Monday, August 18, 2008

Buddhism and Homosexuality

Homosexuality is the tendency to be sexually attracted to persons of the same rather than the opposite gender. According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being ‘the third nature’ (trtiya prakti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick. With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, primarily by the intention (cetana) behind them and the effect they have. A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved. Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third Precept, although this is not always understood in traditional Buddhist countries.

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8 comments:

JANUS said...

;-)

Anonymous said...

I have just read reviewed two China travel narratives on my site, chinabookreviews.weebly.com

In "Flowing Waters Never Stale", by Mark Anthony Jones cites a number of Chinese scholars who show that most of China's past emperors, including Qin Shihuang-di, had maintained male lovers. In his chapter on Tibet, Jones mentions the homophobic attitudes of the Dalai Lama, quoting him as saying that in Buddhism, it is wrong to have anal sex. (see my review for the details).

In James West's "Bejing Blur", three entire chapters are devoted to China's thriving homosexual scene. (Again, see my review for details).

I have a question for you though: how do Tibetan homosexuals feel about the Dalai Lama's consistent and frequently repeated diatribes against homosexuality? He has publicly stated on numerous occasions, that he considers homosexuality to be immoral for Buddhists, and he has even accused the Han "occupiers" of spiritually polluting Tibet by encouraging "the spread" of homosexuality, with gay nightclubs now thriving in Lhasa.

Jason Lee,
www.chinabookreviews.weebly.com

Jason Lee said...

I have just read reviewed two China travel narratives on my site, chinabookreviews.weebly.com

In "Flowing Waters Never Stale", by Mark Anthony Jones cites a number of Chinese scholars who show that most of China's past emperors, including Qin Shihuang-di, had maintained male lovers. In his chapter on Tibet, Jones mentions the homophobic attitudes of the Dalai Lama, quoting him as saying that in Buddhism, it is wrong to have anal sex. (see my review for the details).

In James West's "Bejing Blur", three entire chapters are devoted to China's thriving homosexual scene. (Again, see my review for details).

I have a question for you though: how do Tibetan homosexuals feel about the Dalai Lama's consistent and frequently repeated diatribes against homosexuality? He has publicly stated on numerous occasions, that he considers homosexuality to be immoral for Buddhists, and he has even accused the Han "occupiers" of spiritually polluting Tibet by encouraging "the spread" of homosexuality, with gay nightclubs now thriving in Lhasa.

Gay Tibet said...

Dear Jason,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us and it was interesting to hear about what Chinese authors have been writing about homosexuality and specially with regard to Tibetans and His Holiness the Dalai Lama's view.

Yes it is true that His Holiness the Dalai Lama did say a few things negative about homosexuality - specially in terms of the physical act of penetration but the information about him blaming the Han Chinese for this negative influence is news to me and to my knowledge it is not true and I hope it isn't.

On the issue of how Tibetans respond to such statements, you have to undrstand a bit of Tibetan history and also a bit of the Tibetan mentality and culture. Tibetans have a unique way of thingking - they are good at compatmentalizing and filtering what they hear and also what they think. Anything that His Holiness the Dalai Lama says is not digested at its face value. Tibetans tend to think and question it in a strange way (not the best thing to do but), whatever he says and understands and interprets it the way they want.

As for the gay issue, most thought, atleast in my opinion that His Holiness as a religious leader who not only represents Tibetan buddhists but buddhists from all over the world, did not think that that it would be right of him to endorse homosexuality even if he personally thought it was okay. There's pros and cons to either doing it or not doing it. If he was to endorse it, then he risks being isolated from the larger Christian and the Muslim world and also a large part of the Buddhists community who disapproves of it. There are in fact very few religous leaders who've come out and spoken for homosexuality.

Anyhow whatever wrong he said of homosexuality, at the end he did correct his statement and spoke for "equal right for all and non discrimination" which in a way makes it okay for Tibetans to beleive that His Holiness feels okay about gay men and woman.

Okay, now to contradict myself, I think His Holiness knows very little about homosexuality per se and as a celibate monk, he has no need to know much about the gay world. This ignorance could have led him to come out with blunt statements which aren’t so favorable to the gay community. Whether his ignorance is justifiable or not is also quite tricky, as a Buddhist monk, sure we understand that he should stay away from such matters but as a world leader revered by millions, he has a responsibility which he took on himself decades ago when he decided to embrace the world.

As a gay Tibetan, I believe His Holiness in his purest sense, does understand our plight and even if he doesn’t understand at this moment in time, he will in time and help make a more accepting world for all of us. After all he is a man of peace and compassion.

Cheers
Gay Tibet

Anonymous said...

Gay Tibet,

Good to hear from you. I'm genuinely interested in learning more about the situation in Tibet, though I regularly find myself subjected to many conflicting viewpoints.

James West, in his book "Beijing Blur" (reviewed on my site), includes a description of a trip he made to Tibet, which he described as "thoroughly Chinese, down to its internet-gaming parlours and thumping Lhasa clubs." (p.211) His Tibetan guide, Thuptan, was "himself a fan of Chinese modernisation. He wore a spectrum-blue t-shirt emblazoned with 'Nirvana' - the band, not the destination - Michael Jordon-era hightops, and walked like a breakdancer." (p.211)

I was very interested to read West's impressions, as they contrast quite sharply to those of Mark Anthony Jones, whose book I have also reviewed on my site. Rather than seeing modernisation as a culture-destroying force, Jones argues that today's Tibetans appropriate the foreign in ways that are culturally-specific, as do all other Chinese ethnicities. He cites various historical examples to show that Tibetans have a long history of appropriating foreign goods and ideas - everything from Indian Buddhism to the Persian game of polo, and from potatoes (introduced by a Scotsman) and tea (from eastern China) to Stetson felt hats (first introduced by an American diplomat.) The "Tibetan youths of today," he says, "are using modern technology to record traditional folk songs but in foreign contemporary styles, keeping their language but performing them as hip-hop or rap, sometimes combining T-shirts with chubas in their music videos. No culture can ever remain pure and static." (p.147)

West's Tibetan guide certainly approved of his country's increasing modernity: "My notion of best was a town that boasted untainted Tibetan culture," writes West. "His notion of best was a town with electricity, TV and Western toilets." (p.211)

Jones clearly empathises with Tibetans like West's guide. "Imagine you’re a Tibetan for one moment," he asks. "How would you feel if the state was to intervene in your personal life to the extent that it restricted your choice of dress, forcing you to wear only traditional clothes, insisting that you continue to live only in a traditional home, one without electricity or adequate plumbing – all in the name of preserving your cultural purity?" (p.145)

"Just because many...Tibetans...choose to live in modern apartments and to wear jeans instead of chubas, those cloaks of woollen cloth, hardly makes them any less Tibetan, does it?" he continues. "Why shouldn’t young Tibetans choose to become politicians and entrepreneurs instead of herdsmen or monks?" (p.145)

Jones rejects the Dalai Lama's claim that cultural genocide is occuring in Tibet, arguing that the opposite is in fact the case - that a cultural renaissance is taking place, and he attacks the Dalai Lama too for his homophobia. Let me quote from pp.141-143 for you:

"Before the Chinese occupation, or ‘liberation’ as Xiaojing prefers to call it, Litang County had twenty-seven monasteries. Now there are well over thirty. Despite constant monitoring by the Religious Affairs Bureau, which places restrictions on the number of monks allowed in monasteries, most lamas and monks here appear to be able to conduct their religious duties with considerable freedom.

This contrasts with the situation in the neighbouring Tibetan Autonomous Region, where religious freedoms are said to be more tightly curtailed, thanks largely to the number of vocal separatists there, who use their position within monasteries to mobilise support and to organise occasional protests for independence. The more conservative lamas, being the traditionalists that they are, despise the secular developments that the new economy has helped to bring about – their distaste for consumerism, with its more liberal attitude towards sex, is often echoed by the Dalai Lama, who condemns both premarital sex and homosexuality. In an interview he gave for The Telegraph of London back in 2006, he made it very clear that as far as he was concerned, sex is for the purpose of reproduction only, adding that any use of ‘the other two holes is wrong.’ The problem with Westerners, he argued, is that they have too many material possessions, which has ‘spoilt’ them, making their lives too easy.

Unhappy with the thought that Buddhism must now compete with liberal ideology, many within the Tibetan lamasery, like their spiritual leader himself, are now crying foul, identifying the shift in values and lifestyles brought about by Chinese Han investment as a force that is diluting traditional culture. Tibet’s economy has been growing at a rate of more than twelve percent a year over the past six years, and with incomes rising even faster, the demand for consumer goods and services
has grown dramatically, with older Tibetans often left bewildered as their teenage sons and daughters keenly embrace a life that revolves around the use of mobile phones, iPods, karaoke bars, discos and shopping. Premarital sex among young Tibetans is now on the rise,
which alarms traditionalists, and even a flourishing gay community has emerged in Lhasa, with young Tibetan homosexuals now able to introduce themselves to one another online, or in gay bars like the Blue Sky, known to the locals by its Mandarin name, the Lanse Tian Kong.

Of course, not all young Tibetans are able to find decent paying jobs in the larger cities like Lhasa and Shigatse, despite the booming economy. Lacking in literacy skills, the more poorly educated immigrants from the countryside often arrive to find themselves ill-equipped to survive the rigours of a market economy. Prostitution
provides many young women with a means to consume, but for the waves of illiterate young men, becoming a monk is all too often their only viable option in life. Once in the monasteries though, they are easily exploited, for their feelings of jealousy, anger and resentment make them receptive to those who are keen to push the separatist agenda – people who blame the Han for all of Tibet’s social ills, both imagined and real. Their gripe then, not surprisingly, is usually articulated along ethnic
lines, often chauvinistically, their anti-Han sentiments sometimes spilling over into racial violence on the streets.

Such activities merely bolster the authority of the hardliners within local government, of those who prefer the practice of a zero tolerance policy in their approach to maintaining law and order, and as the Canadian historian A. Tom Grunfeld has observed, separatist activities in Tibet have merely ‘fostered increased repression’, which in turn has created even deeper and more widespread resentments. According to the
political prisoner database cited by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China 2007 Annual Report, there were approximately one hundred Tibetan political prisoners as of September 2007, of whom at least sixty-four were either monks or nuns- most had been charged and convicted of ‘splittism’, the average length of sentence being ten years and four months." (pp.141-143)

For James West, as for Claire Scobie (another travel writer whose book, "Last Seen In Tibet" was a recent best-seller), the modernisation that Han investment has brought about is viewed as a negative force that dilutes traditional Tibetan culture. Some, like the Dalai Lama himself, even claim that "cultural genocide" is taking place.

Jones, by contrast, argues that modernisation is a positive force for Tibet, in that per capita literacy levels have greatly increased, that more Tibetans today are fluent in their own language than ever before (especially in the dominant Lhasa dialect), and that life expectancy has greatly improved, etc. Rather than viewing Tibetans as the passive victims of the Han modernisation effort, he credits the people of Tibet with a considerable degree of agency, arguing that many, if not most, in fact keenly embrace modernity, but by appropriating what is foreign and new, consuming them in ways that are very often culturally-specific - thereby allowing them to preserve their Tibetaness.

Does the Dalai Lama represent a socially progressive force? Or is he a reactionary politician, similar to the Pope, as Jones has argued?

Jason Lee
www.chinabookreviews.weebly.com

Anonymous said...

Gay Tibet - just a brief update: there seems to be quite a discussion now taking place on my site in response to the review I wrote of James West's book, "Beijing Blur" - and to the comment you left on my site. I'm sure your input into that discussion will be much valued.

Jason Lee

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your comment and the discussion it has helped to stimulate over at the www.chinabookreviews.weebly.com site, which I discovered via the Inside-Out China blog, here at:

http://www.insideoutchina.com/2008/09/gay-tibet-on-gay-beijing.html

line of flight said...

His Holiness, in the book The Wisdom of Forgiveness, stated fairly emphatically that gay sex between consenting adults that does not harm either individual is fine by him and should not be the basis for any form of legal or social discrimination. Victor Chan seemed to express that HH didn't have an adequate understanding of the issues previously and his previous statements (which are sparse) on the subject are superseded by his current feelings on the subject.

There is no admonition against homosexuality in classic Buddhist texts, only sexual misconduct. I have yet to see a philosophical working of this that concludes homosexuality is included in it. What I have seen is a number of Puritanical and polemical pieces from China and Tibet from earlier periods that associate a variety of sexual practices, we consider homosexuality today, to be immoral. Yet, these were not philosophical workings using logic. They were superficial political slogans used for a variety of reasons, not primarily related to the suppression of homosexuality.

In Japan, homosexuality in the Buddhist monasteries was considered so enlightened that it was adopted by and later pervaded samurai culture until being suppressed with the introduction of Western/Victorian morals during the late 19th century.

I don't really believe there is a positive or negative position on homosexuality in Buddhist philosophy. Especially for the majority of us that are not monks or nuns (regardless of nationality), it just is a part of life.