Sunday, April 1, 2012

Buddhism And Same-Sex Marriage

One Buddhist blog I read regularly is Ven. Sujato’s at His posts are topical, balanced, informative and usually written from a well-informed perspective. Recently he wrote about same-sex marriage, or if you like, marriage equality, an issue that people can get very hot under the collar about. With his permission I reproduce his post here as I consider it the best such article I have read on the issue from a Buddhist perspective, indeed from any perspective.

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 they 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, are 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.


j d said...

The Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained a position of courage when he has to speak out and compassion through difficult times.

Ken and Visakha said...

Read this on Ven. Sujato's blog and again here -- couldn't agree more!

Affiliate Marketing Singapore said...

But in the article, it states very clearly "the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts". Whether we would like to believe this monk, or the Dalai Lama (His holiness)'s view is truly up to the individual who has researched well enough on this topic.

Affiliate Marketing Singapore said...
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Soe am i said...

Bhante, thank you for sharing this.

GiDo said...

This essay is not well-informed at all. When talking about sexuality, one should get some information from sexology, the science that deals with it. How could the Buddha for example know of any difference between "paedophilia" (which was rather socially accepted around the globe at his time) and "homosexuality" (which was sometimes even the same, not yet differentiated, when an educational aspect of homosexuality directed at male children)? So it is Sujato projecting his definitions on the palicanon. Females in India were often - legally - married as children (according to our current definition of childhood) during Shakyamuni's lifetime, so obviously that would be considered "paedophilia" today, but it wasn't in older times.

When women are mentioned, it is of course clear that this was a matter of a power game - controlling their integrity and virginity or the "possession" of the male (husband). You can thus not abstract that any rules for women were meant for men, too. On the contrary, there were no words for it, and thus we cannot find them. On the other hand, if we look at the common laws at Buddha's time that he wished to be respected, we might of course abstract an argument like Sujato's.

Sujato is wearing a robe. (Practiced) Homosexuality is prohibited for monks in the Vinaya. One might believe that only goes for monks. But the Pandaka, obviously an effeminated homosexual, is not allowed to ordain. So at least there were some differentiated classes or "castes" of homosexuals, according to the authors of the palicanon.

Caldorian said...

What exactly is your point, Gui Do?

For one, even if Ven. Sujato is projecting today's conceptualisations of sexuality on the scriptures, so are you by clinging to the idea that the pandaka was "obviously an effeminated homosexual". As far as I know, there is not clear consensus on who the pandakas were exactly.

In addition, the precepts and how the Dhamma is always embedded in the language and culture of the times. It has to be, if it is to remain significant and meaningful to people. There seems to be no question that the precepts were always formulated in a way that specifically allowed for cultural appropriation. Don't forget that the precepts aren't holy law by some divine entity, they are behavioural guidelines for a spiritually productive life and a harmonious society.

Finally and most importantly, again, what exactly is your point? Do you want to hear, "the Buddha spoke against homosexuality"? He didn't, at least not specifically. And even if he did, what good would it do to constantly point it out? In a wider context, this would only act against the whole rest of his teachings.

With regard to the Vinaya Pitaka, this part of the canon is about the monastic life. Let's say there was actually a ban on gay people from ordination (I'm not sure there is, but I don't know enought about the Vinaya); it simply makes sense from a teleological perspective: monastics are supposed to remove themselves from sensual "temptations". How would you do this if you are a gay monk? If you join the monk community, you'll be around your preferred gender all the time. If you'd go into the community of the different gender (e.g., a gay monk among nuns), it still wouldn't work, as the straight nuns might feel attraction to the man. Now, of course, people are not slaves to their desires and maybe that is an unnecessary precaution, but at least I can see the point.

I don't know whether you are personally involved in this issue (from reading your blog, I don't think so), but I am. I'm gay; I am not allowed to marry here in Germany for some arbitrary reason. Ven. Sujato's post was well-articulated, inclusive, and helpful, as far as I'm concerned. It made some good points and gave a good overview over the topic of why Buddhists should support marriage equality. Please explain what you want to achieve by contesting Ven. Sujato's post?

Soe am i said...

I think gui do is trying to say there is no basis from the records in the palicanon that clearly clears or affirms if society at that time was aware of the label we now term "homosexual" and that somehow undermines ven. Sujato's points in the essay. However I fail to see this. The message of the essay seems echo that the buddha taught the dhamma in such a way that we won't have much to cling to and miss the point entirely.
Which beings are said to be incapable of enlightenment? What does a label define? Mother, husband, grand nephew, doctor, maid, politician, rival, benefactor, friend, straight, brother, gay.

Do we not put these labels aside when we immerse ourselves in working, playing, do spiritual practice, eat, sleep, breathe, sincerely engage another?

GiDo said...

Caldorian: Shakyamuni first spoke, rather conservatively, of the protection of sanctioned relationships like marriages (thus undermining the complexity of them, I will give an example later this month in my own blog showing you how "effective" it can be to interfere with the marriage of others). In the way he did it, it cannot be uphold by the findings within sexology. There are, for example, couples who spiced up their lifes through breaking this precept. It is not that black and white for all of us.

Secondly, when Sujato used the term "paedophilia", I got suspicious. He neither quoted the respective passages nor was he thinking of the long tradition of child marriages in India that was, to my knowledge, (mostly) ended with the influence of colonialism and reformers like Ghandi etc. Thus I suspect that Sujato wants to paint the Buddha as a kind of modern thinker whereas I believe he may have just supported some common ideas of his time, and that was the acceptance of things that are widely untolerated now (as child marriages) and widely accepted now (as homosexuality). About the first point, Sujato does of course not dare to speak.

On the contrary I believe that the Vinaya was from the beginning not hindering both - homosexuality and homosexuality or at least homophilia beween adults and boys (pederasty). I have personally seen young boys sleeping next to older monks (with bodily contact) when roaming through Theravada temples in the daytime. When it is true that the Pandaka does NOT mean the homosexual per se, than it is obvious that monkhood can be an invitation for homosexuals. I think I pointed that out earlier somewhere, there should be research on that topic, and I bet that the rate of homosexuals in monkhood is higher than in laity.

Caldorian said...

Gui Do: Ah, so you are basically pointing out historical and scriptural inconsistencies or inaccuracies in his post. (I honestly didn't know how to read your previous post.) I can get behind that. However...

We have to disentangle two things here: first, there is the question of historical Buddhism and how Buddhist teachings were understood and applied in their native culture. Second, there are today's issues, and how the Buddhist teachings are applied with regard to these issues. You'll agree that these are two very different questions, and based on these, we would expect different groups of people to have useful answers (i.e., scholars vs. monks, respectively). I feel a disconnect in your post because, from my perspective, Ven. Sujato's post clearly falls into the second category while you seem to interpret it as belonging to the first category.

Ven. Sujato is trying to make a topical statement about why there is good reason, based on Buddhist ethical decision making, why same-sex marriage should be supported. Since there are a lot of irrational arguments against same-sex marriage, he argues both from a general Buddhist ethical framework and a scriptural perspective (in order to counter arguments based on scripture). With regard to the scriptural perspective, whether completely accurate or not, we shouldn't forget one of the main points of his post: an argument from scripture is never a good point to make if it results in the exclusion and suffering of a whole group of people. So, whether his scriptural argumentation is a hundred percent accurate misses the larger point! The larger point being that there is nothing harmful or unwholesome about consensual homosexual acts or relationships (whatever form they may take), nor about a society's legal and spiritual acknowledgement of such relationships.

Maybe Ven. Sujato paints the historical Buddha anachronistically as a modern thinker. Were that the case, then he would be a bad historical scholar indeed; however, by applying the essence of the Dhamma to today's issue, he is also a skillful monk.

My impression is that you fight hard to make the Dhamma relevant to our everyday lives, for instance, by dismantling non-sensical "feel good" phrases and empty and reductionist doctrine. I appreciate that, I really do. I was also really glad when you relentlessly tackled the issues at the Pagode Phat Hue in Frankfurt. I just feel that Ven. Sujato's post, when understood as a message both to prejudiced Buddhists and a general non-Buddhist audience, is exactly doing its job and should be lauded for that.

Do you understand my point?

GiDo said...

Caldorian: "Ven. Sujato's post clearly falls into the second category". I don't think so. He is helping one sexual minority (the bigger one) while condemning another (smaller) one. This is not very useful, it is rather opportunistic. And because he is referring to the canon and Buddha's lifetime, he himself mixes things up.

Caldorian said...

[Due to length restrictions, I had to split my response into two parts. Sorry!]

Gui Do: I am honestly sorry if I misunderstand you... are you seriously criticizing that Ven. Sujato does not advocate child marriages and pedophilia?! (I really hope not.) In any case, in the following, I will give your post(s) the most positive reading I can think of, that is, that you are criticizing that Ven. Sujato is selective in what is considered ethical based (partly) on his modern outlook.

First of all, there is no doubt, whatsoever, that the precepts will always be interpreted based on contemporary cultural assumptions. You just cannot prevent it, as we are conditioned by the culture we are living in. So it is obvious to me that cultural norms will always play some role in any actual ethical decision making.

However, there are also certain strict underlying principles as stated, for instance, in the Bāhitika Sutta (MN 88), the Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.65), or the Bālavaggo (Dhp). These principles basically boil down to "do not cause harm to others or yourself". From this, it would seem that Buddhist ethics are strongly consequentialist, but I do not think that it is so easy. Since intentions are essentially responsible for Kamma formation, Buddhism seems closer to virtue ethics with strong consequentalist leanings. In any case, the Pāli Canon gives us specific principles that allow us Buddhists to make ethical arguments.

Anyway. Today, we do know (from a scientific point of view) what terrible harm pedophilia or rape can cause. We also know that adultery is usually experienced as a big breach of trust, depending on the individual couple, of course. Based on that, we can say that they are unwholesome, as they cause harm (and are motivated by delusion and greed anyway).

Now, you could point out that the Buddha was selective in what he named as unwholesome and what not (e.g., based on cultural norms). So: if Ven. Sujato is arguing that there is no passage of the Buddha condemning homosexuality, this argument could also be used as support for child marriage and pedophilia, since the Buddha did not mention them as unwholesome explicitly either. Maybe this line of reasoning even caused people to have sexual relations with children, while feeling justified by their reading of the Pāli Canon. HOWEVER, this line of argument completely ignores that there is still the underlying principle of non-harm, which by now we know these acts definitely violate.

Caldorian said...

The Buddha knew, of course, that sexual gratification in general is part of the bigger problem (Dukkha and its causes) and thus completely abstained from sexuality.

This is also the reason why we have to disentagle ethical questions for laity and for monastics. Monastics have much stricter rules, which (as I mentioned before) can be explained by teleological arguments: what is the purpose of a Buddhist monastic community? To enable people to liberate themselves from Dukkha. Everything that is conductive for this purpose is therefore allowed or supported, while everything that is not conductive or even harmful for this purpose is forbidden or discouraged. Since monastics live in communities, and these communities are dependent on the laity's support, there are also some rules that were instituted solely to make living together easier or rules that are socially motivated in order to increase the laity's acceptance and support.

As a last point, I want to stress that the Dhamma, while without question representing eternal truths, is always presented in a way reflective of the culture that it is presented in. This, in turn, means that the Sangha has the responsibility to respond to a given culture and its challenges. Just as the Dhamma was refined in response to challenges by non-Buddhist philosophers in ancient India, we are responsible to make the Dhamma meaningful in a worldly society that has a multitude of ethical lines of arguments, has a multitude of laws that are influenced by customs and the ethical approaches of other religious traditions, and so on. We have to step up and apply the Dhamma to today's problems and questions, certainly strongly informed by the traditional interpretation, but also informed by newer philosophical considerations and scientific findings. Why? Because, in the end, we want to live in a society that allows the Dhamma to thrive and to be practiced, and that serves for the benefit of the largest possible number of people. That said, we also shouldn't forget that, from a perspective of reality as it is, these are all meaningless concepts based on our wrong view.

So applicable ethical princples and precepts will always be based on our conventional reality. These ethical questions change dramatically in significance and meaning when viewed from a perspective of ultimate reality. We should keep that in mind lest we conflate these perspectives in our argumentation.

In the end, I am still convinced that you completely missed the intentions (and audience) of Ven. Sujato's post and are trying to make his post into something that it was not supposed to be in the first place. At the same time, I remain sceptical about your intentions; if Ven. Sujato's post is able to convince people to be less harmful and prejudiced to others, why would you want to object to that? (Even if it is not comprehensive or a hundred percent accurate. It remains in the spirit of the teachings.) What good does it serve to devalue the post? Just to show that you know more or are more right by the letter? Seriously, regardless how it plays out, it does not reflect well on you.

j d said...

We talk of the spirit of the teaching:
What is the nirvana of the Buddha?
We know it is both subtle and most profound.
It is the loss of individuality.
Constantly being preoccupied with the senses and pleasure and what's best for this here individual is not the path of sages or the Buddha.

GiDo said...

Caldorian: "Today, we do know (from a scientific point of view) what terrible harm pedophilia or rape can cause."

Well, here we can clearly see how your thinking works - and you are not alone with it.

1) You list a "philia" (meaning love, not to be mixed up with the term "(pedo)sexuality") next to rape. So your view is biased already, and rhetoric.

2) You do not know the facts, the biggest research on the topic of intergenerational sex (note: NOT just "philia") was done by Rind, Bauserman, a meta-analysis, including many studies on the topic. The outcome was so surprising that the US-senate couldn't live with it and intervened. See
At least it can be debated. As with discussions about Buddhist and other secular topics it comes to the point that we have different viewpoints without an absolute right or wrong, of course.

What I wanted to point out simply is that Sujato falls into the same mind trap. He is projecting the (rather opportunistic and much welcome) view on pedophilia back on the Shakyamuni - which is of course wrong.

"We also know that adultery is usually experienced as a big breach of trust, depending on the individual couple, of course."

This is also wrong. According to a research by Prof. Habermehl (called "Playboy report" in Germany) about 50 % of those who had extramarital affairs said that it did not damage their marriages. With that has a chance to work 50:50, one has a reasonable argument to look into its wholesome potential instead of radically and dogmatically denying that 50 %.

You suggest that I try to make out of Sujato's post that is not justified. But I tell everyone that in respect of sexual matters you should rather not trust the advice of s.o. who is supposed to avoid sex at all. You should instead ask researchers and specialists on those topics. This is in accord with the dhamma because it helps to destroy illusions. As I said, I might talk about an extramarital affair myself in my blog soon to make the point. Me having that affair brought the woman her husband back(who himself had an extramarital affair at that time) - probably out of greed/jealousy, but whatever, she is happy now, as are her five children, and me too because I did not attach.

Caldorian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caldorian said...

[Sorry, the previous post contained an error.]

Gui Do:
Re 1): Sorry, I used pedophila in the popular sense. My bad. Of course, if we were to talk about this on a scientific level, we would have to differentiate between the diagnosis "pedophilia" and pedophilic behavior/child sexual abuse (CSA).

Re 2): Being a PhD student in psychology (although not in clinical psych), I am actually qualified methodically to correctly interpret the meta-analysis by Rind et al. (1998). I will not comment on it here because a) I do not have time to read through 32 pages of a meta-analysis that only marginally interests me, and b) much more qualified people than I have done so already in excess. Let us just say that from a quick browsing, my main criticism is how it defines harm; just because it does not result in diagnosable pathology, it does not mean that it was not experienced as suffering.

Anyway, my actual point is: yes, of course, we can talk about this. Within the right context (among scientists in this field) and with people who have the necessary expertise and who can correctly interpret the results of analyses like this. Science, especially the social sciences, is a messy process. (Believe me, it is my daily work.) So much depends on definitions of variables, operationalisations, appropriate statistical approaches, etc. All results are tentative and provisional; they not only have to be from a philosophical point of view (cf. Popper), but also from a purely empirical point of view. In order to find a conclusion, usually more and more specific research is needed, and results must be replicated. As an example, Rind et al. (1998) gives us a good reason to conduct a longitudinal study that tries to falsify the hypothesis that child sexual abuse causes pervasive and enduring harm. Meta-analyses help with aggregating scientific results, but bring their own methodological problems. Because science is messy and hard to interpret, we have to be cautious how how to bridge the gap between a scientific audience and the public, without falling into the trap of reductionism or distortion. (This is also one of the reasons why I tend to cringe when monks cite a 50 years old book full of case studies as scientific "evidence", or sometimes even "proof", of rebirth.) In the meantime, it's better to err on the side of caution.

It is good and necessary if the sciences are involved in decision making processes. I welcome that! However, please be careful regarding your own epistemological beliefs; please do not follow science blindly. Logical empiricism has basic epistemological and ontological assumptions, and many actual scientists do not question or reflect on their own assumptions in the scientific research process. Empiricism does not invalidate philosophy (and ethics), even if many scientists I know would wish so...

Again, my point being, context is relevant! The common scientific consensus at the moment is that CSA is harmful. This consensus might change, pending further research. For now, however, this is the common scientific opinion and matter of law. Opening such a can of worms (a highly controversial scientific debate) would have overextended the aims of Ven. Sujato's post in my opinion. On the other hand, regarding homosexuality and families with same-sex parents, the peer-reviewed, reputable research is much less controversial.

I do agree with you, however, that we should constantly keep our own assumptions and biases in mind.

In the end, I think we have to agree to disagree here, and that is fine. Therefore, this will be my last post on this topic. In any case, I am looking forward to reading your planned article on your blog.

GiDo said...

Caldorian: "CSA is harmful. This consensus might change, pending further research. For now, however, this is the common scientific opinion and matter of law."

CSA as "abuse" falls into the category of law which defines any contact with s.o. below the age of consent as "abuse" and therefore punishable. There is of course no naturally defined age limit, this is an individual process.

If is actually felt as "abuse", it is harmful, but it is not harmful only because s.o. defines it as "abuse". As you know from homosexuality, it was for a long time defined by law as harmful, contrary to the actual experience of homosexuals.

Scientific views differ from common law. The same goes for exhbitionism and other fields of sexology where the law does not follow the scientific findings. Law is decades behind research in the field of sexology.