Homosexuality, Buddhism and Sri Lankan Society

By Bellanvila Sudaththa Thero and Cecil J. Dunne

Before we discuss what Theravada Buddhism says about homosexuality, it is important to understand that in Buddhism people are encouraged to look inwardly when seeking guidance or a solution to a problem. In the words of the Lord Buddha himself “be a lamp to yourself” which simple means do not search for wisdom outside of yourself, rather you should let your conscience be your guide and it is here that the teachings and scripts of Lord Buddha can be of assistance.

Generally speaking Lord Buddha did not anything specifically about homosexuality because it has never been an issue, however this is not to say that that there was no homosexual activity in the time of the Lord Buddha. There Tripitaka (Buddhist scripts) refer to incidents of homosexuality and transexuality. Specifically the Tripitaka highlights the case of a bhikku (monk) Wakkali who became a monk purely because he was physically attracted to how handsome Lord Buddha was. The Tripitaka also highlights a transsexual incident in which a married man with children was physically attracted to a monk, following this the man underwent metamorphosis and became a female and eventually married a man. Another section of the Tripitaka refers to an incident where a novice monk masturbated a high ordained monk.

While Buddhism itself makes no moral claim on any form of sexual behavior, regardless of orientation, the vinaya (monastic rules) for monks states that monks are not allowed to enter their sex organ to bodily orifices (vagina, mouth or anus). But it makes no distinction between homosexual or heterosexual sex. Essentially monks are expected to be celibate so they cannot engage in sex with anyone, including themselves. However it is important to note that the vinaya apply only to monks, there is nothing in the scripts that extend these rules to lay Buddhists.

The most important reference point lay practitioners of Buddhism have for homosexuality or sexual behavior in Buddhism is contained within the third precept which refers to sexual misconduct. However this precept in itself is insufficient a guide as it makes no distinction in relation to sexual orientation or practice. In order to apply the principle within the third precept to homosexuality, one has to go back to the wider core Buddhist principle of “do no harm” and consider this precept in a holistic interpretation.

When considering the precept of sexual misconduct one can draw some specifics sas to what is allowable and not. Issues of rape, adultery and pedophilia can be considered as incompatible with Buddhist teachings as they cause harm to others. Outside of these specificities one has to go beyond both ourselves and the scriptures in seeking a solution as to what is right or wrong in homosexuality, or as the famous Kalama Sutra puts it “Revelation (anussana), tradition (parampara), the authority of the scriptures (pitakasampada) and one’s own point of view (ditthinijjhanakkhanti) are inadequate means of determining right and wrong”

Whether homosexuality is right or wrong is essential a question of private morality. Having questioned the conventional basis of morality, the Buddha suggests criteria for making moral judgements. The criteria are what might be called the universality principle – to act towards others the way we would like them to act towards us. In the Samyutta Nikaya he uses this principle to advise against adultery. He says “What sort of Dhamma practice leads to great good for oneself? A noble disciple should reflect like this: ‘If someone were to have sexual intercourse with my spouse I would not like it. Likewise, if I were to have sexual intercourse with another’s spouse they would not like that. For what is unpleasant to me must be unpleasant to another, and how could I burden someone with that?’ As a result of such reflection one abstains from wrong sexual desire, encourages others to abstain from it, and speaks in praise of such abstinence”

So one must abstain from sexual practices which cause others harm. Whether you are gay or straight the most important thing in life is not to create harm and respect others lifestyles without creating them harm, this is a basic foundation of Buddhism as is the philosophy of seeking inner contentment, happiness and east. Wherever you are and whatever you do, you must learn to accept and love yourself for what you are and feel at ease with yourself, and spread that ease across society.

Conventional modern day Sri Lankan morality is non-accepting of homosexuals and homosexuality. The Dalia Lama recently stated that “if you want to be a Buddhist you cannot be a homosexual, full stop” surmises the modern day Sri Lanka approach to homosexuality. However this statement by the Dalai Lama is totally without justification as there is nothing in the Buddhist scriptures to support this statement.

Sri Lankan morality imposes guilt on homosexuals and Sri Lankan law punishes it. The role of monks is to provide support to lay Buddhists in their day to day lives, yet currently monks live in fear of advising homosexuals because they may be labeled as homosexuals themselves. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist society and there is no place in the teachings of the Lord Buddha for guilt and punishment. So how have we arrived today at the stage where the Dalai Lama can make such unjustified statements and Sri Lankan morality and legalization opposes and punishes homosexuality?

The roots of this un-Buddhist approach to homosexuality can be traced back to the colonization of Ceylon. There are stark differences between the pre-colonial Ceylon and the post colonial Sri Lankan attitude to homosexuality. The Ceylon attitude is illustrated in a 17th Century book by Robert Knox, “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon” where he draws attention to the then King’s homosexuality. The modern Sri Lankan attitude to homosexuality is reflected in “Funny Boy” by Shyam Selvadurai.

The un-Buddhist excommunication and punishment of openly practicing homosexuals in Sri Lank has its roots in the colonization and modernization of Sri Lankan Buddhism. AS stated throughout this article, the concept of what is right or wrong is based in morality which is directly derived from religion, or in the case of Buddhism, philosophy. The colonial power brought with them and externally introduced to Sri Lankan their own sense of morality derived from their own religion, namely Christianity. In relation to human biological reproduction practices (sex) contrasts can be drawn between the Christian religion and Buddhist philosophy. While Christian Bible specifically categorises the spilling (spoiling) or Gods seeds (sperm) as a sin, the Buddhist Scriptures contain no such reference.

As both Thailand and Sri Lanka share the same variety of Buddhism further analogies can be drawn here. Currently Thailand does not legally or morally punish homosexuality preferring to adopt a live and let live philosophy so long as the principle of do no harm is adhered to. The main variable here is the fact that Thailand was not subject to colonialism and therefore a purer and more traditional form of Buddhism has prevailed while the Sri Lanka form of Buddhism has been diluted, poisoned and rendered impure by its modernization along the lines of western principles.

In order for Sri Lankan’s to be considered truly Buddhist they need to find inner peace and be happy with themselves and stop expecting others to live as they wish them to live. In order for Sri Lanka to truly consider itself a Buddhist nation it needs to stop forcing its people to live as it wishes them to live.

The Buddhist scholars within Sri Lanka have a duty and an obligation to advocate for a return to the traditional and more tolerant teachings of Lord Buddha. It is not only homosexuals who will benefit from this return, the entire Island of Sri Lanka and all its people will benefit from the tolerance, acceptance, openness and celebration of difference that the Lord Buddha envisioned.

Equal Ground

Article reproduced with persmission from Rainbow News Vol. 1 Issue 3 August 2007, published by Equal Ground. Visit Equal Ground’s new blog here.

  • http://kadalayroyal.blogspot.com Kadalay

    Very enlightening explanation, indeed. I have a few questions though, as follows:-

    1. The prohibition of any act, as taught by Buddhism, seems to be concentrated on its negative impact on other people?
    2. How does one know what impact an act can have on others before the act is committed?
    3. Would a simply known fact that having open sex with anyone and everyone can cause STD’s justify its abstention?
    4. Does the above explanation, then, also extend to the indulgence of Buddhist Monks in Politics and Violence which seems to be the order of the day in Sri Lanka since time immemorial?
    5. If marriage is not an instituted act, legalized by rules and regulations, within Buddhism then is it OK for a man or woman to have sexual relationships with whomsoever they choose at whatever time or place?

  • http://timeseye.blogspot.com/ poojitha

    “Kamesu Michchachar Weramani ” mean i’ll abstain from sexual misconduct , homosexuality is a sexual misconduct

  • suntzu

    The world is not divided into sheeps and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeon-holes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.
    ~Alfred Kinsey ~ Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 1948

  • Rabbit

    Oh! My Gosh! Since when did homosexuality become a ‘misconduct’!! Are we just ‘missing’ the plot here? Homosexuality has been around for millenia….not something that was just started to aggravate Nimal Siripala Silva!

  • TK one

    “Kamesu Michchachar Weramani ” mean i’ll abstain from sexual misconduct , homosexuality is a sexual misconduct ”

    Sorry but who are you to judge?

  • suntzu

    Dear TK …to each his/her own…so long as what they do, does not effect me…I have no problem about homosexuality or any kind of sexuality for that matter! If two consenting adults or 3 or 4 be they hetrosexual, homosexual or bisexual…want to do whatever they do in the privacy of their homes…how can u know that they are committing sexual misconduct unless u have been watching through their window or peeping through the keyhole?

    “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it with religious conviction.”
    -Blaise Pascal

    “You are so young, my son, and, as the years go by, time will change and even reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain therefore awhile from setting yourself up as judge of the highest matters.”
    -Plato

  • Sifaan

    A question on the acceptability of Adultery:

    “A noble disciple should reflect like this: ‘If someone were to have sexual intercourse with my spouse I would not like it. Likewise, if I were to have sexual intercourse with another’s spouse they would not like that. For what is unpleasant to me must be unpleasant to another, and how could I burden someone with that?’”

    What if someone didn’t mind their spouse having sex with someone else?
    Does it mean that it is then acceptable for that spouse to have extra-marital sex?
    (More generally, does it mean that open-marriages are acceptable?)

    And is it then allowed for that person to extend the argument? i.e. “I don’t have a problem if my spouse has sex with someone else. Likewise, if I were to have sex with another’s spouse, they shouldn’t have a problem with it. For what is acceptable to me must be acceptable to another”

    /Sifaan

  • http://blog.myspace.com/mihisara Bellanvila Sudaththa Thero

    [Sentence deleted] in buddhism you are encourage to use your brain. buddhism is for wise people not to idiots.

    may wise people understand to which comment i am replying

    • Prof. Wilfred

      I am in all confusion here. I thought this was a monk who wrote it, not reading the article but judging by his name. This comment above is so arrogant and so out of order. It is not what Lord Buddha said, this can't be a monk,I strongly believe it is somebody who is getting paid for advertising homosexuality, not that I am against or pro, but simply the monk's attitude together with the article make me to believe it. Whether it is right or wrong, let the intelligent discuss and advice on the subject.

  • Pippi

    If something is wrong it is indeed wrong. All though the claim is that some homosexuals are genetically predisposed towards homosexuality the majority of us know instinctively that such thoughts are not not be indulged in even if they do strike us because they go against everything good, pure and moral. Come on please stop this fashionable habit of blaming everything on colonialism including homosexuality now; was the pre-colonial era an Utopia then and if so why not regress to those times again in that case since life apears to have been bliss then?

  • Sifaan

    I thought Buddhism was for everybody.. or is it an elitist philosophy reserved for the “wise”?

    Why not to respond to the argument instead of attacking the messenger?

  • bellanvila sudaththa thero

    buddhism is for everyone. what i tried to to say is that buddhism is completely different than other religons. base of the buddhism is not a book or faith for someone you cannot see. in buddhism you have to use brain not faith.so if you dont use the brain its useless being a buddhist. i tried to talk homosexuality is right or wrong. because buddhist scripts say nothing about it i had to use other ways to decide that. this is one way.

    but open marrages is not a thing that “allowed” in buddhism.

    • Surendran

      Buddhism is not a religion.It is a pilosophy.

    • Triple Gem

      Bellanvila Sudaththa Thero,

      Venerable Sir, you state that “the concept of what is right or wrong is based in morality which is directly derived from religion, or in the case of Buddhism, philosophy.”

      However, I notice striking similarities between Buddhist philosophy and the Hindu religion. I give the following links which discuss these similarities:

      http://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/h_buddhism.asp
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzWV0i5l-0A

      Please enlighten us on this as we make our journey towards karmic consciouness.

    • http://www.blacklightarrow.wordpress.com David Blacker

      To say Buddhism relies on the brain instead of faith isn’t correct. Some things, such as reincarnation, the ability to achieve nirvana, etc, have to be accepted on faith. Their reality cannot be analysed by the brain. Similarly, veneration or worship (including tribute offerings) can hardly be said to be philosophical. Buddhism is definitely a religion.

      • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

        @ David

        I agree with suntzu.Buddhism is definitely not a religion but a philosophy. But many Buddhists around the world including almost all Sinhala Buddhists have turned it into a religion.

        You can not go to heaven or attain nirvana or become successful in life by praying to the Buddha or Buddha statues. Of course you can’t go to heaven or attain nirvana or become successful in life by praying to God either.(that’s my personal belief) But at least in Christianity,Islam and Hinduism their followers pray to a God or pantheon of Gods. But in the case of misguided Buddhists, they pray to a man and not a God.

        Nothing else to say except that people have the right to believe what they want to believe. If people want to believe that the Buddha is some kind of a God and pray to him in the hope that he will grant everything they pray for…so be it.

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  • suntzu

    Though some people might think so…Buddhism is not a religeon, it is a philosophy!

    • yapa

      Why can’t Buddhism be both “religion” and a “philosophy” and also a “way of life” at the same time as some say. Is there any valid reason as to why it should be confined to one of the option at a time?

      I think that is thinking based on “Middle Excluded Two Valued Logic”.(Either A or opposite of A exists at a time, not both or no option in the middle.)This thinking is not sufficient to discuss deep subjects. Please read about Four Valued Logic, Multi Valued Logic, Fuzzy Logic etc. etc.

      Two Valued Logic is sufficient to handle almost all mundane (worldly/social)issues of humans, but that alone is a weak tool to handle issues that are beyond the affairs of human needs. In the universe the subject area related to human needs is very very minute. So outside the domain of human needs and its related affairs, Two Valued Logic alone is not the sole tool.

      So Buddhism is a religion, no, no it is not so but a philosophy or vice versa is not necessarily correct. It can have many different choices at the same time. In a way, it is a religion. In away, It is a philosophy. In a way it is a way of life. In a way, it is a ……

      Thanks!

  • Suri

    1. The venerable monk is right about the colonial origins of the crime of homosexuality. Homosexual conduct was criminalised in the Island first by the Catholic Portuguese, then by the Roman-Dutch Law and eventually by the Ceylon Penal Code introduced in 1885 by the British Colonial Administration.

    2. The the monk does not discuss the issue at the fundamental level, perhaps keeping in mind the nature of his audience. Buddhist concept of Nirvana or Enlightenment is a state where one has shed all attachments and has reached a point of true selflessness. At this point the cause of suffering ceases for one has no desires and nothing to lose. Getting there requires the progressive taming of our passions, emotions and desires whatever they may be. There is no distinction between homosexual and heterosexual passion. If one wishes to reach the goal one has to rid them all. This does not detract from the monk’s position but justifies it further.

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  • Jake

    About the Dalai Lama fact in the article… once Dalai Lama did not support homosexuals, but he has changed his views and supports them. He doesn’t ENCOURAGE it, but he is OK with it. I read he has attended international gay conferences and he has extended his support to homosexuals who are harrassed around the world.

    I am Buddhist, and gay. Being gay was never my choice, and I do not harm anyone while I am gay. I don’t think Buddhism has anything against us.

  • suntzu

    Buddhism may not have anything against homosexuals Jake…but the buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka are certainly against it!
    More power to you Jake…and all the best!

  • Prof. Wilfred

    It is known a secret that many Buddhist monks abuse young novices. The young pre-teenager who died due to anal bleeding in the first month at a pirivena hostal a while ago is a good example. You only have to speak to a doctor at a hospital for confirmation. Why the doctors don't go public is beyond my imagination. Buddhist monks have lost the touch of the man in the street. Today, temples struggle for their survival. Homosexuality is not a bigger issue as the issues faced by the large buddhist community of 70% or so. continued below….

  • Prof.wilfred

    continued from above…….If he genuinely is a monk, the writer may be genuinely interested in getting homosexulaity legalised hence the write up. What he doesn't know is the reality outside the walls of the temple. In boys only schools (and in girls only as well), the homosexuality is a big issue. The older students often abuse the younger ones. I remember my principal father lashing a student at my school until he was almost unconcious for abusing a younger one during after school scout practices. The sports teams are often in the wrong in this. Legalising homosexuality will only give a lifeline to such acts. Buddha may have lived some 2500 years ago but taking care of children and the society today is far more improtant than preaching and listening to wedi-bana. If people need help, there is always help around.

  • Michael

    I really don’t understand how a person can arbitrarily decide that this and this is wrong, and therefore should remain illegal and criminalised.

    For me, for anything to be a crime, it needs to be an act of deliberate harm against another individual. I firmly believe that we are all entitled to a sphere of autonomy, wherein we may cause harm to ourselves, without the interference of the state or, by extension, the society. Be that harm an unhealthy food I consume, a wound I subject myself to, or even a diabolical sin I commit on my own. The state does not have the right to prevent me from doing so. So if homosexuality is a sin, (the contrary of which is proven by this article to all intents and purposes) then two consenting adults who wish to commit that sin, can do so without needing to suffer the judgement of the state. That’s one.

    Then there is this. An act of sexuality is also an act of sexual misconduct when it causes harm to people (individuals) who are not consensually part of that sexual activity. Merely because homosexuality does not align with a majority’s idea of “normalness”, does not mean it therefore becomes a sexual misconduct. Prove that there is harm in homosexuality in itself, and then proceed to justify its criminalisation. That you, and your majority, don’t like it is not reason enough for something to be illegal in a justice system.

    And then, “Prof” Wilfred, there is no corollary between the legalisation of homosexuality and abused juniors in boys’ schools. If it happens, it happens, and schools are supposed to prevent such things from happening. However, while I admit that such abuse is wrong, I do so not because it is homosexual, but because it is rape, (ie without the consent of both parties). All acts of sexual abuse is wrong, irrelevant of the genders of the instigator and victim, and should be prevented and punished. While illegalising homosexuality in itself will not prevent these crimes, neither will it serve justice to those people who have the right to engage in consensual homosexual activity. Finally, if you read the article, it clearly states that monks are to abstain from ANY form of sexual conduct, let alone the obvious prohibitions of child mollestation, so I really don’t like your vague insinuation that there are ulterior motives to the writer’s intent. Cheap hints and baseless accusations. That is all you are.

    I am nineteen. I am gay. And I am disgusted.

    • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

      Dear Michael,

      You said in your last line, “I am nineteen. I am gay. And I am disgusted.”
      Well, are you disgusted that your gay, OR are you disgusted that people in Sri Lanka cannot understand gays and their right to live the way they please…?

      ps. One thing that I have personally been disgusted about most Sri Lankans is that they are so dense and can not understand that they now live in a Dictatorship, and not a democracy. (but that’s another story) :D

      …all the best Michael.

      • Hameed Abdul Karim

        Bellanvila Sudaththa Thero and Cecil J. Dunne in their attempts to justify homosexuality in Buddhism make rather casual references with regard to the incident where a novice monk masturbated the senior bhikku Wakkali. What we should ask ourselves is what their contemporaries thought of this sexual act. For example did they approve of this? Or did they take action against the senior bhikku for violating the code of ethics? Did he continue as a monk or was he de-robed? Answers to such questions would provide a wide range of thoughts that might help discuss the merits or demerits of this incident. But if this were an isolated incident then it would be wrong, if not sacrilegious, to make a case for the approval of homosexuality in Buddhism.

        Ditto in the case where an individual took to robes because he couldn’t resist Gautam Buddha’s good looks. Let’s check the Buddhist scriptures to find out if the Buddha approved of his intention. Let’s ask ourselves if the Buddha was aware of the circumstances that led this monk to take to robes. If the authors of the tripitaka knew his intentions, then it’s safe to assume the Buddha too was in the know. But if there is no record of more information on this episode then it’s best not to use it to further the cause of homosexuality as per the Buddhist teachings.

        Hameed Abdul Karim