The Dalai Lama’s View on Sexuality, “According to Buddhist Tradition”

Leaving the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, having just met with the Dalai Lama, the words, “according to Buddhist tradition” reverberated in my head.

Steve Peskind
10 January 2009
Steve Peskind, 1951-2004

Leaving the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco, having just met with the Dalai Lama, the words, “according to Buddhist tradition” reverberated in my head. Stepping out into the June sunlight, I felt tired, calm, enormously grateful—and disappointed. 

I was grateful for the Dalai Lama’s willingness to meet with gays and lesbians to discuss their concerns about Buddhist teachings on sexual misconduct, and for the press release from the Office of Tibet supporting human rights regardless of sexual orientation. But I was disappointed that he chose not to speak personally and directly, beyond Buddhist tradition, to the real harm of some of these misconduct teachings, and their irrelevance for modern Buddhists and others. I wondered, does the Dalai Lama, whom many consider the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, who “hears the cries of all sentient beings and responds skillfully,” really hear the cries of sexual minority Buddhists?

The story of our meeting with the Dalai Lama begins with an article in the February/March, 1994 issue of OUT magazine, which quoted the Dalai Lama as saying: “If someone comes to me and asks whether it is okay or not, I will first ask if you have some religious vows to uphold. Then my next question is, What is your companion’s opinion? If you both agree, then I think I would say, if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay.”

Gay men, lesbians, and others reveled in reading the OUT article. We copied the article, sent it home, sent it…everywhere! We reprinted it in community newsletters that made their way around the world. A major spiritual leader, “the favorite lama of the world” as a friend referred to him, had finally told it like it is. We thought.

But in 1996, North Atlantic Books published Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, a collection of talks and discussions from the Dalai Lama’s 1993 visit to France. On page 46 he responds to the questions, “What are proper sexual attitudes? What do you think of homosexuality, for example?” The Dalai Lama replies: “A sexual act is deemed proper when the couples use the organs intended for sexual intercourse and nothing else….Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact. Is this clear?”

My immediate reaction on reading this was: “No. This is not clear!” Was the natural behavior of my sexual orientation a violation of the moral precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and consequently negative karma in itself? As a sexually active gay man, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, and an AIDS services provider for the last 16 years, I asked myself, “What happens when `new’ Buddhists, often refugees from harshly judgmental Divine Revelatory religions, read this? What about men and women around the world living and dying with AIDS? How will they feel?”

Although the proscriptions were not discriminatory against “homosexuality” per se, they were clearly discriminatory in their impact on homosexual men and women (and even prohibited most of the AIDS safe sex guidelines). Stating that homosexual orientation is okay, but that homosexual behavior is not, creates a terrible double bind for any gay Buddhist who believes the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

On the basis of the discrepancy between the OUT article and Beyond Dogma, I wrote an open, public letter to the Dalai Lama in January of 1997, noting that many of us who so admired him were confused and distressed by the inconsistency of his statements and their worldwide ramifications. I respectfully requested that he “in whatever manner and venue he chooses, speak to the Buddhadharma, the truth of homosexuality and homosexual behavior.” That letter resulted, through the agency of the Office of Tibet, in the June 11 private meeting between the Dalai Lama and seven gay and lesbian leaders in San Francisco.

At the meeting I asked the Dalai Lama about a statement he had made at a press conference the day before. A reporter had asked him to comment on the morality of homosexual behavior, and he replied: “We have to make a distinction between 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.”

The Dalai Lama went on to say that the same Buddhist scripture that advises against gay and lesbian sex urges the same for heterosexuals. “Even with your wife, using one’s mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct. Using one’s hand, that is sexual misconduct.” He added, “The Buddha is our Teacher,” the historical reference for all Buddhists.

The next morning in his diplomatic suite in the Fairmount, I asked him, “If the Buddha is our teacher, where and when did he teach that homosexual partners are inappropriate, that homosexual behavior is sexual misconduct?” The Dalai Lama candidly responded, “I don’t know.”

During the meeting the Dalai Lama confirmed for us another sexual proscription according to Buddhist tradition: heterosexuals are prohibited from having sex more than five consecutive times with a partner. Jose Cabezon, a gay Buddhist scholar, promptly asked him, “If the purpose of the proscriptions is to reduce sexual activity, how does it make sense to allow a man to have sex with his wife up to five times a night, while saying that it is sexual misconduct for a man to have sex with another man even once in his life?”

The Dalai Lama roared with laughter, saying,”You have a point there!” Earlier he had asked all of us, “Sex is for procreation, right?” Our collective silence was our response. When I asked, “Which of the proscribed behaviors regarding partner, organ, or excessive frequency do you personally consider most important?” he responded with a thoughtful look, not saying anything.

In preparation for the meeting the Dalai Lama had traced the sexual misconduct teachings back to the Indian Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha, and said they may reflect the moral codes of India at the time, “which stress moral purity.” He was open to the possibility of Buddhist tradition changing eventually in response to science, modern social history, and discussion within the various Buddhist sanghas. He urged all of us to go forth and advocate our interests, basing our action on Buddhist principles of “rigorous investigation and non-violence.” He noted that he is not unilaterally empowered to change tradition: “Change can only come on the collective level,” he said.

Religious teachings on sex—make that “wrong sex”—are well known to be a principal cause of violence and discrimination against sexual minorities and a primary cause of self-destructive behavior among them. This is true in the West and it is true in the East. Clearly, some of the traditional Buddhist teachings are violent to the truth and lives of Buddhist sexual minorities. It’s still questionable whether the Dalai Lama, whose words carry much weight in the court of world opinion, really “gets” the impact of Buddhist tradition labeling the way we make love as “sexual misconduct.” My partner of twenty-one years and I don’t appreciate it. And the Buddha didn’t say it at all, according to the evidence.

According to the oldest Buddhist teachings, the Buddha cautioned against “misconduct of sensual desire.” He warned of mental stains from “drowning in sensual pleasure-harmful and disturbing intentions and actions arising from wrong perception and the dualistic fixation on self and other. He did not mention sex, inappropriate organs and partners. During the June 11 meeting the Dalai Lama clearly stated that “the goal for all Buddhists is Nirvana”—complete freedom of mind free of wrong perception, dualistic fixation, defilements and hindrances. He did not clarify, however, how sex as an expression of emotional intimacy, or moderate and respectful recreational sex, or gay tantric sex for that matter, in any way impedes full awakening, freedom and peace of heart.

The meeting was warm, serious and much too hurried. The 45 minutes was a 15 minute extension to the 30 minutes which the Office of Tibet originally allotted for “this historic meeting.” The Dalai Lama encouraged the seven of us and others to hold conferences on Buddhism and sexuality and other pressing concerns, including Tibetan Buddhist full-ordination of women as nuns. Although the Dalai Lama opposed violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation, he did not commit himself to helping correct harmful Buddhist teachings still on the books-including the conduct codes which can fuel homophobic behavior among Buddhist teachers and students. Famous for saying, “When science points to or proves a truth contrary to Buddhist teaching, then Buddhist teaching must change,” he said as we were leaving his suite, “Changing Buddhist traditions will be much harder than advocating for your human rights.”

So it’s up to us to affect change, with lots of help from Buddhist teachers who are quite awake on the subject of sexual right action, teachers such as Khandro Rinpoche, Drukchen Rinpoche, the late Dudjom Rinpoche, Lama Tarchin Rinpoche, Robert Aitken Roshi and others. We must continue to insist that the tradition change. Three years ago I asked Khandro Rinpoche, the gifted young Tibetan teacher, about her views on homosexual behavior and the dharma. This eldest daughter of Mindroling Rinpoche, and Kagyu and Nyingma lineage holder, offered the following response as part of her public teaching in San Francisco on “AIDS: Compassion and Skillful Means”:

“One can grow spiritually by being a monk, through getting married, through homosexual relations. If you really love another man as a man, no problem. Within the Buddha’s doctrine itself homosexuality is nothing special, nothing new. Such a thing as realization means being free from attachment to whomever it may be-a man to a man, a man to a woman, a woman to a woman, or whomever it may be. Each person is responsible for his or her own mind, own thoughts, emotions, understanding, awakening, realization. It’s possible for a homosexual person. It’s possible for all sentient beings.”

We cannot control tradition and politics. We cannot control psychological and physical violence born of delusion. But Buddha’s way is not about the “control” of suffering; it’s about responding with open awareness to the whole display of our experience, including suffering. The Dalai Lama accurately observed that he is not unilaterally empowered to change Buddhist tradition. But he is empowered to speak for himself. His speaking to the irrelevant, false aspects of sexual misconduct teachings will certainly help the cause.

A Buddhist’s responsibility is to insist that Buddhist oppression of sexual minorities, women and others, including heterosexual couples, end. The San Francisco-based Buddhist AIDS Project is formulating “A Respectful Request to the Dalai Lama,” in the form of a petition asking him to speak directly to the irrelevance and harm of some traditional misconduct codes found in all lineages of Tibetan Buddhism.

Steve Peskind

Steve Peskind

Steve Peskind was the coordinator of the Buddhist AIDS Project in San Francisco. His anthology of work is titled Heart Lessons From an Epidemic: Buddhist Practice and Living with HIV, published by Parallax Press. Steve died in 2004.