A lot of people ask me what the "Buddhist take" on gay marriage is. Well, it depends on who you talk to. A few years back, in an interview with the CBC, the Dalai Lama rejected same-sex relationships to the surprise of many convert Buddhists, who sometimes too easily assume that Buddhist ethics are consistent with their typically progressive views.
As the Canadian interview bounced around the internet, some people were shocked and perplexed, but the Dalai Lama's position shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the issue. After all, he has been consistent. At a conference some 12 years ago, when gay leaders met with him in San Francisco to discuss the Tibetan Buddhist proscriptions against gay sex, he reiterated the traditional view that gay sex was "sexual misconduct." This view was based on restrictions found in Tibetan texts that he could not and would not change. He did, however, advise gay Buddhist leaders to investigate further, discuss the issue, and suggested that change might come through some sort of theological consensus. But at a time when same-sex marriage has taken front-stage center in American politics, the Dalai Lama's more recent statements come as unwelcome news to proponents of civil rights.
Does this mean Buddhism condemns same-sex relationships? Not at all. Contrary to popular perception, the Dalai Lama does not speak for all Buddhists. As the leader of the dominant Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism, he speaks for one slice of the world's Buddhist population. The vast majority of Buddhists do not practice in his tradition -- however much they respect and admire him -- and the Tibetan texts the Dalai Lama refers to were written centuries after the Buddha had come and gone.
Buddhism is perhaps even more diverse than Christianity. In fact, the differences among schools can be so vast that some scholars consider them different religions. Indeed, according to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery in southern California, the Buddha never forbade gay sex for lay people as far as we know. "When he drew the line between licit and illicit sex, it had nothing to do with sexual tastes or preferences," he says, citing early texts. "He seemed more concerned with not violating the legitimate claims that other people might have on your sexual partner."
The Buddhist monastic code, which contains detailed -- and sometimes ludicrous -- guidelines (think Leviticus), applies only to monks, leaving the rest open to debate.
Western dharma communities are known for their tolerance, and the Dalai Lama himself has openly gay students. It's rare to hear of anyone being drummed out of a Western Buddhist community for being gay, and in most Buddhist traditions practiced in the West--including the Tibetan communities--sexuality is rarely if ever an issue. Nonetheless, in the current political climate, hearing the world's most famous Buddhist declare homosexuality to be "sexual misconduct" can't help but lead people to believe that the Buddha's teachings proscribe same-sex relationships. They don't, any more than they promote them.
Friends of mine have argued that the Dalai Lama doesn't really look askance same-sex relationships, that he has no choice but to uphold his tradition's dictates; and that maybe the Dalai Lama is just stuck with the old texts' proscriptions in the same way that a Catholic, say, must deal with Thomas Aquinas. Of course, we can't know and must take his public statements at face value. In his case, though, our expectations tend to be different than they might be for the local minister, priest or orthodox rabbi. And so many of us who have benefited greatly from his teachings are apt to feel disappointed.
James Shaheen is the editor and publisher of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
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