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Queer Sexualities in Buddhist Texts


With the hope that we will provide a more balanced understanding of the relationship between queerness and global religions, our sub-group, “Systems of Knowledge,” has chosen to examine Buddhism in addition to our selected “Western” religions. While we are hoping to illustrate a small portion of the diverse ways in which religious affiliation can intersect with queer identities, we recognize the limitations within the scope of our project. Inevitably, there will be many communities left unexplored. While we can not offer a definitive analysis of how every religion interacts with every identity on the queer spectrum, or even explore any particular identity or religion as in-depth as it deserves to be studied, we still hope to inform anyone who would like to know how a select few religions relate to the occurrence of several non-normative sexualities. Personally, I would like all queer readers to have a better understanding of what communities may offer them a safe spiritual space. Similarly, I would like to challenge all readers to question the basis of inclusion within religious communities and the role of sacred texts in establishing exclusion.


Queer Sexualities in Buddhist Texts

In order to begin on a positive note, I would like to examine a queer concept that is, refreshingly enough, accepted with relative ease within Buddhist texts: The change of biological sex. There are a number of stories from various sources that indicate, as Peter Harvey contends in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, “sex-change… is not seen as limiting spiritual potential.” The Vinaya, in particular, tells two stories involving the change of biological sex. One story depicts a man whose body adopts female “sexual characteristics” and the other portrays a woman who respectively transforms into the “opposite” sex. In both of these stories, the character who undergoes such a change begins as a spiritually devoted person and remains so throughout the process (The man begins as a monk, later becoming a nun, and the woman, who begins the story as a nun, eventually becomes a monk.). Not only do these stories refuse to depict biological sex as fixed and immutable, but they illustrate that a difference between man’s spiritual worth and woman’s spiritual worth is virtually indistinguishable. It remains important to note, however, that in each of these stories, the subject conformed to whatever biological sex s/he possessed at the time. For example, the ex-monk nun is expected to follow the prescripts of the nun community after hir transformation but doe not do so while still a monk. It is also crucial to bear in mind that the contemporary notion of “transexual” had not been conceptualized by the time this text was written; There is no comparable equivalents to the “transitioning” period experienced by transexual men and women within these older texts and sex-change is framed as something that simply happens to a body without the intervention of science and technology as opposed to a process a participant struggles to accomplish through these tools. In addition to these stories from the Vinaya, the Dhammapada tells a more problematic instance of sex-change in which a man, sexually attracted to a monk, instantly becomes a woman. Ze then marries the monk, bears his child, and reverts back to a man upon asking the father of hir child for forgiveness. This story inaccurately portrays same-sex attraction as, if not the direct causation of, a catalyst for changes in biological sex. Even more troubling is the story’s resolution, in which, after his second transition, the ex-female male apologizes for his non-normative experience to his past lover. In this instance, individuals who change sex are depicted in a far less flattering manner than in the stories from the Vinaya. Not only are they portrayed as agents in regrettable occurrences, but they are also associated with an addition stigmatized queer identity: that of the man who is sexually attracted to other men. Although ex-male females and ex-female males are far from deified in Buddhist texts, they are considered far more tolerable than additional queer identities that challenge the binary of male/female.

Within the Buddhist tradition, there are at least two categories of non-normative biological sexes with various hierarchical implications: the “hermaphrodite” and the “pandaka.” The former category, which I will refer to as “multi-sexed” from here on in order to avoid both the stigmatization of the word “hermaphrodite” and the association with the contemporary identity of intersex, can further break down into male and female versions of that same larger category. The female multi-sexed body is supposedly capable of both impregnating and being impregnated hirself while the male multi-sexed body is incapable of being impregnated. Both bodies are assumed to be bisexual and banned from being ordained because of their capacity for attraction to both men and women. Such a capacity is erroneously seen as indicative of promiscuity and distracting within a monastery setting. Not only are they banned in order to reduce distractions and violations of celibacy, but because they are seen as spiritually inferior and incompetent. The Milindapañha insists that multi-sexed bodies are “obstructed,” incapable of fully grasping the teachings of Buddha, otherwise known as the Dhamma. This is perhaps in part because of the assumed causation of multi-sexed bodies. Possessing multiple sexes is not seen as a random biological occurrence but rather a condition inflicted upon a body due to one of four karmic causes, usually involving desire for the body of another man, sometimes resulting in deceit and trickery. Peter Harvey explains, “Just as [the Buddhist scholar] Buddhaghosa sees hermaphrodites as bisexual, this sees homosexual activity as leading to hermaphroditism.”

While multi-sexed bodies possess multiple genitalia, the second category, that of the pandaka, is seen as sexually defective due to some sort of absence in sexual morphology. Though pandakas are usually males born without or possessing undescended testicles, the term can also include females with “organic [abnormalities] of the uterus” or without a dividing barrier between their vagina and anus. Harvey contends that just as “the hermaphrodite has the sexual characteristics of both genders, it appears that the pandaka is seen as one who has the characteristics of neither gender.” While the multi-sexed body is often seen as lustful due to their own physical sexual excess, pandakas are portrayed as promiscuous due to a deep sense of yearning. Comparable to prostitutes and “course young girls,” pandakas are believed to be “dominated by lust and longing for friendship with anyone.” Generally believed to partake in an array of perverted sexual behavior, pandakas are often associated with “passive homosexuality,” meaning the act of being penetrated by another male. Though pandakas are generally said to enjoy this activity, not all men categorized as “homosexual” in Buddhists texts are considered pandakas. While homoerotic acts and desires can cause a body to possess multiple sexes, the causes for rebirth as a pandaka are generally less sexual, yet still considered unethical. The Buddha supposedly banned their ordination after a pandaka monk begged a group of men to “defile him,” resulting in a rumor that monks were either defilers of pandakas or pandakas themselves and generally associating the monastery with perversion. While they are not accepted into monastery life, it may initially appear that they hold some privilege in the political sphere of Buddhist life. They often attended to the king at his palace and were even among one of the few people allowed within the women’s apartment. However, these exceptions are not due to any special privilege but instead because of a belief in their inferiority; pandakas are accepted into the king’s palace and permitted around the women because they are seen as harmless, incapable of posing a sexual threat to the king. Similar “privileges” are awarded due to insulting prejudice. For instance, such a benign level of desirability also contributes to the fact that it is considered less offensive for a nun to break her celibacy by sleeping with a pandaka than if she were to have done so with a male. Fourth century monk Vasubandhu also believed it was less heinous for a pandaka to kill hir mother or hir father than a male or female member of society due to “the ‘medicority’ of their kindness.” Additionally, they are believed to be incapable of keeping a secret and incapable of practicing discipline–yet another rationalization for their exclusion from the monastery. While one is believed to become a pandaka at conception, it is also believed that it is possible for a pandaka to gain the sexual characteristics of a man if he saves a bull from castration. Life as a pandaka is similarly preventable, as its roots are in past karmic transgressions. Some Buddhists believe, however, that birth as a pandaka is actually caused by memories from a past life in which one was a member of the “opposite” sex.

Although same-sex attraction is often discussed as the cause of multi-sexed bodies and pandakas, men who engage in sexual activity with other men are also recognized as an entirely separate category. The majority of discussion surrounding same-sex sexual activity involves various rules and sanctions within monastic life. Homoerotic feelings in general are seen as inhibiting spiritual growth by distracting the possessor of them with lust and jealousy. Penalties involving sexual conduct vary amongst men are women, reflected in the various levels of severity numerous transgressions have. For instance, it is far more offensive for a monk to masturbate another male than it is for a nun to slap the genitals of another female. Oddly enough, nuns are forbidden from sitting on a couch together while monks are free to do so. While most prescripts involving sexual conduct in Buddhist texts are designed to limit breaches in celibacy in general, regardless of if they are carried out by members of the same or contrasting sex, there are no positive affirmations of same-sex attraction, sexual practices, or relationships. Theravada, the oldest branch of Buddhism, declares it a “wrong practice” and Mahāyāna, a later branch, cite texts that depict a gruesome punishment for the man that is attracted to other men: “[He will see] boys being swept away in the Acid River who cry out to him, and owing to the suffering and pain born of his deep affection for them, [plunge] in after them.” Not only does the warning of karmic punishment suggest that there is something sinful or immoral about two men engaging in sexual activity, but this particular story associates same-sex attraction with pedophilia. It should be noted, however, that the sources of this story also tell the punishment for a man who defiles a sacred text: He will be reincarnated as a book. As per usual, mention of same-sex sexual activity between two women pales in comparison to the number of mentions of activity between two men, which in turn pales in comparison to the discussion on activity between a man and a woman. According to Harvey, however, this is due to an unconscious omission rather than a tactful gesture. He explains that sexual activity between a man and a woman was not only more common, but also more perilous, as the result of this activity can produce an additional human life. Ultimately, however, same-sex attraction is never framed in a positive light.

Depictions of queer identities in Buddhist texts are, at best, complicated. As recently as 1997, Office of Tibet spokesperson Dawa Tsering told the press, “[The Dalai Lama] opposes violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation.” While it may be true that these texts never prescribe violence as the appropriate reaction to non-normative sexualities, they are far from encouraging. They misrepresent queer identities as malfunctioning organisms who are either spiritually stifled or completely incapable of spiritual progress. Though various schools of Buddhism may choose to reinterpret or readjust their relationship to these texts in the future, the fact remains that queer bodies and practices are greatly stigmatized in these original texts.


Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices.    Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

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