Asian societies shaped by Buddhist traditions take a strong ethical stand in human affairs and sexual behavior in particular. However, unlike most other world religions, most variations of Buddhism do not go into details about what is right and what is wrong in what it considers mundane activities of life. Details of accepted or unaccepted human sexual conduct are not specifically mentioned in any of the religious scriptures in the Pali language. The most common formulations of Buddhist ethics are found the Five Precepts and the Eightfold Path, which state that one should neither be attached to nor crave sensual pleasure. These precepts take the form of voluntary, personal undertakings, not divine mandate or instruction. The third of the Five Precepts is "To refrain from committing sexual misconduct. However, "sexual misconduct" is a broad term, and is subjected to interpretation relative to the social norms of the followers. In fact, Buddhism in its fundamental form does not define what is right and what is wrong in absolute terms for lay followers. Therefore the determination of whether or not homosexuality is acceptable for a layperson is not a religious matter as far as fundamental Buddhism is concerned.
Among Buddhists there is a wide diversity of opinion about homosexuality. Buddhism teaches that sensual enjoyment and desire in general, and sexual pleasure in particular, are hindrances to enlightenment. Buddhist monks and nuns of most traditions are expected to refrain from all sexual activity and take vows of celibacy. Some Buddhist orders may specifically prohibit transgender, homosexually active, or homosexually oriented people from ordination but accept homosexuality among laypersons.
Within the earliest monastic texts such as the Vinaya (c. 4th century BCE), male monks are explicitly forbidden from having sexual relations with any of the four genders: male, female, ubhatovyanjañaka and paṇḍaka. These latter two encompass a range of sexual and gender variations of male-bodied, female-bodied, and intersex people. Later, Buddha allowed the ordination of women, but forbade ordination to these other types of people on sexual grounds.
The word ubhatovyanjañaka is usually thought to describe people who have both male and female sexual characteristics. Some interpret this as including those who are not physical hermaphrodites, but display behavioral and psychological characteristics of both sexes, such as a woman who is attracted to other women. 5th century Buddhist writer Buddhaghosa describes ubhatobyanjanaka as people with the body of one gender but the "power" of the other. Leonard Zwilling argues that in this account Buddhaghosa does not in fact describe hermaphroditism but rather bisexuality or homosexuality; other writers dispute this.
The paṇḍaka, is a complex category that is variously defined in different Buddhist texts as including those born sexually indeterminate or with no sex, eunuchs, those whose sexuality changes every half month, males who gain sexual satisfaction by performing fellatio on other men, and voyeurs. It sometimes includes males or females with any sexual dysfunction, such as impotence or irregular menstrual cycles. The common element seems to be those whose sexuality is either limited physiologically, or those who have "perverse" or extra sexuality. Together these "third sex" types are almost always portrayed negatively as a pariah class, especially in the earliest texts. As the Vinaya tradition develops, paṇḍaka becomes the term of choice that most often stands for the excluded third sex category as a whole. In modern contexts, paṇḍaka is often interpreted to include lesbians, gay men, and transgender and intersex people, although in ancient times, a man who sexually penetrated another man or a paṇḍaka was not himself considered a paṇḍaka.
Paṇḍaka are categorised with others who are also excluded from ordination; either those with physical abnormalities such as deafness or dwarfism, or those who have committed crimes. "The Story of the Prohibition of the Ordination of Pandaka" from the Vinaya justifies the ban by giving an example of a monk with an insatiable desire to be sexually penetrated by men, thus bringing shame upon the Buddhist community. In Buddhaghosa's Samantapasadika, paṇḍaka are described as being filled with defiling passions (ussanakilesa), unquenchable lusts (avapasantaparilaha) and are dominated by their libido (parilahavegabhibhuta). Fourth century Buddhist writer Vasubandhu contends that the paṇḍaka has no discipline for spiritual practice, due to their defiling passions of both male and female sexes. They lack the moral fortitude to counter these passions because they lack modesty and shame. Incapable of showing restraint, such a being is abandoned by their parents and lacking such ties are unable to hold strong views.
The Abhidharma states that a paṇḍaka cannot achieve enlightenment in their own life time, but must wait for reincarnation as a normal man or woman. Ananda — Buddha's cousin and disciple — was said to be a paṇḍaka in one of his many previous lives, as was the Buddhist nun Isidāsī (from the Therigatha). In both cases birth as a paṇḍaka was a result of poor karma, and the idea that being a paṇḍaka stems from bad behaviour in a previous life is common in Buddhist literature.
Buddha's proscriptions against certain types of people joining the monastic sangha (ordained community) are often understood to reflect his concern with upholding the public image of the sangha as virtuous. Thus, sexually active people, especially those with unusual sexual tastes, and people of a third gender — along with criminals and disabled people — run the risk of bringing the order into disrepute. Peter Jackson, scholar of sexual politics and Buddhism in Thailand, speculates that the Buddha was initially reluctant to allow women to join the sangha for this reason. Jackson explains:
"Buddhism, the middle path, has always been concerned with the maintenance of social order and since the Buddha's time the sangha has never claimed to provide a universal vehicle for the spiritual liberation of all individuals in society, explicitly excluding those who are considered to reflect badly on the monkhood in terms of prevailing social norms and attitudes."
The third sex are excluded from a variety of Buddhist practices (in addition to ordination):
- acting as preceptors in ordination ceremonies,
- making donations to begging monks,
- being preached to,
- ability to understand the Dharma.
In contrast, later texts, particularly Tibetan Buddhist writings, occasionally value paṇḍaka positively for their "middleness" and balance. The paṇḍaka in these Tibetan works is translated with the term ma ning — "genderless" or "without genitals". The 13th century Tibetan monk Gyalwa Yang Gönpa, who was one of the significant figures in the early Drukpa Kagyu sect, writes about ma ning as a balanced state between maleness and femaleness. Yang Gönpa describes ma ning as "the abiding breath between male exhalation and female inhalation" and "the balanced yogic channel, as opposed to the too tight male channel, and the too loose female one".
Gampopa, often called the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, wrote (in the 12th century) that anal sex was a violation of the third precept regarding sexual misconduct. Longchenpa, 13th century founder of the Nyingma school, elaborated that sexual misconduct includes "intercourse in forbidden parts of the body, such as the hands." 
The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, interprets sexual misconduct to include lesbian and gay sex, and indeed any sex other than penis-vagina intercourse, including oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation. He explained in 1997: "It’s part of what we Buddhists call bad sexual conduct. Sexual organs were created for reproduction between the male element and the female element — and everything that deviates from that is not acceptable from a Buddhist point of view." However, in the same interview he also said that heterosexual non-procreative sex is not considered to be sexual misconduct — he is "for" heterosexual sex with condoms or the pill. The Dalai Lama admitted that there is a difference between the views of believers and unbelievers: "From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct. From society's point of view, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless." He claimed the proscription against sexual misconduct can be traced to the 2nd century Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha.
Four years earlier, he had been unsure if a mutually agreeable non-abusive same sex relationship would be acceptable. He had difficulty imagining the mechanics of homosexual sex, saying that nature had arranged male and female organs "in such a manner that is very suitable… Same-sex organs cannot manage well."
In an interview with Wikinews, Tashi Wangdi, Representative to the Dalai Lama, further elaborated on these views. If a person was to engage in homosexuality, "a person would not be considered as following all the precepts of Buddhist principles. People don’t follow all the principles. Very few people can claim they follow all the principles. For instance, telling a lie. In any religion, if you ask if telling a lie is a sin—say Christian—they will say yes. But you find very few people who don’t at some point tell a lie. Homosexuality is one act, but you can’t say [a person who is homosexual is] not a Buddhist. Or someone who tells a lie is not a Buddhist. Or someone who kills an insect is not a Buddhist, because there’s a strong injunction against that."
In Thailand, traditional accounts propose that "homosexuality arises as a karmic consequence of violating Buddhist proscriptions against heterosexual misconduct. These karmic accounts describe homosexuality as a congenital condition which cannot be altered, at least in a homosexual person's current lifetime, and have been linked with calls for compassion and understanding from the non-homosexual populace." Some more recent Thai Buddhist accounts (from the late 1980s) have "described homosexuality as a willful violation of "natural" (hetero)sexual conduct resulting from lack of ethical control over sexual impulses." Peter Jackson, an Australian scholar of sexual politics and Buddhism in Thailand, writes that these positions represent "two broad schools of thought on homosexuality [which] are current among contemporary Thai Buddhist writers, one accepting, the other unaccepting. The key factor differentiating the divergent stances is the author's conceptualization of the origin of homosexuality; those who, taking a liberal stance, maintain that it is a condition which is outside the conscious control of homosexual men and women and has its origins in past misdeeds, whereas those who maintain that homosexuality is a willful violation of ethical and natural principles takes an antagonistic position."
Peter Jackson argues that AIDS in the 1980s brought about a shift of perception in Thailand regarding kathoeys, "placing homosexuality rather than gender at the focus of the concept", which was associated with "a shift in Buddhist attitudes from relative tolerance of homosexuality to condemnation."
In 1989, the supreme governing body of the Thai sangha affirmed that "gays" (here translated from Thai kathoey) are prohibited from being ordained. Their declaration has apparently gone unheeded in some quarters, as Phra Pisarn Thammapatee (AKA Phra Payom Kalayano), one of the most eminent monks in the country, demanded in 2003 that 1,000 gay monks be ousted from the sangha, and that better screening processes are put in place to keep out any gay postulants.
Several writers have noted the strong historical tradition of open bisexuality and homosexuality among male Buddhist institutions in Japan. When the Tendai priest Genshin denounced monks "…who have accosted another’s acolyte and wickedly violated him" in a text printed in 985 AD, the main offense seems to have been that the acolyte wasn't one's own. Chigo Monogatari, "acolyte stories" of love between monks and their chigo were popular, and such relationships appear to have been commonplace, alongside sex with women. In the 15th century, maverick Zen monk Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) wrote "follow the rule of celibacy and you are no more than an ass." Later, "exhausted with homosexual pleasures", he took a wife.
Western Christian travelers to Japan from the 16th century have noted (with distaste) the prevalence and acceptance of forms of homosexuality among Japanese Buddhists — Jesuit priest Francis Cabral wrote in 1596 that ‘abominations of the flesh’ and ‘vicious habits’ were "regarded in Japan as quite honorable; men of standing entrust their sons to the bonzes to be instructed in such things, and at the same time to serve their lust".
A 17th century Japanese Buddhist scholar, Kitamura Kigin, wrote that Buddha advocated homosexuality over heterosexuality for priests:
"It has been the nature of men's hearts to take pleasure in a beautiful woman since the age of male and female gods, but to become intoxicated by the blossom of a handsome youth… would seem to be both wrong and unusual. Nevertheless, the Buddha preached that [Mount] Imose was a place to be avoided and the priests of the law entered this Way as an outlet for their feelings, since their hearts were, after all, made of neither stone nor wood. Like water that plunges from the peak of Tsukubane to form the deep pools of the Minano River, this love has surpassed in depth the love between women and men in these latter days. It plagues the heart not only of courtier and aristocrat but also of brave warriors. Even the mountain dwellers who cut brush for fuel have learned to take pleasure in the shade of young saplings." - Wild Azaleas (1676)
In Chinese Buddhism, homosexuality was a third level sin punishable in one of the nine hells. Marie-Eve Blanc writes that "Mahayana Buddhism (as in China and Vietnam) is less tolerant than Theravada Buddhism (Thailand)."
Buddhism in the West
In contrast to Buddhism in Asia, modern Buddhism in the Western world is typically associated with liberal politics and a concern for social equality — partly as a result of its largely middle-class intellectual membership base, and its philosophical roots in freethought and secular humanism. When applying Buddhist philosophy to the question of homosexuality, western Buddhists often emphasize the importance the Buddha placed on tolerance, compassion, and seeking answers within one's self. They stress these overarching values rather than examining specific passages or texts. As a result, western Buddhism is often relatively gay-friendly, especially since the 1990s. As interpretation of what is sexual misconduct is an individual decision and not subject to judgement by any central authority, a view of accepting all peoples, but rejecting certain types of sexual acts is more predominant. LGBT people such as Issan Dorsey, Caitriona Reed, Pat Enkyo O'Hara and Soeng Hyang have been ordained as Buddhist monastics.
The USA branch of Soka Gakkai International, a Japanese-based new religious movement (Shinshūkyō) influenced by Nichiren Buddhism, announced in 1995 that they would start holding wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples, and in 2001 established a conference for LGBT members and their supporters. A Buddhist temple in Salt Lake City connected with Jodo Shinshu, another Japanese school of Buddhism, also holds religious rites for same-sex couples.
- Higgins, Winton. Buddhist Sexual Ethics. BuddhaNet Magazine. Retrieved on 2007-01-15.
- See Religion and sexuality#Buddhist views of sex and morality
- Gyatso, Janet (2003). One Plus One Makes Three: Buddhist Gender Conceptions and the Law of the Non-Excluded Middle, History of Religions. 2003, no. 2. University of Chicago press.
- See, for example, the Pandakavatthu section of the Mahavagga. 1:61, 68, 69.
- The Pali Text Society Pali-English Dictionary defines ubhatobyanjanaka as "Having the characteristics of both sexes, hermaphrodite". Rhys Davids, T. W. & William Stede (eds.), Pali-English Dictionary, Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, New Delhi, 1975.
- Bunmi Methangkun, head of the traditionalist Abhidhamma Foundation in Thailand, describes two types of hermaphrodites, namely, female (Pali: itthi-ubhatobyan janaka) and male (Pali: purisa-ubhatobyanjanaka). According to Bunmi, an itthi-ubhatobyanjanaka is physically female, including having normal female genitals, but when physically attracted to another woman, "her previously female mind disappears and changes instead into the mind of a man, and at the same time male genitals appear while her female genitals disappear and she is able to have sexual intercourse with that woman." (Bunmi Methangkun, Khon Pen Kathoey Dai Yang-rai (How Can People Be Kathoeys?), Abhidhamma Foundation, Bangkok, 2529 (1986).)
- Zwilling, Leonard (1992). Homosexuality As Seen In Indian Buddhist Texts, in Cabezon, Jose Ignacio, Ed., "Buddhism, Sexuality & Gender", State University of New York. p. 206.
- Gyatso, Janet (2003). Ibid.
- Zwilling, Leonard (1992). Ibid. Pp. 203-214.
- Harvey, Peter (2000). An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues, Cambridge press. p.416. ISBN 9780521556408, ISBN 0521556406
- Vinaya: Mahavagga, 1:71, 76.
- Vinaya, Vol. 4, pp. 141-142
- For example, the Pravrajyantaraya Sutra, or the 7th century Ta-ch'eng tsao-hsiang kung-te sutra. In the latter, a man "with the lusts and desires of a woman, [who] enjoys being treated as a woman by other men" despised other men or enjoyed dressing as a woman in a previous life.
- Jackson, Peter A. (1998). Male Homosexuality and Transgenderism in the Thai Buddhist Tradition. In "Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists", edited by Winston Leyland. San Francisco : Gay Sunshine Press. ISBN 0-940567-22-9
- Mahavagga 1.69, 38.5.
- Lotus Sutra: Leon Hurvitz, trans., Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), p. 209
- Ref from Gyatso (2003): For example, Visuddhimagga 5.40-42 (translated in Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, The Path of Purification, trans. Bhikkhu Nyanamoli, 2 vols. [Berkeley: Shambhala, 1976]) avers that both hermaphrodites and pandakas are among those who cannot develop kasina concentration, of indeed any kind of meditation at all, due to their defilement and bad kamma. Abhidharmakosabhasya 4.43 also asserts that neither pandakas or sandahas are subject to any of the three disciplines (from verse 13: those of monasticism, meditation, and the pure path), nor indeed the absence thereof.
- Milinda Panha, 100 BC. p. 310.
- Kumar, Nitin (2005). Exotic India Art. The Many Forms of Mahakala, Protector of Buddhist Monasteries Text online.
- Yang Gönpa is also known as rgyal ba yang dgon pa, rgyal mtshan dpal
- The Collected Works (Gsun 'bum) of Yan-dgon-pa Rgyal-mtshan-dpal (Thimphu: Kunsang Topgey, 1976), volume 2 pp. 454 and 457 (cited in Gyatso 2003).
- The Great Chariot: A Treatise on the Great Perfection by Longchenpa (1308-1363), chapter 5. Text online: 1, 2.
- "Even with your wife, using one's mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one's hand, that is sexual misconduct." (Dalai Lama, at a meeting with lesbian and gay Buddhists, June 11, 1997). Reported widely, including in: Dalai Lama Speaks on Gay Sex - He says it's wrong for Buddhists but not for society. By Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer, Tuesday, June 11, 1997, San Francisco Chronicle. Text online; Dalai Lama urges 'respect, compassion, and full human rights for all,' including gays, by Dennis Conkin, Bay Area Reporter, June 19, 1997. Text online; Dalai Lama says 'oral and anal sex' not acceptable, Jack Nichols, 13 May 1997. Text online
- See full transcript of interview: On Homosexuality and Sex in General, World Tibet Network News, Wednesday, August 27, 1997.
- Q-Notes, 1997. What’s up with the Dalai Lama?, by Steve Peskind and Donald Miller. Article online
- Dalai Lama, June 11, 1997 at a press conference in San Francisco. Cited in "According to Buddhist Tradition", by Steve Peskind, Shambhala Sun, March 1998. Text online.
- World Tibet Network News. Thursday, July 1, 1993. Text online
- Interview with Tashi Wangdi, David Shankbone, Wikinews, November 14, 2007.
- Jackson, Peter (1995). Thai Buddhist accounts of male homosexuality and AIDS in the 1980s. The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol.6 No.3, Pp.140-153. Dec.1995. Text online
- Khamhuno. 1989 (B.E. 2532). Gay Praakot Nai Wongkaan Song ("Gays Appear in Sangha Circles"). Sangkhom Saatsanaa (Religion and Society Column). Siam Rath Sut-sapdaa (Siam Rath Weekly), 18 November 1989 (B.E. 2532). 36 (22):37-8.
- Buddhism Grapples With Homosexuality by Peter Hacker (2003), Newscenter Asia Bureau Chief, 365Gay.com. Article online.
- Leupp, Gary (1995). Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan. p. 31
- Boxer, C.R., The Christian Century in Japan 1549-1650, University of Californian Press, Berkeley, 1951. p 69.
- Spence, Jonathan, D. (1985). The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Faber and Faber, London. p. 225
- Mount Imose is traditionally associated with heterosexuality.
- Wakashudo, "the Way of Youth", i.e. homosexuality
- Paul Gordon Schalow, trans. 1996, Kitamura Kigin, "Wild Azaleas" (Iwatsutsuji) in Partings at Dawn, an Anthology of Japanese Gay Literature, San Francisco, Gay Sunshine Press p. 103. ISBN 0-940567-18-0
- Eberhard, Wolfram (1967), Guilt and Sin in Traditional China. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).
- Blanc, Marie-Eve (2005). Social construction of male homosexualities in Vietnam. Some keys to understanding discrimination and implications for HIV prevention strategy. International Social Science Journal 57 (186), 591-595.
- Coleman, James William (2002). The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515241-7. See chapter 2, "Sex, Power, and Conflict." Review online.
- World Tribune, May 5, 1995, p.5. (Soka Gakkai International's weekly newspaper)
- Freedom and Diversity, by Ken Saragosa, SGI-USA. Article on the SGI website: http://www.sgi.org/english/Features/quarterly/0110/essay.htm
- J.K. Hirano (2004), Gay Buddhist Marriage? Text online.
- Website about the Lotus Sutra (the teaching of the equality of all beings) and teachings of Nichiren Shonin in Italian, Spanish and English
LGBT Buddhist groups
- Heartland, Gay Buddhists Fellowship - Singapore.
- Gay Buddhist Fellowship
- Gay Men's Buddhist Sangha
- TGBuddhist.net, Transgender Buddhist support group
- Homosexuality and Theravada Buddhism
- Same Sex Marriage, a short essay by a Theravada monk
- Buddhism and Homosexuality
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