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What does Buddhism have to say about sexuality and gender?



Vajrasattva and Vajratopa, Buddhist deities in a sexual embrace

New member Fran, coming from a progressive Islamic mosque in Canada, was interested in Buddhism’s stance on gender and sexuality and so I started scratching my head about this issue.


I did give a talk on the wider issue of religion and sexuality many moons ago which you can listen to here. (It's really good!) But I think Fran was asking specifically about Buddhism and I immediately butted up against several issues.


Firstly, there isn’t a single Buddhist stance - just as there isn’t a singular Christian or Islamic stance. There are millions of practising Buddhists worldwide and there have been billions over the last two and a half millennia. There are numerous subsets of Buddhist thinking and differing schools.


However, I suppose the things that unify them all would be refuge and bodhicitta (love and compassion for all sentient beings). Taking refuge in the wisdom of the teacher, the teachings and the practitioners right up to the present day. And being kind. (Which I imagine most other religions share).


Where there might be a difference is in the lack of a Book. And the preference for direct experience over scriptural authority.


As a rule, Buddhists don’t believe in a creator deity or a supreme power in the universe. It can be considered an atheistic religion, in that it does not subscribe to a central authority nor any divinely authored text. The multitudinous texts and teachings in the Buddhist Dharma are all authored by humans. The Buddha himself was a human being who reached enlightenment in his human form.


Moreover, Buddhism is inherently sceptical about discursive knowledge. While it has a vast corpus of writing, analysis, commentary and pith instructions, the emphasis is ultimately on direct personal experience of enlightenment, a state that is beyond concepts. This is why individual meditation is given such a high priority.



Other unifying factors common to all Buddhist thinking are the three concepts of suffering, impermanence and non-self.


Buddhism is - to use a fancy term - a soteriological belief system. That is to say, its focus is always on salvation (soteriology has to do with salvation) from suffering.


The Buddha’s final summary of his teaching was “Suffering and the end of suffering”. And the focus of Dharma is facilitating ways of suffering less.


Following close on the heels of that is the recognition that all conditioned phenomena (bodies, emotions, icecreams) are impermanent and therefore ultimately painful if we cling to them.


And then, the clincher, the realisation that nothing has inherent existence. That all conditioned phenomena are interdependent arisings without solid substance. This realisation - which in later schools of Buddhism gives rise to the teachings on emptiness - is the ultimate solvent of the cause of suffering, which is the illusion of a solid self.


After a long preamble, this brings me to a sketch of what Buddhists might think about sexuality and gender.


Ultimately, they would see all such categories as empty of inherent existence. That is to say, our human bodies, their sex, human minds, libidos and sexual preferences are all co-created, impermanent collations of feeling, form and habit that don’t have solid forms. And when we give them solid forms we suffer.


You could say that Buddhists, in this sense, believe in gender fluidity. And are very non-binary.


This is what most Buddhists might agree on an ultimate level. But on a relative level, the track record is much more spotty.



There is an ultimate reality that is empty, luminous and compassionate and that is how enlightened beings (Bodhisattvas and Buddhas) experience the world. But there is also a relative reality that is full of discrimination, solidification and suffering. It is this suffering world - the merry-go-round of hurt - that Buddhists (and Hindus) call samsara.


Within samsara, there are many instances of gender bigotry, patriarchy and homophobia. In the Buddhist world as in all other faith streams. When you look at the long list of lineage teachers they are almost all men. Monastries in certain Theravadan countries still don’t allow women to enter. Many monastic organisations are traditionally very male-dominated.


Like many world religions, Buddhism does have moral guidelines—notably, the five precepts for lay folk (compared to the 253 precepts for monastics). The third of these is “No Sexual Misconduct” which in the past has been interpreted to forbid same-sex couplings. And since celibate monasteries are the basic social unit of Buddhist history, there has been a fair amount of in-built paranoia about monk-on-monk or nun-on-nun sex.


But to be fair to modern Buddhism, it has proved flexible towards change. His Western students famously chastised the Dalai Lama for upholding this description of gay sex as sexual misconduct and having done his research he issued a full apology and change of heart on the matter.


But remember traditional Buddhism is suspicious of all sexuality - gay or straight. Like Christian renunciates, the very idea of attachment is a trap. It is only in the more tantric forms of Buddhism found in Tibet with its tradition of married householder saints and high levels of spiritual yoga where sexuality plays a positive role. (More on that in this podcast).


Western forms of Tibetan Buddhism have both embraced this sex-positive energy but it has also led to predictable cases of abuse and - well, - sexual misconduct.


This is where the kindness comes in.



Right at the heart of Buddhism, as I mentioned, is an embrace of an empty, fluid, ever-changing reality, free from conceptual shackles. But running through that openness is a sense of tenderness and love. And, in later schools of Buddhism particularly, a belief in universal liberation. We cannot feel free while others are suffering. That universal wish for freedom from suffering is called bodhicitta or the awakened heart. I would say this is the Buddhist element that most impacts gender and sexuality.


Regardless of sex, gender or sexual preference, beings can hurt one another when they cling too tightly to themselves or to a fixed sense of what they are and what they want. We see this playing out in the LGBTQ community in patterns of wounded narcissism, addiction and self-harm. What is important from a bodhisattva’s point of view is that patterns of suffering are transformed into patterns of self-less love. It’s a win-win for the self who lets go and for the loved one who is freed from projected overlays.


This sort of identity freedom is not, perhaps, what we mean when we talk about identity politics but from the point of view of Dharma, it is the only thing that matters. Love without self.




Once again, I wish to highlight that this is NOT an overarching account of what “Buddhists” believe. I can only give my view on it having been a queer practitioner for more than two decades.


However, in terms of Mindsprings, I can speak with some authority. We are not a specifically Buddhist entity but much of my teaching is drenched in the inspiration of Dharma. We aspire to have a beautifully inclusive community that welcomes people of all faiths and none; of any gender, sex or sexual preference. We are gay, lesbian, queer, bi, trans, straight and asexual friendly. Open to all nationalities and especially refugee communities;  to the disabled and able-bodied communities; and to neurodiverse communities.  We do not tolerate racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or ableist prejudice in our courses, groups or forums.


May love prevail and suffering cease.



 

The talk I gave back in 2012 in Norwich is rather good - you can hear it in two parts here and here.


Please take a moment to share your thoughts on this subject in the comments below.

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😍 beautifully said Alistair, and it reminded me of this exert I was reading yesterday. Love n peace to all without discrimination x

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🕉️🧘🏼‍♀️🕊️Sylvia 🙏🏼

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Greetings of peace to you, dear Alistair, and to those who are reading my comments. May you all be blessed! Alistair, I am deeply grateful to you for responding with such profundity and depth to my request for information re: Buddhism's stance on sexuality, gender identity and sexual orientation. I listened with great interest to the two-part talk that you gave in Norwich, and took away from it some thoughts that ring very true with me, and are part of the foundation of the Unity Mosque that I coordinate: (1) that most religions do not value, and certainly do not extol or celebrate sexuality, particularly queer, trans and female sexuality; (2) that sexuality is the force that connects us wi…

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My pleasure and honour, dear Alistair! The K-W Unity Mosque is open to everybody, including those of the Muslim or other faiths, and those of no faith. We actually meet on Wednesday nights, twice a month, at 7 p.m. EST. Dearest Alistair, just accept the invitation to have a look around, and join us when you can! Bring along those you love who wish to be embraced by an inclusive and affirming group of beloveds! Peace!

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patti G
patti G
Jan 31

How very sad that this question is even asked, in this day and age. It should be irrelevant whether you are gay, straight, transgender, black, white. Surely the criteria in any religion should be the type of person you are.... Kind, considerate, honest, compassionate, loving, generous. What a sad reflection of this, so called , modern world.

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Hi Patti, it is sad. In the Netherland I see on the one hand a lot of gender fluidity among young people and space to explore their own gender identity. On the other hand, there is an increasing group of loud conservative voices in society shouting that people should stop this nonsense by declining it in parenting and education. I feel that my queer collegues and friends become concerned about their safety. In our last election, a rather extreme right party has won. There is such a lot of polarisation….I am rather concerned about these developments. So, yes I agree it is sad these questions are asked, while I also believe it is the only way forward….keep talking about it….liv…

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Very interesting - so sad that we live in a day and age that we still have to struggle with issues such as acceptance of sexuality. Being a gay man / married to a man for 13 years and having an eight-year-old daughter - born by a surrogate mother, we raise her to believe in God but also have a very open mind and complete non-judgement towards any religion, sexuality, race or disability. We must still justify and "prove" our parenthood to society. Not that we do this consciously, but we can feel and see how other parents (especially in the private schools) still have that "look" in their eyes to say, "Ah, great two dads."


I don't want to…


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Hi Ignacio, What an interesting presentation. I did not know that Kaballah expressed such thoughts. It's very like the Buddhist teachings on emptiness but through another lens. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing.


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