Buddhism isn’t always an open and loving religion you think it is

Note: This post has been edited to reflect some feedback about terminology from my friends who are much more well-versed in this topic than I am.

Today I bring to you a longer read, but a very thought-provoking one. Buddhism, as seen by the West, is a very accepting religion. However, it is not always the case. The form of Theravadan Buddhism practiced in Thailand, for example, is not the most LGBT-friendly, as presented in the interview below. As a Thai, I’ve always been intrigued–and infuriated–by how Buddhism as an institution (not religion) in Thailand has maintained longstanding discriminatory positions on non-heterosexual people, despite Thailand being considered a very open country. Now, as my friends have rightly cautioned me, I am not here to not generalize about Buddhism as a whole, as there are many schools of Buddhism that have taken disparate stances on the issue. Below is an interview conducted with a Thai Buddhist monk in Thailand who is openly discussing these issues. Of course, he’s in the minority.

Buddhism and Sex: An Interview with Phra Chāi Wō̜rathammō

Original interview by: Kritsada Supawattanakul, Thailand Information Center For Civil Rights and Investigative Journalism (TCIJ)

Original interview date: 3 November 2014

Translated by: Chirapon Wangwongwiroj

Today we talked with Phra Chāi Wō̜rathammō, a Thai Buddhist monk who’s trying to explain gender, sex and relationships through the lens of Buddhism. In addition, we critiqued the nature of Buddhism in Thailand today, marked with refusal to change despite a rapidly evolving society. Buddhist segregationist rules based on sex and gender have excluded many women and non-heterosexual people from the religion. These systems are so deeply institutionalized in the Thai Buddhist society and are very difficult to remove. Phra Chai hopes that one day the higher-ups in the Thai Buddhist institutions will hear his plea and review these misguided and outdated rules.

Gender and sex are traditionally taboo topics for Buddhism. Sexual misconduct or non-heterosexuality are considered a sin or bad karma from past lives that prevent one from reaching the purity of Buddhism. Yet, sexual desire (whether heterosexual or non-heterosexual) is a natural part of human behavior, so in this regard Buddhism and human nature can be considered as a disharmony that is hard to resolve. Many religions around the world seems to be restricted for heterosexual males, and Buddhism is no exception.

TCIJ interviewed Phra Chāi Wō̜rathammō, a Buddhist monk who is actually willing to discuss gender and sex. He started doing so after he realized that the rigid interpretation of the scriptures and the oppression of non-normative gender and sexual roles actually cause suffering to these groups instead of freeing them. This interview delved into this controversial topic and served as an invitation for all Thai Buddhists to pause and ask the question, “What has happened to Buddhism in Thailand?”

Can the problem of sexual discrimination and the obsolete interpretations of the Buddhist scriptures in Thailand be fixed? Phra Chai did not believe so. The most we can do, he said, is to keep talking until we are heard. That is all we can do.

TCIJ: You have been ordained as a Buddhist monk for over 25 years. What did you see or hear that made you decide to start talking openly about gender and sex?

Phra Chai: The turning point is around 1995. I attended a workshop on social issues, including gender and sex. There were both gays and lesbians present at that workshop. On the fourth day, when gender and sex were the topic, the room was filled with uneasiness despite the past three days being filled with joy. It took a while before the mood got better. This moment clicked for me. I was intrigued to learn more about these issues.

That incident clearly showed me that gender and sex are taboo in Thailand. When we don’t discuss them, there is lingering uneasiness and misunderstanding. One day, when some other incidents stir up this issue, there becomes a problem—one that we cannot find the roots.

At that point, I started to research what in particular is causing the suffering. I started by discussing it with my close friends, including Ajarn Chalidaporn, and approaching sexual equality advocacy organizations; there was only a handful of them back then, but I kept on looking and looking until I got to this point. Lately, I’ve been researching the issues of sex in Buddhism, including the views on gays and pandakas. As I continued searching, I also found female discrimination such as forbidding women from getting ordained and unequal roles of bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs. I see this as a longstanding discrimination to the point that it is now hard to realize it.

TCIJ: So what you are trying to do is to apply the Buddhist principles to various issues, particularly sex, and then explain them?

Phra Chai: That is correct, although you have to understand that I am but one voice in a large institution that is Buddhism. It is impossible that everyone will agree with me. I am merely presenting a different viewpoint that is contemporary and easy to understand, unlike the Buddhist statutes that have not been clearly explained, or interpreted too conservatively and not responsive to the needs of modern society.

TCIJ: For virtually every religion, sex is a taboo topic. It’s forbidden. It’s a sin. Am I correct in saying that religions provide very little room for discussions about sex? Why haven’t the religions adapted?

Phra Chai: Let’s explore it from a spiritual angle. When Buddhism states that something is bad karma, it can hurt the gays, lesbians and intersex people that are supposedly recipients of bad karma. We cannot forget this. Even for the heterosexuals, I believe the religious restrictions can make them uneasy. Issues including masturbation, pregnancy, teenage sex, or extramarital pregnancy can be very limiting.

In reality, most people do not stay within the religious boundaries. When religion-induced criticisms spread, people feel bad about themselves. I don’t think religion should go in this direction. Religious teachings should make people feel good about themselves—maybe not to the extent that Buddhism validates sexual relationships. What Buddhism should do is help uplift humanity—and its natural sexual desires—along with the core Buddhist teachings and not make people feel bad.

My observation from the various trainings I have conducted is that most heterosexuals also feel upset and insulted by religion. They just don’t know how to express this hurt and ultimately keep it inside themselves.

This is precisely why I believe it is not only non-heterosexual people that cross the boundaries set by religion; heterosexuals do too. This is one of the key tipping point that should lead us to examine what Buddhism truly intends to say about sexual behavior. Ultimately, you will find that Buddhism is not that concerned with the topic of sex. What Buddhism really cares about is how Buddhists can find enlightenment. In other words, as the Dalai Lama said, Buddhism is concerned with helping people discover the ocean of wisdom within themselves. This is the core of all religions: to find oneself. Similarly, in the case of theistic religions, the goal is to find God within.

TCIJ: The 3rd Precept of Buddhism isn’t necessarily limiting one’s gender or sexual orientation, but rather forbidding sexual misconduct in the form of promiscuity.

Phra Chai: Correct. You can say that the 3rd Precept is an extension of the 2nd Precept—do not steal. The 3rd Precept gets specific by forbidding sexual affairs. This rule is present in every religion, not just Buddhism.

TCIJ: When we laypersons talk about this 3rd Precept, we often say “Do no wrong to others’ wives and daughters.” For the part that says do no wrong to others’ wives, it’s still possible to use your interpretation. However, in the case of the others’ daughters, it becomes less clear since sexual relationships in our modern society do not only happen under the institution of marriage. Today, we have to acknowledge that teenagers or university students have sex, and every one of those sexual partners are someone’s kids. So when the 3rd Precept is addressed in our laypersons’ terms, sex ended up being taboo in Buddhism, i.e. it forbids sex outside marriage. What are your thoughts?

Phra Chai: I didn’t do any homework on this question. (laughs) But I’ve thought about this: How should teenagers view this precept? In a way, our society expects teenagers to not engage in sex, probably because teenagers are still in school and hence unable to take care of themselves. On the other hand, if we want to teach the teens, we have to help them feel and understand that they are still unable to take care of themselves. Every single penny they receive goes towards education. However, if parents decide to let them make their own decisions, there are many factors to be contemplated. For example, what if the girl becomes pregnant? Alternatively, the parents have to make sure both parties use birth control. But what if the condom broke? It’s not easy to figure everything out. There are people who barely make it through this stage. Some girls get pregnant in school. Some girls were dumped when their partners realized they were pregnant.

These troubles are part of why this precept exists: to prevent unfortunate events from happening. So when teenagers spend time together, they ought to learn what consequences their actions would bring. Buddhism has set the boundaries, but we do not deny the individual the choice. However, I also disagree with this precept in a way. When we stress this precept to the teenagers, and someone happens to break it, he or she feels terrible about themselves. In the case of a female student getting an abortion, others may view her as morally reprehensible, but I think about how she will be mentally afterwards and whether she will have the motivation and strength to continue her education.

TCIJ: So if two university students are a couple and they sleep together, are they wrong by virtue of having sex with someone still under the care of his or her parents?

Phra Chai: In a way you can say that. If you examine the 3rd Precept, it forbids sexual relationships with someone under the care of various parties, including parents and bhikkhunīs. Generally speaking, one is not allowed to have sex with someone who is still under the care of other adults. However, the 3rd Precept is not totally binding in this regard; it also mentions the individual’s freedom to consent to sex. So it does not mean that if you are a single 30 years old and have sex, you have disobeyed the 3rd Precept. There is mention of age, but it is unclear. In the past, society does not view youth in the same manner that our society does today. I want to see it like this: If an individual is mature enough to make his or her own decisions, he or she can be considered as no longer under the care of another adult.

TCIJ: Ultimately this 3rd Precept has to be more properly defined to address the needs of modern society.

Phra Chai: Exactly. But the best thing to do is for the members of society to control their sexual behavior. If they can control their desires, it can help alleviate some trouble.

TCIJ: Buddhism in Thailand is viewed as discriminatory. For example, during the ordination ceremony, the monk officiating the ceremony will ask if you are a man.

Phra Chai: This happened because in the past there were no female ordinations—no bhikkhunīs (female monks). The question is asked to separate between male and female, and to clearly identify that the ordinated person is a male. If the person is a female, she was not allowed to be ordained. Afterwards, when there were bhikkhunīs, this question is then interpreted as who can be ordained.

Now, the question “Are you a man?” has multiple interpretations. You can be a man in terms of your physique or sexual attraction. If you take the latter interpretation, then it means that intersex and gay people are not allowed to be ordained. To this point, my take is that there are 77 provinces in Thailand, and each of the officiating monks has his own interpretations. It all depends on the monk’s interpretation of this question. In general, the monks in the outer provinces have allowed intersex and gay people to be ordained, while the monks in the larger temples in Bangkok have not.

TCIJ: Is it necessary to ask this question?

Phra Chai: It is a practice that has been passed on for generations. It’s a Buddhist statute. So I cannot answer whether it is necessary. One possible reason that it is asked is to use it to select people. One important point to note is that Buddhism has become an institution; this is why the selection is taking place. If we look back to the earliest days of Buddhism—back when the Buddhist teachings had not been institutionalized, the Buddha was someone who discovered valuable truths and imparted his wisdom to others. In those days the Buddha allowed a pandaka to be ordained. As it turned out, the pandaka ended up having sex with someone near his temple. This led to the rule forbidding pandakas from getting ordained.

If we dig deeper, the forbidding of pandakas from ordination did not originate from the Buddha, but from the society, the Sangha community and the monks who do not understand. These groups asked the Buddha to create the statute that prevents the ordination of pandakas. In those times, there was a discriminatory attitude towards pandakas already, so all pandakas are subject to this discriminatory statute that originated from one pandaka. So now, pandakas or anyone who is born with intersex traits are forbidden from monkhood.

TCIJ: In this case should we say that Buddhism is democratic? Or simply discriminatory?

Phra Chai: I view it as democratic but inconsiderate of minority interests. Democracy has many forms. One of the forms that we never question much is one where the majority makes a decision without stopping to think about whether the decision can oppress others.

TCIJ: Do you think that questions like this one should be changed today?

Phra Chai: It should. There are many intersex people that miss the opportunity to ordain or need special consideration to be able to ordain. Those that are already ordained should not be forced to leave monkhood, and there should also be ways to make the religion more open to this group of people.

TCIJ: But the Thai society views these people to be degrading to the religion.

Phra Chai: Actually, it’s not just this group of people that is causing others to lose faith in Buddhism. Heterosexual men are partially to blame too. News about Buddhist monks running off to have sex are equally harmful to the religion. We should not generalize. Instead, find fault with the individual. When we criticize sexuality, the only one that is never faulted is heterosexuality even though heterosexual Buddhist monks have wronged the religion as well. Yet we tend to only blame the intersex people and the pandakas, and hence disallowing them from ordination. You can see how it is unfair.

TCIJ: Usually the religious statutes are regarded as one of the holiest religious documents; they’re virtually untouchable. Now you’re talking about changing some of the clauses to be less discriminatory towards non-heterosexual people. How possible is this?

Phra Chai: Yes, it is difficult. We probably cannot do much except to keep talking about it and hope they hear us. We have to keep talking in case one day we cause them to ponder whether these limitations are hurting anybody. We should especially tell the people in influential organizations to realize that Buddhism itself has always tried to break down the caste system and other forms of discrimination and segregation. In fact, Buddhism had some success in the past. Yet, we have been oblivious the discrimination based on gender and sexuality today. I wonder if we will ever have the wisdom to realize that preventing women, intersex people and pandakas from ordination is a form of discrimination, which may even be more severe and worrisome from the caste systems of the past.

TCIJ: Is it stated clearly in Buddhist scriptures that being paṇḍaka, intersex or non-heterosexual is a result of past karma? Or is it subject to interpretation?

Phra Chai: The teachings about karma has to be clarified. When we claim their sexuality is a result of past karma, it’s like we’re judging them. Do you know what they have done in their past lives? Unless you have the ñāṇa (vision) to see the past, teachings about the consequence of karma are passed on from generation to generation. We can talk about it, but we cannot prove it.

As the story goes, Phra Ananda used to disobey the 3rd Precept, causing him to be born as a pandaka in one of his lives. I think this is where people got the belief that being born gay or lesbian is due to bad karma. When people try to analyze the law of karma, they often believe that if the effect is something in a particular category, the karma that caused this must be in the same category as well. For example, if a man is born gay, he must have disobeyed the precept that is about sex, which is the 3rd Precept. Is this sound logic? Teachings about karma can sometimes be harmful; instead of looking forward, people get attached to the past. Ultimately, this type of thinking does not help with one’s spiritual growth. Another case in point is the issue of ordination of women. Buddhism teaches that being born a woman is bad karma because, unlike men, women cannot get ordained. Yet, in actuality, the fact that women cannot get ordained today is because the Supreme Sangha Council does not accept it. This is what should be blamed instead of karma, which led to this notion that being born a woman is due to bad karma.

TCIJ: Have you ever tried to find answers to why Buddhism in Thailand has the tendency to discriminate against these people?

Phra Chai: Part of it is that sex is a very personal matter. Most of the religious texts are based on the Buddha’s search for the truth, conveyed in the form of tales or legends. These texts are by nature very pure in nature, i.e. there is no content about sex. There is nothing in the Buddhist stories that can taint the Buddha’s name or distract from the ultimate goal of enlightenment. Sex, therefore, is viewed as something vile or evil.

Now, what separates homosexuals from heterosexuals is the fact that they like the same sex. Buddhism ends up not only avoiding the topic of sex, it also distances the non-normative gender and sexuality from the religion by virtue of letting the notion that the opposite-sex relationships is the acceptable form of relationships take hold—or by suggesting that people who are attracted to the opposite sex are more likely to understand the Dharma. Buddhism denies any discussions about sex, and those with non-normative behavior are systemically excluded because of this.

TCIJ: If we want to change the view of Thai Buddhists on this, how do we do it?

Phra Chai: It can’t be done. The best we can do is to keep talking about it. Since I’ve started doing this work more than ten years ago, I’ve come to realize that things can’t be changed, but we can still express our opinions so that those who are willing to listen and agree with us will understand the right approach to this matter.

TCIJ: Do you think Buddhism is keeping up with the times?

Phra Chai: If we look at the big picture, I can’t say. There are some schools, such as Phra Paisal’s, that try to apply the core of Buddhism to contemporary issues, but in general Buddhism in Thailand is varied. You can say Buddhism has adapted enough. You can also argue otherwise. I think it is more likely the latter. However, I must admit that Buddhist schools that are focused more on practice than on semantics when compared to the 1950s. You would find that back then, there weren’t that many schools that focus on the practice itself. Today, more people understand the foundations of mindfulness. On the other hand, there’s also an increasing number of the trendy materialistic form of Buddhism, where you paste gold leafs on the Buddha statutes or sacred marker spheres (Luuk Nimit). So, it’s hard to tell whether Buddhism has adapted quickly enough, but I can say for certain that there are many issues whereby it hasn’t done so.

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0288 – On Thailand + departure for India

It’s been really hard to get out of bed these days…

I don’t have to!!! Gotta love the summer break.

There’s been a lot to do though. Top of my list is to reunite my tummy with the favorite dishes it had been deprived of for oh so long. I didn’t take pictures this time, but I should’ve. My favorite food comprises of really simple Thai dishes that rarely highlight the best Thailand has to offer, but I’ll give you a glimpse anyway the next time I get back to Thailand.

Every time I get back here, I never know how to feel about the lifestyle change. In Thailand, we have less expectations about things running on time, there aren’t as big a dependency on technology everywhere, and people somehow walk slower here. It’s kinda nice, but also frustrating.

I went on a Thai river taxi for the first time this past weekend (Bangkok has a river running right through the city and many locals use the boat to get from place to place. Here’s a good video of a foreigner’s experience) and snapped this picture on the right. There are quite a few things that trouble me when I took this picture. 1) The Chao Phraya River’s water is really really… not clean. 2) The dichotomy between the out-of-place modern commercial space and the surrounding old-fashioned vicinity. 3) I had no idea where I was. ha. I did find my way at the end.

It’s kinda weird for me to think about how I’ve been switching back and forth between the two lifestyles. Is one better than the other? Or is one lesser of the two evils? The world is so different everywhere. Who knows what awaits me next. When I asked myself which would make me the most comfortable, I’d say  it’s probably the western lifestyle. But when I asked which would make me happy, I really can’t answer that one. But happiness isn’t really about place, is it? I don’t know, but @Eric_Weiner probably has something to say about that. Anyhow, this happiness dilemma is one that I will continue to think about for some time.

Now, I’m going to be adding one more lifestyle this summer. I’m flying off to Bangalore this Saturday to start my internship. All this traveling’s taking a toll on me, but I’m actually pretty excited about the gig I have lined up in India. Stumbled open this interview of Rohan Parikh, the head of Green Initiatives at Infosys (Apparently the nickname’s “Infy.” Sounds like a cartoon character.). Jokes aside, their efforts look pretty impressive on paper. Renewable energy, composting, education programs, green building, biogas, etc. I’m intrigued. We’ll see how my experience turns out. Anyway, I’ve been flipping through my friends’ travel blogs and decided that I really do need to take more pictures and better document my experiences. So I promise I’ll try to update this blog at least weekly.

Back this weekend when I settle down in India!