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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 20 0 9 62 had made, statements that the organizers saw as disconcerting. The Dalai Lama began the hour-long meeting by reiterating his opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orien- tation and his commitment to “full human rights” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. But then the discussion turned from the general to the specific—from what is acceptable in society at large to what is acceptable in Buddhist tradition. relying on a detailed text from the fifteenth-century Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa, His Holiness explained what the work has to say about “sexual misconduct”—the type of sex that, as one of the ten nonvir- tues, is considered a moral evil. Among other things, Tsong- khapa’s formulation prohibits sex between men, solitary masturbation, oral or anal intercourse, and even sex during daylight. On the other hand, it does not prohibit sex between women, or men employing the services of prostitutes, and it permits heterosexual men up to five orgasms per night. Lest it be thought that this delineation of the boundaries between permissible and illicit sex is idiosyncratic to Tsongkhapa, I should point out that similar formulations are found in impor- tant Tibetan texts written before and after him, including works by Gampopa and Dza Patrul. more important, every element in Tsongkhapa’s formulation has a basis in the Indian Buddhist sources. Having explained Tsongkhapa’s text, His Holiness went on to speak about “the possibility of understanding these pre- cepts in the context of time, culture, and society ... If homo- sexuality is part of accepted norms [today], it is possible that it may be acceptable ... However, no single person or teacher can redefine precepts. I do not have the authority to redefine these precepts since no one can make a unilateral decision or issue a decree ... Such a redefinition can only come out of sangha discussions within the various Buddhist traditions. It is not unprecedented in the history of Buddhism to redefine [moral] issues, but it has to be done on the collective level.” His Holiness called for further research and dialogue on the topic, and concluded by reiterating that, however sexual mis- conduct comes to be defined, it can never be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation. In the years following this meeting with the Dalai Lama I have taken up His Holiness’s call for more scholarly research on the issue of sexuality, and am close to completing a mono- graph on the subject. During the course of my research I came to realize that the Tibetan position on what constitutes sexual misconduct could be understood only by first understanding what Tibetan scholars took for granted—their views of the human body, sex, and sexual desire in general. That broader treatment, I further realized, would require examining what Indian and Tibetan texts say about such things as the differ- entiation of the sexes in the Buddhist cosmological narratives, the nature of the body and of the sexual act, the psychology of sexual arousal, the classical interventions for dealing with sexual desire, and the doctrinal construction of sexual “devi- ance,” or, we might say, of “queerness.” In this way, what began as a fairly narrow study of the historical evolution of one specific doctrine—that of sexual misconduct—has evolved into a much broader book on sexuality in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. NOw AS ImPOrTANT as the issue of sexuality is to the Buddhist tradition, there is no single classical work that deals with sexuality in its entirety. while there are compilations or compendia, called samgraha, on a variety of topics in the Indian and Tibetan literature, there is nothing like a mait- hunasamgraha (a compendium on sex). my first task was to collect material from texts from different periods and genres. This was the fodder for my study. But understanding what the texts have to say about sexuality is only half the battle. The other half, of course, is to assess this material: to subject it to critical scrutiny. more on what I mean by that in a moment. As I was beginning to put together the pieces of the sexual puzzle in Buddhist texts, it occurred to me that contemporary western Buddhists must already have come to some conclu- sions about these issues, and so I turned to that font of all knowledge, the Internet, to see what people were saying about Buddhism and sexuality. Here are examples that illustrate what I found. One commentator writes, “So where is Buddhism’s list of naughty sexual practices? The answer is short and sweet. Buddhist scholastic literature on sexual misconduct lists inappropriate partners, organs, times and places, and then goes into exquisite detail about when, where, how, and with whom Buddhists may and may not have sex. COURTESYOFThEARTISTANDBOSEPACIAGALLERY,NY