Vinaya, heteronormativity and queer people

The vinaya includes many rules intended to protect the celibacy of monastics by preventing them from entering situations that might challenge their celibacy. Eg, a bhikkhu is prohibited from being alone with a woman. To my knowledge, all of these rules, for both bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, breakdown along standard heteronormative lines in that the prohibitions for bhikkhus exclusively concern conduct with regard to women and vice versa for bhikkhunis. I would presume this creates difficulties for queer monastics, even setting aside the problematic nature inherent to heteronormativity more generally. As an example, a gay bhikkhu would have to deal with many rules concerning women, who don’t provide any likely obstacle to him remaining celibate, while simultaneously providing almost no framework to help him guard his conduct around other bhikkhus or laymen. I’m curious to hear both anyones’ general thoughts or ideas with regard to this issue, and also to learn about any more formalized responses that monasteries or individual monastics have developed in response, eg a set of guidelines for how a gay or bisexual bhikkhu should behave around other men.

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The protection of an individual monastic’s celibacy is only one of many reasons behind the rules.

Ask any gay man if they have ever had women fall in love with him, and the answer is likely yes. It’s also very, very common for people to develop crushes on clergy of all forms for various reasons. Although, of course, the Vinaya rules only explicitly protect from other-sex interactions. And it doesn’t prevent crushes, etc, just reduces the opportunity for them to develop and harmful behaviour to arise from them. But it’s a good start. And it stands as a constant reminder to be aware that difficulties can arise from other interactions that are not specifically proscribed by the Vinaya. At least it should.

And remember the gay monk is not “hav[ing] to deal with many rules” in isolation. There is a social component. It would be strange if every time a gay monk was not following the rules with women to have to point out to those around them, “Oh, don’t mind this, I’m gay!” Seems like good material for a Monty Python skit.

Also, while we need to remember that even if we believe that the Vinaya was created by an enlightened being, that doesn’t mean that it can prevent every possible bad human behaviour. That’s just an unreasonable expectation. It has to settle for being good enough.

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I truly don’t think that’s the main reason behind the rules. In my experience, the largest benefit by far is that they protect monastics from inappropriate behavior of laypeople towards them. As @Snowbird said:

For bhikkhunis, the rules try to ensure - rather imperfectly - that we don’t get into situations that’d be unsafe.
I believe that for many monks a large benefit is that the rules protect their reputation from unjustified accusations.

A fairly high percentage of people coming to monasteries or dhamma centers have mental health challenges or are going through emotional distress. Often, monastics will devote a lot of time trying to support them. People in mentally unstable situations often mis-perceive or mis-remember events and may have trouble behaving appropriately, or maintaining boundaries. Many monastics who relax the rules out of compassion while trying to help these people find themselves in very uncomfortable and potentially threatening situations.

This reasoning applies to straight and queer people in the same way of course. But typically straight people assume that the monastic is also straight, while queer people don’t automatically assume that the monastic is queer. So it happens much less often that monastics get into tricky situations with queer people.
The rules are imperfect. They can only cover the most common situations, not every conceivable scenario.
And for bhikkhunis especially, unwanted attention feels especially threating when it comes from men, since this can lead to pregnancy and destroy our monastic life.

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Hi @1hullofaguy, from experience on forums, these types of questions don’t end up getting the sensitive and informed approach they deserve.

If your concern is personal (e.g. you’re a queer guy thinking about ordaining and wondering how you will manage in an all male environment) then it might be better to have a private chat with a queer monastic (such as myself) who has lived experience of the issues. If your concern is more academic, then there are you bound to receive responses here that may or may not be useful. There are other posts on the forum on this issue - but most of them ended up being a bit of a horror show…

It’s important to remember that there were monks and nuns who were attracted to other men or women at the time of the Buddha and he never made any specific rules governing their (non-sexual) interactions. So, queer monks and nuns shouldnt be isolated or treated differently, or feel bad about being around other people of the same sex. Queer monastics are therefore obliged to control their own minds if a lustful situation arises in a monastery or with supporters as we don’t have the same ‘protections’ of the vinaya that straight folks have. However, despite the rules many unallowed straight interactions have taken place from the earliest days up till today, so obviously they are certainly not fool proof.

I have never thought that the rules around monks being alone with women etc were about limiting lustful states of mind in women? This would seem to outsource the problem of desire to others (who arent following the rules actually), when it is up to the monk to know their own mind and actions. The rules might help prevent sexual relations but by themselves do not uproot lust. The idea that women are the problem for men’s lust is highly problematic. The way this ideology plays out in monastic communities can mean that women are seen only in terms of their body rather than a whole person, and be regarded as dangerous threats and treated accordingly, often with scorn and derision for being women, which is terrible and has harmed the status of women not only in Buddhism but other religions and cultures.

There are many queer monastics who do just fine in monasteries and who can interact with supporters in a proper way.

But that doesn’t mean that there are some issues that need to be dealt with by queer monks and nuns about attraction that their straight counterparts won’t have to deal with so much. And of course the problem of erasure and lack of understanding, as well as homophobia, bi-phobia etc still remain.

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Mmm… So that isn’t what I was talking about at all. It is problematic, but that isn’t what I was talking about. I was addressing why gay monks would need to keep the vinaya rules around women.

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My point is that queer monks being around other monks/supporters are simply expected to control their own mind and as the OP pointed out, there is a blind spot in the Vinaya and monastic culture that assumes that this can largely be done by externalising the problem of lust for some (straight) but that this does not cover all (gay/bi/pan).

It really is a curious anomaly that leaves queer monks and nuns without any proper guidance as well as (in practical terms) essentially being forced back into the closet and obliged to perform a hetero role.

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From memory, traditional readings of the Dharmaguptaka vinaya do address lesbianism at a sanghadisesa level. I’m not at liberty to post extensively from Chinese language sources, but see Wu Yin, Choosing Simplicity, for further readings on this topic. Some rules are read differently in the schools. Nun teachers are definitely aware that lesbianism etc exists (or at least my Taiwan educated nun teacher was). This might have something to do with a Chinese cultural trope about nuns and same sex relationships that I’m not going to reproduce here because it is not favourable to Buddhism or fair to modern Chinese monastic culture.

If you are in a monastic community, your interactions with texts will be constantly mediated via the advice and guidance of teachers & monastery policy. For example, my training monastery had a “no hanging out in rooms” policy, irrespective of gender. I understand that many of these house rules would have been written with full knowledge that same sex attraction etc is a reality, as well as for practical purposes of reducing noise. In a monastic community, friendships that are too intense really stand out, most communities will advise individuals not to seek to hang out excessively with the same person all the time. You don’t have to be queer to experience same sex attraction or for things to become inappropriate.

Or maybe my nun teacher was just particularly savvy about these things.

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Mast communities? Have you done a survey or something :laughing:

I’ve never heard this and I’m not sure where this idea comes from? I don’t recall any teachings from the Buddha about that?

Certainly the idea that monks or nuns would have their own rooms isn’t the case in the majority of monasteries around the world, where shared rooms or multiple occupancy dorms are the norm and have been so for centuries. We know it was common for monastics to share a hut or room from the suttas and vinaya.

Friendship is part of the spiritual life, regardless of your sexual orientation. The commentaries tell us that the Buddha’s chief disciples Sariputta and Moggallana were inseparable from the time before they ordained and throughout their monastic lives, even sharing the same hut.

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This reminded me immediately of the verse portion of SN 1.34:

“They are not sense pleasures, the world’s pretty things:
Man’s sensuality is the intention of lust.
The pretty things remain as they are in the world
But the wise remove the desire for them.

I think the mere observance of rules, as you suggest, would always fail to capture lust (or any defilement) from that external POV. To take on the practice that way would always leave openings where the rules are not tailored to the individual’s case. Also reminds me of the Vajjian monk of AN 3.84, who found it difficult to train in so many rules (there were 150 at the time). So, the Buddha simplified all the rules into three: the training in higher virtue, higher mind and higher wisdom, and from that broad view the monk was able to uproot the defilements.

I suppose the lack of specific language in this case does put junior monastics at risk especially. Early on it seems likely that the letter of the rule is their first resource, and with a lack of specificity it could impede inroads to a more serious practice. Of course the letter of rule itself is not the whole story, mere observance is not enough for wisdom. That, however, is not evident to the untrained mind.

I think responsibility is twofold. Without a doubt the community (the Sangha) must be prepared to provide guidance for even the most diverse specific worldly conditions from which people have emerged looking to practice the holy life. That is the support that can help capture and bring the mind together. A homosexual person cannot just be told to decide that their orientation no longer matters, just as a straight person shouldn’t be expected to deny their own mother and father. Basic acknowledgment is key for any view, any belief and any thought, and everyone should be encouraged to start practicing from wherever they find themselves at that point. Of course the goal is grow out of wrong view and gain a perspective where sensuality is no longer an issue, but that is not where anyone starts and that is a view that must be gained through effort. Not through one choice, but repeated effort over an extended period.

Which brings me to the other fold, and that is the individual. Whether they receive support from the Sangha or not - though it is my hope that they do - they should be prepared for the Dhamma to be unsupportive of their former life as a layperson. That principle shows no mercy to those intent on a serious application. I can see this becomes a more compounded issue for those from the LGBTQ community. Initially the rules did not explicitly address their lifestyle and now their contemplations are undermining it. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that this is a heavier burden than a straight person (the depth of the defilements cannot be gauged beforehand) but I can see how it complicates the process of relating to the Vinaya and developing the lifestyle. Even though this seems confined to the initial stages, it is still a stage that needs to be faced and if it is too overwhelming it can ultimately deter the individual. So, it would have to be at the assimilation phase where that support is critical, because beyond that the Dhamma will be relentless as it undermines the whole world.

The solution? Is it necessary to change the Vinaya? I’m not sure that solves the problem. It won’t take long for a person to realize that for 2500 years the language was not specific to this issue, and there will always been a stigma against anything added this many years later. I think the efforts I’ve seen from the LGBTQ monastic community have been immensely beneficial and that is where the support will always be available. There is however - just to reiterate - no protection once serious Dhamma contemplation is undertaken. Preparing junior monastics for that shock is paramount, and for this issue specifically, having been given support through acknowledgment early on seems to be what will provide the best chance for success later on.

I’m certainly out on a limb here as a straight lay male, though I hope what I’m offering is helpful.

Please don’t laugh at me Bhante.

I have a experience with a different set of communities to you which are influenced by a different set of texts & traditions, including the different reading of one of the bhikkhuni sanghadisesas which exists in the Chinese commentarial tradition (which has the overall impact of making nuns with East Asian exposure more cautious about the possibility of lesbianism). AFAIK this tradition accounts for the majority of bhikkhunis, so it’s not like I was wrong to think of it first in a bhikkhuni context, especially given that my nun teacher’s teachers are still in this tradition in Taiwan. East Asian communities typically have a strong emphasis on group socialisation of larger intake cohorts which de-emphasises personal friendships. And the policy I was talking about was made for an accommodation block where all the rooms have two beds, it was just an example from my lived experience.

But yes, the commentarial Sariputta and Moggallana pairing makes for an interesting comparison, I really think they would have gotten split up in an East Asian nunnery.

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In case anyone is curious, here is the part of the book that talks about female homosexuality:


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I think this is a really important point. One of the things we talk about at my work place a lot (I work for a non-profit that provides mental health care) is the difference between being queer-supportive and queer-informed. It is easy, with the best of intentions, to lack the lived experience and/or training to be queer-informed. And so while you are doing your best to be supportive, you’re getting it at least a little bit wrong. Add that to the fact that for many of us our knowledge of monastic life is second-hand, there just seems to be a lot of space to miss some key points.

E.g., it has not been my experience that gay men in general - let alone monstastics that have taken vows - have trouble managing their attraction to men. We live in a society that can punish a man for expressing his desire for the wrong man quite violently. That a gay monastic would struggle with that would be the least of my worries, honestly.

However, the problem of erasure that @Akaliko raises seems to me at the heart of the issues. I’ve been to Buddhist monasteries with nothing openly anti-queer, but that seem to deal with the existence of queer Buddhists by pretending that everyone can just be treated like straight people and it will all be fine. That is a deep problem.

I think questions like this are probably best handled by talking to queer monastics and lay Buddhists, and asking what is neeeded. General Buddhist forums will tend to get it at least slightly wrong, even if they are well intended. And that doesn’t even take into accout that some responses might not be well intended.

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Indeed. With conversations like this it is best to not assume things about people and take their experiences in good faith.

Related, I believe that Thic Nhat Han’s order has guidelines around developing overly close relationships.

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As does my monastery and (from what I’ve heard) Wat Pa Ban Tad. We’re generally forbidden from hanging out at someone else’s kuti… for whatever this anecdata is worth. :man_shrugging:

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Really? so controlling. The monasteries I stayed are generally more relaxed. When I was in Pa Auk, we often discuss dhamma or even do sitting meditation together in kuti. Once I visited another bhikkhu’s kuti and we talked for one night, until we heard the bell for morning pindapada. very genuine friendship.

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I said nothing about how strictly this expectation is enforced :laughing: In practice it’s just nice to have a rule you can point to if a guest is becoming a burden :pray:

Though, they say that back in Luangta Mahabua’s day, he really was quite strict about this.

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Since the issue of friendship seems to have taken hold of the thread, it’s worth interrogating the unfair trope of the impossibility of friendship between queer folks, or queer folks and straight folks - the idea that it will inherently spill over to sexual activity is actually incredibly problematic and even (yes I’m going to say it) homophobic. It’s very possible to just be friends you know…

This is linked to the pigeon-holing of a person based on their sexual orientation, seeing them only as that aspect and not as a whole person, as well as the idea (for example) gay guys are inherently interested in other guys just because…?? We see this fear of perceived interest in other group environments such as sports teams, the military or even just friendship groups where people don’t want queer folks included because they think that they are sexually interested in the others or because it might make them look queer to others. In an environment like a monastey this plays out in practical terms with prejudice, exclusion and isolation for people who are out. I recall overhearing a conversation at a monastery where a monk didn’t want to stay in a room with me because other people would think he was gay and because I might be interested in him. Let’s just say there was no chance of that! It was incredibly hurtful . This and other experiences of being excluded and being only perceived in terms of my sexual orientation should actually be seen as a form of bullying. It wasn’t an issue from my side but others decided to make it an issue. Why? No wonder people would prefer to stay in the closet rather than be unfairly targetted and excluded from normal everyday interactions.

The threat of queer contagion is at work in the idea that there can’t be normal platonic friendship between Sangha members. This needs to be challenged because queer people also need monastic friendship just as everyone has a right to friendships surely…

The Buddha knew that there were same sex attracted people in the Sangha but he never made any rules about friendships.

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I hear this all the time with regards to bhikkhuni vinaya. It seems that it is our job to stop the lustful minds of men and that by the same token, all men have lustful intentions for women. This loops back to the conversation about friendships, between any genders. Before coming to the monastery, I had an equal number, if not more male friends and always gave my male friends the benefit of the doubt that they had no ulterior motives for hanging out with me. It has been quite difficult to have to tell my male friends I now have all these extra rules around our friendships, ones that don’t apply to female friends.

Whether you’re queer or not, being able to recognise friendship that are leading in lustful directions and knowing your own mindstates and taking care of them is what is important.

At my monastery we also have rules which suggest not hanging around in each other’s kutis, but I have never heard it suggested it was to do with sexual relationships. Our kutis are meant to be places of solitude and quiet meditation.

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This is just beginning to be explored in wider popular culture in the UK.

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Dear Bhante Akaliko, you are a most intelligent, great and respectful person and I pitty those who have hurt you. It’s very understandable that those people see but the differences between you and them. :blush:

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