What is a "precept"? We Buddhists are all very aware of the five precepts (ore more or less depending on what school we associate with) we have taken when we chose to become Buddhists. But it seems there is remarkably little shared appreciation of what the precepts actually involve. Are they prohibitions? Are they guidelines? Some Buddhist communities are notoriously strict - they will even filter their drinking water so as to avoid killing microbes.

Legend has it that the Buddha once said that, had he had to face another obstacle as difficult as conquering his sexual desires, he would never have attained enlightenment. I can picture the Buddha and St. Augustine (he of "Lord, make me chaste … but not just yet" fame) sitting together in their shared dharma garden fondly reminiscing about their respective struggles and victories over cups of celestial chai.

One day I would like to be able to say that I could sip the nectar of the gods with them and feel equally fond memories at what seems to me to be the most vexatious of precepts.

I wonder, how many others have found this "dreaded" third precept, of "avoiding sexual misconduct" as strewn with challenge and difficulty as I do?

What is a "precept"? We Buddhists are all very aware of the five precepts (ore more or less depending on what school we associate with) we have taken when we chose to become Buddhists. But it seems there is remarkably little shared appreciation of what the precepts actually involve. Are they prohibitions? Are they guidelines? Some Buddhist communities are notoriously strict - they will even filter their drinking water so as to avoid killing microbes. Others eat meat with a gusto to frighten Henry VIII on a Feast Day. Some are celibate, some simply say sex is fine as long as all parties are "down with the idea". Etc, etc.

For my part, I agree with those who feel that a strictly prohibitive attitude towards the precepts is unhelpful, and all too often, unhealthy. Repression only serves to limit our awareness of ourselves. As any psychologist would point out (I would hope), the principle of "Thou Shalt Not" rarely, if ever, does any one any good. In a struggle between the Will and the conditionings of the unconscious, the Will is poorly equipped to even make for an interesting contest. Guilt, shame, and discouragement emerge the only long-term victors.

In my practice as an hypnotherapist, I am well aware that "painting over an old script with a new one" rarely has any long-term benefit. So I will side with those who consider the precepts should be viewed more subtly, and more wisely. For me, I use the precepts as a departure point for meditation, having faith in taking the First Refuge, in my own Buddha Nature. My own Buddha Nature would never need to do these things the precepts warn against, so why do "I"? What is the discrepancy, where is the distance, between the current, conditioned "I", and the equally current, but apparently so distant, Buddha Nature that is truly "I"? From this point, I begin to appreciate, and develop, the value of Right View, and Right Understanding.

This tendency to view the precepts as prohibitions becomes exacerbated when we consider the Third Precept that loosely translated is "avoiding sexual misconduct". Perhaps right from the beginning, we should clearly acknowledge that our conditioning, particularly in the Anglo/Saxon/Celtic West, with our Judaeo-Christian moral injunctions and Aristotelian prejudices against bodily experience, means we are all really quite confused, guilt-ridden, and more often than not, hypocritical and neurotic when it comes to expressing our own sexuality with its all-too-often "sinful" desires.

So … how well can we consider this Third Precept? Can we approach it with a clear and non-neurotic, guilty, or obsessive view?

My initial impression when I consider this precept is that its primary focus is on self-development, rather than social responsibility. Certainly such responsibility is an indisputable element and beneficial result of the practice of this precept, but I do not think it the primary focus. I have read commentaries on this precept that focus very strongly on social responsibility and the damage that irresponsible sexuality has on society and one's community, but I almost feel such a focus is redundant. The precepts and other essential Buddhist moral teachings already make more than enough reference to not harming, to not stealing, to "maintaining a pure mind" and I'm inclined to think this precept refers to something more personal, and more immediate to self-awareness and development. This, I feel, is a precept that points primarily to personal cultivation, to a very significant personal challenge.

And it is a challenge. Should we merely take this precept and declare it to be simply an encouragement not to hurt others? Were I to apply my perceptions of the precepts as being a point of reference, a basis for meditation, on "how does my Buddha nature respond?", I believe it encourages us to look a little deeper. It certainly encourages me to look at my own cravings, my own need for possession, for ego-enhancement, for sensual experience. In short, my own inadequacies, my own lack of trust in the completeness of who or what I am.

But am I, personally, able to say that I have encouraged, or transcended, my cravings? If I am honest, I know the answer. I have, in effect, postponed my opportunity to take refuge in my Self, my Buddha Nature. Again, no crime, and I would argue, no moral failing. But, for me, certainly a missed opportunity.

When in doubt, I like to look at the Noble Eightfold Path and see how it may add light to issues such as these that can all too easily lead us into moral and intellectual cul-de-sacs.

As a counselor and case-manager I have worked with sex-offenders and one tendency of such offenders is the lack of willingness to take responsibility for their actions. This invariably seems to relate back to an incapacity to see their victims asvictims. They were "asking for it", they "deserved" it, they didn't "really mind", etc., is what I hear over and over again. One of the most common approaches to dealing with such a response is to try to encourage these offenders to "reframe" their attitude to their victims. Typically, encouraging them to see how their attitude might change if they saw these victims as someone's (especially their own) sister, mother, daughter, wife, friend, etc. Although such an approach takes considerable skill, it is precisely such an approach that is most likely to create change in attitude, change in behaviour, and acceptance of responsibility. It is, in short, training them to Right Thinking.

How is this relevant to our own cultivation in practicing this Third Precept? It is a struggle to follow this precept for many of us, quite a struggle indeed. What can the above scenario teach us? It teaches us that Right Thinking can be used to reframe our awareness of the object of our lust as something other than "object". When viewed as a real person, we may see that gorgeous focus of our desires walking down the street as something more than a simple "focus of our desires". We "reframe" their existence. We give them a dignity as a human being. They are no longer a nice "piece of ass", or "hunk", or "bit of crumpet", or whatever objectifying terms our culture might prefer.

I have a friend who takes a, shall we say, slightly different approach. When sexual obsession threatens to overcome her, she likes to look at the object of her lust and simply tell herself that this person is carrying around approximately 7 pounds of steaming faeces in there! Now, I can't say this is an approach I would recommend, as it is, at best, crass and more than a little aesthetically displeasing, and at worst, quite possibly psychologically unsound. It also fairly obviously objectifies the person to exactly the same degree, just in a different manner. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the degree to which we have control over our own thinking in regards to people as sexual objects.

For me, Right Thinking becomes Right View when provided with this example, set by the wonderful Archbishop of Racife, Dom Helder Camara, a man who (when I met him) made me weep on the spot just by being in his presence. This man seemed to me in every way a living saint, and his attitude in relation to this issue showed a perfect sense of "tathagata"; the ability to see someone precisely as they are, not conditioned by personal responses such as lust, acquisition, or exploitation.

I will quote directly from his book, "The Gospel of Dom Helder Camara";

When I was auxiliary bishop to the Archbishop of Reo de Janeiro, Cardinal Camara, a very good and very conservative man, I remember one Sunday we were driving towards Copacabana Beach. The first bikinis had begun appearing. At a certain moment a girl in a bikini crossed the road in front of the car. She had just come out of the sea. I was entranced. The water was streaming from her hair, her face, her hands. I couldn't stop looking at her. But I sensed that my cardinal was perhaps a trifle worried at the way I stared, the way I smiled. So I said, 'Cardinal, now you can see how hard it is to judge. While I was following that girl with my eyes - I tell you this before the Lord - I was thinkg: It's like that when we come out from Mass. We've been immersed in the Lord, and grace streams from our fingers, from our hands, from our whole body. I love looking at the human body. It's the masterpiece of creation. There are such beautiful faces! But the picture I was seeing was this one … of when we come out of Mass …"

Perhaps we could dispute academically whether this priest's perception was a vision of "tathagata" of pure "suchness"; after all, there is still value judgment in his perception … but certainly, there is also much of a pure and immediate response to the glory of creation. For one such as Dom Helder Camara, samsara and nirvana can easily be seen as One. He sees what would impel many (most?) of us into thoughts of lust, and sees it as akin to coming out of Mass, when one is "immersed in the Lord" …

Right Understanding helps us understand why we crave. What do we lack? When we look on someone with lust, what are we feeling we want? And by "want", we mean we feel a "need". And where we have need, we have lack. How then do we feel we have taken refuge in the Buddha?

No one can answer this question for another. It is hard enough keeping the precepts myself to then start worrying about keeping them for another. But when we feel the urge to view someone purely sexually, what is it we really want? What is the need? And then … what is lacking that makes us feel this need?

If that gorgeous, sexually attractive person wants me as well, then is my ego assuaged? Is he or she my "pearl of great price", because he or she can make me feel better about myself? Or do I want him or her, to own him or her, to acquire him or her? Would a sexual encounter in this situation prove to be an irresistible "notch on the bedhead"? A testament to my own sexual power or attractiveness? Or is it a simple animal response, where the broad shoulders, wide hips, tight buttocks or full breasts impel my purely instinctive (animal) nature to want to breed?

What is it? Whatever it is, is it something I necessarily want to encourage by submitting to the craving?

What of Right View? Could we say that where Right Thinking describes a process, Right View describes a perspective? The angle from which we approach a subject? If so, that is personal and very private, and purely a reflection of our own "evolution". For me, I would suggest that Right View here is a combination of Right Thinking and Right Understanding. And, probably, interminable efforts at Right Meditation!

Which could easily lead us to Right Effort. I have always found the New Testament passage, where Jesus apparently said that to look on a woman with lust in your heart is to have already sinned, to be particularly unhelpful, and more than a little psychologically unhealthy. I am sure that many, such as myself, saw this as a wonderful excuse to be "hung for a sheep as for a lamb". Fine, thought I, since I've already wanted to do it, I now might as well go through with it …

But let's look at this in another way, in line with what we've been discussing. For a start, let's get one piece of classic biblical mistranslation corrected - "sin", as we European purists like to pretend it to be, is not what Jesus spoke of. In his Aramaic, the term that we translate as "sin" is a technical term related to weaving, meaning to "miss a thread". Even when it was translated into Greek the term used "amritas", is an archery term that indicates "to miss the mark". When we look at passages such as this, we can remember that "sin" isn't the moral issue we tend to portray it as today. It simply denotes, at worst, a mistake, and at the least, something not very helpful.

So, back to the passage. Is there anything wrong with having a natural and instinctive response of lust at the sight of an alluring and sexually attractive person? No, of course not. God/Nature/The Tao or Dharma gave us that natural response for a very specific and good reason. We don't want to fall into the more pernicious self-indulgences we tend to get involved in -- that of sexual guilt. We are wired to feel sexual lust, and thank our lives that we do!

But the issue becomes an "issue" where our own volition, our own motivation, takes over from our natural instinct. We must remember there is a difference between compulsion and obsession; between uncontrollable desire and an "issue" we choose to have.

The Buddha, we are told, said that to conquer an army of "others" may be impressive, but to conquer oneself is the real victory.

Right Effort then can probably be best applied in a simple example. We may be walking down the street and see someone sexually appealing. We respond naturally, our hormones and chemical reactions taking place naturally. We are inclined to a lust response. Fine.

But …. What happens when we choose to look twice? At that point, a natural and healthy response becomes something we now have (or should have) conscious control over. And at such a point, We and not our instincts must bear the responsibility for all further thoughts and actions. Why do we look again? That's the question. And it is a question that bears directly on our own personal self-development.

There is no right or wrong here. But certainly, there are questions that need be asked, and answered, by each of us who chooses to try to understand, and live by, this "dreaded" third precept. ;-)

Related Reading: Do No Harm: The Sexuality of Spirituality