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Buddhism and Homosexuality

by Ven Shravasti Dhammika, LankaWeb, Aug 21, 2008

Singapore -- Homosexuality is the tendency to be sexually attracted to persons of the same rather than the opposite gender. According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being 'the third nature' (tritiya prakti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick.

With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, primarily by the intention (cetana) behind them and the effect they have.

A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved. Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third precept, although this is not always understood in traditional Buddhist countries.

If a homosexual avoids the sensuality and licence of the so-called 'gay scene' and enters into a loving relationship with another person, there is no reason why he or she cannot be a sincere practising Buddhist and enjoy all the blessings of the Buddhist life.

None of the legal codes of traditional Buddhist countries criminalized homosexuality per se, although of course there were penalties against homosexual rape and homosexual acts with minors just as there were for similar offences committed by heterosexuals. In most Buddhist countries today, homosexuality is usually considered strange and laughable although not wicked or evil.

Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan and South Korea have no laws against homosexuality between consenting adults. Homosexuality is illegal in Burma and Sri Lanka mainly because their legal codes were in part drawn up during the colonial era. Recently in Sri Lanka, the penalty for homosexuality was increased in an ill-considered response to the growing problem of sex tourism in the country.

The Dalai Lama and Homosexuality

At a press conference in 1997 the Dalai Lama said; 'From a Buddhist point of view (lesbian and gay sex)...is generally considered sexual misconduct.' He very soon found that he had stumbled into a pink minefield when some Western Buddhists, a significant number of who are gay, loudly expressed their outrage. Together with promoting the Dhamma, the Dalai Lama's main purpose in touring the West is to win support for his cause, and to this end he defiantly does not want to alienate anyone. As soon as he realized what he had done he immediately back-peddled. 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.' Ruffled feathers were smoothed, gay Western Tibetan Buddhists left convinced that the Dalai Lama approved of their sexual orientation and the Dalai Lama continued believing that homosexuality is wrong - only now making a careful note never to say so again in public.

The truth is that while the Dalai Lama is one of the kindest people imaginable, he is also a very traditional Tibetan in many ways – and traditional Tibetan culture, like most cultures, has very skewed and confused ideas about homosexuality. Tibetan Buddhism does not derive its ideas about homosexuality from the earliest teachings of the Buddha but from Mahayana sutras and sastras, the earliest of which dates from approximately 500 year after the Buddha. By this time Indian Buddhists were being influenced by various popular Indian notions and incorporating them into their understanding of the Dhamma; sometimes with not very happy results. One such notion was the idea that sexual acts could be judged right or wrong depending on 'place, person and orifice.'

Thus having sex anywhere near a temple or stupa was a wrong place, with anyone other than one's spouse was a wrong person and anywhere other than the vagina was a wrong orifice. To be frank, this is a rather good example of the numbering, sub-dividing, categorizing mentality that became dominant in Buddhist clerical thinking. I do not know when this strange idea evolved but I think the earliest mention of it that I know of is in the Ugrapariprccha (or maybe it is the Upasakashila Sutra) which may date from about the 2nd century CE. And it doesn't take much sense to see how unfounded it is from the Buddha's point of view.

Exactly how does the law of kamma distinguish one orifice from another? Other problems arise when we realize that many male homosexuals practice intercural sex and mutual masturbation rather than penetrative sex. And exactly which sexual organ do lesbians use to penetrate the vagina of their 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.'

With all due respect to the Dalai Lama, and I do have the highest respect for him, this statement shows both his ignorance and naivety concerning sex, and I might add, of some aspects of the Dhamma as well. What on earth have Buddhist ethical judgments got to do with two body-parts fitting together 'properly' or not? I often clean my ear with my finger despite it not fitting into my ear canal very well. Does this mean I make negative kamma every time I clean my ear? Also, the old argument 'It's unnatural' is both unsound and irreverent as far as the Dhamma is concerned.

If homosexuality is 'unnatural' then celibacy is more so and all Gelupa monks are breaking the fifth precept by abstaining from sex. 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. I am sorry to say that the Dalai Lama's ideas about homosexuality are on a par with his (and other Tibetans') belief that turning a prayer wheels will 'pray' for you, that the Tibetan state oracle gets messages from gods, that seeing the Karmapa's black hat will get you enlightenment within seven lifetimes and in the existence of wrathful deities like Dorje Shukden. In short, it is medieval.

The two most sensible things on the issue of homosexuality and Dhamma I have found on the internet are Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism by A. L. De Silva at http://www.buddhanet.net/ and Kerry Trembath's Buddhism and Homosexuality at http://www.yawningbread.org/guest_1997/guw-010.htm. And if you would like to know what some Tibetans other than the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monastic hierarchy think about homosexuality, have a look at gaytibet..blogspot.com. This website and particularly its posting on the rapping rimpoche would have to be the last nail in Shangri La's coffin.

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