Today’s mailbag question comes to us from a friend who was recently asked by someone to account for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s “homophobia.” She has a response of her own, but was curious about my take on the views that His Holiness has expressed on homosexuality. In the wake of things like Prop. 8, I think it has become even more important for Americans–particularly religious Americans–to reflect upon their traditions’ perspectives about homosexuality. When religious points of view affect things like civil rights, and are not properly acknowledged as just that–religion overshadowing our civic responsibility to treat all people as equals–we’ve got problems. So I was only too happy to take on this question. Please feel free to leave your observations, opinions, comments, questions, quibbles, and so on below.
DEAR DANNY: What do you say to charges that His Holiness the Dalai Lama is homophobic? — ANONYMOUS
DEAR ANONYMOUS: Before I answer this question, I should say that though I like to think of myself as a pretty staunch LGBTQI ally with a good nose for even very subtle forms of homophobia, I suspect that, as a straight man, things I might not find very homophobic (if at all) might be incredibly offensive to someone who is gay. So what I say should be taken with a grain of salt.
That said, I definitely have thoughts and opinions about this issue. And I think some kind of an answer will emerge from informed conversation among different people…as well as continual clarification from His Holiness, whose position on things doesn’t always stay the same. Consider his stance on the Tibet issue twenty years ago to his stance now.
Basically, I think the late Steve Peskind, who created the Buddhist AIDS Project, was right to observe in a piece he wrote for Shambhala Sun that there seem to have been two different kinds of statements coming from His Holiness on the matter of homosexuality. The first kind are quite supportive. In particular, Peskind points to statements made by His Holiness in a 1994 interview with OUT Magazine:
If someone comes to me and asks whether it is okay or not, I will first ask if you have some religious vows to uphold. Then my next question is, What is your companion’s opinion? If you both agree, then I think I would say, if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay.
His Holiness has also made it a special point in recent years to include the LGBTQI community in his comments about universal human rights. In 2006, for example, his office sent a special message to the XXIII World Conference of the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA), saying:
His Holiness welcomes the special attention given at this conference to religious tolerance and respect for diversity.
His Holiness is greatly concerned by reports of violence and discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and urges respect, tolerance, and the full recognition of human rights for all.
Elsewhere, though, generally in the context of conversations about traditional Buddhist thought and philosophy, His Holiness has made statements of a less friendly-sounding nature. Some of them have even been downright confusing. Peskind points to a passage in 1996’s Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, which records His Holiness as having said:
A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else….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. Is this clear?
With this answer not at all clear to Peskind and many others, His Holiness was invited to participate in a private meeting between with seven gay and lesbian leaders in San Francisco in 1997. He agreed and clarified his remarks there by saying:
We have to make a distinction between believers and unbelievers. From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct…Even with your wife, using one’s mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one’s hand, that is sexual misconduct.
His Holiness, a celibate Buddhist monk and scholar, was, I think, doing his best here to accurately represent what the tradition has historically said about most lay sexual activity (heterosexual or homosexual) that is not procreative.
Peskind offers a few other important observations about the meeting, writing:
In preparation for the meeting the Dalai Lama had traced the sexual misconduct teachings back to the Indian Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha, and said they may reflect the moral codes of India at the time, “which stress moral purity.” He was open to the possibility of Buddhist tradition changing eventually in response to science, modern social history, and discussion within the various Buddhist sanghas. He urged all of us to go forth and advocate our interests, basing our action on Buddhist principles of “rigorous investigation and non-violence.” He noted that he is not unilaterally empowered to change tradition: “Change can only come on the collective level,” he said.
All of this in mind, we return to the original quesiton: Is His Holiness the Dalai Lama a homophobe? To my thinking, not really. If we’re defining a homophobe as someone who demonstrates an “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals,” then I don’t think His Holiness really qualifies. Statements like those to the XXIII World Conference of the ILGA and his willingness to meet and listen to gay Buddhists like Peskind demonstrate a much more open mind and heart than that, I think.
All of that said, there are things His Holiness could say that he’s not saying. 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. I believe that can lead to homophobic behavior. More needs to be said by His Holiness on this issue. — DANNY
NEXT TIME: Maybe the lineage of Buddhist military chaplains, which I keep promising to answer. Maybe something else. We’ll see!