Being Gay and Buddhist: What did the Buddha say?

Written by Bhante Dhammika
7 mins read
Published on May 31, 2024

Editor’s notes: This article has been kindly contributed by Bhante Shravasti Dhammika whose works can be found on Budblooms. In addition, he has launched a new book Footprints in the Dust: The Life of the Buddha from the Earliest Sources, now available on Amazon. TW: Content covers the topic of suicide.

TLDR: Is being Gay wrong in Buddhism? A question Bhante Dhammika occasionally gets. He shares his encounter with a Buddhist practitioner and how it is important to give wise advice according to the teachings of the Buddha.

The Hesitating Question

Occasionally someone, usually a young man but sometimes a young women or an older man or women, will approach me and after a few minutes of hesitation or beating around the bush, ask me what the Buddhist position on homosexuality is.

When they do I tell them that intentional actions (kamma) modify consciousness and that our kamma conditions our future.

Positive intentional acts have positive effects (vipaka) and negative intentional acts have a negative effect.

Sexual acts motivated by the usual intentions, feelings and emotions which exist between two people who love each other, would have a positive effect and would not infringe the third Precept, whether they be homosexual or heterosexual.

Buddhist Ethics and Sex

I underline this point by saying that Buddhist ethics about sex are primarily concerned with the motives behind out sexual behaviour, rather than the gender of our partner.

This being so, if two people of the same gender express their love for each other physically there is no good reason why the kamma this creates should be any different from when two people of the opposite gender do the same.

Having said this, I then try to change the subject, not because I am embarrassed talking about homosexuality, but because I do not like the ‘single issue’ approach to Dhamma.

However, that view changed when I met Julian.

An Unforgettable Encounter

A few years ago I had an encounter which made me realize that inquiries about homosexuality, whether from LGBTQ+ identifying individuals or their families, should be given my whole attention.

However theoretical or marginal this issue may be to me it is likely to be of considerable importance to the people who ask such questions.

A young man named Julian rung me asking if he could come and talk to me about Buddhism. I said he could, and on the appointed day and time, he came. Julian turned out to be about 20 years old, of slight build and with pleasant features.

He was well-groomed and neatly dressed. He started by asking me a few questions about some aspects of Buddhism, but I sensed that these were not really what he was interested in.

Finally, the question came, “Venerable, can a gay person be a good Buddhist?” I gave my usual reply, but it soon became clear that this did not please him.

He kept interjecting and expressing doubts about what I said. I answered all his objections but he remained unconvinced. Arriving at a deadlock and not knowing what more I could say, I asked him if he was gay.

He blushed, cleared his throat and said that he was. Then he told me his story. Since his early teens, he noticed that he was attracted to other boys and had a particular interest in woman’s clothes. Horrified by these feelings he kept them well under control.

The Cycle of Self-hatred

A year ago while doing his national service, he had met another soldier who was gay and since that time they had been having a relationship, although a guilt-filled and fugitive one. 

Once or twice a month, they would pool their resources and book a hotel for the night. He would dress in women’s clothes, put on makeup, and they would spend the night together.

For Julian at least, this would be followed by days of self-loathing and resolutions never to do it again. After he had finished telling me this, he hung his head and said, “This must be wrong.”

“Well,” I said, “some people would find it a bit strange. But from a Buddhist perspective, I really can’t see that it is particularly harmful. Satisfying sexual urges is a perfectly natural thing to do and it is acceptable where it does not involve adultery or harming others.

The conflict you create within yourself by hating what are completely harmless feelings hurts you much more than being gay ever could.

There is no reason why you can’t practice the Precepts – respecting the life, the prosperity, and the sexual feelings of others, their right to know the truth and keeping your mind free from intoxicants – while being gay.”

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He was silent but I could see that I had not been able to still his doubts. Julian visited me two more times over the next two months, and our conversations were about the Dhamma in general, although we also went over the same territory concerning homosexuality with very much the same results.

The Call

After not having seen or heard from Julian for nearly six months, I got a call from him. He told me that a famous Taiwanese monk was in town giving a series of talks and that he had managed to get a few minutes with him.

He had asked the monk the same question he had asked me, and the monk had told him that homosexuality was a filthy, evil thing and that homosexuals get reborn in the lowest hell where they are boiled in excrement for eons.

Julian said this with an almost triumphant tone, seemingly glad that he had proved me wrong or that he had found someone who agreed with him.

I asked him what else this venerable monk had said. “Nothing,” he replied. “He was going somewhere and only had a few minutes to talk.”

Giving Advice in Accordance to the Dhamma

How often has this happened to me? I have told an inquirer something about Buddhism which I know to be sound, sensible and in accordance with the Tipitaka, they go to another monk who tells them the exact opposite and then they come back to me asking me to explain the anomaly.

Then I am stuck with the problem of either saying that the other monk doesn’t know what he is talking about (which is often the case) and appearing to be an arrogant upstart or biting my lip, saying nothing and letting the person go away with yet another half-baked notion or superstition thinking that it is Dhamma.

How often? Very often! In most cases, this is just frustrating. In this case, it had tragic consequences.

Final Words

“Look Julian,” I said, “You asked me what Buddhism would say about homosexuality, and I told you based on my 20 years of studying the Buddhist scriptures and thinking about various issues in the light of the Buddha’s Dhamma. I don’t know what else I can say.”

I told him that if he wanted to talk with me at any time, he was welcome to do so, and then we hung up.

Four days later I was browsing through the paper, and a small article tucked away on the eighth page caught my eye. The heading read ‘Man’s Body Found in Park.’ I scanned the article briefly and was about to turn to something else when the name Julian sprung out at me. In an instant, my attention was riveted.

I read the part where this name appeared, and sure enough, it was about the Julian who had come to see me. I returned to the top of the article and read it all the way through.

Four days earlier, perhaps only a few hours after ringing me, Julian had gone to a park in the centre of Singapore late at night, taken an overdose of sleeping tablets and been found dead the next morning.

A suicide note had been found in his pocket, but the article did not mention what it said. I was overwhelmed by sorrow. The thought of him lying there utterly alone, hating himself and in such despair that he would kill himself almost made me cry.

Sadness turned to anger

But soon, anger was welling up through the sadness and diluting it until it had completely replaced the sadness. I pictured the Taiwanese monk blithely dispensing his ignorant and ultimately toxic opinion before rushing off to give a sermon about compassion or receive the accolade of the crowd.

I became so angry that I resolved to write him a letter and tell him what he had been responsible for. Then I thought it would probably be a waste of time. He probably wouldn’t even remember talking to Julian.

It seems to me that most thoughtful people would agree that sex without love is a pretty unattractive thing.

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Physically, it is little more than ‘exchanging fluids’ as the sex education literature so delicately puts it. What lifts sex above the fluids exchange level is the motives and emotions behind it – affection, tenderness, the desire to give and receive, the bonds of companionship, fun even.

Intention is Kamma

This fits well into the Buddha’s famous statement, “I say that intention is kamma.”

Is sticking a knife into someone a positive or a negative action? It depends! If the knife was held by an enraged violent person, it would probably be negative. If it is held by a surgeon performing an operation to save someone’s life, it would certainly be positive.

From the Buddhist perspective, sexual behaviour is not judged primarily by the gender of the people involved, by the dictates of a code of behaviour drawn up in the Bronze Age or by whether a legal document has been signed, but by its psychological components.

Homosexuals are as capable of wanting and of feeling love and affection towards their partners as heterosexuals are, and where such states are present, homosexual sex is as acceptable as heterosexual sex.

This is a simple and logical truth and it is in accordance with Buddhist teachings, but circumstances were such that I was unable to help Julian see it.

All his experience had told him that being attracted to people of the same gender is wrong.

Those around him had always expressed disapproval towards homosexuality and sniggered at gays. The Singapore law at that time made it a crime to engage in homosexual acts between males. He knew other religions, and even some Buddhists, consider it so evil that it will have dreadful consequences in the life hereafter.

All this denigration and ignorance prevented him from hearing the gentle, reasonable, and kindly words of the Buddha.

It caused him inestimable suffering and finally drove him to suicide. I was reminded of Julian because some months later, I represented Buddhism in a seminar on religion and homosexuality at Catholic Junior College. I was surprised and pleased about how Catholic education had changed that they would have an open discussion of such an issue. 

Of the 800 students in the audience, I assumed that a certain number would probably be homosexual and may be struggling to understand their feelings.

Knowing that what I said may well have something to do with them growing up either happy and well-adjusted or tortured and self-loathing, I did take great care to explain the Buddhist position on homosexuality.

Wise Steps:

  1. In a world where we can be anything, be kind
  2. Take the time to understand and listen to fellow practitioners who struggle with their sexuality
  3. Familiarise ourselves with the precepts and understand what the Buddha taught and what were not his teachings; he did not teach. It could save a life.

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Author: Bhante Dhammika

Bhante Dhammika became a monk in India in 1976 and since then has lived mainly in Sri Lanka and Singapore and is widely known for his engaging teaching style and many publications.

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