unplanned pregnancies are not the only possible consequence of pre-marital sex; it is simply the most commonly discussed subject matter.
Its purpose here is to inform us that while the act of pre-marital sex itself is not forbidden, chances of subsequent not-so-ideal results are high. This would contradict the Buddhists principles.
Are these consequences deal breakers?
Well, at the end of the day it depends on how comfortable each person is with the stakes involved; all hell breaks loose versus the value and pleasure of sex as part of a relationship. There are ways to mitigate these repercussions as well.
These need not be deal breakers because there are mitigating factors, like education and mutually agreed upon possible ramifications*.
*For example, in scenarios where the parties involved have communicated and are aware of the implications. As such, it will be okay if they are willing to take the risks and (possibly) responsibilities while having a comprehensive understanding of what pre-marital sex entails.
How to overcome lust?
Sexual desire is a form of craving which leads to more suffering (dukkha), and therefore needs to be minimised and extricated as a precondition for bringing dukkha to an end.
If the above factors are a “deal-breaker” for you, you can consider the following methods to rein in your biological urges or animalistic instinct.
The most common antidote taught by the Buddha for learning how to train your (inner) dragon is to contemplate on the 32 body parts and its unattractiveness.
The goal of this meditation method is to weaken your inner dragon by robbing it of reasons to find a person attractive. This allows us to see the body in a deconstructed manner, with a probing scrutiny grounded in dispassion, handicapping the dragon to regard the body as beautiful or desirable. With the right effort, infatuation can be countered.
The basis for this meditation lies in the idea that beauty is not something that one should be chasing after as the body is not permanent as we like it to be. This message is emphasised in the story of a beautiful courtesan where nobody desires her dead decaying maggot-filled corpse. Men in the kingdom would bid huge amounts for her services when she was alive but once she passed away, no one would even pay a cent to be near her body.
Alternatively, we can also examine the impermanence of the body.
This body of ours that is born is subjected to old age, sickness and eventually, death. Whatever that we viewed as appealing right now will one day change, be it whether it is due to internal or external factors.
Intricately linked to this is another story where a beauty-obsessed Queen witnessed for herself a young beautiful lady turning sickly, old and ugly and realised the valueless of the body. In the short run, we run after beauty only to be disappointed when we age.
Consequently, satisfying one’s sexual urges right now would lead to more craving, causing disappointment when the impermanent body changes.
So what does this mean in the grand scheme of things?
You are the owner and heir of your actions/kamma, it follows you like a shadow. At the end of the day, your life is your choice. The rule of thumb, if you want to uphold your precepts, is that when in doubt/scare/worried, the answer is don’t do it.
Premarital sex is a personal activity and decision, involving at least two parties. Buddhism is generally a free religion, just stay away from harming yourself and others. Avoid evil, do good, and if possible, purify your minds.
Be kind; stay safe, well and happy! Suki hontu! …
- If you are in a intimate relationship (pre-marriage), have a conversation about sex with your partner to ensure you two are aware of the consequences and also the personal boundaries
- Recall that while you two may be fine with it, there are ramifications beyond you two (family/school/career/social circles)
- When in doubt, refrain from doing it