Is homosexuality forbidden in Buddhism? Is it sexual misconduct? Let’s look at what Gautama Buddha and Tibetan Buddhism say.
Gautama Buddha stated in one of the five precepts that lay-people should refrain from sexual misconduct. He never really elaborated on this point, only to say that a man should not fool around with a woman that is married or betrothed. He did of course say in the Vinaya, which are the rules for monks and nuns, that they have to take a vow of celibacy, but no such rule was made for lay-people.
So he left this precept sweet and simply. In some ways this is a good thing, as I don’t think holy men and religions should concern themselves with the sexual act. However, as it is so vague it does give others the chance to interpret it in a way that suits their world view and allows them to tag all of their prejudices onto it.
I personally believe that Gautama Buddha taught the five precepts to steer us away from cause harm to ourselves and others. It should be noted here that the precepts are not commandments, and are five things we should try to refrain from. If the sexual act is not going to cause harm it should be consensual, affectionate, loving and not breaking any marriage vow or commitment. It should also not be abusive, such as sex with an under-age person or rape, and this includes forcing your partner into having sex. So I believe in this way a consenting, loving homosexual act isn’t in any way against Gautama Buddha’s teachings.
In Tibetan Buddhism it is viewed quite differently. In fact, Dalai Lama has come out (excuse the pun) and said that from a Buddhist point of view lesbian and gay sex is considered sexual misconduct. Now he is not deriving this view from the discourses of Gautama Buddha, but from a 15th century Tibetan scholar called Tsongkhapa. Here is a brief outline of Tsongkhapa’s medieval thinking:
- He prohibits sex between two men, but not between two women.
- He prohibits masturbation, oral and anal sex.
- He does not allow sex for anyone during day light hours, but allows men five orgasms during the night.
- He allows men to pay for sex from prostitutes.
- He gave a full list of what orifices and organs may and may not be used, and even what time and place people can have sex
(Gautama Buddha never made these distinctions).
As you can see Tsongkhapa heavily weighed the odds in men’s favour – not surprising, as he was a man. In fact, it appears his list only seems to be aimed at men, in Tibetan culture women should do what men want them to do. That point comes across loud and clear when married women , who are seen to belong to their husband, have no say in whether they want sex or not.
It would appear Tsongkhapa was trying to force lay-people to adhere to rules that were actually meant for monks and nuns. This way of thinking stems not from Buddhism but is a cultural thing.
It does seem that Tsongkhapa’s view is out of step with today’s society and so we have to go back to what Gautama Buddha meant by sexual misconduct. He wanted us to reflect on our acts and see if they bring harm or are helpful. So in this context, I believe if we want to know if an act constitutes sexual misconduct or not, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
Does the act cause harm or does it bring joy?
Is the act motivated by love and understanding?
Would you like it if someone did it to you?
Is there mutual consent?
If there is mutual consent between two adults, it is not abusive and is an expression of love, respect and loyalty, I believe it cannot be classified as sexual misconduct, irrespective of whether it is between a man and a woman, two men or two women.
As I stated earlier, I do not believe religions should get involved with people’s sexuality. We cannot choose our sexual orientation, as we cannot choose our race or gender, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of their control. So in answer to the two questions posed at the beginning of this piece, I believe homosexuality should not be forbidden in Buddhism, and homosexuals should not be made to feel guilty for loving someone of the same sex. I also believe homosexuality should not be regarded as sexual misconduct if it is not causing harm, and is loving and consensual.