Many turn to their faith for guidance when it comes to sexual relationships, and Buddhists are no exception. A Buddhists ultimate aim is to escape suffering, and they believe that sex, homosexual or otherwise, should be approached with the Right Intention (BBC Bitesize 2020). A Buddhists perspective of Homosexuality is very flexible. Buddhism is considered incredibly diverse (more so than Christianity) and therefore, can be hard to come to conclusions on particular topics. The sociocultural factors that allow the expansion of beliefs and understandings within Buddhism is what creates said diversity. This essay explores the relevance of a variety of perspectives of homosexual relations within different types of Buddhism internationally, as well as investigating the impact that other religions, culture and scripture have (focusing mainly on Vajrayana/Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhism in Australia).
The Dalai Lama (His Holiness the Dalai Lama/HHDL), is the head monk and spiritual guru of Tibetan Buddhism, the Gelug School and traditionally has been responsible for the governing of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is widely recognised for his activism in human rights, which includes equal rights for homosexuals. According to an Office of Tibet spokesman, HHDL is firmly against violence and discrimination directed at the gay community. He stands for respect, tolerance, compassion, and recognition of human rights for everyone, regardless of sexuality (Buddhism on Homosexuality 2016) He significantly impacts the viewpoint regarding various ethical and moral situations or issues within Buddhism. His initial position on the morality of Homosexuality is heavily based on with-standing Religious traditions and previous teachings from patriarchs of the Gelug school. However, that has evolved by other media, cultural and religious sources. Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and patriarch of the Gelug school. He wrote a commentary on sex which is considered authoritative within Tibetan Buddhism. This commentary is what the Dalai Lama refers to when he speaks of what is proper and what isn’t. At a press conference in June 1997, he commented: ‘From a Buddhist point of view [lesbian and gay sex]… is generally considered sexual misconduct’. This belief isn’t directed only at partners of the same-sex (Religion, 2005), (Simonthepilgrim 2005). The Dalai Lama mentioned that all monks are expected to refrain from sex or any other sexual. However, for laypeople, he commented that the purpose of sex is for procreation, so homosexual acts are viewed as slightly unnatural and unnecessary. Although, from a broader perspective of the entirety of Buddhism, Homosexual sex is not sexual misconduct, except for celibate clergy, and that only insofar as all sex is inappropriate (Zenmonk_genryu 2005). What the Dalai Lama was expressing was the idea of sexual misconduct according to Tibetan cultural norms. His understanding and attitude towards Homosexuality within (Tibetan) Buddhism has evolved, especially after meeting with a group of gay Buddhist practitioners. They made it clear to him how damaging his previous statements were (Simonthepilgrim 2005).
In his book ‘Beyond Dogma,’ he wrote: ‘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.’ (Robinson 2010). Simplified, Buddhism prohibits oral, manual and anal sex for everyone (both homosexuals and heterosexuals), although these are only binding on members of the Buddhist faith. His most recent statements, such as his appearance on the show Larry King Now, in a March 2014 segment is in no way inconsistent of it’s traditional and religious origins. Within the interview, King asked ‘What do you think of the whole emerging gay question?’ in which the Dalai Lama responded ‘That I think is a personal matter….so long as it is safe, OK, and if they fully agree, OK. But bullying, abuse, that is wrong. That’s a violation of human rights.’ He also reiterates his individual opinion on the matter, which is more or less alike, as well as declaring that same-sex marriage is similar, although they must also abide by the country’s law. It is understood that the Dalai Lama does not have the sole authority to override long-accepted teachings, and such change requires a consensus and approval of many senior lamas. The Dalai Lama may have no personal animus toward Homosexuality, but he takes his role as guardian of the tradition very seriously. Therefore, interpreting what the Dalai Lama states also requires understanding how Buddhists consider the precepts.
The Buddhist Precepts include precautions against ‘sexual misconduct,’ or ‘misusing’ sex. Sexual misconduct as described by the Venerable S. Dhammika is if one uses emotional blackmail, trickery or force someone to have sex. It’s believed that sex should be an expression of intimacy and love between two people (Higgins 2012). This also goes into detail about how adultery is another example of sexual misconduct, regardless of sexual orientation, if you give yourself to others, but you’re married, then the adherent has broken the promise of loyalty to their spouse and betray that trust (Jason 2005). In the Vinaya, the rules for the monastic orders, forbid monks and nuns from having any sexual relations (O’Brien 2019). Although, this still created confusion about how to comply with utilising sex in an ‘acceptable’ way if you are a non-celibate layperson. The Buddhist Precepts, unlike the Ten Commandments, are considered a personal commitment, so they are only enforced on those who have taken vows to keep them, rather than being universal moral rules to be imposed on everyone. With this information in mind, it suggests that the majority of Buddhists have no problem with Homosexuality or homosexual sex unless it violates a Religious vow one has taken.
Buddhist attitudes towards Homosexuality reflects the society they’re situated. Therefore, this creates a diverse range of approaches to Homosexuality in Buddhist countries (BBC Bitesize, 2020). Buddhism teaches that sensual enjoyment and desire in general, and sexual pleasure in particular, are hindrances to enlightenment, and inferior to the kinds of pleasure that are integral to the practice of jhāna (Buddhism and Sexual Orientation, 2020). Temples and monasteries standpoint on various ideas are derived from local conclusions and ideologies of what’s considered ‘proper.’ This is also relevant to Religious Teachers separated by distance. For example, some Teachers in Asia decided Homosexuality was sexual misconduct, but other parts of Asia accepted it as no big deal. Different schools of Buddhism – Zen, for example – are very accepting of homosexual relations, so there is no concern for identifying as gay and a Buddhist (O’Brien 2019). The differences among schools are so diverse that some scholars consider them different religions, and note that because of this, Buddhism may be more varied than Christianity (Robinson 2010). Theravada Buddhist countries are not entirely open and accepting of homosexual practice which has much to do with cultural norms, as well as the notion of karma, especially in countries such as Thailand. Homosexuality and other alternative forms of sexuality can be seen as karmic punishments for heterosexual misconduct in a past life (Buddhism on Homosexuality 2016). Homosexuality in Vajrayana/Tibetan Buddhism, as mentioned before, recognises homosexual relations to be regarded the same way as heterosexual relations. According to the Pāli Canon and Āgama (the early Buddhist scriptures), there is no saying that same or opposite gender relations have anything to do with sexual misconduct (Buddhism and Sexual Orientation, 2020).
Australia is one of the most LGBTQ+ accepting countries in the world, so that conventional understanding is reflected in the vast religions practised across Australia. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and more (LGBTQ+) rights in Australia have advanced since the late-twentieth century. Australia’s states and territories can be autonomous, and so most laws affecting LGBTQ+ rights differ slightly (Massola 2015). Buddhist support for LGBTQ+ rights such as same-sex marriage was confirmed in 2012 by the Federation of Australian Buddhist Councils, which represents laypeople, (Stiles 2015) and the Australian Sangha Association, which represents religious leaders (Potts 2012). Bodhinyana Monastery abbot Ajahn Brahm wrote to the Parliament in support of same-sex marriage (Potts 2012). Buddhism in Australia is widely accepted because it’s believed that legalisation would alleviate human suffering, which follows the guidelines and foundations of Buddhism; the eightfold path and four noble truths. Buddhism has undergone substantial growth in both Australia and New Zealand in the last 20 years, as it has in many Western countries. The sociocultural factors that allow the expansion of beliefs and understandings within Buddhism is not limited to Australia. As mentioned before, it’s developed to reflect the cultures in which they reside. Buddhism first reached Australia in 1848 through Chinese immigration when they arrived to work in the goldfields. This early influence was slight and had no dramatic impact on the Religious census figure at the time (which was dominated by Christianity). The first organisation formed in Australia was the ‘Little Circle of Dharma,’ founded in Melbourne in 1925; the second was the ‘Buddhist Study Group’ in 1938. While early versions of Buddhism followed the pattern of being secular in orientation, focusing on Buddhist texts or philosophy, which is a prominent feature in most Western developments. However, this began to change as more and more teachers from multiple traditions visited. (Spuler 2002). Therefore, because Law in Australia accepts LGBT+ sex, marriage and rights, there is no concern for gay Buddhists (or otherwise) unless they infringe the Five Precepts which are essential for all Buddhists when considering their outlook to sex. The Third Precept states that no Buddhist should actively engage in sexual misconduct (including adultery, abuse and promiscuity). Overall, it’s agreed that Australian Buddhists can use contraception as long as they have the right intention and are encouraged to enjoy sex responsibly. Chastity is not a requirement of commencing a Buddhist life, and neither is marriage. If neither partner suffers, then a Buddhist can enjoy a healthy sexual relationship (BBC Bitesize 2020).
To summarise, there is a range of attitudes towards Homosexuality in Buddhist countries which implies the belief overall is flexible. Buddhism in different locations are heavily influenced by various ideas derived from an extensive range of sources such as the impact other existing religions, cultures and scriptures have. The Dalai Lama’s perspective is a prime example of how much outside influences can assist in evolving different ideas and understandings of somewhat controversial subjects’ overtime. This same structure can be seen in the development of LGBT+ rights which determine the karmic affect sexual relations have for gay (or otherwise) Buddhists.