Gay Marriage in Buddhism

Gay Marriage in Buddhism May 12, 2012

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?”

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:


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.

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