Colombo, Human Rights, Media and Communications

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.