Gender and sexual norms in the eyes of Buddhism

FRIDAY, JUNE 21, 2024

We have long lived in a binary world where sex and gender are divided into two: female and male. But according to the three traditional sacred Buddhist scriptures in the Tripitaka, sexuality can be divided into four categories: female, male, ubhatobyañjanaka and paṇḍaka.

There is no need to explain female and male, as we are all taught to fit ourselves into one of the two socially constructed terms including how to follow the norms and roles expected by our assigned gender.

But the definitions of ubhatobyañjanaka and paṇḍaka cannot be translated into the categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) as we understand them in a modern context. So, what do ubhatobyañjanaka and paṇḍaka mean?

Before explaining, it should be noted that many parts of Vinaya (Vinaya Pitaka is the smallest and oldest part of Tripitaka which regulates monastic life) were incorporated after the time of Gautama and are not his original words. They were added for the sake of discipline in the community. 

Ubhatobyañjanaka means intersex – a person with both binary sexes or genders. While the definition of intersex in LGBTQIA+ is having genitals, chromosomes or reproductive organs that don’t fit into the 2 boxes of female or male, according to “Through the Yellow Gate Ordination of Gender-Nonconforming People in the Buddhist Vinaya” by Ven Vimala in 2021, the female ubhatobyañjanaka is a person who acts like a man, obliterating female characteristics and showing male characteristics. Conversely, the male ubhatobyañjanaka enters the state of a woman, hiding male characteristics and showing female characteristics. Some scholars have different interpretations, one of these describing ubhatobyañjanaka it as a person with both female-male genitals who can have sex with both women and men, and another saying it refers to transgender. 

Yet another interpretation by Bunmi Methangkulin (2529) said that ubhatobyañjanaka refers to a person with female genitals with a romantic or sexual desire for another woman, which causes her mental state and genitals to gradually morph into male genitalia and mentality. She (or he?) is able then to have penetrative sex with a woman.

According to Vinaya commentary (VinA 5.1016), a fair translation (ascribed to Thanissaro) regarding paṇḍakas in the Vinaya Atthakathā classifies these as being of five types:
1) āsitta-paṇḍaka: — (literally, a "sprinkled one") a man who finds sexual fulfilment in performing oral sex on another man, swallowing his semen or bringing him to climax. (For some reason, other homosexual acts, even though they were known in ancient India, are not included under this type nor under any of the types in this list.)
 2) usūya-paṇḍaka: — a voyeur a man who finds sexual fulfilment in watching other people have sex.
 3) opakkamika-paṇḍaka: — A eunuch - one who has been castrated.
 4) pakkha-paṇḍaka: — A half-time paṇḍaka - one who is a paṇḍaka only during the waning moon.
 5) napuṃsaka-paṇḍaka: — A neuter - a person born without sexual organs.

While some beliefs see being LGBTQ+ as a choice in life, Thai Buddhism often regards being LGBTQI+ as predetermined before birth. Research conducted by Phra Kusol Subhanetto, Phrakhrusamu Thanawit Athisilo and Phramaha Suwat Suvaddhano titled “Homosexuality: An Analysis Based on Buddhist Ethics Guidelines” notes that in Thai ethical Buddhist beliefs, being homosexual is caused by violating the third of five precepts, which deals with sexual misconduct by cheating or using the advantage of being a man to torment women. However, the research also says that being LGBTQIA+ itself is not a sin and anyone who identifies as such can practise dhamma and reach the state of enlightenment.

However, homosexuality is not mentioned in the Tripitaka other than very briefly.
We interviewed a monk who before ordination identified himself as gay. He prefers to keep his identity private as well as how he identifies himself at the moment. In this article, we refer to him as ‘the monk’. 

“The Tripitaka barely speaks about the LGBTQI+. Very little is written and only about the ordination. Buddha did not talk much about their social context. Because all sexual identities allow you to reach the state of enlightenment [...] Buddhism does not discriminate against you because of your sexuality. In monasticism, however, you need to cut off emotions like love, greed, anger, infatuation and sexual desire. Sexual intercourse between monks, monks and humans and monks and non-humans is prohibited.” 

The monk told us that ubhatobyañjanaka and paṇḍaka were not initially forbidden. He referred to a story in Vinaya where a paṇḍaka monk asked other monks and novices to have sex with him. When he was rejected by them, he ended up having sex with those responsible for caring for elephants and horses. He was criticised for his actions, with other monks telling Buddha that paṇḍaka should not be allowed to ordain and those who had already entered the monkhood should be expelled. 

“No matter how much you want to be feminine, how much you want breasts or anything, if you are a monk, you need to control yourself. It’s about knowing time and place. And monasticism is about being admirable and worshipful, now as in the past,” the monk said. We asked if he had ever experienced discrimination for being a monk who was identified as gay.

“Just a little by senior monks who are very old. But it is understandable because of different generations, so I just let it go.” The monk referred to that experience as “sarcasm but not bullying” without explaining further.

Phrakrupaladsuwatsarakun or monk Suchart from Suthat Thepwararam temple in Bangkok, who identifies as straight, explained acting feminine is considered inappropriate, “Acting womanly is not an Apatti [a section in Vinaya Tipaka on transgressing disciplines and penalty, which means sin or fault]. There is no Apatti prohibiting you from acting in a womanly way. But before you ordain, the senior monk will ask if you are a man and you must say yes. Even if you are gay, you still can be ordained if you have a man’s body.” 

Suchart also referred to the story of the gay monk and the horse-elephant keepers and explained that the womanly action is not Apatti itself but can be related to alluring or lustful action which is Apatti. So, people have been avoiding it as a norm, not a regulation. “Buddha once said my religion aims to dispose of sins and lust,” he said. “He was fair and unbiased because lust has no gender. If it happens, get rid of it. Men or gays must all follow the same disciplines. If you have sexual intercourse, it’s pārājika.

“From my experience, two or three out of ten monks are gay but in my 20 years as a monk, those I know have never acted inappropriately though of course it does exist, I have read about it in the news. I have never seen any discrimination among the monks but more from outsiders like academics who criticise them. We see that monks who are gay are good at flower arrangement and in rural areas, monks and people usually have great relationships where the monks help arrange the flowers at people’s houses for ceremonies. But in the eyes of outsiders, it could be seen as inappropriate.” 

Bhat “Kla” Ketcharak, a LGBTQIA+ Buddhist who practises dhamma regularly, shared his experiences in the Buddhist community.

“I practise dhamma. I was a monk myself. I have never experienced any form of discrimination. Nobody sees me as weird or different,” said Kla, who was raised in a devoutly Buddhist family. There was a time when he grew apart from Buddhism, he admits, but heartbreak brought him back to the Buddha.

“There are a lot of LGBTQIIA+ of all ages practising dhamma, All are successful in their lives but what they lack is love. Practising dhamma teaches you that the best love is self-love”.

Even though many people who belong to the Buddhist community claim they don’t experience discrimination, not all LGBTQIA+ or ubhatobyañjanaka and paṇḍaka can be ordained.

The first two (āsitta-paṇḍaka and  usūya-paṇḍaka) can be ordained if they can show that they are men physically and agree to let go of feminine gestures on becoming a monk. Pakkha-paṇḍaka can ordained too, but only when they identify as paṇḍaka, while the final two, the opakkamika-paṇḍaka and napuṃsaka-paṇḍaka cannot be ordained. 

Ordination as a novice is permitted for ubhatobyañjanak, novice orientation but full ordination is not. The reason given in the Vinaya is that ubhatobyañjanaka and paṇḍaka ask monks and novices to have sex with them and should thus not be permitted to ordain in order to protect the religion.

Buddhism, thus, appears to focus more on physical features. If you can prove that you have the physical appearance as a man, you can be ordained. According to the monk, this is related to physical disability because in Buddhism, those with disabilities cannot be ordained as disabilities are regarded as a struggle in monasticism. Still, they can reach a state of enlightenment.

“There is no difference in the way women, men or LGBTQIA+ should behave. Buddhism just wants to show the truth. LGBTQIA+ is also a part of the truth, a normal thing not abnormal. That is why the Buddha did not specifically talk about LGBTQIA+” Suchard said.