Is being lesbian, gay or bisexual 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 simple. 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 not specific 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. So, here are my personal views on the subject.
I believe that Gautama Buddha taught the five precepts to steer us away from causing 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 LGBT+ relationship 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.
(It must be noted that 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.
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 bias.
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, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of their control. A recent study published in the journal Science found that there is no such thing as a single ‘Gay Gene.’ Instead, a person’s attraction to those of the same sex is shaped by a complex mix of genetic and environmental influences, similar to what is seen in most other human traits.
Sexuality is dynamic and there are a wide range of different sexualities – some say as many as seventeen. It certainly isn’t as clear cut as most religions would have us believe. They like to put us into neat little heterosexual boxes entitled men and women, but life is not like that. Take transexual people for instance, who experience a gender identity inconsistent with their assigned sex. They have an overwhelming desire to transition to the gender with which they identify and not the one they were assigned. They certainly do not fit into the heterosexual boxes, and neither do bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals or queers, and why should they just because some religion or religious person wants to control people’s sexuality.
So, in answer to the two questions posed at the beginning of this piece, I believe no form of sexuality should be forbidden in Buddhism, and no one should be made to feel guilty for loving someone else. I also believe no form of sexuality should be regarded as sexual misconduct, as long as it is not causing harm and is loving and consensual.
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This is an update of a blog first posted in August 2014