Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ Issues: Buddhism
Though it is impossible to present a comprehensive overview of Buddhism within this context, we hope this brief overview will lead you to further explore the religion.
Based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddhism is considered a way of life for more than 700 million individuals across the globe. The fourth largest religion in the world, Buddhism is largely built on concepts that foster individual enlightenment and encourage personal responsibility. It is sometimes described more as a philosophy or psychology than a religion.
Though varied in practice and beliefs, the majority of individuals who subscribe to Buddhism belong to one of three major schools of thought: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism, also known as Southern Buddhism, is viewed as the more traditional form of Buddhism. Practiced primarily in southern areas of Asia, Theravada Buddhism is considered the oldest and most traditional school of the three. Conversely, Mahayana Buddhism, also known as Northern Buddhism, is considered a more diverse form of Buddhism, whereas Vajrayana Buddhism, also known as Tibetan Buddhism, incorporates major aspects of both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and has become a much-revered form of Buddhism in the United States. In the West, Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism (a branch of Mahayana Buddhism) and Tibetan Buddhism are most predominant.
The basis for all schools of Buddhism includes the Three Universal Seals (premise of existence), the Four Noble Truths (philosophical enlightenment), the 12 Links of Dependent Origination (laws of existence) and the Eight-Fold Path (guide to enlightenment). As a branch of the Eight-Fold Path, the Five Precepts serve as voluntary guidelines for life and are the bases of Buddhist morality. They include an individual’s choice or willingness to be:
- Aware of the suffering caused by violence: I undertake the training to refrain from killing or committing violence toward living beings. I will attempt to treat all beings with compassion and loving kindness.
- Aware of the suffering caused by theft: I undertake the training to refrain from stealing — to refrain from taking what is not freely given. I will attempt to practice generosity and will be mindful about how to use the world’s resources.
- Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct: I undertake the training to refrain from using sexual behavior in ways that are harmful to myself and to others. I will attempt to express my sexuality in ways that are beneficial and bring joy.
- Aware of the suffering caused by harmful speech: I undertake the training to refrain from lying, from harsh speech, from idle speech or gossip. I will attempt to speak and write in ways that are both truthful and appropriate.
- Aware of the suffering caused by alcohol and drugs: I undertake the training to refrain from misusing intoxicants that dull and confuse the mind. I will attempt to cultivate a clear mind and an open heart.
Although there is no general consensus with regard to sexual orientation within Buddhism, overall the third precept is most often referenced when discussing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.
Sexual orientation, specifically, was not elaborated upon by Siddhartha Gautama, nor is there any reference or guidance for lay people regarding sexual orientation or same-sex behavior within the Pali Canon, the scriptural texts that hold the Buddha’s original teachings. The Vinyana, a Buddhist text for monks, forbids Buddhist monks and nuns from having sexual relationships with men, women and those of other genders, such as pandanka (interpreted as those with indeterminate sexual characteristics or people who do not conform to sexual norms, such as prostitutes). These textual references do not target LGBTQ people specifically, as everyone within the monastic order is expected to refrain from all forms of sexual relations. This practice is especially common within Theravada Buddhism, which focuses heavily on the monastic tradition.
Zen Buddhism does not make a distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Instead, the expectation is not to harm, exploit or manipulate others, which would directly violate the third precept. For instance, Zen Buddhists often refer to hedonism, ascetic masochism and prostitutions as practices that violate the “Middle Way.”
Regarding Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s perspectives are complex and evolving.On the positive side, he has publicly condemned violence against LGBTQ people and has been reported to have said, “If the two people have taken no vows [of chastity] and neither is harmed why should it not be acceptable. Yet in a 1997 press conference he commented that “from a Buddhist point of view [lesbian and gay sex] is generally considered sexual misconduct.” have been mixed and somewhat influx. During a meeting with representatives of the LGBTQ community, the Dalai Lama reportedly showed interest in how modern scientific research might create new understanding of the Buddhist texts, acknowledging a “willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context."
In general, there is no rule prohibiting LGBTQ people from serving as Buddhist monks or nuns. Though some select temples and monasteries may prohibit the ordination of LGBTQ people, schools of Buddhism, overall, have not adopted a consensus on the practice.
Overall, it is difficult to qualify Buddhism’s perspective on same-sex marriage, since perspectives vary greatly within the religion. Because of Buddhism’s core theme to attain enlightenment, the path one chooses to take within the religion is largely personal, as is one’s beliefs. Hence, most Buddhist literature indicates that opposition to or support for marriage rights for same-sex couples is a personal, rather than religious, statement.