FROM THE MAILBAG: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Views on Homosexuality

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

Got a question for me? You can send it to me via email, Facebook, or Myspace, or by leaving a comment in this or other posts.

NEXT TIME: Maybe the lineage of Buddhist military chaplains, which I keep promising to answer. Maybe something else. We’ll see!

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13 thoughts on “FROM THE MAILBAG: His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s Views on Homosexuality

  1. Excellent article, Danny. Far better than my rambling around the same subject a few years back ( I agree that more should be said.

    The tricky thing for H.H. the Dalai Lama is that he has a lot of conservative Gelukpas and traditionalist Tibetan refugees on one side who (and I hope I’m not being too pessimistic) just wouldn’t understand the throwing away of this sexual taboo.

    I know he has basically said they must reject old Buddhist cosmology after he saw that the moon *wasn’t* just a flat disc in the sky and that didn’t seem to bother anybody, but when he suggested he might not choose to be reborn everyone went ape. Could it be a matter of his great wisdom to essentially ‘not rock the boat’ on this issue?

    I don’t know Tibetan culture well enough to know how near-and-dear sexual mores are – maybe others could chime in…

  2. I’m not sure I would characterize the traditional teachings as homophobic as they theoretically apply to everyone. It has always been my understanding that non-procreative sexual activity is considered misconduct because it simply creates more attachment–and thus suffering. But then again, as a monk I may be biased.

    In the social sphere, however, homophobia is a human rights issue and HH and other religious leaders could do much more to transform negative views on the subject.

  3. The Dalai Lama, of course, doesn’t speak for me, and I’m not a monk.

    There’s 2 other directions this bit goes into, one of which I covered on my blog today, and one of which I’m planning on covering.

    The first is “what do you do with a bad teacher?” By “bad teacher” I’m thinking of those who distort the Dharma one way or the other, or distort their own role as teachers, or exploit or abuse that role.

    The DL doesn’t speak for me, but that does not mean that his teachings aren’t uniformly bad, even if he is a raging homophobe (or racist, or drunkard, or sexual predator, even). An analogous situation (given by the Roland Burris situation) is covered on my blog today.

    The other point, which I think is unsaid, has to do with issues of class. The degree to which Buddhist clerical morality has traditionally benefited from its higher class status is the degree to which you have to put into question some of the notions surrounding clerical separation from laity, including issues relating to sexuality.

    You could write a book on the last paragraph, but that’s enough for today. The “What do you do with a bad teacher” question would be interesting for me to hear you on, Danny, because … well… is it the same in your tradition as mine?

  4. Justin: Great points about His Holiness’ responsibilities to his specific lineage. And it strikes me that with his concerns about Tibetan cultural preservation, he and others are probably generally hesitant to change things they’ve been taught. This is also not something I know a lot about, and would be curious to hear informed readers speak to this.

    Gyatso: I agree that the teachings on sexuality are really about reducing desire and attachment. The thing that bothers me, though, is that these Buddhist sexual ethics kind of 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 bad behavior. His Holiness is right to say that if modern scientific findings contradict our beliefs–even our Buddhist beliefs–we must change. While there is no conclusive evidence about what determines sexual orientation, the APA rightly notes that there have been many compelling studies about “possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences” and that “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.” I think we have a responsibility to think about and respond to all this.

    Mumon: I look forward to reading what you’ve got to say.

  5. I think I may have been the “anonymous” who initiated this question. The information I had originally seen that raised red flags in my mind was the natural law type of statements the Dalai Lama had made–the idea that genitalia are only for procreation.

    From what you’ve posted, it seems like he is against discrimination on the one hand, but perhaps holds on to a natural law position on the other. It is possible that these haven’t been reconciled (or maybe can’t be reconciled) with one another. I recoil pretty negatively at the natural law stuff–I find it pretty backwards. Perhaps in time he will come to publicly repudiate that element of his thought.

    In any case, I was originally left with the impression that he was completely opposed to gay rights–and I’m very glad to be proven wrong about that.

  6. Excellent article, Danny. As a psychologist, I’d also point out that the APA hedges its statements in response to our own conservative members – the reality is that there had been numerous attempts over the past 100 years both to determine non-biological/familial causes of homosexuality, as well as to “treat” it – all ending in failure, which no real support for either view. If we are to allow science to be a part of our guide, I would assert that Buddhists concerned with these issues take it further and ask themselves what it means if some individuals were born with a capacity for romantic and sexual love exclusive to their own sex, that will not change over the lifespan and is unchangeable by external means or practice?

    Gyatso: I think there’s an inherent flaw in the thinking that, if a sexual rule applies to everyone, it’s fair (and pardon me for picking on you for a moment). In essence, this rule states that if you are married to a member of the other sex, sex is moral, but if you are married to a member of the same sex (legal in an increasing number of states and nations), no sex at all is moral. It’s like an assertion I’ve heard attributed to Justice Scalia that there’s no marriage inequality because all men can marry women, and all women in this country can marry a man, regardless of sexual orientation. If we all had the same predisposition to love a person of the other sex, that would be just. Since we don’t, it seems to be a somewhat harsh use of semantics to justify an unequal view.

    The early Buddhists were highly influenced by the Laws of Manu and other law books of early Hinduism; these books were specific to a fault, there are even different punishments proscribed for finding women together in bed based on whether or not a virgin partner is intact (if she is, the older woman’s hair is shorn; if it is not, the first two digits on her dominant hand are cut off); we must accept that Buddhism inherited just as many de facto sexual proscriptions based on older faiths as arose from practice and experience.

  7. Danny, Thanks for this discussion. You’re a true journalist. We just picked up the story over at SunSpace, and republished Steve Peskind’s article (cleaned up, this time!)

  8. Thanks for this article. It may be worth pointing out that Buddhist teachers who are less hide-bound by Tibetan society and history (which has never condoned homosexuality and is actually both homophobic and misogynist) have been able to adapt to the modern world and say things along the lines of “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.” Geshe Kelsang for example has said these kinds of things. He also does not include homosexuality amongst the teachings on sexual misconduct, and there are many openly gay men and women teaching at NKT Centers. All kudos to him, I think.

  9. Please remember everyone that when he speaks or writes, HHDL (or most any Buddhist leader) is necessarily addressing numerous groups, including in this case the monastic communities that are governed by thousands of precepts that were laid down soon after Buddha’s death and in the years following. It is probably not fair to expect one catch-all comment on such a matter that would capture what is valid for the monastic, semi-monastic, lay Buddhist, and non-Buddhist communities. Unlike in what I (in moments of pique) like to call the ‘Sinai Desert Religions’, Buddhism has nothing similar to the ‘laws’ Westerners are used to, no dogma, it doesn’t work that way. Surely.

  10. And what would HHDL have to say about intersexuals? Those who are born with both male and female sexual organs. Whom are they to be attracted to?

    I think monks need to differ a bit to psychologists and others more knowledgeable on sexual matters.

    Personally I think that the main issue about sexuality is attachment to it whether homosexual or heterosexual.

    Sexuality is sexuality in my view regardless of what body parts you use. That to me has nothing to do with desire, which affects both homosexuals and heterosexuals and is what causes the most suffering in my view.

    I think too many people think pleasure is bad in Buddhism. I personally think pleasure is GOOD but it’s the attachment to it that causes the suffering. If we can’t live without sexuality (whether hetero or homosexual) then we have extreme suffering.

    I’m not a monk or Buddhist expert but a lay follower trying to adjust my practice with the inevitable change of life. Even the DL would admit that Buddhism too is subject to change.

  11. Craig: I’m really glad that this was helpful to you.

    Dr. Matthew: Thank you so much for your additions to this conversation!

    Molly: Aw, shucks! Thanks for the kind words! And I’m really glad you all reposted Peskind’s terrific piece over at SunSpace.

    James: Well spoken, sir.

  12. I would like to share my knowledge about gay and lesbian after I listen to monk audio.
    Please excuse my grammar.
    Btw I am buddhist since I was young. I was born in Burma/Myanmar.
    In the audio monk said, “In their past lives they (Heterosexual) have violated the law of moral codes which insists of cheating on your spouses or sexual assault to female with force”.
    So that’s why they were born homosexual in this life to pay for what they have done in their past lives.
    It does make sense for me as a buddhist.
    I don’t judge gay or lesbian. But for me I learn from other people’s mistake and i’m aware of those moral codes now that i am hesitate to do the things that make me break them.
    Thank you for reading. :)

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