A Western Buddhist View of Homosexuality and Gay Liberation

homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself.

the Dalai lama

I am not going to insult the reader by collecting quotations from the Pali Canon or later non-canonical authorities based on various theories of monastic discipline or appropriate and inappropriate organ pairings. Rather, I will try to look at this question from first principles based on an essential, nonsectarian and universal understanding of dharma. The Buddha is not represented as one for whom rules are moral absolutes or even relatively important in the context of emancipation. He himself appears to have been celibate after his emancipation. However, until his renunciation six years before, he is represented as one intimately familiar with the hedonistic lifestyle over a long period, encouraged by his father. He married young and had a child. Clearly, therefore, he experienced sexual intercourse and orgasm. He was a man. This presents a striking contrast to the strictly asexual presentation of Jesus in the official Church portrait, although Jesus may have had an erotic relationship with Mary Magdalene. This distinction is psychologically important. It shows that Buddhist transcendence is based on psychological assimilation, whereas the Christian conception is fundamentally anti-natural and repressed, and therefore repressive. Since a Buddha is, by definition, a bodhisattva in his final rebirth, it is clear that the state of advanced bodhisattvahood (as distinct from arhantship) is not incompatible with an active sexual life. On the other hand, the Buddha gave up sex when he renounced his wife and child, sacrificing himself to his quest for emancipation. It is worth noting, perhaps, that this quest only led to emancipation after he gave it up.

Peter Masefield, author of Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (1986) writes of a sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya,

This sutta is of particular interest in that in maintaining that Isidatta continued to enjoy sexual relations with his wife (abrahmacari ahosi sadarasantuttho) we are given an indication of the extent to which lay savakas continued to participate in the household life. (p. 11)

Padmasambhava, a realized master, widely recognized as a Second Buddha, was sexually active simultaneously with realization. This is shown by the following quotation:

I have thought about the princess Khrom-pa rgyan;
Physically she is beautiful and mentally she is still innocent.
Acting on behalf of the living beings she will make them live in harmony.
In order to put an end to the rumor that my line will die out because I am impotent,
I, the guru, promise to take her to be my wife.[1]

The Dalai Lama, after half a century of intensive spiritual discipline, has publicly admitted that he still experiences sexual desire. The Buddha is reported to have instructed his disciples not to have sex with or as the puthujjana, the common (puthu) folk (jjana). This became the Third Precept, after killing and stealing – simplistically, abstinence from sex, complete physical observance of which is the prerogative of the infantile, the elderly, the asexual, the repressed, the sick, monks, and the dead. From this, one might deduce that only monks can achieve emancipation, but the Pali suttas do not support this view. Many of the Buddha’s hearers (savakas) were householders, many were married, and many achieved emancipation either spontaneously or after a relatively short period of practice. Therefore, it does not follow that emancipation depends on the following of rules. Nevertheless, the rules exist as intentions, just as it is intentions, and not actions, that cause karma and therefore define identity, such as the identity of the followers of the Buddha as separate from the puthujjana. Therefore, if one’s intentions are pure, then one’s actions are pure, regardless of whether they conform to historically and geographically contingent cultural norms or not.

Common folk were common then and are now. One can imagine the types of behaviours to which the Buddha might be alluding, all singularly characterized by the absence of intention and attention or mindfulness. The Buddhist community is primarily differentiated and characterized by the practice of mindfulness. Since the practice of mindfulness leads to certain results that are observable, those results became hardened into rules based on imitation and the rules became endowed with the sanctity of dharma. Finally, in the mappo (the “degenerate age”), they have become moral absolutes that themselves are delusorily believed to lead to emancipation, as if the acausal can be produced by any karmic action, intention, or organization, as the Brahmans in the Buddha’s time believed. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, this is the sin of idolatry.[2]

Therefore, for the Buddhist, the question becomes, what is the right way of sexuality, not, is homosexuality right? Homosexuality is certainly included in sexuality; whatever applies to the former applies of necessity to the latter. The answer, clearly, is mindfulness. The first five attributes of mindfulness are the five precepts:

  1. Do no harm to living beings, including killing;
  2. Do not take what is not given;
  3. Do not have puthujjana sex;
  4. Do not lie or cause harm using speech; and
  5. Avoid drunkenness.

In the present context, this would exclude things such as rape, sadomasochism, autoerotic asphyxiation, seduction, promiscuity in the largest sense (i.e., thoughtless, unconsidered sexual intercourse), abuse, and drunken sex. Certainly, there is no clear prohibition of homosexuality as such, although homosexuals also engage in all of these behaviours as heterosexuals do. The aesthetics of sexual attraction or disgust are irrelevant, forms of emotional attachment with no significance or self-being.

The foregoing discussion applies to homosexuality as such, which appears with greater or lesser frequency in all of the civilizations and religions of the world as far back in time as we know. However, one must not conflate homosexuality with gay liberation. The latter is a social movement that originated in the 1960s and led the way to significant reforms in society, including legalizing homosexuality and gay marriage. Unfortunately, gay liberation also unleashed a homosexual subculture that has ignored or rejected, sometimes militantly, all social norms. Promiscuity, sexual violence and exploitation, mixing sex and drugs, pornography, and even sexual self-mutilation, all characterize this subculture, as well as much of the larger culture with which it coexists. Thus, gay liberation is a symptom of a larger social malaise that has not yet figured out how to establish the fundamental order that is the precondition of all real freedom. Instead, it creates a culture of fake freedom that is really a culture of nihilism and death – a culture, in short, of the puthujjana.

Homosexuality cannot be made subject to moral law if it is itself rejected as inherently immoral, a perspective that is based on the error that rules, and not intentions, are the primary karmic factors (this is the same error on which the “inappropriate organ pairings” theory is based). Every kind of fundamentalism makes this error, which is adharmic. By failing to acknowledge that homosexuals are capable of formulating moral intentions and submitting to moral rule, and demanding in fact that they do so, we create the very thing we abhor. Therefore, such a view cannot be characterized as dharmic.


1. Herbert Guenther (1996), The Teachings of Padmasambhava, Brill’s Indological Library, ed. Johannes Bronkhorst et al., Vol. 12 (Leiden: E.J. Brill), p. 2, n. 1.

2. Many religious Buddhists, especially Tibetans, whose cultural conservatism is notorious, take an extremely puritanical attitude toward sex in general. Thais also seem to be conflicted on this topic, despite their reputation. It is common to hear Indians state that sex in all its forms is inherently dirty and disgusting, and should only be used for procreation within the context of marriage. Ironically, modern Indian sexual conservatism is actually influenced by the attitudes of Western colonialist powers, especially Muslims and the British. There is evidence to suggest that ancient Indian views of sex were much more tolerant and open. Modern Indian sexual conservatism coexists with the truly disgusting fact that over 50% of Indian children have been abused sexually – something that Indians themselves deny (ref.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sex_in_India). This seems to be true even within the Tibetan ecclesiastical establishment (see, e.g., the Confessions of Kalu Rinpoche). Paradoxically, perhaps, phallus worship occurs in Buddhist countries as far apart as Bhutan and Japan. In 1993, the Dalai Lama stated in an interview that homosexuality was forbidden by Buddhist teachings based on a theory of improper organ pairings. When asked what the canonical basis for this opinion was, he admitted that he did not know. Subsequently, his office released the information that the statement is based on the writings of Ashvaghosha, a first to second century CE Hinayana [sic] Indian writer. The Dalai Lama subsequently acknowledged that these views are culturally contingent on the Indian civilization of the time. The conclusion is therefore inescapable that the Buddhist cultural prohibition against homosexuality as such (as distinct from the ordination of homosexuals, which is a different issue) is culturally contingent and not even canonical (ref.: http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1977). As such, it has no relevance or application at all to the dharma transmission to the West. While it is true that ‘wrong conduct’ (miccha-dhamma) is referred to in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta (DN 26), this is not defined in the Canon, although Buddhaghosa, an Indian Theravadin of the fifth century CE, opines in his Sumangalavilasini that this refers to “men with men, women with women.” There is more Canonical support for the inferiority of women than there is for the inferiority of homosexuals, whereas transexuals (but not bisexuals [ubhatovyanjañaka] or passive homosexuals [pandaka]; according to the ancient Indian view of sexuality, which is shared by many traditional cultures, the active or “dominant” partner in a same-sex encounter is considered to be what we would call “heterosexual”; of course, monastics are restrained from any sort of sexual activity, with the sole exception of unintentional dreams) are explicitly referred to and accepted as members of the Sangha, who are, therefore, at least potentially capable of emancipation (ref.: http://www.enabling.org/ia/vipassana/Archive/J/Jackson/homoBuddhaJackson.html).

Further Reading

Buddhism and sexual orientation


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