Ask Gerry: Isn’t Buddhism open to gay relationships?

Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama on Feb. 21, 2014. Photo: Pete Souza/White House.

Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama on Feb. 21, 2014. Photo: Pete Souza/White House.

Question:

I was confused by an article Chicago Phoenix published about the Dalai Lama softening his views on gay relationships. I always thought Buddhism was open to gays. Was I wrong?

Paul P., Uptown, Chicago

Answer:

You’re not alone to think that Buddhism is a more welcoming faith tradition for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people looking for spiritual connection in their lives.

I was raised a devout Roman Catholic but now identify with a progressive Lutheran community just outside of Boystown. I get personal spiritual guidance from Rev. John Lionberger, a United Church of Christ cleric with a ministry called Renewal in the Wilderness. But some people have made a more radical choice than I did in revolt of anti-gay dogma. Many have completely detached themselves of Christianity seeking answers from other world religions. Many found comfort in Buddhism.

Buddhism, generally, is not itself completely embracing of homosexuality. It has what some would say similar tones to the Christian argument of “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

There are many sects of Buddhism—much like there are many denominations of Christianity, Judaism and Islam—and each sect is further broken down into followers of particular teachers. The relationship between Buddhism and LGBT people are based on the particular interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings by these individual teachers—the Dalai Lama is a chief teacher of one particular sect and does not speak for other sects. Some sects have strict rules against sex between two people of the same gender, while others might have a more liberal approach.

I’m going to hone in on the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism—of which the Dalai Lama is one of its teachers.

Our reporter Phillip Reese reported on the Dalai Lama’s recent comments on marriage equality and mentioned a “softening” of his stance on gay relationships. In an interview, the religious leader said that he was okay with same-sex marriage and argued against bullying of LGBT people. But much of that comes from a sentiment of live-and-let-live.

The Dalai Lama is much like Pope Francis in calling for respect and dignity for LGBT people but also has repeated that same-sex relationships are prohibited by Buddhism’s teachings. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner has said over the decades that a core belief in Buddhism is that sex is solely procreative in nature. Following along those lines, oral sex—phallic, vaginal, and anal—and masturbation are inappropriate.

“A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else,” the Dalai Lama wrote in the 1996 book Beyond Dogma. “Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.”

But the Dalai Lama says that this issue must be looked at two ways: as believers and non-believers, as devout Buddhists versus those who aren’t.

“From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct. From society’s point of view, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless,” he said during a 1997 San Francisco gathering.

“They want me to condone homosexuality. But I am a Buddhist and, for a Buddhist, a relationship between two men is wrong,” the Dalai Lama told Australia’s The Age in 1999.

“If an individual has no faith, that is a different matter,” he continued. “If two men really love each other and are not religious, then that is okay by me.”

So in the end, the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism—as instructed by the Dalai Lama—remains true to its dogma that sex should only be for procreation and therefore gay sex is wrong, but is tolerant of non-Buddhists having same-sex relationships because it’s none of their business.

Are there Buddhist sects out there that are completely open to homosexuality and don’t frown on gay sex?

There are about 350 million practicing Buddhists worldwide with a plethora of branches, sects, and teachers. Like the many Christian denominations, there are denominations of Buddhism throughout history that have adopted more liberal views of LGBT people and sex.

Most of the gay-friendly Buddhist organizations are found outside of Asia. These groups tend to stray from dogmatic rules and instead stress compassion as the ultimate litmus test, and use of self-reflection and study to find the answers individuals seek.

The sexual misconduct rules—cited by the Dalai Lama and other more traditional Buddhist sects—are said by many American and European groups as rules that must be interpreted by the individual. In other words, they won’t tell you that gay relationships and gay sex are acceptable. But rather that will be up to you.

To learn more, there are several Buddhist organizations in Chicago, each with varying teachings. Among them are: Bodhi Path Chicago, Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom Zen Buddhist TempleBuddhist Temple of Chicago, Midwest Buddhist Temple, Diamond Way Buddhist Center, Vajrayana Kadampa Buddhist Center.

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About Gerald Farinas

An Edgewater Beach resident, Gerry is managing editor and interim editor-in-chief of Chicago Phoenix. He is concurrently a social services professional and media consultant. For more info: www.geraldfarinas.com.

There are 4 comments

  1. Ron

    Please note: His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama is NOT the head of the Gelugpa , but rather the present head of the Gelugpa order is Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu, the 102nd Ganden Tripa. The Dalai Lama is also no longer the political leader of the government in exile. He is currently the de facto spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

  2. Tony

    I agree with Sarah. I’m an American-born Buddhist who discovered Buddhism on my first trip to Thailand in 1967. I have lived here for almost 6 years and see no indication of the things the article refers to.
    Contrary to popular belief, the Dalai Lama does not speak for all Buddhists; not even a majority of them. He may be right in his position regarding Buddhism as practiced in the Tibetan tradition, but I see no stand in Theravada against same-sex relationships. The Noble Eightfold Path refers to Right Action (or conduct). To me, that goes to the relationship rather than who it is with.

  3. Sarah

    Actually, if we’re talking solely on Buddhism, there is no difference between heterosexual vs homosexual relationships. Regardless what gender the partner is, the core issue is the attachment for sexual pleasure that’s the issue.

    If there is anything against homosexual relationships it would be a cultural influence rather than a religious one.

    However, I do not think Asian culture is homophobic. It’s just that people do not talk openly about it nor do they show publicly on their affection for the same gender. In fact, it is very common that people get involved with partners of similar gender behind closed doors.

    I guess the only reason why culturally homosexual relationships are not favored is because Asians have the duty to carry on the family name and in most cases, to get married. Which is not a very easy task to be done if a person is in a homosexual relationship.

    Of course, things are changing these days, but in many cases still reserved.

  4. Peter

    As a practicing American Zen Buddhist I would suggest that there might be a difference between the viewpoint probably shared by many American born Buddhists and Buddhist immigrants from other countries. I would venture to state that American born Buddhists are probably much more accepting and non-judgmental of gay life styles than perhaps immigrant Buddhists might be. But it is difficult to generalize too much. There’s no Buddhist “Pope” and as the article points out there are many Buddhist sects. Buddhist belief is centered on the notion of karma (i.e. cause and effect) and rebirth. By that logic one can see gay people as being so by virtue of certain actions in previous lives resulting in certain sexual affinities in this life. Looking at it from that point of view tends to result in very non-judgmental conclusions.

    Karmically speaking, infidelity and adultery are much greater concerns than being gay, which probably most American Buddhists see as a non-issue.

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