Buddhism and Same-Sex Marriage

by Visakha Kawasaki, The Buddhist Channel, July 22, 2005

Flint, MI (USA) -- There are some interesting problems with Ven. Mettanando Bhikkhu?s article, Religion and Same-Sex Marriage (Bangkok Post, July 13, 2005).  First of all, it seems that the tone is unfortunate, since the concept of ?sin? has no place in Buddhism.  Furthermore, the law of kamma does not mean that ?every person is born to pay back their sins.?  In Buddhism there is nothing special about homosexuality any more than about heterosexuality.  Sexuality is not a special kammic punishment anymore than nearsightedness, height, or skin color is. 

All of us have spent uncountable lives in Samsara, being reborn as males, as females, as animals, as humans, as gay, as straight, as insects, as gods, as strong, as sickly, as petas, and in various hells. What characterizes all these rebirths is their impermanence, their inherent unsatisfactoriness, and the absence of self or soul.

Ven. Mettanando is quite correct when he writes that ?there is no sanction against homosexuality? in Buddism. Indeed, there is no question about sexual orientation for those seeking ordination as monks and no mention of homosexuality as a special situation.

What are we to make of this serious contradiction in Ven. Mettanando?s article when he alludes to a mysterious rule that Buddha supposedly issued, ?not to give any ordination to a homosexual, and those ordained gays are to be expelled. (Vin.I, 86)? On the other hand, he observes that ?monastic rules do not guarantee Buddhist monasticism is entirely free from homosexuals. Indeed, they only say that monks and nuns are required to live a celibate life.?

It is certainly the case that sexually active monks, gay or straight, can be expelled for being sexually active. The core of the monastic discipline is a list of rules called the Patimokkha. In the Bhikkhu Patimokkha there are 227 rules, the first four of which are the Parajika, which means ?'making the doer defeated?. The first Parajika involves sexual behavior, whether with a member of the same or the opposite sex, where the sexual organ enters any of the bodily orifices. Such sexual behavior means expulsion from the Sangha.

Ven. Mettanando reports that the Thai monk who behaved scandalously in 1819 continued to be a bhikkhu; ?Interestingly, the graveness of the mistake was not severe enough to defrock him.? If that monk committed a lesser offense, then he would have been subjected to other penalties. For a Parajika offense, however, the offender must disrobe, defeated by his own action, automatically losing his monkhood. Nor can he ever reordain. He is disrobed and defe ated for life.

A major source of confusion in Ven. Mettanando?s writing comes from his mixing up the contemporary phenomenon of gay marriage with the non-issue of homosexuals in the Sangha. For Buddhists, marriage is a civil matter. Marriage is not sacred, not a sacrament. Presiding at weddings is not the duty of a monk, and marriages are simply a matter of personal choice for lay people. Thus there is no sound reason for a Buddhist society to object to same sex marriages.

Ven. Mettanando is certainly correct when he writes that according to Buddhist principles, homosexuals ?should not be discriminated against; they are humans who deserve all the rights and dignity endowed upon them as members of human race.? He is also right when he says ?The principle of universal compassion does not allow Buddhists to judge other people based on the nature of what they are, which practice is considered discrimination.?

I am confused, however, when he apparently blames Theravada Buddhism for the circular reasoning that because of kamma some people are born gay, ?Therefore, they deserve all that society gives to them.? This seemingly spiteful notion that they get what?s coming to them has no place in Buddhist belief, and furthermore it contradicts the arguments Ven. Mettanando just made for human rights and compassion.

Ven. Mettanando?s pessimistic projection of the future of gay rights and gay marriage in Thailand is dependent on Thai people?s ignorance of the Buddha?s teaching and a simplistic misconception of the laws of causation.

I hope that Ven. Mettanando Bhikkhu is underestimating Thai Buddhists when he writes, ?For these reasons, it is unlikely that Buddhists will easily approve a law to allow gay marriage. Gay and lesbian activists in Thailand will not be as successful as their fellows in European countries or Canada.? Buddha?s Teaching exhorts us to behave with wisdom and compassion. That means treating others with respect, recognizing their human rights and granting them the possibility of the legal protections of marriage regardless of sexual orientation.