Thus while there is, so to speak, a considerable overlap in the content of the Third Precept with the Jewish and Christian commandment, "Thou shalt not commit adultery," there is a big difference in the spirit and approach. Since most people in the West have some Christian conditioning -- even if only indirectly -- it is as well to be clear about this. The traditional Christian view is that sexual intercourse is permissible solely within the marriage-bond. Even then the implication is that, except as a necessary means for the procreation of children, it is really rather a bad thing, and should be restricted as far as possible -- hence the debate about "the pill" and the like. Certain things such as contraception, homosexual activity, and so on are often looked on with horror and declared "unnatural" (which cannot be entirely correct since, after all, they happen!). Some of these prohibitions may today be more honored in the breach than the observance, but there is no doubt that rigid views of this sort are still widely held and officially propagated.
The inevitable reaction, encouraged by some real or alleged psychological experts, is toward an attitude of total permissiveness, in which "anything goes." As was said earlier, rigid puritanism and total permissiveness are extreme views, to neither of which the Buddhist teaching subscribes. The one is merely an inadequate reaction against the other. What we have to do -- what Buddhism in fact teaches us to do -- is to map out a sane course between the two.
Sexual Pleasure and the Concept of "Sin"
Reduced to essentials, the great debate about sex revolves, for many people, around the concept of sin. To the puritan, indulgence in sexual activity for the sake of pleasure is evil, wicked, or, as he tends to say, "sinful" (i.e., displeasing to God). To the permissivist (to coin an awkward but convenient term), this is nonsense. He probably rejects the term "sin" as meaningless, and not only sees nothing evil in sexual pleasure but regards it as highly legitimate, perhaps as the highest pleasure there is and certainly as something to which, in principle at least, everybody has a right.
Many people, coming from a more or less Christian background with at least some puritanical overtones, find the true Buddhist attitude to this problem rather difficult to see. Perhaps they have never even been given a clear explanation of it or, if they have, it may have seemed too technical for them, and they have not grasped the point. The point, in fact, is of considerable importance, so it is worthwhile attempting to make it clear. It involves a proper elementary grasp of what is meant by kamma -- something which many people, who may have been "Buddhists" for years, have never had.
We may, however, perhaps begin more profitably by considering the word "sin." "Sin" to a Christian is primarily thought of as a breach of God's commandments. This explanation is of course not wrong in terms of Christian theology, but is not applicable in Buddhism, where there are no such commandments that one can infringe. As already indicated, the so-called precepts are in fact undertakings to oneself, which is something different. They are more on a par with the instruction "Look both ways before you cross the road." Still there is much agreement between the content of the Five Precepts and some of the Ten Commandments, so it may be wise in many cases to behave accordingly, whichever formulation one follows.
However, there is another rendering of the word sin that in fact (though less well-known) comes much closer to the Buddhist view of things. In the Bible, "sin" actually renders Hebrew and Greek words which literally mean "missing the mark," i.e., behaving inadequately or unskillfully. The sinner, then, is like an unskillful archer who misses his aim (could this be the real meaning of Zen and the Art of Archery?). But this comes, surely, very close to the idea of akusala kamma or "unskilled action" in Buddhism.
The Pali word kamma (Sanskrit karma) literally means "action" (i.e., volition: cetana), which can be either skilled (kusala) or unskilled (akusala). The results of action (kamma) accrue to the doer as vipaka, which is pleasant when the action was skilled, unpleasant when it was unskilled (if I look before I cross the road, I shall get across safely, which is pleasant; if I don't look I may get run down, which is unpleasant). The feelings we experience are in fact of the nature of vipaka -- they are dependent on past kamma. And of course we are continually creating fresh kamma for a good part of our time. It should therefore be noted that the feeling of pleasure (sexual or otherwise) is not an action, but a result. There is, therefore, nothing either "skillful" or "unskillful" about experiencing such a feeling. We should therefore not regard it as either "virtuous" or "sinful." So far, so good.