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Damned if they're monks; damned if they're gay

By PAISARN LIKHITPREECHAKUL, THE NATION, March 6, 2009

Bangkok, Thailand -- SERIOUS allegations must be backed up by serious evidence. Unfortunately, two combustible ingredients - sensitivity around Buddhism and underlying homophobia - have been mixed by those with a personal agenda and blown up into a national obsession.

Even after the northern abbot at the centre of a controversy had already left the monkhood, new spurious claims of homosexual acts are being made to destroy the reputations of several senior monks. This is absurd in a society where most people no longer bat their eyelids at heterosexual monks' violations of the same celibacy vow.

Now that the dust of homophobia is stirred up, many Thais seem to be out on a witch hunt, demanding the "purging" from the monkhood of all monks with effeminate traits, whose mannerisms allegedly breach the monastic rules, the Vinaya.

While monks must be held in high esteem and Vinaya violations must be addressed, none of the 227 precepts for monks explicitly addresses gender-specific mannerisms or the effeminate stylising of monks' robes. In fact, categorical defrocking, regardless of the nature of an offence, follows neither the letter nor the spirit of the Vinaya.

This whole episode reminds of the general intolerance towards female "monks" - yet to be recognised due to poor ethical reasoning. Fear of the unfamiliar reigns over reason. Most worrying is when blame is levied at senior monks for having ordained effeminate monks in the first place.

Our society seems to conveniently forget that, unlike those in the Buddha's time, Thai temples have always played the additional role of schools, especially for those from less fortunate backgrounds. Besides, ordination is also a cultural obligation expected of boys and men to ensure their afterlife place in heaven.

It's hypocritical to object to the slightest degree of effeminacy in would-be monks, while other males get ordained regardless of their behaviour. To bar some by saying that it's possible for them to be a good Buddhist without becoming a monk begs the question why anyone should want to enter the monkhood at all.

Although monastery life is not compulsory in Buddhism, it is preferable to worldly life for those serious about spiritual advancement. In "Samanyaphala Sutta", the Buddha pointed to 14 benefits of monastic life in the here and now, stating that "the household life is close and dusty. The homeless life is free as air. It is not easy, living the household life, to live the fully prefected holy life, purified and polished like a conch-shell".

It has often been objected that, according to the Vinaya, "pandakas" are barred from ordination. But the exact meaning of the two-millennia-old Pali word will probably never be settled. While many are ready to equate the word with all homosexuals and katoeys, the only thing most scholars seem to agree on is that one category refers to those with mixed or unambiguous sex organs. Another category, however, is vague enough to mean anyone who has watched pornography.

The Buddha said that all humans can be trained, pointing out the oneness of human kind regardless of physical characteristics or social status. Not only did he anticipate the modern principle of human rights, he went one better.

Buddhism's core teaching of compassion urges us not just to put others on an equal standing but to put ourselves in their shoes. Relevant to the issue at hand, the Buddhist cannon contains the story of Elder Soreyya, who not only got ordained but also became enlightened, despite having displayed same-sex attraction and having had "gender changes" - twice.

Although the Thai Sangha is not always free of prejudice - especially regarding female ordination - it seems so far willing to err on the side of compassion in the case of those with obvious male anatomy. On the other hand, the "guilty before proven otherwise" attitude among lay Thais demanding that all effeminate monks be defrocked contradicts the examples of the Buddha, who laid down each Vinaya rule only after a transgression occurred.

Their eagerness to pass moralistic judgement is also based on mere appearance rather than the essence of Buddhism. While blaming the clergy for the "degeneracy: of Buddhism, under their holier-than-thou veneer lurks a massive dose of hypocrisy.

Interestingly, the uproar against effeminate monks in the North closely followed Chiang Mai's specific crackdown on katoey prostitutes. It is paradoxical that while some are being expelled from the path of light, other members of the same group are being chased away from dark corners. This catch-22 stance towards katoeys as a group exposes the widespread prejudice that views transgenderism as a form of sexual aberration or, worse, misconduct.

This is evident even at the government level, as no government authorities have shown much interest whether transgender people are allowed their rightful place in Thai society. Shunned from traditional male roles, they cannot yet be legally recognised as a woman either. Many businesses still don't take transgender clients, let alone job applications. The lack of respect for their rights should put all Thais to shame.

Even more serious than the question of effeminate monks is this: With neither compassion nor respect for human rights, what kind of moral authority does Thai society speak from, let alone subject itself to? If some citizens are still being treated this way, how can we begin to discuss the rights of migrant workers or refugees?

Like the protestors against the Chiang Mai Gay Pride parade who paint katoeys as "kheud" or "kalakini" (evil/unlucky) through their own prejudices and superstitious beliefs, some who call themselves Buddhists have been saying that the presence of effeminate monks is causing a crisis of faith. Ironically, the opposite may be true. Blatant discrimination against lesbians, gays and transgenders may shake the faith of Thais of such nature and those believing in equality and justice.

However, the Thai Sangha can turn this "crisis" into an opportunity by encouraging public compassion for fellow Buddhist gays, lesbians and transgenders. It should also embrace a more inclusive ordination approach, while keeping a watchful eye on the conduct of all monks according to monastic rules. Accepting all well-conducted individuals into the monkhood, gender identity notwithstanding, is the true path for the Sangha in the Buddha's footsteps.

By doing so, it will be in good company. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is known to be in favour of the female "monk" institution and supports the human rights of homosexuals. The Dalai Lama's office has issued a statement saying that, "His Holiness opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation. He urges respect, tolerance, compassion and the full recognition of human rights for all."


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