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Buddhism and homosexuality

Overview. Assessment from basic principles.

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"LGBT" refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender persons and transsexuals.

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Overview:

Apparently, the Buddha did not leave any specific teachings on either homosexual orientation or homosexual behavior. He strongly encouraged his followers to be independent, to "be a lamp onto yourself." That is, to examine and test the truth of religious teachings before accepting them.

Buddhism is most concerned with whether an action is helpful, based on good intentions, and free from harm. Thus, a specific activity can often be either permissible or not permissible, depending upon its context. This differs from the positions taken by most conservative faith groups within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc. They often evaluate a specific sexual activity itself, and decide whether it is good or evil according to a system of morality derived from that group's interpretation of their holy text(s). Often the nature of the relationship is not considered.

Many women, gays and lesbians have been attracted to Buddhism because of its relative lack of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, when compared to some other religions. But others report "virulently anti-gay sentiments and teachings from religious teachers in Tibetan and other Buddhist" schools. 2

Assessment from basic Buddhist principles:

A core Buddhist teaching regarding personal behavior is the Buddha's Eightfold Path:

The second of the eight steps is called Samma sankappa: right thinking or right resolve. It has been translated into English as:

"You must renounce the pleasures of the senses; you must harbor no ill will toward anyone, and harm no living creature." 3

Avoiding all pleasure, as commanded by the first phrase of the second step, would seem to imply total celibacy. That is, one must totally abstain from sexual activity:

  • With oneself, as in masturbation.

  • With another person of the same sex (if one is a gay or lesbian), or with a person of the opposite sex (if one is a heterosexual) or from persons of either gender (if one is bisexual).

However if a person decides to set aside the need to avoid all pleasure, and decides to be sexually active, then the last clause of the second step would seem to imply that the behavior must be free of harm.

Sexual activity can injure people in many ways:

  • It can easily spread HIV, HPV, and other STDs between sexual partners if safer sex techniques are not used.

  • Depending upon one's beliefs about sexual activity, It can engender feelings of guilt, particularly if done outside of a loving, committed relationship.

  • It can damage a marriage if it involves an extra-marital affair.

  • It can result in emotional distress particularly if the sex is manipulative and not consensual.

  • It can be profoundly injurious if one partner is too young to give consent or not sufficiently mature to handle the emotions involved.

The fourth of the Buddha's eight steps is called Samma kammanta: Right conduct or right behavior. It has been stated as:

"Do not destroy any living creature; take only what is given to you; do not commit any unlawful sexual act." 3

  • The first clause would seem to require a couple to practice safer sex techniques to minimize the chance of passing an STD to a sexual partner. That could, in the case of HIV and HPV, cause death.

  • The second clause might imply that a person must only engage in consensual sex. It is a bit of a stretch, but coercive or manipulative sexual behavior could be interpreted as theft.

  • The third clause, avoiding unlawful sexual acts is difficult to interpret:

    • For Americans, from a legal standpoint, the U.S. Supreme court decided (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003) that all private consensual sexual activity between adults is lawful. Unlawful sex in the U.S. would include activity between an adult and a child, sex in public, sex that is forced, sex for money, etc.

    • For residents of six predominately Muslim nations, any same-sex behavior is a very serious crime and is considered a capital offense. Many other countries treat it as a lesser crime.

    • From an ethical standpoint, "unlawful" sex could involve many activities depending upon the specific faith group to which a person adheres.

Another Buddhist core teaching regarding personal behavior are the Five Buddhist Precepts. The third of these prohibits a person from egaging in "sexual misconduct." It is sometimes expressed as simply forbidding adultery.

It is worth noting that there is no special limitation among the steps in the eightfold path and the five precepts that applies uniquely to LGBT persons. Unfortunately, the Pali Canon, which documents the teachings of the Buddha, do not include any direct reference to homosexual orientation or homosexual behavior. Some have interpreted this to mean that the Buddha believed that the same rules governing sexual behavior apply to same-sex couples as to opposite-sex couples. 1

To summarize: Buddhism's basic teaching discourages sex, and particularly condemns adultery, rape, non-consensual sex, unsafe sex, and any other potentially harmful sexual activities. This would seem to apply to same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples equally. However, some groups within Buddhism condemn all lesbian or gay sex, perhaps because of cultural teachings that have been carried over into their religious beliefs.

A contrary view is seen in the Evangelical.us web site. 4 They suggest that Buddhism condemns homosexuality absolutely. Their web site states:

bullet "Homosexual behavior is a pleasure of the senses." Thus it would violate the second of the eight steps. While this is a true statement, it applies equally to sex between persons of the opposite sex and persons of the same sex.

One visitor to this essay wrote that equality does not exist because an opposite-sex couple may engage in sexual activity primarily in order to procreate, whereas a same-sex couple is, by themselves and without medical help, infertile. This argument can be easily criticized. In reality, a couple might engage in sexual behavior twice a week. If they are together and sexually active for, say, four decades, this would total on the order of six thousand sexual encounters. Yet the average number of children born to an opposite-sex couple in North America is about 2. In excess of 99.97% of these cases, no childbirth results. Thus, in the vast majority of encounters, the goal appears to be pleasure.
 
bullet"Homosexual acts harm," and thus violate the second step again. Again, the author overlooks the fact that it is the specific behavior that causes the transmission of STDs, not necessarily the gender of the participants. In fact, STDs do occur among lesbians at a far lower rate than among heterosexuals. Anal sex can transmit HIV infection very efficiently from a male to a female just as easily as it can from a male to a male -- perhaps more so.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Kerry Trembath, "Buddhism and homosexuality," at: http://www.enabling.org/
  2. Dennis Conkin, "Dalai Lama urges 'respect, compassion and full human rights for all,' including gays," at: http://quietmountain.com/
  3. Sara Wenner, "Basic beliefs of Buddhism," Minnesota State University. This link is no longer functional.
  4. "Buddhism and Homosexuality," at http://www.evangelical.us/
  5. Diana Paw U, "Another Buddhist Perspective on Same-Gender Marriage", Hawai'i Association of International Buddhists, (HAIB), 1995-OCT-11.
  6. A.L. De Silva, "Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism," Buddha Net, at: http://www.buddhanet.net/

Copyright © 1998 to 2010 Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated and reviewed: 2010-JUN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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