Mahayana Buddhism has its own viewpoints on sexuality, birth, death, and religious practices. Some topics have been discussed extensively, such as “Buddhist perspectives on same-sex marriage”, “Buddhist attitudes toward the issue of capital punishment”, and “What does Buddhism teach about euthanasia?” However, the social issue regarding sexual trade in modern Taiwan has not been seriously investigated from the perspective of Buddhism. In the field of international Buddhist studies, this ethical issue is also seldom discussed.
The “establishment of sex trade zones” is a contemporary hot potato. It is not only closely related to human ethics, but is also, ultimately, connected to human dignity, the right to have sex, and the freedom to work. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s Buddhist leaders and communities have rarely expressed their opinions on this sensitive ethical topic. In Chinese Buddhist texts, the most frequently remarked by Taiwan's scholars is Foshuo youposai wujie xiang jing (T.1476: 0943a13): “An upāsaka who has intercourse with a prostitute without paying equivalent money, breaches the third precept and cannot be exonerated; on the other hand, no precept is breached if fair payment is made.” Master Sheng Yen 聖嚴, Master Guan Hua 廣化, Yei Hai Yen 葉海煙, Kuo Zhao Shun 郭朝順and Lin Zhao Cheng 林朝成 all argue that based on the principal of Sui Fang Pi Ni 隨方毘尼 (Vinaya in accordance with the region where it is applied), the above text was only applicable in India and is not acceptable in modern Taiwan since “buying sex is not a decent behavior according to today’s Chinese customs”. Additionally, as Buddha said in Wufen lü 五分律“The rule should not be obeyed even though I made the rule if it is unacceptable from the locals’ perspective; if the local custom is prevalent, it should be followed even though it was not made by me.”
As times change, nations have become more democratic and liberal, and in Taiwan the social atmosphere has also become more open. Interpretation No. 666 of Taiwan’s Constitutional Court 釋字第六六六號解釋 indicates that “both buying and selling sex should not be fined” and “sexual trade should be legalized”. One of the Grand Justices Chen Shing Ming 陳新民 in his concurring opinions, even calls for the public to follow Master Sheng Yen’s great compassion and take care of and assist these sex workers, so that they no longer have to hide in the dark corners of society. However, after a decade, the current situation is, because of local governments’ administrative inaction, there has been no establishment of sex trade zones. Sex workers have nowhere to go and have been forced back into the dark corners again. The legal protection in attempting their freedom of work has ended in futility. Some judges and police officers also argue that “lack of a sex trade zone” and “giving punishment” at the same time is extremely unfair to sex workers.
Regarding this public policy issue, there are heated debates from the perspectives of sociology, law, and philosophy. This research intends to discuss in a Buddhist perspective. Why is the Buddhist perspective important to this sensitive issue, which relates to human ethics and human rights? The reason is that the main religious beliefs of Taiwanese people are Buddhist in a broad sense, including their folk beliefs which combine Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. In public debate in Taiwan, when there is a dispute over the application of law or when laws are not convincing enough, particularly when they are to do with conflicts of human dignity and human rights values, moral religious ethics are often cited and used as the basis for critical arguments. For example, between 2016-2018, during the debate on Taiwan’s legislation of same-sex marriage, many religious organizations, including Buddhist and Christian followers strongly expressed why they supported or opposed this legislation.
The primary question that this research intends to explore is what is Taiwan’s Buddhist attitude toward sex work and sex trade zone? Second, how do ordinary lay Buddhists understand contemporary sexual ethics? According to the approach of “lived religion” or “everyday religion”, not only the interpretations of today’s Buddhist masters will be focused, but also the spiritual life of laypersons will be investigated.