Saturday, November 28, 2009

Let’s talk about sex

Despite the temptation to be puerile, and goodness knows I have the capacity to be as campy as the next person (no promises here either, I might let something slip), the topic of sex is particularly important to lesbigay practitioners. The issue of right versus wrong sexual behavior – or more specifically skillful versus unskillful – is relevant to all Buddhist practitioners regardless of orientation. But it’s particularly important to gay and transgendered Buddhists because for our breeder brethren, sexuality per se is not the relevant issue. For us, however, it is.

As an aside, there has been a lot of debate, particularly within the Theravada monastic community, regarding the ordination of women. Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist has chronicled much of this, and at Sujato’s Blog, you can read more detail about the recent flap prompted by the ordination of women in Australia. The subject has also been drawing great interest in the gay Buddhist Yahoo! e-mail list Heartland. A debate like this, despite the discomfort it may create, is important to have. It provides an opportunity to not only examine the Buddha’s teachings about these things, but to evaluate how that teaching may have become staid, or even turned into a dogmatic principle that may constitute Wrong View. As the Buddha taught the Kalamas, just because something is a tradition doesn’t mean it is skillful or leads to knowing the truth.

A similar discussion about homosexuality is just as important; however, this discussion has largely been limited to the gay Buddhist community, which presents the danger that this discussion will be perceived by the larger straight community as simply being the queers trying to justify their abnormal behavior. Such a situation is paralleled in the Christian community where Christian gays are put into the rhetorical position of having to defend their sexuality against those who smugly point to biblical passages that unmistakably condemn same-sex activity, while at the same time ignore other passages that have been interpreted to be irrelevant in modern society.

It’s not a debate when all one side does is sit back and reply with the childish, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Yet the same sophomoric response is frequently encountered by gays in the Buddhist community as well. And there is a supreme irony in all of this that seems to escape many Buddhists, particularly those in positions of authority. These individuals point to the Tipitika to justify the position that same-sex activity violates the Third Precept as if they are saying, “See there? It is written!” (Although they frequently and misleadingly point to the Vinaya, which specifically addresses behavior in the monastic community, not the lay community) We come back to the teaching of the Kalamas, when the Buddha said not to rely on something as being true simply because it is written. But somehow, this is ignored because we’re talking about the Buddha’s teachings here. How convenient that these alleged “scholars” forget that the Buddha didn’t write anything down. His teachings were oral. They were written down later, and he wasn’t around at the time to provide editing. The Buddha knew that someday, everything he said would be written down, and because not all monks hold Right View, some of those transcriptions would be erroneous.

Complicating the matter is culture and its misunderstanding. For example, many Westerners have a perception that Thai society is accepting of homosexuality. This simple view fails to appreciate that just as in American society, there are urban versus rural sensibilities. And what happens and passes as acceptable in Bangkok or Phuket isn’t necessarily acceptable in Satun or Phayao. Even in locations like Phuket, much is taken for granted by Western tourists. I can remember seeing the local Thai men staring at the European women sunbathing topless on Patong Beach, but the Thai men weren’t ogling these women. Their stares held contempt for women who were showing disrespect for the local culture by carrying on as if they were at a nude beach in a Berlin park.

I also believe that many white Buddhists fail to appreciate the influence Confucianism and Taoism has on East Asian society and thought. Recognizing the fact that homosexuals exist and not harboring any outward ill-will for them does not equate with acceptance. Some of my Chinese friends who live in Asia tell me that they would never out themselves to their parents because the consequences would be swift and severe: the thinking with their parents is, “it’s OK that I know gay people, but if my son were gay, I would abandon him in a second!” The pressure on many of these individuals to marry and sire children is tremendous; failure to do so continues to bring shame on the family.

So it should come as no surprise to Anglo American and European Buddhists that the Dalai Lama hedges in his response to questions about his view on homosexuality, or that many well-known monks from both Theravada or Mahayana traditions tell gays that it’s OK, but you should remain celibate because gay sex violates the Third Precept, speaking as if they were Christian Evangelicals who say “love the sinner but hate the sin.” Nor should we be surprised by how the fruits of kamma are brought into this discussion by those who explain being born gay is the result of kamma, with the implication that it was some wrong act in a previous life that caused this.

We ought not be surprised by any of this, but that does not mean that such views are Right View; and in the case of kamma, even if it may be Right View, that does not mean that we ought to view our current condition as a punishment.

So how should we apply the Third Precept to our lives as lesbigay people? And what did the Buddha say about sexuality? My attempts to answer these questions shall be in another blog post.

Part 2 of this post can be read at zenfant's home for dirty Dharma.


  1. First of all do you live by the precepts? If so, for a lay person these are only guidelines, not do or die rules. As a gay- lay person I feel if you have a committed partnership, and don't play around you are fine. And yes, you can live a moral life as a gay. If as a monk, you hopefully evolve into the wisdom that sex is no longer needed, 'cause honey you are not supposed to have it at all then anyway.

  2. Hi Was Once,

    Yes, I get the idea that the precepts are guidelines, not commandments. Just trying to provide some background because I still encounter folks who have received mixed messages about the precepts, particularly how to interpret the Third Precept in light of being gay. Having now said that the precepts are "guidelines," we cannot be too lackadaisical about following them, because as we implement them into our lives, our own personal skillfulness increases, doesn't it?

  3. Richard,
    You know all this anyway, you are smart.
    The people who want to judge you based on their version of the precepts, are not really Buddhists anyway. Notice the word judge. So stop trying to please everyone. Ultimately you have to account for yourself in the best way you know how doesn't mean lackadaisical unless that's how you run your life.
    When I ordained and disrobed the monk said the fifth is the most important in lay life...more damage is done by drinking.
    Sexual Responsibility...

  4. Hey, thanks for the link to Thich Nhat Hanh's commentary on the Third Precept! I will add it to my resources.

  5. Hello, I read your blog on this topic and the Third precept is bound to many interpretations. Some say that as long as sex is between two consenting partners it would be ok. However if you have many partners, have affairs and are attached to lust you will surely be reborn as a preta. So I guess what it comes down to is moderation... Anything in moderation is good.

  6. Hi Roy, thanks for the comment. Moderation is a key item, after all, Buddhism is called the middle way. But intention is also critical, don't you think? I can be moderate in my sexual activities, and still have wrong intention, correct?