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Buddhism and homosexuality

Tibetan Buddhism. Western Buddhism.
Buddhist books and organizations


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Tibetan Buddhism and comments by the Dalai Lama:

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal head of the exiled government of Tibet, and is a member of the leadership of the Gelug -- the largest of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. He is revered by millions of Buddhists and non-Buddhists worldwide. His comments on homosexuality have been very widely reported -- and misreported -- in the media and over the Internet.

Even within this one sect of this one tradition of Buddhism, it is impossible to state a universal position on homosexual sexual activity. One rule applies to the Buddhist sangha -- Buddhist monks and nuns; another applies to the Gelug laity, other rules apply to Buddhists who are not in the Gelug sect, another rule is for the vast majority of persons who are non-Buddhists.

The Dalai Lama, speaking for his sect of Tibetan Buddhism, made a number of statements about homosexuality in the mid to late 1990s:

  • 1994: During an interview, he was quoted in OUT magazine as stating:

    "If someone comes to me and asks whether homosexuality is okay or not, I will ask 'What is your companion's opinion?' If you both agree, then I think I would say 'if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay'." 1,2

  • 1996: In his book "Beyond Dogma," he wrote that:
    "... homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact." 3
    That is, Tibetan Buddhism prohibits oral, manual and anal sex for everyone - heterosexuals, bisexuals, and homosexuals.

  • 1997: During at a press conference on JUN-10, he commented:

    "From a Buddhist point of view [lesbian and gay sexual activity]...is generally considered sexual misconduct." 4

  • 1998: In a meeting with gays and lesbians in San Francisco, the Dalai Lama said that:

    "From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct. From society's point of view, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless." 5

James Shaheen, editor and publisher of the Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, said that some people were shocked and perplexed by the Dalai Lama's position. Shaheen wrote:

"This view was based on restrictions found in Tibetan texts that he could not and would not change. He did, however, advise gay Buddhist leaders to investigate further, discuss the issue, and suggested that change might come through some sort of theological consensus."

"Does this mean Buddhism condemns same-sex relationships? Not at all. Contrary to popular perception, the Dalai Lama does not speak for all Buddhists. As the leader of the dominant Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, he speaks for one slice of the world's Buddhist population. The vast majority of Buddhists do not practice in his tradition -- however much they respect and admire him -- and the Tibetan texts the Dalai Lama refers to were written centuries after the Buddha had come and gone."

"Buddhism is perhaps even more diverse than Christianity. In fact, the differences among schools can be so vast that some scholars consider them different religions. Indeed, according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery in southern California, the Buddha never forbade gay sex for lay people as far as we know. 'When he drew the line between licit and illicit sex, it had nothing to do with sexual tastes or preferences,' he says, citing early texts. 'He seemed more concerned with not violating the legitimate claims that other people might have on your sexual partner'." 5

Reporter Dennis Conklin wrote:

"Buddhist sexual proscriptions ban homosexual sexual activity and heterosexual sex through orifices other than the vagina, including masturbation or other sexual activity with the hand. Buddhist proscriptions also forbid sex at certain times - such as during full and half moon days, the daytime, and during a wife's menstrual period or pregnancy - or near shrines or temples. Adultery is considered sexual misconduct, but the hiring of a female prostitute for penile-vaginal sex is not, unless one pays a third party to procure the person." 4

The Dalai Lama's restrictions apply Tibetan Buddhist laity, and perhaps to other Buddhist laity, much like Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah's 613 components of the Law of Moses apply only to fellow Jews. 6

At a subsequent meeting with gay and lesbian representatives, 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 -- the exiled Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamshala, North India --commented:

"His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion and the full recognition of human rights for all." 4

A 1999 article in Newsweek stated that:

"Although he has affirmed the dignity and rights of gays and lesbians, he has condemned homosexual acts as contrary to [Tibetan] Buddhist ethics." 7

According to Wikipedia:

"The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said to LGBT groups that he can't rewrite the texts. He thinks that this is the type of issue that would need to be discussed by a council of Buddhist elders from all Buddhist traditions. Only such a council could amend issues concerning Vinaya and ethics."

"Vinaya" is the code of monastic discipline.

The Dalai Lama was interviewed later by CBC News during his 2007-NOV visit to Canada. Near the end of his interview he was asked whether Buddhism condones love between two men or two women. He replied that Buddhists reject this. Genuine Buddhist practitioners, like Christians, condemn same-sex behavior as sexual misconduct. "So, [it is] not permissible, not allowed." 8

His understanding of Christian views on homosexuality appears to be in error. Conservative Christians generally consider all same-sex behavior to be sexual misconduct. However, most progressive, liberal, and many mainline Christians disagree; they accept all safe, consensual same-sex behavior between lesbians, gays, and bisexuals in a loving, committed relationship to be life-affirming, moral, and acceptable.

The CBC web site published 77 comments on the Dala Lama's inverview by listeners. Many touched upon his homosexual comments. One was posted on 2007-NOV-05 by a gay Buddhist couple David and Luc Chateauneuf-Kurzer, who wrote:

"The Dalai Lama's comments on same-sex love could be considered by some to be taken out of context. However, the words he used are very familiar to us and simply represent an outmoded form of exclusion that is common to most religions. We would suggest that he continues to talk the 'party line' rather than evolve Buddhism's view of non-heterosexual love.

Some would say that Buddhism has no place in the bedroom. We would then respond that any comment on sexuality is inappropriate. Either way, social justice for Buddhist gays and lesbians is not encouraged by the words captured in his interview. And social justice is so much of what His Holiness advocates.

This does not stop us from following the Buddhist path because we are used to mainstream religious exclusion. It is part of our spiritual path to change that by being ourselves wherever we go. And in our fourteen years together, that is exactly what we have done. So we will continue our work to further the cause for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Buddhists."

In 2009, James Shaheen commented on the CBC interview with the Dalai Lama, writing:

"... in the current political climate, hearing the world's most famous Buddhist declare homosexuality to be 'sexual misconduct' can't help but lead people to believe that the Buddha's teachings proscribe same-sex relationships. They don't, any more than they promote them."

"Friends of mine have argued that the Dalai Lama doesn't really look askance same-sex relationships, that he has no choice but to uphold his tradition's dictates; and that maybe the Dalai Lama is just stuck with the old texts' proscriptions in the same way that a Catholic, say, must deal with Thomas Aquinas. Of course, we can't know and must take his public statements at face value. In his case, though, our expectations tend to be different than they might be for the local minister, priest or orthodox rabbi. And so many of us who have benefited greatly from his teachings are apt to feel disappointed." 5

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Buddhism in Western countries:

Although Buddhism had spread through Asia for the past two and a half millennia, it has only recently become widely known in Western countries. It was first brought to Europe by visitors to the East over a century ago. Also during the late 19th century, Chinese immigrants settled in Hawaii and California where they introduced Mahayana Buddhism. Later Japanese immigrants to these states brought other Mahayana sects. According to Buddhanet, during 1893"

"Dharmapala from Sri Lanka and Soyen Shaku, a Zen master from Japan, attended the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Their inspiring speeches on Buddhism impressed their audience and helped to establish a foothold for the Theravada and Zen Buddhist traditions in America. During this period, the Theosophical Society, which teaches the unity of all religions, also helped to spread some elements of Buddhist teachingsin America." 9

By the early 20th century, most Therevada scriptures and many Mahayana texts had been translated into English, French and German.

Refugees from Tibet brought Vajrayana Buddhism to America. More recently, immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand, etc. also brought their beliefs and practices with them. Today, Theravada, Pure Land, Ch'an (aka Zen), Vajrayana and Nichiren Shoshu traditions of Buddhism are well established in Europe, South America, and English speaking countries worldwide. Buddhanet continues:

"Today, there exist numerous Buddhist centres spread across Australia, New Zealand, Europe, North and South America. Virtually all the major Buddhist traditions are represented and continue to attract the interest of Westerners in all walks of life."

As noted above, Buddhist in the West are generally accepting of GLBTs. This follows naturally from the influence that culture has on all religions. Western culture has tended to emphasize human rights, social equality, tolerance, compassion, personal freedom, and the recognition that each person has to find their own answers. Buddhists here have been heavily influenced by the gay liberation movement which was triggered by a police riot in New York City during 1969-JUN.

James Shaheen comments:

"Western dharma communities are known for their tolerance, and the Dalai Lama himself has openly gay students. It's rare to hear of anyone being drummed out of a Western Buddhist community for being gay, and in most Buddhist traditions practiced in the West -- including the Tibetan communities -- sexuality is rarely if ever an issue." 5

LGBT Buddhist groups:

  • The Gay Buddhist Open Forum (GBOF) is a "An international, minimally moderated online forum for the discussion of Buddhist teachings and practices for the LGBTQ community. Newcomers to Buddhism are most welcome!." Their Web address is http://www.egroups.com/.

  • Queer Sangha is a community of LGBT Buddhists who meet periodically in New York City. See: http://www.queersangha.com/

  • Lesbian Buddhists is a mailing list for lesbians interested in dscussing Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha and how they relate to being a lesbian." See: http://groups.yahoo.com/

  • Gay Satsang is "dedicated to the moment to moment unfolding of truth, specifically as the truth intersects the lives of gay, bisexual, and questioning men from all walks of life and all areas of the world." See: http://groups.yahoo.com/

  • Queer Dharma is a LGBTQ group in New York City. See: http://www.queerdharma.org/ They have a list of LGBTQ meditation groups in North America, e-mail lists, and Yahoo groups at: http://www.queerdharma.org/

  • The Gay Buddhist Fellowship is a "forum that brings together the diverse Buddhist traditions to address the spiritual concerns of gay men in the [San Francisco] bay area, the United States and the [rest of] the world." See: http://www.gaybuddhist.org/ They have a list of Buddhist links and locations.

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Books on Buddhism and homosexuality:

bullet Bernard Faure, "The Red Thread - Buddhist Approaches to Sexuality," Princeton University Press, (1998). Book contains two chapters on homosexuality. Read reviews ororder this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
 
bullet Jeffrey Hopkins, "Sex, Orgasm and the Mind of Clear Light: The 64 acts of gay male love." North Atlantic Books, (1998). Read reviews/order this book
 
bullet Winston Layland, Ed., "Queer Dharma - Voices of Gay Buddhists," Gay Sunshine Press, (1998) The book contains contributions by 35 gay men. It includes an article on homosexuality at the time of the Buddha, historical essays, personal accounts, contemporary articles, poetry, etc. Read reviews/order this book
 
bullet Mark Thompson, "Gay Soul - Finding the heart of gay spirit and nature...", Harper San Francisco, (1995). A highly rated book dealing with gay spirituality. The book covers the full range of spirituality, not just Buddhism. Read reviews/order this book

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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. Steve Pesking, " 'According to Buddhist Tradition': Gays, Lesbians and the Definition of Sexual Misconduct," Shambhala Sun, 1998-MAR, at: http://www.shambhalasun.com/
  2. Scott Hunt, article in OUT magazine, 1994-FEB/MAR.
  3. Dalai Lama, et al., "Beyond dogma: Dialogues and discourses," North Atlantic Books, (1996). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Dennis Conklin, "Dalai Lama urges 'respect, compassion, and full human rights for all,' including gays," Bay Area Reporter, 1997-JUN-19, at: http://janisian.com/ Mirrored at: http://quietmountain.com/
  5. James Shaheen, "Gay marriage: What would Buddha Do?," The Huffington Post, 2009-JUL-13, at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
  6. Jack Nichols, "Dalai Lama says 'oral and anal sex' not acceptable," 1997-MAY-13 at: http://badpuppy.com/
  7. Newsweek, 1999-AUG-16.
  8. "Dalai Lama Speaks," CBC News, 2007-NOV-04, at: http://www.cbc.ca/ Includes video and dozens of viewers' comments.
  9. "Buddhism in the West," Buddhanet, 2008, at: http://www.buddhanet.net/

Copyright © 1998 to 2010 Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last updated and reviewed: 2010-JUL-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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