Why Buddhists should support marriage equality
Marriage equality is one of the key social and legal issues of our time. I’d like to offer a Buddhist perspective.
As with so many ethical and social questions, especially those that involve sexuality, we find that religion wants to be at the core of things. The conservative Christian churches are leading the opposition to marriage equality. We can’t generalise on the basis of religion, though. Many Christians believe that Christ’s message of compassion and love, and the fact that he never made any statement on homosexuality, provide a basis for support of marriage equality.
In Australia there was an interesting exchange between the highly conservative Catholic leader Cardinal George Pell and the group Australian Marriage Equality. The AME asked to meet Cardinal Pell, and he consented to do so as long as the AME agreed that not all opposition to same-sex marriage was a result of homophobia or discrimination. The AME agreed, and came out with the following statement:
‘Just as we acknowledge that it is possible to oppose marriage equality without hating homosexuals, so we ask those who differ with us on this important issue to acknowledge that it is possible to support marriage equality without seeking to undermine, marriage, family, or religion.’
That’s a great starting point, and an all-too-rare example of dialogue as it should be.
But what of Buddhism? As with any issue, you’ll find a variety of positions; and as with any issue – and I apologise if this sounds cynical – most of those positions have little to do with anything the Buddha himself said or did.
In some cases we find Buddhist leaders who state the ethical case plainly. Ajahn Brahm has been very forward in supporting the gay community for many years, both in Australia and overseas. Master Hsin Yun, the leader of the international Fo Guang Shan order, said:
‘People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.’
On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts. At the same time, he insists on compassion and full human rights for all. His stance is solely concerned with what is appropriate behaviour for a Buddhist practitioner, not what should be made law.
His argument is that the sexual organs are designed for procreation and should be used solely for that purpose. So any form of sex that is not for procreation is out.
This is, to my mind, an extreme and unrealistic position. The Dalai Lama says it is based on certain medieval Indian scholars (Vasubandhu, Asanga – but I have never seen the passages myself). It certainly has no basis in the Suttas. On the contrary, the Suttas freely acknowledge that sex is for pleasure, and they never make a problem out of that. Buddhism is not a fertility religion, so why we should insist that sex be for procreation is beyond me.
The precept as found in the early Buddhist texts mentions nothing about whether sex is for procreation or not. What it talks about, solely, is whether the sexual relation involves the betrayal of a social contract. Here’s the text. It’s a stock passage, found for example in Majjhima Nikaya 41, and Anguttara Nikaya 10.176 and 10.211:
‘One is a person who misconducts himself in sexual pleasures. One has intercourse with a woman who is protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, family, clan, law (or custom, ‘dhamma’), or one who has a husband, who is punishable, or even with one garlanded for betrothal.’
‘Kāmesu micchācārī hoti, yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.’
Most of these are straightforward. They refer to women who are not ‘independent’ women in our modern sense, but who live under the authority of others. Typically, of course, this would have been young girls living at home, then in a family with a husband. There are significant variations, though, so arrangements were flexible.
It’s noteworthy that, while the Hindu texts say that a woman must always be under the authority of a man, here we find that living under the authority of a mother is next to father, and a sister is next to brother, with no implication that one of the other is preferable.
In some cases, it seems, women lived under the protection of the wider family. The one ‘guarded by dhamma’ is probably adopted, orphaned, or in some other way taken care of. The one who is ‘punishable’ is ambiguous: does it mean that the woman is to be punished (as a criminal)? Or does it mean that having intercourse with her is punishable? The text doesn’t make it clear. The woman ‘garlanded for betrothal’ refers to a woman who is, in our modern sense, ‘engaged’ but not yet married.
Obviously, the passage as stated above only refers to the man as agent. That doesn’t mean that women can’t break this precept! Like so many of the Buddhist texts, it is phrased from a male point of view (andocentric), and would apply equally to both genders. The assumption of the passage is that it is women who are under protection. This reflects the social reality of the Buddha’s time; it doesn’t endorse this situation, nor does it say that women can’t or shouldn’t live independently. It just says that if a woman (and presumably a man) is living in a committed relationship then one should not betray that.
This much is clear: the precept against sexual misconduct has nothing to do with homosexuality (or any other form of sexual activity as such.) It is concerned with breaking the bonds of trust with those that we love, and nothing else. While the specifics of the social relations in the Buddha’s time are different than today, it is not problematic to work out how to apply this in our own context, at least in most cases.
So if the precept does not concern homosexuality, what did the Buddha say on the topic? We are very lucky in Buddhism to have thousands of discourses, with the Buddha making observations or criticisms regarding many kinds of ethical issues. Rape, paedophilia, adultery: these and many other problems are clearly mentioned in the early texts, and the Buddha made it clear that he didn’t approve of them.
In the case of homosexuality, however, we have nothing in the Suttas. In all the thousands of discourses, not a single one regarded homosexuality as a significant issue.
There is one passage in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, which is sometimes cited by those who are trying to prove that the Buddha was anti-gay. The text discusses various examples of moral decay in society. One of the practices it mentions is, in the Pali, micchā-dhamma. This is about the most generic term for wrong doing that it’s possible to make in Pali. You could translate it as ‘wrong teachings’, ‘bad practices’, ‘misguided actions’, and so on. The commentary, compiled nearly 1000 years later in Sri Lanka, however, says it means, ‘Lustful desire of men for men, and women for women.’ (Micchādhammoti purisānaṃ purisesu itthīnañca itthīsu chandarāgo.) Since this has no basis in the text, it stands as a record of the attitude of a medieval commentator. There’s no evidence, so far as I am aware, that this attitude was representative of ancient Theravadin or Sri Lankan culture in general.
The Suttas essentially ignore any issues around homosexuality. Now, arguments from absence are always difficult. But the presence of thousands of discourses detailing lists of many kinds of ethical violations, strongly suggests that the Buddha tried to be reasonably comprehensive in addressing ethical concerns, and homosexuality was not one of them.
The picture in the Vinaya is a little different. The Vinaya is a legal code for monastics, and since it regulates the conduct of a celibate order, it deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviours. It does so with a degree of frankness and candour that so shocked the early European translators that they simply omitted large chunks of text, or, with a quaint regard for the delicate sensibilities of young readers, translated them into Latin.
Homosexual acts, like just about any other imaginable sexual act, are depicted many times in the Vinaya, both among monks and nuns. In each case, the Buddha is shown as responding in his usual direct and common sense manner. Obviously, homosexual behaviour, like any sexual behaviour, is inappropriate among the celibate monastic community, so the Buddha prohibits it. However, this is done in a straight, matter-of-fact tone, and there is never a suggestion that there is anything wrong with gay sex per se.
In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behaviour. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman. Sex between women, likewise, is treated less seriously than between a woman and a man. There is one passage where the Buddha’s chief disciple, Venerable Sariputta, is said to have had two novices as students. But they had sex with each other. The Buddha laid down a rule that one should not take two novices as students at the same time! (This rule, like many others, was later relaxed.)
However, it would be a mistake to read this as implying that the Buddha regarded same-sex sexuality as somehow more permissible in the Sangha. The Vinaya, as a legal code, frequently makes judgements for various technical reasons, and there is no strong correlation between the moral weight of an act and the severity with which it is treated in the Vinaya. For example, building an overly-large hut is a serious offence, while bashing someone within an inch of their life is a minor offence.
So we shouldn’t read too much into the relative leniency of how some homosexual acts are treated in the Vinaya. The main point is simply that homosexuality is treated in pretty much the same way as any other expression of sexuality.
In these accounts there is nothing that really corresponds with our modern notion of sexual orientation. For the most part, same-sex acts are just that, acts. There’s no idea of a person who solely or primarily is attracted to people of the same sex.
The texts do speak of a certain kind of person, called a paṇḍaka. These are typically male, but there were females too (itthīpaṇḍikā). A paṇḍaka is forbidden to ordain, and is regularly associated with unbridled sexuality. It is, however, unclear exactly what paṇḍaka means. The descriptions of the paṇḍaka are few, and not always consistent, but there seems to have been some physical attribute involved, as well as a set of cultural behaviours. Perhaps they were some form of eunuchs who performed sexual services. In any case, the paṇḍaka is clearly not a homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They may be connected with the modern classes of Hijras and the like, who are considered a ‘third sex’ in India, including transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and eunuchs.
To sum up, early Buddhism is well aware of homosexual acts, and never treats them as an ethical problem. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not found.
This is completely in line with the Buddha’s take on ethics. The Buddha did not ethically judge persons, he judged deeds. People are simply people, who do various kinds of things, some good, some bad. If a person does a deed that causes harm, this is what the Buddha considered ‘unskilful’. If the deed causes no harm, it is not unskilful.
The basic problem in sexual ethics, addressed in the third precept, is betrayal. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is sexual behaviour that causes harm by breaking the trust that a loved one has placed in us. The Buddha was compassionate, and he never laid down ethical rules that caused harm or distress. Making a moral proscription against homosexuality marginalises and harms people who have done no wrong, and it is against the basic principles of Buddhist ethics.
It’s so important to keep this essential ethical question in mind. In discussions on homosexuality, as with just about any other controversial ethical issue, there is a pervasive tendency to confuse the issue. Why do we find it so difficult to look at an ethical question rationally? It is true, there are some issues that are complex and the details can be difficult to work out. But this is not one of them.
Countless times we are told, for example, that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. Surely a moment’s reflection should show us this is not true, because there’s plenty of homosexuality in the animal world. And anyway, how is gay sex more unnatural than, say, typing on a keyboard, or wrapping food in plastic? But this is all beside the point. Being ‘unnatural’ is not an ethical issue. The issue is whether it causes harm, not whether it is natural or not. That is no more an ethical issue than is the choice, say, to eat organic or non-organic vegetables.
Homosexuality is also regularly linked with sexual ‘decadence’ in general. Homosexuals are said to be paedophiles, or promiscuous, or to cause diseases such as AIDS. Allowing homosexual relations is to licence all manner of debaucheries. This objection, too, is not valid: gays behave in all sorts of ways, just as do straight people.
Blaming gays for AIDS is one of the most cruel arguments possible. We feel compelled to look for examples that show the absurdity of these views. What of babies born with AIDS? What of those who get AIDS via blood transfusion? Incidence of malaria is much greater among poor people – are we to blame them, too? And why is incidence of AIDS among lesbians so very low – is lesbianism kammically preferable?
But we shouldn’t have to look for such examples. Like the arguments mentioned above, the whole thing is missing the point. Take the ‘worst case’ scenario, the cliché of the promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-taking, careless gay man. We might not think his behaviour is praiseworthy or wise, but does it deserve a slow, lingering, and painful death? Are we really comfortable to righteously proclaim the justice of destroying a human life, because we think that the way they have sought pleasure is irresponsible? This whole argument is inhuman and unworthy.
If there are behaviours that gay people do that increase transmission of HIV, for example, then we can try to change those behaviours, just as we would try to help any people who were inadvertently causing harm. What the marriage equality movement wants is to enable people of various sexual orientations to live in an accepted, recognised, and legal framework which supports the development of loving, committed relationships. Banning gay marriage is the very best way to ensure gays remain marginalised.
Another red herring, in my view, is the ‘born this way’ argument, which is often used by those who support marriage equality. Homosexuality, so the argument goes, is not a choice, some people are just like that and can’t change. While this is an important, if contested, fact, it misses the ethical issue. What if some gay people don’t feel like they were ‘born this way’? What if they feel like they have made a conscious choice? Whether this is the case or not, or whether there are in fact hidden biological factors involved, so what? Having sex with someone of the same gender is not a harmful deed, nor is marrying someone of the same gender. Whether it’s by biological determinism or free will, nothing harmful is done, so there’s no ethical problem.
Perhaps the single most fallacious argument against gay marriage is simply that it upsets the customs of society. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, therefore it will damage society to do it any other way.
This argument, favoured by conservatives, once again completely misses the point. The damage is already here. Violence, trauma, and abuse is a part of the living reality of millions of perfectly good people all over the world, simply because the have, or want to have, sex with persons of their own gender. Part of society is broken, and it needs fixing.
This is the same argument that was used to oppose abolishing slavery, votes for women, property rights for all, and so on. In each case, those in the position of privilege strive to keep others from getting the same rights. And since the cost of inequality is borne by the ‘others’, it does not exist for the privileged.
When we introduce compassion into the equation, however, we recognise that society has always been imperfect. Just because something was done in the past does not make it right. Perhaps it was the case that in certain times and places our marriage customs made more sense than they do now. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is the right thing to do now? To continue to exclude, marginalise, and discriminate? Or to broaden our moral horizons, to fully accept and include all people?
If homosexuality as such is not a problem, what then of same-sex marriages? In this area we find that the Buddha had even less to say. In fact, there is no such thing as a Buddhist marriage. Buddhists have simply adopted the marriage customs of the culture they find themselves in. The most basic model, therefore, was the customs of ancient India. These have been the basis for Buddhist family customs, adapted in each society that Buddhism has gone to.
In ancient India, there were several forms of marriage. As with all things Indian, there is no insistence on one true, correct way of doing things. Some Hindu texts list a whole range of marriage possibilities, which are correlated with the levels of Indian cosmology. The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma wedding’, where the bride and groom, each pure in lineage and caste, is united in the most perfect of ceremonies. If the marriage is lacking in some perfections of detail, it is reckoned as pertaining to the lower classes of deities. The lowest of the auspicious weddings is the gandharva wedding, where the bride and groom simply elope. Then there are the various inauspicious unions, those of the yakkhas or rakkhasas, where, for example, the woman is abducted by force.
Along with this diversity in wedding style, there were different marital arrangements. Monogamy seems to have been common, and of course these were often arranged marriages – but ancient Buddhist texts also record a strong struggle by women for autonomy in the marriage choices. Polygamy is also common, and was the norm for kings. Polyandry is less common, but is central to the most famous of all Hindu texts, the Mahabharata. Apparently polyandry is common in Tibet.
I’m not trying to uphold the Indian marriage system as superior to that in the West. It has its own problems with inter-caste marriages, arranged marriages, domestic violence, and so on. I’m merely making the point that there has traditionally been an adaptive diversity of living arrangements that were considered to be valid forms of marriage, and that this can be seen in some ways as a precedent for the modern idea of same-sex marriages.
So there has always been a flexibility and diversity in marriage customs in the Indian sphere that stands in clear contrast with the ‘one and only’ correct form of marriage that is, in the main, endorsed by the contemporary monotheistic religions. Same-sex marriages were not, so far as I’m aware, historically acknowledged within the Indian cultural sphere. Nor am I aware of any laws against them, such as we find in the modern day. Given the wide variations in marriage customs, including many forms of marriage that would not be considered valid in modern times, it would seem that the typical Indian approach was that of tolerance and inclusion. Accordingly, when the British law that made gay sex a crime was repealed in India in 2009, some Hindu authorities applauded the move, saying homosexuality was part of the divine order.
Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude is not always the case today. One sometimes finds Hindutva polemics against homosexuality. Such discourse, sadly enough, often rails against the supposed debauched influence of ‘Western’ morals, oblivious to the fact that anti-gay attitudes were themselves imported into India by the monotheistic religions. This ambiguity has been expressed by the highest authorities in India. Goolam Vahanvati, then solicitor-general and current attorney-general, stated to the UN Human Rights Council:
‘Around the early 19th Century, you probably know that in England they frowned on homosexuality, and therefore there are historical reports that various people came to India to take advantage of its more liberal atmosphere with regard to different kinds of sexual conduct.
‘As a result, in 1860 when we got the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted by Lord Macaulay, they inserted Section 377 which brought in the concept of “sexual offences against the order of nature”.
‘Now in India we didn’t have this concept of something being “against the order of nature”. It was essentially a Western concept, which has remained over the years. Now homosexuality as such is not defined in the IPC, and it will be a matter of great argument whether it is “against the order of nature”.’
A similar situation prevails in other Buddhist countries, too. In Japan, China, and elsewhere, the early generations of Christian missionaries were shocked at the casual acceptance of homosexual behaviour among the Buddhists. They immediately set about trying to persuade the world that their own version of sexual propriety was the right one for everyone.
Sadly enough, modern generations of Buddhists and Hindus are now doing this work for them, oblivious to their own more accepting and compassionate past. When a Thai monk like Thattajiwo, one of the leaders of Dhammakaya, rails against the ‘sexual perverts’, who have called down the kammic justice of AIDS (‘the executioner of the sex-mad’) upon them, oblivious of the pit of sin they have fallen into, and the even greater sufferings that await them in future disease-ridden hells of torment, he is merely parroting the frothing excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. (Phra Thattajiwo Bhikku. Waksiin Porng-kan Rook Eet (A Vaccine to Protect Against AIDS). Pathumthani: Thammakay Foundation.) Such apocalyptic and condemnatory ‘ethics’ have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.
So in today’s climate, what are we to do? For the Buddha, homosexuality was clearly not an issue. Nor was making laws proscribing valid forms of marriage. What was an issue, on the other hand, was compassion. The very essence of compassion is to reach out to those who are suffering, those who are marginalised. and persecuted. People whose sexual orientation varies from the majority suffer discrimination, bullying at school, violence, and emotional trauma. As Buddhists we should recognise a clear moral imperative to help wherever we can.
One might object that since the Buddha made no statement on the legalities of gay marriage, we should do the same. But the problem is a little more subtle than that. We are living in a culture where, based on certain religious and cultural ideas, certain ways of living one’s life have been made illegal. This is an artefact of the conditioned and always arbitrary course of history, not a timeless feature of the human landscape. In Australia, for example, there was no clear Federal law that prohibited same-sex marriage until 2004.
Supporting marriage equality is not to introduce something new, but simply to abolish laws that discriminate. The injustice is already in place. The harm is being done. The change is merely to remove the harmful influence of discriminatory laws, which should never have been there in the first place.
People are people, regardless of their gender, colour, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Buddha taught ‘for one who feels’. That’s the only requirement for Buddhist practice: one who feels. In the past our society decreed that marriage should not be between people of a different race, or a different colour, or a different religion, or a different nationality. Over time, we decided that these rules were harmful, and we abolished them.
Catastrophes were predicted: they didn’t come true.
What has happened, rather, is that we have become a little more open minded, and a little more aware of the suffering of others. The test of our generation is whether we can continue this move towards a more accepting and loving way of living, or whether we are to regress to a meaner, hard-hearted place.
My society, my culture, the one that I’m proud of and want to belong to, is this one. The society that is kind, questioning, accepting. Let us take up the best aspects of our own cultures, whether they be Buddhist or modern cultures, and discard all that is unjust, discriminatory, and harmful. Let us give our full support for marriage equality, for if we do not we are betraying the best part of our humanity.
This article was originally published on Bhikkhu Sujato’s blog.