I hear the words bandied about “traditional marriage.” And as a minister, I get asked, “What is the Buddhist position on same-sex marriage?” What would Buddha say?
In truth, the Buddha would probably respond to the question with another question, “How does this issue lead to the understanding of suffering and the cessation of suffering?” The Buddha created no doctrines regarding hetero- or same-sex marriage. While he did encourage everyone to practice Buddhism fully, which ultimately meant eventually becoming a monk, the Buddha understood that most people would want to remain householders (i.e. laypeople), marry and have a family.
The Buddha did not forbid people from taking monastic vows based purely on sexual orientation or identity (with an exception of intersex individuals), and he does not specifically talk about the merits of deficits of being homosexual (although scholars since have created social commentary in their explanation of the Buddha’s teaching).
The Buddha also provided a large number of teachings on marriage, for those who decided to engage in that level of relationship. The suttas all make the assumption of marriage being a man and a woman, but that can easily be explained due to the idea of same-sex marriage not being in the dialogue of marriage. In fact, the idea of marriage being a partnership of loving couples and not being a social device to propagate and consolidate resources is mostly a 19th and 20th century invention.
Needless to say, the Buddha’s words on marriage were always to develop a dual-supportive relationship of unconditional love (metta), compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and even-mindedness (upekkha).
Beyond his teachings showing how a married couple/would benefit from developing a good and wholesome relationship that builds on their Buddhist life, he is silent on any other commentary. He did not forbid (to my knowledge) polygamy, homosexual marriage, etc. In fact, Buddhist monks do not solemnize any wedding vows for anyone, although they may offer blessings after. (note: Buddhist ministers DO officiate weddings, and most will officiate same-sex weddings).
But what about traditional marriage? How can a Buddhist say that a same-sex marriage is really what the Buddha would have supported if marriage in his time was for procreation and resource consolidation? How can same-sex marriage be supported when many of the Buddhist scholars either determine that homosexuality is either a bad karmic choice, or a pre-determined personality trait due to bad karmic choices in a previous life? (Yes… these are prevailing thoughts by many big Asian theosophists).
I can answer it this way—we have to look at what the Buddha was teaching. His thinking at the time for banning intersex followers was because at this time many intersex (and gay prostitutes) had a reputation for being uncontrolled in their sexual appetites. His reasoning in the suttas was that the one or two times they allowed these classes of people into the monastic order, they broke their vows and brought very bad reputations on the Buddhist monastic order. In short, a few bad apples ruined the barrel. While the Buddha was known for tearing down social barriers of princes and slaves, Buddha was also a bit of a pragmatist at times and set his 227 rules of the monastics to keep the reputation of the monks unsullied.
Nevertheless, while he did not allow intersex people into his monastic order, he did not treat them differently as creatures of the planet and offered them the same loving kindness as he did all other creatures of the world.
And so, baring a worry about the reputation of his monastic order—the Buddha never spoke out about any of the LBGT community. He spoke of the ending of suffering through the develop of UNCONDITIONAL LOVE (metta).
WHAT IS TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE?
What is traditional marriage anyway? People have been mating since the stone age, millennia before Judaism or Christianity. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. In Mesopotamia, marriage as a ceremony was mostly reserved for royalty to declare power lineage. Any semblance of marriage as we know it today did not start in Israel but in Rome, where there was enough public wealth to need civil documentation of mating between the masses. At the end of the Roman Empire, the Roman Church took over the duties. It wasn’t until 1215 that the Church officially declared it a part of the Church sacraments. Even then, the Eastern Orthodox Church has records of same-sex marriages.
So the idea of marriage being a religious relationship is less than 800 years old. But the idea of marriage being about love is even newer than that. During the romancing of the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th century, there was enough personal wealth of the masses to allow people to marry for love rather than wealth and status. By the Industrial revolution of the 20th century, women and men had enough personal resources and wealth to survive without a spouse and demanded more rights for divorce if the marriage was no longer a happy one.
In the Victorian Era, the idea of wives sleeping with husbands for any purpose other than procreation was considered a scary prospect. Men more frequently slept with prostitutes, and the stories documented of wives fearing STDs are abundant. This is one of the reasons that many men felt that the disease of hysteria was so prevalent in society at the time amongst married women. The treatment for such ailments was to use a Victorian era vibrator to quell the episodes (notice the idea of a husband performing that task was NOT recommended).
My point is this—the concept of “traditional marriage” never existed until the mid-1950s, which hardly gives enough history to make it “traditional.”
But what everyone can agree on, is that marriage has always been about choosing one person to spend your life with. In the past 200 years that has been a partner that you love. That should be the only tradition that matters.