Diverse Voices

As with other religions there are different opinions within Buddhism about homosexuality. Up to now the most high profile Buddhist leader to comment on the issues involved has been the Dalai Lama. At a press conference in 1997 he said: “From a Buddhist point of view it (homosexuality)…is generally considered sexual misconduct.”

The Dalai Lama is a wise and kindly person but he is also a very traditional Tibetan in many ways – and traditional Tibetan culture, like many cultures, has a skewed and confused ideas about homosexuality. Tibetan Buddhism derives its ideas about homosexuality from Mahayana sutras and sastras, the earliest of which dates from approximately 400 year after the Buddha. By this time some strands of Indian Buddhism were being influenced by various popular Indian notions and incorporating them into themselves, sometimes with not very happy results. One such notion was that sexual acts can be judged right or wrong depending on “place, person and orifice”. Thus for example, having sex near a temple or stupa is a wrong place, with anyone other than one’s spouse is a wrong person, and anywhere other than the vagina is a wrong orifice. This is a good example of the numbering, sub-dividing, categorizing tendency that became dominant in the clerical thinking of later Buddhism. And it does not take much sense to see how unfounded it is from the Buddha’s point of view.

Exactly how does kamma distinguish one orifice from another? Other problems arise when we realize that many male homosexuals practice intercrural sex and mutual masturbation rather than penetrative sex. And exactly which sexual organ would a lesbian use to penetrate the vagina of her partner? The Dalai Lama is also reported to have said that he had difficulty imagining the mechanics of homosexual sex, saying that nature had arranged male and female organs “in such a manner that is very suitable…Same-sex organs cannot manage well.” This statement reveals the Dalai Lama’s ignorance and naivety concerning sex, and perhaps even some aspects of the Dhamma as well. Buddhist ethical judgments have nothing to do with two body-parts fitting together “properly” or not. People often clean their ears with a finger despite it not fitting into the ear canal very well. Does this mean they make negative kamma every time they clean their ears digitally? Also, the “it’s unnatural” argument is both unsound and irrelevant as far as the Dhamma is concerned. If homosexuality is unnatural then celibacy is more so and all monks are breaking the third Precept by abstaining from sex. As mentioned earlier, the Buddha’s criteria of right and wrong is not based on ideas of natural or unnatural, which are usually social constructions, but on the intention behind the act.

After the Dalai Lama’s 1997 comments he was criticized by various gay advocacy groups. Together with promoting the Dhamma, the Dalai Lama’s main purpose in touring the West is to win support for the Tibetan freedom struggle, and to this end he is anxious not to alienate anyone. As soon as he realized what he had done he called a meeting with gay and lesbian representatives, during which he expressed the “willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context”. Dawa Tsering, spokesperson for the Office of Tibet released a suitably politically correct and safe statement. “His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion and the full recognition of human rights for all.” Despite this, it is likely that the Dalai Lama continues to adhere to traditional Tibetan idea about homosexuality.

One of the most articulate western Buddhist monks, Ajahn Brahmavamso, has spoken several times about homosexuality from the Buddhist perspective. At the Global Buddhist Conference in 2000 he had this to say. “However, the studies of Buddhist meaning of the term sexual misconduct certainly does not include homosexual activities. And it’s fascinating that the Buddha was certainly aware about homosexuality in his time. There were many cases mentioned in old scriptures, especially the Vinaya… When we talk about the third Precept, it literally concerns adultery or illicit sex, especially between a man or a woman who were not married and that concern sexual relations that were considered inappropriate at that time, but it certainly does not include homosexual and lesbian activities. So when we look at the ethical issues of homosexuality, we cannot use the Five Precepts as they don’t apply. The fact that it was not mentioned was an indication that the Buddha did not think that it was that bad, or an activity to be included in the Precepts. And so we have to logically treat homosexual and lesbian relationships to the same category as heterosexual relationship. In other words, the law of kamma, the understanding of goodness and that which brings forth happiness in future lives and happiness in this life… which mean we have to look at homosexuality in the same light as heterosexuality, in other words, if its a loving, caring, non-exploitative relationship, with consenting adults at appropriate age, there seems to be nothing morally wrong with it… In fact, there are many disciples in Perth who have homosexual relationships and they are very happy to know that they are accepted into the Buddhist order, and that they can come and practice Dhamma, and indeed they are jolly good Buddhist who serves the Buddhist community in Western Australia and other places with the diligence and care which is very commendable. And they do learn from the talks and guidance of Buddhism very wonderful ways to live with their partners in a wholesome environment, in a caring relation, which have benefited themselves and others… As far as kamma is concern, it depends on how you are homosexual, not that they are homosexuals…”

Although there are a few dissenters, the majority of western Buddhist teachers and scholars agree that homosexuality as such is not immoral. Critics of this position could point out that western Buddhists are more influenced by modern liberal values than they are by authentic Buddhism, and that traditional Asian Buddhists have a very different attitude towards homosexuality. But many Asian Buddhist leaders agree with their western collogues. Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda, the Chief High Priest of Malaysia, had said: “In summary, homosexuality, like heterosexuality arises from ignorance, and is certainly not “sinful” in a Christian sense. All forms of sex increase lust, craving, and attachment to the body. With wisdom we learn to grow out of these attachments. We do not condemn homosexuality as wrong and sinful, but we do not condone it either, simply because it, like other forms of sex, delays our deliverance from Samsara.” In personal communication with Venerable Dhammananda on the question of homosexuality said to me: “I can’t see what all the fuss is over. It’s all about whether you are good, not the gender of the person you are sleeping with.”

In August 2011 the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia held a seminar called ‘Homosexuality: Controversy in the Midst of Morality and Social Values’. The three speakers, leading Malaysian Buddhists; Bhikkhuni Miao Jan, Ang Choo Hong and Yap Hok Heng; asserted that homosexuality is not contrary to Buddhist ethics, clarified various arguments opposing homosexuality, and made appeals for a better understanding of homosexuality. Other senior Asian Buddhist monks and nuns with similar attitudes include the Sri Lankan Bellanvila Sudaththa, the well-known Thai scholar-monk Bhikkhu Mettanando and Bhikkhuni Zhao Hui of Taiwan.

In October 2013 a group of mostly high profile religious leaders signed a petition urging the British Prime Minister John Cameron to rethink his plans to legalize same-sex marriage. Of the 53 signatory the only Buddhist was a Mr. John Beard, a member of the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara. Mr. Beard is not a Buddhist scholar, is little-known beyond the organization of which he is a member and does not represent the British Buddhist community or even the Theravadin community, either in an official capacity or in his opinion. No Buddhist leaders, scholars or monks signed the petition.