My favorite bit of the Abhidhamma is the first paragraph: Phenomena that are skilful, phenomena that are unskilfull, phenomena that are undesignated.. Actually, this seemingly innocuous phrase emerged from the debates in ancient India about the nature of the Dhamma: can we describe everything as dyads—as pairs of opposites or complements—or do we need to acknowledge a “third”. The Theravadins opted to include the “third”, here said to be things that are “undesignated”, that is, not describable as either good or bad.

This is good. Dyads get all rigid and crusty. They become dogmas; literally black and white. So here, as often in Buddhism, we meet the mysterious “third”, somehow not quite fitting in to the normal scheme of things.

This is not merely a problem of categorization. The existence of a “leftover” is essential for Awakening: Nibbana is among those things that are “undesignated”. It is beyond good and evil, and its existence signifies that an escape from the duality is possible.

The same is true on more mundane levels, such as gender. Everywhere we go, we are subtly conditioned to think of gender as binary; signs on bathrooms, clothes, idioms like “he/she”, and so on, with all the connotations and stereotypes that go along with these.

Yet this, like all dyads, undersells the truth. Gender is far more complex than just two. There are gay people, whose sexual orientation does not agree with the stereotype. There are transsexual people, who identify with a gender other than that assigned at birth, and who may seek to change their gender via surgery. There are intersex people, who have physical attributes that are not readily assignable as either male or female. There are asexual people, who simply have no sexual interest. And I am sure there are many other variations. And of course, all of these things may interact, and change, and be fluid and uncertain.

But what is certain is that these people are all, you know, people. They have jobs and loves and losses and lives, just like anyone else. But they have something that many others don’t: they have to endure a constant discrimination, an exclusion and marginalization that pervades every aspect of life.

Some people

I am a very privileged person. I’m white, male, middle class, from a developed country. I don’t know what it’s like to be harassed for being who I am. I don’t know what it’s like to live your whole life being told you’re different, weird, a freak. But I imagine it’s not very nice. So I have to listen to what others say to know what discrimination feels like.

It’s even worse when you come to religion. Here we are, approaching the realm of the spiritual, a place we come to because we believe in something better; because we want to be lifted up. Yet we meet, here again, the same dreary, boring discrimination we’ve found elsewhere; except now it comes from God, or from the Buddha, or from Allah. Terrific. That’s just so helpful.

Why is it that religions seem to be the bastion of the most repressive forms of discrimination? I think it comes down to order. Recall the anthropology of Levi Strauss; he talked about how tribes negotiate ambiguous dualities through such things as the kinship systems. Who can we have sex with? This is one of the basic questions that cultures have to answer, as soon as they create structures larger than an extended family group.

Culture arises from this imperative; negotiation of sexual partners is one of the key concerns of all ancient mythology. And “third gender” people don’t fit neatly into this either/or narrative. They become defined as “other” by culture; notice how animals don’t have this kind of discrimination. In more developed cultures, there is a mythic narrative that explicitly defines the acceptable roles of male and female; this is sorted out, for example, in Genesis.

How that happens depends on the culture. It is, of course, entirely possible to include the “third” as part of how humanity is “in the beginning”, and some cultures in fact do this. In India, traditionally at least, there has been a greater tendency to be inclusive of diverse sexualities, and people of third genders have often been ascribed a special sacred role. These days, with the rise of a more narrow-minded Hindutva mentality, such ideas are becoming displaced, under the influence of the more rigid and dogmatic monotheistic religions.

Religions have inherited the role of sustaining this kind of order. Notice how it goes: first there is a statistical generalization (most people fit into a cisgender male or female role); then there is a normative assertion (cisgender masculinity and femininity are the only acceptable forms of gender and sexuality). That normative assertion is then forever in battle with reality. Listening to Catholic and Anglican bishops insist that there is and can only ever be one form of marriage, I was left wondering whether these good gentlemen had ever met an actual human being.

But religions should be doing much more than telling us what is right and wrong; in fact ethics is really tangential to religion. The real purpose of a true religious or spiritual path is to point to a greater or a higher sense of meaning; a value that changes all values. For Buddhists, this is Nibbana; for Christians, God, and so on. So it is inherent in the very nature of the spiritual path that there must be a “third”, beyond good and evil.

And to point this out, to embody it in human culture, has been one of the traditional roles of third gender persons, whether in ancient Greece, China, or India. Living on the edges, they are a reminder of the limitations of our cultural norms. They show us that dyads are never perfect.

In modern times, this dynamic is playing out in new ways. We no longer wish to assign people special roles, whether for good or bad, based on a sacred text; instead we want to empower people to find themselves, to grow and live in the best way that they can. And third gender people, by speaking out and letting us know of their lives and their sufferings, reveal for us some of the myriad ways we are bound by culture and convention, limiting the expression of our humanity. This is not just a theory or an ancient sacred ideal; it is a powerful force that has changed, and is changing, our world for the better.

It is sad but true: we usually have to suffer before we start to question. I hope our world is moving, slowly and uncertainly, towards a more inclusive ethic, one that values all humans—and non-humans. It will take time. One thing is sure: this will not be driven by those, like me, who have much. It will be driven by those who suffer. And we owe a special debt of gratitude to all those courageous people who do not fit neatly into the categories that our cultures have decided on, who speak out and who change things for the better.

Australian police on domestic violence

In the Guardian this morning, there is an important message from Australia’s police chiefs on domestic violence. It is encouraging to see attention drawn to this actual issue, where people every day are hurt and traumatized, instead of the bogeymen of terrorism or asylum seekers. It could be a lot better: none of the police chiefs are women. But still, good on them for having a say.

Those who have read my blog since the days of the bhikkhuni ordination may remember that I drew the connection between women’s ordination and domestic violence. The logic is simple: when religious leaders treat women as lesser and other, this message filters down in coarser forms and becomes a justification, implicit or explicit, for violence against women. Thus when the monks of the Wat Pa Pong circles make rules saying that nuns cannot speak before a monk, that they must follow behind and so on, they are deliberately and consciously acting to reinforce a social norm that creates a culture of violence.

This process is inherent in how we live our lives as Buddhist monastics. We expect that our behaviour, more than our words, will provide an example of the best kind of moral life. When we disempower women, exclude them, and deny them their basic human rights, such as their right to practice their religion in accordance with their conscience, we send a powerful message to our community. If the monks treat women as less, that confirms that women have bad kamma and they cannot escape their lot. Sometimes monks will even argue this explicitly; a common position in the Theravadin Sangha is that when girls get captured and sent for sex slavery, there is nothing that can be done, as it is their kamma.

The police chiefs who I quote below know all too well the results of this kind of denial of responsibility. It is not just monks who behave in this way; when men are in positions of power, respect, and authority, they become isolated from the consequences of their sexism. The police are not: they see it every day.

They regard it as the moral responsibility of men of influence to strongly send a positive message and change the culture. This is very telling. If sportsmen, businessmen, or husbands have a moral responsibility to change the culture around discrimination against women, what are we to say of monks? Are not monks supposed to be far greater examples of moral behavior than footy players? Is it not our job, much more than others, to set a clear and consistent message and example, and to not rest until the culture of discrimination against women, and the violence that inevitably accompanies that, is ended forever?

Commissioner Ken Lay

… we perceive women differently than men and by differently, I mean we perceive them as less valuable.

In order to stop a problem we have to tackle the cause. Even though it’s only a small number of men who perpetrate violence against women, all men have the power to help prevent violence.

We all have a circle of influence around us, whether it’s a whole organisation, the local footy club, or simply the family around the dinner table. We have enormous capacity to lead by example, and show other men how to champion change.

Commissioner Darren Hine

But it’s only through a cultural shift, where we all influence a change in attitude and behaviour, that there will be a significant and lasting impact on family violence.

It starts with society’s “influencers”: sportsmen, businessmen, actors and other personalities are standing up to condemn violence against women and children. And it continues at footy games, BBQs, cricket matches, school, college, university, at work, the pub; we are all in a position to make a positive influence when we see unacceptable behaviour or attitudes.

We can assist in turning young boys into respectful young men. We can have a quiet word with the young man or mate that the way he talks about girls is disrespectful and inappropriate.

We should consider our own behaviours and attitudes, be strong role models for our children, families, teammates and friends.

We are all responsible for shifting social norms that blame, excuse, minimise and justify violence against women and their children.

Commissioner John McRoberts

However, effective laws are only one of the tools required to combat domestic violence. True and lasting progress will only be made when community attitudes, specifically male attitudes, change.…

It involves a three-pronged strategy of enforcement, engagement and empowerment that when combined have been demonstrated to reduce the incidence of domestic and family violence and hold perpetrators to account.

Addressing this issue is going to require lasting generational change. Lead by example. Challenge others. Own the change.

Buddhism and conflict in south Asia

Yesterday we had the incredibly sad and disturbing news that a series of bombs had been set off in Bodhgaya. The heart of Buddhism, where the Buddha was enlightened, and the destination for millions of Buddhist pilgrims, had been subjected to a terrorist attack.

It seems that there were around 11 bombs planted, of which 4 went off in the temple complex itself, five elsewhere, and two were defused. Two monks were injured, and I don’t know how many others.

Bizarrely, this episdoe has been almost ignored by the international press. I can’t find a reference to it on the ABC, the SMH, or the Guardian; and only one minor article in the New York Times. The only major media oitlet with good coverage seems to be the Times of India. Why is this being ignored by the Western media? What would happen if Mecca, or the Vatican was subjected to multiple bomb blasts? Buddhists, get out there and make a noise! Don’t let this happen again!

BUT, and here’s the important part: make the right kind of noise.

The blasts were, it seems, planted by a group called the Indian Mujahadeen, an Islamist group that is responding to the persecution of the Mulsim Rohingya people in Myanmar. This is part of an extremely disturbing pattern of Muslim/Buddhist violence throughout virtually every major country in the region: Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and now India.

Recently I was in Canberra and I raised this issue repeatedly, both directly to the Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, and to the Attorney General’s Human Rights Forum. I emphasized that the Australian religious community, both Buddhist and Muslim, want peace, and we want our government to do everything it can to settle this dangerous situation before it spirals out of control. The Foreign Minister told me that they strongly supported granting citizenship for the Rohingya and that he was planning a trip to Rakhine province next month to emphasize the issue. I just hope the Government doesn’t get so embroiled in its own problems that they forget about the rest of the world.

In any case, this is one practical step that that we should all support: grant citizenship to the Rohingya. This is absolutely necessary, and an essential starting point. If this does not happen, the persecution in Myanmar will get worse, and the repercussions through the region will continue to escalate.

Of course, there is much more to be done. There is, and has been for some time, an insidious paranoia in the Buddhist community. There is always a tendency to look to conspiracies and blame the other. “It’s the Tamils!” “It’s the Christians!” “It’s the women!” “It’s the West!” “It’s…” and you can fill in the blanks here. Now, the cry is, “It’s the Muslims!”

All this comes from a sense of weakness, from a lack of confidence in the Buddhist world. Look at how the Buddha responded in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, when asked about Ajatasattu’s chances of invading the Vajjians. As long as the Vajjians kept strong and unified, and lived well, they would not be overcome. Only by treachery and division would Ajatasatu succeed. And this is the message that the Buddha stated, quite explicitly and repeatedly: Buddhism is not threatened by forces from outside, but by weakness from within. When the Buddhist community stops paying attention to the Dhamma, stops living in the way taught by the Buddha, it will be easily overcome.

We need to begin our response, not by blaming others, but by asking ourselves, “How can we be stronger in the Dhamma?” The Buddhist world needs to begin some serious and long-overdue reforms. Here are a few urgent priorities:

  • Provide a good education in actual Dhamma (not traditional fairy stories) to all Buddhists
  • Sever the terrifying and toxic links between Buddhism and nationalism
  • Retire the sectarian, nationalist, and ossified leadership of the Sangha, and let the Sangha operate by consensus, according to the Vinaya
  • Toss out the ridiculous rituals and superstitions that serve only to perpetuate wrong view and obscure the Dhamma
  • Provide living examples of how Dhamma creates and nourishes compassionate, wise, and peaceful people.

It’s a crazy, scary world out there. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Sometimes people actually do bad things, and sometimes they do bad things to Buddhists. The Tamil Tigers were evil, murderous thugs. But that doesn’t mean that “Tamils” are like that. Likewise, some Muslims are stupid, violent, dogmatically-crazed jerks, and we need to protect people from them. But that doesn’t mean that “Muslims” are like that.

Look at America. After 9/11, reason and compassion went out the window. I remember reading a little article, just after 9/11, where one of the al-Qaeda leaders was interviewed. He said that they will just keep lighting fires. It’s easy for them to light them, and hard for the US to put them out. They don’t care how much they lose, or how long it takes. They will just keep lighting the fires until the US exhausts itself. A decade later, and it’s plain as day, this is exactly what is happening. And its working. The very purpose for which the US is fighting, the beloved freedoms and democratic rights, have been systematically eroded and jettisoned in an ever more deranged crusade, which has caused orders of magnitude more harm than even the 9/11 attacks themselves.

Don’t, as Buddhists, make the same mistake! Remember the Buddha’s words: hatred is never overcome by hatred, it is only ever overcome by love. The more you think about and go over the harms and damages to Buddhism, the worse it will get.

The thing to do, the only thing to do, is to love. To forgive. To move forward. To overcome all hatred, whether it is in the heart of a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Tamil, or an American. It is hatred that is the enemy, not Muslims.

Should we ban live sheep exports?

In 1986 I was an active member of Animal Liberation. Due to some quirk of regulations, the Government issued us with special passes that allowed us to enter and inspect without notification any place where animals were kept for commercial purposes. At the time, live sheep export was a key animal rights issue in WA. So we made a point to visit the various places involved in this trade: sale-yards, holding facilities, ships, and the abattoir (for those that weren’t exported). We were granted access to all these places except the ship, and we had quite extensive and frank conversations with the workers on site.

What is it like for the sheep?

The entire process is one of great suffering. From their mostly-adequate sheeply existence on a farm, they are herded on the trucks in crowded conditions, driven over noisy and confusing roads to a saleyard, where they are repeatedly moved and shuffled around, prodded by powerful electric prods. Then back on to more trucks, into unfamiliar fields, then on trucks again to the shipyards. More herding and prodding, then weeks on a crowded, unfamiliar ship, with the smells of oil, metal, and sea. Then to port, through the whole procedure a few more times, only to end up in a killing field having their throat cut. It is a barbarous and cruel business.

There are those who will argue that we should not anthropomorphize the sheep. They like being crowded together. We can’t just assume that they would feel as we would feel.

But this is what I saw at the sale-yards on the outskirts of Perth. At the back, out of public eye, behind the sheds, is a pile of dying sheep. Most are not dead yet; they kick, bleat, and quiver from time to time. They are there every day that sales are on. And every day someone from the RSPCA, whose job is to minimize animal suffering, kills them and removes their carcases.

Why are they there? According to the workers we spoke to, these are animals who were too feeble to survive the truck journey. They are old, or weak, or ill. They said that the farmers should really have killed them themselves, but it is cheaper and easier to put them on a truck, so that they are someone else’s problem. And who knows, maybe some will survive and actually fetch a price.

This is, let us remember, just the first stage of the journey. At each stage, there are similar stresses and sufferings for the animals, and at each stage some animals simply cannot stand it and collapse or die. Imagine if, whenever you caught a train, the conditions were so bad that a dozen or more elderly and unwell people died of stress, and this was considered a normal part of train travel. That is comparable to the situation for sheep in the live export trade.

In consequence of this grievous and gratuitous suffering, the live sheep export trade, among the countless atrocities perpetrated on animals by we civilized humans, has consistently been singled out by animal rights activists as particularly heinous.

What has changed?

In the last year or so, as Australian readers will be aware, this has become a hot-button political issue in Australia. A number of high-profile reports on the ABC (the national broadcaster) have depicted the gruesome conditions which the sheep are subjected to in Indonesia and the Middle East. This has sparked an astonishing public response, temporary bans, and new conditions imposed on our trading partners.

To an old animal rights activist like myself, this is all very curious. We have been saying these things for decades, and no-one was interested. Why now? What has changed?

I can only think of one thing that has changed, and that must be at the root of the public’s emotional response: Islamophobia. The ostensible purpose of the trade is, of course, so that the sheep can be slaughtered halal. It is a religious thing, and if one thing has changed in Australian, and more generally Western society, in recent years, it is a growing distrust and dislike of all things Islam. This is why the scenes of mistreatment of sheep in foreign, dusty countries of dark-skinned people cause such outrage, while no-one knows or cares about the dying sheep that are daily tossed on to the pile at the back of a shed in Perth.

This makes the whole issue much more ambiguous. If the trade is such a source of suffering, then is it not justified to leverage the public’s Islamophobia to create a better outcome for the animals? Dubious at best; hypocritical, manipulative, and dangerous at worst.

The best of bad choices

For me the renewed interest in the issue has had one benefit, though. I have thought more carefully about the ethical issues, and I am no longer convinced that we should ban the live sheep export. In fact, strange as it may seem, I think it may well be ethically the best practical outcome for the sheep’s welfare.

I arrived at this counter-intuitive conclusion by simply applying the Golden Rule: do unto others. Consider the options, and ask yourself which you would prefer.

On the one hand, you have the option of being sold for the live export trade, with all its inherent suffering.

On the other hand, you could be slaughtered locally. Doing so you miss out on all the weeks of suffering. But, and here is the crux of the matter, your life would be cut short by several weeks. Sure, several weeks of cruel, suffering, undignified, pointless life; but life nonetheless.

And at the core of all our ethical intuitions is one simple fact: beings love life. They will cling to it even in the most adverse of circumstances. We can all imagine cases where we would prefer death to life. But they are extreme circumstances indeed, and I pray that none of you have to make such a choice.

What would you do if faced with such a choice? Several weeks of uncomfortable, cruel travel towards an inevitable death, or an immediate death? I suspect most of us would choose the longer, more painful journey. Perhaps some would choose to end life quickly. But in either case, there is no clear-cut case that one alternative or the other is really better.

If we are so unsure about our ethical choices for ourselves, how much more uncertain we are in evaluating the sheep’s welfare. We can say, with high confidence, that the sheep suffer on their journey. But can we say that they are worse off than if they had been killed here in Australia? I don’t think so. Perhaps, in truth, we prefer the idea of a quicker kill so that we don’t have to witness their suffering.

Neither option is good. Neither would obtain if we lived in a world that truly valued the happiness and welfare of all sentient beings. But of the two, it seems to me that the extra weeks of life are likely to be of more value for the sheep than the avoidance of the suffering encountered in these weeks.

What, then, are we to do?

Regardless of what one might think of this, however, the main point is this: there is no clear case that one alternative or the other is significantly better for the sheep.

For this reason, I think that we should not waste our efforts trying to have the trade banned. There are plenty of clear, unambiguous ethical issues where our energies are better directed.

None of this is in any way a justification for the trade. I am not saying it is right or good. On the contrary, I believe, as I have for all my adult years, that all commercial use of animals is wrong. In an ideal world, it would be illegal to use another sentient being as a commercial product, full stop. Animals are, like people, ends in themselves, and should not be reduced to merely a means for profit or pleasure.

But this ideal world is a long way from our world. Ethics must, if they are to be anything, be practical. And the practical options in this case are to ban the export, or regulate it to minimize suffering. The latter seems to be the approach taken by the Australian Government so far, and on balance, I think it’s the right thing to do.

The Problem with Nuns…

is not just a Buddhist thing. The Vatican has been enduring increasing levels of anxiety about the nuns, specifically the nuns of the US.

The leading representative body for nuns in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, despite it’s canonical status within the Church has come under repeated fire and investigation for various heretical tendencies, which you can read about in the Vatican’s statement here, and the LCWR response here. The Vatican takes this so seriously that have set up a formal investigation, and the LCWR is talking about seceding from the communion.

The parallels with the situation regarding Wat Pa Pong and nuns are quite remarkable, for all the differences in the details. Despite the misleading and sensationalist headline, this article from AlterNet does a good job of explaning the background to the dispute. The author argues that the basic issue is about power, and it’s hard to fault this. Just as WPP criticized Ajahn Brahm and others for questioning the orthodoxy, so ‘obedience’ is foremost in the lessons that the bishops would have the nuns learn.

And the basic conflict is pretty much exactly parallel. The conservative group insists on keeping the medieval power structure in place, insisting that that, and that alone, is the truth; while the progressive party—more alive to the nuances and changes of history—look for inspiration in the heart of the teacher’s message for guidance in changing times.

It’s not just the LCWR that’s proving controversial. A leading academic nun in the US, Sister Margaret Farley, has come under fire for discussing sexual ethics in ways that the Vatican declares to be “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology”. As always, it’s best to read the Vatican’s original response, which is posted here.

Sister Farley is criticized for taking liberal positions on a range of matters relating to sexuality and relationships, namely masturbation, homosexual acts, same sex marriage, and divorce.

What’s interesting (or interestingly boring, depending on your perspective) is the wording of the criticisms. The document speaks of ‘doctrinal errors’, ‘the constant teaching of the Magisterium’, ‘the objective nature of the natural moral law’, ‘errors and ambiguities’ (Oh, those ambiguities! Can’t have them… Or can we?), ‘conform to Catholic teaching’, ‘This opinion is not acceptable’, ‘Sacred Scripture… presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law…’ ‘Legal recognition of homosexual unions… would mean… the approval of deviant behavior…’.

It’s all astonishingly unreconstructed. Despite Vatican 2 and the tremendous efforts by Catholics all over the world to genuinely engage with modernity within the framework of their faith, in this document the patriarchy just slams right down, no concessions granted. Modernity is just shrugged off like an annoying mosquito.

The Vatican document cites the ‘confusion’ among laity, a similar position to that which was expressed at the same sex marriage meeting I attended in April. This was also a key point in the official Amaravati document on the Five Points that subjugate the nuns. These were intended to allay the ‘confusion’ of the lay folk, which is why they were called ‘Points of Clarification’. For these patriarchies, allaying confusion means insisting on the One and Only Truth, which always has been and always will be, and which is fully embodied in the patriarchy itself.

The original document on the five points is here, and it’s worth reading it side by side with the Vatican documents. The Vatican, being older and more confident, expresses itself directly, whereas the Amaravati document ties itself in knots trying to apologize. But the end result is the same: obey or get kicked out.

There is, of course, the difficulty that many of the propositions insisted on by the patriarchy are unethical and harmful. They stem not from any timeless well of truth, but from well-understood social and historical conditions, conditions that no longer exist—except in the minds of the patriarchs. But as long as ‘modern’ notions can be dismissed by the sheer fact of their heterodoxy, they need not be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Buddhists and Catholics go about our lives. We hear these pronouncements: sometimes they make us angry, sometimes they make us sad, sometimes they make us feel pity. But no one will ever be persuaded by them. They are a call to spiritual devolution, to a regression to lesser lives and diminished horizons. The spirit calls us on, and we won’t be shackled.

Same sex marriage – the govt. consults with religious leaders

On the morning of Thursday 12 April, I attended a session of the Parliamentary hearings into the propsed same-sex marriage Bills currently under consideration in the Federal House of Representatives ( There are two Bills under consideration, both of which provide for same sex marriage in somewhat different ways. We didn’t go into the differences between the Bills.

Present were representatives of the Lutheran Church, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (Bishop Julian Porteus), Salvation Army, Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, Sikh Council of Australia, Hindu Council of Australia, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Progressive Judaism. The Musilm community was conspicuous in its absence; presumably because they didn’t respond to the invitation, rather than that they were not invited. Of those present, the Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews supported the marriage equality Bills, while the remainder opposed.

The discussion is part of a series of community consultations held by the House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs. The Committee acknowledged that they had their own opinions on the matter—one of them had proposed one of the Bills, whereas another member stated he was a Catholic who opposed the Bills—but their job was to enquire as to community views and report to parliament, not to decide the matter themselves. They set the course of the discussion by insisting that we speak only when asked a question. If we interrupted, we would be asked to leave. Right, then.

The basic question the panel asked of us all was: what is our position, and what is the basic theological or scriptural reason for that. Each of us had submitted papers prior to the hearing, so we did not need to go into details. The anti- positions were based on readings of the Bible, insisting that the story of Adam and Eve, whether read literally (as per the 7th Day Adventists) or metaphorically, set up the basic paradigm for human relationships. We heard time and again that God had ordained the timeless, eternal institution of marriage. We also heard—and this was a cornerstone of the argument from both the Catholics and Anglicans—that their normative form of marriage—one man, one woman, and children—was fixed in biology. Of course, they did not want to reduce marriage to biology, but nevertheless, there was a powerful sense in which having children by sexual union was fundamental to their conception of marriage.

This begs the fairly obvious question, does this mean that all marriages must produce, or at least have the potential to produce, children? When the pollies asked this of the Catholics and Anglicans, we heard a fair bit of what the suttas call eel-wriggling. When asked whether they would marry, say, a couple of seventy year olds, Bishop Porteus said he would. There was a subtle not quite suggestion that there was maybe some possibility of such a union producing children.

At this point I really wanted to interrupt, but managed to restrain myself. For the Christian tradition does indeed have a powerful precedent for such a situation. Genesis 17-18 tells of how Sarah, though 90 years old, was granted a child by God with her centenarian husband Abraham. Even more striking is the case of Mary, who Catholics believe had a child without having had intercourse at all. It strikes me that a God who is powerful enough to perform such miracles should have no problem in blessing a gay or lesbian couple with children. But perhaps miracles don’t work today as well as they should…

The Progressive Jewish representative also based his case on the Bible. But rather than arguing that Adam and Eve must be the archetype for all marriages, he pointed out that Adam and Eve were not married at all; and that the Bible in fact lays down no normative marriage ceremonies. This reminded me of the old Pali text the Kathavatthu, where Buddhists from different schools argued over fine points of doctrine, always agreeing on what the basic scriptures were, but always disagreeing about how to interpret them.

I heard a lot of talk about what ‘God had ordained’, a lot of talk about how things were and always had been and always must be: but I heard no talk of compassion. So I stuck my hand up and pointed this out. From a Buddhist perspectice, we look at what actually causes harm. We look at how people suffer. And our ethical guidelines are informed by the realities of peoples lives, not by some abstract notion of how things are.

And the simple reality is that gay and lesbian people suffer a lot. All manner of discrimination and social stigma still surrounds this issue, despite the very real progress that has been made. There are multiple lines of evidence that suggest that the effect of legalizing same sex marriage is to reduce the incidence of anxiety and stress in the gay community. It’s also been reported that, contrary to the predictations of the alarmists, the incidence of AIDS declines; which should be obvious, as marriage equality is not about encouraging homosexuality, it’s about encouraging commitment.

It seems I may have struck a nerve, for after the event when the press was interviewing us I heard Bishop Porteus speaking quite heatedly about the compassionate work of the Catholic Church for LGBT community in the fields of HIV and the like. No doubt this is true, but it misses the point. I wasn’t arguing that the Catholics (and other groups) weren’t compassionate towards the LGBT community. That’s a different point altogether, which was not the topic of the conversation. I was arguing that the reasons they had given to oppose same sex marriage were not compassionate. That’s not controversial, it was a simple observation about what had actually been said at the meeting.

When the faith leaders were asked why they opposed same sex marriage, not a single one of them expressed any compassion for the LGBT community. Not one. They might be the most compassionate people in the world, but compassion does not underlie their policy on same sex marriage.

Why Buddhists Should Support Marriage Equality

Marriage equality is one of the key social and legal issues of our time. I’d like to offer a Buddhist perspective.

As with so many ethical and social questions, especially those that involve sexuality, we find that religion wants to be at the core of things. The conservative Christian churches are leading the opposition to marriage equality. We can’t generalise on the basis of religion, though. Many Christians believe that Christ’s message of compassion and love, and the fact that he never made any statement on homosexuality, provide a basis for support of marriage equality.

In Australia there was an interesting exchange between the highly conservative Catholic leader Cardinal George Pell and the group Australian Marriage Equality. The AME asked to meet Cardinal Pell, and he consented to do so as long as the AME agreed that not all opposition to same-sex marriage was a result of homophobia or discrimination. The AME agreed, and came out with the following statement:

‘Just as we acknowledge that it is possible to oppose marriage equality without hating homosexuals, so we ask those who differ with us on this important issue to acknowledge that it is possible to support marriage equality without seeking to undermine, marriage, family, or religion.’

That’s a great starting point, and an all-too-rare example of dialogue as it should be.

But what of Buddhism? As with any issue, you’ll find a variety of positions; and as with any issue – and I apologise if this sounds cynical – most of those positions have little to do with anything the Buddha himself said or did.

In some cases we find Buddhist leaders who state the ethical case plainly. Ajahn Brahm has been very forward in supporting the gay community for many years, both in Australia and overseas. Master Hsin Yun, the leader of the international Fo Guang Shan order, said:

‘People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.’

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts. At the same time, he insists on compassion and full human rights for all. His stance is solely concerned with what is appropriate behaviour for a Buddhist practitioner, not what should be made law.

His argument is that the sexual organs are designed for procreation and should be used solely for that purpose. So any form of sex that is not for procreation is out.

This is, to my mind, an extreme and unrealistic position. The Dalai Lama says it is based on certain medieval Indian scholars (Vasubandhu, Asanga – but I have never seen the passages myself). It certainly has no basis in the Suttas. On the contrary, the Suttas freely acknowledge that sex is for pleasure, and they never make a problem out of that. Buddhism is not a fertility religion, so why we should insist that sex be for procreation is beyond me.

The precept as found in the early Buddhist texts mentions nothing about whether sex is for procreation or not. What it talks about, solely, is whether the sexual relation involves the betrayal of a social contract. Here’s the text. It’s a stock passage, found for example in Majjhima Nikaya 41, and Anguttara Nikaya 10.176 and 10.211:

‘One is a person who misconducts himself in sexual pleasures. One has intercourse with a woman who is protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, family, clan, law (or custom, ‘dhamma’), or one who has a husband, who is punishable, or even with one garlanded for betrothal.’

Kāmesu micchācārī hoti, yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.

Most of these are straightforward. They refer to women who are not ‘independent’ women in our modern sense, but who live under the authority of others. Typically, of course, this would have been young girls living at home, then in a family with a husband. There are significant variations, though, so arrangements were flexible.

It’s noteworthy that, while the Hindu texts say that a woman must always be under the authority of a man, here we find that living under the authority of a mother is next to father, and a sister is next to brother, with no implication that one of the other is preferable.

In some cases, it seems, women lived under the protection of the wider family. The one ‘guarded by dhamma’ is probably adopted, orphaned, or in some other way taken care of. The one who is ‘punishable’ is ambiguous: does it mean that the woman is to be punished (as a criminal)? Or does it mean that having intercourse with her is punishable? The text doesn’t make it clear. The woman ‘garlanded for betrothal’ refers to a woman who is, in our modern sense, ‘engaged’ but not yet married.

Obviously, the passage as stated above only refers to the man as agent. That doesn’t mean that women can’t break this precept! Like so many of the Buddhist texts, it is phrased from a male point of view (andocentric), and would apply equally to both genders. The assumption of the passage is that it is women who are under protection. This reflects the social reality of the Buddha’s time; it doesn’t endorse this situation, nor does it say that women can’t or shouldn’t live independently. It just says that if a woman (and presumably a man) is living in a committed relationship then one should not betray that.

This much is clear: the precept against sexual misconduct has nothing to do with homosexuality (or any other form of sexual activity as such.) It is concerned with breaking the bonds of trust with those that we love, and nothing else. While the specifics of the social relations in the Buddha’s time are different than today, it is not problematic to work out how to apply this in our own context, at least in most cases.

So if the precept does not concern homosexuality, what did the Buddha say on the topic? We are very lucky in Buddhism to have thousands of discourses, with the Buddha making observations or criticisms regarding many kinds of ethical issues. Rape, paedophilia, adultery: these and many other problems are clearly mentioned in the early texts, and the Buddha made it clear that he didn’t approve of them.

In the case of homosexuality, however, we have nothing in the Suttas. In all the thousands of discourses, not a single one regarded homosexuality as a significant issue.

There is one passage in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, which is sometimes cited by those who are trying to prove that the Buddha was anti-gay. The text discusses various examples of moral decay in society. One of the practices it mentions is, in the Pali, micchā-dhamma. This is about the most generic term for wrong doing that it’s possible to make in Pali. You could translate it as ‘wrong teachings’, ‘bad practices’, ‘misguided actions’, and so on. The commentary, compiled nearly 1000 years later in Sri Lanka, however, says it means, ‘Lustful desire of men for men, and women for women.’ (Micchādhammoti purisānaṃ purisesu itthīnañca itthīsu chandarāgo.) Since this has no basis in the text, it stands as a record of the attitude of a medieval commentator. There’s no evidence, so far as I am aware, that this attitude was representative of ancient Theravadin or Sri Lankan culture in general.

The Suttas essentially ignore any issues around homosexuality. Now, arguments from absence are always difficult. But the presence of thousands of discourses detailing lists of many kinds of ethical violations, strongly suggests that the Buddha tried to be reasonably comprehensive in addressing ethical concerns, and homosexuality was not one of them.

The picture in the Vinaya is a little different. The Vinaya is a legal code for monastics, and since it regulates the conduct of a celibate order, it deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviours. It does so with a degree of frankness and candour that so shocked the early European translators that they simply omitted large chunks of text, or, with a quaint regard for the delicate sensibilities of young readers, translated them into Latin.

Homosexual acts, like just about any other imaginable sexual act, are depicted many times in the Vinaya, both among monks and nuns. In each case, the Buddha is shown as responding in his usual direct and common sense manner. Obviously, homosexual behaviour, like any sexual behaviour, is inappropriate among the celibate monastic community, so the Buddha prohibits it. However, this is done in a straight, matter-of-fact tone, and there is never a suggestion that there is anything wrong with gay sex per se.

In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behaviour. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman. Sex between women, likewise, is treated less seriously than between a woman and a man. There is one passage where the Buddha’s chief disciple, Venerable Sariputta, is said to have had two novices as students. But they had sex with each other. The Buddha laid down a rule that one should not take two novices as students at the same time! (This rule, like many others, was later relaxed.)

However, it would be a mistake to read this as implying that the Buddha regarded same-sex sexuality as somehow more permissible in the Sangha. The Vinaya, as a legal code, frequently makes judgements for various technical reasons, and there is no strong correlation between the moral weight of an act and the severity with which it is treated in the Vinaya. For example, building an overly-large hut is a serious offence, while bashing someone within an inch of their life is a minor offence.

So we shouldn’t read too much into the relative leniency of how some homosexual acts are treated in the Vinaya. The main point is simply that homosexuality is treated in pretty much the same way as any other expression of sexuality.

In these accounts there is nothing that really corresponds with our modern notion of sexual orientation. For the most part, same-sex acts are just that, acts. There’s no idea of a person who solely or primarily is attracted to people of the same sex.

The texts do speak of a certain kind of person, called a paṇḍaka. These are typically male, but there were females too (itthīpaṇḍikā). A paṇḍaka is forbidden to ordain, and is regularly associated with unbridled sexuality. It is, however, unclear exactly what paṇḍaka means. The descriptions of the paṇḍaka are few, and not always consistent, but there seems to have been some physical attribute involved, as well as a set of cultural behaviours. Perhaps they were some form of eunuchs who performed sexual services. In any case, the paṇḍaka is clearly not a homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They may be connected with the modern classes of Hijras and the like, who are considered a ‘third sex’ in India, including transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and eunuchs.

To sum up, early Buddhism is well aware of homosexual acts, and never treats them as an ethical problem. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not found.

This is completely in line with the Buddha’s take on ethics. The Buddha did not ethically judge persons, he judged deeds. People are simply people, who do various kinds of things, some good, some bad. If a person does a deed that causes harm, this is what the Buddha considered ‘unskilful’. If the deed causes no harm, it is not unskilful.

The basic problem in sexual ethics, addressed in the third precept, is betrayal. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is sexual behaviour that causes harm by breaking the trust that a loved one has placed in us. The Buddha was compassionate, and he never laid down ethical rules that caused harm or distress. Making a moral proscription against homosexuality marginalises and harms people who have done no wrong, and it is against the basic principles of Buddhist ethics.

It’s so important to keep this essential ethical question in mind. In discussions on homosexuality, as with just about any other controversial ethical issue, there is a pervasive tendency to confuse the issue. Why do we find it so difficult to look at an ethical question rationally? It is true, there are some issues that are complex and the details can be difficult to work out. But this is not one of them.

Countless times we are told, for example, that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. Surely a moment’s reflection should show us this is not true, because there’s plenty of homosexuality in the animal world. And anyway, how is gay sex more unnatural than, say, typing on a keyboard, or wrapping food in plastic? But this is all beside the point. Being ‘unnatural’ is not an ethical issue. The issue is whether it causes harm, not whether it is natural or not. That is no more an ethical issue than is the choice, say, to eat organic or non-organic vegetables.

Homosexuality is also regularly linked with sexual ‘decadence’ in general. Homosexuals are said to be paedophiles, or promiscuous, or to cause diseases such as AIDS. Allowing homosexual relations is to licence all manner of debaucheries. This objection, too, is not valid: gays behave in all sorts of ways, just as do straight people.

Blaming gays for AIDS is one of the most cruel arguments possible. We feel compelled to look for examples that show the absurdity of these views. What of babies born with AIDS? What of those who get AIDS via blood transfusion? Incidence of malaria is much greater among poor people – are we to blame them, too? And why is incidence of AIDS among lesbians so very low – is lesbianism kammically preferable?

But we shouldn’t have to look for such examples. Like the arguments mentioned above, the whole thing is missing the point. Take the ‘worst case’ scenario, the cliché of the promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-taking, careless gay man. We might not think his behaviour is praiseworthy or wise, but does it deserve a slow, lingering, and painful death? Are we really comfortable to righteously proclaim the justice of destroying a human life, because we think that the way they have sought pleasure is irresponsible? This whole argument is inhuman and unworthy.

If there are behaviours that gay people do that increase transmission of HIV, for example, then we can try to change those behaviours, just as we would try to help any people who were inadvertently causing harm. What the marriage equality movement wants is to enable people of various sexual orientations to live in an accepted, recognised, and legal framework which supports the development of loving, committed relationships. Banning gay marriage is the very best way to ensure gays remain marginalised.

Another red herring, in my view, is the ‘born this way’ argument, which is often used by those who support marriage equality. Homosexuality, so the argument goes, is not a choice, some people are just like that and can’t change. While this is an important, if contested, fact, it misses the ethical issue. What if some gay people don’t feel like they were ‘born this way’? What if they feel like they have made a conscious choice? Whether this is the case or not, or whether there are in fact hidden biological factors involved, so what? Having sex with someone of the same gender is not a harmful deed, nor is marrying someone of the same gender. Whether it’s by biological determinism or free will, nothing harmful is done, so there’s no ethical problem.

Perhaps the single most fallacious argument against gay marriage is simply that it upsets the customs of society. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, therefore it will damage society to do it any other way.

This argument, favoured by conservatives, once again completely misses the point. The damage is already here. Violence, trauma, and abuse is a part of the living reality of millions of perfectly good people all over the world, simply because the have, or want to have, sex with persons of their own gender. Part of society is broken, and it needs fixing.

This is the same argument that was used to oppose abolishing slavery, votes for women, property rights for all, and so on. In each case, those in the position of privilege strive to keep others from getting the same rights. And since the cost of inequality is borne by the ‘others’, it does not exist for the privileged.

When we introduce compassion into the equation, however, we recognise that society has always been imperfect. Just because something was done in the past does not make it right. Perhaps it was the case that in certain times and places our marriage customs made more sense than they do now. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is the right thing to do now? To continue to exclude, marginalise, and discriminate? Or to broaden our moral horizons, to fully accept and include all people?

If homosexuality as such is not a problem, what then of same-sex marriages? In this area we find that the Buddha had even less to say. In fact, there is no such thing as a Buddhist marriage. Buddhists have simply adopted the marriage customs of the culture they find themselves in. The most basic model, therefore, was the customs of ancient India. These have been the basis for Buddhist family customs, adapted in each society that Buddhism has gone to.

In ancient India, there were several forms of marriage. As with all things Indian, there is no insistence on one true, correct way of doing things. Some Hindu texts list a whole range of marriage possibilities, which are correlated with the levels of Indian cosmology. The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma wedding’, where the bride and groom, each pure in lineage and caste, is united in the most perfect of ceremonies. If the marriage is lacking in some perfections of detail, it is reckoned as pertaining to the lower classes of deities. The lowest of the auspicious weddings is the gandharva wedding, where the bride and groom simply elope. Then there are the various inauspicious unions, those of the yakkhas or rakkhasas, where, for example, the woman is abducted by force.

Along with this diversity in wedding style, there were different marital arrangements. Monogamy seems to have been common, and of course these were often arranged marriages – but ancient Buddhist texts also record a strong struggle by women for autonomy in the marriage choices. Polygamy is also common, and was the norm for kings. Polyandry is less common, but is central to the most famous of all Hindu texts, the Mahabharata. Apparently polyandry is common in Tibet.

I’m not trying to uphold the Indian marriage system as superior to that in the West. It has its own problems with inter-caste marriages, arranged marriages, domestic violence, and so on. I’m merely making the point that there has traditionally been an adaptive diversity of living arrangements that were considered to be valid forms of marriage, and that this can be seen in some ways as a precedent for the modern idea of same-sex marriages.

So there has always been a flexibility and diversity in marriage customs in the Indian sphere that stands in clear contrast with the ‘one and only’ correct form of marriage that is, in the main, endorsed by the contemporary monotheistic religions. Same-sex marriages were not, so far as I’m aware, historically acknowledged within the Indian cultural sphere. Nor am I aware of any laws against them, such as we find in the modern day. Given the wide variations in marriage customs, including many forms of marriage that would not be considered valid in modern times, it would seem that the typical Indian approach was that of tolerance and inclusion. Accordingly, when the British law that made gay sex a crime was repealed in India in 2009, some Hindu authorities applauded the move, saying homosexuality was part of the divine order.

Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude is not always the case today. One sometimes finds Hindutva polemics against homosexuality. Such discourse, sadly enough, often rails against the supposed debauched influence of ‘Western’ morals, oblivious to the fact that anti-gay attitudes were themselves imported into India by the monotheistic religions. This ambiguity has been expressed by the highest authorities in India. Goolam Vahanvati, then solicitor-general and current attorney-general, stated to the UN Human Rights Council:

‘Around the early 19th Century, you probably know that in England they frowned on homosexuality, and therefore there are historical reports that various people came to India to take advantage of its more liberal atmosphere with regard to different kinds of sexual conduct.

‘As a result, in 1860 when we got the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted by Lord Macaulay, they inserted Section 377 which brought in the concept of “sexual offences against the order of nature”.

‘Now in India we didn’t have this concept of something being “against the order of nature”. It was essentially a Western concept, which has remained over the years. Now homosexuality as such is not defined in the IPC, and it will be a matter of great argument whether it is “against the order of nature”.’

A similar situation prevails in other Buddhist countries, too. In Japan, China, and elsewhere, the early generations of Christian missionaries were shocked at the casual acceptance of homosexual behaviour among the Buddhists. They immediately set about trying to persuade the world that their own version of sexual propriety was the right one for everyone.

Sadly enough, modern generations of Buddhists and Hindus are now doing this work for them, oblivious to their own more accepting and compassionate past. When a Thai monk like Thattajiwo, one of the leaders of Dhammakaya, rails against the ‘sexual perverts’, who have called down the kammic justice of AIDS (‘the executioner of the sex-mad’) upon them, oblivious of the pit of sin they have fallen into, and the even greater sufferings that await them in future disease-ridden hells of torment, he is merely parroting the frothing excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. (Phra Thattajiwo Bhikku. Waksiin Porng-kan Rook Eet (A Vaccine to Protect Against AIDS). Pathumthani: Thammakay Foundation.) Such apocalyptic and condemnatory ‘ethics’ have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.

So in today’s climate, what are we to do? For the Buddha, homosexuality was clearly not an issue. Nor was making laws proscribing valid forms of marriage. What was an issue, on the other hand, was compassion. The very essence of compassion is to reach out to those who are suffering, those who are marginalised. and persecuted. People whose sexual orientation varies from the majority suffer discrimination, bullying at school, violence, and emotional trauma. As Buddhists we should recognise a clear moral imperative to help wherever we can.

One might object that since the Buddha made no statement on the legalities of gay marriage, we should do the same. But the problem is a little more subtle than that. We are living in a culture where, based on certain religious and cultural ideas, certain ways of living one’s life have been made illegal. This is an artefact of the conditioned and always arbitrary course of history, not a timeless feature of the human landscape. In Australia, for example, there was no clear Federal law that prohibited same-sex marriage until 2004.

Supporting marriage equality is not to introduce something new, but simply to abolish laws that discriminate. The injustice is already in place. The harm is being done. The change is merely to remove the harmful influence of discriminatory laws, which should never have been there in the first place.

People are people, regardless of their gender, colour, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Buddha taught ‘for one who feels’. That’s the only requirement for Buddhist practice: one who feels. In the past our society decreed that marriage should not be between people of a different race, or a different colour, or a different religion, or a different nationality. Over time, we decided that these rules were harmful, and we abolished them.

Catastrophes were predicted: they didn’t come true.

What has happened, rather, is that we have become a little more open minded, and a little more aware of the suffering of others. The test of our generation is whether we can continue this move towards a more accepting and loving way of living, or whether we are to regress to a meaner, hard-hearted place.

My society, my culture, the one that I’m proud of and want to belong to, is this one. The society that is kind, questioning, accepting. Let us take up the best aspects of our own cultures, whether they be Buddhist or modern cultures, and discard all that is unjust, discriminatory, and harmful. Let us give our full support for marriage equality, for if we do not we are betraying the best part of our humanity.

The DEVA: totally orbsome

You’ve all heard the stories of mysterious orbs of light appearing in digital camera shots. Google ‘buddhism orbs’ and you’ll see plenty like this.

While taken as evidence for divine intervention in Buddhism, the orbs themselves seem to enjoy playgounds


Islamic ceremonies

and Christian churches just as well.

And why not, I say.

We had lots of orbs at Santi in our cave and elsewhere: the sand here is highly reflective, kick up a little dust and there’s an abundance of orbs. One of our guests was convinced they were the spirits of arahants – and who am I to say otherwise? I won’t publish any here, as there are already far too many in Buddhism who use such things as evidence of divine connections, and far too many people willing to believe them. Meanwhile, claims go back and forth as to whether such things are real, both in Buddhism and elsewhere.

But I know what you’re all thinking: How can I stop those pesky orbs from ruining my perfect photo? Just when you’ve got it framed and focused right, there comes another of those mischievous spirits to distract everyone from the real subject. Which, it strikes me suddenly, is not dissimilar to the Buddha’s response to such things.

Never fear! DEVA is here. Yes, that’s right: Dust – Eliminating – Video – Apparatus. It’s supplied by the wonderfully-named ‘Ghost Gadgets’. These are not skeptics, but ghost hunters, and they wanted to eliminate the ‘false positives’ in their search for the supernatural. DEVA is a simple unit that fits over your camera lens and eliminates virtually all orbs, which are caused by reflections from dust and the like that fall within the camera’s focal range.

Daughters of Dolma – Official Trailer

Check this out out – it’s amazing. The makers of this film asked if I could feature it, and so here it is.

Daughters of Dolma is a feature-length documentary about spirituality, modernity and gender issues as embodied by Tibetan Buddhist Nuns.

Great work from the team, we really look forward to see how things evolve.

Follow the project on their website, Facebook, or email them at