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Buddhism and homosexuality

Theravada Buddhism. Zen Buddhism.
Mahayana Buddhism in China.

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"LGBT" refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender persons and transsexuals.

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." 1

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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Zen Buddhism:

"The Zen tradition deals with sexuality within the broader category of sensual indulgence...Both hedonism and ascetic masochism are violations of the Middle Path." 4 Sexual practices which harm, manipulate, or exploit others is forbidden (e.g. sex with children, with persons who are engaged or married to other persons, with persons unable to give informed consent,  etc.) Zen Buddhism does not "make a distinction between heterosexual and homosexual" sex. It encourages sexual relationships that are "mutually loving and supportive."

Robert Aitken, co-founder and teacher of the Honolulu Diamond Shangha testified before the Hawai'ian Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law on 1995-OCT-11. He commented that Zen Buddhist monks, nuns and devout lay persons accept 16 precepts, one of which is "I take up the way of not misusing sex." 5 He interpreted this guideline as forbidding sex that is self-centered, exploitive, non-consensual, unwholesome or destructive, in either a heterosexual or homosexual context. "Loving relationships between unmarried men are treated very positively in Buddhist scriptures." However, these are not "of an overtly sexual nature."

Mahayana Buddhism in China:

Master Hsing Yun is a Chinese monk who leads the world's largest Chinese Buddhist association. His book "Buddhism, pure and simple" is a commentary on the "Sutra of the eight Realizations of Great Beings," one of the basic texts of Mahayana Buddhism. He writes:

""Marriage is an institution that reflects the values of the society that supports it. If the people of a society no longer believe that it is important to be married, then there is no reason why they cannot change the institution of marriage. Marriage is a custom. Customs can always be changed. We can find the same core point in this question as we have in others—the ultimate truth of the matter is that individuals can and should decide for themselves what is right. As long as they are not violating others or breaking the laws of the society in which they are living, then they are free to do what they believe is right. It is not for me or anyone else to tell them that they must get married if they want to live together. That is their choice and their choice alone."

"The same analysis can be applied to homosexuality. People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them."

"However, it will still take some time for the world to fully accept homosexuality. All of us must learn to tolerate the behavior of others. Just as we hope to expand our minds to include all of the universe, so we should also seek to expand our minds to include all of the many forms of human behavior."

"Tolerance is a form of generosity and it is a form of wisdom. There is nothing anywhere in the Dharma that should ever lead anyone to become intolerant. Our goal as Buddhists is to learn to accept all kinds of people and to help all kinds of people discover the wisdom of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha." 6,7

On the other hand, the Venerable Hsuan Hua has taken strict traditional positions on morality. He is opposed to all forms of desire, which he views as a force that locks most people into the process of samsara. (Samsara is the repeated cycle of birth, life, death, and reincarnation found in Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and other religions.) He has stated that homosexuality:

"... plants the seeds that lead to rebirth in the lower realms of existence." 8

Unfortunately, as the Wikipedia essay states, it is not clear whether he is referring to homosexuality in terms of the sexual desires created by a LGBT person's sexual orientation, or in terms of acts by a sexually active lesbian, gay or bisexual.

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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. Kerry Trembath, "Buddhism and homosexuality," at: http://www.enabling.org/
  2. Diana Paw U, "Another Buddhist Perspective on Same-Gender Marriage", Hawai'i Association of International Buddhists, (HAIB), 1995-OCT-11.
  3. A.L. De Silva, "Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism," Buddha Net, at: http://www.buddhanet.net/
  4. Gay Zen Buddhist Group at: http://hometown.aol.com/  
  5. Robert Aitken, "A Zen Buddhist perspective on same-gender marriage," at: http://www.qrd.org
  6. Hsing Yun, "Buddhism pure and simple," Weatherhill, Ind., (2001). Pages 137-138.
  7. Walter L. Williams, review of "Buddhism pure and simple," International Gay & Lesbian Review, at: http://gaybookreviews.info/
  8. "LGBT toplics and Buddhism," Wikipedia, as on 2010-JUN-28, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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

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