Buddhism and Homosexuality
by A. L. De Silva
Buddhism teaches to, and expects from, its followers a certain level of ethical behaviour. The minimum that is required of the lay Buddhist is embodied in what is called the Five Precepts (panca sila), the third of which relates to sexual behaviour. Whether or not homosexuality, sexual behaviour between people of the same sex, would be breaking the third Precept is what I would like to examine here.
Homosexuality was known in ancient India; it is explicitly mentioned in the Vinaya (monastic discipline) and prohibited. It is not singled out for special condemnation, but rather simply mentioned along with a wide range of other sexual behaviour as contravening the rule that requires monks and nuns to be celibate. Sexual behaviour, whether with a member of the same or the opposite sex, where the sexual organ enters any of the bodily orifices (vagina, mouth or anus), is punishable by expulsion from the monastic order. Other sexual behaviour like mutual masturbation or interfemural sex, while considered a serious offense, does not entail expulsion but must be confessed before the monastic community.
A type of person called a pandaka is occasionally mentioned in the Vinaya in contexts that make it clear that such a person is some kind of sexual non-conformist. The Vinaya also stipulates that pandakas are not allowed to be ordained, and if, inadvertently, one has been, he is expelled. According to commentary, this is because pandakas are "full of passions, unquenchable lust and are dominated by the desire for sex." The word pandaka has been translated as either hermaphrodite or eunuch, while Zwilling has recently suggested that it may simply mean a homosexual. It is more probable that ancient Indians, like most modern Asians, considered only the extremely effeminate, exhibitionist homosexual (the screaming queen in popular perception) to be deviant while the less obvious homosexual was simply considered a little more opportunistic or a little less fussy than other ‘normal’ males.
As the Buddha seems to have had a profound understanding of human nature and have been remarkably free from prejudice, and as there is not evidence that homosexuals are any more libidinous or that they have any more difficulties in maintaining celibacy than heterosexuals, it seems unlikely that the Buddha would exclude homosexuals per se from the monastic life. The term pandaka therefore probably does not refer to homosexuals in general but rather to the effeminate, self-advertising and promiscuous homosexual.
The lay Buddhist is not required to be celibate, but she or he is advised to avoid certain types of sexual behaviour. The third Precept actually says: ‘Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.’ The word kama refers to any form of sensual pleasure but with an emphasis on sexual pleasure and a literal translation of the precept would be "I take the rule of training (veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami) not to go the wrong way (micchacara) for sexual pleasure (kamesu)". What constitutes "wrong" will not be clear until we examine the criteria that Buddhism uses to make ethical judgments.
No one of the Buddha’s discourses is devoted to systematic philosophical inquiry into ethics such as one finds in the works of the Greek philosophers. But it is possible to construct a criterion of right and wrong out of material scattered in different places throughout the Pali Tipitaka, the scriptural basis of Theravada Buddhism. The Buddha questioned many of the assumptions existing in his society, including moral ones, and tried to develop an ethics based upon reason and compassion rather than tradition, superstitions and taboo. Indeed, in the famous Kalama Sutta he says that revelation (anussana), tradition (parampara), the authority of the scriptures (pitakasampada) and one’s own point of view (ditthinijjhanakkhanti) are inadequate means of determining right and wrong.
Having questioned the conventional basis of morality, the Buddha suggests three criteria for making moral judgments. The first is what might be called the universalisability principle – to act towards others the way we would like them to act towards us. In the Samyutta Nikaya he uses this principle to advise against adultery. He says: "What sort of Dhamma practice leads to great good for oneself?… A noble disciple should reflect like this: ‘If someone were to have sexual intercourse with my spouse I would not like it. Likewise, if I were to have sexual intercourse with another’s spouse they would not like that. For what is unpleasant to me must be unpleasant to another, and how could I burden someone with that?’ As a result of such reflection one abstains from wrong sexual desire, encourages others to abstain from it, and speaks in praise of such abstinence."
In the Bahitika Sutta, Ananda is asked how to distinguish between praiseworthy and blameworthy behaviour. He answers that any behaviour which causes harm to oneself and others could be called blameworthy while any behaviour that causes no harm (and presumably which helps) oneself and others could be called praiseworthy. The suggestion is, therefore, that in determining right and wrong one has to look into the actual and possible consequences of the action in relation to the agent and those affected by the action. The Buddha makes this same point in the Dhammapada: "The deed which causes remorse afterwards and results in weeping and tears is ill-done. The deed which causes no remorse afterwards and results in joy and happiness is well-done." This is what might be called the consequential principle, that behaviour can be considered good or bad according to the consequences or effects it has.
The third way of determining right and wrong is what might be called the instrumental principle, that is, that behaviour can be considered right or wrong according to whether or not it helps us to attain our goal. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is Nirvana, a state of mental peace and purity and anything that leads one in that direction is good. Someone once asked the Buddha how after his death it would be possible to know what was and was not his authentic teaching and he replied: "The doctrines of which you can say: ‘These doctrines lead to letting go, giving up, stilling, calming, higher knowledge, awakening and to Nirvana’ – you can be certain that they are Dhamma, they are discipline, they are the words of the Teacher."
This utilitarian attitude to ethics is highlighted by the fact that the Buddha uses the term kusala to mean ‘skillful’ or ‘appropriate’ or its opposite, akusala, when evaluating behaviour far more frequently than he uses the terms punna, ‘good’, or papa, ‘bad’. The other thing that is important in evaluating behaviour is intention (cetacean). If a deed is motivated by good (based upon generosity, love and understanding) intentions it can be considered skillful. Evaluating ethical behaviour in Buddhism requires more than obediently following commandments, it requires that we develop a sympathy with others, that we be aware of our thoughts, speech and actions, and that we be clear about our goals and aspirations.
Having briefly examined the rational foundations of Buddhist ethics we are now in a better position to understand what sort of sexual behaviour Buddhism would consider to be wrong or unskillful and why. The Buddha specifically mentions several types of unskillful sexual behaviour, the most common of which is adultery. This is unskillful because it requires subterfuge and deceit, it means that solemn promises made at the time of marriage are broken, and it amounts to a betrayal of trust. In another passage, the Buddha says that someone practicing the third Precept "avoids intercourse with girls still under the ward of their parents, brothers, sisters or relatives, with married women, with female prisoners or with those already engaged to another." Girls still under the protection of others are presumably too young to make a responsible decision about sex, prisoners are not in a position to make a free choice, while an engaged woman has already made a commitment to another. Although only females are mentioned here no doubt the same would apply to males in the same position.
As homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned in any of the Buddha’s discourses (more than 20 volumes in the Pali Text Society’s English translation), we can only assume that it is meant to be evaluated in the same way that heterosexuality is. And indeed it seems that this is why it is not specifically mentioned. In the case of the lay man and woman where there is mutual consent, where adultery is not involved and where the sexual act is an expression of love, respect, loyalty and warmth, it would not be breaking the third Precept. And it is the same when the two people are of the same gender. Likewise promiscuity, license and the disregard for the feelings of others would make a sexual act unskillful whether it be heterosexual or homosexual. All the principles we would use to evaluate a heterosexual relationship we would also use to evaluate a homosexual one.
In Buddhism we could say that it is not the object of one’s sexual desire that determines whether a sexual act is unskillful or not, but rather the quality of the emotions and intentions involved. However, the Buddha sometimes advised against certain behaviour not because it is wrong from the point of view of ethics but because it would put one at odds with social norms or because its is subject to legal sanctions. In these cases, the Buddha says that refraining from such behaviour will free one from the anxiety and embarrassment caused by social disapproval or the fear of punitive action. Homosexuality would certainly come under this type of behaviour. In this case, the homosexual has to decide whether she or he is going to acquiesce to what society expects or to try to change public attitudes. In Western societies where attitudes towards sex in general have been strongly influenced by the tribal taboos of the Old Testament and, in the New Testament, by the ideas of highly neurotic people like St. Paul, there is a strong case for changing public attitudes.
We will now briefly examine the various objections to homosexuality and give Buddhist rebuttals to them. The most common Christian and Muslim objection to homosexuality is that it is unnatural and "goes against the order of nature". There seems to be little evidence for this. Miriam Rothschild, the eminent biologist who played a crucial role in the fight to decriminalize homosexuality in Britain, pointed out at the time that homosexual behaviour has been observed in almost every known species of animal. Secondly, it could be argued that while the biological function of sex is reproduction, most sexual activity today is not for reproduction, but for recreation and emotional fulfillment, and that this too is a legitimate function of sex.
This being so, while homosexuality is unnatural in that it cannot leads to reproduction, it is quite natural for the homosexual in that for her or him it provides physical and emotional fulfillment. Indeed, for him or her, heterosexual behaviour is unnatural. Thirdly, even if we concede that homosexuality "goes against the order of nature", we would have to admit that so do many other types of human behaviour, including some religious behaviour. The Roman Catholic Church has always condemned homosexuality because of its supposed unnaturalness – but it has long idealized celibacy, which, some might argue, is equally unnatural. Another Christian objection to homosexuality is that it is condemned in the Bible, an argument that is meaningful to those who accept that the Bible is the infallible word of God, but which is meaningless to the majority who do not accept this.
But while there is no doubt that the Bible condemns homosexuality, it also stipulates that women should be socially isolated while menstruating, that parents should kill their children if they worship any god other than the Christian God and that those who work on the Sabbath should be executed. Few Christians today would agree with these ideas even though they are a part of God’s words, and yet they continue to condemn homosexuality simply because it is condemned in the Bible.
One sometimes hears people say: "If homosexuality were not illegal, many people, including the young, will become gay." ‘This type of statement reflects either a serious misunderstanding about the nature of homosexuality or perhaps a latent homosexuality in the person who would make such a statement. It is as silly as saying that if attempted suicide is not a criminal offense then everyone will go out and commit suicide. Whatever the cause of homosexuality (and there is great debate on the subject), one certainly does not ‘choose’ to have homoerotic feelings in the same way one would, for example, choose to have tea instead of coffee. It is either inborn or develops in early childhood. And it is the same with heterosexuality. Changing laws does not change people’s sexual inclinations.
Some have argued that there must be something wrong with homosexuality because so many homosexuals are emotionally disturbed. At first there seems to be some truth in this. In the West, at least, many homosexuals suffer from psychological problems, abuse alcohol, and indulge in obsessive sexual behaviour. As a group, homosexuals have a high rate of suicide. But observers have pointed out that such problems seem to be no more pronounced amongst African and Asian homosexuals than they are in the societies in which they live. It is very likely that homosexuals in the West are wounded more by society’s attitude to them than by their sexual proclivity, and, if they are treated the same as everybody else, they will be the same as everybody else. Indeed, this is the strongest argument for acceptance and understanding towards homosexuals.
Christianity grew out of and owes much to Judaism with its tradition of fiery prophets fiercely and publicly denouncing what they considered to be moral laxity or injustice. Jesus was very much influenced by this tradition, as have been the Christian responses to public and private morality generally. At its best, this tradition in Christianity to loudly denounce immorality and injustice has given the West its high degree of social conscience. At its worst, it has meant that those who did not or could not conform to Christian standards have been cruelly exposed and persecuted. The Buddhist monk’s role has always been very different from his Christian counterpart. His job has been to teach the Dhamma and to act as a quiet example of how it should be lived.
This, together with Buddhism’s rational approach to ethics and the high regard it has always given to tolerance, has meant that homosexuals in Buddhist societies have been treated very differently form how they have been in the West. In countries like China, Korea and Japan where Buddhism was profoundly influenced by Confucianism, there have been periods when homosexuality has been looked upon with disapproval and even been punishable under the law. But generally the attitude has been one of tolerance.
Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary who lived in China for twenty-seven years from 1583, expressed horror at the open and tolerant attitude that the Chinese took to homosexuality and naturally enough saw this as proof of the degeneracy of Chinese society. "That which most shows the misery of these people is that no less than the natural lusts, they practise unnatural ones that reverse the order of things, and this is neither forbidden by law nor thought to be illicit nor even a cause for shame. It is spoken of in public and practiced everywhere without there being anyone to prevent it." In Korea the ideal of the hwarang (flower boy) was often associated with homosexuality especially during the Yi dynasty. In Japan, a whole genre of literature (novelettes, poems and stories) on the love between samurais and even between Buddhist monks and temple boys developed during the late mediaeval period.
Theravada Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka and Burma had no legal statutes against homosexuality between consenting adults until the colonial era when they were introduced by the British. Thailand, which had no colonial experience, still has no such laws. This had led some Western homosexuals to believe that homosexuality is quite accepted in Buddhist countries of South and South-east Asia. This is certainly not true. In such countries, when homosexuals are thought of at all, it is more likely to be in a good-humored way or with a degree of pity. Certainly the loathing, fear and hatred that the Western homosexual has so often had to endure is absent and this is due, to a very large degree, to Buddhism’s humane and tolerant influence.
July 13, 2005
Will gay marriage be allowed by Buddhists in Thailand?
By Mettanando Bhikkhu
The endorsement by the Spanish parliament of same-sex marriage has turned Spain into the third country in the European Union that recognises the rights of homosexual couples, after the Netherlands and Belgium. Canada will soon be the fourth country in the world to adopt the same law. Despite strong protests by the Catholic Church, most likely the legalisation of same-sex marriage will domino in Europe and could easily spread to Asia.
In a Buddhist culture like Thailand, many Thai people are pondering whether the law could be applied in the country as Theravada Buddhism, the most orthodox form of the religion, has put down deep roots here. Soon there will be lobbies and campaigns in support of the same law in Thailand.
Is there any objection of the Buddha against same-sex marriage? The answer to the question is ”No.”
There is no objection of the Buddha found in the Tipitaka. To be precise, the Buddha was neither supportive nor against marriage between members of the same gender.
This is not because Buddhism is naive about homosexuality. In fact, in the first book of the monastic code, the Vinaya, in the Buddhist Pali canon, there are hundreds of references to sexual relationship and most forms of deviant sexual practices, as appeared in Indian society over 2,500 years ago.
Many of the cases often raise the eyebrows of psychologists and psychiatrists, such as bestiality (sex between a man and an animal), necrophilism (sex between a man and a corpse), paedophilia, etc.
These cases reveal that Buddhism had spread far and wide into Indian society, and all these problems were unearthed to the growing Buddhist community.
Also, from the Tipitaka, it is clear that the Buddha acknowledged the difference between hermaphrodites and homosexual practitioners. Hermaphrodites and eunuchs are not allowed to be ordained, but there is no sanction against homosexuality.
Of course, there was a case of a gay monk who was overcome by sexual desire and could no longer restrain himself. He was seducing his friends and novices to have sex with him. They rejected him so he left the monastery and had sex with men who were elephant keepers and horse keepers. When news spread around the entire Buddhist community that he was homosexual, the Buddha was alerted to the problem and he issued a rule for the community not to give any ordination to a homosexual, and those ordained gays are to be expelled. (Vin.I, 86).
The Buddha was more tolerant of lesbianism than male homosexuality. Nuns who were caught in lesbian practices were not expelled from the order. They must confess to the fellows about their practice, and then the offence will be redeemed. (Vin. IV, 261)
The 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. Often in history, the monastic community has been plagued by homosexual scandals.
In Thailand, the worst such scandal took place in 1819, during the reign of King Rama II, when a high-ranking monk, a Somdet who was also the abbot of Wat Saket who had just been promoted to take the position of the Supreme Patriarch, one day was found guilty of enjoying homosexual activities with some of his good-looking male disciples.
It was a shock to all Buddhists of the time, and the case was considered the scandal of the century of Buddhism in Siam.Interestingly, the graveness of the mistake was not severe enough to defrock him, although the King had him removed him from his position of honour and ordered him to leave the royal monasteries.
As for the lay homosexual people, the Buddha gave no rule or advice as to whether they should be allowed to marry or not. The Buddha posted himself simply as the one who shows the way. He did not insist that he had any right to enforce on others what they should do. With this principle, the original teachings of the Buddha do not cover social ceremonies or rituals. Weddings and marriages of all kinds are regarded as mundane and have no place in Buddhism.
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.
Unlike Christianity, where gender is a part of God’s creation, Buddhists see genderisation as a sign of decay. In the Buddhist version of the Genesis, Agga-asutta (also known as the Aphorism on the Knowledge of the Beginning), male and female genders were a part of the fall. Originally, the primordial ancestors of humans were self-luminous, mind-born and sexless. So the mind is supreme and sexless, which is consistent with the higher form of existence. The most important principle to derive from that is there is no superiority of one gender over the other. The first sin among them which perpetuated the fall was the prejudice of appearance, when those of brighter skin looked down on those with darker skin.
Based on this principle, homosexual people should not be discriminated against; they are humans who deserve all the rights and dignity endowed upon them as members of human race.
This does not mean that Thai Buddhists are supportive of gay rights and homosexual marriage, or that liberal activists will be successful in their social campaign. Human rights issues have always received poor attention in Theravada countries, as the culture is rooted in the belief in the Law of Karma, which is more popular among Thai Buddhists than philosophical and advanced scriptural studies in Buddhism.
Many monasteries and monks advocate their lay followers to see the world through the lens of karma, i.e., every person is born to pay back their sins. According to their explanations, all homosexuals and sexual deviants were once offenders of the Third Precept (prohibiting sexual misconduct) _ at least in their past lives, and they must pay off their past sins in their present life. Therefore, they deserve all that society gives to them. This belief system creates strong conservative values in Theravada Buddhist culture. 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.
Mettanando Bhikko qualified as a physician before he ordained as a Buddhist monk. He holds an MD from Chulalongkorn University, an MA from Oxford, a ThM from Harvard and PhD from Hamburg.
August 28, 2007
Homosexuality, Buddhism and Sri Lankan Society
By Bellanvila Sudaththa Thero and Cecil J. Dunne
Before we discuss what Theravada Buddhism says about homosexuality, it is important to understand that in Buddhism people are encouraged to look inwardly when seeking guidance or a solution to a problem. In the words of the Lord Buddha himself “be a lamp to yourself” which simple means do not search for wisdom outside of yourself, rather you should let your conscience be your guide and it is here that the teachings and scripts of Lord Buddha can be of assistance.
Generally speaking Lord Buddha did not anything specifically about homosexuality because it has never been an issue, however this is not to say that that there was no homosexual activity in the time of the Lord Buddha. There Tripitaka (Buddhist scripts) refer to incidents of homosexuality and transexuality. Specifically the Tripitaka highlights the case of a bhikku (monk) Wakkali who became a monk purely because he was physically attracted to how handsome Lord Buddha was. The Tripitaka also highlights a transsexual incident in which a married man with children was physically attracted to a monk, following this the man underwent metamorphosis and became a female and eventually married a man. Another section of the Tripitaka refers to an incident where a novice monk masturbated a high ordained monk.
While Buddhism itself makes no moral claim on any form of sexual behavior, regardless of orientation, the vinaya (monastic rules) for monks states that monks are not allowed to enter their sex organ into bodily orifices (vagina, mouth or anus). But it makes no distinction between homosexual or heterosexual sex. Essentially monks are expected to be celibate so they cannot engage in sex with anyone, including themselves. However it is important to note that the vinaya apply only to monks, there is nothing in the scripts that extend these rules to lay Buddhists.
The most important reference point lay practitioners of Buddhism have for homosexuality or sexual behavior in Buddhism is contained within the third precept which refers to sexual misconduct. However this precept in itself is insufficient a guide as it makes no distinction in relation to sexual orientation or practice. In order to apply the principle within the third precept to homosexuality, one has to go back to the wider core Buddhist principle of “do no harm” and consider this precept in a holistic interpretation.
When considering the precept of sexual misconduct one can draw some specifics as to what is allowable and not. Issues of rape, adultery and pedophilia can be considered as incompatible with Buddhist teachings as they cause harm to others. Outside of these specificities one has to go beyond both ourselves and the scriptures in seeking a solution as to what is right or wrong in homosexuality, or as the famous Kalama Sutra puts it “Revelation (anussana), tradition (parampara), the authority of the scriptures (pitakasampada) and one’s own point of view (ditthinijjhanakkhanti) are inadequate means of determining right and wrong”
Whether homosexuality is right or wrong is essential a question of private morality. Having questioned the conventional basis of morality, the Buddha suggests criteria for making moral judgements. The criteria are what might be called the universality principle – to act towards others the way we would like them to act towards us. In the Samyutta Nikaya he uses this principle to advise against adultery. He says “What sort of Dhamma practice leads to great good for oneself? A noble disciple should reflect like this: ‘If someone were to have sexual intercourse with my spouse I would not like it.
Likewise, if I were to have sexual intercourse with another’s spouse they would not like that. For what is unpleasant to me must be unpleasant to another, and how could I burden someone with that?’ As a result of such reflection one abstains from wrong sexual desire, encourages others to abstain from it, and speaks in praise of such abstinence”
So one must abstain from sexual practices which cause others harm. Whether you are gay or straight the most important thing in life is not to create harm and respect others lifestyles without creating them harm, this is a basic foundation of Buddhism as is the philosophy of seeking inner contentment, happiness and east. Wherever you are and whatever you do, you must learn to accept and love yourself for what you are and feel at ease with yourself, and spread that ease across society.
Conventional modern day Sri Lankan morality is non-accepting of homosexuals and homosexuality. The Dalia Lama recently stated that “if you want to be a Buddhist you cannot be a homosexual, full stop” surmises the modern day Sri Lanka approach to homosexuality. However this statement by the Dalai Lama is totally without justification as there is nothing in the Buddhist scriptures to support this statement.
Sri Lankan morality imposes guilt on homosexuals and Sri Lankan law punishes it. The role of monks is to provide support to lay Buddhists in their day to day lives, yet currently monks live in fear of advising homosexuals because they may be labeled as homosexuals themselves. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist society and there is no place in the teachings of the Lord Buddha for guilt and punishment. So how have we arrived today at the stage where the Dalai Lama can make such unjustified statements and Sri Lankan morality and legalization opposes and punishes homosexuality?
The roots of this un-Buddhist approach to homosexuality can be traced back to the colonization of Ceylon. There are stark differences between the pre-colonial Ceylon and the post colonial Sri Lankan attitude to homosexuality. The Ceylon attitude is illustrated in a 17th Century book by Robert Knox, “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon” where he draws attention to the then King’s homosexuality. The modern Sri Lankan attitude to homosexuality is reflected in “Funny Boy” by Shyam Selvadurai.
The un-Buddhist excommunication and punishment of openly practicing homosexuals in Sri Lank has its roots in the colonization and modernization of Sri Lankan Buddhism. AS stated throughout this article, the concept of what is right or wrong is based in morality which is directly derived from religion, or in the case of Buddhism, philosophy. The colonial power brought with them and externally introduced to Sri Lankan their own sense of morality derived from their own religion, namely Christianity. In relation to human biological reproduction practices (sex) contrasts can be drawn between the Christian religion and Buddhist philosophy. While Christian Bible specifically categorises the spilling (spoiling) or Gods seeds (sperm) as a sin, the Buddhist Scriptures contain no such reference.
As both Thailand and Sri Lanka share the same variety of Buddhism further analogies can be drawn here. Currently Thailand does not legally or morally punish homosexuality preferring to adopt a live and let live philosophy so long as the principle of do no harm is adhered to. The main variable here is the fact that Thailand was not subject to colonialism and therefore a purer and more traditional form of Buddhism has prevailed while the Sri Lanka form of Buddhism has been diluted, poisoned and rendered impure by its modernization along the lines of western principles.
In order for Sri Lankan’s to be considered truly Buddhist they need to find inner peace and be happy with themselves and stop expecting others to live as they wish them to live. In order for Sri Lanka to truly consider itself a Buddhist nation it needs to stop forcing its people to live as it wishes them to live.
The Buddhist scholars within Sri Lanka have a duty and an obligation to advocate for a return to the traditional and more tolerant teachings of Lord Buddha. It is not only homosexuals who will benefit from this return, the entire Island of Sri Lanka and all its people will benefit from the tolerance, acceptance, openness and celebration of difference that the Lord Buddha envisioned.