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Buddhism and Sexuality: What Would Sid Say About Me Being Gay?

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Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Each week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? What would Sid do? is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Each week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddartha, would do. Like us, Sid is not yet a buddha, he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it, you and I are Sid.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I'll probably get to it!
 
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Q: i'm trying to become a buddhist but i'm struggling with being gay. is there any restrictions to being gay and being a buddhist, and if there is please tell me. thanks so much for answering my question!    - Michael

First and straightforwardly Michael, no. There are no restrictions on being gay and being Buddhist. Now let's get complicated and in-depth on the matter.

When the historical Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha he taught extensively. Yet somehow in the midst of all of his teachings nothing shows up explicitly coming down on homosexuality in the Pali Cannon. It's as if he didn't even think to mention homosexuality which is odd considering it was present in India at the time. My interpretation here (and I'm not alone in this) is that by not making specific classifications in his teachings we can infer that the Buddha meant to lay out the same rules for homosexual behavior that apply to heterosexual behavior.

So let's explore these rules, specifically the third of the five precepts: kāmesu micchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi. This is the precept saying that one should abstain from sexual misconduct. The term "sexual misconduct" has been interpreted and re-interpreted a countless number of times. My personal interpretation is that the Buddha set out to pursue a life of spiritual awakening that ended with the idea that above all, we should do no harm to others or to ourselves. Yet anytime you have sex with someone you create a certain amount of ramifications, some of which can include hurt feelings, disease, or awkward party run-ins. In other words, harm.

Some scholars have suggested that in a strict interpretation we would all need to remain celibate in order to insure that no one gets hurt. Anything other than that would be sexual misconduct. Looser interpretations have implied that so long as you practice safe and consensual sex you are not breaking the precept. My sense of appropriate sexual conduct for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike tends towards the looser have-sex-and-try-hard-not-to-cause-harm-and-please-use-a-condom attitude. I am very curious to hear other people's interpretations below.

It's worth noting that some Buddhists disagree with the whole what's good for heterosexuals is good for homosexuals approach as outlined above. For example, the Dalai Lama. Yes he's a spokesperson for the Tibetan people and the reincarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion but the guy really put his foot in his mouth at a press conference back in June, 1997. He said, "From a Buddhist point of view [lesbian and gay sex]... is generally considered sexual misconduct."

The Dalai Lama later clarified that he was quoting tradition on how oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation are considered taboo. The same text by Tsongkhapa that he was referencing also prohibits sexual intercourse during daylight hours. I am guessing that most of us have, at some point, broken at least one of these rules. However, that does not mean it is just homosexuals who are being condemned here, just anyone who likes any form of spice in the bedroom. Also, the texts His Holiness referenced imply that homosexual relationships are okay, it's just these sexual acts that are not.

I for one am not a fan of the traditional monastic Tibetan Buddhist party line. I have great respect for meditation masters such as Tsongkhapa, Gampopa, or Dza Patrul Rinpoche who have written about these various prohibitions. However, people are people and I doubt that the Buddha would have wanted to prevent anyone from pursuing enlightenment because of their sexual orientation.

As we have been discussing on this site Buddhism has spread throughout the world and as it encountered new cultures it continued to adapt to meet societal norms. This has led to some aspects of Buddhism being interpreted strictly in one locale (14th century Tibet) while quite loosely in another (America, 2010). Of course, Buddhism is not the only religious tradition that has such a range of interpretation.

In conclusion I'm sure Sid would be fine with you being gay. He pursued a life that teaches us that we need to look at our actions and determine whether they are helpful, based on good intentions, and free from harm or if we are just being a douchebag. Qualities such as mindfulness and compassion can be practiced by us all, regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnic background, income, or what have you. So welcome to Buddhism Michael, it's great to have you as a fellow practitioner on this path.

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Comments

Ponlop Rinpoche quote

"In Buddhism it doesn’t matter who you are -- man, woman, straight, gay, lesbian, transsexual. It's not about those issues; its about how you work with your mind. If you have a mind, then whether it's straight or gay or lesbian or whatever doesn’t matter -- mind's nature is mind's nature. If the nature of mind is enlightened, then there you go." 

- Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Seattle, June 11, 2010

preference versus orientation

The use of the word "preference" in the above answer seems to indicate that one might have a choice about being gay.

"I have a preference for ice cream over frozen yogourt."

In my experience it is not a preference, but more of an "orientation." I don't "prefer" to have committed, meaningful, supportive, caring relaltionships with people of the same gender. I am, by virtue of who and what I am, "oriented" to have same-gender relationships with them.

Second

Dear Anonymous,

I agree with you here and have switched the language to reflect my beliefs on the topic.

Best,

Lodro

Agree

It reminds me of how my father always used to call it my "lifestyle." As if it were a way of dressing or a taste in movies, instead of the genuine and truthful expression of who I am in this life. (Not in the Buddhist sense of a solid, truly existing self, but in the ordinary sense of a self that has its own karma and its own way of being in the world, which is not chosen. The only choice involved, for me, was the choice to accept it and be honest about it.)

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