As a general rule Buddhism in Thailand reflects Thai culture (or some say it is the other way around). Thai culture is tolerant but not enthusiastic about the emergence of LGBT people from the shadows. Every once in awhile there is an issue in the media about gay people in prominent Buddhist roles.
Feeling unusually foolhardy today, I will try to interpret the current debate about whether gay Buddhist monks are OK or not. By “gay Buddhist monks” I mean ordained men who would prefer to have sex with men if they had sex at all. The main principle is that ordained Buddhists are celibate. Any serious breach of that is grounds for expulsion from the Sangha (priesthood).
Over and above that, popular opinion holds that katoeys (boys or men who think of themselves as girls and tend to act and present themselves as girls or women) should not be ordained. That is being raised into question. Can a guy who presents himself as a female enter the Sangha to make merit for his mother before he is transformed into a transgender woman?
In the ordination ceremony an ordinand is twice asked a series of questions that include, “Are you a man?” In Thai the word is burut and not the more common phu-chai. Phu-chai tae is a slang expression for “a real man”, i.e. straight, heterosexual. The question is asked in Pali and the word is puruso. If the ordinand answers “yes” the ceremony continues on track. I understand that a candidate is also asked if he is a pandako (see below), and the correct answer is “no”.
Once ordained, monks ask permission to uphold a large number of precepts designed to structure life so that the Buddhist goals of awareness and possibly full-fledged enlightenment can be achieved. When laity want to earn special merit and move to a higher plain of consciousness they take the first eight of those vows in the morning and the first five at night. The third vow is the tricky one. For monks it is a vow of chastity. If a monk breaks that vow through any act of sexual penetration he is defrocked and expelled. If the act in question is mutual masturbation he is probably given a lesser penalty.
For laity the third vow is Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadem samadiyami. A.L. De Silva, a leading scholar of Theravada Buddhism, explains it this way: “The word kama refers to any form of sensual pleasure but with an emphasis on sexual pleasure and a literal translation of this precept would be ‘I take the rule of training (veramani sikkhapadem samadhiyami) not to go the wrong way (micchacara) for sexual pleasure (kamesu).’” In the manual of monastic discipline, the Vinaya, this is explained as including the pandaka who are sexual non-conformists. The key term is pandaka.
In Thailand it is almost universal to understand this as aimed at flamboyant effeminate guys, meaning katoeys. They are going the ‘wrong way” and are sexually unrestrained. This is confirmed in the popular mind not by investigating the katoeys’ sex histories, but by application of the belief that katoeys are showing the effects karmic history. “Everyone knows” that katoeys are being punished for unrestrained sex in a past life, heterosexual adultery being the assumption. In fact, it is commonly said that one act of adultery condemns a man to 500 reincarnations as a katoey. Whereas, this tends to confirm a katoey’s place in the nature of things and provides a measure of toleration that is greater than in many other cultures, it also validates a level of suffering and scorn that is somehow thought to be justified even though it is purely societal and inhibits movements toward acceptance of gender diversity.
This understanding is under attack. Paisarn Likhitpreechakul explains in Vol. 3 of the Oxford Journal of Buddhist Studies that in India at the time of the Buddha, the word pandaka did not refer to highly sexed, uncontrolled men at all. The key story is about a certain monk who ran around soliciting male sexual services (he was a either a “bottom” or he was after semen by mouth to enhance his status as a fully-functional man); when people told the Buddha about it he had the monk expelled. That is the precedent. Not knowing what else a pandaka might be, the term was applied to men like that monk and then expanded to include men who were likely to be like that, and then to men and boys who acted like they might conceivably become like that someday. This is the basis for Thai Buddhism’s negative attitudes and actions toward gays and katoeys.
Paisarn goes to great lengths to explain that the contemporary Indian texts that talk about pandaka can hardly refer to a katoey. In those texts from 2500 years ago, a pandaka was a man who could not eject semen. That is, he was impotent, which was a matter of cultural censure at the time. The term had nothing to do with gender at all.
However, as in Christianity, the progressive view about gays has a long hard way to go to get acceptance for a change of interpretation of the passages in scripture. Paisarn is not optimistic that the official stance of the Sangha about gays will change anytime soon. Religion here in Thailand cannot be counted on to take the lead in including us.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.