Intimacy & Healthy Sexuality Research Report
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The Influence Of Thai Buddhism on
Traditional Acceptance / Encouragement vs. Modern Reform Views
BUDDHISM AND PROSTITUTION
The teachings of Buddhism can be effective tools in coping
with the problem of prostitution. Buddhist history and tradition have set an
example for us. Many well - known prostitutes during the time of the Buddha
benefited from the teaching, and their understanding of Buddhism led them to
give up prostitution. Some joined the Sangha as bhikkhunis and excelled in
spiritual development. Some became enlightened and a strong force for the
propagation of Buddhism.
But Buddhist teaching may not always perfectly
reflected in the Buddhist institution, the Sangha. There are prevalent attitudes
that continue to lead Thai society to see prostitute, and women in a negative
The Sangha maintains a very reserved attitude
towards social issues in general, including the issue of prostitution. This
social denial is partly due to the understanding, or misunderstanding, that the
Sangha should not interfere in the "worldly concerns" of laypeople.
With such an attitude, it is indeed difficult to expect any meaningful or
constructive involvement from the Sangha.
Here is a view that says Buddhism encourages prostitution:
Buddhism, the national religion of
Thailand, is a major reason that Thai women become prostitutes.
Source: Highlights from: SEX INDUSTRY REPORT posted on
soc.culture.thai newsgroup on 16 Aug 1999. The original source is not credited
and the studies quoted not footnoted. If anyone disagrees with any of the
content I will give a dissenting opinion in my Thailand report. I also found the
same report at http://wildcomputercontrol.com/thaisex.htm (link
The teachings of Buddha are inherently engrained into the Thai
culture, which are carefully followed in order to keep their karma pure. The
doctrine of karma maintains that each human act carries its own merit or
demerit. The Thai people believe that during their lives, they are in the
process of being born again. When they die, they will either be promoted to a
higher karma, or, if their soul is impure, they will be punished and
reincarnated to a lower form of life where they must learn to cleanse their
With every act they do, by helping someone, by showing
gratefulness to their parents, they are making merit, or, in other words, they
are performing actions which will purify their soul. If Thais do something which
will bring dishonor or shame to themselves or their families, they will have
made a "stain" on their karma and must therefore redeem themselves by
performing good actions, thereby cleansing their karma once again.
The trade in women in Thailand arose from social conditions
which were external to Buddhism as a body of thought, but has been consolidated
by the biases inherent in Buddhism.
It is this very fact that women want to purify their soul by
doing work which will help their families, not to escape them. The daughters
feel that by showing their gratefulness to their parents for what they have been
given, they not only have an opportunity to alleviate financial pressures on
their family, but also as a chance to purify their karma and as one more step to
reaching nirvana (the highest level of enlightenment). (Dave notes see separate
prostitution section for a fuller discussion of this tradition)
The Buddhist view of women is one which puts them on a lower
level than men. Women are looked down upon especially by monks who view them as
merely dangerous objects that provoke sexual interest in men. Buddha advises his
disciples not to look at them or talk to them. Buddhism acknowledges the view
that women's natural role is for having children, but it excludes the notion of
women being sexually desired or attractive.
The fragmented conception of the female body and the process
of biological reproduction may be regarded as one of the major sources of gender
bias which has implications for the social position of women. Although this bias
does exist in Buddhist thought, the girls enter prostitution knowing that they
are not being judged by their family... they know that they are taking the
opportunity to make merit for their family and to purify their karma.
While Buddhist attitudes prevail about women as inferior
beings, their status is karmic, or fated, and not due to a personal failing or
moral flaw. Temporary work in the sex industry may be seen as fate or karma, not
a moral flaw in the girl herself, or it may be seen as work for her family that
gains her karmic merit.
Here is a newsgroup post I
thought was interesting and confirms the existence of the above view:
Date: Thu, 19 Feb 1998 18:16:27 -1000 Subject: Buddhism and sex
I am reminded of a salutary session which one of my post graduate Thai students delivered to an undergraduate class on international tourism several years ago:
She came from northern Thailand, around Chiang Mai, and in commenting on sex tourism to Thailand she related the participation of girls from her district in the sex trade in Bangkok directly to their Buddhist beliefs.
In the first instance she said that the particular Buddhist sect followed by them was one which had females 'categorised' at a lower level than males in the stages of reincarnation towards attaining Nivarna (final reincarnation as a heavenly body entering paradise), and that females could gain additional merit by serving (servicing?) men in various ways. Merit so gained could then count towards being re-born next time around as a male. In this context, prostitution could be rationalised as an acceptable norm with a capacity to contribute to the religious objectives of the district's form of Buddhism.
In response to a student's question about the lack of use of condoms and the dangers of Aids, our Thai post-graduate said that the attitude she had encountered among prostitutes from her district was that if they died from Aids then the sooner they had the chance to be reborn as men so it was not a problem.
She also related the incidence of prostitution among these women to the need to make a sacrifice to contribute to the welfare of the family.
The totally matter-of-fact way in which she presented these views shocked our mainly Australian students, and it certainly provoked a lively discussion about sex tourism in Thailand. The emic view was one which most of our students, with their western-oriented values found difficult to take on board initially ; but it also drew the lesson of the need to be aware of the way in which we so often comment on/analyse/dismember phenomena from an etic approach and inject values which may not exist in the eyes/minds of those placed under our microscope.
The discussion pointed to the complex inter-relationship of several key factors already enumerated by Michael Hall - gender, power, sexuality, poverty - and in this case an apparent direct connection to religion as a key socio-cultural element in justifying a form of behaviour which, if stripped of this dogma underpinning it, might otherwise be regarded as less acceptable.
Regards, Trevor Sofield
View Against Prostitution
Buddhist social ethics: The case of Thailand Conduct of life
by Tavivat, Puntarigvivat Cross Currents Vol. 48 No. 3 Fall 1998
Highlights only - Full text with footnotes is at
This excerpt, with full credit, is being shared under the Fair Use provision of the U.S. Copyright laws and International treaties for educational purposes and for no financial gain.
TAVIVAT PUNTARIGVIVAT, who received his Ph.D. in religion from Temple University, is professor in the Humanities Department at Mahidol University in Thailand and was head of its Comparative Religion graduate program from 1995 to 1997. His lectures and essays on social ethics from cross-cultural and Buddhist perspectives reflect his first-hand experiences as a bhikkhu in the Thai Theravada tradition.
Traditional Buddhist concepts of moral conduct need to be reinterpreted for the modern world and integrated into a social ethical theory.
Buddhism is often criticized as a religion that, being mainly concerned with personal salvation, lacks a social ethics.
I wish to offer a challenge to Buddhist ethical values by interpreting liberation as necessarily involving social as well as personal liberation.
Social dislocation has brought about a continuing decline of rural social structures, tradition, and culture, and has created the problem of overpopulation in the big cities. Most of the young male migrants have become low-wage laborers in construction, factories, and service businesses; since the 1980s, many have left to work in the Middle East, Taiwan, Brunei, and Singapore. Many young women from the countryside, particularly from the north, have become prostitutes in Bangkok and other cities. More recently some have traveled to Japan and elsewhere to work in prostitution.
Structural Poverty: From the Perspective of Thai Prostitution
Thailand has world-wide fame- or rather shame -- for its well-established prostitution and sex industry. Many Western and Japanese male tourists go to Thailand simply for a "sex tour." Donald K. Swearer points out that although Thailand has over a quarter of a million monks in thousands of monasteries throughout the land, it still has more prostitutes than monks.] A great number of young women in Thailand, desperate in their search for a better life, have been drawn into the sex industry.
Prostitution, of course, is against the teachings of the Buddha, but the Thai sangha hierarchy has said virtually nothing about this issue.
Prostitution is basically a byproduct of unjust economic and social structures and the most obvious form of gender oppression. Although the phenomenon is well-known in Thailand, few Thai people talk about it in public. Tod and Buddhist social activists are beginning to speak up in defense of the rights of their mothers, sisters and daughters, reminding society that prostitution represents a distortion of traditional cultural values and is caused by modern structural poverty. Prostitution and other economic, social, and political problems must be addressed by a new systematic code of Buddhist social ethics which encompasses the whole range of national issues, including human rights, drug abuse, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation.
Outsiders may argue that these young women could live a simple life at home in the country, and survive by working at their traditional tasks in the household and rice fields without having to resort to prostitution. Contemporary pressures, however, are extremely powerful. Development projects undertaken by the central government have brought roads, radio, television, and popular magazines to the villages, spreading the religion of consumerism. People are no longer happy with older lifestyles. Traditional values are threatened by desperate poverty, the inability to possess land, and agribusiness; meanwhile, the new values increase the demand for consumer goods. Most rural Thai families are torn apart by these forces, and under such circumstances, it is hard for young men and women to stay home and be happy in rural areas. Today most rural villages, especially in the north and northeast, are populated only by those left behind, old people and children.
What is needed in rural Thailand today is what I call "Buddhist base community," with leadership from well-educated or well-informed Buddhist monks or laity. Such a community would seek to promote the enduring values of Thai culture, which are ultimately rooted in a religious worldview. Cultural identity would be fostered through the adaptation of such values, and Buddhist social ethics would become guidelines for action. The economic model of such a Buddhist base community would be one of relative self-sufficiency rather than market dependency. Buddhist teachings, as well as the increase in self-respect and self-confidence likely in a society based on such teachings, can reduce the impact of consumerism, which in recent years has been exacerbated by omnipresent advertising on television and radio and in popular magazines. A renewal of cultural values, along with practical advice from well-informed professionals, would help rural Thais regain economic independence and improve their physical well-being.
(Dave notes he then continues to describe a number of existing such Buddhist based communities)
Then in discussing the "precepts" of Buddhism he says:
The third precept is to refrain from sexual misconduct. Prostitution is a systematic violation of this rule, a problem Buddhists need to take more seriously. Among other things, a substantial improvement in the economic well-being of rural areas, as well as the enforcement of laws punishing profiting from the business of prostitution, are needed to reduce pressure on rural young women to resort to prostitution.
The fourth of the Five Precepts is to refrain from false speech. Buddhists need to advocate truthfulness,... (Dave notes, I included this statement briefly since it relates to honest reports like I am trying to do as have other reporters on the prostitution situation in Thailand).
Another very long, detailed , footnoted research paper on Buddhist tradition is primarily about homosexual and katoey issues, some of his points that also relate to Theravada Buddhism's overall Anti-Sex Attitude was very relevant to the prostitution issue.
Excerpts from: Male Homosexuality and Transgenderism in the Thai Buddhist Tradition
by Peter A. Jackson
Full article at http://www.enabling.org/ia/vipassana/Archive/J/Jackson/homoBuddhaJackson.html
PETER ANTHONY JACKSON Ph.D. (Melbourne, Australia) was born in Sydney in 1956 and is currently Research Fellow in Thai History at the Australian National University, Canberra. His books include Buddhadasa: A Buddhist Thinker for the Modern World (1988), Buddhism, Legitimation and Conflict: The Political Functions of Urban Thai Buddhism (1989), and Dear Uncle Go: Male Homosexuality in Thailand (1995).
Theravada Buddhism's Anti-Sex Attitude
In Buddhism all forms of sexuality and desire must be transcended in order to attain the religious goal of nibbana, literally, the extinction of suffering. The first section of the Tipitaka, 3 the Parajika Kandha of the Vinayapitaka , provides detailed guidelines on the practice of clerical celibacy in the form of often explicit examples of the types of sexual misconduct which lead to "spiritual defeat" (parajika) and automatic expulsion from the sangha. To quote an often repeated formula in this section of the Vinaya, "Whichever monk has sexual intercourse is parajika, a defeated one, and will not find communion [in the sangha]" (VinayaVol. 1, p. 27, passim). The definition of sexual intercourse (methunadhamma) given in the Vinaya reflects the strong distaste for sex within the early Buddhist tradition.
According to the canon, sexual misconduct (kamesu micchacara) should be avoided by the pious laity as well as by monks and nuns.
Buddhist tradition essentially conceives of sexual misconduct in terms of sexual relations with various types of prohibited women (agamya) and the performance of non-procreative sexual acts.
In Thailand lay sexual misconduct (kamesu micchacara) has traditionally been glossed as phit mia khon eun, "violating another person's wife," or as phit phua-mia khon eun, "violating another person's spouse (husband or wife)".
Most contemporary Thai Buddhist writers follow early Buddhist attitudes and describe sex as extremely distasteful, even for the laity. One Thai writer on Buddhism, Isaramuni, equates sexuality with tanha (Thai:
khwam-yakcraving or desire) and raga (Thai: kamnatsexual lust), which are the antithesis of the Buddhist ideal of dispassionate equanimity (Isaramuni 1989:4). And while the Vinaya in general details an explicitly clerical code of conduct, similar anti-sex attitudes are now expressed in many Thai Buddhist writers' discussions of lay sexual ethics. In a discourse on married life Phra Buddhadasa, 5 an influential reformist thinker, calls reproduction "an activity that is distasteful, dirty and tiring" (Buddhadasa 1987:24) and says that sexual desire is a defilement (Pali: kilesa) that arises from ignorance (Pali: avijja), which Buddhist doctrine generally describes as the source of human suffering. Phra Buddhadasa says that in the past people were "employed" or "engaged" (Thai: jang) by nature in the "work" (Thai: ngan) of reproducing the species, but people now "cheat" nature by using contraception and having sex without being engaged in the work of reproduction. He maintains that this "cheating," i.e. engaging in sex for pleasure rather than reproduction, is "paid back" because it causes problems such as nervous disorders, madness and physical deformities (ibid. :25).
(But sex not "sinful)
There is a close relationship between, on the one hand, those sexual activities which Buddhist teachings proscribe for lay people and which are interpreted as incurring kammic debts and, on the other hand, the traditional sexual mores and gender roles of Asian societies. A range of physical gender imbalances and sexual activities and inclinations which slip outside these traditional norms are considered to have a neutral kammic impact and are not regarded as evil or sinful. Significantly, it is violations of tabus and mores relating to potentially reproductive sexual behaviour which are proscribed in Bunmi's traditionalist Buddhist account, while behaviours and conditions without reproductive consequences... are not regarded as sinful.
Since Buddhists are taught to extend their good wishes to human and other living beings, Buddhists should sympathize with prostitutes and should not despise them, whether they may be compelled or voluntary. It is an appropriate deed to help release them from the status of being looked down upon.
The procedure to solve this problem might be carried our through the educational system, economic management, social welfare, etc., as the case may be.
Source: Mahamakuta A foundation established in support of Buddhistic education and practice
Mahamakuta Rajavidyalaya Foundaion
Under Royal Patronage
241 Phra Sumeru Rd, Bangkok 10200
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