Clearing Misconceptions – LGBTQ and Buddhism
by Yap Ching Wi
Phra Chun Kiang, a Singaporean who ordained eight years ago, clarified misconceptions surrounding people who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans-sexual and questioning (LGBTQ) and Buddhism to 30 people at Pelangi Pride Centre on 19 March 2016. The Venerable gave a ten-minute talk on the notion of suffering and ending it. The Q&A session addressed issues of discrimination, coming out, Penal Code Section 377A, Buddhism’s view on LGBTQ in Singapore and aspects of Buddhism. A short guided meditation concluded the session.
1. Key Concept Of Suffering
The notion of suffering is a fundamental concept in understanding and managing our actions. In order to make the right decisions, our mind has to be at ease. Unfortunately it is often in a grasping state, thus feeding our impulses and habitual reactions. We tend to react with emotions rather than respond mindfully. When we are mindful, we are aware of how desire is created in our mind. We can then stop the desire from increasing and cease the suffering that the desire caused. We can manage our desire and suffering by training the mind through meditation.
2. How Desire Creates Suffering
A grasping mind creates desire and desire creates suffering. Not all desires are bad. The three desires causing suffering are greed, such as for sensual pleasure; hatred, such as disliking someone; and delusion, such as craving for eternity or immorality. When we know how desire is created, we can manage it.
Desire is created by reacting to the Five Aggregates of: form or the physical world; feeling or sensation; perception or memory; thought formations; and attention or consciousness.
The notion of “I” forms after desire arises. When we perceive this body, we will think it is “MY” body. When we look at someone’s convertible, we may think “I” want that convertible. When “I “arises, this “I” will experience ageing, sickness, death, pain, grief, loss, etc… (eg. We may feel “sayang” when the convertible got scratched or damaged).
The convertible itself never asked you to want it. When we don’t pay attention to it or are wise enough to perceive it through proper reflection, then no desire or expectation arise when looking at the convertible. Thus the mind would not be affected by what happens to the convertible. Same goes with our own body, assets, relationships, etc… many unnecessary sufferings would have been prevented and the mind can be more at ease.
3. Discrimination And Ego
Other than the LGBTQ community, many other communities, such as the migrant workers, suffer from discrimination too. When someone harms us, we will do anything to protect ourselves. If we examine further, this self-cherishing is a notion of ‘self’, such as ‘my identity’ or ‘my image’. It is a state of ego. Descartes’ existential insight of “I think therefore I am” is quite similar to this self-cherishing. We are attached to ego and see it as part of us. When we pay attention for a long time to a particular action or object, the ego becomes stronger. Applying the Five Aggregates, when I see two men holding hands in public, it led me to think of my partner’s aversion to hold my hand in public. I perceive it as society’s discrimination of same-sex couples. This made me feel hurt and anger because my desire for equal treatment between LGBTQ couples and heterosexual couples is denied. This proves the reality that society discriminates against persons who are LGBTQ. In reaction, I hold on to my identity as a person who is LGBTQ even stronger. I cherish this identity and pay continued attention to future discriminations which reinforce my ego.
4. Overcoming Ego, Overcoming Discrimination
Learning to see the ego as impermanent reduces and ceases our suffering. We can train our mind from a constantly grasping state to becoming at ease and clear. As we continue to train ourselves in seeing the ‘ego’ as part of the Five Aggregates, we can see clearer that the ego is impermanent. Just in one day, we take on different identities at different times. When I take breakfast at the coffee shop, I am a customer. In the office, I am an employee, and in the concert hall, I am an audience.
We generally do not invest too much effort in impermanence. For example, we do not think of striking a friendship with a bus passenger beside us. Since the ego is impermanent, we can learn to let it go. When our mind is not affected, it is at ease. We do not cling onto a particular identity over 24 hours in a day. In fact we cannot because our attention is regularly changing. The more we let go of our identity, the less we have to react. Impulsive or habitual reactions that we suffer from will give way to calm responses. In letting go of our identity, it does not mean that we let go of duties to family and society. We must still apply conventional wisdom in our roles and responsibilities.
5. Overcome Discrimination – Transcend From Within
There is a Zen description of freedom from mental perceptions – “seeing the mountain as mountain; seeing the mountain not as mountain; and seeing the mountain as a mountain again” (见山是山，见山不是山，见山又是山). The first stage of seeing the mountain is our normal way of looking at things. At the second stage, we are able to apply our understanding of impermanence and ego. We see that societal norms are actually pre-conceived ideas rather than mandates cast in stone as they are impermanent and subject to change. Hence we see the mountain not as a mountain. When we again see the mountain as a mountain, we can then work with social norms but no longer suffer from their restrictions or limitations.
6. Discrimination Of LGBTQ – Fight Back Or Suffer In Silence
The Buddhist way is to protect our mind so that we can calmly consider the most appropriate action rather than suffer through unconsidered reactions. The Buddha identified eight conditions in this world that affect or distract us from maintaining our composure. They are, pleasure and pain; praise and blame; fame and defame; and gain and loss. These eight worldly winds such as winning a lottery or being unfairly accused constantly blow at us but we must remain unaffected. A wise response covers two aspects – keeping a calm mind to minimize mental suffering and taking the most appropriate form of action. Hence when the discrimination causes too much harm and damage, it is up to the individual to decide what to do.
7. Suffering Created By The Notion Of Penal Code Section 377A
The government’s stand is not to intrude into personal lifestyle so it does not enforce this law actively. It is subjective to people’s complaints. In alleviating suffering from this notion, we can consider how the monastic apply the Four Great Standards to the Vinaya (Ethics) Code:
- If the Vinaya allows and society allows, then it is allowed. Eg. Charitable acts.
- If the Vinaya allows and society disallows, then it is disallowed. Eg. Going for long term monkhood ordination before completing National Service.
- If the Vinaya disallows and society allows, then it is disallowed. Eg. Drinking of alcohol.
- If Vinaya disallows and society disallows, then it is disallowed. Eg. killing/murder.
This guideline helps to bring clarity when making decisions but context must always be considered. Different contexts throw up different or even conflicting outcomes for a similar event.
Generally, society expresses approval through laws enforced by the police and social norms ‘enforced’ by the ‘moral police’. For example, the ‘Wear White’ campaign is a moral policing of ‘Pink Dot’, which is a legal event.
For Penal Code Section 377A, different religions have different moral guidelines. In Buddhism, the fundamental issue is sexual intercourse between same-sex partners outside a relationship. There are two yardsticks with the one for monastic stricter then that for lay persons.
8. Same-sex Relationships
The precept of abstaining from sexual misconduct for lay people is observed by not having sexual activity with another person who is in a steady long-term relationship, an engagement, in a marriage, under the independent age (where parents or guardians still look after their well-being) or those who entail punishment (dependent on secular law).
While casual sex may not be “wrong”, we have to consider how it will harm ourselves and people around us before taking action. Same-sex marriage is not described in Buddhist scriptures but is subjected to conventional law. If marriage and parenting are very important to a couple, they may have to migrate to countries endorsing same-sex marriage.
9. Coming Out And Familial Acceptance Of LGBTQ
We seek acceptance from our parents just as they seek acceptance from us. It takes effort and time for a person to change. On our part, we must be true to ourselves by being clear about our identity, aspirations and goals. Then what other people perceive is a different matter. We may be ‘sacrificing’ our happiness by not coming out, but we will hurt our parents if we manage it badly. Eventually our parents will not want us to suffer and for themselves to continue suffering. While we wait for the right moment to bring up the topic, we continue to keep our original aspiration in mind. In the meantime, we train for our mind to be at ease and create causes for the change. If we face objection after the first attempt, we re-analyze and patiently wait for the right conditions to bring up the topic again.
10. Change Requires Creating Favourable Causes
When an aspiration is made, there must be causes for the effect to materialize. Instead of passive inaction, we can actively work to create causes for the desired effect. In his ordination journey, Phra Chun Kiang faced disapproval from his mother for several years. The first objection was when he was in school. Phra Chun Kiang realized that the timing was not right as he had to complete his studies. Although his mother dissuaded him several times, he continued to be true to his original aspiration. Phra Chun Kiang created the causes for change by building a positive relationship with his mother. Eventually after his National Service, his mother changed her mind and he ordained with her blessing.
11. Born This Way
In Hinduism, their Kama Sutra already defined more sexual orientations beyond LGBTQ thousands of years ago; even before Buddha’s time. Different people have different inclinations developed through many lifetimes, thus they are being ‘born this way’. Right or wrong of one’s sexual orientation is a lot based on societies’ perception.
As to whether we can change that we are ‘born this way’, we must understand that all conditions are impermanent. With sufficient causes, change will happen. No one is born a millionaire for all their lifetimes.
Due to habitual inclinations from past lives, change takes time and effort. Some habits are built up over so many lifetimes that the karma is very strong. The Buddha did not achieve enlightenment in one lifetime. He put in a lot of work over many lifetimes to create the causes for the condition of Enlightenment to ripen.
12. Is Clinging Onto Sexuality A Suffering?
In Buddhism, the ideal state is for the mind to be at peace and contented. Hence it does not find enjoyment in sexual activities. The closest state is to be asexual. We are asexual when we observe the Eight Precepts (refrain from killing; stealing; sexual activity; incorrect speech; intoxicants; eating after noon; entertainment and self-adornment; and lying on high luxurious bed) or when one has Samadhi (concentration).
Letting go of clinging is both a concept and a practice. While it is a theoretical ideal, it requires a lot of training and contemplation to achieve. Even if a person fully understands the theoretical ideal, there can still be emotional clinging. The practice must continue until there is no interest and it feels so.
13. Scriptures On LGBTQ And Ordination
The Buddha did not speak of sexual orientations in lay persons ethics hence it is a non-issue for people who are LGBTQ. India, at the time of the Buddha, accepted varied sexual orientations, as evidenced in the Kama Sutra of Hinduism.
The Vinaya, a code of conduct for monastic, restricts monkhood ordination to only persons of male gender. Junior monks must take care of senior monks’ daily living activities such as bathing, laundry and eating. The close proximity is a distraction to celibacy, which is a requirement for a monk’s training. On a case by case basis, gay men who achieved sufficiently deep meditation in Samadhi (stillness) can be ordained depending on the preceptor (monk conducting the ordination).
14. Do You Need A Teacher For Meditation?
It is strongly encouraged to have a teacher as your practice may go the wrong way.
15. Buddhism’s View Of LGBTQ In Singapore
The statistics of Singapore shows that most Buddhists are of Chinese ethnicity. Hence Chinese culture strongly influences Buddhism in Singapore. In Chinese culture, passing on the family name is very important, so ordination is strongly disapproved as the expectation is for straight marriages to produce children. In Buddhism, boundless compassion is very important as all sentient beings deserve to be well and happy; and we all have equal potential for Buddha-hood. Culture and religion must be differentiated. There are fundamental differences in practices and goals. Cultural baggage requires cultural solution (eg. creating more public awareness and education). Buddhism has successfully thrived in different countries given its ability to adapt. For example, spiritually, everyone is treated equally in the Buddhist practice of compassion. But in running temples, the organizers have to be sensitive to cultural norms of generally privileging male over female, lay devotees with more precepts over the ones with lesser precepts, etc…
Traditionally, Buddhists kept to themselves. If the external, such as social norms, could not be changed, Buddhists work on the internal, finding peace within and with the surrounding. However, for circumstances in our life, when others are strongly disagreeable, it is wiser to withdraw and learn how to be at peace before responding. In the meantime, pain and discomfort can be endured with the peace in our mind.
In the ‘Simile of the Saw’ Sutta, the Buddha taught his disciples: “Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate’.”
Although the ideal is to turn the other cheek without anger, we try our best within our limits.
About Venerable Phra Chun Kiang –
2008 – Bhikkhu ordination into the Theravada tradition of Thai Dhammayut sect at Santi Forest Monastery in Johor, Malaysia
5 rains retreats were spent at various forest monasteries in Malaysia and Thailand Residing Currently residing at Palelai Buddhist Temple in Singapore
2013 – Member of the Inter-Religious Organisation Youth to promote harmony and understanding among various faith groups
2014 – Religious Advisor to Buddhist Youth Network
2015 – Religious Advisor to Singapore Polytechnic Buddhist Society
Pelangi Pride Centre
The Pelangi Pride Centre is a LGBT community space and resource centre located in Singapore offering monthly events and a library of fiction and non-fiction books of LGBT interests.