The vajra: cutting through to the truth

3 Sangharakshita’s Teachings in Theory and Practice

III Theory and Practice

d | Sex and the FWBO

Heterosexuality and Homosexuality

What Sangharakshita says:

In alleging that the FWBO teaches that homosexuality is superior to heterosexuality, The FWBO Files is unable to present a single quotation where Sangharakshita argues this allegedly central part of his teaching. Indeed, it quotes Sangharakshita as saying We don’t say you should be homosexual, or you should have a wife or not.136 ] This is the position Sangharakshita has consistently taught. As Dhammadinna reports from the seminars Sangharakshita held in the 1970s:

In one discussion he was asked if he thought homosexuality was more spiritual than heterosexuality. He commented that we had to consult our own experience and be honest, and he was not sure that there was less psychological projection in homosexuality... Sangharakshita concludes that there is probably not much difference between heterosexual and homosexual relationships and we need to be equally mindful in both. [ 137 ]

Where Sangharakshita differs from some traditions of Buddhism and, indeed, from the modern phenomenon of “homophobia”, is in his stress on the ethical issues that underlie sexual acts rather than on the acts themselves. As Subhuti writes:

So long as there is no infringement of the ethical principles enshrined in the Ten Precepts, Sangharakshita does not think that the particular way an individual gains sexual satisfaction is necessarily a moral issue. Masturbation, homosexuality, whether male or female, and heterosexuality are all, in themselves, morally neutral. [ 138 ]

What the Buddhist tradition says:

That such (homosexual) practices have nothing to do with Buddhism was confirmed by the Dalai Lama recently when he pointed out that, From the Buddhist point of view, men to men (sex) and women to women is considered sexual misconduct and a sexual act is proper when the couple use the organs created for sexual intercourse and nothing else. This outraged numerous gay Buddhists who demanded that the Dalai Lama re-think his views on the subject. These, however, are not solely the Dalai Lama’s views but the teachings of the historical Buddha and, as the Dalai Lama pointed out, he does not have the authority to re-interpret Buddhist scripture. Sangharakshita, on the other hand, clearly does feel he possesses such authority. [ The FWBO Files, 23 ]

The Buddhist attitude to homosexuality and the attitudes of the historical Buddha are moot points. [ 139 ] Sangharakshita’s approach is to go back to first principles, and to consider the doctrines of particular schools in the light of them. The comments in The FWBO Files regarding the question of authority suggest one of its underlying objections to Sangharakshita’s teaching — that his views are not wholly reliant on external precedents. Readers must decide for themselves whether they consider it legitimate for a modern Westerner to arrive at their own understanding of the Buddhist position on a subject such as homosexuality, taking tradition and canonical sources into account, and decide for themselves what they think about it; or if any divergence from the doctrines of particular schools is inadmissible. The Dalai Lama may well not be in a position to do the same, but his statement following the meeting mentioned above suggests that he is open to the opinion held by Sangharakshita in a way The FWBO Files is not, and wishes to find ways of reading his tradition in the light of modern understanding. [ 140 ] According to a Reuters’ news report, the Dalai Lama

Urged those present to build a consensus among other Buddhist traditions and communities to collectively change the understanding of the texts for contemporary society. [ 141 ]

The FWBO is happy to be part of that process.

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136 ]
The FWBO Files p.19. Interview on “Going for Refuge”, BBC East TV, 12/11/92. The idea that the FWBO privileges homosexuality has been given recent currency by The Guardian. However, Madeleine Bunting, the writer of the article, was well aware that the FWBO rejected her interpretation of its teachings. In a written reply to her Subhuti said: From the point of view of spiritual development, there are problems connected with all sexual relations, as there is an irreducible element of craving in all sexual activity. There may be a different loading of craving/attachment in heterosexual and homosexual sexual relations, but this cannot be understood in terms of one or other being more conducive to spiritual development. Neither can really be said to be conducive. Whatever one’s sexual orientation is, that will determine the type of relationship or sexuality which one needs to work with. I would certainly not suggest that anyone alters their sexual orientation on the basis of such a distinction.
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137 ]
Dharma Life 8; represented here as Appendix 1.
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138 ]
A New Voice, op. cit., p.172.
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139 ]
In Pali sources for example, there is little reference to homosexuality, as they are primarily concerned with monks who are required to refrain from all sexual activity whatsoever. J.G. Jones, Tales and Teachings of the Buddha (Allen & Unwin, 1979), suggests the presence of a relaxed attitude in Pali canonical sources to homosexuality, however it is not possible to draw substantive conclusions from this limited material.
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140 ]
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. His Holiness discussed issues relating to Buddhism and sexuality with the gay and lesbian participants. Since these matters are complex and require careful consideration, His Holiness welcomes the invitation and suggestion for further study on human sexuality to be organised by some of the participants. Statement from the Office of Tibet, 11/6/97.
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141 ]
Reuters press release: The Dalai Lama Meets with Gay and Lesbian Leaders 11/6/1997. Dharma Life, which reports news from around the Buddhist world commented on this. The quotation in The FWBO Files is preceded by this contextualising sentence: As a religious leader in exile, one of whose chief priorities is to uphold and preserve his own tradition, the Dalai Lama cannot be expected to act as the radical moderniser some of his western disciples would like. The same issue also gives brief news coverage to the revelations of the Nazi past of Heinrich Harrer’s which The FWBO Files considers an attempt to malign the Dalai Lama. There is no connection between the two stories, which appear on different pages of the magazine.
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