Buddhism and Polyamory

The arguments against polyamory, polygamy and other plural relationships almost always comes down to religion in this country: Mormons and Muslims are wrong, one man / one woman Christians are “right”. You see this on every comment forum on every article about polygamy or polyamory on the Internet. So when I came across this article on AccessToInsight.org, a Buddhist resource, I found it interesting and thought I’d post a passage of the article here since it deals with non-monogamy, and more specifically ethical non-monogamy. In other teachings, the Buddha promotes personal responsibility for your actions and ethical treatment of others. The Buddha taught that those in relationships should not have secrets between them because secrets lead to mistrust, suspicion and jealousy; which we all know makes a relationship unbearable at best, and deadly at it’s worst.

There’s much more in the teachings of the Buddha and the writings of those that have come since, but here is the passage I came across tonight.

From “A Happy Married Life, A Buddhist Perspective, by Ven. K. Sri Dhammananda”

To the question of whether Buddhists can keep more than one wife, the direct answer is not available in the Buddha’s teaching, because as mentioned earlier, the Buddha did not lay down any religious laws with regard to married life although he has given valuable advice on how to lead a respectable married life.

Tradition, culture and the way of life as recognized by the majority of a particular country must also be considered when we practice certain things pertaining to our lives. Some religions say that a man can have only one wife whilst others say a man can have more than one wife.

Although the Buddha did not mention anything regarding the number of wives a man could have, he explicitly mentioned in His discourses that should a married man go to another woman out of wedlock, that could become the cause of his own downfall and he would have to face numerous other problems and disturbances.

The Buddha’s way of teaching is just to explain the situation and the consequences. People can think for themselves as to why certain things are good and certain things are bad. The Buddha did not lay down rules about how many wives a man should or should not have which people are forced to follow. However, if the laws of a country stipulate that marriages must be monogamous, then such laws must be complied with, because the Buddha was explicit about His followers respecting the laws of a country, if those laws were beneficial to all.

  • My understanding of Buddhism is that we westerners continually misunderstand it when we look to it for “prohibited” or “encouraged” behaviors.  The Buddha wasn’t in the commandment business.  He was more of a philosopher than a prophet.  Even the “five precepts” – the closest thing Buddhism has to “rules,” are only “rules” for monks in training.  And even then, there’s no moral valence attached to them:  they’re practical, along the lines of “wash your hands after using the toilet” if you work in a restaurant.  If you’re training to be a monk, violating the precepts simply will make it harder to do so successfully.

    Buddhism has nothing to say on sexual ethics, beyond a refinement of the observation that harming another sentient being will have an impact on the being doing the harming – using sex to harm another will have an impact on the person doing the harming.

    I think that’s it….

  • Robin

    I recently read a book called “Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between” which makes the argument that Buddhism really doesn’t take sides on whether polyamory is good or bad … it’s more about the way you do things than exactly what you do.

  • Lucius Scribbens

    Thank you for your comment.