Things that won’t save us from global warming: (1) Institutionalized Religion

I would like to put in some kind of order my thoughts on global warming. In the past couple of posts I have expressed my view, which has become quite pessimistic, regarding our chances of surviving or adapting in any healthy way to the challenges we face. As a spiritual practitioner, I am mainly interested to articulate and develop a spiritual response to the situation, so I have avoided discussing the science and other issues. These are usually well covered in plenty of other places.

However what is, I find, less well documented are the reasons why certain approaches may or may not be successful. I think there is a tremendous pressure on scientists and environmentalists to emphasize that the problem is not too bad, and that our solutions are readily to hand. This approach is on the face of it perfectly fine. Yet at the same time, it doesn’t seem to be yielding actual results; and perhaps it is merely a façade so that we can live a little more comfortably.

In the next series of posts I’d like to briefly (I hope!) explain my reasons for rejecting various possible kinds of solution. In most of these areas I am far from an expert, so please jump in and correct my misunderstandings! I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

For the first topic, let’s consider institutionalized religion. For all its fading moral compass and dogmatic inertia, religion remains a powerful force in our world. I am neither an apologist for not a cynic regarding institutional religion. Personally I don’t like big institutions of any sort, but I recognize that they do perform many positive roles in society.

Some months ago I had a conversation with an activist who had just come from the Warsaw discussions on climate change. He told me that a senior figure from the UN had told him that they had given up on governments and corporations, and that they were looking to religion to save them. For a secular body like the UN to be looking to religion is a sure sign of their desperation.

There is something to this. Religious bodies and leading figures have done a lot. Many churches and other groups have strong environmental policies. The NSW Uniting Church, for example, has recently decided to divest from fossil fuels. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also called for divestment; and recently our interfaith body ARRCC, together with others, was published in the Guardian calling for Pope Francis to back divestment. (Article here, letter here.)

Buddhism has not been backwards in this either. Many of the most senior religious leaders in Buddhism, including the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn, have spoken often and powerfully on the environment. The connections between Dhamma and the environment have been explored deeply by such writers as Joanna Macy, and put into practice by such movements as Sarvodaya. Several Buddhist movements such as the One Earth Sangha and EcoBuddhism are working to raise awareness and make changes within the global Buddhist community.

So that’s great. But it hardly scratches the surface. The vast majority of the world’s religious activity goes on unabated, with little or no interest in the environment. The sacrifices continue, the rituals are repeated, the texts are intoned, and the followers believe that they are already doing the best thing they can possibly do. Why divert their precious time from the Absolute to care for a mere mundane, passing concern like the environment?

It is quite possible to employ religious language to justify ignoring the environment: “It is God’s will”, “It is kamma”, “We just get enlightened and leave all this behind”, and so on. This is what Ken Wilber calls the “elevationist” fallacy, the inverse of the reductionist fallacy. Take any problem and view it in light of the Absolute and it goes away. This misuse of religious philosophy is very common in Buddhism. When I was a young monk, I mentioned to one of the seniors that the path to my kuti was muddy, slippery and dangerous. He responded, “What a great chance to develop mindfulness!” No: mindfulness means recognizing the problem and fixing the path. Overcoming the elevationist fallacy is one of the great benefits of studying the Vinaya. The Buddha never does this. He invariable addresses the problem directly before him: fix the path.

Moreover, religions systematically redirect our attention away from such genuine pressing issues as climate change, and towards their own petty, self-interested concerns. Evangelicals are obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and what people do in the bedrooms; Hindus with working off their karma; Buddhists with offering things to monks so they can go to heaven; Muslims with railing against the injustices of the profane world, and so on. These are the mainstream content and direction of religious sermons, which create a climate and a conversation within the community.

It manifests in ways big and small. Monasteries are built to look like the ancient architecture in a far away country, regardless of the different environment and climate. When on alms round, I am regularly given environmentally destructive bottles of drinking water, because the hungry ghosts need something to drink.

We have, of course, seen this in the Buddhist context of women’s ordination. To grant women equal rights, and to recognize the importance of doing this within a religious sphere, is elementary. Any primary school child can tell you that it’s wrong to treat girls as lesser. Yet even this simple ethical change has proven impossible for many members of the Sangha. The Wat Pa Pong Sangha reacted hysterically to the reality of women’s ordination, with petitions, boycotts, delegations, press conferences, and a whole raft of other attempts to undermine ordination for women. The ordination immediately prompted calls for taking Bodhinyana monastery away from Ajahn Brahm, which of course reveals the self-interest underlying the whole problem. Many, perhaps most, of these monks were not sexist before they came to the monastery. They grew up in families with mothers and sisters and female friends. But the corrosive effect of institutional narrow-mindedness slowly erodes the capacity for moral courage and perspective.

Then, of course, you have the massive investment among conservative religious leaders in actively opposing climate change. See, for examples, the deranged opinions of Cardinal Pell quoted at the bottom of the Guardian article I linked to above. In reality, religions are usually aligned with the most conservative elements in society, and routinely betray their transformative promise by undermining positive change.

When was the last time a major social change was driven by religion? Slavery? Apartheid? Women’s lib? Democracy? Overthrow of dictators? Arab spring? No doubt there have been religious figures in all of these movements, but the driving force has been secular-based ethical shifts, with religion playing an ambiguous role at best.

Religion promises us a higher way of being, a way that is in alignment with a sense of the highest good. And while many followers of religions experience this on a personal level, such experience does not manifest in the actions of the religious institutions. In practice religious institutions exist to maintain traditions, support communities, and ameliorate suffering through charitable works. Even seeing these things in the most positive light we can’t expect any movement towards a radical transformation. Religion institutions are simply too invested in the status quo.

About APRO

I was recently asked to write a little about APRO, and I thought I would share this with you for your interest.

What is APRO?

APRO is the Australian Partnership of Religious Organizations. It is the peak of peak bodies for religious organizations in Australia. It was formed in the wake of 9/11, as a positive response to the increasing levels of religious intolerance in the Australian community. Over the past several years, APRO has organized and taken part in a number of events, including interfaith conferences, media training exercises, meetings with government, and so on. The basic purpose it to improve harmony and understanding among the religious traditions in Australia.

APRO is an informal body, which meets irregularly, a couple of times a year. It was originally under the auspices of FECCA. In any case, it is an independent body, with no financial backers to speak of.

The APRO members come from the main peak bodies of Australian religions. You can see the list on their website: http://www.fecca.org.au/aboutus/projects/item/87-australian-partnership-of-religious-organisations-apro

All the people on the APRO panel are wonderful; we get on very nicely, and have never had any conflicts. Everyone is sincerely dedicated to improving religious harmony, and we have never had any problems with people pushing their own agenda

Why is it important for Buddhists to have a representative on it?

As a multi-religious country, it is essential that Australia have a strong and healthy interfaith element. Without it, all the religions operate in their own narrow stream, without learning from each other. King Ashoka said that one never helps one’s own religions by criticizing the religions of others, but one only helps one’s own religion by helping other religions. I believe that the tolerant and diverse religious heritage of India, and East Asia generally, is a tradition of great importance in these times where religion too often becomes the reason for division, not harmony.

The religious culture of Australia is, of course, traditionally dominated by Christianity, but this is changing rapidly. Australia is the only developed country where Buddhism is the second largest religion. It is essential that Buddhists have a seat at the table whenever there are important interfaith forums, such as APRO.

What did you contribute and get out of it?

I have learnt a tremendous amount from my involvement with APRO, too much to summarize here. But if the is one lesson, then it is this: that we always share more in common with other religions than we have differences. We should not be afraid to stand up and make clear what the differences are. For example, several times I have had to remind people that Buddhists don’t believe in God. But don’t let the differences tear us apart.

I think I have been able to contribute something to APRO also. Often Buddhists have quite a different way of seeing things than others do, and I have never been afraid to mention this. At other times, in conferences and the like, I find that what Buddhists can do best is to stay silent. Sometimes we have had a panel of speakers; I opt to sit meditation with everyone for a few minutes; and afterwards people tell me it was the most memorable of all the speeches! Generally it is, I think, true that many of the other religions have better organized and more effective policies of social welfare than we do, and we can learn much from them about this. But the contemplative element is sorely lacking, so this is something we can contribute.

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 (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=spla/bill%20marriage/hearings.htm). 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.

10 reasons why 2012 is looking good!

The new year is upon us – and a very merry one for all sentient beings!

The doom-mongers will be out in force this year, so let me, as a died-in-the-wool contrarian, offer 10 reasons why 2012 is shaping up to be a great year.

  • EU is banning factory hens. Ok, that may be a bit overstated, as they are just being allowed some extra space and some other welfare provisions; and there will always be compliance issues, but hey, it’s a start. And provisions for the welfare of other farmed animals is following in the next few years. The appallingly cruel development of factory farming is one of the most vile products of technology, and its end cannot come too soon.
  • Bhikkhunis keep on happening. We have seen the ending of Wat Pa Pong’s policy of banning monks from Bodhinyana who had participated in bhikkhuni ordination. Next year there will be a large scale bhikkhuni ordination in Vesali. While in Malaysia, I heard many hopeful things about the setting up of a new centre there. Through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, I heard words of encouragement, gratitude, and support for the bhikkhunis. There’s over 1000 bhikkhunis now in Sri Lanka, and this is just the beginning.
  • Troops are getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not unproblematic, of course, but surely the only thing that can possibly work in the long term. Perhaps in the future our beloved leaders might reflect first on whether invading foreign countries is the most effective way of making them love democracy and freedom.
  • Kids TV show Waybuloo has got yoga and other cool stuff. Aww! Cute characters be nice to each other, share hugs and grow flowers, and float when they get happy, which is lots! It must be good, ‘cos the fundamentalists hate it.
  • After the Year of the Protestor, what happens next? From the Arab Spring to Occupy, people got out on the streets, almost always peacefully, and said, ‘Enough!’ the struggle for freedom, peace, equality and all good things is very far from over, but it is happening. A couple of years ago, who would have guessed? And what will the outcome be for the next year? Since we know that non-violent protest movements are far more successful than violent ones, I think there is a good chance that at least some of the progress will stick.
  • Fundamentalism is dead. Alright, not dead yet. But dying. Maybe not dying, but still. Pining for the fjords, at least. The unstoppable wave of ignorance and stupidity in the name of ‘religion’, which dominated global events from the time of 9/11, seems to be on the wane. The Arab Spring and other major shifts, including climate change, are driven by other concerns. The Tea Party candidates are dropping out of the US elections; it seems there is a limit to the lunacy that democracies will tolerate. We might even see a drift back to sanity-based politics. Hopefully this will accompany a more healthy relationship between religion and science.
  • Technology catches up on global warming. Even though the political response to the global warming crisis has been an almost unmitigated failure, technology is at least making some headway. This map shows how soon there will be cost parity between solar and current electricity generation in the US. Parity arrives in San Diego in 2014, according to their calculations. For more info, check out The Futuremakers, a great doco on emerging energy technologies by my old friend Maryella Hatfield.
  • More people are meditating than ever before. At least in the US: “A 2007 national Government survey that asked about CAM use in a sample of 23,393 U.S. adults found that 9.4 percent of respondents (representing more than 20 million people) had used meditation in the past 12 months—compared with 7.6 percent of respondents (representing more than 15 million people) in a similar survey conducted in 2002.” That’s nearly 25% increase in 5 years. The growth of meditation worldwide is perhaps the most significant thing ever in the history of humanity. For the first time, a large percentage of people, of all nationalities and religions, and in all kinds of settings, are consciously and deliberately making efforts to purify and expand their consciousness. No-one knows what the possible outcomes of this will be – but it will be more than just a little short term stress reduction.
  • Violence continues to decline. We have discussed Steven Pinker’s argument that violence is, on the whole, in decline. He continues to make his case, and statistics argue in favor of many of his key points. For example, homicide rates worldwide continue to decline. here’s hoping that 2012 will be humanity’s most peaceful ever.
  • The prophets will be wrong, again! Here’s counting down to Dec 20, 2012, when the world is going to end and all the usual yada yada. Me, I’ll be kicking back here at Santi with a lovely cup of coffee and a nice ‘told you so’. You’re welcome to join!

So there’s ten. What other great things can we look forward to in 2012?

Emergence

Religion is, on the face of it, a social movement whose motivation is to inspire the best in humanity. So why does religion make us do the worst? Why, in so many places on so many issues, are the religious forces arrayed on the side of narrow-mindedness, exclusion, and intolerance?

Determined to Survive

I believe the answer lies somewhere in the past. Not in a specific historical event – though these surely color the ways fundamentalism manifests in the present – but in our present relationship with our own deep formative years.

If we look at the various approaches to understanding human nature, we find they all speak in terms of a narrative that depicts a process of change and growth through time. Those narratives take very different forms. In psychology, the narrative is the story of an infant’s growth through formative years to adulthood. In the Judeo-Christian tradition it is the story of the Hebrew people’s encounters with and troubled relationship with their God. In Buddhism, it is the story of an individuals countless past lives, all emparting some lesson, and in the chief example of the Buddha, culminating in the perfection of Awakening.

Each of these narratives is told and retold in countless variations in their own tradition, until they become a background, a way of seeing. They are not so much a sequence of events as a manner of framing understanding.

It seems to me that what these narratives have in common is a notion of ‘troubled emergence’. There is a struggle, a trauma, deeply embedded in our past. This suffering recedes whenever we look too closely; it’s always on the horizon, in the twilight. In the very emergence into consciousness there is a memory of the darkness that came before.

We are creatures emerging from the dark. Caught forever in a moment of transition. We turn our faces to the sun, but in the back of our minds is the thought of the past, a fear mingled with a vague but powerful longing.

This is why I turned my back on the anti-religious atheism that I embraced at age 15, when I discarded the Roman Catholic beliefs of my upbringing. I am all-too familiar with the rationale of the secularist atheists, having espoused it for a decade myself. I’m still an atheist, of course, in the basic sense of not believing in a creator God. But Buddhist atheism is much more accommodating of diverse views and realities than the modern secularists. (That’s another problematic word – I’m a secularist in the sense that I believe society should be organized on a neutral basis with respect to religions, not in the sense that society is better off getting rid of religion.)

But I gradually came to see something suspicious in the idea that we can somehow wipe clean the slate of the past. Start afresh, and rebuild the world from reason. A seductive idea; except unfortunately, we are not made of reason.

What we are made of is the bizarre, unknowable, endlessly complex and fascinating matrix of conditions that have led us to this point. Stop for a moment and just breathe: you are here, and this presence is where your everything has led you.

Religions and other narratives give us a framework for apprehending this numinous reality, this emergence of a vital, living present from the fading obscurities of the past. Religions are complex, contradictory, and troublesome precisely because they honor this complex, contradictory, and troublesome reality.

Different traditions deal with this in ways that suit their own context. In Buddhism, the language we use is that of karma. Doing our best to leave aside the popular misunderstanding of karma as ‘destiny’, what karma really means is ‘action’. Our past actions have created the reality we inhabit; and our future will be shaped by how we respond to that reality. Our past is infinitely dim. Some, it is believed, have the ability to see something of their past lives. The Buddha is recorded as saying he could remember 91 aeons of past lives. But none of this changes the fundamental fact: no matter how far back we remember we eventually disappear in the twilight. The Buddha, perhaps alone among the world’s great religious teachers, said that it was impossible to know the ultimate beginning of things, the first point of that ‘dark mass of ignorance’.

So religions don’t discard the past, like the atheist secularists. But they run the risk of being trapped in it. The darkness really is dark, and it is no less a part of our deep heritage.

Here’s the thing: all the vital, inspiring religious traditions that we live by were forged in a new relationship with the past. The Buddha was constantly dialoguing with religious figures of his time: arguing, agreeing, adopting, evolving. It is sometimes a dance, sometimes a battle, sometimes a game. But is always real, and it has that edge, that unpredictability of the true inquirer.

There are some fascinating studies of schizophrenia. They talk of the voices that make irrational, sometimes violent demands; of the struggles that people have to resist the commands; and of the disturbing sense of relief that comes with giving in.

The commandments of our religious past have a similar quality. They speak to us, in sometimes arbitrary and often unknowable words, making startling claims and impossible demands. How are we to know when these are the words of a wisdom unfathomable to our deluded thinking; and when they are the growlings of the Beast?

This is the struggle that modern religions undertake. And, clearly, we often get it wrong. The bizarre, cruel, and ignorant rantings that we hear so often in the name of religions are, like it or not, an inescapable part of the modern expression of religion. But we can’t merely dismiss the fundamentalists: we have to listen to them (at least occasionally!)

The reality is, painful as it is to admit it, that they represent a portion of what is found in our religious heritage. Not the whole truth, certainly, and not the useful parts of the truth; but the darkness that they espouse so passionately – the hatred of those of a different sexuality, or the exclusion of those of different gender, or the condemnation of those of a different belief – is a genuine part of all religious traditions. It is that darkness from which we are emerging.

It does no-one any good to simply pretend that the darkness is not real – but that is exactly what I find to be the most common reaction: ‘Oh, but that’s not real Buddhism!’ ‘That’s just a cultural accretion.’ True enough on one level, but not very helpful. All it really says is ‘I am going to make a conceptual distinction that allows me to maintain my idealized conception of my own religion’. It’s a coping mechanism, which is not a bad thing. Coping mechanisms are useful – they help us cope! But they don’t take us much further than that. If we want to go deeper, we have to start by accepting darkness as darkness, not to explain it away, but to understand it; and to truly emerge from it.

Nuns and Rape

There has been an international response to the horrific gang rape of a nun in Nepal as I reported earlier. It is terrible that it takes such an extreme case to draw attention to what has been an ongoing problem for many years. Nevertheless it’s good that something is finally happening. A new article suggests that the Nepalese authorities have finally offered to provide her with free medical care. There has been significant international interest in pursuing this case, and I will keep you up to date.

Here is an article I wrote a number of years ago in response to this issue. It is a revised portion of Chapter 4 of the book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies (Santipada).


In some countries, such as India, nuns have been raped and subsequently forced or encouraged to disrobe, being told that they have broken the basic precept for their celibate life (pārājika 1), and can no longer continue to live as a nun. This has caused a tremendous degree of distress and trauma, and moreover creates a climate where nuns fear to report any attacks, which can further encourage would-be rapists. But the Vinaya is not so cruel, and deals with rape in a compassionate way, allowing the nun, who is the victim not the perpetrator, to continue her spiritual path.

The position of the Vinayas on this point is quite straightforward, so we will simply present some relevant Vinaya passages from the Vinayas of the three main traditions: the Pali Vinaya of the Theravada; the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as observed in the Chinese and related Mahayana traditions; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as observed in the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.

Theravāda

The Pali version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 specifies that a bhikkhuni only falls into an offense if she acts willingly. This is confirmed by actual examples in the Pali Vinaya where a bhikkhuni is raped:

Now on that occasion a certain student was infatuated with the bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā. And then that student, while bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā had entered the town for alms, entered her hut and sat down concealed. Bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā, returning from alms-round after her meal, washed her feet, entered the hut, and sat down on the couch. And then that student grabbed bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā and raped her. Uppalavaṇṇā bhikkhuni told the other bhikkhunis about this. The bhikkhunis told the bhikkhus about it. The bhikkhus told the Buddha about it. [The Buddha said:] ‘There is no offense, bhikkhus, since she did not consent’.1

Similarly, there are other cases of bhikkhunis who are raped, and in no instance is any offense or blame imputed to the bhikkhuni.2 This is entirely consistent with the application of the rule for bhikkhus, since whenever a bhikkhu had sexual intercourse or oral sex without his consent he was excused by the Buddha.3 Indeed, there is a series of cases where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, sikkhamānas, sāmaṇeras, and sāmaṇerīs are abducted by Licchavī youths and forced to have sex with each other. In each case, if there is no consent there is no offense.4 This understanding is maintained in the Pali commentarial tradition.5

Dharmaguptaka

Unlike the Pali, the rule itself does not specify that the bhikkhuni is acting out of lust. However, this factor is found in the rule analysis, which specifies that a bhikkhuni must consent to penetration with sexual desire.6 Further, she must experience pleasure at the time of entering, remaining, or leaving in order for there to be an offense.7 This is made clear in the non-offense clause:

There is no offense if while asleep she does not know; if there is no pleasure; in all cases where there is no lustful thought.8

Mūlasarvāstivāda

Like the Dharmaguptaka, there is no specific mention of ‘desire’ in the rule formulation itself. But again the rule explanation makes the point clear.

If she is forced, then if she does not feel pleasure in the three times [i.e., when entering, staying, or leaving] there is no offense. The offender is to be expelled.9

This quote comes from the Chinese translation of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. I can’t read Tibetan, so I can’t confirm that the same passage is found in the Tibetan version, which is the normative Vinaya for the central Asian traditions. However, given how consistent the traditions are in this, as in all major points of Vinaya, there is no reason to think the Tibetan text is any different.

Who is to blame?

As suggested by the last case mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, in the case of rape, it is the rapist, not the victim, who is to blame. The Vinaya attitude towards rape of a bhikkhuni is uncompromising. A man who rapes a bhikkhuni cannot ever be ordained, and if they are ordained by mistake, they must be expelled.10 Similarly, a novice who rapes a nun must be expelled.11 The treatment of a rapist of bhikkhunis is treated in the same way as one who commits one of the 5 ānantarika acts (murdering one’s mother or father or an arahant, wounding a Buddha, and maliciously causing schism in the Sangha). Thus the rape of a bhikkhuni is regarded as one of the most heinous possible acts, with dreadful practical and kammic repercussions on the offender. When Uppalavaṇṇā was raped, the commentary tells us that the earth, unable to bear the weight of that evil, split in two and swallowed up the rapist, who immediately fell into hell. Never is the slightest blame attached to the victim of the rape.

The position of the Vinayas is thus clear and unanimous: there is no offense for a nun who is raped, and the blame must lie with the rapist. A nun, whose life is devoted to celibacy and non-violence, will feel shattered and deeply traumatized by rape. At that time she needs support from her friends and teachers in the holy life. As in all the Vinaya cases mentioned above, she need feel no shame or blame in talking about the rape honestly and openly with other nuns, and if need be, with monks as well. The friends and teachers of the victim need to extend the greatest possible compassion and support. They must clearly and consistently reassure the victim that she has done nothing wrong and has not in any way broken her precepts. It is important that the police are told about the rape, so they can try to prevent similar crimes in the future. The Sangha should investigate whether there is any ongoing danger to nuns in that situation, and should take steps to ensure their protection and safety.


1Pali Vinaya 3.35: ‘anāpatti, bhikkhave, asādiyantiyā’ti. NOTE: references to the Pali Vinaya are to the volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. References to the Chinese Vinayas are to the Taisho edition.

2Pali Vinaya 2.278, 2.280

3E.g. Pali Vinaya 3.36, 3.38, etc.

4Pali Vinaya 3.39

5E.g. Dvemātikapāḷī: chande pana asati balakkārena padhaṁsitāya anāpatti. (When there is no consent, but she is taken with force, there is no offence.)

6T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b5-6 : 比丘尼有婬心。捉人男根。著三處大小便道及口

7T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b12 ff.

8T22, no. 1428, p. 714, c7-9 : 不犯者。眠無所覺知不受樂一切無欲心

9T23, no. 1443, p. 914, b12: 若被逼者三時不樂無犯。逼他者滅擯

10Pali Vinaya 1.89

11Pali Vinaya 1.85

Secular Buddhism discussion

So it’s over now, thanks so much to Winton and Lizzie for agreeing to take part; thanks to the Buddhist Library and Paget for hosting us; and thanks to all those who helped – and not forgetting you all, who helped stimulate the conversation.

The night was, in my ever so humble, an excellent dialogue, one of the few occasions where we really managed to actually pursue some important matters and have a real exchange of ideas, rather than simply stating our positions.

For myself, I learned that this idea of ‘enlightenment’ as a process, rather than a completed state, is central to the secular Buddhist perspective. I had heard the idea before, but didn’t realize how significant it was.

The second thing I learned was a better grasp of why they call themselves ‘Buddhists’. Often the Secular Buddhist crowd are criticized because they don’t fit some externally defined set of criteria for being Buddhist. But in our secular world, belonging to a religion is basically what you write on the census form. If I say I’m a Buddhist, that’s what I am. So Secular Buddhists feel a sense of identity that makes them want to call themselves Buddhist.

These two points are useful for me to help understand where Secular Buddhists are coming from. In addition, it’s starting to dig down to something more interesting. The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘Awakened’. It is a past participle, denoting a completed or perfected state. The finality of the Buddha’s Awakening is fundamental to the whole Buddhist literature and is, for example, a major theme of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta. To say ‘the Buddha is not Awakened’ is an oxymoron.

Now we could leap up and down and say, ‘But that’s just irrational.’ And maybe it is. But how many people choose their religion for rational reasons? I certainly didn’t. And the vast majority of people believe in a religion because that’s what their parents believe. If the Secular Buddhist position really is irrational, then this is not a criticism, it is an acknowledgement that forces other than reason are at play. And so: what might those forces be?

Gangraped Nepal nun now faces expulsion from nunnery

The Times of India reports a harrowing story of violence and ignorance. Please read it first before coming back to this post.



This story is shocking: for a woman, from a powerless and disadvantaged background, who has chosen to live a life of simplicity in accord with the precepts of her religion, to be so abandoned by those who should be protecting her.

This story is by no means unique. I have heard of such cases many times. The rejection and denial by the Buddhist authorities in such cases only fuels more attacks. The nuns know that if they are raped they will be expelled, so they do not report the attacks, and men come to know that they can rape nuns with impunity.

The Nepalese Buddhist authority says that such cases never came up in the Buddha’s time, and appears to be arguing that one has to be a virgin to be ordained. This is an astonishing level of ignorance – repeatedly refuted in the comments to the article (the blog commenters know more about Buddhism than the authorities…). Half an hour with a Vinaya book would have showed him that rape did in fact occur in the Buddha’s lifetime, and the Buddha was very clear: there is no offence for the victim, and the perpetrator has committed one of the most heinous crimes possible.

But it’s not the factual mistake that is the real worry: it’s the disturbing way that a half-baked allusion to a mythical past somehow acts as a blanket excuse for such unfeeling dismissal. Supposedly ‘Buddhist’ ideas are being used to diminish compassion and justify cruelty.

Rape is no surprise. It is, shamefully, a part of human life everywhere. The incidence of violent crimes against women is horrific, no matter where or when you live. But there are things that can be done about it, starting with identifying that the rapist is the criminal, and he should be punished, not the victim.

It is a long road, and there is no simple solution. As people committed to Buddhism as a spiritual path, we need to recognize the close links between the status of women in the Sangha and the wider picture of violence to women. If the patriarchs of a religion treat women like this, how can they expect to set an example for the rest of society? The outcome of the consistent denial of women’s equality and refusal to recognize the fullness of women’s humanity is all too predictable. Recent figures from the UN reveal that over 60% of men in Thailand think it is sometimes justifiable to beat your wife, a figure that is second worst in the world.

Now Thailand has a female Prime Minister. Yingluck said in an interview that there is equality for women in Thailand; this is true in law, but far from true in practice. Hopefully her presence will do some good.

We need to get over surprise and denial. Rape and violence against women is a sign of a mind that is sick. But such minds do not exist in isolation. They emerge from a culture where women are routinely objectified, denigrated, regarded as lesser – the Tibetan word for woman means ‘inferior birth’.

Denigration of women runs deep in Buddhist culture: it is there in the absence of women’s voices, in the texts that speak of women as ‘black snakes’, in the refusal to allow women ordination, in the persecution of those who speak up about discrimination, in the routine beatings in homes of ‘good Buddhists’, in the abominable trade in sex slaves in Buddhist countries, in the silence of the patriarchs on women’s issues, in the monopolization of resources and information by men, in menstruation and other taboos on women’s bodies, in the meditations on the ‘repulsiveness’ of female bodies, in the patronizing control rules of the garudhammas or Amaravati’s ‘Five Points’, in the inane locker-room talk of Buddhist men, in the routine externalization of male desire projected as emanating from the feminine, in the denigration of concern for women as ‘Western feminism’. And it is there, in its most brutal and pure form, in the gang rape and subsequent rejection of a young nun from the lowest class of society.

Not that this is in any way a ‘Buddhist’ problem. It is a human problem, which finds expression in just about every form of human culture. Western culture demeans and reduces women in its own ways, but until we get our act together we can’t hope to help others.

I’ve been through a slow, uncertain, and sometimes agonizing internal process. I gradually came to recognize how I was participating in the sexism of the Sangha culture I had joined, and started trying to untie it bit by bit, and to do what I can to help others. It is not obvious; it is a corruption deeply embedded in culture and language, and it erupts in feverish emotion whenever the pattern of denial is challenged.

The more I raised the question to consciousness, the more I realized how bizarre it all is. To treat or think of women as in any way ‘evil’ or ‘lesser’ is to regard half of humanity as somehow built wrong. It is as absurd as to criticize the sky for being inadequate, or the earth for being wrong. We need to stop participating in this madness. We need to speak out. We need to stop complying. We need to act.

UPDATE: The Nepal Buddhist Federation, who’s representative is quoted in the article, appears to be a legitimate body which is doing good work in Nepal. If you’d like to help go to their website and leave them a message asking them to reconsider their policy regarding nuns who have been raped. Here’s the message I left:

I am writing concerning the recent article in the Times of India concerning a nun who was gang raped and subsequently expelled from her monastery. A representative of your organization was quoted as saying that a nun who has been raped cannot continue to be a nun. This is not true: the 1st parajika offence for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis is only for consensual intercourse. In addition, it is not a compassionate and helpful attitude, which as you can see from the many comments to the article, has caused a great deal of criticism of Buddhism. I humbly beg you to reconsider your policy and urge that nuns who are the victims of such heinous crimes be accepted and cared for in their communities.