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It is a universal understanding that religions like Christianity, Islam… are known for holding a prejudiced as well as conservative point of view towards the LGBT community. However, the viewpoint of Buddhism - a religion that is known for its harmonious principles - remains ambiguous to most people since there are various opinions within Buddhism towards the subject. In order to fully contemplate the whole scene, a comparative understanding of Buddhism from different backgrounds (from early Buddhism in Tibet, South East Asian countries, China, Japan to Buddhism in the West) should be taken into consideration.
Early Buddhist Text Early Buddhist texts, especially the fundamental “Vinaya Pitaka,” have divided genders into four separate categories: male, female, “Ubhatovyanjañaka” and “Pandaka” (Gyatso, “One Plus One”). The term “Ubhatovyanjañaka” indicates hermaphrodites - people with both sexual organs. Furthermore, it is also interpreted into “behavioral and psychological characters of both sexes” or bisexuality (Schliesinger, “Sexuality in Asia”).
The latter term “Pandaka” can be defined variously by separate Buddhist texts.
The earliest text used the term to describe cross-dressing homosexuals who have the tendency to be prostitutes. However, in other texts, the term is used synonymously with other physical abnormalities, such as those who are deaf or have genetic disorders such as dwarfism, or those who committed felonies. Both groups fall into the two categories that are not allowed to become ordained but are welcomed to follow Buddhism as a lay follower. However, unlike “Ubhatovyanjañaka,” “Pandaka” are also excluded from some of the Buddhist practices like giving donations to monks, meditating, and the ability to contemplate the Dharma.
The reason for this is that “Pandaka” are considered to be the result of poor karma from a past life. Other descriptions of “Pandaka” are that they often lack shame and modesty and they are inclined to disrepute the social norms and orders. Depending on how society defines sexual misconduct, the views regarding the LGBT community might be varied. But in general, Buddhism holds a fairly tolerable view of this community.
General View In Asia For the longest time, it was common sense that in many Asian countries, in order to escape the filial expectations (getting an arranged heterosexual marriage, having kids) many gay and lesbian found themselves breaking away to Buddhist temples and became monks and nuns. Even though they are accepted, Buddhism follows a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the escapees tend to stay silent about their sexual orientations for the rest of their lives. The Buddhist scene in Asia is rather diverse so it is crucial to contemplate each viewpoint, including Tibetan Buddhism (in Tibet and India), Theravada Buddhism (in Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma), and Mahayana Buddhism (in Tibet, Mongolia China, Korea, Vietnam, and Japan). Tibetan Buddhism’s Point of View The Dalai Lama, one of the leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, stated in an interview in 1997 that there should be a separation between “believers and nonbelievers,” as he believed that LGBT is wrong for Buddhists but not society in general. In other words, what he said was that any sexual actions other than between a male organ and a female organ (including hand, oral, and other holes) are considered misconduct. However that view should only be scrutinized in terms of Buddhism; in the same interview, he also said that 'From society's viewpoint, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless' (Nguyen, “The Buddha Journey”).
Later on, in an interview with “The Telegraph,” he reassures his point of view by stating that LGBT marriage is a personal issue and it is up to each government and individual to make the call, as long as there is total consent from both sides (“Dalai Lama Supports”). This does not speak for Tibetan Buddhism in general, but since he is the leader of a dominant sect of this religion, his words are indeed well-respected and he is an influential figure when it comes to Buddhism in general. Theravada Buddhism’s Point of View Theravada is a major and ancient branch of Buddhism, which specifically teaches the so-believed earliest record of the Buddha’s teachings. It was developed in India and later spread out to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and then Cambodia. One of the most influential teaching materials that the branch used is the Jataka tales, which refers to a series of indigenous literature from India about the previous births of the Buddha. Among those volumes, the story of Ruja, who stated that she was born as a gay man in a previous life due to committing infidelity, has had a major impact on the mindset of Thai people towards the gay community (Wanna, “Significance of Homosexuality”).
From then on, the community has been heavily associated with lust and sin, even though the story was initially used to depict one side of lust instead of to specifically assault and stigmatize “lustfulness” to only gay people (Wanna, “Significance of Homosexuality”). Due to misinterpretation of the ancient scriptures, even the monks are holding negative attitudes towards the LGBT community, let alone normal lay followers. Another misinterpretations in Theravada Buddhism, especially in Thailand, are related to linguistics. The word “Pandaka” mentioned above has been interpreted in the native language word “katoey.” The word “katoey” is highly offensive and has the obvious indication of lustfulness (Wanna, “Significance of Homosexuality”). The built-in mindset has misinterpreted the original Buddhist commandments and that is how mental illness and moral corruption has become associated with queer people. Even today, homosexuality has often been considered as mental illness throughout many societies. Moreover, as the AIDS epidemic spread in the 1980s, the gays were heavily stigmatized as “HIV carriers” and were seen as a contagious spoiled diseased (Wanna, “Significance of Homosexuality”).
Mahayana Buddhism’s Point of View Mahayana Buddhism is one of the most major existing branches of Buddhism and it is widely practiced in China, Vietnam, and Japan. However, there are two contrasting points of view within this school of Buddhism. On one hand, Buddhism in China and Vietnam holds an extremely austere prejudice toward LGBT people. Wolfram Eberhard, a sociology professor from the University of California, Berkeley, discussed the concept of hell in traditional Chinese society. The term “Diyu” is a Buddhist phrase for hell inspired by Indian and Chinese beliefs in reincarnations. Among the nine levels of hell, homosexuality is listed in level three (“Guilt and Sin”). Furthermore, in a study conducted by Marie-Eve Blanc in regard to AIDS in Vietnam, she stated that 'Mahayana Buddhism (as in China and Vietnam) is less tolerant than Theravada Buddhism' (“Social Construction of.”) As analyzed above, Theravada Buddhism has already held a prejudiced view toward the community. This comparison even further demonstrates how strict and intolerant Chinese Buddhism is towards the LGBT community. On the other hand, Japanese Buddhism or Zen Buddhism, even though it is a smaller branch of Mahayana Buddhism, is widely known for being open toward celibacy, bisexuality, and homosexuality as well as many other strict Buddhist precepts (forbidding the consumption of meat, alcohol...)
The Chigo Monogatari is one interesting piece of evidence for that tolerance. “Chigo” means young boys live and study in temples or “[young boys] involved in homosexual relationships with priests” (Childs, “Chigo Monogatari Love”). Furthermore, Zen Buddhism is highly influenced by the Samurai practice of the Bushido Code, or the way of the samurai, which is considered the core values of a samurai. As samurai-class sons were sent to monasteries and became “Chigo”, they later got involved in “nanshoku” - homosexual intercourse - with older monks and later on this action was considered normal among samurai. Not until Christianity reached Japan during the Meiji Era did the Japanese consider these actions as a depraved custom of the past (Pflugfelder, “Cartographies of Desire”.) This immediate switch resulted in a loss not just to the LGBT community but also to the Japanese cultural identity, namely the Bushido code. Even to this day, Japanese Buddhism still holds a somewhat tolerant view toward LGBT. One of the main branches in Zen Buddhism, the Soka Gakkai, later on, spread its influence to the West. Western Buddhism’s Point of View Even though it is more often than not considered to be inauthentic Buddhism, Western Buddhism still carries the philosophical ideology as well as the harmonious spirit of traditional Buddhism. This branch of Buddhism is known for being compassionate as well as valuing humanity and finding oneself (Coleman, “The New Buddhism”). The aforementioned Soka Gakkai branch in the US has been active within the LGBT community, from hosting wedding ceremonies for LGBT couples since 1995 to establishing LGBT support forums in 2001, as well as accepting LGBT as ordained Buddhist monastics. Conclusion LGBT is still a heated topic no matter the society or religion. The point of views within Buddhism is also diverse. However, in general, a more tolerant view is quite foreseeable because the root of Buddhism is in harmony and compassion and it is evident in the early texts of Buddhism. Though the definition of harmony might be misinterpreted somewhere along the line, (like Buddhism in South East Asia and China), Buddhism shows somewhat tolerance toward homosexuality and the LGBT community, especially in comparison to other major religions.
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