‘Pico Iyer on the Dalai Lama’s Views on Sexuality’ (2008)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

15 minutes

In an interview with Rev. Alan Jones in 2008, while talking about the Dalai Lama’s pronouncements on (homo)sexuality, Pico Iyer referenced the meeting between the Tibetan leader and a small group of gay and lesbian activists in June 1997.

In this brief clip, Iyer mentions the scholarly work of José Cabezón—who attended the 1997 meeting himself—investigating the original statements on sexual misconduct by the Tibetan patriarch Tsongkhapa (1357-1419).

Cabezón went on to publish Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism in 2017. With regard to his discussion with the Dalai Lama about Tsongkhapa’s view on inappropriate (homo)sexual practices in 1997 that Pico Iyer referenced in 2008 Cabezón wrote:

“Tsongkhapa is of course the author of the Lamrim Chenmo, the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path. The Lamrim Chenmo contains the most systematic and complete treatment of the doctrine of sexual misconduct that I have found in Tibetan Buddhist literature. Synthesizing the work of the major Indian scholars before him, Tsongkhapa uses the same fourfold scheme (partner, time, place, and orifice) as his framework. Like most of his Tibetan predecessors, he hardly embellishes at all. Tsongkhapa, however, does mention ‘clenched thighs’ (brla bsdams) as an improper ‘orifice’—to my knowledge, the only Tibetan to do so. Although this is also found in the version of Aśvagoṣa’s text preserved in the Tibetan canon, it is not found in the Sanskrit edition of that text. This suggests that either the Tibetan translation of Aśvagoṣa’s Daśākuśala was based on a different Sanskrit original or else (and more likely) that Tibetans inserted this phrase into the text at some point, perhaps because they felt that they needed an Indian textual warrant to pro scribe intercrural sex. In modern times, some Tibetan and Bhutanese monks have indeed practiced a form of sex involving insertion of the penis between the thighs of their male partners.

[Footnote 1303: Goldstein, Siebenschuh, and Tashi Tsering Struggle for Modern Tibet, 26-30. ‘In traditional Tibetan society,’ Tashi Tsering states, ‘it became common for monks and monk officials to satisfy themselves sexually with men or boys by performing the sex act without penetrating an orifice. They used a version of the ‘missionary position’ in which the monk official (the active male roleplayer) moved his penis between the crossed thighs of a partner beneath him. Since no monastic disciplinary rule was technically violated, this behavior was condoned and rationalized as a pleasurable release of little significance.’ On the Bhutanese case, see “Bhutan to Make Condoms Available to Monks,’ Bhutanese News Service, March 29, 2013.]

Tsongkhapa also seems to believe that the crux of the rule regarding prostitutes concerns who hires her—’it is not considered sexual misconduct when one pays her oneself.’ This implies that it is sexual misconduct if one pays the woman through an intermediary (a pimp or madame). However, this seems to be a misreading of the Indian sources, which simply state that one cannot hire a prostitute who is already under contract with another man. Tsongkhapa also alludes to the line from the Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī prohibiting homosexuality—that all men are off-limits ‘whether they belong to oneself or to another.’ I understand this to be a reference to slaves, but Tsongkhapa offers a novel interpretation, claiming that men should not have sex ‘either with themselves or with another.’ Sex with male slaves probably never occurred to Tsongkhapa as a possibility. (pp. 510-511.)

Tsongkhapa completed his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path in 1402. The English translation of its section on sexual misconduct runs as follows:

“There are four possible bases of sexual misconduct: a person with whom you should not have intercourse, inappropriate body parts, inappropriate places, and inappropriate times. Those with whom one should not have intercourse in the case of men are women with whom you should not copulate, all men, and eunuchs. The Compendium of Determinations [i.e. Viniścayaṃsamgrahaṇī] refers to the first:

‘Those indicated in the sutras—such as your mother and those protected by mothers—are “those with whom you should not have intercourse.”‘

The meaning of this is as the scholar Aśvagoṣa said [Endnote 385: Daśakuśala-karma-patha-nirdeśa (Explanation of the Ten Virtuous Paths of Action)]:

‘”Those with whom you should not copulate”
Are those held by another, those having a religious insignia,
Those under the protection of family or king,
A prostitute who has been taken by another,
And those related to you—
These are the ones with whom you should not copulate.’

“Those held by another” are others’ wives. “Those who havea religious insignia” are renunciate women. “Those protected by family” are those who have not yet become brides and are protected by kinsfolk such as their fathers, who are protected by a father-in‐law or a mother-in-law, who are protected by a guard, or who—i n the absence of these—are protected even by themselves. “Those protected by a king” or his representative are those concerning whom a punitive law has been laid down. The line stating that sex witha prostitute for whom another has paid is sexual misconduct shows that there is no sexual misconduct in hiring a prostitute yourself. The Great Elder also taught this in a similar way.

“Men,” the second in the list of those with whom you should not have intercourse, refers both to oneself and to others.

Inappropriate body parts are body parts other than the vagina. The master Aśvagoṣa says:

‘What are inappropriate body parts?
The mouth, the anus, the calves or
Thighs pressed together, and the hand in motion.’

This accords with what the Great Elder [Endnote 386: The words Tsong-kha-pa puts in the mouth of the Great Elder (jo bo chen po), usually Atisha, are found in the Daśakuśala-karma-patha-nirdeśa.] says:

‘The “inappropriate body parts” are the mouth, the anus, the front or rear orifices of a boy or girl, and your own hand.’

Inappropriate places are areas such as the vicinity of gurus, for instance; a place where there is a stūpa; in the presence of many people; and on uneven or hard places that are harmful to the person with whom you are having intercourse. The Master Aśvagoṣa says [Endnote 387: Daśakuśala-karma-patha-nirdeśa]:

‘In this case, inappropriate places
Are ones that are locations of the sublime teaching,
Stūpas, images, and the like, and bodhisattvas;
And the vicinity of an abbot, a preceptor, or one’s parents.
Do not have intercourse in these inappropriate places.’

The Great Elder also taught this.

Inappropriate times are when the woman is menstruating, when she is at the end of a term of pregnancy, when she has an infant who is nursing, when she is observing a one-day vow, and when she has an illness which makes sexual intercourse inappropriate. Sexual intercourse is also inappropriate in excess of a proper amount. A proper amount is having intercourse up to five times a night. The master Aśvagoṣa says [Endnote 388: Ibid.]:

‘In that case, inappropriate times are when
A woman is menstruating, pregnant,
Has an infant, is unwilling,
Is in pain or is unhappy and the like,
Or is maintaining the eight-part one-day vow.’

Again, the Great Elder is similar to Aśvagoṣa with the difference that he says that daytime is an inappropriate time.

Given that the three bases—sexual intercourse using inappropriate body parts, in an inappropriate place, or at an inappropriate time—become sexual misconduct even in regard to your own wife, it is certainly the case that they become sexual misconduct in regard to others.

Of the three aspects of the category of attitude—perception, motivation, and affliction‐perception is spoken of in the Compendium of Determinations and in the texts on discipline. The Compendium of Determinations says that the ‘perception of this as that’ must be accurate. However, the Buddha says in the texts on discipline that in the case of the cardinal transgression of unchastity, it is the same whether the perception is mistaken or accurate.

The Treasury of Knowledge Auto-commentary [i.e. Abhidharmama-kośa-bhāṣya] explains that if you have approached another’s wife with the perception that she is your own wife, then this does not become an actual path of nonvirtuous action. Vasubandhu presents two systems in regard to when intercourse under the perception that another person’s wife is the wife of a third person—one in which intercourse becomes a path of nonvirtuous action and one in which it does not.

The affliction is any of the three mental poisons. The motivation is the desire, due to unchastity, to copulate. As for the performance, the Compendium of Determinations states that even in terms of causin g others to commit sexual misconduct, the instigator of such an action incurs the misdeed of sexual misconduct as well. However, the Treasury of Knowledge Auto-commentary explains that such instigation is not an actual path of action. You should examine whether Asaṅga’s explanation may mean that such instigation is a fault which is not an actual path of action.

The culmination is the sexual union of the two parts.” (pp. 220-222.)

Volume 2 of Geshe Lhundub Sopa’s  Steps on the Path to Enlightenment: A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo (2005) explains this section as follows:

The basis
The third physical unwholesome karma is sexual misconduct. There are four types of inappropriate sexual acts: using an inappropriate partner, inappropriate parts of the body, inappropriate places, and inappropriate times.

What constitutes an inappropriate partner, or object? First, you should not have sex with someone who is not your own partner. Taking the point of view of a man here, that means you should have sex only with your own wife or partner, but not with other women. The second improper object for a man is all men. The third improper object is hermaphrodites and those of uncertain gender—those who are neither completely male or female, but appear to be something in between.

In discussing sexual misconduct we should remember that the Lamrim Chenmo and most Buddhist scriptures describe these actions from the perspective of a man, so most of the improper objects that are mentioned are various types of women. However, the guidelines concerning sexual misconduct are the same for women, and to understand what they are we only need to transpose the genders.

Concerning the improper object, Asaṅga’s Compendium of Determinations says:

‘Those with whom one should not engage in sexual activity are one’s own mother and so forth, and those under the care of one’s mother [e.g., those who rely upon her instructions concerning what to do and what not to do], just as it is explained in the sutras.’

Aśvaghosa elaborates the meaning of this in his Explanation of the Ten Virtuous Paths of Action (Daśakuśala-karma-patha-nirdeśa):

‘What are called “improper objects of sexual activity”
Are those held by another, those carrying the banner of the Dharma,
Those under the protection of their lineage or of the king,
Prostitutes who are taken by another,
And those who are relatives.
These are the ones with whom sex is improper.

‘Held by another’ means the wife or partner of someone else, someone who does not ‘belong’ to you. ‘Those carrying the banner of the Dharma’ are those who have taken vows of renunciation and who therefore wear religious robes. Since this was written from the point ofview of a man, here it refers to nuns, but of course this instruction refers to monks as well.

‘Those under the protection of their lineage’ means young women who are not yet married and who are under the care of their father or other relatives, their prospective in-laws, or who are watched over by a guard. This also includes those who are not in the care of others but are looking after themselves. ‘Protected by the king’ means someone who is under the care of the king or ruler, or who is looked after by someone appointed by the king.

‘Prostitutes who are taken by another’ means prostitutes or courtesans who are already obligated to or employed by someone who is paying them a fee. You could say that such a woman ‘belongs’ to that person, so it is improper to have sex with her. Stating it this way indicates that if you are paying the correct fee yourself, then it is not sexual misconduct to have relations with a prostitute.

This explanation accords with the way the great Atiśa explained this topic. Even though you may be householders and involved in relationships, when you are practicing the Dharma you should always try to maintain pure ethical conduct. Here we see that even in the realm of sexual relations there are proper and improper ways of engaging in these activities. By learning these details and eliminating improper behavior, you can maintain pure action in this part of your life as well.

The second type ofimproper sexual object is, from the man’s point ofview, men. This refers both to oneself and other men. But even if the object is proper—if it is your own wife or some other appropriated partner—the action can still be unwholesome if an improper part of the body is used. This refers to having sex by any avenue other than the doorway to the womb, as the vagina is referred to in Tibetan. The master Aśvaghoṣa says about this:

‘What are the improper parts of the body?
The mouth, the anus, or squeezing between
The calves or thighs, or rubbing with the hands.’

Atiśa is in agreement with this:

‘The “improper parts of the body” are the mouth, the anus, the front
or rear orifices of a young boy or girl, or one’s own hand.’

The third aspect of sexual activity to be considered is place. Improper places include near a spiritual teacher, or any other person worthy of respect; in the vicinity of religious objects such as a stupa or temple; in the presence of a crowd of people; or in a place that might be harmful to the person you are having sex with, such as on very rough ground, or in a thicket of thorns. Engaging in sex in such places is considered unwholesome action because it either shows disrespect to holy religious objects or it hurts the other person. The master Agvaghosa says:

‘Here, “improper places” means
In places of the holy Dharma,
At stupas, in front of images and such,
Near the dwellings of beings such asbodhisattvas,
In the vicinity of a preceptor, an ācaryā,
Or near one’s parents.
You should not do it in these improper places.’

Atiśa’s instructions are the same on this subject.

The next consideration is improper times. These include when the woman is menstruating, when she is in the latter months of pregnancy, or when she is nursing an infant. Other improper times are when one has taken the eight precepts ofthe one-day ordination vows, when one has a disease that makes sex unsuitable, or when it is excessive indulgence, exceeding a proper amount. It says here that ‘exceeding a proper amount’ means more than five times in a row. I don’t know where they got that number; such a statement may appear somewhere in the sutras or in the Vinaya, but I’m not sure.

Ācārya Aśvaghoṣa says:

‘Here, “improper time” means
When the woman ismenstruatingor pregnant,
When she is with an infant, or not inclined,
When physically suffering, depressed and such,
Or has taken the eight limbs of the one-day ordination vows.

Atiśa agrees with this explanation, except that headds that it is also improper to have sex during the daytime.

Since having sex by means of improper parts of the body, in an inappropriate place, and at a wrong time constitute sexual misconduct even when done with one’s own wife or partner, there is no need to mention that they are improper when done with someone else.

The thought
Again, we have to analyze the action in terms of the three aspects of thought. First of all, is your discrimination of the object correct at the time of taking the action? Asaṅga’s Compendium of Determinations says that the perception: ‘This is who I think it is’ should be unmistaken. For example, if you plan to have sexual relations with a particular woman, but at the time you confuse her with someone else, that is a mistaken perception. Because of that mistake you will not accomplish the object of your intention, and therefore the karma of that particular action will be incomplete.

The Vinaya, however, explains this point differently. There it says that when it comes to the transgression of the vow of celibacy—which is a vow to refrain from all sexual activity—it does not matter whether the perception was correct or mistaken. ‘The Vinaya rules were established by the Buddha for ordained monks and nuns. Those rules are stricter than the rules for laypeople because they apply to those who have taken higher ordination vows. When you break the vow of celibacy, it does not matter whether the person you are having sexual relations with is who you think it is—the vow is still broken and the karma is complete.

Vasubandhu says in the Treasury of Knowledge Auto-commentary (Abhi‐dharma-kośa-bhāṣya) that if you believe that you are having sex with your own partner, but your perception is confused and it is actually the partner of another, the karmic path will not be complete.

In the case where you intend to have sex with the partner of another, yet end up with a person different from the one you had in mind—but it is still someon e who belongs to another—there are two opinions. In the first view this is still a complete karma because you planned to have relations with someone else’s partner and that is what you did. The contrary view is that the karma is not complete because your perception was mistaken and you did not have sex with the person you had intended.

So there are some superficial differences between Asaṅga’s system and that of Vasubandhu, but I think we can follow Vasubandhu’s thought here because it is more logical. The principle underlying sexual misconduct and all nonvirtuous action is that you are doing harm to others. So if you intentionally choose the partner of another and you undertake to have sex with that person—even if in the end you become a little confused and you have relations with a different person who is someone else’s partner—it makes sense that this is still a complete karma; you are still doing the same kind of harm, whether your perception is correct or mistaken.

The obscuring affliction, the underlying motivation for sexual misconduct, can be any of the three poisons. It can be done out of desire, out of hatred, or out of ignorance, and based on any of these three afflictions the action can be a complete karma.

The direct motivation is, of course, wanting to have sexual relations.

The actual action
Concerning the action itself; Asaṅga’s Compendium of Determinations says that even when you make someone else perform the action, you create the misdeed of sexual misconduct for yourself. Vasubandhu disagrees with this analysis and says in his Treasury of Knowledge Auto-commentary that, in the case of sexual misconduct, if you do not do the action yourself it is not a complete karmic path. He maintains that for sexual misconduct the actual action must be done by oneself, because if one induces another to perform it one does not experience the same pleasure.

Tsongkhapa suggests that Asaṅga’s intention may have been to say that there is still a fault when you cause someone else to perform the sexual misconduct, but it is not a complete karmi cpath. This is a question that you can investigate further.

The culmination of the action
The culmination of the action takes place when the man and the woman come together. In the Vinaya it says that the completion of the action takes place ‘when the two touch and experience sensual pleasure.’

We have seen these slight differences between the Vinaya interpretation of the completion of the action and the lineage presented here, which comes mainly from Asaṅga and the Abhidharma. We saw a difference in interpreting when the act of stealing is complete. And in the discussion of lying, which comes next, there is aquestion whether a lie is complete when it is heard or when it is understood. Though we find differences between these two systems, we do not need to worry about this too much. The overriding point is that we need to avoid these behaviors and these situations.

Of course the biggest difference is that the Vinaya presents the rules for ordained monks and nuns, and in that context pure sexual conduct is complete abstinence, or celibacy—what is called in brahmacārya in Sanskrit. For lay people, correct sexual conduct does not mean refraining from all sexual activity. Monks and nuns have a higher standard, but for householders sexual misconduct as it is described here is what should be avoided if you are trying to observe the ten virtuous actions.

The enemies that really cause us our problems are inside us; the inner poisons are our true enemies. Here in the desire realm in which we live, desire, or attachment, is the predominant enemy. If this is not tamed and controlled—if it is left to run wild, without restraint—then troubles will surely follow. Unhappiness will arise in this life, and many miseries will follow in future lives. And such unrestrained behavior harms others as well, both mentally and physically.

If you want to behave with pure, wholesome action, you first have to understand what that means; you have to know what is right and what is wrong. Then you need the motivation to avoid the negative actions you tend to do. When certain temptations appear, you must immediately try to restrain your tendency to pursue those objects. Such restraint is itself a wholesome, virtuous action, because it stops actions that harm others.

Proper conduct is to eliminate harmful actions and their suffering results. The most effective method to do this is by taking a vow with a clear understanding that the vow means you will purposely avoid doing improper actions. When you see that certain actions are wrong and you think, ‘I should not be behaving in that way,’ and through wisdom you decide to avoid those harmful actions, that itself becomes virtuous activity. On the other hand, if you just happen not to commit a negative action, without any intention to avoid it, that action will be neither virtue nor nonvirtue, but will instead be a neutral action.

We study the details of the ten nonvirtuous karmic paths so that we can recognize what is virtuous action, and then intentionally steer our activity in that direction. When it comes to sexual misconduct, we are given guidance on what is an appropriate object, time, and place for sexual activity. Instead of giving ourselves up to whatever desire consumes us at a particular moment, we have the basis to narrow down the field of our activity to a way of acting that does no harm, and respects the status and concerns of others.” (pp. 51-56.)

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.