A post which Tricycle editor James Shaheen recently wrote at the Huffington Post blog has picked up a good bit of attention around the internet.  James’s subject was the Dalai Lama’s views on gay marriage, which, as he rightly discussed, are quite a complicated matter.  In part this stems from the utterly different cultural and religious assumptions about sexuality that monks raised in traditional Tibetan culture bring to the discussion, vs. the cultural and religious assumptions of Western gay rights advocates (or, for that matter, Western opponents of gay marriage).

These differences aren’t just around same-sex relations, but also include differing ideas about what marriage is, why one enters into it, what role (if any) religion plays in defining or sanctioning marriage, and so on. For example, polygamy was common and accepted in traditional Tibet, often taking the form of polyandry–marriage by a woman to two or more men, especially brothers within the same family.  This form of marriage still persists today in Tibetan cultural areas less directly touched by official Chinese policies.  One could argue that the Dalai Lama has as much right to demand that gay rights advocates get over their “polyphobia” and start explicitly agitating for American government legal recognition of polygamy as they have to demand he get rid of his “homophobia.”  Meanwhile, Buddhism had very little to do with marriage in Tibet–there was no standard wedding ceremony officiated by monks, for instance, or indeed any ceremony at all in many cases.  And those ceremonies that did exist were not white dresses and organ music.  In one Tibetan ethnic group, for example, the wedding consisted of the groom’s friends suddenly abducting the bride against her will and without her foreknowledge, and physically holding her captive in his house during the ritual (if her parents objected to the match–often to a man the bride had never met–they could sue for her return).  When we use the word “marriage” we must recognize that whole universes of unspoken and unshared meaning contextualize its use in different parts of the West and different parts of the Tibetan cultural area.

And the situation is further complicated by Western misunderstandings about the role and power of the Dalai Lama, who (despite persistent media representations to the contrary) is very much less than the “pope” of Buddhism, or even Tibetan Buddhism, or even, technically, his own sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  Few Westerners even understand that the Dalai Lama is a relatively recent innovation in Tibetan Buddhism, and that his power and authority (and often even his identity) have always been contested.  Wars have been repeatedly fought between the Dalai Lamas and competing monastic lineages, with armed monks as major combatants.  Coercive armed force was always a significant factor in the Dalai Lama maintaining his status within Tibet.  While the current Dalai Lama is a man of genuinely impressive charisma and wisdom, and rightly deserves the attention as a spiritual figure that he widely receives, it seems worthwhile to bear these historical facts in mind.

But for now let’s just stick to the issue of homosexual relations and religion.  These are certainly complicated enough in themselves, and Western lack of access to the sources makes it even harder.  Most people assume that the rules come from the Vinaya, the code of monastic regulations allegedly laid down by the Buddha himself.  However, there are many multiple sets of these Vinaya, with differences between them.  Virtually all commentators in English refer to the Theravada Vinaya when discussing these rules, but they hold no authority in Tibet.  Rather, the Tibetan sangha is based on the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivada school, which almost no Westerner has ever encountered.  Even this isn’t a particularly reliable source for sussing out the root of the Dalai Lama’s or other monk’s notions about proper sexual conduct, because actually most of these ideas come not from Vinaya directly but from later (sometimes much, much later) commentaries by authorative monks of the Indo-Tibetan tradition.  Few of these texts are available in English.  Furthermore, monks as a practical matter don’t typically follow the Vinaya itself, but focus instead on the codes of conduct of their particular monasteries, which not only diverge significantly from the Vinaya but are different from monastery to monastery. And to top it all off, much of your average Tibetan’s attitudes are derived from general cultural wisdom about such things, in the same manner that your average Westerner is influenced not merely by ancient religious texts but a whole stew of culturally-conditioned “common sense” notions, pop culture trends, regional orientations, and so on.

But what can we say about monks and homosexuality?  Gay monks were common in traditional Tibet (and every other Buddhist culture) and were an accepted part of society, without there being any legal form of “gay marriage” or indeed any modern concept of “homosexual orientation.”  We can see this for instance in the public popularity of drombos.  Drombo is a Tibetan term for a passive homosexual partner, often someone in a close relationship with a monk.  Tibetan socio-religious attitudes considered penetration to be unacceptable violation of monastic celibacy rules, whether or not the persons involved were same or opposite gender.  So the commonly-accepted workaround was for a monk to form a relationship with a drombo, who might be a younger monk or someone from the society at large (the dancers of the Dalai Lama’s personal troupe were considered especially desirable as drombo).  Instead of oral or anal sex in the usual Western mode, drombo and their monastic patrons engaged in a modified form of the missionary position–the drombo lay on his back with his thighs crossed, and the monk ejaculated by moving his penis back and forth between them.  No penetration, hence no violation of the rules.

Far from being an underground practice, this was a socially accepted form of interaction between males, and had no relationship to sexual or personal identity as such. While the monks in the active roles were frequently gay in the sense that Westerners now understand the term, the drombo himself often had no sexual attraction to men.  Rather, the drombo received patronage from the monk, something very important in the heirarchical society of traditional Tibet.  A drombo became the ward of his patron and would often receive substantial benefit to his career and status through this association (i.e. a “heterosexual” male drombo serving as a passive homosexual partner received not stigma but overt social benefit).  That drombos were steered through Tibetan social circles by their patrons demonstrates the entirely above-the-board nature of these same-sex relationships: everyone knew that the drombo was being supported by monk so-and-so precisely because he was a drombo, and this was seen as perfectly natural.  In fact, sometimes a drombo would become so well-known as a lover that various high-placed monks would fight over him, even sending subordinate warrior monks (dobdobs) out to kidnap him in order to force the drombo to switch to a new patron.

To understand this situation, let us try a thought experiment.  Imagine, if you will, that a prominent religious figure–such as, say, Rev. Jerry Falwell–is also the Secretary of the Treasury.  His religious commitments prevent him from having penetrative sex with another person, so he makes an offer to one of Britney Spears’s male back-up dancers, Marvin Smith.  Smith and his brothers are already married to a woman and have a son (and no one knows or cares who the “actual” father is), but accepts Falwell’s offer and starts having modified sex with him in order to get introduced to important figures in the Washington political scene, which will benefit the whole family.  The two of them are often seen together at public functions and word gets around that the dancer is a great lover, so Rev. Jim Banks–who is serving as the Secretary of State–orders some martial arts-trained deacons from his church to abduct Smith to become his sex-slave, an act that takes place in broad daylight on the streets in front of the White House, and which is soon the talk of the town, with no political or religious repercussions for anyone involved.  Meanwhile, all of this takes place quite publicly in a society at the social and material level of approximately 14th century Europe.

Does this scenario seem difficult to comprehend to you?  If so, you may want to withhold from making knee-jerk judgements (pro or con) about the Dalai Lama’s views on gay marriage, as this is the type of situation he is coming from when he talks about the matter.  In other words, his context for talking about religion, sex, homosexuality, morality, codes of conduct, identity, and gender relations is not the same as that of his Western interviewers, nor is there any reason to expect that it would be–and it is different in ways that few Westerners, including Buddhist practitioners, have even the slightest inkling of, and has absolutely no original connection to concepts of “rights.”

And just to prove that homosexuality, marriage, and religion in Tibet are endlessly complicated: the Sixth Dalai Lama, who is believed to have been reborn as the current Dalai Lama, was widely known to be flamboyantly bisexual.  All of this points to a basic truth: trying to understand where someone else from another culture is coming from (both for gay rights advocates and the Dalai Lama himself) can be a truly daunting task, requiring much humility and willingness to continually reflect on how little one actually knows about the details of the other’s background circumstances.  There’s really only one statement we can make with full accuracy about studying Buddhism and its traditional cultures, whether it be political protests by monks in Burma, same-sex relations in Tibet, or Japanese priests chanting sutras in a bar: things are always more complex than we realize them to be.

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