All lay Buddhists are supposed to follow the Five Precepts. The third precept is to abstain from sexual misconduct. When the details of what counts as sexual misconduct we read passages such as this:
They give up sexual misconduct. They don’t have sexual relations with women who have their mother, father, both mother and father, brother, sister, relatives, or clan as guardian. They don’t have sexual relations with a woman who is protected on principle, or who has a husband, or whose violation is punishable by law, or even one who has been garlanded as a token of betrothal (AN 10.176 PMT)
It is important to notice what is considered sexual misconduct by early Buddhism. Please note that the Buddha is talking to a man named Cunda, so he uses appropriate gender-specific for his audience. The four refer to: “(1) a woman protected by her co-religionists, (2) one already married or even promised to a husband at birth or in childhood, (3) one with whom sexual relations entail punishment, and (4) a girl who has been garlanded by a man as a sign of engagement” (Pandita).
You will notice that homosexual relations are not forbidden. Early Buddhism did not have any restrictions against homosexual relations for laypeople. And regarding Buddhist monastics, the Vinaya bans all sexual activity, making no distinctions between homosexual or heterosexual relations. Sex requires desire and desire is a hindrance to full awakening.
So, according to the early Buddhist scriptures, homosexuality is permitted for Buddhists. The only caveat would be that no one is hurt because of the relations. The spirit of lovingkindness dictates that a Buddhist’s actions should always be loving, kind, compassionate, and considerate of others (Snp 1.8)
There is a difference between early Buddhism and later Buddhism. In the suttas, there is no restriction against homosexual relations for lay people. And those with same-sex orientations are allowed to ordain provided they mainstain chastity.
But later, there appears to be a change. As the Wikipedia article explains, “Classical Mahayana scholars like Shantideva and Asvaghosa considered non-vagina sex (including nen sex with men) to be sexual misconduct.”
Shantideva, in his Siksa-Samuccaya, quotes the Saddharmopasthana (i.e., Saddharma-Smṛtyupasthāna) Sutra, which says: “Likewise, endless varieties of punishments in a future life are described for the wrong deed of sexual intercourse between two men. The one who commits misconduct with boys sees boys being swept away in the Acid River who cry out to him, and owing to the suffering and pain born of his deep affection for them, plunges in after them” (80).
Now this sutra purports to be the word of the Buddha, but it is not. The Buddha never said this! It is one of the thousands of forgeries that form the backbone of Mahayana Buddhism. Since I have already written on this, suffice it to say this is not the Buddha and therefore holds no authority for Buddhists who follow the Early Buddhist Texts. But it does hold sway over Mahayana Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama.
Don Lattin, with SFGATE, reports that the Dalai Lama has said, “From a Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is generally considered sexual misconduct.” The Dalai Lama also said, “Even with your own wife, using one’s mouth or the other hole is sexual misconduct.” He further said, “Using one’s hand, that is sexual misconduct.”
So here we see the influence of culture on Buddhist teachings. Originally loving sex was permitted for lay people as long as a vow or duty was not violated. Sexual misconduct, as defined by the Buddha, did not include homosexual relations. This is a later addition and should not be considered authoritative for Buddhists. The Dalai Lama is wrong, from an early Buddhist point of view, men-to-men and women-to-women is not considered sexual misconduct.
As Buddhists, we need to go back to the word of the Buddha. We need to treat all later sutras as mere commentaries on the Buddha Dharma. They are opinions that hold no authority in and of themselves. Buddhism does not need to be updated but backdated. The Buddha was amazingly progressive for his time.
But it also must be stated clearly, that no one practicing sex of any kind is an arahant. It doesn’t matter if it is heterosexual or homosexual. It doesn’t matter if it is oral, anal, or masturbation. Fully enlightened beings do not have sex of any kind.
- Forrest, Jay N. “The Mahayana Sutras are Forgeries.” Studies in Early Buddhism, 2022.
- Haggerty, George E. Gay Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2000,
- Lattin, Don. “Dalai Lama Speaks on Gay Sex / He says it’s wrong for Buddhists but not for society.” SFGATE. June 11, 1997. https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Dalai-Lama-Speaks-on-Gay-Sex-He-says-it-s-wrong-2836591.php
- Pandita, Ven. “Sexual Misconduct in Early Buddhist Ethics: A New Approach.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics. ISSN 1076-9005 Volume 26, 2019. http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/
- Santideva. Siksa-Samuccaya, translated by Cecil Bendall and W. H. D. Rouse. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1990.
- Wikipedia contributors, “Buddhism and sexual orientation,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Buddhism_and_sexual_orientation&oldid=1092696371 (accessed June 12, 2022).