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Tenzin Norbu

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The Bodhisattva's View of Same-Sex Marriage

Posted: 10/24/2012 3:34 pm

In an episode of my radio program, The Life of Universal Loving, entitled "The Perfections and the Virtues: What's the Difference," I explained that a virtue is a disposition to act, think and/or feel in particular types of circumstance as persons of good character would act, think and/or feel. I distinguished between cultural virtues and spiritual virtues, and I explained that cultural virtues are standards that a particular culture regards as the tried and true methods of being a good citizen, good man, good woman, good spouse, good soldier and so on. Cultural virtues are tied to long-standing expectations concerning who is entitled to play specific roles found in particular cultural institutions and what dispositions they should have. An example is, "A soldier must be tenacious, brave and heterosexual." As my readers will know, the last of the three disposition-expectations in my example has recently been abandoned by our culture. One useful definition of "conservative" is someone who views long-standing cultural institutions and the role expectations tied to them as rigid and unchangeable. Conservatives of this type tend to believe that a culture is in grave danger of disintegrating if long-standing cultural institutions are changed.

Spiritual virtues, which Buddhism calls "perfections," are dispositions to act as someone who has developed universal, unbiased love acts. Because cultural standards concerning who may play a role in cultural institutions and what dispositions roll-players should have do not necessarily reflect what someone with universal, unbiased love would set, Bodhisattva's do not hesitate to criticize those institutions that fail to meet this standard. The view that only heterosexual couples should be entitled to play the role of spouse within the institution of marriage is inconsistent with the principle that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Bodhisattvas must, therefore, challenge the conservative ideology that the institution of marriage -- defined as a relationship between a man and a woman -- is unalterable. Our culture abandoned the long-standing cultural institution of men-only voting, as well as the previously male-restricted institutions of law and medicine, and the culture did not collapse. Likewise, our culture will not collapse as a result of changing the institution of marriage to reflect universal, unbiased love by opening the role of spouse to same-sex couples; Iowa, Massachusetts and the other states that allow same-sex marriage have obviously not descended into chaos. The real motivation of conservatives who object to admitting same-sex couples to the role of spouses is because they believe that homosexuality is immoral and that admitting same-sex couples into the role of spouse would amount to a cultural stamp of approval of an immoral practice. However, homosexuality does not violate the principle of universal love and compassion, so it is not immoral.

As evidence that someone who has developed universal, unbiased love would support altering the institution of marriage to admit same-sex couples to the role of spouse, I cite the point of view toward homosexuality of three prominent individuals who are widely accepted to have exemplified the life of universal, unbiased love -- Shakyamuni Buddha, Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostle Paul. Since the Apostle Paul is widely believed to have condemned homosexuality, I will begin with his point of view. Paul's position on the subject of what is and is not morally permissible was based upon exactly the same principle that Jesus said must be used to determine what commandments to follow in order to attain salvation. It is undeniable that Jesus proclaimed that the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself summed up all legitimate commandments.

In his book "Jesus On Homosexuality," Michael Wood explains that a failure to understand the distinction between two types of commandments that both Paul and Jesus clearly made -- "Justices" and "Jobs" -- and an incorrect translation of the Greek word arsenokoitai account for the mistaken belief that Paul condemned homosexuality. Given that Wood's book is freely available via the above link, I am only going to summarize briefly his arguments.

"Justices" was used by both Jesus and Paul as the learned Jews of their day used the word -- to refer to those commandments which are ways of following the principle of loving others as oneself. "Jobs," on the other hand, was used to refer to those commandments related to ritual practices and the proper relationship between Jews and God. Learned Jews correctly classified the commandment that forbids homosexuality as a Job rather than a Justice. The Jewish-law prohibition of homosexuality falls into exactly the same category as the Jewish dietary commandments, because homosexual relationships, per se, are not violations of the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself. Wood cites those passages in which Jesus, Paul and the Apostle James clearly stated that salvation ("fulfill the law," as Paul put it; "triumph on judgment day," as James put it) was dependent solely upon adhering to the Justices, and in most of these passages they explicitly stated that these and any other possible Justice-commandments were based upon the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus explicitly stated that all other possible commandment in addition to the well-known Justices (the commandment not to kill, for example) could be known merely by determining whether a type of action adheres to the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself.

Turning to the mistaken translation of arsenokoitai, Wood explains that this word was used to refer to sex between an adult male and a boy -- not homosexuality per se. Paul was not confused about the meaning of arsenokoitai, and this is the word he used in the passages in which it is alleged that he was writing about homosexuality. English translations of Paul's epistles incorrectly translate the word as homosexuality. Although Wood does not argue the following point, Paul was undoubtedly advising his Greek-speaking flock not to engage in the then-widespread Hellenistic cultural institution of man-boy sex. Paul correctly reasoned that arsenokoitai is a violation of the principle of loving others as oneself, so a prohibition of arsenokoitai must be an additional Justice-commandment. Wood further argues that if Paul had been writing in support of the Job-commandment prohibiting homosexuality, he would have been contradicting himself, because of his explicit statement that the basis of all binding commandments is the principle of universal, unbiased loving. Homosexuality cannot be placed in the category of behaviors prohibited by Justice-commandments, because homosexual sex, per se, no more necessarily involves a failure to love one's partner as oneself than does heterosexual sex, per se. Paul was a very careful thinker, so it is highly unlikely that he would have contradicted himself. Paul was correct that man-boy sex is a violation of the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself, because of the inability of a child to make a mature, informed decision to consent to any kind of sex. Adults, on the other hand, are in a position to make an informed decision about what kind of sexual activities they want to participate in, so consensual, adult same-sex sexual activities do not violate the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself.

Shakyamuni Buddha never taught that homosexuality is a vice. After his enlightenment, from the motive of universal, unbiased love and compassion, he dedicated the rest of his life to the goal of teaching the path to the Buddhist understanding of salvation: the true and lasting happiness and the end of all suffering reached in enlightenment. The path Buddha taught is based upon the principle of universal, unbiased love and the fact that self-grasping ignorance and the biased self-love caused by this ignorance are what lead us to engage in the vices from which all suffering results. When we foolishly think that a mundane, impermanent pleasure is the path to happiness, we become trapped in a pattern of constantly chasing after these fleeting pleasures. Because pursuing sexual pleasure in this deluded way can be a powerful cause of suffering, Buddha required monks and nuns -- persons who had abandoned ordinary life and fully committed themselves to spiritual practice -- to be celibate. For lay Buddhists, Buddha placed sexual misconduct in a grouping of 10 specifically stated vices, and the reason why these behaviors are vices is because every single one of them violates exactly the same fundamental principle that Jesus and Paul taught is the basis of all legitimate commandments: the principle of loving one's neighbor as oneself.

A lay Buddhist who has a partner is prohibited from having sexual relations with anyone other than his or her partner, because it is unloving to cause someone to experience the suffering that can and does result from infidelity. Lay persons, with or without a partner, are proscribed from having non-consensual sex, which includes having sex with a child; forcing someone to have sex with you is, obviously, a failure to love another as one loves oneself. I am not going to explain all of the activities that count as sexual misconduct for lay Buddhists, but homosexuality is not among them. (If you are interested to learn more about the Buddhist concept of sexual misconduct, listen to the episode of The Life of Universal Loving.)

There are many benefits that the institution of marriage confers upon a married couple. To deny same-sex couples the benefits of marriage is to bias the provision of marital benefits to heterosexual couples at the expense of same-sex couples. The moral and spiritual development that can be achieved by spouses in a loving marriage, and by the children raised in such a relationship, come at the expense of no one -- we are not in competition for this or any other meaningful, spiritual good. Because of the potential of the institution of marriage to advance moral and spiritual development, social inducements to become married, such as preferential tax policies, are probably justified. Denying same-sex couples access to the benefits of marriage is clearly an institutional violation of the principle of loving one's neighbors as oneself. Bodhisattvas should work to change the hearts of those who defend this erroneous institution.

 
 
 

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