Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Gay Tragedy

Occasionally someone, usually a young man but sometimes a young women or an older man or women, will approach me and after a few minuets of hesitation or beating around the bush, ask me what the Buddhist position on homosexuality is. When they do I tell then that intentional actions (kamma) modify consciousness and that our kamma conditions our future. Positive intentional acts have positive effects (vipaka) and negative intentional acts have a negative effect. Sexual acts motivated by the usual intentions, feelings and emotions which exist between two people who love each other, would have a positive effect and would not infringe the third Precept, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual. I underline this point by saying that Buddhist ethics about sex are primarily concerned with the motives behind out sexual behavior, rather than the gender of our partner. This being so, if two people of the same gender express their love for each other physically there is no good reason why the kamma this creates should be any different from when two people of the opposite gender do the same. Having said this I then try to change the subject, not because I am embarrassed talking about homosexuality, but because I do not like the ‘single issue’ approach to Dhamma. However, a few years ago I had an encounter which made me realize that inquiries about homosexuality, whether from gays themselves or their families, should be given my whole attention. However theoretical or marginal this issue may be to me it is likely to be of considerable import to the people who ask such questions.
A young man named Julian rung me asking if he could come and talk to me about Buddhism. I said he could and on the appointed day and time he came. Julian turned out to be about 20 old, of slight build and with pleasant features. He was well groomed and neatly dressed. He started by asking me a few questions about some aspects of Buddhism but I sensed that these were not really what he was interested in. Finally the question came, “Venerable, can a gay person be a good Buddhist?” I gave my usual reply but it soon became clear that this did not please him. He kept interjecting and expressing doubts about what I said. I answered all his objections but he remained unconvinced. Arriving at a deadlock and not knowing what more I could say I asked him if he was gay. He blushed, cleared his throat and said that he was. Then he told me his story. Since his early teens he noticed that he was attracted to other boys and had a particular interest in woman’s clothes. Horrified by these feelings he kept them well under control. A year ago while doing his national service he had met another soldier who was gay and since that time they had been having a relationship, although a guilt-filled and fugitive one. Once or twice a month they would pool their recourses and book a hotel for the night. He would dress in woman’s clothes, put on makeup and they would spend the night together. For Julian at least, this would be followed by days of self-loathing and resolutions never to do it again. After he had finished telling me this he hung his head and said, “This must be wrong.” “Well,” I said, “some people would find it a bit strange. But from a Buddhist perspective I really can’t see that it is particularly harmful. Satisfying sexual urges is a perfectly natural thing to do and it is acceptable where it does not involve adultery or harming others. The conflict you create within yourself by hating what are completely harmless feelings hurts you much more than being gay ever could. There is no reason why you can’t practice the Precepts – respecting the life, the prosperity and the sexual feelings of others, their right to know the truth and keeping your mind free from intoxicants – while being gay.” He was silent but I could see that I had not been able to still his doubts. Julian visited me two more time over the next two month and our conversations were about the Dhamma in general although we also went over the same territory concerning homosexuality with very much the same results.
Then, after not having seen or heard from Julian for nearly six month I got a call from him. He told me that a famous Taiwanese monk was in town giving a series of talks and that he had managed to get a few minuets with him. He had asked the monk the same question he had asked me and the monk had told him that homosexuality was a filthy, evil thing and that homosexuals get reborn in the lowest hell where they are boiled in excrement for eons. Julian said this with in an almost triumphant tone, seemingly glad that he had proved me wrong or that he had found someone who agreed with him. I asked him what else this venerable monk had said. “Nothing,” he replied. “He was going somewhere and only had a few minuets to talk.”
How often has this happened to me? I have told an inquirer something about Buddhism which I know to be sound, sensible and in accordance with the Tipitaka, they go to another monk who tells them the exact opposite and then they come back to me asking me to explain the anomaly. Then I am stuck with the problem of either saying that the other monk doesn’t know what he is talking about (which is often the case) and appearing to be an arrogant upstart, or biting my lip, saying nothing and letting the person go away with yet another half-baked notion or superstition thinking that it is Dhamma. How often? Very often! In most cases this is just frustrating. In this case it had tragic consequences.
“Look Julian” I said, “You asked me what Buddhism would say about homosexuality and I told you based on my 20 years of studying the Buddhist scriptures and thinking about various issues in the light of the Buddha’s Dhamma. I don’t know what else I can say.” I told him that if he wanted to talk with me at any time he was welcome to do so and then we hung up.
Four days later I was browsing through the paper and a small article tucked away on the eighth page caught my eye. The heading read ‘Man’s Body Found in Park.’ I scanned the article briefly and was about to turn to something else when the name Julian sprung out at me. In an instant my attention was riveted. I read the part where this name appeared and sure enough it was about the Julian who had come to see me. I returned to the top of the article and read it all the way through. Four days earlier, perhaps only a few hours after ringing me, Julian had gone to a park in the centre of Singapore late at night, taken an overdose of sleeping tablets and been found dead the next morning. A suicide note had been found in his pocket but the article did mention what it said. I was overwhelmed by sorrow. The thought of him lying there utterly alone, hating himself and in such despair that he would kill himself almost made me cry. But soon anger was welling up through the sadness and diluting it until it had completely replaced the sadness. I pictured the Taiwanese monk blithely dispensing his ignorant and ultimately toxic opinion before rushing off to give a sermon about compassion or receive the accolade of the crowd. I became so angry that I resolved to write him a letter and tell him what he had been responsible for. Then I thought it would probably be a waste of time. He probably wouldn’t even remember talking to Julian.
It seems to me that most thoughtful people would agree that sex without love is a pretty unattractive thing. Physically, it is little more than ‘exchanging fluids’ as the AIDS awareness literature so delicately puts it. What lifts sex above the fluids exchange level is the motives and emotions behind it – affection, tenderness, the desire to give and receive, the bonds of companionship, fun even. This fits well into the Buddha’s famous statement, “I say that intention is kamma.” Is sticking a knife into someone a positive or a negative action? It depends! If the knife was held by an enraged violent person it would probably be negative. If it is held by a surgeon performing an operation to save someone’s life it would certainly be positive. From the Buddhist perspective, sexual behavior is not judged primarily by the gender of the people involved, by the dictates of a code of behavior drawn up in the Bronze Age or by whether a legal document has been signed, but by its psychological components. Homosexuals are as capable of wanting and of feeling love and affection towards their partners as heterosexuals are and where such states are present homosexual sex is as acceptable as heterosexual sex.
This is a simple and logical truth and it is in accordance with Buddhist teachings but circumstances were such that I was unable to help Julian see it. All his experience had told him that being attracted to people of the same gender is wrong. Those around him had always expressed disapproval towards homosexuality and sniggered at gays. The law (in Singapore) told him that homosexuality is so heinous that it must be punished by 10 years imprisonment, more than for manslaughter. He knew that religious teachers, Christian, Muslim and even some Buddhists, consider it so evil that it will have dreadful consequences in the life hereafter. All this denigration and ignorance prevented him from hearing the gentle, reasonable and kindly words of the Buddha. It caused him inestimable suffering and finally drove him to suicide.
I am reminded of Julian because three weeks ago I represented Buddhism in a seminar on religion and homosexuality at Catholic Junior Collage (Boy! Haven’t Catholic collages changed!). Of the 800 students in the audience I assumed that a certain number would probably be homosexual and may be struggling to understand their feelings. Knowing that what I said may well have something to do with them growing up either happy and well-adjusted or tortured and self-loathing, I did took great care to explain the Buddhist position on homosexuality.


Singapore Dividend Collector said...

thats a tragic and fasinating story, one which will stay with me for a long time. its amazing how actions seemingly innocuous to one, can have devastating effects on other lifes.
a great blog and a credit to you.

H said...

Strange but it seems almost if Julian had been wanting to hear that condemnatory answer all the while, that's why he jumped at it and chose to believe it at once. I suppose there was nothing further you could have done for him. But thank you for this compelling story, it could save many out there.

TeenTitans said...

I like the "knife" analogy. =)

Justin Choo said...


This subject is a recurrent one and I have received quite a few. My sentiments are similar to yours.

I shall link this posting in future whenever anyone asks the similar question?

sxsl said...

from what i know, any and everyone has their chance at enlightenment. The guardians and protectors up there know what has happened and why, and i'm sure there will be recurrent karma back to the taiwanese high priest / monk / whatever.

though it could be julian's debts and karma from past life that resulted in his premature end, but it could have been prevented.

i wonder, in this instance, are the statesmen responsible for keeping the harsh laws that resulted partially in julian's death?

from what i know, buddhism doesn't condemn homosexuality, that's for sure. but the dalai lama did express that he turned away same-sex couples that come to him for blessing. i forgot his reasons for doing so, though.

Nod said...

well u should write the taiwan monk the letter right? in-case he dispenses such advise again to another innocent gay boy

BenedictSays said...

Sir, thank you for this kind sharing.

It possibly one of the most powerful writings I have read in a very long time.

Julian's life was not taken by him. It was taken by all those people who made him hate himself and who made him feel that he was lesser than others.

The comments of the Taiwanese monks is actually quite reflective of the cruel and judgemental position of other mainstream religionists.

Thank you again Sir for your posting.


Anonymous said...

I was always curious about Buddhisms view on homosexuality. Thank you so much for answering that question and for sharing such a personal story. ^_^


Anonymous said...

Buhhism studying is not so easy after all, each everyone of us maybe read the same sutra and scriptures, may not get the same idea at all.

I do remember that Budhha is a very kind person.
One story i rememeber from the book

At India, 2500years ago when Buddha was spreading his Teachings to all people he can encounter.

A sex slave went over to him.
She asked Buddha,:" Buddha, I am a sex slave. Sat in the lowest rank of the society. To enter under You to learnt your Teachings, I heard that I need to obey the 5 Basic Rules 五戒.

But as a sex slave, i only have my body as tool to survive and as a sex slave i can't obey one of the Five Rules, Sir does that mean I can't follow your Teachings to Enlightenment?"

Buddha replied:" Can you follow the rest of the Five Rules strictly?"

Sex Slave replied:" Yes Sir, i will do."

Buddha smiled and hand her up with his own hand.

"You are with me!"

*Note, Sorry for my broken English but i hope the idea can be brought out, cause I read Chinese Scriptures instead of English

Anonymous said...

Heart Sutra say:

"Oh, Sariputra, Form Does not Differ From the Void,
And the Void Does Not Differ From Form.
Form is Void and Void is Form;
The Same is True For Feelings,
Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness."

"Sariputra, the Characteristics of the
Voidness of All Dharmas
Are Non-Arising, Non-Ceasing, Non-Defiled,
Non-Pure, Non-Increasing, Non-Decreasing."

"Therefore, in the Void There Are No Forms,
No Feelings, Perceptions, Volitions or Consciousness."

addgency said...

so sorry to hear this story. thou we often only hear what we wanna hear. i hope more of us can LISTEN.

yes i agree good analogy about knife to body.

Mark said...

Bhante, thank you for this very moving and sad article. I wonder how many Julians there are out there, and how many monks are there like the one who told him his fate was to be boiled in excrement in hell. I must admit to being a little shocked at hearing a reply that one would expect from a christian or muslim, comming from a buddhist monk. Mark

Nod said...

mark, "I must admit to being a little shocked at hearing a reply that one would expect from a christian or muslim, comming from a buddhist monk."

you sounded as though the buddhist clergy is higher then of its christian and muslim counterparts.

kinsung said...

I'm always curious about this issue. I came across an answer given by K.Sri Dhamananda and I was quite satisfied with his way of explaining.

Here is the link

WP said...

I share Stan's view that Julian had been waiting for that answer all the while, that he was unconvinced of what you told him. It is just too sad when someone is so convinced that he is condemned that he refuses to believe in good news.

By the way, I like the knife analogy too.

Hanxism said...


it's my good karma to read ur words :) thanks for the guidance.

Eterna2 said...

I agree with your view whole heartedly!

It saddens me that many people are only concerned about the fact that teaching homosexuality in a neutral term would "encourage" their child to become homosexual. And that it is a deviant behavior and should be stigmatized as such.

They forgot that there are also children who are confused about their own sexual orientation, who need help to come to terms with themselves.

Teaching neutrality is not promoting homosexuality, but rather is telling the homosexual children that it is not wrong to be feel this way. That it is not their fault, and there should not be guilt being what they are.

It is about reaching out to these kids, and teaching others not to discriminate others based on their sexual orientation.

I am so sad that so many refuse to see this. Regardless how many times or how hard I tried to show them this.

I do not consider myself a buddhist, but I curious on the buddhist opinion on evil?

I hope you can share a little on the concept of evil in buddhism. Or is there no concept of evil in buddhism?

My personal take is that evil is just a word/term defined by man. The evil that people generally associate with do not exist. Evil is just a set of actions or behaviors that is generally accepted by society to be harmful. In other word, evil are just actions, or thoughts that can result in socially undesirable consequences.

It is a neutral term. And should be treated as such. I do not hate evil, nor do I discriminate against "evil" people. However, I will still act not because evil should be challenged, but because I do not wish the undesirable consequences.

Am I morally empty? Because I do not believe in evil. No thoughts are inherently evil, because there is no evil, only actions that will result in undesirable consequences.

And instead of rejecting the thought because it is evil. We should reject it because it will result in undesirable consequences.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Samsara said...

Oh, Venerable. I am very sad to learn this.

Sometimes, we are soooo overwhelmed with guilt. For no matter what reasons, we just feel totally filthy, dirty and unworthy. It feels like, I look like a pretty clean human, but, you never see my darkness inside. Even if somebody tell you otherwise, it does not help. Something are too good to be true, that we will simply deny and refuse it. I know, we are very ignorant... but there are cases where we cannot help sinking into the deep downward spiral...

Dear Venerable, I think, you have already done your best on Julian. And with this post, you are teaching us what is Buddhist view on homosexuality too.

Alexander Aitan said...


I am a born burmese buddhist who is studying in singapore. I have never been religious and my faith in religions have already drifted away as i realised that those i soughted (some monks back at home), they were unable to answer my queries, and thus i am nearing to 85% abandonment of the religion itself.

Also, over the years, i have read about news of monks having corruptions and sexual affairs and all these put me even further away from the only religion that make some sense to me; Buddhism. And the fact that i used to be a feminist did not help. It became so bad that i used to put my hands together and kneel down in front of monks.

After reading your view on homosexuality, i am interested in what you have to say about other issues based on buddhism take.

I would like to know if you reside at any temple so that i can hear more of your views. Thank you.

peace said...

Thank you for the sharing Bhante.


James Roger Wilkinson said...

Dear dhamma.Hello from James Wilkinson...I read your blog from google about Buddhism and homosexuality..I liked your blog very much.You are a lovely human being.Love,peace,joy and Namaste.James

Isa said...