Sexual minorities and the Buddhist Spiritual Path (United Nations, Geneva, June 2016)

From 8 to 10 of June 2016, Heiner Bielefeldt the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of religion or belief organised a conference on “Freedom of Religion or Belief and Sexuality” in Geneva, Switzerland (in cooperation with Muslims for Progressive Values).

Michael Vermeulen was invited to talk about ‘Sexual minorities and the Buddhist Spiritual Path’. You can read Michael’s article:  ‘The Rise of Rainbow Dharma: Buddhism on sexual diversity and same-sex marriage‘ on the page of our Rainbow Sangha network.

The Conference brought religions and beliefs, philosophers, LGBTI-groups and legal experts together to:

– understand the resistance, obstacles and conflicts that exist in allegedly contradictory human rights issues such as the right to freedom of religion or belief and rights of LGBTI persons;

– identify the patterns of inter-sectional discrimination that people have been facing due to their expressions of religious identities or sexuality;

– explore the range of initiatives that have been taken to address discrimination or violence in the name of religion committed against those who express their religious identities or sexuality openly;

– discover new synergies where we can find encouraging examples that can be replicated in different places while we can also strengthen the cooperation among us.


Here are some excerpts from Michael’s speech and of the topics discussed with other participants:

On the Buddha:

“(…) During the 40 years at the head of his community, the Buddha was confronted with questions on all sorts of sexual behaviour. To lay followers he always ruled not to use sex in a harmful way, and to monks and nuns he always reminded them they were under the vow of celibacy.

But he also tried to be pragmatic. In what is probably the oldest documented story on the interface of religion and LGBTI rights, the Buddha was approached by what we nowadays would call a transgender monk and a transgender nun. They were not happy as members of their all male and all female communities. The Buddha simply ruled that the transgender monk should join the nuns and the transgender nun should join the monks.

I’m always a bit moved when I mention this story. For here we see a man willing to listen. Here we see a man willing to look for solutions. Here we see a man who doesn’t see diversity as a threat. Here we see a man willing to step out of the traditional patterns he was raised with.

It’s also important to see what the Buddha did not do: he was not shocked or upset, he did not condemn them, he did not say that their sexual identity made them unfit for the Buddhist Spiritual Path.

And these are the questions we must ask ourselves: how can we listen? How can we look for solutions? Do we feel threatened by diversity? Are we able to think out of the box of the traditions and patterns we grew up with?

Part of this process requires that we are open to a permanent dialogue with different opinions and life-styles. It also requires that we are prepared to critically examine our traditions and look at what is authentic and what is not.

With regard to sexual minorities, Buddhism is in the middle of this process.”

On globalised Buddhism and sexual minorities:

“(…) Since the globalisation of Buddhism during the last century, many Buddhists have started to read their scriptural canons and commentaries more critically, and consider such views [a negative attitude of some monks towards sexuality (including sexual minorities), and towards lay followers and women in general] to be dated and reflective of local cultural biases that are not part of the original, universal message.

Now, many Buddhist traditions have moved from tolerance to full acceptance and integration. There are for example many LGBTI-leaders and -teachers running Buddhist communities in Europe, and, indeed, giving ordinations. And LGBTI Buddhists now philosophise about Queer Dharma, the implications of being queer for one’s practice of the teachings of the Buddha.”

“Very recently, some Buddhists have started to declare themselves gender-diverse, non binary or trans, and ask their organisations to adjust to include them. The international Triratna Buddhist Order and Community for example, started an investigation this year and is looking if and where they can adjust their policies. This year, they started a debate to look if it is possible and desirable to change their long tradition of not only mixed but also same-sex meetings, to accommodate gender diverse members. Recently, Triratna also had their first trans person (male to female) conduct the ordination of a woman within their community.

On engaged Buddhism and same-sex marriage:

“(…) But many Buddhists don’t just want to talk about equality. Inspired by the overarching ethical values in Buddhism, of metta (cultivating loving-kindness) and ahimsa (avoid causing harm to living beings), they want to do something about it too, not just within their Buddhist tradition, but in society at large. This shows for instance in the support of many Buddhists for same-sex marriage.”

“(…) These examples from Buddhist history [of Buddhist same-sex marriages and Buddhist support for secular same-sex marriage] illustrate that the dynamic for marriage equality was from the start both secular ánd religious, and it was from the start both in the West ánd in the East.”
“Buddhist history also shows that the notion that religious attitudes are, and have always been, monolithically negative towards LGBTI minorities is simply false, as is the notion that the quest for equality is a recent, Western and secular thing.”

“(…) Freedom of religion or belief also implies the right of religions to embrace gay people. This is why abbot Ajahn Brahm, Spiritual director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia and Abbot of the Bodhinyana Monastery in Perth, wrote in March 2012: “As a Buddhist leader, I would very much like to perform the Buddhist marriage ceremony for gays and lesbians. Why,” does he ask, “should Buddhists be denied this opportunity?” Buddhism has been performing various marriage ceremonies for 2500 years. On what grounds could religions that did not even exist in those days, tell Buddhism how to perform marriages? On what grounds, could religions that did not even exist in those days, claim they own the institution of marriage? “Let other religions make the rules for their own members, but may they not make the rules for the Buddhists.”

On human rights and harmony of diversity and equality:

“(…) This sensitivity to – and opposition to – religiously motivated discrimination dates back to the very start of Buddhism. The Buddha strongly rejected the discriminating caste system – a system that was, by the way, religiously motivated and fixed. The rejection of the caste system was therefore also a rejection of the right of religions to discriminate against others on religious grounds.

Although human rights may initially be formulated in Western languages using concepts from Western philosophy, many Buddhist recognise in human rights a modern translation of their millennia old rejection of discrimination and their support for diversity and equality.

To celebrate the harmony of diversity and equality, the Centro Zen L’Arco monastery of Rome has taken part in Rome’s Gay Pride festivities since 2012, and will do so again this Saturday.

When their abbot Dario Girolami reported this to last year’s Annual General Meeting of the European Buddhist Union, it was greeted with enthusiasm from the other members, some of whom also take part in Pride celebrations elsewhere.

I’m convinced that it is only a matter of time before all Buddhist traditions worldwide will feature regularly at their local Pride celebrations, to celebrate their LGBTI-members and to support the LGBTI-community in their societies.”

On the European Buddhist Union: 

“(…) Most of you will remember the brave speech by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. He made a strong appeal to “tackle the violence, decriminalise same sex relationships, end discrimination and educate the public.

Representatives from some muslim countries walked out and refused even to listen to his speech. The EBU wanted to react in a different way, and wrote an Open Letter the same month. The letter ended: We ask the leaders of the other religions and philosophies to engage with us in the above calls to stand up and speak out loudly and clearly against violence and discrimination towards sexual minorities and aim for the full recognition of human rights for all.”

The following year, the EBU adopted a new ‘Statement of Mission and Vision’, which reflects Buddhist commitment to non-discrimination:We support the implementation of Human Rights, equality and individual responsibility for all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, nationality, social origins, birth status or any other distinction.

On the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism and LBTI-rights:

The first rejection of sex between two men as a breach of the 3rd precept can be traced back to  the 12th century teacher Ganpopa (1079-1153), one of the founders of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism (notably 17 centuries after the Buddha). In his Jewel Ornament of Liberation, a commentary on the Abhidharma-kosa-bhasya, he expands Vasubandu’s list with sensitivities within the Tibetan culture of his time, i.e. oral sex, anal sex and sex with a man.

Unlike Tibet, Europe has a long history of periods of intolerance towards sexual minorities, from the Middle Ages till the 20th century, repeatedly resulting in episodes of (extreme) homo-hatred and violence. Till the present day this violence is often justified on religious grounds. It is important to realize that there is no such history in Buddhist cultures. Even those scholars that were critical or negative towards homosexuality were focussed on the potential impact on people’s spiritual path and never advocated homo-negativity let alone violence towards gays or other sexual minorities in their societies. As a consequence, (Eastern) Buddhist teachers occasionally misjudged the cultural sensitivities that accompany the discussions on equal rights for sexual minorities in the West. On the other hand Buddhists are less likely to associate homo-hatred with the religious thoughts of the aggressors.

HH the Dalai Lama is one of the best known faces of contemporary Buddhism in the world. But he has been trained all his life in the traditional Tibetan views of course. On a meeting in San Francisco in 1997, the Dalai Lama was critical on homosexuality within (Tibetan) Buddhism. This standpoint was quite upsetting to the Western Buddhists present. After a meeting with representatives of the San Franciscan LGBTI community a press release stated that non-violence is one of the main pillars of all forms of Buddhism and that His Holiness “was greatly concerned by reports made available to him regarding violence and discrimination against gay and lesbian people. His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion and the full recognition of human rights for all.” (Harvey, 2000, p433)

This is a clear example on how important it is to keep a dialogue and try to understand all elements involved. It doesn’t mean full agreement has to be reached, but a lot of misunderstandings and unwanted side-effects can be prevented that way. By meeting the San Francisco gay grassroots movements, HH showed open leadership.

The Dalai Lama often makes a distinction between a religious and a secular point of view: “From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct. From society’s viewpoint, mutually agreeable homosexual relations can be of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless.” (Harvey, 2000, p432 – citation from The San Francisco Chronicle, 11 June 1997). The ‘Buddhist point of view’ mentioned in here refers to the Tibetan Buddhist scholastic traditions going back to Ganpopa.

For the secular society most Buddhists would agree that the sexual activity of sexual minorities is not a fault as long as the partners agree to it and the activity does not harm others.“I think that, according to Buddhism, homosexuality is a breach of certain [Tibetan Buddhist] prescriptions, but it is not a harmful act as such, as opposed to theft, murder and other crimes that make other people suffer. (…) That’s why there is no reason to reject homosexuality or to discriminate homosexuals.” (Dalai Lama, Conseils du Coeur, 2001) In the same chapter the Dalai Lama emphasizes that whether it is considered to be a breach of prescriptions or not, gay Buddhists that are actively homosexual are still Buddhists and can continue to practice the Buddhist way of life.

It should also be noted that many Tibetan traditions and teachers (for example Shambhala, or the Bhutanese Lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche) are less critical about LGBTI members. Some even perform same-sex marriages and reflect on Queer Dharma.

Shambhala Europe for example preformed a religious Buddhist same-sex marriage in 1993 in Paris, almost a decade before the first countries in the world legalised a secular same-sex marriage (the Netherlands in 2001, followed by Belgium in 2003.)

see also: the Rainbow Sangha network


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