An Extra-marital relationship

A question received by Beyond the Net, answered by Major General Ananda Weerasekera

I am happily married having a harmonious relationship with my husband. However, I am involved in an extra-marital relationship with my good friend who is a bachelor and a divorcee. My overwhelming compassion for my friend who is having a difficult time in life makes it impossible for me to leave him at this point of time and his peculiarities makes it difficult for him to find another partner. Am I committing adultery in terms of Buddhism? Further, please explain whether bigamy, polygamy etc. are acceptable within the Buddhist principles.

The layman is expected to abide by the five precepts, the minimum level of Sila (morality) or restraint expected to be practiced by a Buddhist.

In terms of the five precepts, there are no restrictions to marrying and raising a family. However, a layman or lay women on the five precepts takes as his or her "voluntary oath", I shall abstain from "sexual misconduct". This is the third of the five precepts. It should be noted that what is taboo in terms of the third precept is sexual "misconduct" as against indulgence in sex.

A careful analysis of this precept reveals that like all other precepts laid down by the Buddha, this too was meant to prevent friction and disharmony within the family and to ensure social harmony which in turn would prevent internal conflict and would ultimately facilitate mental development leading towards the ultimate goal, the supreme bliss of Nibbana.

"Sexual misconduct" is defined by the Buddha as follows:

A man indulging in sexual intercourse with a women who is under the protection of -

  1. a husband
  2. a mother, father, brother, sister or other rightfully entitled guardian
  3. the laws of the land or by convention

Accordingly, a married women having a sexual relationship with a man who is not her husband would undoubtedly lead to the women and the man both committing a breach of the third precept irrespective of the fact that the man is a bachelor or a divorcee.

The word "protection" of a husband could be extended to go beyond today’s formal marriage and accommodates a relationship between man and woman established by habit and repute and would include a women who is recognised to be a consort of a man (a women who lives with a man or who is kept by a man). Reference to the women under the protection of a guardian precludes elopement or secret marriages without the knowledge of the guardian. The women protected by convention and by the laws of the land are women who are forbidden by social convention such as close relatives (i.e. sexual activity between sisters and brothers or between same sex), women under a vow of celibacy (i.e. nuns) and under-aged children etc.

The third precept from a ethical stand point seeks to protect a marital relationship from interference and disruption or to promote mutual trust and fidelity between husband and wife.

The third precept when carefully analysed seems to be directly linked to a "support system" of a woman. A protected woman is dependent for her support whether moral or material and/or for maintenance on her husband, guardian or the protector. The third precept seems to safeguard this support system, thus ensuring her safety or protection. This is more evident from the fact that during the time of the Buddha, the king despite having a harem of women was often the chief lay supporter of the Buddha and a devoted Buddhist. Some kings are reported even to have reached the fruits of the Path such as stream-entry.

In today’s context, bigamy is a criminal offence. Bigamy in essence is marrying while being married to another. To the extent of the said definition of the third precept, a man marrying another while already married as long as there is no deception about the fact that he is a married man does not lead to a breach of the third precept provided the woman of the later marriage does not belong to the protected categories.

You could apply the same principle to polygamy. The practice of having more than one wife or husband. Whilst a man may have more than one woman provided they are not "protected women" in the above sense the third precept precludes a women who is already protected by a husband having more than one man.

From the above explanation, it should be very clear to you that under the said circumstances you are committing a breach of the third precept.

"Health is the highest profit
Contentment the highest of riches
The trustworthy are the highest of kinsmen
Nibbana the highest happiness"

- Dhammapada -

In the above stanza, the Buddha emphasises the value of ‘trust’ in a relationship. "Trustworthy are the highest of kinsmen’. Which means it is the trust between two people which makes them the highest of kinsmen or greatest and closest relatives. Needless to say the value of ‘trust’ in the relationship between husband and wife.

Further in Singalovada Suthra, Buddha has enumerated certain basic obligations in the relationship between husband and wife, as follows:

There are 5 ways in which a husband should minister or look after his wife.

  1. By honouring her
  2. By not disparaging her and not using words of insult at her
  3. Not being unfaithful, by not going to wives of others
  4. By giving her the authority in administering the affairs at home
  5. By providing her with cloths and other items to maintain her beauty.

There are 5 ways in which a wife should fulfil her obligations towards her husband, which should be done with compassion.

  1. She will reciprocate by properly planning, organising and attending to all the work at home
  2. She will be kind to the servants and will look after their needs
  3. She will not be unfaithful to her husband
  4. She will protect the wealth and property which the husband has earned
  5. She will be skilful, hard working and prompt in attending to all the work she has to do.

Hence apart from being in breach of the third precept, you are clearly in breach of your moral obligation of being faithful to your husband.

You should also take this opportunity to note the deceptive nature of the mind. Our mind tends to cheat us in many subtle ways. If you reflect seriously, the seemingly overwhelming compassion for your friend, the difficult time he is under-going etc., will only proved to be excuses the mind makes for you to drift along the long drawn out samsaric tendencies and expansive tendency of sexual desires. Hence, you have to identify and guard against these subtle defilements and be satisfied with and safeguard your harmonious relationship with your husband. There are numerous other ways and means by which you can extend your love and compassion to your friend in trouble. This will ensure your happiness here and hereafter.