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Religion and same-sex marriage

By METTANANDO BHIKKHU, Tha Bangkok Post, July 13, 2005

Will gay marriage be allowed by Buddhists in Thailand?

Bangkok, Thailand -- The endorsement by the Spanish parliament of same-sex marriage has turned Spain into the third country in the European Union that recognises the rights of homosexual couples, after the Netherlands and Belgium.

Canada will soon be the fourth country in the world to adopt the same law. Despite strong protests by the Catholic Church, most likely the legalisation of same-sex marriage will domino in Europe and could easily spread to Asia.

In a Buddhist culture like Thailand, many Thai people are pondering whether the law could be applied in the country as Theravada Buddhism, the most orthodox form of the religion, has put down deep roots here.

Soon there will be lobbies and campaigns in support of the same law in Thailand. Is there any objection of the Buddha against same-sex marriage?

The answer to the question is ''No.''

There is no objection of the Buddha found in the Tipitaka. To be precise, the Buddha was neither supportive nor against marriage between members of the same gender.

This is not because Buddhism is naive about homosexuality. In fact, in the first book of the monastic code, the Vinaya, in the Buddhist Pali canon, there are hundreds of references to sexual relationship and most forms of deviant sexual practices, as appeared in Indian society over 2,500 years ago.

Many of the cases often raise the eyebrows of psychologists and psychiatrists, such as bestiality (sex between a man and an animal), necrophilism (sex between a man and a corpse), paedophilia, etc.

These cases reveal that Buddhism had spread far and wide into Indian society, and all these problems were unearthed to the growing Buddhist community.

Also, from the Tipitaka, it is clear that the Buddha acknowledged the difference between hermaphrodites and homosexual practitioners. Hermaphrodites and eunuchs are not allowed to be ordained, but there is no sanction against homosexuality.

Of course, there was a case of a gay monk who was overcome by sexual desire and could no longer restrain himself. He was seducing his friends and novices to have sex with him. They rejected him so he left the monastery and had sex with men who were elephant keepers and horse keepers. When news spread around the entire Buddhist community that he was homosexual, the Buddha was alerted to the problem and he issued a rule for the community not to give any ordination to a homosexual, and those ordained gays are to be expelled. (Vin.I, 86).

The Buddha was more tolerant of lesbianism than male homosexuality. Nuns who were caught in lesbian practices were not expelled from the order. They must confess to the fellows about their practice, and then the offence will be redeemed. (Vin. IV, 261)

The monastic rules do not guarantee Buddhist monasticism is entirely free from homosexuals. Indeed, they only say that monks and nuns are required to live a celibate life. Often in history, the monastic community has been plagued by homosexual scandals.

In Thailand, the worst such scandal took place in 1819, during the reign of King Rama II, when a high-ranking monk, a Somdet who was also the abbot of Wat Saket who had just been promoted to take the position of the Supreme Patriarch, one day was found guilty of enjoying homosexual activities with some of his good-looking male disciples.

It was a shock to all Buddhists of the time, and the case was considered the scandal of the century of Buddhism in Siam.

Interestingly, the graveness of the mistake was not severe enough to defrock him, although the King had him removed him from his position of honour and ordered him to leave the royal monasteries.

As for the lay homosexual people, the Buddha gave no rule or advice as to whether they should be allowed to marry or not. The Buddha posted himself simply as the one who shows the way. He did not insist that he had any right to enforce on others what they should do. With this principle, the original teachings of the Buddha do not cover social ceremonies or rituals. Weddings and marriages of all kinds are regarded as mundane and have no place in Buddhism.

The principle of universal compassion does not allow Buddhists to judge other people based on the nature of what they are, which practice is considered discrimination.

Unlike Christianity, where gender is a part of God's creation, Buddhists see genderisation as a sign of decay. In the Buddhist version of the Genesis, Agga-asutta (also known as the Aphorism on the Knowledge of the Beginning), male and female genders were a part of the fall. Originally, the primordial ancestors of humans were self-luminous, mind-born and sexless. So the mind is supreme and sexless, which is consistent with the higher form of existence. The most important principle to derive from that is there is no superiority of one gender over the other. The first sin among them which perpetuated the fall was the prejudice of appearance, when those of brighter skin looked down on those with darker skin.

Based on this principle, homosexual people should not be discriminated against; they are humans who deserve all the rights and dignity endowed upon them as members of human race.

This does not mean that Thai Buddhists are supportive of gay rights and homosexual marriage, or that liberal activists will be successful in their social campaign. Human rights issues have always received poor attention in Theravada countries, as the culture is rooted in the belief in the Law of Karma, which is more popular among Thai Buddhists than philosophical and advanced scriptural studies in Buddhism.

Many monasteries and monks advocate their lay followers to see the world through the lens of karma, i.e., every person is born to pay back their sins. According to their explanations, all homosexuals and sexual deviants were once offenders of the Third Precept (prohibiting sexual misconduct) _ at least in their past lives, and they must pay off their past sins in their present life. Therefore, they deserve all that society gives to them. This belief system creates strong conservative values in Theravada Buddhist culture. For these reasons, it is unlikely that Buddhists will easily approve a law to allow gay marriage. Gay and lesbian activists in Thailand will not be as successful as their fellows in European countries or Canada.

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Mettanando Bhikko qualified as a physician before he ordained as a Buddhist monk. He holds an MD from Chulalongkorn University, an MA from Oxford, a ThM from Harvard and PhD from Hamburg.



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