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Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism

Buddhism & 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.

Asian boyA 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.

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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.

Theravada Buddhism:

This is one of the largest divisions of Buddhism. It is also known as the “Southern” School. Using information drawn from a presentation on legalizing same-sex marriages in Hawai’i, we find:

bullet The Buddha formulated 5 precepts of Right Conduct .
bullet One of these is: “I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct” (“not to go the wrong way for sexual pleasure” appears to be a more accurate translation.) 1
bullet The Buddha did not specifically define the term “sexual misconduct.
bullet However, he did stress the importance of “above all, do no harm to others or to oneself”
bullet Some Buddhists conclude that sexual misconduct would include adultery, child molestation, incest, rape, sexual abuse in any form, and sexual harassment. Further, safe and consensual sexual activity by a committed couple is not misconduct (whether engaged in by a heterosexual or homosexual couple). 2

From the Theravada Buddhist standpoint, all relationships: gay, lesbian or straight, are often considered personal matters of mutual consent. If a relationship promotes the happiness and well-being of both parties, then it is positive and acceptable. Many Buddhists agree with most therapists, human sexuality researchers, religious liberals, etc. and believe that sexual orientation is beyond a person’s control, as are race and gender. It is discovered,and not chosen. They feel that gays and lesbians should have the same civil rights and benefits as do all other persons.

Kerry Trembath wrote that Buddhists base ethical decisions on:

  • The consequences of one’s actions: whether the end results are primarily negative involving injury or regret, or primarily positive involving pleasure and joy.
  • The universalibility principle: how we would feel if the action was done to us. A man committing adultery with another man’s wife would not be acceptable because if the situation were reversed, one would feel angry and betrayed.
  • The instrumental principle: whether the action is helpful to our goal of Nirvana.
  • The person’s intention: whether the action is motivated by love and kindness or manipulation and coertion. 1

He commented that Buddhist leaders have generally interpreted coercive sex, sexual harassment, child molestation and adultery to be sexual misconduct. But heterosexual or homosexual consensual sex within a relationship is acceptable. He concludes:

“Unfortunately, it cannot be said that homosexuals in countries where Buddhists are in the majority are any more free from prejudice and discrimination than they are in other countries. Everywhere it has taken root, Buddhism has absorbed aspects of the dominant culture, and this has sometimes been to its detriment. Neither is it true to say that people who espouse Buddhism are themselves any more free from prejudiced views than those of other persuasions. However it is clear that there is nothing in the Buddha’s teachings to justify condemnation of homosexuality or homosexual acts. It seems to me that many gays and lesbians, particularly in Western countries, are drawn to Buddhism because of its tolerance and its reluctance to draw rigid moral lines, although of course I have no hard evidence for this. … The same principles would be used to evaluate all relationships and sexual behaviour, whether heterosexual or homosexual.”

Another Buddhist practitioner, A.L. De Silva, writes:

“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 behavior 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 behavior 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 behavior. 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.” 3

However, the above discussion is only applicable to lay Buddhists.  Very different rules apply for Buddhist monks. They are required to abstain from all types of sexual behavior — both from opposite-sex and same-sex activity.

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