Buddhism and Same-Sex Sexuality

by Dr. Franz Metcalf

This article was originally published on July 15, 2013 by The Interfaith Observer.

Refocusing the Issue

by Dr. Franz Metcalf

This article was originally published on July 15, 2013 by The Interfaith Observer.

Refocusing the Issue

My most important observation is set right in the title above, at least obliquely. In my view, the scriptures of the great religious traditions of the world have little to say about “homosexuality.” The word is not even 150 years old, and properly names the contemporary identity growing from an enduring and often socially “out” same-sex sexual orientation.

But in Western societies, this identity only developed some 2,000 years after the composition of nearly all the major Buddhist sutras (the recorded teachings of the Buddha). So those sutras (and the sacred texts of the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and so on) can have nothing directly to say about our modern notions and practices of homosexuality.

For this reason, many persons, even deeply religious ones, do not look to their texts for guidance on sexual orientation. Nevertheless, many of those scriptures do speak of same-sex sexual activity and we can learn from those words – though we may not be able to look to them for perfectly clear rules of behavior.

Frankly, I’m tempted to begin with an amateur exegesis of other persons’ religious traditions. It’s so enjoyable to delve into tensions and paradoxes that are not your problem. But I’ll leave the discussions of Lut (Lot, in Genesis) or Leviticus 18:22 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 to others.

I’ve already got my hands full with the Vinaya and the early suttas (here I use the Pali equivalent to “sutras,” since the oldest written teachings of the Buddha are in that language). So what do we find, regarding appropriate sexual partners, in these early Buddhist texts, foundational for all forms of Buddhism around the world?

Sexuality and Buddhist Texts

First, we find that male and female monastics are forbidden all sorts of sexual acts. And when I say “all sorts,” I really mean it. Each rule in the Vinaya (the multi-volume collection of rules for monastics) has an origin story, and each origin story begins with some benighted monk or nun committing the harmful act which then leads to the Buddha creating a rule against that act. With several of the sexual acts, it’s the same bhikkhu (male monastic) doing them. He and others seem to have been highly sexually creative. Can’t put your penis in a vagina? How about an anus? A mouth? Between the legs? How about mutual masturbation? The list goes on. Eventually, all forms of sexual gratification were forbidden, one by one.

But what does this mean for us householders, for the 99 percent?

Well, those lists of sexual activities are remarkably even-handed. There is no sense in the Vinaya that same sex sexual activity is any more forbidden than opposite-sex sexual activity, and vice-versa. The acts with the direst consequences are acts of penetration – any penetration; the orifice doesn’t matter. So, if the choice of sexual partner makes no difference for monastics, the religious virtuosi of Buddhism, why would it make any difference for the rest of us?

I will list for you all the passages on same sex-sexuality in the Buddhist suttas:

That’s right, there aren’t any. Not only did the Buddha have nothing to say about homosexuality, that is, our modern notion of mutual, lasting same-sex orientation. He had nothing to say on same-sex sexual acts of any kind, even surrogacy; in our context, sexual activity with a same-sex partner standing in for an opposite sex partner. Seemingly, the sex of sexual partners simply was not important to him.

The Ethical Grounding of Buddhist Sexuality

Yet there is a passage in the suttas that names inappropriate sexual partners. The passage states that men must avoid intercourse with girls still under the protection of their families, with betrothed or married women, and with convicts.

What is the commonality here? In my view, it’s freedom of choice. None of these potential partners can freely say yes or no. For girls and convicts this is due to their disempowered state. For betrothed and married women this is due to their committed state. Sexual activity must be mutually chosen by free adults.

In contemporary America we would add that we should not have sex with our students, patients, parishioners, clients, or employees because none of these would-be partners would be truly free to say no. What we do not find in this list is a sense that the sexual act matters. What matters is mutuality. And what sexual relationship is more mutual and more an independent choice than a same-sex relationship?

Let me add one more important dimension of fundamental Buddhist attitudes toward sexuality. Classical Buddhism lists five precepts to be followed by lay Buddhists, by the 99 percent. Of those, the third states “I undertake training in refraining from harmful sensuality.” Even 2500 years later, all serious Buddhists make this promise.

But how shall we interpret what constitutes harmful sensuality (note that this extends beyond sexuality, but clearly includes it)? Shall it include adultery? Is that harmful? Usually, yes. Shall it include underage sexuality? Is that harmful? Often, yes. Shall it include homosexual sexuality? Is that harmful? About as often as heterosexual sexuality. By that token, we are wise to refrain from any harmful sexual activity, but the kind of sexual activity we wisely avoid doesn’t matter.

As I’ve said, we do not find clear rules for sexual behavior in Buddhist texts. Instead, we find principles for avoiding harmful action. And those principles simply do not point to same-sex sexual acts. Does this mean that Buddhist cultures (or cultures in which Buddhism has been practiced) over the last 2500 years have supported full equality for same sex relationships? Of course not. Nothing like it.

As in the West, as in most cultures over time (with some notable exceptions, of course), Asian Buddhist cultures have granted full freedom neither to women nor to same-sex couples. That is not the issue that faces us now, however. The issue being explored in all the articles in this issue of The Interfaith Observer is whether contemporary homosexuals deserve such freedoms now. The Buddha gives wise and compassionate reasons why they do, and no reasons why they don’t.

Published with the author’s permission.

Comments

I hope that readers here will be interested in reading my blogs completed this year (nine months in the making) for the 7th Parliament at https://parliamentofreligions.org/forums/parliaments/melbourne-2009 , https://parliamentofreligions.org/forums/interfaith-news/general-discussion , https://parliamentofreligions.org/forums/faith-women/general-discussion , and https://parliamentofreligions.org/forums/climate-action/general-discussion etc. In sending all of my best wishes in the countdown to the 7th Parliament, I am yours truly, as always, from the Land of Aus, down-under.... And "May we receive the illumination of God's light and love into our daily lives and with every breath that we draw".

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