by Dennis Conkin
Bay Area Reporter, June 19th, 1997
The Dalai Lama, world-revered leader of millions of Buddhists and leader of the Tibetan people, spoke out strongly against discrimination and violence against lesbians and gays during an extraordinary Wednesday, June 11 meeting in San Francisco with lesbian and gay Buddhists, clergy, and human rights activists.
The religious leader said at the press conference that he had previously been asked his views on gay marriage, and said that such social sanction of gay relationships "has to be judged in the context of the society itself and the laws and social norms." During the 45-minute meeting, the Nobel peace laureate and Buddhist religious leader voiced his support for the full recognition of human rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
Buddhist sexual proscriptions ban homosexual sexual activity and heterosexual sex through orifices other than the vagina, including masturbation or other sexual activity with the hand. Buddhist proscriptions also forbid sex at certain times - such as during full and half moon days, the daytime, and during a wife's menstrual period or pregnancy - or near shrines or temples. Adultery is considered sexual misconduct, but the hiring of a female prostitute for penile-vaginal sex is not, unless one pays a third party to procure the person.
From a "Buddhist point of view," lesbian and gay sex "is generally considered sexual misconduct," the Dalai Lama told reporters at a press conference a day earlier.
However, such proscriptions are for members of the Buddhist faith - and from "society's viewpoint," homosexual sexual relations can be "of mutual benefit, enjoyable, and harmless," according to the Dalai Lama.
"His Holiness was greatly concerned by reports made available to him regarding violence and discrimination against gay and lesbian people. His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion, and the full recognition of human rights for all," said Office of Tibet spokesman Dawa Tsering in a statement issued within an hour of the meeting.
Photographs of the historic event were taken, but were available only on the condition that participants' quotes be reviewed prior to publication. That condition violates journalistic canons regarding the freedom of the press. The Bay Area Reporter declined any conditions for the release of the photographs and has lodged a protest with the National Gay and Lesbian Journalism Association over their embargo.
Concern about violence
The extraordinary meeting was held at the Buddhist leader's suite at the Fairmont Hotel, on the last day of "Peacemaking: The Power of Non-Violence," a three-day conference held at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.
Sponsored by The California Institute of Asian Studies and Tibet House, the conference featured plenary sessions, workshops, and discussions with a wide array of international, national, and local human rights and violence prevention and intervention leaders, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, actor Edward James Olmos, East Timor human rights leader and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, and others, including a representative of Nobel peace laureate and Guatemalan peace activist Rigoberta Menchu.
The meeting with lesbians and gays followed a January 1996 report by the Bay Area Reporter that detailed an open letter by Buddhist AIDS Project coordinator Steve Peskind, asking the world-revered spiritual leader of millions of Buddhists to publicly clarify his published contradictory statements on homosexuality.
Peskind said that he was motivated by concern about the violence and harm caused to lesbian and gays around the world through pronouncements against homosexual sexual activity by Buddhist religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama.
Many gay and lesbian Buddhists have reported virulenty anti-gay sentiments and teachings from religious teachers in Tibetan and other Buddhist practice lines.
A former Tibetan Buddhist monk, Peskind is a well-known figure in Buddhist and AIDS circles and is a co-founder of the San Francisco-based Shanti Project and Coming Home Hospice.
When asked last January by the Bay Area Reporter if the Dalai Lama might meet with Peskind or other lesbian and gay Buddhists leaders during the June conference, a California Institute For Integral Studies special events organizer initially indicated that such a tete-a-tete would be unlikely.
Gay and lesbian political and anti-violence leaders including Supervisor Tom Ammiano and Lester Olmstead-Rose quickly joined with Peskind, asking for the clarification of the religious leader's statements proclaiming homosexual sex as sexual misconduct.
Warm and relaxed
The possibility of organized gay and lesbian protest, including a high-profile public information ad campaign conducted in the national media such as the New York Times - and conference site picketing - was defused after the flap was discussed during a cabinet session of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, and a meeting with Peskind and others was scheduled by the Office of Tibet.
Peskind and Buddhist AIDS Project co-leader Jim Purfield were also hastily invited by Tibet House conference organizers to present a workshop on homophobia and violence with representatives of Community United Against Violence. The workshop drew an estimated 50 participants, many of them lesbian and gay. Several AIDS prevention and social service professionals who work with lesbian and gay youth also attended that workshop.
The private meeting between representatives of the lesbian and gay community and the Dalai Lama was described as "warm and relaxed."
The Dalai Lama also expressed interest in the insights of modern scientific research on homosexuality and its value in developing new understanding of Buddhist texts that nix homosexual activity, participants said.
Reiterating in the private meeting that he did not have the authority to unilaterally reinterpret Buddhist scriptures, the Dalai Lama also urged those present to build a consensus among other Buddhist traditions and communities to collectively change the understanding of the Buddhist scriptural references on sexuality for contemporary society, according to a joint statement issued by participants.
During the meeting, the Dalai Lama also candidly acknowledged that he did not know the foundations of scriptural proscriptions against sexual activity or where they originated, Peskind said.
Participants also said the Dalai Lama expressed the "willingness to consider the possibility that some of the teachings may be specific to a particular cultural and historic context."
According to longtime Buddhist observer and writer Scott Hunt, whose 1993 interview with the leader was published in the January/February 1994 Out magazine, the response of the Dalai Lama to the controversy over the teachings is significant.
Hunt said the religious leader could have put forth the underlying "moral underpinnings" of the strictures - and clearly stated the basis and positive effects of such teachings.
Instead, Hunt said, by propounding the teachings without such discussion, the Dalai Lama seems to be "engaging in dogmatic repetition" and is apparently unable to substantiate their beneficial character, and because of his response, the validity of the teachings have been cast "into serious doubt." Vigorous debate about such issues and exception to the views of religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama are neither heresy or disrespectful in Buddhist traditions.
"In fact, it's the practitioner's duty to examine dogmatic views and to determine their validity," Hunt said. During the private session, the religious teacher told the activists they would have a harder time changing Buddhist scripture and tradition than advocating for their human rights based on Buddhist principles, according to Peskind. Organized for the Office of Tibet by attorney Eva Herzer, president of the International Committee of Lawyers For Tibet, the historic meeting included Herzer, Peskind, Buddhist Peace Fellowship activist and Claremont Graduate School Professor of Education Lourdes Arguelles, and Jose Ignacio Cabezon, a gay Buddhist scholar and professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.
Other participants included the Ven. K.T. Shedrup Gyatso, a fully ordained and openly gay Buddhist monk and teacher who is the spiritual director of the San Jose Tibetan Temple; International Gay And Lesbian Human Rights Commission co-chair Tinku Ali Ishtiaq; and former Congregation Sha'ar Zahav Rabbi Yoel Khan.
"There is still room for movement," Ishtiaq told the Bay Area Reporter. But the human rights activist said the Dalai Lama's support for lesbian and gay rights is "very significant."
Ishtiaq said that the Nobel laureate commands tremendous respect around the world and hoped the leader's historic statement would have "considerable impact on non-Buddhist religious traditions." A conference on Buddhism, sex, gender, and diversity issues is being planned, following the historic meeting with the world religious leader.