Gay Marriage in Buddhism

The first place I generally turn whenever I come across a broad ethical issue in Buddhism is Peter Harvey’s masterful Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. There we find a whole chapter devoted to “Homosexuality and other forms of ‘queerness’”.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Buddhism, like any ancient religion, has nothing in particular to say about Gay Marriage. It’s just not an issue that cropped up. Just as marriage wasn’t always a sacrament in Christianity – I believe it was added in the 11th century, meaning that for the majority of the religion’s history it hasn’t regarded marriage as a sacred event, not to mention reformers who wished to drop marriage as a sacrament, but that’s another story – Buddhism hasn’t seen marriage as anything other than a social institution.

But through Havey’s survey, what one comes away with is primarily a sense of acceptance and cultural malleability. Part of the problem, Harvey notes, is that our categories and terminology might not fit today in the West with terms used in other contexts:

the modern social category and erotic identity signified by the term gay is notthe same as the homosexual organizations or roles found in ancient times andin other cultures . . . it is in several respects a unique development in humansociety. This suggests a change from a predominantly gender-reversed feminization to a more frequent masculinization of overt homosexuality in popular culture. (Herdt, p.452)

So we can just look for cases that might be similar or in some way point toward what the Buddha would have thought about gay marriage. One case that comes up may seem, I suppose, a bit silly:

In the Vinaya, there is reference to a monk in whom the sexual characteristics of a woman appeared, and a nun in whom the sexual characteristics of a man appeared.  In both cases, the Buddha appears to accept this and simply say that the ex-monk nun should follow the rules of the nuns, and the ex-nun monk should follow the rules of the monks. (Harvey, p.412)

What does it mean that these characteristics ‘appeared’? In any case, the Buddha’s response was apparently nonjudgmental: if you’re a man now, join the monks order; if you’re a woman, join the nuns.

Hermaphrodites, who are today called ‘intersex‘, (those having the characteristics of both sexes) aren’t so lucky, and are ruled ineligible for ordination on the grounds that they might seduce members of either sex. While I can see the sense of it at the time, I look forward to the first intersex monastics paving through this particular barrier.

Next mentioned are pandakas, or those ‘without testicles’ – which likely refers in a metaphorical way toward outwardly effeminate men. Sometimes female pandakas are mentioned and, by analogy, refer to women who were lesbians (thought it also may have suggested a physical abnormality with their reproductive organs). This section is a bit difficult to sum up, if only because the precise meaning and implications of the term pandaka is unclear. Sometimes the pandaka is described in physical terms as having an ‘incomplete body’, and in terms of behavior, having insufficient respect for his parents. Harvey sums up, “He has a sensual, shameless nature replete with the defilements of  both sexes, but is uncertain and wavering, and cannot reflect on his defilements. He is incapable of spiritual discipline and so cannot be blamed as if he were being undisciplined intentionally. He is unloved by his parents.” (p. 418) Unfortunately, such views were (and no doubt in some cases still are) essentialized to the extent that these people were barred from entering monastic life and generally looked down upon. Gampopa, founder of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, is given as a noteworthy exception to this, as he held that pandakas could practice as bodhisattvas outside the monastic context.

In terms of homosexual behavior, in monastic life it is seen as no more or less a fault than heterosexual behavior. In lay life, however, both Buddhaghosa (a Theravadin authority) and Shantideva (a major Mahayana authority) condemn same-sex affection.

I’ll spare you the run through that Harvey gives of views in various Buddhist countries (you should get his book though), only to say that there are signs of both acceptance and (usually mild) disapproval. Harvey cites authors a couple times who sum up homosexuality as basically not a big deal in Buddhist texts and thus Buddhist thought. I wrote a short article on this, with regard specifically to the Dalai Lama’s statements on homosexuality in 2005. Gary Daubney, in a thoughtful response to my article, further noted this sentiment, citing A.L. De Silva who wrote, “As homosexuality is not explicity mentioned in any of the Buddha’s discourses (more than 20 volumes in the Pali Text Society’s English translation), we can only assume that it is meant to be evaluted in the same way that heterosexuality is.” ( Furthermore:

A.L. De Silva, quoted above, has also written that homosexuality was only made illegal in predominately Theravadan Burma and Sri Lanka when under British (Christian!) rule, and that Thailand, which was never colonized by a Western power, has never banned homosexual activity. The modern thriving gay scene including the colourful ‘lady-boy’ subculture are reflections of this traditionally tolerant attitude in the Land of (Buddhist) Smiles.

I conferred with my friend Paisarn, a journalist and activist from Thailand, and he sent me an article he cowrote for Valentines day on the topic: Love for a new age. There it is noted that:

At least two decades of newspaper headlines from Thailand about same-sex marriages–like that of Beer and Pick–have left many foreigners thinking that gay marriage is legal here. However, these weddings confer no legal benefits whatsoever.

In contrast, some Western countries grant homosexual couples rights similar to those of heterosexual ones, even while withholding the status of “marriage” due to its religious definition as a union of man and woman.

Since Buddhist scripture offers no particular objection to same-sex relationships, the concept of “marriage” in Thailand is largely familial, communal and social. A wedding reaffirms the couple’s bond and rallies support for them. Often monks are invited to preside and give blessings.

And yet:

On Valentine’s Day 2010, two lesbian couples – one in Chiang Mai and the other in Pathum Thani – attempted to register their relationships at their local district offices. Both were politely turned down.

As Thailand‘s LGBT community continues to grow and mature, the demand for such recognition will only become louder.

Meanwhile, over 8 years ago, the king of Cambodia announced his support for gay marriage, which raises an interesting question: how many heads of state vocally support same-sex marriage? Finally, two Theravadin monks who give compelling arguments for equality:

Ajahn Sujato on “Why Buddhists should support marriage equality.

and Ajahn Brahm, “Gay marriage, why not?”

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Oh, and this from a Zen priest, Rev. Jana Drakka,  reading one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s most amazing poems at a gay marriage rally in 2008:

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Something worth looking into if you have a few extra coins…

Herdt, G., 1987, ‘Homosexuality’, in Eliade, 1987 The Encyclopedia of Religion: vol. VI, pp. 445-53.

  • madhu

    Great post. Ajahn Brahm is always a delight to listen to, he speaks with great compassion and wisdom and lightens it with humour. In one of his retreats that I went to, there were people in the retreat with grave somber expressions on their faces, he asked them to lighten up, he said one can not meditate in heaviness. Thankyou once again.

  • Tomo

    I wrote a brief passage on the paṇḍakas in my thesis and thought I might share it with you.

    The Samantapāsaādikā on the above passage (Paṇḍakavatthu) defines five types of them. They are: āsittapaṇḍaka ‘wet paṇḍaka’ (≈fellator), usuyya-paṇḍaka ‘envy paṇḍaka’ (≈ voyeur), opakkamiyapaṇḍaka ‘castrated eunuch’, pakkha-paṇḍaka ‘fortnight-paṇḍaka’ and napuṃsakapaṇḍaka ‘sexless’ or ‘eunuchoid’. (Sp V 1015. The hermaphrodite is dealt with in Vin I 89.) Thecommentary, after enumerating the five categories of paṇḍaka, defines them individually in the following manner:

    “In this connection, he takes the sexual organ of others in his mouth and when he is soaked with impurity his passion is subdued, and he is called a soaked paṇḍaka. He sees others having sex and when a sense of envy arises in him his passion is subdued, and he is called an envy paṇḍaka. He whose testicles have been removed by a violent act is called a castrated eunuch. A certain individual, however, becomes paṇḍaka in the lunar dark fortnight because he experiences the result of his previous unwholesome action, but his passion is calmed in the bright fortnight; such a man is called a fortnight-paṇḍaka. He who is reborn in reincarnation as sexless is called a sexless paṇḍaka.” (Sp V 1016)

    “Among them, the going forth of the wet paṇḍaka and envy paṇḍaka should not be obstructed but that of the other three should. However, it is stated in the Kurundī commentary that the going forth of the fortnight-paṇḍaka should be blocked only when it is the fortnight in which he is a paṇḍaka. (ibid.)

    I can’t comment any further just now as I’m in the middle of a big project but this short quote from this passage in the commentary is enough to show that sexuality was recognised to be a complex topic both on practical and ethical grounds. The passage also demonstrates that the tradition was aware of both the physical attributes as well as ‘psychological’ states as relevant factors in one’s sexuality, and they tried to draw a line somewhere in deciding who was allowed to be ordained.

  • Siripala

    I think Buddhism discourages ordainment of Pandakas (people with various genetic sexual diseases). But ordainment has nothing to do with getting two people married. I think we are mixing the two issues.

    Buddha was not ready to ordain these people with genetic sexual problems fearing that people will be turned off by such monks. But he has nothing against them (or gays) getting married or doing anything else.

    Can someone give me references from scriptures of such prohibition?

    I dont think Buddha had a probklem with gay people or any other people getting married. I think he was concerned of the social view at the time and would have felt that ordaining these people with genetic problems would create problems among monks.

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  • Amod Lele

    Where does Shantideva condemn homosexuality? It wouldn’t surprise me if he did, but I don’t recall reading that in either the BCA or the SS.

    • Justin Whitaker

      from p.421 in Harvey’s book: (from Shantideva’s Siksasamuccaya*, citing the Saddharma-smrtyapasthana Sutra):

      “Likewise, endless varieties of punishments [in a future life] are described for the wrong deed of sexual intercourse between two men. The one who commits misconduct with boys sees boys being swept away in the Acid River who cry out to him, and owing to the suffering and pain born of his deep affection for them, plunges in after them.”

      (also from Harvey): Roger Corless points out, however, that the Siksasamuccaya is ‘an anthology which has preserved other oddities such as the prediction that one who wipes snot on a sacred text will be reborn as a book . . . Such statements are hardly mainline Dharma’ (1995: 3). Even in the condemnation, though, there is a hint of sympathy for the karmic plight of the paederast.

      *See Ss. 80, but this translation draws on the partial translation given by Zwilling, 1992: 209

      Amod – perhaps this is a poor or biased translation?

      • Amod Lele

        Ah, okay. Chapter 4, with those long lists of punishments in hells, was not something I dwelled on much. Don’t have time to check the translation – this could well just be something I missed.

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  • Tom Armstrong

    Justin, Some of this gets read through a modern-day lense, likely causing some misunderstanding of all that is going on. In most of the period of homo sapiens’ time on earth, marriage wasn’t a sacred event BECAUSE PEOPLE JUST DID THINGS. Only in recent history was there an office somewhere to get the union of a couple recorded.

    It used to be that a man or a woman said to the other, “Hey, do you want to share a cave?” and the other assented (or not).

    Religion [including Buddhism] comes stomping around, one day, trying to impose order on disorder and categories where they hadn’t been any and separates the pure from the profane and mostly makes society the worse for it. THOUGH, to religion’s credit, it probably unravels a lot of sex-based disputes and keeps all those ungainly men from raping everything they come in contact with.

    People [kids, adults, the lot] centuries ago were possibly frequently traumatized by having sex imposed on them AND for being “blamed” for whatever was physically or mentally weird about them. Life was hard way back then [no laptops! no Coca-cola!] with a huge portion of what all was going on not being examined or remarked about.

    If some subject is mostly absent from the Buddhist canon it can only mean it was just ‘bland, bald ordinary life’ — something that was unremarkable and not subject to changing or fixing. It doesn’t mean that it was OK or sanctioned by Buddha.

    • Tom Armstrong

      Whoops. Let me ‘further’ my argument, differentiating the dark past from today, making a case that somehow reconciling the two is a bit of an absurd — or, at very least, wildly difficult — effort.

      Today, most of what we do involves ‘seeing ourself in the other.’ Every fiction or non-fiction book we read will involve thinking of ourself as the Great Gatsby or having a houseful of cats … or whatever. If our job is selling shoes, we try to give the prospective buyer a sense of being happy in the black oxfords or the beige Hush Puppies. In EVERYTHING, now, we are inter-relating endlessly. What we eat; what we wear are projections of our self. We are hopeless strangers to existence.

      I aver that a few thousand years ago people were much more their animal self and JUST, MERELY DID STUFF. Sure, way back when, there were modernday-like human squabbles, but then they were spontaneous and pristinely selfish. They weren’t played against a backdrop of morality or legal history or philosophy or religious codecals. They JUST HAPPENED. Likely, often, their were aftereffects — grudges, feelings hurt, limbs lost — that would be avenged. BUT it wasn’t the passion play of today. It was just stuff. And everything was accepted — except that people would boast about and boost in importance things they liked about themself. I got big manly muscles, so THAT is the most important thing. I got a dick shaped like a maraschino-cherry bottle, then THAT is the shape penises should have. And on and on.

      • Justin Whitaker

        Hia Tom – thanks for the comments. The internet swallowed my last attempt to reply, so let’s try this again…

        As for your first comment, I think we get to the same place – if homosexuality was not interesting (remarkable as problematic) to the Buddha, then Buddhists today probably don’t have any reason to support inequality – so, given other Buddhist principles, supporting equality seems obvious.

        And while I generally agree with your evolutionary/historical view of humanity, I would also stress that humanity developed slowly-but-surely. So there are people today who, for reasons of personal psychology or social circumstances, are just as ‘spontaneous and pristinely selfish’ as anyone 2 or 4 or 10 thousand years ago. At the same time, there were people back then who exhibited selflessness of character (along with philosophical sophistication) to a remarkable extent.

  • Robert M Ellis

    I would hardly describe Harvey’s “Introduction to Buddhist Ethics” as “masterful”. It’s a pedestrian work of scholarship which offers a handy compilation of facts, but asks none of the critical questions which need to be asked about what Buddhist ethics is or how it is justified. If it’s meant to introduce students to Buddhist Ethics, it will just reinforce the taboo which he and Keown have imposed on asking the most important questions, keeping students within a narrowly defined scriptural or anthropological agenda. The book is of almost no relevance to anyone trying to practise Buddhist Ethics in the West today, so could hardly be said to introduce the subject in a meaningful sense.

    I also think it’s a shame that you approach gay marriage in the same narrow descriptivist spirit here. Why should I care what people think about gay marriage in Thailand? OK, it’s of sociological interest, but it’s not of particular moral interest. Similarly, why should it be of any moral interest whether the Buddha ordained hermaphrodites? The much more relevant question is in what ways gay marriage may be right or wrong – not descriptively but prescriptively – and you say nothing about that here.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Robert – the first 60 pages of Harvey’s book are on the basic, critical questions in Buddhist ethics – what counts as ethics? What Western forms are similar and different? What are the sources and key terms in Buddhist ethics? These are critical questions for Buddhists across time and are quite relevant today I would think. I’m not sure if you’re looking for more abstract, meta-ethical thinking, but for what it is, an introduction, I think it’s pretty great.

      Looking at how other cultures interpret the sources is helpful so that we don’t simply project our own wishes into a narrow sampling of texts. The idea that the Buddha discouraged magic, for instance, comes up in one text and supported Victorian’s desires to find a rationalistic and empirical religion. So they then tended to ignore other texts in which the Buddha performed magic :) And then when they saw Thais or Chinese Buddhists believing in magic, they chalked it up to indigenous beliefs not related to “true” Buddhism. So we should care about how Thais understand the texts, and Chinese and Tibetans, and then ask about the causes and conditions that led from the Buddha to them and thus to us.

      As far as I could find there wasn’t much prescriptive to say. In the linked article I did write, “First of all, in India in the time of the Buddha the ideal for both sexes was strict celibacy for monks and nuns on the one hand, and living out an upright family life for the laity on the other.” So there is your prescriptive aspect. So far as I know, being gay doesn’t prevent either of these (there are plenty of kids out there to adopt, for instance).

      • Robert M Ellis

        He asks what counts as ethics according to the Buddhist tradition, and describes the traditional answers in terms of karma, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path etc. This does not count as ‘critical’ in any sense, because at no point does he ask why these traditional answers tell us what is right or wrong, or ask what Buddhism distinctively contributes to the debate about ethical judgement or ethical justification as it is conducted in the West. He is interested in describing and analysing what the Buddhist tradition says, not in asking whether that tradition is correct or relevant. To merely describe what the ideal is for a group of people surveyed in the third person is not prescriptive ethics, but descriptive. It is ethics at arms length – “ethics” as practised by those weird people over there rather than ethics as what we should do with our lives.

        By analogy, nobody would describe as “An Introduction to Christian Ethics” a sociological account of what certain groups of Christians happen to believe and do, or even of the grounds they give for doing it. This would be “A survey of Christian practices” not “Christian Ethics”.”Buddhist Ethics” likewise, should be a discussion of how we should act and the justifications for acting in certain ways, not an arm’s-length description of how those weird people in Thailand happen to act, or of what the implications of scriptures are, in abstraction from the question of whether the scriptures are actually correct or not.

        • Justin Whitaker

          This is a pretty similar Introduction to Christian Ethics

          In religion specifically but also in academia in general we don’t teach prescriptively, as this too easily shades into being ‘preachy’. If you are thinking of ‘how to be a good Buddhist’ books, there are plenty of those out there, but Harvey’s isn’t one of these, and for the better I think. There’s no need for anything to be ‘weird’ about the great figures and texts we study. If you want a ‘how we should act’ text on Buddhist ethics, don’t you have to presuppose that the reader is a Buddhist, and thus the book isn’t meant for a wider audience?

          • Robert Michael Ellis

            Hi Justin, Sorry I didn’t respond to this when you posted it 11 months ago. I don’t think I saw it. I think you’re reflecting a widespread issue in academic ethical studies generally here – that is, the assumption of the fact-value distinction. Facts and values are only abstractly analysable separately, and in practice always go together: see What the descriptive ethicists don’t seem to realise is that in practice every description unavoidably also prescribes. So if you just describe what people in Thailand or elsewhere are doing whilst trying to be ‘neutral’ about it, you tend to either prescribe relativism, or perhaps to idealise or alienate if the reader can’t share your supposed neutrality.
            I think the idea that ‘in academia in general we don’t teach prescriptively’ is seriously naïve. Academic ethicists prescribe all the time – usually in relativistic and rationalistic terms. More genuinely objective academics tend to be upfront about their biases and just put forward moral arguments in full recognition that that’s what they’re doing. What I find most repugnant about Keown, Harvey and co. is their fake neutrality, and the false disjunction between their human positions and supposed academic perspectives.
            You’re also imposing a false dichotomy if you think that the only alternative to academic descriptivism is traditional Buddhist prescriptivism that assumes adherence to traditional dogmas. One that seems to completely forget about the very possibility of the Middle Way – that the basic insights of Buddhism can be adapted to different circumstances and made relevant to everyone.

            • justinwhitaker

              Insofar as being descriptive implicitly prescribes rationalistic (I’m not a fan of relativism) understanding, I would agree that academics are prescriptive. But that isn’t what I mean, or what I think what most educators mean when we distinguish prescriptive and descriptive ethics.

              If you, or anyone else, manages to adapt the basic concepts of Buddhism to be relevant to everyone (and convinces everyone of this), do let me know ;) However, that does sound suspiciously like traditional Buddhist prescriptivism to me…

              • Robert Michael Ellis

                So what would you say you mean? I appreciate that an effort to be impartial can sometimes be appropriate when teaching, but to be more objective I think such an effort needs to be accompanied by full acknowledgement of its limitations.
                Adapting the basic concepts of Buddhism to be relevant to everyone is exactly what Middle Way Philosophy and the Middle Way Society are about. What is completely distinct from traditional Buddhist prescriptivism here is that there’s no appeal to tradition (explicit or implicit), and a full recognition that the Middle Way is theory – to be evaluated in terms of practice or openness to practice – not revelation.
                I’d also argue that one can only start creating a genuine form of justifiable prescriptivism when the false dichotomy with descriptivism is discarded. Prescription is justified by how well it responds to conditions, and that depends equally on how well one understands those conditions. Description can only aspire to accuracy when it encompasses prescription, and prescription can only aspire to justification when it encompasses description.

                • justinwhitaker

                  In short, teaching prescriptively entails telling students “you should x, y, or z.” In academia there is plenty of prescriptive talk like “you should use the library/study hard/keep in contact with mentors” etc. But with regard to religions and ethics, we focus on describing what the traditions say/would say in various situations, how they developed, etc. Staying objective means using neutral (as much as possible) language in describing the development and nature of the traditions and doctrines; not uncritically using their own language (“by God’s providence, Paul…” or “due to his many rebirths, the Dalai Lama…”). The limitation, I suppose, is that even our own ‘neutral’ language today will be seen as outmoded in 100 years. But it is that neutrality that allows Harvey, Keown, (and why not toss in Paul Williams?) to be read profitably by Buddhists of many traditions, Christians, and students/scholars of a various faiths or none at all.

                  The reason I say that The Middle Way “does sound suspiciously like traditional Buddhist prescriptivism to me…” is because that “Adapting the basic concepts of Buddhism to be relevant to everyone” pretty well describes various movements within “Modernist” Buddhism today (and it applies, I think, to many early schools and trends in Buddhism).

                  The dichotomy may be at some level false, but for many everyday purposes it is helpful in a pluralistic society. A very good description of cannibalism is just fine without any prescription to it! :) That’s an extreme, I know, but most philosophy and religion can be described well enough without prescriptive elements (unless, of course, we’re talking about the ones I mentioned at the outset).

  • Justin Whitaker
  • Maia Duerr / The Jizo Chronicles

    It may interest your readers to know that Robert Aitken Roshi also addressed this issue way back in 1996. See:

    • Justin Whitaker

      Wonderful! Many thanks, Maia :)

  • Naga Dhoopati

    Thank you for writing and re-sharing this article Justin Whitaker. I do not know much on Buddhism, Buddhist Ethics, the Laws and Regulations, nor the book you referred. All I know and see is my friends, real people, and the people I come across on the streets in my everyday life. If it is important to them then it becomes important to me. That is why I support marriage equality. Not that marriages are successful in heterosexuals, marriages are not that successful in the history anyway. If you can go read any history from any culture, it is written all over. I learned that from a class at the University, and I was in a disbelief myself. Before that I used to think, all is well in a marriage, and it is the most sacred thing. If marriage is important to some people and that is how their bodies are made ( the article explains it very clearly ), then it should be their choice to marry or not to marry. It is that plain and simple.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Just found this, a blog for an “International Transgender Buddhist Sangha” –

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  • justinwhitaker

    Michaela Haas expands on many of these points and more at the Washington Post:

  • Xiang Ji

    That’s quite a “diffuse” writing and after reading it I can’t really see what you’re trying to talk about. Rational thinking on the materials you have touched upon here clearly suggests *at most* Buddhism has a “neutral” attitude towards same-sex stuff, while a more likely scenario is that in the eyes of most Buddhists, “homosexuality” was beyond imagination and a totally unheard-of abnormality in their culture. To say that Buddhism is “for” homosexuality clearly is a subjective interpretation and much of a personal stretch of events.