‘Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism’ (2017)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

In the introduction to his Sexuality in Classical South Asian Buddhism (2017), José Cabezón looked back on the meeting with in June 1997 that followed Steve Peskind’s request that the fourteenth Dalai Lama would clarify his pronouncements on homosexuality and various forms of consensual recreational sex:

“On a warm June day in 1997 I walked into the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to attend a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. A group of gay and lesbian Buddhists from the San Francisco Bay Area had requested the audience to discuss with the Dalai Lama his views on homosexuality and to ask for clarifications about statements he had made on the topic‐statements that some of the organizers believed to be problematic.

As the meeting began, one of the organizers recounted how she had been shunned by her family when she came out to them as a lesbian; others also shared their stories. Such personal reflections clearly moved His Holiness. When it was the Dalai Lama’s turn to speak, he began by stating his strong opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and his commitment to full human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. ‘It is wrong for society to reject anyone on the basis of his or her sexual orientation,’ His Holiness said. ‘Your movement to gain full human rights is reasonable and logical.’ In society at large there is ‘nothing wrong withp eople engaging in mutually agreeable sexual acts … it is unacceptable for anyone to look down on gay people.’

But then the discussion turned from what is and is not appropriate in society at large to what the Buddhist tradition has to say about sexuality. His Holiness opened up a Tibetan text that he had brought with him to the meeting, the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path (Lam rim chen mo), written by the Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa. He began to read from the section that describes sexual misconduct. Tsongkhapa states that sex between men is inappropriate, but he also proscribes masturbation, sex during the day, oral and anal sex, and much else to boot. As the Dalai Lama began to explain Tsongkhapa’s views on sex, the mood in the room grew palpably gloomier as the participants realized that a commitment to LGBT rights did not necessarily translate into the moral acceptability of a variety of sexual acts (both homosexual and heterosexual) that are widely considered ethically unproblematic in contemporary society. Significantly, however, the Dalai Lama did not end his remarks there. After explaining Tsongkhapa’s position, he went on to speak about the ‘possibility of understanding such prohibitions in the context of their time, culture, and society.’ ‘If homosexuality is part of accepted norms [today],’ he continued, ‘it is possible that it may be acceptable.’ Who decides, however, whether it is acceptable in contemporary Buddhism? How do Buddhist ethical norms change? According to the Dalai Lama,

‘No single person or teacher can redefine these precepts. I myself do not have the authority to redefine them since no one can make a unilateral decision or issue a decree [on such topics] … Such a redefinition can only come out of sangha discussions among the various Buddhist traditions. It is not unprecedented in the history of Buddhism to redefine moral issues, but this has to be done at the collective level.’

As the meeting came to a close, the Dalai Lama called for more research and dialogue, and he concluded by reiterating that however the Buddhist doctrine of sexual misconduct comes to be defined, it can never justify discrimination against sexual minorities.

Who speaks for the Buddhist tradition when it comes to deciding ethical matters? What role do ancient religious texts play in adjudicating questions of sexual ethics? By making reference to the words of Tsongkhapa, the Dalai Lama was signaling that texts are not irrelevant to these discussions, but rather than citing a textual authority and allowing this to be the final word, His Holiness took two further steps that moved the dialogue forward in important ways. First, he resisted being cast as the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes morally acceptable sex. The issue, he said, would have to be decided by the Buddhist community and not by appeal to the authority of any single individual—himself or anyone else.

[Footnote 4: How broadly the Buddhist community that makes such determinations is to be conceptualized—whether it consists only of ordained clergy or lay people as well—remains to be seen. The Dalai Lama has taken a similar position on the question of achieving consensus regarding the reintroduction into the Tibetan tradition of nuns’ full ordination, arguing that this is a decision that must be arrived at through consensus of the senior (male) clergy. See Thea Mohr and Jampa Tsedroen, eds., Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns (Boston: Wisdom Publications,2010), 253-54. What does consensus truly mean and how widespread does it need to be? Jan Sobisch has raised this question and concluded that broad consensus may be ‘an unrealistic demand.’ Jan-Ulrich Sobisch, ‘Bhiksuni Ordination: Lineages and Procedures as Instruments of Power’ in Mohr and Tsedroen, Dignity and Discipline, 244.]

It hardly needs saying that a religious leader with the Dalai Lama’s power of moral suasion could have easily taken the opposite tack, choosing to issue an opinion on the matter. His decision to defer to the broader Buddhist community is therefore not insignificant. Second, the Dalai Lama modeled the type of reasons that ought to be marshaled to challenge the views found in the classical texts. At one point, to illustrate what such an argument might look like, he took the example of prostitution. Sex for pay is permissible according to most classical Indian and Tibetan Buddhist thinkers, who claim that this does not constitute sexual misconduct—at least when it is men who are availing themselves of the sexual services of women. But many contemporary Buddhists, the Dalai Lama said, would undoubtedly find such aview problematic. If the classical texts’ stance on prostitution is found to be unacceptable by today’s standards, perhaps their view of homosexuality might be as well. Although the way forward in this dialogue would not be easy—involving multiple voices, the close reading of texts, an understanding of historical context, and plenty of nuanced argument—the Dalai Lama clearly implied that change was possible.

The meeting participants’ less-than-upbeat response to the intrusion of a medieval Tibetan voice into these discussions is hardly surprising. Although Buddhism’s encounter with the modern West goes back to the early decades of the nineteenth century, the religion began to gain a major foothold in Europe and North America only in the 1960s and 1970s during a period of major social upheaval. Thinking of Buddhism as a progressive religion, many Buddhist converts adopted it in response to the perceived conservatism of other faiths. This modern version of Buddhism emphasizes individual freedoms and downplays hierarchy; it sees adherence to doctrinal and ethical norms as voluntary and largely a private matter. Modern Buddhism can take different forms, but it is often presentist, focusing on the here and now rather than on the hereafter, and individualistic, stressing inner experience born from meditation rather than communal and ritual life. Modern Buddhism is generally optimistic, forward looking, and egalitarian. It also eschews myth and dogma and touts the compatibility of Buddhism and science. In the moral sphere, it sees believers as having a wide berth in ethical decision-making, with few fixed rules of conduct. Modern Buddhism does not see sex as particularly problematic, considering sexual ethics—to the extent that it is acknowledged asa distinct domain of inquiry at all—to be governed by a single metaethical principle, that of nonharm: ‘anything goes so long as it does not hurt others.’

The academic literature on modern Buddhism has exploded in the past few years, but much less has been written about what constitutes its premodern counterpart, although this can be adduced. Premodern Buddhism—the type of Buddhism advocated by ancient and medieval thinkers like Tsongkhapa—is not monolithic. It is arguably as heterogeneous as its modern equivalent. Generally speaking, however premodern Buddhism is more communitarian than individualistic, more hierarchical than egalitarian. Seeing the human condition as devolving—as being in a state of physical, psychological, and moral free fall—it tends to be more pessimistic than optimistic about the future. Premodern Buddhism holds that the tradition’s core ethical principles are universal and not a matter of individual choice, and that adherence to complex doctrinal norms are essential to human flourishing. Because of its monastic and celibate orientation, sex and its regulation is a major concern. No wonder, then, that premodern views like Tsongkhapa’s should come as something of a shock to contemporary Buddhists. When the Dalai Lama opened Tsongkhapa’s text, he was communicating some level of allegiance to a premodern form of Buddhism, even if he did not consider this tradition immune from historical and other types of criticism. Not every encounter of premodern and modern forms of Buddhism will result in a cultural clash, but when the conversation is about sex, sparks are bound to fly.” (pp. 1-5.)

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.