Sunday, December 6, 2009

His Holliness on Homo-ness

Here is another post that is part of the Great Article Swap among us Buddhist bloggers, this one from the Rev. Danny Fisher. If you're not familiar with him and his blog, you ought to be. Here it is.

First, many thanks to Richard for hosting my comments here, and to Nate for making this whole Buddhist blog swap happen.

When Richard and I got in touch, he suggested as possible topic the confusion among gay Buddhists and straight allies “by what we perceive as the Dalai Lama’s waffling on the gay issue in Buddhism.” In addition, he suggested clarification about “what is more important for gays as they approach Buddhism: personal acceptance of who we are prior to taking up Buddhism, or using Buddhism as a vehicle for self acceptance.”

I’ve examined the first issue, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s stance on homosexuality, in some depth in a past post at my blog. Richard suggested that I rework some of what I said there and elsewhere, though, so I will begin by doing that.

In my post, I concluded that it would be difficult to characterize His Holiness as homophobic. If we’re defining a homophobe as someone who demonstrates an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals,” then His Holiness does not qualify: statements like those he made to the XXIII World Conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association, as well as his willingness to meet and listen to gay Buddhists like the late Steve Peskind, demonstrate a much more open mind and heart than that, I think.

Still, other things he has said (in the context of conversations about sexual misconduct “according to the Buddhist tradition”) have been less than satisfying and even confusing. Additionally, there are things His Holiness could say that he’s not saying. In my post, I suggested that while he is right to remind us that he’s not the pope of all Buddhists, I think Peskind too is right to note that he could do more to “commit himself to helping correct harmful Buddhist teachings still on the books–including the conduct codes which can fuel homophobic behavior among Buddhist teachers and students.” While His Holiness can’t change the tradition, I suspect certain kinds of statements would be enormously influential coming from him. Imagine if he said, “According to the Buddhist tradition, homosexuality is sexual misconduct…but that’s an idea that’s a product of the time of the tradition’s origins and we should throw it away.” Call me overly optimistic, but I think that would have a pretty big ripple effect. He’s not a Buddhist pope, but, when this Dalai Lama speaks, a lot of people–a lot of Buddhists in the world–listen. With all due respect, it doesn’t quite do to say “According to the Buddhist tradition…” and leave it at that.

Holding to these Buddhist sexual ethics suggest that being a “good Buddhist” and being gay are mutually exclusive. (You can have heterosexual sex and still be a good Buddhist, but you can’t ever have homosexual sex and be a good Buddhist it seems.) And to keep saying “According to the Buddhist tradition…” with no postmodern, critical, scientific reflection is problematic in that it can (intentionally or unintentionally) enable homophobic behavior. His Holiness has frequently said that if modern scientific findings contradict our beliefs—even our most deeply held Buddhist beliefs—we must change. I would agree. On that point, the American Psychological Association has rightly noted that there have been many compelling studies about the biological and psychological origins of homosexuality and that “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.” The sciences are speaking loudly and clearly to us, and we have a responsibility to respond.

In addition, great compassion and loving-kindness are important values in every Buddhist tradition. Is it not an extraordinarily uncompassionate, unloving, and unkind thing to (grossly or subtly) dehumanize others and (implicitly or explicitly) deny them their civil rights? I would certainly not like it if I were denied equal protection under the law. How about you?

Consider this: Civil unions offer many of the same rights and privileges of marriage, but exclusively at the state-level—they are not recognized by the United States Federal Government the way that marriages are. Furthermore, under the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (DOMA), other U.S. states are not obliged to recognize these unions (nor are they required to recognize legal gay marriages in other states). The General Accounting Office lists over 1,100 benefits and protections for married couples–which relate to things like Social Security and VA benefits, health insurance and visitation rights, family leave, immigration law, taxes, and more–and civil unions protect only some of these rights. Because civil unions are not recognized by the federal government, this means, among many other things:

• gay couples cannot file joint-tax returns and enjoy some of the same tax protections as married couples;
• a United States citizen cannot sponsor a non-American for immigration through a civil union the way he or she could through marriage;
• if someone in a civil union receives benefits through their employer for their partner and/or children from that union, they must report the entire premium—including the share he or she paid and the share the employer paid—as income on his or her federal tax return.

Where is there love and compassion in allowing our fellow human beings to be treated in such an unjust way?

There have been powerful words and gestures of support for the gay community in the past couple of years from such Buddhists as B.P.F. Executive Director Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Jodo Shinshu priest William Briones, Chaplain Mikel Monnett, and others. There need to be more. For my part, I am committed to serving the LGBTQ community as a straight ally. I hope more of my fellow Buddhists will join me. For resources on being an ally, I refer readers to Safe Zone For All.


  1. Great post! I had one question though. In Christian circles there are some bible quotes that get tossed around stating that there is some amount of Divine comment against homosexuality (I find these silly but they get slung around quite a bit). The crazy part is that these few quotes are slung like magical arrows that counteract any of the positive messages in the bible.

    Are there comparable quotes from the Buddhist canon other than "sexual misconduct" and do any Buddhist organization openly say that homosexuality is wrong? I can't think of any off the top of my head. It seems that organizationally and philosophically Buddhism accepts homosexuality but I would assume at the level of teacher/student there are several that hold homophibic views.

    For the record though, statements made by the Dalai Lama mean alomst nothing to my practice although I would respect his opinion much more if he was more openly engaging with the LGBTG community.



  2. Hey John, I passed on to Danny that you were posing a question. I would comment that the term "homosexuality" wasn't even coined until the latter part of the 19th Century. And based on some reading I've done about King James, it was during his reign and when he had commissioned a Bible in his name that the idea of same-sex encounters were introduced into the canon.

    That may have been political, because ever since King James was a boy king on the throne, he was having affairs with men and giving them prominent posts, which annoyed some people. But prior to King James, previous translations of the Bible made no general reference to male-male sex other than Leviticus I believe; it had always been very specific to a particular set of circumstances (Ie Paul's frequently taken out of context rant against temple prostitutes in Corinthians).

    Ironically, there are no condemnations of female-female sex in the Bible. That may have been because during Biblical time, women were believed to have played no role in procreation other than to provide a receptacle for the baby to grow in; it was believed that the entire child was contained within a man's sperm. So male-male sex was bad, as was masturbation, because it led to the "waste" of semen, ergo actual children dying.

  3. I don’t think the earliest version of the Buddha’s teachings (the Pali Tripitaka) has to be subjected to ‘postmodern critical scientific reflection’ to reconcile Dharma practice with homosexuality. Just separate the Dharma from the ‘traditions’ that have built up around it and which are often mistaken for it, and it stands okay. See
    for some comments on this issue

  4. Thank you Bhante for directing us to your post! I am very familiar also with the link you recommended from A.L. De Silva. I am honored that you read my blog!