The Buddhist orientation of homosexuality

by Justin Whitaker, Missoula, MT (USA), The Buddhist Channel, Sept 29, 2005

In response to Patricia's letter: "The Dalai Lama and homosexuality" I hope to make a clarification or two.

First of all, it is quite mistaken to call His Holiness the Dalai Lama anything even resembling a "Buddhist fundamentalist" as the Tucson organizers apparently have.  In fact the Dalai Lama has become a strong voice of ecumenism both in the world and amongst Tibetan Buddhist sects. One major incident in his ecumenism was his disavowal of Dorje Shugden, a 'protector deity' of the Geluk sect with a particularly divisive and anti-Nyingma (another sect of Tibetan Buddhism) history.  In doing this he opened the way to be a spokesman for all Tibetans in exile, while facing a good deal of discontent from more traditional Geluk monks.

Saying that HH provides "the deepest, purest transmission of dharma teachings," while not as clearly false as the prior claim, is simplistic and open to debate at best. 

He is a spokesman for the Tibetan people, a brilliant scholar of Tibetan Buddhism within the Geluk tradition, a man of unquestionable warmth and compassion, and so much more.  All of this is very obvious, so I don't know why superlatives (which are always open to question) such as 'deepest' and 'purest' need to be used when describing him.

Second, the word 'sin' should be used only ever so delicately in any discussion of Buddhism.  There is no word equivalent to 'sin' in Tibetan or Sanskrit.  What does exist are terms like 'unskillful or unwholesome' and 'defilement'.  I think Patricia is write to say that the press release went too far here trying to portray the Dalai Lama as an 'authentic Tibetan Lama'. 

The views on homosexuality in the history of Buddhism have often varied with different cultures and social circumstances, just as the views on war and monastic ideas have.

Buddhists will agree that homosexual orientation is determined prior to birth, but that doesn't mean the homosexual is off the hook.  Like the rest of us born in samsara, we're here, with our particular traits, because we didn't manage to get enlightened in our last life.  We screwed up, at least to some extent, given that we are not bodhisattvas who have chosen such a rebirth, and now we once again must try to make good on our potential to become such bodhisattvas.

That said, homosexuality is a very complex issue in Buddhism.  First of all, in India in the time of the Buddha the ideal for both sexes was strict celibacy for monks and nuns on the one hand, and living out an upright family life for the laity on the other. 

Homosexuals were thus problematic for both groups and rules were set forth curtailing their behavior insofar as they wished to be associated with the Buddhist community.  But at the same time, a number of very similar rules were expounded to curtail heterosexual behavior which might upset the delicate balance of the monastic or lay lives. 

Later, in Tibet, homosexuals were seen quite negatively by the people, and most were confined to the life of lDab ldobs, monks assigned to menial tasks of the monasteries. Here, however, they lived out good lives, provided they didn't get caught messing around with the novices (as some apparently did), and those who followed the rules were valued for their honesty and could doubtless look forward to a good rebirth.

Tibetan Buddhism generally bans homosexual activity, while not condemning the homosexual himself (I have heard nothing of lesbians). But also banned is any heterosexual anal or oral sex.  So there is the emphasis of sex being a means for reproduction and as otherwise to be avoided.  This, obviously, is different from our 'free love' and open sexuality of the modern West.

At present, there are a variety of Buddhist views on homosexuality, ranging from exclusively gay sanghas to the more traditional anti-sexuality as a whole. 

Westerners especially are working to create a healthy understanding of homosexuality in Buddhist practice.  For instance, the FWBO (Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) openly encouraged homosexuality between order members for some years, thinking that it would create stronger community bonds and break the social conditioning of Western heterosexuality.  But it led to many unhealthy relationships of its own, and the FWBO has since moved to an orientation-neutral position and advocacy of the ideal of celibacy.

I thank you, Patricia, for your letter, and hope that I might have shed some light on the issues you brought up.  I'm glad you brought up the press release and I hope that the organizers might retract the statements you mention and perhaps apologize for misunderstandings which followed from them. 

While I would never expect unqualified acceptance of homosexuality from His Holiness, in a 1997 article, it is mentioned that:

"His Holiness was greatly concerned by reports made available to him regarding violence and discrimination against gay and lesbian people. His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion, and the full recognition of human rights for all," said Office of Tibet spokesman Dawa Tsering.."  (

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