In Buddhism, the third of the Five Precepts states that one is to refrain from sexual misconduct. Among the many interpretations of what constitutes “sexual misconduct” are: sex outside of marriage (a relatively modern idea), sex with another person without the consent of your life partner, or the historically prevalent view that it was limited to describe rape, incest, and bestiality.
No Buddhist school prior to the European Imperialism that began largely around the 17th Century had ever described homosexuality as “sexual misconduct”. Traditionally, however, monks are expected to be celibate and restrain themselves from all sexual activity.
Buddhist schools condemning homosexuality for laypersons is a recent development and there is no scriptural basis upon which it is to be condemned. The closest would be a few Buddhists who equated homosexuality to disability or being a transvestite, but there was no condemnation in any sense (see also ). Buddhist leaders throughout Asia accepted or even sanctified homosexuality.
In China where believers often belong to Confucianism as well, exclusive homosexuality was discouraged because it would prevent a son from carrying out his Confucian moral duty to reproduce, all at the same time non-exclusive homosexuality was permissible and widely practiced. Monogamy was an unusual and foreign idea to many Asians until contact with the West. Chinese traditions attribute homosexuality to the Yellow Emperor, the father of China.
In India, Tibet, China, Southeast Asia and Japan, areas where Buddhism was or remains one of the chief religions their cultures have been historically unconcerned with the gender of sexual activity or the object of desire.
Within Japanese traditions homosexuality was “invented” by the Bodhisattva Manjusri of wisdom and the sage Kukai, the founder of Buddhism in Japan. A Japanese Buddhist scholar, Kitamura Kigin, addressing a Christian audience reported that the Japanese interpretations of Buddha at AD 1676 actually said that heterosexuality was to be avoided for priests and homosexuality allowed:
- “It has been the nature of men’s hearts to take pleasure in a beautiful woman since the age of male and female gods, but to become intoxicated by the blossom of a handsome youth.. would seem to be both wrong and unusual. Nevertheless, the Buddha preached that Imose (associated with heterosexuality) was a place to be avoided and the priests of the law entered this Way (wakashudo, “the Way of Youth”, i.e. homosexuality) as an outlet for their feelings, since their hearts were, after all, made of neither stone nor wood. Like water that plunges from the peak of Tsukubane to form the deep pools of the Minano River, this love has surpassed in depth the love between women and men in these latter days. It plagues the heart not only of courtier and aristocrat but also of brave warriors. Even the mountain dwellers who cut brush for fuel have learned to take pleasure in the shade of young saplings.” – Wild Azaleas (1676)
Jodo Shinshu, the dominant form of Buddhism in Japan (with a significant presence in the United States), states “there is no basic difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality” . In accordance with that principle it offers religious rites for same-sex couples. This tradition of accepting same-sex relationships dates back to ancient Japan with only a brief discontinuance during the early 1900s (when Western nations suggested a proscription).
Tantric teachings state that some forms of sexual acts are damaging to the subtle energy systems of the body. Since these systems are one of the main focuses of Tantric practice, such acts are taught to be avoided with more emphasis than conventional Sutra based practice.
The Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism has campaigned against prejudice toward homosexuals, but at the same time has adopted a religious view against non-procreative sex:
“Homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact.”; “wrong and against Buddhist ethics.”; “It’s part of what we Buddhists call bad sexual conduct. Sexual organs were created for reproduction between the male element and the female element — and everything that deviates from that is not acceptable from a Buddhist point of view.”
However, he has also said from “society’s viewpoint,” same-sex relations can be “of mutual benefit, enjoyable and harmless.”