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Towards a queer dharmology of sex

Roger Corless

To cite this Article: Corless, Roger , 'Towards a queer dharmology of sex', Culture and Religion, 5:2, 229 - 243 To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/143830042000225457 URL:


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Roger Corless


Lay practitioners of Buddhism, especially lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer per- sons, are given little guidance by the traditional Dharmology (Buddhist theology) of sex. The most extensive discussions are the detailed prohibitions in the monastic rule, which focus on the mechanics of sex rather than on love and relationships. What advice there is on sex for lay persons is either vague or over-determined by its cultural context. Christianity, despite being homophobic and mistrustful of sex, has developed a positive attitude towards sex within heterosexual marriage. An investigation of this suggests a Dharmology of sex as relationship, based on central Buddhist doctrines such as interdependent arising. This Dharmology can be strengthened by queering it with reference to Harry Hay’s notion that gay subject–SUBJECT consciousness is more compatible with Buddhist non-duality than the hetero subject–object consciousness. It can be claimed, therefore, that Buddha Nature, and Buddhism itself, is queer.


bian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer; Vinaya

Buddhism; sexuality; monastics, Buddhist; lay persons, Buddhist; les-

Speaking on ‘The Holiness of Sexuality’, the American gay poet James Broughton remarked: ‘Buddha is very down on desire. Broughton is very up on desire’ (Broughton 1991, 43). There are good reasons for being down on sexual desire, for finding ways to channel and control this most powerful of human drives, but it is time to ask about the very: why is Buddhism so very down on desire and, therefore, sex? Can it be at least a little bit up on sex and still be recognisable as Buddhism? It is time to ask this because Buddhism in the West is a non-monastic phenomenon. For most of its history Buddhism has had more lay followers than monastics, but the spotlight has been on the monastics, as if they were the actors in a play and the lay people were the audience. When Ashoka said ‘Where there is the Samgha, there is the Dharma’, he meant the

there is the Samgha, there is the Dharma’, he meant the Culture and Religion Vol. 5,

Culture and Religion Vol. 5, No 2, 2004

ISSN 0143-8301 print/1475-5629 online/04/02000229-15

2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd

DOI: 10.1080/143830042000225457

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monastic community (bhiks u-sam gha), not the Buddhist community as a whole. Lay people were second-class Buddhists—they did not have, in this life, the good roots (kus´ala-mula) or the fortunate karma to take the monastic precepts. But now, in the twenty-first century in the West, lay people are moving out of the shadows, towards the centre of Buddhist life. 1 Early monastic Buddhism was democratic. Decisions were made by con- sensus (sangha-kamma). The Pali texts quote the Buddha as being opposed to caste. Over the centuries, however, hierarchy and a kind of caste system have proliferated within the Samgha. Recently, some followers of Nichiren (1222–1282) rebelled against the stultifying control of a corrupt clergy and with, unfortunately, a lot of shouting and bad feeling on both sides, the lay association Soka Gakkai International (SGI) broke away from Nichiren Shoshu, its clerical parent. A notable effect of the break is the freedom that SGI gained to re-organise along democratic lines, and to re-assess its teaching on sexuality. Not only does it support married life, it enthusiastically accepts the contribution of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/ queer (LGBTQ) persons (Corless 2002). LGBTQ persons should be in the vanguard of updated thinking on sexu- ality. If we are bisexual or ‘formerly’ heterosexual we may have produced children, but when we are acting as gays or lesbians our sexuality is one of relationship, not of reproduction. That is, we value sexuality for its own sake, not as a means to an end, as a mechanism for perpetuating the species. In this article I will review traditional Buddhist attitudes towards sex, comment on their strengths and weaknesses, and suggest an approach to sexuality that is more consonant with a culture in which Buddhism has regained its original democracy and is at last taking the lay person seriously. This approach stresses the important contribution of LGBTQ persons in the develop- ment of such a dharmology.

Traditional Buddhism and sex Monastic regulations

The Vinaya (the collection of Buddhist monastic regulations) expects the monastic to refrain from all sexual activity. The general rule is stated at the beginning of the Pa¯timokkha:

Should any bhikkhu having undertaken the bhikkhus’ training rules and way of life and having [still] neither disclaimed the training-rule nor declared his inability [to keep it], engage in sexual intercourse even with a female animal, he is defeated and no more in communion. (Pa¯timokkha 1966, 18, precept 1:1)

This formulation seems at first to be quite clear and specific—a man who has undertaken the discipline (sikkha¯) of the monastic life is to refrain from copu-

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lation (methuna) with a woman, and if he has not undertaken the training, or if he has formally disclaimed it, the rule does not apply. However, the term methuna and the compound meaning ‘even with a female animal’ (tira- ccha¯nagata¯ya ’pi) are given wider meanings with reference to other passages in the Vinaya and the commentaries. The prohibition is expanded to include anal and oral, as well as vaginal, copulation with a woman, any sexual activity with a male human being, with a non-human being, with a male or hermaphrodite animal, or with the ambiguous individual known as pan d aka. 2 Masturbation is also forbidden, although it entails a lesser punishment—‘a meeting of the community’ (san˙gha¯disesa, literally ‘[a matter which] begins and ends in the community’) requiring an ad hoc decision, usually involving temporary suspen- sion.

Intentional emission of the semen, except in a dream, entails initial and subsequent meeting of the community. (Pa¯timokkha 1966, 2, precept 2:1)

These two rules should be, we might think, sufficient, but the Pa¯timokkha goes on to prohibit 26 other actions that it fears might lead a monk to break the primary rule. 3 These include fairly obvious precautions such as not touching a woman, not talking to her suggestively, and not sitting with a woman in a secluded place, but there are also some rather obscure precepts such as not having wool prepared (for a monastic habit) by a woman who is not a relative. The 28 sexual prohibitions in the Pa¯timokkha are only the beginning—in the Vinaya as a whole a great many sexual activities, some of them quite bizarre (such as auto-fellatio) are mentioned only to be prohibited. Why does the Vinaya go into such detail? The standard, and most obvious, answer is that it is due to the casuistic way in which it developed. When a question about monastic discipline arose during the lifetime of the Buddha, he was asked to promulgate a rule. The Vinaya list is long, we are told, only because the monks were so inventive in looking for loopholes. This is all well and good, but the effect of enshrining these offences in a sacred text, couching them in the negative, and placing them in the Pa¯timokkha, which is recited in the Community every two weeks, is to focus the mind obsessively on the problem, not on the solution.

Lay precepts

In contrast to the wealth of material on sex in the monastic code, Buddhism is strangely taciturn on the subject of sex among lay people; that is, the Buddhists who were actually expected to be having sex. However, once again, what is said about it is negative. Sex is mentioned in the third of the five fundamental precepts of ethical conduct (´is¯la). In the Pali version this precept reads ka¯mesu miccha¯ca¯ra¯ veramani¯ sikkha¯padarn˙ sama¯diya¯mi, which we might translate as ‘I undertake the

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rule of training to abstain from sexual wrongdoing’. Ka¯ma is a richly evocative word that consumes nearly seven columns of small print in the Pali–English Dictionary (Pali Text Society 1921–1925). Its basic meaning is ‘sensual pleasure’, and it is always taken to mean, in the context of this precept, the pleasure of sex. The compound miccha¯ca¯ra¯ literally means ‘conduct which is false or wrongly performed’ (a variant of miccha¯ is mithu, which is cognate with the English prefix mis- as in misdeed). However, when we ask ‘what, specifically, is wrongdoing?’, we find very little in the texts to help us with an answer. The Tibetan Master Gampopa gives the following list in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation:

There are three types of sexual misconduct: protected by the family, protected by the owner, and protected by the Dharma. The first one means sexual misconduct with one’s mother, sister, and so forth. The second one means sexual misconduct with someone owned by a husband or king, and so forth. The third one has five subcategories: even with one’s own wife, sexual misconduct refers to improper parts of the body, improper place, improper time, improper number, and improper behaviour. Improper parts of the body are the mouth and anus. Improper places are close to the spiritual master, monastery, or stupa, or in a gathering of people. Improper times are during a special retreat, when pregnant, while nursing a child, or when there is light. An improper number is more than five times. Improper behavior refers to beating or having intercourse with a male or hermaphrodite [i.e., pan d aka] in the mouth or anus. (Gampopa 1998, 113; cf. Gampopa 1959, 76; 1995, 76–77)

Gampopa does not justify the inclusion of any of these activities in his list, and he reproduces it as if it is already well known and accepted. This specific set of activities does not appear to go back to the sutras or any other buddhavacana (Word of the Buddha), and its origin and meaning is at present, as far as I am aware, mysterious. It seems to have the following components: sexual miscon- duct as similar to stealing, as harmful to the partner, as abhorrent to established custom, and as addictive. It may also be influenced by what the medical lore of the time regarded as sexual dysfunction. These considerations may be addressed briefly as follows: 4

Sexual misconduct as stealing. The wording of this comment makes it clear that the partner is assumed to be a woman who is the property of another man. In a society where the equality of the sexes is fully recognised it does not apply.

Sexual misconduct as harming the partner. Rape is, we now realise, more about power than sexual pleasure. Its condemnation is not culturally specific and is thoroughly Buddhist.

Sexual misconduct as abhorrent to established custom. The intent seems to be to protect the good name of Buddhists and Buddhism. In cultures that encourage individualism and innovation, this issue is of minimal importance.

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Sexual misconduct as addictive. The image presented by Gampopa is that of a man who sees women as sexual objects and little more, and who cannot restrain himself from copulating again and again. Such a person would today be referred to a psychotherapist.

Sexual misconduct as sexual dysfunction. The identification of ‘improper parts of the body’ may derive from medical models that were compelling at the time of the Buddha (or of Gampopa) but that no longer seem credible. 5

Generally, lay sexual misconduct is not dealt with in detail and is chiefly confined to the condemnation of adultery.

Tantric sex

If there is little to say about sex and the Buddhist lay person, there is (despite popular rumours to the contrary) much less to say about Tantric sex. The Orientalist imagination filled the monasteries in the Land of Snows with randy mystics who were constantly ‘on the job’. Their approach to sex, we were

told, was positive, reversing the body-negating practices of early Buddhism. This blessed lasciviousness has recently broken out of the fancied cloister to become

a growth industry. For a not inconsiderable sum one can now, according to the

advertisements in some popular New Age magazines, enjoy one’s partner in a weekend of so-called Tantric ecstasy on Maui. The reality is that Tantric sexual yoga is a method of realising enlightened attitude or pure perspective so that the practitioner can go out from the session to teach and transform beings with renewed wisdom and compassion. It is not recreational sex and it is not about establishing and nurturing a committed relationship with a human partner. Some Tantric teachers are married, but the

marriage itself does not seem to be the focus of their Tantric practice.

Summary and conclusions

Traditional Buddhist attitudes towards sex are unrelievedly negative. Mon- astic celibacy is praised, and marriage, or indeed any sexual activity, is at best permitted as a weakness that the Buddhist hopes to overcome in a subsequent life by building stronger roots of merit in this life. Sexuality is reduced to the physical activity of the genitals fuelled by passionate desire (ra¯ga) for sensual pleasure (ka¯ma) that can never be sated, and therefore is addictive. The focus of attention is the male, with the sexual activity of the female being treated, if at all, by analogy with that of the male. 6 The heterosexism of this worldview supports a dualism between subject and object despite a rhetoric of non-duality. This discordance is especially poignant in Tantra, where the symbolism of non-duality is entirely patriarchal. The absence of any discussion of sexuality as

relationship, in a tradition that bases itself on the teaching of interdependence,

is startling. To this question we now turn.

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Sex and relationship A suggestion from Christianity

Christianity has, like Buddhism, a strong tradition of celibacy, but unlike Buddhism it also manages to honour, rather than merely tolerate, marriage and sexuality. The Christian witness is indeed not all positive—the ascetical writings are often pathological in their fear of sex and their hatred of women, but at the same time Christianity literally celebrates heterosexual marriage. Before the Reformation, and after it in the unreformed churches, celibacy ranked higher than marriage, but the liturgical books, nevertheless, provided a Christian context for marriage. In 1549 the Church of England replaced the library of old Latin service books with a single book in English, The Book of Common Prayer. The marriage service in this book begins with an address by the priest in which ‘holy matrimonie’ is called ‘an honorable estate instituted of God in paradise, in the time of mannes innocencie, signifying unto us the misticall union that is betwixte Christe and his Churche’. The address goes on to give three reasons for the institution of matrimony: first, for procreation, in an environment that permits the instruction of the offspring in the Christian life; second, a remedy against promiscuity; and third, and most significantly, ‘for the mutuall societie, helpe, and comfort, that the one oughte to haue of the other’ (Solemenizacion of Matrimonie 1549, 252). Martin Luther is the great Christian supporter of marriage over against celibacy, and the advocate of the virtues that accrue to the married state. 7 Having tried the monastic life and found it wanting, he wrote at first of marriage as little more than a concession to weakness and as the divinely ordained mechanism for the continuation of the human race. As he continued to study the Bible he found more and more support for defining marriage as (in the words of the Anglican liturgy) ‘that honourable estate instituted of God’, and no support at all for celibacy. After he married Katherine von Bora, a former nun, he enlarged his view of marriage to include companionship. He called marriage ‘a school for character’, and spoke of the trials of dealing with spouse and children as a more effective means for becoming virtuous than the isolated ascetical practices of the monastery (Bainton 1955, 234, chapter 17). Here are some of Luther’s words on ‘the school for character’, drawn from the Table Talk collection (Luther 1967):

There’s more to

be harmony

(No. 5524)

[marriage] than a union


with respect to patterns


the flesh. There must

ways of thinking.

life and

The first love is ardent, an intoxicated love which dazzles us and leads us on. When the intoxication has been slept off, the connubial love of the godly is genuine, while the ungodly have regrets. (No. 3530)

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He who takes a wife is not idle, for marriage keeps him busy…the annoyances of married life are [almost] unbearable. (No. 3508)

[When Luther’s son had cried inconsolably after his circumcision, Luther said:] These are the annoyances of marriage, and on their account every- body avoids marriage. We all fear the caprice of wives, the crying of children, bad neighbours. (No. 2867b)

A Buddhist response

To put it crudely, the view of sexuality in the Vinaya is a celibate’s wet dream: it concentrates on lust and genital activity. But a marriage or a commit- ted relationship is just that—a relationship—and without a focus on the connection between the partners, the relationship dies. When we query (or queery) the Dharma for help on relationships, we are almost overwhelmed by the material. It is a secret that has been hidden in plain sight. All we need do is apply the teachings to marriage and committed relationships. The teaching that reality is interdependent arising (prati¯tyasamutpa¯da, also translated as codependent origination or conditioned co-arising) is so central that it is sometimes said that fully awakening to this teaching constitutes perfect enlightenment. When a Buddhist is with a partner, whether intimately or socially, bringing the knowledge of interdependent arising into awareness will assist the relationship and, if the partner is also Buddhist, further the practice of both partners. Are there scriptural texts in Buddhism that support committed relation- ships in a way that is comparable with the support found in the Bible? With the caveat that the place of the text in Buddhism is not as central as it is in Christianity (Corless 1993), it can be said that there is a basis for a dharmology of sex as relationship in both Theravada and Mahayana. In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa (1923, 340–375, chapter 9) gives an extensive and detailed teaching on the four pure abidings (brahmaviha¯ra):

friendliness (metta¯), compassion (karun ), sympathetic joy (mudita¯) and equa- nimity (upekkha¯). He catalogues and describes them and explains how to develop and nurture them, supporting his teaching with many references to the suttas. He begins:

The student who wishes to begin with the development of the Four Divine States … should first … think on the evils of hate and the advantages of forbearance. Why? Verily by means of this practice hate is to be put away, forbearance is to be acquired. (Buddhaghosa 1923, 340)

We seem to hear Luther sighing, ‘Ah, yes, in the married state how many opportunities do we have to practice forbearance! And if couples had that virtue, how pleasant would be their home, with everyone living in that unity which is “like the oil on Aaron’s head which ran down to the collar of his robes” (Psalm


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Buddhaghosa is addressing monastics, but his teaching can be readily adapted to lay life. Couples may not have as much time for meditating on the pure abidings ‘in a secluded spot’ as Buddhaghosa recommends, but they will have more opportunities to develop these virtues in the vicissitudes of daily life.

Mahayana is richer than Theravada in teachings that explicitly address interconnection. The most elaborate teaching is in the Huayan Jing, a text that runs to more than 1500 pages in English translation (Flower Ornament Scripture 1984–1987). Its core teaching is helpfully summarised by Fazang (643–712 CE) in his Essay on the Golden Lion (Fung 1952–1953, volume 2, 339–359). Pointing to

a golden statue of a lion and using it as a metaphor of reality, he distinguished

between the gold as a symbol of essence, and the lion form as a symbol of manifestation, going on to describe in detail the various ways in which essence, or Buddha Nature, and manifestation, or everyday experience, interact and interpenetrate. His final teaching is the mutual interpenetration of manifestation with manifestation; that is, the coinherence of everyday reality, which, by interpenetration with Buddha Nature, is non-dual with reality seen from pure perspective, with itself. This teaching is so popular in East Asian Buddhism that

it is almost a cliche´ (Japanese: jijimuge). It can certainly be applied to interper- sonal relationships, deepening one’s understanding and practice of the Golden Rule, which is expressed in Tibetan Buddhism as ‘exchanging self for other’

(tonglen). The teaching of the Huayan Jing allows us to take everyday reality seriously, without the split between it and ‘finally established reality’ (as it is

called in Yoga¯ca¯ra), which a life of celibacy may support. In Christianity this split

is called the heresy of angelism—pretending that one is a disembodied spirit or

‘pure intelligence’ (as Aquinas defines an angel) rather than a body–soul unity, in accordance with orthodox Christian teaching. In Buddhism it may be identified by the Mahayana as being stuck at the Hinayana stage of practising self-benefit by observing negative precepts rather than advancing to the Bo- dhisattva path of other-benefit and the observance of the positive precepts of the perfections (pa¯ramita¯). Further support for this view is found in the sutras of the Tatha¯gatagarbha school, which sees reality as the womb or matrix (garbha) of the Buddha (Tatha¯gata). 8 The possibility of high attainment by the lay person is famously recounted in the Vimalaki¯rtinirdes´a (Holy Teaching of Vimalaki¯rti 1976). However, since this article aspires to be no more than a suggestion leading towards a dharmology of sex, and not an exposition of it, I will leave that matter to be explored in a later work. If we were to re-interpret the compound miccha¯ca¯ra¯ in the third precept as ‘inauthentic conduct’, it would include all of the aforementioned consider- ations. Actions that do not take account of the interdependent arising of all phenomena, of their interpenetration, and of the supreme value, or Buddha Nature, of the other person—all of which Thich Nhat Hanh summarises under the term interbeing—are not authentically Buddhist.

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Queering sexual relationships

Traditional Buddhist ethics, while teaching non-duality, assumes in practice the privileged status of the male heterosexual, addressing almost all of its remarks to him. Furthermore, while asserting the absence of essence (nih svabha¯va) in beings, it assumes in practice an essentialism of male and female. When we ‘queery’ and ‘queer’ these assumptions we permit Buddhism as it is practised (real Buddhism) to come into accord with Buddhist doctrine (ideal Buddhism). This ‘queering’ of Buddhist sexual ethics owes much to the pioneer- ing work of feminist Buddhologists such as Rita Gross (1993). 9 Buddhism teaches that the untrained mind divides the interconnectedness of reality into discrete units such as person, place, or thing, and assigns an essence or ‘own-being’ (svabha¯va) to them. The effect of this is to close up the basic openness of reality, to deny change, and, most importantly, to block the door to freedom by assuming that the suffering of samsara is imposed by fate or by some other outside force over which we have no control. When these supposed essences are subjected to analysis and insight (vipas´yana¯) they are found to be illusory, and ´us¯nyata¯ (emptiness or, as I prefer to translate, transpar- ency)—that is, the lack of inherent existence in persons, places, or things, is seen to be the case. The identification of men and women as male or female in their essence is then recognised as a function of untrained mind. Gross has shown that, at least for the Mahayana, there is considerable support for the argument that there is no such thing as inherent femaleness (and, by extension, no support for inherent maleness). There are many examples in the texts of persons changing from one sex to another so that, finally, the Dharma is neither male nor female (Gross 1993, chapter 5). The lack of gender in the Dharma and in enlightenment is put strongly in The Su¯tra of Sa¯gara, the Na¯ga King, chapter 14. Jewel Brocade, the Naga King’s daughter, tells the great male disciple Maha¯ka¯s´yapa:

‘You have said: “One cannot attain Buddhahood within a woman’s body.” Then, one cannot attain it within a man’s body either. What is the reason? Because the thought of enlightenment is neither male nor female’ (Paul 1979, 236; see also 235–241).

This argument is even stronger for queers. By ‘queer’ I mean anyone whose sexuality does not fit the accepted social model—lesbians, gays, bisexu- als, transgendered persons, and heterosexuals who enjoy non-normative sexual activities such as bondage, sadomasochism, and fetishism. What all these per- sons have in common is their indifference, or even opposition, to heterosexual activity in the missionary position. By their very existence they proclaim the absence of an intrinsic maleness or femaleness, and since most queers engage in non-reproductive sex they demonstrate that sexual love in humans is more about relationship than about reproduction. 10

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One of the more important discoveries of the feminist approach to cultures is the patriarchal nature not only of sexual mores, but of the culture in question as a whole. Patriarchal consciousness, feminists claim, goes along with a splitting of reality into the male subject and the female object. The male subject is regarded as rational, passionless, and a privileged observer. The universe ‘out there’ is made into the despised female other, irrational, full of disordered passions, and existing only to be possessed, controlled, and enjoyed by the male subject. Everything from the history of philosophy, through oppressive govern- ments, to the present ecological crisis has rather convincingly been ascribed to the exercise of the patriarchal consciousness. From a Buddhist perspective, the most obvious mistake that patriarchal consciousness makes is to split reality into subject and object. This is identified, especially by Yoga¯ca¯ra, as a serious block to understanding reality and achieving liberation from samsara. When reality is seen through feminist eyes, the patriar- chal dualism is not so much in evidence—but it is even less credible from a queer perspective that, by its fluidity, supports the teaching of the interdependence of subject and object.

Gay consciousness and non-duality

Harry Hay, who is generally regarded as the founder of the modern gay movement, has proposed that gays see reality differently (Timmons 1990; Hay was writing before the proliferation of acronyms such as ‘LGBT’ and the re-estab- lishment of the word queer). When a gay man falls in love with another man, the relationship is not that of subject to object, as it might be for a man and a woman, but of subject to another subject—not of ‘me’ to ‘another’ but of ‘me’ to ‘another me’. As Hay put it:

The Hetero monogamous relationship is one in which the participants, through bio-cultural inheritance, traditionally perceive each other as OBJECT. To the Hetero male, woman is primarily perceived as sex-object and then, only with increasing sophistication, as person-object. The Gay monogamous relationship is one in which the participants, through non-competitive instinctual inclinations, and contrary to cultural inheritances, perceive each other as Equals and learn, usually through deeply painful trials-and-errors, to experience each other, to continuously grow, and to develop with each other, empathically—as SUBJECT. (Hay 1996, 210; italics and small capitals in original)

Hay calls this gay consciousness subject–SUBJECT consciousness or analogue con- sciousness and proposes it as a solution to the problems brought about through the unthinking acceptance of patriarchal consciousness, or what he calls Hetero male consciousness. Hay regards the gay male as neither male nor female at the level of consciousness, but as something else. Gay men, he says, should think back to their boyhood, and recognise this:

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We allow Bully-boy to persuade us to search out the ‘feminine’ in our- selves—didn’t good ole Bully-boy used to tell us [sic] we threw balls like a girl? … Did you ever ask the girls back then if they thought you threw a ball like them? They’d have straightened you out in nothing flat! They’d have told you that you didn’t throw a ball like a girl, but like something other. You were not a feminine boy, like the boys said, you were OTHER! (Hay 1996, 260)

Hay then goes on to describe how gays are other, living in what he calls a ‘new planet of Fairy-vision’ (Hay 1996, 260). This vision, as his friend and collaborator Mitch Walker claims, overturns our conditioned views of reality:

‘Imagine, for instance, that the tops of the trees are really the roots’ (Walker, in Thompson 1987). Hay states: ‘Subject–SUBJECT consciousness is a multi- dimensional consciousness which may never be readily conveyable in the Hetero-male-evolved two-dimensional, or Binary, language to which we are primarily confined’ (Hay 1996, 260). Gay or queer consciousness, then, challenges dualistic thinking and replaces it with non-dual consciousness, and overturns, inverts or turns inside out, consensus reality. This is a stated goal of Buddhism. Ordinary, deluded views about reality are called ‘upside down’ (viparya¯sa). The Yoga¯ca¯ra school teaches that wisdom (jn˜a¯na) is obtained when consciousness (vijn˜a¯na) is reversed—liter- ally turned around or turned inside out (para¯vr tti). Perfect wisdom appears when the deepest level of consciousness, base or store consciousness (a¯laya- vijn˜a¯na), is reversed (a¯s´raya-para¯vr tti). If this is true, queer consciousness is more compatible with the Buddha Dharma than the traditional patriarchal conscious- ness, and we can expect queer thinking to refresh and reform Buddhism in the West.

The Buddha Nature is queer

Harry Hay’s paean to gay consciousness is somewhat idealistic, and it tends to oppose ‘good’ gays to ‘bad’ heterosexuals. In real life, we find many gay men, lesbians, and queer persons in general, who are anything but loving and egalitarian. On the other hand, we also find heterosexual men and women who have a gay, or, as we might say now, a queer, consciousness. Locating gay or queer consciousness in non-heterosexuals and denying it to heterosexuals escapes from one essentialism only to fall into another. The way that we can refresh Buddhism by queering it, in my opinion, is to foster the queer conscious- ness that is, I believe, present in all humans. When SGI split off from its clerical Japanese parent and followed its own insights into the nature of true Buddhism, many queer members were encour- aged to see their Buddha Nature as queer. Martha ‘BiBi’ Potts, an African-American member of SGI, presumed at first that she ‘could fully carry out her life purpose’ only if she ceased being a lesbian. She earnestly chanted the

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Daimoku (the mantra NAM’ MYO HO REN GE KYO, which honours the Lotus Sutra as the teaching of the true Dharma), sometimes for 10 hours a day, for 10 years. Her sexual orientation did not change, but she could not get a date. In 1998 she had

a spiritual experience on hearing a passage from the teachings of Nichiren (the

root teacher of her lineage): ‘Cherry, plum, peach or damson blossoms—all just

as they are, are entities possessing their own unique qualities’. She realised ‘I am

a pear trying to be a cherry’, accepted herself as a lesbian, and recovered her

zest for life (Perry 2002). Another SGI member, Peter Nellhaus (2000), quotes this same passage in an essay on accepting his bisexuality. The SGI members whom I interviewed in San Francisco in Spring 2002 seemed to be comfortable with an identification of ‘[one’s] own unique qualities’ or ‘one’s own true potential’ with the Buddha Nature as it is taught in the Lotus Sutra. I want to extend this insight and suggest that it is not only the Buddha Nature of queers that is queer, but the Buddha Nature in itself is queer. Queer consciousness is not really about sex, although sex is a part of it; it

is about relationships, it removes our attention from sex as genital interaction

and the mechanics of reproduction, and transforms addictive lust (ra¯ga and ka¯ma) into the pure abidings. It creates an environment in which Buddhism can re-visit sexual relationships and see them as noble. This conclusion is not only applicable to the lay person. The Vinaya remains intact. Its pornographic prohibitions might well be allowed to gather honourable dust except when they are really needed, but the monastic witness is central to Buddhism. Siddhattha Gotama, the Buddha for our space-time continuum, was a monk, and there is massive scriptural support for monasticism in Buddhism. Lax observance of the rule is not an argument for the abolition of the bhiks u-samgha or bhiks u-sam gha (the order of monks or nuns); it is merely an indication that the Samgha should be reformed. The celibate who is in touch with his/her queer consciousness (whether he/she self-identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgendered, or plain old heterosexual), is existentially in touch with the Dharma, which is neither male nor female. Not only the Buddha Nature, but also the Dharma, is queer. It queers samsara, it questions our unawakened mind that sees only samsara, and shocks it awake so that we can see samsara as nirvana.


1. I use the term ‘the West’ in its cultural rather than geographical sense, following the suggestion of Hodgson (1993).

2. For the complete list, see Vajiran˜ anavarorasa (2512/1969), vol.1:28–9. On the meaning of pan d aka, often but misleadingly translated as homosexual, hermaphrodite, or eunuch, see Zwilling (1992).

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taught in Catholic High Schools—usually to the merriment of the students— but they have never been given formal ecclesiastical approval.

4. For a more extended discussion, see Corless (2001).

5. Zwilling (1992, 204, note 6) alludes to this possibility, but more research needs to be carried out to clarify the issue.

6. In Madison, Wisconsin in 1980, a teacher told the women students (who comprised fully one-half of the group) to ‘reverse’ the symbolism, but they were given no instruction on how to understand the recommendation to ‘retain the [energy of the] semen’.

7. For many valuable insights into Luther, I am indebted to the late Professor Timothy Lull, President of the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, for an interview that he graciously granted me on Tuesday, 14 May 2002. Lull’s (1999) work is an entertaining and learned introduction to Luther that stimulates the reader to reflect on the past, present, and future of Lutheranism.

8. Very few of these sutras have been translated into English. One of the smaller


sutras of the group is available as Lion’s Roar of Queen S ri¯ma¯la¯ (1974).

9. Gross’ book has already become a classic. One of the more disturbing recent works, written by an author who makes extensive use of the major French feminist theorists, is Campbell (1996), which charges that an unexamined sexism has led to a covering up of serious Vinaya violations in the context of the teacher–disciple relationship.

10. This point was made long ago in a neglected article by the Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyev (1945).


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