The Supreme Court decision on marriage equality has ignited a renewed debate among religious leaders. Predictably, some conservative religious leaders have protested against the decision to recognize same-sex marriages. As a Buddhist author, I often get asked by colleagues and students: What did the Buddha say about homosexuality? The short answer is simple: nothing. As far as we know, he never mentioned it, and some scholars regard this as a quiet acceptance on his part. But many of his followers in the centuries afterwards voiced strong opinions.
While Buddhist communities in the West tend to be inclusive and tolerant, there are plenty of traditional Buddhist scriptures that mention homosexuality as inappropriate. The writings of the influential 3rd century Indian scholar Vasubandhu condemn oral and anal sex as sexual misconduct, and many well-known Buddhist philosophers from Gampopa (12th century) and Longchenpa to Tsongkhapa (15th century) followed his argumentation. So does the current Dalai Lama. In some of his teachings, the 14th Dalai Lama reiterated Tsongkhapa`s definition of “sexual misconduct,” which includes sex between men, and masturbation. Many Western Buddhists are painfully unaware of the traditional restrictions or dismiss them as irrelevant. So, what is a gay Buddhist to do with this?
What lies at the heart of the Buddhist teachings is compassion, the wisdom of non-harming, and a non-dogmatic approach to life. It thus bears emphasizing that the Dalai Lama usually prequalifies his teachings on the traditional text by stressing his opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and his commitment to “full human rights” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. José Cabézon, the Dalai Lama Endowed Chair of Religious Studies at UCSB, who is researching an extensive monograph about Buddhism and sexuality, participated in a meeting of the LGBT community with the Dalai Lama in 1997, during which the Dalai Lama gave his most detailed remarks on the matter to date.
During this meeting, His Holiness went on to speak about “the possibility of understanding these precepts in the context of time, culture, and society… If homosexuality is part of accepted norms [today], it is possible that it may be acceptable.” The Dalai Lama has often stressed that he cannot simply change tradition. “No single person or teacher can redefine precepts. I do not have the authority to redefine these precepts since no one can make a unilateral decision or issue a decree… Such a redefinition can only come out of sangha discussions within the various Buddhist traditions. It is not unprecedented in the history of Buddhism to redefine [moral] issues, but it has to be done on the collective level.” His Holiness called for further research and dialogue on the topic, and concluded by reiterating that, however sexual misconduct comes to be defined, it can never be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
The Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA – that the Federal government must recognize the marriages of same sex couples in the states that allow such marriages – -seems to coincide with the Dalai Lama’s statement of redefining moral issues on a collective level. Just as the Dalai Lama called for further discussion, I believe that all religions and believers have the responsibility to continue to re-evaluate their traditional scriptures in the light of cultural changes. After all, the traditional texts include plenty of passages about practices that were considered unethical in the medieval ages but that seem outdated now, such as sex with a menstruating women or sex during daylight. Lesbian women, by the way, are off the hook, as some of the traditional texts condone relationships between women.
In our society, twenty years ago the full inclusion of gay and lesbian couples would have been inconceivable. In the same way that cultural, political and legal acceptance has evolved, so are more and more Buddhist teachers including LGBT students in their community. Even in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that the Dalai Lama represents, well-known teachers such as the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and the teachers of Shambhala, one of the biggest Tibetan Buddhist communities in the West, have stressed that homosexual relationships are no better or worse than heterosexual relationships. What matters for a relationship to be in accord with the Buddhist teachings is the compassion and love expressed between consenting adults and the motivation to overcome self-centeredness.
Also, while the Dalai Lama continues to be the most prominent Buddhist teacher in the West, he does not speak for all Buddhist traditions. Enkyo Pat O`Hara, for instance, is a renowned Zen Soto priest and happily married to her long-time partner. As a lesbian priest and manager of the Buddhist AIDS Network, she articulates a Zen Buddhist approach of tolerance, inclusion and non-discrimination. To just name a few prominent teachers, Zen priest Jana Drakka read a poem by Zen priest Thich Nhat Hanh at a gay rally, and Ajahn Brahm, a British born Theravadan Buddhist monk, gave a passionate speech for “Gay marriage, why not?”: “When I look in the traditional scriptures, I can see no reason that prevents gay marriage,” Ajahn Brahm concluded.
The late Zen teacher Robert Aitken wrote in a widely regarded petition: “My impression from my own monastic experience suggests that homosexuality has not been taken as an aberration, and so did not receive comment. There is, of course, a precept about sex which Zen Buddhists inherit
from earlier classical Buddhists teachings. It is one of the sixteen precepts accepted by all Zen Buddhist monks, nuns and seriously committed lay people. In our own Diamond Sangha rendering, we word this precept, “I take up the way of not misusing sex.” I understand this to mean that self-centered
sexual conduct is inappropriate, and I vow to avoid it. Self-centered sex is exploitive sex, non-consensual sex, sex that harms others. It is unwholesome and destructive in a heterosexual as well as in a homosexual context.”
The Buddha has continuously encouraged his followers to evaluate his teachings critically. Many “rules” were written in the centuries after his death that reflected the cultural norms of the era more than the Buddha’s approach of equality, inclusiveness, and compassion. As modern interpreters of his teachings, we need to be aware of the history and study it, but only to learn from it in an open-minded, genuine way. Discrimination and prejudice are never in accord with the Buddhist teachings, whereas love and compassion can never be wrong.
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an international reporter, lecturer, and consultant. She is the author of “Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West,” which was published by Snow Lion/Shambhala this April, a visiting lecturer at the University of California Santa Barbara, and a board member of the international non-profit Lotus Outreach.