‘A Respectful Request to His Holiness the Dalai Lama’ (1997)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

4 minutes

In January 1997,  Steve Peskind († 2004) published an open letter to the fourteenth Dalai Lama in the Gay Buddhist Fellowship Newsletter. At the time, Peskind worked as AIDS counselor and coordinator of the Buddhist AIDS Project. He asked the Dalai Lama to clarify some of his recent statements linking homosexuality to sexual misconduct:

“His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is the temporal spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people and, with a 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, a rightly esteemed spiritual leader of people around the world.

Regarding homosexuality, we know firsthand that the Dalai Lama has been personally supportive of sexual relations that include love and mutual consent between homosexual men and homosexual women. He has stressed kindness, non-harm, and discernment in all sexual relations. He has directly supported author Andrew Harvey and Tibetan Buddhist scholar Jeffrey Hopkins, both openly gay men who have experienced harmful responses to their sexual orientation in their respective spiritual communities. As he said to Andrew Harvey, ‘Love is love.’

However, in two recent books under his name, The Way to Freedom (Harper Collins for the Library of Tibet, 1994) and the just released Beyond Dogma (North Atlantic Books, 1996), he states that sexual relations between two men or two women is considered sexual misconduct according to Buddhist teachings, and is a violation of the third Tibetan Buddhist moral precept to engage in non-harmful sexual activity. Beyond Dogma is a transcript of interviews with His Holiness that were conducted in France between October 24 and November 16, 1993. The following is recorded on page 46 of this excellent book:

Question: What are improper sexual attitudes, and what do you think of homosexuality, for example?

Response: Something may be considered improper in terms of organs, time, and place—when sexual relations involve inappropriate parts of the body, or when they occur at an unsuitable time or place. These are the terms Buddhists use to describe sexual misconduct. The inappropriate parts of the body are the mouth and the anus, and sexual intercourse involving those parts of the body, whether with a man or a woman is considered sexual misconduct. Masturbation as well.

‘As for when sexual intercourse takes place, if it is during the day, it is also held to be a form of misconduct, as is having intercourse with a partner who professes to certain principles such as sexual abstinence or celibacy, even if those vows are only temporary. To force someone to have intercourse also comes under the category of improper time.

‘Inappropriate locations include temples, places of devotion, or positions where one of the partners is uncomfortable. A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs created for sexual intercourse and nothing else. To have sexual relations with a prostitute paid by you and not by a third person does not, on the other hand, constitute improper behavior. All these examples define what is and what is not proper sexual behavior according to Buddhist morality.

‘Homosexuality, whether it is between me nor 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?’

But consider the following statements by the Dalai Lama to American interviewer Scott Hunt, two months prior to the above interview on August 16, 1993, and printed in Out Magazine (March 1994) and the GBF Newsletter (July-August 1995):

‘SH: The Dalai Lama is also more liberal on issues of sexuality.

‘HHDL: Using one’s hand is not harming on others, and if you have no vow, then it is simply for temporary satisfaction.

[Scott goes on to write:] This principle apparently applies equally to homosexuality, a topic that caused noticeable discomfort for the translator and the assistant, who sat in small chairs on the side of the room. At first, the Dalai Lama seemed to say that homosexuality was prohibited by traditions proscribing sexual misconduct. “Blow, here,” he said in broken English, pointing first to his mouth and then to his groin, “is wrong.” After giving the issue more thought, however, he arrived at an answer that modified his initial response:

“HHDL: If someone comes to me and asks whether it is OK 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—he laughed heartily—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 OK.”

Scott adds: This may seem a surprising statement for one of the world’s foremost religious leaders. But in Buddhist teaching, the Dalai Lama pointed out, “individual rights means we have the individual right to engage in any action that gives satisfaction provided it does not harm others. We cannot say on the basis of individual rights that it is OK to steal from someone or to kill someone. Why? These also give individual satisfaction, but this is not sufficient, because it creates harm on others. Any action or activities that do not create a problem for others, and even for the temporary satisfaction of the individual if it does not create suffering in others, then that kind of action is all right.”‘

Again, the above was a personal interview between Scott Hunt, an openly gay Buddhist, and His Holiness in Dharamsala, India, in August of 1993.

In 1997, the Dalai Lama is coming to visit and teach in the San Francisco area. Members of GBF and the Buddhist AIDS Project respectfully request that His Holiness The Dalai Lama, in whatever manner and venue he chooses, speak to the Buddhadharma, the truth of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.

Many who regard this ‘simple Buddhist monk’ (as he refers to himself) very highly, are confused and distressed by the inconsistency of his statements and their worldwide ramifications. The Buddha, according to Buddhist teaching, and the Dalai Lama himself have said that the truth of what is—not Buddhist doctrine per se—is the Buddhadharma.

With open hearts and inquiring minds we may each ask ourselves and each other: What is the truth of love and harm expressed in homosexuality and homosexual relations ‘beyond dogma?’

Steve Peskind is a gay man practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He has been an A I D S counselor and caregiver since 1981and presently is a coordinator of the Buddhist AIDS Project. Heis also editor of theforthcoming anthology,HeartLessonsFromanEpidemic:Buddhist Practice and Living With HIV. (pp. 4-5, links added.)

1997-01 - Peskind - A Respectful Request to His Holiness The Dalai Lama (Gay Buddhist Fellowship Newsletter January 1997 pp. 4-5)
1995-07 08 - Hunt - Hello, Dalai (Gay Buddhist Fellowship Newsletter July-August 1995 pp. 6-7)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.