Homosexuality in Buddhist Cultures

Homosexuality had existed in and been recognized as a type of sexuality by all Buddhist cultures as it has everywhere else. While it has usually been regarded with a mixture of disapproval, derision or sometimes sympathy, it has rarely been subject to severe social or legal restrictions. The traditional legal codes of neither Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos or Cambodia criminalized homosexuality. Same-sex attraction is frequently mentioned in Chinese and Japanese documents but rarely if ever gets a mention in south and south-east Asian history until the 19th century [1]

The Christian tradition of moral crusading does not fit comfortably with Buddhist attitudes to morality. Buddhism has traditionally taught and recommended its ethical values and then left it up to individuals as to whether abide by them or not, only going beyond this when behaviour harms other individuals. The laws criminalizing homosexuality in Burma and Sri Lanka owe more to British colonial attitudes than they do to traditional legal thinking. The recent campaign, rather ill-thought out and haphazard it must be said, against “gay perverts” in Sri Lanka has its origins in the recent rise of a chauvinistic nationalism which sees homosexuality as “foreign”. It may also have been encouraged to some degree by the recent and understandable concern about widespread sex tourism in the country.

Sri Lanka has been predominately Buddhist longer than any other country and has a detailed history going back to the first centuries BCE. And yet until the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th century there is only a single reference to homosexuality in the records. In the 5th century CE Buddhaghosa wrote commentaries on the Buddhist scriptures in which he explained pandakas, although in a confused and stereotyped manner. [2] In the very places where one would expect to find at least a passing reference to homosexuality the records are silent. The Upāsakajanalankara, for example, a 14th century Sri Lankan texts for lay people, includes a long and detailed section on sexual misconduct but makes no mention of homosexuality. [3] . Intense same-sex friendships such as that between Prince Manavamma and King Narasiha as recorded in the Cullavamsa were recognized and celebrated, but any suggestion of eroticism is absent [4] . Probably the first mention of homosexuality come from a Portuguese observer in the early 16th century. “The sin of sodomy is so prevalent… that it makes us very afraid to live there. And if one of the principle men of the kingdom is questioned about if they are not ashamed to do such a thing as ugly and dirty, to this they respond that they do everything that they see the king doing, because that is the custom among them.” [5] . While this claim may well be true, it should to be treated with caution. Christian missionaries have long had the habit of depicting non-Christian cultures as morally degenerate and licentious in order to justify and win support for their conversion efforts. Perhaps a more objective observer of pre-modern Sri Lanka was the 17th century Englishman John Knox who lived in the country for 20 years and spoke fluent Sinhala. Concerning the king of Kandy at that time he wrote: “Most of his Attendants are Boyes, and Young Men, that are well favoured, and of good Parentage. For the supplying himself with these, he gives order to his Dissava’s or Governors of the countreys to pick and choose out Boyes, that are comely and of good Descent, and send them to the Court. These boyes go bare-headed with long hair hanging down their backs. Not that he is guilty of Sodomy, nor did I ever hear the Sin so much as mentioned among them.” [6] .

Concerning the state of monasticism in contemporary Sri Lanka anthropologist H. L.Seneviratne writes of the “rampancy of homosexual abuse of the young in monasteries”, alleging that this is “generally taken for granted, with no notice of it being taken by either the monks or the laity”. [7] I can only say that during my own two decade experience as a monk in Sri Lanka I saw little evidence of homosexuality within the Sangha and never did I find it “taken for granted”.

Notes

  1. See Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition of China, Bret Hinsch 1992; and The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, by Tsuneo Watanabe, 1972 [back]
  2. Homosexuality as Seen in Indian Buddhist Texts’, Leonard Zwilling, in Amala Prajna: Aspects of Buddhist Studies, ed. N.H. Samtani and H. S. Prasad, 1989 [back]
  3. Upasakajanalankara: A Critical Edition and Study, by H. Saddhatissa, 1965 [back]
  4. (Cullavamsa LXXIX, 1-60 [back]
  5. Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth Century Sri Lanka, A. Strathern, 2007, p.122 [back]
  6. Robert Knox, An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon, 1681, reprint 1958, p. 35 [back]
  7. (The Work of Kings, 1999 [back]