Originally published in the Heartland website on 23 November 2003
(A original article by Steve Peskind can be found here)
Buddhist AIDS Project Press Release, May, 2001, revised September 5, 2003 by Steve Peskind
I am very happy that the Dalai Lama is teaching in the Bay Area this week, and sharing his wisdom and liberating laugh with us once again. However, I find it unfortunate that the author of “The Art of Happiness” and “Imagine All the People”, in 2003, apparently cannot imagine gay and lesbian Buddhists and other sexual men and women of good faith leading fulfulling, happy, and “ethical” sexual lives.
While saying that no real love between people can be condemned and that any discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation must end, the Dalai Lama nevertheless persists in considering the natural sexual expressions of sexual minority orientation — men with men, women with women, and manual, oral, and anal sex, “wrong”, “unwholesome”, “bad action” and “vices” — not conducive to enlightenment and liberation, according to THE (?) Buddhist teaching. Recently he articulated this view in the French magazine Dimanche. The last six years, he has clearly stated his same position in Newsweek, the London Observer, and the Orange County Register, to name four venues of which I am aware.
In an interview with the French magazine Dimanche, January, 2001, the Dalai Lama says:
“Q: Your Holiness, what do you think of homosexuality?
DL: It’s part of what we Buddhists call “bad sexual conduct.” (Pause.) Sexual organs were created for reproduction between the male element and the female element — and everything that deviates from that is not acceptable from a Buddhist point of view. (He counts off on his fingers.) Between a man and [another] man, a woman and another woman, in the mouth, the anus, or even using a hand (the DL mimes masturbation)…
Q: So you share this view with Christianity?
DL: We share much more than that: the same philosophy of love of one’s neighbor, the aspiration to elevate a human being above his/her vices, compassion and forgiveness…”
In the same interview, he specifically said he was “for” (heterosexual) sex with condoms or the pill. That is, it’s fine for heterosexuals to have non-procreative sex, recreational sex — as long as they go “straight” for it, with no foreplay involving the “hands,” “mouth” or “anus.”
As a gay Buddhist activist who personally met with and questioned the Dalai Lama in 1997 about his reiteration of “traditional” Buddhist sexual misconduct ethics, I read sadly in Newsweek’s “Lama to the Globe” (August 16,1999) that “Although he has affirmed the dignity and rights of gays and lesbians, he has condemned homosexual acts as contrary to Buddhist ethics.” Unfortunately, in the past decade, he has repeatedly stated in publications, in public talks, and in international press interviews that non-vaginal sex including masturbation is “wrong and against Buddhist ethics” for any human being “of good faith”, not just homosexual buddhists.
The Dalai Lama is not a “Buddhist Pope,'” makes no claims to infallibility based on his position or any “Divinely revealed scripture,” and as one Tibetan Buddhist teacher, cannot speak authoritatively for other Buddhist teaching lineages, such as Theravada and Zen. He also makes no claim to being a “Living Buddha”, nor to having the spiritual or political authority to make any unilateral decisions for changing Buddhist traditional teachings. Nevertheless, he is perhaps the most well-known Buddhist in the world, and he may well be the most prolific Buddhist author, given the number of publications issued yearly under his name. He frequently comments internationally on world issues from the perspective of “the Buddhist teachings”, unfortunately sometimes with no historical qualifications for the Tibetan Buddhist or Indian cultural context of his remarks. He often speaks “for himself beyond tradition”, and his mostly wise and skillful public statements worldwide are highly regarded and believed, without question, by a worldwide audience — That’s part of the problem: “without question.” The Dalai Lama is also a devoted lifelong Buddhist monk . When one ordains as a Tibetan Buddhist monk or nun, one renounces engaging in all personal sexual behavior and wholeheartedly upholds vows of sexual celibacy for the sake of spiritual practice and awakening.
As the political leader of the Tibetan Government-In-Exile, deeply practicing restraint, non-violence, and compassion toward the brutal Chinese occupiers of his country, the Dalai Lama received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. The Dalai Lama is a pre-eminent spokesman for peace and non-violence in this very violent world. Unfortunately, he cannot apparently personally support the joy and intimacy of diverse human sexual expression, including loving, non-harmful and creative gay and lesbian sex, in light of his traditional upholding and advocacy of the ethical doctrines of often patriarchal, mysogynist Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The relative Buddhist guidelines on sexual conduct, with the clear goal of attaining freedom from all mental cravings and sorrow in the realization of true peace of mind, do not consider attachment to vaginally focused heterosexual sex, lust, and grasping in the same condemnatory light as other forms of sexual expression for lay Buddhist practitioners and other people. The sexual misconduct teachings on wrong sexual activities, regardless of sexual partners, may not be discriminatory in their wording between “gay” and “straight”, but they are discriminatory in their impact on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Buddhists and other sexual minorities.
As an example of the double sexual standard for lay Buddhist practioners and others — When in 1997, Jose Cabezon, a gay Tibetan Buddhist scholar, personally asked the Dalai Lama to comment on the lack of Buddhist teaching restrictions on vaginal sex, the Dalai Lama stated no traditional objection to several orgasms — “up to five consecutive orgasms (!) in one night” — for heterosexual vaginal sex partners. However, homosexual lovers and partners are not permitted to share one mutual orgasm ever under the sexual misconduct restrictions. With his characteristic hearty chuckle, the Dalai Lama did acknowledge that the question about the discrepancy in the teachings was a good one.
Clearly, safeguarding and advocating for the traditional rights, spiritual teachings, and human rights of one oppressed people, the Tibetans, while continuing to put forth a Buddhist doctrine-line which spiritually, psychologically and socially oppresses sexual minorities and others, is neither skillful, kind, nor compassionate in this writer’s opinion. Painfully mindful of traditional Tibetan Buddhist sexual ethics, most sexual minority Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet and India do not dare to “come out of the closet” for fear of social ostracism and cultural rejection by friends, family, and community.
The Dalai Lama has said repeatedly that “The Buddha is the historical reference for Buddhists” — for daily practice and international discussion of Buddhist issues. Yet, when I personally asked him in 1997, “When and where did the Buddha give teachings prohibiting same sex partners?”, he replied, “I don’t know.” When Lourdes Arguelles, a respected lesbian professor of education, asked, “When and where did Buddha give teachings on inappropriate organs to use during sex?”, he again honestly replied, “I don’t know.” And he still doesn’t know because there is no record of the Buddha, “the ultimate historical reference”, ever giving such teachings. Later prominent teachers in the Dalai Lama’s Indo-Tibetan Buddhist lineage did make such ethical pronouncements.
Not knowing when, where or even if these teachings came directly from the Buddha, the Dalai Lama’s persistent “wrong sex” teachings marginalize the behavior and full humanity of sexual minorities and others and contribute to the worldwide atmosphere of permission for harmful psychological, spiritual, and social violence against them. The fundamentalist Christian Right in the United States is already quoting the Dalai Lama’s sexual misconduct statements in their literature opposing gay civil unions, partnership rights, and marriage. This atmosphere of permission also leads to acts of ongoing and often horrific physical violence against the world’s sexual minorities, including murder — all the farthest results from the Dalai Lama’s genuinely deep good intentions for all beings.
The Dalai Lama is a kind and profoundly spiritual man who was raised as a monastic in a partly medieval theocracy. In this relatively imperfect world, he is not “perfect”, “omniscient” or “always right” as the sometimes cultish behavior of some of his followers would have us believe. Information reaching him is heavily screened. The Dalai Lama was reportedly oblivious, for example, to the oppressive institutional discrimination of Tibetan Buddhism toward women and nuns until recently when Buddhist women finally spoke out. It is important for all of us mindfully practicing Buddhists and people of good faith to speak relative truth to relatively incorrect and misguided power, in this case the person and institution of the Dalai Lama on “sexual ethics for the next millennium.” As one gay acquaintance who was considering Buddhist practice remarked in response to the Newsweek article, “Why would I want to join a club that doesn’t want all of me as a member?” It is not at all compassionate for gay people living and dying with HIV/AIDS to read or hear that the Dalai Lama “condemns all gay sex.”
The Buddha strongly encouraged Buddhist practitioners to “be a lamp until yourself” — to really test the truth and validity of teachings for one’s own heart and life. Fortunately many other Tibetan Lamas and Buddhist teachers have recognized some of these “wrong sex” teachings as the culturally-relative antiques that they are and they have said so. And, at least two formally recognized reincarnate Tibetan Lamas are openly gay Western men. One highly ranked Tibetan Buddhist Lama who is not a monk, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, recently publicly stated with no hint of judgment that he is a happily sexual active bisexual man.
Sadness is one response to the Dalai Lama’s statements on “wrong sex.” Compassion for ourselves and for this international teacher of compassion is another. He has said that he will pay attention to the international discussion of Buddhists, scientists and others on this issue. I haven’t given up on the Dalai Lama seeing human sexuality more clearly and hopefully stopping his harmful behavior as he continues to step beyond the boundaries of his sometimes medieval monastic male tradition and into 21st Century Buddhism.
Note: The Buddhist AIDS Project (BAP), based in San Francisco, California, provides free information and referral to:
* Current HIV/AIDS and public health news, with links to local, national, and international resources;
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* Complementary and Alternative Medicine services.
An all-volunteer, non-profit Affiliate of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF), BAP serves anyone living with HIV/AIDS, including family, friends, caregivers and people who are HIV negative.
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24 Hour Voicemail: 415.522.7473
Here is one of the clearest and most compassionate statements on this controversial issue from a Buddhist teacher to date:
Venerable Khandro Rinpoche, a highly esteemed Tibetan Woman Lama in San Franciso, 1994, speaking on “AIDS — Compassion and Skillful Means.”
“With respect to sexual relations, guidelines for all are the same no matter who one is. Homosexuality is nothing different, nothing new. This is something that was there a long time ago — in Tibet, in the East, in the West, everywhere. Human beings have always been human beings. It has come into more focus today. People talk about it more openly. A sexual relationship is very much a personal choice, a personal matter. Spirituality is everybody’s matter.
One can grow spiritually by being a monk, through getting married, through homosexual relations. If you really love another man as a man, no problem. Within the Buddha’s doctrine itself homosexuality is nothing special, nothing new. Such a thing as Realization means being free from attachment to whomever it may be — a man to a man, a man to a woman, a woman to a woman or whoever it may be. Each person is responsible for his or her own mind, own thoughts, emotions, understanding, awakening, Realization. If it’s possible for a heterosexual person, it’s possible for a homosexual person. It’s possible for all sentient beings.”