Buddhism views LGBT People differently than other religions. The big difference between Buddhism and other religions is that there is little focus on the morality of sexuality. Other religions place rules in their canons to oversee sexual behaviour. There are carefully crafted laws on marriage and laws to shape orientation. Buddhism’s emphasis instead is on not harming others through sexuality, not on imposing values from a central authority. But there is conflict among Buddhist views that causes a paradox in the LGBT attitudes of people in lay society.
What Are Buddhist Views towards LGBT?
Buddhist views on LGBT vary amongst the different Sects of religion. Since there is no mention of same-sex relations in early Buddhist texts there is no special stigma attached. The entire question among the three divisions of eastern Buddhism centres on the definition of sexual misconduct. Some texts mention that non-vaginal sex is misconduct, but some interpretations take this to mean forced sex is the misconduct. There is obviously a conflict in the Buddhist views on what the west calls the LGBT community. The main view is that LGBT identity is something that cannot be controlled in the current lifetime. Therefore, compassion and understanding are what is called for in reaction to the prevalence of these things in modern society.
What do the Old Buddhist Texts Say About Transgender People?
The Pali Canon is the basic Sutra (Scripture) of Buddhism and it lays out the fundamental tenets of the religion. Believed to be the actual words of Buddha’s original teachings, sexual orientation or same-sex behaviour is not elaborated on. But sexual misconduct is mentioned in the context of the Vinya, or code of monastic discipline to guide monk’s behaviour. Sexual activity by ordained monks is clearly prohibited, but only in the physical sense. Buddha teaches that the goal of living is to have a happy and pleasant life and a pleasant rebirth. Sensual pleasure is part of that. The misconduct described in the Pali Canon consists of three things. No sex with those underaged, with someone married to someone else, or if someone is under a vow of celibacy.
Later Buddhist Interpretations of Sexual Misconduct
Buddhism must always have an image of virtue to keep respect for the Sangha, or ordained community. This is to maintain material support from society because Buddhism as an institution cannot support itself. Culture has a major influence on this and one of the societal norms of the time regards non-vaginal sex. A view of that as being misconduct is included in some later texts but is not universally understood this way. For instance, the largely followed Abhidharma texts apply this to mean forced sex only. This is relevant because Buddhism recognizes the existence of gender identities beyond male and female including writings on sexual relationships.
Buddhism and Sexual Orientation
The source of Buddhism’s modern conflict over LGBT people is the description in the Pali Canon of two additional genders. One is The Ubhatovyajanakas which are people that show the characteristics of both sexes. The other is the Pandaka who are those that change their original sex or dress like the opposite sex. Texts say these people have committed sexual misconduct in a past life so their identities are beyond current control. The conflict arises again because of how this is stated in later texts, one liberal and accepting, the other not. The Abhidharma says Pandaka must wait for reincarnation to seek forgiveness and so should be tolerated in this life. They should be treated with kindness and goodwill. The equally respected Lotus Sutra says that the Sangha should avoid these identities. The lay followers of the Lotus text tend to shun people with transsexual identities as a result.
Theravada Buddhism Views of Transgenders
Dr. Peter Jackson is an Australian professor of sex politics and Buddhism at the Australian National University. He talks about the two schools of thought regarding the acceptance, or not, of transgender sexual relations in his books. However, he adds that it is the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s that changed society’s views to be less accepting. This is especially true of Theravada Buddhist views on transgenders in Thailand. But, he says, Thailand’s current tolerance of LGBT identities comes from Theravada Buddhist’s belief in Buddha’s words on Karma. In paraphrase: “One must seek answers to one’s past inside one’s self”. Other Buddhist tenets then suggest that these people should not be harmed. The relationship of Thailand Buddhism and “Ladyboys” is thus the foundation of the near-universal tolerance of them in Thailand. Hand in Hand, it is also the reason why Ladyboys, or Kathoey, are not completely accepted in Thai society.
Japanese Buddhism Views of LGBT
Writings on same-sex and Transgender relations in Japan go back to the 8th century. These describe the acceptance of all three gender identities (4 really) as the result of public understanding. Like Theravada Buddhism, Japanese society does not have hate towards sexual behaviour that is not controllable in someone’s current lifetime. Writings by 17th century Japanese Buddhist scholar Kitamura Kagan agree with this. He (rightly or wrongly) says Buddha advocated sexual relationships with Pandaka over females for priests. His explanation is that sex with gender roles outside male/female norm prevents disrespect of the Sangha by preserving the Vinya. This centuries-old perspective has allowed a modern LGBT culture to flourish in present-day Japan.
Chinese Buddhism Views of LGBT
The Buddhist attitude in China is again one of general tolerance but not total acceptance. Buddhist scholar Msing Yun preached “Buddhism should never teach intolerance…people should instead expand their minds”. Adding that “It (LGBT sexual behaviour) is neither right nor wrong, it is something people do”. “If not harming, then it is private life. This should be tolerated and not rejected”.
This beautiful philosophy was not enough however, to sooth the attitudes of early western visitors to China. In fact, reports back from priests and travellers told of a scary amount of same-sex relations in China. The west was in shock and countless missionaries sought to change this. Unfortunately, later Chinese governments saw an easy scapegoat in the LGBT community resulting in brutal repression. But This is not the case so much in modern-day China. Attitudes never changed in the Buddhist communities, and toleration is again the norm if not actually the rule.
Tibetan Buddhist Views on LGBT
The views of Tibetan Buddhists are perhaps the most interesting. Some respected writings actually place value in transgenderism. The writings of Ma Ning point to the “middleness and balance” of Pandaka as a lesson to others. That extremes of either side are not in harmony with the goal of a peaceful life and rebirth. Other elements Tibetan Buddhism is similar to others in that they emphasize a more accepting view of LGBT people. They focus on the 3rd of the five precepts of the path to enlightenment in the Pali Canon. “(I will) Refrain from using sexual behaviour in ways that are harmful to myself and others”. “(I will) Attempt to express sexuality in ways that are beneficial and bring joy”.
But Tibetan Buddhism is also not free of confusion and conflict amongst the lay practitioners. The Dali Lama in the last 30 years added to the problem of centuries-old Buddhist attitudes on LGBT. One Statement in the late 1980’s condemned violence against LGBT people, but in a 1997 press conference, he said differently. He said then, that Gay behaviour is sexual misconduct. So, what is the message here?
Western Buddhism Views on LGBT
Not surprisingly, western Buddhism is the most liberal and accepting of the LGBT community and is so without conflict. Danish Lama Ole Nyadi comes right out and says: ”sexual orientation is not important to practising Buddhism”. The primary philosophy of western Buddhism is a blend of all other Buddhist sects. It holds overall values, not texts, as the fundamental way to apply Buddhism to sexual orientation. Western Buddhism says that sexual misconduct is the judgement of one’s self and should not be conveyed to believers by the Sangha.
The difference in the western view is most far away from its eastern counterpart in regard to gay marriage. The Juniper Foundation, a western Buddhist organization much like a church, addresses this directly. It says social customs such as marriage are actually conventions, and these conventions evolve with society. This means that there should be nothing, at least in Buddhism, against such unions.
What is the view of Buddhism on LGBT in Thailand Today?
Thailand is the land of ladyboys, an LGBT paradise, but not in its laws. There is no law allowing gay marriage. Changing gender or gender name is technically not legal. No specific hate crime laws protect LGBT identities. This is all related to the split over what is sexual misconduct in Buddhism. The government is slow to enact legislation to change all this because society is not yet ready for it. But as western Buddhism says, societal convention, meaning laws, can evolve. And that evolution is happening in Thailand.